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Transcript of interview with Bob McCoy, June 10, 1992, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project


Q: Bob, Tell me why you're in southern West Virginia, not in terms of how you got here career-wise, just tell me what about this place attracts you?
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BM: That's a very difficult question for me. I've had the same question asked before. Why am I back in my home town. It's small; the opportunities were limited, and I graduated from West Virginia University and I assume I had some other opportunities, but maybe at first blush it may have been a safe choice for me. The world's pretty big, and I'd had been part of a relatively small world, even though I'd been in the service a couple of years. But my family was here, and that like many people in this valley, I think kept a lot of other people here. I don't know that my family is any closer, you know, I'm any closer to the other members of the family --

Q: Why don't you tell me about a few of the good things about southern West Virginia?
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BM: Southern West Virginia has unique terrain. I think it is very beautiful. I think those of us who live here, many people don't see the beauty. This lush foliage that we have that surrounds us, the narrow valleys. The foliage that goes right down to the road is almost like being in a tropical forest. It's so green in the summer and then the fall colors are vivid, beautiful, no place more beautiful in the fall. Then it's very ugly in the winter. It's stark because of the deciduous forest, there's absolutely no green on the mountains; they're gray. That's bad, but I think those other seasons are so very beautiful that's important. I enjoy every one of those seasons personally, so as I get older I appreciate them more, I think.
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Also, the people are very friendly, and of course I've known these people all my life and they know me. That's nice when there's very few places you can go in the entire valley that someone wouldn't know you or you might not know them. It's comfortable. No crime to speak of. There are some family violence, but very of that really. So it's a friendly place, and there's some other disadvantages, but those are the primary advantages.

Q: What does the landscape mean to you, sort of a in your soul kind of thing. What's this landscape when you see it after you've been away from it, what ? ...


Q: Tell me if you can, imagine the times you've gone away to shore to somewhere else, to come back to West Virginia. What does that mean?
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BM: Of course I've only spent sort periods of time away from the community, from the mountains -- four years in school and two years in the army. So really I've never been away from the mountains more than just a little bit, but the valley narrows as I approach it and I recognize that the terrain becomes very familiar. As a child, the mountains -- we never owned any of these mountains, no one hardly does. It's owned by coal companies, but you could go anywhere in them. My mother used to take me up in the mountains and she would take me to places that her mother and father had taken her in the mountains and where my grandfather had a garden one time in the mountains when times were tough. And as a child, my friends we played in the mountains. I guess they were ours and they weren't ours. The mountains belonged to anybody. I haven't really given it a lot of thought, but it's a strange thing how I feel those mountains belong as much to me as anyone anywhere, I think.

Q: You mentioned that times had been tough an awful lot in southern West Virginia.?
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BM: The economy has -- the coal, by its nature, we have these cycles aside from the national economy; we have these cycles that are related to the energy business. They've been down as many times as they've been up, and all those downs. I've said good-by to friends and friends of family. It's been -- over the years I've seen many, many people leave. That is a difficult thing. My earliest recollection was in the first grade I think some friends -- there was a change in the coal industry. Its mechanization put a lot of people out of jobs, and we're talking about 1951. I think right about then. I recall going to school in the first grade and some of my friends were leaving because their fathers lost their job, and that's my earliest recollection there. But all three of my -- the sixth grade I remember when there was another change in the industry. I think the largest coal company in the area changed ownership and there was a scale down and a lot of people were put out of work and a lot of people left. Some of my friends left.
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And later on when my family was in business, my mother and father, times? would get cut for the same reasons. But ... it'd be talked around the kitchen table, you know, what's going to happen with this last lay off or this last strike. So, I've lived with that problem. Even in my own life for different reasons I've been very -- although I've never worked in the mines myself and my father never worked in the mines, our lives have been dominated by what happens in those mines.

Q: What kind of a toll does that take over generations and generations, that up and down?
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BM: These communities suffer tremendously. There's not as many people here, so there's fewer services or the quality is diminished. The schools are closed. Over the years -- and then there's a mind set that puts everyone one edge. I think there's never any security. I think that's one of the problems. I think you can never feel secure in the coal fields.

Q: In this boom and bust cycle, a lot of people have left, but unlike other migrations of people, immigrants, people moving out west, there seems to be a large number don't want to leave.
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BM: I think there's again a closeness of family. There's other reasons. There were people here in this valley before the coal was here, before the coal was exploited I should say and mined. Those families have -- someone made the observation, and I agree. Those families are still in large here, the families that were here before the railroads came and opened up the coal fields. Also, I think there's a closeness of family that probably has kept people here that should have moved on. Then some people don't have the mobility, the ability to move to another location, either because of low skills or education or whatever reason. The people that moved, family members helped them move to these other locations. They lived with them for awhile until they get them a job even. But some people don't have those contacts outside the valley.

