Life Stories Spill Out at the Whipple Company Store

Posted by Dave Tabler | 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.


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.

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How I Became Colonel Culmann

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 2, 2014

Sharon Schuler KrepsPlease welcome guest author Sharon Schuler Kreps. Kreps is an author and newspaper columnist who lives in Cullman, AL. She writes much of the published work on that town’s Colonel Cullmann re-enactment. Larry Rowlette has been studying and portraying Colonel John G. Cullmann, the founding father of Cullman, since the year 2000. He appears as The Colonel during annual Oktoberfest celebrations and in many other events throughout the year in Cullman and all around north Alabama. In his non-Colonel life, Rowlette is an Electrical Engineer and works as an Engineering Manager with a private defense contract firm in Huntsville, AL.


Over the years, Larry Rowlette has been asked how he became The Colonel, yet instead of answering the question, he’d normally smile, wink or ask the person to dance. Truth is, Rowlette’s transformation into The Colonel is a long story, and one that has remained somewhat a mystery… until now.

“It all started years ago with Mrs. Elaine Fuller, Curator of the Cullman County Museum,” Rowlette smiled. “She regularly attended tourism events around Alabama and had noticed a common theme – local citizens portraying people from area history, specifically the founders or leaders of the towns and cities. She fell in love with the idea and wanted to do it here in Cullman as well.”

colonel cullmann dances

After several discussions with the Oktoberfest Committee, the movement to have an actual Colonel Cullmann for Cullman, AL was born and the search for such a person soon began. It was the spring of 1999.

One year later, a Colonel Cullmann had still not been selected because no one fitting the description nor the desired persona had been found. One afternoon Pastor Bob Kurtz, President of the Oktoberfest Committee and Sr. Pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Church, indicated he had someone in mind that may be interested in the Col. Cullmann portrayal. The man Kurtz was talking about was Larry Rowlette, a local resident and member of the church.

“Kurtz invited Fuller to a Fourth of July presentation given by the members of St. John’s Church,” Rowlette explained. “Mrs. Fuller was a little leery, but she drove out to Ava Marie Grotto in Cullman, where the presentation was held, and attended. She had gone to secretly watch me as I delivered a speech as James Madison,” he chuckled. “She was impressed and when the program was over, she introduced herself to me and explained her idea of me portraying Colonel Johann Cullmann.”

Rowlette was more than willing to support the community, and there was no doubt in his mind he would accept the position of Colonel Cullmann. But because he is also a prankster, he wanted to have a little fun with Mrs. Fuller.

“I acted a little confused, and then told her I would have to think about it,” Rowlette said, grinning like a mule eating corn. “I thanked her for the consideration, turned and then took two or three steps away from her. Then I turned back around and said, ‘Okay, I have thought about it. I’ll do it,’ and gave her a big ole smile.”

colonel cullmann next to his own statue

From that point on, things happened fast. Rowlette was told the portrayal was to be kept strictly confidential. Then he received a new suit of clothes made in the late 1800’s style. An old walking cane was purchased that matched the cane the Colonel held in the old photographs of him. Before long, Rowlette found himself completely transformed into the old gentleman.

A keynote speech was prepared for the Oktoberfest 2000 opening ceremonies. It was written as if Colonel Cullmann had risen from the grave just to attend the festival and talk to his people. It told of his life from his birth on July 2nd 1823 in Frankweiler, Germany (Bavaria), to his death in December 3rd 1895 in Cullman, Alabama. It described the sacrifices he made, as well as the sacrifices of the people who settled in Cullman with him.

It spoke of the travels and hardships he personally endured and also about his many accomplishments during his lifetime. Rowlette delivered the speech while standing next to a statue of Colonel Cullmann. Once the speech had ended, the crowd erupted with applause and Colonel Cullmann 2000 was born.

Originally intended as a once a year Oktoberfest portrayal, Colonel Cullmann 2000 quickly became an opportunity for Rowlette to portray our founder throughout the whole year. Dressed as the Colonel, he has spoken to civic groups all across the region, addressed local and state leadership and talks to both kindergarten all the way through high school senior classes throughout the county.

“I enjoy spreading the message of Heritage, Tradition, and Values everywhere I go,” Rowlette stated. “I also try to live by those same words, because it gives me something to work toward – Honoring the Heritage, speaking and promoting the Tradition, and living the Values each day.”

Colonel Cullmann participated in two revolutions against ruling parties in Bavaria while attempting to create a democratic government, and ended up having to leave the country or risk being imprisoned. He left his homeland Bavaria, his wife and three children and headed for America. He arrived in the United States in 1866, when he was 43 years old.

Upon arriving in the United States, he traveled around and began formulating a plan to get his family and friends to this new and wonderful country. Once he made it to North Alabama, he wrote in his letters to Josephine, his wife, that it felt like home.

