Please welcome guest author Lou Martin. He is a board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum. He earned his Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, and his research has focused on steel and pottery workers in northern West Virginia. His most recent book is Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia, published by the University of Illinois Press last year.
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum officially opened its doors on May 16, 2015. Over the decades, there have been many who have worked to preserve this history, but it has always been a challenge. This is the history of workers meeting violence with violence, and the consequences were tragic. This is the history of workers fighting for basic rights and a life of dignity and being defeated. It is a history that many have wanted to forget.
The Mine Wars Museum is dedicated to the idea that we need to remember the days when gunfire filled the valleys of the southern West Virginia coalfields, the days when miners and their families struggled to survive, and the days when martial law was declared and civil liberties were ignored. And we need to learn from it.
The Grand Opening was attended by more than 500 people and featured speeches by Matewan Town Council member Francine Jones, historian David Corbin, and UMWA President Cecil Roberts. Roberts said, “I submit to you that it is time for working folks not only to stand up and fight back and keep the middle class [relevant], it’s time to stop the millionaires and the billionaires telling us what our kids can read and learn in the schools.” (Mingo Messenger, May 23, 2015)
The museum features permanent exhibits on coal camp life, the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike of 1912-1913, the 1920 Battle of Matewan, the Miners’ March, and the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain. Some of the artifacts include a miner’s canary cage, scrip and check tags, and bullet casings and a rifle recovered from one of the battles. Historical photographs and film strips help tell the story of these turbulent times. The museum has attracted tour groups from colleges and universities, from volunteer organizations, and from local schools.
We also hosted events this year that include a “May Day Matinee” screening of the PBS documentary “The Mine Wars” and an hour with Dr. Fred Barkey who shared his father-in-law’s memories of the Battle of Blair Mountain.
And we added one new exhibit this year: the Miners’ Memorial Exhibit. The memorial was inspired by Shirley Henson Mattox, whose father died in a mine accident 62 years ago.
Ms. Mattox contacted the museum to recommend we find a way to remember those who lost their lives in the mines, and the result is a three-sided display constructed by retired coal miner Dan Collins.
It includes historical information on the dangers of coal mining and a board of check tags bearing the names of fallen miners. At the dedication of the exhibit, Dr. Paul Rakes spoke of his years in the mines. “I learned that courage was important,” he said. “There is a bond between miners that you don’t see in academia. That bond comes from working together in dangerous conditions, and being able to rely upon one another.” (Mingo Messenger, August 12, 2016)
This summer, we also published the first issue of In These Hills: The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum Journal, which includes articles on the history of the Mine Wars and stories from the museum itself.
This year, the West Virginia Humanities Council provided funding for the journal, and we hope that it will be a way to spotlight ongoing research on the Mine Wars and keep readers informed about the latest developments at the museum. The journal’s title is a tribute to the late James R. Green, author of The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (2015).
One of the things that gives me and the other members of the board a great sense of pride is the way that the community of Matewan and the surrounding Tug Valley has embraced the museum. From the beginning, it has been a collaboration between residents of communities involved in the Mine Wars in Mingo and Logan counties and in the Tug Valley as well as people like me who live outside of the area.
We have been thrilled to incorporate many local residents—whether they are carpenters, local business owners, or local historians—into the efforts of the museum. Our summer fellow, Kim McCoy, whose position was supported by the West Virginia Humanities Council, spent some days educating visitors about the Mine Wars and evenings starring in the Hatfield-McCoy drama “Blood Song” just across the Tug River.
We are particularly excited to have the support of UMWA Local 1440 and the UMWA International Office. Local 1440 has donated time and resources to the museum, allowed us to use their beautiful hall for events, and has always been there to encourage us when we needed it most.
Now, we are holding our very first membership drive, which we believe is critical to the future of the museum. In the months leading up to our May 2015 Grand Opening, some four hundred donors—many of them readers of AppalachianHistory.net—helped make this museum possible, and we operated for eighteen months largely on the money that the organization received in that initial fundraiser, small donations from visitors to the museum, and grants we received from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority and the West Virginia Humanities Council.
Since then, the museum board members have thought a lot about how to make it a permanent institution in the Tug Valley so that it can continue to share this history with visitors, host events, educate students about the Mine Wars, and promote heritage tourism. To do that, we are hoping to build a foundation of support from members who believe in this mission as much as we do.
New members will receive an awesome membership card, a free issue of In These Hills, and the pride that comes with supporting these efforts to preserve this important history. We have not set a price for membership, but we are encouraging people to donate $5 per month. And it only takes a couple of minutes to enter your name, address, and credit card information into our secure website: http://www.wvminewars.com/member.
The Mine Wars Museum is now closed until spring 2017, but we will still open the museum for tour groups and you can contact us through our website (http://www.wvminewars.com/contact). I am excited about the future of this museum, and I believe that keeping the history of the Mine Wars alive is more important now than ever.