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Bankmules: The Story of Van Lear, a Kentucky Coal Town. In the summer of 1934, the town of Van Lear seemed an idyllic place to young James Vaughan and his buddies, even though it was also the time of the Great Depression. Here in this personal account, an older Vaughan shares his warm memories of growing up in Van Lear and recalls many incidents from the history of the town—a town created by the Consolidation Coal Company to serve its new mines along Millers Creek.
Drawing on his own recollections and on many interviews, Vaughan recreates Van Lear in its heyday from 1910 to 1940 when it was a prosperous community of 3,000 people—the largest in the county—and when the Bankmules athletic teams, so-called from the mules that hauled coal from the coal seams or “banks,” were the pride of the town. He tells of the games and amusements enjoyed with his boyhood buddies, of lessons and school, of his friends and family, of the dark day in 1935 when a mine explosion took the lives of his father and eight other miners. He describes the town itself—the company store and the club house, the different neighborhoods and hollers—and also the men who shaped the town—mine manager Jack Price who fostered the schools and the teams, Doctors Hall and Lyon who took care of the miners and their families, and the teachers and superintendents of the schools who provided a solid education for the children of Van Lear. Though many writers have criticized coal towns as depressing and poverty-stricken, for Vaughan and others, Van Lear was altogether different—a good place to live, a good place for children to grow up.
Sadly, with the depletion of the coal, the town declined, and, in the 1950s, Consolidation sold off all its properties and abandoned the town. In the latter part of the book, Vaughan describes the valiant efforts of a small group of individuals to preserve the heritage of Van Lear by the creation of a museum and a historical society, and the publication of a newsletter devoted to the town’s history. James Vaughan has written a memorable story of a town and a part of Kentucky history that is fast disappearing.