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William H. Berge Oral History Center

Coal Company Towns Project

Interview with Wilma Adams

October 28, 1981(1982 OH 043)

Conducted by William Berge

Transcribed by Laurie Wilcox

WILLIAM BERGE: Miss Adams I want to thank you for letting me come down here this morning and talk with you. Let's start off by you telling me about yourself. Tell me your maiden name and when you were born and where were you born and all that sort of thing if you would,

WILMA ADAMS: Well my name is Wilma Adams. I was Wilma Blevins. I was born here in Pittsburg, Kentucky on October 13, 1926.

BERGE: Now Blevins? B-L-E-V-I-N-S?


BERGE: Okay. And you were born here in Pittsburg?


BERGE: Ah, where were your--what was your fathers name?

ADAMS: My name, my father's name was Olie Blevins

BERGE: Uh-huh. And what was your mother's name?

ADAMS: My mothers name was Bama Jarvis.

BERGE: What was her first name?



ADAMS: Well really her name was Alabama.


ADAMS: She was named after her grandmother. And everyone always called her Bama.

BERGE: Jarvis?

ADAMS: Jarvis.

BERGE: And where were they from?

ADAMS: Ah. Well, my father's people come from uh Menifee County, Kentucky. And 1:00my mother was born in ah, Clay county at Manchester.

BERGE: Um-hum. When--We--Where was your father born? Was he born here in Pittsburg?

ADAMS: Yes, he was born here in Pittsburg, what is called Kentucky Holler.

BERGE: Um-hum. So you ah, how long did you live in Pittsburg then after you were born?

ADAMS: Ah, well I suppose maybe, ah, I ah, went to Harlan when my Dad went to work in the mines there. And maybe lived there for, you know a short time because my father died when I was one year and one week old.

BERGE: Oh, is that right?


BERGE: So you never really remember living in Harlan County?

ADAMS: No, no.

BERGE: Where about in Harlan County did they live, do you remember?

ADAMS: They lived in Killdale, that's just above Harlan before you get to Evarts.

BERGE: Oh yeah, uh-huh. And they were just there the one, about a year then probably?

ADAMS: Well I really don't know how long they were there but I know after my 2:00father died my mother come back to Pittsburg here.

BERGE: Um-hum. And ah, and then you, and then you lived here the rest of your childhood?

ADAMS: Yeah. Well ah, ah, during the War I lived in Cincinnati. Or my mother did, she remarried when I was thirteen years old. And, ah, they lived in Cincinnati and during the war I worked in Baltimore and after World War Two was over I returned to Cincinnati. And then I come back to Pittsburg.

BERGE: So ah, did you go to school here in Pittsburg?


BERGE: You go to Pittsburg school?


BERGE: Anywhere else did you go to school?

ADAMS: To Hazel Green High School.

BERGE: Um-hum. And then, was that, then that, by that time the war was starting and you went to. . .

ADAMS: Yes, um-hm.

BERGE: Baltimore. Ah, when you came back to Pittsburg after the war what year was that about '46 or?

ADAMS: Ah, around '45.


BERGE: Um-hum. So how old would you have been then around twenty-two or something like that?

ADAMS: Ah no, I was about nineteen I guess, maybe, um, twenty I can't remember exactly.

BERGE: Um-hum. So you were young when you came back?


BERGE: Alright and then what did you do when you came back to Pittsburg?

ADAMS: Well, I really didn't do anything. I married Edwin when I was ah, twenty years old.

BERGE: And so and then you just set up housekeeping.


BERGE: And then you and Edwin lived around here then until he left the state police and went to.

ADAMS: Ah, yes

BERGE: Went to Lynch

ADAMS: Um-hum.

BERGE: What did you think about going up there?

ADAMS: Well, um, at first I didn't like the idea but I made up my mind wherever Edwin, you know, made a living for us I would make myself be satisfied.

BERGE: Uh-huh. So that really was ah, just something you did. You didn't think about it really?


BERGE: What but if you did think about it what did you think about going up to and living in the company coal town.

ADAMS: Well I really didn't like the idea.


BERGE: Uh-huh. How about when you got up there and saw it?

