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Mining People Magazine

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 decades.

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,

will ask.

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