There are two basic reasons as to why I write most of the material that appears in this weekly publication. First, although it could be fifty or even one hundred years from now, I feel someone will be wanting to research the past, possibly the ghost town of Logan, and I feel it important to paint a picture for those future historians by relating what I know.
Secondly, although the numbers continue to dwindle, I enjoy resurrecting memories for those people who can relate to the way life in the coal fields used to be — better in some ways, and worse in others.
Within the last two weeks, I got to thinking about how many company stores there used to be in Logan County, so I decided to visit some places that used to feature coal company stores; indeed, some communities basically no longer exist.
I headed to Dehue and Rum Creek first and was surprised to discover that the Rum Junction turnoff is now a dead end. The road is blocked, and I have to assume it was closed to make room for the new road that leads from Logan to Man. There now is an exit off the new road that leads to what used to be an entire community at Dehue. Other than the former Dehue Grade School, there really is nothing there now except a coal preparation tipple and dirty roads that lead to various mines. I suppose, on the bright side, coal trucks were coming and going in every direction, a sign that coal is being produced and men are working. I wonder, though, what happens when the coal is gone.
The truth is the answer to that question can be found by simply driving over 22 Mountain at Holden or up Pine Creek from the Omar side to what used to be a thriving community known as 22 Holden. The place where there used to be a movie theater, doctor’s office, company store and even a barber shop has been returned to nature. There are no signs of life other than a coal loading tipple and more coal trucks coming and going, even on the Saturday that I chose to visit the place.
While researching for this column I ran across a Logan Banner story I wrote that appeared in the newspaper in June 1980. The headline told of the closing of the company store at Dehue. A sub-headline read “Company Store Era Fading in Logan County.” That was 42 years ago, and they have all been gone for quite a while. Here’s what I wrote underneath the picture I took of the rather large stone building that so many people had relied upon for decades:
“CLOSED AFTER 63 YEARS — The Youngstown Mines Company store, which has been a part of the Dehue community for the past 63 years, closed its doors at 12 noon Saturday. Unfavorable economic prospects and increasing competition from area stores was listed as the reasons for the store’s closing.”
“We sold a little bit of everything,” said Lawrence Finley, who was a company store manager at the time. “Hardware, gasoline, groceries, meats, clothes and appliances, they were all sold here.”
“If a person worked at Youngstown Steel, he could buy anything we had,” said Finley. “When times were bad for miners and their families, we let them have just about anything they wanted.”
Like so many coal camp communities in Logan County and all of the coal fields, coal camp houses were side by side at Dehue on both sides of the roadway. Now, the community has vanished.
I have a direct interest in coal communities, especially Dehue and all former Island Creek Coal Company stores. To begin with, my father, Carlos Williamson, worked and retired from Youngstown Steel mines at Dehue, last working in water up to his chest while underneath the Guyandotte River. He died less than a year after retiring at the age of 62, a recipient of five Bronze Star medals while in World War II. In addition, I went to junior high and high school with many students who hailed from Dehue and Rum Creek. In fact, my first assistant at my current position as magistrate (Lisa Hipshire Ellison) was from Dehue. Also, there have been many exceptional athletes come from that area. Just to name a few, there were Jim Willis, Steve Vance, Charles and Rick Pritchard, and many, many others.
Another connection to coal communities is that I was born at Holden Hospital, which was a product of Island Creek Coal Company back in the heydays of that community. Furthermore, I grew up in a coal camp at Verdunville where the Island Creek No. 16 company store was directly across the railroad tracks from our home. The company store porch was a haven for coal camp youngsters like myself. There are so many fond memories of the store — from the fresh cut meat department to the clothing department and the appliance and furniture area, where many new shotguns for sale were featured on the wall behind a glass counter. A single gas pump stood at one end of the concrete porch out front, while a long wooden porch covering a coal bin beneath it was located on the backside toward the creek.
There are not many former company stores left standing in Logan County — or anywhere in southern West Virginia, for that matter — and some of the ones that do stand are not recognizable as former coal camp company stores. One such store at Mud Fork in Logan County has served as a church for many decades. That church is a stone’s throw from my current residence and just below another church, Maryetta Baptist.
