Coal Country, Scarred Area

CLAIRFIELD, Tenn.—Amid the Cumberland Mountains, with much rural land and few rural people, the hunger is for land. Shelby York, a self-styled old-timer working with a community development group, says that people here see land as more valuable than money. The difficulty is that most of the land is owned by coal or land corporations who want to keep it. The little they are willing to sell to local families, who wish to build a little home and garden, goes for $500 or more an acre. That’s a lot of money for hill-country land and impoverished people.

Still the people persist and beseech the largely absentee corporations. Whole families go to great effort to fill in time spaces of embankment between roads and creeks. And they always speak of the big companies who control the land that their ancestors once owned. It was around the turn of the century that the companies came to buy up the land for 50 cents an acre—some of the richest coal-bearing land in the world.

One of the big land companies in this area for many years was the American Association Ltd., a British firm whose principle concern for the region was how little property taxes they could pay. After some ad­verse publicity in England as a result of a Granada film documentary, the company sold its huge land holdings to J.M. Huber Co. of New Jersey. The Huber Co. sent its agents around indicating that it was willing to sell off an acre or two here and there to help the local folk.

This slight flaw in the company-community relations has not brought about much land transfer yet, but Huber believes it is necessary to start making gestures if the relentless strip mining and its at­tendant water contamination and erosion are to continue without much effective opposition. The strategy is to mollify the local people near strip mines and split them off from anti-strip mine groups such as the Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCUM).

Communities such as Morley, White Oak, Roses Creek, Buffalo, Clairfield, Hamblen Town, and Rock Creek are unincorporated. This makes it difficult for them to attract financial assistance in the manner of incorporated towns and cities. The strip mining is being done by non-union workers so the United Mine Workers does not have a presence. Many of the local churches rest on coal land and receive some con­tributions from coal companies, which might explain why the churches are not an active force in the community. Most churches are so inhibited (one church that wasn’t inhibited burned down in 1975) that local citizens cannot even use their premises for meetings. This is quite different from rural south.

About the only community structure revolves around a number of small non-profit organizations such as the Model Valley Economic Development Corp. (MVEDC). Around tiny Clairfield, MVEDC and other groups provide social services, housing, health clinic, and employment in crafts and other small economic developments. Shelby York remembers how, in the ’20s and ’30s, people grew 90 percent of their vegetables. Now they import 90 percent of their vegetables from outside their region. He sees an in­creasing interest in cultivation for greater self-reliance. The land can produce a variety of popular vegetables, beans and corn.

Organized self-reliance has limits set by the power of the coal companies and other businesses. In recent years, a children’s nursery and a health clinic burned down in the middle of the night. People talk of arson like they talk of the weather. The culprits never are caught nor are their paying principals exposed. But some of the community organizers offer a marvelous determination. Looking over a new extension to a nursery run by Tilda Kemplen and her Mountain Community Child Care, Marie Cirillo—who came to these mountains 30 years ago from Brooklyn, N.Y., to live and help—says that “they’ll run out of matches before we run out of determination.”

In this scarred land of the Cumberlands where massive machines dig and strip the earth for coal is a real energy crisis. “Rich Man, Poor People” was the title of one book on the Appalachian region. All the time, overweight coal trucks are sweeping down narrow roads and long lines of coal cars move on the railroads to their markets.

The coal is used to produce electricity for the cities in the East and Midwest where giant office buildings waste three times the electricity they need. The waste at that end is not very graphic. But the wasted lands of the coal country will remain on view for future generation/ to ponder, while absentee coal cor­porations in New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh fill their profitable annual reports without reference to what they have left behind.

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