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West Virginia Mine Wars

The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum is now located in the Matewan National bank building. Photo by Chris Burney

article by Bethany Turley and Chris Burney

The Mine Wars Museum opened in its new location at the Matewan National Bank building in Matewan, WV, on Friday, September 4th, 2020. LiKENeer Christopher Burney and Bethani Turley visited the Mine Wars Museum for its opening on Saturday September 5th. The reopening was initially planned for May 16, 2020 to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Matewan, but the opening was postponed due to the novel coronavirus. The museum opening coincided with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1440 chapter’s Labor Day celebration, held just down the road in Matewan, which included appearances by WV Gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango, and WV Attorney General candidate Sam Petsonk. Many museum visitors on Saturday were donned in UMWA branded t-shirts and facemasks. The Mine Wars Museum depicts the history of several armed uprisings that occurred between 1900 and 1921 by coal miners in the Southern West Virginia coal fields. Its exhibits are laid out chronologically, starting with exhibits about the everyday life of Southern WV coal miners and their families, including the terrible working conditions they faced in the mines and the oppressive political situation they faced outside of the mines. The museum then details the events and actors that led to the Matewan Massacre and the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed insurrection in the US after the Civil War.

Garments on display as part of a new exhibit about women’s lives in West Virginia coal camps at the turn of the century. Photo by Chris Burney

Photo 1: An Interactive display in the new exhibit about women’s lives in the WV coal camps. Museum visitors can experience lifting a bucket that is the equivalent weight of a typical bucket of water carried by women for washing clothes. Photo by Bethani Turley Photo 2: Another interactive display that allows museum visitors to sit inside a replica of a typical tent that coal miners would live in during general strikes. Photo by Chris Burney

The new museum location, which is a much larger space than the previous location, has allowed for the museum to go more in depth into topics such as women’s lives at the turn of the century, and contemporary exhibits. One of the contemporary exhibits is about the 2011 march on Blair Mountain, when locals marched over 50 miles to Blair Mountain to protest and prevent strip mining of this historically important site. Another is a revolving exhibit, which currently displays photographs by West Virginia’s Roger May. May’s exhibit includes contemporary photographs of landscapes and locations that were significant during the mine wars. The Mine Wars museum touches on issues of importance to our contemporary moment, including the labor history of unions and mining and race relations in Appalachia.

The Mine Wars Museum was originally located near Blair Mountain, but it moved to Matewan in 2015 where it was set up in the former the Chambers Hardware and Furniture Store building, but the museum outgrew the small location. The Matewan National Bank building, the museum’s new location, is owned by the UMWA Local 1440. This site includes a window in the museum that overlooks the site of the Matewan Massacre, paying austere homage, including a view of the building with bullet holes from the shootout. The new space is large, allowing for the museum to expand and to take on new projects. The building features a UMWA community center, a parking lot that can host outdoor events, a space for rotating artist exhibits, a gift shop area, and a space to hold the museum and community archives preserved on site for more in depth scholarship.

The UMWA community center can hold up to 150 people and is equipped with seating and presentation equipment. The archive has long been a goal for the museum. They currently have in their possession a host of materials, including many personal letters written by various actors who were involved in the miner’s union and in the uprisings. On Saturday board member Wilma Steele discussed some of the materials that will be held in the community archive, such as personal letters from Eric Kerr, who was pivotal in setting up UMWA owned hospitals for miners in southern West Virginia. These items will be stored and digitized in the community archive.

The museum’s new larger space has allowed for new exhibits which showcase more recent history including the 2011 march to save Blair Mountain from mining. The formation of the WV Mine Wars Museum has its roots in this protest march. Photo by Bethani Turley

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