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Melvin Harris

This article appeared in the Charleston newspaper
under the byline of reporter
Ross Bagwell


  If They Loved You
One of the first things I noticed about Melvin was his handshake. At 98 years old, I was expecting him to be wheeled into the interview and give me a nice friendly wave. I had been told he was a master storyteller so I had made the trek to the McDowell County Continuous Care Center to see if I could persuade him to tell me about his days as a union miner and school teacher. To my surprise he strutted in very much under his own power and gave me a firm grip and big smile. "Hello, Sir. My name is Melvin Leon Harris."

I asked, "Mr. Harris, I imagine you've traveled and seen quite a bit in 98 years." His response surprised me a little when he said, "No, I've stayed most of my life in West Virginia. You can see a lot without going far from home. And besides, if you don't know where you're going, it's kind of hard to tell when you get there." I couldn't argue with that.

After a friendly exchange of "Where ya from?" we settled in around the big oak table in an empty office the folks at the Center were kind enough to allow us to use. Melvin's posture was straight with his hands folded atop his hickory cane looking very much the wise man I would come to know over the next few months. If it is true that after age fifty a man has the face he deserves, then surely at nearly a hundred he has the one God sculpted for Moses. He told me he had been born in 1902 in North Carolina but had come to West Virginia a couple years later to be raised by his Aunt Haddie. A no nonsense woman, Aunt Haddie ran a boarding house for the miners who were filling the small town of Tidewater to work in the mines.

I asked him about life in the coal mines eighty-three years ago. "Well, I was fourteen but I told the man I was fifteen so I could go underground. He gave me a job trappin'. You know, trappin' was openin' doors for the miners and their mules. You had to have good ventilation or you could be in big trouble. Trappin' was usually a boy's first job in the mines back then. After I had been opening doors a while, I got to where I would lean back on big board and sleep until the first miner's came wanting me to be ready.  Sometimes it'd be awhile before they came. I remember once, I heard one coming but I just couldn't wake up. All of a sudden I felt hot breath on me like the devil. I woke up and a big mule was looking me right in the face!
The old miner laughed and told me I'd learned that lesson the easy way.
Scared me so much I never feel asleep at my job again. The older miners, they watched out for the younger ones. I think that nearly all older men feel that way. Watching out for others makes us feel useful and respected.
Young men need guidance when life gets dangerous."

"The most dangerous thing in the Tidewater mine was the open lamps we used. First we had the oil lamps. They'd smoke awful. I didn't like them much. You had to tilt your head over to keep the ash from the wick off your face and try not to let water drip on it from the roof or it would go out. 
Later we started using those Carbide lamps. They were tricky too. Sometimes the Carbide would burn out too quick. Lot's of fella's would carry an oil lamp with them in case the Carbide went out. They'd light the oil lamp for light to fix the Carbide lamp. Open flame was bad for both of them. If the air was "still" too long gas might get to where it could explode. One time I remember workin' in low coal for a while and there was this horse's back in the roof. You know, a place where some rock had fallen out and you could stand up. Well, I crawled over there, and stood up to stretch my back.  As soon as I got all the way straightened, a big flash went off! Some gas must of settle up in there and my lamp lit it off. Whew, it singed all my hair and nearly scared me to death. I was lucky that day... I was lucky most days... Guess I was luckier than some miners who didn't make it."

Melvin began to turn solemn so I quickly changed the subject. I could have sat there for hours listening to the stories of working underground in the 1920's but I also wanted to know about community life in the coal camps of Southern West Virginia. I asked him how he came to leave the mines and become a teacher.

"I was working in the mines and going to school, when one day, after class the teacher said, 'Melvin, they need a teacher down in Murrytown.' 'You should try teaching.' A lawyer had been teaching there. He hadn't gotten too many cases and had been substituting at the little school. His name was Bassett Carter. He wasn't much of a lawyer but he was a fine man. I was talking with Mr. Carter one day when a little boy asked him, 'Mr. Carter, 'What makes it thunder?' He said "I'm going to tell you now and don't you forget it...

'When I kiss a pretty girl
It puts me on a wonder!
I jump so high I bump the sky.
And that's what makes it thunder.'

