It was a squalid place! Dirty, with coal dust spread around everywhere left by passing coal trucks as they traversed the narrow street. Potholes, created from the weight of passing trucks, were usually filled with a combination of mud and coal dust. The local deputy sheriff of Tazewell County was kept busy, especially on weekends when the miners in outlying communities drew their hard-earned wages. Outhouses provided by the beer joints were havens for graffiti artists with some pretty vivid imaginations! PHEW!
Raven, Virginia lies close to the Clinch River which runs clear into Tennessee. Most of the time when I was a lad, the river was so polluted with sewage it was almost impossible to swim in. There were warnings not to eat the fish, if you could catch anything besides a carp. The residents of Raven were a tough lot, and rightfully so! Mostly, all they knew was moonshine whiskey, rotgut homebrew, and hard work. The feeder communities, feeding the economy of Raven, were mostly coal mining areas.
Young men, who spent the whole week, slaving underground for meager wages, would converge on the town on weekends. They spent their money for cheap beer, in joints that preyed upon their animal instincts and playing pool or pinball machines. The deputy sheriff assigned to Raven at that time was a cousin of mine. He would sometimes have to arrest men that he grew up with. One incident included the deputy’s brother who was shot in the leg because he chose to run after being told to remain where he was. The brother was inebriated at the time! This caused some folks to comment that “the job had gone to his head!”
Even though this town, in the 1950’s housed many low-lifes and hanger-ons, children from outlying areas were drawn there magnetically! I would have been about eight years old when I first began hitchhiking to Raven. The town was approximately six miles from Shortt Gap, my home area, and required many sharp curves to get there. The magnet that drew us there was the Raven Theater where one could obtain the best home-made ice cream that could ever be eaten. It was referred to as “Wilson’s” but had the Raven marquee out front. The theater was rat infested and the children attending there seldom, if ever, used the trash cans beside each entrance to the theater itself. They just simply dropped whatever container they had purchased in the front lobby whether it be coke cup, popcorn box, hotdog boat, etc. This accounted for the rat population. I have felt them run over my bare feet while sitting in the theater! I seem to remember stories of children being bitten by the foul vermin.
Why would this town of beer joints, houses of ill repute, a nasty theater, and some of the dirtiest streets that could be imagined be such an oasis for children? Now that I look back, I cannot imagine what the drawing power was! Some of the things that I saw while traversing the streets before the theater opened would have scared most sane children away! I must have not been very sane in those days, or was it that I was mesmerized? There were numerous fights going on, especially on Saturday nights. It was not uncommon to hear that on the other end of town there had been a knifing or two. Several bodies were found on the banks of the Clinch River, the cases still pending to this day. One doctor who had brought back a Japanese bride after World War Two, had his car riddled with buckshot while driving down the streets of Raven. A cousin of my father was the sheriff of Tazewell County for a while. He told many accounts of having to arrest errant citizens who were not that easily taken. In fact, during the 1950’s Raven was almost in the Wild West stage. This was due to the large population of coal miners who converged on it in a state of being fed up with coal mining and ready to strike out at whoever disagreed with them. Guns were also allowed to be openly exposed on the seat beside any driver. A few of my uncles and cousins were in this number. They consisted of the McGlothlins, Addisons, Shortts, Hubbards (Cateye in particular), the Lawson boys (who fought at the drop of a hat), the Newberrys, the Osbornes (from Osborne Mountain), and a lot of others that I have forgotten through the years. In fact, the sheriff was an Osborne! I have seen brothers fighting brothers over the most trivial reasons. A lot of the fights were over courting rights. Men would actually kill each other because someone of another area chose to walk a girl home that belonged in their area. One young man named Barnes had all his teeth knocked out by thugs from Red Root Ridge. They were considered a tough lot! Why the young man named Barnes chose to walk one of their girls home is still being considered until this day! He must have been stricken by her charms to a great extent! The beer joints with such names as Dick Keene’s Place, Rame’s place, (Owned by a Shortt), Flaming Star, were always filled to capacity with drinkers and pinball machine enthusiasts. Those pinball machines caused more fights than anything else within the confines of the beer joints! Under the influence of 3.2 percent beer, these men would argue about whether or not the other had cheated just to win bets from other watchers. It was almost impossible to cheat as the games were all enclosed under glass. Such are the things that men fight over.
Raven is now a sleepy little community with a sparse population. Gone are the beer joints! Gone are the pot-holed streets! Gone are the outhouses with the written on walls. The town has been tamed since the early days. The old theater is now called the Raven Theater and Coal Museum. Folks there are raving about the new ice cream parlor adjoining the edifice. The inside of the theater is brand new with beautiful upholstered seats. There is now a stage in front of the screen where live shows can be performed. This little theater/museum off the main road of Rt. 460 will still remain in the memories of older folks like me as being the only place in the 1950’s where we could sneak away from the drudgery of farming, mining and timbering and enjoy a few hours of make-believe in the form of old-time movies, as well as, what we believed to be the best ice cream money could buy!