Q: There seems like there's a whole set of people who are trying to find a way back.
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BM: Yes, those people that leave look for the first upturn in the economy here locally; and when jobs are there, they're going to come back and try for a job. If they can get a decent job, they're going to stay. They like to be close to their parents, their brothers and sisters. I think that's a strength, really, in the valley.

Q: Do you think that's unusual for the United States?
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BM: That I can't answer whether or not it's unusual that we want to come back and live on our -- I think everybody in their -- Older people -- I think after you've had time to reflect, you think about -- your fondest memories are probably of your youth and where you grew up, usually. There's some attachment there, but I think there's either some greater, there's some magnetism in these mountains that bring us back.

Q: Tell me what the image that you know that's out there of southern West Virginia is and why it's not right.
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BM: I think in West Virginia, just north of the coal fields, just south of Charleston and Huntington, there's nothing but contempt for our way of life and for the people that live down here. And I don't say that -- I have forty-seven years of experience of living here, and I know people all over the state. Just recently I had someone come down from Huntington to do some work, and Huntington is very close to this area here. They said, 'We really didn't know what to expect down here.' They were pleasantly surprised to find that people were friendly and easy to do business with, you know. But that's the attitude.
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They still think there's an image out there that we're a bunch of dumb hillbillies, prone to violence. A lot of that has resulted because of the images that they've seen that have come from the coal fields. The strikes, labor strife, and what they read about the Hatfield and McCoy feud and the so-called Matewan massacre. All those things have -- And each time the media -- they tie all of these events together and try to make a case for a violent society, and that's not the case at all.

Q: What impact or what effect does it have, having that ...


Q: Bob, let's switch gears a little bit. Tell me about the relationship between southern West Virginia and coal.
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BM: I said for the record it's been a mixed bag of good and bad. Probably that's any industry, but the extraction industries are pretty tough. I think the employment cycles have been tough. I mean the living through those things have been rough on families, the strikes, the strife, the divisiveness of those strikes in the community have been tough over the years. I don't think I'm saying anything new there, but having lived through it, it's been extremely hard. The coal industry has in the past brought abundant high quality jobs with good pay. Those people who have been employed have lived good lives. They've been able to provide a nice living for their family. Some send their kids to college and lived the American dream. On the other hand, not everybody had steady employment. Very few people have had steady employment.
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As a child one of the things -- we had a small grocery store in Matewan and I used to see people come in after work every day. And of course they'd be black as literally as coal, but you noticed their hands. Very few of those miners in those days got out of the mines with all their fingers or lucky with other appendages. Their feet were cut off and whatever. It was remarkable to me because I noticed that. Of course I'd never been around a mines at that time, and I'd never really been in the mines myself at all but it's not as common now. But then, physically, it took a terrible toll. Then the people with black lung, that emphysema, related to having worked in that industry, have in their later years have lived very painful lives and limited physically, terribly physically by those afflictions.

Q: Let's break it down into two -- maybe the downside. I think you articulate well the other side of it. One is they do provide good employment. But part of that was that it created its own sort of industry of young people who gave up early, relatively early on education because there was this lucrative employment. ? ? Tell me about that.
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BM: I think that's true. Education until -- I don't even know that it's even changed. I think it has been secondary for these families in the coal fields. ... I don't think education has been as important here in the coal fields as perhaps other places. The reason being early in life these young people, young men could leave the schools in the ninth grade and go to work and make a, earn a substantial living. I think there was perhaps a contempt for education. After all, what did it -- if it didn't prepare you for a better life or more money. I can make as much money. I'm speaking ...


Q: Tell me about how education's been affected by all this.
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BM: In my years living in the coal fields I think families have placed a lower regard on education simply because young people could leave the school system early, before even getting a high school diploma, and get a pretty decent job in the mines, a job that paid more than their school teachers who taught them. I think most people and I've heard it. I know of a young man in recent years who had a scholarship. He was a very excellent athlete, football player. He had the opportunity, the first person in his family to go to college. He turned it down. I talked to him personally.
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He said, "you know I can make as much money here working in the mines, my father has, as any of these school teachers." He pointed to the school teachers. Of course those are the people who they think of as college educated and that's where they limit their opportunity to, of course. But through the years that's been the case and many of these people now are out looking for jobs and unprepared for what life has out there. I don't know that they're a victim of that system, but I guess they would certainly be deemed a victim.

