Built during a time of labor strife in the southern coalfields, the Whipple Company Store in Fayette County, WV is one of those buildings that just LOOKS haunted. Every Halloween, the owners offer haunted history tours full of history, folklore, and ghost stories. Producer Catherine Moore (left) set out to do a fun piece about the reported paranormal activity at the store with a couple of local ghost hunters. Well, she got more than she bargained for and found out that there’s a lot more to the so-called hauntings, and to the history of the store, than meets the eye. A warning – while there’s nothing explicit in the piece, it does make reference to sex. Here’s the transcript of “The Soul of a Company Store,” a 20-minute documentary produced by Catherine Moore of Beauty Mountain Studio. The original aired on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
History itself is a kind of haunting. In its most abstract, it’s a chorus of non-present presences that tell us something, that enfold us at all times and everywhere. These resonances of the past, sometimes they are unseen. And yet – they’re real.
I live in Fayette County, WV, and for years now I’ve been visiting a place called the Whipple Company Store, a place where stories hover and swirl.
It was built at the turn of the 20th century by Justus Collins, a notoriously despicable coal operator. It’s an odd design – an octagon stacked on top of a hexagon, with pointy gables that jut up into the sky. To reach the entrance, you walk up a steep set of stairs and through a wide arch to a dark covered porch. From below, it looks like a giant gaping mouth. and when you look at that mouth, and those darkened windows, sometimes you can’t help but feel like something is looking back.
But at one time, this place was very much alive. The community not only did their shopping here, they also visited the doctor, got their mail, and paid their telephone bill.
Today it’s run as a museum to life in the coal camps, attracting hundreds of visitors a year. Some from far away, and others who grew up next door—like Cora Sue Barrett: “My Aunt Elsie lived up here, this is the old church…”
She and others like her come to the store to listen and learn but they also leave their own imprint behind.
“When I came in, it was just like, ‘Oh, I remember! I remember! It seems like it starts working inward, and it just has to come out.”
“What happens normally is people don’t come in here to tell you anything.”
That’s Joy Lynn, co-owner of the museum.
“As we continue to tour the building, they start reliving their memories. They usually let go a lot of their own history, and after 3 to 4 stories sort of overlap, then we usually share them on tours.”
She not only runs history tours out of the store, she lets paranormal investigators from all over come and conduct research.
“Jane is the psychic of the group, and I run the technical end.”
That’s Bonnie Hughes. She and her partner, Jane Skeldon, have spent entire nights at the store trying to speak back to the spirits they say inhabit its rooms.
[SOUNDS OF MEETING UP]
One night I meet these women at the store, along with a man named Wess Harris, a frequent visitor and strong promoter of the stories that are told there.
“I can’t keep away from it. And every time I let the word out on what I’m seeing here, it’s having a huge impact on people not just intellectually but emotionally.”
It’s dark. It’s late autumn, chilly.
We gather in the main downstairs room of the store, a vast, circular space where the slightest whisper echoes. Joy tells a story about how company spies would stand at a central display counter to listen for signs of union organizing.
She then points out an enormous, creaky freight elevator that accessed a so-called secret second floor where she says coffins for miners were stored. A self-described debunker of ghost stories, Joy nevertheless avoids the store’s basement, where she says the company prepared their workers bodies for the grave in an in-house embalming studio.
We move to a narrow hallway towards the rear of the building where I stare up at an open door near the ceiling. Wess explains that this was a guarded safe where the coal company stored its cash. It has been one of Bonnie and Jane’s hot spots. One night, they were mounting a camera there and Bonnie asked Jane to hand her a step ladder.
“And she goes nooooo, I can’t because there’s a dead guy laying in the hallway! He said: ‘You can see me.’ And he said: ‘I didn’t do it!’ And he got shot right through that door, and it hit the wall, and blood just splattered everywhere.”
People shuffle nervously. Then we move to yet another safe, and as we crowd into the tiny metal room, Cora Sue suddenly smells coal dust and fills with emotion.
“Man, I don’t know why, I don’t know why… I could smell… like a man comes out of the mines, and he has the coal dust on his clothes. It just rose up.”
Bonnie and Jane play us whispery voices– not their own, they say– that they’ve recorded in the safe. But despite the talk of unexplained phenomena, I’m not really creeped out at this point. It’s the next story that feels like the first true horror we’ve encountered.
Inside the safe, several small slips of paper stamped with numbers are displayed. According to Joy, these tickets are what’s known as Esau scrip. The story of Esau, she says, was shared with her by the store’s bookkeeper.
Wess tells the story of Esau as it was told to him.
