by Betty Dotson-Lewis
Author’s note: Larry Conn is a Freewill Baptist Preacher, a public school teacher in Logan County, West Virginia, and a member of a gospel singing group. The oral history of Buffalo Creek Flood survivors such as Larry Conn may have been told repeatedly, but with each time it is relived. Forty years is a short span of time when counting the years and days of loved ones whose lives were snuffed out by the waters from the broken dam on Buffalo Creek.
What is your early background? Have you always lived in Logan County?
My name is Larry Conn, I am for all intent and purposes a life-long resident of Kistler, West Virginia, Logan County. The only time I was away was when I attended Marshall University from which I have a teaching degree.
What are some of your most vivid memories of growing up in a coal camp?
One of the far-most memories that have been coming to mind lately is the coal dirt squishing between my toes on a hot summer day. I don’t know if you are familiar with coal dirt in an alley in a coal camp, but on a hot summer day it is like sticking your feet in baby powder.
I kind of remember from my childhood days the slop bucket hanging on the fence post down along the row of houses that looked all alike. Everybody had one who contributed to the hog man. Mr. Riley was his name. He had a bunch of hogs on the lower end of town across the tracks. Him and my Uncle Alta Cook, they weren’t in partners together, but they were two men in my life who collected scraps of one kind or another.
We all got our water from a local pump. In every camp the houses all looked alike: four rooms- living room, kitchen and two bedrooms, one for the parents and one for the kids; all kids, brothers and sisters, and we had a path to the outhouse.
I can remember in our house we had a drop cord coming out of the ceiling with a light bulb attached to it and if we wanted electricity to another part of the house we screwed in a double socket and ran a line down the wall in the kitchen.
There was a huge stove and my daddy would come in from work in the winter and he would sleep behind the kitchen stove because he was too tired to take a bath. He worked the Hoot-Owl shift. He got hurt in 1960. Dad would sleep behind there still black with coal dust. I remember Dad would take a bath in a #3 wash tub every day in the kitchen; of course, there would be a line hung so to keep us out. I remember so many things that stand out in my mind like those times.
The unique thing about the house was it had grates, fireplaces that had double grates; grates in two rooms. That was the way we heated the house. The kitchen was heated by the stove and in the early hours in the morning Mom would build a fire and put the coal in the stove and cook our breakfast.
There was always one cold bedroom and that was the back room. The backroom where there was no grate. We had the kitchen, living room and two bedrooms. Sometimes I had to sleep in that back bedroom and I would be cold in the winter with snow outside.
I remember Dad would leave for work at 10 p.m. at night and when I woke up the next morning he would be behind the stove asleep. He worked on the Hoot-Owl shift. I remember everything we did revolved around mining; our food came from the company store, our clothes came from the company store and we paid all of our bills, the electric bill, we paid at the company store and our heat was from the mines. So everything in our lives revolved around my daddy working in the coal mines.
We weren’t paid with cash or a check: my dad was paid with scrip. I can remember Mom and Dad talking about not drawing anything because they had used the wages up at the company store and maybe he would just draw a few dollars of scrip. It seems like my parents were unfairly dealt with by the exchanges. It seem like the rate of exchange from scrip to cash was an unfair ratio. Anything we needed outside the company store, we would take the scrip and cash it in to buy. Anything you really wanted could be taken out at the office.
I remember the night my daddy got hurt in the mines. He was sanding his motor and he was hit with another buggy. A man hit him and ran over him-broke his back; broke his legs. He was crushed between two buggies. He was in the hospital for several months and when he came home he came in a body cast from his chest to his feet. I remember the man who hit him. They are both dead. My daddy is dead and the man who ran over my daddy is dead.
Our whole lives changed in 1960 when he got hurt. I don’t know, he was totally disabled and then getting a disability check was a hard thing. Our family suffered a lot through those years. I see now in hindsight that my dad must have been frustrated on a $165.00 per month provided by the state.
