Editor’s note: The following story is part of a monthly series of articles that examine the people, culture and history of the small towns that dot the landscape of Fayette County and the Mon Valley.
Nestled cozily on a hillside between Masontown and Point Marion, Martin is a patch town a passerby would have to visit intentionally.
Years ago, trains and ferries made stops in Martin to take workers to coal mines and shoppers to Masontown. Today, the ferry is closed, along with many of the local mines. Trains rush down the tracks, which separate Lower Martin from Martin Hill, no longer stopping. Drivers on state Route 166 might not even notice the town, largely camouflaged by trees.
The town was always tiny, filled with hardworking coal miners and their families who didn’t have much. They lived in rows of houses starting in Lower Martin on the banks of the Monongahela River and working their way up to “the top row,” where the most adventurous children would climb for sled rides on snowy days. Many of the long-time residents have died, replaced by their children or newcomers.
A coal-mining equipment machinery shop diversified to add concrete work years ago when the mining industry slowed further. The only other business on the hill is the post office, which survived the threat of a shutdown about 10 years ago.
In Martin’s heyday, residents visited the mining company’s shop for groceries. They were known for cheap goods — plus, they took credit.
But then the Warwick No. 3 Mine, just across the river, closed down, along with the shop. Year by year, the mines were shuttered, and coal miners had to compete for a few remaining jobs, or find a way to commute to another town.
The mine’s closure hit the working class town hard.
“But people still survive, one way or another,” said Earl Shriver, who has lived in Martin for 40 years.
“We was poor until my dad got a job in the mines. Then things changed,” said Mildred Mitchell “Until the mines took him.”
Her father, Gustave “Dutch” Arndt, died following a mining accident in 1967. His job was to bolt roofs. A slab fell on his head five days before Christmas in 1966. He lived three days into the new year, and died at the hospital in Morgantown.
Many of the women in town worked at the coke ovens, sifting coal on a conveyor belt. Betty Fike, who was one of nine children, said her mother worked at the nearby coke ovens and her father and husband worked in West Virginia coal mines.
On cold days, she and her friends would warm up by the coke ovens as children, unaware or unconcerned of the danger.
“The flames were high. The smoke was coming. I never would have done that now. That was dangerous. We could have fallen in. If my mother and dad had known we were down there ...,” she said, and shook her head.
The Warwick No. 3 Mine is visible from the riverbank in Lower Martin. Crossing the river means crossing into Greene County. Much of the ferry traffic ended with the mine’s closure. Older miners took early retirements and collected pensions.
Residents say their town continues to have value in natural resources, not for coal but for quiet. Nicholson Township supervisor, Jack Arndt, stood near an embankment on his mother’s property, motioning to the river view just beyond the treeline.
“It’s peaceful. That’s what you have here,” he said. “Peace.”
Half-believed rumors claim that the Martin Mining Co., which once owned the hill, left behind a treasure trove of natural resources when the mines closed.
“I think Martin might be sitting on a big pile of coal. I think someone might want to buy this hill,” said Earl, with a playful half-smile. “But I don’t know. It’s just rumors.”
Mildred lives next door.
“That’s what they’re saying,” she said. “I hope not.”
Sometimes she is awoken in the night by mechanical noises, and in her somnolent state wonders if workers are mining the hill.
Growing up in the patch
Life was never prosperous in the patch, but it was good. Leaving is when things got difficult.
School became a challenge once high school students merged with Masontown students.
“We were poor, and all these kids would make fun of us because they were city kids,” Betty said. “We were country and they were city.”
Mildred had one dress that she would wear all week, and then wash it. A “street car” would take some children to Masontown for after-school activities, but Mitchell never had the 5 cents to ride. When she was in high school, she got a job so she could buy her own clothes.
Betty’s mom would make nine loaves of bread every other day. They would fight over the old bread to make “coffee soup,” made with crumbled bread, coffee and sugar.
The town did not have running water until about the mid-60s. Mildred and Betty recalled carrying jugs of water from a natural spring to their houses. The spring, now overgrown with foliage, sits on Mary Arndt’s property. Jack Arndt, her son, recalls hauling water as a child for 10 cents per jug.
Washing clothes was a complicated process, the women of the earlier generation said. After hauling the water, they poured it in bathtubs to sit overnight and let the rust settle to the bottom of the tub.
“You had to catch it on a good day,” Betty said.
Hanging clothes on laundry lines was also risky business. If the wind was blowing, soot would cover the clean clothes.
Many days Betty would spend her time with her closest friends, walking along the train tracks to Point Marion and back.
“You didn’t go anywhere. There was nowhere to go,” Jack said.
But there was nowhere he wanted to go anyway.
He remembers his childhood as slow-paced and comfortable. On winter days, the older children would sled from the top row, while younger children would find a lower starting point.
On summer days, kids would play basketball at a hoop on the top row, and run down to the spring for water. On the way, there were grapevines and tomato plants — complete with salt shakers — for snacking.
Many people in the town were Arndt’s relatives, so if he was out after curfew, it was likely a relative would see him and call his parents. So Jack always made sure to keep himself out of trouble.
He said things haven’t changed much. Neighbors still sit on their porches and watch out for one another, roosters crow, and music from parties drifts up from the river on weekend nights.
“Time stands still here,” he said. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer place.”
The Martin Post Office serves as the defacto community center. It has 65 boxes, serving Martin and the neighboring communities. Years ago, people could buy bread, milk and penny candy at the post office. Today, it’s still the place to catch up on the latest news and visit with neighbors.
“Boy, you could go down there and talk all day,” Mildred said. “Some did.”
About 10 years ago the post office faced a shutdown. Earl saw the importance of the post office to the community and wrote a letter. While he never heard back directly, the post office stayed open.
“I don’t know what happened,” Mildred said. “Somebody must have talked to them, and then they left it open.”
Mary was the postmaster for many years and remembered her time fondly. She said the small town is fortunate to have the post office.
“The post office is interesting,” Earl said. “You hear a lot of gossip. They’re getting their mail in the morning and catching up on each other.”
Mildred caught up on her own family at a recent reunion, learning more about the younger years of her mother, who died in 2000 from Alzheimer’s disease.
As her memory degraded, she often called out for a man named Jim. Mildred asked if she wanted her Uncle Jim, but her mom said no, without further explanation.
Before her mother met her father, who later died in the mines, she was engaged to a man her mother never mentioned. He, too, died in the mines, Mildred learned at the reunion. She attended his funeral in her wedding dress.
His name was Jim.