a patriotic pro-labor post from Matewan, WV

Get ready for a long one today… I didn’t plan it this way, I swear, but here it is the 4th of July, so let’s talk history, shall we?

I was so honored and grateful that (thanks to some connections!) the staff at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum helped me out by making a special allowance for Hops. It’s been a few days of triple digits here lately – too hot to even run into a gas station to pee with Hops in the van, for sure. Being allowed to bring him into this museum made all the difference to us. And this was an important stop for me.

The Battle of Blair Mountain and the Matewan Massacre are ubiquitous stories here in my soon-to-be-temporary-home-state, and I come from labor organizers myself, so this was a thread I wanted to follow. The treatment of mine workers in these parts has been egregious throughout history, but the 1910s and 20s saw some of the most violent labor conflicts we’ve known. This humble museum offers a wealth of information on these events, which have been largely hidden from history by government inattention (to put it mildly) and the reluctance of those involved to share their stories, for fear of retribution.

I will give my best shot at a brief sketch, but I’m very new to learning these stories.

Working conditions in coal mines were terrible; miners and their families lived in company towns (I read as many as 90% of them), and were paid in company scrip that they had to spend at company stores; they had to buy their own equipment, including shovels, dynamite, and canaries. They were policed by mine guards with guns. They organized to ask for improved conditions, including fair and transparent weighing of coal, the removal of mine guards, and payment with, you know, real money. Offered a wage increase and reduction to a nine-hour work day, they refused and went on strike. The company brought in scabs and evicted miners from their homes, and so the miners, and their wives and children, set up tent cities. It was an increasingly tense situation, obviously. In Matewan, a private detective agency was sent in to enforce evictions; the mayor stood up for the miners; the agents wound up in a standoff with the mayor and sheriff and a few miners, and a gunfight ensued that left 10 people dead on the main street in town. Four bullets remain embedded in the building that now houses the Mine Wars Museum.

The mayor was killed in this massacre; the sheriff later faced charges, and when he appeared for trial, was assassinated along with a friend on the courthouse steps by other agents of the same detective agency. The murders of this pro-labor mayor and sheriff were some of the inciting events – along with continuing poor working conditions, strikes, and evictions – that led to the march over Blair Mountain toward Matewan, in what would become known as “Bloody Mingo” County. The United Mine Workers of America were organized, armed, and ready to do battle for labor rights. As the miners made their way toward Matewan, the United States Army sent out troops against them. General Bandholtz met with the miners and was reassured that they were turning home; but news of union activists shot near the town of Sharples apparently turned them around again (or else they were not actually intending to turn back at all?) – the miners continued to march for Matewan.

Their route took them through Logan County, where anti-union Sheriff Don Chafin held office; he organized an army of his own. At this point, both sides were armed and ready for battle. Guerrilla warfare was ongoing for a time in Mingo County and on Blair Mountain in Logan County; the miners tied red bandannas around their necks so they could tell one another apart from the enemy (a strategy that cuts both ways, of course), and became known as the Red Neck Army. This is said to be the origin of the usage, ‘redneck.’ Sheriff Chafin hired private planes to drop pipe bombs on the miners. It was truly a battle, said to be the largest armed uprising in this country since the Civil War. The museum has documented that the US Army intended to drop bombs on the miners as well, but bad weather grounded their planes. That would be the only time our military has planned to bomb its own people. Scattered fighting continued for months, but the main bulk of the miners surrendered or fled when federal troops came out again.

This is an important event in labor history, but functioned as a defeat for the miners on the ground, and for the UMWA, whose membership was decimated after the battle. Casualty estimates vary widely, from dozens to a hundred or more, but some claim the number is much higher than that. Victors write histories, and the US has habitually suppressed the history of union activity and organized resistance.

The above summary is my own understanding of events from minimal research and my visit to this museum, which is simple and small but very well put together. You shouldn’t take me as an expert, by any means. My next few steps in learning about this story include the movie Matewan, the documentary The Mine Wars, and the book The Devil Is Here in These Hills: West Virginia‚Äôs Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom. Consider these for further investigation. Also, please check out the museum link, above, and watch the 4-minute video to see a basic shape of what this museum means to its local community.

Now for pictures! I didn’t take as many as I should, but here you are.

whiskey & mud

I ran through Jim Beam’s gift shop oh-so-quickly, shopping for a special Knob Creek for myself and whatever they have that’s unique to the distillery for Liz. I ended up torn between Knob Creek single barrel rye and their twice-barreled rye (I’m partial to their rye, to begin with); the twice-barreled I worried would be too oaky, but the single barrel is a frightening 115 proof. I went with the overpoofed one (I can always add water). As for Liz’s distillery exclusive, it turns out that Kentucky state law does not allow distillery exclusives; but they have one that is available for distribution but not ordered by any distributors (is this a gentleman’s agreement to establish an exclusive? or does it suck?). It was only in 375ml bottles, so I got one for Liz and one for me. If I were a smarter blogger, I would have photographed these bottles for you. Hmm.

