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Blue Demons: One Family’s Legacy in the Basketball Capital of the U.S.

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The 1981 Northfork Blue Demons after winning their 8th state championship title. Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Boyd

Coal was king in McDowell County in the 1960s and 70s. At one point, it was one of the richest counties in the country due to coal production.

There were more than 53 communities that either had their own mines or housed miners who worked in the area. Because the coal mines attracted workers from all over the country, even the world, there was a pretty diverse group of people in McDowell.

But over time, as the coal mines closed, people began to move away. The population has decreased by almost 17 percent since 2010. Where once there were thriving businesses and lively communities, there’s now little that looks the same.

I wanted to learn the story about Northfork’s rise to fame, the story I never really knew. I moved from Northfork to Princeton when I was still relatively young. But we still had family who lived here, including my grandparents, and our home church remained in Keystone just outside of Northfork, even after we had moved away.

When we would drive to see my grandparents, we’d always drive past a large sign that had a basketball with the number 8 in the center. I would call it the “Beasketball” sign.

Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Boyd

My family mostly lived in a little community of Algoma, just outside of Northfork. Algoma was a small community. If you blinked, you might not notice  you drove through it. When they were kids, my uncles Mark Page and David McDaniel played without any blacktop, or asphalt, just dirt. They lovingly referred to those games as “dust bowl” games.

They played basketball on a makeshift court in their small community.

“We created our own playground. We used to go in mountains, cut trees, make a backboard,” David recalled.

In the wintertime, they played in the snow. My uncle Mark, who we always called Joe, remembered shooting ball in the winter and knocking the snow off the net. “I still remember that feeling of making that shot.”

My uncles grew up in the 1960s, after desegregation became law. One thing that brought the communities together was the success of the high school basketball team, The Blue Demons.

The school was quite famous during the 1970s and 80s, winning eight state straight AA basketball championships in a row during one particularly successful stretch. This record set by the Northfork Blue Demons wouldn’t be challenged until 2015.  

As a result, black athletes were probably treated better than non athletes, given their status in the community.

“With me getting attention on who I was, I didn’t know racial things happened until I got older and I heard some other people’s stories,” recalled David McDaniel, who played for Northfork in 1971.

“I was a basketball star at the time. I got along with white folks and black folks. Everybody treated me well. I just thought that’s the way it was. But after I grew up and started hearing other people’s stories…I do remember the movie theater, the Freeman theater, we always sat in the back, white folk sat up front. I imagine [there were] racial tensions around here during that time, but they never got displayed on me.”

The 1977 Blue Demons. Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Boyd

Basketball Capital of the United States

In 1971, David was a star player and co-captain for the team as the Northfork Blue Demons won their first state AA title. Three years later, Northfork again won the state AA championship title. That win would be the first of an eight-year streak for Northfork High School.

My other uncle, Joe, captained the ’74 team. “We were just hard to be beat,” he said.

The Blue Demons were a force to be reckoned with, beating teams that went nearly undefeated during the regular season. This small coal mining town received national attention. People wore jackets and hats that had the slogan “Northfork West Virginia– Basketball Capital of the United States.”

After college, Joe returned to Northfork and became the assistant coach in 1979. Then in 1983, he became the new head coach of the Northfork Blue Demons. After a two-year absence from the state tournament, Joe led the Blue Demons to win the ’84 state championship.

This win felt like the comeback the town desperately needed. Because in 1984, jobs in Northfork were really starting to disappear. Eastern Coal, the largest coal mine in the county, had shut down operations. In the middle of that, the high school winning the state title just felt like there was a ray of hope in sight.

The former Northfork High School building. Photo: John Hale/WVPB

Devastating News

And then came the news that the county Board of Education planned to close the school. The school’s fate came down to the vote of five board members.

Three of the five chose to close the school. Two of the board members urged their counterparts to reconsider, but the three board members who voted for school closure were adamant in their decision.

Northfork High School was to be no more.

The students of Northfork High organized a mass walk out once the news came and even organized a protest against the Board’s decision. The community organized a small committee to hopefully change the board’s mind. It didn’t matter. All the kids in the county were squeezed into one school, Mt. View High School.

The adjustment was tough on the students and parents, according to my Uncle Joe.

“’Cause you’ve got these communities that always rivaled against each other. And you’ve got their parents who always rooted against this other town, and now all of a sudden, your kids are all on the same team. It was… a lot of tension going on at Mt. View High School.”

After Northfork closed, the town slowly began to fade.

Photo: John Hale/WVPB

My Uncle David says 1985 was when he really started to notice the decline.

“’Cause if you ain’t got kids in the neighborhood and you ain’t doing no business in your own town, that drags everything down. That was real personal that they closed the school. That was really heartbreaking that they closed the school like that.”