“Esau was issued only to women, and it was a form of scrip that would enable a women to purchase food for her children during the time that her husband couldn’t work. But it was only good for 30 days, and if her husband went back to work within those 30 days, then the company in their kindness would forgive the debt. And if he did not go back to work at the end of 30 days, then the scrip became a loan that was due and payable in full on day 30. And of the course the women didn’t have jobs or scrip or money, and so they had to pay it back—and it was a collateralized loan—and the women themselves were the collateral. Their physical selves would be used to pay the debt.”
It gets worse. We head up to the store’s vast third-floor ballroom, which company officials and mine guards treated as a club house of sorts. We peer into a small wing off of the main room which Joy, the store’s owner, refers to as The Shoe Room.
“It originally started out as the smoking room, or the waiting room for the gentlemen, but we’ve had multitudes of women come in and tell us, as little girls they can remember their mothers coming to the company store. Some of the young girls had the stories shared by their mothers stating that they would be escorted into the Shoe Room. There would be a selected guard who would be waiting for them. And they would receive a brand new pair of shoes with no accountability to that, other than to perform whatever service the guard wished to have in lieu of pay.
“We had one woman in particular share with us that her mother was a young girl about 25 years old and bought her first pair of shoes here. And the woman’s entire life, those shoes remained in a shoebox on her closet shelf, never to be worn. And she refused to wear another pair of shoes her entire life. She made her shoes out of cardboard, newspapers, and twine.”
Now, let’s just stop right there. The Esau story and the story of the Shoe Room, suggest an institutionalized practice of forced sexual servitude that was part of company policy. If the abuse happened that way, well, it changes – radically – our understanding of coal camp culture.
But not everyone’s jumping to conclusions.
“It is disturbing to myself that those who came before me from that area —to think that the females of our family could have been forced into that situation without us reacting.”
That’s Dr. Paul Rakes. He was born in Scarbro, near the Whipple Company Store, where he drew his first pay day from the New River Company. After working 20 years underground as a coal miner, he earned a PhD in history and is now a professor at WVU Tech.
He primarily studies coal mine disasters. But more recently he’s been looking at life in the coal camps, particularly violence as it occurred there.
“Miners would not tolerate violations of their concept of what was fair treatment. They were not chattel slaves. They were a hard-bitten lot: very independent in spirit, quick to take offense. If they are politically and economically disabled to some extent, they are not culturally and socially disabled. That’s the difference. Those men I know from years of research would have done one of two things: 1) they would have either left that camp as soon as they knew this kind of behavior was required or a potential danger; or 2) they would have reacted to it violently.”
“Don’t look now, but it did come out violently.”
Wess Harris, whose background is in sociology and labor organizing.
“Blair Mountain was about the union card, but it was also about settling the scores, and solving the Esau problem and the way the scrip was administered: the entire social system, the cultural system, that was imposed on the miners.”
And it is true that some of the battles that unfolded during the mine wars are still shrouded in mystery. We have to acknowledge the unexplained uprisings that are still unaccounted for, and that perhaps the miners were exercising their agency in ways we don’t yet understand.
Still, Rakes has pored through stacks of criminal court proceedings in Fayette County and says he’s never come across anything like the Esau story. And as a historian, that’s troubling.
“If this kind of behavior was common, was an actually institutionalized part of the operating procedure, you could not keep all these things quiet. It would have ended up in Fayette County Court.”
Wess Harris: “I say it’s laughable. The culture was: you Do. Not. Talk.”
Wess travels to fairs and festivals around the state, where he sells his book about the Battle of Blair Mountain. In the process, he says the story of Esau scrip has come to him unprompted.
“Usually it’s in terms of ‘Grandpa told me…’ or ‘my grandmother had to take the Esau’. That’s a phraseology: ‘Had to take the Esau’. A gal that I agreed not to name, who sat across the table from me, said ‘my grandmother had to take the Esau, but my mother doesn’t even know.’ And so that’s how tightly held it was. One gentleman said ‘Yeah, I heard about Esau from my grandfather.’ That was kind of like the cousin every family had that nobody wants to talk about.”
Could it be that roughly 100 years later Esau IS becoming public? If so, it’s likely too late to document first-hand accounts.
Joy says she has documents that substantiate the Esau and shoe room stories – a letter and a list of women’s names – but won’t release them because she says she fears for their privacy. It’s been difficult to get any kind of documentation from Joy. The only thing that’s a fact – she maddeningly tells me over and over – is that the building exists.
I’ve talked to other historians about it, some intimate with the stories told at Whipple, and most equivocate. There may be validity to the claims, they say, but they need evidence.
For Dr. Rakes, what we CAN see, what we DO know is tragedy enough, without embellishment.
“What history has shown us that cannot be challenged is that the reality of the loss of civil rights, constitutional rights in coal camps, economic restrictions that coal miners lived under, that’s a tragedy. And I’m not taking anything away from that. By the same token, I’m not applying that to these other social standards.”