Not all company stores in Logan County were owned by Island Creek Coal Company, but there were many that I can name. Those include Ragland in Mingo County, Logan Mercantile, 21 Main Holden, 22 Holden, Valley View, Whitman, Mallory, Kelly, Ethel, Earling, Monaville, Omar, Stirrat, Micco, and No. 15, 16 and 17 stores on Mud Fork. Then, of course, there was the huge Island Creek warehouse at Valley View on the Holden Road that more recently operated as a Sav-a-Lot store. Across the road from there is the property donated by Island Creek that became unwisely known as the “Logan County Crippled Children” building during the time when polio left many children unable to walk. That building has since been razed.
The fact of the matter is that at one point or another there were coal company stores scattered across the county — Sharples, Lorado, Monaville, Davin, Mt. Gay, and Shamrock — to name just a few. Island Creek also had company stores at Van and Wharton In Boone County, Oceana in Wyoming County, and Craigsville in Nicholas County.
However, when it came to company stores, the Main Holden store was a symbol of the model mining community that was built there by Island Creek Coal Co., when it was decided the town of Holden would be developed. Prior to 1904, the property was like most of the county, undeveloped, with timbering being the main industry.
Of historical significance is that land at Holden near the Mingo County line was purchased by Island Creek from the parents of world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. All totaled, Island Creek bought 28,000 acres from various owners to develop Holden. Interestingly, Jack Dempsey, prior to becoming a boxing champion, worked in the mines at Mt. Gay.
By 1912, most of the houses at Main Holden had been built and the community was growing rapidly. As time went on the community of Holden became a nucleus of its own. A movie theater known as “The Pioneer,” which had been an opera house, was constructed, as was a company-owned hospital, a barber shop, a drug store, club house, a bowling alley, its own newspaper, and a large dwelling, known as “The Bungalow,” near the former Holden Hospital. The house reportedly served as a “high-class temporary residence for the company’s visiting dignitaries.” It also served as a home for some hospital doctors. In addition, the community church was constructed in Main Holden, and it still serves as a place of worship. Unfortunately, a high school at Holden that later became a junior high school when Logan Senior High School opened in 1923 was razed when the four-lane was being built going to Williamson.
In 1918, replacing a smaller edifice that opened in 1902, a new three-story brick company store was opened presenting “the latest equipment and merchandising ideas to aid and make shopping a delightful pleasure,” the Logan Banner reported. Operational headquarters were located there until sometime in the 1970s when they were moved to Kentucky. It was a flagship of a chain that numbered 54 stores.
At one point in history there was the Island Creek dairy as well the Holden swimming pool and community recreational building that was built by the company’s urging, and from funds supplied by Island Creek company miners. The swimming pool that became a public pool, which this writer enjoyed as a kid, is gone and the rec center, which I also played basketball in, is now the Logan Regional Medical Center’s cancer center.
In 1947 the company had 12 mines in Logan and Mingo counties, employing 3,731 men that produced around seven million tons of coal per year. The company also owned three gasoline service stations. At the time, it was advertised that the community of Holden had 10,000 residents, which likely included Whitman Creek.
Island Creek Coal Co., became involved in many community projects and charities, including Little League and Babe Ruth leagues, bowling teams, and other worthwhile projects. There was even a Holden Garden Club and Holden Woman’s Club. There was a baseball field at Whitman that is still there and the Bill George Memorial Field also at Whitman that was later donated to the county.
As a person who for a while lived in the first brick house next to the former Main Holden company store, I recently drove down the streets of the area. And, with the possible exception of Beebe, Trace, Coolidge, and Bachelor streets look much different from their glory days of the past. Some houses have been torn down, while others should be. Gone are the once immaculate streets and sidewalks.
Holden branched out to surrounding coal camps that were given numbered names like 5&6, 7&8, 21 and 22 Holden. Some places acquired names like Price Bottom, Frogtown and Little Italy. It was Little Italy (5&6) that consisted of mostly Italians living in three-room homes, some of whom built small bakeries in their backyards.
Wouldn’t it be nice to smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread in the air, while just sitting on the company store porch watching cars go by?
Soon, I just might tell readers where at least a million dollars of Island Creek Coal Co., scrip was buried.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.