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WV Mine Wars Museum to open May 16

Posted by | April 6, 2015

Lou MartinPlease 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 forthcoming book Smokestacks in the Hills: Rural-Industrial Workers in West Virginia will be published by the University of Illinois Press in the fall.


In July 2013, eight of us met at the union hall of Local 1440 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in Matewan, West Virginia, to talk about the possibility of starting a museum located in the coalfields and dedicated to the history of West Virginia mine wars. We came from different backgrounds—mine workers, a retired teacher, an architect, historians, and community organizers—but we shared common values.

Among them were having people tell their own history, telling the history of the labor movement, and providing the younger generation an understanding of how we got where we are today and what miners sacrificed to get us here. And we shared one more value: getting folks from different backgrounds to work together.

The West Virginia Mine Wars began in 1912 when the UMWA went on strike up and down Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in Kanawha County. By the time the strike ended the following year, it was known around the nation as one of the bloodiest labor conflicts in American history. The UMWA’s most famous organizer, Mary “Mother” Jones, was among the leaders of the strike and witnessed the violence. Speaking around the country, she would recall snow stained with blood and miners’ families shivering in tent colonies through the winter. She told audiences, “When I get to the other side, I shall tell God Almighty about West Virginia!”


The UMWA emerged from the conflict with a contract and new leaders of District 17—Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney—who went to work organizing miners beyond Kanawha County. During World War I, organizing efforts brought new members in non-union strongholds like Logan County, but when the war ended, the coal operators fought back. In 1920, another organizing drive stalled out in Mingo County, and when the Stone Mountain Coal Company hired Baldwin-Felts agents to evict union men and their families from company housing, it precipitated a conflict that ended in gunfire on the railroad tracks of Matewan.

Ten men died in the shootout, and the chief of police Sid Hatfield was charged with murder. The following summer, Mingo County authorities jailed UMWA organizers, and the Baldwin-Felts shot and killed Hatfield as he climbed the McDowell County Courthouse steps to face trial. Ten thousand miners took up arms to free their organizers, bring the union to Mingo County, and avenge the death of the miner’s hero, Sid Hatfield.

At Blair Mountain, the miners’ “redneck army”—so-called for the red bandanas they wore around their necks—ran into the entrenched forces of Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin, who had arrayed some three thousand deputies, National Guardsmen, and Baldwin-Felts agents on the ridgeline. A battle raged for five days until the U.S. Army arrived and the miners surrendered, hundreds of them being charged with treason. It was the largest armed uprising in U.S. labor history.

In many ways, these events speak for themselves. Dozens of people died in these conflicts over basic civil liberties, the right to form unions, and the right to a decent wage and a life of dignity. Many historians and archaeologists have been drawn to this conflict. And yet, U.S. history textbooks rarely if ever mention the mine wars, and few Americans outside of the coalfields know about them.


There is also a lot of concern that the younger generation of West Virginians may not know about the origins of the UMWA in the state and the struggles of so many for basic rights and a decent standard of living. A museum dedicated to the mine wars can bring the story to Mingo County and Tug Valley visitors, and to the next generation of West Virginians. Current and retired coal miners can see their history honored in the museum’s exhibits. Finally, the museum will give visitors one more reason to visit picturesque downtown Matewan.

None of us had experience starting a museum, but in our second meeting, we listed all the resources available to us and all the people we know. When we stood back and looked at our list, it included museum directors, lawyers, community leaders, union leaders, historians, archaeologists, artists, journalists, and government officials. As we started to talk to other people about our idea, time and again people offered their help, their donations, and their ideas. With so much support, the Board of Directors, which includes Wilma Steele, Catherine Moore, Hawkeye Dixon, Katey Lauer, Kenny King, Chuck Keeney, Greg Galford, Gordon Simmons, and me, Lou Martin, decided to take the next step: finding a space.

We signed a lease for 336 Mate Street, a modest storefront located within Matewan’s Historic Downtown. One corner of the larger structure is still scarred by bullets from the 1920 Battle of Matewan, fought between the miners and the Baldwin-Felts Detectives.

We have spent nearly two years putting all the pieces in place, and we are having a Grand Opening on May 16, 2015. Even if you can’t make it to our grand opening, there is one very important way you can support these efforts. The museum is currently undertaking a crowd funding campaign to raise the money to pay local people to keep the museum open and take care of artifacts. Any amount helps. Go to to donate today.

You can also like our Facebook page “West Virginia Mine Wars Museum” and check out our awesome website.

See you in Matewan soon!

Left to right: Greg Galford, Lou Martin, Chuck Keeney, Kenny King, Katey Lauer, Wilma Steele, Hawkeye Dixon, Shaun Slifer (exhibit designer), and Catherine Moore. Everyone is a board member except for Shaun, who is the exhibit designer.

