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Buchanan County, Virginia
The town of Grundy doesn't fit the usual gracious public image of Virginia. Grundy is the county seat of Buchanan County, in the heart of Appalachia. It is farther south than most of Kentucky, and farther west than all but a sliver of West Virginia. It is so far west that the mixture of mud, water and coal dust that flows through town in the Levisa Fork River runs west to the Mississippi instead of east to the Atlantic Ocean.
It's nearly a seven-hour drive from Grundy to Virginia's capital in Richmond, but only thirteen miles to West Virginia--due east. You can't buy a drink of liquor in Grundy, so some of its less reputable citizens make the short trip to the Acapulco Club, just over the state line. Others drink the moonshine made in Buchanan County's mountain hollows. It's a toss-up whether you're more likely to go blind from drinking the moonshine or getting slashed by a broken beer bottle at the Acapulco.
If you head west from Grundy, it's sixteen miles to Pike County, Kentucky--site of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, and some celebrated battles between revenuers and moonshiners. During Prohibition, the revenue men rarely ventured into Virginia--it was too dangerous, and besides, Virginia politicians didn't care any more for federal intervention in whiskey-making than they did forty years later when the issue was segregation. In 1935 Sherwood Anderson wrote about a moonshining case tried in federal court in Roanoke. The defendants included the sheriff of Franklin County and the county prosecutor, Carter Lee, Robert E.'s grandnephew. From the evidence, Anderson wrote, it seemed as if Franklin County, Virginia, was "the wettest spot in the United States." Up the road in Buchanan County, some of the residents smiled.
Today, the only significant business in Buchanan County is mining coal. Unless you have a private airplane, you're most likely to approach Grundy by driving northwest on U.S. Route 460. Once you cross the height of land, the headwaters of Levisa Fork appear and the highway follows its valley. Soon road and river are joined by the tracks of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, built to carry the rich coal deposits of Buchanan County to market.
In 1931, shortly before the railroad announced a plan to extend its tracks in Buchanan County, a few prominent citizens began purchasing mineral rights from the families who had settled the area a century earlier. The Depression was on and life was even harder than usual for families trying to scratch a living from Buchanan's steep slopes and thin soil. For a man who owned a couple of hundred acres of mostly untillable mountainside, the dollar an acre he was offered for whatever was underneath was found money--money he was too poor to turn down even if he suspected that the buyer knew something he didn't. Thus, in early 1931 thousands of acres of Buchanan County mineral rights changed hands for next to nothing. A few years later, while most of its citizens remained dirt poor, Buchanan County boasted some of the wealthiest families in Virginia--and still does. Among them today are the McGlothlins and the Streets, founders and owners of United Coal Company, one of the largest privately owned coal companies in America. Organized in 1970 by a group of local lawyers and businessmen who decided to invest in some then-depressed coal properties, United grew rapidly, just in time for the 1973 Arab oil boycott to multiply the price of coal and the value of United's holdings. Two decades later, Jim McGlothlin, United's CEO and largest shareholder, is one of the richest men in America.
Coal is mined three ways in Buchanan County--strip mining, drift mining and deep shaft mining. The strip mines use giant earth movers to chew off the tops of mountains and ridges. Drift mines tunnel straight into the side of a mountain, removing the narrow bands of coal that followed its contours when the mountain was raised up by the massive force of colliding tectonic plates. The deep shaft mines burrow straight down to where the largest seams of coal were formed, far beneath the surface.
As you approach Grundy, large industrial compounds appear along the roadside, each with its own rail spur and a windowless, square-sided tower sheathed in corrugated metal. These are the shaft mines where miners work far below the surface, raised and lowered in cages attached to a cable. The mine on your left in Vansant, just east of Grundy, is Consolidated Coal Company's Pocahontas Mine No. 3. Its shaft descends some fifteen hundred feet straight down to the Pocahontas seam, which runs beneath much of Buchanan County. Once the seam is reached, tunnels spread out in many directions, following the rich deposits of coal. Some tunnels run for miles, with a maze of side tunnels as well. The mountain whose insides are now being devoured by Pocahontas No. 3 is not even visible from the mine entrance in Vansant.
