Life in an old coal town

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Coalwood, West Virginia
Coalwood, West Virginia sign by SheepNotGoats at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn’t know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives.”

— Homer Hickam

One of my all-time favorite stories, portrayed in the movie October Sky, tells the story of families built in and around the coal mining industry in West Virginia. Homer Hickam became an author many people sought after, in large part because he told a true American story so well.

Coal mining town

In spite of the hard truth of being born in to it, and a father who demanded his sons pick up the torch and go in to the mines, Homer was a bright boy who saw hope in his mother’s eyes and found a way out of the narrow path of coal mining. It came in the form of a teacher who saw great promise in his drive and intellect. A school project became much larger than life in Coalwood when the high school student brought home a national science award.

This past week, I met a young woman named Randi from a small coal mining town. As we talked, I asked about Coalwood, and she said, “Heck, yeh, it ain’t but a stone’s throw from where I grew up.” She even had the great pleasure of meeting Homer Hickam, bought his book and had him sign it. While I asked questions, the gravity of coal mining and the part it played in every small West Virginia town anywhere near Coalwood was drawn clearly.

Feed mill

Randi, filled with drive and determination, opened up her own feed store, born out of her love of horses. She recognized the need for a feed mill, and she knew her clientele very well. Friends and distant neighbors all had to drive a long way to buy feed for their dogs, horses, chickens, and other livestock. Her store was doing very well.

She carried the line of feeds her community needed, and she made deliveries to those who simply could not drive to her, for one reason or another. “And I would have made it, too,” she says with a mix of disappointment and grit. But then the entire coal industry took a hit like none ever seen before. Not only did her husband lose his job, but so did just about every other person who patronized Randi’s feed store. “We had to close up, and it dang near killed me,” she said.

Small town roots

Randi is learning the feed business from a new perspective, training in sales away from her home. She hates it that her small town will likely fade to nothing, and she knows she must find a way to make a living elsewhere. But home will forever be where she grew up, hunting and shooting and barrel racing her beloved horses.

My hubby and I both enjoyed getting to know this spunky, smart young woman. Her adventurous stories remind us of our own childhood. The mountains of West Virginia have remained isolated and safe enough to allow her to hunt and roam for hours on end as she was growing up.

She knows how to spot a snake and shoots to kill when they cross her path. “Ya gotta get them ‘fore they get you,” she tells us. She has a Black and Tan hound and has enjoyed coon hunting, deer hunting, and fox hunting. She shoots coyote when she sees one.

Good markswoman

“How young were you when you learned to shoot?” I asked. “Oh, heck. Mighty young, so young I think I was born sightin’ in,” she answers. She is such a good marksman that she now mainly hunts with a bow. “I reckon it just seems more sportin’ to hunt that way now,” she says at the ripe old age of 25.

A photograph of her in the woods shows her pink bow, situated near that day’s bounty. She found a way to build her own barn a few years back, designed the way she wanted, for her 14 horses, with an arena to work them in. Since the business and the marriage crumbled, she lives alone and never feels afraid.

“I have a gun and I know how to use it. If someone was dumb enough to come in on me, heck yeh, I would use it.” The spirit of determination to survive shines through in every conversation with this new friend of ours. And we sit in the front row, cheering her on with gusto.

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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, in college.

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