Putting ‘Coal Country’ on the map

Doug Estepp is making up for lost time.

He was an adult before he heard details about the dramatic, deadly turning points in the American history that happened right in his backyard in Southern West Virginia.

Members of the Hatfield family.

He credits John Sayles’ 1987 hit film, “Matewan,” with finally opening the door to discussion of the “mine wars” – the long, bloody struggle to marry labor unions and coal mining.

“For a long, long time, nobody wanted to talk about what had happened in Southern West Virginia in the 1920s – it was just too touchy a subject,” said Estepp, who grew up in a mining family in Mingo County. “Everyone was either on one side or the other.”

But for more than a year now, Estepp has been offering busloads of history-loving tourists from across West Virginia as well as Baltimore, D.C., Pittsburgh, Virginia and elsewhere something brand-new: a first-hand look at West Virginia locales that once served as the front lines in American labor movement.

“These are huge, huge events in American history and yet many even highly educated people don’t know what happened here,” Estepp said.

Those who sign up for Estepp’s tours get to walk along the Matewan street where the 1920 shootout between Baldwin-Felts detectives (in town to evict miners from company-owned homes) and townspeople killed seven detectives, Mayor Cabell Testerman and several others.

They get to tour the restored 1890s-era Whipple Company Store in Scarbro in Fayette County, now a privately owned museum with a hand-operated freight elevator, walk-in safes, a post office and other antiquated features. Seeing for themselves how tightly controlled miners’ everyday lives were, visitors begin to understand some of the issues that left miners so hungry to battle the coal companies for change.

Visitors also walk along Logan County’s Blair Mountain, where in 1921 some 10,000 coal miners seeking the right to unionize battled 3,000 strike-breakers and law officials aligned with the coal companies.

That showdown holds the distinction as the nation’s largest armed rebellion outside the Civil War, and a confrontation that eventually required the intervention of federal troops.

It also led to Charles Town’s second most-famous treason trial (and, unlike the 1859 proceedings against martyred abolitionist John Brown, union leader Bill Blizzard won acquittal). Estepp’s tours also include a stop at the Jefferson County Courthouse.

Estepp said that when visitors tour company-run camps and Bramwell (still home to the coal barons’ mansions that made the Mercer County village the “Town of Millionaires”), they quickly develop an interest not only in West Virginia history, but in the current mining controversy of mountaintop-removal mining.

“It doesn’t take long for people to realize that many of the same battles are being fought today – there’s still that tension between the interests of powerful coal companies and those who are more focused on how everyday folks are being affected by what these companies want to do.”

New this year, Estepp also has scheduled visits that give his guests the lowdown on a certain Mountain State family feud recently associated not with hillbilly stereotypes but with Kevin Costner, Tom Berenger, Mare Winningham, Bill Paxton and other film stars.

“Hatfields and McCoys,” the History Channel miniseries starring Costner (as Devil Anse Hatfield) and Paxton (as Randall McCoy), in May drew the highest cable ratings ever for a non-sports program.

Estepp’s tour includes a stop at Hatfield Cemetery, where Devil Anse’s marker is a lifesize statue of the man carved in Italian marble that’s been an attention-getter in Logan County since his 1921 demise.

Estepp, who lives in Shenandoah County, Va., spends almost every spare minute giving tours, planning them or promoting them. He schedules his trips during long weekends and furloughs from his job with the federal government in Martinsburg.

For Estepp, who earned a degree in history from West Virginia University, this is the ultimate part-time job. Sharing his passion for the untold stories of West Virginia is something he hopes to do for years to come.

“There’s nothing I like better than sharing these stories,” Estepp said.

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