Coalwood on my mind

It was five years ago this week that I arrived in Coalwood, West Virginia for the first time. It seems longer ago than that. Sometimes I feel that Coalwood and I have been friends for a very long time.

Brad and Julie Blue (then Julie Ferris) brought a group of Minneapolis teachers to the hills of southern West Virginia to see the town and meet some of the people featured in Homer Hickam’s book called “Rocket Boys”, which was made into the movie “October Sky” in 1999. This trip was the first of a two professional development excursions named Coalwood to the Cape — or “C2C”.

Here's our group at the Dian Lee House B&B in Bluefield, WV. Homer Hickam and rocket boy Billy Rose are in the front row.

We met a lot of great people in Coalwood, but one of the most memorable was Red Carroll, father of Jimmy O’Dell Carroll, one of the rocket boys. In his late 80s at that time, he’d become the town’s greeter and historian. He gave us a long guided tour of all the important sites.

Red Carroll tells us about Cape Coalwood, the place where the boys launched their rockets.

We also visited Big Creek High School in the neighboring town of War, where the rocket boys attended school and where Miss Frieda Riley inspired them to teach themselves how to build bigger and better rockets. Big Creek is a very cool building, preserved from another era. Sadly, it was closed last spring and is scheduled to be demolished in a couple of months (see my post from September 22).

The footbal field was right out the front door at Big Creek High School. Notice the OWL - the school's mascot - atop the school.

We got a chance to spend a day in Coalwood during the quiet time before the October Sky Festival. Peggy Blevins invited us to dinner, Helen Carson gave us a tour of Big Creek H.S., Ms. Katie Jones welcomed us to her church for ice cream, Bill Bolt spoke to us about the old days in the machine shop, and we met Homer Hickam, who spent the evening telling us all about Coalwood and answering all of our questions. At Peggy’s house, we met David Goad, who later was instrumental in helping me do a documentary film about the town.

On later trips, we met Carol and Jim DeHaven, Gene Turpin, Tootsie Spraggins, Bobby and Jack Likens, J.R. Hatmaker and many other residents and former residents. They all added to the fascinating, collective story of Coalwood.

My first October Sky Festival that year was great. The Minneapolis teachers rode into town on a hay wagon in the parade. That was fun. In subsequent years, we would move up to the top of the fire truck — quite an honor, indeed. It was interesting to see several thousand visitors fill the dying little coal town of about 200 residents for that one day. Everyone was happy. Older people who live there said it took them back to the old days, when Coalwood was a bustling company town of 2,500 — every one of them either employed by the coal company or the child of someone who was.

Homer Hickam speaks to the crowd from the Clubhouse porch at the October Sky Festival in 2005.

One of the reasons people come to the festival is to meet Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys. Roy Lee Cooke, Jimmy “O’Dell” Carroll and Billy Rose attend the fest every year and love chatting with fans of the book and the movie.

O'Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, Billy Rose, Homer Hickam (L-R behind table) sign Homer's books for fans.

On behalf of the other C2Cers, thank you Brad and Julie Blue for making it possible for several groups of Minneapolis teachers to come to this place for this festival. Because of you, we all have memories that we’ll never forget.

Julie and Brad walking past Homer Hickam's boyhood home in Coalwood.

And thank you to the people of Coalwood and McDowell County, West Virginia. You’ve been a big part of my life for 5 years.

The October Sky Festival is tomorrow. I’m sad that I have to miss my first one since 2005. But having my family together for the weekend and seeing my two kids run a marathon on Sunday will be pretty cool, too.

If you get a chance to go to Coalwood tomorrow, say hi to everyone for me. Tell them I’m thinking about them and hope to see everyone next year.

Big Creek High School: a missed opportunity for historic preservation

I like old buildings. They’re often visually interesting. They evoke feelings and memories from another era. They have stories to tell.

They’re irreplaceable.

After hearing rumors for a while, I recently found out that Big Creek High School in War, West Virginia will be demolished soon.

