(Benton and Frances Ward are a couple in their 60's. Benton is a retired coal miner. He candid and outspoken, offered to escort me to a mountaintop removal mine.)
We got into his red late-model diesel pickup truck. I sat alongside a metal lunchbox and his spare jacket. Ashes from his cigars filled the tray. We headed north towards Welch, then east towards Gary. The day was overcast and dank, but without rain.
Past Gary, we stopped to take a photo of some abandoned coke ovens. They were a long series of arched caves, built of brick, perhaps 8-feet across, and burrowed into a hillside. They were significantly overgrown with plant matter, but easily discerned from the road. Between the ovens and the road was a railroad track. On the other side of the road was a row of former company houses. Benton asked me to imagine the amazing smoke and stench the former owners endured during the operation of the ovens.
We left the paved road and drove uphill on dirt. We passed a sprinkler set-up, running continuously, where departing vehicles were sprayed to reduce the dirt transferred to the road. We stopped at a 4-way junction. Another pickup arrived bearing a man Benton knew named Buck. His white truck was beyond filthy, with mud splattered above the roofline from ebony to lighter shades of grey. Buck told us that the mine was not operating, a victim of the recession, and that a watchman would be there but we could talk our way in.
We reached a mountain pass, and then continued upwards to the ridgeline. We stopped beside a mobile office. Inside, a woman sat, talking on the phone. Benton went inside to ask permission to drive the mine site. He told me he didn’t know the woman, but in dropping some names to her, she let us proceed. There was nobody else around.
We drove slowly through the muck. It was austere and barren, largely colorless, moonlike. The sky was featureless, white and grey. Nothing moved.
Benton explained that mine operators must file detailed excavation and reclamation plans. One ravine to our left was being filled in a crescent pattern, similar in shape to the original, simply with more material in it. At the bottom was a runoff pond which would ultimately be drained and removed. A bulldozer sat below us on a bench on the ravine where new material would be transferred and then compacted awaiting additional layers.
We stopped our truck alongside a large dump truck. Each wheel was about eight feet in diameter. Trucks like these are transferred over the highways with the wheels and bed removed, and are assembled at the mine site.
Nearby was an uphill mound where new grass was growing. Benton explained that as the mine progresses and soil can be placed in its permanent position, the new soil is re-seeded to retard erosion. What was surprisingly absent was any actual coal. Benton explained that many feet of rock are typically removed relative to the thickness of the coal seam. We finally found an exposed seam of coal which Benton measured with his ruler at twenty-five inches. He said it would be excavated as soon as the mine re-opened.
Mine operators were not allowed to impact flowing streams or rivers. The ravines we saw were steep, with intermittent watercourses. The new fill made the ravines steeper but mimicked their original shapes.
We walked over a flat area where dozens of turkey tracks were embedded into the surface of the mud. We saw some deer tracks as well. Benton said, “Wildlife continues to use this area. Once grass and new trees are planted, the wildlife will return in full force.”
Benton said all of McDowell’s land has been logged or mined before, sometimes many times. After reclamation, according to the pre-defined plan, the area would be either be left essentially flat to allow for industrial or residential development — or even a golf course — or returned to a more natural, hilly contour. If there was to be no further development, it would be reseeded and trees would be replanted. Biological diversity can return if the mine is properly reclaimed.
Every industry looks for ways to cut costs in order to remain competitive. If it is cheaper to mine underground, that’s where the miners will work. If it is cheaper to surface-mine, they’ll work in that manner.
We drove a short way away into a circular-shaped depression, perhaps 75 yards in diameter. Rocks tumbled from vertical walls repeatedly. Eerie. With the featureless sky and the confining dampness, it was a sinister place, unearthly, and unsettling. In the distance over the cliffs stood some spindly trees, the only living things in sight.
We drove over a large, somewhat flat area upon which was parked the skeleton of a dump truck. It had no wheels, no engine, and no bed. Benton said it had been cannibalized for parts and would sit until the conclusion of operations when the metal of this and all equipment would be salvaged.
We left the site and turned downhill from the mountain pass away from the direction we’d come. We stopped at a tipple, under construction. We went inside the office and introduced ourselves to two men in hard-hats and coveralls. Both were happy to show diagrams of the tipple and its various components.
We spent the next 45 minutes exploring the tipple. It was comprised of structural steel members reaching five stories tall and a series of machines for sorting, cleaning, and separating the coal. It was evident the tipple would be a considerable consumer of electrical power.
Driving back, Benton said, “There were two reasons that the tipple we visited was not in operation. One was that they did not have the adequate supply of electrical power. The other reason was they didn’t have the proper refuse permit. You must have a plan and a permit for everything you do in this business. Before miners do anything, they must file detailed engineering plans that are closely scrutinized by the regulators.
