A Portrait of Coal Town on the Brink of Death
A failing coal industry has left many residents of West Virginia with few options: move away, die, or try to scrape out a future in an unforgiving economic climate.
All photos by Stacy Kranitz.
Handley's Funeral Home buried most of my family. The stone structure sits on a corner lot near the terminus of Phipps Avenue, a couple miles downriver from my parents' house in Madison, West Virginia, and right across the street from the old Bank of Danville building. The funeral business is one of the few that remain viable here in Danville—these days home to a smattering of churches and fast-food joints, a shocking number of for-sale signs, and not much else. But there are always going to be bodies to bury, grieving families to comfort, and so Handley's remains, its logo emblazoned on the menus a few blocks up Phipps at the Park Avenue Restaurant, on the fence at the Little League Ballpark in Madison, and on the press box perched above the football field where the Scott Skyhawks play.
A few weeks before my grandmother's funeral, I stood with my back to Handley's, staring at the Bank of Danville building. The black-and-white tile near the entrance was broken into hunks, and I contemplated carrying one off. One of the windows had been boarded up with a wooden "Elect Bobby R. Hale" sandwich board, and the other was obscured by ivy. Like most of the older structures in Boone County, the bank is mostly unused, abandoned, and rotting. A few apartments are available for rent in what once must have been an attic, but the interior of the main level is a decaying mess of wooden planks and plastic grocery bags and broken concrete. None of the coal money once housed there remains. I snorted pills in one of those apartments two decades ago with a high school buddy and his girlfriend, but they're both long gone now. Handley's buried him shortly after that, and she's married and working in North Carolina last I heard. I went so far as to pick up a hunk of that tile work, but it crumbled apart in my hands.
In the 1930s, there was a stretch of shanty houses in Madison located just east of Main Street called Rat Row, most likely built to accommodate the population boom in the area from just shy of 10,000 people at the turn of the century to nearly 30,000 by the 1940s, according to Census data. My grammy's father, Ezra, moved the family there after his job in Thurmond either got too competitive or the conflict with scab labor and the fallout from the mine wars got too hot.
Grammy never knew the exact reason, but she told me more about how they ended up in Boone County as she sat in her West Madison home dying of cancer. Her mother's people were Dangerfields, and her father's were Halls, both down from Kentucky. Grammy said they all moved around a lot, so she didn't think to ask. They were quirky people, and traveling was an inborn thing, something she never let go of completely. Even though my pawpaw built a house for them in West Madison a few blocks away from Scott High School in 1973, the same house where she died, she never stopped rambling. The two of them toured the country in a pearl white Cadillac and made frequent trips up to a red cabin in the woods near Summersville Lake that Pawpaw had also built. They visited family in Florida and Nashville. They were restless people. But they always came back to Boone County.
Coal was humming in those days, the hollers of Boone County all bursting at the seams. Some of them held camps with hundreds of houses, peopled with sections for the Italians, the Russians, the Scots Irish, the African Americans. There was a dance hall, a movie theater, several bars, an apothecary, a grand bank building in Madison and another in Danville, and coal trains several miles long, chugging alongside the Little Coal River on the way to the Kanawha Valley, then the Ohio River, then out to the rest of the world. By the time of World War II, a good deal of Boone County Coal fueled the coke plants and fed the steel mills in cities like Pittsburgh and Youngstown and Cleveland, helping to produce things that Grammy proudly said won the war. Houses sprung up on both sides of the Little Coal River, forming the towns of Madison, West Madison, and Danville. Boy Scout troops and Pop Warner football leagues were organized, a VFW hall was erected, and the largest high school in the county was built, as were a local library and modern hospital. An entire generation of union miners got used to comfortable middle-class living, and their money boosted economic growth that everyone thought would last forever.
But that was a long time ago. Grammy was 94 when we watched her die, and Handley's buried her. There weren't many of her friends at her funeral. She'd outlived them all.
