Saturday, March 5, 2011

My Mama Was a Coal Miner's Daughter

My mother, known as MD, was a rather complicated person, given to conflicting emotions and a self-disparaging, wry sense of humor that bordered on black.  Nowhere was this more evident than when she spoke of her upbringing, a subject that she had decidedly mixed feelings about, both of pride and regret.

Downtown Bramwell, West Virginia, ca. 1914

MD was born in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1921, and spent the first part of her life in the little town of Bramwell, only eight miles outside of Bluefield, where she lived in great comfort as the only child of the second son of a wealthy coal-mine-owning family.  Although many people think of West Virginia as a rather hardscrabble place to live—and for many of its inhabitants it is—those who owned the mines lived a storied existence far removed from the misery of those who worked in the mines or who lived in the hollers that surrounded them.  Many of the area's Coal Barons, as they were known, lived in Bramwell, where they built large and comfortable houses.  Little Bramwell was reputed to have the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in America at the turn of the last century.

Many of the houses that the Coal Barons built in the
hills surrounding Bramwell are still standing

Although not ruined by the Great Depression, MD's family's circumstances were much reduced, and her father decamped, along with his wife and daughter, to Detroit, where he spent the remainder of his days representing the interests of the family business selling coal to the automobile manufacturers based there.

The family's main offices were located in downtown Bluefield,
where my grandfather kept an apartment

Initially the business in Detroit was good, but over time demand there for the family's coal diminished and then subsided altogether.  By the end of my grandfather's days, the mid-1950s, the auto companies were no longer using coal to fire their plants, and the family's mines had pretty much petered out.  My grandfather—by this time a widower—was reduced to living on the income of a trust set up for him by his dead wife's parents.  A sad comedown, indeed, from his salad days as a young man, when the prospect of no longer being rich would have been shocking to him, if not unfathomable.

Much of my grandparents' set's social life revolved
around the Bluefield Country Club

MD's parents met as college undergraduates, when my grandfather played football at the University of Virginia and my grandmother was a Sweetbriar College sweetheart.  They married shortly afterwards, before my grandfather left for France to fight in the Great War, outfitted with custom-made uniforms from Brooks Brothers.  No army-issued kit for him.  My grandmother, who was bewitchingly pretty and adored expensive clothes, came down with influenza during the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919 and recovered from it only to learn years later that what she really had contracted was—instead—multiple sclerosis.  The disease eventually invalided her and then ultimately killed her just shy of her fiftieth birthday, only a few short weeks after my parents were married.

My great-grandmother built this house in 1914 to live in
after her husband died and her children were grown.
MD would stay here when visiting as a girl

My mother described her childhood as a largely solitary and lonely one.  Like her parents before her and her own children after her, she was largely cared for by domestics when she was young and spent much of her adolescence away from home at boarding school.  Her parents were preoccupied with the challenges of her mother's illness, among other concerns.  During most of her school vacations she stayed with her grandparents, dividing her time between the house, shown above, in Bramwell, where she stayed with her father's mother, and Indiana, where she stayed with her mother's parents.  I have a print of that house, too, a large brick Italianate, but I can't seem to find it no matter where I look for it.  Perhaps that's a post for another day.

The Watsons were close friends of my grandfather's family,
and Mr. Watson was one of MD's godfathers

When I was growing up MD didn't talk much about her childhood or her parents, except to say that she felt she was a disappointment to her mother, who wished her prettier and more social than she was, and a burden to her father, who was mostly focused on tending to his weakening wife when he wasn't away at his hunting camp in Canada, where he escaped to whenever he could.  He didn't care for working all that much.

I don't recall our connection to Mrs. Elkins, if there was any.
Another example, though, of how the Coal Barons lived

MD's mother's parents died when MD was in her early thirties, and she found herself, much to her professed surprise, sufficiently well set up by them that my father—by then her husband—was able to leave a career in corporate law and instead pursue one largely focused on service to his country, confident that my mother's income would be enough to pay for the private-school educations of each of their four children, along with buying and maintaining the houses among which we divided our time.  It was also what allowed my parents to ultimately walk away from each other with no strings attached after their marriage disintegrated.