“We have so many mountains around here that we can destroy some of them without hurting nobody. The good of the people is represented by getting the coal out and putting the mountain back, not necessarily in exactly the same way as it was. The strip jobs don’t go all the way down to the original creek. The only thing that is stripped is the upper portions of the mountain. If a stream is big enough to support fish then I do not believe it should be filled up. Any stream that runs intermittently, just when it rains, is not a stream. I have no problem with filling them.”
“We are losing habitat when we operate a mountaintop removal mine, but we ultimately reclaim it back to productive use or turn it back to nature. The problems that we have down here are not the problems these well-intentioned [opponents] are trying to fix.”
“In spite of the poverty, people in McDowell County have a good life. It is a relaxed life. It don’t take much to live. Anybody can own a house. You can buy a house for $10,000 and put $40,000 into it and have a decent house. But you need a job. The only good-paying jobs are in coal mining. I have more money in my house than it is worth. My house may be worth $15,000 or $20,000. I have put $17,000 into my garage and it may be worth $10,000.”
Benton admitted he was wealthy enough to live anywhere he wanted to. But, he said, “You couldn’t replicate this environment anywhere else. Where else could you leave your garage door open all day long without having to worry? Where else could you leave for two weeks and not worry about your house? My wife and I leave for two weeks’ vacation in Florida and don’t even think to lock the door. Kids are always riding up and down my road on bicycles. Where else can kids do this in America today? Where else can their parents feel that their kids are safe under the supervision of the rest of the neighborhood? This is the way a community is supposed to work.
“We have been stereotyped forever. There is a T-shirt that is popular that says, “Everything is relative in West Virginia,” speaking about incest and intermarriage. We do have some of that but other places do, too.
“There are no gangs and much less crime here. We are surrounded by the beauty and grandeur of nature and we have a more cohesive society where people help each other. A man who is not capable of working and is living on SSI [Supplemental Social Security] is better off in War than in Newark, New Jersey. The people around him in War will take care of him. Children can walk up and down our street at any time of the day or night and feel completely secure. People read about us and say how sorry they feel for us. We are depressed economically but we’re okay.”
Frances was active in a volunteer organization that helps to feed poor people, called The Hands of Hope. She got involved with them when they requested the use of a building she and Benton owned. “I never dreamed that I would become personally involved in anything like this. I was the one that got our church involved with it. The Hands of Hope has furniture, food, and clothing. A lot of their furniture comes from hotels that are remodeling with new chairs and beds. They acquire this stuff, then warehouse and distribute it.
“The director said that he was brought here by the Lord to help the people of McDowell County. He probably learned about us on CNN or some other network station. We got our soup kitchen underway, and it varies from serving five people to 40 people a free hot meal. We also do 144 bag lunches and we deliver them.
“We did a home visit to a woman who had four or five of her own kids plus many of the neighbors’ kids running in and out of her house along with assorted dogs and cats. There were infants, several babies. The animals were defecating in the house and the stink was awful. Oh, gosh it was filthy. I was thinking to myself, how could you raise kids like this? The bassinet had... I can’t even describe it. I couldn’t even sleep that night.
“Then I went into houses that were even worse. In some of these houses there is a naked lightbulb hanging on its wires in the middle of a room. Sometimes you can see outside through the walls. We have cold winters! Some of the ceilings are falling in. I have lived in this area all my life, and I knew it was bad, but I never dreamed it was this bad.
“There is one little boy who sticks out in my mind. The first time I went there, this boy ran down the driveway to greet us, yelling, ‘Here are the ladies with the yellow shirts bringing our lunch.’ It broke my heart. He was so delighted that we were bringing him something to eat because I’m sure he hadn’t eaten. In the school program they get two hot meals everyday. But a lot of times on the weekends they do not get food.”
She believed that there is a pattern of inability to make changes. “Many of the best and brightest have left. People who stayed are more ensconced in poverty and hopelessness, less intelligent and ambitious.
“God has given us many charitable organizations with food, clothing, and school supplies. The negative side is the lack of work. I was born and raised here. I am not a highly educated woman. I did not finish high school but I did go back to complete my GED. I have good common sense and I know the way the world works. My mission in life has been to be a mother and wife.
“Benton and I have worked hard all of our lives. We could live in a fine house. You can see how many kids there are in my yard. If I lived in a fine mansion I would be afraid the children would mess up things. In this house, I don’t care if they come in with dirt on their shoes. My floor is washable. I am not a fancy person. I know how to be if I need to be, but fortunately we don’t have to be fancy very often.
“People can improve their lives, but many choose not to. There are programs and opportunities, even here in McDowell County. We are in one of the poorest counties in the country and yet anybody can put clothes on the backs of their children and food on their plate if they choose to. The people that don’t, they drive me crazy.
“There are a lot of people in this area that I call ‘hollow people’. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. They have lived their lives in these isolated hollows and are shy. They lack worldliness and knowledge. And sadly, a lot do not want to better themselves.