Col. John G. Cullmann (1823-1895).  Courtesy Wikipedia

Col. John G. Cullmann (1823-1895). Courtesy Wikipedia

colonel cullmann poster













At the time he worked for the Louisville – Nashville Railroad as a Land Agent. It was his job to get settlers to the area along the railroad as it extended south through Alabama. In other words, his job aligned with exactly what he wanted in his personal life…to find a place his family and friends could settle down, live and call home.

Colonel Cullmann advertised in newspapers all over this country, as well as in Bavaria and throughout Europe. His ads spoke of this wonderful place he had found in North Alabama to settle down. He described it as a place where you could own land and live as free men and women.

“After traveling around the country and arriving in North Alabama the impression was made upon my mind that if this area was filled up with good farmers it would be the garden spot of America. I found here all that I had been looking for, all that I regarded as necessary to make good homes: there was here combined these things to an extent not equaled by any other place I had seen,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1877.

As a result of Colonel Cullmann’s hard work, North Alabama’s Cullman became a city in March 1875. Two years later, state government voted to accept Cullman as a county in the state of Alabama. Colonel Cullmann was touched to have the area named in his honor. The second ‘n’ in the name was dropped for clarity.

Greg Richter, Larry Rowlette, and Laura Axlerod.

Greg Richter, Larry Rowlette, and Laura Axlerod.

The residents tried to get Colonel Cullmann to preside as the first mayor, but he promptly rejected the idea because he felt he had too much influence over the people in the area. Besides, he really wanted to spend his time bringing more people to this country, which is exactly what he did. Over his lifetime, he was responsible for bringing more than 100,000 people to the United States. Certainly not all settled in Cullman, or even in North Alabama, but he still felt directly responsible for their well-being and worked to stay in contact with them and help them make their start in this new country.

“When Laura Axlerod and Greg Richter approached me about making a short film about Becoming Colonel Cullmann, it seemed to me another opportunity to spread the word about Cullman,” Rowlette explained. “I readily agreed and looked forward to the project. Then, before I knew it, the two were at my house with all sorts of cameras and equipment set up and pointed right at me. I must have answered a hundred questions or more that day,” he belly laughed. “The first question they asked me was, ‘Why continue to be the Colonel if you’re not from Cullman and don’t live in Cullman anymore?’”

“I was born and raised in Nashville, TN, moved to Cullman in 1987 and then moved from Cullman to Decatur, Alabama in 2007 because I needed to get a little closer to where I work—Huntsville,” said Rowlette. “When people found out I was thinking about moving, they said they would allow me to move as long as I continued to be The Colonel. For me it was simple…I had no plans to ever stop portraying The Colonel; there were just way too many perks!”

So, why does Rowlette portray the founder of a city in which he was not born and a place he no longer lives?

“Because I am The Colonel, regardless of where I live,” Rowlette practically sang. “I consider Cullman to be home. I continue because the people of Cullman ask me to. When I walk through town and hear a little child say to his Mom or Dad, ‘That’s Colonel Cullmann’, it melts my heart. Talk about losing my identity? Let’s just say, if I ever stopped portraying Colonel Cullmann, that’s when I would lose my identity. The Colonel has become a part of who I am.”

For more information about filmmakers Laura Axelrod and Greg Richter’s documentary, Becoming Colonel Cullmann, please visit the official Becoming Colonel Cullmann website. To follow Laura Axelrod’s film career, go to Laura Axelrod, Greg Richter, Colonel Cullmann and the film Becoming Colonel Cullmann can all be followed on Twitter and Facebook as well.

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Happy Labor Day

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 1, 2014

vector labels Labor Day

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No Appalachian History Weekly podcast today

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 31, 2014


A Happy Labor Day celebration to you all! Back next week with a fresh podcast.

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New Historical Marker Marks Graves of 2 in Hatfield-McCoy Feud

Posted by Dave Tabler | August 29, 2014

The Kentucky Historical Society will unveil a new historical marker today at a cemetery with ties to the Hatfield-McCoy feud. The marker tells about Nancy McCoy Phillips and her husband, Frank Phillips. The 4 p.m. unveiling will be in Phillips Cemetery, 899 Phillips Branch Road, Phelps.


One side of the marker notes that Frank Phillips was instrumental in the capture of the Hatfield family and others involved in the 1882 shooting death of three McCoy brothers. In 1888, Gov. Simon Bolivar Buckner sent Phillips as a special envoy to West Virginia to arrest them.

Information on Nancy McCoy Phillips is on the opposite side. She was the youngest daughter of Asa Harmon McCoy, the first man killed in the Hatfield-McCoy feud. When she was 15, Nancy married Johnson “Johnse” Hatfield, son of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield. She later married Phillips.

The Pike County Tourism, Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsors the marker.

More than 2,200 historical markers statewide tell Kentucky’s history. More information about the marker application process, a database of markers and their text and the Explore Kentucky History app, a virtual tour of markers by theme, is at KHS administers the Kentucky Historical Marker Program in cooperation with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet.

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