Growing Up At Black Star:
A Coal Company Town In Harlan Co.
Sisters Hold Fond Memories Of A Place That Exists No Longer
By Nancy Louise Hooker Powell
In their 29 years of marriage my parents, Luther Markley Hooker and Sarah Edith Kelley, never owned a home. When first married they lived with Mother’s grandparents, Richard Ovander Austin and Sarah Swanner, at Black Star (Alva), Harlan County, Kentucky. Grandpa was called “Dutch” and Grandma was called “Sack” by those who knew and loved them. Daddy and Mother stayed with them because Grandma was bedridden, and Mother needed to take care of her.
I was born in the house where my grandparents lived and was almost three when we moved to House #103. Grandma had died and more space was needed. Grandpa moved with us and stayed until his death in 1949. All the houses at Black Star were rented from the coal company, and family size determined what house you would get. There were a few larger houses that were reserved for management employees and the doctor.
Our rent, for as long as I remember, was $14 a month for three bedrooms, living and dining room, kitchen, one bathroom, and an enclosed back porch. The house was frame, painted white with dark green trim. The coal was free and so was firewood, but you had to cut your own wood, while coal was delivered weekly. All the houses were painted every two years, and the trees and fences were whitewashed every summer. Black Star Coal Company built this community as a model for other mining camps to be constructed. We had a huge commissary (furniture, clothing, shoes, appliances, grocery, butcher shop, barber shop, and beauty shop), the mine offices and post office were in the same building. This was a three-story structure with a wide, wooden porch around it (miners would line up there to draw their pay). In the early 1950s the porch was replaced with a concrete one with iron railing, and this gave us a wonderful place to roller skate. Skating on the pike greatly shortened the life of ones skates, because the road was rough and pitted. In the summer a traveling skating rink would come and set up under a big tent. It was open every day and night. Though we were not allowed to skate on the store porch, we did it anyway to stay in practice for skating with “real skates.” We also had a brick Baptist church, a service station, and a very fine school with a gymnasium and lunchroom. The lunchroom was a very old structure (might have been the original school), but it was large, had a well-equipped kitchen, and sturdy tables with benches. We had school socials in the lunchroom. Our school was part of the Harlan County School System, but because it was built and furnished by the coal company, the county did not bother to enforce lunch menus or strict use of the facilities. We had a large playground and ball field, tennis courts, and football field (no bleachers though). We had a fine swimming hole in School House Holler. The water was ice cold, even in July. There were rocks that we jumped from and tire tubes hanging from the trees. There was a nice doctor’s office, a great restaurant, and a bathhouse for the miners. Though not built by the coal company, we had a nice Holiness church. We had no fire department but did have a water wagon that was kept in a garage. It was designed to be pulled by horses, but there was only one horse in the community. It was owned by old man Green Rose, and there was a pony named Fanny, owned by Joe Hodges. I never saw the water wagon used, but when it was used it was pulled by men.
Our houses were heated by wood-burning stoves and fireplaces. All the houses had running water from a spring-fed reservoir in the mountains. The water was so good, containing no chemicals, and always so cold. We had electricity, furnished by Kentucky Utilities, but due to our location and heavy forest, service was not reliable. We always kept candles in place and an oil lantern. There was no law enforcement, though we had an elected constable in both Pathfork and Black Star. We seldom had a crime. Daddy said that we had, in the past, had a few bad people come there to live, but after many warnings they just disappeared.
The company did have a night watchman. During my childhood Mr. Pat Helton held that job, and I loved him so much. I told him all my secrets and would sit up with him all night during the summer. Children were free to stay outside, either playing or camping, until all hours. The gym and tennis courts were open all summer without supervision. We had tennis, volleyball, and badminton equipment. Three miles away, in the community of Pathfork, there were several grocery stores, a pool hall, a movie theatre, a bus, and both Holiness and Baptist churches.
In the early 1950s the Floyd family opened a frozen custard stand in Pathfork. The place later became a hangout for teenagers, when they added booths and a jukebox. The legal name of the community was Alva, but everyone called it Black Star. The cemetery was the only place with the Alva name. We were at the dead end of a nine-mile valley, and we had to drive into Bell County in order to reach the town of Harlan, which was the county seat of Harlan County.
The county law enforcement totally ignored our area. If we did have something serious, like an auto accident, we had to call the Kentucky State Patrol. This was not easy to do, as the homes did not have telephones, until the mid-1950s. There were phones in a few of the homes owned by the company for emergency use only.
The community was built around Puckets Creek and was serviced by L & N Railroad. The main road into the community was paved, but all other roads were dirt. The community was kept in spotless condition. We had a huge and beautiful flower garden and a fine clubhouse for folks needing lodging and meals. The coal trains came into the camp in the morning and at night. Passenger trains came to Blackmont from the entrance of the valley. Our mail came to Blackmont by train and was trucked to the communities in the valley.
This was a perfect place to grow up, in my opinion. I was free as a bird, and I enjoyed it. The grownups did not like the coal dust, but that seemed a small price to pay, to me. Many people had nice gardens, some raised pigs and chickens. Residents could use the land for any purpose, even making moonshine, but that had to be done on one of the mountains. We could walk to Virginia, but it took all day. In the summer the adults would grade wide paths for sledding, so when the big snows came, everyone would come out and we would have big fires for warmth and hours of sledding. One of the big sled runs was lighted and that was a thrilling time at night.
I really liked our house. I still like to think about it. The front bedroom was mine, and it shared a fireplace with the living room and had a door that opened onto the front porch. I felt privileged to have my own fireplace and door but preferred to go in and out one of my windows, until I was a teenager. I really liked to read, especially by firelight. I would eat oranges and throw the peeling under the bed, so my room smelled good all winter. Daddy would bank the fire when he went to bed, so as soon as I would hear him snoring, I would punch up the fire, throw on some kindling, and read.
We had a big cast-iron cook stove with yellow enamel trim. We used this for all our cooking needs and to heat the hot water tank. So even in summer we had to build a big fire in that stove to have hot water. We did not own a fan, no one did. It cooled off in the evening, and my sister, Markley, and I would sleep on the front porch on an old mattress. We would take all the leftovers from supper to snack on and some jars for catching lightning bugs, and we could hear the radio from the living room.
We had a big heater in the dining room that heated the whole house. We had a little electric heater for the bathroom, and it smelled really bad when it was running. Our Warm Morning heater used coal and wood. Daddy would get up really early in the morning and build fires in the heater and kitchen stove. The he would carry Markley and me, wrapped in our quilts, into the kitchen for breakfast. I was sure that we were rich, as we had a warm house and fine meals. For breakfast we had bacon, and sausage, of course. We also had fried pork chops, squirrel, and rabbit with gravy and biscuits, and fried apple pies.
In the summer we would can all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and sausage and chicken. Later on we got a freezer for meat, and that also meant we could have ice cream and Popsicles. I guess we were rich. Daddy told all of us that he would provide everything we needed and , at least, half of what we wanted. He kept his word. We were certainly rich in the parent department.
My wish is for every child to have wonderful parents, a warm house, plenty of food, and, of course, the freedom to enjoy it all.