The Painter family draws their roots heavily from the coal mining towns of West Virginia. I have always known something about the Painter side of the family, but much is still cloaked in a lot of mystery. My grandfather, Tennis Painter (who I only met a couple of times as a baby) was a preacher for the Methodist church who blazed up and down the WV countryside holding tent revivals in the cool mountain evenings while ministering to the locals at several different churches on Sunday. In addition to his pastoral duties, he worked the coal mines, eventually obtained his college degree, and
taught school (while still pastoring and raising a family). Although, I never had the privilege of meeting him and getting to know him as youngster or much less as an adult, I truly learned more about him and my roots on a trip with my Dad to a coal camp historical site in Beckeley, WV over the July 4th weekend.
For some reason, a part of me really wanted to travel and see this coal mine exhibition in Beckley as soon as I saw the brochure lying around my Dad's apartment located in the heart of the "city" of Saint Mary's just along the Ohio River. My Dad, being the fussypot, that he is complained about it being so far away, but eventually agreed to go. As he was fussing about the distance I was muttering to myself "if he did not drive 15 miles under the speed limit all the time, it would not be a full day excursion". Anyhoo, Saturday morning, we hopped into his 2007 white Ford Focus and puttered through town and down the quiet highways to Beckley. Despite the difficulty of getting him to go, I knew he was going to enjoy going to seeing a part of his life that he knew as a kid and in my heart, I knew in my heart that I was going to learn a bit more than what a coal mine. Conversation on the way was typical, a few short minutes of general chatter, then silence. Dad blowing on his pipe filled with Borkum Riff tobacco out the window (which he claims bothers no one if you don't inhale..heard that one before somewhere?) and me staring out the window admiring the hillsides filled with farms running for acres bursting with ripenining corn and periodically interspersed with patches of Queen Annes lace in full summer splendor.
As we approached the coal mine exhibition, my natural tendencies to be a curious cat, perked up immediately. The city of Beckley has an area set up in a way similar to how coal mining camps were set up years ago, the prestigous Supervisors house, the eternal bachelors shack, a family home, and the company store. The company store back in the early 1900s was run by the mining company where the coal miners used their scrip (which is what they were paid in) to purchase the necessities of life. Much to my delight, the man giving the tour into the coal mine was a coal miner who had actually worked in the mines for 24 years and was a true southern West Virginian (as evidenced in how he "warshed" something or had something in his "herr"). I smiled listening to the guide as Dad and I took our seat on the rail cart along with the rest of the tourists (made up mostly of families) as we prepared to journey into the center of the earth. Yes, this is a bit of an exaggeration, but I was getting ready to go INSIDE the mountain, I will write what I choose.
Needless to say, I gained more respect for the miners who mole miles into the earth daily to harvest this black sooty stuff that gives light and heat to millions daily. The respect comes more for the miners of the bygone era, where there were no laws to protect them from being underpaid (20 cents for a ton of coal is what they earned in the early 1900s. They were extremely lucky if they made two tons in a work day), injured, or whatever other dishonest concoctions the mining company could dream of. The light from the end of the tunnel began to fade (literally) as the cart clanked into the mountainside. My Dad began to strike up a conversation with cotton topped gentleman who was sitting next to him, both men fellow West Virginians whose fathers had worked the mines as well. As we journeyed into the mine, the tour guide pointed out that the mine had to be expanded so the rail cart could bring in tourists. The tunnel is no more than seven feet high. The mining tunnel was about four feet high (I stood up and compared, I am short, I know what I am talking about) which was clearly etched into the rocks . Our guide stopped the cart several times to point out tidbits of information and even showed us some of the lights used by miners in the early days. One light the miners hung on their hat resembled a teapot that stood no more than three inches high and had a hook on it so that it would latch on to the front of the helmet. Inside the teapot was a wick that burned (yes real safe) a little light. I was comforted by the fact that there was enough water dripping through the seams of the rock to put out a gaseous explosion, I think.
Well thankfully the journey continued on throughout the mine without a hint of a possible explosion or implosion. We finally finally finished the mining tour where it initially started. We all piled off the metal cart squinting in bright white light of the sun trying to decide what to do next. After a brief discussion Dad and started touring the recreated coal miner family home (see picture above) and the foreman/supervisors home as well. The foreman's home was the largest in the coal camp (generally a two story clapboard and HAD an indoor privy) and the family had the most prestige. Dad kept talking about how he used to play with the foreman's children all the time and on and on about different childhood antics.
The highlight of the expedition came when we stepped onto the solid pine floors of the schoolhouse. The room was filled with knee high wood (yes it was real wood) desks lined up perfectly in fours. We started looking around at the pictures and other ancient gadgets that were THE technology of the time (anyone remember a record player…much less one that you had to wind up? I doubt.) Periodically I grinned a toothy grin at the young family in the far left side of the room who were trying on the dunce cap and sitting on the stool. I made a mental note to do it myself when I had made my way over to that end. We had finally made our way to the back end of the room near the Dunce family when I noticed an old black and white photo of a town. Being the old photo junky, I leaned closer to examine it when I saw in fading black letters 'Killarney'. I spun around and said "Look Dad. Here is a picture of Killarney where you lived.". In typical father fashion, he had to argue..uh uhh…you sure (insert huffs and puffs) between all this with me saying "look here. See Kil-lar-uh–nee". "I know how to read." to "You are right! Wow, it must be an earlier photo. I don't remember some of the buildings."
Dad was suddenly curious about what year the photo was taken and turned to find the volunteer who was manning the schoolhouse. Dad started towards a older man dressed in a pair of gray blue work slacks with a just a bit darker gray blue polo shirt with a gray blue trucker capped perched on his head. "Excuse, me can you tell me what year that picture was taken?". The man gave me smiled the I am retired, I am doing this because I want to, not because I have to smile and began to speak. The two old birds started up a conversation and I sat down at one of the desks gingerly plucking through Florence Webb's old spelling book. My ear was latched onto the conversation and my eyeball on the book. "1912..I wonder what happened to you Florence. Did you accomplish all your dreams?" I mused. My selective hearing quickly tuned back to the conversation with great interest. The man in gray blue was a retired teacher and had started his first teaching job IN Killarney back in 1956. This man remembered my grandfather, but couldn't quite remember the Painter children. If grandpa had not transferred to another congregation in 1955, Dad would have been in this man's student. The pair talked a bit more and then it was time to be on the road again.
My dad proceeded to tell me about the whole conversation as we left as if I had not heard a word or EVEN discovered the picture. I acted like a big girl and kept my mouth shut and smiled. I did have to say this was an amazing journey, to see a part of family history and a way of life that has shaped me directly and indirectly.
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