My pawpaw's name is Harold Ray "Tony," Ball and he grew up on Hewitt's Creek. In Boone County, you can track almost any family back to that damned creek, and my pawpaw loves that mental exercise, asking just about any shaggy kid on the streets who his grandfather is, and the whole thing goes from there. His people are Balls and go back a couple of generations beyond him, so that by the time of his birth the Balls had their own branch of Hewitt's Creek with a dozen or more houses and their own mine where they dug coal by hand for a while. He's a self-made man who took his gift of making things with his hands and used it to build houses all over Boone County, including his own. He also built a career as a tax man and worked his way into the courthouse, where he became connected with most of the heavy hitters in Boone County politics. He kept their books and helped them run their election campaigns. Perhaps his greatest achievement as Tony the Tax Man was helping elect Ron Stollings to the West Virginia Senate in 2006.
Once, Pawpaw built a dolly for his karaoke machine out of fragments of wood and pipe and fitted two nice rubber tires to it, so it would be easy for him to push. That was before his last fall, which happened when he and Uncle Bug went to Cleveland to see their sister Betty in the retirement home one last time before they all die. As they were leaving, his legs wobbled beneath him; he tore the rotator cuff in his left shoulder trying to break his fall. But he's a tough son of a bitch, so he insisted on driving home, despite Uncle Bug pushing him to go to a hospital. Ever since he nearly died in a hospital in Florida two decades ago, he's insisted on coming home when illness or injury strikes. He wants to die in his own bed, the one where Grammy died. He slept in his recliner that night, and the following morning, my dad finally convinced him to go to the hospital. Grammy had only been in the ground a month, and we all figured this would be it, that he'd give up. People married for more than half a century like they were, in love like they were, don't usually linger after the other one goes.
But Pawpaw did his therapy, and the shoulder improved, though not enough to push his karaoke machine around. I came home to see him, and the first thing he asked me to do was go to Boone Nursing Home and sing with him. So I loaded his machine into the back of his minivan the following morning, and he drove us down to Lick Creek. The staff there were more than happy to have us because the patients get a kick out of hearing the old songs they'd loved so much during their heydays, country hits by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard and Ray Price that emanated from every Boone County jukebox and radio in the 50s and 60s and 70s. Love songs and fighting songs and songs about crazy arms, songs about loss. There were 20 or so people in the rec room waiting for us, some in wheelchairs, others sleeping or trembling to an internal rhythm nobody else will ever hear. One old woman flirted with Pawpaw, telling him she used to serve him french fries and fried liver when she was a little girl and worked at Morrison's Drive Inn over toward Logan.
We've been half a dozen times now, singing mostly the same songs. Each time Pawpaw looks for familiar faces in the crowd. But that time the only one he knew was Trudy Vickers, and there was very little left of her. Pawpaw took the mic and called out to her, but she didn't register. He said, "That's my good friend Trudy! How are you?" But she was gone, blasted clean of anything functional—80 pounds of trembling flesh were all that remains of her.
In the car on the way home, Pawpaw nudged me and said, "Trudy was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. But she wasn't as beautiful as your grammy."
The Dead Pecker Club meets every morning at the local McDonald's from 8 AM until around ten or so. Most of the men who come are in their 80s like my pawpaw, but there are a few newer members from the generation behind them who have begun attending. They tell stories to one another and eat discounted breakfast on their Golden Mountaineer cards. One of the Dead Peckers goes by the nickname "Shotgun," and he is proud that he once worked for a coal company because it took care of him. The Dead Peckers agree. Coal still keeps their lights on, and they'd sell their backs again if the money was still there.
Grammy was the one who named the group, and with a sly smile, she told me it was because there wasn't a prostate left in the bunch. The Dead Pecker Club says that the real problem is the death of industry, that Obama may have killed coal, but everyone was left for dead when the factories went overseas. They still have their retirement packages and Social Security checks in place, but each year that money is worth less and less. The club lost a member recently when local historian Bob Plants was hospitalized, and now there will always be one less black coffee and one less sausage biscuit eaten each morning. When the last one goes, the Dead Pecker Club will die with him. Pawpaw figures he'll be long gone by then. The world will go on anyway, and nobody will cry for a few dead peckers.