ADAMS: Um, I was better satisfied after I got up there. In fact when Edwin left and went up there, he stayed about two months in a hotel, the Lynch hotel. And ah, I would go up and, you know, stay three or four days and then I would come back and I thought "oh gosh he's made the worst mistake there ever was. "

BERGE: That was a long trip up there then wasn't it, with the roads and everything?

ADAMS: No really the roads were in, ah, pretty fair condition.

BERGE: Were they?

ADAMS: Um-hum.

BERGE: When was that in the late forties, yeah I guess they were, they were open by then.

ADAMS: Yeah, um-hum, yeah.

BERGE: You probably went down to Barbourville and across that way from here?

ADAMS: Ah, from Barbourville into Pineville and uh--

BERGE: Pineville and Harlan and. . . .

ADAMS: Yeah.

BERGE: And then on up the creek. [Laughter]

ADAMS: Yeah [laughter].

BERGE: So you ah--Wilma what did you first think of those towns both Cumberland and Benham and Lynch when you saw those?

ADAMS: Well now really, I was familiar with them because uh when I was young ah, 5:00for instance, when I was about the fifth or sixth grade. My mother's youngest sister lived at Benham. And when school was out here she and my uncle would come down and get me and I'd go up there and maybe stay a couple of months. In fact I knew a lot of people up there before I ever went to live there.

BERGE: Oh so you weren't exactly going into a place that was foreign to you?

ADAMS: Oh no, no.

BERGE: Uh-huh. That did make a difference didn't it?

ADAMS: Yes it did.

BERGE: Tell me a little bit about it. You were up there ten years I guess. Would that when the company still owned the houses?


BERGE: And if you had, ah, you and Edwin had been raising children up there, would you have liked it as well as you did? Would you have thought that was a good place to raise children?

ADAMS: Yes it was a good place to raise children.

BERGE: Why do you say that?

ADAMS: Um. A lot of people, you know, they think all mining towns are alike. But 6:00Benham and Lynch was entirely different then the rest of them. They had the very best schools because these companies saw to that. Um, I think about every teacher that taught there ah, had their degree. Some had masters degree and ah.

BERGE: Some--They make more money than they did other places.

ADAMS: They did. At that time I think Lynch was rated about fifth in the state for salaries and everything. And I know a lot of teachers came from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Ohio, different places.

BERGE: You were talking about schools , you know, as being good schools for children up there, uh, what about other things do you think they had enough ah, social events to ah. . .

ADAMS: Well, ah, they had movies and, um, football and basketball and I know 7:00Edwin and I would go to the movies, you know a couple of times a week. Ah, there was always something, something. . .

BERGE: I really would be any worse place to raise children now then as well when you first came out there.

ADAMS: That's true.

BERGE: Because the schools are gone. . .

ADAMS: . . . the schools are gone.

BERGE: And there's no [unclear] and that type of thing.

ADAMS: True.

BERGE: Of course there's so few children there now.

ADAMS: Yeah.

BERGE: And, and Edwin was telling me yesterday that one if the problems there is that there's no room for young people to live.

ADAMS: It's true.

BERGE: The houses are taken down.

ADAMS: The majority of them are retired and um, if the young people come in to work they'd have to try to find a place at Cumberland

BERGE: Or live in a trailer.

ADAMS: Or live in a trailer. Some people ah, come as far away as from Virginia, you know, to work there.

BERGE: Work in the mines.

ADAMS: And a lot of them that I know live in Virginia. And that's quite a distance to have to travel every day.

BERGE: When you and Edwin lived up there, particularly in your younger years, let's say, in the fifties, did you go out in any of these other smaller mining fields, much?

ADAMS: Um, not too much, maybe um once or twice. I have been through, like uh 8:00going into Virginia. I would go through Harlan to go into Pennington Gap.

BERGE: Um hum

ADAMS: But, you would go through Crummies that was a mining town.

BERGE: Um-hum

ADAMS: And I have been through um Evarts because you could go into Keokee Virginia, from. . .

BERGE: Through Evarts.

ADAMS: Through Evarts

BERGE: Um hum.

ADAMS: Ah but I really didn't care for those towns a bit.

BERGE: You don't think the towns were as nice as Benham and . . .

ADAMS: Oh, there was no comparison whatsoever.

BERGE: Um hum. There wasn't much, of course, if your father had lived you'd have been living in Evarts.

ADAMS: Probably. Probably.

