Inside Forgotten America – 5th Generation Coal Miners

Jul 22, 2023 1.9M Views 5.6K Comments

Deep in the heart of Appalachia is a forgotten part of America. Once the engine of the country building the nation’s great cities of the 20th century, it’s now an economic shell of its former self. Join me today as we go to Harlin, KY to learn from some of the multi-generational coal families about how things have changed, what the youth are doing now, and what it’s like to live in this forgotten corner of America.

► Headlund – Return to No Man’s Land
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► Video edited by: Natalia Santenello

[Peter] This is Wes on the motorcycle.
He met me at the hotel because he said,
“Hey, there’s no easy way into my place,
you’ll get lost.”
[Peter] When you have
a coal miner mat, it’s official.
[Wes] Yep.
[Peter] You’re fifth generation,
right Wes?
-What would you do out here
if there wasn’t coal?
-Buddy if there wasn’t
what coal mining’s left around here
this place would just dry up.
-Dry up?
-It already has, I mean pretty much.
-But these look like
pretty well taken care of homes.
-This is all retired coal miners.
95% of the men you meet here,
all went to coal mines at 18 years old.
Some of them younger,
my dad started when he was 17.
-So they go right out of high school?
-You dad lives up here?
-Yeah, dad lives
right up top of the hill here.
Dad’s health started
declining a little bit,
I come up to be around him.
My grandpa got killed in ’57.
-How’d he die?
-Coal mines.
When I started in the mines,
I started in ’89.
Just in this community,
just Cawood, Not Harlan County,
But just Cawood, there were probably
over 100 coal mines in this little area.
-Oh wow.
-Now there’s none.
Coal mining started here in 1903 I think.
It was actually before then
because they hand-dug.
Back in the day
everybody had their own little mine.
They’d just dig out the bank.
-They’d have family mines here?
-They would dig the coal out.
They actually used it for heat,
cooking, you know, whatever.
And then when coal finally picked up
they did come in here
and start mining it then.
Some of the guys got rich,
some of the people got ripped-off.
I got a 12-year-old,
he’s probably still asleep.
-You don’t want him in the mines
or do you when he grows up?
-No, no, no, no, no,
his education comes before everything.
His academics is unreal.
For him to just be going into sixth grade,
he’s got awards hanging in there.
I mean, medals
from the Governor Scholar Program.
-So you’re super proud?
-Oh, my God.
-So it’s been five generations
and you’re okay with it stopping?
-Yeah, my oldest son,
he actually went into mining
-And he worked.
When I decided to come out…
Which I know’d I had black lung.
I was already seeing
a black lung doctor before I come out
but the mines was declining
and I already talked to my son,
and told him, I said,
“You need to be looking
towards something else.”
Now today he makes
almost $200,000 a year.
-Doing what?
He’s electrical– He works for
one of the lineman companies.
-Black lung… Explain that to us.
From the sounds of it,
you work long enough down in the mine,
your lungs turn the color of coal, right?
Well what it does, it scars your lungs.
Also a lot of the rock,
when it gets in there–
Doctors when the describe it to you,
they say it’s like little shards of glass.
-And it just cuts, and cuts, and scars.
-Dad had six… let’s see, five brothers.
He’s the only one living.
And the sister’s Jeff also,
they worked in the mines,
and we watched every one of ’em die.
And the doctors describe it as
when they pass away
it’s like a fish being out of water.
I mean you go in there
and you know eventually that’s–
That’s what’s gonna happen
but when you got a job that’s paying…
When I started,
I mean it it sounds crazy,
I made eight bucks an hour.
But back then…
Back in ’89, hell, that was good money.
Minimum wage was probably
$4.00 an hour, $3.75, something like that.
-So really, you started out
making good money.
And as it went along, when I come out,
I was making $32 an hour as a foreman.
Now my cousin,
I don’t know if he’s home or not.
We may be able to get him
to come out and talk to you.
He’s still working,
he’s got about 34 year in I think now.
-[surprised] 34 years in the mines?
-Yeah, he’s real close to it.
If he ain’t got that, he’s close to it.
-So in this– Is this a holler or no?
-This is what you would call a ridge.
In the ridge,
you got a bunch of family, huh?
-Yeah, this is all family,
everybody except this house here.
-That’s very Appalachian, right?
-You grow up, you stay,
the family generations churn for years?
And then these parts,
it’s coal that’s kept everything going?
-Yeah, and the families are so tight-knit.
When Dad’s dad got killed in ’57,
three years later his brother gets killed,
they’ve got all these kids…
Back then it was normal for a family
to have eight, ten kids, whatever.
So they all had to chip in,
and raise gardens, and kill hogs,
and just take care of each other,
you know what I’m saying?
[Jeny] We say what we mean
and we mean what we say.
If we like you, we like you,
and if we don’t, we don’t.
And you’ll always know
where to stand with us.
because if we don’t like you
then we’ll just tell you, you know?
We won’t be mean to you.
We won’t be mean to you at all.
