Mind the Store
A one-of-a-kind company store, once the center of town, becomes a showcase for coal camp history.
Photographed by Nikki Bowman
As a little girl growing up in Fayette County, Joy Lynn used to marvel at the architecture of the old Whipple Company Store. “I had wanted that building since I was six, when it was a trading post.”
Fast forward a few decades to 2006 when Lynn, living full-time in Florida where she and her husband restore high-end vintage cars, was visiting the home she still owned in Gauley Bridge. “My girlfriend was a real estate agent and called me and said, ‘You have to get over here—they are selling your building.’”
The building in Scarbro had changed hands several times over the years. It was a wreck, falling down in sections, “19 inches of water in the basement and the upstairs ballroom was full of pigeons,” Lynn says. The Lynn family jumped at the chance to own it.
Built sometime around 1890, according to paperwork found inside, the Whipple Company Store was constructed by coal baron Justus Collins to serve miners and their families, but its unique design was a vision of his wife, Lucy.
“She believed in education and art at a time when people didn’t even think about that kind of stuff,” says Lynn, who is writing a book on the Collins family. “She believed if you raised the bar in these coal camps, people coming to work there would meet the challenge to become more educated and artistic.”
Inside the ornate octagon-shaped building, “anything you could ever need, not want but need, would be there,” Lynn says. There was a doctor, a butcher—who often helped the doctor because he was one of the few people who knew how to handle blood—and an embalmer.
“It was the bank. It was the women’s sewing circle. It was the community center and, before churches were built, it was the religious center,” Lynn says. “Women would gather there to socialize. The children would have little classes. They would sew and work on their samplers.”
The store has several unique features, including a five-foot-tall second story, which is really just a half floor. It was mainly used to store coffins—“they didn’t want to put them on the main floor where children were buying candy bars,” Lynn says.
But the second floor also housed trusses that supported a round acoustic feature on the ground floor. It basically served as an early surveillance system. There was a spot where a guard could stand and hear virtually every single woman in the store talking. It was a great way to keep tabs on the coal company employees and the community at large.
A third-floor ballroom was where Lucy Collins took tea and entertained other rich ladies. It is now a sought-after venue for wedding receptions and community gatherings. The Lynns offer all-inclusive party packages, including catering and music.
There isn’t another coal company store quite like Whipple still standing, Lynn says.
She and her family open the store and the Appalachian Heritage Museum inside from May 1 to November 1. They give historical tours—entry fees start at $10 per person—and haunted tours, as well as children’s field trips.
This summer, the building’s basement will be opened to the public for the first time for several new “escape room” challenges. In one scenario, tourists will get to figure their way out of a simulated coal mine. In another, they’ll solve 19th century challenges, like operating an old book press or an early washing machine, to get clues and “escape.”
Proceeds from the gift shop and from paying visitors—many students and coal groups get complimentary tours, Lynn says—go to pay utilities and for the upkeep and renovations necessary to preserve the historic facility.
“We have spent 10 years making this building and its history viable,” Lynn says.
But, she noted, “it’s a job where I don’t feel like I ever have to go to work.” whipplecompanystore.com