Back in the spring of 2018, a patron carrying an old manila envelope sat down opposite me at the library’s Information Desk. Most people, when they want to talk to you about the contents of an envelope or notebook, place the thing on the desk as they sit down, but I noticed this gentleman held his close. I recognized the man; he had attended several of my book discussions, and I remembered he was one of those that, while he didn’t speak often, when he did speak he usually had something interesting to say.
Turned out the patron and his wife liked to visit spots where important events took place in America’s history — events that, for whatever reason, have now fallen off most travelers’ radar.
The couple’s most recent expedition had taken them to the small town of Matewan, West Virginia. According to the U. S. Census, the current population of Matewan stands at 499 souls, but back in the early 1900s the town was a happening place with a population probably twice that, most of whom, in one way or another, were involved in mining the coal that heated America’s homes, drove her locomotives and produced her steel.
Not surprisingly for the time, Matewan was a company town. The miners rented their houses from the company that employed them, and they were paid in scrip redeemable only at the company store. It was a kind of slavery. But by 1920, in coal fields all across America, miners had begun to rise up against such treatment.
With help from the fledgling United Mine Workers, Matewan’s miners went out on strike. Well, the Stone Mountain Coal Company was having none of that, and when the local sheriff, Sid Hatfield (yes, he was one of those Hatfields), refused their orders to evict the strikers from their houses, the company hired the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency to do the dirty work for them.
On May 19, 1921, while most of the town’s men were away, twelve Baldwin-Felts “detectives,” armed to the teeth, arrived by train and began throwing the striking miners’ families out of their homes. When Sheriff Hatfield got wind of this, he recruited several townspeople and Matewan’s mayor to join him in confronting the outsiders. The two sides faced off, words were said, charges and counter-charges made, and before long bullets began to fly. When the smoke settled, seven detectives, the mayor, and two other local men lay dead.
This turned out to be the first skirmish in the largest labor uprising in United States history. Before it was over, Mother Jones would join forces with the miners, Warren Harding would send in troops, Billy Mitchell would fly reconnaissance missions, nearly two hundred men — including Sheriff Hatfield — would lose their lives, and America would learn of the hardships and misery visited upon coal miners by the companies that employed them. And it all began in little Matewan.
The patron now lifted his envelope from his lap. He opened the envelope, extracted a single piece of unruled 8.5 X 11, set it on the desk before me. There was a library in Matewan, the gentleman explained, very small, and, as it happened, closed on the day he and his wife visited, but there had been a handwritten note scotch-taped to the door. “I liked it so much,” he said, “I copied it down for you.” He turned the piece of paper toward me, and there, in the man’s hurried chicken-scratch, I read the following:
Behold, fair patron! This is a library. Crossroads of civilization. Refuge of all the arts against the ravages of time. Armory of fearless truth against whispering rumor. From this place, words may fly abroad … not to perish as digital waves but fixed in time, not corrupted by the hurrying hand but verified in proof. Friend, you stand on sacred ground. This is a library.
Today, Matewan is little more than a collection of mostly-derelict buildings arranged around a lonely bend in the Tug River. But it has a library. Which means that — in keeping with the traditions of the place — the people of Matewan have taken control of their own destiny: they are thinking about the future, they are making plans. Who knows what will become of the place?