Q: The other big impact has been on the land itself.
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BM: I think mining takes it toll. Strip mining now has improved. The mining methods are better, but I don't look forward to the day whenever a mountain top is flat myself. So the jobs in strip mining are so transient. It's difficult for me to justify knocking all the mountain tops off. But again laws have improved that situation. I can remember as a child Red Jacket had some red dog piles, these burning masses of coal refuse. You couldn't even drive through there. It was the smog, the pollution, it was unbearable. People lived right next to them then. Again, recent laws -- they've started reclaiming those and it's not the terrible black that it once was.

Q: But it still has potential problems in the future doesn't it?
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BM: I think the problems for the future are the empty coal camps with the sparsely populated area, the infrastructure that's going to be supported by just a few people. It makes running water systems, sewage systems, providing all those very meager services that we have. I say all. They're fairly meager. We have the fire department, and you can get an ambulance. I say you can get these say day service. We don't count them in minutes. We just guarantee you'll get them that day, you know. But we have a very low service level now, and I can't see any of those things getting better in the years ahead.

Q: Why has southern West Virginia gotten kind of the leftovers?
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BM: I don't know that we've had the leftovers. I think that first of all providing services in this valley are very difficult. You would drive down the road and say there's lots of families here, but it's a very narrow strip of development and miles and miles of mountains. You have this really -- you have trying to provide services as a very high cost proposition. It's hard to justify building water systems and sewage systems. It makes the rate structure so prohibitively expensive that you get resistance. There's a lot of people in this valley that can't afford to pay the kind of rates that are necessary to support water and sewage services alone, and those are very necessary services.
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I think in other ways we certainly have had the leftovers. I think in terms of roads that are so terrible. ... I've heard all kinds of excuses. One, that it's expensive to build roads here; that's true. Two, we probably don't need any better roads because the coal trucks are going to beat them up anyway; I don't understand that problem. Then, I think overall there's always been this opinion I think that the coal industry will collapse the next decade. I think they've been doing that for ninety years. We only have ten more years of this. The lack of government to make investments down here over the years has certainly diminished the quality of life in many ways.

Q: Isn't there also a fourth reason and that is that this perception that the people of southern West Virginia don't count as much?
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BM: I think that is truly a reason. At least it goes unsaid that people have less value here in southern West Virginia. No politician would ever say that, but I have to think my years of interaction upstate and with government agencies has left me to believe that people are deemed less worthy of projects, of help, of whatever. I think it goes back again to our history of violence.
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This image which was concocted by media years ago over these ignorant hillbillies killing each other has continued and punctuated with labor strife and other events in the valley. They have tied all these things together and say: 'Well, these people have no value.' There's no appreciation really for our mountain culture. We've even here in this valley forgotten what our mountain culture was. I think in a large part because schools have never appreciated it. The education system has very little appreciation, and our coal culture only now is being looked at differently. We have a lot to learn ourselves about ourselves. Until we understand ourselves better, it might even be hard to make that sell upstate that this culture should be better appreciated.
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Not only our coal culture, but the mountain culture, the people that existed here before the Hatfields and the McCoys even, as much as they have tainted our history in many ways. I think there's lessons to be learned and appreciated; I think we can better appreciate ourselves by learning about ourselves.

Q: People form opinions on first impressions. ...


Q: Bob, you've painted a picture of a pretty decent place, but it's not a picture that's recognized in very many places. The reality is that anybody who happens to stray off the highway, drives through this area, and they're rubber necking out their windows, seeing things that to them represent just what they've heard about white trash in Appalachia. That's the image they form; that's the image of politicians in many places won't say, but they have; and therefore they say these are people that really don't matter. They don't contribute; they don't matter; they're on a dole; they're on welfare. It's a cycle, it's a bad cycle and it's better if they just all move out. Tell me why that's not really the way it should be?
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BM: This is a very difficult question, the way you phrase it. We do have poverty, and it's easily seen. Its everywhere. You see a home of poor quality next to a very nice middle income home. The fact of the matter is, we have at least half the population in this area or very near that many are impoverished. There's reasons for it. The lack of economic opportunities and this question of welfare, generations upon generations, these people that love being impoverished and love the welfare check, would never consider working is hogwash really. These families, the young people that come out of these families, some of them go on to find decent employment, but many don't. But they would like to and they like I guarantee you people that live in urban areas that are destitute would much prefer that would provide a living wage over welfare.
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Welfare is a bankrupt way of living. It is very poor. I mean there are no such things as a welfare Cadillac, in spite of what some people have said over the years. Poverty is truly poverty. I mean it's the most meager existence that a family could have, and no one would pick that existence over work that would provide a living wage for them. It's no different here really than any place else in this country. I've known lots of poor people, and I'm convinced they are a victim of circumstance, rather than people who are exploiting a program that our federal government doles out.

