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Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fort Thomas Resident Reminisces About Growing Up in Black Star Coal Mining Camp

Judy Slone as a baby at the Black Star Coal Mining Camp in Alva, Ky.

From 1923 to 1958 Black Star Coal Mining Camp was home to hundreds of families, including Fort Thomas resident Judy Slone. "I wouldn't trade my memories of that for anything," Slone says.

Slone lived in the thriving coal camp tucked in the mountains for Harlan County, Ky., as a child, along with her parents, Raymond and Cleda Cornelius, two sisters and brother. Slone's father began working in the coal mines as a senior in high school. He attended school by day, worked at night, and graduated valedictorian of his class. He saved enough money to send his younger brother to college, and he promised himself that his future children would attend as well. "All four of his kids did," Slone says.
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Judy Slone's father, Raymond Cornelius, worked as a foreman Black Star Coal Mining Camp.

Cornelius worked his way up to foreman at Black Star, and when the camp shut down in 1958 he found work with the federal government as a mine inspector. While on the job he developed pneumonia, which led to the discovery of black lung disease. He died 10 days later at the age of 48.

Although the houses and buildings that made up the Black Star mining community no longer exist, former residents gather annually for a reunion, to reminisce. Slone just returned from one such reunion, which she attended with one of her sisters. She shows me the door prize she won—a vase filled with coal, red silk roses and a black glittery star on a stick. Attending the reunion is a bit like coming home—Slone hears "Judy's here this year!" upon walking into the room, and she knows she's back with family.

The camp, Slone says, had everything you would find in a small city—just more compact. The Commissary stood in the center, a large store filled with groceries, clothes, furniture, small appliances, a butcher shop, a barber shop and a salon. There was one restaurant, which Slone and her friends would visit after school, filling its jukebox with nickels.

Black Star's scrip, along with tokens that were tossed in with the coal, indicating its source.

Black Star used a substitute for legal tender, called scrip. Slone says each mining camp had its own form of scrip, often indicated by the punch out in the coin (note the star punch out, above).

Black Star families lived in individual homes, lined up in rows. Slone's father had a large garden where he grew tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans and corn. Children attended the camp's own grade school and high school. The schools were like any others, with sports teams and extracurriculars. The camp had a doctor's office and although there wasn't a police station, several constables were employed to look for moonshine stills in the mountains and keep the peace.

Slone and her family attended the Baptist church on one end of her town. Her parents didn't permit her to attend the Holiness church on the other end of town, although she and her siblings would sometimes walk down the railroad tracks and peek into the church's windows to watch Holiness members handle snakes.

Judy Slone and her friend, Trudy, at Black Star Coal Mining Camp

Slone grew up playing in the camp's surrounding mountains, as did her parents before her. "They weren't little mole hills," Slone says. "They were mountains." Once at the top she and her friends could look down and see Black Star, so they never got lost. She grew a healthy fear of snakes, knowing to change course if she heard the rattle of a rattlesnake or smelled cucumbers, indicating a copperhead was near.

Sense of community was strong in Black Star. "Everybody knew everybody," Slone says. "You could knock on anybody's door if you had a problem." Children grew up knowing if they misbehaved word would get back to their parents quickly. So, for the most part, they didn't, spending their time in the mountains and riding their bicycles three miles down the road to visit a custard stand.

Slone and her family vacationed by visiting outside family, including her dad's brother who lived in Virginia Beach. "Not many coal campers got to go to the beach," Slone says.

Judy and Gardner Slone, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. 

Slone recently celebrated her 51st wedding anniversary with her husband, Gardner, a retired Newport, Ky., teacher. Judy worked for Newport Board of Education, in payroll. The couple raised two daughters together, Karen and Melissa, and moved to a house on Sherman Ave. in Fort Thomas in 1972.

Although nothing can match her experiences growing up in Black Star, Slone says she has found community in Fort Thomas. Many residents know her basset hound Hank—she takes him on daily walks at Tower Park. (Hank is a bit famous for howling along to "The Stars and Stripes Forever" during a Tower Park Concert.) Hank is 11 and has trouble handling steps. A neighbor took notice and the very next day built and installed a ramp for Hank, wanting nothing in return.

An avid reader, Slone also shares books with two neighbors. The three women take turns buying copies, passing them along and initialing the inside covers to indicate who has read what. A James Patterson fan, Slone grew up watching her parents read. The only libraries on camp were in the schools so her dad bought many books.

Slone's mother died at the age of 87. Slone and her siblings regularly get together, as do the Slone's children. Family is important to Slone and her husband, as is community, as is being a part of something bigger than one's self. For hundreds of men, Black Star represented a job. But for hundreds of families, Black Star represented something more—an extended family, a way of life. One Slone says, "was just great."

Well, a lot of things have changed since way back then
And it's so good to be back home again
Not much left but the floors, nothing lives here anymore
Except the memories of a coal miner's daughter. —Loretta Lynn 


  1. Loved this article!

  2. I grew up in Black Star also. i thank Judy for her story. Her memories are my memories. It was a great place to grow up.