A note from the editor: William Trent Pancoast will give a reading from his newly published novel The Road to Matewan at Main Street Books in Mansfield, Ohio on Friday, April 7th, 6-8pm. The novel can be purchased at Main Street Books.
In late May 1920, the news spread quickly of the gun battle in Matewan in which Sid Hatfield and several other men had taken on the Baldwin-Felts detectives. It was a victory for the miners. Hatfield was the police chief of Matewan. The Baldwin-Felts men were from a Bluefield detective agency that supplied some of the strike-breakers and guns-for-hire for the coalfields. The detectives had just finished evicting a group of miners from their camp homes, a task that Hatfield refused to undertake. Few men could fight the operators on their own terms. Fewer still could stand up to Sid Hatfield, who shot coins out of the air with his forty-five. How it all started remained a mystery, but seven of the feared Baldwin-Felts men were dead, five with bullet holes in their foreheads, and the Matewan Massacre became a story to be told and retold in the tent colonies that sprang up in the mountains.
Richard was on the first train through after the battle. “Folks were quiet but you could see their pride that someone had finally stood up to the Baldwin-Felts men,” he told Thomas during a June visit after he was laid off from the railroad. “I’ve never seen a war up close, but that’s what this is.”
The tent colonies housed the striking miners, who had, with the help and money of the United Mine Workers, in April struck all of the southern coalfields to settle their grievances once and for all. It made no sense to the southern West Virginia coal miners that they were the only ones in the country not to have the benefits that the union could bring them; they were finished living under the feudal system dictated by the companies. Southern West Virginia had become a battlefield.
Jobs became scarce in Williamson. The train traffic slowed. The empty cars in the yards would stand for weeks at a time until the operators could find enough scabs to resume production. The entire economy slowed to a crawl.
Thomas Greene watched it all without surprise, as if he had known this was all ordained beforehand on the way to the End. Men forced from the land and then from their jobs and then from their homeland could not live. It was that simple. They and their families were starving, with nowhere to go, not a dime in the pocket to buy bread. What had begun only 25 years earlier now had such a head of steam that it could never, to his mind, be arrested. It was the End Times, not populated by black-winged Devils with lolling red tongues but by men in suits and ties buying and selling land and people and getting elected to county and state and federal office. Men stealing from those weaker than themselves. Men acting as corporations, preying on those who could not read or understand the documents used in this thievery and desecration. Soulless men bringing about the End.
A year passed. The strike was still on. The displaced people were starving and being herded here and there by the deputies and gun thugs. Mass warrants were issued for theft or assault or any other charges that could be dreamed up against the men of the tent colonies, and the jails were filled.
But they had made it through the winter without giving up. Everywhere these landless men roamed, helpless yet trying to help themselves the only way they could see to do so—by making the coal companies give them some input into their futures. Spring of 1921 passed and summer wore on, and still the men and the union made no progress. With cold weather not far away, there was no illusion in the minds of these strikers—they could not last out another winter. One way or another, the strike had to be settled.
Late in August came the news that thousands of miners had begun a march from Charleston to Logan. The spark that had ignited their anger was the shooting of Sid Hatfield as he walked up the steps of the courthouse in Welch to stand trial for murder charges from the Matewan Massacre. Several Baldwin-Felts gunmen had shot the unarmed Hatfield.
Rumors flew wildly about the streets of Williamson. Miners from the northern fields were on the march to aid their comrades in the southern fields. They were hell-bent on destroying everything in their path, the stories went. They would be dynamiting any factory or business that did any business with the coal concerns. Thousands of murderers and looters were on the way, first to Logan, then to Williamson.
Thomas Greene was in a depressed state when he left the factory the night he heard of the army of miners, but not because of the rumored march. That was long overdue in his mind. If it took a war to give the miners what they had coming, then let it come, he thought. The plant manager had told Thomas he would have to work late every night so the company could meet the deadlines for a batch of new orders from the northern fields. Work had been scarce at the factory since the beginning of the strike the previous year, and for several months they had worked only half days.
The air was crisp as Thomas walked along the railroad right-of-way toward home. A sadness overwhelmed him as he looked up at the full, August moon. He shivered as the cool air descended over him. Was he to spend the rest of his life making axles for coal cars? Time moved so quickly. It seemed to him that his life was being reduced to nothingness. He no longer had a purpose, unless running a lathe could be called a purpose.
