- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - As a fuller history of the West Virginia Mine Wars slowly but surely finds its way out of relative regional obscurity into the wider arc of American history, one way to accomplish that task is to teach the teachers about it.

That’s the point of an upcoming class called “History of the West Virginia Mine Wars,” offered for a second year through Shepherd University’s Lifelong Learning Program to high school and middle school teachers.

Teachers can take the course either in person at Shepherd’s Martinsburg facility or online via Skype, while earning three professional development credit hours along the way.

“It’s just an incredible history,” said Doug Estepp, an adjunct professor at Shepherd who’ll teach the course and already has an Indiana teacher interested in taking it.

Lon Savage, author of the 1985 book “Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920-21,” has compared the Mine Wars era to the rich history of the Old West, “and it was larger in scale and time,” said Estepp.

The first assignment in the class was to watch a PBS “American Experience” two-hour documentary called “The Mine Wars,” a broad overview of a turbulent, violent and complex era in the southern West Virginia coal fields and in American labor history.

The two-hour classes continue on Feb. 9 and 23, March 8 and 22 and April 5 and 19.

The class concludes with a bus tour April 23 to 24 to some of the key Mine War locales. These include tracing the 1921 march of more than 9,000 miners that led to the Battle of Blair Mountain with coal operators and their hastily assembled army of 3,000 men; a visit to the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine and Whipple Company store at Scarbro; a visit to Matewan where the Battle of Matewan took place in May 1920; and a trip to the McDowell County courthouse where Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and his friend and deputy, Edward Chambers, were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts detectives.

The tour concludes with a visit to Bramwell, said Estepp. “That’s where all the big coal operators lived. It’s just mansion after mansion after mansion.”

Estepp, who by day is a tax analyst for the U.S. Treasury, has for decades studied the history of the Mine Wars.

It is a history that was suppressed for many a decade, he said.

“I grew up in southern West Virginia and never heard a word about the Mine Wars, the Battle of Blair Mountain, Matewan.”

As a freshman pursuing a history degree at West Virginia University in 1979, his teacher told him to go find something to write about from Mingo County history.

He came upon an old newspaper headline about a shootout in Matewan in 1920, when the town’s gun-toting, union-sympathizing police chief Sid Hatfield confronted Baldwin-Felts detectives who’d come to evict the families of unionized miners. The Battle of Matewan left seven Baldwin-Felts men dead, along with the mayor and two townsfolk.

“I was fascinated because I’d been there a million times and never heard about it,” he said.

Estepp was hooked for life on the history of the Mine Wars.

“It really became an interest, then a passion, then kind of an obsession, for 35 years now. When the Internet came along, it opened up a lot more resources. I’ve just been digging and digging and digging.”

He had to dig because so much of the history of that turbulent era was unavailable to the broader public, he said.

“We were kind of taught to be ashamed of it. It was like feuding hillbillies and stuff like that.

“I think it has been suppressed officially and unofficially,” said Estepp.

In the 1930s, West Virginia Gov. Homer Holt sought to reject New Deal money if the Federal Writers’ Project history of the state portrayed the events of the Mine Wars, among other history he felt was “propaganda from start to finish.”

Estepp noted that at West Virginia University, between the time of the Mine Wars and into the early ‘90s, there was but one master’s thesis written on this remarkable era of labor unrest in the state and that was in 1922.

“There was nothing at the graduate level. That doesn’t just happen with that kind of history. You have to imagine there were a couple of students that said this would be something to write about. But there were no dissertations and no masters theses for 70 years after these events.”

Estepp founded Coal Country Tours to further expose people to the history of both the Mine Wars and the history of the Hatfield and McCoys Feud.

He has also scrounged up some impressive artifacts, including Sid Hatfield’s police chief badge, marked with the number one, and the badges of the Baldwin-Felts brothers, Albert and Lee Felts, who were killed in the Battle of Matewan.

He bought them from an eBay seller who found them at a Florida flea market. (Estepp thinks perhaps that a West Virginia collector of Mine Wars memorabilia retired there and after his death his collection was sold off.)

He took the badges to appraisers with the “Antique Road Show” program, who estimated they’d likely bring upwards of $25,000 on the market. Estepp plans eventually to donate them to a museum.

“Right now, I use them to promote tourism and the classes and get people interested in the history.”

The colorful and dramatic Mine Wars history could be a huge boon to state tourism, he noted. The history is much more involved and dramatic than what happened, for instance, at the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, he said.

“The shootout at the O.K. Corral - there were three men killed and it lasted a couple of minutes. Now, Tombstone, Arizona, brings in millions a year just on that one event.”

If you could do the same thing with Matewan or Blair Mountain, if people got interested in it, “it could bring a lot of money and lot of interest to Southern West Virginia,” said Estepp.

The economic boom from tourism could do much to assist a region that has often been ill-served by the presence of coal in its hills.

“It’ll give us a chance to mine our coal twice in a sense,” said Estepp.

“There’s a direct line back between what happened in the ‘20s and what you see in West Virginia today - the poverty and degradation and people being left high and dry. When the money’s not there, they just kind of abandon the people.”

The Mine Wars course has already led to some teachers incorporating the history of the era into their classes, said Estepp. He hopes to see that effort snowball.

“I want to get into the schools if we can so it’s not this kind of lost history.”

The Mine Wars class costs $147, and an additional $340 for a two-day tour of the Mine War sites on April 23-24. To sign up, contact Karen Rice at Shepherd University at 304-876-5135 or email [email protected]


Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail, https://wvgazettemail.com.

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