Council works to polish region’s ‘black diamonds’

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series exploring the Little Cities of Black Diamonds, 61 coal towns in Southeast Ohio.

Even though coal mines are no longer a major economic force in Southeast Ohio, the spirit of miners and the impact the industry had on the area still lingers.

In his 1976 doctoral thesis, Dr. Ivan Tribe became the first person to label the coal mining towns in Athens, Hocking, Morgan and Perry counties the Little Cities of Black Diamonds.

John Winnenberg helped found the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council in the early 1990s to preserve the history of the micro-region, as well as reimage the area.

Winnenberg is also a lead staff associate at Sunday Creek Associates, a nonprofit that sponsors the council and works to preserve coal town architecture.

“I care about these towns and their redevelopment … Our history is one of the area’s clear assets, and it’s a fascinating story,” Winnenberg said.

According to The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council, there are 61 coal towns in Southeast Ohio. These cities experienced great economic and population booms between 1870 and 1920, when the coal mining industry was at its peak.

Cities such as Shawnee, Ohio, saw their populations double. Shawnee’s population went from less than 1,500 in 1872 to 3,000 in the early 1900s.

The promise of a better life — and of jobs — drew thousands of people to the Hocking River Valley during that period.

“They wanted their children to go to college and not go back to work in the coal mines,” said Glenna Palmer, a benefactor of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council. “And many of them did that.”

Although the economic prosperity that defined the area was short-lived, the memory of The Little Cities of Black Diamonds lives on, as many citizens of Southeast Ohio are dedicated to preserving the history of the area and keeping its stories from fading.

“We really do need to keep that history alive so people can hear a story about how determined these people were,” Palmer said.

The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council works to promote the historical, cultural, civic and environmental assets of the region.

In order to promote the history of the region, the Council hosts an annual Little Cities Day, a benefit bicycle ride through Wayne National Forest and a Labor Conference.

“Little Cities of Black Diamonds Day in October is very important,” said Palmer. “We have historical and cultural exhibits from different towns and their history groups.”

Palmer, who will turn 90 in March, grew up and still resides in the Little Cities of Black Diamonds area. Her family moved to Trimble and Athens in the 1800s and five generations ago, her ancestor, Robert Maxwell II, built a church and a school in Hartleyville, one of Athens County’s Little Cities of Black Diamonds.

Palmer became involved with the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council in 1992 and served as the council’s secretary for several years. She now handles the invitations for people to come display at the Little Cities of Black Diamonds Day.

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