Rural Virginia’s economy in the 1950’s was based upon two things. You were either a farmer and sold what
you could or you were a coal miner and depended upon the local coal barons or upon “customer coal”.
Rural Virginia’s economy in the 1950’s was based upon two things. You were either a farmer and sold what you could or you were a coal miner and depended upon the local coal barons or upon “customer coal”.
The coal barons owned the company stores and ran the local coal tipples where independent miners could have their coal hauled and dumped to be shipped to multiple markets or it could sit there until there was a demand for coal. The price of coal per ton was dependent upon the discretion of the coal barons.
Dad was an independent coal operator better known as a “scab” miner. This meant he was not in the union. It also meant that his livelihood depended upon what the coal barons decided to do with the coal he sold to them or what they were willing to pay at any given time.
Times were tough in Virginia, but in the coal mining town of War, in the state of West Virginia most all the mines had closed down. This stopped the need for timber props for the mines, less manpower, products not being bought at the company store and Aunt Laura’s job as a housekeeper and laundress was eliminated. The delinquent list at the company store was not limited to any one nationality. The ethnic groups represented in the town of War were: Italian, Portuguese, Polish, Irish, Scotch, and many other immigrants.
Rumors ran rampant in all parts of the town that eviction notices were to be served to all tenants who couldn’t come up with the already two-months overdue rent. Winter added another hazard to the poverty stricken town. Snow and ice would make it difficult to bring in supplies from neighboring Bluefield separated from War by a very rough terrain, called Bear Wallow Mountain. A few miners were living off their dwindling savings, but as for Aunt Laura, her son and daughter, they faced imminent eviction unless help came. Uncle Hank, Laura’s husband was in prison for car theft and was therefore a liability. With the shutting down of the mines, no one had extra money for trivialities.
In desperation, Aunt Laura wrote to my mother for help, being too proud to turn to Grandpa, due to the fact that he was against her marriage to Hank in the first place. The contents of the letter read thusly:
There comes a time in all our lives when we must lay our pride aside, if not for ourselves, then for our loved ones. I write, not for myself, but for my two children. There has not been a solid meal on our table for the past month, winter is coming and the kids are shivering because they do not have decent clothes to wear. I realize that you and Ed must be pretty hard- put to help anyone, with six kids of your own, but as you already know, I have no one else to turn to. You probably have heard that the mine here closed down because the last seam of coal ran into outcropping, the reason for our plight. No coal, no extra jobs.
I’ll be anxiously awaiting your reply. May the Lord have mercy on us. Your sister, Laura
We lived on a small hillside farm in the Appalachia range in the state of Virginia. We were fortunate that dad had a cornfield and vegetable garden. I can remember helping to clear these steep patches of ground even when I was only old enough to walk. When there are many mouths to feed, all involved have to “pitch in” and do their share of work. Dad also had a small “truck mine” wherein he and Uncle Elmo eked out a meager living by working from daylight to dark each day. Their output was only a few tons each shift. During this particular era, the late forties, there wasn’t much demand for coal the Second World War having just been terminated and the world market having suddenly shut down. [As a side note, things got better during the time of President Eisenhower, due to the fact that he opened up markets in Japan and Germany to help them with the steel industry there. This was when each of these countries was in a stage of reconstruction.] The U.S. government and several major industries who had been heavily dependent on coal during the war, had accumulated large stockpiles and were having to get rid of it any way possible. The only steady market for coal was private homeowners to burn in their “Warm Morning” and “Burnside” heaters. Our future held nothing but long, cold nights and wondering where the next ton of coal would be sold. The amount of time that my dad and Uncle Elmo spent in the mine was becoming less and less.
When the letter arrived from Aunt Laura, I think my mom half expected to hear that Hank had gotten out of prison and would be making them a living for a change. I always sat close to mom’s elbow when she read letters from our relatives who lived out of state in hopes that some one of them would be coming to visit. I always loved having company, no matter who it was. Still do today.