You know, we’ll say,
“C’mon up.”
and I don’t know who you are but,
“You want something to drink?”
You know, but if we like you,
we like you, and if we don’t we just
say our howdys and keep on going.
-No BS?
-No, there’s no bullcrap in here.
J-E-N-Y, Jeny as you would say,
my name is Jeny Smith.
I’ve been with a coal miner since 1999.
-[Wes] Me and him started same time.
-[Jeny] Y’all start at the same time?
His dad was a coal miner
and his grandfather was a coal miner.
-Along with his uncle, which is his dad.
-Great-grandpa too?
-Burt was too.
Great-grandpa was a coal miner.
-So you had four generations right there.
-Five? See he knows
more about it than I do.
But as far as uncles…
they all coal mined.
But as far as wanting better for our kids,
yes, because coal is something
that’s just not promised.
-So that’s gotta be hard for you
because it keeps the lights on,
it pays the bills, it’s good money.
It’s one of the few industries–
the main industry out here.
But then you don’t want…
the youth to continue on.
-Absolutely not.
-Do you want them to move out of town or?
-Well, they’ll go to school.
-Go to school, do an education.
-[Wes] Get an education.
-Just like my daughter, we wanted her
to go to college and better herself.
We didn’t want her– She’s a girl.
A girl probably wouldn’t
work in the coal mines.
But we wanted her to go to school.
His 16-year-old brother,
we don’t want him in the coal mines
We want him to go to college
and make something of themselves.
-So that just recently changed then?
This whole, “Get the family out of coal.”?
-No, actually my dad
begged me to go to college
and not go to coal mines.
-Oh, okay, okay.
-Because of the way his health declined.
I mean my dad’s been down now since what?
-[Jeny] 15 years at least.
-[Wes] At least.
-Last week my Jeff
worked 73 hours in the coal mines.
[Peter] That’s normal?
-Yes, that’s normal for him.
-Especially if you’re–
-So you’re not seeing him?
-No, he leaves at 4:30.
He has to be at work by 6:00
and he comes in at 6:00 or 7:00
of the evening every day.
To provide for his family
and his grand babies.
-They had to call me at the school
because my son was taking panic attacks
because he hears me
talking to my girlfriend
about going back to the coal mines.
-My Jeff works
for a place called Inmet Mining.
They’re out of Knoxville, Tennessee
and they had to file bankruptcy.
And we’re in limbo right now
trying to see if somebody else
is going to come in and take over
the place of employment that he works
or they’re going to shut the doors.
But they are doing it the right way.
They did give us the WARN Act
as far as layoff letters
that we’ve gotten in the mail.
They’ve done everything.
The only thing they’re not doing
is letting the miners know
for sure what’s going to go on.
[Wes] And they won’t.
[Peter] So that happens a lot
when the mines are busy?
-No, when the mines are–
I really don’t know how to answer that.
Wes, how would you answer that?
-Well I mean like when Jay Justice
come in here and raised all the wages.
People went from
working for $13.50 an hour…
I mean I worked
for $13.50 an hour for years
and that was good money around here.
Jay comes in, raises the wages
$18 an hour, you know?
To twenty-some dollars an hour.
Then when he decides
he’s just ready to shut down
you just go into work one day,
and, you know, where I was a foreman,
they called me in and they said,
“Tell everybody go home.”
-“We’re shut down.”
-That has happened a lot.
“This letter shall serve
as a layoff notice
14 days from the beginning of June 2nd.”
-So very stressful for you right now?
-Yeah, not knowing.
-You know what I mean?
Thank the good lord above,
I was able to pay my house off.
Like a few months ago.
-That takes a load off.
-Good for you.
-And the only thing
that we owe for is the pleasures of life.
Such as a side-by-side, a boat,
a pontoon, you know what I mean?
-Wait, you forgot the race car.
-Oh no, don’t be
throwing off on the race car.
-[Wes chuckles]
-That race car provides our living.
That’s what he drives to work every day.
-Oh, okay.
-That’s what he drives back and forth
to the coal mines every day.
– You’re sating this is…
In the last four, five years?…
– For the last 10 years things
have changed as far as
crime and drugs and stuff
like that here in our area
Probably back in…
1993, ’94, ‘95,
even in the early 2000s you
could leave your windows open
and even your screen doors open
but as time has went on and
drugs has come in to the area
you’re for sure to close your
windows and close your doors
and lock your personal stuff up
because if you don’t
you don’t never know when
somebody’s just gonna drive by
and maybe take ’em, I mean…
– [Peter] In this neighborhood
that looks quite calm.
– [Jeny] Yeah.
– [Peter] Wes, you’re the same?
– [Wes] Well, I’m a little different.
I leave my door open ’cause
I just like the fresh air but
at the same time
if you come in my door…
You know…
The corner’s gonna be the
next stop you’ll make
– [Peter] You got a good
shotgun in there?
– I’m well protected.
