EARLY DAYS OF WIDEN AND DILLE - Given Recalls Early Clay County Days


Current Dille Post Office

Old company houses at Widen are now privately owned

Memories of Widen & Dille, W.Va.

By Lola B. Given

Ms. Given passed in 2017


Familiarity does not always breed contempt, but it can cause us to take things for granted. In retrospect, such are my feelings about the Widen and Dille vicinity. I was born and raised between the two towns on the old Will Murphy farm and could not think of one town without the other. Six decades ago, at its peak, Widen, West Virginia, had 3,000 people. Today there are less than 200.

A coal mining camp some 21 miles from Clay out Dundon Ridge, some 11 miles from Birch River, Widen was a town all its own. Today its almost just a memory. Most of the houses have been torn down. The Baptist Church on which my brothers did the carpentry work is still somewhat active. The post office is still open. But coal production and the booming times that accompanied it are gone.

One cannot think of the Widen and Dille area without thinking of J. G. Bradley, the President of Elk River Coal and Lumber Company and the Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad. Bradley was the grandson of Simon Cameron, who may be considered the father of the Republican Party. Cameron also served as President Lincoln's first Secretary of War and a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania.

His grandfather, James Donald Cameron, was President Grant's Secretary of War and also a U.S. Senator. Bradley resided in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but he started his business career in West Virginia in 1904 as a right of way agent for the old Buffalo Creek and Gauley Railroad which he later controlled as president. Bradley's companies were the tax base for Clay County.

The county could not pay its debts until the Elk River Coal and Lumber Company paid its taxes. At one time Bradley's empire covered 81,000 acres in Clay, Braxton and Nicholas Counties. His holdings also included the Bank of Widen. During a good year his annual payroll was more than four million dollars.

On an average of once a year Bradley came to Widen and Swandale to see how the superintendent was handling things. It was a great day for the employees to listen to his words of wisdom. He was a great orator. Isolated by often muddy messy roads and poor communications, most of us at Widen thought of Swandale as another world. Lumber was their product and coal was ours.

Although sometimes referred to as a feudal ruler of Widen and its men, Bradley seemed to me to be more like a patriarch who wanted the best for his industrial family.

My earliest experience of the facilities available to the families of those who worked at Widen was the school system. Bradley built and maintained the school buildings and playground, and chose top quality teaching personnel for grades one through twelve.

The men who worked in Widen knew their jobs were safe and that their offspring had jobs when they come of age. Bradley also built and maintained three churches in the town. One was for Presbyterians, one for Baptists and one for blacks.

A flood washed the Presbyterian Church away in the 1930's as I recall. They continued to meet in the YMCA building for several years before disbanding.

Bradley staffed and maintained the YMCA in Widen which had a bowling alley, basketball court, and a theater to provide the latest movies and news. Lowell Thomas was the anchor man on the fifteen minute newsreels shown before the movie. I remember well carrying wash water for my sister-in-law to get the few cents it cost to go to the movies. I don't think I missed any that were shown.

The houses were identical in Widen, about a hundred altogether. They were single units in most areas. The street one entered Widen on was reserved for the black families and there must have been close to twenty there. Many a lasting friendship was made between the working men that transcended race.

Only a very few years ago when my brother died, several African Americans came to the viewing. Kanawha Street was sort of reserved for the bosses. On it was the Club House where you could board and get the best of food. Mr. Bradley stayed there when he came in to check on his company. Harry Taka was the chief cook. He had three children, but his wife and the youngest child had chosen to go back to Japan before December 7, 1941.

Though Japanese elsewhere in the Country were required to live in camps during the war, Mr. Taka, along with his two children, Marion and Harry Jr., was allowed to stay and do his work. Marion was a purchasing agent for the company. It was rumored that Bradley took full responsibility for them.

Nicholas Street had the most houses. They had four rooms, a path, large front and back porches, fenced yards, no inside plumbing, and hand pumps for water lining the streets. Braxton (Brushy Fork) Street had double houses - large eight room houses created from two four room units.

The company maintained these houses with paint, new porches, and so forth. A separate large house on Kanawha Street was reserved for the superintendent as well as an annex for those such as single teachers and people who were only doing a few days work in the town.

The company also maintained the streets which were covered with slag coal, as well as the road leading out of town. But why go out of town? The company store carried almost everything one needed from furniture to food, clothing - you name it. There was a bank, post office, and ball diamond in addition to the YMCA.

My dad, Levi J. Butcher, known as Pet, helped open the drift mouths of the mines in the early twenties. My brothers were employed there as carpenters, electricians, and miners. They also maintained a service station, garage, car dealership, and hauled supplies to the mines and moved families.

The older men honored Mr. Bradley. It is sad that later remarks about him were so negative. He had a sister named Lola Faye, so I was her namesake.