The beat-the-heat plan for Hops was to be at the gift shop doors when they opened at 9am. I left Hops in the van with all windows open and a fan going, and I was back with him in 15 minutes. Then we had a nice, leisurely walk around the grounds together. I didn’t get a tour, but I got to see some touristy stuff, like statues and a mock-up of a very small-scale old still operation, in one room. I would have liked the chance to step inside a rickhouse, but oh well. I guess they’re just stacked barrels anyway, right?

We headed on towards the Natural Bridge area in the Red River Gorge, and tried to stay in the shade. Even when it’s feels-like-97, he wants to be in my lap. Dear dog.

Unfortunately there are two ways to access the Natural Bridge itself: a hiking trail, and a skylift. Both prohibit dogs. So I have only seen the Natural Bridge the way you see it now: in pictures off the internet.

image source

Instead we did a dog-permitted hike to see Henson Arch and Whittleton Arch. It was the sweatiest, muddiest time of our lives, whew. But beautiful, yes.

Send cooling thoughts our way, friends.

warming up in KY

Well, I had thought to visit some bourbon distilleries, but ran into a few challenges. First, Bulleit turns out to be closed on Tuesdays. But then it turns out I don’t want to visit Bulleit anyway, because the family has disowned and the company has fired their daughter for being gay (for f*ck’s sake). Thanks, Liz, for cluing me in so I can not buy that whiskey again.

Then I thought we’d visit Jim Beam, where they also make Knob Creek which I love, but it was far too hot for dogs in vans. So we just kind of scouted the grounds, thinking maybe in the morning.

and lovely grounds they are

Then we explored a little bit of Bernheim Arboretum, taking advantage of the coolness of trees and streams until the sun backed off.

Lovely, lovely.

Indiana to Kentucky, again

I found the best campsite in Hoosier National Forest: Buzzard Roost, up above the Ohio River, right on the state line. Hops and I hiked down to the riverbank – this is a very steep and rocky trail, requiring the use of hands and feet to scramble, and it was muddy, so although a pretty short walk, it was an exciting one. Hops is afraid of waterfalls. It was beautiful.

I saw lots of fireflies, wild turkeys, and box turtles. I think I helped five box turtles across the road just on the way in & out of the campsite.

On our way out, we stopped in the Harrison-Crawford State Forest for another hike (see frog above).

We stopped at a brewery for lunch, where thank goodness they had a sidewalk table in the shade for us, because whew, it is hot again.

I thought I’d visit another significant tree, but oops, the Constitution Elm in Corydon, Indiana is now the Constitution Elm Stump.

“on this spot, beneath the shade of the elm, the Constitution of Indiana was framed in June 1816. this tree lived until 1925, attaining a height of 50 feet, a trunk diameter of five feet and a spread of 132 feet. this monument was erected in 1936”

And then we made the proper crossing of the Ohio River into Kentucky, the twenty-second state of this journey and, I think, the last (new) state of this chapter of our trip.

Indiana/Kentucky, a friend and a show

Whew, the states are just flying by… from Illinois into Indiana, where I stayed a few days with a friend, and together we ran down into Kentucky to see Hamilton at the Kentucky Center for the Arts in Louisville. Whaaat!! I have been looking forward to this show for many months – like, from back before I moved into this van. As well as looking forward to seeing this friend again!

We had a good visit, catching up on all the things that we don’t find time to talk or chat online about in our regular lives. I got to meet some lovely children. And oh, the show… will be reviewed eventually at my book blog, and I’ll repost here when that happens. (It will be a while.) In a nutshell, it was pretty much everything I hoped it would be. It was well worth it to know the soundtrack in advance, and that soundtrack was enriched during the live performance. I am the luckiest woman.

Upon leaving dear Jacinda, I made a stop in Bloomington to see the track where the Little 500 bike race (of Breaking Away fame) takes place. (The quarry that figures in the movie has since been filled in.)

Little 500 track

And on down the road…

Iowa to Missouri

I was decidedly rained out of Sugar Bottom (the Iowa City area trail system that I wanted to try). So we puttered around town a little, visiting the University of Iowa campus just to say I’d been to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and because campuses are often so sweet.

Then I walked around town a little bit, making a point to visit Prairie Lights (sorry, no pictures), another fine bookstore – I restocked on cards and postcards, so holler if you’ve been left out of correspondence so far! And I couldn’t resist the Jamaican food truck on the way: jerk chicken is my go-to, but I’m always most excited about the plantains.

All of this walking (with Hops on campus, alone to the bookstore) was in the rain, of course. It rained for some 20 hours everywhere I went. Boy was I excited when the rain stopped.

We crossed another state line –

and I had a plan to camp for the night, but the Mississippi River got to it first.

my campsite was to be at the end of that road.

(Did I mention it has been raining?)

All ends well, though.