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”.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.