II. Life in the coal camps

In August of 1921 two seemingly unrelated events would occur in the Mountain State each with its own hero.
First, one of the boldest political assassinations in U.S. history took place on the courthouse steps in the county seat of Welch, McDowell County, West Virginia. Union defender and lawman Sid Hatfield had been shot point blank by four gunmen while on his way to court. Long time enemy C. E. Lively would administer the brain shot that would guarantee Sid's immortality. A brash signal had been sent by a besieged syndicate of coal industrialists and with that exposed one of the most profound secrets in our nation's history: slavery did not end with the Civil War. Under this acrid backdrop lived an ethnically diverse people exhaustively suffering as dire a living and working cast system as any third world country. There were Italians just off the boats, Blacks from impoverished southern states, desperate Hungarians fleeing the ruins of World War I, Mugwamp whites of mixed nationalities and faceless others who had come to the hills of West Virginia on a prayer and a promise of steady work. The coal company recruiters had done their job. Many coal miners would live and die few
miles from their new home without ever again crossing the state line.

Nonetheless, whatever racial segregation a community was fractured into it was made whole again by their collective tribulation and determined self-reliance. If misery loves company it found plenty of neighbors in the coalfields. They may as adults have watched the leaves turn and fall on their own endless dreams but hope is an evergreen. Every generation wants more for the next. As for realizing those dreams, in rough and tumble 1920s, McDowell County a real education was an elusive life partner. 
The chances of a young Appalachian male getting passed grade school were a 
long shot. Make him a minority and his chances of getting into and then
affording a decent college were odds to beat all odds. In August of 
1921 Melvin Harris was given the chance of a lifetime.

"Melvin, I understand you were a teacher and a principal. Where did you 
go to college?"

"I went to school at West Virginia State College at Institute." "We 
rooty toot for Institute!" "We were there when it was a young place. It was 
back during the making of the school. I have to say it was the making of me 
too.  Because if I had not gone, well not that I learned so much in my head, 
but I saw things. I saw things, you know. I met fellows that were in the 
same boat as I was. So we said 'Fellas, we're going to all row this boat
together and help each other.'

"You know, I worked in the mines in the summers way back then. I remember one important man asked me, 'Do you want to go to school'? I said, Yes. 
He said, 'If you want to go to school then I'll help you. I ain't got much 
but I'll help you.' And he did. Folks would come to the station sometimes 
to meet us. Somebody might say 'what are those boys doing now?' And 
someone would tell them, 'did you know the boys are going to school? We should help them.' When it came time to go the men would come ask me, when I was going back to school and did I need anything. They'd yell 'Hey...Coot!' They
called me Coot. 'Hey, Coot. Do ya need anything?' One, he'd give a dollar and another might give you two dollars. Before long you might have twenty dollars that night. If they loved you and you had any sense, they would help. Our little part of the community needed a teacher and they wanted us to do well, me and my buddy, Ulysses Carter."

"Melvin, what caused you to choose West Virginia State College?"

"Well, the president, oh what was he name? Davis, President Davis came and spoke in Kimball. And, man oh man, it was something. He was there to see if any of us wanted to go to his school. You know we didn't have what other's had but he told us if we really wanted to go to school we could. He said stick with the state; stick with West Virginia. Then he said it's a young school and we said we were going to make it old. He was a great speaker and that's why I went there."

"In the fall, we would catch the Number 3 train to Charleston. Oh, that Number 3, it was a long train. It ran at night. Since Institute was several miles on down the river we had to change trains to get to the other side where the school was. One time Ulysses and I decided to save a little time, you know. If you got off at this one house you couldn't stay around long, but there was a man who would help us you know, even though he was white.
He was a nice fellow. He'd help you get across in a little boat but that night it had flooded and he didn't want to take anyone. The Kanawha River is big anyway and it rose. We got him to do it and oh boy, was it dangerous. After we got out there and it started rocking and we said, man we should have gone on to catch that other train. One man jumped out before he got close to the bank. We nearly lost him cause off he went down river.  We had to catch him. We caught up when he grabbed some branches. We sure did get wet that night. You know, it was fun, but it sure was dangerous."

" Melvin, where did you wind up teaching?"

"Well Sir, my first job was teaching way past Davy, in Murrytown about 30 miles from Tidewater. I started in a two-room schoolhouse with a big coal stove in the corner. The boys always kept the fire going and the union made sure we had coal to burn. It gets pretty cold, you know, here, in the winter. I had an old car that got me there somehow. Up and over the mountains it was a hard drive and that old car didn't have a heater. The road was rough and narrow. Did anyone ever tell you about the old Davy Road? Oh, if you met someone coming in the other direction you had to look fast to find a place wide enough to pass. If you didn't make it one of you might be in the creek."

