On a warm Friday afternoon in West Frankfort, Illinois, there’s an avalanche in front of city hall.
Actually, it’s The Avalanche, a carnival ride. A dozen or more rides are jammed onto a stretch of Poplar Street and its adjacent parking lots. The area is transformed, for a few days, into a midway filled with colored lights, music and the smell of funnel cake. This weekend marks the Old King Coal Festival, a tradition dating back 75 years for this small town.
The festival got its name because Southern Illinois produces so much coal. Boosters call it the Saudi Arabia of coal. No kidding. The coal industry has shaped whole towns in Illinois, and defined their history. Towns like West Frankfort. Of course, coal has been pulled right into the middle of the climate change fight. So West Frankfort and its heritage have been dragged in too.
LISTEN: A Princess, a Miner and a Movement to Stop the War on Coal
Recently, some people from around West Frankfort decided they were going to pull together an army of sorts to take up their part in that fight. At first, it was just a virtual army on Facebook. The organizers have come to the Old King Coal Festival to see if those troops might show up in real life.
They’re holding a rally here Saturday. And I’ve come to see what happens when they do.
But first, on Friday evening, with the festival just getting underway, here comes Jamie Harmon, the winner of this year’s Princess Flame pageant, threading a path through the crowd in her tiara and sash.
The Princess pauses—on her way to help introduce the evening’s entertainment—when her boyfriend points out a pair of girls who seem to think the 19-year-old is a real princess.
“This is my favorite part,” she says, as she turns to greet the little admirers with a big smile and a bigger “HIIIIIEE.”
Turning back to her boyfriend, Harmon giggles. “They’re like: ‘Oh, my gosh! She’s looking at me!’” Then, to her fans, another big smile, another wave, another big HIEEE, and she’s on her way.
Princess Flame passes through an alley lined with booths: the Lions Club selling lemonade, a local hot-sauce entrepreneur, an information stand for black lung disease. Then up the steps, in her wood-soled high-heel sandals, to the stage, where she waves to the crowd and helps usher on the night’s first band.
Later, I ask Princess Flame about her connection to coal. Her answer says a lot about what—or who—isn’t there anymore. “Both of my grandfathers passed away before I got to meet them—before I was born,” she says. “And they were both coal miners.”
That’s about it. Two grandfathers she never even met. And as paper-thin as that connection is, it’s more than her friends have.
This story was produced by WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR news station. And be sure to check out more stories in WBEZ’s “Heat of the Moment” series, which explores the impacts of climate change on our everyday lives. Support for “Heat of the Moment” is provided by The Joyce Foundation, which works to improve quality of life, promote community vitality and achieve a fair society.