Perhaps sit down some time with an older person that has a little time on their hands and take some curiosity in their history. With a little prodding, you might find more interesting things than you bargained for. Following is a short little story about coal country in West Virginia from the vantage point of someone who has seen many transitions there.
This story starts with ‘Let there be water’, a shallow sea to be precise. This was a long time ago, perhaps in the neighborhood of 500 million years ago. Still, this is not anywhere near the beginning of the geologic story of West Virginia, but it seems like a good place to start. The bottom of this sea slowly rose up until the salt water was chased westward. Even though West Virginia was now above sea level, the area still persisted as a marsh for a very long time after that, with all kinds of muck and rotting vegetation sinking into the deep layers of mud. Fifty million years of rotting and sinking into this mud until the poor old plants and animals at the beginning of this story were thousands of feet under. The energy absorbed by the plants, coming from the nuclear fire burning in the sun back in those early days was not completely lost. Buried in the mud, the dead things in it, still possessed abundant amounts of hydrocarbons. These hydrocarbons had been painstakingly assembled and wrestled from the water and carbon dioxide around them. The animals were just along for the ride really. The plants did all of the heavy lifting, fueled by the solar energy they were gathering at the time. Over time, and with much pressure and lack of oxygen, this disgusting abundance of rot, slowly turned into something less smelly and rather flammable.
Forces that are complex and deserving of their own story, started pushing against each other from opposite directions and squeezed West Virginia until, I am sure with much groaning, it was lifted way up and turned this swamp into majestic and rugged mountains. The ancient and flammable hydrocarbons were still there. In a literal sense, John Denver’s song, “Life… is younger than the mountains” is not at all correct. The coal, and the life that made it, far predates the mountains themselves. That line of the song, however, probably refers to the people and culture of the area.
The other resource that had to come together in order to make this coal useful was the great number of people that were needed to dig it out from under the mountains and then transport it away. The balance of power between the investors and the workers in the early days produced songs that accurately documented the plight of these people with words such as “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt”. The mine owners paid the employees in company script as opposed to real money, which could only be given back to the company for rent and at the mine owned store. That same song gets completed with “I owe my soul to the company store”. Men would take their young sons down into the mine to help them produce more and thus, help the family get ahead. These kids were supposed to be at least 18 years old to go into the mines, but the mine owners never cared to check. Some were as young as 14. If any of the employees were caught trying to organize a union, they were immediately thrown out of the company owned house, furniture and all.
Towards the end of that early period, Carrie Taylor, the true point of this story, was born and grew up in the small coal mining town of Roderfield, tucked into a deep holler that was lifted and formed by the stresses of this continental pushing match. All of the towns in this region were rather small because they were squeezed into the narrow creek and river valleys between steep and rugged mountains. It was slow to get from place to place as the roads had to wind their way up and down these creeks. The big town of Welch, which consisted of a couple thousand people, was eight miles away. This was again, a long time ago, perhaps in the neighborhood of 82 years or so. Still, this is not anywhere near the beginning of humans digging up this flammable old swamp stuff, but it seems like a good place to start. The mines were still being built and the railroads were coming in to take the coal away.
The Taylor family consisted of dad, the coal miner, mom and six children, ranging in ages from 1 to 12, with Carrie being fourth in line. Life was a challenge at that time as the workers had not yet organized and the mine owners were somewhere else, maximizing profits. Then, when Carrie was at the early age of 5, her father died. Surprisingly, she does not present this story as sad, just with a shrug and as that which must be dealt with in life. Much of this story is a tale of how resourceful people can be. Perhaps a luxury of modern times is having the ability to dwell on, and sadden ourselves with, problems that we have no control over.
At the time of her father’s death, the oldest child was 12, the oldest boy, Walt, was 10. In a testament to how quickly people can grow up, Walt immediately took on the father and provider roll, at just ten years old. I got no sense of ridicule or resentment about this. It seemed to be natural and appreciated. Responsibilities were far too great for Walt to go to high school.
The family was very poor and was brought up in a small house that was built by the mine owners. It was cold in the little coal miner’s house. Leaky and uninsulated, it was too expensive to buy enough fuel, despite it being nestled in the very mountains that all the coal was coming out of. This was the 1940’s in West Virginia. The family decided to insulate by making paste out of flour in order to wallpaper the place with newspaper. My mother in law, Carrie, was at a tender age of six and newly able to read at this time.
Apparently, somewhere in the state, there had been a gruesome man who had murdered a six year old girl. He got his story and mug shot on the front page of the paper. That front page happened to get glued just above Carrie’s bed, looking down at her. She decided to be a brave little girl and never mentioned it, even though he glared at her nightly. Apparently, one should use caution when wallpapering.
Carrie’s mother did laundry and any other work she could get to support the family. They also managed to grow much of their food. When pressed about what life was like, there was a pause, then “well we laughed a lot”. Carrie’s mother briefly remarried. She described her step father as a nice enough man, when he was not drinking. Trouble was, he didn’t spend enough time not doing that. Luckily, her mother was strong enough to run him off in a reasonably short amount of time. Carrie’s stories tend to drop him out of the picture.
