Tag Archives: Appalachian History

Recent Coal Mining Deaths are Acts of Greed, Not ‘Acts of God’

Energy industry misuses the name of God for all things deadly and destructive it causes

By Michael M. Barrick

“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain” (Exodus 20:7).

LENOIR, N.C. – The deaths of three coal miners in the central Appalachian coal fields in just the first three weeks of January has led the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA) to issue a Call to Safety to coal operators and miners. Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joseph A. Main recently issued that call, asserting, “This recent rash of fatal accidents is a WAKE UP CALL to the nation’s miners to take notice and take care of themselves.”

He added, “ … the Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to ramp up its targeted enforcement, education and outreach efforts to respond to the troubling number of mining fatalities that have occurred so far this year. Today, MSHA widely disseminated to industry stakeholders an alert on these deaths, emphasizing the need for continued vigilance in miner safety and health.”

The three deaths have occurred in underground mines in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.” – Michael Iafrate with the Catholic Committee of Appalachia

Dead miners are more than statistics

It might be easy to dismiss these deaths as mere statistics since MSHA does not list the miners’ names in the MSHA news release, but that would be a disservice to their work and the loss felt by their families, friends and communities.

In Clear Fork, W.Va., the family and friends of Peter “Pete” D. Sprouse know the pain and loss suffered by thousands before them. The 53-year-old miner died on Jan. 4 when he became entangled in a moving underground conveyer at the Lower War Eagle mine in Wyoming County, in the state’s southern coalfields. The mine is owned by Coronado Coal, LLC. According to a newspaper report of his passing, Sprouse leaves behind a wife of 33 years, two children and their spouses, four grandsons, seven siblings and other relatives and friends. He also leaves behind a zest for life that included riding motorcycles and boating.

Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 16, Jeremy R. Neice, 31, of Danville, W.Va. died in a mining accident in Greene County, Pa. He was working in the 4 West Mine owned by GenPower Holdings, LP. Neice, who is seen smiling as he leans against his truck in a photograph from his Facebook page, was the second fatality in that mine in just six months. In July 2015, John M. Kelly, 55 of Albright, W.Va. died in an accident.

Just three days after Neice died in Pennsylvania, Nathan G. Phillips, 36, of White Plains, Ky., died at Dotiki Mine in Webster County, in the western region of the state. That mine is owned by Alliance Resource Partners, LP.

How many lives have been forever changed by the passing of these men? These deaths – like all of those before them in the coalfields of Appalachia – cast shadows that can last generations. Four little boys will never again sit on their grandfather’s lap; a young man will never get to enjoy a day in the woods with his buddies, and now his buddies will only be able to toast his memory; the sunrises and sunsets of western Kentucky will now be absent a soul dear to family and friends.

The ‘Act of God’ defense

While coal operators have expressed the customary sympathy to the families, that doesn’t mean that the coal industry – and indeed the entire energy extraction industry – will quit misusing the name of God in the event of such tragedies. The claim that such deaths are “An Act of God” is as old as the industry itself, and has been an excuse offered by the likes of Don Blankenship for recent disasters such at the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010 that killed 29 miners.

Now operators might say that, in these three cases, they have expressed condolences and are conducting safety reviews. Of course they’re doing the latter; it is required of them. As for the condolences, that is what PR departments are for. None of this changes the fundamental truth, however, that it is the attitude of energy industry officials that they exercise a sort of “divine right” dominion over Appalachia’s land and people.

Whatever industry officials might say, these recent coal mining deaths are not “Acts of God.” Rather, they are acts of greed by coal operators, desperately compromising worker safety because they’ve invested in a commodity that is outdated.

Now, it might seem unfair to hold businessmen to a biblical standard. They’re not preachers after all. Yet, it is clear these industry officials believe in God – as Blankenship has proven. He is not alone. Gas companies blame cancer deaths and other health problems in the fracking fields on God. I have read such documents addressed to families where they refer to “Acts of God” as causing death and destruction for which the industry is clearly responsible. There is no question that the industry does not hesitate to use God to justify their greed. Last year, Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).

In short, from their own mouths, we hear that industry officials believe in God – when it is convenient. So, it would be beneficial for them to reflect upon Exodus 20:7, which says, “You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.” If industry leaders were honest with themselves and with us, and would accept their responsibility rather than hiding behind the “Act of God” hoax, there would be far less death and destruction in Appalachia.

Indeed, in “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape us,” a recently-released “People’s Pastoral” by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, the document’s author, Michael Iafrate, alluded to stories told by coalfield residents of death and destruction, and observed, “These tragedies and others, deemed ‘acts of God’ by industry, are fresh in our mind in Appalachia.”

Asked if he thought that calling man-made tragedies “Acts of God” was a misuse of Scripture, Iafrate answered, “Yes.” He continued, “It is a more direct violation than when we think of swearing for example. Attributing things to God that God has nothing to do with and wants nothing to do with is misusing the name of the Lord.”

In the “Call to Safety,” MSHA Director Main concluded, “In light of current market conditions, we all need to be mindful that safety and health protections necessary to protect our nation’s miners need to be in place every day at every coal mine in the country. All miners deserve to work their shifts and return home at the end of the day, safe and healthy.”

Theological arguments aside, it would seem that everyone could agree with his statement. However, based on the first three weeks of January, it seems pretty clear that coal operators will dismiss it. As these tragedies continue, Blankenship and his ilk will continue to blame God. It’s worked for them for a century, so why stop now?

© Michael M. Barrick, 2016

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Related Links

Three coal mining Deaths in 19 days are ‘troubling’ says MSHA chief

US MSHA Call to Safety: Three fatalities in the first 19 days in the Nations Coal Mines

Preliminary Report of Accident: Mr. Peter D. Sprouse

Preliminary Report of Accident: Mr. Jeremy R. Neice

Preliminary Report of Accident: Mr. Nathan G. Phillips

Catholic Committee of Appalachia


West Virginia’s Top Story in 2015: People and Land under Assault

Public health, environment and property rights under siege from crony capitalism; people respond vigorously, despite odds

 By Michael M. Barrick

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. – While the fossil fuel extraction industry has dominated West Virginia’s political system, economy and communities since it became a state in 1863, the assault upon public health, the environment and property rights in 2015 by corporations and the Mountain State’s legislature was historic. Not since United States senators were appointed by legislatures, in the days when corporate robber barons owned the coal fields, the railroads and the politicians, and efforts to unionize coal miners were met with government-sanctioned violence, has there been such a blitzkrieg of shenanigans and skullduggery unleashed upon the state’s citizens.

Yet, the people have responded energetically. Easily outgunned by corporations, outspent by PACs, and surrounded by apathetic neighbors possessing a sense of inevitability that the energy industry will have its way in West Virginia, many citizens and groups have fought the attack vigorously and widely. The events of 2015 affecting the ecology of West Virginia is about far more than policy, it is about people – about those people making a difference, whether for well or ill.

While corporate interests and most of the state’s mainstream media promote a continued reliance upon what is essentially a bust-and-boom economy, more and more voices standing in opposition to the status quo are being heard. With solid evidence of harm to public health, damage to the environment and abuse of eminent domain from the industry – particularly through fracking and mountaintop removal – more people are joining forces to hold government, industry and even the church accountable.