I do know that we were given $165.00 per month to live on. I remember the amount. Things were rough until my dad got his disability and black lung, (my dad worked with Dr. Donald Rasmussen), he was one of his first patients. Dr. Donald Rasmussen and Dr. I. E. Buff (they were pioneers). Dad went to Washington, DC with Rasmussen and I. E. Buff several times.
Did you consider your father an advocate for the coal miner after his accident? Who do you consider important figures in the southern coalfields in the area of advocacy?
My dad worked with Ken Hechler in bringing about the Union and my dad packed a pistol. He had black lung and they would go to the southern coal fields and meet with people and they went all over the state. Rasmussen had a lung (picture) that you could look at (that had black lung). I remember the effect it had on the people. I remember seeing Dr. Buff and Dr. Rasmussen as a boy. You see, black lung wasn’t always around. It came about in the late 60s.
So Dad in this black lung movement needed the support of the Union, so they pulled out the coal miners; they went on strike to make an impact on America. At that time coal was king and to make an impact the only way you had to get their attention was stop the flow of coal. My dad would carry a pistol and would leave our house and get the strike lines started at the tipples. He would talk about firing in the tipple, not to hurt anyone, but to get their attention and stop production and call for them to, “Come on out!” So it was through the efforts of I.E. Buff and Rasmussen from over in Beckley. It was their presence, I. E. Buff and Rasmussen as pioneers in black lung legislation. They found it, and diagnosed it as black lung. He was the one that was responsible for what they did. My Dad was instrumental in that cause.
My Dad always did things for these guys who could not get their black lung. Even with legislation it became a hard matter to get benefits. Dad would work as their advocate-widows and orphans to get black lung benefits. Dad was such a cohort. He was a helper and organizer. He was smart even though he did not have a lot of education; he was a smart man and he helped a lot of people.
A lot of people had tried to help me because of what my Dad did. He was an icon in the community and he was a politician. He worked for the political bosses all the time. He worked for the Democratic Party. He was a poll captain.
Dad used to take and drive his car and have loud speakers on top and he would announce the slate or the ticket and they would have rallies. He would go out and get them all in and on election eve, they would give him thousands of dollars and cases of liquor to hand out to get votes.
On election day, he would be one of the ones; he and some others would line up certain people in the district and would give out money to run the polling places and liquor; pint or ½ pint and everybody they hauled in they would get their liquor. That was the way it was too.
Talking about the way things really were is what Hillary Clinton said when she said that it takes a whole village to raise a child. You know she was right and in our camp everybody watched out for everyone’s children. We were under the guidance of the whole camp. You might disagree with Bill Clinton and what he did. They say it was wrong but what Hillary said about children-we need more of today. Watching out for others’ children. We have gotten ourselves into a lot of trouble leaving our children alone. That is why our children are like they are today.
My Dad became a preacher before he died, Freewill Baptist. I am a Freewill Baptist Minister.
I graduated from Man High School in 1969 and I went to Marshall University on August 25, 1969. I had been schooled in the local area and then I want away to college. I was home for the weekend from college when Buffalo Creek exploded.
On that Saturday morning of February 26, 1972, Mom was cooking breakfast as she did every morning and being a good eater and away from home I was looking forward to Mom’s gravy and biscuits. That was how the day started.
Tell me how you remember the Buffalo Creek Flood. Where were you? Did you lose anyone in your family?
That night Dad was out drunk. My friend stayed all night with me and later that night the water rose up high. My friend and I had been out and we got in kind of late. On Saturday mornings my dad always listened to the radio so we turned on the radio. Dad was always playing this country/western show that came on the radio. He would listen and laugh because at that time we didn’t like county/western too well. They would play country/western live and as they played this live music my Dad would holler, “Get down on the neck of that thing.” We were listening to that when the radio announcer began telling the dam had broken up on the Laurate Pardee.