The shaft mines of Buchanan County are among the deepest and most dangerous coal mines in America. Because they release so much deadly and explosive methane gas, they require exceptionally strong air circulation, so that working in them is like working in a wind tunnel. In a place that is always damp and cold, a wind blowing at a steady twenty-five miles an hour may keep the mine from exploding, but after an eight-hour shift some miners think favorably of the fiery cremation chosen by Sam McGee in the Robert Service poem.
Even so, the miners who work the deep shafts have two advantages over those who work the drift mines that tunnel into the mountainsides of nearly every hollow in Buchanan County. One is that the deep shaft mines are unionized, while United Coal and most companies that own drift mines are not. The other is that a shaft miner can usually stand up while he works. The Pocahontas seam is nearly five feet thick, and the tunnels that work it are at least as high as the seam, but the drift-mine seams and the tunnels that follow them are typically thirty-six inches high or less. A drift miner works on his hands and knees. For a miner who avoids being crippled, burned or buried alive, the usual question is which will give out first--his lungs, his back or his knees.
As U.S. 460 enters Grundy from the east, it becomes the main street of the business district. Although Grundy's population is less than two thousand, it is the only incorporated town in Buchanan County and the main commercial center for the surrounding area. The left side of the road is lined with a variety of businesses. In the center of town, on the right, is the Buchanan County Courthouse, an ugly eighty-eight-year-old structure of gray stone. After World War II a new wing was added, with an entrance of concrete blocks molded to imitate the stone. At the corner of the building, where a short side street runs off to the right, a striking bronze sculpture of a coal miner stands on a black marble base. He is dressed in work boots and coveralls, his pant legs taped over his boot tops to keep out the coal dust. His miner's helmet and headlamp are tilted back at a jaunty angle, revealing longish hair that is surely blond in real life. He stands erect, holding a miner's pick waist-high, and seems to gaze off to a distant horizon- a pose suggesting either that the sculptor had never been in a coal mine or that the mine owners who contributed to his commission were disinclined to show their workers crawling on hands and knees in a tunnel barely three feet high.
Beyond the courthouse, Slate Creek approaches the highway from the right, passes beneath it and empties into Levisa Fork, which there makes a sharp bend to the west, leaving the highway to fetch up against a sheer cliff of gray stone. On the face of the stone, members of the latest graduating class of Grundy Senior High School paint their class numerals and a pictorial tribute to the incongruous school mascot, a golden wave.
To avoid the cliff, Route 460 pauses at a stoplight and turns 90 degrees left to follow the river to Kentucky, while another road heads off to the right, following Slate Creek upstream to West Virginia.
For many years, Tuffy's barbershop occupied the building on the corner where the highway turns. In the basement of the shop was a shower room where, for a small fee, coal miners coming from work could remove their work clothes and wash some of the black coal dust off their skin and out of their hair before returning home. The barbershop and bathhouse are closed now, so unless he works at one of the big mines with its own shower room, a miner takes his coating of coal dust home.
For the most part, Grundy's citizens are hard-working, God-fearing people. There are, however, some notable exceptions, and while the coal miner's statue next to the courthouse pays tribute to the economic heartbeat of Buchanan County, the courthouse itself plays a central role in one of the region's principal recreational activities--violence, especially murder, rape and wife beating, with an occasional dose of labor strife thrown in.
While Grundy can't boast a strike as bloody as the one that brought nearby Harlan, Kentucky, the nickname Bloody Harlan, a few years ago the most violent coal strike in decades was centered next door in Dickenson County. Before it was over hundreds of miners had been jailed, and a judge named McGlothlin had fined the United Mine Workers millions of dollars. In the next election, Buchanan County's incumbent state representative, also a McGlothlin, lost his seat to the president of the Mineworkers local.
As for casual violence, Grundy's recent generation of young layabouts and drug dealers can hold their own in any league. In February 1981, under the headline MURDER NO LONGER SAFE IN BUCHANAN, Grundy's newspaper, The Virginia Mountaineer, profiled a young lawyer who was the county's Commonwealth's Attorney, or prosecutor--Jim McGlothlin's younger brother Michael. The article reported that since taking office a year earlier, Mickey McGlothlin had successfully prosecuted seven murder cases. It didn't mention that the seven murders reported in Buchanan County in 1980 gave the community a murder rate more than twice that of the state as a whole.
