KIMBALL — On a cold, rainy Saturday morning, a Wal-Mart truck, without a hitch, snaked its way out of McDowell County.
Meanwhile Linda McKinney paced in front of the 110 people who showed up at her food pantry, Five Loaves & Two Fish, Saturday morning.
“We are not going to close as long as we’ve got one scrap of bread in there,” McKinney said to a chorus of “amens.”
“I don’t know what God has in store for us,” Mckinney said. “No one does. But what we get, we’ll open up and give to you.”
“Does it count if I kill a deer and bring it to you?” someone in the crowd shouted.
McKinney was quick to laugh at the joke and soon the whole crowd was joining in. It was much needed for a group of people, many whom had spent the night waiting in front of the pantry to make sure that they weren’t among the 25 people who were turned away.
It had been a tough 24 hours. The day before, they found out their local Wal-Mart, the only major store within 20 miles, was going to close, costing the community 140 jobs.
Despite the uncertainty, Hazel Cooper, 56, was at the food pantry at 11:00 last night, the first in line. She was chased away by Welch police officers, but came right back.
She slept in her car, bundled up under layers of clothing, only turning on the car to warm their feet in the middle of the night.
“Most people don’t have the gas to let their car run all night,” Cooper said. “People will do that to put food on the table.”
The Wal-Mart in Kimball was the only branch shutting down in West Virginia, one of 12 supercenters closing its doors.
“It was like the blood drained out of everybody,” Bob McKinney, Linda’s husband, said.
Last year, Wal-Mart donated around 90,000 pounds of food to Five Loaves, so that they could distribute it to the community. Now, with the store closing, not only were people losing their jobs, but the food bank was also losing its only source of fresh meat and produce.
“It’s sad,” said Curtiss Goode, a veteran who is on disability. “And unless something changes, it’s only going to get worse.”
When Wal-Mart moved in to Kimball 10 years ago, McDowell County was in much better shape, according to McKinney.
But then the mines started closing.
Last year, there were 34 underground mines in the region.
Now there are 13.
With the mines went the train jobs, the mechanic jobs and the car dealers. Now, houses are vacant with caved in roofs. Storefronts are boarded.
“You’re just afraid to get up every morning,” McKinney said. “When you get up you think, ‘OK, today what’s going to close? Who’s going to lay off?’ You would pray, but our tax base is basically zeroed out.”
Wal-Mart paid around $65,000 in taxes to McDowell County last year and 80 percent of that money goes to the local school board. With coal severance tax and business and occupation tax down, the county is left scrambling, trying to figure out how to support the community.
“We cried all day yesterday,” McKinney said later. “We cried and it’s done.”
Now McKinney is focused on the future. They still receive non-perishable foods from Operation Blessing. Her son, Joel, is trying to raise money for a high tunnel greenhouse so that he can supply produce for the food pantry year-round.
Between Goodson’s and Magic Mart, the town will have places to get groceries. It won’t be as convenient and it might cost more, but it’s what they’ll have to do to survive.
And the people of McDowell County are resilient.
“It’s another turn in the road,” said Olen Butcher-Winfree, 62. “If it isn’t Wal-Mart closing, it’s a flood. If it isn’t a flood, it’s a mine closing. If it’s not a mine closing, somebody shot Sid Hatfield.”
Reach Daniel Desrochers at email@example.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @drdesrochers on Twitter.