When Northfork High closed, the trophies were moved to the local Northfork Museum. After that building began to fall into disrepair, they were then moved to City Hall, where they reside to this day. Years of accomplishments now sit in a tiny bank vault in City Hall.

Northfork and McDowell County as a whole have seen some rough times. A majority of the coal mines in McDowell County ceased production. In 2001, violent floods tore through the community, taking with it a majority of the remaining infrastructure, as well as the population.

When Northfork High School closed, it was made into a middle school. The school was closed permanently in 2002.

This story wasn’t an isolated incident. Small towns all around southern West Virginia seem to be just barely hanging on. State lawmakers grapple with population loss and how devastating it is to the West Virginia economy.  

Northfork was a powerhouse of a town. From the economic wealth from coal production, to the athletic achievements that garnered national attention from across the country, it’s easy to forget that without the community of people that made up this small coal town, none of this would’ve been possible.

Author’s Note: During the production of this story, my uncle Joe passed away following a sudden illness. I’m grateful that I had time to sit down with him and recount his career as a basketball player, a coach and educator. This story is dedicated to his memory.

Editor’s Note: This story is part of an Inside Episode episode about school closure and its impact on sports teams, as well as the pride community residents have in their local schools.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Communities

Are Volunteer Fire Departments Still Viable?

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A view of Braddock, Pa. is seen from the belfry of the former United Brethren in Christ Church on Friday, March 9, 2007. The U.S. Steel Edgar Thomson Plant can be seen in the background. Photo: Andrew Rush/AP Photo

Faced with a lack of money and volunteers, some western Pennsylvania departments are turning to consolidation.

The landscape of the Mon Valley, in western Pennsylvania, is marked by a jumble of lush greenery and industrial infrastructure. Abandoned buildings consumed by ivy and vast, overgrown brownfields line the Monongahela River, alongside and between still-operational mills and miles of functioning railroad. One such mill is the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock, which has been in operation since 1875. The mill looms at the far side of Braddock’s commercial district, producing slabs of steel twenty-four hours a day. As Representative Summer Lee says in the introduction to the short documentary series “Braddock, PA,” Braddock is “the town that essentially built America”—thanks, in part, to the Edgar Thompson Works.

Just steps from the entrance to the mill sits a fire station, one of two belonging to the newly-christened River’s Edge Volunteer Fire Department, another institution that works around the clock, the product of a recent merger between volunteer fire departments in two communities, Braddock and Rankin.

Braddock and Rankin are two adjacent municipalities in Southwestern Pennsylvania, both inner-ring suburbs of Pittsburgh, settled on Shawnee, Delaware, and Iroquois land in the upper Monongahela River Valley. The communities were at the locus of the manufacturing explosion that fueled much of the region’s economy from the late 1800s well into the twentieth century. Braddock was the site of Andrew Carnegie’s first Bessemer steel plant, the still-operational Edgar Thomson Steel Works. Rankin was strategically settled to capitalize on access to the early westward-pushing railroad system and came to host several of its own factories.

Like many communities in the Rust Belt and across the U.S., Braddock and Rankin rely heavily on volunteer firefighters. Most fire departments nationwide are still volunteer-run, self-governing, and self-funded. As of 2017, more than eight hundred thousand of the country’s 1.1 million firefighters—about seventy-three percent—were volunteers, saving local municipalities almost $47 billion each year. But volunteer fire departments are facing serious existential threats, stemming primarily from a lack of money and people. In many communities, the model no longer appears viable.

The firefighter population is aging steadily. Since 1998, the percentage of firefighters under fifty nationwide has decreased, and the percentage of firefighters over fifty has increased. According to data from the National Fire Protection Association, More than half of volunteers nationwide are more than forty years old. Additionally, the cost of equipment has multiplied several times over the last few decades, and, as many municipalities struggle to fund public services, they have a diminished capacity to support volunteer fire departments, many of which never received significant financial support from their local governments to begin with.

Rankin’s VFD dates back to September of 1895 and has fourteen active members. Braddock’s current VFD was formed in 1972, in response to a large fire that proved to be too challenging for the Braddock career fire department to handle on its own. In the eighties, Braddock’s career department became yet another casualty of the economic downturn wrought by deindustrialization, and the VFD became the only firefighting game in town. It survived the economic downturn, though just barely, and today boasts twenty-four active members.

Pennsylvania, like most states in the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, has a percentage of volunteer firefighters (ninety-seven percent) significantly higher than the national average, making it especially susceptible to changes in volunteer demographics. The state has lost about 260,000 firefighters since the mid-1970s, leaving only around thirty-eight thousand in 2018. Since career firefighters are most likely to be employed in densely populated areas, the effects of this crisis are most pronounced in small municipalities. Ninety-five percent of volunteers serve areas with less than twenty-five thousand residents, and firefighters over fifty make up greater percentages of the volunteers in smaller communities.