These stories are not necessarily listed in chronological order and are not offered as a ranking of importance. Instead, it is an attempt to assess the whole year much as one would look at a quilt after it has been completed.

The top stories                                                    

  • The “People’s Capitol” no more
  • Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing
  • Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection
  • Eminent domain abuse
  • Public health threats
  • Environmental degradation
  • The people respond
  • The Don Blankenship trial
  • Poor and biased press coverage


The “People’s Capitol” no more

The gold-domed state capitol along the Kanawha River in Charleston is known as “The People’s Capitol” because of its openness to the people. While that is changing physically this year as security officials add metal detectors and other security steps, the event that really denied the people access to their government was the takeover of the legislature by the Republican Party. Not that the GOP has a patent on arrogance. The Democrats had grown entirely too comfortable after more than 80 years of control. Their arrogance was on display for all to see. All one had to do was visit the offices of the legislators before the GOP takeover. The Democrats had the largest offices and those in special authority – such as the speaker – had not only their titles but names affixed to the doors. As I walked through the capitol on a snowy February day in 2014 just a few weeks after the Elk River spill, I was pleased with how many legislators made themselves accessible; more than a few seemed genuinely interested in serving the people. However, the display of arrogance on the office doors by the party’s leadership was disturbing. It was clear proof that the lure of power had seduced them to promote themselves, not serve the people.

So, in a sense, the Democrats got what they deserved in November 2014. Unfortunately, beginning in January 2015, so did the people of West Virginia. Why people vote against their own interests is beyond my comprehension. For instance, coal miners voted for the very people who protect men like Massey Energy’s Donald Blankenship (more about him later) and are doing all they can to destroy the United Mine Workers (UMW).

Additionally, the GOP is pushing for “Forced Pooling” legislation that would rob landowners of their most basic rights. That issue died in the legislature on a tie vote in committee last year and is a legislative priority for the GOP this year when the West Virginia legislature convenes on Jan. 13. Forced pooling allows the gas industry to force landowners to allow gas companies to access the gas under their land even if the landowner doesn’t agree to it so long as a certain percentage of their neighbors have agreed to sell. And, despite the devastation done by the Elk River spill in 2014, the Republican-led legislature rolled back vital provisions of the West Virginia Storage Tank Law. This led to weakened oversite, restrictions on public access to hazardous chemical information, and loopholes which severely undermine the stated intent of the law. (Read the full story here).


Influence of religion a mix of the hopeful and disturbing

In West Virginia, approximately three out of four people identify themselves as Protestant; only seven percent are Catholic. As with political parties, these two major Christian sects hold quite disparate views on ecological issues; indeed, within each denomination, congregation and parish, one can find division about what the faith teaches regarding environmental stewardship.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists generally hold a “dominion” theory of stewardship. It is not only reflected in sermons, but is referenced by energy industry officials as justification for their attacks upon public health and the environment. Indeed, a leading energy industry executive shared that view here in Bridgeport in March. Executive Director Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said, “God didn’t want us to be farmers, or this place would look like Kansas. God put us here in these mountains that are 450 million years old with the best coal in the world and the most natural gas in the world. And we have a responsibility, and I think companies like Dominion and others have seized on the opportunities that these mountains have provided and will continue to do this.” (Read the full story here).

Yet, Allen Johnson of Dunmore, who leads the evangelical organization Christians for the Mountains, took several other evangelicals and reporters to Kayford Mountain, West Virginia’s most infamous mountaintop removal site. As a result of this effort, national publications noted that some evangelicals are serious about creation care. (You can read articles here and here). Another, not available online, was published by the conservative Christian World magazine based in Asheville, N.C. Explaining the outreach, Johnson said, “It’s a lot easier to preach to the choir, so to speak, than to step across the divide, but that is what is needed in our polarized culture – build trust, tell stories, show, listen, find common ground somewhere.”

Catholics, however, have become accustomed to their clergy – in particular the bishop – to be a prophetic voice for the land and its people. Indeed, the West Virginia-based Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) has published two pastoral letters by the Catholic bishops of Appalachia – “This Land is Home to Me” in 1975 and “At Home in the Web of Life” in 1995. Both of these letters were signed by the Roman Catholic bishops of the region. So, for the last 40 years, the Catholic laity has become accustomed to its leaders standing up for the poor. Not in 2015 though. Instead, the CCA felt compelled to challenge West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield – as well as other Appalachian Catholic bishops – for not supporting the pope strongly enough when the Vatican released the pope’s ecological encyclical in the spring. (Read more here and here).

Indeed, in December, the CCA published what it characterized as a people’s pastoral. It explained, “For this third letter, called a ‘People’s Pastoral,’ the planning team did not seek the signatures of the region’s bishops, but rather sought to lift up the authority of the people, their stories, and earth itself as an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching of the ‘preferential option for the poor.’” (Read more here).

In short, while the church leadership has abandoned its prophetic voice in support of the people they are called to serve, the people in the parishes and congregations are filling the void. In addition to the CCA pastoral, several other examples demonstrate this.

In April, during the week of Earth Day, North Carolina-based St. Luke’s United Methodist Church joined with the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and West Virginia Interfaith Power & Light to hold a two-day conference at the Catholic-owned St. John’s XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston. The conference included people from various faith traditions, scientists, educators, preservationists, educators, artists and others. The theme of the conference, “Preserving Sacred Appalachia,” was organized out of a faith-based view of environmental stewardship, but was intentionally designed to welcome people from all walks of faith and life. (Read more here).

That same week, Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church was a first-place winner of Interfaith Power & Light’s annual Cool Congregations Challenge. The church earned its award for being the top renewable role model in the nation for, among other reasons, having the largest community-supported solar system in West Virginia. (Read more here).

In August, at its annual gathering, the West Virginia Sierra Club chapter considered how it, as a secular group, could apply the ecological encyclical by Pope Francis to its preservation efforts in West Virginia. That gathering led to the writing of this article.


Mediocrity at West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection

While the church, as an institution, was offering mixed messages on environmental stewardship, the state’s primary agency charged with protecting the environment for the people of West Virginia was sending a clear message – it is, at best, mediocre. In fact, its acronym – DEP – is referred to sarcastically as the “Department of Everything Permitted” by public health experts and environmentalists. In 2015, it was unresponsive to citizens expressing concerns about the health impacts of mountaintop removal. (Read more here), and its leader was unprepared for and even hostile to questions about the most basic of safety considerations regarding the impact of the energy extraction industry. (Read more here).


Eminent Domain abuse

Among the most egregious attacks upon the people of West Virginia was the misuse of eminent domain by the energy extraction industry. This is not surprising though, as without approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP), Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) and others in the future to extract gas from the shale fields of northern West Virginia, the industry will not be allowed to use eminent domain to seize the land of private landowners. Without that weapon, the energy industry is facing billions of dollars of losses already invested in what the industry obviously considered a slam dunk.

In March, Pittsburgh-based energy company EQT sent out letters to landowners threatening legal action if they did not allow EQT access to their property for surveys. The company’s lawyers argued that the pipeline would serve the interests of West Virginians, so eminent domain should apply. (Read more here and here). Opponents saw it differently and won in court – for now. (Read more here).