Our Country's entry into World War 11 changed a lot of peoples' lives. Some of us went to Ohio to work in the war material factories, while others went into the service. A change began in Widen that led to the strikes.

A different breed of people influenced thinking, and despite the benefits of employment with the Elk River Coal and Lumber Company, restlessness prevailed. There were advantages to belonging to the union, even though the company had a retirement plan, provided a doctor, and covered hospitalization.

I am sure it was a great shock to Bradley when, after all the years of paying union scale, some men decided they wanted the United Mine Workers (UMW) to represent them.

Several times the UMW had tried to organize Widen. In 1941 there was a type of range war. Union sympathizers fired high powered rifles from the tops of surrounding hills down on the town while company men guarded the area.

In one skirmish, Joe Groves was killed on the streets of Widen. In another attack, my brother and his wife, Herbert and Gladys Butcher were going up the steps to the company store when bullets began to rain down on them. She dived under a car. It was a miracle they were not hit.

Small uprisings continued all along, but the most severe battle began in 1952 and is described as the bitterest mine strike in modern West Virginia history. It lasted for more than a year while Bradley successfully fought off attempts by a number of miners to install the UMW as their bargaining agent.

What started as a walkout by a small group of dissidents quickly snowballed into a small war that produced many episodes of killing, shooting, and dynamiting. The small mountain town of Widen took on the appearance of an embattled citadel with Bradley as the feudal lord, as one local newspaper put it. While state police nervously patrolled the highways, armed mine sentries patrolled the ridges and valleys. The bitter struggle turned brother against brother, father against son, and left scars that remain to this day. Bradley won the battle against the UMW, but the price of victory was to prove too costly and foreshadowed the end of his more than fifty year baron-like reign over the mining community.

In 1953, after an eleven or twelve month siege, Charles Frame was killed in a drive-by shooting at Dille at what was known to be the UMW men's cook shack. This brought the strike to a head and the UMW let up its pressure. Ultimately there were not enough sympathizers to endorse John L. Lewis's UMW.

But in 1957, faced with dwindling profits and spreading bitterness among his tightly-knit industrial family, Bradley sold out to Pittston Coal Company and left the state.

The 1952-53 skirmish must have completely disillusioned him. His actual losses during the strike, though never disclosed, were reported to be considerable. After seven years of irresponsible strip mining and clear cutting under the new owners, operations ceased in 1964.

Bradley had maintained a forester who monitored and supervised the cutting of trees so that there would be a future crop. There was no clear cutting during his ownership.

Later it was shocking to drive up Dundon Ridge and see the hillsides stripped bare of timber. The new landlords raped the land and left, laying waste jobs that were vital to the survival of Widen's citizens. Widen had supplied the economy of surrounding counties as well as the towns of Clay, Dille, Birch River, Strange Creek, and Summersville, so its demise was felt all around.

In 1977, the Clinchfield Coal Company, a Pittston subsidiary, created quite a stir. Everyone seemed to think that deep mining was going to resume since there was rumored to be a great seam of coal that had not been touched.

But all the company did was come in and do much more damage to the land with more surface mining. Some reclamation followed, but the scars on the land are still evident. I am sure they received approval from federal supervisors, but clear cutting and surface mining has done its damage for years to come.

Dille, West Virginia, was also a company town and there was a company store there. Long since closed, J. O. Dodrill was the manager for many years. From the 40's to the 60's my brother Newman Butcher, Chelsie Hamric, Bruce Shingler, Paul Donohue and Hollis Mullins had stores there.

Many of the company employees lived in Dille. Most of the land was owned by the company. There is now a Nazarene Church, but for years there was only a Baptist Church that stands almost on the head waters of Strange Creek. I guess you could say Dille was a suburb of Widen because of the close company and family ties. The only thing separating them was a mountain.

Dille was a quiet, sleepy little town. My oldest foreparents settled on the head of the creek and raised their families. Now only one store remains, and there are no service stations. Many supplies have to be bought some 25 to 50 miles away.

Widen Day comes once each year. On the last Saturday of July, people come back to relive and renew friendships and to remember a dream that was thrown away.

"A slew of former residents and their offspring, along with those who worked at Widen, wind their way back with joy to see one another, no matter whether you were a A SCAB (a Bradley person) or a Jenny Wink UMW sympathizer.

But remembering the town at its height, it is with remorse that I attend the Widen Day reunion. Once a booming mining town with everyone as family, it was a community destroyed by both internal and external forces. Widen and Dille are my roots, and I have the warmest of feelings about the area. Much negative has been said about it, but all in all, it was a great place to live at the time. Questions about this article should be addressed to Lola B. Given.

This article was submitted by Lola B. Given in July of 1997, and is reprinted in the Hur Herald with her permission. Although her roots are in Widen and Dille, she now resides in Frametown, Braxton County, West Virginia where she writes for the Braxton News.