Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We’ve Lost Who We Are

Appalachia, VA – Photo by Nick Mullins

Over the past few years, we have witnessed an amazing downturn in the coal industry. Mines all throughout Appalachia have closed, leaving thousands of coal miners and their families in dire straits. For as long as the coal industry has existed, the people of Appalachia have lived at the mercy of a boom and bust market. How did this come to be?

Weren’t the people of Appalachia once known for being robust, resilient, and having an endearing sense of hospitality? Didn’t they live in the mountains for nearly a century before timber and coal companies came in? Weren’t they enjoying the absolute freedom of their lives, without debt, without a want or care for the latest social and cultural trends that placed their urban neighbors into a life of wage slavery? What has happened to Appalachian people that have made these recent layoffs so detrimental?

Had the mining layoffs come 75 or 100 years ago, they would have hurt, but the blow to mountain families would not have been nearly as severe. Our ancestors had been wary of dependence upon coal mining wages for their food supply and shelter. They didn’t trust banks. They’d known the bondage placed on them by lords in the old country,  eastern plantations owners who they were indentured servants to, and eventually the coal companies with their company scrip, company stores, and systems of perpetual debt. For years after coal became king, Appalachian people held on to a sense of freedom that was passed down to them by their ancestors.

My grandfather tried to teach us, “It’s your wants that get you in trouble, not your needs.” But theirs was also a different time. When our ancestors lived, there were still enough forest commons that people shared to hunt in and run their hogs. The water coming out of the mountain sides was still clean enough to drink. Extended families still owned enough land to graze mule teams and perhaps even a dairy cow. They could still plant enough food for themselves and sometimes for their livestock. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was a life our ancestors stuck with, just as many Amish do.

Mine owners had great difficulty forcing people to work in deplorable conditions for little money. If mountaineers didn’t like the job, they could leave without consequence to their family’s well being, and many often did. This was one of the prevailing reasons that coal companies recruited immigrants from the northeast, poor families who did not have land in the mountains or the knowledge of how to live off of it.

But times have certainly changed. Many of the miners who were laid off in recent years did not have a farm to go home to. They have not been able to spend their idle time using their hands to provide for their family in the traditional ways. Each day the mail carrier brings more bills, more reminders of the life they’ve been forced to lead at the mercy of “industrialized progress.” It is truly criminal how much the coal industry has forced us to depend on them.

Coal companies have taken our lands, our water, our dignity—even our freedom. Since they came in, each successive generation has lost the ability to provide for themselves using what God has given us. Without our lands and our forests, there are few choices when it comes to carving out a little bit of happiness.

We have been enslaved into the social trends our ancestors avoided. We have been told that to be somebody we have to work hard, to have nice homes, nice vehicles, that our children must dress in brand name clothing. Each weekend many miners flock to the nearby cities to buy  material things, becoming willing participants in conspicuous consumption, trying to prove to the rest of the world they are not the “dumb hillbillies.” Coal mining wages are the great equalizer between mountain people and the outside world, but it comes at the cost of our health and our children’s future well being. Deep inside, we know that we are still looked down upon, even if we can afford the things others have. When the coal market is down and we are unable to purchase our false sense of acceptance, we lose who we are and become vitriolic towards those who would take it from us.

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Corporate jets parked at Lonesome Pine Airport, Wise, VA – Photo by Nick Mullins

Meanwhile, company heads have the legal system to their advantage once again. They’ve gone into bankruptcy, changed their names, and had a slight changing of the guard. Detached from prior responsibilities and debt, they hit the reset button and go back to playing the game. Open this mine, close that one. Lay off this many, scare the hell out of the others to up production. Pay into this campaign, pull the strings on the politicians already in office. They have their millions safely hidden in bank accounts, global investments, and stocks in natural gas companies. They have their mansions paid off in their gated communities. When these industrialists become outplayed by their counterparts in different industries, they do not have the fear of losing their homes. They do not lay awake at night wondering if they can afford school clothes for their children, the next power bill, let alone how they can afford to get their kids to the dentist.

The “War on Coal” is real. But it’s not what they make it out to be. It is a battle between industries, massive oil and natural gas companies vying for profit in the electrical generation sector. It is not being waged by the EPA and politicians. It’s not between environmentalists and coal mining families. As with any war, it is the poor who fight it while the wealthy sit back, giving orders to their officers in Congress and in the state house. They spread propaganda to make people fight for their causes, letting the casualties fall upon the lower classes.

We fight their battles and suffer their losses. They leave us with a war torn lands, water we cannot drink, messes that cannot be cleaned up, and all the public debts that must be repaid. They leave us jobless and broken with children wanting to be their next coal miners, the next to fall victim to their game. Each time they battle for profits the less we are able to pick up the pieces and begin our own lives again, the less we know who we really are.

If only we could realize and begin to fight back. We could see through their lies; we could see them as they truly are. We could remember our history and know that coal companies are not our friends and that we are not Friends of Coal, we are Slaves to Coal. We can find our way back to our own freedom, building our own economy, not being enslaved to theirs. It will not be easy. There will be mistakes, there will be further losses,  but we must start somewhere, and that somewhere begins without a dependence on coal.

