Life Stories Spill Out at the Whipple Company Store

Posted by | September 3, 2014

“Grandpa, this woman is stupid!” whispered the little boy just a bit too loudly to the older gentleman holding his hand. The two of them were part of a tour group that owner Joy Lynn was leading at the Whipple Company Store in Scarbro, WV. Ms. Lynn was showing the group a small side room that had been used to store and weigh sacks of grain, and she had just pointed out to the gathering that the room was completely lined in thin metal sheathing, though she didn’t know why that was.

Whipple Country Store. Photo courtesy George Bragg.

Whipple Country Store. Photo courtesy George Bragg.

But the boy’s grandfather knew why, and had shared his knowledge with the boy before they entered the room. And like so many of the people who find their way back to the Whipple Company Store, the man had a direct personal connection there from many decades prior: he had been the Collins Coal Company employee who weighed out the grain in that very room in the 1930s-40s. He graciously explained to Ms. Lynn that in the pre-pesticide-reliant era tin lining was commonly used to repel insects and rodents in storerooms. “You know those electromagnetic pest repellant machines you can buy today?” he explained. “Well, tin lining also has very weak electromagnetic properties, enough to do the job.”

“Sure enough, when we bought this place and it was piled high to the ceiling with stuff,” observes Ms. Lynn, “this was the one room that had absolutely no cobwebs.”

Today the Whipple Company Store, built in 1890 by coal baron Justus Collins, is the only remaining coal company store of its architectural design type in southern WV’s Pocahantas coal basin. Its oval arch entry sheltering a deeply recessed porch is typical of a design style once commonly found in the 30 or so company stores that dotted the basin in the early 20th century.

“People think of this place as a museum, but to me it’s a place for sharing stories,” says Ms. Lynn, who with her husband Chuck purchased the compound in 2006.

“I want to see the corset bar,” insisted one guest. “It’s in the adornment room.” She knew exactly where the room was, and Ms. Lynn was happy to guide her there. However, the item was missing: there was only an outline against the wall, in a different shade of paint, where it had once been attached.

Inside the grain room. Modern visitors use magnets to attach their visit comments to the tin walls.

Inside the grain room. Modern visitors use magnets to attach their visit comments to the tin walls.

“The corset bar, for those who’ve never worn a corset, had two purposes,” explained the woman to Ms. Lynn. “First, it was used to drape the laces for easy access while the wearer was being laced up. Then, in addition to holding the laces, it had 3 sets of handles for the wearer to grasp during lace up: one at eye level for the first round of lacing, another about a foot lower for the next round of tightening under the bust, and a final set, slightly below waist level, which gave the handmaid doing the lacing enough leverage to get the corset to a 13-inch waistline.”

No wonder Victorian and Edwardian grand dames fainted all the time! This guest’s grandmother had been the chambermaid to “the fine ladies,” as she put it.

“Speaking of cords and pulling, come look at this rope-pulley operated freight elevator over here,” Ms. Lynn said as she guided me around another corner. “One day during one of our tours, a man in his early 90s came up to it, and without me saying anything further, commented that most people just didn’t understand the correct way to pull the rope.”

“Young men want to show how strong they are, and so they yank the rope too hard while they stand way out into the room,” he told Ms. Lynn. “Well, that rope loops around a big wheel up on the third floor, and if you pull the rope that way you’ll just jump it off the wheel.” He snugged his right shoulder up tight against the freight elevator opening to show her how the operator would stabilize his body to allow for a steady, even pull.

She noticed the man had lovingly cradled his cheek against the rope while he held it, and a tear quietly rolled down his face. She paused the tour and patiently allowed the man to regain his composure. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a tightly folded piece of paper. He carefully opened it and showed Ms. Lynn a photo of his father, the freight elevator operator, shoulder snug against the opening, with a 5 year old boy next to him, clutching the man’s pant leg.

A young visitor to Whipple tries his hand at pulling the freight elevator rope.

A young visitor to Whipple tries his hand at pulling the freight elevator rope.

Fortunately for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of taking one of her tours, Joy Lynn has compiled these stories and many more in Coal Camp Voices, available at the Whipple Company Store website.  Here’s an excerpt:

A falling down building, weather beaten, with very little paint and a look of loneliness to its form. It is an architectural beauty.

All the sharp corners and flaccid arches, many sections of roof and ornate finials were revealing its past. What was this place? What was I seeing, hearing and feeling? Is this building trying to communicate? Is that even possible?

The sunlight was peeking through soft white clouds. The streamed lighting created a grey shadowed reflection over its large covered porch and massive arched opening. Concrete steps, large across the front of the building, drew my eyes level with the line of two stout pipe hand railings. Directing my gaze upward to the oversize porch floor, the view was powerful yet inviting.