Bryan Dunlap and I played football together at Scott High, and he is one of the only people I know who still has a job in the mines. When we graduated in 1994, most of our classmates got certified to dig coal, and then they went right underground. But those jobs are gone now, stripped away as the UMWA was gutted, and underground operations closed in favor of streamlined MTR outfits. Miners and their families moved away looking for better work, or they got addicted to pills and to meth and to heroin, or they fell apart and ended up on welfare and in foster care. Bryan soldiered on, surviving the annual cuts and corporate mergers, and ended up at Patriot Coal with men like my dad who'd been uprooted from stable careers with union companies like Peabody and Armco and Eastern, but somehow had survived. His position was stable for now, but with Blackhawk in the process of buying the company out, that could change in a heartbeat. He survived the bankruptcy filing before the last one—the one that forced my father into retirement, not the one that cost him his pension and healthcare package.
When our dads started in the 70s, they were making a good salary, and their pay increased regularly as they got older, and they retired on a good pension. "But now I make less money than I made when I hired in 2004," Brian told me. "I don't know what's gonna happen." People like him were once the middle class in Boone County; they could buy cars and houses, pay property taxes, and go to the mall. With coal's death, all that's gone. What's left is extreme poverty and those who have always been really well off, and they'll stay there.
"Look I love this town," Bryan said. "I want this to always be my hometown. And I never really feared for my job until the last two or three years. The future scares the hell out of me."
I've known Jay Hill since we started playing Strat-O-Matic baseball together back in grade school; it's more than a little weird to see him behind the principal's desk at Brookview Elementary School. He's a slender man in his late 30s with thinning blond hair and hyper-intelligent eyes. The way he describes his life, he used to be "a musician playing behind Jesco White, working with MTV and Dickhouse Productions, partyin' with Hank III" but "got tired of going out on the road and decided to use my degree."
A feeder school, Brookview is the product of consolidation and has close to 500 students enrolled during the school year. Jay feels he's succeeded by being adaptable. "The key is don't ever treat them any different," he says. "It doesn't matter if they're dirt poor, and I have an education—I don't act that way. You have to respect people enough not to act that way."
He knows almost every soul in the county and can track down moonshine from a still up a holler just as quickly as he can connect you with a representative at the statehouse. If there is to be a new generation of the Dead Pecker Club, he'll no doubt be right at the center of it. He reminds me a lot of my pawpaw.
Jay thinks coal is gone for good, and people are holding onto a way of life that needs to be let go. "They're scared," he tells me. "You go back to when we were kids, most people didn't value an education because when they hit eighteen, they'd get their permit and go into the mines and bring home double what you're making. That mentality continued to happen, but the product didn't continue to support it, so here you are with all these people who don't value education but don't have that industry, and many of them become welfare cases or unemployment cases, or they're trapped at Walmart working minimum-wage jobs, and they don't make enough to get out. Things have been designed for so long to keep people 'in the dark.' That's a phrase people say, and it comes from the coal mining industry. The companies decided the best way to control workers was to keep them in the dark, in the mines working all the time, and they won't know what we're doing. And at night we'll shut the power off on their homes. Pay them $8 a day, and they'll turn around and spend it all back at the company store. That's still entrenched here today. It's about time somebody turned on the lights."
I don't know what I'd say can save my hometown. There are days I wish I'd never left Madison and others where I'm glad I got out. I look at men like Bryan Dunlap and Jay Hill, and I see myself, see my father at my age, see my grandfather and his father, all of whom lived in the Knabb house on Main Street in Madison, overlooking the Little Coal River in a town known as the "Gateway to the Coal Fields."
I can't shake Boone County even if I want to. My parents are drowning there slowly, our own family touched by addiction and the decline in coal. Patriot screwed my father over, paying its CEO millions of dollars in bonus money for finding ways to legally take retirement packages and healthcare plans away from its employees, men who'd labored years in the mines to earn them. My father has the sort of anger that suffocates you, the kind that makes you quieter each day, the kind that steals your voice. My mother avoids the hospital as much as possible, even though she has a clotting disorder and has had frequent small strokes that chip away at her mind over time. My brother keeps vanishing into pill bottles and syringes, trying to get high enough to avoid facing the reality of what he's chosen for a life, struggling to stay sober for two, three months before he starts sneaking around again.
