Skip to content

Blue Heron Decoration Day

Memories of life in local coal camps resurfaced
during annual event

By Eugenia Jones

With its 1939 coal miner’s mural depicting the rugged, dust-covered faces of those who toiled beneath the earth, haunting ghost structures, and audio recordings with native voices reminiscing about the past, Blue Heron is, in a sense, a cemetery of buried memories where people come to show their sons and daughters where and how their ancestors lived, worked, and played. It is a pilgrimage of sorts-a reunion that mimics the traditional Decoration Days so faithfully observed in the past. So it was during Saturday’s fourth annual Blue Heron Decoration Day hosted by the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BSFNRRA) at the Blue Heron Coal Mining Community. The event offered something for everyone as it once again brought together visitors and families who had lived and worked in the Stearns coal mining communities for an afternoon of food, music, fellowship, and remembrance.
According to National Park Service Ranger Tommy Safranek, the event originated in 2015 when BSFNRRA Cultural Resource Manager Tim Smith thought it would be a good idea to bring visitors and families together for a day of reminiscing and celebration of the rich coal mining history. With visitors who once lived at Mine 18 or had memories of their relatives talking about working in the mines arriving on any given day at Blue Heron, Smith wanted to capture those memories for future generations to hear and experience. With that in mind, the annual Blue Heron Decoration Day event was born.
“In a way, I feel I am responsible for carrying on Tim’s vision for Decoration Day,” Safranek remarked. “He had the idea for the event in 2015 before I came to the Big South Fork. He loved Blue Heron, as do I. It has a rugged industrial legacy mixed with a tranquil peacefulness that makes it raw but beautiful. Blue Heron deserves an event like this that joins people near and far together to share and preserve the stories of the men and women who lived and worked at Blue Heron and all of the coal and timber camps along the Big South Fork River.”
In addition to live local music provided by such local entertainers as Edsel Blevins, Paul Davis, Sammie Suggitt, the Job Corps, and LaMay & Reese, the event featured food vendors, crafts, live demonstrations interpreting aspects of life in a coal camp, and a variety of other activities to keep guests entertained throughout the day. A special Reading Ranger program, featuring the Judith Herdershot’s children’s book “In Coal Country,” gave children a glimpse of life inside coal country. Children also enjoyed making traditional Decoration Day flowers and visiting the children’s tent which featured the Blue Heron scavenger hunt, old timey toys, and more.
At mid-day, a ranger guided hike led forty people to a solitary grave site at Dick Gap overlook for a traditional grave site visitation. The grave site, shrouded in mystery with little definitive information available, is located on the Dick Gap Road about half-way between Blue Heron and Devil’s Jump and is situated by a large oak whose limb once sheltered it. According to Robert Stephens’ “McCreary County Cemetery Book,” early reports about the grave claimed a robber had been caught on Dick Gap road and hung from the oak tree after being forced to dig his own grave. However, later, a family member of Aunt Maxwell, sister of Davie Maxwell, told researchers that she was buried there. According to Ruben Maxwell, his aunt lived on a farm on the Dick Gap Road in about 1910. After becoming ill, she requested her burial be beside the road beneath the giant oak. The Maxwell account seems authentic and is most commonly accepted.
Decoration Day visitors were able to take advantage of the invitation to bring family photos and other documents for scanning by the Park Service. These visitors received digital copies of their family photos and documents. An area was also set up to video record people’s stories about Stearns and its coal communities. Parts of these interviews will be used later for a YouTube video. Visitors were also able to view a PowerPoint presentation of the Park Service’s current historic photo collection and the Big South Fork park film, “Generations.”
With an estimated 300 people attending the Blue Heron Decoration Day event, BSFNRRA Superintendent Niki Nicholas expressed her pleasure.
“I’m very pleased with today’s event,” Nicholas remarked. “I am looking forward to its continued growth.”

Leave a Comment