The strong nature of this porch demanded discipline, power and control. I could feel this as I mounted the steps carefully and took a firm stand on the porch floor.

The Coal Baron’s spirit and dominion loomed over the people, the place and all its effects. EVEN NOW!

Justus Collins, coal baron of this unique and exquisite building, had four structures built in this similar architecture. Owned and operated as the Whipple Colliery Company by Collins, it became New River Company store #4 at Whipple in 1907.

This beautiful stature of a building has served the community in many ways. Over the last century it has taken on the duties of a grocery, butcher shop, clothing store, post office, bank, doctor’s office, print shop, theatre, restaurant, antique store, auction house, trading post, home and NOW, a preserved piece of the past, A Museum.

This is not what I saw as I gazed upon these eighteen thousand square feet of perturbed beauty.

An enormous ‘For Sale’ sign was adhered to a couple of 4×4 weathered posts. The two posts were deeply buried in the hilly ground and situated the corner of a sadly neglected lawn. The now overgrown hillside at one time revealed a glimpse of Scarbro Elementary School. This was now completely out of sight. The train tracks that ran along the ridge above the store’s main entrance directly east of the building? All gone, but not forgotten.

coal camp voices book

Blinking, swallowing, looking everywhere and as if in a panic I was taking all this in rather quickly. I snapped back my attention as I heard a voice.

“Maybe they will let us look around. It’s for sale. This is the old company store,” my mother was saying with enthusiasm.

Smiling and glancing her way, feeling stupefied, I just nodded. My mind was already remembering, recalling this building. It had been calling me for most of my life. My anticipating emotion and rapid heartbeat were overwhelming. I suddenly noticed a loud thumping in my ears and quick breathing. I know this place. I remember this place.

The thoughts entering my head left me somewhat confused. This is what I am going to do. To do? What was I going to do? What was I even doing here?

As my mother reached toward the door, to grasp the door knob, I found myself compelled to knock this poor woman out of the way. I had to get to the door first. Touch the doorknob first. Look inside, breathe the air first.

Calm down, what is the matter with me?

Calling on all my mental restraints, and regaining control of my emotional self, I took a deep breath. I stopped a minute, made myself turn around and glance back and down those large, oversize steps. I could see in my mind’s eye the hustle and bustle of a life and time when the building was regal, powerful and useful. How do I know this? How can I see this? Why do I feel this? I was very confused.

Suddenly I experience a flashback, a memory I suppose, of my family in 1960. Daddy is driving the old road from Mossy and he decides to pull the station wagon off the road. We are on our way to visit my grandmother and family in Gatewood.

It was just a few more miles up the road but Daddy was finding it necessary to check something that was happening to the car. He pulled off the road in a wide spot smack in the front of this very building. Looking over the seat from the back of the station wagon, I could see a gloomy silhouette against the evening sky. This building’s shadow loomed over the car like a huge veil.

I can see myself so clearly in my memory, leaning as far as I could over the front seat and breathlessly telling Daddy “Look at that castle! I want to buy that castle; can we buy that castle, please? I really think we should live in that castle.”

Daddy never looked up at me. He was focused on the car trouble, and mindlessly responded with a gruff overtired voice, “Get yourself back in that seat, and take car of your brother—stop his crying. That is not a castle! It’s an old company store and no one lives in company stores.”

I was confused; even at my young age I knew company stores never ever looked like this. My Daddy must be mistaken. This was a castle, a castle for sure.

I settled myself back in the middle seat section of the old station wagon, reaching out to my little brother who by then was really crying and creating an obnoxious sound. I was trying to calm him as Daddy got back into the driver’s seat and pulled the car away from the castle. We resumed our travel into the dusk and the winding road.

I leaned over and strained my neck from the car window, wanting to see clear to the castle roof top. I felt a sadness fall heavy on my heart and a quiver on my mouth. I don’t know why, but that big old building needed me. As I continued to look out the window I moved my head sort of upside down from inside the car and porch arch smiled down on me. This was my own little castle. I knew I would return to it.

Someday.

Historic postcard showing the town of Whipple, WV. No date. Courtesy Joy Lynn.

Historic postcard showing the town of Whipple, WV. No date. Courtesy Joy Lynn.

Ms. Lynn is currently at work on a second volume of stories, to be titled Coal Camp Secrets: Haunted History, Murder and Mystery, which she hopes to have published in late October.

One Response

  • Jimmy Wells says:

    Hi Joy,
    https://rrconferencecenter.com, is the web site for the mine training center I mention. It’s all modern day mining. Contact Gary Framton and let him know about your store and I’m sure he will gladly schedule you guys a tour. And thanks again for the great tour of your place, we will be stopping by again sometime!

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