If you asked my grandfather, he would probably say he loves God, his family and the UMWA, in that order.
He spent his working years in the Virginia and West Virginia coalfields, as a miner and then driving a coal truck, and you won’t find a stauncher union man. My mother remembers him going on strike on occasion. He is 96 years old and he still pays his union dues.
I don’t remember any specific instance of him telling me the union was good, when I was young. I just osmosed it over the years, overhearing adult conversations. He and his four sons all worked in mining, underground or on strip jobs or driving coal trucks. It was understood from Papaw that the UMWA was a great organization. Coal companies weren’t portrayed by him as necessarily evil, simply as a group not to be trusted to look out for the working man’s well-being. The coal company was out to make money. The UMWA was out to protect the miner. That’s the way it was in Papaw’s house.
So my pump was primed, so to speak, to sympathize with coal miners and their unions when, in high school, my English teacher assigned us to read Denise Giardina’s novel “Storming Heaven.” It’s a fictionalized account of the bloody events around unionizing in the Matewan area around 1920, the killing of several Baldwin-Felts agents and others in a shootout, the death of Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield on the Welch courthouse steps, the battle of Blair Mountain, the mine wars, etc.
If you haven’t heard that story, you should. (And here’s a different version with a somewhat different perspective.) Coal mining in the West Virginia coalfields was a deadly business for miners, but trying to form a union to get better working conditions was brutal as well. Coal companies hired agents from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to bust union efforts and punish organizers. In Matewan, trouble started when Baldwin-Felts agents came to evict striking miners and their families from company-owned houses. It led to a shootout in which 10 men were killed, including several detectives (two of whom were Felts brothers) and the town mayor, whose wife subsequently married Hatfield. Hatfield and twenty-some others were indicted; in 1921 they were all acquitted. A few months later, a Baldwin-Felts agent shot Hatfield dead on the Welch courthouse steps. Weeks later, West Virginia miners began the march that would end in the Battle of Blair Mountain.
It amazed me to hear about scrip and the company store system and the fact that miners were often not paid in actual U.S. currency, about miners and their families forced out of coal camp homes if a miner was killed or injured to the extent that he couldn’t work, about murders, about Matewan, that the actual honest-to-god U.S. Army had been called out against U.S. citizens at Blair Mountain. (A lot of background is on the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s website and on WV Encyclopedia, and here’s a rather more colorful account.)
Until I read “Storming Heaven,” I’d had no idea about the violence of the efforts to unionize the coalfields in the early 20th century. I suppose I had assumed, as a child, that the union was the organic and naturally occurring counterpart to the coal companies.
Learning about the dark history of unionizing the coalfields, I was outraged in the way that only a teenager can be. I felt so infuriated that coal miners, my people, had been treated this way. Several years later, when I found out a boyfriend was related to the Baldwin-Felts agent involved in shooting Sid Hatfield, I was mad at him. I felt he and his people had betrayed me and my people, long before either of us was born.
He didn’t really understand why I was upset. He had not grown up with an extended family in the coal mines. He hadn’t grown up hearing about a great-uncle paralyzed for life by a kettle bottom dropping on him in the mine. He hadn’t been told the stories I had been told.
This spring, a visit home coincided with an Appalachian festival held at Bluefield College. The program promised a lecture on the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, and a tour of the agency’s old headquarters on the West Virginia side of town.
It sounded fascinating. I had no idea what the agency headquarters would be like — I envisioned a frozen-in-time, cobweb-strewn office somewhere in the too-many empty buildings of Bluefield’s business district. I knew that was, of course, highly unlikely but I was going to be very disappointed, I told my mother, if we got there and the headquarters had been turned into First Community Bank.
The lecture was actually by a Baldwin descendant, John Velke, who wrote a book about his family’s detective agency.
William Gibbony Baldwin, one of the founders of the agency, was Velke’s great or great-great uncle, I believe he said. Baldwin was from my own home county, Tazewell County. In the late 1800’s Baldwin became a detective; he later founded the Baldwin Detective Agency, which became the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency after he was joined by Galax native Thomas Felts.