“The people we take lunches to generally live up the hollows. My organization cannot reach everybody who is in need. I think that for every family we are reaching there may be five-hundred more that we are not reaching. It is frustrating.”
Here are some excerpts and sample chapters from "The Spine of the Virginias", "Union, WV", "Harmonic Highways", "Providence, VA" and "War, WV". I hope you enjoy them!
(Benton and Frances Ward are a couple in their 60's. Benton is a retired coal miner. He candid and outspoken, offered to escort me to a mountaintop removal mine.)
From the novel, Union, WV, as main character Wayne Quarles rides his motorcycle to see his uncle in WV
Wayne ascended Allegheny Mountain and then crossed the border into West Virginia, where a colorful sign said, “Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful.” The sun, by now low in the sky, peeked between the clouds and flowing green mountains. In spite of the anxiety of the previous three days, he felt himself feeling calmer and enjoying the ride and the scenery. Following the printed directions, he took the exit at Caldwell. He thought for a moment about stopping to remove his helmet, wondering whether West Virginia was an optional-helmet state. Not being sure of West Virginia’s rules and not wanting to risk any hassles during the last short leg of the journey, he continued with his helmet on.
He turned south on State Route 63. He crossed a highway bridge over Howard Creek. He was surprised the bridge had a decking of wood, which was still slippery wet from the day’s rain. He wondered derisively what manner of department of transportation still maintained wooden bridge decking on its highways. His brain filled with thoughts of decrepitude and backwardness he’d envisioned about West Virginia. He crossed under the tunnel of a railroad track and began ascending the winding two-lane road.
Finding himself finally away from traffic and feeling frisky, he wicked up the throttle. He was going about 80-mph when he rounded a right-hand bend and was temporarily blinded by a bright, setting sun. When his eyes re-focused, there were three deer sprinting across the road. “Shit!” He immediately stomped his right foot on the rear brake and reached his right index and middle finger for the lever of the more powerful front brake, but his rear tire had already begun to skid. BAM! The bike slammed to the pavement with his right ankle under it. Steel-scrapes and sparks. He gasped, wincing from pain in his ankle and ribcage, pounded by the impact. He and the Harley skidded across the oncoming lane and both arched off the pavement and over an embankment.
He barreled down the rocky slope face-first. He bashed his face against the rocks, gashing his left lower lip and chin, and fracturing his mandibular bone. His chest, left thigh and hip absorbed the remainder of the impact. The bike landed beside him, bounced and cartwheeled, and then landed again. Its crankcase cracked apart and oil spilled onto the rocks. The bike chugged for another few seconds and died.
He felt before he thought again. His jaw sent searing pain into his head. He had trouble breathing with intense pain in his chest, on his left side, where he landed on his pistol in a chest holster. His right ankle, left hip and thigh hurt like hell and he peed in his pants. His body was prone. His face and chest rested hard against a rock and his left arm was pinned behind him. His face was a rictus of agony. He tried to call out but his jaw shrieked in pain. It was almost dark. A car’s headlights passed above him, but it didn’t stop. Pain swept over him as if he’d been slammed by a dozen baseball bats. Several more headlights came and went. Panic. Nausea. Surely someone must have seen the crash. A rescue was on its way. Surely.
I STEPPED OUTSIDE into the stifling heat and drove towards the home of Jimmy Boyd, a musician and former moonshiner who lives on a rural road north of town towards the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Dry Hill community. The road was quiet, with modest homes dotting it. Jimmy met me on the porch of a mobile home, beside an old house.
A large man, he told me all his ancestors were from the same area. “There was an old schoolhouse in this area. There was no spring nearby nor any running water. I could never figure out why they built the schoolhouse where they did. I guess that is how the area got its name, Dry Hill.
“I grew up about five miles from here towards the upper reaches of Philpott Lake. My daddy was born about a half-mile from where I was born. My great-great-grandmother had five boys who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. I still remember my grandmother who died in 1960.
“I am 63 years old. When the government started sending me checks for not working, I stopped working. I used to do automobile body repair and detail work. Our work came from all over. I met a lot of people when I played music. People would find out that I did this kind of work and they would bring their cars to me.
“I play clawhammer banjo and bass, mostly with my band, the Dry Hill Draggers. I have a second cousin who bought a banjo in 1939. I believe he told me he paid $35 for it. He never learned how to play it. By the late 1970s, it still looked brand-new because nobody ever played it. He ended up selling it to my brother for $350. My brother said to me, ‘If you will learn how to play it, I will buy it.’ I said, ‘If you will buy it, I will learn how to play it.’ I kept that banjo around for over a year. Finally I called my brother and said, ‘You’d best come get it because I’m not going to learn how to play it.’ Before I knew it, my son talked me into buying another banjo in town for around $400.
