(This article appeared in the Kentucky
Explorer Magazine January 2006 edition)
This Model Community Was The First And Probably The Best Of Its Kind In Kentucky And Was a Good Place To Live
Editor’s Note: Colon C. Byrd of McDonough, Georgia, a brother-in-law of Nancy Powell who submits this article, met Nancy’s sister, Markley Hooker, while they both were attending Berea College in Madison County, Kentucky. Colon writes political commentary for National Public Radio and this essay was read on the air in February 2005. NPR received a huge response and requests for more stories recording Black Star Coal Company in Harlan County, Kentucky.
For three decades now I have been fortunate enough to be married to a coal miner’s daughter from Harlan County, Kentucky. My wife, Markley Hooker Byrd, and her sister, Nancy Hooker Powell, hold on to a lot of fond memories of their youth in a time and place that exists no longer.
They grew up in Black Star, a coal camp town which disappeared long ago, but in its prime it was a good place to live.
The Black Star Coal Company established and constructed a model community, the first and probably the best of its kind in Kentucky and excavated the mines in a place that officially became the town of Alva, but is referred to as Black Star by those who lived there.
Hundreds of individuals once called this thriving town, at the end of the road, home. To reach Black Star one would take the road through Blackmont, Blacksnake, Insull, and Pathfork.
When you came to Black Star you couldn’t go any farther. The mountains put an end to the road. To go anywhere else it was necessary to turn around and retrace your path back down the valley. Although the coal trains came to Black Star, passenger train service ended at Blackmont. This was a time and place where people still rode the trains.
I’m sure some meanness exists everywhere, but Black Star was practically devoid of crime. Occasional shenanigans by adults and especially teenagers were about as close as it got to a crime wave. Few locked their doors and many could not lock-up if they wanted to, because their keys had been misplaced long ago. Protecting a home from intruders was unnecessary. Two elected constables and a night watchman, who were infrequently involved with actual law enforcement, constituted the policing force. It is recalled that one constable purchased an old Mercury and a flashing light for the car top, but most of the teenagers could still outrun him barefooted. Though Black Star was in Harlan County it was landlocked by Bell County. Since deputies of the Harlan County Sheriff’s department would have to drive into Bell County then back into Harlan County to get there, the town stayed off-limits to them. If a crime occurred serious enough to warrant intervention by higher authorities, then the Kentucky State Police would be summoned.
The company store was ahead of its time, and all the goods were American-made and many were produced locally. There was a grocery, butcher shop, clothing and furniture store, appliances and other dry goods, barber shop, post office, and mining offices; all in one large building. A beauty shop was attached to the side of this main building and Doctor Jim’s office, a restaurant, and the gas station were in separate buildings nearby. There were two churches. All were within a short walk of surrounding, well-maintained, company homes. Every other week all employees were paid in cash that was picked up at the train depot in Blackmont by my wife’s father in the company of two armed guards. This cash could be exchanged for scrip which was accepted everywhere locally, except the U. S. Post Office. We still have a small box with several denominations of gold coins stamped “Black Star Coal Co. Scrip.” Some chose to leave their earnings on account and charge what they needed.
All 12 school grades were educated, many by my mother-in-law in a large three-story brick and stone building which also contained a nice, hardwood-floored gym. Frequent plays were performed on the stage and movies were shown in the basement. The Black Star Eagles fielded competitive football, basketball, baseball, and tennis teams and even had a well-uniformed marching band.
A television antenna tower was erected on a ridgeline above the town to receive transmissions and distribute these by cable to individual homes, so stations in Knoxville, Asheville, and even Charlotte could be viewed by all during the 1950s. This was not bad for many homes, especially those in mountainous areas that could receive only one or two stations. The Knoxville Sentinel newspaper arrived daily.
In 1960, as the coal company ceased operations, my wife and her family had to leave Black Star to find a way of life somewhere else. The houses were torn down and sold as scrap lumber and soon after the large main building was gone, the playing fields and tennis courts were overgrown, and eventually the large, sturdy schoolhouse disappeared. Little evidence remained that this valley and hollow was once home to so many.
A few years ago we drove up the road to Black Star. After crossing Puckett’s Creek, just past where it is joined by Littlefield Creek, we arrived at a point about a hundred yards in front of where the main building once stood. A chain link fence and gate and a manned security guard post blocked our way. A different kind of mining had taken over. The security guard politely informed us that we would have to turn around and leave. Then, through the fence, we could see a smiling woman walking in our direction. She had just stepped out of the mining office building which was once the office of Doctor Jim. It was the only original structure that remained. She continued to smile and said, “You used to live here, didn’t you?” We answered, “Yes,” in unison, even though it was my first and only visit, as this pleasant and hospitable lady explained that she knew it, because no one else ever came up there. She then told the guard that it was okay to let us in for a little bit. My wife was able to cross the railroad tracks and walk up the hillside to the spot of her childhood home. The comfortable house with the inviting porch, rock walkway, and white fence had long since been replaced by trees and brush.
We were glad that we went out of our way to make the trip to Black Star. The people and buildings are gone, but the fond memories of a good place still live on in the heart.
Nancy Hooker Powell, 2917 Battle Forrest, Decatur, GA 30034, shares this article with our readers.