W.Va. Mine Wars Story Spreading Fast, Thanks to this Guy

Jan 7, 2016

West Virginia is expected to be in the national spotlight on January 26 in an episode of the PBS documentary series, American Experience.

“The Mine Wars” is a two-hour feature that sheds light on a bloody yet pivotal time in West Virginia’s history that has often been mostly overlooked. But a class at Shepherd University aimed at West Virginia History teachers provides a personal experience with southern West Virginia and knowledge for those educators to take back to their classrooms.

“This is part of who we are, and it’s a history that’s kind of been suppressed, it’s been lost for a long time,” said Doug Estepp, an adjunct professor who works in Shepherd University's Lifelong Learning Program.

The Lifelong Learning Program at Shepherd provides continuous education to teachers and community members.  Estepp is teaching a class on the West Virginia Mine Wars for the second time during the spring 2016 semester. 

Credit Courtesy of Kenneth King and the WV Mine Wars Museum

“I grew up in Mingo County, in a family of coal miners; my family didn’t talk about it, my grandfather didn’t talk about it; they would just kind of brush it off. I would see little hints; I would see stories about tent colonies and strikes, and they just didn’t want to talk about it, and that was kind of the way people reacted all around the state.”

The Mine Wars were a period of two decades at the beginning of the 20th Century when coal miners and coal companies clashed in a series of brutal conflicts over labor conditions and unionization.

And until the 1980s, major pieces of these historic clashes were left out of many West Virginia classrooms and textbooks.

Claire Webb is an eighth grade West Virginia History teacher at Wildwood Middle School in Jefferson County. Webb has been teaching history for six years, but this will only be the second time she includes the Mine Wars into her lesson plans.

Webb took Estepp’s class in the spring of 2015, when it was first offered. As a lifelong Eastern Panhandle resident, Webb wasn’t familiar with the stories of the southern West Virginia conflict, but when she found out, she insisted on sharing them with her students.  

Claire Webb writes on her white board in her West Virginia History class.
Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I did not realize how pivotal a role West Virginia played in the labor movement," Webb noted, "and some of today’s fair labor practices were implemented upon the literal backs of West Virginia miners, and so I did not understand how crucial some of these boycotts, the strikes, the uprisings, the battle of Blair Mountain; I did not realize how formational they were to today’s labor practices.”

Doug Estepp takes his classes of educators on a three-day tour of southern West Virginia provided through Coal Country Tours. Estepp is also the owner of the touring company.

Eighth grade teacher Webb says actually visiting the region was the most beneficial part of the class and is even considering going back on the tour again.

“My first experience was taking the tour with Coal Country Tours," Webb said, "We took the Mine Wars, the Coal Heritage Tour, and we visited about half a dozen spots around the southern part of the state that were relevant to our mining history, and prior to taking the tour, I hate to say it, but I honestly knew so little about this part of West Virginia History, and so taking the tour was eye-opening.”

Coal Country Tours formed in 2010, when Estepp took the first group through the coal fields. It’s something he’s passionate about and Webb says it showed in the classroom.

“It was so packed full of solid information," Webb explained, "Doug is so knowledgeable about this subject and passionate, and so it was just an easy listening for two hours each week to all of his knowledge from the kinds of weapons that the Baldwin Felts detectives would bring, to the relationships between some of the townspeople, to the dates and of the struggles and the uprisings, and exactly things transpired in this part of the state."

Credit Liz McCormick / West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Now, Estepp is hoping to reach an even wider audience with this class. Students can meet physically on Shepherd’s campus in Shepherdstown or in Martinsburg, but Estepp has also created an online element so that folks can participate virtually via webcam in real time.

“I’ve been getting the story out there for quite a while. When I got the chance to kind of roll it over into the Lifelong Learning Program that was even better, because now instead of three days with a few hours on the bus, I’ve got, you know, eight weeks, two hours every week to talk about this,” Estepp said.

Estepp will also be featured in the upcoming episode of the PBS documentary series, American Experience called, “The Mine Wars.”

The premiere will no doubt bring more attention to West Virginia’s critical role in the country's labor movement.

Quick Facts on 2016 W.Va. Mine Wars Class:

  • Class begins on February 9, 2016
  • Any teacher in or out of state may sign-up at any time before the class begins
  • Classes are held either at the Shepherd University Shepherdstown campus or at the Martinsburg location. Classes will also be held online simultaneously.
  • The cost of the class is $147 (through Shepherd University)
  • There is a three-day tour component that is a requirement of the class.
  • The cost for the tour is $340 per person double occupancy, $379 single. Cost covers transportation, lodging, meals, and all admissions and tours.
  • The dates for the tour are April 23-24, 2016. Teachers may join the tour either in Shepherdstown or at Tamarack in Beckley.
  • Awards 3 credit hours toward professional development requirements.
  • The class is not open to regular students.