Public Health threats

Whatever one’s political outlook, it is generally agreed that a basic function of government is to guard the public’s health. This is part of its mission to “…promote the general Welfare…” as stated in the Preamble of the United States Constitution. Again though, even fulfilling this most basic responsibility of government seems beyond West Virginia’s capability – or willingness.

As already noted above, West Virginia DEP Secretary Randy Huffman out-of-hand rejected the Precautionary Principle as a reasonable, scientific method of protecting the environment and public health. This, despite clear evidence from health experts about the dangers of fracking and mountaintop removal (read here and here). The facts are supported by personal stories of destroyed lives from the extraction industry. (Read more here).


Environmental degradation

Those attempting to stop the environmental degradation caused by fracking and its related infrastructure got a good taste of what they will face should the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines receive FERC approval. Because those proposed pipelines would cross state lines, FERC approval is required. However, beginning in the spring and going well into the winter, another pipeline – the Stonewall Gas Gathering (SGG) pipeline – was constructed, traversing only about 56 miles of West Virginia. Hence, as an intrastate pipeline, FERC approval for it was not required. The SGG was built by Stonewall Gas Gathering, LLC, which was incorporated in Delaware on June 4, 2014. SGG is a subsidiary of Momentum (officially M3Midstream), based in Texas and Colorado. The Stonewall Gathering line is part of Momentum’s Appalachian Gathering System (AGS). The SGG connected to the AGS in Harrison County and terminates in Braxton County, where it connects to the Columbia pipeline. It runs also through Doddridge and Lewis counties. It began operation in December, but in the process disrupted the lives of thousands of West Virginians, harassed opponents, and caused significant damage to farmland, streams and roadways.

The West Virginia DEP did issue several Notice of Violations to Precision Pipeline, the company that built the pipeline. However, it did so only after numerous complaints from citizens. (Read more here).

As has already been demonstrated, the extraction industry operates from a position of arrogance – of “dominion.” In the next section are several links to stories about people and groups who learned this hard lesson and immediately began responding. Before reading those accounts though, you might want to refer to the articles, “A Dirty Dozen Reasons to Oppose Fracking” and “Filmmaker Finds Compelling Story in Her own Backyard.”


Citizens stand up to crony capitalism

Despite this relentless assault upon public health, the environment and property rights by the unholy alliance between government and business – known otherwise as crony capitalism – no small number of people and groups have organized and coordinated efforts to safeguard their human rights. The outreach has even extended across the states bordering West Virginia, as alliances have been formed with people and groups in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio and Kentucky.

As a result, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people giving completely of themselves and resources during the year. Following are a few examples.

The McClain family, farmers in Doddridge County (about 8,000 residents), though quiet and deferential people, stood their ground against the industry for ruining some of their crops. (Read more here).

Also in Doddridge County, residents joined with folks from neighboring counties to demonstrate their solidarity against the fracking industry. (Read more here).

Earlier in the year, a landowner in the mountains of Randolph County was a one-man army fighting Dominion Resources. He is working to protect some of the most pristine mountain valleys in West Virginia. (Read more here).

Also early in the year, several environmental groups challenged FERC to abide by its charter and deny approval of the pipelines because they would benefit private shareholders, not the people of West Virginia. (Read more here).

In a proactive response to the industry, a Harrison County couple modeled, for the public, their homestead powered by solar panels. (Read more here).

As the year came to a close, dozens of people and groups gathered in central West Virginia to learn more from each other and to coordinate efforts to oppose the fracking industry. (Read more here).


The Don Blankenship trial

The year concluded with the conviction of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship on charges brought by federal authorities because of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in Raleigh County in April 2010. Sadly, the jury found Blankenship guilty on just one misdemeanor count brought against him – conspiring to willfully violate safety standards. The same jury found him not guilty of securities fraud and making false statements. His lawyers have said he will challenge the verdict. So, in light of the expected appeal and mixed verdict, it would seem the opportunity to send a message that crony capitalism would no longer be allowed to kill West Virginians was missed. Hence, it is an important chapter in this story of West Virginia’s reliance upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. Still, while it was covered by media from the United States and beyond, I consider it less important of a story than the stories above, in particular the response by average citizens to the assault they and their land face from the energy extraction industry.


Poor and biased press coverage

These are serious times requiring serious and devoted people. While I generally try not to be snarky about the mainstream media, I must say that I was quite disappointed that West Virginia Public Broadcasting considered a little dustup about pepperoni rolls as one of the top eight stories in West Virginia in 2015. Now, I’ve transported more than my share of pepperoni rolls across state lines. But the debate over fracking – a debate that continues savagely in every corner of the Mountain State – is a far more important story. Yet, this important issue did not even make the list from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, which claims to be committed to “Telling West Virginia’s Story.”

In this instance, it failed miserably.

Meanwhile, in Clarksburg, which is at the epicenter of the fracking industry, the city’s only newspaper – The Exponent-Telegram – has an owner who also owns interests in oil, gas and coal companies. The newspaper, which touts itself as “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia,” had not disclosed this conflict of interest to the public, even as it served as a cheerleader for the energy extraction industry. (Read more here and here).

The point is this: The Fourth Estate has become part of the establishment. Just as our three branches of government are intended to serve as a check and balance on the other two branches, so too, since the Revolutionary War era, has the press been counted upon to serve as a fourth check on the three branches of government. Now though, the courage required to honor that legacy is rarely found in a newsroom or TV studio. In short, the modern press, whether for-profit or not, will not challenge government, church and academia beyond the boundaries which might hit them in the pocketbook.

Consequently, it does not report what we truly need to know.



So, it’s up to the people. Last year left social justice and environmental activists exhausted, even burned out. Yet, the battle continues. While 2015 was not a good year for the people or environment of West Virginia, 2016 offers hope. It also offers great peril. The extraction industry has unlimited resources – cash, marketing departments and lawyers – that groups fighting for justice simply can’t match. The industry is working 24/7 to assault the people and natural beauty of West Virginia. So activists cannot rest. They are gearing up for a busy year, beginning with the legislative session that convenes next week. They have doggedly fought the industry hard in 2015. However, if they do not get additional manpower this year – an army of volunteers – 2017 will likely be too late to keep West Virginia from becoming an industrial waste zone that is unsuitable for any living thing.

© Michael M. Barrick/Appalachian Chronicle, 2016

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Factual Reporting is not Always Balanced

Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides

By Michael M. Barrick

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Readers of this blog know I called into question the independence of the Clarksburg newspaper recently because its president has interests in the natural gas industry and it has rarely, if ever, cast a critical eye on the multiple negative impacts of fracking and natural gas pipeline development. Those who receive my email updates also know that the newspaper’s publisher and editor took exception and wrote an open letter to everyone on the list, insisting that the newspaper was independent. They also wrote, “Unlike your blog, we are truly independent.”

I believe my reports and columns stand on their own merit. We are independent; however, what I understand is that factual reporting is not always balanced – nor should it be.

This is certainly true of West Virginia’s dependence upon the fossil fuel mono-economy. The Mountain State has a long history of being exploited by the energy extraction industry. While it has provided the dignity that accompanies work, it has also caused tremendous harm to people and the environment. While it is important to acknowledge the dignity that comes with any work, it is also vital to acknowledge that coal, gas and oil companies virtually have unlimited resources to disseminate propaganda. For more than a century, the industry has exerted inordinate influence upon our political bodies. That is why is incumbent upon the press and media to counter those influences. Clearly, the pages of the Clarksburg paper don’t offer such a counter-balance. We all know the history of coal mining disasters. Now, mountaintop removal has been proven to cause harm to human beings. The same is true for fracking and the related pipeline development. These are scientific facts which we ignore at our own peril.

