Growing up with the Company Store

By Dwight Williamson

Island Creek Coal Company's No. 16 StoreIsland Creek Coal Company’s No. 16 store was located where D&S Machine Shop is now just above the Verdunville Post Office. The center of a coal camp, company stores  were busy except on Sunday’s when they were closed. It is believed that this photo was taken on a Sunday since there are no vehicles or customers.

There was a time not that long ago when nearly every Logan County community had its own version of today’s Walmart. To the mining camp souls who usually lived near the establishments, they were simply known as the “Company Stores.”

Although the discovery of coal in West Virginia happened in Boone County a few years before the start of the Civil War, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that coal mining was being visualized by the “few” as a certain means to become wealthy. Most of the lands of the county were owned by a handful of people, many of whom had “seen their better days” and most had already earned their mark in the timbering business. Farming was about the only other alternative for what I shall term the “Loganites”, a mixture of mostly raw boned Scotch­-Irish, English, German and Welsh peoples; very independent descendants of those adventurers who had traversed the hills and valleys of the Carolinas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio and most certainly “Old” Virginia to settle near the waters of the Guyandotte and in the fertile valleys of the region.

Gone were the so called “savages” who once hunted, trapped and fished in territories the Indian tribes rightfully claimed, victims of the white man’s push westward — a push for some, but not all, to get away from the government’s tax on whiskey brought on by the “Whiskey Rebellion” of years before. Some had been classified as murderers, but most Indians who had survived the white man’s disease of smallpox became the “murdered”. Even their final resting places, sacred only to them, soon would become the white man’s domain. Structures in Lawnsville, now known as Logan, and Buffalo City, today known as the town of Man, cover what scattered remains that have not been removed.

Perhaps it was “subconscious guilt” which caused the early townsfolk to change the town’s name to first Aracoma and in 1907 to Logan; two local historical Indian names still honored today in the summer productions of The Aracoma Story held at Chief Logan State Park. The reasoning for the names really doesn’t matter.

What we do know is that properties were sold and leased to large out­ of ­state companies and these companies needed workers… and, there were few to be found in the then isolated region. Surveys and core samples had been completed and experts knew the mighty black gold was there for the taking. Advertising in foreign countries, where people suffered far rougher economic and social wrongs than America, companies began seeking employees. Some companies even paid for the means of travel to the “land of the free” and the various nationalities were met by company workers as they arrived by boat to escort them to our hills. The travel bill would be taken from the soon to be coal miners’ pay. Negroes were recruited from the still very prejudicial south from the likes of Alabama and Georgia, places many were glad to be leaving.

Mines and railroads were opened in nearly every hollow, so homes were built by the various companies to accommodate the many workers and their families, many of whom spoke little English; their heritage being a mix of Italian, Hungarian, Czech and other languages from far off places. They, along with the black employees, soon would become the backbone of the economy of the county and arguably the great state of West Virginia. It remains the same today.

While the town of Logan grew seemingly overnight from 400 to many thousands in just 10 years, likewise grew the entire county.

Travel was limited from one hollow to the next and roads were few and rough, to say the least. Therefore, stores were needed to supply food as well as goods for its employees. For years, different companies supplied its own form of money known as script which could only be spent at the company store and was useless anywhere else. Prices were set by the companies and when miners did get meager wage increases, it is said the stores raised their prices.

It is the simple truth which the past unveils, and that is: the “Matewan Massacre,” the “Blair Mountain War” and finally unionization brought about changes to the industry both financially and in terms of lives. Perhaps it is because of these changes, long before this writer’s time, that I have a “good” perspective in terms of the “Company Store.” Gone were the “script days” when I sprouted into youth hood.

Growing up in various company houses but nearly always within a stone’s throw (and I possessed what some said was a “good” throwing arm) from Island Creek Coal Company’s No. 16 store on Mud Fork, all my memories surrounding the store are nothing but good- natured. So it is, I believe, with many others of the time period, whether in company store neighborhoods like Holden, Omar, Mallory, Lundale, Shamrock, Whitman, Chauncey, Sharples, Dehue, Amherstdale, Monaville or any of the many other such locations scattered throughout the county and other parts of the state.

