Chapter 2: You see, I’m from the Holler

You see, I came from an old coal mining town called Twin Branch Holler. Yes, I said Holler, NOT “Hollow,” although there is a sign beside the road there that says Twin Branch Hollow. There was no sign there when I was younger. I hear people say hollow and it makes me cringe a little. I didn’t live in a hollow, like in a hole in a tree. I lived in a holler, where everyone knew everyone, and they knew a lot about your business too which makes good sense because everyone who lived there was very neighborly and helped take care of each other. The place was full of love. We loved each other the best we could even with each other’s brokenness.  We didn’t even have to lock our doors at night and in the summer when it was hot, we left our front and back doors wide open to feel the night air.

 Twin Branch is in McDowell County, West Virginia. There’s two Hollers in Twin Branch:  Twin Branch Bottom and Twin Branch Holler. You would know if you have ever been there because you must drive across a bridge and then you go through a cave tunnel and drive across another bridge. No matter which way you’re coming from or going, you have to cross a bridge. There is a mountain that separates Twin Branch Bottom from Twin Branch Holler, yet we stay connected not just through the tunnel. There’s a back way that we are connected through a gravel road that turns into a loop. We are also more importantly connected through relationships with people. The tunnel was put there right in the middle of the mountain for a former railroad to push trains and train carts through. After many people were hit and killed by the train, the railway was removed and replaced with a paved road; that’s what all of my family, friends, and neighbors taught me about the history of our home place. 

My family was born into Generational Poverty in Coal Country. King Coal has been the ruler of our “Kingdom” which we pay heavy tithes to. Twin Branch was founded and grown under the watchful eye of Henry Ford. He wanted our Coal to help his automobile empire grow and he got it. The town had a population of around 1,000 miners and their families living there about 100 years ago. I’d estimate at least 5,000 people total were residents there back then. I’ll tell you my thought process behind the estimation in case you were wondering. I had watched a short clip about Henry Ford in Twin Branch on criticalpast.com. The video stated that there were 800 miners in Twin Branch in 1920 and in another video said 1,000 miners were there. 

If you take into consideration that each of the miners were married and back then most people did marry and much more often than today, then that would give you 2,000 people living there. Add to that children for each of the couples. There were no methods or forms of birth control. Birth control hadn’t been devised and created yet. One result of a lack of birth control not being created or legalized yet, was my Dad being born the youngest of 16 siblings who lived after birth in his family in 1960. I would not be here if my parents were not here first. 5,000 sounds like a pretty good number to me and that’s a modest estimate in my opinion. 

Today, around 420 people live there which includes the town of Davy, which is right beside of Twin Branch. Less than 10% of the population is living there today when compared to 50 years ago. Many have died before their time was up. In WV, more people die every year than are born. This is what happens as a result of many injustices.

Like any “good” coal company at that time, the Fordson Coal Company provided its miners with houses and public works until the miners decided they wanted to unionize that is. After the miners at Fordson’s coal mine decided that they should unionize for better wages, Henry decided that he didn’t want in the coal industry anymore. Consequently, he shut down the mine, evicted the miners from their temporary coal camp homes, stopped the electricity, closed the public buildings, and left town. Mr. Ford, like many of the other Titans of Industry at that time, didn’t want to pay a middle man for his coal. He figured he could produce it cheaper if he owned the mines.

Consequently, he started the Fordson Coal Company and acquired the mine in Twin Branch, WV around 1920. This is the story of Southern West Virginia.  Outside interests come in, give us scraps, and then leave when they’ve used us and everything all up. Companies continue to own and control our land even though most of the people operating the corporations don’t even live here. Thus, deepening our inability to become completely self-reliant.  Exploitation at its worst. 

Both of my grandfathers were coal miners. A lot of my relatives were and several still are today; uncles, cousins, and even some of my female friends mine coal. Some say “we bleed coal.” West Virginia coal miners say, “coal runs in their veins.” I’m not sure if coal gets in our blood but it does literally get in our lungs.  Coal mining runs in the very fabric of our being here. It’s something that’s been drilled into us and it’s about the only “good” job to make a living that can be found in this part of the state. 