"People would ask me how I was getting along now that I was teaching. I'd say, 'Oh, I'm doing pretty good now, but I sure don't like that drive.' The friends you had, they would back you. They knew teachers weren't getting any fortune. We made about a hundred dollars a month cash money. Everybody would help out when you needed something, if they loved you. Later I taught in Kimball, you know, closer to home. Everyone was saying 'O'le Coot's a teachin' now, o'le Coot's a teachin'!. It wasn't very glamorous but I was proud to be a teacher."

"How long were you a teacher?"

"Forty-one years. Yes, Sir. Forty-one years. I could have taught longer.  They asked me to do a special project. I thought about it and said, 'No'. I would have to drive too much and I had gotten old. Our life was rough. And I decided to help out in other ways. People who knew me, they knew I wasn't the type to complain too much. If a fellow would come along with nothing, or he had very little training nobody would talk to him. They'd tell him 'Go talk to Coot. I'd talked to him. I'd tell him straight up. A man needs a skill. He has to learn. Some did and some didn't, but I'm always glad to help.

"I'll bet you had a lot of friends."

"Oh yes, I had a lot of friends. I had some enemies too. One man who came to live in the bottom down from me decided to let me know he didn't like my kind much. He came out into his yard one evening with a gun. He looked at me and then shot it up in the air, you know to let me know he had it. I went inside and got my gun. I had a rifle. One of the boys who came over said, 'Hey Mister, there goes a bird!' I threw my gun up quick and brought that bird down. He looked at me, then turned away and never brought the gun out again. Some people must of heard about what had happened, because a few days later he came and apologized to me, you know for trying to scare me.  He said, 'Mr. Harris I'm sorry for gettin' out there and showin' myself like that. You hadn't done a thing in the world to me.' He kind of lowered his head a bit and said, 'I just wanted you to know... I hated you.' I asked him why. I said, "You don't even know me. In two months you haven't said much to me." He said, 'Yeah, but you're different and that's the way I was taught. I'm sorry.' It seems some folks had told him not to bother the teacher. I suppose he figured that if he wanted to make it in Tidewater he'd need to show better judgment. Another coal miner they could get.  Teacher's were harder to find."

III. Industry in the Wildwood

The industrial migration that swept into West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and Kentucky at the turn of the century was on a scale more than equal to that of California or New England lore. Thousands of the desperately hopeful would come to the
Appalachian coalfields to begin new lives among the creek-cut hollows and saddle back mountain passes only to work beneath them.
 The rumor of quick money was too much to resist. So they came: the rich, the poor and the everything in between. Make no mistake. It was the timber and coal boom during the turn of the century that provided the fuel for America's
transformation into a world power. And in doing so, made small towns like Thurmond and Glen Jean famous for their gambling, prostitution and wild payday Saturday nights. Southern West Virginia was aptly nicknamed "The Wild East". With the arrival of the C & O railroad an industry in the wildwood began to flourish. On January 29, 1873, the final spike was driven just east of Hawks Nest.

"Melvin, where did you do most of your growing up?"

"I was born in North Carolina and was there until I was two. My mother was very young. My father was from Holland and my mother from North Carolina. I don't know what that made me. Then when it was time for me to leave, I came to the little town of Tidewater, West Virginia. It was named for the coal company there. Later when it got a little bigger they changed the name to Kimball. So I came to live with my mother's sister, Hattie Harris. She looked after me. My Aunt named me Melvin Harris. Now most names in our time had three parts. I don't know what they have now. But we had three. She didn't know how to get that middle one. She said she thought and wondered about it until it came to her. Above us a man had a very, very beautiful shepherd dog. Everybody liked the dog. It had once been a lost puppy but now had a good home. The dog's name was Leon. She said she knew now and called me Melvin - Leon - Harris! Later when I found out I asked "Momma, why did you name me after a dog?" She told me it was because the dog was so beautiful. I think she was just sweet-talkin' me. I loved Momma so much."

