Memory of a Miner
Kenvir (Black Mountain) miners playing poker on a
makeshift card table.
Harlan County Revisited
Here we spotlight a coal camp or other region in Harlan County – discussed in the book – and reveal facts or stories of interest. There is no implied order of importance; I choose the camp or area on whimsy.
Map of Harlan County with points of reference in the book noted
The community of Blackjoe lies about three miles east of downtown Harlan along State Route 38. Sometimes you see it spelled Blackjoe and others times Black Joe. The former seems the older spelling. If anyone knows the origin of the name, I’d love to hear from you as I have been unable to find any reliable information on that subject.
According to one source, the land that became the community of Blackjoe was originally owned by a familiar name in old Harlan, T. J. Asher. (It was Asher who also built the first railroad from Pineville to Harlan.)
Back in the day, Blackjoe was home to three different coal companies. The Harlan Fox Coal Co operated from 1918-1924. Simultaneously the J B Blue Gem Coal Co ran from 1920-1922. And lastly, the Harlan Fox Mining Co – presumably derived from the Harlan Fox Coal Co – was in operation from 1925-1932. I’ve read that in its heyday, the Blackjoe coal camp consisted of 60 or so houses. (You can see some Harlan-Fox scrip at the end of this article.)
Showing the kind of headscratcher one often runs into when studying historic southeast Kentucky, there is a peculiarity with the community between the post office which operated there (the post office closed in 1935) and the railroad. The post office was known by the community’s familiar name – Blackjoe, but the train stop called the location Woods Station. Go figure.
My biggest memory of Blackjoe comes from hearing Dad talk about the locally famous (back then) “swimmin’ hole” on Yocum Creek, which runs by Blackjoe. Dad spent many a day swimming there with his brothers when he was young.
(I remember asking Dad when he learned to swim:
“Aaah… it was when we lived in Middlesboro honey. Some of my knothead brothers throwed me in the river there. It was learn to swim or drown!”
They wouldn’t have allowed that, of course. At least I don’t think they would have! If you’ve read the book, you know that was just Dad’s way of telling a story.)
I once read a quaint description of the Blackjoe swimmin’ hole given by Harlan native Nancy Middleton. She wrote:
“On the North side [of Blackjoe] was Yocum Creek. There was a huge rock where everyone gathered to sun on the rock, swim in the swimming hole. The creek was on a curve so the opposite side of the creek had a kinda sandy beach. OK, well sandy beach for a creek in the mountains of Harlan Co.”
I asked Mother if she and her sisters ever went to the hole and she said, “No. Daddy would never let us swim in these creeks up here. He said the water wasn’t clean.” Probably as a consequence, Mother never learned to swim, nor did her sisters.
As late as 2012, the citizens of Blackjoe were concerned with mudslides coming from the mountain behind them. It appears that the problem was that old Appalachian nemesis, indiscriminate timbering. If you’re interested in this story, you can read about it in Memory of a Miner.
Blackjoe is a story told all over the South. If you “ain’t from around here,” as the saying goes, you would drive by it and not even know it. But if you are… as you head east out of Harlan toward Evarts, you’ll smile to yourself as you pass it. And your mind will drift back to stories told – and perhaps even for some, memories recalled.
IN HISTORY : Kitts is just over two miles from downtown Harlan as you are traveling eastward toward Evarts. It lies between the communities of Clovertown and Golden Ash right on the highway (Hwy 38).
In 1903, A. F. Whitfield packed up his family and moved from Walker County, Alabama, to southeastern Kentucky. In 1911, the family moved from Bell County to Harlan County, where Mr. Whitfield established the Clover Fork Coal Company in Kitts.
The Clover Fork Mine operated from 1914-1958 and had about 200 employees. The Whitfields were hardnosed when it came to running their mines. They took one of the strongest stances among Harlan County owner/operators against unionization, even to the point of defying federal regulations. In fact, The Whitfield family’s two mines, Clover Fork and Harlan Collieries (Brookside) were the only two mines of the Harlan County owner/operators association who rejected a 10% pay increase in 1933. (This move by the owner/operators was not an act of benevolence on the association’s behalf. Rather, it was a new tactic they had come up with to try to keep the UMWA out.) The owners of the Clover Fork mine were called “the county’s most relentless union opponents.”
It was not uncommon for coal companies to offset pay raises by upping the prices on goods in the company store…20 percent higher prices than stores outside the camps was common.
Paying in scrip (for those mines which did) all but insured their miners would shop in the company stores. And there were other pressures to do so as well. Some companies evicted or fired their employees if they didn’t shop in the company store. A superintendent at the Clover Fork mine in 1931 said that if their miners wanted to shop at Piggly Wiggly, they could get a job at Piggly Wiggly!
From my childhood, I can remember all the company houses that dotted the land around the railroad crossing at Kitts – little shotgun camp houses all painted in the company color of forest green. The area stands out in my mind still because it was flat land…a rarity in Harlan County!
IN MEMORY OF A MINER : The most fateful day in the entirety of Memory of a Miner began with an intense picket by the union miners from other coal companies at the Clover Fork mine in Kitts. This picket is referenced in chapter 6.
In 1937, the Clover Fork mine became a union operation. They were the last mine in Harlan County to be unionized. Clover Fork mine closed in 1957.
(Kitts is referenced on pages 88, 101, and 153-Figure 26 in Memory of a Miner.)
IN HISTORY: Brookside is just over 4.5 miles from Harlan as one is traveling east toward Evarts. The post office and the company store sat side-by-side just to the left side (going toward Evarts) of the old highway (Hwy 38). The tracks to the mine crossed the road right in front of the company store.
Sitting to the left of the post office (as one is facing it), and perpendicular to it, was the Brookside Beer Garden. The Beer Garden was a nightclub which was in operation from the late ’30s to early ’40s and featured its own orchestra – The Kentuckians.
The Brookside mine (and Duke Power behind it) reached a level of international notoriety (if not infamy) in 1976, when producer/director Barbara Kopple released her documentary film Harlan County, USA. The film tracked the 1973 standoff between striking Brookside miners and their wives on the one side, and the Eastover Coal Company’s Brookside mine. Eastover Coal Company was owned by Duke Energy, headquartered in Charlotte, NC (which was known at the time as Duke Power Company). Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for this documentary.
IN MEMORY OF A MINER: The Brookside RR crossing in front of the company store provides one of the funniest stories in the entire book. The story is found on pp. 56-57. (Brookside is also referenced on p. 261.)