Lynn's CD links one man, two towns

Kentucky hamlet where her father worked was named for a Sun publisher

Baltimore ... Or Less

December 26, 2004|By Harry Merritt | Harry Merritt,SUN STAFF

What does country music star Loretta Lynn's Grammy-nominated album have to do with the Baltimore Sun?

The clue is its title, Van Lear Rose.

The "rose" refers to Lynn's late mother, Clara Marie Butcher Webb.

Van Lear was the place, along Miller Creek in Eastern Kentucky's Johnson County, where Lynn's father, Melvin "Ted" Webb, worked in the coal mines for many years.

Here's where the Sun connection comes in.

Van Lear, founded in 1909, was named for Van-Lear Black (1875-1930), a Sun publisher and chairman of the A.S. Abell Co., then the owner of the Sunpapers.

Black was also an owner and board member of Consolidation Coal Co., one of the biggest coal operators in Appalachia. Soon after "Consol" acquired major coal deposits along Miller Creek, it established a headquarters there called Van Lear.

For more than three decades, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, Consol's Van Lear mines employed thousands of men round the clock: immigrants from Eastern Europe and blacks from the South, as well as many Eastern Kentuckians like Lynn's father.

As Lynn put it in her song, "Coal Miner's Daughter," Ted Webb "worked all night in the Van Lear coal mines" and, in nearby Butcher Holler, "raised eight kids on a miner's pay." He eventually left the mines, but died in 1959 of high blood pressure and black lung, a common fate for men who spent many years working underground.

At that time, Lynn and her husband, Mooney, were living in Washington state, and her singing career was still a few years away.

The Van Lear mines also figure in a song by another country star with Eastern Kentucky roots, Dwight Yoakam. Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., his breakthrough 1986 album, features "A Miner's Prayer." He sings: "I still grieve for my poor brother ... [who] lost his life down in the Van Lear mine." (Oddly, the lyrics with the album say "Big Shoal" mine.)

Consol sold the Van Lear mines in 1946, and by the early 1960s most of the production there came to an end. Many of the mining families moved away, and the community of Van Lear was disincorporated. Today, more than a thousand people live in the area, and Van Lear's ties to Loretta Lynn - and a miners' museum run by the local historical society - draw tourists along U.S. 23, the Country Music Highway.

Black, the man the town was named for, lived a very comfortable life in Baltimore. A banker and philanthropist, he was also a pioneer in aviation, logging 200,000 miles in intercontinental travel at a time when hardly anyone flew. He was also an avid yachtsman.

On the night of Aug. 18, 1930, however, Black vanished off his yacht, Sabala, soon after it left New York en route to Baltimore. He apparently fell overboard, but there were no witnesses.

Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White of the White Stripes, is up for five Grammy Awards, including country music album of the year.

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