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Do, Die, or Get Along

Do, Die, or Get Along: A Tale of Two Appalachian Towns

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Do, Die, or Get Along
    Book Description:

    Do, Die, or Get Along weaves together voices of twenty-six people who have intimate connections to two neighboring towns in the southwestern Virginia coal country. Filled with evidence of a new kind of local outlook on the widespread challenge of small community survival, the book tells how a confrontational "do-or-die" past has given way to a "get-along" present built on coalition and guarded hope. St. Paul and Dante are six miles apart; measured in other ways, the distance can be greater. Dante, for decades a company town controlled at all levels by the mine owners, has only a recent history of civic initiative. In St. Paul, which arose at a railroad junction, public debate, entrepreneurship, and education found a more receptive home. The speakers are men and women, wealthy and poor, black and white, old-timers and newcomers. Their concerns and interests range widely, including the battle over strip mining, efforts to control flooding, the 1989-90 Pittston strike, the nationally acclaimed Wetlands Estonoa Project, and the grassroots revitalization of both towns led by the St. Paul Tomorrow and Dante Lives On organizations. Their talk of the past often invokes an ethos, rooted in the hand-to-mouth pioneer era, of short-term gain. Just as frequently, however, talk turns to more recent times, when community leaders, corporations, unions, the federal government, and environmental groups have begun to seek accord based on what will be best, in the long run, for the towns. The story of Dante and St. Paul, Crow writes, "gives twenty-first-century meaning to the idea of the good fight." This is an absorbing account of persistence, resourcefulness, and eclectic redefinition of success and community revival, with ramifications well beyond Appalachia.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3897-2
    Subjects: Population Studies, Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    Much has been written about the difficulties of defining Appalachia. Is the region defined primarily by shared cultural values, by the Appalachian mountain range, or by a government agency (the Appalachian Regional Commission)? Should those studying the region focus on the south-central area dominated by extractive industries or extend their interest northward into Pennsylvania?¹ Is Appalachia really much more similar to other rural areas in the United States than its reputation suggests?² Or is what we think we know of Appalachia simply an elaborate invention?³ Just what is Appalachia, and who are Appalachians?

    Before the early 1960s, the American public...

    (pp. xxi-xxv)
  6. [Maps]
    (pp. xxvi-xxviii)
  7. ONE Frontier Times
    (pp. 1-12)

    Frank Kilgore: Coal was formed about 320 million years ago in this area when this was a flat, inland sea that was filled with swamps that would be inundated every few million years by water and silt and sand. That silt and sand would cover the matted, rotted plant life that was pressured first into peat moss, then lignite, and later under more pressure and heat, it became more and more pure, and it’s now bituminous coal.

    The further east you go, the coal seams there have been upended and pressured more from geologic forces pushing from the east. There’s...

  8. TWO Incorporated Town—Early Years
    (pp. 13-16)

    LeRoy Hilton: I had a great-grandfather in Dickenson County sold the Virginia Mining Company, which is Pittston, 127 acres of coal land in Dickenson County for $127, a dollar an acre, and this produced something like $40 million or whatnot of coal. His name was Rainwater Ramsey, my greatgrandfather.And also in the deed the company could use all the timber, trees they needed to build their trestles and roadbeds and whatnot for free; they could use the timber for free—$127 for 127 acres.¹

    Rainwater Ramsey. He was a Civil War veteran. My grandmother used to tell me they were...

  9. THREE Company Town—Early Years
    (pp. 17-23)

    Kathy Shearer: I think people knew there was coal and used coal all along. I would imagine the Phillips knew to dig it out of banks. I doubt that they actually blasted into the hillsides. But people were burning coal; the Indians apparently burned coal. So it was something people knew to use as well as wood to keep warm and to cook with. Eventually, after the Civil War I think, maybe because of the Civil War, engineers were roaming around, realized there were some riches there, and said, “We will remember to come back.” They were surveying in the...

  10. FOUR Immigrant Labor
    (pp. 24-27)

    Kathy Shearer: The story is, a lot of immigrants were brought to Dante starting around the early 1900s, say around 1906 or so when Clinchfield got started up, until World War I. They came to build the railroad and build the coal town. And many of them died, and no one knew where their families were, how to get in touch with them. And, as I said, many of them are buried in the ball field on either side of the tracks. It’s kind of like a huge graveyard. Italians, Hungarians, Poles—they were flooding in from Europe. The war...

