My father was a coal miner, as was my grandfather, most of my uncles, several cousins, and nearly every neighbor I had while I was growing up in my little coal camp community of Verdunville, more specifically called No. 16 camp, where the post office and Island Creek Coal Company store were located right across the road from my home.
Like many folks of the Appalachian coal fields, my family lived in what at one time were coal company-owned houses. Throughout the coal fields various companies mined coal and most of them had constructed houses and created communities. Some coal towns, like Holden and Omar, were considered upscale communities, which were composed of schools, a company store, doctors’ offices, churches and even movie theaters. Some locations included YMCAs, barber shops and ball fields.
Mining coal made some folks wealthy at the expense of dangerous work provided by people from many nationalities who risked their lives daily to provide for their families. Especially during the early decades of mining, coal camp life was a tough way to survive, while miners — as old newspaper accounts prove — lost limbs, suffered broken backs and died almost weekly.
When men were injured or died for any reason, entire families had to leave the coal camp houses they had called home because of no longer being able to pay rent to the companies. Such things as disability or even unemployment benefits simply did not exist. And, with no such welfare benefits such as food stamps, families literally starved to death.
Some old timers I have spoken to over the years, nearly all of whom are now deceased, recalled what they referred to as “tent city,” which was an area in the vicinity of what is now the location of Four Seasons, the delicatessen/catering store located on Route 10 just across the Guyandotte River from Midelburg Island.
One man I spoke with about the tent city situation of yesteryear was Logan businessman Earl Queen. Earl, now deceased, recalled seeing the many tents that were set up along the roadside when he traveled to Logan as a young boy with his father nearly every day, his dad being a store owner on Dingess Street. Seeing entire families existing along a riverbank was a sight that Earl obviously never forgot.
There have been many stories and even books composed concerning the Blair Mountain Battle of 1921 in which Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin is always featured — sometimes as a hero and sometimes as a villain. Today marks the 100th anniversary of that historic battle.
It is not my intention to rehash the Blair Mountain situation or the evictions of families near Matewan or the murder of Sid Hatfield on the courthouse steps at Welch that preempted the miners’ march to reach Mingo County and to kill Don Chafin along their way. I’d rather look at Chafin in a different historical light. To me, the man was a mixture of “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Without question, Chafin was at one time the most powerful person in Logan and carried much political weight across the state, including with the West Virginia Legislature, the government body of which he once lobbied in hopes of abolishing the State Police force. Though his efforts failed, Chafin came close to accomplishing that feat.
Along with his wealth, Chafin’s political power was nearly invincible in his control of Logan County. Even The Logan Banner seemed to steer away from any political fights with Chafin, who didn’t hesitate to “grease” the hands of the willing. In fact, Chafin was described as the man “who prevented the invasion of Logan County.”
Can you imagine what it was like in August of 1921 in downtown Logan when the news and most certainly exaggerated rumors throughout the crowded streets were dominant? People were legitimately scared, particularly business owners who expected storefront windows to be broken and maybe even their businesses burned to the ground.
Never again has there been such a domestic uprising in which some estimates declared that 10,000 angry miners were going to march into Logan destroying everything in their path, taking whatever goods they desired, much like what had already occurred along the men’s way from Kanawha County into Boone County.
With an estimated 500 deputies already on his payroll, paid by monies from various coal companies to keep the union from organizing in Logan, Chafin enlisted the help of every able-bodied man to thwart the efforts of the approaching miners who managed to get within six miles of Logan before being stopped. At the time, every coal camp in the county had at least one armed deputy available should trouble arise there.
Although the Blair Mountain Battle is said to have lasted from Aug. 25 until Sept. 3, I really don’t know if anybody has an accurate account of how many people died or suffered injuries. However, most accounts I’ve seen indicate that close to 100 miners were killed, while between 20 and 30 of Chafin’s men died as a result of the battle that culminated in close to 1,000 men being arrested for their roles in the historic struggle.
The Blair Mountain event, like the Hatfield-McCoy Feud several decades prior, drew worldwide attention and even forced the federal government to send forces into the area, including military airplanes, one of which crashed en route to Logan County, killing those on the plane.
Chafin owned much of the growing town of Logan, even previously owning the real estate of the Main Street location of the local newspaper. He would later lose $300,000 as a result of losses at the old Guyan Valley Bank during the Great Depression. Ironically, years later he would purchase the bank property, open an office there, and be arrested for possession of alcohol at his own office by deputies employed by his political enemies, Tennis and Joe Hatfield, two of Devil Anse’s sons, both of whom were former deputies of Chafin.
While Don Chafin’s life story is of major interest, it is his prison sentence and the resulting circumstances surrounding it that are intriguing. True, Chafin was the youngest assessor ever to serve in Logan County and he also was appointed to a county clerk position following his first term as sheriff, but it is also a fact that in 1917 he shot and killed Frank Kazee in cold blood for no known reason and that he was acquitted of the charge because at least one key witness was being held out of jurisdiction of the court by deputies employed by then-Sheriff Frank Hurst, Chafin’s brother-in-law.
On another occasion in 1919, Chafin was shot in the chest at UMW headquarters in Charleston by a mine official when Chafin was attempting to arrest a man from Logan who had absconded from the county. Chafin, then the county clerk, had bonded the man from jail.
There are other stories of intrigue involving the man who once was a school teacher and much later was described as a bodyguard for world champion boxer Jack Dempsey, but what pretty much ended Chafin’s reign as “king” of Logan County was when his former deputy Tennis Hatfield went to prison for violating Prohibition laws by dispensing alcoholic beverages while operating the “Blue Goose” saloon near Omar.
After blaming Chafin for not being able to get a pardon for his release, Hatfield cut a deal in which he agreed to testify against Chafin, saying the sheriff had been his partner and that he paid Chafin $200 to $300 monthly as Chafin’s profit. After lengthy delays and even an attempt at a presidential pardon Chafin also was sentenced to an Atlanta, Georgia, prison.
After his early release was arranged by the Georgia governor, Chafin returned home after his 10-month stay and was greeted by thousands of people when he arrived at the Logan train station.
By that time, Tennis Hatfield and his brother, Joe, were running the county, both serving as back-to-back sheriffs in Logan. Chafin did everything in his power to keep Tennis from becoming sheriff, but when it was discovered that Chafin and some of his cronies had intimidated, threatened, and even battered certain voters on Election Day, the West Virginia Supreme Court — after Hatfield appealed the election outcome — threw out several precincts and declared Hatfield the winner some 17 months after Democrat Emmett Scaggs, who Chafin backed, had served as sheriff.
The story of Tennis Hatfield is far more interesting — at least in this writer’s opinion — than even that of Don Chafin. Unfortunately, Hatfield’s fascinating life story will have to be placed on the back burner for now.
For the record, though, during a nasty divorce, Hatfield’s wife declared that Tennis and his brother (Joe) had forced her to forge Chafin’s name to documents that later were used against him in court.
The story also is that Hatfield, dying in a Huntington hospital, summoned Chafin to his bedside to ask him for forgiveness.
Chafin, who would later move to Huntington, sent word back to Hatfield to seek forgiveness from God. Chafin died August 9, 1954, about a year after Tennis Hatfield.
Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.