I’m not gonna let nobody take
nothing that I’ve worked for
I’m not gonna let nobody come
in my house and bother my family
– They know too, they know who they can
steal from and who they can’t, I mean…
They prey on like the older people,
you know what I mean?
– Yeah.
– [Peter] That’s harsh, and so…
-And they know like when
y’all go out of town a lot, I mean…
No doubt they know.
– But again, we are protected also.
And we won’t discuss what
our means are but we are protected.
But you come on our property,
we will know it.
One way or the other,
and once we find out
we will prosecute to the
fullest if we need to.
– And like..
If they go out of town
I drive by here several times a day
– Yes..
– If I go out of town they drive by.
Dad’s always home, he’s
looking out for everybody.
– [Jeny] That’s my husband,
he might be able to…
-So he has one of his random days off?
He got today off as it’s the 4th of July.
They’re gonna work him on the 4th?
Yeah, they’re gonna work him on the 4th.
-That’s not very patriotic.
[roaring engine drowns out Jeny]
[Peter] Something tells me
you’re not gonna off-road this too hard
because it’s in perfect shape.
Custom-made doors?
[Jeff] They actually make ’em.
I didn’t want to pay $700
for a set of doors
and she was on Marketplace,
and found ’em for 350 bucks.
[Peter giggling]
Look at that,
so it’s the American edition, huh?
You got a…
That’s a flag up there on the light bar.
So it don’t blind everybody,
you can actually run it
with that right there on
and not get in trouble.
[Peter] Oh jeez,
you guys are ready for Miami Beach
with the kit under there, huh?
Don’t be a pud-muffin.
-So you’re saying don’t wear a seat belt?
-Yep, no seat belt, you’ll be good.
-I have Kentucky’s best driver,
why would I need it out here?
-[Jeny] Have fun.
-[Peter] Thank you.
♪ somber country ♪
-[Peter] Old strip job?
-[Jeff] Yep.
-That’s where they just
shear off the top of the mountain?
-Yeah, and get the coal.
-Do you work on top or in the–
-I work under the mountain.
-Under the mountain?
-Going back in.
Sometimes it’s got like five entries.
-See how this rock right here is?
There’s a coal seam right there.
They go under it and we use
bolts and everything like that.
What we call route bolts
to help support the top as we drive.
There’d be like five different entries
across through there.
-So when you say coal seam,
you see like a layer of coal in the earth?
-And that’s where you guys tap in?
-I’m going into my 35th year this year.
-How many do you want to do?
-I don’t wanna quit work.
I can’t see myself living
off trying to draw a check.
I mean that’s just
the way I been raised… taught.
-And you must be good at what you do.
-Well.. so-so. I’m all right.
-Are you down there
on your hands and knees crawling through?
-The coal seam I’m in right now,
it’s not that low,
I can kind of duck walk.
And… get around that way.
But now when I first started,
you’re talking anywhere from
19 to 24, 26 inches.
-So you’re–
-That’s the lowest I’ve been, 19 inches.
-In the coal seam.
So when you’re in the coal seam
it’s 19 inches.
Which is basically… this.
How far in are you going?
-It just depends on
how far we got to mine.
-But you’re talking
like 50 feet or you’re talking like…
-Oh no,
you may go for three or four miles.
It’ll just run up and down.
Sometimes you’ll run into
what we call squeezes.
-It’ll pop down to like 19 inches
and may go for a hundred foot,
may go 500 foot that low.
It’ll pick back up to…
-You ever freak out
and get claustrophobic in that?
[Peter] So what is this,
a mine shaft down here?
-Deep mines.
What we call a shaft mine
is when you go down.
-Straight down into the ground,
this here’s called a…
What we work in–
What I work in is the deep mines.
[Wes speaking in the distance]
Aiden is Wes’ son.
[Jeff] We got sidetracked, Wes.
[Peter] Oh, cool.
[Peter grunts]
There it is.
[Peter] Oh, it gets cool immediately.
[Wes] Oh, yeah.
[Peter] Wow, that’s like
a 20 degree difference right here.
[Jeff] That’s the thing
about coal mines too.
It’s… maybe 10 degrees
difference year ’round.
-Okay, what’s the temperature
when you go down into the mines?
-‘Bout 60s… 65.
[Wes] You can see
where they cut this out with a pick.
When a miner cuts it out
it leaves the wall more clean.
Like, you know, the wall.
-[Jeff] Straight up and down.
-This was cut with a pick?
[Wes] Yeah, this was cut out
with a pick and shovel,
and they used ponies.
[Peter] That is some crazy work,
just under here in the dark.
I mean it’s lit up but…
[Wes] I mean it’s lit up
with your head light.
But when we worked in Wilcox
you couldn’t see from me to you.
-I see your light
but I couldn’t see you ’cause of the dust.
[Jeff] When we’d come out
from underground working in Wilcox
everything was
just as black as your shirt.
Only thing you could see
would be the white of your eyes.
[Peter] Oh, it just gets
wet back there, huh?
So what were you saying about–
[Aiden] Oh, shoot!