That does not mean that I deny that there have been some limited benefits from the energy extraction industry; nevertheless, present facts and the well-documented history of the industry prove that any benefits are far outweighed by the misery experienced by the people of the state and region, as well as the damages done to our sacred landscape.

The first energy extraction industry in the state was logging. Erosion, flooding and ugly landscapes were all that was left after the industry finished its work. To this day, a hiker accustomed to marveling at 150-year-old oak trees in the Pisgah Forest of North Carolina will struggle to find similar majesty in West Virginia’s forests.

Next was the coal industry, the history of which I have written about extensively. While one benefit of the industry is that it has provided jobs and the dignity that accompanies most work, many of Appalachia’s miners died (and are dying) from black lung disease. Hundreds of coal mining disasters have taken thousands of lives. In the early days of the industry, which occurred during America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century, the unholy alliance among robber barons and politicians corrupted democratic institutions, allowed just a few to control the means of production and transportation (railroads), and created horrendous working conditions for miners. This continues to this day as anyone paying attention knows (e.g, the Upper Big Branch disaster and all of its related fall-out). Also, William C. Blizzard’s book “When Miners March,” – as well as several other books, documentaries and movies – provide accounts of how industry leaders and elected officials colluded to conduct a literal war upon coal miners. Furthermore, we know – as fact – that burning coal is contributing to climate change. Finally, the modern practice of mountaintop removal mining has led to destruction and misery for everyone impacted by it – unless one owns the mountain that is being blown up.

Furthermore, the coal industry has unlimited resources to spew forth its propaganda and to use teams of lawyers to intimidate and threaten its opponents. So, we are seeking to balance that with factual reporting about the many negative aspects of our state’s reliance upon a the fossil fuel mono-economy. In addition to providing balance, it is my hope that our reporting will also challenge readers to consider that perhaps we need to reconsider our priorities – to question whether profits for a few should be allowed to trump the need for clean air and water; safe and peaceful communities; and, again, the sacred nature of the wilderness and its ecosystems.

Most recently, we have seen the assault upon people, property rights and the earth by the gas companies and their partners, such as Duke Energy.

When I was a student at Notre Dame High School in the early 1970s, I was part of the debate team. I learned then the value of a healthy debate. So, I welcome the exchange between our publication and the Clarksburg newspaper, as well as the insights shared by many readers of our blog. We need a debate in our community, the state and nation about the role of journalists.

This is more than a debate though. This is a teachable moment. Some issues simply do not deserve equal coverage of both sides, because the facts do not support such a perspective. In West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southeastern Ohio, southwestern Pennsylvania, and southwestern Virginia, the facts are clear – powerful interests have removed the riches from the earth for their own profit, while leaving its people battered, bruised and impoverished. It has left its landscape forever scarred.

Now, with the proposed construction of more than a thousand miles of pipelines to transport natural gas, the negative consequences could move into areas of Virginia and North Carolina that have, to a large degree, escaped the negative impacts of the energy extraction industry.

Consequently, I do not apologize for adhering to the journalistic principle that factual reporting is not always balanced. Those who have had their well water destroyed by fracking, their land taken unjustly, or their husband and father killed at Sago or Upper Big Branch understand this.

It would appear that the Clarksburg paper does not. Nor do many other publications that have compromised their integrity for profit.

So, the question is, to what view of journalism do you subscribe?

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia. If you wish to support our work, please consider becoming a member.

The Appalachian Preservation Project is also handling planning for the “Preserving Sacred Appalachia” Earth Day conference scheduled for April 20-21 in Charleston, W.Va. Learn about it here.

Clarksburg Newspaper’s Independence in Doubt

Newspaper president’s ties to gas industry undermine claims of ‘credibility’

Good ol’ boys down at the bar
Peanuts and politics
They think they know it all
They don’t know much of nothin’
Even if one of ‘em was to read a newspaper, cover-to-cover
That ain’t what’s going on
Journalism dead and gone
– “Frail Grasp on the Big Picture” by the Eagles, © 2007

By Michael M. Barrick

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – Readers of “The Independent Voice of North Central West Virginia” – The Exponent Telegram – Clarksburg’s only newspaper, have only a frail grasp on the big picture, at least when it comes to understanding the implications of the natural gas boom in the region. That is because the newspaper’s president, Brian Jarvis, is also the president of Hydrocarbon Well Services, an oil and gas service company with 15 rigs, according to Jarvis’ LinkedIn site.

Also, according to his LinkedIn site, Jarvis is an attorney representing gas and oil interests, work he continues following a stint with Jackson Kelly PLLC, a leading gas industry law firm with five offices in West Virginia – including Clarksburg – as well as five other states and Washington, D.C. Jarvis worked there for more than three years, from September 2008 – January 2012.

According to his LinkedIn site, Jarvis, as president of Clarksburg Publishing, “Oversee(s) publishing The Exponent Telegram, Bridgeport News, Preston News, Preston Journal, NCWV Real Estate, NCWV Life Magazine, MYNCWV.com, and several other multimedia products.”

Clearly, these business interests of Jarvis call into question the newspaper’s independence when covering the gas industry. Indeed, in late January, approximately 10 environmental leaders met with an official with the newspaper to challenge the newspaper to provide more comprehensive coverage of the gas industry. Ironically, on the day of the visit, a gas line explosion that had occurred the day before in Brooke County, W.Va. got no mention in the newspaper.

This is not surprising though, as the newspaper closed out 2014 with a tribute to the gas industry. In its December 30, 2014 issue, the front page declared, “Marcellus Shale authors statewide success story.” In the article, the newspaper proclaimed, “The Exponent Telegram’s Editorial Board has named the Marcellus Shale development as the Success Story of the Year.” Additionally, in its lead editorial in the same edition, the newspaper uncritically adopted the energy industry’s assertions of its benefits, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that the harm to public health and safety, as well as the environment, far outweighs any perceived benefit.

Nowhere in the article or the editorial did the newspaper disclose interests held by Jarvis in the gas and oil business.

Of course, the newspaper also enjoys significant advertising revenues from gas industry giants such as Dominion Resources, Inc.

The newspaper has not remotely attempted to cast a critical eye on the gas industry, despite growing opposition to it within its sphere of influence. In fact, it barely disguises its glee at defeats experienced by those fighting the industry. In a February 10 headline over an AP story about landowners in Virginia battling Dominion over landowner rights, the headline declared, triumphantly, “Foes of proposed pipeline lose fight.”

In addition to not informing readers that its president also has holdings in the gas industry, the newspaper’s Assistant Managing Editor, Matt Harvey, used the February 9 editorial page to – ironically – talk about the newspaper’s credibility. He wrote, “But what never changes about journalism is what’s been the same dating back to the days of Ben Franklin’s ‘Poor Richard’s Almanack,’ and beyond: Credibility.”

