Friday, January 7, 2011

Rediscovering My Coal Country Roots

My father and grandfather were coal miners in Virginia and West Virginia. My father was born and raised in Dante, Virginia in Russell County in the early 1900’s when it was a booming coal town. Later, he went to Caretta, West Virginia and worked at the mine there for twelve years.

Caretta is about five miles from Coalwood, another mining town, that was made famous by Homer Hickam and the other “Rocket Boys”. The mines at Caretta and Coalwood were owned by the same company.
Homer’s father was the mine superintendant at the Coalwood mine, and he loved his work. But Homer marched to the beat of a different drummer, and was inspired by Sputnik to start building model rockets while he was in high school. He read a lot on the subject, kept experimenting, recruited some friends to help, and progressed to the point that he and his cohorts were building some pretty sophisticated rockets. A teacher suggested he enter his work in the science fair, and, to make a long story short, he ended up winning first place at the national science fair, which became a source of great local pride.

Homer then went to Virginia Tech and upon graduation got a job at NASA where he worked until retirement.

When he was nearing retirement, someone made an off-hand suggestion that he write a book about his model rocket building experiences. Homer, being the kind of guy he was, jumped on this idea and did write just such a book. It was a great success which was also turned into a move titled “October Sky”. He also wrote several sequels. All of this sent Homer, the other rocket boys, and Coalwood into national prominence.

Now, every year on the first weekend in October, the October Sky festival is held in Coalwood. Due to my strong personal ties to the same coal towns as Homer Hickam, I have wanted to go to this festival for some time. This year, I did, and my wife went with me so as to see some of my family heritage.

There are only two hotels in that area, the Count Gilu Motel (I am still wondering who Count Gilu was) and the Elkhorn Inn, a bed and breakfast establishment in Landgraff, WV. We opted for some local color and stayed at the Inn. When we made the reservation, we were asked if we wanted a room with a view, the view being of the railroad tracks. We said yes.

Upon arrival, we had a moment of “what have we gotten into” because the Inn needed painting and a bush had grown in front of the sign. I said to Mrs. Ring, “How did you find this place?”

Once we went in, things got better. The condition of the rooms was adequate if not luxurious. We learned that the building was once a “clubhouse” for miners which had fallen into serious disrepair. The current owners bought it with the intent of fixing it up and starting a bed and breakfast, which they have done, although it is still a work in progress.

Dinner is available if you pre-order, which we did since there was nowhere else to go. The husband of the ownership team is also the chef. He food turned out to be quite good, a highlight, actually. EntrĂ©e’s included roast Cornish hen, shrimp and fettucini, scallops, salmon with dill sauce, and others.

As we sat down to dinner Friday night, some people came in the front door, and the owners dropped everything to greet them. After a couple of minutes, the inn keeper came to me and discreetly said, “That’s Homer Hickam.”

Actually, it was Homer Hickam, Mrs. Hickam, and Randy Stribling, an actor that played a small part in the movie. We chatted, had a glass of wine together, took pictures, got our book signed, and felt like we were part of the “in crowd”.

Saturday, we went to Coalwood and the festival. There was a parade including the Concord University marching band, music, food, and speeches. Of most interest were the remarks by four of the five original rocket boys, comments by the 90 year old father of one of the rocket boys, and some words from the mine shop machinist who played a key role in saving chief rocket boy Homer Hickam from disaster at the national science fair, which you will have to read the book to get the whole story on.

There was also a “coal heritage museum” set up under a tent where various coal mining artifacts and memorabilia were on display by a collector. He had a stack of “Coalwood – Caretta News” newspapers from the early 1940’s that he had stumbled across at a yard sale. These got my attention since my parents were there at that time, so I browsed through them. I saw that this newspaper had a “personals” section, as many local newspapers do, that reported on who of the local populace was having visitors, who had a birthday party, school events, church news, and other such down home news. I was thinking that it’s a long shot, but maybe my family might be mentioned in there somewhere, so I skimmed through the “personals” of each newspaper and struck gold twice. My sister was listed as one of a group of girls who went on a Girl Scout outing, and another sister was among those attending a birthday party!! I asked if I could buy these papers, but he was adamant that they were not for sale. So I took pictures of the relevant sections.

After lunch, we drove five miles over the mountain to Caretta, the town where my family lived for twelve years while my father worked at the mine. We saw the building that had housed the company store where my mother would have bought almost everything; we saw the old mine buildings that my father must have worked in; we saw the small house where my family lived (a company house at the time); and we saw that the mine is still in operation to at least some degree. It was a real spiritual journey for me.

We drove on down the road to War – yes, that’s the name of the place – War. My brother was born in War. When my family first went to that area, apparently no company house was available in Caretta, so they lived just down the road in War for about a year until they could get a house in Caretta.

I was curious as to how the town came to be named “War”, so I asked around. The story I got was that some early pioneers had a major skirmish with the Indians. This happened on the banks a creek which became known as War Creek, and over time it was reduced to simply “War”.

By this time, it was late afternoon and time to head back to the inn. One of the major attractions of this inn is train watching. The inn is right across the street from the main line of Norfolk Southern, and many trains come through. A lot of them are coal drags, but many consist of containerized freight, since this line is also part of the “inland corridor” which is the shortest route from the ports on the Eastern Shore to Chicago. This route also goes through Radford, by the way, and the whole route has recently been “upgraded” to allow double-decker containerized freight cars to get through the tunnels.

Anyway, we initially thought that train watching would be pretty dull, but we went out on the front balcony (which you had to duck through what used to be a window to get to) to take a look. After the first train, we were hooked. It was mesmerizing. Whenever we heard a train whistle in the distance, we would rush out to the balcony. An added benefit was that we heard them all through the night in our room!

This particular section of track is on a grade, so the trains going in one direction (up grade) must have “pushers”. Pushers are engines added to the end of the train to help it get up the grade. The long coal drags had two pushers, and the freight trains had one. After the train went by up grade, a few minutes later the pushers would come back down alone to wait somewhere for the next train going up.

After a memorable dinner prepared by Chef Dan, who hovered around the table to make sure everything was just right, we retired to the TV room to watch “October Sky” again, the movie about the rocket boys. Then it was off to bed, with the comforting sound of a train coming through from time to time.

My wife thinks the inn is haunted because she insists she heard the doorknob being rattled during the night, but I didn’t hear that. I did wake up once to a noise that I thought was right beside the bed, but nothing was there. I still don’t think the place is haunted, though.

Next morning, we had the breakfast part of B and B, and then drove home.

It was a very memorable and personally meaningful weekend for me.

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