The Baldwin-Felts agency was headquartered in Roanoke and in Bluefield, WV. Their detectives were railroad police, helping the railroads guard trains and payrolls, escorting trains into the coalfields, and investigating train robberies and other crimes.
Baldwin-Felts became famous for its agents’ work tracking down members of the Allen family of Carroll County, Va., after a 1912 shootout in the county courthouse that killed the judge, the sheriff, the prosecutor and others.
But the agency was also heavily engaged in union-busting work, hired by coal operators to break strikes and unionizing activities. They became known and hated in the coalfields for brutal tactics, and by the 1920s, they were being used less and less. The Baldwin-Felts agency closed after Baldwin died in 1936 and Felts a year later. Their union-busting work is what they’re mostly remembered for — bitterly, by many. That’s how I heard about them, in the context of strike-breaking, in the context of Matewan.
In his talk, Velke focused primarily on the agency’s work as railroad detectives, not as union busters, and on their involvement with the Allen family investigation. He had acquired an old ledger listing crimes the agency’s detectives were working to solve, back in some month of the early 20th century.
After his talk, we loaded up in a college bus and trundled over to the West Virginia side, to the old Baldwin Felts headquarters, which turned out to be neither a dusty relic nor a bank, but William Baldwin’s house, a three-story brick affair just a couple of blocks up from the train tracks. When it was built, that house wouldn’t have been a far walk from the train station. In the early 20th century, Bluefield was a booming center of commerce, with trains running through to and from the rich coalfields.
Velke is not from Bluefield, but in recent years he has managed to buy the house, which had left his family ages ago. It had been divided into apartments, and Velke has been working to restore it.
From an historical perspective, the basement was the most interesting. There are still two holding cells down there, built for Baldwin-Felts agents’ use to hold prisoners accused of railroad crimes. Velke also has a nice little collection of artifacts from his family’s agency and from that era — badges, brass knuckles, the ledger book, etc.
It’s very clear that Velke’s book, and his ongoing restoration of the house, are a labor of love for him. He showed us everything of interest in the house, his wife had made snacks, he was willing to talk about his family’s agency as long as anyone had questions. It was very kind of him and his wife.
Velke was obviously proud of his family’s history, and I can understand that. They did keep order and track criminals, in addition to the less savory business in the coal camps. I’m sure he grew up hearing some fascinating stories.
It felt a little odd, touring the former home of a man whose business had been to help maintain a system in which lives of men like my grandfather were worth little. The teenage girl mad at her boyfriend for his long-dead relative’s actions was still there, a little bit, for the Baldwin-Felts tour. Mom and I weren’t the only coal miner sympathizers there; another woman in the group whispered to me at one point that her people were coal people, but that the house was still very interesting.
We’re all proud of where we came from, even if we came from opposite sides of a (sometimes literal) battle. And those literal battles were fought long ago — before even my union-loving grandfather’s time. He would have been about two years old when the shootout at Matewan happened. By the time he set foot in a mine, the union had won, at least for a time.
Velke grew up hearing different stories than I did. It’s funny how those stories affect how we define who we are, where we come from. I’m glad he has his ancestor’s house, and that he’s opening it up to the public and trying to tell that story.
I’m also glad to see others are trying to tell the story of the coal mine wars to a bigger audience. In Matewan, the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum opened its doors May 16. Here’s an in-depth article about before it opened, and another on the grand opening.
I hope it will help people in — and out — of the coalfields understand their history better. In spite of all my grandfather’s pro-union talk, I might never have heard of the mine wars and the violence of the early unionization efforts had I not been assigned a novel in English class. It wasn’t part of the history lessons I got in school.
I don’t know what the curriculum is now, but I hope the kids growing up in these coalfields today are learning more about their history than I was taught. The fight to unionize the coalfields was a big part of the labor movement. It’s both an important part of the American story and a fascinating human drama. I know unions can be a touchy subject these days, but from an historical perspective, the exploitative and unfair labor conditions for miners in the early 20th century are a textbook example of the sort of labor inequality unions were designed to improve.
My grandfather’s stories shaped how I viewed my place in the world. Young people in the coalfields these days may not see a lot of positive feedback about their home in the wider world. They should be told this story too, so that as they find their place in the world, they know they come from a place that’s unique, and they have a history to be proud of.