His sadness blinded him. It was harvest time. Late August. He would have been cutting the rest of the hay and oats for the livestock now. The corn would be ready in a few more weeks, depending on when it had been planted.
Had it been fifteen years? No. Longer than that. Could he still do it, he asked himself? He tightened his chest and arm muscles into tense, ropy knots. Yes, he would always be able to live from the land. It seemed only yesterday that he had reigned over his land, sat after a day’s labors looking out over his valley. He had always worked harder at farming than he did at his job here at the factory. He had been working for himself then. He would feel cheated if he worked that hard at his job here. Like a slave. That’s what he was, an industrial slave, he thought. “You’ll be staying till eight tonight,” his boss told him. Be here at seven. Go home at eight. Be here. Go. Yes sir. Yes, master.
Thomas crossed the tracks and headed for the electric brightness of town. He couldn’t go home in such a foul mood.
He ducked down an alley bordering town and entered one of the speakeasies on Third Street. It was smoky and noisy, the working men within drinking, playing cards, and talking, trying to eke some sense or joy out of another day. Thomas sat down at the long bar.
“Well, if it ain’t Thomas Greene,” chuckled the man next to him. “Never knew you drank.”
“Used to try it some. Never was very good at it.”
“Well, practice makes perfect. That’s what my school teacher always said. Yessir. Practice makes perfect. I been practicin’ for over fifteen years now. Still ain’t got the hang of it. What’re you drinking?”
“Whiskey,” Thomas said. He felt uncomfortable sitting next to this man, Bud Taylor. He worked at the factory where Thomas did. They had seen each other every working day for over two years and had barely spoken a word during that time.
“Glass of whiskey for my friend here,” Bud said as the bartender approached. .
“Beer or water with it?”
“Beer,” Thomas said and reached for the bills in his pocket.
“I got it,” Bud said.
“Where you from, anyway?” Bud asked, his voice thick from the drink.
Thomas looked at Bud, still grimy, as was Thomas, from his day’s work. “That’s a strange question. I’ve known you awhile and we haven’t said a damn thing to each other.”
“Hell, I never seen you except at work. No need to get all huffy about it.”
Thomas looked at him, then down at his drink. “Bad day.”
“Know what you mean. Too long to stay in that stinkin’ place.” Bud sat for a while, then said, “Something strange about knowing who a man is for two, three years and not know nothin’ about him.” He gulped the rest of the drink and set the glass loudly on the counter. The bartender came and filled it. Thomas finished his drink and held his glass out. “I got this one,” he told Bud.
“But you never come to the bars. That’s where you get to know a man. You don’t talk much—too damn noisy—when you’re working.”
“I used to work at something where you’d get to know a man in a day,” Thomas said. “Least you’d know what he was like. Now days you don’t need to know anybody. It’s every man for himself.”
Bud stared at the bottles lining the wall before him. “Where’d them days go? A man ain’t got time to live anymore.” Bud stared ahead as if he were talking to the bottles. “Just ain’t got the time to feel alive somehow. I used to feel good. Really good. Course that was when I was a boy, afore I come to town to go to work.”
“Didn’t you work before you came here?”
Bud looked at Thomas. “You’re talking to a hillbilly!” he roared, laughing. “What the hell you mean, didn’t I work? When I was eight years old I’d do more work after school than I do all day now.” Bud paused and looked at himself in the mirror behind the bottles. He brushed his hair to the side. “I could tell you a story—I will tell you, dammit. Them coal people wonder why folks is strikin’ and blowin’ up their mines.”
“We had this little hillside farm. We worked it hard. There was eight of us kids. Wasn’t no way but to work it hard. But we lived right. Always plenty to eat. Good eatin’, too. Had venison and pork and all the beans and taters a feller’d ever want.”
“One day one of them fellers from the coal company come around. I hid in the barn and tried to listen, but I couldn’t hear nothin’. Me and Ora was up there. This feller was a’talkin’ away and Dad all of a sudden stuck out his jaw, like he done when he was mad, and pointed down the holler. That feller said something else and left. Well, that was the start. We had a bad crop the next year and here come this feller back again. Dad was worried about how we was going to make up what we lost. The rain had ruined most of our corn that year. Dad had been out looking for work but there weren’t none. Well that feller stole my Dad’s land! Dad sold him the rights to it for fifty cents an acre. Fifty cents an acre! Dad thought it was a good deal, though. He’d got himself fifty dollars in cash and we could still live there.”
