Sunday, October 4, 2009

Life in a Coal Camp

This is a condensed version of a family history written by my great uncle, Gerald Brennan.

We arrived in Logan County, West Virginia in the fall of 1934. After moving in with relatives we got our own coal company house in a coal camp called Hatfield Bottom. It only had 2 bedrooms but mom and dad turned the living room into a 3rd. bedroom. Mom, Dad and I (as a small child) slept together in the bed in the living room: Marg and Kat (my sisters) had bedroom number 1. Frank and Bill (or which ever brother who may have been home) had bedroom 2. Nobody ever talked about the chamber pot which sat between the bedrooms in the hall at the top of the stairs, but it was a character-building reality.

In the late 1930's and 40's Dad had steady work in the No. 15 mine at Stirrat and the Littles Creek Mine (No. 19). Never good enough to afford a family car though. We had an outdoor toilet, no running water initially nor electric refrigeration. We depended on the "ice man". Carrying water from the community pump was a chore, but there was lots of socializing and courting as adults and children met at the well to do water duties. Later we did get running water in the early 1940's and bought a second hand refrigerator from a black man who lived in the camp. They brought the refrigerator from his house to ours on a big wooden sled pulled by a mule.

Our Hatfield Bottom neighbors, both black and white, were like family. By the late 1940's 2 of my brothers and Marg had 3 of the houses around us. Elaine's sister, Avanelle, had a house also (Elaine is my grandma, she married Gerald's Brother, Bill). It was truely the Brennan Coal Camp. There were 20 duplexes (40 families) in the camp.

The late 40's were heady times for me in the old coal camp. Family affairs were big entertainment. The big milk cow that J.P. kept meant awkwardness and hilarity as he and Opal tried to care for it and milk it. they wanted me to drink the fresh cow milk, but it was sickening. Bill raised hogs for a season in a pen across the creek from his house at the upper end of the coal camp. I'll never forget the fiasco when he tried to herd them across the creek for butchering - shouting men and screaming pigs, trying to hold the pigs still so they could shoot them between the eyes. It was a ridiculous scene, but it was great fun for the kids watching and even participating by building the big fires, scalding and scraping and butchering the hogs.

There were plenty of kids my age to play with and we played from dawn to dark everyday of the year. The older kids and sometimes even the adults joined us in ball games, hide and seek, 50-more, and foot racing. We had our tram road around 900 hill for sleigh riding in the winter, our powder house holler for building swimming holes, a field at the upper end of the camp for cowboys and Indians and army battles, a flat at the lower end of the camp for baseball and football and hills all around for building forts, playing Robin Hood and hunting and exploring adventures. Berry picking, killing snakes and holing groundhogs were big activities.

We did things we were ashamed of too. Drowning cats in the creek, putting them down in the toilet hole alive and conducting funerals over the poor animals we dispatched. Some things we did, it is a wonder we survived ourselves like swimming in the 40-foot water tower, bursting .22 rifle shells between rocks and jumping on moving railroad cars.

Although dad had steady work in the mines, mom kept boarders to help make ends meet. Dad was a pumper at the mines (a highly skilled job) and if the mines were open he was needed. Mom sold dresses and candy and delivered the Grit newspaper to help with the budget. She made quilts and sewed feedsack dresses for herself and Marg and Kat. Mom squirreled money away for rainy days and her frugal ways resulted in her being able to purchase a house for the princely sum of 300 dollars when dad's health failed and he could no longer work. (Black Lung). That little house was in Switzer, where she lived until her death in 1982 and is still in the family today.

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