One of the family mines in the Pocahontas Coal Field
This is what made it all possible . . . until it didn't anymore

MD was always rather cagey about her upbringing and her financial situation, and she felt guilty that her family had owned and profited from coal mines where the conditions for the miners were dangerous, the pay low, and the life hard.  She didn't like to discuss it much.  She also steadfastly refused to answer any questions about her financial circumstances when people got too nosy, seeking to figure out how it was she was able to live with no visible means of support.  MD was of a generation and a class that still believed that speaking about such matters was not done outside of the confines of one's trust and estates advisers' offices.

The unbelievably tidy interior of the exhibition mine
at the Pocahontas Coal Field in West Virginia

MD's reluctance to speak of such matters, even with her own children, became something of a joke—at times a rather trying one, I admit—among me and my siblings, as she refused to speak about finances virtually to her dying day.  Within the family she would only discuss her finances with my older brother, Frecky, and only near the end of her life, when he began helping her manage her affairs.  If anyone outside the family had the temerity to fish about, she would freeze them out by saying, "Why, whatever do you mean?  I'm just a coal miner's daughter!" and then laugh enigmatically, even bitterly, knowing full well that she had done more to confuse her questioner than enlighten them.

And that's just how she liked it.

I found the vintage postcards used to illustrate this story among MD's effects when my siblings and I emptied her apartment after she died, more than a decade ago.  I rediscovered them recently while rooting through a box at Darlington House, and I was transfixed.  They are a vivid record for me of a world once inhabited by my mother and her family, long ago and far away—a world that is as remote to me as the moon.


  1. Fascinating, Reggie and beautifully told. Quite a woman, your mama, by all accounts and from a world, as you say, as remote from you as the moon. Not so far, perhaps, on second thought from your world at Darlington Hall. Lovely essay!

  2. Reggie, this is such a poignant post about your Mother and her lineage. It is very special to know ones family history. Often so much is lost or not ever recorded.

    The images are wonderful!

    Art by Karena

  3. A very thorough recount of a facet of your family...interesting to read and well written. The story is also relevant in how it weaves personal experience with historical context. Thank you for the glimpse into your background!

  4. Ah. The melancholic complexities of a post-industrial High WASP. Coal, steel, railroads, and the bankers to them all. Did you read my dad's recent post on the Age of Innocence?

  5. I really like the posts you write about your family. You write with a certain detachment yet with compassion. The postcards add so much to this story. How wonderful that you found them in your mother's apartment.
    My grandfather's father was the manager of a mine in Hamilton, Scotland, a position that allowed him to rear his large family in relative comfort. He vowed none of his sons would go down into the mines, and, in fact, none of them did.

  6. I attended school with the children of some coal mining execs, and my friends and I railed against the strip-mining and the indifference to black lung disease that regularly made the news. Each day, of course, we all went home to comfortably warmed houses with lights blazing, thanks to coal-powered electric plants. Insufferable ignorance of youth, I guess. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful post.

  7. Do you think the postcards of the houses were approved by the families? Were they sold or just commissioned by the owners? Several years ago attended an exhibit at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland where they highlighted many of the captains of industry when the city was prosperous. They were all gone and one of the most interesting things we were told was many were never sold and were ordered demolished by the families themselves when they moved on so nothing could taint their history. Some were only intact for less than a decade.

  8. I love vintage postcards, especially those of local landmarks that the general public would probably not find so interesting. I am sure the situations vary, but my experience has been that the views were photographed from a non-private location (such as the street) and considered public domain. These postcards were a source of civic pride, showing the local prosperity, rather than the vanities of the owners (but surely there was some pride there too). These postcards are interesting because of the beautifully told story that accompanies them. Thanks for another wonderful post.

  9. Reggie, I like it when you get personal. This is so warm and so heartfelt, although you go through the facts, the tone rings from the heart.

  10. Sad story.
    How many still suffer and die at the hands of the greedy corporate barons?

    Corporate greed is still the motivating force in trying to crush the labor unions. Wisconsin and Ohio are prime examples. America's middle class needs to wake up before we become extinct.

  11. Reggie darling- You mother- MD-was absolutely right about a lot of things. beautifully told. pgt

  12. What a lovely and entertaining...and educational post!

    Just plain wonderful. I love your mother. She reminds me of mine. A bigger compliment I cannot give!
    Thank you so much!!!


  13. Great story, skillfully told.

    It's sadly ironic to me that your mother was made to feel she wasn't attractive enough, as I distinctly remember seeing a youthful photo of her, in a previous posting here, and thinking what a naturally pretty girl she was. A few poorly chosen words from our parents can sometimes have a profoundly damaging effect on our self-esteems, despite their (probably) good intentions.

