Illustration by Megan Knapp



How a former coal town is finding new life

Bennett Leckrone / Senior Writer

From a little concrete-block building on the main street of New Straitsville, Joe Maroon works tirelessly to keep his community together.

Maroon’s life revolves around the little Perry County village, located just 24 miles north of Athens. His building is located directly underneath “Inspiration Hill,” a Christian monument he calls his “baby,” right in the heart of New Straitsville.

“The community itself is a good community,” Maroon said from behind his desk, flanked by Saint Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day decorations. “We’re all striving to make our community better.”

Inspiration Hill is just one of Maroon’s many community-inspired projects: Inside his workshop, bundles of Christmas lights and a full nativity scene lie in wait for next year’s holidays beside tools for the community garden and maintenance. Maroon said he’s been working to better the community for nearly 40 years.

“It gives a lot of pride,” Maroon said.

Pride is a desperate commodity in New Straitsville. Once a thriving mining town with more than 4,000 residents, the village now houses just over 700 residents, Maroon said, alluding to the city’s long and hard decline over the course of the 20th century.

A history of decline

The village, and many others like it across southeast Ohio, has been trapped in a cycle of decline ever since coal began to diminish as a source of jobs and income in the region. In New Straitsville’s case, that decline began more than a century ago when a group of striking miners sent a cart of flaming coal into a mine, igniting the coal deposits deep underneath the town.

While the fire was started back in 1884, it supposedly rages on to this day, according to Ohio History Central. Maroon said that there are places on the road between New Straitsville and neighboring Murray City where snow doesn’t stick due to the smouldering coals beneath the surface.



Cheryl Blosser, a local historian with the Little Cities of Black Diamonds, a coalition dedicated to preserving the history of coal towns in local counties, said historical mining companies often controlled every aspect of a miner’s life.

From issuing currency that could only be spent locally, to buying elected officials’ loyalty, historical mining companies exerted control over their miners. The unionization of miners brought about many modern workplace staples like semi-monthly pay and an eight-hour workday, Blosser said.

Miners’ retaliation, however, took a toll on the little Perry County village and others like it. The burning mine, combined with the advent of fossil fuels and a finite amount of easily accessible coal in the hills, made coal begin to “lose it,” in New Straitsville, Maroon said.

“When the coal mine closes, for the employee it’s not only the loss of income,” John Carey, the director of the Ohio Governor’s Office of Appalachia, said. “It’s also the loss of their identity. It’s their way of life.”

Changing with the times

While mines continued to operate locally, they would dwindle across the area over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading former miners and prospective workers to try to find new jobs.

Blosser remembered that her husband worked in some of the last of the now-defunct coal mines during high school.

After that, he went to work in the oil fields, Blosser said. Maroon said that, at one point, the oil drills were so numerous around New Straitsville that it was difficult to count them. They pumped out precious crude oil and began pumping money into the local economy. The center cross on Inspiration Hill is supported on the foundation of an old oil well, Maroon said.

By the middle of the 20th century, however, even the oil wells were on the decline in New Straitsville. As massive reservoirs of coal smouldered beneath the hills, the land was being sucked dry of fossil fuels. For the first time, Maroon said, New Straitsville residents started commuting to work.

“How they survived was factories,” Maroon recalled. “They’d go to Columbus, they’d go to Logan.”

In Maroon’s case, that meant working at Carborundum, a grindstone wheel factory in Logan. Other residents went on to various factories in outlying towns. Some still commute to Columbus today, longtime Buchtel resident and local historian Rodney Galentin said.

Like New Straitsville, Buchtel was once surrounded by mines, Galentin said. When the mining companies left, residents of company towns were faced with a decision to either remain and look for other work or move along with the mines.

“Lots of families from this area, the coal mining area, left and went to Akron, Cleveland, Detroit, Toledo, wherever the work was,” Galentin said.

Many of Galentin’s friends and acquaintances worked in lumber yards as far north as Columbus, Galentin said. Commuting to work continues to this day.

“There are people that drive to Columbus every day from here,” He said. “Many of them work down in Athens at OU.”

