Christmas was to be here in just one day. It was a special time of the year even in the shanty homes alongside the slow moving creek. The stones in the small stream were stained yellow by years of runoff from the old abandoned mine at the top of Sandy Creek. Gray barked trees stood on the steep hill sides, naked in the cold after losing their leaves in the late fall.
Air in the small valley between the hills often hung low with the brown dense smoke from the stoves that kept each small home warm. Slowly burned coal was the heat source and the cause of the foul smelling brown air. It was also the reason the families lived in this seemingly forgotten part of West Virginia, mining. Families, for as long as most folks can remember, had worked in the mines to make a living.
The people of Sandy Creek were descendants of families who left Ireland during the great potato famine in the mid-1800's. They came to America with hopes of making new lives for their families and themselves. Many grandfathers were miners in the old country and found their way to this rich land of dreams.
The lands of their newfound homes were rich in timber, oil, natural gas, and black coal. But even though they lived among these bountiful resources, they were still poor. The wealth of land was controlled by men far away and had no care for those who worked the land to harvest the state's vast riches. That was many years ago and little had changed. It was a new land, but still hard work and poverty had followed each generation.
Homes were not the property of those families that lived in these clapboard homes. The white-washed exterior long ago had discolored and now was stained by black coal dust and brown smoke. The beauty that once shined bright in the morning sun had long since faded.
It was a place not only forgotten deep in the hills of the small state, but some even thought forgotten by the heavens. Because, if someone was looking out for this small group of families, they had surely lost them in the dark brown haze of the coal stove fires.
Inside each of the small homes was a different story. The families kept the dark ugliness of the outside world away by filling the homes with love. It could be said that they did not realize they were poor. All their lives they had only known hard work to keep their family going and had never ventured beyond the hills to see how the world may live. Love of family, hard work, and faith gave these people the strength to live each day.
The second house on the right side of the small valley was the home of Will O'Daniels and his family. His wife Sarah's face was seldom without a bright smile. Her red hair was pulled tightly into a round bun to hide from the world her waist length hair held in place by her tarnished silver combs.
The oldest son Michael would be 14 this coming spring. He would soon have to work the mine for a few years to help his family. But, his mother had taught him how to read and write in hopes one day he could go out of the valley and find a job in the sun. He was tall for his age and working the cramped mine would be difficult for the freckled face boy. The dark coal dust would one day sink deep into his pours and fade those distinctive marks away. The mines seemed to rob the joy in a young man's face.
Madeline was 10 and insisted on being called, Mattie. Michael still called her Madeline as a way to annoy her. She was a certified tomboy and wanted to be called Mattie. She seemed to know every tree in the woods and the animals that live among them. She dreamed of one day being a teacher like her mother, but she also dreamed of what may lie beyond the smoke-filled valley.
The youngest child's name was Wenna. She was eight years old and lived in a world of beauty and a home that was bright and pretty as the world had ever seen. In the spring of her third year she became ill and her small body was nearly taken by the fever. There were no doctors in this place to help the gravely sick young girl. When the fever broke after two days Wenna could not see, she was blind. But somehow the young girl took it in stride and with the help of her family lived a full life.
Will was a fourth generation coal miner. He had tried his hand at blacksmithing in his younger days. His hands and face still showed the burn marks of the craft. The job of working with iron gave him great strength in his arms and hands, but the work was not constant and gave no dependable income for his family, so he returned to the mine.
The O'Daniel family had one advantage many did not in this small community of mines. They all could read and write. Sarah was not from the valley; Will had met her when he was working near Morgantown as a blacksmith. It was her first year of teaching when they met and soon married. She had taught Will and the two older children to read. The family took great pleasure in sitting down each evening and reading from Sarah's old books. Each would take a turn reading a page and then passed the tattered book to the next to read a page. This gift of reading gave each of them an understanding of the world that often seemed so far away.
Wenna sat and listened as her family read the words and talked of the story. She smiled and laughed along with them, but deep inside she longed to be part of the family and to read the words. Each night as she closed her eyes and said her prayers, Wenna would quietly ask, "Please Lord, bless my family and if you could find it in your heart let me someday read the words to my family."