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Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum ~ Big Stone Gap VA

It is hard to fully understand the history of Southwest Virigina, without knowing about the coal mines and their role.  The Appalachian Mountains are famed for coal mining.

The Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum in Big Stone Gap VA is the ideal place to start. As their brochure states, "Why a coal museum? Because coal is to Big Stone Gap and the entire Appalachian region what automobiles are to Detroit, wheat is to Kansas and oil is to Texas. Because coal mining, to a large extent, defines the area - how people live, where they work and how they think and feel."

The Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum is housed in a beautiful building that was once the library and study of John Fox Jr, author of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (which is performed in Big Stone Gap every summer).

Freddy Elkens gave us a tour.

Freddy worked in the mines for 31 years, his dad worked for 33 years and his two brothers for 40 years each, with the family spending over 100 years in the mines combined. He was a wealth of information on the new and old ways of coal mining and delighted in telling us about it.

Standing by a gorgeous stone fireplace, Freddy picked up a covered bucket and asked the kids what it was. Looking similar to an old Girl Scout mess kit, the kids guessed it was a lunch bucket. Indeed, it was a dinner bucket, ,filled with smaller buckets inside. The top layer carried your pie if you were lucky enough to have your wife bake some. The second layer had your sandwiches and the third layer your water. He reminded the kids there was no bottled water then.

His dad would bring the top layer of the bucket filled with peppermint candy on paydays. They lived on a 19 acre farm, growing most of their own food, with his dad working in the mines. When asked if they were more wealthy, he just said they were more blessed!

Mine workers who did not have their own land often lived in coal towns. They could be paid in the infamous scrip, which was good at the "company store." Prices were often inflated at the "company store," keeping coal miners in a cycle of indebtedness. A good miner would pull out 16 tons of coal a day (see lyrics to Sixteen Tons below) and still not get ahead.

Freddy explained the process of going into the mines and expanding ever deeper into the earth. Mines could be dug up to 5 miles down into the earth. Their could be several coal seams running through an area, seperated by layers of rock 12-16 feet deep. Mining crews could be working each seam, day and night. Coal mining is a 24/7 operation.

Originally, all the mine ceilings were held up with wooden timber beams until the 1930's when it switched to modern rebar. He showed all sorts of safety items used within the mines, from tools to check the ceiling, to supports that kept the ceilings up. A lot of time was devoted to keeping the mine shaft safe. 

Methane gas was another constant in the mines. It had to be properly ventilated away from any ignition source, or it would exploded. Ventilation was a huge part of mining. When you have crews working non stop under the earth, you have to make sure that air can get to them.

The Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum was full of exhibits of all kinds. From the scrip used at the company store to coal mining tools, an old coal stove, different types of coal. It also had memorabilia about the coal  mines and coal mining industry, books, huge equipment outside, and everything pertaining to mining. Photos, maps and photo displays further told the story. It is a wealth of information as you study coal mining history.

Regular historical There was also a recreation of an old time dental office, hospital items, and a kitchen with an ice box and old country stove. "New" machines were throughout, including original period treadle sewing machines, cash registers, a switchboard and more. 

Be sure and look at the huge yellow Continuous Mining Machine from the 1960's. This huge machine could pull 600 tons of coal out in an 8 hour shift. It's predecessor, the gray cutting machine is from 1915. It was in a mine explosion in 1923, and it is on the grounds of the museum. Today's machines can pull out 2000 tons in an 8 hour shift.

LivingHistorySites.com highly recommends the Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum in Big Stone Gap, VA. It is a treasure trove of the rich history of coal mining in the Appalachian Mountain region.

Just a few blocks from the Southwest Virginia Museum Historical State Park so be sure to visit both, and eat at Mosby's Restaurant



Hours of Operation
Wednesday - Saturday 10:00 - 5:00
Sunday 1:00 - 5:00
Monday - Tuesday Closed,
however, special arrangements can be
made if you telephone in advance.


Harry W. Meador Jr. Coal Museum

East 3rd Street and Shawnee Avenue
Big Stone Gap, VA 24219

Sixteen Tons

I loaded sixteen tons and what do I get
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don't call me cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store.

I was born one morning, was a drizzling rain
A fussing and fighting ain't my middle name.
Well they raised me in a corner by a Mammy hound
I'm as mean as a dog but I'm as gentle as a lamb.


Well I got up one morning, the sun didn't shine,
I picked up my shovel and I went to the mine,
I loaded sixteen ton of that number four coal
The face boss said, ''Well bless my soul!"


I loaded sixteen tons, I tried to get ahead,
Got deeper and deeper in debt instead.
Well they got what I made, and they wanted some more,
And now I owe my soul at the company store.


Well I went to the office to draw some script
The man, he told me -- was a wreck in the dip.
To clear the tracks would be a week or more
But your credit's still good at our company store.


If you see me coming, step aside.
A lot of men didn't and a lot of men died
I got a fist of iron, I got a fist of steel,
The left one don't get you then the right one will.



Lyrics as recorded by George Davis, WKIZ, Hazard, KY, Nov 15-16, 1966, reprinted ibid.