He was always talking. This morning was different though. Bill Becker, the owner of the radio station, and all of them were saying that the dam was broken and homes were coming down stream and the Buffalo residents needed to evacuate or get to higher ground. We had heard this so many times before-the dam was breaking, it didn’t make us run for the hills scared because we had heard them cry wolf so much. We thought it was just another scare tactic.
The reports kept coming; people running on top of roof tops, couldn’t get off. People floating down stream on mattresses. Tops of roads, homes washing away.
“Evacuate the area immediately,” he kept saying.
One thing that puzzled me was how the radio announcer was keeping up on all the reports. It was the deputies and sheriff. I found that out later.
We still never felt like there was anything to be afraid of, so I opened the door and looked out.
Everybody was evacuating. I told Dad (he was still a little tipsy) I said, “Dad, Mom, everyone is leaving.”
Dad said to take the kids and go to higher grounds but I still didn’t know, so higher ground was stepping out of the house and walking up the hill, no shelter or anything. My dad said to get us to higher ground. So, me and my mama and eight more children headed up towards the dam. We went to a place called Accoville. We went up on Accoville Flat but when we got to go up to the road water was over the road; so we went up on a flat at Accoville, parked the car and got out and watched.
From Accoville Flat you can look down and see the whole community and you could suddenly see a wall, a big wave of water come. It was black and you could see it as it came, the houses exploded like they were dynamited. They just exploded. House trailers were moving like boats in a swimming pool. This great wall of water was bringing everything down with it. The force of the wave caused power lines to shake. The houses in front of us began exploding and washing downstream. Bridges began washing away. We were standing there on Accoville Flat watching all of this devastation: washing away my friends’ houses, watching to see what was left for everybody.
I could never tell a story about the flood without mentioning the Dials family. Mr. Dials took us in his home on the flat that night, he and his wife, and they fed us. It was in February. It was cold. Mr. Dials died that night. Mr. Dials’ brother died the next day.
I had some friends with me, Bob Jude and Kenny McCoy. We begin to walk up the road. The water receded as quickly as it came. Once the dam water had passed, it receded and went right down. There was no more flood, like pouring a bucket of water out.
The devastation. The destruction.
We begin to walk up the road: there were bodies everywhere. They were not laying out like a battlefield, but one stuck here, one in a bridge, one in the school yard. They found my neighbor, an elderly sick man, who was spending the night with his daughter. He washed out of the house. We found him in the school yard. We found him, Mr. Breahole, dead.
Pittston’s Coal Company’s earth dam broke and Buffalo Creek was flooded. They had to pay millions of dollars.
I remember coming home and finding my home devastated by the flood, but on the way home I could see the devastation. You could only imagine this as what you would see in a horror story. You would see something like this in a horror story.
As I traveled out the valley towards my home, my neighbor’s garage and parts of other homes blocked us from entering our driveway. When we finally crawled our way into the yard, our house was flooded. Our home was bad. We could not stay in our house, so we made our way to grandmother’s home. I stayed in the shelter at school to make room for other members of my family at my grandmother’s home.
One morning I woke up and Jay Rockefeller was standing at my bed looking down at me. We spoke and he went on his way.
I went then to Fred Osborne’s home in Kistler on Buffalo Creek to stay. My friend Roy Bruce Browning was there. He lost everything-his wife, Donna, and his child, Brucie were both drown in the flood.
Those nights are like a bad dream. We would make trips to the temporary morgue to see if his wife and son had been found. One day she was found and not long after that his son was found. This was tragic.
I remember lots of funerals, members of all those families buried. It was bad.
I dropped out of Marshall for the remainder of the semester. I could not stand to be in school. It took years but things finally got back to some sort of normality. My family lost a great deal but others lost it all like Roy Bruce Browning.
God spared us for a reason, for that I am thankful.
Betty Dotson-Lewis is a West Virginia native living in Morrisville, N.C. — She maintains The Appalachian Book Blog bettydotson-lewis.blogspot.com