It was 1957 in Logan County, a time of extremely high unemployment in the coalfields.
After over four decades of lives being lost and men’s backs being broken from toiling underneath these Appalachian mountains, mechanization had reached our hills and various machines were replacing the men who had historically brought coal from the bowels of the earth, over time providing what was needed to make steel that was vital in America winning two world wars.
The soaring unemployment rate was putting local men in the precarious situation of choosing whether to leave their homes to find work elsewhere or stay in the land they loved, only to watch their families decline. There were no food stamp programs to help suffering families at the time, and there really wasn’t much — federal or state — that could come to the rescue of the bewildered coal miners and their families. Once unemployment checks were depleted, it was tough for most coal mining folks to survive.
With few other occupations available other than coal-related jobs and men being laid off by the hundreds, many young men left Logan County for factory jobs in places like Pontiac, Flint, and Detroit, Michigan; Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois, to name but a few locations where hard working hillbillies were welcomed. Many of these former Loganites worked in automobile manufacturing plants and remained at their jobs until retirement. Some never returned to Logan County to live, although others did return to their roots, so to speak, following retirement.
While hardships were many in coal camp communities in 1957, the situation called for action. It was time to restore “pride” back into the lives of suffering families, particularly the children. It was, in fact, the beginning of PRIDE, today known as PRIDE Community Services, which still serves as a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization with an $8 million annual budget, supplying at least 125 jobs that involve multiple programs that meet the immediate needs of citizens of Logan County. Now, the agency has even expanded some services — such as weatherizing homes — to other counties, especially economically deprived McDowell.
About 60 years ago, instead of just sitting back and allowing the county to economically fade into oblivion, local civic organizations, particularly the Logan Women’s Club, organized and recruited businesses to purchase clothing, shoes, school supplies, and even food to help families and to enable children to regularly attend school.
Of the many folks who strived tirelessly to make Logan County a better place to live, Martha Jane Becker, former Logan Banner society editor and eventual owner of WVOW radio in Logan, was instrumental in the Logan Women’s Club winning a major national award in 1962 for a community improvement project. The women, who had previously obtained goods to help impoverished Logan Countians, came up with the title of “Council of PRIDE” — the letters standing for “Progressive Rejuvenation and Development Enterprise.”
Through a county-wide effort, Martha Jane, as most people referred to her, along with her husband (Bill) and others, helped secure $85,000 to bring a garment factory to Logan County, mostly through a radio marathon conducted by the Beckers, after the Logan County Development Association was formed. Logan Manufacturing, located at Phico near Chapmanville, opened its doors in 1962 and supplied hundreds of jobs until finally closing in 1992. Among various clothing items produced at the site included racing clothing worn by the likes of such NASCAR drivers as the late Dale Earnhardt.
The manufacturing plant is gone, as are the Beckers and many other people who invested time and money into revitalizing Logan’s economy and in helping the poor. In 2001, the Beckers were honored by the naming of a Stratton Street building in Logan which at the time was used as the Logan County Chamber of Commerce. That building, just a 30-second walk from the Logan County courthouse, is the former location of Crown Jewelers, and it still bears the name of Becker. The structure now stands as a vacant reminder of times gone by.
However, what today is a product of the efforts of the Beckers and other community leaders, especially the Logan Women’s Club, would make its co-founders extremely proud. Renamed as PRIDE Community Services in 2010, the local agency may be the most valuable asset in Logan County, at least in terms of what important services it provides — from Head Start children to senior citizens, as well as veterans services, and much more, PRIDE continues to grow by leaps and bounds.
The election of 1960 played a key role in the beginning of the PRIDE organization because a Logan Countian named Mel Cottone helped organize and run the Logan campaign for the underdog presidential candidate in the 1960 primary election. John F. Kennedy would not only win Logan County, but also the nation, when in the general election he defeated Richard Nixon.
Cottone became a fulltime employee of the presidency and, following the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 and the elevation of Vice President Lyndon Johnson to the highest office in the land, Cottone continued his position under President Johnson.
Kennedy, having visited West Virginia extensively during his election campaign, had seen the poverty that existed in the state, especially the coalfields, and in 1961 West Virginia was included in a pilot food stamp program designed to help the poor purchase food, as well as help the farming economy in the process. In 1964, the Food Stamp program was introduced by Johnson to the entire nation as a result of the pilot program.
Also, in 1964, it was the Mt. Gay native (Cottone), whose immigrant parents owned a small house directly behind what is now Park ’n Eat drive-in restaurant at Mt. Gay, who proudly met with Loganite Ervin Queen and others in Washington D.C. to make PRIDE the first community action agency in West Virginia, and according to Cottone, maybe the first in the nation.
“It was all a part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty” program,” Cottone explained. “I was proud to help secure the first grant check to Queen for $150,000.” The former Loganite, who is a healthy 87-years-old, had been named by Johnson as one of four Federal economic Opportunity District directors in the nation, and he was responsible for the funding of Community Action programs such as Head Start. Cottone has never forgotten his hometown, despite a splendid political career in government that led to his retirement in Florida.
Ervin Queen had volunteered as the local agency’s executive director since 1957 and the grant and continuous federal aid over the years helped Queen and others build PRIDE into an agency that still continues to aid the economically less fortunate. From home-delivered meals to providing transportation to seniors to and from grocery stores and pharmacies, PRIDE Community Services has numerous other programs designed to help the needy.
The local organization has grown tremendously since the days of Ervin Queen, whose tireless efforts must never be forgotten. However, under the leadership of Reggie Jones, who was named director when the agency found itself in dire straits, and an involved board of directors, PRIDE overcame prior situations which almost led to the closing of the agency. Jones got the approval to hire current Executive Director Lisha Whitt to straighten out the organization’s financial situations, and when Jones left for a better position in Charleston, his recommendation to the board of directors to hire Whitt to replace him was met with unanimous approval.
With PRIDE’s vision being to remain a driving force in creating a community where people are empowered with resources and opportunities to reach their greatest potential — particularly, in regards to the Head Start program — it is soothing to know that in a time of great local and national turmoil, PRIDE Community Services continues to be a growing and vibrant organization that just might be Logan County’s best economic secret weapon.
If not for the efforts of people like Martha Jane Becker, Ervin Queen, and others, as well as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson — and yes, a guy from Logan County who was raised “poorer than dirt” (Mel Cottone) — it is almost unimaginable how depressed Logan County would look today.
Perhaps we need more Martha Janes, more Ervins and more people who have the great vision of past civic groups and volunteer leaders, as well as dedicated elected officials.
As PRIDE endeavors to make a better community in these troubling economic times, and as a person who knows what it’s like to have tasted poverty, I can’t help but think of an expression I’ve always lived with — “Poor people have poor ways.”
Gratitude is truly in order to all of those people associated with the PRIDE organization, who over the decades had even a minor role in maintaining Logan County’s “War on Poverty.”
Now, if we could just win the “War on Drugs.”