To understand the dynamic between coal companies and West Virginia coalfield residents, one must look at the history of land ownership. Since the 19th century, large, wealthy and absentee landowners—and their small tax burdens— have benefited from friendly relationships with lawmakers at the expense of mountain settlers. These powerful landowners lived mostly in the East—present-day Virginia—and shifted the tax burden off of land and onto livestock and personal property. Today, the vast majority of privately-held land in areas with coal is still owned by out-of-state, absentee interests. The communities of Hazy and Shumates have been no different.
“Part of the problem was the absentee ownership of West Virginia. Out-of-state interests have always owned most of the mineral rights of this state...” Rick Bradford wrote in his book Edwight, at the mouth of Hazy. “The Bowman Lumber Company of Kanawha County had been organized on August 15, 1888, as a joint stock company to manufacture poplar, oak and chestnut lumber...” People sold their great trees to Bowman for a pittance.
With the trees gone, nothing was left to absorb heavy rainfall. “Hazy Creek flooded after every heavy rain after it was logged,” Rick said.
One of the largest land owners in the Coal River Valley is Rowland Land Company. According to Rick Bradford, Rowland's beginnings occurred under suspicious circumstances. Rowland was formed not long after a group of men went around buying up land from people, approaching almost everyone in the Clear Fork and Marsh Fork valleys. Justice of the Peace Moses Dameron would accompany J. Harvey Rowland to residents' doors, and would notarize the deed right there. Some residents are not fond of Rowland. “Well, Rowland Land Company is criminal,” Edwight resident Sylvia Bradford said.
Rowland Land Company office. Photo by Rick Bradford.
After a shooting incident, Burwell and Harvey Pettry “had to sell their property to hire a lawyer 'to keep from getting hung.' --King Pettry,” Rick wrote. A man named E.C. Colcord came to exploit the situation. According to stories handed down through the Pettry family, when they came to Absolom Pettry's on Oct. 4, 1898, Jacob Pettry and whiskey were also present. “Moses Dameron was brought along to notarize the deed,” Rick wrote. “'For his part, Dameron gave Jacob a fine saddle horse.' --King Pettry.” Colcord later bought all of Absolom's land, which included parts of Hazy and Shumates.
Ab's daughter Angeline said her mom, Anne Cook Pettry, refused to sign the deed because she saw it was a rip-off, Rick said; Angeline had been living at home and knew what was happening. According to Raleigh County records, Ab's land was deeded to E. C. Colcord on May 4, 1903, for “$1.00 and other valuable consideration...” County records indicate that W. A. Massey notarized the deed on April 21, 1903. The area of land ran from the mouth of Hazy and up it, to and up Falling Rock Hollow and down the right-hand fork of Shumate's Branch and down to the mouth of Shumate's.
Colcord, Rowland and a handful of others bought up thousands of acres in the area by the first few years of the 20th century. Next came the flood of coal companies, with the first mines in Edwight and Hazy being leased from Rowland.
“C. E. Krebs, who had worked on the Raleigh County Geologic Survey, leased [the Hazy Lease] of almost 1,088 acres [from Rowland on Oct. 1, 1919, for 50 years. The contract stipulated that all traffic to and from the lease area must go through] the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company as long as their rates are competitive with other railway companies,” Rick wrote. The Raleigh-Wyoming Coal Company took out the Edwight Lease, 9.182 acres for 50 years, on Mar. 1, 1919.
Things began to change after the extractive industries moved into town.
“A way of life had vanished, and in its place were scores of new problems,” Rick wrote. “The towns were built, and laborers were recruited from the local populace, blacks from the southern states and immigrants from Europe.” The coal camps were in a beautiful and bountiful landscape, but they weren't always the safest place to live. There were many untimely deaths in Edwight and Hazy and even a couple of suicides. A number were murders, and one woman stabbed her husband after he beat her, she said. None of these include deaths in the mines.
Rick Bradford wrote, “Death was hovering around the Edwight and Hazy mines in the late 1920's and early 1930's... There were silent killers in town, too. Their names: diphtheria and typhoid fever...” Diptheria was a constant scourge. “'This is the roughest old world I've ever been in!'[, said Big Belcher.]”
Coal's a boom and a bust
The mid- to late-'50s saw a dwindling of mine work. Raleigh-Wyoming, however, expanded into an auger operation in Hazy's Eagle coal seam. Auger mining involves punching a drill
into near-horizontal coal seams in the side of a mountain, and some consider it the precursor to mountaintop removal.
Eagle Coal & Dock Hazy strip mines. Photo by Rick Bradford.
When prices and demand for coal dropped in the late-'50s the Edwight Mine shut down, putting 73 men out of work. The lease was transferred to Eastern and Armco Steal Corporation. The school, church and post office all closed. Rick wrote, “Rowland sold the town pump to the man contracted to dismantle the mining equipment and tipple, Joe Fish from Logan. Fish removed the pump because the people were not moving out fast enough.
“People were scattered like the wind scatters leaves. And that was the saddest of all.”
West Virginia experienced another mining boom in the 1970's, and the [something from union history with link to union history piece.] This was followed by another bust in the 1980's. These days, though, even the booms don't do much for residents. When coal prices were high in early- to mid-2008, Whitesville was still a near-ghost-town.
People aren't just leaving because of a dwindling of mine work. Some feel they're being forced out. “They're tearing up your home, they run people out. This, at one time, was a large community, right here, where I live,” Sylvia Bradford said. “And now, there's seven families here. And there was, oh good heavens, at least 150 wasn't there?”
Rick Bradford wrote:
While Edwight's residents were enjoying the dances held at the pavilion behind George Barefield's house and the school carnivals and Christmas pageants, the absentee landlords were busy partaking of the area's coal, timber and gas.
The same thing is happening to us today, and to the rest of America, as the “shadow government” of bankers, industrialists, and politicians is stealing our country while we sit idly by watching sporting events on TV.
Nothing much has changed when it comes to impoverishing a people and their culture.