BERGE: [laughter] See that's what I mean when I. . .

ADAMS: Yeah.

BERGE: Yeah that's where he was.


BERGE: Ah, what ah, what did you do during your days up there back; say back in the fifties I mean? What did you do to amuse yourself let's say when Edwin was at work and stuff?

ADAMS: Well there was always someplace to go. And when neighbors, ah, up in the 9:00morning after we would, you know, get everything done in the house we would go to one of the neighbors and have coffee and each day we would visit, you know, with different ones and we would get out and just walk to the big commissary, you know, because. And it was very large and they kept the very best of merchandise that could be bought.

BERGE: How long did that, stay open like that?

ADAMS: You mean, ah.

BERGE: I meant when--how long was the commissary open when you lived up there? When did they close it?

ADAMS: Ah, probably about ten years ago. I know they had buyers that went to New York, you know, at least twice a year and bought for, you know spring and fall and winter. And the people demanded the very best that could be bought. I know we had a lot of people that would come from say Kingsport, Tennessee, which was sixty miles away, just to trade with at the Lynch commissary because they had such good quality items.

BERGE: Um-hum. Did you ever shop much in town or did you always shop at 10:00Commissary mostly?

ADAMS: Um well I shopped a lot at the commissary, but I went to Cumberland. I would go to Harlan. And I liked over in Virginian and Tennessee. We would on the average go there at least every two weeks.

BERGE: With other women or with Edwin?

ADAMS: Ah, with other women. And you know a lot of times Edwin and I would go to together.

BERGE: So the women up there did like to shop then?

ADAMS: Oh, yes. [laughter] What women doesn't like to shop?

BERGE: Some but not many, I guess. Ah, a lot of women shop but don't buy things.

ADAMS: That's true. More or less window shop.

BERGE: Yeah, yeah. What--what else did ah, what else did women do then, play a lot of cards, everything like that?

ADAMS: Yes ah, I know, for instance, I myself liked to play Rook you know and ah 11:00we would meet at different homes at night and have some of the awfulest Rook games that ever was. Then we played Bridge and Canasta. I know Fran and I, we used to go and teach different ones how to play Canasta and we had just little groups all over the tr--we'd call it the tri-city area,

BERGE: You're talking about Benham and Lynch?


BERGE: The ah, the women that you knew there, were most of them satisfied living there?

ADAMS: Oh yes.

BERGE: And yet a lot of those kids when they left there never came home.

ADAMS: That's true.

BERGE: I wonder why not?

ADAMS: Well maybe after they got away then saw, you know, so many different advantages they could take ah, ah, I really don't know.

BERGE: When I was talking with Edwin yesterday I asked him if he had to do it all again would he go back would he go up in there and he said no.

ADAMS: Well, you know.

BERGE: Why is that I wonder?

ADAMS: I really can't tell you that. But I will say this, that I still consider that home.

BERGE: You do?

ADAMS: I do. Because, for instance, this colored lady and I were talking Labor Day


BERGE: Where, up there you mean?

ADAMS: Here we were talking and she said, ah, "Wilma don't you live near Pittsburg now?" I said "yeah", she says "well I just been paying attention to what you your saying. Every few minutes you say up home".

BERGE: And you mean?

ADAMS: And I mean Lynch you know and I says "well it will always be home for me because I spent almost thirty-one years there".

BERGE: But Edwin thinks of this country being more of home.

ADAMS: But, yeah that's true.

BERGE: I wonder why that is?

ADAMS: Well I really don't know.

BERGE: You know quite often I notice that when men are born someplace and they go away they think more about where they started.

ADAMS: Yeah.

BERGE: Or at least where they were living when they were younger than women do, Women sort of adjust to where they go better maybe or something. I don't know.

ADAMS: I think that's true.

BERGE: You think that's true with most women you know up there?


BERGE: That's interesting. What percentage of people like you and Edwin when you retire to leave there, do you have any idea?

ADAMS: Well I would say, um, not more than, um, 25 percent.


BERGE: In other words most of them stay?

ADAMS: Most of them stay.

BERGE: [unclear]

ADAMS: But in fact that's the problem there now. They have all stayed and they occupy all these homes and young people just don't have a chance to move in there.

BERGE: Now the people who stayed in Lynch, where do they shop now?

