In 1965, Ollie Combs made history. She was a 66 year-old widow living in a three room house and well below the poverty line in the mountains of Kentucky. Her husband had died in a coal mine the year before, leaving her to care for their six children, one of whom was disabled and bedridden after a car crash.

ollie-combs-2-1965Photo credit Bill Strode

Campbell and Holloway (1972) tell the story of Ollie Combs, a woman who felt the need to protect the little land she had against a corporate coal company. In 1965, the Caperton Coal Company sent bulldozers to the Kentucky mountain that surrounded the land of Mrs. Combs with the intent to remove the mountain in an effort to harvest the coal lying deep inside. In those days, strip mining meant the company could remove all the surface land to access the coal underneath. The excess debris was pushed off mountainsides into valleys and hollows, forever changing the local landscape. 

Long before, companies has purchased mineral rights to much of the property in Appalachia. These companies were legally allowed to destroy the surface land, regardless of who owned it. This activity had been challenged in the legal system but was not yet successful in protecting the rights of those that owned the surface land itself. In fact it would be 15 years before legislation was enacted to protect the ground on which homes and farms existed. 

But, on that day in 1965 when the bulldozers crossed onto the land of Mrs. Combs, she felt a strong need to fight back. She knew if the mining company succeeded in stripping the land, she would lose her ability to feed and care for her family. Regardless of a court injunction that prohibited picketing or interfering with strip mining, Ollie Combs at age 66 climbed the mountain by her house and sat in the path of the bulldozers. The machinery stopped and she continued to sit. Later in the day, the mine owner arrived on the site and explained he had a restraining order “to keep you folks off the strip site” (Campbell & Holloway, p. 187), but she remained sitting.

ollie-combs-9-1965Photo credit Bill Strode

A sheriff and a State Trooper eventually physically carried her off the mountain (she refused to walk). She was released on bond, and the next day, when she heard the bulldozers start their engines, she hiked back up the mountain. She sat in front of the bulldozers, and yet again was arrested and bodily carried down the mountain. 

ollie-combs-3-1965 Photo credit Bill Strode

“It’s where I raised my family and it’s the only home I ever really owned,” Combs said in 1975. “I told them, ‘Go under the hill; you can go under the hill and get coal — people used to get it that way — go under the hill and get the coal.'” (Cheves & Estep, 2013). 

ollie-combs-1965Photo credit Bill Strode

The day before Thanksgiving, when she arrived at the jail after being carried down the mountain for the third time, the sheriff asked if she would walk into the jail on her own, as his back was hurting. She refused. The sheriff’s request for help carrying her into the jail cell was declined by townsfolk as well as the other jailed inmates, until eventually a deputy was summoned. As it was, Ollie Combs ate Thanksgiving dinner in a jail cell.

Photo credit Bill Strode

The episodes were caught on camera by a journalist, Bill Strode, who was arrested along with Ollie Combs. He managed to smuggle his photos to his editor and her story gained public attention. Eller (2008) explains at this point the Kentucky Governor was embarrassed by the incident surrounding “The Widow Combs”, as she became known in the press. Thus, he publicly sided with the landowners and requested the state police stop assisting the coal companies during non-violent confrontations with land owners.

Ollie Combs’ story instilled a new energy into the quest of regulations to limit the practices of strip mining. The actions of one poverty level, widowed, elderly woman helped turn the tide of strip mining practices. Appalachian Voices (2013) recounts the fact that in 1977, Ollie Combs was invited to the White House for the signing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. 

I remember once, when I was younger, my dad and I were walking the boundary of our farm in the Appalachian mountains. As we stopped and viewed the mountains with quiet appreciation, he commented that he didn’t own the mineral rights to the land where we stood. Seeing my confusion, he explained a mining company owns the mineral rights and could, at any time, harvest the minerals below our feet. I do remember feeling a little off balance as I stood on that fertile farmland. I believe it was a defining moment, realizing how little we are, really, compared to corporate strongholds. I remember a sensation of a falseness to life, a feeling that things are not what they seem. And the solemn understanding that what we hold dear can be taken away by the mere stroke of a pen. 

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Photo credit byJenks (Blog Author)

My parents are from the rugged Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia. Reading Ollie Combs story made me understand they were witness to the post-war coal wars. They were young parents with four children of their own in 1965, which makes Ollie Combs seem like kin.

As recently as five days ago, when I marched on Washington DC with expectation and intent, I and over 6 million others worldwide, marched for women’s rights. We unknowingly carried forward the legacy of Ollie Combs, she and others like her set the foundation of peaceful protest and raised awareness of issues that affect our lives today. I wish I had known her last week, as I would have posted her story as I marched. Little did she know the significance of her actions, 52 years later. 

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Photo credit  byJenks (Blog Author)

Regarding land management and the conservation of our environment, Eller (2008, p. 268) concludes, “Reclaiming a more appropriate land ethic… will demand that we accept personal responsibility for the land…”  Land preservation sits at the heart of Appalachian culture, the land is our defining thread. Protecting this heritage may be a long battle with the industries of coal mining, timbering, development, and pipelines.

The Earth is the source of life, not a resource. I would like to say those are my original words, but they are thoughts of Chief Arvol Looking Horse, a Native American Lakota and Dakota tribe “Chosen One”, as he recently related to Morgan Freeman in the National Geographic series, The Story of God. Those are words worth marching for…

References

Appalachian Voices. (2013). The women of Appalachia. Retrieved from http://appvoices.org/appalachianwomen/

American Coal Foundation. (2015). Coal Mining in America. Retrieved from http://teachcoal.org/coal-mining-in-america

Eller, R.D. (2008). Uneven Ground, Appalachia Since 1945. The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington.

Campbell, W.D., Holloway, J.Y. (1972). The Failure and the Hope: Essays of Southern Churchmen. Eugene, Oregon. Wopf and Stock Publishers.

Cheves, J, and Estep, B. (2013). Bombs and bullets in Clear Creek. Retrieved from http://www.kentucky.com/news/special-reports/fifty-years-of-night/article44430654.html

Kentucy Coal Education. (2007). Frequently asked questions about coal. Retrieved from http://www.coaleducation.org/q&a/10_reasons_why_coal.htm

The story of God with Morgan freeman. National Geographic channel. The story of the sacred pipe. Retrieved from http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/the-story-of-god-with-morgan-freeman/videos/the-story-of-the-sacred-pipe/

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