Eye Witness: Teens Paint House, Learn About Appalachia

The Developing World is not just outside the United States.

August 24. The name of the town and the fact that we would be painting the house of a senior citizen were all we knew as seven of us left the diocese on Sunday, August 24. Our destination: Northfork, West Virginia.

Five individuals left from Cincinnati, led by Worley Rodehaver, Interchange editor.  Two more, including the Rev. Andrew Newbert, this diocese’s representative to the Appalachian People’s Service Organization, left from Bridgeport, Ohio.

Touring the inside of a local mine, we could not imagine laboring there.

The Highland Educational Project, financed by the Diocese of West Virginia and APSO, is the organization responsible for the Appalachian work camp in which the group took part.  Father Newbert, who learned of the program through his affiliation with APSO, was impressed with what was said about the project and spent much of the winter and spring interesting others in it.

The seven Southern Ohioans, weary from travel, fell asleep soon after our arrival in Northfork at the church-owned Hill House, where we were to spend the week.

The house, like most other houses in McDowell County, is built on the side of a small mountain.  The communities in the area all appear to be long and narrow, since they are usually located in narrow valleys.  A creek and railroad runs through the middle of Northfork and several other communities along this section of U.S. 52.


August 25. Monday morning saw seven people, mostly strangers to each other, begin, to become, a solid, dedicated group.  The $20 each of had paid to participate was placed into a general fund to buy food and supplies and two of our party were off to purchase the fixings for breakfast.

We were to scrape and paint the home of 74-year old Mrs. lbena Freeman.

Our group was responsible for its own meals and schedule. Breakfast was prepared by members of the group in the basement kitchen/dining room of the rectory, located next to Northfolk’s Grace Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Hugh Cuthbertson, director of the project and rector of the church, led an orientation after breakfast.  He told us details of the wildcat miners’ strike which was in progress, about the evening programs is planned and about the house would be painting.

After a 20-mile drive we arrived in Switchback and at the home of 74-year old Mrs. lbena Freeman. She, like 60% of McDowell County, is black.

Mrs. Freeman was standing on her porch as our cars pulled up.  Before the day had concluded, she — wearing her “Senior Power” — lapel button, had told our group all about what the local senior citizens do, where they go on field trips and how much fun they have.

The first day, her daughter stopped by and treated the group to some gospel songs “powerful enough to kill the devil,” according to Mrs. Freeman, a firm Baptist.  Her grandson, Michael, played the organ.


We found the house to be in p sound condition. Once white, it had cracked and aged since last being painted 15 years ago.  Needless to say, Mrs. Freeman wasn’t happy with the way it looked and was very pleased we were going to paint it for her.  Her choice of barn red with white trim was the ‘latest thing,” she said, and it would make it different from the other houses in her small is community.

We found it a challenge since we had but one long ladder and the house was two stories.  Another work group from Erie, Pennsylvania, was also in the area, staying at the Episcopal Community Center in Keystone, a community next to Northfork.

Our two groups met together Monday evening, as we did each night thereafter.  We played a “get-to-know-each-other game.”  Then we discussed our projects and what they meant to us and to the communities in which we were staying.  Many of us were impressed by how friendly the local people were.

We also learned that there is a law in West Virginia which enables mining companies to secure mining rights under properties.  Once the company owns the rights it can mine the land and houses something’s sink.  We were told that only two properties in Keystone are not affected, one being the Episcopal Center.

Being teenagers, we painted each other as well.

August 26. Mrs. Freeman’s house was attacked again this morning with scrapers and paint brushes.  As the white came off, the red went on.  A few neighbor teen-agers helped paint as they talked with us.

During an evening program we all jumped in the project’s station wagon for a drive up into the hills behind Keystone, where after a’ brief walk along a wooded path, we came to the home of a Mr. Lusk.

He is an old mountaineer who still lives only about a half a mile from where he was born.  He cleared the land and he and his wife built the house in which he still lives in.  His wife died about a year ago.

When he was young, Mr. Lusk related, he was paid 50c a day to clear timber for a mining company. He has worked hard all on his life in weather “so severe it could kill you.”  He says he feels it now that he has retired.

Working in this part of West Virginia usually means working in the mines or in businesses which provide services for the miners.  While a miner gets paid a $55 to $85 a day he tends to spend it on cars and portable in items since he is afraid to invest in his home because of the mining rights law.

Although many of McDowell County’s residents are on welfare, Father Cuthbert son reports that, “welfare is not catering to people who can work.  A recent report showed that only 18 unemployable people in the county would choose not to work.  “They are a proud people. They don’t want welfare,” the clergyman stated.


August 27. Work on Mrs. Freeman’s house continued right along today.  During the evening program our two groups talked with a coal l miner and his wife. The miner, Howard, started in the Keystone mine in 1935 and is still working there.  He travels seven miles into the mine before reaching his “station.”  Howard claims it is “just as safe to work in the mine as to ride down the highway,” although six have died in accidents in his mine since January.

His wife Willy is studying to become a school teacher.  She says most children in the area go to school to get a free lunch.  She wants to teach them something and if she “had her rathers,” she’d teach the third grade.

August 28.  Work progressed at a slower pace because we ran out of red paint.  We concentrated on white trim.  During the evening — our free night —·we invited the Erie group for dinner and held a picnic on the church lawn.

August 29. Several members from the Erie group joined us after breakfast in an effort to catch up on work missed because of lack of paint.  We ran out again by mid-after- noon leaving a small portion of the side and back of the house to be finished next spring by others.

Mrs. Freeman was happy with what our small group had accomplished.

August 30. The week has gone by quickly and although we have been unable to finish the job completely, Mrs. Freeman was happy with what was accomplished and our group has learned a lot about Switchback, Northfork and West Virginia. All have grown to love Mrs. Freeman in their own way and she them.  No one will ever forget how happy their efforts made her, her neighbors and her community.  We part Switchback reluctantly, each with memories that will last a lifetime.

Originally published in the Diocese of Southern Ohio’s official publication, The Interchange, Sept. 27, 1975.  Photos by Kevin Kellar.


Jim Luce comments in 2010: In 1975 I was the youth rep, along with Kyle Webster, to the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio.  I was 16 years old.  We were very involved with issues of social justice and communicating goodness.  I was particularly fascinated with cultures I was unfamiliar with.  Years later, I considered being a minister in college, but then focused on Japanese literature.  I went on to work on Wall Street, then found a network of orphan care around the world known as Orphans International Worldwide (OIWW) and publish the Stewardship Report (JLSR).

About Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens

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Jim Luce: Thought Leaders & Global Citizens
Jim Luce (www.lucefoundation.org) writes and speaks on Thought Leaders and Global Citizens. Bringing 26 years management experience within both investment banking and the non-profit sector, Jim has worked for Daiwa Bank, Merrill Lynch, a spin-off of Lazard Freres, and two not-for profit organizations and a foundation he founded. As Founder & CEO of Orphans International Worldwide (www.oiww.org), he is working with a strong network of committed professionals to build interfaith, interracial, Internet-connected orphanages in Haiti and Indonesia, and creating a new, family-care model for orphans in Sri Lanka and Tanzania.

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