Stores varied in size from neighborhood to neighborhood and were numbered to match the nearby mine’s number. Island Creek owned many such places, most notably the four­story Holden No. 22 location which still stands today. One of very few brick stores built, it today serves a righteous purpose as the “Dream Center” for the Verdunville Church of God. It opened October 10, 1936, probably replacing a smaller store. The Logan Banner’s headline of the day read: “New No. 21 Store at Holden Opens Most Auspiciously”. There were various forms of entertainment that day as the Banner proclaimed the store “presents a most pleasing appearance” and presented “the latest equipment and merchandising ideas to aid and make shopping a delightful pleasure.”

Well now, at the 16 store, probably like other locations, our “delightful shopping experience” consisted of a small coke, a moon pie or oatmeal cake and a bag of Dan­ Dee potato chips for a quarter; not that we didn’t have to take a store order for our parents or grandparents upon occasions. We were mostly “kids” and you could have called us the “porch sitters”. Day or night, it seemed there was always someone sitting on the concrete porch just watching the cars go by or perhaps staring at the sky in wonderment. I suspect Homer Hickam, noted author of “The Rocket Boys”, fits into this category from the coal hollow where he was raised in McDowell County.

Our store featured grocery aisles, a section for clothing, jewelry, etc., a hardware area which also had new Maytag washers, Kelvinator cooking stoves and many appliances; all of which could be delivered. There also was a single gas pump for those families fortunate enough to possess an automobile. We were “top shelf” because we even had a butcher, and not all stores did. Our butcher was special. It was said he could cut part of his finger off, wrap it quickly, and never get a drop of his blood in the hamburger he was grinding fresh for someone. Sadly, OUR BUTCHER (Don Moore) passed within the past month at about 80. His legacy as the company store butcher with the friendly smile lives on, as do the memories of those employees who left before him. One such person was the store manager, Dow Thompson. If Dow, as we all called him, was supposed to possess the “company man” mentality, he did not.

During times of strife, and there were many, as strikes often took their toll and layoffs  could be frequent, local families often did without and could not charge at the store. However, I fervently remember him always making sure around holidays, particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas, that needy families got a turkey or ham. Children never missed out on candy and other goodies, thanks to the store manager. Since most of the neighborhood fit into the same category, I imagine this was a chore for him, perhaps even paying for it himself.

The two-­story structure served as a community center for all of Mud Fork, as two other stores on the creek (Nos. 15 and 17) had long been closed. The time period I am referring to is the late 1950s and early 60s. There were dances held regularly upstairs. In addition, the Boy Scouts of the late Troop Leader Grady Nelson (State Senator Art Kirkendoll’s father-­in-­law) had weekly meetings there. It was also the home of the Verdunville Woman’s Club. The names of people like Mona Hall, Florence Baisden and Mrs. Ted Hale, immediately come to mind when thinking of the club. Since courthouse records show all of the coal camp houses being built about 1920, it is probable the store came to be in the same time frame.

My group of “porch sitters” were a little too young for most of these activities and stuck to sock hops and Fall Festivals at the grade school located not far away, and today still stands upon the site where No. 16 coal mine operated. It was in the 16 mine two brothers-­in-­law of mine lost their father Bill McCallister in a slate fall when they were infants. In the same tragedy, another great man, my now deceased neighbor, Neil Meade, lost his dad while he too was very young. Such was the case around the county as thousands paid the price of mining coal. Death and loss of limb were rampant, particularly in the early days. Loss of a father naturally meant unusual hardships for spouses trying to raise a house full of children. Other family and coal mining neighbors helped every way possible. It was the rightly coal camp thing to do. Of course, churches availed themselves as well.

Our family home still stands. But, at one time my great-­uncle Albert resided next door. He lost one leg and several fingers in a mining accident. On the other side of our house lived John Evans. He was called Peg ­Leg John for good reason. A friendly man, John supposedly lost a leg and fingers while trying to hop a coal train. I never knew the truth because he enjoyed joking with us younger folk. I guess I should have asked his daughter (Kathy Manley) a long­time teacher and fellow Logan High School graduate of mine now residing at Chapmanville.