He continued, “And if it not only gets facts wrongs (sic) but also twists them to fit its presentation, well, chances are it won’t last long.” He added, “Credibility also means being willing to examine all sides of an issue and dig deep to discover some of the hidden issues.”

One would presume that Harvey is referring to issues such as the hazards associated with the gas industry, such as site development and well pad activity, traffic congestion, water use and contamination, air pollution, waste disposal, public health issues, quality of life issues, misuse of eminent domain in pipeline development, climate change, potential earthquakes, and questionable claims of economic revitalization.

The newspaper has simply not covered those issues at all, let alone dug deep into them.

Harvey concluded his editorial with a bit of a lecture, writing, “But anyone who thinks the Internet has put paid (sic) the old-fashioned basics of journalism should think again. Without who, what, when, where, how and why – and without watchdogs willing to follow the money trail – the freedoms Americans enjoy would be headed for an endangered species list.”

There could not be a more ironic statement from a representative of The Exponent Telegram. Because they are not being the watchdogs they claim to be, West Virginians are headed for the endangered species list.

The reading public deserves better. Jarvis should divest himself of all interests in – and income from – the gas industry. Until and if he does, the newspaper lacks all credibility, despite Harvey’s claims. The Eagles were right. Journalism is dead and gone – at least in print, in Clarksburg.

© Appalachian Preservation Project, LLC, 2015. The Appalachian Chronicle is a publication of the Appalachian Preservation Project. The Appalachian Preservation Project is a social enterprise committed to preserving and protecting Appalachia.

If you value authentic, independent investigative journalism, please consider supporting our work by becoming a member of the Appalachian Preservation Project.

Transportation Improvements Open the Blue Ridge to Piedmont Commerce

(Note: See “Crossing the River: The Catawba Valley and the Appalachians [1747 – 1849]” for the history leading to this account)

By Michael Barrick

Just roughly 100 years after the Catawba Valley was permanently settled by European settlers, numerous factors contributed to open the mountain markets of the southern Appalachians to the Piedmont of North Carolina and beyond. These factors also permanently linked the late-developing town of Hickory to the mountain communities of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the process, Hickory, though it was at first a small town in a county where political power was centered 10 miles to the southeast in the Catawba County seat of Newton, quickly became the economic hub of the Catawba Valley.

Hickory’s development occurred because its founders did not allow the Catawba River to serve as an obstacle to growth, and instead saw it as an opportunity to energize the region’s economy by improving transportation to the mountain markets and to the more populated cities to the south and east. Consequently, it placed itself squarely between the mountain forests, farmers, artisans and craftsmen and the rapidly growing cities of the Piedmont.

The Horseford Bridge
The Horseford Bridge, built by private investors in 1849, was the vital link that opened up Hickory to the bountiful crops of the mountain farmers. Spanning the Catawba River into Caldwell County, it helped spur Hickory’s growth, especially after the railroad arrived about 10 years later. Between the bridge and the rail lines, farmers could now get their crops to markets previously unavailable. Photo courtesy of Catawba County Historical Association Archives 

First there were fords, followed by ferries. Then bridges crisscrossed the valley’s many streams, making way for local trade. The first significant improvement occurred in 1849, when private investors built the Horseford Bridge, connecting Hickory to Caldwell County. The next significant development was the arrival of the railroad. In a debate about whether it would be routed through Hickory or Newton, a compromise was made in which both communities were included; Hickory would be on the main line and Newton connected by a spur. Other spur lines were added to connect with Maiden and points south. It was the development of these vital transportation links that helped make Hickory a commercial gathering place. The early, modest village was to quickly grow beyond the few blocks surrounding the train depot. Soon, hotels were built near the depot for the ever-increasing number of visitors. Local residents such as Abel A. Shuford moved from the countryside to the town, bringing with them their leadership, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The development of the lumber industry, the establishment of Piedmont Wagon Company and the robust trade at Union Square all signaled a community poised for regional influence. The arrival of electricity, the founding of local banks, and a strong emphasis on education helped usher in an era of growth and optimism as the 19th century came to a close.

None of this would have been possible had the city not been connected to the Blue Ridge Mountain communities. The region’s robust agrarian economy had sustained it for 100 years and had created strong communities. Stores and shops opened, as merchants were needed to provide equipment and supplies for home and farm. While Newton, Maiden and other towns throughout the valley had numerous merchants and craftsmen, the small community known then as Hickory Tavern would be among the last towns in the county to be officially established. However, the building of the bridge and the arrival of the railroad helped to expedite its standing. Although the arrival of the railroad around 1860 was undeniably significant – connecting Hickory with markets to the south, east and west – the essential first step in the establishment of Hickory as a vital market place was the building of the Horseford Bridge. “Early on, settlers in the northern mountains pushed a path down to the river at what became known as ‘the horseford,’ named for the fact that horses could make it over, but wagons had a rough time” (Freeze 265). For years, valley residents had to overcome the challenges that came with the streams that created their rich farmland. “That persons of the section of Catawba desired to cross streams is evidenced by the astounding number of ferries which operated shortly after the county became a governmental unit, some of them for financial gain. Between 1850 and 1900, it is estimated that 20 ferries and toll bridges were at the disposal of the citizenry. Numerous fords were also used” (Preslar 162). Dozens of crossings were available on the Catawba, the South Fork had five crossings, Henrys Fork river had numerous and Jacobs Fork had at least two.

Still, a direct route to Hickory was desired. For the region to fulfill its potential, the power of the river had to be overcome, even harnessed. The building of the bridge accomplished this. “A private company erected the bridge as a toll operation, knowing that the railroad then being built from Charlotte to Rutherfordton would encourage mountain farmers to head south across the county with their produce and wares” (Freeze, 268). Hickory had benefited from its proximity to Newton and other Catawba County towns, yet, “Early Hickory’s prosperity rested largely upon the trade from outside Catawba. Customers consisted mainly of ‘the mountain wagon trade.’ The mountaineers began to come down in numbers in late summer, and in the early years they would park their wagons on the public square between the depot and the stores. Nightly the place was lit by the camp fires and animated by the laughter and talk of mountain folk” (Freeze 278).”

Hickory was now a marketplace for produce, vegetables, wheat and other crops. Lumber, too, was being harvested. The bridge brought the farmers; the railroad provided access to customers. Hickory was now “…emerging along the tracks” (Freeze 171).

Hickory did far more than emerge. It boomed. Indeed, “The inimitable ‘great iron horse,’ which made its appearance in North Carolina in the early 1840s…is credited with developing Catawba county more effectively than any other transportation facility and determining that Hickory is the area’s principal city” (Preslar 164). In 1860, the Western North Carolina Railroad (WNCR), and later the Carolina and Northwestern RR, “…changed Catawba as much as did the Civil War. The impact of trains during the postwar decades fostered the growth of towns in an overwhelmingly rural county. Catawba was still primarily a farming area by 1900, but the towns – Newton and Hickory in particular – exerted a cultural and commercial power that gave them sway over the county’s life. The concentration of schools, stores, and shops around the railroad stations set the stage for the later development of industry and an urban culture” (Freeze 213).

Prominent families moved from the countryside to the town, helping lead its development. Meanwhile, others remained on the farms, recognizing that the rail lines opened their crops to markets heretofore beyond their reach. Farmers were not all that benefited from Hickory’s emergence. In time, industry would build up, and education and the arts would thrive as well.