[Wes] Yeah.
[Peter] What were you saying?
[Wes] The coal–
[Jeff] The coal streak.
This is just where
over the years it’s just fell out.
[Jeff] This here’s just dribbled off,
and shaled off, and stuff like that.
[Peter] So that’s the coal seam?
-That’s the coal seam there,
actually it’s about 20-some inches high.
[Peter] You’re trying to look
for the seam which could be,
like you were saying, 19 inches?
[Jeff] Yeah.
[Peter] And you keep going back on it?
-You just go in between.
-Clean the rock with it.
-Is that a rush when you find it?
That… I never did have to hunt for it.
-That was out of my category.
I just mined it. [chuckles]
-They’ll coal drill up top.
And they’ll coal drill down
till they find a seam.
Then they’ll come in and post it up
and make a high wall.
Which back in the day and time
when they dug this mine out they just…
Well see, right there’s the coal. See?
They just follow that coal in.
-[Peter] Yep, right there.
-[Wes] Yeah.
-And just dug it out by hand.
[rocks crumbling]
That’s how Papaw got killed.
He was… He was loading in a break
and my uncle brought the pony
and the coal out.
And Papaw stayed back to
load another car so they would
have one ready for the next morning
and he got killed
while Uncle Larry was on his way out.
Left eight kids.
-[Aiden] You told me it collapsed.
-[Wes] It did, fell in and killed him.
It killed Papaw.
I’ve got the thing thing where says
“Coal miner dies
and leaves eight children.” or whatever.
And the only thing Granny got out of it,
they made a tombstone.
They make it out of cement and…
-She never got nothing, did she? Nothing.
♪ somber country ♪
[Peter] We’re going up this?
[chuckles] Nice.
[music continues]
[Jeff] You see the campers,
the trailers back up there on the right?
-There’s a road up there.
There was coal mines as it went back in
under this mountain from right there.
-So your place is literally
in the middle of all these mines?
-Does it make you happy to see all this?
All the mines that have taken place?
-Well, there’ve been a lot of good people
probably lost their lives.
Especially back in the day.
I mean it’s not near as dangerous
as what it used to be.
-What’s that say?
-Rare breed.
That’s the truth to that right there,
it takes a rare breed
for coal mining.
-What would you want to tell those
that never mined, don’t understand it?
What would you tell ’em?
-Stay away from it,
you don’t have to do it.
‘Cause in…
While you’re young you don’t realize it
but as you get older
the wear and tear it does,
takes a toll on your body
and stuff like that.
-That’s where it comes into play.
-So what would you tell someone
where this is the economy out here,
this is what you got?
You would tell
the young people just to leave?
-Go to school, get an education.
-But then they’d have to leave for a job.
-Uh, no, not necessarily because my girl,
you know, she’s been raised right here.
She went to school, got an education,
and now she’s
a medical assistant’s teacher.
That’s all through the community college.
-Tryin’ to help
the younger ones coming up,
teaching them so maybe
they can keep a job around here.
There’s medical programs
and stuff like that.
Where they can stay at home
and not have to leave.
So in a way, you’re very proud
of your work and coal mining
but you’re also rational, saying,
“Don’t do it.”?
My dad always told me,
“Son, I’ll beat you
‘fore I let you go in the coal mines.”
He beat you a lot then?
[Wes] Mine told me the same thing.
He beat you then?
-Or he didn’t stay to his word?
-He didn’t stay to his word.
He seen that I wasn’t
gonna leave these hills
and he know’d
if I was gonna have anything,
I was gon’ have to be
a coal miner ’round here.
-And part of you loves it though, right?
Being in these hills?
-Getting in there, doing the hard work?
I couldn’t stand being out in the city
or sitting behind a desk.
I’m just… I’m too…
Let’s say too active a person
to try to sit still.
How are your lungs right now?
‘Cause you look really healthy,
I wasn’t expecting this to be honest.
-My lungs is…
Last thing I done,
they said I was in pretty good shape.
I may have just the beginning
of what they call first-stage black lung.
‘Cause you got three stages.
You got first stage,
second stage, third stage.
-Okay, yeah.
-And then you got complications.
Like Wes now,
I think his is a little worse than mine.
But black lung
affects everybody different.
‘Cause you got what they call
a dry lung and a wet lung.
If you got a wet lung,
you’re breathing that dust and stuff,
and it’s sticking to ’em,
it’s just gonna smother you down.
I dry lung, you know,
you can pretty much shed it.
-Oh, so you probably have a dry lung?
-It’s just like a mud hole.
-You got a dried-up mud hole
and a wet mud hole.
[Peter] I gotta get
your opinion on something.
-Can you turn around, Wes?
-I’m just looking at your phone case.
-That’s my wallet.
Oh, it’s your wallet, okay.
So quick question, Wes.
-And shut me up when you want, all right?
-‘Cause I saw the Confederate flag
on your motorcycle jacket, on the wallet.
So a lot of people…
I’ve been enough in the South
where I’ve asked this question a lot.
