From an account told by Stevi Wansley, the coal miner's granddaugher. Written by Rev. Dan White.
Some people come into the presence of Christ with the still small voice of the Lord gently whispering in their ear. For others, it takes a Damascus Road, blinding light, thunderous voice from the Lord type of experience like the Apostle Paul had. For my grandfather, it took the Damascus Road.
Pawpaw was born in Ward, West Virginia, to my great-grandfather, Ballard Smith and my great-grandmother, Mary Eunice Phillips. Pawpaw was born two months after Jess Willard, the great prize fighter, knocked out Jack Johnson on April 5, 1915. His mother and father named their newborn son Jess Willard Smith after the prize fighter. He was aptly named.
Ward, West Virginia, was a small, insignificant coal mining village on Kelley’s Creek which is a tributary to the Kanawha River. Ward was about twenty-five miles southeast from Charleston, the state capital and about twelve miles from Smithers. Ward no longer exists because in the late 1940's all the mining moved down river to Smithers where Pawpaw spent the first few years of his early childhood..
Smithers is in both Kanawha County and Fayette County, an area of some of the richest coal deposits in West Virginia on the Kanawha River, the longest and most important river in the state. Smithers was and is racked with poverty. Plus, the population continues to decline. Only 855 people live in the village today that has a median household income of only $21,700
The Kanawha River Valley has a rich history. It’s where my roots are. It was disputed territory between the Cherokee Indians to the south and the Iroquois Indians to the north. My ancestors are Cherokee on my grandmother’s side of which I am very proud.
The Kanawha Salines form the most productive salt regions in the world. There is enough salt in this area to supply the United States for 2,000 years. Before refrigeration, salt was a valued commodity for food preservation. Furnaces needed wood to evaporate the brine. The salt industry led to the stripping of the forests in the nearby hills for their timber to supply the demands of the salt furnaces.
The discovery of huge coal deposits located in some cases just under the surface of the earth, met the fuel need for the salt industry because of the increasing scarcity of timber. In fact, West Virginia has the most extensive contiguous coal formation in the world. The West Virginia bituminous coal, the rock that burns, exists in greater quantity and in higher quality than in any other section of the world.
Ballard lived in this black coal world. His back-breaking labor along with thousands of other coal miners provided the coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution that made mega-millionaires out of men like steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt on the backs of the common laborer like my great grandfather during what American historians call “The Gilded Era.”
The brutal work of the coal mine took its toll on Ballard. He like so many of the coal miners of that era developed black lung from breathing in the coal dust deep in the mines. Many, like Ballard, also developed asthma from which I suffer today as a reminder, I suppose, of the sacrifices my family made in the coal mines. One historian wrote that a U.S. soldier in World War I (1917-18) had a better statistical chance of surviving in battle than did a West Virginian working in the coal mines.
By the 1920’s, Ballard could no longer work. He lost his company owned housing and was forced to move into a coal camp tent. The camps were awful places. They were unsanitary with frequent outbreaks of typhoid fever caused by the absence of sewage disposal systems. Drinking water was contaminated by raw sewage and drainage from the mines. Communal outhouses, open privies, and refuse piles near the houses and tents were ideal breeding grounds for rats, mice, and other vermin.
Ward, West Virginia, like all of the other little mining villages was a coal camp with a rigid hierarchical structure. The superintendent, foreman, and supervisors had the best houses. The workers were assigned houses according to their performance and value to the company. The new hires and for those like Ballard who could no longer work were relegated to live in tents in the hollow of the valley, the worst place on the side of the hill to live.
My great-grandmother, Mary Eunice, scratched out a subsistence for her family and disabled husband. She did every little odd job she could find. Her church provided help, and her children went to work in the coal mines making seventy-five cents a day to support the family.
Children in the coal mines worked ten hours a day in the blackness of the mine without a break. Many were malnourished, undeveloped, and anemic, and all of them showed the effects of the deprivation from a lack of life-giving sunlight.
