McDowell County has a rough and tumble, wild look to it.
It looks like version of West Virginia you see of the movies — small houses sporadically lining narrow roads that wind up, around and then down one mountain after another.
When you hear people talk about McDowell County, they mention the poverty, which is unavoidable. But the place still has a kind of defiant charm, as if to say the money may be gone, but we’re still here.
The morning I drove to McDowell, I set out to find West Virginia’s southernmost town. At the beginning of the summer, I’d been to Chester, in Hancock County, the state’s northernmost town and visited the World’s Largest Tea Pot. With the summer winding down, I wanted to see what was on the other end.
It was supposed to be an unincorporated town called Faraday, but I never found it. The town wasn’t on my map or my satellite GPS, and cell service faded as soon as I crossed into the county from Tazewell, Virginia.
Instead, the best I could do was the small town of Squire, where I found the first post office over the Virginia/West Virginia border.
I drove through War and by Coalwood, the former home of writer Homer Hickam and the setting for several of his books, including “Rocket Boys.”
Maps and my GPS got me to Welch, where I sat in my car and ate a Sterling Sandwich at the Sterling Drive In, somehow attracting the notice of a group of men in a pickup truck with a sign for a local contractor on the door.
They glared at me like I owed them money. Maybe they just didn’t like the Mothman hat.
After lunch, I walked the streets of Welch and took in some of the history.
On the courthouse steps, former Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield was killed by Baldwin-Felts detectives in retaliation for his involvement in the Matewan Massacre, which was referenced in the film “Matewan.”
This is credited with kickstarting the West Virginia Mine Wars, a significant piece of American history that few people outside of the state know anything about.
I grew up in Pearisburg, Virginia, just a 90-minute drive to the east of Welch. I didn’t hear anything about mine wars until I’d lived in West Virginia for probably 10 years.