People in the remote hills and valleys were subsistence farmers before the mining industry came. For generations afterward, King Coal provided most of the decent jobs and dominated almost every aspect of life.
But mechanization gradually eliminated tens of thousands of mining jobs. When economic and political conditions suddenly changed, most of the coal industry shut down. Communities were left with high unemployment, a ravaged landscape and an uncertain future.
This is the story of Eastern Kentucky. It also is the story of South Wales.
These two regions separated by the Atlantic Ocean share many traits and experiences. Community leaders working to create a post-coal economy in Central Appalachia think there are lessons to be learned from Wales, which has been dealing with many of the same challenges for three decades.
Two longtime coal community leaders from Wales will be in Eastern Kentucky on Oct. 7 to speak about their experiences. The 7 p.m. program at Appalshop Theatre, 91 Madison Avenue in Whitesburg, is free and open to the public.
Hywel Francis and his wife, Mair, are no strangers to Kentucky. They have been coming here for years as part of a community exchange program started in the 1970s by Helen Matthews Lewis, a well-known Appalachian scholar and activist.
“The interest between these two areas has been there for a long time, but it has really picked up as we’ve seen the sudden decline of mining jobs here,” said Mimi Pickering of Appalshop. “We think this is an exciting opportunity for folks to talk with people from another place who have been though this.”
Francis is a member of the British Parliament, a college professor and labor historian. His wife is a founder of Dulais Opportunity for Voluntary Enterprise, known as the DOVE workshop, a women’s education and job-training organization.
South Wales was a few decades ahead of Central Appalachia, both in the development and collapse of its coal economy.
Beginning in the early 1800s, coal mines in South Wales fueled Britain’s industrial revolution and, in many ways, the British empire. At the industry’s peak just before World War I, more than 250,000 men labored in nearly 500 Welsh deep mines and open pits.
As in Appalachia, mechanization steadily reduced mine employment. After World War II, British mines were nationalized. In the mid-1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closed unprofitable mines, sparking a bitter miners’ strike. The industry all but collapsed and 85,000 miners lost their jobs. Only a few hundred miners still dig coal in South Wales.
Tom Hansell, a filmmaker and professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., is finishing After Coal, a documentary comparing the experiences of coal communities in South Wales and Central Appalachia. He said it will be shown on Kentucky Educational Television next year or in 2016.
Hansell also helped organize a program in Elkhorn City two weeks ago about what Eastern Kentucky could learn from Wales’ tourism industry, which now employs 30,000 people.
A third forum will be at 6 p.m. on Oct. 28 at the Harlan campus of Southeastern Kentucky Community and Technical College. Richard Davies of College Merthyr Tydfil in Wales will lead a conversation about the role of youth and the arts in preserving vibrant coalfield communities.
While working on his film, Hansell said he made three trips to Wales. He noted that some of its circumstances are different than in Central Appalachia.
Because Welsh mines were owned by the government, laid-off miners got good severance payments to help them start businesses or train for new jobs. Britain also has a stronger social safety net than the United States, including a public health care system.
But Hansell said there is one smart thing Britain did that the United States could emulate: the government invested heavily in environmental reclamation, cleaning up the mess from generations of coal mining.
“There were jobs created with that, but more importantly it provided a foundation for future economic development,” he said.
Another good strategy: community funds have been created around major industrial investments, such as a wind turbine farm built by a Swedish company. The funds are similar in some ways to Kentucky’s coal severance tax, but transparently managed by local community boards rather than state and local politicians.
Wales has a focus on entrepreneurship and small-business development, which organizations such as Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. have done here. Everyone realizes that the future is lots of small employers rather than a few big ones, Hansell said.
“It would be misleading to say that Wales has solved all their economic problems,” he said, noting that unemployment remains high and many people in former mining communities commute to jobs in coastal cities. “But towns have found ways to survive and find creative ways to re-invent themselves.”