    Reggie, you probably knew this already but just in case you didn' 2009 the steel bridge at the end of Bramwell's Main Street was renamed in honour of your great-grandmother. And that's pretty cool if you ask me!

  14. Reggie, This post was captivating for me, to say the least. My mother grew up on the other side of the social strata in Pocohontas County, WV as a "real" coal miner's daughter. I remember her telling us stories about the men coming home covered in coal dust. Hers was a company town where the owners of the mine also owned the workers' homes, the local sundry store and pretty much everything else. My mother was able to escape the area, attend nursing school and eventually marry a rather well-off physician from NYC. A life of extremes no doubt.

  15. Thank you for sharing this history with us Reggie. I find it so interesting.
    I am happy to know you have a Canadian connection. Did your Grandfather's Camp remain in the family?

  16. Blue: Thank you. She was, indeed, quite a woman.

    Karena and Main Line Sportsman: Thank you, I enjoyed writing this, I'm glad you liked it.

    LPC: Thanks—yes, I did read it, and I plan on commenting on it shortly.

    Sewing Librarian: Thank you. I was pleased to rediscover the postcards only recently.

    T&C Mom: Interesting how one's perspectives evolve over time, isn't it?

    Anon 8:18: Many of these postcards were sold by the drugstore in downtown Bramwell, and I believe were a token of civic pride, as the Devoted Classicist writes in his comment. Many of the Coal Baron's houses still stand, and Bramwell takes great pride in its history.

    Devoted Classicist: Thank you. I am a fan of vintage postcards, and find them to be an excellent source for images for this blog. They provide a vivid window into how this country looked 100 years ago or so.

    Hollywood Forever Kevin: Thank you, it took me quite a while to get the "tone" as you write, right here.

    Anon 10:50: We, as a nation, have many challenges, as you note.

    LA: Thank you. Knowing the two of you, I believe you and MD would have gotten along like a house on fire.

  17. Penelope: Thank you, I appreciate (as would MD) the compliment!

    Anon 5:05: Thank you for your comment. While I never met MD's mother (she died before I was born), I understand that she was a vivacious and charming beauty, and a great clothes horse. And she also put a lot of pressure on MD to live up to her expectations.

    I was not aware of the bridge being renamed for my great-grandmother, thank you for pointing that out to me! "Pretty cool" as you write, indeed.

  18. As well as selling postcards, the Bramwell Pharmacy was the first place outside NYC to carry Chanel #5, expressly for our grandmother. Or so the family legend goes...

  19. What a wonderful & heartfelt story about your family, especially MD.
    Thank you so much.

  20. Reggie,

    Although everything you post is beautifully written, you are at your best when you write about your parents. Perhaps because it comes from the heart.

    That generation and others before it had such a hard time expressing themselves. Although I come from a different country, things were much the same in my family. You didn't talk about money and definitely not about feelings. Anything bad that happened in the family was swept under the carpet never to be brought up again.

    I am still dealing with this with my mother, like MD a wonderful woman and mother but a hard nut to crack.

    I know how hard it is to write about things like this and greatly admire you for sharing them with us. Perhaps because it makes us feel we are not alone. Great post, darling!

  21. A story told in postcards, that's special, and to take us back into the history of a place and time that we've had no prior knowledge of, when the architecture and the dream were one.

  22. Dear Reggie, I really loved this post. You transported me back to another time with your writing. What a wonderful record the postcards are. Wasn't it a shame that people didn't talk about their feelings then. Thank you for sharing this fascinating piece of your family history xx

  23. And Bramwell's teams are still called The Millionaires!

    xox Camilla

  24. I have read your blog for some time, though this is my first comment. I really enjoy it! I wondered if your grandmother or anyone in the West Virginia branch of your family might have attended Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy? Though it was a Catholic school, run by the Visitation order rather than the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston, it had many WASP students, including some children of "Coal Barons" and local steel entrepreneurs. It was considered West Virginia's best girls' school, though it had declined somewhat by the time I attended. You might be interested in knowing that the school, a real architectural and historical gem, closed in 2008. It is believed that the Diocese of Wheeling Charleston plans to demolish the building. In case there is a family connection, I have included a few links that might be of interest.

  25. Reggie,
    Only you could craft such an interesting story of family history from postcards! It left me wanting more...Both my mother and my husband's late mother were exactly the same way...never discuss ones matter what!

  26. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing your mother's story with us.