"The times were tough back then but it was also a good life. Most of the men worked in the mines. I worked in the mines for, off and on, nearly fourteen years. I had a family. I was teachin' but in the summer I would go in the mines. Fall would come and I was teachin' again. Going inside was just a part of me. Since I had that type of a job when I was younger it just sort'a grew in me and of course because it was dangerous. It was more dangerous than on the outside. They didn't have the barriers sometimes if they didn't have any canvas. You know at first I was trappin' and if somehow that canvas got torn down and the air didn't move where you wanted it to go it would get very dangerous back there.

"Melvin, I'm curious. Our community was mixed racially too. I remember
watching and hearing about all the trouble between people in other states, but I didn't see a lot here in West Virginia. Was there a lot of division between the different nationalities there in Kimball?"

"Oh no. Not like some people think. Everyone was so poor, nobody noticed. We pretty much got along because it was a small coal community and most had to work together in the mines. The Negroes lived near the bottom of the hill, the Italians up top. Sometimes it was hard for us to understand each other. But we got introduced and got to know each other's names. They would get out on Sunday and play a game with a ball and pins like bowling. 
They put money on top of the pins and sure would make the coins scatter with
that ball. We watched and sometimes played. The Italians used to make a funny kind of bread that was very good. They all had those ovens they made.  We loved to eat the bread. You know, we're all the same people down deep.
If you take ten different people underground and blow out that old dangerous lamp so nothing explodes, it's the handholding that will save them."

"When I just started in the mines I had an uncle come up from North Carolina. He lived in a two-room place Aunt Hattie rented to most fellows when they came to work in the mines quick and then leave. His name was Adam Barnhart. He would work with the Italians who didn't know much about our language or mining. He helped everyone joined the union. I was a union miner. One night I remember I was staying with him and someone came knocking very late. Uncle Adam answered it and I heard him talking to an Italian. The man was begging him not to go to work today. My uncle said it's only 3 o'clock and not time for work. The man didn't want him to go to work at all. He said he had a dream about him. You know a bad dream that he would be killed if he went to work. My uncle said not to worry, he'd be fine. At oh, a little past ten later that morning, I heard the mine whistle blowing and that meant a bad accident. Uncle Ad was killed by a roof fall. It pinned him between the motor and the top. The Italian man cried for
days. I cried too."

"Melvin, didn't your generation suffer the Flu Epidemic in 1918?"

"Oh, what are you talking about? Of course we did. It was very bad. A lot of good people died. Everyone was afraid. They didn't have any trucks then.  The man with the wagon would come to a house. You had to bring the body out to him. He wouldn't go in. After you put it in the box and nailed the lid down tight he would drive the team away to the cemetery. In the winter it was so cold. The ground was hard and you couldn't dig it for a grave, so they would just keep the boxes stacked up with frozen bodies in them until you could bury them properly."

"Tell me more about Ulysses."

"I had a buddy. He was born in Columbus, Ohio and came to Kimball to live. He called me a country boy. We were good buddies, almost like real brothers. He went to West Virginia State too. We played baseball together. He was the pitcher and I was the catcher. If he pitched I caught. He didn't like pitching to anyone else. He loved to come up with different pitches. Once I got hit with the ball. You know, I didn't have a mask and the ball skipped off the bat and hit me in between the eyes. It knocked me silly. I said 'Ya see, ya see. I need a mask.' I think it scared him pretty bad. We had masks after that."

"Ulysses and me got into all kinds of trouble one night at school. We were at the girl's dormitory when it was getting late. Men couldn't be around there after 7 o'clock. You had no business there. So we would go out in the yard and sing to them. I was over on the porch getting ready to leave and Ulysses he was out in the yard. He said 'Hey old man. I'm going to town.' I told him, "Ok, old lady, kiss all the pretty girls. Ask for me." Now you'd think that was nothing but if you say it kind of fast it sounds like something different. The girls didn't think it was funny and ran both of us off."

IV. Shine on Harvest Moon
In the little towns along the snaking creek banks and steep coal laden hills winters can get long and tedious.  Count together the lack of sunlight from an underground workday with the shortened wintry evenings
  and life can be dim at best. The arrival of spring with its more distant sunsets and sweet earthy smells is especially pleasant for the miner turned farmer. From the late 1870's to the 1970's putting bread on the family table meant more than just toiling beneath thousands of tons of rock with your life hanging on every sweat soaking second. It meant raising a vegetable garden, a hog or two, and
watching hot summer days fold into the coolness of fall. Once autumn arrived work could begin "putting up" all the walnuts, blackberries and apples for which the women had enough Mason jars. Other things you strung up to dry. Back porches would hang heavy with so many yards of drying beans, peppers and the ginseng you dug. Fall harvest could be a busy time in and around the camps.

