Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Whipple Company Store

Last Friday on our way to Migration Celebration we made sure we allowed enough time to stop at the Whipple Company Store. Built at the turn of the last century, the store was derelict the last time we were by there (which was, I believe, in 2006 when we dropped off our youngest son at the military center nearby to go off to his basic training for the Air Force). At that time the store was still an imposing structure--it looked to be three stories tall, built at an angle to the corner and covered in worn gray clapboard siding. Somehow we knew it had once been the company store for a mining camp, but I do not recall how we knew that. Was there a sign on the store? Did we look it up later online? I don't remember. But I do remember us discussing how sad that such a monument to the history, however troubled, that the store represented was falling into ruin.

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.


Carletta said...

I just saw this on my reader and had to come take a look. Five years ago when we were looking at moving back to WV we came upon the store for sale. Oh, I was smitten. My hubby said a ton of work would have to be done. I knew it wasn't possible and it wasn't near anywhere we wanted to really be. I am overjoyed that it has been somewhat renovated and at least is still standing. Next trip to Beckley to see my brother and I'm stopping by. So glad you shared.

Sue said...

It's cool to se that they are resurrecting it. History is important!


Quinn said...

I would love to visit - so glad the new owners are taking on the restoration and preservation of this gem.

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