My father, Carlos, my grandfather Amos, my uncles Lowell Williamson and Willard (Junior) Burton and Henry Bowers were all coal miners. In fact, nearly everybody in the neighborhood either was or had been a coal miner. My father, who worked for Youngstown Steel at Dehue, said he mined coal under the Guyandotte River, often working in water over his waist. “Don’t ever go into the coal mines,” he once cautioned me. “It’s no place you want to work.” And, I never have.

So, the “Porch Sitters”, sometimes late at night with a transistor radio to our heads  listening to far­ off radio stations like WOWO and WLS of Chicago or WCAU of Philadelphia, thought we were keeping pace with the times. During days and early evenings we listed to local stations and the Cincinnati Reds. And, then came The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Creedence Clearwater Revival; all this, coupled with the likes of Johnny Cash, Mearle Haggard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette well, no wonder we even today sometimes get funny looks.

While some of the sitters enjoyed passing time filing down pennies to fit the phone in a booth located behind us on the porch, others mastered the art of pitching pennies on that same porch. After all, we really had no one to call.

The basketball rim we had erected near the store kept us busy during the proper sporting season. During days of baseball, softball or football we always afterwards ended up on that same porch — still watching the cars go by and staring at the moonlit sky. The “porch sitters” always knew we could reach the moon.

It is said that “poor people have poor ways”— and we most certainly did.

Ah, but don’t ever be fooled. While some may come and some may go, the “richness” of the “porch sitters” shall live on.

Dwight Williamson is a contributing writer and a former reporter for The Logan Banner. He currently serves as a Logan County Magistrate.

*Published with permission.

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8 Responses to Growing up with the Company Store

  1. Virginia Stepp says:

    Kathy Manley (hopefully the same referenced in this article) was my fourth grade teacher at Omar Elementary. She would spank our thighs with a small round paddle. Oh, oh that burns.

  2. Marietta Gilbert says:

    Excellent article…my mother grew up around 16 (Heralds) – my father’s mother and family lived in the area for many years as well (Baldwins). I have such good memories of the area and of the closeness of families.

  3. Ernest Tomblin Jr. says:

    Great Story, My Father Ernest Tomblin worked in #16 mine as well as others owned by Island Creek and I went to the company store and got script when you could only draw after so many hours worked and as well as I can remember we had a script card they would mark and give you about 7 dollars.We lived in Baisden Bottom at the time and later moved to Rock House.I had three brothers Donald, Danny, and Larry who we lost in 1970 on Christmas eve,Three sisters Patricia, Marietta and Phylis.I now live in Fairmont, Don and Danny ,Moundsville Phylis Wheeling Marietta Dayton Ohio and Patricia is deceased.Lots of Logan county Memories…..

  4. Gene Lowe says:

    I remember the Company Stores very well. i started working around the store at 18 Camp when I was 8 years old. Chili Hughes was the Manager.At number Dow Thompson was the only Manager I can remember at that store. We played a lot of basketball in the area for almost every function in the Coal Camps.I was young and Esmond Curry taught me a lot. He played to win and he usually did.He was one of the best fast pitch softball players in WV.Any way back to number 16 store. A sad day in my young life was when I was in the eight grade and my five dollars a week job came to be no more. The store closed. a lot of good memories growing up in WV..

  5. Lillian Porter Smith says:

    Great story Dwight Williamson, I grew up at Dehue, which was a Sister Company to Coalwood, We have a Reunion every year for over 30 years and still have at least 300 to 400 present every year, Again thanks for writing this

  6. Great entry. According to the late Bob Spence and other sources, Thomas Dunn English renamed the town Aracoma during his time as mayor in the 1850s. English, a poet, regarded the Amerindian name more pleasing to his artistic senses. Thereafter, journalists, writers, and map-makers sometimes used the name of Aracoma, although most preferred “Logan Court House.”