Left to right: Greg Galford, Lou Martin, Chuck Keeney, Kenny King, Katey Lauer, Wilma Steele, Hawkeye Dixon, Shaun Slifer (exhibit designer), and Catherine Moore. Everyone is a board member except for Shaun, who is the exhibit designer.




Sassafras tea – THE spring tonic

Posted by | April 3, 2015

My mother was a great sassafras drinker. And every spring we had to have sassafras along with our poke salad (that was a wild green). The mountain people particularly gathered a lot of wild greens to supplement their diet, because most people back in those days lived mostly on cornbread and peas. My mother used to enjoy going into the mountains and picking the wild greens. They have a thing called (and I like it today—they cultivate it, by the way, in Tennessee and Virginia) highland creeces. Oldtimers called them creecy-greens.

Eula McGill
born Resaca, GA 1911
February 3, 1976 interview
Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007)
Interview G-0040-1.

To some Appalachian farmers, it was simply an aggressive weed tree cluttering old fields. Others believed its wood could prevent chicken lice, and so used it to build chicken houses and chicken roosts. But sassafras’ most famous attribute has always been the healing properties of the springtime tea –a spring tonic- made from its roots.

The Cherokee people utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague (the tree is sometimes called an ‘Ague Tree’). “The country people of Carolina crop these vines (Bigonia Crucigera) to pieces,” said William Bartram in Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, “together with china brier and sassafras roots, and boil them in their beer in the spring, for diet drink, in order to attenuate and purify the blood and juices.” The Cherokee would also make a poultice to cleanse wounds and sores, while they’d steep the root bark to treatment diarrhea or for ‘over-fatness.’

They emphasized that the tea should never be taken for more than a week at a time. They didn’t know about safrole, though they knew its long term effects. The bark of sassafras roots contains volatile oils, 80% of which is safrole. Commercially produced sassafras was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s after experiments showed that safrole caused liver cancer in rats and mice.

Sassafras 'Sassafras Albidum'Early white mountain settlers, perhaps influenced by the vine/brier/sassafras concoction described above, made a beer by boiling young sassafras shoots in water, adding molasses and allowing the mash to ferment.

The varied leaf shapes are the Mitten Tree’s trademark—in fact, its Latin name was once Sassafras Varifolium. Today Sassafras Albidum ranges widely over the eastern United States (only two other species of sassafras exist elsewhere in the world: one in central mainland China, one in Taiwan).

‘White sassafras’ grows along roadways in thick clusters, usually from three to six feet tall. It has roughly the same characteristics as ‘red sassafras,’ however the bark does not turn pink to red when the root is damaged.

The red variety is the species that is most prized. Generally found on hills and ridges, it sometimes grows in mountainous areas to a height of thirty or more feet. The American Forestry Association’s National Register of Big Trees lists a 77-foot champion in Owensboro, KY.

According to H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (1936), the word sassafras traces back to 1577 and is of Spanish origin, probably deriving from the Spanish term for saxifrage.

Native Americans in Virginia pointed out ‘wynauk’ to British settlers, and in 1603, a company was formed in Bristol, England to send two vessels to the New World, principally with the intention of bringing back cargoes of sassafras bark. Thus, sassafras was one of the first, if not the first, forest products to be exported from what is now the mid-Atlantic states.


sources: Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians food traditions, by William Bartram, 1789, From “Transaction of the American Ethnological Society,” Vol. 3 Pt. 1. Extracts
The singular sassafras, by Henry Clepper, from “American Forests,” American Forestry Assn 1989


You must know the six types of married folks

Posted by | April 2, 2015

Shenandoah Herald
Woodstock VA
April 2, 1909

‘To Find Your Affinity’

Your affinity is your mate, but unless you know the six types of happy married folks on Olympus, up to date, you may miss yours. Jupiter, king of heaven, ruler of men, house and business, must marry Juno, the queenly woman, plump, domestic, wise as Minerva, yet loving as Venus.

Goddess MinervaVenus should mate with Apollo, but being fond of all men and usually pretty, a Venus woman marries any one, often several times. Marry and be petted and adored she must or die.

Minerva, on the contrary, can be happy only with a Vulcan, a man her counterpart, wise, lofty, patient, a reformer, teacher and philosopher. Both have contempt for frivolity and meanness and vice.

Most all of the elderly single women in the world, especially those descendants from Puritan or Calvinistic stock, are single just because they are the Minerva type and too wise to marry anyone but Vulcans. And Vulcans, being the best of their sex, are scarce.

source: Library of Congress/Chronicling America:


The salient feature of ramps is the smell

Posted by | April 1, 2015

They’re the first greens of the season, and they’re coming up right about now. Ramps, (Allium tricoccum or Allium tricoccum var. burdickii, Alliaceae) also known as wild leeks, are native to the Appalachian mountains. Ramps can be found growing in patches in rich, moist, deciduous forests as far north as Canada, west to Missouri and Minnesota, and south to North Carolina and Tennessee.

