MATEWAN, W.VA. -- Small towns in West Virginia have tried all sorts of unpleasant schemes to help pull themselves out of the economic doldrums, inviting other states to dump nuclear waste, garbage and prisoners. This hamlet of 800 is hoping that its past, long hidden like a family skeleton, can lure tourists.
What Matewan has is history. Bloody history.
So much so that moviemaker John Sayles says Matewan (pronounced MATE-wan) is "as much a part of our heritage as that of the Alamo or Gettysburg or the winning of the West."
The town's boosters are hoping to attract vacationers by capitalizing on the late 19th century feud of the Hatfield and McCoy families and a battle in 1920 between the budding United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and local coal barons.
But before anyone confuses Matewan with Disney World, this town on the Kentucky border must overcome a few obstacles. It is difficult to get here and there is no place to stay, virtually no place to eat and not much to see and do.
While Sayles's 1987 movie, "Matewan," is a sympathetic portrayal of the struggle to unionize workers in the coal fields, most accounts by outsiders of the Matewan Massacre and the Hatfield-McCoy feud -- subjects of other movies and a dozen books -- have been along the lines of a turn-of-the-century New York reporter who described the area as "a barbarous, uncivilized and wholly savage region."
As a result of such outside criticism, until recently, descendants of participants in the events have been reluctant to talk about them.
"Now folks realize it is a part of their experience, their heritage, a chance to get in touch with themselves," said C. Paul McAllister Jr., a planner brought in two years ago to head the Matewan Development Center, a nonprofit agency coordinating the revival effort.
Restoration of the two- and three-story brick buildings in front of which the feud and the massacre unfolded is part of an $800,000 fund-raising effort that community leaders hope will allow Matewan to duplicate the success of similar attractions in Tombstone, Ariz.; Deadwood, S.D., and Silverado, Colo.
The feud began in the fall of 1878, when Randolph McCoy, a Kentuckian, accused Floyd Hatfield, a West Virginian, of stealing a hog, not an insignificant crime in the rural environment of the time.
Hatfield beat the rap, but the incident provoked animosity between the rival families, who were among the most prominent and most populous in the area. Generally, the Hatfields lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, and the McCoys on the Kentucky side.
The hatred did not extend, however, to Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy, who fell in love. Because of objections from both families, they did not marry, even though Roseanna became pregnant.
Hostilities escalated, and on Aug. 7, 1882, three of Roseanna's brothers stabbed and shot Ellison Hatfield, a brother of clan leader William A. "Devil Anse" Hatfield. Other Hatfields escaped harm because Roseanna had warned them of the impending attack.
"Devil Anse" retaliated by executing, without trial, the three sons of Randolph McCoy.
In years that followed, Kentucky bounty hunters periodically conducted raids into West Virginia. The Hatfields retaliated by attacking the McCoy homestead Jan. 1, 1888, killing a son and daughter of Randolph McCoy and wounding his wife.
Before the feud ended in 1890, it had claimed the lives of five of Randolph McCoy's 16 children while all 12 of Devil Anse's children survived.
After a period of relative calm, violence erupted anew when a young John L. Lewis, new president of the United Mine Workers, announced a campaign to organize coal miners in the southern Appalachians.
Lon Savage, a Virginia Tech administrator, whose book, "Thunder in the Mountains," details the battle, said police Chief Sid "Two-Gun" Hatfield, a former miner and descendant of "Devil Anse," and Mayor John C. Testerman, openly cooperated with the union drive as it held organizing meetings.
Coal operators retaliated by firing miners who joined the union and evicting them from company-owned houses.
Despite the threats, 3,000 miners joined the union. So on May 19, 1920, 13 company-hired detectives, led by brothers Al and Lee Felts, descended on the Stone Mountain mine camp. As word of the evictions spread through the hollows, armed and angry miners, accompanied by Hatfield, marched into Matewan and confronted the detectives. When Hatfield and Testerman attempted to arrest Al Felts for unlawfully evicting the miners, a shot was fired, and the battle was on.
In no more than a minute, hundreds of shots were fired. Al Felt and Testerman fell in the first volley. When it ended, seven detectives, including the Felts, Testerman, and two miners were dead or dying.
Now a half-century later, the Matewan Development Center has devised a 10-year plan to promote community and economic renewal. It is tied to preserving and interpreting Mingo County's violent history.
The National Park Service is lending technical assistance, and the Army Corps of Engineers is building a wall that could end almost annual flooding. The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River has flooded 30 times since the 1950s, the culmination of years of strip mining in the region.
Among participants in a ceremony May 19, the 70th anniversary of the Matewan massacre, were several Hatfields and McCoys. Robert W. McCoy Jr., a great-grandson of Randolph McCoy, is president of the development agency, and Leslie Hatfield heads its economic development committee.
While the McCoys and Hatfields are on the same side, remnants of the area's violent history remain.
As recently as five years ago, a dispute between the UMWA and the Massey Coal Co. resulted in one death and numerous injuries in clashes between strikers and strikebreakers, reinforcing the image of "Bloody Mingo" County.
The Rev. John H. Taylor, a Yale-educated Methodist minister who moved here eight years ago, praises the people of Matewan as "more open and genuine" than those in other places where he has lived.
But he also said he found "a readiness to resort to violence that really bothers me. People I know and respect" on both sides of labor-management disputes accept the notion that strikes and violence are "the only way to get attention" to resolve disputes.
Taylor attributes such "extreme responses" to a "level of frustration and hopelessness" that results from living in an area "so isolated, geographically, socially and economically" that he likens it to "the Third World."
He is not the only one to make that comparision. Global Exchange, a nonprofit research agency based in San Francisco, had included this area on a "reality tour" that was billed as "Appalachia: Third World in the U.S." and also is to visit rural sections of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
But after state officials objected, sponsors dropped the West Virginia segment, saying it was "too far out of the way."
That is just as well with McAllister of the Matewan Development Center. He said Matewan is not yet ready for tourists, with only one restaurant and the nearest motel 13 miles away over a two-lane road often clogged with coal trucks. He expressed concern that tourists might depart with "an even worse impression" than they may have received from history books and movies.
"Come see us in a few years," he advised.