Born to Homesteading parents on the rugged land of Minnesota in 1896, Sigfus Olafson of Madison, WV chuckles when he says he’s a minority group, and one few Icelandic people in coal country.
His parents were among the first settlers in Minnesota in 1895, lured from Iceland by the U.S.’s opening of the land to settlers in 1894. “There were no roads, no schools or buildings…just nothing,” Sigfus says, recalling his early days on the frontier. He literally watched a country being built from wide clearings in the forest as he grew up!
“It was not an easy life, not as easy as now…it was tough going,” he says. “We only had two months of school.” A strong-willed intellectual, though, Sigfus survived those tough early days of his life. By the time he was 18 years old, he was teaching school and beginning a career.
His first job with the State Department of Mines was temporarily interrupted by World War I, but he resumed his career in 1919 after serving in the U.S. Army. Sigfus joined the Yawkey family who had been looking for a bright, young man to oversee the family coal holdings in a state called West Virginia.
Tall, angular and stooped by age, Sigfus leads an active life today (1980) at 84, and is considered an expert in the field of genealogy. He traces his own ancestry back to the 900’s, and talks of William the Conqueror as though he were the next door neighbor. Sigfus spends most of his time these days at his desk in a little room that has everything he needs, including countless genealogy books and an antique typewriter.
Although he loves West Virginia, Sigfus hadn’t seen the “purple majesties” until he was about 28 years old when he came to the Mountain State to oversee some 40,000 acres of Yawkey land in Boone, Lincoln and Mason counties, circa 1922. Shortly after he arrived he was made general manager of the Yawkey company.
Sigfus moved to New York in 1946 to take over presidency of Yawkey & Freeman and Pond Fork Coal Companies, handling Mr. Yawkey’s natural resource holdings in many places including Alabama, Texas, Wyoming and parts of Canada, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
He retired in 1969 after 45 years with the Yawkey people, and moved back to West Virginia at Madison. Thomas Yawkey is best known as the owner of the American League’s Boston Red Sox, which he purchased in 1931. Prior to that, the Yawkeys’ had owned the Detroit Tigers.
The Yawkeys didn’t own any coal companies, but leased the land for coal mining.
“I spend my days today heavily involved in genealogy. We have 2,000* members and the club was started in 1976. I am the president. I have been unable physically to do much in recent years.”
Sigfus recalls that the Logan County area was a shoot-em-up, bang-bang place when he first came to West Virginia. Don Chafin was the big man who commanded the Logan forces in the coal mine wars and leased land for mines at Peach Creek.
He remembers well, too, Captain Tennis Hatfield who was a deputy at Peach Creek. “He (Tennis) had a bad eye. One pale blue eye and another that looked off someplace, but he got religion and would never talk about the Hatfield-McCoy Feud.” Logan was virtually desolate in the 1900’s before Sigfus arrived. It wasn’t until around 1905 that coal mining began to dominate the economy, and this was after the railroads had been built into this valley land.
“I had a row with Chafin, too,” Sigfus says, “but I didn’t have enough sense to shut up. We argued a lot. Later, we became good friends.”
Coal mining developed quickly once the railroads were built and sometimes cars were seen lined up for miles up Island Creek and Gauley River. “These were the richest and easiest to work coal mines around, except for Pocahontas around Bluefield. Logan was already built by 1922 when I came, and it looked then just about how it looks now.”
These were the cock-fighting, whisky- drinking, gun-toting, coal mining war days of early Logan. Although it wasn’t pretty, it commands a colorful period in history.
The first coal mine producing a large, constant flow, was opened on Island Creek, by Harry Gay in 1904. Shipments started out immediately afterwards.
Perhaps as significant as opening the first mine, was the fact that Mr. Gay was a good friend and employer of boxing great Jack Dempsey, whose mother was born in Madison.
Sigfus explained that Jack Dempsey’s grandfather, Daniel Denifer Smoot, was not a miner, but is buried in the Madison area. Dempsey’s mother was a Denifer, and she married Hiram Dempsey and they left for Utah, getting as far as Manassas, Colorado (hence, Manassas Mauler).
When Jack Dempsey was about 17 or 18 years old, Sigfus tells us, he returned to West Virginia and worked at Harry Gay’s coal mine for a while and later set pins in a local bowling alley owned by Don Chafin.
Jack’s real name is William Harrison Dempsey. After he defeated T. Gibbons, he left West Virginia to become famous and never returned.
“There was always shooting and killing going on in those days,” Sigfus continues,
“especially around Harts Creek, between Huntington and Logan…many men died with their boots on…there was no law, but finally a judge was brought in. People started going to prison, and things settled some.
“I didn’t participate in any of the shooting incidents or any of the exciting moments - my life was pretty routine. After a while we actually got used to all the shooting.” The quiet, comparatively sedate life that Sigfus leads today is a far cry from those Wild-West days of early Logan, but he isn’t complaining…just relieved!
Sigfus loves what he’s doing. He has never lost the knack for digging or that inquisitive, methodical mind that is necessary to become a good genealogist. And he’s a good one, as the family crest that hangs on his wall testifies! (used with the permission of the author, Al Skinner)
Mr. Sigfus Olafson was born Nov. 1, 1896 and died Feb. 28, 1987. He was a man of many interests. Besides genealogy and local history, his interests included archaeology and, apparently, politics. He ran for the office of State Senator in 1940. Mr. Olafson was a renowned archaeologist. The West Virginia Archaeological Society presents the Sigfus Olafson Award for outstanding contributions to the study of West Virginia archaeology in his honor each year. Mr. Olafson was a fascinating and very knowledgeable man who helped many of us to start our own quests for our history. We in Logan and Boone counties, especially, owe a debt of gratitude to this man who, while not from this area, adopted it as his home.
As published in Logan County Genealogical Society Newsletter, Vol. 29, Issue III, 2006. Written by Al Skinner in 1980 for “Coal People.”
Logan County Genealogical Society meetings are held on the second Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in the Logan Area Public Library at Logan. Anyone wishing to learn more about researching their ancestors is welcome to attend the meetings or follow them on Facebook at Logan County WV Genealogical Society.