But a lot of people…
A lot of Yankees will say,
You know,
the Confederate flag only means racism.
-What are your thoughts on it?
-It’s my heritage.
I mean my family…
all the way back to the Civil War,
my family fought so we could be free.
We still have to do that.
All I hear is it was
about slavery and all this.
It wadn’t.
It was about work, it was about slavery,
it was about many different things.
-You guys didn’t have
slaves though up here, right?
-Part of Kentucky.
-Not in the hills?
-No, not in the hills. No.
But I mean… it’s not.
It’s heritage, man.
We don’t look at it that way.
My grand daughter,
she’s beautiful, she’s mixed.
My niece and nephews, they’re mixed.
I don’t have no problem.
I got some of the best friends
that I’ll ever have that’s black.
I got a guy I met
through the internet, black guy.
We speak every single day.
Every morning he tells me,
“Good morning, how you doing, Wes?”
“Where you riding today”
You know what I’m saying?
-We got bikes in common.
-That’s cool.
It’s just, you know? I mean…
People can think what they want,
I don’t give a sh*t.
I know what it stands for,
I know what it means to me,
I mean if I wanted to come out
and say I’m racist, I would say it.
You know what I’m saying,
but I’m not racist at all.
I think everybody’s equal.
I mean you got…
I don’t want to come out
and say what I would normally say
but there’s blacks in every crew,
and there’s whites,
there’s good people
and there’s bad people,
you know what I’m saying?
-Yeah, it’s interesting
because a lot of people unfortunately just
they just give it an easy label and they
see the flag and that’s all they see.
-But I mean you see rebel flags
everywhere, but no… racism…
I mean they have this
Ku Klux Klan and sh*t.
Man, I’ve been here for all my life
and I ain’t never seen a Ku Klux Klan.
You know what I mean?
It’s not like
we hate on anybody, you know?
You know, we just try to get along.
We just want everybody to get along.
I want things to look better, you know?
I don’t care if it’s a black president
in there and he’s making things better,
that’s a wonder, you know?
If there’s an Afghani president in there,
and he’s making things better,
that’s great, man.
That’s all we’re looking for,
we want things to prosper.
Run the country, give people jobs,
give people opportunity,
make people want to work again,
quit giving people sh*t, you know?
I’m glad my oldest son
did decide to leave
and better himself, got a good job.
-How many kids do you have?
-I have four.
-Two girls, two boys.
-All right, this your youngest?
-This my youngest.
I’ve had him ever since he was born.
-[Peter chuckles]
-I’m a single dad with him.
We keep a girlfriend around
on occasion but…
[Aiden] Yeah, on occasion.
-Biggest part is
me and him just… [chuckles]
Me and him just do the bachelor thing,
and live life, and enjoy, and…
[Aiden] Or at least try.
-We do good, son.
You got it made there, buddy,
don’t start that.
-[Peter laughing]
-Show him your shirt.
-What do you got?
-Huh, what is my shirt?
-It’s the Chernokal Peacemakers.
-What’s that, a local group here?
-It’s one of the motorcycle clubs
I was telling you about that we…
We got a lot of really good people.
Good people.
-Who’s this on your–
-That is my son when he was 16.
What else you got?
-Little bit of everything.
-The moto, the car…
-That’s my first car, my first bike.
-Tell him about the heart.
-When my mom died
I had a black heart put on there.
I said when mom died it turned
my heart black, you know what I mean?
Cardinals when my grandmother died.
And under them is… [sniffs]
That’s their handwriting.
I actually took the letters they wrote me,
and took their handwriting,
and put it under each of ’em.
And my mom was my world, you know?
She was my rock
and granny was everything to all of us.
I mean she’s
what held everything together.
It’s like they know stuff.
Like my Grandma Browning,
she called mom and dad one night,
wanted to know where I was at
1:30 in the morning.
I’m a 16-year-old, wild.
-You got a bee there.
-I had… [sniffs]
I had got out and wrecked a motorcycle.
Few minutes later they got a phone call
that they had me in the hospital.
I lost a lot of blood and so forth.
Just like she knew it.
And my Grandma Meadin,
she could…
She could read out of the bible.
Visions 16:5 I think it is.
And if you’re bleeding
it will stop bleeding.
Now people gonna look at this and say,
“This is dumb.”
You know what I’m saying but it’s…
It’s true… I mean it’s true.
Up here the other day,
had a guy shoot his self.
[Aiden] He made a homemade tourniquet.
-When the state police come up
he was like,
“Why did you bring a Bible up here?”
The hell’s that Bible for?
I said, “You ever hear of Visions?”
and told him the verse.
I said dude’s a bleeder, he’s dying.
You know?
They said, “So you brought
a Bible instead of a tourniquet?”
Said, “What you gonna do,
preach his funeral?”
Just kind of
redneck talk anyway but… [sniffs]
But I don’t know,
that’s just the first thing I thought.
I keep a Bible in my truck
so I grabbed the Bible.
