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Here’s a peek inside the new West Virginia Mine Wars Museum!

September 12, 2020

Last October, we moved the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum across the street from our original location (since 2015) and into the first floor of the giant Bank of Matewan building, now owned by the United Mine Workers Local 1440. Since then we have been hard at work overhauling the space, and I’ve been building the new exhibits I designed from the ground up. We’ve expanded to triple our original size, we’ve added a comfy lobby, and we built a new gallery for temporary exhibits of art and history which resonates with our mission, proudly debuting with the photography work of Roger May. The Charleston Gazette-Mail ran a nice article about us last week by Rick Steelhammer, with excellent photos by Kenny Kemp.

I started the Museum From Below channel here on the Justseeds blog so that I could dive deeper into my work as an artist in a history museum context, and to highlight the various stories and artifacts that our museum shares. I’ll continue exploring this theme in future posts. But I’ve just finished nearly a year’s worth of work last week, I’m exhausted, and I just really wanted to post some overview pictures of how everything turned out because I’m really damn proud of what we’ve done!

Visitors walk through the museum chronologically starting in the early 1900s…

Life in the Coal Camps:

Outside the entrance to our exhibits, visitors get a quick lesson in deep time through fossils found in coal mines. Entering, you’re faced with a memorial to the 361 coal miners who died in the Monogah disaster in 1907, and then move on through photos and artifacts which illustrate life in the private, company-owned mining towns of the Central Appalachia of +100 years ago.

The Paint Creek & Cabin Creek Strikes

In the long arc of struggle for basic human rights and dignity in the Appalachian coal fields, these events in Kanawha County are considered the first volleys in the Mine Wars in West Virginia, the inspiration for Ralph Chaplin’s song “Solidarity Forever”.

This exhibit includes Women’s Resistance, highlighting the lesser known militant side of the women who fought in the Mine Wars. A collaboration between Wilma Steele, and Catherine Moore, and myself, much of the content is based on Moore’s original research for her upcoming book.

Bloody Mingo

After World War 1, which we narrate in an interlude of timelines which puts the events in West Virginia in an international context, some of the renewed struggles in the coalfields centered on the town of Matewan, the home to our museum. We are lucky to have a window in our building from which visitors can look outside to see the very spot where the Battle of Matewan took place in the summer of 1920.

The Battle of Blair Mountain

In the heat of late summer, 1921, the murders of people’s heroes Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers in retribution for the Battle of Matewan lit a powder keg of righteous anger, and a multi-racial crowd of organized miners began arming themselves and marching across the state, growing in the thousands and eventually clashing with a private, anti-union vigilante army on the slopes of Blair Mountain in Logan County. This was the largest civil insurrection in the US since the American Civil War, the US Army put a contingency plan in place to bomb the miner’s army, and eventually private planes DID bomb them. When the US Army arrived, the miners dispersed — their war was with the coal operators and their private police, not with the federal government.

From Treason to Triumph,
and The Mine Wars: Memory & Legacy

Here we summarize much of what happened after the Battle of Blair Mountain, as many miners and their families weathered treason trials and years more struggle. We conclude by celebrating the modern struggle to save the Blair Mountain battlefield from strip mining, and the citizen archaeology which has been pivotal to shaping our understanding of a history which was nearly buried by the state and coal company narratives.

As Creative Director, I designed and built all of these exhibits, starting as soon as the drywall seams were dry and sanded (I did some of that work too). But it takes a lot of dedicated work and specialization to pull something off on this scale. When it came to the process of creating the narrative structure of the exhibits, I worked most closely with historian/author Chuck Keeney, who wrote most of the museum labels and created timelines which run throughout the exhibits, putting the West Virginia Mine Wars into both national and international context. I also worked closely with museum director Kenzie New Walker, historian/author/board president Catherine Moore, and board member/retired public school art teacher/local history keeper Wilma Steele.

Members of UMWA Local 1440:
Danny Collins, Terry Steele, Hawkeye Dixon, Dennis Dixon, Danny Whitt, and all the good folks there who have supported us from day one.

Museum Volunteers: 
Jinny Turman, Marvin Jones, Jordan Walker, Don Slifer (my dad!), Zach Rissman, Chad Cordell, David Baghdadi, Brandon Nida, Doug Estepp, Danny Lutz, and David Tabb

…and our amazing museum board members: 
Wilma Steele, Courtney Boyd, Lou Martin, Chuck Keeney, Cat Moore, Katey Lauer, Francine Jones, and Barbara Ellen Smith. (Welcome to brand new board members Howard Phillips, Lindsay Shade, and Virginia Thomas!) Special thanks to Kim McCoy, our shop manager and docent!

What would we do without these specialists: 

  • Terry Steele did anything and everything he could to help, including painting with me for hours while listening to a lot of John Prine and Gillian Welch.
  • Ben Grubb fabricated our bomb replica.
  • Ramon Camacho helped immensely as our lighting consultant.
  • Rebecca Susman updated the replica tent that she first built in 2015.
  • Amalia Tonsor did some expert faux aging work on that tent.
  • Jenn Gooch fabricated two stunning pieces of period clothing for exhibition.
  • Christian Shaknaitis hand-painted two incredible period-specific signs.
  • Kristen Zamborsky and the team at AlphaGraphics in Pittsburgh managed all of our digital printing, from photo reproductions which we framed to a giant mesh banner that we cloaked the side of our building with.
  • Gerty Tonjum built a couple of new exhibition cases to spec.
  • Randy Marcum & Aaron Parsons helped us dig deep for some new archival images at the West Virginia State Archives.
  • Doug Estepp, Danny Lutz, and David Tabb brought pieces of an old jail cell across the state just in time for me to install one in the museum before we opened.

And we really can’t thank Danny Collins enough, as he ran around like a hero and did every single thing we couldn’t figure out, from all the electrical work to anything needing an expert craftsman.

Until we can get into something of a regular schedule, you know, some day, check our Facebook page for updates about current opportunities to visit! We’ve got some nice merch in our shop if you wanna show some support, and if you really want to get involved, we have a membership program! 

This fall and winter I’m working on overhauling our website and doing some in-depth cataloging and documentation of our collection, stay tuned!


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