A dying coal town famous for a vicious family feud has been rebuilding itself through an inspiring mix of cooperation and ingenuity.
Nestled amidst the rolling hills of the Appalachian Mountains in the heart of coal country lies the small town of Williamson, West Virginia. Separated from its counterpart, South Williamson, Kentucky, by the Tug Fork River, Williamson is probably best known for an infamous feud — that of the Hatfields and McCoys.
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Though the area may be known best for a feud, folks in Williamson are anything but contentious. It’s such a close-knit community that one doctor set his sights on returning home after completing his medical training.
The coal town’s idyllic past
Dr. C. Donovan “Dino” Beckett grew up in Williamson at a time when people still remembered its heyday. “It was still a great place to grow up when I was young, but it wasn’t what it had been,” Beckett said.
Once a thriving community full of diverse cultures, Beckett remembers that timbering was what first brought people there during the Hatfield and McCoy era. This was followed by coal and all the businesses that sprang from that. Coalfield Jews is an excellent book that Beckett recommends. It details the heavy European representation in these early coal communities. The economy was further bolstered by the Norfolk and Southern Rail Company, where Beckett’s dad worked.
Beckett grew up hearing his parents tell stories of what a fantastic place Williamson had been. From the 1920s through the 1950s, Williamson was the cultural mecca of southern West Virginia. “There were 40 Jewish businesses on Second Avenue alone, which is crazy,” Beckett says. “There were clothiers, an opera house, a synagogue. It had this vibrant ethnic mix — Poles, Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, and African Americans. So when people talk about southern West Virginia being a monolith, it’s a total misrepresentation, particularly for Williamson.”
Beckett was amazed by the local doctors while spending time as a West Virginia University student in a rural Chilean community. With no modern medical conveniences, they had developed excellent diagnostic skills and were also deeply involved in their small community of Tiltil. Beckett returned home inspired and decided to apply to medical school.
After completing training at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg, and a family medicine residency in Charleston, West Virginia, Beckett took a job in South Williamson, Kentucky. But he soon decided he missed West Virginia. “Even though it was two miles across the river, I wanted to go back home and do more of my own thing.”
After taking a position at West Virginia’s Williamson Memorial Hospital, he decided to open a side concierge clinic in 2006. A novel concept at the time, he provided care for coal and gas company employees, and thanks to his focus on not just disease management but prevention, it grew.
In 2004, Dr. Beckett had begun investing in local real estate. “I bought this building about 20,000 square feet and planned to use about 5,000 square feet for my clinic,” he said. “Then I talked to a friend about how great it would be to have a coffee shop in Williamson. The next day, he said: ‘Hey, there’s this couple in South Carolina who’s going to sell all their coffee shop stuff.’ So, I bought all this amazing stuff they had, including a custom-made Italian espresso bar, beautiful fixtures, tables, chairs — everything.” That’s how Coal Cafe was born, with a bookstore later added inside the coffee shop.
Strengthening the community
But Beckett didn’t stop there. He decided he wanted to purchase old buildings, rehab them, and use the upstairs for housing and the downstairs for business space. “Williamson is such a cool town with all this great architecture and infrastructure, and I wanted to help bring it back,” he said. “So, I lobbied to get on the Williamson redevelopment authority and started to improve the town’s aesthetics. Then I started thinking: ‘What can we do to help improve the health of the community while we’re doing these economic development types of things?’”
Beckett realized that telling his patients to eat right and exercise wasn’t enough. They needed a structured plan, access to affordable, healthy food, and a sound support system. That’s when the idea for a farmers’ market was born.
“Probably one of the coolest things we did was involve two students from the local community college who were part of the Appalachia Community Academy for Leadership Development,” Beckett noted. “We didn’t have the money to research how to develop a farmers market, so we charged the students with this task as part of their learning. And these girls knocked it out of the park.”
In the first year, the monthly farmers’ market generated more than US$20,000. It had grown into a weekly farmers market by year two, generating US$50,000 of income going back to the farmers and back into the community.
Things continued to grow “organically,” as Beckett described it. For example, after winning the Robert Wood Johnson Cultural Health Prize for work they’d done to knit the community together, they decided to use some of the US$25,000 prize money for a “pitch competition” to start identifying supporting entrepreneurs. “If you look at poverty and entrepreneurs, they’re inversely related, so we knew if we wanted to improve the socio-economic status of the area, we had to create entrepreneurs,” Beckett said.
An employee at Beckett’s clinic had the winning idea in the pitch competition — a mobile farmers market. She used the US$5,000 prize money to buy a supply truck and take produce around to the extended community. As a result, her business is still going strong.
But even those who didn’t win a prize were inspired enough to see their ideas through to fruition. “One of the contestants pitched the idea of people dropping off a mason jar, and they would create a salad in it. You’d pick it up, have your lunch, then bring it back and use it the next day.” Beckett explained. Even though they didn’t win, they forged their path, and now they have their restaurant in town called 34:Ate, which is very successful.
Along the way, “Sustainable Williamson” was created. Beckett explained: “As we would do something, more people would get involved, and new ideas would spring up. This is how Sustainable Williamson came about, and it was from this, the idea for a community garden and some other ideas came about.”
Starting on a plot of land beside the area’s public housing, the community garden is another thread that has woven the community together. People in public housing knew how to garden, but they didn’t have access to land. So they began helping other people who didn’t know how to garden. As a result, everyone was exchanging ideas and secrets, growing produce, and creating something of value that they could share with their friends, eat themselves, or co-op at the farmers market.
Impressed by his sense of business savvy and knowing him from being a near-classmate at West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, where business skills weren’t taught, I asked him how he learned so much.
“That’s a funny story,” he replied. “I like to say that my first business was in fifth grade. My aunt had this massive, old cedar chest full of thousands of No. 2 pencils that my uncle had collected while working for the railroad. I happened on them one day sometime after he’d passed away, and my aunt said I could have them.
“For me, I was like: ‘Here’s a business.’ I had all this inventory, so I decided to start selling them at school. I was making some pretty good cash for fifth grade. Then my principal saw what I was doing, and he put in a fancy pencil machine. I’m just selling them out of my backpack. So I started undercutting him on the price since I had all this inventory. Then he shut me down and said I couldn’t sell pencils.
“I quickly learned how the regulatory component of business works. So of course, I go to the black market after that. That’s the whole iteration of the beginning of my business savvy,” he laughs.
This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine.