MATEWAN - Southern West Virginia’s history is ingrained with labor movements and class struggles, especially in relation to the coal industry. The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is working to reclaim the narratives of that history and preserve them for future generations.
The museum first opened its doors in 2015 after receiving a combination of grant funding and public donations. The museum now finds its home inside the Cecil E. Roberts building, owned and operated by the local United Mine Workers of America chapter 1440.
“Matewan is really ground zero for the birth of the American labor movement,” said Museum Director Mackenzie New-Walker. “It was just the perfect place to tell the story “
The museum is a walk through what times were like for miners during the mine wars with highlights of key moments in the movement. It has grown over the last six years to become the largest publicly accessible collection of artifacts related to the mine wars.
“We tell the story of the West Virginia mine wars through some permanent exhibits that focus on life in the coal camps,” New-Walker said. “It talks about some major strike actions that happened during the mine wars, such as the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike…We also have exhibits on the Battle of Blair Mountain and the three sides that were involved with the redneck army, the Logan defenders, as well as the federal government.”
The Battle of Blair Mountain exhibit specifically includes an artifact from an archeological dig that New-Walker said highlights the importance of these digs for preserving the history of the battlefield.
“One of our highlight artifacts is an 1873 Winchester rifle that was used by miners during the battle,” New-Walker said. “Someone had actually buried that gun with intentions of coming back and getting it I imagine. This rifle was discovered in 2002, so it was 81 years after the Battle of Blair Mountain. It’s the largest archeological find on display that we have in the museum.”
New-Walker said on the interesting aspects of this rifle is that when it was discovered by Elmer Stone, it still had all eight rounds loaded in the chamber. The ammo is also on display alongside the rifle.
Another item within the exhibit is a replica of the bombs used by police to target the miners during the battle.
“Don Chafin had hired private air guards at this time to drop makeshift pipe bombs essentially,” New-Walker said. “We have this replica on display, and that’s one thing that when folks come through they’re like ‘wait a second, they dropped bombs on people?’ It’s something that I think a lot of visitors are surprised about.”
The different weapons on display within the Battle of Blair Mountain exhibit indeed show the disparity between the three sides involved.
“It also showcases what a disadvantage the miners were at,” New-Walker said. “When you walk into the Battle of Blair Mountain exhibit you can see the opposing arms essentially that each side had. You look and you see Don Chafin’s army had machine guns and bombs; miners had Winchester rifles, hunting rifles, pretty much anything that they could grab. And then the federal government had machine guns. So you can see what miners were up against, I think it really brings the story to life.”
New-Walker said they often get visitors who question the aftermath of the Battle of Blair Mountain, and what happened to the key players who were involved.
“We also talk about the miner treason trials that happened after the Battle of Blair Mountain, which is something folks always ask,” New-Walker said. “‘What happened after Blair Mountain?’ So a lot of the miners went on trial for treason or for murder. Many were indicted.”
One of the newest additions to the museum is bars from one of the jail cells at the Jefferson County Courthouse that held the miners during the treason trials.
The museum focuses on more than just the Battle of Blair Mountain, as this uprising in 1921 was not an isolated event. In order to understand its culmination, it’s also crucial to look at events such as Bloody Mingo.
“We also have a section about World War I and of course Bloody Mingo,” New-Walker said. “In our Bloody Mingo exhibit you can look out the window and see the exact place where the Battle of Matewan happened 101 years ago.”
After exiting the museum, a short walk across the street shows bullet holes from the Battle of Matewan still in the back of the building located on the corner there.
The museum, in telling these stories, also wants to ensure all voices are heard – especially those who were not broadcast as prominently 100 years ago.
“We talk about women’s resistance and how women were critical to the story,” New-Walker said. “They helped break up railroad tracks, they helped fight off scab workers, they helped wash the clothes, grow gardens, make dinner. They got by with very little.”
New-Walker also serves as project coordinator for the centennial celebration of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Alongside planning events to educate the public about the Battle of Blair Mountain, she and others are also working to showcase the lasting legacy of the battle. This continuing story is also showcased within the museum.
“We also have a section about the memory and the legacy of the mine wars and how the spirit of Blair Mountain has been remembered 100 years later,” New-Walker said. “We have some artifacts from protest marches that have used the red bandana as well as newspaper articles.”
One resent resurgence of the red bandana that was made synonymous to the labor movement by the redneck army was the West Virginia teacher’s strikes in 2018 and 2019.
“In recent years the red bandana has re-emerged as the symbol of solidarity,” New-Walker said. “We saw teachers wearing red bandanas during the teacher’s strikes. Many of them would say ‘this is in our blood.’ I think we’ve seen today that it’s been taken up by organizations who are fighting for social and political change, in West Virginia and beyond. One hundred years later, this symbol is still a marker of class solidarity and union struggle.”
New-Walker said as the daughter and granddaughter of union coal miners, she knows first-hand how crucial the preservation of the history of the coalfields is for future generations.
“The museum is very special because we tell the story of the mine wars through the perspective of miners and their families,” New-Walker said. “We aim to uplift their voices, voices that are often left out in retellings and historical accounts. It’s a really beautiful thing to honor working people and highlight the roles of women, immigrants and African Americans as well.”
Blair Mountain and the mine wars have left a lasting legacy on labor movements both within West Virginia and beyond.
“Blair Mountain is such a powerful story because it’s this one example in 1921 when folks banded together across racial lines, across ethnic lines, across gender lines to come together and fight for the greater good,” New-Walker. “It’s really special for us to be able to tell this story 100 years later.”
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is open every Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $5 to $10.