The small town with a population of less than 500 people already has a big history. During the 1920’s coal miners were fighting for equal pay and better working conditions. While dramatized, historians say the 1987 Jan Sayles film Matewan captures the atmosphere of the regional situation at the time.
While much has changed, the fighting spirit of Matewan is still alive and well. As one of the winners of the Turn this Town Around Project, the community has pulled together, yet again, in the last two months hosting community clean up days, and a community meeting which was standing room only.
More than 75 people packed into the United Mine Workers of America Local 1440 Union Building late last month to hear from Kent Spellman of the West Virginia Community Development HUB. The HUB is providing tools, technical assistance and possible funding for Matewan during the 'Turn Town Around' project.
Some of the proposed projects include a garden club, a souvenir shop with longer hours, a Hatfield and McCoy Festival, historical underground coal mine, and more.
“We came into an abandoned high school that was recently shut down in our local home town that we actually both graduated from,” Justin Bradford said.
Bradford along with his partners already have a jump start on one of the goals; making a community center out of the high school.
Bradford is co-owner of the Old School Fitness Center, formerly Matewan High School. The owners have worked out a lease agreement with the town and worked to renovate several rooms. Bradford said so far Old School Fitness hosts a small arcade, usable gymnasium, and a workout or fitness center.
Bradord said the community support has been overwhelming. He sees the center as a place for folks to exercise during the cold winter months. Bradford also hopes to provide monthly gun shows, professional wrestling, and even the Rough and Rowdy Feud.
You might be familiar with the Rough and Rowdy brawl, a boxing match between amateur fighters. The feud would be exclusive to Kentucky and West Virginia fighters similar to the Hatfield and McCoy Feuds that played out along the border of the two Appalachian states.
Pride in the ability to withstand a ‘tough blow’ is part of West Virginia culture. But Spellman says the project is meant to help channel and organize that pride, without settling.
“Here in West Virginia we are really, really proud of our ability to survive all sorts of challenges and adversarial situations,” Spellman said. “Whether it’s floods or declining population or the railroad closing whatever it is we are really, really proud of our ability of surviving.”
“I’m going to challenge you to quit being proud of surviving. Quit being proud of surviving, start being proud of thriving,” he added.
Hopefully that means each citizen will then thrive as well. Spellman says the project will only work if it’s locally determined, and locally driven.
A re-enactment of the Matewan Massacre along with a festival is scheduled for Saturday May 17. The Rough and Rowdy Feud is scheduled for June 6 and 7.