A Company Store
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by Frank Shortt
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Thanks for 'Coalcamp.usa Keen Mtn. Company Store
Many things have been written about a coal camp Company Store without describing what it looked like inside and what went on inside. Most company stores in mining camps were manned by local employees hired from the mining community. There was no lack of ready help, when needed, as the miner’s wives were available all day. Only few were privileged to have jobs in neighboring towns.
One patron, raised in the coal camps, described the Jewell Valley Company Store as follows: “As one walks through the store the first department was for dry goods with stairs to the right. In this department you could find clothing for the whole family, especially men’s working outfits. Ladies and children’s clothing were in a prominent position playing upon the emotions of the hard-working miner. The shoe department would have shoes to fit the entire family, from children’s shoes to the rough steel-toed boots that the miners wore. Further back would be the grocery department. In there would be canned goods, and bulk foods, like cornmeal, rice, and the usual staple, pinto beans, better known as miner’s strawberries. Fresh fruits and vegetables were not that common as most folks grew their own tomatoes, peas, lettuce, cabbage, onions and carrots. The store had a produce department, anyway, for apples, bananas, and grapes, the least common fruits for the miners. To one side would be large meat showcases where the wives could buy bologna and other sliced lunch meats for their husband’s lunches. There would also be long loaves of cheese in bulk form to be sliced off as desired by patrons. One area of the grocery department would be made up of cooking utensils, silverware, knives, and aluminum lunch pails used by the miners. Another area would have carbide lamps, kneepads, heavy miner belts, and later the battery lamps preferred by the laborers. Coal miners in the camps mostly paid for their purchases with actual metal scrip, or a scrip card. I can recall handing up the scrip card and they would type or stamp on the amount and record it somehow. Sometimes we would be turned away because all the available scrip was used up. This would call for some lean months!” she continued,
“The stairs to the right, as one entered the store, led to the second story where furniture and appliances were displayed. At Christmastime, Easter, and Halloween, there would be displays of toys and dolls for the children. Little boys and girls stood with mouths agape, knowing that their fathers had already overspent their allotted scrip. Museums throughout Appalachia have displays of the accoutrements used by the coal miners in pursuit of the ‘Black Gold’!”
The Company Store became the center of camp activity. Men spent their spare time lounging by the large coal stoves during winter season, or on the front porches in spring and summer playing cards or ‘jawing’. Wives met, and gossiped, with other wives in the same manner. Some stores had eating areas where the more resourceful miners could bring their families for lunch or dinner. The fare would be hamburgers and hot dogs, with some, having bowls of ‘soup beans’ (pinto beans boiled in pork fat), with corn bread and onions on the side. Hamburgers and hot dogs were a delicacy, indeed as ‘miner’s strawberries’ with corn bread was the main staple of the camps. It was not unusual to smell the beans cooking at any home one visited.
Company stores had an overall reputation of being placed by the owners of the mine in order to retain all wages within the mining camp. It was their hope to be able to control the activities of their miners by keeping them bereft of money. There were always exceptions to the rule. Jewell Ridge, in Southwest Virginia, had the reputation of being the best place to work in the area during pre-UMWA days. This was a complete community in itself with ball clubs, tennis courts, swimming pools, and a beautiful recreation hall for weddings and dances. They also provided churches for the folks so inclined. Their company store offered many more amenities than most other coal camps.
There are very few Company Stores in existence today. One good example is the store at Keen Mountain, Virginia still being used for offices and possibly apartments. The Red Jacket coal camp adjacent still is in existence. Mine owners have either gone on to rest on their laurels, or to the Great Beyond. This was a way of life in America that will never be again as coal has played out in most of the coal mining regions, and coal has been given a bad name by environmentalists! There are also fewer and fewer witnesses of the old ways as they have become victims to silicosis, better known as black lung, and some have succumbed to arthritis from working in the damp, cold pits known as ‘bords’ in the shaft mines.
Merle Travis once said it best in his song, “Sixteen Tons”: “Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the Company Store!”