Barb and I took our first full day-trip of the summer on Monday, July 9 down to the Southern Coalfields on what was, for me, a pilgrimage to the mining town of Coalwood, WV. This former company town was the boyhood home of the native author and NASA employee, Homer Hickam, Jr., during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Homer wrote a trilogy of books about his former home that I have avidly read.
Although we had very different childhood upbringings – Homer was the son of a highly respected Olga Mine Superintendent, while I grew up on our family dairy farm in New Hampshire – I discovered in the pages of his books that we shared a lot in common. We both were raised in the mountains by fathers totally dedicated to their respective lines work. They were both men of few words who rarely offered encouragement and displayed little respect for their children’s different interests. Both of us were affected by the emerging space age advances of the mid-to-late 1900’s. Homer became the founding father of Coalwood’s “Rocket Boys,” as documented in the 1999 movie, October Sky, and was inspired to build and test experimental rockets by the 1957 launch of the Soviet Sputnik satellite.
I, on the other hand, inspired with awe by the 1969 Apollo moon landing, spent many cool summer nights laying on a bank (after walking our cows up to their holding pen from the evening milking) watching streaking meteors, the stars, the moon, and occasionally, the subtle, wispy glow of the northern lights. My father taught me what caused the phases of the moon using a pair of burned out barn light bulbs to represent the changing positions (and resulting shadow effects) of the earth and moon in the glow of a working light bulb representing the sun. A few years later I had a friend, Dubber Dobbs—a true science fiction fanatic—who built a “fort” with me in a portion of our abandoned chicken house and launched a model rocket he had made from our driveway. I certainly was more of a social outcast than Homer was during my later school years, due in large part to my awkwardness and fear of social situations from isolation on the farm. However, what really captured my fascination in his books was how Homer described his feelings about his strained relationship with his father and how he struggled to understand them. I went through the same curious soul-searching process during my own childhood, and I could immediately relate to his questions and thoughts about it as described in his books. Upon reading his childhood accounts, I began to feel that we were almost twin sons from different backgrounds raised two full decades apart in different states. That, in addition to seeing firsthand the coalfields of southern West Virginia that form the core stereo-typical impressions outsiders have of our state, is why I felt so compelled to visit his childhood home.
As we traveled into the southern coalfields south of the New River, I was very impressed by the changes in topography that unfolded. Both parts of the state, our Potomac Highlands and the southern coalfields region, are dominated by forested mountains. The mountains in Pendleton county are the highest in the state, reaching nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, separated by relatively narrow valleys. While the mountains of the southern coalfields are not as tall, ranging between 2,000 and 3,200 feet, they crowd in more tightly against the rivers, which makes them feel more confining, rugged, and steep. The valleys in the southern region are far narrower than our valleys, leaving only enough room for a winding road, a railroad, and a few homes and businesses that cling to the base slopes of the hills and mountains. There are almost no farm fields to open the views and break up the dark forest expanse. Everywhere you travel, the viewscape is framed exclusively by the closest hills and mountains, and you are unable to see anything beyond them. In our area, the valley farms, fields, and meadows open the landscape and provide vistas up and down the length of the valleys and to the higher mountains beyond the immediate defining ridgelines. We saw the scarred evidence of only one surface mine (in Wyoming County) over the 100 miles we traveled through the coalfields. It emerged gradually as we drove along the Southern Coalfields Expressway from Beckley. The steep, dull, terraced bedrock slopes littered with rubble stood out starkly against the green-carpeted mountains that framed it. Many of the towns and villages through which we passed seemed largely abandoned and worn with boarded-up businesses and storefronts. Clearly, our Potomac Highlands Region and its towns are far more economically stable and vibrant than the remnant communities of the southern coalfields. However, we discovered that more of the homes we passed were surprisingly better maintained and tidy than we were led to expect.
After passing through Welch and over Welch Mountain we arrived in Coalwood and stopped at the country store directly across the street from Homer’s boyhood home during the time of the Rocket Boys. His earliest childhood years were lived in a different house. An enclosed back porch had been recently (within the past decade) added to the house and the original fence (which he blew up with his first experimental rocket), had long been replaced. The mine tipple and superintendent’s office where his father worked had been removed many years ago. We stopped at the store briefly, then turned northwest to Coalwood Main, the former town center of the mining community. There we parked on the former sites of the company Club House and Post Office and took pictures of the adjacent Community Church. Across the main street from our parking location were the deteriorating remains of the Olga Mine Office framed to the rear by the brick and glass machine shops (where many of Homer’s rockets were manufactured) and to the right by the Tudor-style company apartments. A park now marks the site where the Coalwood Big Store once stood. That park houses a model of a space shuttle, representing the program that later employed Homer to train the shuttle pilots that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope.
We drove on to find the Mudhole Church (with its distinctive round windows and listing steeple) and Cape Coalwood, the slack dump that the Rocket Boys used to launch most of their rockets. The former launch site has been restored to a natural state, which made it impossible for us to find the precise location. We traveled as far up the barely passable gravel road as we could to locate it and felt lucky to find a wide enough spot to turn around. We continued on to the City of War in an attempt to find the site of the former Big Creek High School (which Homer attended) but was unable to find it before we had to begin the return trip home.
It was a very pleasant day and excursion. The weather was warm and dry with low humidity, which made it very comfortable for driving. Although we found many of the sites mentioned prominently in his books, much of the town has changed and deteriorated. In that particular respect, it is much like the small village of North Charlestown, NH where I was raised (by an unavoidable accident of birth). What we were able to see made it easier for me to visualize in my mind the descriptions Homer wrote in his books of the former Coalwood. In my own writings about my farm upbringing, I tried to do the same for my old hometown. From that standpoint, I was satisfied with our brief one to two-hour visit. I now look forward to rereading his books with a much clearer vision of the sights and sounds he vividly described in the memoirs of his upbringing, which are now an important and cherished part of the true rural heritage of our adopted West Virginia home at Peeper Pond Farm. It was a trip that I will remember fondly for many years to come.