For the industrious soul these were the good times when you had relatively plenty and could even enjoy a quick sigh of relief. Entertainment opportunities would also be more plentiful. Each year along with the cooler breezes of fall, Vaudeville somehow found it's way to town. In the nearby communities of Vivian and Keystone the traveling Minstrel shows would setup tents. "Silas Green from New Orleans" always brought a special excitement.  Before you knew it winter would again come to town, but not yet. Now there would be time for long absent celebration, book learning, and falling in love. Shine on Harvest Moon...

"What were the communities like back then?"

"You wouldn't believe what beautiful flowers and gardens everyone had. We had all kinds of fruit trees. There were apples, peaches, chestnuts and pears. Everyone would "can" something for the winter. Then you could trade with each other. Some of us fellows, we'd make a malt home brew, you know.  We didn't make a lot, just enough to have some fun. It was a beautiful little town. You don't realize how pretty it was until it's gone."

"There were two theaters in Welch. One was right across from the other and there was one in Elbert. You could walk to Elbert. They had the theater, the pool hall, a restaurant in one building and the company store across the street. This was the place where people would gather. On Saturday nights we'd go to the theater to see the shows. They came from New York and New Orleans and just all over. I loved going to the shows. Other times we'd have dances on Saturday nights. People would bring their favorite records and we'd crank them up. The building has been torn down now. That's a shame when they tear down good buildings."

"Sometimes in the fall a circus or a carnival would come down to the big bottom and set up. One time when I was a teenager the show came to town and I went over before it started. The man said, 'Hey, you want a job?' I said I did and he told me I could lead the ponies down the road in the parade before the big show. I was so happy. I was going to be in the show. Well, the parade started and off we went. Everyone came out to see. I was doing fine with those ponies 'til the strangest thing happened. I was so excited I went blind. I couldn't see a thing. Now here I was leading those ponies with everyone I knew calling to me and now I couldn't see at all. I didn't know what to do so I just kept smiling and walking and hoping I didn't bump into anything or run over anyone. I was just about to start calling for help when one of those ponies pulled hard on the bridle. It shook me hard enough that I came to my senses and my eyesight finally came back.  Guess I was a little too excited."

"Elbert wasn't a big town but it was big for us. I married a girl from Elbert. I had known the older sister but didn't know much about her.  She went to Bluefield State College, which was closer to home. I had gone down to the school to help someone get started. I was walking by the library when I saw her setting on the steps. I thought she was beautiful. I thought to myself now there's a girl who is something. Her name was Leona Howard.
She became a teacher too you know. She taught English. I taught about
everything else. We have been married now for seventy years. We have been together for so long because we love each other and mostly because she let me live my life and I let her live hers. She is here at the Center with me now. Actually, she came here first. I got lonely for her and I moved here a few months later. We have two sons, Melvin, Jr. and Billy. Melvin, Jr. and his wife Clara also are retired teachers. He volunteers teaching music and band over in Maryland. Billy is here and he used to work for the Board of Education... Yes, Sir I thought she was the most beautiful thing in the world. I still do. Imagine, three of us here together, now how 'bout that?"

Colorful thread

Finally our last interview was over. It was now lunchtime and if you don't get to the dining area quickly only the green Jell-O is left for dessert.  But before he left he asked me a question. He wanted to know if I knew my school song. I told him I didn't so he sang the school song for his Alma Mater. Literally translated Alma Mater means Fostering Mother. It was the school that gave him a mission and in his own words 'was the making of him'. Aunt Hattie had done the best she could and he is forever grateful.
With two fostering mothers, a loving family, and a healthy will to help out Melvin has accepted the life he has been given. If God loves a workin' man then Melvin has been blessed. For those who knew him when he was a young man he wasn't the type to complain too much. He may not have gotten rich in the mines or wealthy teaching a thousand barefoot children, but in the fabric of Appalachian history, Melvin became one colorful thread.


"Melvin, do you feel you lived well?

"Huh?... Oh yes, yes... I must have... I'm still here... "


*Special thanks to Jan McCormick from McDowell Continuous Care for 
helping me tell Melvin's story.