Two Books and Perhaps the Most Downtrodden County in the Country

Many of the you have heard of McDowell County, the southernmost county in the state of West Virginia. You may not remember it. However every four years, politicians rotate  through, pledging to help. In addition to roving politicos looking for votes, two of the most memorable books of the past ten or twenty years have been written with key McDowell County scenes and memorable events chronicled on the pages; the images reinforced later with wonderful movies.

The first of these, Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam, just flat-out blew the socks off of memoirs for me and was supplemented in beautiful form by the movie, October Sky, which starred Laura Dern and Jake Gyllenhaal plus other perfectly cast actors. The story takes place in McDowell County, in a little unincorporated company coal town named Coalwood. At the time, mines were going full blast. The population in 1990 was 900 people, and it's probably less now. The key elements involved a coming-of-age story intertwined with father-son tension. Many of these tales, like this one, are centered around the high school years. In the case of Gyllenhaal's character in the movie (and Hickam in real life), the high school was Big Creek, a consolidated school that drew from the rural areas of poor farms and mining communities like Coalwood. My own high school team, the Princeton Tigers, played the Big Creek Owls nearly every year, and I remember the Big Creek team as wiry, raw and tough. Their field, probably a dirt coating over who-knows-what-sort of underlying composition, was higher in the middle, called a crown, and the bleachers were functional but anything but plush. The owls usually made quick work of my Tigers in front of several hundred rabid fans. The rocket boys, a small group in high school whose work inspired one future real NASA rocket boy, gained knowledge in rocketry and math that resulted in a top National Science Fair award. The little town never forgot and today the welcome sign outside Coalwood proclaims the town proudly as "The Home of the Rocket Boys."

The Glass Castle is the second book centered in, or at least with pivotal scenes, in McDowell County. Welch, the county seat, was a decent-sized place by southern West Virginia standards, but is declining; the last census showed around 1,800 people as of 2016, down from 2,400 in the 2010 count. The town made the national news several years ago by being unable to turn on its street lights at night because it could not afford the electricity bill. The Welch high school Maroon Wave actually were the "well-to-do" town school back in the day, and author Jeannette Walls was an editor of the high school paper. She lived out of town on a hill-side quite apart from the usual streets in town, with parents who were, to say the least, unusual. Her "raisin's" are the genesis of her story, which like Hickam's, is quite impressive and well-told.

My own home town of Princeton, located in the adjacent county of Mercer, has fared relatively well compared to places in McDowell County, but still has seen its population drop by ten percent from 2010 to 2016's (estimated) 6,000 even with its economy less solely dependent on mining. Fortunately, two major highways, I-77 and U.S. 460, intersect on the outskirts of town, and a thriving motel/hotel/restaurant/shopping center complex sprang up and provided a bit of a life raft to the town, which has seen its downtown pretty well dry up. Part of this is the lack of a vibrant economy, but some is due to by-pass routes that created new business development.

The decline in the coal business, is known as "Obama's War on Coal" throughout the entire region on thousands of roadside billboards and yard posters, not as a more realistic "The Impact on Thermal Coal as Electrical Power Generating Plants Switch over to Lower Cost Natural Gas Produced by Fracking." This, along with a general frustration that no one in Washington cared during the Obama administration, coupled with Donald Trump's brash comments that he was going, seemingly personally, to put all the miners back to work, together with difficult economic conditions sealed the doom of Democrats in the region. The only real solution is longer term, including more tourism, medical help to overcome obesity and opioid addiction problems, vocational job retraining and, frankly, financial help to assist those who are willing to relocate to other areas where jobs are more plentiful. The natural beauty is stunning, but the scars of boarded businesses, spavined houses and junk cars, along with broken hearts, are reminders of a heavy burden to overcome.


Please feel free to post a comment here on the blog, or email me directly at <> with any remarks. Also, I'll very much appreciate your recommendation of "Contact Sport" and/or "Reunion" to friends and book clubs. In addition, I'd be pleased to appear at book clubs and/or radio clubs within a two-hour drive of Austin to discuss either book.



5 Responses

  1. Hi Jimmy, Thank you for the book suggestions. I love reading about WV and certainly about areas close to Princeton, where I also grew up. Zippy Angel Cooper
  2. Reading your comments on the book October Skies also brings back a few memories of my own. I had given it to my Dad to read while my mother was recuperating from surgery to keep him distracted. It worked for a while He enjoyed the book and it brought back lots of memories for him as well, not all good ones. Around the same time frame of the book he worked for the state as an Assistant State Fire Marshall. That basically meant he traveled the southern part of Wesr Virginia inspecting schools etc. His most memorial one being the high school in Big Creek. According to him the principle was even a bigger jerk than the book indicated. It seems the principle didn't like the kids going into the gymnasium except during class time so he but a big chain around the outside door handle and a lock. When my Dad saw it he was concerned it was a safely issue and ask to speak to the principle. My father was a very congenial person and usually had no problem getting along with people. However this time it was quite the opposite. Not only did the principle not like my Dad pointing out the safety violation but told my Dad so, using bad lanuage. Never a man to be at a lost for words ( without cursing) my Dad told him he could either un lock the door or he would cut it off himself. When that didn't work Dad called the Sheriff of McDowell county and they cut it off together! Dad said the principle's face got so red he thought he was going to explode! Dad said he went by more often after that to make sure the principle didn't lock it again during school hours. He said eventually, he was friendlier but Dad never did trust him completely. Thanks for the well worded thoughts and memories. You have my permission to print this if you wish and or edit it as may be. Billie Rae
    • JK James George
      What an interesting story, Billie Rae. Your dad had a really important job. I didn't realize that. He could have written a book, for sure. One of my viewpoints of high school was with the Princeton High football team. Not as a player, but as one of the "managers," a fancy name for those of us who supported the team day in and day out with the (very un) glamorous jobs of getting the dirty uniforms to and from the laundry, running errands for the coaches, lining the fields, and in general being the"go-fers" for anything needed to get the team ready. We rode the buses to and from all the games with the guys and were in every time out as the glamorous "water boys." I saw the middle part of every football field both home and away for several years, heard everything every player and every coach said during every time-outs, etc. All that was "priceless," and worth the price ... some of those experiences ended up in the book, "Reunion, as you probably know. Hugs, Jimmy.
  3. Jim, thanks for the recommendations on the two books above, I always enjoy reading books especially about our space program. Looking forward to reading these books and learning more about the area where you grew up. Your comments on the coal industry being ignored and promises not kept are spot on and what needs to be done to improve this area with training, medical and financial help is sorely needed. I recently saw a TV program where a software company is training previous coal workers to be programmers/code writers and seeing very positive results; more business need to take a chance and retrain people who have lost their jobs. They will find hard working people who just want to provide for their families and themselves. We send billions of $'s overseas but do very little in my opinion to help our own people who have been devastated by industry changes, environmental, etc. Politicians make promises but never come through to help. This needs to change and we the people can make this change. I will get off my soap box. :-). Keith
  4. Thanks, Jim, I always enjoy reading your stuff. Ken Sullivan of the WV Humanities Council wrote a short note about The Glass Castle, Hillbilly Elegy, and the new movie, Logan Lucky, about a hard-luck family in Boone County (but filmed in northern Georgia). I have not seen the movie or seen it advertised. The Fall, 2017 number of the WVU alumni magazine has a map of WV showing the overdose rate of the counties. By far the highest rates are in the coal counties of the southern part of the state. In fact, McDowell has the second highest rate of all counties in the USA!. Your own Mercer County and my Summers County don't show up very well either. Jim Gooch, NA3V

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