The bartender set a couple more glasses of whiskey before Bud and Thomas. Both men looked quizzically at him and he pointed to the corner of the long room. Another coworker had set them up a round and toasted them with his beer. Bud turned and called, “Thank you there, Hank.” Thomas raised a hand and nodded to the man and Bud resumed his story.
“A few years passed and here come a railroad right up our holler. A railroad, dammit! Up our holler. After that railroad come a couple of mines up the way. The railroad had took our big field, and Dad worked for a while clearing some of the woods but give it up before the next planting. Couldn’t grow enough to get us by for the next year. That fall we moved to one of them houses at the minin’ camp. I remember Ma was happy with that new board house. And it weren’t too bad there. We had plenty to eat and the house was brand new. But we bought everything instead of growin’ it ourselves. I was ten years old.”
Now the barkeep set a couple fresh beers beside the whiskey and Thomas and Bud both laughed knowing they were going to end up drunk tonight. Thomas lifted his glass to Bud, who grinned and downed half his whiskey.
“Went on for a year or better and one day, I’d just got home from school and me and my little brothers and sisters was eatin’ some pie that Ma had just made. Our neighbor come poundin’ at our door. ‘You better come quick,’ he told Ma. She know’d what it was right off. Something had happened to Dad. Off she run with him and come back a while later crying her heart away. Got electrocuted by one of them overhead electric cables for the coal cars. Like them kind we make at the shop. Here I am going every day and makin’ what killed my dad and what’s sure to kill another bunch of folks.” Bud downed the rest of his drink and stared ahead.
He studied himself in the mirror for a while then: “Well, we got him buried and all and was tryin’ to figure out what we was gonna do. And here come the mine operator actin’ real serious, just like he’d been ever since Dad got killed. ‘Well,’ he says. ‘Have you found a place where you can go to live yet?’ Ma cried, and he said it couldn’t be no other way. Said all the men knew the risk of workin’ in the mines. But Dad didn’t see no risk when he sold his land rights. If he’d been able to read maybe he’d a seen some sort of risk with the whole business. After that it was too late to be thinking about risks.”
Bud had gone red in the face and breathless at the memory and the telling of the story, and paused to drink some of his beer. He continued, “That mine operator said he’d let us stay there in the company house for another week. Ma thanked him like he was giving us somethin’ real good.”
“I shoulda killed him right there. They killed my Dad and turned us out of our house. Kicked us out the next week like we was a bunch of dogs. We didn’t have nowhere to go, me and Ma and my little brothers and sisters.”
Bud had to stop again and brushed a hand quickly past his right eye. Thomas looked at the gilt-edged mirror now and blinked his eyes at himself through the descending veil of alcohol. He knew Bud’s story. It was the story of West Virginia, descended upon by liars and thieves who took everything and gave nothing.
“Finally come here to live. Ma went to work makin’ up the beds at one of these railroad hotels. About a year later I found me a job and things was a little better for us.”
“And now them son-of-a-bitches wonder why the miners are fightin’. Make out like they always done their part. I ain’t a miner, but I’ll be getting my licks in. Started carryin’ a gun again. I’ll be in it when I get the chance. I owe them people and I always pay my debts.”
Thomas bought them another round and lifted his glass. “Here’s to your dad.”
Bud lifted his glass and drank the whiskey down. “Thank ya.”
It was late when a man rushed in. “It’s startin’,” he shouted. “At Blair Mountain. Killed three men today, Chafin and his gang. Goin’ to get to it now.”
Bud lifted himself heavily away from his seat at the bar and slapped Thomas’s shoulder. “Good talkin’ to you, Greene. Sorry we took so long to get to know each other. I weren’t raised that way. You know that, don’t you?”
Thomas nodded, exhausted and drunk. “I surely do.”
“I already been in one war for my country,” Bud said, leaning on Thomas for support. “It didn’t mean nothin’ next to this one.”
William Trent Pancoast is 67 years old and worked on The Road to Matewan for 45 years, beginning in 1972. Along the way he worked as a die maker, teacher, union newspaper editor, and raised a family. He is now retired and lives in Ontario, Ohio.