Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Walk Down Memory Lane

Once Upon A Time
by Kermit Kirk

You drive by Copeland Funeral home on the left and Mutt Williams places of business on the left and right before crossing the little bridge over straight creek. The Christian church on your right. And then the pride of the little town is in view on your right, St. Charles High School. Across the street from the school a Saturday baseball game is in progress between St. Charles and a team from the semi pro Lonesome Pine league. Most of the players are local and have worked all week at a coal mine but weekends they play baseball. All seats are taken in the small stands and parked cars surround the small Esso station and train depot on the left. Behind the Depot a noisy steam engine is sorting out and lining up empty Coal Gons to be pushed to several different coal mines a short distance, some to the north and others northwest of the town. A railroad track runs northwest to Virginia Lee, Bonny Blue, VIC and other coal mines. Another runs north from the depot, crosses the little creek behind the old sycamore tree and Jake’s Place and all the other buildings, destination, Kemmerer Gem, Benedict and Monarch coal companies.

Everyone is not at the ballgame. Several regulars are sitting on the little bridge railings sheltered from the sun by the sycamore tree listening to a country song that is being blasted from the outside speakers over the entrance door at a café next to the theater across the street. Woodrow ‘Mainline’ Wilson is busy shining the shoes of his first customer of the day under the tree “How’s it going Mainline?” some one from the railing asks. “Going back to Alabama” is his answer.

“What for, did you leave your girl friend back there?”

“More pretty girls than one.” is his reply.

Across the street the other little board walk bridge is exposed to the sun--no sitters there. The meat market is as ‘busy as a bee’ with customers stocking up on meat and groceries for the coming week. Next door Inside a long narrow hot dog stand workers are trying to keep up with the demand for hot dogs. Customers stand in line to enjoy a Saturday hot dog washed down with a coke. Next to it a line has formed at the theater to buy tickets to the double feature. The marquee reads, Wild Bill Elliot “Show Down” and Lash Larue “Bad Man’s Gold” both B westerns but at that time, the late thirties and early forties they were the choice of many movie goers especially the young.

Joining the theater on the other side is a barber shop. One of the barbers Claude Myers, sits in a barber chair and stares out the window as he awaits his first customer. A topless cap sits on his head revealing the top of his head which is partially bald. A long billed sun visor sticks out way beyond his nose.

Next to his shop is the café where the music is blasting out over the speakers. Was it the ‘Victor Café’? I can’t recall for sure. But I do remember a Mister Rogers being the proprietor at one time, He was a stern burly man and able to handle any one that had one too many and gotten out of hand. His wife, a robust pretty woman that I thought was out of place in the tiny kitchen that she supervised. Food orders were relayed to her through an opening and she would place the order there when it was filled. Usually hamburgers but a full meal was always on the menu if you desired it. Cold beer was brought to the booths and poured in ice cold glasses, but some preferred to drink it from the bottle. Song selections could be made from the booth, drop a quarter in and listen to three and at times as many as six songs for a quarter.

Down the street from there was another juke joint and a couple more other places of business.

Now I head back up the street toward the theater again. I look through the window at the barber Claude Myers as he strops a razor and lathers up a miners face and begins to shave him.

Privately owned taxi cabs fill all spaces at the taxi stand parked nose to the curb in front of the theater. I smell popcorn from the theater and stop to buy a bag. I notice the hot dog stand is still very busy and the meat market grocery store is still a bee hive. I walk across the board walk bridge and notice that Shoun’s Drug Store is loaded as usual with young folks nursing a coke before going to the next movie. Straight across the street is Jake’s place. It’s a two story red brick building, the best constructed building in town. He and his wife make their home in a nice apartment on the second floor above his restaurant. All sorts of folks gather in the restaurant. Beer drinkers, street walkers, business men, bootleggers and church goers including the church pastors. It is known as the nicest place to eat in town in spite of being a popular place to booze up on beer. A long line of bar stools are usually taken. Nice tables and chairs fill the middle of the floor space. The tables are covered with clean linen and place settings. Roomy booths line the outer wall. Jake is a no nonsense man and keeps a sharp eye out for any kind of bad behavior from any of the drinkers and will not hesitate to call the police chief and have him haul you away to spend a night in the calaboose in a back alley just up the street.