Back in the 80’s, around the time I was born, mechanization occurred and cheaper sources of coal were discovered. Consequently, McDowell County and Southern West Virginia has been abandoned. We have not interstate road, no colleges, and lots of our people have dirty water. We dug the coal that built this nation and provided the power to make sure that your lights are on, your houses are warm, and your ovens can cook. By the time my parents were adults, the population of McDowell had shrunk from 100,000 residents in 1950 to 46,083 in 1984. 1984 is the year I was born. Unfortunately, the population has declined more and currently is only 21,642. 

My dad did what he could to make a living. He did everything from collecting cans to going “ginsenging” to moss hunting to building houses for very low wages. With all the work Dad did, there were no benefits like overtime, holiday pay, vacation pay, paid sick days, good health insurance or a Union.  Despite their meager income, Dad and Mom taught us to volunteer. Dad put the steeple on the Twin Branch Church and he dug the footer for the Twin Branch Christian Academy’s Gym too, with his bare hands and a shovel! That is the same way his dad my Paw Paw Ellis Allen dug coal. 

All of that hard work did a number on my Paw Paw Allen. He passed when I was a toddler; he was in his 60’s. If my Paw Paw Allen was alive today, he’d be 100 years old. I wish he could’ve lived here a while longer. Paw Paw Allen and my parents lived together for a while. My first memory includes all three of them. In my mind, I can see Dad standing in the kitchen fixing something to eat and my Mom holding me up through a window so I could see out as my Paw Paw Allen was making his way up our porch steps. Mom said excitedly, “your Paw Paw Allen is coming” while she smiled happily and bounced me up and down. I was joyful. I knew he’d have me a bag of candy. He always brought me a bag of candy after he had returned home from an outing. I felt good around my Paw Paw Ellis. I felt he was a good person. He wore a black leather jacket and he had jet black hair that turned grey. 

Dad says he was part Apache Indian, around half if my memory serves me right. His wife, my Maw Maw Laura had a high percentage of Cherokee Indian blood as well. I don’t remember his face but that could be because I was born three months early and my eyes didn’t fully develop. What I couldn’t see clearly with my adapting eyes then, I could feel in my heart. Dad said his Dad died an early death from getting coal dust in his lungs which caused “black lung” and from drinking alcohol. Moonshine is what people loved to drink back in those days. But, my Paw Paw Ellis didn’t drink moonshine. He slowly drank a pint of Kessler’s whiskey. He would have a small patch of tobacco in his mouth too. He was a quiet man who didn’t speak much. He loved his family very much. He would do anything he could to help his family. 

Not only did Dad and his Dad work hard, Mom did too. My Mom cleaned houses and volunteered with the 4-H program, or wherever she could. She was a maid at the Count Gilu Motel in Welch when she was younger too. It just wasn’t enough though. Whatever work they did, was hard work and took a long time but they didn’t get paid much for it, if anything at all. I remember scavenging for something to eat with my three younger siblings. Sometimes there would be nothing. Other times, there would be a half of loaf of bread and condiments in the fridge such as ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise. I’d always get a piece of bread with mustard. My sister closest in age to me and my brother would put mayonnaise on their piece of bread and my youngest sister would put ketchup on hers. 

Dad and Mom didn’t have nothing to eat either when we got down to half a loaf of bread every month weeks after the food stamps had run out. Even a sandwich was out of reach for our family at times. Mom and Dad constantly told me, “if you don’t want to have to live this hard, do your best to educate yourself and go to college.” Dad had regretted quitting school in the 8th grade and Mom felt bad because she dropped out in high school when she got pregnant with me. When I was a teenager, Mom did earn two associate degrees. She worked minimum wage jobs with those degrees. She hasn’t ever been paid what she is worth; no one in my family has.