Twenty years ago a small group of people had an idea to commemorate a legendary event that occurred in Matewan 80 years before.
That initial idea was to begin with a simple reenactment production of the event so that those living in 2000, as well as all those living in generations yet to come, would know about and never forget this significant time in the town’s and even nation’s history.
While the overall number and a few of the faces of the Matewan Drama Group have changed during the past two decades, neither the group’s passion for nor dedication to telling the story has waned even a little.
Considering Donna Paterino has been there from the beginning as both the director and as one of the drama’s many performers, most if not all those connected with the drama today would assert that there is no one who has anticipated the the 20th production year on May 16 more than Paterino.
And for her, she says, this is because the 20th year of commemoration performances, as well as the 15th year since the yearly commemoration officially became known as Matewan Heritage Day, May 19, 2020 also marks the Centennial remembrance of the Battle of Matewan (aka The Matewan Massacre) itself.
“Twenty years ago it was all leading up to this year — the 100th year,” Paterino said last Friday evening during the group’s kickoff planning meeting for 2020. “I’ve waited…we’ve all waited 20 years for the 100th anniversary, and I’m just so very pleased and excited to finally see it arrive.”
Paterino said the very first production was staged in 2000 as the result of the efforts of former Matewan Mayor Johnny Fullen and former U.S. Congressman Nick Joe Rahall.
Through the Matewan Development Center, she explained, Fullen and Rahall managed to secure a $3,500 grant from the Appalachian Region Commission (ARC) to fund the first production of the drama, which was called the Matewan Massacre Reenactment.
Paterino further explained that UMWA Local 1440 became involved in the event almost immediately. She said the local union is also one of the primary reasons the production has been so successful and popular during the past two decades — particularly with those people living in other parts of the country who come each year to take part in Heritage Day.
“In the years since we began, we’ve been in UMWA journals and in 2013 we received the Coal Heritage Achievement Award,” she said. “With Local 1440 always there supporting us, these are just a few things we’ve been able to accomplish in this area and the kind of people we’ve been able to reach.”
Chris Gray began with the group in 2002 and plays the part of slain Matewan Mayor Cabell Testerman. Although he grew up in a mining family whose members worked in both company positions as well as labor, Gray said he didn’t know a great deal about the Battle of Matewan growing up but eventually learned about it, and, as a direct result of gaining that knowledge, wanted to become a part of the yearly commemoration.
“I grew up in Welch where Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were gunned down, but Welch really didn’t celebrate or even talk about the Massacre and its aftermath,” he said. “But this is part of our history, and the goal of this has always been to educate people about what happened here in Matewan in 1920 and why it is still so important today.”
Allie Paxton plays “Mrs. Kelly,” whom Paxton described as being an archetype of all the wives in the early days of the labor struggle who stood alongside their miner husbands and who likewise endured all the hardships.
“This play is so important, not only because the history behind it, but because how much emphasis was put on the importance of the union and how it made things better for workers in general,” she said. “I think the play continues to give people the courage to stand up for unions today.”
Apart from a “surprise scene” being incorporated into this year’s two showings of the Centennial production, Paterino said the 2020 Heritage Day will include the grand reopening of the WV Mine Wars Museum at its new location inside the former Matewan National/BB&T bank building.
The building was purchased last year by Local 1440, with plans currently being made to formally dedicate the building that day to UMWA President Cecil Roberts.
“We’ve always tried to insert a new scene in each year’s production as we’ve learned new things about the gun battle,” she said. “But we think this year’s addition is going to be something really special for the audience.”
Other planned events include a “special visitor” who is yet to be confirmed and announced, a vintage 1920 car display, a poster competition among the county’s 8th grade students which will be judged by Local 1440 and be used as advertisements, a free town dinner, a flea market featuring Appalachian artisans which also will be free of vending space charges, and live music in between performances of the reenactment by the group, “Sundown.”
“We have never received any money for what we’ve done over the years, and we’re not professionally trained actors,” Paterino said. “We’re just a group of volunteers who come together each year to tell a story...a very important historical story that will have an even more historical impact in 2020.”