William S.Burroughs once said, “When you stop growing you start dying.” The coal camps (unincorporated communities) and small towns in southern West Virginia are dying a slow death. Prince, Thurmond, Nuttalburg, Stotesbury, Kaymoor, Sewell, and Quinnimont are already ghost towns. Maben, Mullens, Wyco, Pierpont, Lynco, Slab Fork, HooHoo, Glen Rogers, Jenny Gap, Otsego, and many others are barely alive. It must be strange to once live here, as my mom did, and now see the poverty and sadness that permeates the area.
When I go back to Sacramento where I was born or think about San Diego in the 1970s, it’s not recognizable now because of the growth. Just the opposite is occurring in southern West Virginia. My mom grew up in Maben and went to high school in Mullens. Maben was once a bustling lumber town. It had wooden sidewalks, whitewashed fences, tennis courts, schools, and even a movie house. The W.M. Ritter Lumber company ran a nice company town. When it was sawed out, the lumber company left, and the coal mining began. The town became dirty, nothing was kept up, schools closed, basically it went to pot. The kids from Maben had to be bussed to Mullens to go to high school. All the Mullens’ kids were “townies”; if you were from Maben you were looked down upon. Butch, my mom’s youngest brother, lived in Mullens when he went to high school. He was lucky according to my mom.
Her favorite job was Stevens Clinic in Welch. She worked there from 1954-56, and hadn’t been back until this trip. Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is a fantastic book that partially takes place in Welch. I highly recommend it. She paints a vivid picture of what living in Welch was like in the mid 1970s. It has only gotten worse. It was devastatingly sad to see the city. My mom had wonderful stories about working there, and how the town was just buzzing with life. We both knew it was going to be bad after reading Glass Castle, but even that didn’t prepare us for what we saw. Boarded up buildings, empty lots, empty homes, no commerce, no buzz, no vibrancy, just a sense of hopelessness and despair. In the heyday of the 1950s the population was almost 7,000. Now there is around 1,500.
McDowell is one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the USA. Welch is the county seat. I won’t overwhelm you with statistics, but here are a few.
- Life expectancy for men is 64 years
- Less than half the adults have graduated high school
- Median income per household is $21,574
- Overall poverty rate of 33%, childhood poverty rate of 56%
- Obesity rate is 37.9%
- Teen pregnancy rate is 96 out of 1,000 girls, double the state & triple the national average.
Most of the folks are down on the government or outright hate it, yet they are dependent upon it. Welfare checks, disability checks, food stamps, free lunches for kids, and the community hospital. And drug abuse is rampant.
I often wonder why the people that remain just don’t leave? I don’t know what the solution is? Without coal mining there is no work. Welch and all the small towns and coal camps are very isolated. I can’t imagine what can turn it all around. One day they will probably all be ghost towns.
I took very little pictures because it felt like I was exploiting their plight.