Copyright (c) 1997, Roanoke Times

DATE: Friday, April 18, 1997                 TAG: 9704180030
SECTION: EXTRA                    PAGE: 1    EDITION: METRO 


LIKE HIS FATHER AND GRANDFATHER had done decades earlier, Sam Linkous went on a mining expedition in the hills of northwestern Montgomery County. Instead of a pickax and a shovel, though, Linkous took along a tape recorder.

He went mining for memories.

Born a generation behind the last of the men who had extracted coal from Price and Brush Mountains, which loom just outside Blacksburg, Linkous had seen only the remaining vestiges of an industry that had clothed, fed and warmed Montgomery Countians for nearly 200 years. Mine entrances overgrown with weeds and scrub brush, the foundations of long-fallen tipples, and the aging men and women of the Merrimac community, also a few miles outside Blacksburg, who have stories to tell. His only memory of a Merrimac coal seam was of gathering coal with his dad to satiate the appetite of the family's coal furnace.

``I grew up in the Merrimac community,'' Linkous said, ``and I had taken all this for granted.''

In the fall of 1995 and winter of '96, Linkous and 17 other Radford University students were dispatched by Mary La Lone, an associate professor of anthropolgy, to interview surviving members of Montgomery County's coal community. The product of those interviews is being published in a book titled ``Appalachian Coal Mining Memories: Life in the Coal Fields of Virginia's New River Valley'' (Pocahontas Press, $25.00).

The book is scheduled to debut Saturday in conjunction with the fourth annual Coal Miner's Day, which celebrates the New River Valley's mining heritage and takes place in the Montgomery County community of McCoy, just west of Blacksburg.

La Lone's students were on a mission to preserve a piece of local history that had almost faded away. Until the last few years, many younger people had not realized Montgomery County even had a coal mining legacy. Coal mining in Virginia is usually associated with the coalfields of far southwest counties like Dickenson, Buchanan and Wise.

The anthropology students were given a rare opportunity: to study a society not by examining remains and relics of a long-lost village, but by actually talking to the people who worked in mines like Merrimac, Great Valley, Parrott and Big Vein. The students uncovered a lode of memories.

``This was the time these stories had to be told,'' said La Lone. ``Because if you waited too long, they would pass away into history ... or not even become history.''

The students dispersed.into the hills to interview the men, women and children of coal mining families. It was the same manner of research used in the popular ``Foxfire'' books of the 1970s, in which mountaineers' stories were told in the oral, rather than written, tradition. The words in the coal mining book came straight from the mouths of the subjects, unfiltered by the touch of a writer, save for some slight editing to shorten some of the passages.

The result is a picture of a society that had almost disappeared like the coal from the mines.

``When you're looking at a lost civilization, you paint your own picture based on what you find,'' said Linkous. ``With these people, you hear what really happened.''

Linkous, 49, had returned to college later in life to study about mountain culture. He was one of only two students involved with the project whose families had mined coal in Montgomery County.

Some of the students, like Linkous, were comfortable with the idea of talking to the miners. There were others, though, who experienced some initial nervousness about invading a culture they knew little about.

That was until they were sent home with a slice of pie or piece of cake in hand after a few hours of visiting. It didn't take long for a city girl like Alicia Gallant to feel comfortable with a country girl like Marie Lawson, whose husband Fred worked in the Merrimac mines.

``I would sit down in her kitchen and she would feed me sausage and biscuits,'' said Gallant, an honors scholar who was raised in the Northern Virginia town of Burke. ``Then she would tell me about her life, about her childhood in the mountains. I hadn't had very nuch contact with very many people outside the university community. This contact [with the miners and their families] put a face on the people that were shadows beforehand. I realized how rich their heritage is and how it was disappearing.''

The people told their stories in a natural, plain-spoken, sometimes rambling manner, outlining a nearly forgotten lifestyle of hard work, hard lives and hard deaths. Topics range from the performance of mundane daily tasks like fixing meals and doing the laundry, to humorous stories of friends and co-workers, to the poignant remembrances of those who died in the belly of the Blue Ridge.

Mine explosions killed 43 men and one boy in Montgomery County. The worst disaster occurred 51 years ago today, when 12 men died in an explosion at the Great Valley Mine in McCoy.

Most of the stories, though, sprout from the seemingly inexhaustible vein of fond memories.

``Most people say things like, `It was hard times, but we were happy,''' said Linkous.

One of those is Alex Linkous, a distant relative of Sam. Alex Linkous, 75, had worked as a ``shot fireman'', the man who checked for the presence of methane before other miners set off dynamite to extract the coal from rock. After the mines played themselves out in the 1950s, Linkous worked as a builder and painter, but he never forgot about the mines.

``I still think about them coal mines,'' said Linkous. ``I believe it's about as good a job as I ever had. In the summertime when it was hot, you would go down in the mine where it was cool and work like a dog for hours. It was dark, but good and cool in the summer and good and dry in the winter.''

For nearly four decades, Linkous' lips had been sealed like the entranceways to the long-closed Montgomery County mines where he once hunkered beneath a ceiling of rock, his carbide lamp piercing the damp black sheet of darkness and coal dust.

Until 1994, when a series of articles about local coal-mining appeared in The Roanoke Times, there were few people who knew of mining's importance in this region.

La Lone had even done a study of mining in the coalfield town of Appalachia in Wise County, and had guided her students through a consulting report in the early 1990s to set up a heritage tourism market for that area. However, she admitted that she knew little of the local operation, despite residing on Mount Tabor Road in Blacksburg, not far from an old mine on Brush Mountain.

In 1995, a colleague put her in touch with the newly established Coal Mining Heritage Association of Montgomery County. That fall, the students began the ``NRV Coal Mining Heritage Project''. Impressed with that group's work, La Lone realized the project had grander potential.

In December, 1995, she called Mary Holliman, who runs the Blacksburg-based Pocahontas Press, an outfit that specializes in publishing books of local interest.

By the end of the '96 spring semester, La Lone and her students had conducted more than 200 hours of interviews with 61 people.

The students transcribed their interviews, edited them and wrote essays on their experiences with the local people. La Lone spent last summer editing the book and sent the finished product to Pocahontas Press in the fall.

Now, the stories that had gone untold for decades will be around for future generations that will never strike rock with an ax or breathe in a speck of coal dust.

``It's history that's been there a long time,'' said Alex Linkous, the 75-year-old miner interviewed for the book. These days he goes into local schools to give demonstrations on what miners did in the old days.

``I'm glad people are interested, because there aren't too many of us left.''

The fourth annual Coal Miners Day is Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at McCoy Community Park on McCoy Road Montgomery County (Virginia 652, six miles west of Blacksburg). There will be music, food, refreshments, crafts, demonstrations, a memorial service and a family outdoor celebration and reunion. The rain date is April 26.

LENGTH: Long  :  149 lines
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO:  1. Mary La Lone, Radford University anthropology 

professor, led the project to collect coal miners' stories. color.

2. Three Radford University students dig for coal-mining memories

with Hazel Hodges. 3. Esther Jones shares stories of mining days

with Radford University student Lauren England. 4. Back in

Montgomery County's mining days, Sadie Snider and one of her younger

brothers posed on the porch of their home in McCoy. 5. Richard

Burgess, H. Lee Linkous and Bill Martin are caked with coal dust

after a day in the Merrimac mines. Graphic: Map by RT.

by CNB