In recent months, the Raleigh County WVSU Extension Program focused on activity in the western portion of the county. This is an area which encompasses much of what has been known historically as the Winding Gulf Coalfield long recognized for its “smokeless coal” – a high burning fuel with little waste byproduct. Active mining began in the coalfield in the wee years of the 20th century with a peak toward mid-century. In 1947 alone, it was reported that some 22 million tons of coal were mined. While an accurate count has not been made, the region once hosted approximately 50 coal communities. It was reported that in the 1950s – the 27-mile radius of the Town of Sophia bolstered some 350,000 families!
Flash forward to 2014. Western Raleigh County is in sharp contrast to its heyday of just a few short years ago. The impact of deindustrialization as a consequence of the decline in mining operations and out-migration has altered the cultural and physical landscape. Now that the coal dust has literally settled, communities and towns in the region are now engaged in a variety of economic restructuring programs or contemplating such. This is an opportunity for the community development extension program to offer services to the region.
Recent activities have included outreach to various communities and towns within Winding Gulf – with additional communities to be contacted in near future. A highlight component includes the services of Preserve WV AmeriCorps member, Tiffany Rakotz, who will travel the coalfield collecting oral histories of the narrative reflecting the life and times of coal communities, as well as helping to document surviving historic architectural remains. This AmeriCorps position is made available through the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, with funding by the National Coal Heritage Area Highway Authority.
Tiffany will be interviewing a wide range of residents in the Winding Gulf. The project is not focusing on just older citizens, but rather a wide range of demographics. The project aims to capture the many voices and experiences of the region and how they, directly or indirectly, relate to the coal industry. The oral history project is based on a community development model that rural community development must built on a foundation reflecting community pride and heritage.