Officials on the state and local level have been working to alert lawmakers and the general public to this impending crisis since as early as 1976, when the Governor’s Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued a report titled “Pennsylvania Burning.” The report recommended establishing the Office of the State Fire Commissioner to provide oversight and resources to fire departments in the Commonwealth. At the time, a lack of funds and volunteers represented a clear and pressing problem; over the last forty years, the problem has escalated into an emergency. The most recent set of recommendations to the PA legislature, from the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, proposes familiar action steps—like providing incentives for volunteers and finding ways to augment VFD funding—with a new, frightening urgency.

No one understands this crisis more clearly than Rob Brady. He used to work for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Center for Local Government Services (GCLGS), where he was the one person on the state level responsible for assisting fire companies and other municipal bodies with mergers, consolidations, and other solutions to their persistent lack of resources. During a 2013 testimony to the state’s Senate Emergency Preparedness Committee, Brady estimated that the state received three calls a week from struggling fire departments asking for help. Now he owns and operates his own consulting firm, ROBB Consulting, through which he continues to work with local civic organizations, helping them develop sustainability and a long-term plan for success.

Many small communities are choosing to address the fire emergency by consolidating multiple VFDs. Recently, Braddock and Rankin hired Brady to help them merge. Although these particular departments are still fully functional organizations, Brady says that now is the right time for them to join forces. “The majority of [companies] that I deal with…want to remain in decent shape,” he explained. “They’re being proactive. The best time to [consolidate] is when you’re strong.”

C.J. Kaminsky, the Fire Chief of Braddock’s Volunteer Fire Department, joined the Braddock department in the late 1980s, with some high school friends, and never left. “I’m the last one of my group from 1987,” he told me. What’s kept him with the department for so long? “The brotherhood,” he said. “I know it sounds corny. Everybody down here is like family, it really is. We lost our chief last July to a heart attack and it was just like everybody came together like a big family… Everybody knows about everybody’s dogs and kids and things like that and everybody’s uncle or aunt.”

The slump in volunteer fire department membership can be attributed to a variety of factors, including wage stagnation, national economic setbacks, and overall decline in volunteerism. Today’s VFDs have significant fundraising responsibilities, which may drive away what few new recruits a department can attract. “A lot of organizations today are held together by five or six people,” Brady said. Meanwhile, call volumes are around three times as great as they were thirty years ago.

Another factor driving membership decline, according to Kaminsky, is increased training requirements. In 1987, Kaminsky’s training took about forty hours. Now, he estimates the total number of training hours for a new recruit “comes out to two hundred and ten, two hundred and fifteen hours…That’s a lot of nights and weekends.”

Kaminsky said the Braddock department began pursuing mergers with neighboring communities about fifteen years ago. After a few failed attempts with other departments, “the talks [with Rankin] started about six years ago.” He told me it wasn’t a controversial decision to start looking for other departments with which to merge. “We all know we need to merge—the manpower situation, especially in the Valley here, [and] the financial backing from municipalities isn’t there.”

Since the Braddock and Rankin fire departments receive limited funding from their respective municipalities, they, like many volunteer departments, feel the strain of increasing operational costs—according to some estimates, equipment costs have more than quintupled since 1984. “A fire engine can range anywhere between $400,000 to $600,000, a ladder truck’s $900 to over a million,” Kaminsky said.

Government funding for fire departments has not significantly increased to match expenses. The PA government says it already provides more than $100 million to local emergency services, but that doesn’t seem to be enough. Kaminsky says the Braddock department receives $10,000 each year from the municipal government, and that pays one third of their annual insurance expenses. “Our organization has spent… about $2.5 million,” on necessary equipment like rescue vehicles and protective gear since the late eighties, Kaminsky said. “We raised every bit of that money ourselves.”

Many volunteer fire companies participate in “a seemingly incessant quest to fundraise through bingo nights, chicken barbecues, raffles and other time-consuming revenue-generators,” according to a special report on the matter from 2014. The report estimates that, despite 2008 legislation making clear that municipalities are responsible for funding their own emergency services, volunteers spend sixty percent or more of their volunteer hours fundraising. For Braddock’s department, fundraising means bingo. Kaminsky told me they generate between ninety and ninety-five percent of their income from twice-weekly bingo nights. “That’s what runs the fire department,” he said.

