Someday soon, Carl Nicholas promises, he's gonna take "Old Jakey" for a ride down Lilly's Fork in his four-wheel-drive Cheyenne and show him where he's gonna build the coal mine.
"Old Jakey'll never believe it," says Carl. "I tell him he'll be able to look out from his house at night and see lights on the tipple. That'll be like New York City to him."
Old Jakey doesn't have electric lights, Co. an energy crisis.
The rest of America does and, two months ago, Gerry Swanson, president of the Pittston Coal Group, and Jimmy Carter, president of the United States, sent Carl Nicholas to Clay County to do something about it. Eight miles up the hollow they call Lilly's Fork, an hour by four-wheel-drive over mountains with no roads and no names, Nicholas is heeding the president's plea for more coal to help feed the nation's insatiable appetite for energy.
He's opening a new coal mine, a mile down the creek from Old Jakey, 85, lives with his wife, 82, and her little sister on a 108-acre farm that Jakey's daddy bought before the coal company got it. Jakey Nicholas - his last name is the same as Carl's and they joke about being cousins, but probably aren't - lives as his father lived, surrounded by 93,000 acres of coal.
There are 75 million tons of low-sulfur coal beneath the Pittston tract, at least four different layers, in seams four, five, six feet deep. Coal like that, 1.8 billion tons of it, underlays most of Clay County, the state Department of Mines estimates.
There's so much coal here that the federal Energy Department predicts Clay County could be one of the boom towns of the energy rush.
Because of its coal, Clay County is one of 41 sites that have been targeted as potential locations for the synthetic fuels plants needed to achieve the president's goal of energy independence (see separate story).
A synfuels plant would bring a $2 billion investment to Clay County. The plant would need 1,700 workers and would spinn off another 2,400 jobs, creating an energy rush that could double Clay County's population.
"Old Jakey'll never believe it."
What does a $2 billion investment mean to an 85-year-old man who has no need for money and no apparent source of it? What's an energy crisis to someone who's gotten all the natural gas he can burn for free since he let the gas company run a little pipe across his property? What does the administration's energy policy matter to someone who lives in such isolation that visitors are embarrassed to ask if he knows who is president now? There are questions polite people don't ask on Lilly's Fork.
Ten miles away, in the town of Clay, which is the seat of Clay County, Avis Moore, the county clerk, and Murray Smith, the banker, who know as much as anybody about what happens in Clay County, haven't heard of the synthetic fuels plant.
But they know about coal.
"We've been waiting in the wings here in Clay County for a long time. Now it looks like it's finally going to happen," said Moore, the closest thing to a county executive that taxpayers in rural West Virginia can afford.
"Reopening that mine will be the best thing that ever happened to Clay County," agreed Smith, president of the county's only bank.
Despite its billions of tons of coal, Clay County has only one working mine, near the little town of Widen on the opposite end of Pittston tract.
There were more mines once, but they began closing after 1952 when John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers came to Clay County to organize the miners of J. G. Bradley, the coal baron who owned what is now the Pittston tract. J. G. beat the UMW, but miners died and, eventually, so did the mines, as the demand for coal dwindled in the Fifties, Sixties and early Seventies.
The coal camps and company store of the Elk River Coal Co. rotted away, Clay County's population eroded from more than 13,000 to fewer than 10,000 and miners went back to their hollows or found jobs in the petrochemical plants of the Kanahwa River Valley, an hour's drive away.
Clay County became the poorest place in West Virginia, with a per capita income of $3,000 a year, according to banker Smith. He said the public dole is the county's biggest source of income, supporting nearly one-third of its residents.
"Social Security, and the VA, welfare and relief is what we have to depend on," said Moore. The way the tax assessor figures it, the whole county - all the personal and real property - is only worth $70 million. But that doen't count the coal.
At today's prices of $20 to $25 a ton, Clay County's 1.8 billion tons of coal theoretically are worth $35 billion, maybe $45 billion.
Reopening the Pittston mine will provide 450 jobs and an$11-million-a-year payroll by 1983, company officials said at a meeting with local residents. Three objections to the project had been filed, but all three were withdrawn at the meeting, recalled J. D. Morris, cashier of the bank and president of the Clay County School Board.
