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The King of Logan County

Posted by | July 8, 2016

Logan News [Logan, WV], July 8, 1976— The Sunday after his election as sheriff in 1920, Don Chafin, “the King of Logan County,” agreed to have his photograph taken at his home on the east end of Main Street.

That photograph, made by the Bachrach Studio, is an ideal symbol of the Chafin era. In it, the new sheriff looked capable, determined and self-confident to the point of arrogance. He had all those traits: he was rough, and he was remarkably successful.

Don Chafin, The King of Logan CountyChafin was born on Marrowbone Creek, now in Mingo County, on June 26, 1887. He was the son of Francis Marion and Esther Brewer Chafin, who had moved to Logan from Tazewell County, Virginia.

His father was sheriff of Logan from 1894 to 1898, while his uncle John Chafin was the Logan Circuit Clerk Clerk and his uncle James Chafin was the county clerk of Mingo. Don Chafin’s political talent, George Swain later wrote, “was justly inherited from his sire, as well as his uncles in the early days of his native county.”

He went to the public schools of the county and later attended Marshall before returning home at the age of 17 in 1904, after his father died in 1903. Soon after that, he became the county’s assessor, and then sheriff.
Today, more than 50 years after the mine war of 1921 ended, Chafin is still one of the most controversial and enigmatic men in Logan’s history. It’s hard to know what to make of him because he had so many different characteristics.

To understand him, it’s important to find out his attitudes about the many things he tried: politics, the use of power in Logan County, his business interests, and the way he treated people personally.

Don Chafin’s life was written around the conflicting themes of generosity and violence. His political career and the way he used power often were reprehensible; however his business ethics were the same as nearly everyone’s in his time; and personally he treated many, many people very well.

He was a politician and, as such, his main goal was getting elected to office. He was a professional at that game. He played to win, and his political rise was a dizzyingly rapid climb to the top of Logan County.

When he came back to Logan in 1904, Chafin was just another young man who had spent two years in college. In 1908, when he was 21, was elected assessor after working in Frank Hurst’s store at Monitor Junction for four years.

In 1912, he was elected sheriff for the first time and, with the power he accumulated, he kept a strong control on Logan until the late 1920s. In the meantime, in 1921, the tension between the miners and the mine owners erupted into an open war, and the tale of how Chafin blocked the United Mine Workers march across Blair Mountain is very well known.

During those years, it was often charged that Chafin wasn’t particular about the tactics he used to control Logan, to keep power for himself, and to keep the UMW out of the county. It is widely believed that he exacted 10 cents on every ton of coal going out of Logan to hire mine guards and deputies, and to win his elections.

Politically, then, Chafin used some pretty bad means to what he believed was a good end. He was one of the county’s most successful politicians, and the machine he organized and ran was a masterpiece of control and brutality.

At the same time, it was common knowledge that Chafin was among the most generous men in Logan. There were literally hundreds of tales of how he helped people by lending them money.

His friend Swain stated that among Chafin’s papers sorted out after his death, there were notes due to him totaling $25,000. At the funeral of Simon Dingess, Chafin showed another man a $5,000 note that Dingess owed him, tore it up, smiled and said, “Well, that was one politician I never could buy.”

Still others—men who fought hard for the UMW for years—admit that personally Chafin was generous; their only grudge against him was that he represented and protected the mine owners.

Following the mine war, Chafin’s political career began slowing down as he became more interested in business, especially after the Blue Goose incident.

Chafin and Tennis Hatfield had owned the tavern at Barnabus in the early ‘20s, but then fell out with each other over politics. First Hatfield, and then Chafin, was convicted of running the Blue Goose in violation of the prohibition law.

After Hatfield got out of the penitentiary, he testified against Chafin at his trial in Huntington’s Federal Court, and Chafin was found guilty. He served ten months in the penitentiary at Atlanta before he was pardoned and released in July 1925.

Yet the mine war and the Blue Goose troubles shouldn’t be the only things remembered about Chafin. He was 34 when the mine war ended, he lived to be 67 years old, and the rest of his life was as interesting as the first part.

After he came back to Logan in 1925, he worked together with Bill Jones and Dr. K. J. Heatherman to open the mining company that mined the seams beneath Peach Creek. He also had other investments.

“Don had owned considerable interest in the Guyan Valley Bank,” Swain wrote, ” . . .and when that institution tumbled during the crash of financial institutions all over the nation, it cost Don more than $300,000 to cover his losses in the bank…

“Following this financial debacle, Don moved his scene of real estate operation to Huntington. There, he purchased the ten-story Robson-Prichard building on Ninth Street and renamed it the Chafin building. . . He then purchased an 88-acre farm at Athalia, Ohio, where he could hunt during his leisure time.

“I have no record of when he obtained a lease on Rich Creek, in Logan County, for 1,100 acres of coal land, but his heirs are operating successfully a producing mine on the property and some oil wells have been drilled on the lease which are producing.