VFDs occupy a strange financial position. They offer services that are essential to the wellbeing of a community, but those communities have rarely, if ever, had to set aside substantial amounts of money in order to fund them. Now that it’s become increasingly difficult for VFDs to support themselves, the financial stakes are gigantic. The essential nature of emergency services, alongside the comparatively slim allocation of public money to fund them, is somewhat paradoxical. “Don’t take this the wrong way, [but] you don’t see a police officer on the side of the street with a boot in his hand trying to raise money,” Kaminsky said.

There are some administrative tweaks available to state legislators that could help generate more funds for emergency services. PA’s most recent SR 6 report suggests closing certain tax loopholes that allow insurance companies to opt out of a tax that funds local emergency services, for example. Unfortunately, these kinds of changes must happen at the Commonwealth level. “We’re gonna have to get the legislature 100% engaged to get this done,” Brady said.

Although the prospect of a substantial increase in state money for fire and emergency services is daunting, the cost of allowing those service groups to go defunct is even worse. According to the SR 6 report, the amount volunteers save the state with respect to emergency services “may be as high as $10 billion in today’s dollars. If we lose our volunteer fire and EMS companies and volunteers,” the report continued, “the taxpayers will face a very steep price tag.”

Today, Pittsburgh is perceived as having recovered from the industrial bust of the 1980s, with well-developed education and medical centers (the “Eds and Meds” of the East End) and a thriving arts and culture scene. The Mon Valley, however, which arguably suffered the worst effects of the loss of industry, still struggles to rebound.

In 2016, Braddock’s median household income was $24,551—less than half the Pennsylvania median of $56,907. Rankin’s 2016 median household income was only a few hundred dollars higher than Braddock’s. Both communities’ populations are majority black, in stark contrast to surrounding Allegheny County, which is about eighty percent white. According to the U.S. census, Braddock’s peak recorded population was 20,879 in 1920, and Rankin’s was 7,956 in 1930. In 2017, each had an estimated population of around two thousand.

Rob Brady grew up in McSherrystown, in south central Pennsylvania, a community that relied heavily on volunteer services—including fire and ambulance. “Everybody saw that the system wasn’t going to survive,” he said, because it required public service groups to “compete for the same money and compete for the same people.”  While the warning signs having been visible for quite some time, Brady says that, in the past twenty years, “the decline has really picked up speed.”

In 2004, McSherrystown’s fire company completed what is widely seen as a successful consolidation with three other fire and EMS services in Adams County. From that and other early consolidation efforts, Brady saw the value of cooperation and the potential of shared service programs to alleviate some of the financial burden on individual municipalities.

The Braddock-Rankin merger, which will create a new fire company called River’s Edge Volunteer Fire Department, is now complete. They’re on track for an official opening ceremony on June 1. Both parties are enthusiastic about their new collaboration. Nick Mroziak, president of Rankin’s VFD told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “It’s going to be good for both boroughs…We’re going to have more manpower between the two fire departments.” For now, River’s Edge plans to operate out of the two existing fire stations in Braddock and Rankin, but they hope to build a new, centrally located station in the future.

The Braddock-Rankin consolidation offers a hopeful example of how smaller communities can successfully work together to preserve and strengthen local institutions. Kaminsky says that the most challenging part of the process was selecting a name for the new department. “They wanted to make sure they had a good strong name to start the new chapter that provided some history, that was regional, that reflected community,” Brady explained. “River’s Edge” is a nod to Braddock and Rankin’s proximity to the Monongahela River.

River’s Edge VFD will be an amalgamation of both departments’ strongest features. “No one group is the same,” Brady told me. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. To have a successful consolidation process, “You have to understand the communities: what people are willing to do, what they’re not willing to do, and what the needs are.”

Brady and the Braddock and Rankin VFDs hope that, if their merger is successful in the long term, they can welcome other neighboring departments into their coalition and be a model for VFDs nationwide that are searching for a more sustainable structure. Of the people of the new River’s Edge VFD, Brady said, “They are a good group of folks. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with [them]… They know they need to do this to help the system survive,” and “They should be celebrated for taking such a courageous leadership role to move from the status quo and create something different.”

While support from the state government is needed for PA’s VFDs to survive, Brady stressed that local groups have the power to propel a lot of the necessary change: “Don’t wait ‘til Harrisburg solves your problem. Don’t wait for Washington,” he said. While the solutions will differ based on individual communities’ needs, to overcome the challenges facing VFDs nationwide, departments and communities will need to draw on the spirit of local sovereignty, self-determination, and mutual aid that, over the course of their history, has driven volunteers to serve their communities at great personal risk. The stakes, for many communities, are life or death.

Jordana Rosenfeld is a writer and journalist born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA; she currently does community outreach for an organization that helps people find jobs and buy houses in the upper half of the Mon Valley.

This article was originally published by Belt Magazine.

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