Reenactors from Matewan, who have been recreating the famed shoot out that lead to workers rights in the Mountain State since 2001 discussed the era and brought the colorful characters like “Smilin’ Sid” Hatfield, Matewan’s Two Gun totin’’ Police Chief, Mayor Testerman and Baldwin-Felts spy C.E. Lively to vivid life.
Actors in the show explained to the students how living conditions in the area in 1920 were akin to indentured servitude because coal companies owned the towns, stores and houses were employees lived and worked and paid them in “scrip” which was worthless outside those towns basically trapping miners in virtual slavery.
When “outside agitators” like worker’s rights champion “Mother Jones” got involved in the struggle to unionize the coalfields, coal barons retaliated by hiring a veritable army of Baldwin-Felts detectives who were little more than gun toting thugs who terrorized miners and their families. They also hired spies and agitators who would act as informants against miners, who were then evicted from company owned property in what would be an illegal manner today.
However , as the actors noted, there were no laws protecting workers in the coalfields in 1920 and violence and shootouts were common with “gun thugs” working for the mine operators shooting into the tent cities set up by evicted miners.
One of the actors portraying a Baldwin-Felts agent scoffs during the play about needing a warrant to evict a miner from company property.
The events leading up to the May 1920 shootout in Matewan are explained and the shooting itself was recreated on stage which rapidly filled with gunsmoke.
“It was one of the bloodiest gun battles in U.S. history,” one reenactor noted, comparing it to “the Wild West.”
Another noted that the shooting could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Matewan and it lead directly to the Battle of Blair Mountain and in turn to the Unionization of the coalfields and the passing of laws that protected workers rights.
The actors said that following the May 19, 1920 shooting Chief Hatfield and Ed Chambers were gunned down on the steps of the were gunned down on the steps of the McDowell County Courthouse on Aug. 1, 1921.
Following the presentation the actors and stage hands enjoyed a special dinner provided by the college’s drama department. One performer noted he enjoyed doing the recreation on a stage.
“It doesn’t hurt so much when you fall down and hit the padded stage as it does when you do it on the street,” he quipped.
Donna May Paterino, director of the show, who also portrays Sally Chambers told The Logan Banner that the group was happy to bring the performance to Logan County and that they were getting ready to perform soon in Matewan. Paterino said the Mingo County Commission had been a big supporter of the reenactment and that it had contributed towards informational brochures printed annually to let the public know about the reenactment.
Paterino thanked the college for making the presentation possible and for providing high intensity blank ammunition (which can be expensive) for the production. She told The Logan Banner that the group usually gets by thanks to support from the community and donations as well as help from the Mingo County Commission.
The first show of the season in Matewan will be on May 14 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The drama will be performed again on June 11 and Sept. 10 during the town’s homecoming ceremonies.
Performers included Mark Meadows as Ed Chambers, Montgomery Scott as Albert Felts, Joe Chapman as the Coal Miner, Chris Gray as C.C. Testerman, Billy Taylor as a Coal Miner, Eric Simon as Sid Hatfield, Chuck Scott as Lee Felts, Ronald Lively as C.E. Lively, Jeff Dixon as a Coal Miner, Allie Paxton as the Coal Miner’s Wife, Ashley Daughtery as Jessie Testerman Hatfield, Donna Paterino as Sally Chambers, Charles Scott as the Baldwin Felts Agent, Tot Tensley as Josh McCallister, Don Cravelle as the detective and Jeff Layne and Billy Taylor as Coal Miners. Don Cravell was the sound engineer.