- Esau in the Coal Fields:Owing Our Souls to the Company Store
Emile Zola, writing of working conditions in the French coal fields of the late nineteenth century, penned vivid pictures of coal camp life that resonated deeply with mining developments in the new State of West Virginia during the same period. This fiction, based on Zola's six months of intensive research living and taking careful notes in the coal mining district of Borinage in the Alsace Region of northern France, featured such familiar themes as child labor, appalling working conditions, hunger, ever-mounting debt at the company store, crippling and maiming from industrial accidents, and early death from industrial diseases. In Germinal, Zola explored another mortifying interaction between the company store and the village women and girls, daughters, and wives of the coal miners: "It was a known fact that when a miner wished to prolong his credit, he had only to send his daughter or his wife, plain or pretty, it mattered not, provided they were complaisant" (p. 70).
In West Virginia, we have our own versions of child labor, appalling working conditions, hunger, ever-mounting debt at the company store, mine guards, Gatling guns, and labor wars. But until quite recently, the use of female flesh to extend credit to feed the family was never mentioned by our own regional historians. We've pretty well accepted that early coal operators were a mean, iron-willed breed bent on ruthless control and rising profits—but surely not that mean.
Zola's Germinal was published in 1885. A year or two later the young Collins brothers arrived in the Fayette-Raleigh coal fields of southern West Virginia from their home in Alabama, where Justus Collins had gotten his start in personnel management overseeing prison labor in the mines around Birmingham. These young adventuring capitalists soon bought into thousands of acres of rich coal lands just as the new industry was emerging in the raw and lawless wilderness of our state. So successful was Justus Collins in this land of opportunity that, in just a few years, he had built and was operating three octagonal, turreted company stores in southern Fayette County, the Collins Colliery Company Store in Glen [End Page 69] Jean, and less than a mile away, the Prudence Company Store in Prudence, and the Whipple Colliery Company Store, at the intersection of Rt. 612 and Scarbro Roads near Oak Hill, West Virginia. These stores serviced the needs of families employed at the various Collins mines. The Prudence Company Store went up in flames in 1928. The same fate befell the store at Glen Jean in 1934, the year of Collins's death. But the Whipple Store, completed in 1893, has miraculously survived for nearly 120 years, a kind of social/industrial history vault in which many unspeakable secrets are stored.
On July 4 of 2010, my wife Carrie Kline and I had a pre-arranged date with Joy and Chuck Lynn, owners and interpreters of the Whipple Company Store Museum and Learning Center these past five years. They bought the imposing old building when it was on the verge of being condemned and razed. Recently retired from business in Florida, they were attracted to the aging structure because of all the history which has been lived within its walls for more than a century.
Joy and Chuck Lynn agreed to take us on a tour of the building, even to show us the old embalming room in the basement, which was in constant use from when the store was completed in 1893 until the federal government instituted the death certificate in 1932. We recorded their compelling interpretations, moving from one room to another throughout the long day. Our conversations began on the high, arched porch overlooking the parking area and roadways below.
The initial glaring question, of course, was why would two people entering their retirement years want to take on the colossal task of restoring and preserving this relic of the gilded era of coal company dominance. The more than 6,000 square foot structure is in desperate need of a new roof, for starters, and of course, heating, and plumbing. The...