But Wess says that part of a historian’s JOB is to go out and look for the evidence when something as potentially important as this surfaces.
“The historians of the previous eras didn’t do their homework, didn’t ask the right questions, so we don’t have the records that we would like to have. It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen; it means we didn’t do our job well. And that includes me!”
OK, let’s return to our tour of the Whipple Company Store. We left off in the Shoe Room, and we pick back up in a small room next door. It’s known as Ellie’s room, after a spirit that’s said to live there.
When Jane Skeldon, one of our ghost hunters from earlier, first entered the room – she started to cry. She and her partner, Bonnie Hughes, were drawn to the powerful emotions there, so they got to work.
“Bonnie taped a camera down right here. We got what in the paranormal world is called ‘The Holy Grail.’ A full body affirmation. This was a really tall figure — literally comes out of the wall.”
Now, I’ve seen the video. And it totally made my skin crawl. Joy Lynn, the store’s owner, says she’s tried to recreate it every way she can think of, and it’s just never quite right. Here’s Jane again:
“And my brother, who works for a television station, has put this video on his big equipment, and when he ran it backwards just to do it again, it disappeared. So in other words it doesn’t behave in a normal shadow or video kind of way.
Moore: “So what do you think it is?”
“We don’t know what it is.”
“We think it’s the apparition of a woman. The way she comes out from the wall, and turns to look at us, it’s like she’s letting us know she’s here. And then she’s gone. She presents herself to us, like ‘Ok, I’m gonna trust you all.’”
“I feel it’s self explanatory.”
That’s Cora Sue Barett again, who grew up right down the road.
“I really feel entities, as we are calling the, are reaching out. Not so much the coal barons, but what we used to call the little people, the forgotten people.”
Cora Sue’s convinced that these are real people who are trying to bring closure to their past. At Whipple, the past itself is unsettled. Right now, the stories of Esau scrip, and of women who allegedly traded sex acts for new shoes – they’re caught in limbo.
These are brutal stories – and they cry out.
But then you have historians who say, where’s the proof?
Historians probe the past based on what they can see and verify. History as it’s told at the WCS is much harder to see. Like the apparition in the video, there’s something there. But what?
“People behave based on their emotions…”
Wess Harris and I go out onto the porch as the tour winds down and talk about what we’d heard that night.
“…and the intensity of feelings that come out of this building are magnified when I take the stories out of this building onto Main Street. They’re horrible stories, they’re angry stories, they’re sad stories, and notably, among the women as well as the men. And the people I tell them to respond ‘I’m angry, or I’m sad, or I’m ticked off.’ That doesn’t happen when you read a textbook!
“To me that’s incredibly important because while I’ve got a background in the academic realm, I’ve also got a background as an organizer. And it’s the spirit of those who’ve gone before us, that if we don’t have it, we don’t go forward. People are responding, and they want to see these stories saved, this building saved. They want it for their kids. And so that’s why I keep coming back to this building. It’s getting me in the gut, it’s getting other people in the gut, and if you want to have a better life for your kids and grandkids that’s where you gotta get hooked.”
On that last point, at least, historian Dr. Paul Rakes can agree.
“Oral history has its value, obviously. It reminds a culture of difficult times. It reminds youngsters in particular of what the generations before had to endure for them to have the better situation they have at a given time. It actually enables folks to make the point more clearly.”
The point being, in this case of course, oppression. It’s a point that hasn’t been lost on Cora Sue.
“What is the old word? It behooves me to know such tragedies happened, and there’s never been closure on it. And that the coal barons really got away with a lot of stuff. They lined pockets—just like they do today! The miners worked and died so ‘they’ could have and enjoy. How can you not question and say ‘There is really something to this’? And I don’t know that there’s quote-unquote hauntings. I just think there’s something there for us to learn, to study, and to know about.”
And that statement, that very vague statement, is ultimately where we settle – how can you not question. There is something to this.
I’ve come to view Whipple, the building, as a mirror for how we see our past. Like most sites of historical importance, it’s full of numerous and sometimes conflicting significances. And it’s haunted by questions, crying out for investigation.
So I call on you, dear listener, to become a part of that history. Visit for yourself, listen, question, reflect. If these stories are alive in your family, come forward and tell them. And if you’re a historian, look further, consider alternatives to accepted narratives – after all, even scientists will agree that just because you can’t see a thing doesn’t mean it’s not there.
For WV Public Radio, this is Catherine Moore reporting from the gaping mouth of WCS in Fayette County, WV.
Special thanks today to the Whipple Company Store and Museum, Theresa Burriss, Bill Kovarik, Michael Kline, Sam Petsonk, and Cyrus Forman for their help with the story.