Mountains and coal

Published 9:50 am Friday, August 1, 2014

by James D. Howell

Coon hunters from the mountains visit our farm; when they leave, they extend an invitation to come visit them in their home. Two of my brothers and myself depart for Richlands, Virginia, during early winter. I think our family set it up by mail, but I don’t know. My family sometimes does things on the spur of the moment, with little planning. Oil company road maps lead us along a southerly route all the way to Bluefield, West Virginia. From there, we backtrack between mountain ranges to Tazewell, then to Buchanan County.

I really don’t know how my brother finds his way for the last few miles. Few signs point the way to fewer and fewer houses. We drive a little slower alongside a creek, around curves, past some trails into the mountainside and stop at a path to a small house perched at the edge of a field.

There’s a smaller creek flowing through the middle of the hollow between two mountains on the right. On one side of the creek are a couple of fields, divided by low fences. Dead cornstalks, left over from harvest are recognizable, but I don’t see any hogs turned in to feed on the remnants. Maybe the hogs are finished, or maybe they don’t have hogs to start with.

Another small field occupies a mostly flat area nearest the main water stream. The house sits at the far end of this field, seemingly propped up against the mountain slope on that side. Its walls have not known paint; a pickup truck is parked alongside the path at the house. We turn into the path and stop alongside the cabin and are quickly met by one of the men who visited our farm. Greetings are exchanged; laughter is abundant. We stretch our legs and breathe cold mountain air.

Our visit will only be overnight and the next day, leaving in late evening to return home. We do a tour of the homestead.

Above the house, into the hollow, the smaller creek has been dammed up to provide a reservoir for running water to the house; excess is allowed to continue down the hollow to the larger stream. I think it’s a clever arrangement. Their water well is above ground. I don’t know how well it works in winter with freezes, but other times it must be really convenient.

Our friend leads us to a dug out area in the side of the hill close by the water catch. He explains that this is his coal mine. It’s not enough for commercial uses, but it provides plenty of fuel to heat the house and operate the cook stove. I’m a little in awe of having a working coal mine in the back yard. It doesn’t match the pictures that I’ve seen of mines. Missing are the rails and gondolas to transport the ore, but that dark horizontal seam of coal is recognizable, even to me.

The next day, our host feeds us breakfast and we leave in our car for Grundy, the county seat. I’m glad our friend is familiar with this area; I’d be lost in a half a mile. Small roads twist and turn between mountains and alongside creeks. Horizontal orientation is completely absent. Mountains frame every vista, every lookout point, every opening in the trees.

We pass a fairly new building and our host tells us that it’s a new high school. He also comments that the school is not well attended — in fact its student body is almost nonexistent. It’s a problem throughout the region. As soon as children are old enough, they find jobs in the mines, and have no vision beyond that. An education is not a requirement to be a miner; local populations are not motivated to get their children to schools. The mines pay well, when they work, and work seems to be all most people know. There also seems to be a despondency that pervades most families here. I am saddened by the idea of children not going to school.

Mining operations are very visible along the larger roads. Multi-track railroad yards, with coal cars, stretch for miles along the valley floor. Typical coal company towns, with dust blackened roofs and sides nestle alongside and near the tracks. Tall conveyor towers with multiple chutes and gangways move coal from storage piles to coal gondolas. A dark shadow of dust covers and envelopes everything between the mountain ridges.

We visit Grundy and meet up with another of the men that visited our farm. The conversation is light and friendly. Late in the day, we leave for home. Late in the night, I am permitted to drive along nearly empty highways while my brothers sleep. I don’t mind.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at