I’m not no big Christian
or Bible thumper or nutin’ like that.
I just raised– Most people in
Appalachia’s raised to believe in church.
-Is… church attendance
down a lot these days?
-Or is it pretty busy here?
-Actually the church is…
I mean actually here in Hardin County
actually the churches
are doing pretty good ain’t ya?
-The one I went to yesterday had–
-Lot of younger people going to church.
-It used to have 5
and the other day it had 22 kids.
-[Peter] At church?
-[Aiden] Yeah, at church.
-Yeah, so I mean, you know…
It’s not exactly the Bible belt.
I mean it’s not–
They don’t run it down your neck
or nothing like that
but they will come out and talk to you.
They’ll ask you,
they won’t push it on you.
-It’s just good people.
-Tell him about how Bag used to read
the Bible to her plants to make ’em grow.
[Wes laughs]
-Bags was something else, buddy boy.
-Probably worked.
-So family ties, strong family connections
are everything out here, huh?
-Everything… everything.
-You guys are pretty–
-I would die for anybody in my family.
Today, tomorrow…
-So either you’re born into
a good family here where they’re tight
or you’re born into some drug…
methed-out family and that’s gotta be–
-Buddy, I’ll just be honest with you.
I got hurt in the mines back in ’94.
Was put on Oxycontins
when they first come out.
I got on the Oxycontins
and my family stood beside me
through every bit of it
and seen that I got clean
and got straight.
And stayed right with me,
they never pushed me away.
-How long were you on Oxy for?
-Well for a while,
doctors kept me on ’em about six years.
Did they– That was the time
when they were pushing pill mills, right?
-They were getting doctors in on it?
-Yes, sir.
-And this was
like ground zero for that right here?
-Right here and West Virginia.
-West Virginia.
-So a lot of people got addicted, right?
-A lot.
-‘Cause you had injuries,
doctors said, “Here, this will help.”?
-Oh God, they started me on 40 milligram.
Within a month I was up to
three 80 milligram pills a day,
three Xanax’s a day.
I mean then five years later
I walked into my doctor’s office, he said,
“Oh, we cant get you these anymore.”
So, you know?
-Did the doctors…
Did the doctors
go to jail or anything for that?
-They did?
-Yeah, my doctor got 17 years in prison.
-No way.
I got 20.
-You got 20, what do you mean?
-I got 20 years too.
-In prison?
You’ve been in prison for 20 years?
-I didn’t do 20, I done 9 and a half.
-For doing… Can I ask?
-Popping the pills.
-For popping the pills?
-Well… when they cut me off, I mean
you’re so sick, you know?
So I decided,
hell, I’ve got all these pills put up,
sell a few and make a buck,
you know what I mean?
-So you were selling them?
-I honestly–
This sounds crazy, I know people
ain’t gonna believe it out there
but honest to God
I mean I didn’t even sell it to a guy,
I gave it to him.
He said his wife wouldn’t take
his kid to the hospital or something
unless she got pills
and I gave him a pill.
And next thing I know
they got me in court,
got me in jail, got me in court,
and nine and a half years later.
-And that was–
-So that destroyed the region a bit, huh?
-All that Oxy?
-It hurt it.
I mean it hurt it really bad
and then it had gained its way back,
and was going great,
everybody was doing good.
I mean everybody was sober it seemed like
and then this sh*t hits around here,
the Fentanyl and the…
Which I mean you don’t find many people,
it’s the younger people, man.
And that’s what’s so sad because you see
all these young people dying and it’s sad.
I mean it really is, it’s sad.
-And, you know–
-A lot of young people dying out here?
-A lot… A lot.
The schoolhouse, you actually
can’t see it through the trees.
Which that’s part of the parking lot
right there and just across the street
they had four die in one house there.
[Peter] Jeff, you never had
a problem with pills or anything?
-[Jeff] No I–
-[Wes] Just don’t do it, man.
[Jeff] Biggest thing I probably done is
took a few shots of moonshine and…
[all chuckling]
[Wes] I was the first person
in this county that was
ever prescribed Oxycontin.
-The first person in the county
to be prescribed Oxycontin?
-Yes Sir, Doctor Ollie Squaw.
-Naw, I think he’s out,
I think he may have died.
-So in your guy’s days it was
you had an injury in the mine,
you needed pain relief.
Like Oxy, right?
[Wes] They’d load you up on pain pills
and send you to work next day.
-Okay, but now you’re saying
the young people now,
they’re not in the mines,
so they’re just getting the drugs?
-They’re getting dope
and they’re making money
running and selling it for somebody else,
you know what I mean?
Cartels and stuff sending it in here.
They say Louisville’s a hub for it.
Louisville’s what,
two and a half hours away?
-Louisville’s a hub?
-Should be more rehabs.
I mean I think there should be
more sober living homes, stuff like that.
Prison don’t help you,
honest to God, it don’t.
I mean prison can make you
a worse person, you know what I’m saying?
It just done me just the opposite.
It made me think of
everything that I missed.
