Connecting Hollywood to numismatics through coal scrip

One of the fascinating things about this hobby is that you can find connections everywhere.

This is especially true when considering exonumia, that area outside traditional government-issued coins or paper money.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Sky of Stone by Homer Hickam. If the name sounds familiar, it is probably because of the Jake Gyllenhaal movie October Sky, and his book upon which the movie was based, Rocket Boys.

Hickam, the son of a stern, taciturn coal mine superintendent in Coalwood, W.Va., was in high school when Russia’s Sputnik streaked across the October sky in 1957, and he was inspired to build rockets. Hickam wrote three books about time spent in – and trying to get out of – McDowell County, at the bottom of the state, deep in the “billion dollar coalfield.”

Hickam and three friends wound up winning a gold and silver medal at the National Science Fair for their rocketry, and college scholarships followed. But Hickam was forced to spend one college summer working in the last place he wanted to be, below that “sky of stone.”

There on page 87, the younger Hickam (known at the time as “Sonny”) writes about entering the company store and requesting $20 in scrip against his wages at the mine.

Like most coal mining operations in the United States, the company store at Olga Coal Co. used tokens. Today these tokens and thousands like it are remnants of the once-widespread substitute economy.

Coal tokens and company stores have drawn their criticism in popular culture, notably in Tennessee Ernie Ford’s song Sixteen Tons. But Doug Tolley, a member of the National Scrip Collectors Association, disagrees with that characterization.

“Coal mine scrip was not nearly as onerous as credit cards,” said Tolley. “There was no debt to it – it’s simply an advance on wages already earned. It’s no different than people today who can’t handle credit cards.”
Tolley, 85, worked in the mines for 46 years before retiring 22 years ago. Now he sells scrip in online auctions.

Tolley knew the elder Hickam, also named Homer.

“Homer was just as [darn] tough as they say he was,” said Tolley.

Since the movie was released in 1999, “everyone wants a piece of Olga scrip,” Tolley said.

A 1-cent token can be found below $20 in various grades. Pieces from the Carter Coal Co., which owned Coalwood before Olga took over in 1948, are more affordable, and still represent a period when the elder Hickam worked at the mine. Whether they were used after the sale is unclear, but older tokens circulated after sales at other mines in some cases, Tolley said.

Today, Coalwood is a shell of its former self, with hardly any people left.

Tolley said, “It’s just like the gold mines out west – when the coal gets gone, the people get gone.”