When we think of coal company towns, often the first things that come to mind are the company store and company built houses. The Sandlick Sportsman’s Club in McDowell County, WV shows a different facet of the company town. Constructed in 1938, the building served as a recreational retreat for company employees of U.S. Coal and Coke Company, the nation’s leading coal producer.
According to Elbert, WV resident Mr. Mike Hornick, who helped construct the Sportsman’s Club, employees used the building day and night for various functions. Miners and officials, who paid minimal dues, gathered there regularly for banquets, retreats, weddings, and reunions. Mine officials often hosted visiting executives from U.S. Steel Corporation. It provided an ideal social setting for company town residents who wished to escape the bustle of the mining communities.
A mere 40 years before the Sportman’s Club was built, the idea of ‘bustle’ was unknown in McDowell County. In the late 19th century the area was sparsely settled and contained only a few scattered farms. Then northern businessmen discovered the value of southern West Virginia’s coal. As the nation became more industrial minded, capitalists from Pennsylvania explored ways to access the rich coal hidden beneath the rugged terrain.
Ambitious and farsighted businessmen began to acquire huge tracts of coal land in the great Pocahontas field, organized land holding companies, and constructed railroads into the isolated mountains.
After the completion of a rail tunnel through Flat Top Mountain from Mercer County, large scale development of McDowell County forged ahead. Mines quickly sprang up all along the N & W line in the narrow valleys. The tiny native population quickly proved inadequate for such a labor intensive industry.
In order to satisfy labor requirements, operators recruited workers from the older coalfields of Pennsylvania and then from Europe and the American South. The population grew phenomenally at the turn of the century as immigrants from Eastern Europe and blacks poured into the remote county.
To accommodate these new arrivals, coal companies built entire self-sufficient communities. Good roads in southern West Virginia were scarce and the rugged terrain made the daily transportation of miners impossible.
In response to these obstacles, companies had to establish their own communities to house their workers. The company town was the most logical solution because it provided efficient and inexpensive housing for a large labor force. Standard buildings in every company community included a store, churches, schools, and health and recreational facilities.
The U.S. Coal and Coke Company town of Gary was one of the largest and most complex of all company communities across the country. In 1900, the area that was later called Gary Hollow was quiet wilderness with almost no inhabitants.
After brilliant negotiations with the Pocahontas Land Company, Bramwell banker Isaac T. Mann, with the financial backing of J.P. Morgan, acquired 50,000 acres of this prime coal land for the giant, newly formed U.S. Steel Corporation. The U.S. Coal and Coke Company, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel, was established in 1902 to supply coke to the massive steel industry. Construction of an N & W branch line and 3,000 coke ovens began immediately throughout the hollow.
As the area developed, workers from Pennsylvania, the southern states, and eastern Europe continued to pour into the region, creating the kind of ethnic diversity that, until then, was only evident in large cities.
Within just a few years’ time, the company opened twelve mines, each with its own community. All of these company towns were self-sufficient complete with well-constructed houses, streets, sidewalks, stores, schools, churches, recreational facilities, theaters, and utilities. Paved roads between the communities provided easy access across Gary hollow.
The rural landscape had quickly transformed into an urban industrial center that produced millions of tons of coal each year.
Recreational and social events were an important aspect of company-town life throughout the Pocahontas Coalfield. Baseball games, dances, and garden contests were common well-attended events in Gary hollow. Each of the twelve U.S. Coal and Coke Company communities had its own clubhouse that was a popular social gathering point and home to many indoor social gatherings. Most clubhouses held a game room, restaurant, and boarding rooms.
One resident, a doctor named L.L. Whitney, organized another recreational facility that was farther from the busy mining community. He and a few other company employees established the Sandlick Sportsman’s Club with a president and a board of directors.
The organization leased land from the coal company, which also provided many of the materials for the construction of a building. Its construction was a completely local effort with volunteers from throughout the twelve communities working together to build it. The logs and stone came directly from the site and the only imported materials were metal for the roof, and glass.
Area residents visited the facility less frequently as mining slowed and access to other areas became easier. The last organized event that occurred at the site was a retirement party in 1985 for Mr. Hornick, who had worked over forty years for the company as an electrical engineer.
Members of the Sandlick Sportsman’s Club chose a popular construction technique for its facility. During the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps reintroduced rustic log structures in state and federal park systems across the United States. The buildings were to be nonintrusive to the landscape which was accomplished by using natural building materials, a low silhouette, and pronounced horizontal lines. These structures were made with little help from modern machinery which gave them a handmade but well-crafted, rugged appearance.
The popularity of this rustic style spread outside the park system as round log houses, lodges, and even churches became common across the nation.
The organization’s choice of log construction for a company-owned recreational facility was not without precedent in this area of the Appalachians. The N & W Railroad and Consolidation Coal Companies both built log buildings during the 1930’s in Bland County, Virginia as recreational retreats for their employees. In West Virginia, the Pocahontas Operators Association built rustic Camp Merriam Houston in McDowell County for Girl Scouts.
Log buildings were not just represented in company retreats and camps or in state parks. The highly respected Bluefield architect, A.B. Mahood, who attended the prestigious Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, designed the Bluefield Country Club in the 1930’s which was also an impressive log building.