West Virginia State students excavate Tams coal town

INSTITUTE, W.Va. (AP) — Over the summer, several students from West Virginia State University spent hours in the hot sun, chilly rain and soggy field trying to discover how residents in the coal camp of Tams lived.

They dug squares, examined glass shards and researched the geography of the former town, located in the southwestern part of Raleigh County.

For weeks the students unearthed everyday items by slowly peeling away dirt to discover life in the camp was pretty mundane.

Children played with toys, animals were slaughtered, residents had plumbing and used a lot of glass products. Those were just a few of the discoveries the students made. “When you get down to it, it’s still a lot of guess work,” said Taylor Allen, who, along with Nicholas Stavrakis and Stephen Jones, took part in the archaeological dig.

But the biggest discovery was personal. They enjoyed digging up the past and figuring out, with only the basic of clues, how people lived decades ago.

“I knew I wanted to go into archaeology, but the dig really helped me decide,” said Allen, who is currently applying to graduate school.

Stavrakis and Jones decided to pursue studies in related fields, including anthropology.

Stavrakis, a Whitesville native, said the dig was not only research into the past, but a glimpse into the future of Whitesville. Stavrakis said his hometown is sidelined by the drastic decline in coal and could be another Tams if the town’s economic situation does not change.

Tams is gone and Whitesville could be too. Stavrakis said he doesn’t remember much of the Whitesville of his parents, but does recall a town with a movie theater and other attractions.

“Whitesville could certainly become a Tams,” he said.

During the dig, the students, all history majors at WVSU, spent days meticulously removing dirt, taking notes and researching their finds.

Earlier this year, the students traveled to Washington, D.C., to display their findings on a large poster and listen to archaeologists present papers on digs. At the Society for Historic Archaeology meeting, they said, several people came up and asked about last summer’s dig.

“There was a lot of interest in coal,” said Jones. “I didn’t think people were that interested in coal history, but they are.”

“Several of the people said they didn’t know about coal or its history,” said Stavrakis.

The students’ advisers, Carl DeMuth and Michael Workman, said the Tams findings may change the way people think about the Appalachian coalfields of yesterday.

One of the articles they found was a broken tin soldier, once a popular toy for young boys. The soldier is missing a leg and was most likely purchased at the Tams Company Store.

“What it tells us is that we may need to rethink more broadly what the typical Appalachian coal camp was like, its history,” said DeMuth.

The dig told the students that the historical image of the coal camp as a workers’ camp is accurate, but it also was where families lived and children played.

Glass was the most common item found during the five-week dig last summer. The group dug up all kinds of glass, they said.

“You can only dig up so much glass before it gets old,” said Allen, who said his most interesting find was a chunk of amethyst glass dating around the early to mid-1940s.

At its zenith in the 1920s, Tams had about 320 households, and homes were all painted white with green trim. Sepia photos on coalcampusa.com show well-tended coal camp houses with sidewalk and dirt roads. According to a Playboy magazine interview before he died in 1977, Major W.P. Tams said he paid workers a higher wage than the union to keep them happy and from going to another coal company. He founded Tams and Wyco, a similar camp in Wyoming County, both model coal camps, and was remembered after his death as a benevolent paternalist, several sources, including DeMuth, said.

The dig, founded in part by National Coal Heritage Authority, Wenner Gren Foundation, the Indiana University Center on Race and Ethnicity Studies, and the Glen Black Lab, hopes to donate some of its findings to the Coal Exhibit Museum and other facilities dealing with mining history.

DeMuth said he hopes there is another dig at Tams this summer.


Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com

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