CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Visitors to the 120-year-old Whipple Company Store in Fayette County -- now a historical museum -- are charmed by this quaint relic of long-forgotten life in early coal mining towns.
But the latest issue of Appalachian Heritage magazine, published by Berea College in Kentucky, tells a much-uglier story. It describes the large Whipple store as almost a fortress for armed guards, a mortuary for killed miners, a citadel for subjugating miner families, a place where any gossip about union organizing led to swift dismissal -- and even a place where some desperate miner wives were coerced to trade sex for food for their hungry families.
"Esau in the Coal Fields: Owing Our Soul to the Company Store" is the title of a long report by former Goldenseal writer Michael Kline of Elkins about oppression in West Virginia coal camps at the turn of the 20th century. It relates information gleaned by Whipple store owners Joy and Chuck Lynn from aged ex-miners and survivors who visited.
For example, the Lynns were puzzled by half-size lunchpails they found. But visitors explained: When a miner was killed on the job, his wife and children soon were evicted from company-owned housing -- unless the widow sent a young son, perhaps 8, to become an apprentice digger in the late father's place. The small pails were for child miners.
In neighborhoods around the store, company owners arranged an ethnic mix of black miners, local Appalachian whites and imported Poles and other foreign-speaking immigrants -- to prevent workers from associating and trying to form a union. Assemblies by miners were forbidden.
As the stormy labor-organizing movement grew, Baldwin-Felts agents were planted as supposed clerks in the Whipple store to listen for hints of union talk. Others were sent into mines posing as diggers for the same purpose. Any miner who "talked union" was fired and his family evicted.
Mining in the early 1900s was extremely dangerous. The Whipple store had an embalming room in the basement for accident victims, and a special floor for coffins.
A secluded upstairs chamber was called the "rape room" by various old-timers. If a miner's wife or teen-age daughter couldn't afford shoes, she was taken there by a guard who demanded that she earn them in bed.
Miners were paid in company-issued "scrip" tokens redeemable at the store. But there also was a special paper scrip which some miner wives called "Esau," after the Bible's story of a starving elder son who sold his birthright to a younger brother for food. The paper scrip worked like this:
If a miner became injured or sick and couldn't go into the mines, his family soon ran out of food and were desperate. If his wife begged for rations at the Whipple store, she was issued the paper credit -- on agreement that she would repay later in cash or in sexual favors for guards and supervisors. She didn't dare tell her husband, and later tried to avoid the sexual payback.
As West Virginia's historic "mine wars" erupted, the Whipple store increasingly was headquarters for armed Baldwin-Felts agents trying to block unionization.
Today, the ornate store is charming -- but its past is tainted. It spotlights grim ordeals of serf-like life during coal camp days.