Where Do “Rednecks” Really Come From? A New Museum Has the Surprising Answer

Tourists spend $400 more per trip on average when their trips focus on history and culture. That could be a big opportunity for West Virginia's changing economy.
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Museum visitors celebrate the region’s history. Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

The room was wall-to-wall rednecks: dust-smudged coal miners, grandmas in flowery dresses, mussy-haired young punks, and old-timers in union ball caps. The red bandannas they wore around their necks spoke of a radical history you won’t read about in the average American history book. This colorful crew of about 500 souls had traveled from neighboring hollers and all over the country to mark the grand opening of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, which I helped launch last weekend in the coalfields of Appalachia.

What’s going to fill the space created by coal’s hollowing out?

Here in southern West Virginia, the term “redneck” means something more than a rural, working-class white person. It’s symbolic of the solidarity and defiance demonstrated by the thousands of coal miners and their families who fought in the West Virginia Mine Wars.

This dramatic and often overlooked chapter in American history took place when miners stood up and fought coal operators for their constitutional rights, fair labor practices, and the right to join a union. The roughly 10,000 justice-seeking miners who took up arms and marched to battle in 1921 at the climax of the mine wars wore red bandannas around their necks and came to be known as “the Red Neck Army.” So when you call someone a redneck in West Virginia, you may be giving them a compliment.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been working with eight other extraordinarily dedicated volunteers to open the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum to preserve and interpret the artifacts of the local communities affected by this brutal 20-year conflict. We transported old guns in the trunks of our cars. We combed mountainsides, antique stores, and the attics of coalfield residents in search of artifacts to bring this history to life. We painted, scrubbed, and polished our little museum in the small town of Matewan, West Virginia, until even the local residents didn’t recognize the building. And when we finally snapped the last track lights into place at 2 a.m. the night before the grand opening on May 16, we hoisted tumblers of Wild Turkey in weary celebration.

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Museum president Kenny King prepares artifacts for display. Photo courtesy of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

It’s been hard and sometimes thankless work—but it’s been worth it because today’s people need to know this history. In the early 1900s, miners in southern West Virginia faced desperate circumstances. Below ground, they faced death rates higher than any other state in America. Above ground, they lived in company towns where coal operators ruled. Families sent their kids to company schools, lived in company houses, worshipped at company churches, and sought treatment at company doctors. They also shopped at company stores, not with cash, but with scrip—currency issued by the company. And if they bucked the system, armed mine guards reminded them of their options: fall in line, find a new home, or face the end of a gun barrel.

The miners were diverse: native-born whites from the nearby hollows, African Americans who’d come up from the deep south, and immigrants from places like Hungary and Italy who spoke little English. Despite their differences, they formed a union. They demanded fair pay, safer working conditions, an end to the mine guard system, and the right to organize. Coal companies countered by hiring more guards to harass and threaten the striking miners, and violence erupted.

When guards kicked mining families out of company houses along Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912, they lived in tent colonies for more than a year, surviving a mountain winter outdoors and machine-gun fire from an armored train. At night, mothers lined the bottoms of their tents with iron skillets to protect their children from the shooting. Martial law was declared no less than three times. And the labor agitator Mother Jones traipsed up and down the creeks—streets and other public thoroughfares were owned by coal companies and closely guarded—to give lectures and hand out union cards.

This history is literally embedded in the walls of our museum, where bullet holes from a deadly shootout between mine guards and pro-union forces still pock the bricks.

No silver bullet

Coal ruled the economy of Central Appalachia during the time of the mine wars and for decades afterward. But far fewer people make a living in mining here today. Between 1985 and 2008, the number of coal mining jobs in Central Appalachia decreased by half, from about 60,000 to about 30,000. And that number is still falling. Day after day, we awake to news of mass layoffs and mine closures. And the same thing is happening in manufacturing—another highly unionized industry in decline:

Which of course leaves us wondering: What’s going to fill the space created by coal’s hollowing out? We know there’s no silver bullet. By now I hope we’ve learned our lesson about the dangers of an economy based on a single industry. Instead, it’s going to take a range of approaches to get through this transition.

One of those approaches could be “heritage tourism,” which the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as "traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past." Along with eco-tourism, it’s an emerging trend in the travel industry. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. leisure travelers take part in some kind of cultural heritage activity, and heritage tourists spend almost $400 more on average per trip than other types of travelers.

“If you don’t have services for them, they’re just driving in and out.”

And travel in general is taking off in West Virginia. Since 1979, travel-related services have replaced mining as the state’s third leading employer. Travel pumped $5 billion into the state economy in 2012, according to an analysis by the market research firm Dean Runyan Associates, employing 46,000 people and generating almost $1 billion in tax revenue.