New life

While some residents of New Straitsville still have to commute elsewhere for jobs, new life is breathing into the region, Blosser said. In New Straitsville, rows of cabins and a large campsite have cropped up around the trails that bring cyclists, hikers and ATV users through the town.

Blosser said the trails don’t just bring more commerce and a wider variety of people through the town – they also give travelers an opportunity to experience the region’s history.

“The trails are starting to bring in more people, and you're starting to see more activity,” Blosser said. “Some of our history sites aren't on Main Street, they're out in those woods.”

The trails and the scenery of the Hocking Hills bring in new campers every weekend, Maroon said. Sometimes he walks around the campsite and talks to the travelers.

“Ninety-five percent of the people camping their on the weekend come from Cleveland,” He said. “They can get on their four-wheeler … and get away from the bustle.”

Another source of culture and income in the town is its moonshine. The town has been dubbed the “moonshine capital of the world,” owing some of its success to the great mine fire underneath its hills. The rising smoke served as the perfect cover for hidden distilleries in the area.

The moonshine has also spurred new distilleries and businesses in downtown New Straitsville. Maroon said one distillery operates next door to his downtown shed, brewing in conjunction with students from Hocking College, about a 20-minute drive south near Nelsonville.

Carey said he hopes to see more development in towns like New Straitsville. Expanding access to high speed internet and wireless connections, which the town and some others like it lack, could improve job access. Various grants, like the POWER grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, is one example of ways new technologies are being developed in the area.

That could also mean training in new fields like welding, technology and sourcing jobs locally, Carey said. As coal continues to dwindle in areas where it is still a source of jobs, Carey hopes to encourage residents to invest locally and stay in their hometowns.

Carey said towns where coal has declined as a source of income continue to export one of their most important resources — talent.

For Sam Brady, the executive director of the Jackson County Economic Development Partnership, that talent could be a means of drawing new companies to the area.

“Much of our growth is going to come from within,” Carey said. “We tend to export a lot of our talent.”

While coal is a part of Jackson County’s history, some jobs in that industry remain to this day, Brady said. He added that they are “scaled back” from what they once were, but said that the land is still rich in natural resources.

“This is the area of opportunity,” he said.

To Carey, Appalachian Ohio already has all of the resources it needs to move forward.

Surviving legacy

Not every mining town found new sources of income after coal. Galentin noted that, while many former miners and succeeding generations commuted to jobs in Columbus, many left forever.

There was also the issue of property ownership, Galentin said. Many of the coal companies owned every building in town and rented to miners. In Buchtel’s case, families continued to live in and own their own houses after the company left, Galentin said – but other times, towns were completely razed and consumed by the forest.

“That’s partly what kept the towns alive,” Galentin said. “If people could keep the houses they were living in, that made a difference.”

Not all coal companies left the region: coal remains a source of jobs and income in some areas of Ohio. Along the Ohio River, several coal-fired power plants still churn out steam and power every day – although some plants are gradually being decommissioned.

In other places in Appalachian Ohio, new sources of energy are being sought. In Highland County, there are tentative plans for massive solar fields.

In New Straitsville and throughout Athens, Hocking and Perry counties, memories of the once-thriving local coal industry still exist. Some former company stores, like the Eclipse Company Store in The Plains, have been remodeled and repurposed. Others, like the once massive opera house in Buchtel, have been wiped away with little evidence that they ever existed.

“It's hard to watch a building fall down because the owner doesn't want to fix it,” Blosser said. “I see things like that happen, but there's all kinds of people in the world. Everybody values different things and what they want.”

While the region has been through many cycles of jobs, from coal to oil to developing recreational activities and the exporting to talent to other communities, Brady said the identity of the people there has remained the same.

“The deep roots felt by those who have lived here generationally have really determined the identity,” Brady said. “Coal, iron ore, iron furnaces … Those are all boom bust cycles, and those don’t determine our identity. The work ethic, the devotion to family, the devotion to community, devotion to your neighbor, that’s what determines the identity of a community.”

Development by: Megan Knapp / Digital Production Editor

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