“In addition to the above, his heirs inherited property in the town of Logan, a home in Florida, in addition to all his real estate in Huntington (and) his farm in Ohio.”

Don Chafin died in Huntington on August 9, 1954. Often applauded, often harshly criticized, he was much a part of the history of Logan County as any other man who lived here.

Yet perhaps few people have really understood Chafin himself because his political career was so entangled in that history. He has always been defined as either a villian or a hero—seldom as the complex man he really was.


She didn’t need a thing except to get interested in something

Posted by | July 7, 2016

Citizen (Berea, Ky.)
Thursday, July 7, 1910.

“Keep Busy”

It is not money that is the root of all evil. It is idleness. Idleness leads to poverty, Idleness invites disease. Idleness breeds crime.

Everywhere people are to be found who seem to put but little value upon time. They may know the full worth of a dollar, but they do not seem to have learned that a column of hours may be added and the result be dollars. Idleness and the pupil drops out of the class. Industry and he is at the head.

Idleness and there are filth and flies in the house, and the weeds hide the view from the window and door. Industry and the home, though it be a cabin, is a place of beauty and roses.

Idleness and the fence row encroaches upon the field, sprouts take the pasture, and the farmer complains that the soil is exhausted and he can’t make a living. Industry and the fence rows are clean, the sprouts give way to clover, and the farmer’s barns—and his pockets—are full.

Idleness and the mind feeds upon thoughts of disease, and the disease follows. Industry and the thoughts go in other channels, activity proves a tonic, and vigorous health results.

Idleness and the weeds grow. They only need to be let alone. Evil and crime are like weeds, and industry proves a good resistant. Is it not so? Look about and see.

Yes, that is the reason Bud Adler is out of school and no job in sight, while Willie Brown has his diploma and a good position awaiting. And you stopped at the Adler home the other day. There were the weeds up to the porch railing, the farm all run down and the barns empty. And there were filth and flies—no screens. Farmer Adler had no time, and Mrs. Adler had no time. But you found the farmer sitting on the porch whittling and his wife beside him with folded hands.

And what about Mrs. Burchett? She has been having spells of some kind for nearly a year. And the neighbors report her very sick, but the Doctor is your brother-in-law and he tells you there is really nothing the matter with her. It is all in her imagination. The fact is, the Doctor told you that nearly half of our ailments are imaginary to begin with. Didn’t he say “three fourths.” You remember how the Doctor laughed when he told you what he gave Mrs. Burchett on his last visit. A bread pill. He said she didn’t need a thing except to get interested in something, but, if he had told here that, she would have sent for the other Doctor. So he did not tell her.

And the Doctor, your brother-in-law, at the same time called your attention to Mrs. Newgate—a little mite of a woman that had never been strong—and said that she would have been dead long ago if death had ever found her idle long enough to get her scared about herself. But it couldn’t. When she got the house in order she went to the yard or garden, and no weeds could grow there for the flowers. And how happy she was, and how happy her family!

And you don’t have to go out of your own neighborhood to see that idleness leads to crime. Look at the Feltin boys. They didn’t have to work and their parents didn’t see the necessity of keeping them busy; so they drifted and the weeds grew, and two of them are in the “pen” and one in the house of reform. Busy now! Get busy and get wealth. Keep busy and keep health.


That old-time tent revival

Posted by | July 6, 2016

It’s tent revival season throughout Appalachia – the region that invented the tent revival.

The first camp meeting took place in July 1800 at Gasper River Church in southwestern Kentucky. A much larger one was held at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in August 1801, where between 10,000 and 25,000 people attended, and Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist ministers participated. It was this event that stamped the organized revival as the major mode of church expansion for denominations such as the Methodists and Baptists, who were newly converted by the teachings of John Wesley.

“The significant and most recurring theme in mountain preaching,” according to Deborah McCauley, author of Appalachian Mountain Religion, “is that of a broken heart, tenderness of heart, a heart not hardened to the Spirit and the Word of God. Mountain people teach through their churches that the image of God in each person lives in the heart, that the Word of God lodges itself in the heart, and the heart is meant to guide the head, not the other way around.”

Elkridge WV Tent Revival 1930s
“God led me into the Free Methodist Church when in 1935 I was sanctified in a revival preached by Brother Albert Faust from Pittsburgh,” said West Virginian Dewilla Lemmon of her revival experiences. “Melrose Uphold, a neighbor, and Sister Eva Young, a local Free Methodist preacher, arranged for a meeting in a vacant building near my home. This came as an answer to prayer for me because I had been privately seeking holiness, not really knowing what it was, only that for many months I had craved a pure, perfect condition of heart with God, notwithstanding the knowledge that I had been born again.”

One of Lemmon’s fellow worshipers, “Sister Uphold,” explained to her that the experience she sought was “sanctification.” “So I went to the altar and prayed for it. I also made various restitutions. Brother Faust quoted the Scripture: ‘The Lord whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple.’ And Jesus did just that for me on the night of September 22, 1935 after Brother Faust had delivered his sermon and while Sister Young walked up and down behind me at the altar quoting in a strong voice: ‘This is the will of God, even your sanctification.’”

