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Woman remembers coal community and the Marshall tragedy

October 1, 2018

Mildred Noel recalls life in a coal mining community and her love for Marshall athletics.

Glogora Coal mining community located in Stickney, West Virginia, once had been one of several busy coal camps in Raleigh County. Mildred Noel has memories of Stickney because this is where she was born 96 years ago. Listening to her childhood stories unfold about her younger years transformed an overcast rainy morning into a delightful interview filled with wit, humor and interesting stories.

Stories like swimming with her two sisters in Coal River, being tethered to the backyard clothes line for safety, collecting rain water for bathing on the back porch, dances at the company store, wearing glasses before age 3, walking to church as a family and a Longaberger Basket collection that grew out of control.

“I had trouble with my vision that required glasses before I was 3 ” said Noel. “The only doctor able to diagnose my condition was in Huntington. It was a day’s drive each way on mostly unpaved roads and a day in town with the expense of lodging and meals. Glasses were a temporary fix until I had eye surgery in Charleston in 1938.1 still wore glasses but my sight was better. My father was a bookkeeper for the mining company. His position authorized us a three bedroom company home with a coal furnace in the basement. We didn’t have a garden but our Italian neighbors did and they would bring us fresh vegetables each season. When the gravel road going by our house was paved, my mother worried about the increased speed. Because of her concern she would often tether me to the backyard clothes line to make sure I stayed off the road. But I could run the entire length of the yard so it wasn’t too bad.”

Noel talked about the different European communities in the coal camp, their customs and celebrations.

“There was one foreign community that always celebrated the life of someone who died,” said Noel. “The owner of the company store would clear out an area for these celebrations and the whole community would dance and sing all night. I learned a lot at that store working there my last two years of high school. Many of the miners depended on advance pay in the form of mining script. Some of those mining families really did ’owe their soul to the company store/1 may have earned a quarter an hour working there and I saved every bit of it for college.”

Come Sunday the family walked together to the nearby Presbyterian Church. Wash day had been made easier with a modern electric powered wringer Maytag Washing machine and a pair of number three wash tubs. The wash tubs were also used for bathing. According to Noel, the family bathed more often than Saturday night.

“My best Christmas presents were a couple of dolls,” she said. “I still have one of them packed away. I also still have the Elgin watch I received for my 17th birthday. I even saved all those eye glasses I wore. I figured my mother saved them so I should keep them too. We never killed hogs in the fall but our neighbor did and they always brought over some to share. For Christmas, mom and dad decorated the tree on Christmas Eve and took it down on New Year’s Day.”

Noel attended grades one through six at Montcoal Stickney

grade school a half of a mile down the road. She mentioned several of her teachers by name but none with as much favor as Ms. Ruth Wells.

“Ms. Wells was my first teacher,” said Noel. “I will always remember her. She babied me to death and I never figured out why, maybe because I wore glasses. But I never seemed to do wrong in her eyes. Lunch was often prepared by parents who brought beans and cornbread, soups and sandwiches. For recess the boys played ball games and the girls usually played ring around the posy. I never wore jeans to school, always dresses usually made by mother. Even today I still dislike wearing jeans. By the way — this school had indoor restrooms, water fountains and central heat.”

Grades seven through 12 were completed at Marsh Fork High School. It was a large two story modern brick building with all the luxuries of grade school. In fact, it was located next to the grade school.

“I loved science and math,” said Noel. “I tried out for basketball but I guess I wasn’t big enough. I did become involved with the school newspaper staff, the glee club and home economics where I learned to sew. Dad took my sisters and me to most home basketball and football games. Even today I like watching sports on TV. My husband and I had season tickets for Marshall football and basketball games for 40 years.”

Noel said there were a couple of places for the high school crowd to hang out after school at the coffee shop in the nearby community of Edwight that had a soda fountain and jukebox.

But if you were going to dance the jitterbug then the place to go was Twin Maples. They had the largest dance floor ever and if you didn’t do the jitterbug then you might as well have stayed home. Noel was among 26 graduates in 1939, 13 boys and 13 girls. The last class reunion took place at Beckley in 1989 when five attended and according to Noel, they had a wonderful time.

“I attended Madison College for Girls in Harrisburg, Virginia,” said Noel. “After my second semester I married a young man from high school, before he died 57 years later, we traveled to all 50 states and 11 countries. I eventually graduated from Morris Harvey and pursued a teaching career that lasted 33 years. Leonard and I had a wonderful life together. We had three children, nine grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren. He proposed to me on the front porch swing and after he stumbled through the lengthy proposal I simply answered: Sure.”

Aside from a Longaberger Basket collection, Noel has a pampered dog named Susie who has ruled the house for over 10 years.

In addition to being an avid supporter in Marshall Athletics, Noel also has strong connections to the Marshall Airplane crash on Nov. 14 of 1970. Her sister Peggy and husband Dr. Joseph Chambers were aboard the ill-fated flight. They left behind three daughters that became like family. Today those three nieces are still very close.

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email archie350@frontier.com.

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