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  • Justus Collins and the Struggle for Economic Control, 1857–1913
  • W. Hal Gorby

Never one to mince words, but always apt to speak his mind bluntly to opponents as well as supporters, Winding Gulf coal operator Justus Collins was in an angry mood. On November 1, 1919, hundreds of thousands of coal miners had followed union president John L. Lewis's call for a nationwide coal strike. While short-lived, the strike—and the growing federal government support for labor unions—was the last straw for Collins in a decades-long struggle centered in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia. In a letter to the president of the Winding Gulf Operators' Association, Collins, a long-time opponent of unionization, chastises his fellow coal operators for not realizing the danger at hand: "[G]un in hand, I was here, fighting anarchy, murder, arson and confiscation of property now known as the United Mine Workers of America and Bolshevism before your advent into the state."1

In Appalachian labor history, no figure looms more negatively than the coal operator. In a history of the founding men of the "smokeless" coalfields, Ken Sullivan notes that the region was "most directly shaped by a few dozen local coal men who stood as middlemen between such large outside corporations and the industrializing region."2 With the start of World War I, Collins reflected to his fellow operators: "We have fought the unions, railroad and politicians, resulting in maintaining a considerable differential in our favor."3 However, those who have written about the struggles of Southern West Virginia would probably agree with a former Raleigh County miner's assessment: "We made millions, men who didn't have anything made three, a few thousand dollars. Labor has made millionaires out of them."4 Yet the operator also remains one of the hardest historical figures to characterize, at different times entrepreneurial businessmen, paternalistic town manager, and antiunion practitioner.

Early scholars in the field of Appalachian studies in the 1970s and 1980s were very concerned about the historical impact of extractive industries [End Page 1] on Appalachian communities and rising levels of poverty. Rather than focusing on what one commentator referred to as a "strange land and peculiar people," scholars like John Alexander Williams and Ron Eller broke with the "culture of poverty" model and argued instead that the region's economic backwardness derived from the economic exploitation of absentee landowners, facilitated by local elites. These changes made Appalachia a natural resource colony for an industrializing nation—"a rich land but a poor people."5

This internal colonial model worked best for examining the southern coalfields and especially the early coal entrepreneurs. Ken Sullivan clearly highlights that from the start these men were de facto "agents of the larger industrial society which originated the demand for Southern West Virginia coal." Many of these men were "petty operators," who often relied on "direct infusions of outside capital." Thus early coal "barons" had to manage both the local and outside forces operating against them. After this early stage of mining, most pioneer operators were replaced by professional managers of distant firms and consolidated companies.6

However, this colonial model left many questions unanswered. By stressing the role of absentee ownership that stripped native Appalachians of their wealth, the model neglected the capitalist labor processes which undergirded this exploitation. According to Dwight Billings, "Appalachian wealth was created by the underpaid labor of working people who blasted, dug, sorted, cleaned, loaded, and transported coal."7 This economic exploitation fostered the high levels of labor violence, especially during the West Virginia Mine Wars of the early twentieth century.8 The struggle for unionization and basic civil liberties dominates much of this scholarship, rightly focusing on the role of the UMWA and rank-and-file miners.9

Looking beyond the southern coalfields, scholars such as Richard M. Simon, Michael Workman, and Kenneth Fones-Wolf highlight that other portions of West Virginia developed more diverse manufacturing. Natural resources were used to develop homegrown, value-added manufacturing in iron and steel production in the Northern Panhandle and in glass in Morgantown, Fairmont, and Clarksburg. Building on the capitalist world-systems model, they stressed the uneven nature of...


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