I keep walking north up the street elbow to elbow with people as now most everyone is in town for a Saturday night on the town. I see Claude ‘Crip’ Garber hobbling along using his walking cane as he puffs on his pipe. Then I meet George ‘Washington’ Reynolds another one of the town character’s coming down the street. He is unshaven as usual and wears a new pair of overalls over his old ones. He looks at my bag of popcorn. I hand it to him saying, “You can have it George.”

“Hell no,” he said. “I’m about starved to death, I want a hamburger.”

I fished in my pocket for a quarter and handed it to him. He took it and never bothered to thank me but I did see his eyes brighten up and a trace of a smile showed on his face.

Across the street Miners Department store has customers milling around in the store. The St. Charles hotel looks occupied. Music blares from another joint and next to it. And loud noise comes from a pool room as the balls are racked. Now back to my side of the street I pass another pool room and Gurnie Tester’s barber shop. Next to Gurnie’s shop a small building houses the St. Charles bank. I keep walking and end up at the skating rink which at that time was in a large tent owned and operated by Clay ‘Cowboy’ Barker. A little ways beyond there a foot bridge crosses the creek to a cluster of homes along the creek and on a the hill above. Across the street a large building houses a grocery and feed store. Haynes auto repair shop is on the same side of the street.

I stand and look north to a small neighborhood called Kirk town. Beyond there its only a short distance to another small community, Turners Siding. Then a short distance from Turners Siding to Kemmerer Gem, Benedict and Monarch mines and coal camps where hundreds of miners live and work.

I turn and start back down the street with intentions of going to the depot landing where you could always find Dru Ely sitting with his legs dangling over the edge of the landing telling stories to a small group of miners. He was a master story teller.

Then all of a sudden I am shocked that I see nothing the way I just described it. Empty lots covered with weeds where once a familiar building stood. A few buildings still remain but most are boarded up and unoccupied. A small clinic on the right serves the few people that still live here and the ones still living in the mining hollows. The mining camps have been torn down and the mining property is off limits to the public. There’s not one business left in a town that once had a Kroger store. You can’t buy a loaf of bread or a jug of milk.

The train depot burned down many years ago. The High school building is now used for a grammar school. The building that housed the meat market is gone along with the theater, hot dog stand and barber shop. The brick building that housed Shoun drugs burned to the ground a few years back. The old sycamore tree died and was cut down in the 1980s.

Woodrow ‘Mainline’ Wilson, the old black man died before then and is buried in the town cemetery. They buried Claude ‘Crip’ Garber in the Pennington Memorial cemetery on highway 421 one mile from the Kentucky state line.

George ‘Washington’ Reynolds rests next to his brother Shelby in a little cemetery along side the road that leads to Duffield, Virginia.

The red brick building where once people of all types mingled with each other and got along is gone along with a couple more buildings that sat along side it. A new church building takes up some of the empty space.

I stand and look at the space where the red brick building once stood and I see a Miner’s Memorial wall under construction. A walkway reaches out to the sidewalk. Benches beckon for you to sit down. Shrubbery and flowers grow in the nicks and corners.

Hundreds of red bricks have already been mortared to the wall with names etched in them. ‘In Memory Of’ if they have passed on, or ‘In Honor Of’ if they still live.

I try to read some of them but tears fill my eyes and I walk away. But I did see last names, Carter, Turner, Corbin, Parsons, Bryant, Martin, Osborne, Wright, Poe, Sprinkle, Long, Hendricks, Pennington, Laningham, Hall, Elliot, Barker, Province, Holeman, Bailey, Woodward, Thompson, Tester, Baird, Delph, Thomas, Kirk, Muse, England, Baker, Hobbs, Jones, Crusenberry, Edmonds, Shirks, Fleenor, Collingsworth, Britt, Capps and Rogers.

Harden Stapleton and his wife Jennie. I was pleased to see that someone remembered Woodrow ‘Mainline’ Wilson and Claude ‘Crip’ Garber. But I failed to see the George ‘Washington’ Reynolds and Dru Elys names. I hope someone remembers them. It is so sad that most coal camps and the coal mines that supported them have all disappeared throughout the Appalachian mountains leaving small towns like St. Charles, Virginia nothing more than a ghost town. But thank GOD we still have people that strive to preserve our past history for future generations.

Thank you for coming along on my walk through a bustling town of long ago. I might want to add on to this later on. Stay tuned.

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