Reposted and adapted from Laid Off published August 23, 2014

7 thoughts on “Appalachians Have Lost More Than Coal, We’ve Lost Who We Are

  1. In the day the mindset of the Appalachian economy was that subsistence (what others will call poverty) was the normal and default state. Of course we are poor, everyone’s poor, it’s the way people are.

    But from time to time bounty would smile on us and there would be extra from mining, logging, occasional manufacture. But no on depended on it or expected it to last. Such things just don’t last.

    And when that extra was gone, patch up the overalls, pick some more beans, see what the neighbor wants for the extra pig, and wait for the economic tide to come in again as it inevitably would, And just as inevitably go out again.

    But somewhere along the way the mindset changed and there developed the mindset that the industrial coal job was the default and thus being without it was not just the next turning of the season but a life changing disaster..

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  2. Such crucial observations and insights, Nick, and so eloquently-told. Your work resonates deeply with me. Although the losses differ a little for descendants of Indigenous peoples in what is now the USA, we, too, often fail to see the larger structures of oppression that continue to keep us enslaved and divided from those who share our continuing marginalization.

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  3. There’s this thing called “economic diversification.” There’s a traditional saying about not putting all your eggs in one basket. For the life of me, I don’t understand why southern West Virginians can’t grasp these concepts.

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  4. This post hit the problem square in the mouth and until ( as Stephen Gaylock sated ) the people of the coal mining areas of Appalachia step away from dependence on the coal,gas and timber industries they will never achieve a true moucham of Independence as their forefathers enjoyed.
    I have jumped up and down and preached diversification till I’m blue in the face, the people of Appalachia have the opportunity to break the stranglehold of the big corporations, there so much Eco-Tourist money rushing through our state that could be captured that it’s not funny, you have thousands of people rushing to other places on the interstates that run through Appalachia everyday ,market what we have and capture some of that money, retrain those out of work miners, provide them seed money to start a business catering to those Eco-Tourists, Ivan and dos work !!!

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    • You are so right. The Appalachian Mountains have so much to offer, if someone would just go into one county and show the people how to go back to pre-coal days and diversify and concure their own dependency. My great grandfather had land in Scott County and with a single tractor he grew more food then his family could consume, re raised hundreds of chickens, dairy cows, honey bees and grew anything from simpke vegetables to canteloupes, watermelons, pumpkins and various gourds. He never depended on the coal companies for anything. He was not wealthy in the money sense but always had something to trade for what he needed. He saved all his own seeds and bought nothing. His table was always a bounty and no one ever went hungry. “Barter System” with weekly community gatherings need to be brought back with solar and wind mills for individual use with gas or coal as a back up would also reduce the independence on the coal mongals. It can be done. The natural beauty in the area would also draw thousands of tourists if this angle was properly managed. There is hope. Just need good leaders with great visions.

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  5. My family comes from Lee Co, Virginia. Tobacco was king of the crops and if you did not teach school, your family worked in the mines in St. Charles. I now live in Tazewell Co., Virginia and they are working really hard to promote tourism. The Clinch River and the four wheel trails are bringing much needed dollars to this area. We live in a beautiful part of the world but there are still people that blame the past administration for the coal decline. Little do they know that coal has been on the decline for years. The West Virginia mountains and Virginia mountains have been raped for coal. The water is not fit to drink and the roads that once took tons of coal out, are now unfit to drive. Some of these die-hard coal minded people will not let it go. They will die from black lung and vote for anyone that promises to bring coal back. They are in denial about the decline even when the CEOs of the power companies tell them they are going to natural gas, solar, or hydroelectric power. It is a mindset that will take time to go away but not when you have politicians that promise to re-open the mines. They know nothing about coal nor the people. They just want the vote.

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  6. Yes, with all the rape of Mother Nature, stripping the forests, polluting the streams it’s still a beautiful place. This is when you get away from all the aluminum clad homes, concrete porches, tacky wrought iron and sad yard dogs behind chain link fences or tied to a chain to get to some green natural space. Craftsmanship, wood, natural products are the way to go. When did all the fake stuff come in…..with TV, Cable, advertising. West Virginians seem to have picked up all the worst for sale in America. And neighbors no longer really help each other do they….to paint, fix up when someone just can’t. I think the free spirit of the Mountaineers is gone. Why do they not want to listen to someone who comes from there, went away or dammit just stayed there and got “educated”—learning something new with a deep respect for what is natural and good and not polluting seems like dare I say progress. Byrd paved over the length of the state, tourists drive right over the best areas of the state to go south, to nicer areas, The Smokies, even Georgia and Florida. The whole state of WV could become a pristine tourist haven…..the northern part is already second home land for DC types and Coal Company barons. Now we have a Baron in the White House thanks to WV. As long as people think God will provide they will not open their hearts and minds.

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