Since this past spring, I've been honored to be working with a group of
folks down in Southern West Virginia to launch an exciting people's
history project: The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum
We're working on a building right in the middle of Matewan, WV (subject
of John Sayles’ eponymous 1987 film), and on November 8 we had our first
community open house! We invited folks from the area to come down,
check out what we're doing, tell stories and commune, provide direct
input on our goals, and (importantly) eat barbecue...
Southern West Virginia is in the heart of historic coal country. The
industrial colonization of the region for resource extraction began
before 1912, but April of that year saw the first of many violent
conflicts between mine owners, private police, and striking miners and
families: The Paint Creek/Cabin Creek Strikes
The locus of this battle, and those that followed it, was a drive to
unionize the various coal fields of Southern West Virginia. But the larger struggle is better
characterized as a pitched battle for social justice and basic human
rights for families working in the coal industry in the region. This era of
oft-violent confrontations would later be called the “Mine Wars”,
culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain
(1921), the largest armed rebellion on U.S. soil since the Civil War.
In fall of 2013, a group of area residents, including local avocational
archaeologist Kenny King, UMWA union coal miners, academic historians,
and community organizers formed the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. The
group secured a building in Matewan, site of the 1920 Matewan Shootout, or "Massacre"
(which happened right outside our back door), in which to build a
permanent museum with didactic exhibitions, to open in May, 2015. A
little while later, I was invited into the fold - originally I had just
offered to do some design work and come down for work days on the
building, and now I'm deep in the process of designing the space itself,
acquiring artifacts, helping set the tone for the exhibitions, and a
whole mess of other details! I'm proud to be working with this group,
and proud of what we're doing. It's taken a load of work from each of us
just to get to this point, and we've got even more in front of us to
accomplish before this upcoming May! Just getting the space cleaned up
and painted takes a ton of work...
Here's a small case of artifacts from Kenny King's collection which I
arranged for the event. Kenny is a self-taught archeologist of sorts,
and he's been scouring Blair Mountain and the surrounding areas for
years picking up anything he finds from the past. He also buys a lot of
photographs and printed matter on eBay, the kind of stuff you can't find
buried on a mountainside. Kenny's collection makes up the foundation of
the Mine Wars Museum collection at this early point. Here we have a
lantern, check tags and coal company scrip, and spent machine gun bullet
casings from the Battle of Blair Mountain. Tools of the trade,
essentially. "Scrip" was the money miners were paid by the companies
they mined for, redeemable only at company-run stores (which were,
naturally, the only stores in many towns where residents could buy
goods). Check tags were used by individual miners to identify the carts
of coal they had loaded as they rolled out of the mines to be weighed.
The bullet casings probably need little explanation, suffice to say
that, for the most part, automatic weapons (unless stolen) were used by
mine owners and their hired thugs to keep everything in order.
Kenny and Chuck Keeney selected about twenty photo reproductions from
Kenny's collection and wrote up captions for each. The night before the
open house, I hung them all in a simple row, so folks could see a sample
of the imagery we'll be presenting in the completed museum.
I didn't really get any photos that captured the energy of the day, or the number of people who showed up...
We had plenty of barbecue to go around from local joint Wingo's, enough
chips and salsa to feed us for days from Mi Pueblito, and some donated
cupcakes which, I kid you not, were filled with frosting. They were
basically 85% frosting. Obviously a hit. Also, Hawkeye brought a pizza
to round out the feast.
One of the most exciting parts of the Open House was the carpet
selection station! We're totally re-carpeting the place, and we asked
for community input on styles and colors! We set out three very
different, really colorful options for folks to sift through. It was a
tough contest, and the ballots are still out as I write this...
We have already received a lot of crucial support from the community,
particularly from the United Mine Workers (UMWA) Local 1440, District
17. We've also received funding from the West Virginia Council for the
Humanities, the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, and Turn This
Town Around/West Virginia Focus (from which we received a grant to take
care of some immediate structural repairs on the building).
We've got a website in the works, and we'll be doing a Kickstarter drive later this winter. Stay tuned!
|detail from a photo, labeled "Kirkbrides Camp No.8, Tug R.(iver) W.V. July 1905"|