Do you believe in God, or at least a higher being?
Now appears to be the perfect time to address this question in a way I believe that I have been blessed to share with readers. With the “smell” of death continuously growing across the globe, and although southern West Virginia has so far been relatively fortunate, even the “powers that be” have realized this pandemic is not a created figment of the far left’s news media’s imagination.
Someday, many of you will hopefully be able to tell your grandchildren about the period of time when people were wearing masks and gloves just to go to a grocery store, when many local businesses were shut down, when fortunes were lost on the stock market, when high school and college graduations were canceled, when high school proms were abandoned, and when the entire world watched as the “death angel” lurked daily. You will speak of the time when church services were conducted by video, and when prayer vigils lifted up the spirits of the less fortunate and those health workers and others thrust into the front lines of fighting a war that featured an invisible enemy — the coronavirus. You will speak of a dark time in history when fear gripped the world. And you will surely speak of miracles, with some yet to occur.
Imagine, if you can, a dimly lit world in the hills of southern Appalachia long before refrigeration or even electricity was available to people who either raised their own food, or eked out a living in a fast-growing coalfield where people from nearly every nationality were thrust together into a human vegetable soup medley to bring the coal at all costs from the bowels of our surrounding hills. It was 1918, and America — an isolationist country at the time — had finally entered World War I in support of its allies, chiefly Great Britain.
The production of steel for the Great War was, of course, a great necessity to war efforts and coal was of the utmost importance to the making of steel. At one point in coal mining history, coal miners were made exempt from being drafted by the military due to their importance of supplying coal.
Even before the U.S. entered the war, The Logan Democrat newspaper reported that there were 4,043 men in Logan County eligible for military duty. It is interesting to note that the military draft age at that time was between the ages of 21 and 30. It was also reported that so many Logan County men were registering for the war that application cards had all been used and the process had to be temporarily halted. Imagine the number of men who would have joined the services had the age for eligibility been like today, which is 18.
By August 1918, J.E. Peck, chief clerk of the Logan County draft board, announced that 1,162 Loganites were then in the military ranks. Not long afterwards, it was announced that Amherstdale resident Bee Stewart had become Logan’s first war casualty, dying in action on the French front.
Even though the U.S. didn’t officially join the allied war effort until 1918, the country was preparing earlier and Logan County began registering men in 1917, a year that should be of particular historical local interest.
A giant 10-by-20 American flag was hoisted above the Logan County courthouse, and as a Logan band performed, “Old Glory” was flaunted to the winds over what was the domed structure.
The severity of the situation was realized when Logan got its first touch of the war when a squad of men from the West Virginia 2nd Division of Infantry pitched camp on the grounds of Appalachian Power Company at Deskins Addition. The newspaper account said the men had arrived by train and were given orders to guard the power plant both night and day. In addition, the men were told to “shoot and kill anyone prowling those works at night.”
As pup tents were established at the site, the railroad bridge near the plant was closed and pedestrians were warned they must immediately halt when they were told to do so. Disobeying a guard’s order meant one could be shot, according to the story. The power plant, which produced the electricity needed to supply power to operate many area coal mines, was considered a possible target by foreign forces in both World War I and even later during World War II.
Not only were things changing in Logan County, such as the Aracoma Hotel nearing completion, but it also was reported that a petition signed by a large number of citizens of a community at the mouth of Buffalo Creek (now Man) were asking for a charter to incorporate the community as the “city” of Buffalo.
As Logan County men were registering for the military draft in 1917, a bullet fired from a pistol in the hands of former Logan sheriff Don Chafin took the life of Frank Kazee one Saturday night around midnight. Chafin, then working as a deputy county clerk, said he could not remember killing the unarmed man, and was later found not guilty in a trial. Chafin would a few years later again become sheriff and achieve notoriety in 1921 for his defensive efforts in the Battle of Blair Mountain. At the time, a sheriff could not serve back-to-back terms; Chafin was first elected in 1912, thus accounting for his employment in the clerk’s office between his terms as sheriff.
While all of this and much more was taking place, it was reported that typhoid fever was “probably killing more people in West Virginia than coal mining accidents” and that there was no way to know how many cases of the disease were in the state because statistics were not kept.
State Health Commissioner S.L. Jepson was quoted as saying “Every case of typhoid fever comes from somebody else who has had the disease.”
While this health situation was grabbing front page headlines, a more deadly virus was unleashing terror in foreign lands, although it has been identified as starting at a U.S. military camp at Ft. Riley, Kansas. Troops being sent to Europe carried the disease with them and by the summer of 1918 the epidemic had spread worldwide. By the time the deadly flu virus was at ease in 1920, it had become a pandemic in which estimated figures declared the death toll globally to be as high as 100 million people, with 500 million being infected.
I decided to look at the death records of Logan Countians from 1917 until 1920. So I visited the vital statistics section of the Logan County Clerk’s office expecting to see large numbers of people who had succumbed to either typhoid fever or to what inappropriately was named the “Spanish Flu” in 1918.
Although I ran across a few deaths whose causes were “the flu” and a few more whose causes of death were listed as pneumonia, I really didn’t find a pattern that could be identified with either the pandemic flu or typhoid fever. Since deaths occur every year from influenza and pneumonia, it appears to me that Logan County may have been spared from the two deadly diseases of 1917 through 1920.
Since outside travel was somewhat limited for the common Loganite, perhaps sheriff Don Chafin and his deputies greeting every train that came into Logan and then sending suspected union organizers right back where they came from may have been a good action after all.
Today, as we all grapple with not allowing the coronavirus disease to spread in our much maligned hillbilly communities, although other places are being overwhelmed with it, we may be saying — at least for a while — what our forefathers basically told outsiders who wandered into these hills and valleys during the feudal days of the Hatfields and McCoys — “Stay the hell out of here.” How ironic it is that Hatfield-McCoy trail riders are now barred from the trails.
Since I began this column by asking if you believe in God, or at least a higher being, allow me to tell you during these troubling times about a person who has seen death and came back from it only to carry out an unknown mission. What that mission is, I do not know.
What I can for certain tell you is that I have seen that brilliant light at the end of the tunnel and I did not wish to return from it — the result of an abandoned Island Creek Coal Co. waste pond at Holden where several people drowned before the lake was finally drained.
Keep the faith and keep safe.
My true story will be told in length next week.