Q: Let me ask you a different way then. In the last 30 years since the sixties, since Kennedy came and saw Appalachia poverty, have we created a culture of poverty in southern West Virginia?
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BM: I don't think that we have created a culture of poverty. It's still there; I don't think that things are any better. They're probably no worse. I think government hasn't ... what government has done it hasn't helped. Maybe the job programs that prepare people for jobs that don't exist, the welfare provides a meager subsistence level of existence, that's all. It doesn't propel people out of the cycle of poverty into the mainstream of jobs cause the jobs aren't there. They aren't there nationally. We need jobs, and all over America so how to create jobs is difficult. Creating jobs in this area that's very remote, with poor access ability, of road access ability, and poor infrastructure is even more difficult. To think we might have entrepreneurs that would rise out of the ruins here in southern West Virginia and create job opportunities for the people that are here is a fairy tale; it won't happen.

Q: Let me ask you then. What could be the future of southern West Virginia?
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BM: The future, you have to have opportunity. It begins first I think with transportation at the very minimum. I think good roads, they don't guarantee development, but I think it's a prerequisite for development. You have to have good schools. That is -- and we don't now. We have a fairly inefficient way of providing an education that's deficient. Better schools, roads, water and sewage systems, solid waste disposal, systems that work, you have to have some long-term economic development money down here. We do have some venture capital funds. But if I knew those answers I might be running for governor myself, you know.

Q: Let me ask you a question you should know about the answer to and that is: why should we make that investment?
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BM: Because for one reason, it's a good business reason. I think the choice of the state of West Virginia is that we do nothing and I think we'll have it continue. The coal industry will require fewer and fewer people to provide all the coal this country will ever need. And those people that will drop off as wage earners will drop on to the welfare rolls. People will continue to be here that will provide at least these meager services that will government will have to give at a very high cost as an aggregate. Again, it makes good business sense to do everything in the world to prevent that because it is a very costly proposition to try to support a population that's going to be unproductive.

Q: One thing you said to me that I want you to tell me again, tell me about the paradox about the people's relationship with the land.
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BM: I think everybody grew up in these mountains and has a fondness for the land, the mountains. Most everybody, they're hunters, fishermen love to do those things. I'm not much of either of those, but I do have a great appreciation for the mountains and the terrain. The great paradox down here is: why do we have -- if that is the case, people have this attachment to the land and they love the mountains and they're so close to the family, why do we have the solid waste problems, the trash in the streams? Again, I think government has on a local level has failed to provide systems that would address these things. Now I can't explain exactly why we have over the years people had always disposed of their trash on the river banks and on the creek banks, but in the last 25-30 years, the packaging has quadrupled, so once it was not a problem. Now it is a problem, but I think it's one that can be solved. But it's no easy problem. Again, government at the state level I think would have to be involved in solving this problem.

Q: You've talked to a lot of people in southern West Virginia so I'm going to ask you to speak for a kind of collective group. What are the values, what are the things that southern West Virginians want out of life?
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BM: I think every person would like to think that they have some financial security. That's first, and we've never had that. Job security -- I think everybody would hope that their children would have an opportunity to be whatever they wanted to be. I would like to think that those same children could think in terms of being whatever there is out there to be, not limit their vision to just here, but the world.

Q: Let me ask you a different way. There's a lot of talk right now about values in America. What do you think of values down here are?
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BM: I think if we had anything to export, I think our values might -- I really believe that we still have a strong sense of family, and we still while we have this violent history in our past, we are very law abiding citizens. Some people think that we exploit the welfare system. I disagree.


Q: Tell me about a few points of values in southern West Virginia?
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BM: If West Virginians had anything that we could export, I think our values might be the most important thing. We have one of the greatest work ethics in America. These miners, no one could outwork these people. No one believes in work than they do. Furthermore, our family values are still very strong; families mean a lot. We have a very low crime rate, which I think is reflective of our family values that are passed along. We're pretty friendly people to be around too.

Q: Why are you here?
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BM: Every day -- once a month I might ask that question too. Why am I here? I'm comfortable here in these mountains. Most of my family is gone; I only have a brother living here now. I think the rest of the valley, they have become my family and I'm very happy and comfortable living around them.

Q: What keeps you here? Name some, what are the things that keep you here? You could go elsewhere.
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BM: ... You asked me a very poignant question; I think that's a good question and you're right. What in the hell is keeping me here; I'm going to leave. You've already opened up the Pandora's box, you know. I don't know. I say that -- I can't answer that. What keeps me in these mountains. Maybe all the aforementioned, you know, the good and the bad. Right now certainly my life would be the worst possible time to leave, but I can't really answer that question: why I am still here. ...

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