When former Kentucky coal miner Harold C. “Sonny” Koger decided to keep a slice of McCreary County’s coal mining legacy alive, his dream was to restore the mining camp where his father, Austin, had worked for 48 years. Born in Fidelity Coal Camp and raised in another, called Cooperative, until the age of 14, Sonny knew about coal camp life.
In the late 1990s, former Stearns Mining Co. President Frank Thomas began selling off parcels of McCreary County land to the federal government. Koger convinced the man to sell the Barthell parcel – the site of the first of 18 Stearns Coal and Lumber Co. camps – to him for restoration of the coal camp.
Thomas, however, had one condition: Koger’s restoration had to be historically accurate. So Sonny engaged the University of Kentucky to do an archival study, which revealed the original locations of 41 houses and nine buildings that had been occupied and tended from 1902 until the early 1950s.
After six years of reconstruction, the Barthell Coal Mining Camp opened in 1999 as a public attraction, sharing boundaries with the U.S. Forest Service and National Parks Service (NPS). Even before opening, the project garnered the NPS Southeast Region’s 1993 Preservation Award and the Ida Lee Willis Memorial Foundation’s Service to Preservation Award in 1995.
“It’s a real step back in time to a culture not a lot of people know much about,” says Richard Koger, who has run the camp along with brothers Dwight and Brian and his mom, Marilyn, since his dad passed away in 2003.
“That’s the reason we’re here: to preserve this history of mining and of life in mining camps.”
Because Sonny worked hard to make his vision as close to the original camp as possible, visitors have a lot to experience.
A guided camp tour features a number of antique-filled buildings, such as the Bath House, where filthy miners showered at the end of the day to remove workday grime before changing back into street clothes. The School House features period furnishings of both a school and a church, since it originally served as both for the community, while the Doctor’s Office displays numerous 20th-century medical artifacts. Other structures include a machine shop, mining motor displays, a company store, a reconstructed circa 1890s log cabin, “Granny’s House” and a moonshine still. Lots of antique cars and trucks are on display, and a museum brings together the whole coal camp story.
A second guided tour travels around 300 feet into Mine #1, from which the first trainload of coal was shipped in June 1903. As Sonny Koger planned, this peek into a historic shaft pays welldeserved homage to hard-working miners. Visitors learn about the dirty, difficult and dangerous job of a 20thcentury coal miner. During 10-hour days, a man had to pick and shovel hunched over, as the ceilings in mine shaft tunnels were too low for standing up. Miners loaded coal into small cars, which had to be pushed to areas where mules hauled them away from the mine. Inside, the mine air was stale and dusty, and some 1,500 men per year would develop a breathing ailment called black lung. Many miners were killed or injured by rock falls and gas explosions.
Located right in the middle of Daniel Boone National Forest, the Barthell Coal Mining Camp lies adjacent to the country’s newest national park, the Big South Fork River and Recreational Area.
If you’re looking for a place to put your feet up for a few days to commune with nature, the camp has 12 reconstructed “company houses,” all with central air and heat. While the floor plans are original 20th century, the interiors are modern, complete with maid service, if requested. Nine are one-bedroom and three are two-bedroom; the one-bedrooms have hide-abeds and will sleep four. Each has a living room, full bath, kitchen and dining area with fridge, microwave, toaster and coffeemaker. All are furnished with antiques from the time the mine was operating, 1902 through 1948.
When hunger hits, either cook your own or take a short drive to Whitley City and pure nostalgia at The Dairy Bar, a 1950s-style diner that still has curb service.
Meeting rooms are available at Barthell for special events and family reunions. Think girlfriend getaways amid lovely wildflowers and towering cliffs.
All houses have porches with swings that overlook the camp and Paunch Creek, with ripples that will lull you to a good night’s sleep. Stay five consecutive nights, and the sixth is free. Consider making Barthell your base of operations while you take in the nearby attractions.
You can hike and go whitewater rafting, canoeing or kayaking in the Big South Fork River and National Recreation Area, catch a moonbow or simply ogle the beauty at Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, go boating on Lake Cumberland, hop aboard a choo-choo on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway, and explore historic Stearns and the Stearns Mining Co.’s Mine No. 18 at Blue Heron.
Barthell’s Coal Mining Camp is open from the first of April through midNovember. Guided tours of the camp and the mine are $15 each or $25 for both tours. Learn more about Barthell’s storied history, make reservations and get directions at (888) 550-5748 or barthell coalcamp.com.
Richard Koger sums it all up nicely. “Dad’s father and his father all worked for the Stearns Co. I’m as proud of his legacy as he was.” ■
Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].