No, they weren’t coming! Hank wasn’t even out of jail! I knew this as soon as the large, beady tears welled up in Mom’s beautiful blue eyes. She was always softhearted, especially when it came to Laura’s kids. I can remember many times when she would sit beside the old wood-burning cook stove and weep because of the poor quality of her children’s clothing or because she couldn’t afford this or that for one of us. I was almost thirteen before I had anything to wear except bibbed overalls [overhalls] and these were usually hand me downs from my older brothers.
Next day dawned clear and cold with a tinge of early frost hanging to the roofs of our meager homes.
Mom turned to Dad with a look of desperation in her eyes and said in mournful tones,
“Ed, Laura’s in trouble again.”
“ You mean to tell me Hank got out of Jail and beat her up as usual!!.” Dad replied sarcastically.
“No, Mom intoned. She and her kids are starving.”
“Well, all I can do is pray about it,” retorted Dad, We hardly have a penny left for ourselves.”
I caught the end of this conversation as I came into the kitchen amid the odors of frying fatback and perking coffee. Mom had already been up about and hour already and it was only five in the morning. Dad’s normal day was to arise early on weekdays so he could be first at the mine to prepare for the day’s work. Dad was the “shootin” man and I don’t know another man who could pull as much coal with a single charge of dynamite as he could, I mean, and do it the right way.
Dad had total Faith in the Lord. I remember one time he was working alone, when all of a sudden, a “Kettle Bottom” weighing close to twelve hundred pounds fell across his back pinning him on his hands and knees. All he could think of at the time was “who will raise my children? He turned to his “Present Help” and told him that he believed that He could remove the rock. As he prayed, the huge oval-bottomed rock became lighter whereas all he had to do was flip it off to the side. The only effect was a few scratches on his back.
“I know we don’t have any money”, Mom continued, but we have to do something”.
“I’ll just turn it over to the Lord” Dad said, with a total look of faith.
Dad went to work that morning just as any other day. I did notice that he was whistling as he passed through the front gate and begin to ascend the steep hill leading to his ‘place of business’. I looked up at Mom and even in the dim light emitted by the kerosene lamp I could see the red in her eyes caused by crying late into the night without betraying herself to her children.
“Oh, if only we weren’t so poor” she moaned, as if no one else was within a million miles.
I continued to cover the biscuit with apple butter that Grandma Alderson had sent down especially for me as she knew that I would be the most appreciative of it. Home-made apple butter was my favorite morning repast.
Dad came home that day in such high spirits that we all knew something had happened to change the glum situation.
“Well, if it ain’t ole Joe Clifton”, Mom joked with a slight twinkle in her eye.
She knew immediately that something great was afoot.
“The Lord has sent us a miracle in the form of a produce truck”, dad chortled as he removed his knee pads and mining lamp. Two black fellows just left with Fifty dollar worth of coal and they’ve promised to return next week for another load.”
The corn bread and pinto beans tasted like t-bone steak and even the leftover biscuits and raspberry jam were exceptionally tasty that noon as we all realized that now we, as well as, Aunt Laura and her kids would have ample food just because a miracle had come to our house.
“Daddy, will you bring some horehound sticks”, little Ruthann, the baby cried as she realized that something wonderful had happened in our household.
All the other children chimed in with requests for things that they knew our new-found wealth would buy. Don, the oldest, needed a new pair of gloves for the winter. Frances, the oldest sister, wanted a pair of bobby socks for school. Lula needed a head scarf. Wendell, as was his nature, couldn’t think of anything he needed. As for myself, I wanted a pair of britches that I could wear a belt with. Anything would be better than the bibbed overalls I was accustomed to.
Dad said smilingly, “I’ll think about it”.
Weather is unpredictable in the mountains of Virginia, especially in the nearness of winter. I remember once when I was on leave from the armed services in the month of October. All the time I was home I wore short-sleeved shirts, even at night. Two days after I returned to the base, I received a letter from Mom saying that they had had a whopper of a snow storm! Such is Appalachia!
Dad left early the next morning after we had prayed, this being our custom. Mom cried as if he was going away forever, the reason being that the snow was piling up almost a foot deep from a storm that had started in the early morning.
