BEALLSVILLE, Ohio - The atmosphere at Century Mine on Tuesday was less political rally and more summer carnival, with rides, jugglers and free food entertaining the hundreds of workers and their families who gathered to hear Mitt Romney speak.
However, besides giving the younger attendees - many of whom stood in line for several hours prior - something to do, the family-friendly display served a much deeper purpose.
"If you notice, there are a lot of kids and wives and other family here because we think it is important for all of them to know how important this election will be for their future," said Robert Murray Jr., vice president of marketing and sales and external affairs for Century's parent company, Murray Energy.
Photo by J. Michael Myer
Brock Graham, 8 months old, meets Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Holding the child is his father, coal miner Brock Graham.
Murray said the mine did not operate Tuesday to allow all employees to attend and hear the message that presumed Republican presidential nominee Romney brought, as well as to better understand what the industry faces.
"We view this as a very critical election, and we think our employees need to understand exactly what is happening," he said. "In order to protect coal jobs and stop this war on coal, it is going to take a lot, and we want that message to be seen, heard and understood."
Like Murray, many of those in attendance come from mining families, with several generations being represented. St. Clairsville resident David Higginbotham and his wife, Sonya, waved American flags and wore shirts honoring the family tradition that mining in the Ohio Valley has become for them and many others.
"We're proud people, and we don't want the life we've lived for years taken away from us," he said. "I've been doing it my whole life and I'm not about to change that, and nobody will take it away."
Higginbotham, who has worked in the industry for 35 years, said his father and son are both coal miners, as are his father-in-law and son-in law. He said the biggest concern, outside of dwindling jobs, is the lack of respect for miners across the country.
"We just want to be appreciated, because now it's like we don't exist," he said. "They talk about wind and solar energy, but coal is our way of life, and most of us here are good people who work hard because it's all we know."
Higginbotham said he was honored to have Romney visit the area, and he was hopeful he would receive the message of jobs and support loud and clear. He added Romney's message was also clear, even before he took the stage.
"The fact he came out here tells me at least he must care, and that's all we ask," he said. "Someone who cares enough to come here, that sounds like the man for the job."
Carl Honeywell, who has worked at the mine for nearly three years, brought his family, including sons Caden and Jalob, ages 9 and 11, to the event. He said it was important for them to share the experience as their futures could depend on the outcome of the upcoming election.
"I wanted to teach them the importance of what it means to have the right man as president and what it means for their future, my future and my fellow coal miners' future," he said.
Honeywell said he wants mining to be a viable option for his sons if they decide it is what they want to do with their lives. He said the industry has allowed him to make a good living and support his family, and he said he hoped Romney took that away from his visit.
"Even in small towns, people care what's going on in the rest of the country," he said. "Here in the Ohio Valley, we realize that we need to make things right, and we think he is the man for the job."
After the event, Honeywell said, Romney shook hands with him and his sons, who were wearing New England Patriots football jerseys. He said Romney, who served as governor of Massachusetts for four years, thanked them for coming and signed their jerseys.
"It's not every day you get to meet the next president of the United States," Honeywell said.