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Embracing West Virginia's Heritage

By James Hoyle
On February 11, 2016

Everyone is encouraged to come and see the travelling exhibit in the Marsh Library's West Virginia Room until it leaves Concord University in June. 
Photo by James Hoyle


Concord University’s Library has been playing host to a moving museum exhibition for the past week. It became open to the public on February 1. The exhibition is one of many travelling exhibitions put out by The Watts Museum, a museum housed in the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University. According to the museum’s brochure, it “…preserves and promotes the social, cultural, and technological history of West Virginia’s coal and petroleum industries…” The theme of the exhibition on display is the daily life in the coal camps when the miners were not working. Essentially, the exhibition explores what exactly West Virginians did when it came to maintaining their households and what they did in order to pass the time. “The title of the exhibition is ‘Outside the Mine: Daily Life in a Coal Company Camp,’” said Danielle Petrak, a representative of The Watts Museum, “This exhibit had been on loan to the Coal Heritage Museum in the town of Madison in Boone County. We keep a running list of all of the different places that show an interest in showing one of our moving exhibitions. Concord University, with this exhibition, will be the second location that this particular exhibition will go to.” One of Petrak’s colleagues, Eliza Newland, contacted Concord to see if the University was interested in housing the exhibition. As there was enough space, Concord was able to acquire it. 

    “The exhibit has four major themes or aspects of the lives of coal miners in West Virginia: Leisure Time, Domestic Work and Life, Church and Faith, and Commerce and the Company Store,” said Petrak. These coal camps were a major part of the lives of most West Virginians during the 19th and 20th centuries. According to a press release about the exhibit, “Coal companies built homes, churches, schools, and stores in the region’s remote coalfields to attract miners…Although mining operations sustained these towns’ existence, there was more to life in coal camps than laboring underground.” Due to the isolation of some of the geographic locations of these coal camps, many miners often had to rely on the coal companies for practically all of the basic amenities, and according to the press release “…found creative ways to relax, socialize, and entertain themselves.” These coal camps had barber shops, post offices, saloons, social halls, and churches that had youth leagues and sponsored picnic dinners. There were even baseball teams amongst these coal camps. The press release also states that “Children created makeshift playgrounds out of mining equipment, while women kept each other company by tackling household chores with friends and relatives.” 

    Items on display at this exhibition include pictures, boards with information about these coal camps and their recreational activities and day-to-day struggles, and items that these families would use, such as chairs, a coal scuttle, a hand-cranked clothes drier and a washboard, children’s toys, and even a cash register. 

    When asked about the significance of such a travelling exhibition, Petrak stated “I think it helps to educate West Virginia’s history and heritage. It’s a way of life that we simply no longer have in this state, and we just want to continue to tell this story and preserve the memory of this lifestyle. It is a way of life that is unique to this state, and it has been lost. It is a story of companionship and camaraderie, and it is a story that needs to be preserved.” Those with any wish to see this piece of West Virginia history need only go to the West Virginia Room in the front of the Library. 

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