Upon arrival of the railroad, a post office was opened for “Hickory Tavern,” the original name of Hickory. The same year that the city officially adopted its new name (1889), the first street lights became operational in the city. Two years later, what is today Lenoir-Rhyne University opened its doors as Lenoir College. Shortly after the turn of the century, construction had begun on public works and sewer facilities. The first local telephone exchange was housed in Newton in 1900, over A. A. Shuford’s bank in Newton, and by 1908, a street numbering plan was implemented. From 1860 to 1900, the railroad continued to grow. The railroad not only strengthened Hickory, it set it up as a regional hub. During the Civil War, the Hickory depot had served as a commissary for the Confederacy. After the war, Catawba, Claremont, Conover, Maiden and Newton had grown with the arrival of the rails. Though Newton was the county seat and at the geographical center of the county, Hickory was clearly emerging as the economic leader in the Catawba Valley. In fact, the Hall Brothers, the leading Hickory retail and wholesale merchants at the end of the 19th Century, enjoyed more business than the top five Newton competitors (Freeze 235).

Yet, Hickory was still very agrarian and charming. “Early Hickory was so small…that when the train blew its whistle twice daily, most activity stopped, and someone from every household gathered at Shuford’s store, where Dolph, the postmaster, called out the names of those receiving letters. So intimate was the community that young blades would ring the depot bell well into the night after a wedding, just to remind the couple folks were thinking about them” (Freeze 270).

Within a few years after the Civil War, Hickory was attracting people from throughout the state and region. “Through the mix of farmers and merchants Hickory suddenly became the boom town of western North Carolina. ‘The growth of Hickory is astonishing,’ Statesville newspaper editor E.B. Drake told his readers in January 1872. ‘New houses are going up on all directions. Business is flourishing’” (Freeze 271).

Indeed, at about this same time, Dr. Richard Baker began practicing medicine in Hickory, which during this time also included the opening of a drug store. He proudly placed a “card” – or advertisement – in the local newspaper announcing his practice. Payment commonly consisted of fruits and vegetables, and Dr. Baker, known for his charitable deeds, would have certainly bartered or performed care without payment.

An event in the history of the Horseford Bridge also signaled a determination by Hickory’s leadership to recognize they had a vital role to play in the town’s growth. Within a generation of being built, its value was such that the town acquired it in the 1880s, “…when the heavy traffic on the structure led to the town’s decision to buy it and allow free crossing” (Freeze 268).

Piedmont Wagon
The Piedmont Wagon Company was Hickory’s first major industry and was a key to the town’s growth from 1880 to the 1920s. Prior to the establishment of the Piedmont Wagon Company, small wagon and blacksmith shops dotted Catawba County. Work in these shops, usually located at crossroads, was all done by hand, whereas much of the factory’s work was done with the aid of machines. George C. Bonniwell (1837-1912) is generally credited with establishing the company. An architect, engineer, and builder, Bonniwell came to North Carolina from Philadelphia in 1878. He found a business partner in the person of Andrew L. Ramseur, the operator of an iron forge, gristmill, and sawmill on the Catawba River. The original site of the factory was located at the intersection of the Western North Carolina Railroad and the Chester Lenoir Narrow Gauge Railroad. The present-day building is located on a slight knoll in the angle formed by the two sects of railroad tracks. The location was thus ideal for the growth of the business. As the company prospered, its physical plant, spread over the thirteen acres, increased in size. … At its height the primary markets for Piedmont’s products were eleven southeastern states, extending from Virginia to Texas. Output increased to one thousand wagons per month. This was from a business which originally produced one wagon per week.
Source: City of Hickory, N.C.

Another important development in Hickory’s emergence was the establishment of the Piedmont Wagon Company. Founded about 1878, it helped launch manufacturing in Hickory, helped expand its center westward, and “…made Hickory nationally famous for decades” (Freeze 280). Located about a mile west of the depot, it sat strategically at the junction of the rail lines. Its proximity to town helped ensure its access to mountain forests and growing urban markets; its location helped guarantee that it had access to timber to the north and west. “Soon after the establishment of the wagon yards, other industry began to be located at the western end of town. Most firms concentrated on products using the raw material that made Hickory tout itself as ‘the woodman’s mecca’” (Freeze 283).

In short, Hickory went from an ante-bellum village to a prototypical town of the Gilded Age, primarily because of the railroad; early maps and photos of the town bare this out, as the initial activity and development were around the train depot.

Numerous fires in each decade following the Civil War shaped the architecture and impacted the fortunes of numerous merchants. Several businesses – most famously hotels – as well as churches and homes were destroyed by fire. This led to the development of a fire brigade, the precursor to the Hickory Fire Department, which by the first decades of the 20th century was being lauded as one of the best in the nation. Also, most destroyed buildings were eventually replaced by brick structures, many of which still stand today.

Hickory was a segregated town as were all Southern towns during this period. Yet, there apparently remained a sense of community. “All residents of early Hickory were, in one way or another, neighbors. Rich and poor alike, and sometimes black and white, lived within sight of one another” (Freeze 290). It also experienced growing pains. Livestock roamed the streets when farmers were in town waiting for the train. In addition, “Hickory was a rowdy town, with taverns freely dispensing alcohol and civil order sometimes barely enforceable by the local police. As one resident stated it, ‘Hickory was a veritable frontier village. The plains of the wooly West did not surpass it in its will orgies of lawlessness’” (Freeze 293).

Conversely, faith also played a role in the town’s development with Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists and Methodists establishing churches after the first congregation – that of Corinth Reformed Church – had organized in 1869. Indeed, Dr. Baker and his wife played significant roles in the establishment of the town’s first Episcopalian parish.

There was also a determination to provide rigorous educational opportunities, recognizing the value of common (now public) schools as well as higher education to a community’s economic and cultural growth. Consequently, “By 1892, Hickory had become one of the gems of the New South. The Opera House joined with the Hickory Inn and the new bank to give the community an air of Victorian prosperity and sophistication. In 1889 Hickory was officially chartered a city. …It also chartered an electric light system. The street in front of stores on the public square was about to become Park Place, and in 1892 the area would take the name Union Square” (Freeze 307).

The seemingly endless supply of timber led to a robust furniture industry, including sawmills and factories. Investment by local entrepreneurs and even New York capitalists placed Hickory as a leader in the industry as the 20th century dawned. “By the early 1900s Hickory had developed several (furniture) plants, the first being Hickory Furniture Company in 1901. …By the eve of the first World War furniture had become the town’s leading employer” (Freeze 364). The growing economy of the region and the entire South, with farmers experiencing solid, steady prices, helped Piedmont Wagon enjoy some of its most prosperous times. By 1880, the population was 1,400 and Hickory was the busiest town between Asheville and Salisbury. Textiles and hosiery mills were opening regularly; several plants would open in the early 1900s.

Suburbs also began to develop. Windy City (now Viewmont) was to the north, Brookford to the south, Highland to the east, and Longview and West Hickory to the west. Eventually, all but Brookford and Longview would be absorbed by Hickory. Still, the depot area remained the town’s focal point. Union Square was growing, funded largely by industrialist and philanthropist A.A. Shuford. Indeed, the Shufords were playing an increasingly active role in the community. “The Shuford enterprises embraced furniture, gloves, hosiery, textiles and banking. And there was Shuford time, energy and money, too for establishment of schools, churches and other civic institutions” (Our State 27).