I'm powerless to do a damned thing about it, powerless to save any of them from Boone County, powerless to yank them all out of the house where my great-grandmother died, the house where my uncle was born, the house my grammy left to find something else for herself that ended up being my pawpaw, the house my parents dream of selling so they can move south to better weather and flatter land. Last time I was in for a visit, I stopped cold driving through Danville. I had to pull over and get out of the car to calm myself down. There was a Patriot Coal sign blaring propaganda from a billboard beneath the overpass. I just couldn't believe it had been allowed to stay there. Why hadn't somebody burned that fucking thing down? If it's there the next time I go home, I think that's exactly what I'll do.
For Vesta Marie
Jacob S. Knabb is an Appalachian by birth and a Chicagoan by choice. He's currently at work on a novel called COAL PUNK, a cycle of poems called LOW COAL, and loves to take portraits of writers. He also works a day job as communications associate for a not-for-profit. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
More photos and stories from the area are below:
Destiny is a 22-year-old who wants to be a mechanic like her dad. "He always made a good career like that." After her dad first taught her to work with tools, she took the knobs off the doors in their house, and she's been "fightin' against control ever since." The woman in the car laughed, and Destiny's eyes sparkled. "He shouldn't have taught me." She drinks sometimes, but she doesn't "touch nothin' else. I'm in puppy love and engaged with her," she said, pointing to the grinning girl. "Though we won't get married for another five years."
Bias's Barbershop is the oldest business on Main Street, operating for nearly 60 years now. Harold Bias works alongside his daughter Tammy and son-in-law David, though Harold said she's been "sick lately" from chemical exposure after years of "doing all those perms" and hadn't been in the shop for a few weeks. Harold's in his mid 80s now and still has a steady clientele, mostly older men who come to the shop to talk politics and get weekly haircuts. "I don't think coal is coming back," he said. "It's sad, but Obama killed the coal industry. This town was built on coal, and there's nothing else. Now there's more than four hundred homes for sale." He wouldn't recommend a young person start a business like his, pointing up Main Street where the kids hustle. "They're all on checks, so they won't spend any money." And then he pointed over toward the courthouse. "The elected officials won't solve anything," he said. "They're all family there, and so they don't need to change anything."
Lisa Anderson is an 18-year-old who said she was three when her family moved back here from Tennessee, and she's mostly been in Boone County ever since. She turned 18 recently but doesn't know what she'll do with herself. "I won't leave here," she said. "I want to take my stand and keep the coal going." She said she wants to be a coal miner, but she's scared. She said her family moved Georgia for two years, and she got into boxing. "I knocked one boy out, and they made me quit." Her grandmother brought her back to Madison when she got involved with gangs. "It breaks my heart that people think bad about West Virginia when we didn't do nothing to deserve that. We wasn't even a state until the Civil War and a small place broke off and became West Virginia. I was raised up here. If I ever had kids, I would keep my kids here."
Sunshine says she is currently unemployed due to a back injury and is struggling to get unemployment "though that won't work," so she's trying to raise money to go and live on her own self-sustaining farm. She says she's up for "anything you could do to make a couple of bucks" because she wants to buy "that piece of property that I'm sittin' on so bad that I'm lettin' all my treasures go." She's 52 years old and has collected glass from companies like Blenko and Pilgrim for years. "My intention is to raise chickens and sell eggs. Plant my own garden and raise my own food. Even though the economy is declining this place is still the most beautiful place I've ever sat my ass. You can be broke anywhere. I was 35 years in Akron but when I came down here I was like this is just peaceful, this place right here feeds your soul. I don't want to be in the cities. People just ain't right in the cities anymore."
Freedom Baptist Fellowship sat on the corner of Third Street and Jackson Avenue in Madison and was one of the few places offering some sense of community most nights. The congregation was a good blend of young and old, and the pastor preached on the topic of self-reliance and personal responsibility in an interesting blend of libertarianism and Baptist faith. About halfway through the service, we snuck downstairs to talk to some of the teens about the problems facing their community.
Devin is 14 and frustrated by the number of classmates who he saw falling prey to addiction. "I kind of grew up knowing to stay away from people like that. My mom is an addict, and I don't associate with her. I'm also estranged from my father, and so I live with my sister. She is an ambulance driver." He plans to move to New York to attend acting school after graduation, but in the meantime, he hangs out at the comic book shop in Danville playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Sapphire McNeely, a 20-year-old college freshman, lives with a family friend and commuted to school. When she was home, she ran the youth services at her church. She decided not to stay with her mother because during her sophomore year of high school the woman got into a relationship with a man and moved to Charleston. "I just didn't want to leave with her. I wanted to finish at Scott High School. I grew up with the family that I lived with in church, and they didn't have kids, and they took me in. I'm happy. It's a good situation." She plans to become a psychologist but intends to move away from Boone County after college. "There are too many addicts. I don't want to be around that, and I don't want my kids to be around that. I want to do developmental psychology."