Big Creek High School in October of 2005

If you remember the movie, “October Sky” or Homer Hickam’s book, “Rocket Boys”, on which it was based, then you know about Big Creek.

Homer "Sonny" Hickam's senior photo from the Big Creek High School yearbook

It was the school where young Homer — “Sonny” in those days — and his friends attended Miss Riley’s class and were inspired to “aim high” and learn how to build rockets that eventually won a national science fair and put them all on college-bound paths that led out of the coalfields and dying towns of southern West Virginia.

I made a documentary film about Coalwood, West Virginia, home town of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys, a few winding miles down the road from from War. I’ve been inside Big Creek High School a few times and found it to be a fascinating place, a time capsule where you could immediately feel as if you were back in the 1950s.

My first visit to Miss Riley's former classroom in 2005


A tropy case contains The Rocket Boys' National Science Fair medal. Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miss Riley (Laura Dern) look skyward in a poster from the 1999 movie, October Sky.

The school had been scheduled to be closed several years ago, but construction delays in building the new consolidated school in the town of Iaeger prolonged Big Creek’s shutting down until this past summer. In 2006, the iconic football field immediately in front of the school was demolished and construction began on a new elementary school. The new building was built just a few yards from the front of Big Creek H.S., completely blocking the former view of the school.

They had ripped up the football stadium when I visited in October of 2006.

New elementary school blocks view of Big Creek (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

That was bad enough, but at that time there was at least a plan for preserving the high school building after it closed. It was to be given to the City of War. They were going to use various parts of it for office space, storage, businesses and — best of all — some of the rooms were to be preserved as a history museum. Miss Riley’s room would have remained in its nostalgic, mid-20th century state for visitors to see for years to come. The building would have been a place of memories, not only of the rocket boys, but for all Big Creek graduates. It could have been a tourist stop in an area that desperately needs that kind of thing.

It was a great idea and it would have worked.

But other forces came into play. I’m not sure how it all fell apart, but it did and I’m sad about that.

Tom Hatcher, Mayor of War, WV, and proponent of preserving history whenever possible, was quoted recently in the Bluefield, WV Telegraph as saying that he’s given up the fight because “Unfortunately, the rate of deterioration since 2005 has made this option cost prohibitive and an impossible venture.”

My friend Shawn Cheeks is a senior this year at the new high school in Bradshaw. He’s a bright young man with a strong sense of history. He recently made a documentary film about the history of Big Creek. I asked him how he felt about all of this. While he has great memories of Big Creek and feels badly about its upcoming demise, he says that the damage was really done when the elementary school was built right in front of the high school, blocking its view. “It would be like building something right in front of the Lincoln Memorial, so you couldn’t see Lincoln”, he says. “It loses a lot of its ‘Landmark status’ when you can’t see it.”

Shawn wants people to know that things are going well at the new school and everyone is looking forward to Homecoming this week. The students are looking forward to “preserving some of the old traditions while starting some new ones”.

Shawn’s 30-minute film about the history of Big Creek H.S. can be order for $12 at
Shawn Cheeks
P.O. Box 946
War, WV 24892

Can you see the owl peeking out from behind the new school? (photo by Shawn Cheeks)

I made my documentary about nearby Coalwood in hopes that somehow the right people would see it and do something to save what’s left of that historic little company-owned coal town. Before I could finish the film, the company store building, one of the most significant structures, was demolished by the current owner without warning to the residents of Coalwood. People had tried to buy it and restore it for years, but the company wouldn’t sell it. But neither did they maintain it, and after a couple of decades of sitting empty and uncared for, it got to the point where it was too far gone.

Now this important and wonderful school building will soon meet the wrecking ball. Big Creek High School, home of the Owls, is now said to be “too far gone” to save.

This didn’t have to happen.

If you ever get to war, West Virginia and drive by the new elementary school, take a moment to stop and think — and try to visualize the Big Creek Owl sign on top of the old high school.

I will.

The Owl no longer casts this shadow on the new school. It's been taken down and put in storage. (photo by Shawn Cheeks)