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Do, Die, or Get Along

A Tale of Two Appalachian Towns

Peter Crow

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: University of Georgia Press

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pp. ix-xii

The story you are about to read came to me in parts, at different times, told by a number of people. The more I heard, the more eager I was to tell it myself, to pass it on to students and others, to write it in my own words. But the more I worked at it, the more I found myself relying on the voices of the original tellers, until finally I had removed my own...

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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...

The People Who Tell This Story

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pp. xxi-xxiv

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1. Frontier Times

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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...

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2. Incorporated Town—Early Years

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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 great-grandfather. And also in the deed the company...

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3. Company Town—Early Years

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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...

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4. Immigrant Labor

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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...

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5. Wild Times in St. Paul

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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...

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6. Civility in St. Paul

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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...

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7. Great Depression and Dante

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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...

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8. Race Relations in Dante

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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...

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9. Unionization

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pp. 55-60

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...

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10. The Two Towns Interfacing, Diverging

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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...

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11. Mining Safety

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pp. 67-79

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 he said, "Darling." When he says, "Darling," like that, I said, "I might...

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12. The Strip Mine Act of 1977

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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...

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13. Regional Planning and River Politics

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pp. 98-114

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 rechanneled in St. Paul, which has...

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14. Company Town with No Company

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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'e got the empty office building of the coal company, which vacated...

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15. The Pittston Strike of 1989–90

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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...

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16. Changing Attitudes

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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...

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17. Women, Conservationists, and the Economy

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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...

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18. Education and Youth

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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...

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19. Changing Strategy for Regional Renewal

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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...

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20. No-Company Town Fights On

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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...

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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...


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pp. 197-208


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pp. 209-220

E-ISBN-13: 9780820338972
E-ISBN-10: 0820338974
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820328638
Print-ISBN-10: 0820328634

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 14 b&w photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2007

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Company towns -- Virginia -- Case studies.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Virginia -- Dante -- History.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Virginia -- Saint Paul -- History.
  • Dante (Va.) -- Social conditions.
  • Saint Paul (Va.) -- Social conditions.
  • Community life -- Virginia -- Dante.
  • Community life -- Virginia -- Saint Paul.
  • Oral history ‡x Study and teaching.
  • Dante (Va.) -- Biography.
  • Saint Paul (Va.) -- Biography.
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