“Ted Boyd, my grandfather’s uncle, was really a unique and gifted musician. He learned how to play in the 1930s. He influenced me a lot. I also have two brothers who play music. Over the years, we have put together eight different records. We have never really made much money from playing. We only make expense money, enough to pay for travel expenses and wear and tear on the PA system and strings. Often when we play we forget to take our CDs for sale. Music for me has been primarily just something to do to have a good time.
“This is a pretty remote area and it has always been a long way away from city jobs. The nearest community with any factories is Bassett, and that is a 35-minute drive. When times were tough, sometimes people would drive to Bassett a couple of times a week for a month or two before finding a job. Sometimes, when factories were fully staffed, one man would have to quit before another man could take his job. Jobs have always been hard to find.
“I have been making moonshine most of my life. The other day I was thinking about it and I counted something like 50 separate still sites where I had worked over the years. I started as early as I was old enough to tote sacks of sugar.
“Decades ago, there were several factories around where people could find work. But people always made moonshine on the side to raise extra money. There are just a lot of carefree, happy-go-lucky country folks. A man would work hard and make a few rounds of whiskey. He would buy a big car and he would run it up and down the roads and have a big time until he ran out of money. Then he would sell that car and go make another round of whiskey. It was not an easy way to make money because it required a lot of work. But it was quick. A man could make as much money in three or four weeks making moonshine as he would make in his job working all year.
“Sometimes we’d put stills on other people’s property, with their permission. We needed a good place, somewhere where nobody travels. There were stills all over. Me and a friend put one way up on a mountain. We’d go at two or three in the morning. We’d cover the path with cut pine trees to camouflage it. When they got brown we’d cut new ones. We’d do all kinds of things to hide them.
“I’d been making ‘shine for 10 or 12 years before I got caught. I thought the first time I got caught I would get probation. It was 1972. One Monday, we were at the still and we saw somebody jerk his head behind a log. I told the boy with me that we’d been seen. We ran away from the guy but there were others waiting the other way. So we got caught and were handcuffed. I didn’t have a billfold on me. I gave them a false name and address. They took the handcuffs off us. I ran and got away. But, when they tried the other boy, he told them who I was. That was first of November. He told me the judge was going to give him five years in prison if he didn’t snitch on me. We had 160 cases or so of whiskey in the springhouse behind my house. It was plum full. One day my yard was full of ABC officers and troopers. The man who arrested me was named Bob Johnson. He was a real nice fellow. He plays music, too. The walkway to the springhouse had a layer of snow on it. There wasn’t a track on it. They never found it. I saw Bob last year and told him about that stash. He just laughed.
“They tried me for that case. The judge sentenced me to 90 days in jail. But he told me that if I got married to the woman I was living with, he’d knock 30 days off. So I served 60 days in the Martinsville jail. I got out and within six months I was arrested again. I had lots of kids and I needed money. My buddy came up one evening and told me he’d found a good place. That was in March of 1973. I was still on probation from the first time. The substitute judge was giving out really harsh sentences. We were going to plead guilty and take our time. But we changed to pleading not guilty and asked for a jury trial. We were sentenced to a year in jail and fined $1000. The sheriff told us if we painted his jail, he’d let us out. Meanwhile, I had to do federal time, too, because I was on probation. So I got sentenced to 4 months in a federal jail in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I quit making moonshine in 1980.
“These days, most folks only make (moonshine) to drink for personal consumption. Operation Lighting Strike gave officials the ability to confiscate a man’s house and cars, and sell them at auction. It ain’t worth it to make a few hundred dollars.
“People like talking to old moonshiners. Most folks have respect for moonshiners. They don’t think of moonshining like other crimes. When I was in jail, one of my best friends was a black guy from Detroit. He had set up a still in the basement of his apartment building. Black people seem to like their moonshine with a raw, rough taste. ABC whiskey is blended and aged. Good moonshine is raw and fresh. Good ‘shine has a head on top. We call it a bead or honeycomb. There is a real art to getting a good flavor and the right proof to moonshine. A good round looks like chicken gravy.
“I don’t drink moonshine straight. My favorite mix is with Mountain Dew. I put three to four ounces in a drink. My daddy drank a half gallon of moonshine every day. A man’s liver and kidneys can’t handle that much alcohol. I have seen men whose skin was peeling off their fingers. The skin dries up like sunburn. People can drink themselves to death.
“I have got to tell you, I still love the smell of a still. When you walk to a still the first thing in the morning, the smell of it, combined with the smell of honeysuckle, smells so good.”
After looking at many photos of stills and seeing some in museums, it never occurred to me that they had a distinctive, and naturally pleasant, smell.
Jimmy concluded, “I really enjoyed making moonshine. It takes years to learn to make moonshine and do it well. There is a craft to it.”