The children worked hard to help out, but when they became just old enough, they each moved on with their own lives. This is a theme that I’ve heard of before with other famous people with similar beginnings. Walt got a job in Columbus, Ohio and purchased a house there by the age of 17. His mother and the younger members of the family joined him there within a few years. Carrie quickly chafed at Walt’s ‘heavy hand’ and thus, moved back to Welch, West Virginia and moved in with her older sister who resided in the nurse’s housing of the hospital.
Upon arriving back East, and at the early age of fifteen, Carrie went to her prospective employer and lied about her age, saying that she was the seventeen years old that was required for the job. Her new boss said “I know that you are lying to me about being seventeen and really you are only sixteen, but I’m going to give you the job anyway”. She did not object. Working hard and becoming a valuable employee, she quickly settled into a professional position. While two days into her introductory job of working the telephone switchboard, she informed the top surgeon of the hospital that a particular line was busy, she was not going to cut in, and he would just have to try again later. The surgeon wasn’t used to not getting his way so he took it out on her. She explained to him “well, if you’re going to talk to me in that way, I’m just going to unplug you sire”, which she did. It did not take very long for a certain red faced surgeon to come storming into the switchboard room, demanding to know who was just on the other end of that wire. After some scrambling and covering, he said “you’ve got a hell of lot of spunk”, and then he left.
With a few more years of growing up, something that she had done a lot of at an early age, Carrie decided that she wanted to find a way to see the world. She joined the army. After basic training, she was stationed at West Point in New York. She loved it. Her duties were clerical in nature, but as with any job, it is important and challenging if one strives to do it well. She was especially good at writing requisitions.
One of her clever projects of self promotion, with an understanding of how the world worked, was to order a special, heavy glass topper for the desk of her boss. In these requisitions, one must message all the little truths that explain why such a thing is needed for the unit. It came! The Colonel was so impressed that he promised to sign another requisition for an additional one for her desk. Now they both had beautiful desks. She later helped him write his research paper. He later tried to get her a promotion in rank but there was a promotion freeze in effect.
After leaving the military, Carrie went back home to Welch and started to date a man that she had eyes for long before she had ever left. She originally met him at a New Years Eve dance at the local Moose lodge long before their military careers separated them. Carrie was a tall women of 5’10 inches and Matt was a rather short man at 5’6. At their original meeting, it had impressed her that he was not intimidated by that and he spoke to her with confidence. Things had to wait though as she was too young back then, but not any more. He too had left the place for a while as he had been drafted into the army and sent off to war, during which time he earned a bronze star for bravery. This was something that his family knew nothing about until it was found tucked away in the back of a drawer. It seemed to be something that he just preferred not to talk about.
Her new husband, Matt Yurkovich was born in Gary, West Virginia, near Welch and Roderfield where Carrie had grown up. He was the second son of immigrants from Ravna Gora, Croatia. Many of the coal miners of the area were immigrants. That coal was not coming out of those mountains without the prodding of immigrants. Luckily, by the time Carrie and Matt started their family, unions had come in, despite the mine owners best efforts. With this, the work of coal mining was getting lifted up to a good paying occupation that professional people could raise families on. I am sure that this cut into the mine owners profits, but they managed to come through it without the need for sad songs to be written about them.
Matt and Carrie Yurkovich raised three girls. Carrie always had a need to work a bit more than was to Matt’s liking but they managed it well. When the girls were young, Carrie was able to do a fair bit of the hospital’s clerical work from home, something that was not as common as it is today. Matt, the husband of Carrie and the father of their three girls would come home from the mines every evening clean and never with a complaint to be shared with the family. He loved sports and would throw a ball with any kid who came knocking on the door asking “Mrs. Yurkovich, can Mr. Yurkovich come out and play?” He grew corn and other vegetables in a little clearing that he had made in the woods between some railroad tracks and a hillside.
Matt finished his education and worked hard to better himself. He took pride in properly doing what needed to be done, without complaint. While working in the mine, he had to patiently wait until the end of the shift to be transported out, so as to not waste a coal transport trip, even though he had just had several toes severed by a mine car. This was not a story that was championed by the family. It was something that just caught my attention one time with a “back up, what did you just say?”.
People may have been too busy to continue with education in the early time but that was not going to be allowed to continue. All three of the Yurkovich girls earned college degrees with masters degrees and beyond in the mix. It is wonderful to see how a society can make great things happen out of challenging times if given a little opportunity. Things might have turned out a little differently if the mines were still allowed to pay the workers with fake money and control all aspects of the workers lives.
The entire family eventually moved on from the heart of this challenging land to live in. The towns are still there, but changes in the coal industry has made them hollowed out versions of what they once were. The most notable change is the tremendous strides in mechanization, allowing very few workers to be needed. This, along with lowered demand for soft coal, meant that my new wife, Mary Yurkovich Piper, was not able to show me the vibrancy of where she grew up. The mountains are still beautiful though.