The town and world was rapidly changing, and the next generation was charged with leading Hickory into the uncertain future of the fast-paced 20th century. City elder A.A. Shuford died in 1912 in the hospital founded by his nephew, Dr. Jacob Shuford. Just a day previous, A.A. Shuford’s brother and Dr. Shuford’s father, John, also died at the hospital. Earlier, in 1906, Dr. Baker died – five years before the hospital that would honor his life’s work would open.

Though passing on, the influence of the town’s founding generation was far from over. The foundations they had laid through a lifetime of service following the decades of the Civil War were solid. The progress under them was impressive. The example they set was exemplary. In short, all that was needed to support a modern community – infrastructure, population, a sense of community, a strong economy, vital social and educational institutions and a new generation ready to embrace their season of opportunity – was in place. Hickory had become a gathering place. A front page of the local newspaper from 1911 included the train schedules. Folks could get to and from Hickory from places like Gastonia and Lincolnton in the Piedmont and Collettsville, Mortimer and Edgemont in the mountains. Just roughly 60 years after the Horseford Bridge was built, and 50 years after the railroad arrived, Hickory had become the regional hub for the Catawba Valley, because its leaders recognized the importance of its mountain neighbors.

Works Cited
Gary R. Freeze, The Catawbans: Crafters of a North Carolina County (Newton, N.C.: Catawba County Historical Association, 1995).
Charles J. Preslar, Jr., editor, A History of Catawba County (Salisbury, N.C.: Rowan Printing Company, 1954).
The State magazine, April 18, 1959.

Crossing the River: The Catawba Valley and the Appalachians (1747 – 1849)

By Michael Barrick

The Catawba Valley is a river basin fed by the creeks, streams and rivers tumbling down the Blue Ridge escarpment. Though actually in the foothills of the Appalachians – also known as the Piedmont (though over time, those terms have come to mean two different regions along and beyond the Blue Ridge) – the Catawba Valley’s settlement was essential to the economy and growth of the southern Appalachians, especially in western North Carolina.

Today, its economy is on unstable footing, as many of the furniture and textile companies which employed tens of thousands have closed.

This is not the first generation to find challenges in the valley.

The swift and rocky waters of the Catawba River presented a formidable obstacle for the first European pioneers wishing to settle the western shores of its rich valley. However, the pioneering spirit guiding Adam Sherrill would not allow the river to stand in the way. The family had trekked through the wilderness of Virginia and North Carolina to find a home, and the rich rolling hills and fertile fields formed by the river valley offered everything an industrious farmer would need. A pastoral environment, it offered not only the soil, rain and sun needed for productive fields, it also offered peace and the opportunity to prosper – all that a pioneering family could ask for.

Not surprisingly, many others immediately began to settle the valley. Eventually, the river, rather than being an impediment, was the life source for those living alongside its shores and tributaries. While those who first forged the river at present day Sherrills Ford in southeastern Catawba County could not have envisioned the Catawba Valley today, it nevertheless is their legacy. Through their determination and industry, through a belief in self-reliance tempered with a reverence for God and stewardship of the natural resources afforded them, the first settlers – mainly German but also many Scotch-Irish and others – established not only a community, but a lasting set of values that continue to help guide it more than 250 years after they first arrived.

Among the first to arrive were the Schufferts, the ancestors of Dr. Jacob Harrison Shuford, who founded Richard Baker Hospital in Hickory in 1911.

North Carolina, ca 1760 and North Carolina, ca 1850
In 1760, western North Carolina was a wilderness, as evidenced by the top map. However, as is clear in the bottom map, by 1850 Catawba County’s borders were established. Clearly, the early settlement by the Sherrills and other early pioneers to the Catawba Valley paved the way for rapid growth of the region.
© Division of Archives and History, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, Raleigh, N.C.

It isn’t all that surprising that the Shufords would settle in the Catawba Valley. The family had originally migrated to Pennsylvania from a region along the Rhine River and its tributaries in Germany. The geography surrounding the South Fork River may not have been as famed as their ancestral home, but a description of the home they left behind sounds similar enough to make the Catawba Valley enticing. “The soil along the Rhine and its tributaries is rich and the primary occupation is farming.” The tributaries flowing from the mountains make for “…beautiful, rich farmland, well watered and fertile.”

Consequently, in their new home, “With the fertile soil and temperate climate, they were soon blessed with a great abundance of everything they needed.” With literally dozens of streams feeding the farmland from the mountains, the valley’s geography was ideal. “The gently rolling hillsides, fertile and watered valleys, and plateaus are suitable for the growth of many crops. Agriculture also is prompted primarily by the mental nature of the early settlers: German and Scot pioneers were accustomed to farm life and were attracted locally due to the desire to pursue the tilling of the soil in productive and peaceful surroundings.”

However, they were also accustomed to densely populated villages in Germany. Conceivably then, a primary draw to the valley was that it was not yet crowded with villages. The large river offered protection and fertile valleys; its many tributaries formed subtle yet beautiful slopes, hills, valleys and plateaus. Indeed, today, in a few areas of the county, the countryside remains remarkably similar to what the first settlers encountered. At first, settlement was deliberate, largely because of the unknown wilderness, and also because the migration from Pennsylvania was initially small. Immigration to the New World with an entire family and all of its belongings in toe was a physically-demanding, uncertain route to a new life.

Yet, the Schufferts chose the new life and all the challenges that came with it. “Many families from the area around Langenselbod (Germany) made the journey to America, among them, Johan Jerg Schuffert and his family.” By the 1750s, the Schufferts had also settled on the western side of the river, though several miles further west than the Sherrills. Though they would have followed the same route as the Sherrills much of the way, it is possible they took the more western Island Ford route that branched off of the Sherrill’s path just north of the Yadkin River in present-day Iredell County and crossed the Catawba River several miles upstream from Sherrills Ford. “In early 1755, George Shuford and his family left Pennsylvania, accompanied by the families of his son and daughter, and traveled to the western part of North Carolina (on what was known as ‘The Great Wagon Road’)….In September 1755, he bought 500 acres on land from Samuel Wilkins on the south side of the South fork of the Catawba River. This is the land he is buried on today.”  Today, the old family cemetery remains, not far from the South Fork River. It is there that Johan Schuffert died in 1762. He had taken his family about 435 miles from their settlement in Pennsylvania. Little did he know how far his family, fellow settlers and their descendents would carry a community over the next 250 years.

The countryside – while full of challenges – must also have offered tremendous hope and opportunity, at least as viewed from the highest point in the county – Baker’s Mountain. Today a county park, its trails and vistas offer not only a peaceful break from the hectic lifestyle for area residents, it also offers a peak into the past and what the Shufords and their early neighbors saw stretched before them. To the west is a narrow valley, greeted on the far side by the steep slopes of the South Mountains, a narrow, fingered prong of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. To the north, in the distance, are some of the highest peaks of the Blue Ridge; the imposing slopes providing life to the Catawba River Valley from its countless tributaries. To the east, the ridges gradually give way to the rolling hills of the Piedmont, but not before stubbornly holding ground, forcing the river to bend hard to the south. It was not far from Baker’s Mountain that the Shufords settled, on a 2,000 acre tract of land along the South Fork River. It offered bottom land, forests, hilltops, valleys and streams. Today, remnants of the homestead remain.

