Coal was king in McDowell County in the 1960s and 70s. At one point, it was one of the richest counties in the country due to coal production. There were more than 53 communities that either had their own mines or housed miners who worked in the area. Because the coal mines attracted workers from all over the country, even the world, there was a pretty diverse group of people in McDowell.
But over time, as the coal mines closed, people began to move away. The population has decreased by almost 17 percent since 2010. Where once there were thriving businesses and lively communities, there’s now little that looks the same.
I wanted to learn the story about Northfork’s rise to fame, the story I never really knew. I moved from Northfork to Princeton when I was still relatively young. But we still had family who lived here, including my grandparents, and our home church remained in Keystone just outside of Northfork, even after we had moved away. When we would drive to see my grandparents, we’d always drive past a large sign that had a basketball with the number 8 in the center. I would call it the “Beasketball” sign.
My family mostly lived in a little community of Algoma, just outside of Northfork. Algoma was a small community. If you blinked, you might not notice you drove through it. When they were kids, my uncles Mark Page and David McDaniel played without any blacktop, or asphalt, just dirt. They lovingly referred to those games as “dust bowl” games.
They played basketball on a makeshift court in their small community.
“We created our own playground. We used to go in mountains, cut trees, make a backboard,” David recalled.
In the wintertime, they played in the snow. My uncle Mark, who we always called Joe, remembered shooting ball in the winter and knocking the snow off the net. “I still remember that feeling of making that shot.”
My uncles grew up in the 1960s, after desegregation became law. One thing that brought the communities together was the success of the high school basketball team, The Blue Demons.
The school was quite famous during the 1970s and 80s, winning eight state straight AA basketball championships in a row during one particularly successful stretch. This record set by the Northfork Blue Demons wouldn’t be challenged until 2015.
As a result, black athletes were probably treated better than non athletes, given their status in the community.
“With me getting attention on who I was, I didn’t know racial things happened until I got older and I heard some other people’s stories,” recalled David McDaniel, who played for Northfork in 1971. “I was a basketball star at the time. I got along with white folks and black folks. Everybody treated me well. I just thought that’s the way it was. But after I grew up and started hearing other people’s stories... I do remember the movie theater, the Freeman theater, we always sat in the back, white folk sat up front. I imagine [there were] racial tensions around here during that time, but they never got displayed on me.”
Basketball Capital of the United States
In 1971, David was a star player and co-captain for the team as the Northfork Blue Demons won their first state AA title. Three years later, Northfork again won the state AA championship title. That win would be the first of an eight-year streak for Northfork High School.
My other uncle, Joe, captained the ’74 team. “We were just hard to be beat,” he said.
The Blue Demons were a force to be reckoned with, beating teams that went nearly undefeated during the regular season. This small coal mining town received national attention. People wore jackets and hats that had the slogan “Northfork West Virginia-- Basketball Capital of the United States”.
After college, Joe returned to Northfork and became the assistant coach in 1979. Then in 1983, he became the new head coach of the Northfork Blue Demons. After a two-year absence from the state tournament, Joe led the Blue Demons to win the ’84 state championships.
This win felt like the comeback the town desperately needed. Because in 1984, jobs in Northfork were really starting to disappear. Eastern Coal, the largest coal mine in the county, had shut down operations. In the middle of that, the high school winning the state title just felt like there was a ray of hope in sight.
And then came the news that the county Board of Education planned to close the school. The school’s fate came down to the vote of five board members. Three of the five chose to close the school. Two of the board members urged their counterparts to reconsider, but the three board members who voted for school closure were adamant in their decision.
Northfork High School was to be no more.
The students of Northfork High organized a mass walk out once the news came and even organized a protest against the Board’s decision. The community organized a small committee to hopefully change the board’s mind. It didn’t matter. All the kids in the county were squeezed into one school, Mt. View High School.
The adjustment was tough on the students and parents, according to my uncle Joe. “Cause you’ve got these communities that always rivaled against each other. And you’ve got their parents who always rooted against this other town, and now all of a sudden, your kids are all on the same team. It was… a lot of tension going on at Mt. View high school.”
After the school closed, the town slowly began to fade.
My uncle David says 1985 was when he really started to notice the decline. “’Cause if you aint got kids in the neighborhood and you ain't doing no business in your own town, that drags everything down.That was real personal that they closed the school. That was really heartbreaking that they closed the school like that.”
When Northfork High closed, the trophies were moved to the local Northfork Museum. After that building began to fall into disrepair, they were then moved to City Hall, where they reside to this day. Years of accomplishments now sit in a tiny bank vault in city hall.
Northfork and McDowell County as a whole have seen some rough times. A majority of the coal mines in McDowell county ceased production. In 2001, violent floods tore through the community, taking with it a majority of the remaining infrastructure, as well as the population.
When Northfork High School closed, it was made into a middle school. The school was closed permanently in 2002.
This story wasn’t an isolated incident. Small towns all around southern West Virginia seem to be just barely hanging on. State lawmakers grapple with population loss and how devastating it is to the West Virginia economy.
Northfork was a powerhouse of a town. From the economic wealth from coal production, to the athletic achievements that garnered national attention from across the country, it’s easy to forget that without the community of people that made up this small coal town, none of this would’ve been possible.
Author's Note: During the production of this story, my uncle Joe passed away following a sudden illness. I’m grateful that I had time to sit down with him and recount his career as a basketball player, a coach and educator. This story is dedicated to his memory.
Editor's Note: This story is part of an Inside Episode episode about school closure and its impact on sports teams, as well as the pride community residents have in their local schools.