When Harlan County figures in the news or is mentioned in conversation anywhere, coal is bound to be a major topic. After all, during the boom of “King Coal,” this county employed thousands of miners and shipped out millions of tons of the bituminous fossil fuel. Homes and businesses throughout the area, as well as the county seat, heated with coal; it was heresy to even think of using any other kind of fuel.
Camp houses and city houses, for the most part, were simple frame structures which were heated by coal-fueled grates. Cook stoves also used coal, as did furnaces, for those families who had them.
Although coal drove the economy, it had one not-so-redeeming feature; it produced a great deal of soot and grim, much to the dismay of the ever-laboring housewife and dry goods merchant.
During the early morning hours, when folks were awakening to the day, every household’s chimney belched black smoke into the air as fires were started or rekindled to accommodate the cooking of meals and the heating of homes. Nobody gave it a second thought; that’s just the way it was.
Housewives routinely swept soot off their front porches and stoops. Children, coming home from school for lunch and washing their hands, hardly noticed that where the soap suds stopped, a gray shadow ringed their wrists. Soot was a fact of life and was everywhere. Washday chores were extra trying because of it.
For what reason I am not sure, but washday here in the mountains has always been on a Monday. My mother labored on the back porch utilizing two galvanized rinse-water tubs on a wooden sawhorse table. The tubs caught the clothes as they squeezed through her Maytag’s adjustable wringer. Lye soap and a washboard were also on hand for scrubbing various stains, or stubborn collar rings.
Every housewife knew to run a wet cloth the length of her clothesline to clean it before hanging out her wash with wooden clothespins. The line was predictably coated with soot, and if not cleaned, would leave a black smudge on the tail of a shirt or in the middle of a bed sheet. Sometimes, a breeze carried a cloud of grime or soot onto the fresh, wet washing, causing it to have to be done over.
Because of the great amounts of ever-present soot, merchants had their work cut out for them keeping their merchandise from getting shopworn and dingy. The Quality Shop kept its garments protected in zipper hanging bags and all stores, such as Powers and Horton’s, Kregar’s, Lewallen’s and others, covered their counters and clothes with large sheet-size dust clothes at the close of each business day. Then every morning after opening up, their first order of business was to remove the covers, dust the counters and to try to keep the merchandise looking clean and fresh.
It’s true that coal was “black diamond” to Harlan County’s economy and spurred its growth in the early days of its development and prosperity. Along with that era of industrial boom also came the fallout, or coal dust and soot. We who lived it talked about it, but it was like the weather; we talked about it, but had no control over it. As a matter of fact, we didn’t even realize our area was sooty until we traveled to places outside the region that weren’t. The boom and the bane were both black. “Black Gold” and “Black Gold Dust.”