Doug Estepp runs Coal Country Tours.
And on May 15, 2020, Estepp will be taking a tour bus down to the coal fields for the 100th anniversary of the shootout at Matewan and the Battle for Blair Mountain.
And if you wonder why more West Virginians don’t know of the 1920 shootout at Matewan, or the Battle for Blair Mountain, or the Whipple Company Store, according to Estepp, there is a reason.
“During the Great Depression, writers wanted to write about the history of Blair Mountain, about the coal camps, about Matewan — things like that,” Estepp told This Week in Morgan County with Russell Mokhiber. “And the Governor suppressed it. We have this trail of correspondence where they are arguing over it. And eventually the writers decided they would accept a compromise book and not antagonize the Governor.”
The tour will start at Beckley Exhibition Mine where guides will describe how pick miners worked the mine and the dangers they faced underground.
On day two, the tour moves to the Whipple Company Store.
“The Whipple company store was a company store built by Justus Collins in 1890. He came up from Alabama, and he was very successful in the New River fields. He built three of these buildings. Whipple is the only one that’s left. It really is a beautiful building but it kind of belies really dark history in a dark purpose. What it really was was a fortress that was built with hidden features that gave it control of the company town, and the areas around it. And it was built for psychological control and physical control. The very disturbing stories that come out of Whipple are women’s stories. The miners were busy working underground. The women would come to the store to purchase goods. And there was a lot of abuse and a lot of bad things that went on there. On the other hand, there’s some wonderful stories came out of there too.”
The tour will then move on to a re-enactment of the shootout at Matewan and the Battle for Blair Mountain.
“The Baldwin Felts agents were central to the mine guard system,” Estepp said. “They were very much resented and hated by the miners all throughout Southern West Virginia because of all the abuses. In early 1920, miners around Matewan started organizing. This kind of caught the operators by surprise. The miners were having a lot of success in and around Matewan. Matewan was different than most towns in southern West Virginia. It was an independent town. And what I mean by that is it wasn’t a coal town — it wasn’t built by the coal companies. They had an independent mayor, independent police chief, independent council, things like that. And so the coal companies didn’t have the control they had elsewhere. Cabell Testerman, who was the mayor in Matewan, was pro union. He was he was on the miners’ side. They had some success organizing around Matewan.”
“The coal company turned to their old standbys for any labor problems– Baldwin Felts mine guards. They turned to their guards to basically kind of buffalo the local authorities and take over. They sent in 13 mine guards, including Albert Felts, who was the brother of Thomas Felts, the owner of the Felts agency. They sent them in to evict coal miners who had been joining the strike. And they were confronted by the mayor, Cabell Testerman, and Sid Hatfield who was a police chief, about these evictions. There was a bit of argument but they went ahead and did the evictions. This played out just like an old Western except it happened at five o’clock in the evening instead of high noon.”
“The detectives go back to their hotel to have lunch. They come back downtown to catch the five o’clock train, and they are confronted by Sid Hatfield. The Baldwin Felts agents pull out a warrant for Sid Hatfield’s arrest. They say they’re going to take him to Bluefield to their headquarters, at which point someone goes gets the mayor. The mayor comes over. There’s an argument and like these historical shootouts always seems to happen, no one knows who fired the first shot. But that shot was fired and then you have this shootout on the main street of Matewan. It was over in about five minutes. Seven of the Baldwin Felts detectives were killed. The mayor was killed. Two miners and a bystander were killed. It was the deadliest shootout in US history. But, you know for 100 years almost, it’s been lost to history. I think that started changing in 1986 when John Sayles made a movie about the events called Matewan. And that got people talking about it. And now we’re at the 100th anniversary.”