Fast forward a few years, and look at the Whipple Company Store now!
It is still not perfect and still needs major renovation work, but the work is in progress and the store has become a museum to the memory of the miners who used to shop there, to the women who stood behind them and to the community that struggled through the worst years of the coal mining industry.
Larry waits for our tour tickets
Built by Mr. Justus Collins, who had reportedly supervised prison crews in his native Alabama before eventually becoming a wealthy coal mine operator, the store's construction is unique and was planned for a specific goal: control. Control of access, control of money, and control of people. The angled front entrance at one time had steps that gradually narrowed as they ascended, and the windows were strategically placed so that that hated Baldwin-Felts guards could stand at each corner and see all around the building, and the angry men who tried to come up the stairs were forced onto the narrow top stairs where they could be dealt with easily.
This history is not easy stuff. At the time of the store's construction miners were treated little better than slaves in many places. Their income was tiny; any absence from work meant no pay; and many mines paid only in scrip which could only be spent at the company store owned by the very company for which they worked. All supplies had to be purchased there and the prices were not cheap--imagine buying all your groceries at the local convenience store and you get an idea of the cost.
Owner Joy Flynn told us many stories as we toured the building; we probably spent most of our time here with the display of coal-mining equipment.
The building, however, is fascinating. There is a secret second floor,
a ballroom on the third floor that was reserved for the use of only the wealthy of the community; a coffin room in the basement where bodies were stored for burial, a post office,
a hand-operated elevator still operational today for hauling supplies up and down,
and a specially built area in the circular store that worked as an amplifier so that anything said at the counter was heard throughout the store.
While on the tour we heard stories. Lots of stories, folklore and legends of the mines. Stories about the "boy bucket," about the kettle bottoms (petrified tree trunks that could break loose from a mine roof and kill a man, earning them the name "widowmaker") and women's roles and just how control was maintained over an unruly, largely immigrant population of workers and their families. Some of the stories were heartbreaking, others provided insight into the life of those hard-working people. Pictures line the walls, many with Post-It tags identifying the men and women photographed, a historic record of the past given life by those still living and able to put names to the faces.
When the current owners bought the store in 2007, it was scheduled for demolition. Much of it was uninhabitable, but it was full of memorabilia--mine gear and equipment, original cash registers and shelving, ball gowns, the post office and so much more. All of it helps tell the story of the story--much of it grim, much of it difficult to reconcile with today's laws and mining industry. But the store stands as testament to when coal operators ruled their little kingdoms and makes it all too clear just why the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America union) came into being.
If you're traveling the West Virginia Turnpike between Charleston and Beckley, take a short side trip at the Mossy exit and take the tour of the Whipple Company Store, where the past comes alive. And should you happen to feel a chill on you neck, don't worry. Such a place is bound to have its ghosts, and the Whipple store has plenty. Come back in the fall for their ghost tour, if you dare. And if you can't visit in person, check out their Facebook page and website.
Copyright 2012 Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.