Eugene “Billy” Thorn recalls life, good ol’ days of Williamson
By Kyle Lovern
If you drive up Vinson Street in Williamson you’ll see a bright, yellow house with an appealing little vegetable garden in the adjacent lot.
On most mornings you will see 84-year old Eugene “Billy” Thorn out tending to and working in that garden.
Thorn has lived in Williamson since 1946, right after World War II ended. He grew up in the McVeigh area of Pond Creek, but was born in western Kentucky.
“We moved to Pond Creek when I was just a little boy,” Thorn recalls. “I think that was about 1930.”
He came to Williamson after he got married and has lived in Mingo County ever since.
At 17-years of age, Thorn had to quit school and go to work in the coal mines. He had attended the segregated all-black Liberty High School on Vinson Street.
But times were tough in those days and many teenagers had to go to work to help support their families. Thorn’s father had fallen ill and had some serious health problems.
“I was going to go back to finish school, but you know how that is – I never did,” Thorn added.
Thorn’s wife Norma Jean (Gray) Thorn passed away in 2007. They were married 57 years. Together they raised six children and helped raise three grandchildren.
Thorn was quite the athlete back in the day. He played for the all-black Red Robin baseball team and was also a Golden Gloves champion boxer here in Williamson.
“There were two teams –Red Robin White and Red Robin Black,” Thorn recalls. The teams were segregated back in those days.
Thorn can recall in detail many of the games he and some of his friends played in. “We played the House of David and other teams that came through here,” Thorn said. (The House of David became famous as a barnstorming baseball team which toured rural America from the 1920s through the 1950s, playing amateur and semi-pro teams in exhibition games.)
Thorn laughed as he recalled conversations with the late Harold Borders, who played for the white team. “He said we never beat them, but we did,” Thorn said with a chuckle. “He wouldn’t admit it.”
“We used to have a good time playing,” Thorn said.
“When I was in school, I used to be a boxer,” Thorn remembers. “I boxed in the Golden Gloves and won here in Williamson twice. I fought in Huntington in the state tournament.”
Thorn boxed in the 137-140 pound weight class. After his amateur career, he boxed semi-pro bouts held in Huntington, Charleston and Parkersburg.
“One of my best sports was boxing,” he said.
His first stint in the coal mines was from 1946 to 1950. “I quit the mines and went to work at the Miner’s Hospital (Now ARH),” Thorn recalls. “I worked there 10 years.”
For financial reasons he went back into the coal mines and worked there until he retired in 1980s.
He worked at Island Creek, where he was “cutoff.” He then went back to where he started at Eastern Coal and worked 19 more years until retiring.
Thorn also served in the U.S. Air Force from 1950 to 1954 where he came out as a corporal.
These days he loves spending time in the garden.
“The thing I love best is gardening,” Thorn says. “I hated it when I was a child. My daddy made me do it. When I got older, that was my second love, after my wife.”
“I raise too much for myself, so I give a lot of it away. I call it a community garden,” Thorn said. He grows corn, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and even watermelons.
He freezes some of the green beans, corn and other vegetables to use later in the year. Like most local citizens, he loves to cook his half runners and have those with cornbread.
Thorn also said he is an accomplished barbecue man. “They say I have the best barbecue in town,” he said with a smile. He makes his own sauce and loves to grill spare ribs and barbecue them.
“I’m a church goer,” Thorn said. “I go to everybody’s church in Williamson. Everybody knows me – but I’m a Baptist.”
Thorn likes to dress, especially for church. “Some say I’m the best dressed man in town,” he said with a smile.
Thorn is also president of the Liberty High School Reunion Committee. They recently held another reunion in Charleston.
“This was one of the best reunions we’ve had in a long time,” Thorn said of the event.
Thorn says he has seen a lot of changes over the years.
“I used to ride the train down to Williamson to get groceries for my parents,” Thorn recalls. “I paid a boy a nickel to help me haul all the groceries from A & P or Kroger’s on Second Avenue and take them back to the train station on his wagon.”
He would get provisions like a bag of flour, a bag of meal, a slab of bacon, beans and potatoes. “I would get every bit of that for about $5, and it would last a month,” Thorn remembers. He would also buy a quarter’s worth of fish while at the grocery store.
The train would stop at places like Hardy and McVeigh. That is how most people came to “town” to do their shopping back in that era.
“I believe the train would charge a nickel or dime for a ticket to ride,” he said.
“On Saturday’s – you couldn’t get through Williamson,” Thorn said of the large crowds in town to shop. “Murphy’s would have 35 to 40 people working. “They sold all kinds of things. Williamson was a big time place back then. People from Pikeville and Logan would come to Williamson to shop.”
“When the people from Pikeville and other little towns in the region came to Williamson, it was like going to New York for them,” Thorn said.
Like most natives of the area, he hates to see how downtown Williamson has died and Pikeville and Logan have prospered.
He also hates the hillbilly stereotype that outsiders seem to have given residents of the region.
“Big time bands would come here and play too,” Thorn recalls.
He also grew up near the legendary Molly O’Day, who was a famous early country music singer who was born in Pike County. She and others would perform live at radio station WBTH in downtown Williamson.
“They also had black quartets and had gospel groups,” Thorn said.
Thorn said he was raised up with Pike County Sheriff Fuzzee Keesee while growing up on Pond Creek. “Fuzzee always claims that I hit him with a rock because they beat us playing basketball,” Thorn said with a snicker.
Anytime Thorn and his late wife would go to Pikeville, Fuzzee would tease him about the rock throwing incident. “He told me I better get out of town or he would get me for throwing that rock,” Thorn said.
Thorn is in relatively good health. However, like older coal miners in the region, he suffers from black lung. He also had a triple bypass a few years ago, but says he feels pretty good. On November 24, he will be 85 years old.
“I don’t believe it will kill me,” Thorn said of the black lung, “because I’m tougher than heck.”
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