Jessica Lilly Published

Will Heritage Help Turn Matewan Around?


As part of the West Virginia Focus Magazine project called Turn This Town Around, experts with the West Virginia Community Development HUB are helping Matewan focus, pursue, and execute plans to revitalize the town.

Monday, marked the 94th anniversary of the Battle of Matewan; a showdown between the United Mine Workers of America and Baldiwn Felts detectives hired by coal operators.  The Mingo County town marked the anniversary over the weekend with a re-enactment. Re-enactment organizers hope the momentum of the project will help them complete a 14 year old dream.

Donna May Patarino lives in nearby Kentucky but has organized the Matewan re-enactment for the past 14 years. She, like many involved in the project, think that heritage will play a key role in the revitalization efforts.

Patarino says she wants children to know the stories of the past to appreciate the amenities of today.

“They have no idea what it would have been like to live on company owned property and have to shop at the company grocery store, go to the company doctor go to the company school," she said, "and I feel like they need to know."

The mine war re-enactment depicts efforts in the coalfields to unionize, demand fair wages, and better working conditions.


Credit Daniel Walker
A crowd of about 100 people sit and stand under white canopies as they watch and listen to the reenactment.

On June 25, 1938, 18 years after the showdown, President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act which established minimum wages, overtime pay, record keeping, and child labor standards for private sector and government workers.

Moving Mountains

So what are some of things that need to ‘turn’ in order to “Turn this Town Around”? Some of the challenges include:

  • Geography: It’s unlikely that they found Matewan by mistake. The roads that lead to the small town with a population of less than 500 are riddled with switchbacks as they weave their way up the edge of the mountains, far off the beaten path.
  • Flooding: The town sits at the foot of towering mountains in the Tug River Valley, so flooding has historically been an issue.
  • Corruption: Mingo County has also endured a few black eyes over the past nine months as the county’s circuit judge, prosecutor, chief magistrate and a county commissioner resigned following their convictions.
  • Poverty: More than 30 percent of residents in Mingo County live below the poverty level -almost double the rate for West Virginia’s at nearly 18 percent poverty rate from 2008 to 2012 according to the US Census Bureau.

“This looks like the town that time forgot,” eighth grade West Virginia history teacher Claire Webb said. “That was my first impression but I’ve been here just a couple of hours now only but the people here are just so rich and warm.”

Webb teaches at Wildwood Elementary School in Jefferson County.

For Webb, the trip was humbling. She says, Jefferson County is a different West Virginia than Mingo County. As basically a suburb of Washington D.C., her home county has a different environment socially, and economically. The same census report says Jefferson County has more than 50,000 residents with an 11 percent poverty rate, that’s six-percent less than the state average.  

“We have different challenges we have a different perspective we have different lives in West Virginia and it’s all about where you’re from,” she said, “and these communities in the southern part of the state and the coalfields, it really is I do feel sometimes an alternate universe.”

“I’m so grateful to my fellow West Virginians for their love for their state that allows them to live here and deal with these immense challenges that exist on a day to day basis that exist with living in a southern coalfield.”

Mingo Momentum

The West Virginia Community Development HUB and volunteers aren’t starting from scratch. Federal, state, and local lawmakers are already investing time, money and energy into the region. Here’s a look at some of the work meant improve the region.

  • Geography: The geographic challenges are being addressed in part with the King Coal Highway; an incomplete road that runs close to Matewan. It’s an example of public private partnerships that allow coal companies to mine coal and leave road beds for paving. 
  • Corruption: Just this week, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin appointed Family Court Judge Miki Thompson to the vacated Circuit Court Judge seat. Former Judge Michael Thornsbury left the seat vacant after pleading guilty to scheme that would protect the former sheriff, who was fatally shot.

  • Flooding: The late Senator Robert C. Byrd secured federal money to construct a flood wall more  than 2,000 feet long, varying in height between 6 and 29 feet above the ground. The wall was completed in 1997.  

While residents claim the floodwall has worked to protect the town from high water, Patarino says it’s kept more than flood waters out.
“It seemed like … people were afraid to come across those railroad tracks and come into town to shop at our businesses,” she said. “That’s why we’ve got to focus on our history. That’s why we’ve got to focus on that because that’s bringing people here and we’ve got to do all we can to turn this town around.”

Still Patarino says Matewan has a lot to offer visitors.

“Matewan has so much to offer and really you can name just a few small towns across America that have as much rich history as Matewan does. And a lot of those small towns are no more and we’ve got to hold onto our small town.

The reenactment is performed on the main street in downtown Matewan. The show climaxes during a shootout between union organizers and Baldwin Felts detectives hired by coal operators.

If they build it, will they come?

Patarino has worked on the Matewan Massacre drama for 14 years and has been preaching every sermon she can in favor of an amphitheater.

“We can teach our history on a regular basis to our young people,” she said. “We can bring music events in we can do all sorts of things at our theater for our young people that we would no other way be able to do.”

Patarino says the momentum of the Turn this Town Around is igniting even more hope for the $300,000 amphitheater dream.  

Leigh Ann Ray, Project Manager for the Mingo County Commission says the county got involved about a year ago and gave $48,000 for engineering and architectural work for an outdoor theatre. Based on those drawings the theatre will cost about $300,000. Some of those funds have already been raised. Town officials were not available to share the financial progress of the project.