Ed Shepard has run a filling station in the West Virginia town of Welch for… (Peter Slavin, For The Times )
The artist who painted the mural that greets drivers entering the little town of Welch in West Virginia's coal fields added the figure of Ed Shepard at the last minute. Ed, as everyone calls him, is a fixture in town.
He has manned his service station for 62 years. Plain-spoken, self-educated, and blessed with a remarkable memory, at 89 Ed is a seemingly endless source of knowledge about Welch and surrounding McDowell County.
McDowell County used to dig more coal than anywhere else in the country. A local deejay called it "the coal bin of the nation." Welch, the county seat, was founded in 1893 by land speculator and industrial promoter Isaiah Welch, who reportedly purchased the strategic site at the confluence of two rivers for $100 and his sorrel mare.
In its heyday Welch was perhaps the state's wealthiest town, with millionaires, 10 car dealers and a hotel restaurant that received fresh seafood daily by train. Ed says when he was a boy, "coming to Welch was like going to New York City."
Ed grew up in coal towns around Welch, bouncing from relative to relative after his parents divorced. When he was 13 he got the urge to see something other than West Virginia, so he walked 175 miles to visit a distant aunt in North Carolina, sleeping in haystacks and under bridges along the way. The trip took about a week. His aunt was headed to Idaho, so he tagged along and lived there for a few years.
But Idaho held no allure — "Didn't like it," he says — and Ed came back to coal country. He did the same after the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted him to drop out of 10th grade, join the Marines and take part in six invasions during World War II.
These days, trains hauling as many as 100 cars of coal still roll behind Ed's Union 76 station every hour, and coal trucks frequently pass his front door.
But appearances are deceiving. Between mechanization, the closing of some mines and the shift to oil, thousands of mining jobs have been lost since the 1950s. People have left the county in droves. Welch's population has dwindled from about 6,500 to 2,200, in part because of a terrible flood in 2002. Many of the remaining buildings stand empty and sometimes it seems no one is on the streets.
Ed first leased the station, which was built in the 1930s, in 1950, and later bought it. Over time he had two daughters by three wives, the last marriage ending 27 years ago.
The station made Ed a good living years ago, but as Welch's population and prosperity have fallen away, business has slowed to a crawl. He hasn't sold any gas since 1995, when costly environmental regulations made him dig up his tanks, and his mechanic left about five years ago.
Ed doesn't sell sodas or refreshments, but he'll do an oil change or lube, fix a flat or wash your car. Where once he hand-washed as many as 200 automobiles a month, last month he washed only two.
Still, he's at the station six days a week, mostly reading or chatting with half a dozen friends who drop by ("loafers," he calls them). He uses part of his Social Security check to pay the station's expenses. Ed says his friends call him "a dang dinosaur" for hanging on, but he has an answer. The station, he says, is his "retirement home."
Today, McDowell County is wracked by poverty, a prescription drug epidemic and failing schools, and Ed calls Welch a dying town. But restaurant owner Michelle Cook sees another side of the coin: business opportunities everywhere, and city officials say they are working to revive Welch.
They point to a new physical therapy practice, an auto parts store and plans to create a wellness center and an apartment village to attract badly needed teachers. Already underway is Reconnecting McDowell, a sweeping effort to improve the county's troubled schools through an unusual public-private partnership.
As for Ed, he's skeptical of these plans to revive his town. But he is sure of one thing: He won't be leaving Welch.