There are no organized evvironmentalists in Clay County, and the word is spoken carefully, with a drawl of periorative distance.
"We're selfish enough to think bread on the table ought to come first," said Moore.
And what about a synthetic fuels plant with its threatened influx of people and the "boomtown effect"? "I'd like to have that problem to worry about," added the county clerk. "We'd like to take the chance. We've waited so long for this to happen.
The first sign of a coal rush in Clay County came two years ago when a man named Alan Knox showed up. As quietly as it is possible to do such things in a county with 9,633 persons, Knox began buying up coal land.
He said he was a private investor, picking up speculative coal leases. He paid top dollar, as much as $77,700 for a quarter-interest in one 30-acre parcel, county records show. Knox's name is one more than two dozen tracts of Clay County land.
Knox's real identity became clear when he assigned all his interests to Carter Coal Co... Carter Coal is a wholly owned subsidiary of Exxon, the world's largest industrial corporation and America's largest oil company.
Using "straw men" to buy mineral rights is a century-old tactic in the coal business, but Exxon taught the locals a new lesson in the intricacies of coal business.
In West Virginia, coal laying in the ground, untapped, is untaxed. The billions of tons beneath Clay County produce an annual pittance in property taxes. Only when the mining actually begins or the coal rights to a property actually are sold, can the coal be taxed.
Normally a company like Exxon that comes in buying coal rights would have to put its purchases on the tax rolls. But Carter Coal didn't record the deeds on its purchases; instead, it recorded only a contract from each of the previous owners.
Because there is no recorded deed, there is no property tax paid on Exxon's holdings in Clay County. "I didn't think they could get away with that," said Moore. "But I talked with the lawyers at the state house in Charleston and it's perfectly legal."
Coal is not Clay County's only energy resource. There's gas and a little oil, too.In the northern part of the county, between the unincorporated villages of Floe and Nebo, and up the road from Duck, natural gas exploration crews have been drilling most of the summer.
The gas companies aren't talking, but drillers always do, and the talk is that they've found what they were looking for.
Deregulation of natural gas prices at the wellhead has spurred exploration, making the gas that's found several times more valuable than it was before Congress lifted the ceiling.
The president's energy program probably will increase gas production in the county as well. Much of the natural gas is locked in geologic formations that are difficult to tap. Carter's plan calls for new government incentives for "unconventional gas" extraction methods.
Columbia Gas Tranmission Co., one of two companies that supplies Washington Gas Light Co., announced a major discovery last week in neighboring Kanawha County.
Drilling for gas doesn't take the manpower of coal mining, but drillers buy boots and drink beer just like coal miners.
Carl Nicholas is the kind of man who begins a conversation with strangers by saying, right up front, "I ain't gonna tell you nothing." Half an hour later, he offers to drive them three hours through the wilderness in his four-wheel-drive to see the mine site, and insists they use his Bronco the next time they come.
Carl met Old Jakey the first or second time he explored the property, following what once was a road around a ridge beside a stream called Sennett's Branch, then turning up the valley of Lilly's Fork. The tracks crisscross the stream and sometimes disappear into it, emerging a few hundred yards upstream or downstream.
A couple of months ago, Carl pulled up out of the creek in front of Old Jakey's cabin, scattering the chickens and guinea hens.
Over the split-rail fence, Carl told him about the coal mine, how they were going to take the top off a small mountain to have a flat spot for the tipple, how they wanted to bring the old Buffalo Creek and Gauley railroad up Lilly's Fork to carry the out the coal.
They wanted to bring the road on out past Old Jakey's place, Carl said, and he offered to make a trade: "If we can come up your side of the creek, I'll build you a pair of low-water bridges, so you can get in and out either way," He said. Carl repeated the offer when the two met again last week.
"I think that'll be all right," said Jakey, interrupting his afternoon chore of picking up apples from beneath a tree that looked as old as he is.
"I talked to them about it," he nodded toward the cabin. "They said I shouldn't agree to anything. But I said we should do it. A man shouldn't stand in the way of a good road. We've needed it too long." CAPTION: Picture 1, "Old" Jakey Nicholas, 85: He decided that "a man shouldn't stand in the way of a good road." By Frank Johnston - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Carl Nicholas (left) and Jakey Nicholas: bridges and a right of way. By Frank Johnston - The Washington Post