I wandered again to my home in the mountains,
Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free.
I looked for my friends, but I never could find them,
I found they were all rank strangers to me.
(Traditional bluegrass lyrics, “Rank Stranger”)
As I drove along the winding roads toward the coal town of Pocahontas, Virginia, dilapidated trailers and several abandoned Victorian houses lined the way, their filigreed porches sagging under the weight of the wild brush, vines creeping through the broken glass of windows, and doors hanging at odd angles. Like sentinels, preparing me for a sight I could not ever have imagined, except perhaps in the disturbing dreams of full-moon nights.
Perched between two hills, Pocahontas hugs the border between Virginia and West Virginia, an incarnated vision of the “holler” so prominent in Southern Gothic literature. Flanked by a cemetery so steep that gravediggers must have tethered themselves to trees to keep from tumbling into the graves they dug, at first the town looks normal, judging by the rooftops glimpsed through leafless and lace-like tree branches.
But it’s anything but normal in a place where the coal mines shut down in 1955, after operating since 1883. Testimony to what happens when big companies abandon places after sucking out all the money they can muster. Forty million tons of coal came out of the Flat-Top Pocahontas Coalfield, some of the best-burning “clean” coal in the world (15,000 BTU/lb).
Pocahontas today resembles a war zone. People live among the ruins, their children ambling along with nowhere to go, their dogs wandering the deserted streets, barking at their shadows.
Only 441 souls call Pocahontas home now.* Yet, according to the 1920 census, 3775 people lived and worked in Pocahontas at the time. Under the watchful eye of the Pocahontas Fuel Company, the town boasted an opera house and a Norfolk and Western railroad spur line started, giving rise to today’s Norfolk Southern.
A lively place, yes, but a taint of death always hung over the town like a smoky fire, for accidents occurred frequently and miners died.
The death of coal probably means nothing much to most people – it’s a phrase festooned with statistics, and visions of soot-covered trees and denuded mountaintops.
The story of Pocahontas, it seems to me, is the story of the United States, written in a small notebook in fine script. It’s a story written not so much in money, but in people’s lives, customs, and dreams. It’s a place where St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, with splendid murals inside, hosted an annual Hungarian Cabbage Roll dinner, a tradition begun around 1940, but ended in 2008. It’s where early Hungarian immigrants celebrated the grape harvest in a nostalgic way as they longed for their homeland.
Seeing what’s become of Pocahontas, the destruction wrought by time and the weather, unleashed something in me. I’ve been haunted by the images ever since. I think of the people who lived and died here, people who left their homes in other parts of the world, Hungarians and Italians and Poles, landed at Ellis Island and followed the winding roads to a place between two hills, a place of exile as it were.
I can’t help but ask myself, what did they cook? Where did they get their special paprika or basil? What did the company store stock and what did they charge these people for it all?
And so, for the time being, I will be looking for answers, examining themes of exile and migration – not unlike the questions I still must ponder from studying immigrants in France, who journeyed from so many of France’s former colonies to settle in a rather unwelcoming land.
Try Big Oven’s recipe for Hungarian Cabbage Rolls.
*2000 census. A big “Thank you” to Michael O. Tabor, author of the forthcoming book, Idegenek: The Hungarian Immigrants of Pocahontas, Virginia, for sharing some of his notes on the grape festival and the cabbage roll dinner traditions.
© 2012 C. Bertelsen