They often worked as “breaker boys” separating slate from coal. The children went to work in a cold dreary room at seven o'clock in the morning and worked until dark. Most never had the opportunity to learn to read and write. They were cut off from everything pleasant, with no chance to learn, and had no knowledge of the world outside the coal mine. They didn’t play games because they were too tired to even play. It was work, work, and more work.
Ballard and Mary Eunice selected one child to try and break out from the grinding poverty that immersed them. They decided to send my grandfather, Jess Willard, to live with Mary’s sister, Aunt Cora, and her husband in Huntington, seventy-seven miles northwest from Ward - a long and difficult journey in 1925. There would be little if any contact between him and his parents, but it would be a better life for their son.
Immediately, the dream turned into a nightmare. Jess’ aunt and uncle put him to work in the coal mines. He was not allowed to go back to school. They took his pay, abused him, and made him work like a slave.
Jess, at age ten, was put to work carrying a bucket deep into the mine. It was empty going into the mine and full when he carried it out. In order to keep the miners in the mine all day, the company made the miners eat, drink, and use Jess’ bucket for a toilet deep in the mine. Boys like Jess were called “slop-legs.” The bucket’s contents splashed on their legs as they carried it out of the mine. In the winter, their pants froze to their skin from the slop splashing upon their legs. They constantly reeked of human waste and were always blackened and dirty from the coal dust and human waste. They were the brunt of jokes from the miners. No one could stand to be around them.
“It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where the danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines,
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.”
My grandfather developed a raging anger from the bitterness and loneliness he experienced as a child. He never could understand why his parents shipped him off to his aunt and uncle in Huntington. He felt alone, unloved, and unwanted. Working as a slop-leg child humiliated him and degraded him. The constant abuse from his aunt and uncle created a seething rage within him. Jess Willard Smith would have to fight for survival.
At age 17 in the middle of the Great Depression, he couldn’t take it anymore and ran away from his aunt and uncle and left Huntington.. He made his way back to Smithers and found an old abandoned box car from the railroad. The car provided him shelter. He had a place to stay free from the degradation he had endured for seven years.
The Ingram family found him in the deserted rail car. He was in rags, hungry, and filthy. They took him into their home, cleaned him up, and found a decent job for him at the company owned store. Papa often remarked that Mother Ingram treated him better than his own mother.
His job at the store consisted of stocking shelves, cleaning the store, and other typical jobs for a clerk. He still had no money because those who worked for the coal company were paid in company issued script that was exchanged for goods and groceries in the store. But, it was a clean job. He had food and a home.
My grandmother, my Mawmaw, also worked at the store. That’s how they met. After they married , they fought constantly . I remember as a little child riding in the car with them. They were fussing and arguing as usual. After one of his insults to her, I asked him, “Why did you marry Mawmaw?” He replied, “She was the most beautiful girl in the valley.” Grandmother reached over while he was driving and slapped him. That was Mawmaw and Pawpaw.
Pawpaw had nothing to do with church. His mother and aunt were faithful church going women. The feeling of abandonment by his mother and the abuse from his aunt caused him to question faith and church, and he turned against God and the church. The pain from his awful childhood and teen years never left him for most of his life.
To relieve the pain, he turned to alcohol and women. He was a womanizer and became an alcoholic. I remember as a child taking trips to Smithers to visit my grandparents. Dad would always slow down and take a long look at the parking lot at Big Al’s Bar, one of many bars in the town, which by the way was the only incorporated town in West Virginia without a church within the city limits. If dad saw his father’s car at Big Al’s, he would tell us that it might be a while before we saw Pawpaw at the house. One thing I can say; though, is that Pawpaw never drank in front of us and that because of Pawpaw’s drinking problem, my father never allowed alcohol in our home. Thank God!
My dad was born in 1938. His goal growing up was to get out of Smithers. He earned a college education at West Virginia Tech in Montgomery which was across the river and only about two miles from Smithers. He was the first in his family to earn a degree. With his degree, he was able to get away from coal mining forever and eventually moved to Greenville, South Carolina, where I was raised.
Meanwhile, Pawpaw worked his way up in the mines and in the 1960’s he bought a nice wood sided home. It was the first time in his life that he did not have to live in company owned housing. Eventually, the coal company promoted him to tram operator in the 70’s .
