The Way It Was/The Way It Is
The sun shone down upon the mountains and into the sharp valley below. The trees full of lush green foliage shadowed the sparkling creek as it rushed ever onward as though it was in a hurry to arrive somewhere before dark. Nestled along the hillside the white houses trimmed in green sat in silent rows facing in the same direction.
The floor of the valley contained the transportation avenues for the mining community. The railroad tracks stretched from the mining chutes where the coal was loaded down the valley to meet with more tracks, all designed to carry the precious black rock to factories far away. The paved road crossed the railroad track as it entered the small community and swerved down closer to the creek, crossing it at times, running along near the creek and the railroad track.
On the other side of the creek in fairly level land were more cheerful houses, freshly painted. Unlike the houses on the hill whose sides were parallel to the road, the ones across the creek faced the road. People sitting on their porches could hail anyone walking by.
The end of this paved road formed a circle before the large commissary that was a grocery store, furniture store, hardware store, clothing store, you name it. Everything anyone needed could be found here. Everything necessary to operate a mining complex was there with all the offices for the operation. The personal needs included a post office, a barbershop, a beauty shop, and across the street there was a restaurant, a doctor’s office and a church. Actually, this community had two churches, one at each end of the camp. These two churches, a Baptist and a Holiness, provided for the spiritual needs of the people in the community. Only the doctor’s office and Holiness Church stand today as a reminder of what was there.
On a high hill at the entrance of the town just abouve the Holiness Church stood the Black Star School. A three-story structure built of stone, with large open windows, housed the classrooms for all grades, one through twelve. This was adequate to take care of all the school children in this school community, which included all children living in this part of Harlan County including Pathfork.
As in most small communities in Kentucky, the school was the focus of activity and this was true in a very significant way. The employees of the coal company paid a portion of their salary to a school fund in order to see that their children would have the best education to be had. Funds were used to purchase extra supplies, maintain the building and provide for needs the school had throughout the year.
Emphasis was placed on hiring and retaining excellent teachers. Fortunately, many of these teachers had family connections in the community and had no desire to be moving on to other locations. The teachers worked hard to see that the children received the education they deserved. The parents were concerned that their children do well.
Although this town was a part of Harlan County, it was physically separated from the rest of the county in such a way that everyone had to leave Harlan, go through a section of Bell and reenter Harlan on US 119 in order to make contact with all governmental units. All of this served to make the community very close-knit.
The people in this town of Alva had a lot of pride in where they lived. Alva was owned by the Black Star Coal Company and all the houses and facilities that you could see belonged to the company. The condition of the houses was an indication of the commitment of the owners to provide decent living conditions for their miners and their families. There was a small, but beautiful park near the circle close to the restaurant. It was well-tended and flowers bloomed throughout the summer.
As the market for coal began to change, so did the thriving company town. The hours each miner worked became fewer and fewer so that it was hard to feed the family or buy the clothes to keep them warm. Thank heavens for company houses. At least there was a roof over their heads.
As fate would have it the time came when the workers spent more hours outside the mines because there were no work orders. Passing the time meeting with other miners usually along the railroad track became the thing to do. Mining communities didn’t have courthouses and benches for gathering places such as the county seats in the local area had. Besides, the railroad tracks were safe-no trains were coming or going. There had to be coal for shipping to beckon the gons to the coal tipples. Bending, balancing, neither sitting on their heels, or touching their knees to the ground, these miners could stay, talk and whittle cedar with their sharp knives for hours at a time. Not painful to them, that was the position they held day in and day out as they worked inside the mines. Their muscles were more comfortable this way than standing.
The economic outlook for the young people was very uncertain and graduating seniors were leaving as soon as they finished, if not to go to college, they were leaving to look for work in some town far away, in most cases in another state, where previous relatives had gone before. Graduation was an emotional time, a goal had been accomplished; now the future waited, but the future could no longer be at Black Star. Some even had packed their bags and loaded them in the trunk of a relative’s car ready to leave as soon as their graduation ceremony was over. Leave to find another place, another role than what they had experienced in this sheltered mining town.
At last the owners of the coal company found a solution. They could market their coal if it were cleaner. They must have a coal washer! And it was done.
The coal did sell, the income was better and things were looking up! Life was going to be good again at Black Star. Yet, there was a nagging feeling. Things were not the same. The blackened water from the coal washer fed the sparkling stream, which became dark with the thick residue from the coal. The sludge from the washer had to be dumped. Truckload after truckload was carried and dumped up the hollows and along the roadside. The drying particles were wind-borne and filled the air, settling into the lungs, dimming the view. The pretty picture was gone—and eventually the coal was gone and the town no longer existed.
What? No longer existed? How can that be said? Go back to the time when the town was productive and fresh and clean. Think about what really made up that town. Yes, there were houses, clean air, clean water, and pretty flowers. They were the result of what really made up the town. The town was the people who lived there.
The people worked in the mines, the commissary, the doctor’s offices, the management offices, the churches, the school. The people made that little town what it was. This was a place where everyone knew everyone else. It was a friendly place-warm to outsiders. They cared about each other. They worked together, worshiped together, cried together, and rejoiced together. In many ways they were one big family. Yes, they even disagreed with each other-for what family doesn’t have that happen? All that forged this community into a town that would never say die.
A stranger can look at what was the town and say, “What a pity, not even a house, not even a school, only one church remains to tell the story.
But if you remember, the town is the people, this is what you must see. A tremendous network of Black Star people exists. They are scattered all over the United States in big towns, small towns and some have been able to remain along Puckett’s Creek and in neighboring towns. They keep in touch by letter, by phone, by newsletter, by special concerns for one another. Students who have graduated from the school keep close touch with their classmates, some having regular reunions, but that is not enough. Remember, this town is all its people, not just one segment. Every year, on Labor Day weekend they get together at Cumberland Gap (at the time this was written) to renew friendships, catch up on past events and maintain the spirit of the Black Star community. It doesn’t matter that they cannot go back to where it all began, the town is the people and the people are together once again.
Even so, the heartstrings tug. Let’s go back home. We knew when we came here today it would not be the same, yet we still wanted to come. What a special way to dig up those memories! Coming as a group, visiting all the remembered sites, talking about the good old days. The family is together again and when we leave we will be wistful, remembering what was and what will never be again. Yet we are up-lifted because we are reaffirmed. We know who we are, where we come from, and we are so proud that we have each other. We can go back to our homes knowing we are who we are because of what happened here may years ago.