My son was nine years old
when I went to prison
and when he comes out, he was 18.
You know, he drove
to prison to pick me up.
-So that’s what you think we need
in the country overall, more rehab?
More family structure which is hard to–
I don’t know how you fix that but…
-And you need…
You need…
You need it out of here.
You need to shut the borders down.
You need… I mean…
Like I said, I’m not racist
toward nobody but this is America, man.
You know, think about the Americans first
‘fore you start bringing
all these other people in here.
Worry about your problems
you got here right now and fix them.
And then worry about everybody else.
I mean take care of America, man.
You know what I mean?
This might not be nothing to nobody.
I mean to me– It might not be nothing
but look at it, it’s beautiful.
You got family.
I mean I could knock on any door out there
and I guarantee they’d feed you.
-You, you’re not even from around here.
-I guarantee you could go
to any door around and say,
“I’m thirsty, I need a bite to eat.”
You know what I’m saying?
“Could you give me a drink of water?
Could you spare a bologna sandwich?”
You know what I’m saying?
And I guarantee you
that 99.9% of ’em would take you in,
and set you down, and feed you a meal.
Give you something to drink.
Know what I’m saying?
-No… This trip
I started in West Virginia.
I’ve felt nothing but that
from the locals.
One guy bought my meal.
Just one stranger
bought my meal at a restaurant.
-Around here,
pay ’em forward they call it.
-Everyone’s been very cool.
And I think that’s what doesn’t go out
to the world about Appalachia.
Like deep Appalachia like this,
we’re in the thick of it.
And those connections,
and the way people are to each other.
They can be– I mean you’re either loved
or hated I think is how it goes, right?
-But you bring that on yourself also.
-You get what you give, right?
-If you give…
If you show somebody support
and show ’em that you really need it,
they’ll help you man, they will.
I mean honestly.
There’s times my family
should have just turned their back on me
and said, “We’re done.”
But instead they kept pushing.
You know, “You’re better than this.
You’re better than this.”
♪ somber country ♪
-This is old grates
that were in the house.
They would have two-sided chimneys
and this would be for
the family room and main bedroom.
They would have on the other side
and you’d put your coal in here
and at night you would bank it
What they call banking, in other words,
they’d get a good fire going,
they’d put ashes on top of it
and it would hold heat all night.
-That’s what you’d heat the house with.
-And the old Buck Stove we got in here.
They would use them
in the house for cooking.
This is actually an old lawnmower.
They use to use the ponies
to pull the coal out of the mines.
Got our old pony shoes.
-Ponies to pull the coal out?
In here we got mainly mining stuff.
I’m sorry we got
the electricity off right now
but they called these breast augers.
-And you can see that’s the bit.
-And some of them’s
a lot longer than that.
But the men would…
Two men would operate it.
One man would
put a plate against his chest.
-And they would drill into the coal.
And then they would be able
to put shots off in it then.
-So drill then put a stick of dynamite in?
This is just all old bottles and stuff.
My great-grandad
bought this property in 1942
and this is just bottles and stuff
that come out of the camp houses.
And like we was looking
at the old toy car.
-Oh yeah, this?
-That’s like a four pound toy car.
-There’s some of the fossils
that was found in the mines.
You find a lot of fossils.
-What is that? Do you know?
-That’s a tree.
That’s an actual old tree.
-Just petrified wood. Oh, wow.
-That’s like…
what do you think, eight pounds maybe?
-Oh yeah. Yeah, it’s heavy.
-And just different things.
Through the years
it was collected over the years.
You got the old Civil War thing,
they would melt their lead in that
and pour it into casts for balls.
You know, for the lead balls.
-This is… you’d heat this up with coal?
-On top of this stove over here.
This is what
an old Buck stove looked like.
-You just did that, right?
You just set it on top, then when
it got hot you could iron with it.
It’s got a striker on the bottom…
and you ignite it.
And when you would go
into the place with the coal
if the light went out you would know
that there was an oxygen deficiency
because you know
fire won’t burn without oxygen.
So the miner know’d
it was time to get out of there.
And if the flame burnt a certain color
they know’d there were methane.
So they know’d to back out.
-Did you ever have
a problem with oxygen in the mines?
-We cut into one old mines
and it wadn’t on the map
and it flooded us out,
we had low oxygen
but we were really deep,
and it took a while to get out
but everybody got out all right
and everything was good.
-Super scary?
Not so much, I mean that wadn’t
the first time we cut into old works.
-You just gotta stay calm, huh?
-My son was like 17 at the time
and he was mad as hell
because I was kind of
helping run the mine.
You know, kind of helping the guy out
and they had a problem.
And he got madder than hell
because I went back in.
Know what I’m saying?
To set pumps and stuff,
and oh God, he took a fit.
You know what I mean?
-So you guys would sacrifice yourselves
for these companies in a way, huh?
-Well I mean… they called it suck.
I guess sometimes.
You know, I missed five years
when I started bossing.
First five years I bossed
I didn’t come home
for Christmas, Thanksgiving, whatever.
