MATEWAN — In just five months, efforts to revitalize three historic buildings in downtown Matewan will be officially underway, according to a recent news release.
Known locally as the Nenni buildings, the century-old structures were purchased in 2019 by Coalfield Development for historic preservation and future economic development. Upon completion, the buildings will also house Coalfield Development’s Mingo County headquarters and serve as a hub for new social enterprises and on-site job training. Construction will begin with a groundbreaking ceremony Aug. 27.
In August 2020, the U.S. Economic Development Authority announced a $1.7 million grant for the Nenni buildings project to assist in renovations and repairs. Since then, Coalfield Development has raised an additional $600,000 — making the total budget for the first phase of this project $2.3 million.
Phase I of the Nenni buildings project will focus on structural and exterior repairs and ground-level interior restoration.
With support from the Matewan and Mingo County communities, the Mine Wars Museum, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, the local UMWA chapter, the National Coal Heritage Area, the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, Southern Community and Technical College and others, it is Coalfield Development’s goal to restore and preserve the integrity of the Nenni buildings while creating a new jobs and business opportunities for Mingo area residents.
“This will become a major economic, cultural and historical asset for Mingo County specifically and southern central Appalachia broadly,” said Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development. “The skills developed here will be skills for the modern economy: clean energy, light manufacturing, design, sustainable construction, local agriculture and more. The businesses created here will be resilient, innovative businesses. They will define the new Appalachian economy.”
The West Virginia Mine Wars were a decades-long struggle for justice and labor rights in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, where miners withstood deadly working conditions below ground, and above ground faced brutal circumstances that curtailed them from basic constitutional rights and unionization.
As the backdrop of the 1920s Mine Wars, the Nenni buildings served a variety of purposes: from a miners’ union headquarters, to the town jewelry store, to the home of Matewan Sheriff Sid Hatfield, whose apartment was located on the second floor. Hatfield stood up for residents’ rights to unionize during the Mine Wars, which ultimately cost him his life.
August 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of Hatfield’s wake, which was hosted in his upstairs apartment. In recent decades, the state of the buildings has steadily declined. Without intervention, the buildings — and the history within — could have been lost entirely, said Wilma Steele, a Mingo County native and Mine Wars Museum board member.
“This is saving a building that would’ve collapsed, and it would have surely led to the collapse of the town,” Steele said, noting the buildings’ status on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through the Nenni buildings revitalization, Coalfield Development aims to diversify the local economy, bring innovation and opportunity into Mingo County communities, and give residents a chance to reclaim southern West Virginia’s narrative.
“This project puts the history back into the hands of the people who were directly impacted, or the descendants,” said Kenzie New, executive director of the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan. “So often, our narratives have been told by outsiders and it has been romanticized or used for comedy, and projects like this give us a chance to reclaim our identity.”
Retired coal miner Hawkeye Dixon, the financial secretary for UMWA Local 1440, said the historic preservation of the Nenni buildings will also help ensure that the miners’ history lives on for future generations to learn from.
“It’s extremely important that we don’t forget the sacrifices made by those before us that worked in the coal mines, who worked for the coal companies under pretty horrific circumstances,” Dixon said. “They gave a lot up health-wise to make sure everything in our community was a lot better for us. That’s the least we can do — try to preserve the history and give them credit.”
Dixon said he and the other members of 1440 are looking forward to seeing the job and training opportunities the renovated Nenni buildings will provide.
“We’ve got 800 members, and each and every one are tickled to death with the Nenni buildings being brought back and putting the training facility in there,” Dixon said.
Phase I of construction is expected to be completed in July 2022. The second phase will focus on the revitalization of the second floors, including Sid Hatfield’s upstairs apartment.
For more information, or to make a contribution toward the renovations, visit https://coalfield-development.org.