  11. FIVE Wild Times in St. Paul
    (pp. 28-33)

    LeRoy Hilton: The reason for the settlement in St. Paul was because of the two railroads coming here. And also for bringing all the workers who would go from here north into Dante and Dickenson County and all the other counties to develop the coalfields. And it was 1910 before they finally brought the railroad down from CC&O. It was finally then (because they had lost their financing) before they finally brought the two railroads together. So when they come from Dante, they come to here, and here they crossed over, and they used the same tracks to go to...

  12. SIX Civility in St. Paul
    (pp. 34-39)

    LeRoy Hilton: The town sort of separated in two sections. Once you crossed the railroad tracks, you were in a different world. The drunks, and the restaurants, and the bordellos, and the saloons—most of them operated across the tracks, but once you come over here in town—you’ve always heard of these people who live on the wrong side of the tracks—well, if you lived above the tracks on the north side, then I never saw a drunk, unless I was over across the tracks on the Western Front. Two different worlds. The solid citizen types—of course,...

  13. SEVEN Great Depression and Dante
    (pp. 40-48)

    Frank Kilgore: My grandfather, Frank Kilgore, was born in the late 1800s. He had lived through the Depression, he had lived through union organization, he had lived through subsistence farming. He could read and write a little bit. He never drove a car in his entire life. He walked everywhere he went. He walked seven miles over to Dante, seven miles one way to work and seven miles back, would work ten-, twelve-, sixteen-hour shifts in the mines hand-loading coal when carbide lamps were used and the dust was so thick you couldn’t even see. And the oxygen was so...

  14. EIGHT Race Relations in Dante
    (pp. 49-54)

    Matthew Kincaid: I was born right here in Dante in Sawmill Hollow, down the street there. My mother and my father moved here from Tennessee. My father moved here to mine coal. He shore did. And that’s when I was born. I had two older brothers. One of them, Earl, passed away just two years ago. At Christmas when we were kids, me and my brothers, we’d get our little toys and go to the next-door neighbors and get with them. And we just had a good time. Didn’t have too much, but what we had we enjoyed it. I...

  15. NINE Unionization
    (pp. 55-60)

    Kathy Shearer: Women worked hard.

    Nannie Phillips Gordon: That’s exactly right. It’s like I tell my children a lot of times. They’ll fuss at me for canning stuff. I’ve done it all my life. My husband, whenever we were first married, the year we married, then you couldn’t go out and buy a cook stove. You had to have a permit in order to get one, in order to buy one [stove purchase certificate, part of WorldWar II rationing program]. I could have bought it at the company store right here, but I didn’t have a permit. So we waited...

  16. TEN The Two Towns Interfacing, Diverging
    (pp. 61-66)

    Kathy Shearer: Dante is located eight miles north of St. Paul, and back in its heyday, Dante was the economic engine for Russell County. It was the largest town in Russell County. Probably at its peak, it had four thousand people living here. That would have been around World War I, 1915 through about 1920, ’21. There was still activity going on here after World War I that involved helping rebuild Europe. They still needed a lot of coal to power the factories. But sometime in the mid-20s, that started going downhill. The factories—they still used coal—but the...

  17. ELEVEN Mining Safety
    (pp. 67-79)

    Dean and Terry Vencil: We’ve got this waterbed downstairs. I went to Kingsport to get it, and the guy was talking down there. And I told Terry I said, “We’ve got to have this big mirror to go up on the ceiling when we get this thing.”

    Well, back up just a second though. I wanted the waterbed, coming out of the ’60s. He was afraid that the floors in this old house, built in 1918, wouldn’t support the pressure. And I was saying, “No now, per square inch, the pressure is the same thing as a regular bed.” And...

  18. TWELVE The Strip Mine Act of 1977
    (pp. 80-97)

    Frank Kilgore: Except for a couple of branches of my family, most of them were blue-collar workers. Some of them owned businesses, and most of them had just basic educations. But I did have one branch of my family, my dad’s uncle’s children, who went to college. A lady, Virginia Kilgore, who just passed away at age eighty-three, I think. And she was in the Wacs [Women’s Army Corps] during World War II, and she was at that time the only Wise County lady in the army. Her twin sister, who predeceased her, Victoria Kilgore, went to the New York...

  19. THIRTEEN Regional Planning and River Politics
    (pp. 98-114)

    Frank Kilgore: Obviously, the reason that people suffer from flooding is they build in the floodplain. Lacking a lot of flat, developable land, our early settlers settled close to the rivers and streams. So in doing that, whenever you have a major flood event, you always had major damage.

