In just five short months, efforts to revitalize three historic buildings in downtown Matewan, West Virginia will be officially underway.
Known locally as the “Nenni” buildings, the century-old structures were purchased in 2019 by Coalfield Development for historic preservation and future economic development. Upon completion, the buildings will also house Coalfield Development’s Mingo County headquarters and serve as a hub for new social-enterprises and on-site job-training. Construction will begin with a groundbreaking ceremony on August 27.
In August 2020, the U.S. Economic Development Authority announced a $1.7 million grant for the Nenni buildings project to assist in renovations and repairs. Since then, Coalfield Development has raised and matched an additional $600,000 —making the total budget for the first phase of this project $2.3 million. Phase I, which the organization’s Board of Directors authorized at its March meeting, of the Nenni buildings project will focus on structural and exterior repairs and ground-level interior restoration.
With support from the Matewan and Mingo County communities, the Mine Wars Museum, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, the local UMWA chapter, the National Coal Heritage Area, the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, Southern Community and Technical College, and many others, it is Coalfield Development’s goal to restore and preserve the integrity of the Nenni buildings while creating a new jobs and business opportunities for Mingo-area residents.
“This will become a major economic, cultural and historical asset for Mingo County specifically and southern central Appalachia broadly,” said Brandon Dennison, CEO of Coalfield Development. “The skills developed here will be skills for the modern economy: clean energy, light manufacturing, design, sustainable construction, local agriculture, and more. The businesses created here will be resilient, innovative businesses. They will define the new Appalachian economy.”
Over the years, the Nenni Buildings have played a unique role in the community and in our nation’s labor history. The West Virginia Mine Wars is a critical chapter in American Labor History — and it’s also one of the most obscure. The Mine Wars were a decades-long struggle for justice and labor rights in the southern coalfields of West Virginia, where miners withstood deadly working conditions below ground, and above ground faced brutal circumstances that curtailed them from basic constitutional rights and unionization.
As the backdrop of the 1920s Mine Wars, the Nenni buildings served a variety of purposes: from a miners’ union headquarters, to the town jewelry store, to the home of Matewan Sheriff Sid Hatfield, whose apartment was located on the second floor. Hatfield, a beloved champion for his community, stood up for his residents’ rights to unionize during the Mine Wars, which ultimately cost him his life. August 2021 will mark the 100th anniversary of Hatfield’s wake, which was hosted in his upstairs apartment.
In recent decades, the state of the buildings has steadily declined. Without intervention, the buildings — and the history within — could have been lost entirely, said Wilma Steele, a Mingo County native and Mine Wars Museum board member.
“This is saving a building that would’ve collapsed, and it would have surely led to the collapse of the town,” Steele said, noting the buildings’ status on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through the Nenni buildings revitalization, Coalfield Development aims to diversify the local economy, bring innovation and opportunity into Mingo County communities, and give residents a chance to reclaim southern West Virginia’s narrative.
“This project puts the history back into the hands of the people who were directly impacted, or the descendants,” said Kenzie New, executive director of the Mine Wars Museum in Matewan. “So often, our narratives have been told by outsiders and it has been romanticized or used for comedy, and projects like this give us a chance to reclaim our identity.”
Retired coal miner Hawkeye Dixon, the financial secretary for UMWA Local 1440, said the historic preservation of the Nenni buildings will also help ensure that the miners’ history lives on for future generations to learn from.
“It’s extremely important that we don’t forget the sacrifices made by those before us that worked in the coal mines, who worked for the coal companies under pretty horrific circumstances,” Dixon said. “They gave a lot up health-wise to make sure everything in our community was a lot better for us. That’s the least we can do — try to preserve the history and give them credit.”
Dixon said he and the other members of 1440 are looking forward to seeing the job and training opportunities the renovated Nenni buildings will provide for residents and the community.
“We’ve got 800 members, and each and every one are tickled to death with the Nenni buildings being brought back and putting the training facility in there,” Dixon said.
Phase I of construction is expected to be completed in July of 2022. The second phase will focus on the revitalization of the second floors, including Sid Hatfield’s upstairs apartment.
“The history of these buildings drew us in, but the future opportunities will keep us here,” Dennison said. “Our vision is to preserve some internationally significant history but then also to rebuild for a newer, better future.”
For more information on the Nenni buildings project, or to make a contribution toward the renovations, visit https://coalfield-development.org. Members of the media are encouraged to contact Brandon Dennison with any additional questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or (304) 617-2735.