COMPANY STORES VANISHING FROM MOUNTAIN COALFIELDS
By Strat Douthat, Associated Press Writer
YOLYN, W. VA. (AP) - Once it was the center of every coalfield community, but the company store is now a vanishing species.
Take Rum Creek, for example, Johnnie Smith can remember when there were no fewer than nine flourishing coal company stores on this meandering souther West Virginia tributary. Now, only one remains.
"It is the same story all over the coalfields." says Smith, who manages the Amherst Coal Co. store at Yolyn. "They seem to be on the way out, no doubt about it."
Smit says he's disturbed by the demise of this once-indispensible coalfield institution. He admits he was shocked and saddened recently upon learning that the store at nearby Dehue was closing it's doors after 63 years.
"Thanks makes us the last store on the creek," he says, surveying the ramshackle yellow fram building before hime. "This store has been in operation since 1923. It was a very modern building in it's day."
Inside, the merchandise seems lost in the cavernous building.
"The ceilings are 14 1/2 feet high," says Smith, craning his neck to look up at the peeling paint. "Back in the old days everything was brought in by rail, and they'd stack the goods almost up to the ceiling. They wanted everything out front.
"The store still turns a profit," he says, "but we can't make it on groceries alone these days. We also sell furniture, dry goods, hardware, shoes, appliances, meats and produce. And, oh yes, we also have a grill and serve sandwiches."
Although the store at Yolyn now seems like a relic, Smith remembers when everything revolved around the big frame building.
"We had the payroll office over there," he says. "On paydays the men would line up all the way down the road. This building also was a big recreational center. We had a theater, a dance hall, a post office and pool hall."
Back when the Appalachian coalfields were developing, the companies brought in miners and built their homes and the stores where they traded. There were hardly any roads then, 70 years ago, and most of the communities were self-contained.
"There was no reason for people to go out, even if they'd been able," Smith says, "they had everything they needed."
But while the stores were initially built out of necessity, they later were used by some coal companies to control their employees. May oldtimers can recall being told to trade at the company store or lose their jobs, and in the song "Sixteen Tons" a miner laments: "Saint Peter don't you call me, 'cause I can't go; I own my soul to the company store."
"You could call it a captive business, I guess," Smith says. "But I'd call it a credit arrangement that worked. You know, I've heard the stories about how the companies mistreated people, but I've never seen it.
"My father worked for Amherst Coal Co. from the time I was 3 or 4 years old. He and some other people used to buy some of their goods and have them shipped in. I really don't think people were forced to buy at the company stores. It was just that there were no roads, no way to get out of the hollows to the independent stores."
He does acknowledge, however, that the company store used to take advantage of it's lock on the market.
"But not any more," he quickly adds. "I watch the handbills and I feel we're very competitive on groceries. And on furniture, our prices are just as goood, and better than most. It used to be this wasn't true, of course, but not any more."
Harry Pyle, who lives just across Rum Creek from the store, agrees.
"I've bought a lot of my furniture in that store and I still buy all of my groceries there." says the disabled miner who spent 37 years in the mines. "I'd say Johnnie's prices are about the same as anywhere else; he's lower on some and higher on others."
Pyle, 63, goes back to the days when miners used to blast the coal and then load it innto cars with picks and shovels.
"You had to furnish you own tools, you know.:
Some people say the company store began losing their grip when paved roads came to rural communities such as Yolyn, which is about halfway up Rum Creek, some 10 miles south of Logan. Smith, however, takes issue with that theory.
"It wasn't the roads that hurt company stores, it was the West Virginia legislature. What really hurt us was when the legislature passed a law a few years ago limiting what you could take from a man's pay. As things stand now, we can't take more than 25 percent of an employee's net earnings. This means we've had to drop open account credit.
Another factor, he says, was the drastic drop in the coalfield population after the mines mechanized in the 1950's.
Also, companies pay once a week now, and that's changed things: "Used to be, when we paid only every two or three weeks, that the miners needed credit to carry them over to payday. Now, they can make it from week to week without so much credit.
But no matter what people think of company stores, Johnnie Smith says he knows that they served a purpose and that they helped a lot of people.
"I just wish you could have seen things the way they used to be," he says, smiling wistfully. "Those were the good old days."