Lemmon, Dewilla. “Camp Memories” journal exercise recorded by Pauline Shahan. July 6, 1980
Appalachian Mountain Religion. University of Illinois Press: Chicago; 1995

Related Posts: “Warmly Tactile Worship Behavior”

tent+revival camp+meeting mountain+preaching appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia


World’s oldest man — Kentuckian John Shell

Posted by | July 5, 2016

He never wore shoes much and chewed tobacco inveterately. He grew 3 sets of teeth during his long life, he claimed. And when he died on July 5, 1922, his oldest child was 99 years old and his youngest only seven. Other men in the mountains lived to advanced ages, but none ever came close to John Shell.

John Shell’s father Samuel, a gunsmith of Dutch descent, and his wife Mary Ann Fry Shell, moved according to one account from Pennsylvania through the Shenandoah Valley to settle in East Tennessee, where John was born in 1788 near the Roaring River. Other accounts state that both parents were born in the Carolinas. All their known children were born in Tennessee. John’s mother lived to great age; she is believed to have been 102 years old when she died in 1877.

The Shell family moved on to Kentucky, settling first on Poor Fork and later moving over the mountain to Laurel Creek/Greasy Creek in the part of Harlan that became Leslie County in 1878.

The town was originally called Licking Creek by early hunters because of deer licks there, when it was still part of Virginia. The name was later changed to Laurel Creek, justified by the laurel thickets that abound there. Then one day, John Shell shot and wounded a bear on the mountain at the mouth of Shell’s Fork on the Laurel. The bear ran off the mountain and fell into the “Blue-hole”.

The water was so deep that John could not get his bear out. The bear, in time, began to decompose. Its accumulated fat created a greasy scum that rose to the surface of the water for some time. People downstream then renamed the tributary to suit its aspects. It is called Greasy Creek to this day. Yes, John Shell had quite the reputation as a storyteller.

Harlan became a county when Shell was 12 years old, he stated, and that he had stood on a tree stump and shouted the news to the people. This took place in 1819, which would place his age at the time of his death at 115, not 134 years old. In his early years he helped defend the settlement of Harlan against a flaming-arrow Indian attack.

John recalled the earthquake which rumbled through Kentucky in 1811, saying that it came in December, early in the morning and lasted for two days, shaking the dishes from the table and pictures from the walls. He could call to mind when the stars fell at night long in bunches and one after the other in 1837 or 1838. And John remembered seeing Daniel Boone had killed many bear, deer and wild turkeys.

John Shell“Uncle John” Shell, 131 years old, at the Bluegrass Fair, Lexington, in 1919. First time he had seen anything but the backwoods of Leslie County. He died two years later at an actual age of 113.

Only about three or four families lived in the mouth of the Clover Fork in that era, but one of them produced Elizabeth Nance (or Nantz), whom John married in 1844. Their union in turn brought forth Mary Ann, William, Nicholas, Sarah, John, Martha, Elizabeth and Alijah. They are thought to have had twelve children total.

There was the matter of getting a living. Shell was a gunsmith, a miller, a wainwright, and a blacksmith. He made knives, axes, hammers, spinning wheels, looms, and whiskey.

When the Civil War broke out, Shell rode all the way to Virginia to fight for the Confederacy. “When John Shell arrived in Virginia and finally got to see Robert E. Lee to enlist to fight for the Confederacy,” relates Shell descendent Naomi A. Middleton Taylor in a family history, “Robert E. Lee said to him, ‘Sir, I admire you for riding this far. But sir, I cannot take you because of your age.’ John Shell was disappointed. You see, he was 74 years old.”

After the death of his first wife and after he was well over one hundred years old, John married Elizabeth Chappel and had one son by her, Albert James Shell. She died when the child was three years old.

John and Albert went to the Kentucky State Fair in 1919 as guests of the governor and John was displayed as the oldest man in the world. Many folks at the fair doubted his claim of age. He became ‘biling mad,’ stormed home and found a tax receipt which showed he had paid taxes in 1809.

He argued that he must have been at least 21 years old at the time to have done that. Harlan County tax lists, however, show that he first appears in 1844 which would place his birth date at 1822, not 1788.

At the time of his last appearance in the lowlands, ‘Uncle John’ weighed 130 pounds and was 5 feet 5 inches tall. It is said that he was breaking a horse to ride on his last day and that he fell off and hurt his back. He died that night.

Many Shell descendants live in the Harlan area to this day.

Sources: Oldest Man in World is Buried in Kentucky, “New York Times”, July 11, 1922

Author details life of 134-year-old ancestor, Richmond woman writes book about her long-lived family member, “Everyday People” column, ‘The Palladium-Item’ by Rachel E. Sheeley,

Harlan+KY appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history John+Shell


Happy Independence Day!

Posted by | July 4, 2016


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