You can choose just about any year in Logan County’s colorful past, especially 1910 through 1960, and there will always be two things that stand out in every era — murder and politics, which sometimes go hand-in-hand. The bottom line is: Murders can be political, and politics can be murderous.
The years of 1916 and ’17, however, deserve to be anointed as important in Logan County history for many reasons, most importantly because coal mining was making Logan grow by leaps and bounds and because the most notorious sheriff in West Virginia history — and an important one in the archives of this nation — got away with murder, and he wasn’t even the sheriff then. Oh, how local history may have been altered had Don Chafin, who would in 1921 gain fame as the “savior” of Logan in the Battle of Blair Mountain, been rightly convicted of the cold-blooded killing of Frank Kazee.
Step into my time machine as we look at a period of activities that transpired in the early years of the second decade of the 20th century.
The railroad had opened up much of the coal fields of Logan County, and in early 1916 plans were announced by Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Co. for a new passenger depot to be constructed at a site on Dingess Street in Logan. At a cost of $60,000, the train station was utilized by Loganites for over 40 years in traveling back and forth to many places along the Guyandotte River through Lincoln County and to Huntington. Today, it still stands and is utilized as Logan City Hall and the Logan Fire Department.
Plans also were announced by Pete Minotti to construct a four-story brick building on Stratton Street at what was called “courthouse square” for the sole use of hardware concerns. Described by The Logan Banner as “another touch of metropolitan progress,” the Mountain State hardware store would cause the relocation of a popular eatery simply known as the German restaurant. One year later, the United States would enter into World War I with Germany.
Prior to the war, though, other positive things were happening. Alex Rose and Patsy Ferzacci, the proprietors of the Logan Baking and Bottling Co., announced that by early summer of 1916 they would be opening what they termed as an “ice cream factory.” The first of its kind in the Guyan Valley, plans were announced for the three-story building to be located beside of their Stratton Street bakery. The first two floors were to be used for ice cream purposes and the third floor would be used for apartments.
Prominent businessman George Aldredge also announced that ground would be broken for an apartment and store building that was described to be three stories high with a full basement. The newspaper account said the building, also located on Stratton Street, would be “the largest of its kind yet to be built in this city, or county, and will probably be one of the handsomest, best finished and most expensive apartments put up in the southern section of the state.”
Plans were for 12 apartments of four, five and six rooms, all fully equipped with baths, electric lights, gas and “all other modern conveniences and equipment.” The newspaper account said the outside finish would be of native stone, and the interior would be clear oak finishes that would give the completed structure an enduring and rich look comparable to any in the state.
It was announced that of the 455 square miles that were contained in Logan County, at least 300 of them were underlain with coal seams 4 to 9 feet thick and capable of producing an average of 8,000 tons per acre. In other words, according to the article, the coal-bearing land of the county would eventually produce 1,000,480,000 tons of “splendid low ash coal.”
Coal production had grown from 127,616 tons in 1905 to 6 million tons in 1916, and the need for coal would soon be on the rise as America in 1917 entered into the contest with Germany that called for nearly 400 Logan County men to report for medical examinations prior to engaging in military service. In a matter of months, however, President Woodrow Wilson would declare coal miners exempt from being drafted into the military because of their value in producing coal to fuel the steel plants that produced weapons of war, including tanks and ships. Still, many young local men joined the military.
In the meantime, passenger trains were running from Omar to Holden and then to Logan every morning and evening, as those communities continued to grow. Also, folks came to and from Logan on the train, which traveled daily to Dehue and Ethel. It was also noted that a person could catch a train at 7 a.m. in Huntington and be at the “new model town” of Omar at 11:30 a.m., just in time for lunch at Island Creek Coal Co.’s “fine new club house.”
There were other important actions that took place during this time period, including the formal dedication services of the Methodist Church, South, whose frame structure stood on lower Stratton Street across from what would later become the newer brick Methodist church that eventually was deeded to the Salvation Army and is today the new home of the Oddfellows fraternal organization. The original white church that stood across the street would become the official home of the local Ku Klux Klan organization in the early 1920s.
What may surprise some readers is that the showing of the film version of “The Story of Aracoma” was displayed in August 1916 at the Bennett Theatre across from the Logan Courthouse at the location recently known as Peebles department store.
The newspaper account said local talent was utilized in “the hills and dales of Logan County” in what was described as a “splendid first effort” for the movie about the Indian leader.
Also of interest during 1916 was what was described as a mysterious fire at the brand new home of Judge J.B. Wilkinson in Logan. Two floors of the structure were damaged while the Wilkinsons were out of town, according to the report. That home is now the Main Street location of Honaker Funeral Home.
Of particular interest to me was the report from Charleston that a large number of mules, dogs and dead people had voted, along with other fictitious names, in the community of Red Jacket in Mingo County.
A writ of mandamus was filed by the Supreme Court forcing the County Commission to meet immediately and strike from the registration list the names of the illegal voters.
Unknown to anyone else is the information that Prohibition agent Robert Stratton arrested three men for liquor law violations in June 1916, one person of which was Hibbard Hatfield, who later would become a Logan City police officer and later accused of murder, along with a fellow officer, who committed suicide during a recess of his trial in Logan.
Hatfield would later be acquitted of the murder and years later in 1932 was a police officer on duty along with Jack Thurman on the night or morning when Mamie Thurman (Jack’s wife) was murdered.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing to occur on the local level in 1917 was Don Chafin’s point-blank shooting of a passenger in a vehicle that had passed the Chafin vehicle on a straight stretch at Hedgeview of Mud Fork.
After having served a four-year term as sheriff from 1912 until 1916, state law at the time would not allow a sheriff to serve back-to-back terms. So, Chafin went to work in the county clerk’s office and his brother-in-law, Frank Hurst, was elected sheriff. Following Hurst’s term, Chafin again was elected sheriff in 1920 and the Blair Mountain episode occurred the following year.
Had Chafin been convicted of the 1917 murder, Logan County history would forever have been altered.
According to eyewitness accounts, Chafin jumped out of the vehicle he was in and walked up to the stopped vehicle in which 26-year-old Frank Kazee was a backseat passenger. After pulling open the door, he drew a pistol, shot Kazee in the chest, walked back to his vehicle and then drove to Logan.
Although I will in the future elaborate on the murder of Kazee and the trial of Chafin, it should be noted that in October 1917 a jury found Chafin not guilty of committing any crime.
1917 would not be the last time the notorious Don Chafin would see fit to use a deadly weapon.