The Dragon Lady, Super Outsider

An excerpt from my book,The Soviet Union and Lincoln County USA, which may be just weeks away from publishing and will be available on


The Dragon Lady, Super Outsider

            Besides outsider, communist is another convenient discrediting brand used by demagogues. That the communists were taking over West Virginia and Lincoln County was “exposed” in 1989 when Black Gold Coal Company applied for a permit to strip mine coal in Lincoln County.

The Dragon Lady, as I called her, was from Indiana and filed for the Black Gold strip mine permit. Her allies were a man from Kentucky and another who was a public official in the state of Montana. That trio was full-blooded outsider. Dragon Lady told the Lincoln Journal that she believed there was a communist group in Lincoln County that was against anything that brought change: “I believe West Virginia may be seen as the last foothold for communism in the country. I am convinced this area has been infiltrated by communists. And if mining gets started here, they will no longer be able to control it.”[1]

Being as how the communists in Russia and China were very much into mining, it is hard to understand where Dragon Lady got the impression that communists would be opposed to coal mining. The communists in Dragon Lady’s mind were exceptionally evil drug dealers.

“I mean all of us sitting here know what the problem is—it’s drugs,” she told the Lincoln Journal.

Dragon Lady knew the drug-dealing communists had “sophisticated radio equipment and towers” on their property. I suppose the communists used the towers to communicate with the Kremlin and, consistent with their other interest, to arrange drug deals. Did she mistake one of those early, eight-foot-diameter satellite dishes that picked up television signals for something in her mind that could secretly communicate with drug lords and the evil empire?

 Dragon Lady researched communism’s presence in Lincoln County at the public library in Hamlin. She found that one book, What You Should Know about Communism and Why, was checked out by some, as she put it, “well-known county residents.” She left it to paranoia for folks to figure out who the well-known county residents were and why it was bad for them to educate themselves about communism.

And did she really have a list of the people who checked the book out or was she bluffing? I don’t think libraries kept lists of who checked books out back then, and if they did it would require a court order to see them. Not that it matters, but the book was borrowed from the library only five times in the fourteen years between 1974 and 1988 I spoke against the Dragon Lady’s Black Gold permit at a hearing on June 28, 1988. John Salstrom’s brother Paul recorded and included my extemporaneous speech in an article he wrote for the Appalachian Journal:


     It seems real important in Lincoln County to establish where your’re from and who you are. A lot of people laugh at you if they think you’re from New York or someplace.
     I’ve been a citizen of this state for fifty-two years. I’ve lived in this county for thirteen years. And I’ve taught at Duval High School for twelve years.  I have to admit I was out of the country a couple of years in Africa. And I was in California a couple of years. Except for that, I’ve lived here the whole time.
     My daddy was a coal miner—lost his eye in the coal mines. He wasn’t a communist. He wasn’t an outsider. And he didn’t deal in drugs—though he did drink a lot of coffee.
     It amazes me at times that we can be so uptight about outsiders. And what we have here is a case of a man from Montana threatening to bulldoze—to personally bulldoze another man’s fence down if he finds out the property is on his side of the line. And a man from Kentucky who threatened to kill the same man.  And we have a woman from Indianapolis who says we’re a bunch of drug dealers and communists. Now, all three of those people qualify to me as outsiders. I’ve lived here fifty-two years. I’ve got the accent, you know. I can speak the language, okay? I’m not a foreigner, okay?
     All my life I’ve watched the destruction of my native state. I watched Bull Creek disappear. When I was a little boy forty years ago, I used to walk up Bull Creek over on Coal River. Bull Creek’s not there anymore. Any of you guys that have ever worked on stripmines know it’s not there anymore. It’s gone. My Uncle Kin used to work timber up in the head of that hollow with a mule, and he did the least amount of destruction you could possibly do. That place was beautiful. It’s not there anymore. It’s simply gone. It’s been destroyed by a strip mine
     My homeplace over on Coal Rivercoal companies offered us $250,000 for thirty-two acres. And we turned them down, okay? We don’t need the moneyby gollynot that bad.
     With me, this is a spiritual thing. I’ve always loved the land. I’ve always loved to walk in the mountains.  And the first time I saw a strip mine it absolutely stunned me into silence. I was sad and I was sick. I couldn’t believe what people could do with a bulldozer to a piece of land that used to be beautiful.
     Is it wrong to love beauty, is it wrong to love nature? Is it wrong to say that we only have one earth and it will never be reclaimedyou can’t reclaim a destroyed mountain. You can put something back there but you can’t put that topsoil back onjust try it. You never, never can walk through that little glade where the ferns are growing, and enjoy those cliffs the way they werethe way they were meant to be.
     All I see happening is greed, it’s money, and where is it going to end? When they get to your back door? They’re already at some people’s back doors right now. Can you strip mine right up to the edge of city hall? Do the people who own strip mines have strip mines in their back yards? Do they want dynamiting going on where they live? I don’t think so. I think they’re going to retreat to their air-conditioned apartments. And I think they’re going to send their kids to fine schools out of state.
     And if you think strip mining is going to bring jobs, look where they’ve got strip mining in West Virginia and look where they’ve got the most unemployment.[2]  Mingo county. McDowell County. You go to the counties where they have strip miningthat’s where they have the worst of everything. They’ve got the worst roads, they’ve got the worst schools, they’ve got the highest unemployment rate. Everything is wrong with those counties. Is that what we want this beautiful place to become?
     My daddy was a coal miner and I understand being out of work, okay? I’ve been down that road myself. And I know you’ve got to provide for your family. But I’m saying they’re only giving us two options. They’re saying,Either starveor destroy West Virginia.” And surely to God there must be another option.

[1] Source: the Lincoln Journal newspaper, Hamlin, West Virginia.

[2] When my dad was an underground coal miner, there were about 120,000 coal miners in West Virginia; now there are about 17,000. Four thousand miners work on strip mines producing coal for only 8 percent of our nation’s electricity.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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