War, West Virginia, seven miles north of Berwind, was the center of activity for many of the people in the most southern tip of McDowell County, in the 1940s and 50s. Big Creek High School (for white students) and Excelsior High School (for black students) were located here. Students that graduated from (the 9th grade) went on to attend these schools.
On March 17, 2003 an article, by staff writer Steve Clark, was published in the Richmond , Virginia Times-Dispatch describing the fate of Big Creek High and a brief history of the town of War.
WAR, W.Va. As the world weighs the possibility of war in Iraq, a West Virginia town named War is in a battle to save its old high school.
The state's board of education is considering a proposal to close Big Creek High School in War, a distressed coal-mining town in the mountains of southern West Virginia.
The proposal also would close the high school in the neighboring community of Iaeger. The students from those two schools then would be merged and attend a new school that would be built in Bradshaw, on the other side of a mountain.
Mayor Tom Hatcher, a 1958 graduate of Big Creek High, said almost everyone in War is vigorously opposed to the proposal. Going to school in Bradshaw would require long bus rides over bad roads.
"Some of our students would have a 90-minute bus ride each way over a twisting mountain road," said Hatcher.
War may be fighting a lost cause.
"I predict we'll lose this battle, because I'm sure it's a done deal," the mayor said.
Although the proposed closing of the high school is the main topic of discussion in War, people here are attuned to news about Iraq.
"Some of our people, of course, are very concerned that we may be going to war," said Hatcher. "But this is the kind of community where the majority supports the president when military action is involved."
In other words, don't look for a peace demonstration in War.
America's military buildup has caused War to lose half its police force. Two of the town's four police officers have been called to active duty in the West Virginia National Guard.
"We have to hold their jobs, so we'll hire temporary officers," Hatcher said. "And we can always ask the McDowell County Sheriff's Department for help if we need it."
War is recognized as "the southernmost incorporated city in West Virginia." It may be a city on paper, but it is anything but citified.
For starters, you don't see anybody talking on a cell phone.
"Cell phones don't work here," said Hatcher. "I have one in my car, but it doesn't work until I'm on top of the mountain driving out of town."
The closest movie theater is about 50 miles away in Bluefield, and many of those miles are on roads with hairpin curves.
"All the roads in and out of War are essentially the same roads that were built by convicts in the 1920s," Hatcher said.
War does not have a bar or a beer joint.
"We had a lot of bars at one time, but the last one closed four or five years ago," Hatcher said.
And there is no jail, although a small, vacant building on Main Street still has a sign proclaiming it to be the city jail.
"Back in the'40s and'50s, when we had all those bars, I'm told that little jail was filled most weekends," Hatcher said.
War does have a restaurant, where a photograph of President John F. Kennedy hangs on one wall. Called the Coffee Shop, the restaurant has been owned and operated by a husband-and-wife team, John and Orbie Campbell, for three decades.
Each morning at the crack of dawn, a group of men gather in the restaurant to swap tall tales. The king of exaggeration is George "Chink" Cortellesi, whose repertoire of stories includes one about how he once fished a record-sized trout out of a mud hole.
Next to the restaurant is the town's barber shop, operated by 79-year-old twin brothers Riley and Rush Justice. They've been lowering ears in War for 55 years.
"They cut each other's hair when they were boys because they didn't like the way their mother cut hair," said City Clerk Mary Ann Justice, who is married to Rush.
When they were schoolboys in the Depression, the Justice brothers cut the hair of schoolmates in the school's furnace room. Later they cut hair while serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II.
The town's name is a curiosity to outsiders.
Mayor Hatcher, who is president of the McDowell County Historical Society, explained how the name came to be.
Around 1820, settlers in the area fought a battle with Shawnee Indians alongside a stream, which ran red with the blood of those killed. The stream became known as War Creek, and the settlers' community became known as War.
Around 1880, coal-mining began in the area and a town sprung up. The town was named Miner's City, but most people called it War. When large-scale mining began in the early 1900s, the railroad came to town and erected a small shack beside the track. A sign was hung on the shack that read, "WAR."
"A post office was established here around 1906, and it was named War," Hatcher said. "So when the town was incorporated in 1920, the founding fathers chose the name War instead of Miner's City."
Hatcher, 63, was born in another part of McDowell County, but his family moved to War when he was young. His parents were schoolteachers and his father was principal of War's elementary school.
"This was a thriving town then," he said. "Our population in 1960 was about 3,500. Today, it's less than a thousand."
Like almost every coal-mining town in Appalachia, War has fallen on hard times. Many of the stores along Main Street are vacant, and many houses on the residential streets that run up the hollows are either abandoned or badly in need of repair.
War's social and economic problems are the result of being situated in a one-industry county.
"This county still produces more coal than any county in the country, and more coal than ever is being mined here," said Hatcher. "But fewer and fewer people work in the mines because coal-mining is now a highly mechanized industry."
At one time, 60,000 men in the county worked in the mines. Today, the county's miners number about 1,200, he said.
"There are no jobs for our young people, so they have to go somewhere," Hatcher said. "They come home to visit, but they don't come back to live because life here is hard."
War has some positive things going for it. The town has a bank, a grocery store, a Dollar General store and two drug stores that draw people from smaller neighboring communities with curious names such as Cucumber, Yukon and Squire.
Hatcher, an educator with a doctorate, left home for three decades, then came back at the age of 51 to teach at Big Creek High School. He retired several years later to serve on the city council. He was elected mayor in 1997.
"Some people choose to live here despite the hardships," he said. "I'm one of them."