Reporter’s Notebook | Some final notes from the week-long March on Blair Mountain

BY M.L. RAMSBURG

As we approach nearly one week since the end of the 2011 March on Blair Mountain, and this website’s coverage comes to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to share some of the stories that have not yet made it to this blog. Here are some final notes torn from the pages of this reporter’s notebook.

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THE MARCH ON BLAIR, A FAMILY AFFAIR

Terry Steele*

Wilma Steele*

Dustin Steele*

As a life-long citizen of this great state of West Virginia, I can attest to the value the people of this region assign to family life. The importance of family connectedness is an ever-present cultural trait, one that should be admired by others in this nation of ours.

Even at the March on Blair Mountain, mountain people showed their family pride, banding together for the same cause. Take the Steele family, for instance. Terry Steele (a source in an earlier post) and Wilma Steele (featured in an earlier video posted to this site) are husband and wife from Mingo County, West Virginia. They were also featured spokespeople for the 2011 March on Blair Mountain. But it doesn’t stop with those two. Terry and Wilma’s grandson Dustin Steele was also a spokesperson. All three made the 50-mile March as they were able.

*Photos from March on Blair press materials

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FOR MARCHERS, THE BIGGEST DECISION: WHAT TO PACK

As has been noted many times before on this site, March on Blair Mountain attendees who joined the walk in Marmet were subjected to 50-miles worth of walking on winding mountain roads. Many times, walkers were required to walk single file on small rocky lanes next to curvy two-ways with passing vehicles (including several gigantic, loaded coal trucks who took up most of the road anyway). What makes this journey even more spectacular – or daunting, in my mind – is that some of these marchers carried their supplies (sleeping gear, clothes, etc.) in backpacks over their five-day trip. Luckily, March on Blair officials provided transportation for personal goods for those who chose not to carry their belongings. Still, with limited space, one can imagine the careful planning that Marchers must have taken when considering what to pack. I was curious to find out what some of the marchers had brought with them, so I asked a few. Here’s one of my favorite responses, provided by a marcher from New York City who was a source in an earlier post.

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BLAIR, WEST VIRGINIA OR BLAIR, WEST VIRGINIA?

Upon making preparations for this march, I consulted the ever handy (but not always correct, as my past experiences have shown) mapping resource that is MapQuest. I wanted to see what the quickest way to get to Blair from Marmet was, as I had never been to the area before. To my surprise, when I searched for directions from Marmet to Blair, I was first given a route that was nearly 322 miles long – almost six and a half times longer than official March on Blair press materials had suggested. Stunned, I began to survey the route provided and, sure enough, ever-handy MapQuest had indeed pointed me to Blair, West Virginia – in the Eastern Pandhandle county of Jefferson, just outside of Charles Town. Interesting to note, Charles Town is often confused with Charleston, West Virginia’s capital city, the latter of which is sometimes confused with Charleston, South Carolina, the beachside city down south. The MapQuest ordeal had me wondering: Were there any poor folk who mistook Blair, Jefferson County for Blair, Logan County? If so, I bet they were a bit confused when they arrived in a town with no marchers.

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LIFE GOES ON

Saturday’s rally in Blair –- which organizers say drew nearly 1,000 people, increasing the town’s population by nearly twenty-two times – was a major event in this small mountain community. Several counter protesters were on hand to show their opposition to the Marchers’ presence. Counter protesters opposed the Marchers’ stance on obliterating surface mining – and, in the counter protester’s eyes, jobs – in the Appalachian Mountains. I had spent the entire day with members of both groups at the rally. Still, the day’s occurrence that left the most lasting impression on me occurred quite some distance from that uneven baseball field at the base of Blair Mountain.

As I left the town of Blair Saturday afternoon, I passed an elementary school to the left of the road. It was the same elementary school marchers had passed earlier in the week. Driving past the school, I noticed that a large number of locals had gathered on a field, their parked cars taking up most of the side of the road. What I saw on that field looked a lot like what I had just come from in Blair: families were gathered around, chanting and cheering. But their cries weren’t in opposition or support of a particular social or environmental stance, like the chants that had been heard back at the base of the Mountain. The cheers they said in unison weren’t “Keep on Marching” or “Save Blair Mountain” or “Go home you tree huggers.” No, not even close. Instead, these people’s cheers were cheers of encouragement for groups of youth who had gathered in this small coal mining community for a Saturday game of soccer. It was the cheers of mothers and fathers, grandpas and grandmas, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors – perhaps even a few strangers – coming together not in division, like those back yonder where I had thus come from. These were the cheers of people who seemed to have already moved on, the cries of fellow community members in a coal-mining town who refused to be divided like those back in Blair. These were the smiling, happy faces of locals watching their children kick black-and-white checkered balls over a large grassy field in a small mountain valley. There was something about that moment, about seeing these people who seemingly had no interest in what was occurring only a few miles back down the road, that left an impression on me. As I reflect on the moment now, I suppose that the real message I had heard in that moment was this: Whatever the outcome of the March, life in Southern West Virginia will go on. The children will still play, the people will still laugh. And the spirit of the Mountain People – those Appalachians, those West Virginians – will live on.

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