By CHAD ABSHIRE
MATEWAN - Yesterday marked 92 years since the Matewan Massacre took place.
And to remember the occasion, hundreds of people filed into the small town steeped in history to watch a living version of the event that made Matewan so famous: the annual production of the Matewan Massacre reenactment, directed by Donna Patterino.
A number of officials from across the state were also in attendance: U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, First Lady Joanne Tomblin, Delegates Harry Keith White and Justin Marcum, UMWA President Cecil Roberts and Vice President, Joe Carter.
However, there was another guest present, one far more important to the day altogether: a survivor; the oldest living one, and a witness to the battle that happened nearly one century ago.
Buddy Jones celebrated his 100th birthday in Matewan yesterday at the Massacre. He was 8-years-old when the shots were fired.
Jones was honored by the town, gifted with a certificate and a green Matewan throw.
“This is a reminder of how much we love you,” Patterino said to him.
Jones said that he wanted his sons to stand with him before the crowd of roughly 400 while everyone in attendance sang “Happy Birthday” to him.
“I’m glad to be back where the real people are,” Jones said to the crowd. “When I come back another year from now, I hope to see more of my friends.”
Before the production began, a number of people spoke to the crowd on the importance of the event they were about to watch.
Rahall, who personally thanked Jones for attending, said “This day is about our heritage, of which we want to share with everyone and that we want to share with the world.
“If this is your first time here, it will not be your last,” Rahall said. “This is the roots of what made America great. The Battle of Matewan stands as an event of immense importance in our history — yet, it is an event that too few today fully appreciate. This day’s reenactment is all about helping us to remember and to appreciate the keys to our future that lie in our past.”
The congressman also noted the importance of the younger generation to be aware of history: “For the sake of your own futures, you must understand that the struggle that started here 92 years ago, on this date, continues even now. There still exists self-serving individuals who would trample on the working man in their own quest for money and power.”
After he concluded his speech, Tomblin spoke briefly regarding the event and then handed it over to Carter, who, in his introduction for Roberts, thanked the local UMWA #1440, where the production was held, and noted the importance of the event: “We need to relive our history.”
Roberts took the microphone and gave a fiery, passionate speech.
“I give Patterino and the cast a lot of credit for preserving the history of West Virginia and Matewan,” Roberts said. He asked for a round of applause and a small one was given. When he told the crowd that they could do better, a thunderous applause roared forth, everyone giving a standing ovation for Patterino and her cast before they had even performed.
Roberts, too, thanked Jones for attending.
“You truly are a West Virginia hero,” Roberts said.
In his description of the battle, Roberts, his voice growing louder and louder with each word, said: “The miners said, ‘We want to be part of America; we want to be somebody! Sid Hatfield (Matewan’s Police Chief in 1920) was the first political leader in the area. He stood with the coal miners.
“If you have healthcare, a safe working place, you should thank those who died here. They helped make the middle class! God bless the Town of Matewan for what you are doing here.”
The production was fortunate to have the weather on its side, a nice change from the norm, which Patterino thanked God for prior to the opening.
This year’s production was a very strong outing, with no issues for anyone to note during the 11 a.m. show. Every microphone worked well and the gun battle was as loud, impressive and thought-provoking as ever.
The battle of Matewan happened on May 19, 1920, when local coal miners engaged in a bloody shootout with Baldwin-Felts detectives out of Bluefield who had been sent into Matewan to evict families that had been living at the Stone Mountain Coal Camp on the outskirts of town.
After evicting several families, the detectives went to the train depot to catch a train back to Bluefield, but were met by Sid Hatfield, who was intervening on behalf of the evicted families.
He supported the miners’ efforts to start a union in the coalfields.
After both Hatfield and the Baldwin-Felts produced warrants for each others’ arrests, the detectives were surrounded by armed miners. A gun battle blazed between the two sides, which left seven detectives and four townspeople dead, including Albert Felts, his brother, Lee, and Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman.
The battle marked a major turning point in the battle for miners’ rights.
“It was fantastic,” Rahall told the Daily News after the show concluded. “These actors work hard to preserve history. I am honored to be here on the anniversary.”
“Today is a good day. Not just for Mingo County, but for the country,” White said to the Daily News. “It’s important to never let the young people forget what happened. It’s a terrific day to remember.”
Marcum spoke to the Daily News: “It’s good to be here and to experience our own history at home. It’s important to remember. I applaud the actors’ efforts. It was a fantastic show.”
Matewan Mayor Sheila Kessler, before the show, presented Patterino with a resolution that designated the Town of Matewan as a city that promoted the arts and culture, saying it was for all of the director’s hard work. The ordnance was passed unanimously by the Matewan Town Council on March 13.
“I am so pleased with the turnout,” Kessler said to the Daily News. “I am so pleased with Donna (Patterino). All she does is let us know what she needs and the council is always ready to help her. Without her, this wouldn’t happen.
“All of this shows that the people of Matewan are not just proud; we’re coal proud,” Kessler said.