Matewan Massacre returns to region

For those that may be interested, more of a play group than living historians:

Matewan history comes to life

By Big Jim Charles

Lots of our visitors who come to Southern West Virginia visit the trails in Mingo County and enjoy the town of Matewan. Ironically, before the trails opened up in our area Matewan had been a town that was hard set and many people felt it’s best days were behind it.

Which is sad, considering how world famous Matewan is.

Back in the 1980s, the story of the Matewan Massacre was brought vividly to life in the critically acclaimed John Sayles movie, “Matewan.”

The story of that conflict actually came from a novel called “Union Dues” written by Sayles after he lived and worked in Mingo County during the 70s as a coal miner. Everything in that classic, critically acclaimed movie is told in one chapter of the novel “Union Dues.”

Visitors to Matewan often like to watch the movie. The last time I was at Historic Matewan House they were still playing it on a wide screen in that wonderful establishment.

And many of our visitors who come back early in the spring enjoy the reenactment that takes place in Matewan on the very streets where the real shoot out took place, early in the 20th century.
Now, I have some big news for our visitors.

The reenactment of the legendary Matewan Massacre will be coming to Logan County on St. Patrick’s Day and it is the first time the reenactment has been staged on the stage.

The reenactment will be presented indoors at the Savas-Kostas Theater at Southern West Virginia Community Technical College at the Mount Gay campus in Logan. The Matewan Massacre reenactment will be featured twice at SWVCTC on March 17 at 11 a.m. for local gradeschool students and at 6 p.m. for the public. The events will be free of charge.

The reenactment will also do two performances in the streets of Matewan in May. This will be the most times that the production has been presented in a year one cast member told me recently.
The Matewan Massacre took place in the era of the mine wars when the coal barons who brought in an army of “gun thugs”, private detectives who were in effect a private army working on behalf of the coal barons to keep Union organizers out of the area.

In those tough times, when mine operators found out a worker had joined the union they often sent gun thugs (who had been deputized) to evict miners and their families from mine owned housing. The miners were virtually slaves as they lived like indentured servants thanks to the company stores, and traveling from one community to the next could be extremely difficult in those days, making a mine operator that much more powerful.

A group of miners had formed a tent city in Lick Creek which lead up to the Matewan Massacre. Baldwin-Felts Detectives were ordered to crack down on striking miners. On May 19, 1920, 11 Baldwin-Felts detectives stepped off the train in Matewan and started evicting miners. They were stopped by Matewan Police Chief Sid Hatfield and several townspeople then went to the sheriff in Williamson and got a warrant to arrest the detectives.

The Baldwin-Felts detectives claimed to have a warrant to arrest Sid Hatfield. When the two groups met again sparks erupted and guns were drawn. To this day, nobody knows who fired first, but when when the smoke cleared, three of the miners group, including Mayor Testerman were gunned down in the street. Testerman died later in a hospital in Welch.

Court proceedings followed in Mingo County and Hatfield, Chambers and the miners were declared innocent. The detectives then filed charges in McDowell County. Hatfield and Chambers went to Welch to answer the charges. Right before that, Sid Hatfield married Mayor Testerman’s widow and he was unarmed when he went to the courthouse.

When the men were on the courthouse steps, C.E. Lively and several other detectives opened fire, gunning them down in cold blood. That was the final straw to a series of events that culminated in the unionization of southern West Virginia and lead to the Battle of Blair Mountain.

John Christopher “Chris” Gray portrays Mayor Testerman in the reenactment and Gray has made a study of the life of C.C. Testerman, who came to Matewan, married into a local family and became close friends with Two Gun Sid Hatfield, who actually married Testerman’s widow ten days after the shootout where the mayor was gunned down, supposedly by Baldwin-Felts detectives. But Gray can explain how there is a conspiracy theory behind that one if you stop and talk with him!

For many years, cast members have wanted to present the reenactment on stage indoors and to take it on the road. Now they will, and if you are in Logan during that week, you can get the chance, or if you are in Matewan in May, you will have another chance.

In addition to the presentation of the Matewan Massacre reenactment at Southern’s Savas Kostas Theater on March 17 at 6 p.m. you can see it in the town itself in Matewan on May 14 at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

“People from all over the United States come to Matewan to see the reenactment,” Gray told me, explaining that he first heard of the Matewan Massacre as a kid, in regards to the later gunning down of Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers on the streets of his hometown in Welch at the courthouse steps.

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 11:28 am  Comments Off on Matewan Massacre returns to region  
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