A month after the article praising Mickey McGlothlin appeared in the Mountaineer, Grundy's young Commonwealth's Attorney had another murder to prosecute.
Brad and Wanda
Wanda Fay Thompson was born on November 5, 1961, the second youngest of sixteen children--eight girls and eight boys. Wanda's father is a retired coal miner. The Thompsons raised their sixteen children in a frame house on Home Creek, a small tributary of Levisa Fork about twelve miles northwest of Grundy, a stone's throw from Kentucky.
The family has always been close. All the sons are in some kind of coal-mining job, and two of them, Pal and Danny Ray, have built their own houses on the hill just above the house where they were raised and their mother and father still live. Most of the other Thompson children live close by. All the girls are pretty, and Wanda Fay, with her strawberry-blond hair and ready smile, was no exception. Although she enjoyed the outdoor games her brothers and sisters played together whenever chores and good weather permitted, Wanda's favorite pastime was making clothes and crafts. In high school she was an average student, quiet and obedient. With strangers, she was almost painfully shy. No one can recall her ever doing anything mean or hurtful. Her sister Peggy says, "I guess you'd have to say she was just about perfect."
Brad McCoy is Max "Hezzie" McCoy's youngest son. Hezzie works for United Coal and drives a white stretch limousine that he rents out and chauffeurs himself for weddings and other occasions. He is a proud member of the McCoy clan. Brad is slight of build and as soft-spoken and gentle as his legendary forebears were crude and ill-tempered.
Brad McCoy and Wanda Fay Thompson were high school sweethearts at Grundy Senior High School. Brad was a member of the class of 1978; Wanda was two years behind him. They met through Wanda's older sister Lydia, who worked with Brad at the Piggly Wiggly. Brad had a crush on Lydia, but she passed him off to her younger sister.
The pass was complete. In July, a few weeks after Brad graduated, Brad McCoy and Wanda Fay Thompson were married at the Grundy Baptist Church. Wanda's family attended a church on Home Creek, but Brad had become close to Rev. Jack Mutter, the minister at Grundy Baptist, whose son, a close friend of Brad's, had been killed in a car accident not long before. It was typical of Brad that he would think it might give Mutter some comfort to celebrate the wedding of his son's friend, and Wanda and her parents agreed to his suggestion that the ceremony be held at Grundy Baptist. Bill Pierce, a friend, stood up for Brad. Wanda was attended by her younger sister Patricia. Both sets of parents thought the marriage was a perfect match, and for as long as it lasted it seemed they were right.
On June 16, three days after Brad graduated from high school, he went to work at United Coal. Perhaps because of his temperament and slight build, or perhaps because he seemed a little smarter than the average Grundy High School graduate, Brad was employed aboveground, as a parts clerk in one of the company repair shops.
If you turn left at the Grundy stoplight and follow Route 460 toward Kentucky, in about two miles you come to United Coal Shop No. 1, where Brad McCoy was assigned. If you turn right at the light and follow the road toward West Virginia, the narrow valley formed by Slate Creek widens a bit about three quarters of a mile east of town. There a bridge spans the creek and leads into a small subdivision called Longbottom. The first two rows back from the creek are well-kept brick and frame ranch homes whose middle-class owners are likely to be teachers, shop owners or coal company supervisors. Farther back a few older frame houses are more typical of the area's working-class population. In 1980, Hezzie and Betty McCoy lived in one of those houses, and after they were married, Brad and Wanda were able to rent another one, less than two blocks from Brad's mother and father.
When they were married, Wanda thought she might return to high school in the fall, but she soon found she enjoyed the life of a housewife. Brad's salary was enough to sustain their simple needs, and Wanda decided to drop out of school. Working, keeping house, visiting friends and family, Brad and Wanda settled into the rented house in Longbottom and remained there until the night Wanda Fay McCoy was murdered.
Copyright © 1997 John C. Tucker. All rights reserved.