The aerial tram carried coal across the hills to the tipple where it was crushed and loaded on to railroad coal cars. The tram was operated by two men from a little shack. The coal was loaded into the tram car and the operators sent the trams across the hills - much like a ski lift operates today.
Around the middle of January, 1975, a blizzard hit the Kanawha River Valley. Some meteorologists called it the storm of the century. It swept across the Great Plains dumping two feet of snow as it traveled east. It spawned forty-five tornadoes in the Southeast. The fierce winds blew the snow horizontally rattling the windows in the tram shack. It blew through the cracks. My Pawpaw and the other man in the shack were cold, real cold. The only warmth they had was from a kerosene heater, and they had it turned up full blast.
The heater exploded and covered Pawpaw in flames and kerosene. It burned through his thick winter coat, through his clothes, and burned off his skin. His arms, neck, and hands were on fire. Somehow, some way, through the blinding snow and icy winds, men arrived to help. They packed Pawpaw in snow. He told me that he was freezing and burning at the same time. The pain was excruciating and unbearable. He passed in and out of consciousness. That’s when it happened!
Pawpaw said, “I heard the voice of the Lord.” He told me that the Lord said to him, ‘If you think this is bad, it’s only a small taste of what you’ve got coming to you in hell.’”
In the midst of his suffering, teetering on the edge of life, Pawpaw had a divine visitation from the Lord. His life changed forever.
Incredibly, the ambulance made it through the blizzard winding around the mountainous, snow covered roads. The paramedics again packed him in snow and took off into the dark, sightless night with the winds and snow howling against them. After a harrowing ride, they made it to the hospital.
Mawmaw called my father in Greenville. We immediately left to go to West Virginia. Grandmother prepped me on what I would see when I entered the room. There lay my grandfather bandaged all over, on life support, and with tubes in him.
Mawmaw was a member of Campbell Memorial Baptist Church in Long Acre where she faithfully attended with her children including my father. The church was not far from Smithers, and it was the church where my mom and dad were married. Her pastor faithfully visited my grandfather in the hospital. Pawpaw told the pastor about the divine visitation that he had on the night of the explosion. The pastor ministered to him and gave him a Bible to read. Even though Pawpaw was not very literate and only had a fourth grade education, it was a treasured possession.
Recovery slowly inched along. Finally, Pawpaw was discharged and soon was well enough to go to church. He made his profession of faith and was baptized. The transformation in my grandfather was amazing. He lost the bitterness and anger that had driven him to find relief through his profligate lifestyle. That inner pain was destroyed by Christ, and a new man emerged from the fire.
Mawmaw and Pawpaw lived modestly but had their needs met after he was disabled. Unlike his father who had no benefits, he had benefits from the United Mine Workers Union and government disability. He suffered from black lung and asthma - the scourge of coal mining. And by the way, he was color blind. That’s why the army turned him down when World War II broke out when he tried to enlist.
I vividly remember the suffering my grandfather endured after the explosion. He was always cold and kept the house at 90 degrees. He never wore a shirt around the house because when the shirt touched his scarred skin, it was extremely painful. His inner pain was gone, but his bodily pain never left him. He never regained full range and motion of his arms.
When we visited Pawpaw, we never had to worry about slowing down at Big Al’s Bar any longer to check out the parking lot for Pawpaw’s car. He was home. We had long talks together. Pawpaw would talk about his life and experience with the Lord to anyone who would listen. He told me, “I wasted my life. I missed out drinking and running with wild women. Always give your attention to the Lord. Live right. Don’t do like your Pawpaw did. Don’t make the Lord have to get your attention like He did me.”
I was living in Augusta, Georgia, when Papa died. He was 72 years old. He died on March 25 (my birthday), 1987. He is whole now - restored and enjoying the joys of heaven with grandmother. The explosion, the fire, the burns, and the suffering were terrible and intense. But if you were to ask Pawpaw now about that terrible night in January long ago, I’m sure that he would say, “It was the worst night of my life, but the best thing that could have happened to me!“