Coal Country

black charcoals

Best of the ‘Gest

from January, 2021, courtesy of SB Jon

SB Jon (Crimson SBs) is a University Photographer for Harvard Public Affairs and Communications in Cambridge, MA. He was introduced to the Silverback Digest by his brother Jerry (Quaker SBs). SB SM

I made two trips to Coal Country, in 1978 and 1979. For the first one I was asked by fellow photographer and Roz Gerstein to accompany her to take photos for her upcoming WV edition of the Women’s Yellow Pages, a source book for women. The idea was to show women in non-stereotypical roles, and as strong role models. Roz and I spent some time together, but also separated and spent time apart in different areas. Susan Meiselas, a Magnum photographer, also contributed photos. Then, a year later I went back with another photographer friend, not on any assignment, but simply because I was fascinated with the area. The trip made for some strong photos and some close calls, but I lived to tell the tale!

Tent revival meeting, Briarbranch, KY, 1978. Traveling evangelists would set up a tent in a small town and hold services for a few days, then pick up stakes and move on. People swayed when moved by the spirit, and spoke in tongues. A laying on of hands to cure various ailments and calling on the Lord for strength was also common. Jon Chase photo

Hired hand in a tobacco field, Jackson, KY, 1978. Jackson is nestled in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau of the Appalachian Mountains. Kentucky produces more tobacco than any other state except North Carolina. For centuries, tobacco barns dotted the central Kentucky landscape, but as health risks from smoking became clear, sales of the state’s longtime top crop plummeted. Now farmers are turning to hemp as a less labor-intensive, more profitable alternative with a growing market for the extracted CBD oil. Jon Chase photo

Two brothers, two sides: one union, the other, non-union, standing but not working during a lengthy coal strike in Norton, Virginia, 1978. Because one brother was a supervisor, he was by definition not a union member. It was not rare to see this situation in a coal community where almost everyone worked in the mines, and could produce deep tensions within a family during a prolonged strike. Jon Chase photo

A woman handles a rattlesnake at a church service in Micco, West Virginia in 1979. The minister standing behind her with arms outstretched lost his 15-year-old son to a rattlesnake bite a month earlier. Snake handling is based on a verse from Acts 28:3-6 in the Bible saying, “They will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Snake handling has declined considerably since the time I took this photo, with very few  practicing churches remaining. Micco is named for the Main Island Creek Coal Company. Jon Chase photo

Mother and daughter, Rowe Restaurant, Algoma, WV, 1978. The back story here makes the photo particularly poignant. This combination restaurant/bar was like many in coal country, open early and late to accommodate miners working around-the-clock shifts. Men came in for beers after the graveyard shift ended, while others ate breakfast before starting work. The day I came by a fist fight broke out between two burly brothers in their late teens. A few punches were thrown, but it was quickly broken up. I was sitting with the woman pictured, whose husband was the owner. She got very teary and upset, despite no one getting hurt. When I asked why, she explained she hated to see brothers fight. She went on to relate how years earlier two brothers began fighting, and the place was getting torn up. Her husband told them to stop, to no avail. He raised his shotgun from behind the bar and repeated his demand. The two charged him, and he fired his gun. Seconds later, two brothers lay dead on the barroom floor. No charges were ever brought. That was justice in the back hills of West Virginia. Jon Chase photo
Contemplative coal miner on the graveyard shift in an underground mine in Twilight, WV. Twilight is in Boone County, West Virginia, with a 2010 population of 90. Twenty percent of the population in the county under 65 are listed as having a disability. That could be from mining accidents, air quality, or various other factors. The poverty rate of Boone County is 22.5%, placing it third highest among the 55 WV counties. Jon Chase photo.

5 thoughts on “Coal Country

  1. What terrific photos, and text as well. I’d love to see more of this exceptional work.

  2. These are such powerful, real photos!
    Portrays “another America” often tied negatively to fossil fuels and fundamental religion….victims who struggle on. Hopefully some real progress will start to be made to bridge the gap between America’s “Haves” and “Have nots”.
    Mike C –
    Happy, healthy, “wealthy” and very fortunate on Post Island

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