At age 91, Marjorie Conder of Ahwatukee has finally finished what she started a decade ago: publishing her book.
Called “’Furriners’ in Appalachia,” it is a memoir of the four years she and her late husband of 67 years, Steve, spent in a coal camp near the little hamlet of Wooton in the eastern mountains of Kentucky.
Coal, copper and small towns are woven into the fabric of the former teacher’s life, but by her own admission, she was a stranger in a strange land back then.
Born in the Verde Valley town of Clarkdale, where her father was chief engineer for the Phelps Dodge Corporation copper smelter before his company relocated the family to Douglas, Conder and her husband lived in little places most of their life together.
They lived in Carlsbad, New Mexico; El Paso, Texas, and then she ended up again in Douglas, where her husband wound up working for the same mining company that had employed her father.
Even when she, Steve and their two sons and daughter moved from Douglas to Ahwatukee in 1981, it seemed – for a while, anyway – that they were continuing that small-town life in the shadow of the big city.
Though she admitted that “I dragged my heels all the way, not wanting to leave that wonderful small town for the big, hot city,” she and her husband “chose Ahwatukee because at that time it had a real, small-town atmosphere and we had both loved living in those small mining towns.”
“At that time Ahwatukee had only one grocery store, one pharmacy – and the post office was in Millie’s Hallmark store,” Conder recalled.
But as much as she loved small towns, Conder was no bumpkin.
She was class valedictorian when she graduated high school in 1947. She first attended Colorado Woman’s College in Denver, where she met Steve, who had just come back serving in the Navy throughout World War II and was attending Colorado School
“He impressed me with his maturity, his manners, his Southern charm, his wonderful sense of humor. The fact that he was studying to be a mining engineer, like my dad, probably had an influence, too,” Condwr said.”
After getting an associate’s degree, she went to the University of Denver, where she picked up a bachelor of arts degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key.
She and Steve already had married between their sophomore and junior years and had their first son while they were both still in school.
“Finishing college was a very busy time for me,” Conder said. “I had to keep my grades up in order to continue receiving my scholastic scholarship at DU. With a new baby and a husband to care for, plus commuting from Golden to Denver each day for classes and tons of homework, my days were very full.”
After graduation came the “huge challenge” of moving to Kentucky, where Steve had landed his first engineer’s job.
“I missed the mental stimulation of the college experience but I did enjoy having time to spend learning new skills, a new language and a new cuisine, making dear friends and experiencing a far different climate.”
But there also was the challenge of acclimating to a place that Conder called “very primitive at the time.”
Despite its breathtaking beauty, she said, “it had been isolated for 200 years by the steep, heavily wooded mountains. There were no roads into that part of the state until World War II brought the need to extract the coal so valuable.”
“The steep, heavily-wooded mountains made life difficult for the native residents,” Condor said.
“They scrabbled out a precarious living, raising much of their own food in tiny gardens. Those who worked in the coal mines were better off, earning a pretty good income for that time, about $25 a day.”
A close friend of her husband opened a drive-in for which Steve made the marque but cars were not a big part of the audience.
“Many of the patrons arrived in their wagons, pulled by mules dressed in their best harnesses and bells. It was a momentous occasion for those people who had never seen a movie before,” Conder said. “Mules were essential for transportation in the rugged hills, where no roads existed at that time.”
“The natives had had contact with the outside world, including electricity and automobile transportation, for only 10 years,” Conder explained. “We experienced lots of culture shock coming straight from college campuses.”
The natives sometimes had to be treated cautiously.
Steve and a crew once got too close to a moonshiner’s still and the moonshiner shot at them.
Besides the constant danger Steve faced whenever he entered a coal mine, guns were an integral part of the local culture.
“About every man in Leslie County carried a gun and used it frequently to settle disputes,” Conder said. “Their reliance on guns had been handed down from the time that the first settlers in that mountain country, 200 years earlier, had needed guns to provide food and for protection. Gunfire and gun battles were common.”
Labor unrest fueled more violence.
“The coal company for which Steve worked had several non-union mines and the front windows of the company store just below our apartment were shot out one night,” Conder recalled. “We were awakened with loud bangs of gunfire and crashing of breaking glass. Violence was an ever-present threat.”
Settling in Ahwatukee as her husband headed western engineering for Phelps Dodge, Conder continued her teaching career that dated back to the couple’s years in Douglas.
She first taught advanced English and journalism at what was then Kyrene Junior High, now a middle school, and eventually went to Dobson High School in Mesa, where she taught writing and journalism and was the adviser for the school newspaper.
She retired in the early 90s at age 62, “burned out from teaching writing in four of my five classes.”
“I missed my students after retiring, but not those term papers I had to grade.”
She started her book 10 years ago as she began writing about her years in Kentucky, initially planning a magazine article.
“I wanted to leave a history of that time for my family because we had so many fascinating, funny, scary and even sad experiences there and we met so many wonderful people whom I wanted to write about.”
Her husband helped jog her memory on some details, but that effort was disrupted about five years ago when Steve became terminally ill.
For a year after he passed away, she was too overcome by grief to write at all.
But she returned to her project, revisiting in her mind that piece of Coal Country that she and Steve never physically went back to.
They stayed in touch with friends, many of whom also left Wooton.
One of her sons did go for a visit and reported that the area “was full of open-pit mines, which took the tops off the beautiful mountains,” she said.
But Conder left her many memories to cherish.
“Most of the people in the coal camp, the miners and their families, had very little education and we had little in common with them,” Conder said. “They considered us outsiders. We spoke a different language. We had different ways.
“However, I did have some wonderful neighbors who were very kind to me and became friends and I learned much from them, particularly that a lack of education does not necessarily keep one from being a good person. I think I was an education snob when I finished college, at that stage where I thought I knew everything.”
“I will forever be grateful to those good mountain people, who treated us as friends in spite of the fact that with our strange Western ways, we seemed like foreigners to them – pronounced ‘furriners.’”
And despite the violence and the danger of the mines, her memories “are mostly fond and I still enjoy reliving the many happy times we had there.”
“I remember most of the wonderful people, the gorgeous scenery, the fascinating language – Elizabethan plus Southern English – the scrumptious Southern cooking, the history of that part of the country. She said she “came to understand that book learning is not the only valuable kind of learning.”
“I learned so much from the people there, everything from a new language, different ways of cooking, a very different culture, but particularly an appreciation for the uneducated, but truly good, people who lived there much as their ancestors had for the previous 200 years.”
“‘Furriners’ in Appalachia” is in paperback and Kindle at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. An autographed copy also is available by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.