    Fortunately through FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] and state emergency agencies, when there is a flood now, rebuilding in a flood zone is off-limits. You can’t get a permit. So that’s going to help in the future. Another flood prevention factor that we are undergoing is we had the Clinch River...

  20. FOURTEEN Company Town with No Company
    (pp. 115-122)

    Kathy Shearer: Right now, and we’re talking about October 2003, this is what was once a bustling coal town. And right now, it’s almost a ghost town. Not in terms of the residences—there’s still probably three hundred houses here. The ghost town aspect is the downtown section. You’ve got the empty office building of the coal company, which vacated in May. You’ve got a post office and a little general store. You have the concrete platform that used to be the foundation for the old theater, and another office building and barber shop, newspaper stand—all that was torn...

  21. FIFTEEN The Pittston Strike of 1989–90
    (pp. 123-142)

    Dink Shackleford: I remember strikes growing up, and there was picket lines, and it was tough for me at school. My dad used to tell me, “Pick one side or the other.” There’s no middle ground on this: “Which side are you on, brother?” the old song goes.¹ There’s no straddling the fence. But as long as you picked one side or the other, people respected it. You had an admiration, and it was okay.

    Dad’s mine was union, but Uncle Tommy was the president of the union at that time. Really, my dad and them saw the union as...

  22. SIXTEEN Changing Attitudes
    (pp. 143-147)

    Frank Kilgore: When we had the thirty-some beer joints and all the fighting, that was in the ’40s and ’50s and early ’60s. And then after the last ones were closed down in the ’70s, and as those people who really liked to yuck it up and have hard weekends, after they got older, they became more mature and their children didn’t have a place to hang out and get drunk and fight. So the violence and lawlessness sort of left with that generation.

    Plus, that generation was hard working—they worked in the mines, they worked in logging, they...

  23. SEVENTEEN Women, Conservationists, and the Economy
    (pp. 148-156)

    Debbie Penland: When you look at St. Paul, you think, “The population’s a thousand. It probably couldn’t support businesses.” But the thing about it is, we’re a mountain people. The people in Dante all buy everything here in St.Paul unless they want to go to Abingdon or go on to Bristol. And if you go on past Dante to Nora and to Trammel and all the way across the mountain over into Haysi, people from all those Communities and all those hollows and all up in there in those mountain areas all come here to buy groceries. That’s where they...

  24. EIGHTEEN Education and Youth
    (pp. 157-165)

    Terry Vencil: We have been working on the Estonoa Learning Center project—small wetlands about three minutes’ walk from St. Paul High School. And trying to make people aware of what wetlands is and what it does. We don’t find a wetlands in the mountains very often. And most of the people in this area don’t know what a wetlands is. They look at it, and they think it’s just a boggy place that you need to drain and make it productive. And they are precious. Estonoa is a liver for the river.

    It collects all the water runoff from...

  25. NINETEEN Changing Strategy for Regional Renewal
    (pp. 166-168)

    Frank Kilgore: We’re about what people call “mined out.” There’s still lots of coal, but in the central Appalachians, a lot of it is too hard to get to or, until the technology changes, you can’t get to it because previous mining operations have either caused it to be backed up with water, or the top will be cracked and it’s too unsafe to go in. So that within itself—just bad mining practices and bad planning—has locked away a lot of coal reserves for the foreseeable future because you can’t get to it. It’s too deep to strip-mine,...

  26. TWENTY No-Company Town Fights On
    (pp. 169-185)

    Kathy Shearer: There were 350 houses served by the sewer. So there were almost 330 houses that did not have approved sewage disposal. There were a few septic systems in the community which may or may not have been functioning. The sewer cleared up that problem for 350 houses, so it was a major, huge project. And a lot of grant money and loan money were put into that. If the people of Dante had chosen not to accept the sewer, EPA would have shut down the town. At first, when I came here as a community worker, there were...

    (pp. 186-196)

    My instinct as a storyteller is to let this narrative stand without comment. I have nothing to say that will add to its eloquence. My editors have convinced me, however, that I should share my perspective on the narrative. After all, I am the one who decided the story deserved a wider audience than just myself and some students, and I am the one who selected what to leave in and take out. Having done that, what do I make of it all?

    First of all, stereotypes, even generalizations about Appalachia, almost always fade into obscurity as the clarity of...

  28. NOTES
    (pp. 197-208)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 209-220)