Coal production is gradually leaving Appalachia—having already extracted much of the region's natural wealth. Local people are figuring out how to build a new economy based on shared vision and community knowledge. If transition can happen here, it can change the debate everywhere.
Benham, Ky., in the heart of Harlan County, is a quiet place with a proud sign that has been amended over time to read, "Benham, the little town that International Harvester, coal miners and their families built."
International Harvester, a farm-equipment conglomerate created by industrial speculator J.P. Morgan, bought up Benham’s land and mineral rights soon after the turn of the century in order to supply Wisconsin steelworks with Appalachia's high-quality coal.
All at once, a trappers' and hunters' hamlet became a churning coal-camp town. International Harvester designed the streets, built the houses, attracted the workers, and ran the coal north by rail. Miners were paid good wages when there was work (especially later, when workers were unionized), but most of the workers' cash went straight back to International Harvester—which owned the two-story department store, the cinema, the hospital, the power company, and every significant business in town.
"The people who agreed to spend their days digging coal from the underside of mountains produced enough power to industrialize the nation: They're owed something back."
Half a century later, new machines took miners' jobs and new technology enabled customers to burn cheaper coal. IH started laying off miners and selling its properties, taking its profits with it—as it had the coal.
Between 1960 and 2012, Harlan County shrank from more than 51,000 residents to fewer than 30,000. Benham's population (now under 500) set about building a new economy.