The history of West Virginia reflects a long and difficult struggle not only to make a living, but to live. The harsh world of mountains and mining gave birth to a people with a deep pride, immensely practical capabilities, and an earthy intelligence that is often valued far above mere academic knowledge. It is likely that the State motto, Montani Semper Liberi (“Mountaineers are always free”), originates in part from the independent and proud spirit that developed within the various communities spread throughout the hills and hollows of West Virginia.
The community of Winifrede, West Virginia is a case in point. The town in which I pastored for four years is a typical coal-mining community that is representative of what life was like for coal miners in West Virginia. The mine was located six miles up Fields Creek Rd, at the head of Winifrede hollow.Winifrede “holler” is six miles deep from head to mouth. This hollow, like thousands of others throughout West Virginia, became the home of the town of Winifrede through the power and influence of a coal mining company. Miner families lived in company-built houses, the rent for which the company withheld from their wages. Very few owned their own property. The “coal towns” were self-sustaining. For the most part, the people who lived in communities like Winifrede worked in, around, and for the company that owned the mine. The company provided, supported, or encouraged nearly everything that was needed for life in the community: doctor’s office, schools, post office, entertainment (the “opry-house”), department and food stores (known as company stores). At one time, lack of transportation and the geographic isolation of coal mining communities created a de facto isolation. Work was within walking distance, as were schools and everything else the community depended upon. Those who were not within walking distance of work or school might have hopped the community coal trains (even children) or carpooled. Churches of different denominations sprang up within walking distance of each other, often built with company sponsorship on company land.
Attendance at college was not prevalent, because work was available straight out of high school (and even before). As a result, many never had reason to leave the community. Children of yesteryear grew up to marry their neighbors and work for or around the company. The tracing of community genograms is a very difficult task, not because of stereotypical consanguineous marriages, but because the limited number of families within the closed communities tended to intermarry. People married those they knew within the community. Even today, different families find themselves interrelated through incredibly complicated ties.
These communities no longer exist exactly as I have described, but the vestigial effects still remain through the influence and traditions of older generations. Some of the children of these original company families, now in their 50’s and 60's, went to schools outside the community and have gone to college, but many of them have returned to live next to parents, even though they work outside the community. They may have married someone who lived outside the original community, but in all likelihood it was somebody from the next community over. Their children (the third generation) are much more likely to attend college, and due to the breadth of their outside experiences and the need to find work as the times and expedience demand, they will not likely return to live alongside their parents. They will go where work takes them. Nevertheless, the closed-community-culture of the grandparents has a strong influence upon those who leave and those who remain.