Coal is an underlying theme in “Rocket Boys The Musical,” just as it hides underground in the hills of West Virginia. An exhibit called “Black Diamonds” on display at Wallman Hall provides context and history to the story of coal in the Mountain State.
The Fairmont State University School of Fine Arts presented “Rocket Boys The Musical” in November. The “Black Diamonds” exhibit will remain on display in the Tower Room in Wallman Hall until Friday, Dec. 13. Those interested in viewing the exhibit should call Dr. Francene Kirk at (304) 367-4170.
In the musical, main character Homer Hickam must cope with his father’s lack of understanding of his fascination with rocket science. He wanted his boy to be a coal miner, just as he and his forefathers were. The play also focuses on the possible closing of the coal mine where the elder Hickam works, which would result in the demise of the McDowell County town where they live.
Because coal is such an important part of the script, Dr. Francene Kirk, FSU Abelina Suarez Professor of Communication and Theatre, worked with student Lakyn Arrick to add another layer for the audience to enjoy. Arrick, a 2009 graduate of Magnolia High School and a New Martinsville native, is a senior at FSU majoring in Theatre with an emphasis on Theatre Education and a minor in Communications.
“There is such a rich history of coal mining in this area that we wanted to go a step further. Dr. Kirk and I were talking about it, and we found a traveling exhibit called ‘Black Diamonds’ that was originally created by the West Virginia Department of Culture and History,” Arrick said.
The exhibit is now on loan for 30 years to the Northern Appalachian Coal Mining Heritage Association (NACMHA) in Fairmont, an organization run by Mike Rohaly. NACHMA is a 501-c-3 organization that is guided by a board of directors.
Arrick received permission from Rohaly to use the exhibit which is now on display in the Tower Room at Wallman Hall on campus for the public to view during the production of “Rocket Boys The Musical.”
As the educational outreach coordinator for this year’s theatre season at FSU, Arrick used the exhibit to develop an informational packet to send to local middle and high schools in the area. The packet contains a week’s worth of lesson plans that can be integrated by teachers into the curriculum.
“We invited schools in Marion, Harrison, Monongalia and other counties to attend the production, and the response was so great that we had to add two evening performances to accommodate the students who are attending. When I developed the educational packet, I read the script and decided what was an important take-away for the audience. Then I looked at the state’s content standards and tried to solidify the students’ understanding of the material. Not only are they educated about theatre, but also how to be critical readers, writers and thinkers,” Arrick said. “I hope the information serves to educate the kids about what coal mining meant in the lives of families of that era.”
“Black Diamonds” is an interactive exhibit measuring 14 feet by 18 feet and it features three hands-on components.
“A person can get on his knees and swing a pick that has a measured resistance to it and get an idea of how it felt to mine coal. You can also lift a shovel to find out how heavy a shovelful of coal really is. The exhibit has a breast auger, which is an S-shaped crank that a miner would put on his chest and drill a hole into a mine wall. People can use that breast auger and imitate a real miner,” Rohaly said.
The exhibit includes a “mini-mine” or tunnel of the actual dimensions of a coal mine tunnel, and children can climb into the tunnel. Pictures and videos on a loop give a visual history of coal mining in the display. Artifacts include a carbide lamp and mechanical canaries that were used to detect deadly gasses in the mine.
“The exhibit pertains to the whole state, and several counties are featured in it, including McDowell County where the ‘Rocket Boys’ grew up,” said Rohaly, who has had possession of “Black Diamonds” since July of this year. “It was on display at the Marion County Public Library this summer for its summer reading program and will go to the Royce Watts Museum in the Mineral Industries Department at West Virginia University in the summer of 2014 for the next academic year.”
Rohaly founded NACHMA in 2000 as a non-profit organization after a career in coal mining engineering. He received a mining engineering degree from Penn State University and a master’s degree in Business Education from WVU.
“I came here to work 31 years ago in the coal industry—this is coal country. There were opportunities ‘aplenty,’ as they say. I’m a first-generation coal miner and have a little different perspective than those who are third- and fourth-generation miners. It didn’t take me long to notice that there were no coal mining museums. That shocked me. There is really a rich history of coal mining here. The largest coal mining disaster, and actually the largest industrial disaster in our history, occurred in Monongah on December 6, 1907, when 361 men were killed in a mine explosion,” he said.
“There were efforts to start a coal mining museum, and I watched them come and go. Finally, I jumped in, and I’m committed to a museum here. We have a small building we opened in 2004 with displays right next to the Coal Country Miniature Golf in Fairmont (at I-79 Exit 137) that I operate. Our efforts are picking up steam, and we’re getting community interest and support. FSU has been instrumental in making that happen.”