ADAMS: Well they continue to go, you know, to Cumberland and Harlan. In fact Kingsport has a lot of new business there now. For instance up the river, up the Cumberland River towards Whitesburg they have a shopping center. About seven miles out and ah they go there. They go into Kingsport now. I know on Sundays if you go over in Virginia I'll say ah, 20 percent of cars that you meet or pass they've got Harlan county tags, they're going into Kingsport, Tennessee.

BERGE: To shop?

ADAMS: To shop.

BERGE: Huh. That's a big difference than, a big change.


ADAMS: It is.

BERGE: I'd like to do something a little different this morning with you. Ah, you were born and raised here in Pittsburg?


BERGE: And years ago Pittsburg was a, was a coal mining center and had ah, particularly there were a lot of labor leaders in here in coal mining.


BERGE: Would you mind telling me a little bit about what you remember or have heard about that?

ADAMS: Well, I can remember hearing um the old timers talk about when they would go, you know, to organize. And ah, about things as they used to be here, you know, back in the early, you know 1900's. Ah.

BERGE: Who are some of the people that you remember talking about that and when did they talked about it?

ADAMS: Well, John Jeffrey, for instance. He was a United Mine Workers organizer. 15:00And uh he would go into Harlan and he would tell little incidents that would happen, there and uh.

BERGE: Um hum. Did you know him?

ADAMS: Yes I knew him personally.

BERGE: Where did he live?

ADAMS: He lived about two miles from here, on the road that they call the cemetery road.

BERGE: Okay.

ADAMS: He ah, come here from, um, Wales I believe.

BERGE: Now when was this, when he was here? When would he go into Harlan, what years were they about?

ADAMS: Well when they was first trying to organize. . .

BERGE: 1918 or something like that?

ADAMS: Ah, I would say so.

BERGE: What ah, do you remember any story?

ADAMS: Well one in particular, uh he was telling about you know trains. That was back only transportation into Harlan.

BERGE: Yeah.

ADAMS: Going up on the train and he got to Benham that was as far as the train 16:00went then. And Harry Cole, who is the father of Charlie Cole, of Harlan, still living, in Harlan, met the train.

BERGE: What was his business then Mr. Cole, do you remember?

ADAMS: Ah, I think in the banking business. He was originally from here in Pittsburg.

BERGE: Oh, the Cole's were.

ADAMS: Yes. He um, told Mr. Jeffrey "John you're not going to get off the train" 17:00and Mr. Jeffrey said "I am going to get off the train because I'm trying to organize" and he said, ah, "well I tell you you're not because I'm going to save your life today" well he said "I'm not afraid, I'm", you know, "I'm going to get out and talk to these people." He says "John I want you to look over my right shoulder" And Mr. Jeffrey said when he looked here was a guy with a high powered rifle--probably a high powered rifle, I don't know if they had them in those days or not--um, just waiting for him. And he says "Now John just look over my left shoulder." And he says I looked and here stood another one. Then Mr. Cole says "And I've got a gun too that says you're not going to get off this train." So he says "I just went over and set down and I rode the train back out" and Mr. Cole rode it as far as Cumberland with him.

BERGE: Where they turned around I guess?


BERGE: So back into Cumberland?


BERGE: Then he go on back to Pittsburg

ADAMS: He came back to Pittsburg.

BERGE: Any other stories like that that you can remember?

ADAMS: Oh I guess I could you know um, if I had the time to think about it, right no I can't.

BERGE: How do you spell Jeffery's last name?


BERGE: Um. Were there any other people that were like, as important as this Mr. Jeffrey living here?

ADAMS: Yes there was a Mr. Dunaway. Right off I can't remember what his first 18:00name is but I do know; in the Pittsburg cemetery there is a large monument at his grave with the United Mine Workers emblem on it and everything that states that he was a United Mine Workers Organizer. And uh he probably died before I was born.

BERGE: When you were, ah, living in Lynch you and Edwin were living in Lynch, were there any strikes when you were up there?


BERGE: Did you worry about Edwin then because he was in, in the security?

ADAMS: More so then than ever.

BERGE: Uh huh. Was there ever any shooting when they were out there?

ADAMS: Not to my knowledge.

BERGE: But you knew [unclear] there was a possibility of it?

