By JIM ROSS ∙ email@example.com
MADISON — Every year since 1994, in the third week of June, the streets of downtown Madison turn into the West Virginia Coal Festival to celebrate the No. 1 industry in southern West Virginia and in Boone County in particular.
"We thought we needed to put something on that would bring people to the county seat. It skyrocketed. It's all within a quarter mile radius of downtown," said Larry V. Lodato, who among his many hats in Boone County government is also the coordinator for the festival, which just finished its 19th year.
The first discovery of coal in what is now West Virginia was by John Peter Salley in what is now Boone County. Boone County produces about 16 percent of the coal mined in West Virginia, and, among other markets, it is burned in about 50 power plants in 12 states.
In 2010, surface and underground mines in Boone County employed about 3,500 people and paid about $274.8 million in wages.
So where else would you have a coal festival?
Lodato calls the festival "a family fun display in a small-town atmosphere."
The festival works with a $60,000 budget. About $20,000 of that comes from the Boone County Commission, and another $10,000 comes from the state. The remainder comes from donations from the United Mine Workers and corporate sponsors.
The main event of the weeklong festival is the memorial service for miners who lost their lives since the previous festival. Another ceremony is the lighting of a flame on the courthouse grounds. It burns throughout the festival and is set up next to the coal miner statue on the front lawn of the Boone County Courthouse.
Another highlight is the display of mining equipment provided by more than 25 companies.
"An average person doesn't know what goes on underground. The miners will bring their families down" to show them the equipment, Lodato said.
And then there's the entertainment.
In past years, Connie Smith, T. Graham Brown, Billy Joe Royal, B.J. Thomas, Ronnie McDowell and Marty Stuart have performed. This year's big name was John Anderson.
Other events include gospel music, a parade, beauty pageants, fireworks, arts and crafts, the downtown Coal Museum and an arts and heritage center.
It's all free except for the carnival and the food, Lodato said.
"It's just wall-to-wall attendance. I guess the average attendance is 10,000 per festival," Lodato said.
"Next year is our 20th annual, and we'll probably plan something bigger."