“Maybe you’d better wait a day or two”, Mom exclaimed as Dad proceeded out into the raging storm.
“No, there’re kids that need food and warm clothing in War so I can’t wait another hour, Dad replied. If something happened to those kids after the Lord provided a way, I could never forgive myself.”
Mom already knew this in her heart.
Dad’s Forty-Eight Ford pickup chugged up Bear Wallow Mountain as he proceeded on his mission of mercy. Dad was an odd person in the eyes of many of our friends and neighbors even some of his own kin. They couldn’t understand how a man could go traipsing off to help someone else’s children when he had needy children of his own. Dad lived by faith alone. He knew that if God had made a way for Aunt Laura, He could make a way for us. The first ones to come to Dad for prayer when the going got tough were the ones who had called him “fanatic” or “holy roller”.
Mom’s summation was, “Chickens always come to roost”.
When Dad finally arrived to Aunt Laura’s, his findings would have brought tears to a statue’s eyes. Little Enos sat shivering in a corner under an old quilt while Aunt Laura had little Ruthie in bed with her trying to keep warm. This was the middle of a cold day and there was no fire in the tumbledown “Warm Morning” heater. The last of their food had been consumed the night before and Aunt Laura explained that the reason there was no fire in the stove was because there was no coal for fuel. Dad had brought a couple of sacks of coal just on instinct so he built a fire to commence thawing out the house out before he brought out the food and clothing. They ate as if food was going out of style and Aunt Laura let dad know that she was eternally grateful.
Dad replied, “Just seeing your children happy and content is thanks enough.”
We were all surprised next morning when dad arrived with Aunt Laura and her two children in tow.
“It was easier to bring them home with me than to be making trips to War once a week,” Dad explained.
A week passed, still no one to buy a load of coal. Another week and our dwindling funds were almost gone. Wednesday evening was the final straw. That night we all gathered around the ancient Naugahide divan for prayer. This divan had suffered the onslaught of much abuse, by not only the Shortt children, but also the neighborhood kids. Dad looked up towards Heaven and spoke in tones that we had seldom heard him use before.
“Lord, You know our needs before we ask. You can see that we are almost destitute. You know that times are hard and money not easy to come by, so I don’t have to bother You with a lot of words. All I ask Lord is that you have mercy on my young’uns. I’m not asking anything for myself but I trust that your will be done in all things. Bless all those less fortunate than we and have thine own way, Lord, In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen!”
We ‘young’uns’, not fully understanding the ways of the Lord, went to bed that night with heavy hearts. We could see the load on Dad and Mom. Wendell didn’t even bother to put his cold feet on my back as was his usual way to warm them up on cold nights. One could have heard a pin drop. I had a hard time sleeping, I suppose because I normally got a spanking due to a spat with Wendell or some other bestial trick.
Finally, sleep enshrouded my brain.
We all slept late next morning. I suppose it was because we were not too expectant of a change in money or the weather. Mom was clanking pots and dad was repairing a pair of ancient worn out knee pads which should have gone to the garbage heap. I strolled over to the window and much to my surprise the sun was out and a few brown patches showed through the whited heaps. Snow that had been mounded on fence posts had suddenly disappeared. All I could think of was the mud that inevitably followed a snow storm. My old teacher had tanned my backside many times for slipping and falling in the mud after a snowstorm. There always seemed to be a swatting waiting when I arrived from school. How Dad always knew about the spanking at school, I’ll never know.
“If I had coal in the tipple, it would be difficult for a truck to get to it with all this mud,” Dad was opining as I turned from the window.
“Well, it don’t hurt to be ready anyhow,” Mom chimed in.
“I guess I’ll go up and fill the tipple completely,” Dad replied as if Mom hadn’t already suggested it.
Right after lunch he did just that.
At suppertime, we all sat down. Dad commenced to ask the blessing on our scant food. Before he was half through, [some of his blessings allowed the food to get cold] we all looked up at once. Could it be? How could it get in through the mud and snow? We all ran to the front porch and there in the driveway was the most welcome sight we had seen in many moons!
An old Bluefield Produce truck!