  27. Reggie --

    I think this is your second best ever post, after the one that put your parents on bicycles in Germany in 1939.

    Good for you.

    (The problem you and I have, being old people, is that the past is like a drainpipe. But we ought to remember that every one of them, no matter how wacky they were, wanted our lives to be better than their lives. And that's why they are.)

  28. My mother, also, was a coal miner's daughter. Her father died at the ripe of age of 34 after working 20 years in the mines. His death was due to lung disease. He left behind 5 daughters and one son. Their house was owned by the company and they had to leave within the month of my grandfather's death.

    My mother's life and the circumstances in which she lived as a child weighed heavily on her. She suffered with depression all her life. She said it was because of the early death of her father and poverty.

    Your mother's history and my mother's maybe seem the opposite, but obviously had similiar effects on both ladies.

    Thank you for sharing part of MD's story.

  29. Hermione: I had forgotten the Chanel No. 5 story about our grandmother. I wonder, do you really think it was true?

    Sandrajonas: Thank you

    Lindaraxa: Thank you. Although it is early in the morning as I write this, I'd like to propose a toast to the Hard Nuts that were (in my case) and are (in yours) in each of our lives. They really are remarkable ladies.

    Paul: Thanks, I enjoyed writing this post and it was a treat having the postcards to illustrate it.

    Christina: Thank you for your comment. And thank goodness for modern therapy, too!

    Camilla: Are they still?

  30. Anon 8:22: Thank you, indeed, for your comment and the perspective you bring here. Many years ago I visited the area and learned that our family's business had several of such "company towns" as you describe. They were abandoned when the mines gave out and torn down long ago. It was an eery sensation for me, when I visited where they once stood, and I had the distinct sensation that they could be there teeming with life and it would be the 1930s once again in an instant, with only the blink of an eye, never to return with but another. It was like seeing a ghost.

    DaniBP: Unfortunately my grandfather's camp was sold many, many years ago.

    Anon 6:51: Thank you for your comment. I am not aware of MD or others in her family attending the school you write of. She did attend the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Detroit for a number of years, but did not finish her education there.

    A&A and Slim Paley: Thank you.

    Ancient One: It is a privilege to be in company such as yours. Thank you for your comment, and sentiment.

    Anon 11:40: Thank you for your comment, and story. It is for such reasons that MD had decidedly mixed feelings about her family's past. Please see my response to Anon 8:22, above.

  31. I have my doubts about the Chanel #5. I am sure our grandmother wore it, but don't you think Chicago, and Philadelphia were most likely ahead of Bramwell in carrying it?

    MD had an extensive repetoire of union songs she claimed to have learned in order to tweak her father's dignity. I remember her singing them to us as children.

  32. That is quite a family history Reggie, both human and architectural. It's actually quite wonderful that you know many don't have an inkling about their past, what really went on, what happenings shaped your relations and yourself...but you do know and that is such a special gift.
    Thank you so much for sharing this with us...
    xo J~

  33. Thanks so much for this. My grandfather was born in Bluefield, and practiced medicine in and around there until his death in 1945. Never met the man, as my mother was 3 at the time. His legacy is still with me, though, in the presence of his leather-bound Dickens, his links and studs, his photographs (quite debonair, even for his day), and his daughter, my mother, who doesn't remember him, but speaks highly of him, telling me something of how he was regarded by others after his death....

  34. Mrs. Elkins' house, "Halliehurst", which you show in a postcard, is beside of "Graceland", the house of Mrs. Elkins' father, Sen. Henry G. Davis. Graceland was named for Mrs. Elkins' sister, Grace Davis. Papa Davis was US Senator from WV, as was Mr. Elkins. Davis was the Democrat's VP nominee in 1904, while Elkins was a cabinet secretary under Harrison (I believe). Both made a great deal of money and then were devoted to public service while the money made itself. They were basically Washingtonians, and, as you say, coal barons (timber too), and only summered in Elkins. Both mansions are on the campus of Davis and Elkins College, the former as the administration building, the latter as an inn and restaurant supported by the college's hospitality program. There was a third house, built by Davis for Grace, who married a Virginia Lee. It was smaller, on the street, and was torn down a few years ago to build a Walgreens. While none of these folks were native West Virginians, in the end all were buried on a hilltop in the town cemetery for which Davis donated land.

  35. Anon 1:41: Thank you for your most interesting and informed comment, and for shedding light on who this Mrs. Elkins was!


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