In the Coal Mine Shadows

The first year after Henry’s death, the Blackwells cleared the hilly land. By the next spring, a half-dozen acres were ready to plant. On a frosty March morning, Mary headed to Harrisonburg. In her right pants pocket was ninety-two dollars folded over with twine into a tight, thick wad. She could feel its weight on her thigh, but she reached into her pocket just to feel it, to touch it and make sure it was still there. This was her and Henry’s life savings, and most of it would be spent that day on those little black specks of gold called burley seed. The future of the Blackwell family depended upon seeds.

Mary returned that night, late, after the fifty-mile round trip. Everyone but Jared was in bed. As Mary made her way to the house after bedding down the horse for the night, she saw the lone lantern in the window as she made her way to the house. The reflection of her young son in the window made her stop and stare. Jared was looking more and more like his daddy. And for just a minute, Mary let herself feel the joy of her years together with Henry. For just a split second, it felt as if her husband would be on the other side of that door when she opened it. But reality found its way back to Mary’s world as she opened the front door and saw no one there but Jared.

“Hey, Mama. I couldn’t sleep until I knew you were safely at home.”

Mary sat down at the table and reached down again into that right front pocket. This time she pulled out a small burlap sack. She pulled the drawstrings and looked inside at the tiny specks. Then she poured them out on the table.

“Jared, this is our future. Did you ever think we could hold all hope for tomorrow in one hand?”

Mary sat and stared at those magical little specks until her eyes closed and she laid her head down on her arms on the table. She sat there all night with one hand on the seeds that would become their master in the days and weeks to come.

After they planted the seeds in the plant beds that they had already prepared, Mary, along with her older sons, took turns keeping small fires burning all around the seedbeds to keep them warm. Early mornings were still cold, and frost could nip and blacken new growth way up into the spring in those mountains. They had taken pieces of old clothes and blankets to make tents over the seedlings. For six weeks, they tended the plants every night, praying to keep the still wintry air from nipping the tender plants.

Night after night, they stood vigil over the strange little sprouts. Hank took the first shift lighting the coal pits for warmth. Then Mame would relieve him. Jared’s turn was next, but most of the time, Mary would be up in the morning and take his turn. Mary had always heard the night was darkest just before dawn. As she walked around the beds of plants night after night fanning the warmth into the plants, she not only saw that darkness, she felt it. She had never been more alone in her life.

A chill rippled upon her spine as a shooting star fell to the ground not more than a hundred feet in front of her. Some people might call that a good omen. Mary thought it was just a shooting star. Schoolgirl dreaming was many years behind her.

Finally all fear of the chilling mists passed. Now all that was left to do was to wait until the plants were big enough to transplant into the newly formed fields. The day arrived and the work began. Disbelieving neighbors watched as Mary and her sons took the delicate plants one by one and dropped them into thousands of holes that they’d dug with a mattock into the rich mountain earth. It took them two weeks, working every day from daylight to dark, to finish their transplanting. All six acres or so that were cleared were set.

Now it was time to start back at the beginning, hoeing and putting livestock litter beside each plant. They continued this cycle of fertilizing all summer. Every day, even Sunday, no matter if it rained or if the sun shone, they were in the fields. The boys, Hank, James, and Jared, got very restless, doing nothing but working. But they respected their mother and knew she was working as hard as they were, so they kept it up. Soon, very soon, it would be time to start chopping down the stalks of tobacco. Then they would stack it like teepees in the fields for a few days to start it drying. Next they would move it to the barn loft and hang it to finish the curing out process.

As the last stalk fell to the ground, there rang a loud yell that could be heard for miles around. It was Mary Blackwell as she fell to the ground and cried. This was the first real emotion she had shown in almost two years. For the first time since Henry died, she felt as if she could breathe. The tight knot in her chest was beginning to unwind. She looked up at her family, spread across the rows like scarecrows. It was as if she were seeing her children for the first time in months.

These had not been mere children. Even little William, not quite three, helped Mame in the house. They had been fellow workers doing much more than seemed possible. All odds had been against them—a woman and a bunch of kids, raising a tobacco crop. Never, the townspeople had predicted. There were even bets placed against them. No one imagined tobacco growing in these hills. But Mary had taken her chances and done a lot of research. She had bought the new burly seeds that were supposed to be better suited to their cool climate. And it had worked. That wad of ninety-two dollars had turned into what Mary believed was a fine crop of tobacco that would soon be loaded into a wagon ready for market.


  1. starr Burgess

    Can’t wait to find this book and read it Sarah!!!!

  2. Richard Nance

    Great work Sarah, from an old tobacco farmer and fellow writer, you know how to bring back the old memories. Keep those books coming and may God guide you on your path.


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