ADAMS: Yes, yes.

BERGE: Now they did have it in other places. I wonder why they didn't have it in Lynch and why didn't they have some shootings in Lynch like they had in some of the other they had so many other towns up there.

ADAMS: I really don't know.

BERGE: They never had any when you were up there.

ADAMS: No, no.

BERGE: Was there ever any bad feelings among women who were friends, like between the ones that whose husbands worked for the company and the ones that were miners.

ADAMS: Well I don't, I don't think there was any bad feelings. I know I myself 19:00would feel real bad when they would have a strike. For instance, once they had a strike that lasted about eight or nine months. Well I would really you know, feel bad to see Edwin go to work because he was on salary and knowing that these other people, you know, didn't have the money. They traded at the Lynch store and they charged everything. And now that did worry me.

BERGE: Was this after the company store hired him?

ADAMS: Well that was before.

BERGE: What did they did they leave the people living in those houses even though they were on strike?

ADAMS: Yes. And never charged them any rent. Those ah some families, you know would be years. They would just cut through the payroll very little. Say, for instance, five dollars a month, you know, owing the back rent, and everything.

BERGE: Maybe after they go back to work.

ADAMS: After they went back to work.

BERGE: So they'd give them a long time to pay it off.


BERGE: That was an interesting thing that ah, the way the companies ran those 20:00stores. The way they take money out of the pay for those things.


BERGE: Ah, did you all. They weren't using script of course when you were up there so there wasn't none of that.

ADAMS: No. No.

BERGE: But people could charge at the store?


BERGE: So there was no problem.


BERGE: But not like that. Was there any advantage to not charging at the store? Was there any advantage to pay cash or was it?

ADAMS: Yes, really because if you shopped around ah, you could find, you know, bargains because the ah, store did charge you know, much higher than the other stores.

BERGE: It was higher huh?

ADAMS: It was higher.

BERGE: So unless, if you had some reason to go to another store more or less the other store you'd be better off buying it there.

ADAMS: Yes, yes.

BERGE: Yes And yet a lot of people charge at the store because they never s, so they never got out of [unclear] didn't they

ADAMS: That's true, yeah.


ADAMS: I know ah even now you know most miners make about $100 a day.


ADAMS: Uh, for instance. I know this one family that they still you know charge 21:00everything, their groceries and I could never see that.

BERGE: Um hum. Well of course a lot of that's just a habit.

ADAMS: It is. Because I know this one, well both of them, the man and woman, were born and raised there in Lynch you know and they probably, ah, saw their parents charge everything and that was just a habit.

BERGE: My ah, grandfather worked the mines and up until the time he and my grandmother died they just had groceries delivered from the store and paid them once a week or once a month or something, I don't remember, but the store was right near their house. They could walk there.

ADAMS: Well yeah, when I first went to Lynch we lived on Main Street just above 22:00the high school and ah, they had a small company store on each end of town. Well the women would all um, you know got the store every morning and they would you know stand around and talk and everything. And they also had, ah, boys and girls that they called in the order, you know they'd go around up to your home. And uh they'd take an order for the next day and then the company store would, ah, deliver these groceries to you. Well I found um, at first when I went there I did that but I found out that I bought things that I wouldn't have bought a, you know, otherwise.

BERGE: It was too handy.

ADAMS: It was too handy so I quite that right off.

BERGE: Um-hum. And a lot of people kept it up I guess.

ADAMS: They kept it up yes.

BERGE: What in retrospect thinking about it now. What is it that you liked, what is it you didn't like about it up there. I mean I know you liked it generally better than you do living back home I guess. Well not home but down here.

ADAMS: Yeah.

BERGE: But what, what about living up there did you not like?

ADAMS: Well I guess the most, ah thing would be um, you know, not being able to, 23:00um, get out of , we called it the holler, in a hurry. If we uh wanted to go to Lexington, half a day was gone before you ever got to Lexington. Or if you wanted to go to Knoxville, the same thing. And I guess that was, because I've always been, I've traveled all my life and I just couldn't stand the thoughts of being you know tied down.

BERGE: Stuck.

ADAMS: Stuck yeah [laughing] and um. And it was, you know I really had some good times and there was sad times there too. Especially like you know if they had a fatal mine accident. That, the whole community, you know, just really, ah, ah they were so upset you just can't imagine.