Kiera, a 19-year-old student at Glenville State, is majoring in special education. She doesn't want to stay here when she's done either. "We see so many of our friends get pregnant. We've decided to work hard to be responsible. Not to make the same mistakes. I was a teen pregnancy. If there were more things to do, there might be less teen pregnancies. I want to work with disabled kids. My brother is autistic, and that's what I do." She doesn't know where she'll go after college. "Just not here. That's where I'm gonna move, to not here."
The All-Star Wrestling Association is one of the few live entertainment options in Boone County. The shows take place monthly at the Madison Civic Center to a packed and enthusiastic crowd.
Boone County holds onto a shred of optimism that it can bring in tourism dollars to keep local restaurants and services open. The thriving Hatfield and McCoy ATV trails, built on top of former strip mines, draw some enthusiasts from neighboring states to the towns of Danville and Madison, but the lack of direct access to the towns currently limits engagement from tourists riding the trails. Hatfield and McCoy ATV trails offer some of the best four-wheeling recreation in the country and are a much-needed source of income for south West Virginia. Tourism may not be large enough to save Boone County, but it is part of a plan to diversify the economy away from coal.
Mamie White is the reigning matriarch of the White family, the notorious brood of hellraisers and outlaws hailing from the hollows of Boone County. Behind her is a wall of photographs and newspaper clippings of her brother Jesco White, the Dancing Outlaw. Mamie's father, D. Ray, taught his children how to live off of welfare after he spent many unstable years working in the local coal mines. He believed that the welfare system offered more financial stability than digging coal, and in some ways, he was correct. Unfortunately the Whites have struggled with poverty, drug addiction, and persistent fatalism. Though their chaotic lives have been the subject of a documentary, they are not unique to the region. Many families in Boone County struggle under similar circumstances.
Dakota Workman is a fitness enthusiast and personal trainer at Southern Fitness in Madison. A youth leader in his local church and volunteer at the Madison Public Library, he worked in AmeriCorps the previous summer and was an honors student at Scott High School in West Madison. Dakota hasn't given up hope for a brighter future in the region and sees himself as having an important role in building a community in Madison, largely by mentoring children.
Kirk is drinking at Buddy's, the only bar left in Madison at the time (it's since closed). Like most counties in the region, Boone County is struggling against becoming a ghost. Since the most recent decline in the coal economy, miners have been laid off in record numbers, and as a result, local businesses like Buddy's have begun to close their doors for good.
Jacob Knabb, the author of this piece was born and raised in Madison, West Virginia. He took the "Hillbilly Highway" west looking for better opportunities and ended up in Chicago, though he returns regularly to see his family. This past year, his father's contract was terminated by Patriot Coal during one of a series of bankruptcy filings designed to streamline operating costs and shed expensive healthcare and benefits packages for retired and semi-retired employees like Jacob's father. On his arm is a tattoo of the state of West Virginia with an X marking Madison, the seat of Boone County.
Though many in Boone County mistrust them as a result of their road-dusted black leather attire, loud motorcycles, and the outlaw tendencies of some members, the Brothers of the Wheel serve an important civic role in the region, raising money for charities and serving as both an outlet for disenchanted, thrill-seeking locals and an unofficial security force. The annual Poker Run draws thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to the region every summer, injecting much-needed tourism dollars into the local economy.
Jason is 22 and "from the other side of the mountain in Van." He'd love to "go anywhere and do anything but can't." He wishes someone would fix the basketball courts. He asked, "What are we gonna do with a Little League field?"
Danny Dunlap's granddaughters were running an honest-to-goodness lemonade stand last summer and had made a little over $20 selling cups of lemonade and homemade cookies. Danny's home is a rarity, an echo of the once-thriving middle class now all but gone from the region, their well-maintained lawns speared by "For Sale" signs.