In this dreary Appalachian village where merchants have to sweep the coal dust off the sidewalks every morning, scores of wealthy coal operators last night pulled off one of the highest priced dinner-dances in the history of the state.
It was a black-tie benefit affair on a concrete floor in the United Coal Co.'s maintenance shop No. 1 that drew U.S. Sen. John W. Warner, (R-Va.) and his wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and Gov. and Mrs. John N. Dalton. Tickets sold for $2,500 a couple. To keep the soiree from getting too crowded, sales were cut off Thursday after 165 tickets were sold.
For their money, which went to pay off building costs for a local YMCA, the cream of Southwest Virginia society got to stomp their feet to the music of the Oak Ridge Boys, a country music group, dance to the ballads of the Royal Canadians and rub shoulders with the Warners and Daltons.
The mine operators ate oysters on the half shell, clams, liver pate, and assorted hors d'oeuvres -- a type of food not usually found in this mountainous region where biscuits, red-eye gravy and country ham are considered banquet fare. "This was buchanan County's party of the century," shouted coal operator James McGlothlin as he announced that the event had raised more than $1.1 million.
If the event was a success for the local charity, it was also a testimony to the growing wealth and influence of Virginia's multibillion-dollar-a-year coal industry. Sharp rises in coal prices during the past decade have turned hundreds of local businessmen into millionaires and last night was their time to flaunt their wealth.
"There is community spirit down here that you cannot imagine. Of course, we expected this kind of turnout," said F. Boyd Fowler, an owner of United Coal whose company helicoper last night whisked Warner and his wife from a Tennessee airport into this town of 5,000.
United Coal, which on Friday announced Christmas bonuses averaging $1,300 for its 1,100 employes in four states, was one of four coal companies operating in the county that last night each pledged donations of $100,000 to the YMCA.
The YMCA -- equipped with "his" and "hers" hot tubs, a sauna, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and a large gymnasium -- has been the recipient of coal company generosity because the coal company owners say they realize that recreation opportunities are severely restricted in these mountains.
"The YMCA is all there is to do here," said Fowler of United Coal. On the winding worn mountain roads here, driving is difficult in winter and, even in good weather, travel is tedious and slow.
Besides paying for much of the YMCA, the area coal companies, which last year extracted 20 million tons of bituminous coal from this county (valued at about $600 million), also pay membership fees for their miners and their families.
Last night's dinner dance, according to Fowler, was held to thank everybody who gave tax-deductible contributions to benefit the health and happiness of people who live where "coal is the only thing we have."
The affair was held beside the Levisa River, which also served as a moat to keep curiosity seekers and reporters from disturbing the guests who arrived at around 8 p.m. in Cadillacs, custom-designed $13,000 Jeeps, and Mercedes limousines. The guests drove across a narrow wooden bridge where they were checked by Buchanan County deputies, who made certain only those who'd been officially invited -- and paid -- got into the party.
"This is the greatest thing to ever happen in Grundy," said the Rev. Murphy Miller, a local minister whose tickets were purchased by one of the coal companies. "The YMCA is important to this community," the clergyman told a reporter who was briefly permitted inside the 11-bay maintenance building. "It (the YMCA) provides services for the young and old and is needed for Christian development."
Dalton, whose campaign for governor in 1977 was funded in large part by coal mine interests, praised the project too. "I'm glad to see so many people willing to say, "We will provide these services ourselves," he said, according to United Press International reporter Thomas Ferraro, who was allowed inside the event.
Despite scores of requests, organizers of the event refused to allow other reporters inside.
"We want to thank these people for giving up a helluva lot of money," said United Coal's McGlothlin. "And there is no way for them to have a good time with all those news media people in there asking questions."
Rachel Rigsby, a member of the YMCA board of directors, said the press was excluded so that the local residents could "have a chance to talk with the celebrities without reporters taking all their time."