BERGE: Of course everybody knew everyone that was another thing.

ADAMS: That's, that's true.

BERGE: Were there ever any, ah, racial problems?

ADAMS: None that I can recall.


BERGE: Do you remember when the schools integrated?


BERGE: Was there any then?


BERGE: Uh-huh. Less than there would have been if you'd have stayed home town.

ADAMS: Oh yeah. Um hum

BERGE: Maybe less because they all worked for the same company.

ADAMS: I think so. Because um, when they always felt like um, you know, they ha--they had to do what was on paper you know. Because if you didn't why you might you know, lose your job and have to get out of there.

BERGE: Did you know any black women?


BERGE: Well I mean did you talk with them and that kind of stuff.

ADAMS: Yes, I've been in their home.

BERGE: So you were I mean you were friendly with these people?

ADAMS: Oh sure.

BERGE: Did they have them segregated as to what part of town the black's lived in?


BERGE: Was it still that way

ADAMS: Ah, more or less

BERGE: Maybe they bought the homes they didn't [unclear].

ADAMS: They bought the homes but now, ah, they, you know, a lot of them have bought homes in ah white neighborhoods.

BERGE: Uh-huh

ADAMS: I know I myself my homes up for sale now. If a blacks, you know wanted it 25:00I would sell it to them.

BERGE: Um-hum. Just a matter of money Right now people can't even get the money to buy these homes.

ADAMS: That's true. That's true


ADAMS: In fact, we had a black guy call us about a month ago and wanted to know if we would rent it to him and we said no we really didn't want to rent and he said well what ah, "what would you do if I told you I wanted to buy it" and Edwin said I'd sell it to you. You come up with the money and the house is yours.

BERGE: So that, that little bit of that has happened but essentially when the people bought the home they bought the homes they lived in is that right?

ADAMS: That's true the ones that lived in homes got first choice.

BERGE: What was the cheapest any home sold for up there when they sold, when the company sold the homes do you remember?

ADAMS: Well probably um, the um, what we call double houses they um, two family houses they sold for around 350 and 400 dollars.

BERGE: Um-hum. I asked Edwin and he, he really didn't know, how, how much were 26:00the really expensive ones like the?

ADAMS: Well now the most expensive ones. Ah, US steel built, ah, oh I would say around twelve or fifteen new homes about fifteen years ago and they were the most expensive ones, I think around $5000.

BERGE: Um-hum. When did those homes sell?

ADAMS: At the same time.

BERGE: And when was that? I asked Edwin but I forgot what he said.

ADAMS: I suppose around, somewhere around 1960.

BERGE: Um Hum. So it's not been too long ago.

ADAMS: No it hasn't been too long.

BERGE: Um-hum. Do you, ah, do you remember, did they keep up the homes well in the company over?

ADAMS: Oh yes. You could um, you know, if you needed something done all you had to do was to call and they would make a, a note of it. And maybe they would come that day and do what you had to have done.

BERGE: Did Lynch look better when the company owned homes or does it look better now?


ADAMS: Oh I'd say now because everyone has pride in the homes. A lot of them have had them bricked and just remodeled. You just can't imagine the difference.

BERGE: [unclear] bigger and that sort of thing.

ADAMS: Oh yeah.

BERGE: They don't all look alike now?

ADAMS: No way.

BERGE: They did look alike?

ADAMS: Well um

BERGE: Painted them green then didn't they?

ADAMS: No really now a lot of those coal towns had them all painted white or whatever the color, they were all the same color. But now Lynch and Benham they used ah, you know, pastel colors. There would be a light yellow and a green and a white and . . .

BERGE: tan

ADAMS: . . . tan and just a, it was just a nice mining town.

BERGE: So it didn't have that look of sameness that the they had then.

ADAMS: That's true

BERGE: Was there more order in town then when the company owned the town than there is now?


BERGE: It was a little safer, I guess, then?


ADAMS: True.

BERGE: In that way. Well okay I want to thank you for letting me talk to you, this has been a big help and.

ADAMS: Well I've enjoyed you being here.

BERGE: I enjoyed talking to you and I enjoyed having breakfast with you.

ADAMS: Well, thank you [laughing]

BERGE: Thank you [laughing]