My maternal grandfather, Charles Ezra Deem (1877-1969), was born and raised in West Virginia. His desire was to become a Methodist minister, so when his father sold the family farm and divided the proceeds among his three sons, Grandpa Deem used his share to attend the seminary. He married Martha Elizabeth Mills (1883-1979) on Jan. 10, 1902, shortly after he was ordained a Methodist minister and was soon assigned his first ministry in Matewan, W. Va.
The small village of Matewan is nestled in the rugged mountains lining the Tug River on the border of Kentucky and West Virginia. Grandpa Deem loved to tell stories of his life, and I was eager to hear them. His tales about his tenure in Matewan were particularly interesting because of its rich history. There were the wars of the coal mining unions against the mining conglomerates during which government troops were sent in to stop the violence. Better known is that the Matewan area was home to the legendary Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Family patriarch Anderson Hatfield, who lived on the West Virginia side of the Tug River, had prospered by selling timber he harvested from the richly forested mountains. He was reportedly “so tough he could take on the devil himself,” and consequently was known as Devil Anse. Randall “Ranel” McCoy’s kinfolk lived on the Kentucky side of the river, and it was rumored he was resentful of Devil Anse’s success.
In 1878, Randall McCoy accused Floyd Hatfield of stealing one of his prize hogs, a serious offense because hogs were so valuable. The accusations and denials eventually led to a court trial with a Hatfield family member as the judge and a jury evenly divided between Hatfields and McCoys.
The McCoys lost the trial.
The relationships between the families remained tense for a few years until an election day party in 1882 led to a drunken exchange that left Allison Hatfield dead at the hands of Ranel’s sons. The Hatfields captured the sons and killed them in retaliation. Devil Anse’s clan was portrayed as murderous savages, and the fighting began.
For six years the feud brought death to an untold number of Hatfields, McCoys, and their kinsmen. Though cooler heads eventually prevailed and the killings would cease, in the new village of Matewan wary clansmen still carried weapons whenever they came to town, causing locals to give them a wide berth.
When my grandparents moved into the parsonage, the feud had essentially been over for a decade, but the leaders of the involved clans—particularly Devil Anse Hatfield and “Ranel” McCoy—were still dominant personalities in the valley. Grandpa Deem saw these men from time to time, and some of their families attended his church services.
One day, Devil Anse approached him and said, “Parson, my son is going to marry a McCoy girl, and I’d like you to perform the ceremony.” Grandpa Deem was more than a little uneasy, imagining the service could reignite the feud. This must have been apparent from his face, for Anse quickly added, “Parson, you have nothing to worry about. I give you my word that there will be no trouble. Ranel McCoy feels the same way.”
Grandpa believed him and scheduled the ceremony. When the wedding came there was no trouble among the assembled clans, yet it wasn’t difficult to see the handguns beneath the coats of the clansmen.
My grandparents were transferred to another district before the troubles with the miners and unions began. But they were part of the “good old days” in Matewan.
Member Dale R. Dickson is from Eugene, Ore.