That income isn’t just going to urban counties, either. From 2009 to 2012, as the country’s economy recovered from recession, the tax revenue from tourism in Mingo County—where our museum is located—expanded by 150 percent, and is now up to twice its pre-recession levels. Total direct earnings from travel have now surpassed their 2008 level of $4 million. Most of these dollars will land in the pockets of locally owned small businesses, rather than going to out-of-state corporations.

The future of our past

The coal industry may have carted off our minerals, but it sure has left us with a lot of stories to tell. And the lack of major development has meant that the abandoned coal camps, coal barons’ mansions, and coal machinery it left behind remain largely intact, freezing the history of coalfield communities in time.

Maybe coal can be our future, after all. But instead of mining it for energy, we can mine it for stories, insight into the past, and guidance about the future.

“We can mine the coal twice,” says Doug Estepp, owner and operator of Coal Country Tours, headquartered across the border in Toms Brook, Virginia. “We’ve already physically mined it, and most of that money went out of state. But the history it left is fascinating.”

These coins were issued as currency by coal companies. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Mine Wars Museum.

Coal Country Tours brings busloads of curious city folk from the eastern seaboard down to southern West Virginia for immersive guided tours focused on the West Virginia Mine Wars and the decades-long feud between the Hatfield and McCoy families in the late nineteenth century. Estepp grew up near Matewan, and uncovering the history of the mine wars is something of an obsession for him.

Estepp launched the business five years ago to prove a point, he says. While embroiled in a fight to save historic Blair Mountain from mining, officials told him that no visitor would ever pay a dime to tour the site. So he set up a website and started spreading the word that he was offering trips. This year, Estepp is expecting sales in excess of $100,000, and the business is growing.

Heritage tourism is a model that benefits from local culture because Appalachians love the past. It’s a cliché, but with a ring of truth to it. We love to tell stories about the past; we love to remember it; and yes, sometimes we stubbornly cling to it when we might be better off looking ahead. In the heritage tourism sector, that habit becomes an asset. A talent for interpreting history becomes a job skill.

When Estepp leads tourists through mountain towns, he says local people almost always approach the tour group unbidden to share first-hand stories with the visitors. He’s developed relationships with some of them, who’ve become regular storytellers on his circuit. People such as these are positioned to become the curators of coal mining history, roles that challenge the common assumption that tourism offers only low-wage service jobs.

From extraction to preservation

But let’s be real: tourism does offer a lot of low-wage, seasonal service jobs. Those who stand to benefit most in tourism economies are those who open their own businesses, and not everyone is cut out for that. So we must ensure that the local residents who endure the increased traffic, gawking, and other less pleasant side effects of tourism can earn living wages from this industry.

The history we are promoting holds lessons for today.

And that’s not the only challenge. Simply put, it costs a lot of money to preserve historic buildings. Plus, here in southern West Virginia, we may be within a day’s drive from 60 to 70 percent of the country’s population, but coalfield communities like Matewan are remote. The nearest interstate highway is two hours away.

And once visitors manage to get here, chances are they won’t know what they’re looking at. Heritage tourists thrive on context and interpretation, and we must develop the websites, the interpretive signs, the paths, and the stairs to help them access local history. They’ll want cellphone service and Wi-Fi hot spots to feel confident and at home too, and this kind of communications infrastructure is still lacking in towns like Matewan. Finally, these folks need to eat, sleep, and buy souvenirs. In some of our struggling towns, it’s hard to buy a Coke, let alone a meal.

It’s a problem that has long been on the mind of Christy Bailey, director of the National Coal Heritage Area, a federally recognized historic zone headquartered in southern West Virginia.

“If you don’t have services for them, they’re just driving in and out and the economic impact is lessened,” Bailey says. Over the years, her office has invested about $12.6 million into building up existing coal-themed heritage tourism attractions and connecting those that already exist.

She’s quick to point out that standard economic indicators don’t capture the full benefits of heritage tourism for Appalachian communities.

“The museums, theaters, trails, and green spaces that have a tourism impact also build better communities for local people,” Bailey says.

Compared to the so-called human costs of coal—the social, health, and environmental impacts experienced by those living in coal communities in Appalachia—heritage tourism drains fewer resources. It tends to protect what we have rather than extracting it for export.

Creating the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum has been about more than just telling a good yarn, or putting dollars in the pockets of local people. The history we are promoting holds lessons for today about resilience, workplace justice, and standing up for what is right against strong odds and in the face of powerful interests. The miners who fought chose not to accept things as they were, but rather to rise and demand the rights they knew were owed them, the change they knew must come.

And just as these rights weren’t handed to them without a bitter fight, a new and more just economy in Appalachia won’t be handed down from on high. We Appalachians must become active participants, who dream it up, insist on it, and build it ourselves.


Guiding principles and first steps for communities interested in developing heritage tourism are available here.

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