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.
Chafin 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.