Friday, November 28, 2014

Coalwood: Then and Now

I grew up during the “space race” of the 1960s, and was always interested in the space program—even building and flying my own model rockets. I was even fortunate enough to work for NASA for a few years during the 1980s, before moving back to my hometown in West Virginia.

Given my love for my native state, and my interest in the space, it should come as no surprise that I was captivated when Homer Hickam’s book “Rocket Boys” first came out in 1998. Everyone should read this book! I enjoyed the entire Coalwood Trilogy (“Rocket Boys,” “The Coalwood Way,” and “Sky of Stone”) as well as the movie version entitled “October Sky” (plus I saw the new musical version performed onstage at Fairmont State). Although I wasn’t born until after Sputnik, I could readily identify with the Rocket Boys and their adventures (see for more on this topic).

One of the historical markers in Coalwood.

We had driven to Coalwood about ten years ago to attend the Rocket Boys Festival when it was still being held there. In recent years, the festival location has moved to Beckley’s Exhibition Coal Mine. This year, they offered a bus ride from Beckley to Coalwood with one of the original Rocket Boys. Roy Lee Cooke is now in his 70s, and was the “ladies’ man” of the Rocket Boys. He is still quite a character!

Roy Lee telling us all about the launch site.

We loaded onto the bus and he regaled us with his stories all the way from Beckley to Coalwood, through the beautiful mountain scenery on a glorious fall day. For example, there is a long, winding hill crossing a ridge that separates Coalwood from the county seat of Welch. He told us about being so familiar with this curvy stretch of West Virginia Route 16 that he would drive it at night with his headlights off just for the challenge. [That is not the smartest thing to do, but that is what they did for fun back in the late ‘50s.]

When we arrived in Coalwood, Roy Lee gave us an entertaining guided tour, pointing out all the highlights of the town as it was nearly 60 years ago, including the launch site outside of the town. He also told us about acquiring the moonshine that was a critical ingredient in their homemade rocket fuel.

The company's clubhouse with the church just beyond.

Unfortunately, what had been a proud and booming coal town has been on the decline since the mine shut down. Nature is reclaiming much of land that is no longer being used. Unfortunately, hoodlums are destroying some of the vacant buildings as well. It seemed even more run-down than when I had been there a decade ago. I wish I could have experienced it in its glory days!

Some of the local residents provided lunch for the bus tour group in the basement hall of the Coalwood Community Church. Not only was the food good, but it was interesting to talk with them about the problems they face today. Life isn’t easy in Coalwood without good paying jobs nearby—a dilemma faced by too much of West Virginia. It makes one wish we could go back to the “good old days”—or does that make me sound like a grouchy old man?

A picture of our tour group, with Roy Lee on the right (hugging the young newspaper reporter). That's me with my University of Charleston shirt. Notice that this was taken under Roy Lee's street sign. By the way, this story appeared in the December issue of "Two-Lane Livin'" magazine.

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