In the heart of Johnson County, Kentucky, lies Van Lear, a once bustling coal camp.
In the heart of Johnson County, Kentucky, lies Van Lear, a once bustling coal camp founded in 1912 and named after the illustrious Van Lear Black, former director at the Consolidation Coal Company. A town steeped in history, Van Lear’s fortune was carved by John Caldwell Calhoun Mayo, whose early recognition of the coal-rich lands of the Big Sandy River valley spawned a mining empire.
With a population that once outshone the county seat of Paintsville, Van Lear was a hive of activity, home to company-owned general stores, elementary schools, recreation halls, and a lavish clubhouse. The town’s mining industry was underpinned by the construction of railroads, bridges, and a coal-powered electricity plant that illuminated both Van Lear and its neighbors.
But times have changed, and the mines that once symbolized prosperity are now shuttered. Van Lear’s community center, once alive with barbershops, ice cream parlors, and billiard halls, whispers of a grander past. The exhaustion of the underground mines brought a sharp decline in a once-thriving community.
Though the local government was dissolved in 1963, and again after a brief incorporation stint in 1996, Van Lear refuses to be forgotten. Today, the quiet and secluded community houses the Coal Miners’ Museum, a symbol of its enduring legacy. Alongside Webb’s Store and other small businesses, Van Lear remains a testament to the indomitable spirit of coal miners and the rich heritage of Kentucky. Nearby, the echoes of Loretta Lynn’s songs remind visitors of the birthplace of a legend in Butcher Hollow, adding a melodic note to the story of Van Lear.