They did experience raiding parties and a few outright battles with Native Americans wishing to preserve the upper Catawba Valley as hunting grounds. Eventually, as more settlers from the Old World followed the trails blazed by Sherrill and the others, the Native Americans retreated west over the mountains. Still, maintaining the settlement required hard work. All tools for clearing forests, building homes, gardening, hunting and crafting furniture were hand-made. Farming was hard work with uncertain outcomes. Thriftiness was a hallmark, the result of needing to make use of every resource available to them. “Every member of the family, old and young, had work assigned. After providing shelter for his family, the pioneer had to clear the land, plow and plant….Marriage came early, and very often the women, who worked so hard, died young. All pioneer boys and girls learned to do their share of work as a matter of course.”

Wood was essential not only for the cabin, but also the furniture, utensils, tables and benches. Woodworking then, was an essential skill. Cooking was done over open fires. Clothing was home made, as was soap. Though a life of work, there were also times of merriment, as events accompanying farming or church life were also often festive and social occasions.

At first, families were self-sustaining. Then, as more people moved in, markets began to develop among the different communities. Eventually, local, narrow trading paths became market roads to distant coastal and commercial centers. This gradual transition from colonial wilderness living to the ante-bellum community provided the societal and institutional building blocks that would guide and sustain subsequent generations inheriting the riches of the valley. For instance, Jacob Shuford, the grandson of the family patriarch Johan, exercised sound stewardship with his inheritance. A prosperous farmer, “…he inherited a substantial portion of the Shuford farm on the west bank of the South Fork River. He eventually gave that farm to his son, Eli. He owned several large areas of farm land, the most notable of which he called ‘Bunker Hill.’ He was a good businessman….Among his descendents was Abel Alexander Shuford, industrialist and entrepreneur and one of the founders of Hickory, North Carolina.”

The Revolutionary War strained relationships among not only neighbors, but families. Yet, the importance of community, their common faith and interdependence led the families of the county’s various townships to eventually overcome the divisions brought about by the colonial revolt.

Religious faith offered hope and guidance. St. Paul’s church near Newton, which was shared by the Lutheran and Reformed congregations, was the first church built west of the Catawba River. “An unfaltering faith in God and certainty as to its beneficial manifestations are perhaps the most basic characteristics of the Catawbans….History bears out the fact that the building of a church almost invariably preceded the construction of other institutions in the community. The church edifice, in fact, served in the earliest days as a general center. Schools were conducted in church buildings.” In short, churches were the community center. They also were the first school houses, as “Education and religion were closely allied in the beginning of the county’s history. Men of education often performed the dual functions of teaching and preaching.”

Language barriers between German-speaking and English-speaking immigrants proved difficult. Eventually English became predominant and the spelling of Schuffert was changed to Shuford to accommodate English-speaking sensibilities. The challenges of agrarian living, with the many chores required of all family members, provided many practical learning opportunities, but still did not allow much time for formal instruction. Hence, a learned preacher would be the logical choice to entrust one’s children to for “book learning.” Of course, the elders almost certainly would have closely monitored the instruction provided the children, in particular on theological matters.

Eventually, by the early 1800s, several private schools were listed throughout the county. “Location of the schools generally followed the walking patterns of the neighborhoods.” In fact, while the teachers recruited to some of the schools were met with resistance as they brought in ideals and ideas not necessarily aligned with those within the community, their work was a forerunner to the common schools, which began operating as North Carolina’s first public schools circa 1840.

As important as churches were for the development of religious, social and educational moorings for the fledgling communities, the advent of improved transportation routes and systems were equally crucial for the eventual economic growth the region was to enjoy. Still, “Early Catawbans measured their status by their access to land. Since most farmed, how much land they owned, how good it was, and what they did with it determined to a large degree their places in the community.”

The river and tributaries were not navigable; therefore, with the exception of local trade conducted via canoe or the occasional pole boat, they were not travel routes. Foot travel was along established trading paths of the Native Americans and later from home to home and home to church. Pack horses hauled freight along the same routes, slowly expanding the markets from settlement to settlement. Wagons soon followed. What had been one-foot-wide trading paths were now rutted roads, carrying produce, lumber and durable goods. “It is believed that the earliest road of the Catawba territory was the State road, the Catawba county portion of which was constructed in 1763. The road entered Catawba county in its southwest part, traveled in an easterly direction through Bandys, Jacob’s Fork, and Newton townships, to and through the present town of Maiden and on east to Sherrills Ford.” Interestingly, Jacob’s Fork is named for the aforementioned Jacob Shuford, an ancestor of the hospital’s founder by the same name.

By the last decades of the 1700s, Hickory Tavern – now known as Hickory – had roads that allowed travel to and from the mountains or the coast; however, a few streams – including the Catawba River – would have to be traversed at various fords. A few stagecoaches came through, but personal conveyance such as the Conestoga wagon remained the preferred means of transport for those who could afford it. Several covered bridges connected communities, with the Bunker Hill Bridge still standing today. “Some of the early wooden bridges were built without the use of a single nail, the timbers being cut in such a way that wooden pegs were sufficient to hold them in place.”

A moving away from self-sufficient farms led to the growth of the trades in the late eighteenth century. “The Catawba’s early tradesmen included the blacksmith, the miller, the shoemaker, the cooper, the millwright, the tanner, the tailor, the hatter, the wheelwright, the saddler, the gunsmith, the silversmith, the fuller, the weaver, the clock maker, the joiner or cabinet maker, the carpenter, the felt maker, the miller, the mason, the potter and the merchant.”

Grist mills were common along the many streams and even the first sawmills were founded as more settlers moved in, needing wood for homes. Weaving and spinning became a necessary trade, a foretaste of the role textiles would play in the development of the region. Iron forges also enjoyed a period of prosperity well into the 1800s. Indeed, early on, the trades proved more stable and rewarding than the professions. “Virtually all the early lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers and newspapermen supplemented their ‘profession’ with another, more remunerative, occupation, usually farming.”

Later, such professionals would play a pivotal role in establishing and developing Hickory. However, as the county was first settled, what is now known as Hickory was of little consequence. A license to operate a tavern was granted to John Bradburn, circa 1784. He built what became Hickory Tavern alongside the road that had been constructed about 15 years earlier. It is not certain how the town got its name, though it is commonly – though not universally – believed that it was near a notable hickory tree or perhaps a stand of them. In any event, what is today downtown Hickory was then but a building or two. Yet, in 1849, just about 100 years after the first settlers forged the Catawba River, Hickory would become a center of commerce and trade, facilitated by the opening of the Horseford covered bridge into Caldwell County. This event opened up markets and opportunities heretofore not possible.

© Michael Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2012

Works Cited:

David Shuford,. Origins of the Shuford Family in America: A Brief History and Genealogy (Baltimore, Md.:Gateway Press, Inc., 1998)

Charles J. Preslar, Jr. editor, A History of Catawba County (Salisbury, N.C.: Rowan Printing Company, 1954)

Gary R. Freeze, The Catawbans: Crafters of a North Carolina County (Newton, N.C.: Catawba County Historical Association, 1995)