Back before supermarkets arrived they provided necessary vitamins and minerals following long winter months without access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

The salient feature of ramps is the smell. The Menominee Indians called it “pikwute sikakushia”: the skunk. “Shikako,” their name for a large ramp patch that once flourished in northern Illinois, has been anglicized to Chicago: “the skunk place.”

Ramps are pleasant to eat and taste like spring onions with a strong garlic-like aroma. They are often prepared by frying in butter or animal fat with sliced potatoes or scrambled eggs. They are also used as an ingredient in other dishes such as soup, pancakes, and hamburgers. They can also be pickled or dried for use later in the year.
On the heels of ramps a host of other greens start popping up: dandelions, poke, shawnee lettuce, woolen britches, creasies, and lamb’s tongue. And around these, women have fashioned womens’ worlds. “That was the big deal, when everybody used to go green picking,” says Carrie Lou Jarrell, of Sylvester, WV.

“That was the event of the week. Mrs. Karen Thomas would come up and she always brought Jessie Graybill with her, and then Miss Haddad would come, and most of the time Maggie Wriston came with her. And usually Sylvia Williams was always there to do green picking with them. I knew from the time I came into the world that she was just a good friend. But that was the thrill of my life to get to go with all of these women, because they talked about good stuff.”

The women laugh over how Violet Dickens once mistook sassafras tea for bacon grease and poured it over the frying ramps: “We need you to come season the ramps,” Mabel kidded her. They compare the aromas of poke and collard greens, and marvel at how window screens get black with flies when you’re cooking them. They wonder where the creasies (dry land cress) are growing this year, and Jenny points out that creasies won’t grow unless you till the soil.

“Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia”; Library of Congress/American Memories


"Que te parece! Now I believe in the egg!"

Posted by | March 31, 2015

“Benito Fernandez, known by all the Spaniards as Benito El Tuerto because he couldn’t see out of his left eye, lived just two houses away from our house on Ashton Lane. His wife, Cristina, was a short, heavy woman who spent most of her time sitting in a rocking chair and saying her rosary beads. She always had a small bag of asafetida on a string around her neck and did little of anything except keep her daughters, Juliana, Felipa and Marta busy with the cooking, washing, milling and other household work. She was very religious and sent her daughters to church regularly, while the padre would come to see her every Friday morning to give her communion.

“On St. Joseph’s Eve, she would never forget to perform the egg-in-a-glass ritual and would be the first one in the morning to hurry to the window to see what had taken place in the glass during the night. For this custom, a fresh-laid egg (it would have to be laid on the eve of the Saint’s Day) would be broken just before midnight into a glass filled three-fourths to the top with well-drawn water. Care was taken so that the yolk would not disintegrate. Then the glass would be placed on the sill of an open window.

“The next morning a ship in full sail might be formed in the glass, with the yolk forming the hull of the ship and the white of the egg making the sails. This would signify that some member of the family would be making a trip somewhere by ship. If instead of a ship, however, one saw a long, white candle with what looked like a flame on top (the white of the egg would form the taper and the yolk the flame), this would mean that some member of the family would die within the next twelve months.

Asturian woman, Clarksburg WV“If on the morning after putting out the glass, Cristina let out an Hay, Dios mio! Ave Maria purisuma!, her husband and daughters would know she had seen the candle. On this particular morning, however, she exclaimed, Gracias a Dios! She had seen the ship.

“A few days later, she received a letter from her parents telling her they were going to sail from La Coruna within the next two weeks. This meant that they were on the high seas at the moment she had looked at the sailing ship on the window sill!

“When her husband, who was always telling her that she was too superstitious, came home from work, the egg was beginning to disintegrate in the water. She told him about it having been a ship and said that her parents were coming to Coe’s Run to live. He said, ‘I’ll have to see them before I believe there’s anything to this foolishness.’

“She decided to make a believer of him. Instead of showing him the letter from her parents, she brought forth a calendar and said, ‘They will arrive in Clarkston on either this day, this day or this day. Mind what I tell you. If they do come within the days I point out, will you then believe in what you call superstition?’

“‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘If that happens, you’ll have made a believer of me.’

“And sure enough, on the first day she had pointed out on the calendar, a telegram came from New York City. It had been sent by Valentin Aguirre and said the Senor and Senora Ovies would arrive by train at five p.m. on the B&O train from New York City.

Que te parece! Benito exclaimed after hearing the telegram read to him. Now I believe in the egg!

“The egg in the glass had long been a Spanish custom. According to the local Italians, it was also a custom in Italy. Although the Italians enacted the custom on St. John’s Eve, it was done in the same manner and had the same significance.”


Pinnick Kinnick Hill, an American Story
by Gavin W Gonzalez (b 1909),
WV Univ Press, 2003
Spanish (Asturia) immigrant
Clarksburg, WV

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