We were in the mines,
had so many pumps in it,
the pumps had to be made every day,
doing them through the government.
And I would have to go out
on Christmas day and Thanksgiving day
and pump water, and check pumps all day,
and make ’em when I was foreman, so…
But I kind of regret that in a way
because just got to spend my grandma’s
last two years with her for Christmas
and stuff, that was her birthday.
She lived here.
-We actually–
-She lived right here?
-Yeah, she lived right here,
and then we used to have
and old, old, camp house
that sat right here.
And there were,
believe it or not, at one time
I think there was 19 houses through here.
-In this valley here?
-Just straight up this holler.
-So this is all family?
-This is all family.
Everybody up there is family.
-[Peter] You dropping me off?
-[Jeff] Yeah.
-It’s the end of the story, Jeff?
-End of the story.
-What time you up tomorrow morning?
Bright and early.
-I appreciate it.
-See ya, old buddy.
-You’re a great guy.
I don’t need to tell you
to have fun ’cause I think you are.
[Wes] That’s medals he got
for academics and ball.
-These are your medals here, Aiden?
[Wes] Governor’s scholar and…
-That one’s for future problem solving.
We competed in district but we lost.
And we went to region
’cause we had a second chance
and we won region.
-This was my dad’s.
It got covered up,
you can see where– [gunshots]
-Someone shooting up there?
-Ah yeah, they shoot,
they got a little range up there.
-Oh, okay.
-It actually broke his light
off his hat and everything.
Broke his bill off his hat.
He run a miner,
and he was in the deck of it,
it had him shoved down in the deck.
And he’d tell you about sitting
eating dinner while he was covered up.
It took about six hours
to get the rock off him.
And when we come in from school,
we seen the ambulance sitting there.
So of course we was freaked out.
But he would not go on to the hospital
till the kids… seen that he was okay.
That was granddad’s hat.
Then it was passed down to me.
I wore it probably till
the inspector made me quit wearing it.
where it was a cut-down hat.
And then–
-The inspectors wouldn’t
let this fly ’cause it’s cut down?
-Well they didn’t say nothing
for years and years.
I started bossing, I’d get so mad,
I throwed it so many times I broke it.
I broke it where it’s cut down.
I just taped it up and started wearing it,
they wouldn’t let that fly, so…
I ended up…
That’s the one I come out in.
I wore that until 2017.
I come out in ’17.
[hands slap]
-Thank you, brother, appreciate it.
Thanks for bringing me in today.
-I got some stuff
I want to give you ‘fore you leave.
Straight out of Smith, Kentucky.
It’s about 140 proof.
-Home made?
-Yep, of course.
I won’t say a whole lot more
on-camera about that but…
-[Peter chuckling] Thank you.
-Got a little something else for you too.
This was made also,
a good friend of mine made that
and I’m sure
he’d appreciate you to have it.
-I want you to have both of them.
-That’s so cool, Wes. Thank you, bro.
One more… Thank you, brother.
-Good meeting you, man.
-Great to meet you.
Thanks for… being brave
and willing to take me in.
‘Cause I know most people that come
with a camera, you guys are sick of them.
-Nah, man.
-That you said and…
You’re sick of media coming in
and making you guys look terrible, right?
-Don’t want to look stupid, man,
we’re good people, you know?
-It’s very evident
for anyone that’s truly curious.
-Just a little simpler life
than most is used to
but man, I wouldn’t have it no other way.
All right, guys.
Another view into a world
most of us have no understanding of.
A few big takeaways for me.
Firstly, it’s complicated.
You know, Jeff is in coal,
it pays for the lifestyle
and everything they have out here.
But would never want
their kids to be in coal.
And while it’s gone for four, or five,
maybe six generations on out here,
with this generation it seems like
they want it to stop in that sense.
But then they’re torn
because that’s what they know.
They’re tied to their land,
deeply rooted with family members here.
Couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.
So this is what pays
for all of that to happen.
And secondly, I know coal
is a controversial energy form.
I love clean air and water
just like most people.
I learned that
it’s in the steel-making process.
I don’t know it through and through
but from the human side of things,
um, look, if that’s your way of life
whatever industry you might be in.
Say you’re in Silicon Valley
and create tech.
And imagine… obviously this can’t happen
but all of the sudden tech’s gonna be gone
your industry will be gone,
and then what are you going to do?
And whatever you might be in,
whatever profession.
That’s sort of
a scary thought I would think.
So these people
are living with this daily.
As in the letter comes in,
the mine’s gonna shut down,
and maybe they’ll be ousted
until the next job appears.
But I think it’s a stressful worry that
your work, your talent, your knowledge,
your know-how could go away at any time.
And you really have
nothing to fall back on.
So thanks for coming along
on that journey, guys.
Got a larger series
on Appalachia would love you to watch.
Very fascinating part
of the country and the world.
And also would love you
to be part of our community.
We have a newsletter,
click on that link down below.
All right, until the next one.
♪ somber country ♪

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