Mining People Magazinewww.miningpeople.org
Bluefield: Coal Reunion in West Virginia
by Debra McCown Thomas
Staff Writer / Field Reporter
don’t remember how many Bluefield Coal Shows I’ve been to, but I’ve attended a bunch
over the years. This biennial trade show in Bluefield, W.Va., has always been a place to go
for stories about people in the coal industry – and to put a finger on the pulse of its mood
about market and policy trends.
At Mining People, the Bluefield Coal Show has been a big deal since long before my time. So,
I called up longtime editor and publisher Al Skinner, who was there at the magazine’s founding
as Coal People in the mid-1970s, for some insight into what the event has meant to him over
The biggest thing Al told me was just how special this event is in contrast with all the other
mining-related trade shows. What makes it stand out, he said, is the social character of the
event, which is not unlike that of a reunion.
“It’s just got that eternal feeling about it,” he said. “You get a relaxed, homey feeling with the
people, and even though years ago we used to sit and stand out in the aisles telling jokes and
laughing… still a lot of sales were made in between the laughs.”
Al said Mining People – like a lot of vendors at the show – has a policy of not soliciting business
unless they’re asked; instead, going from booth to booth is about catching up and hearing from
everyone about what’s going on in their lives. Those who are looking to buy something, he said,
Part of the homey feel of the event is the fact that it’s not in a big city; Bluefield is a small town –
a modest town in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields with a hospitable attitude and a culture
that sincerely appreciates events like this.
In a way, the Bluefield Coal Show is a celebration of all these things – not just the folks who set
up a booth hoping to get a sale, but the spirit of an industry that’s made up of a unique sort of
people: folks who willingly take on the risks associated with an always changing industry and do
it with a smile as they ride its ups and downs.
There are a lot of characters in the coal industry – maybe not as many as there used to be in the
old days, Al told me – but it’s still chock full of down-to-earth self-made entrepreneurs.
“When I first went down there to the shows around eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia,
mainly talking to coal operators, you couldn’t tell a coal operator from the local janitor. He would
be a millionaire, and you’d never know it,” Al said.
“I remember this one guy just told me – you know, in that eastern Kentucky accent – he said,
‘Y’all run me a quarter-page ad,’ and he pulled out a wad of money about the size of a melon,
he flipped out a couple hundred dollars right there in the open, and he said, ‘Run me something
in the magazine.’”
That, of course, was the old days; it’s not quite like that anymore. The personality of the industry
has changed a bit; these days, there are less overalls and more suits. But in Bluefield, there’s a
lot about that good old feeling that hasn’t changed: no matter what challenges the coal industry
is facing, these folks seem happy.
“These coal operators are tough people.” Al said. “They’re down for the count of nine, and
they’re getting back up. That simple: They won’t stay down…. They’re just a tough bunch, and