Americans fascinated with 'Hatfields and McCoys'

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Associated Press

Posted on June 18, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Updated Monday, Jun 18 at 11:30 AM

MATEWAN, W.Va. (AP) — More than a century after the last shots were fired in America's most famous feud, the Hatfields and McCoys mingle peacefully in the mountains they call home, singing together in church choirs, sharing pot-luck lunches and headlining an ever-growing annual festival.

When the two clans that spilled so much blood and buried so many sons decide to tussle now, they do it with a tug of war, not with rifles. When the families tried to outmuscle one another in a recent rope-pulling skirmish, the only volleys fired were playful taunts. The McCoys won the struggle waged across the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River separating West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

The names remain forever linked, but now in a pursuit of commerce. Businesses from a liquor store to a car wash to a restaurant and inn capitalize on the Hatfield-McCoy name. And the fascination with the families' bloody past may help propel this hardscrabble patch of Appalachia toward a more prosperous future.

A three-night miniseries about the feud that spanned much of the last half of the 19th century set basic cable viewing records and sparked renewed interest in the Hatfields and the McCoys, who waged their own cross-border war between West Virginia and Kentucky. The History Channel drama starred Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as the patriarchs __ William Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield in West Virginia and Randolph "Ole Ran'l" McCoy in Kentucky — and drew more than 13.9 million viewers the first night. The finale did even better, with 14.3 million viewers.

A straight-to-DVD starring Christian Slater has just come out. The feud has inspired a spate of new books and television producers are looking for descendants of the once-feuding families to take part in a reality show that will be filmed in West Virginia.

As the backwoods blood feud finds itself in the cross-hairs of filmmakers and authors, officials in both states are hoping to transform a century-old spasm of violence into a modern day tourism brand. They offer bus tours of the crucial sites in the feuding that claimed at least a dozen lives by 1888 and catapulted both families into the American vernacular, becoming shorthand to describe bitter rivals.

"In my opinion, they are sitting on a gold mine," said Danny Baines of Kingsport, Tenn., who was visiting feud sites along the winding backroads in the scenic mountain region of the two states.

Asked why people are fascinated with the feud, he replied, "I think there's a little feuding in all of us."

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said tourism officials in southern West Virginia have been inundated with calls, and websites are getting hundreds of hits.

On the Kentucky side, tours of feud sites are filled within hours after being scheduled, said Pike County tourism director Tony Tackett. His office's website had more than 300,000 hits in two weeks; it normally averaged about 5,500 hits a month. Brochure requests are averaging 300 a day, up from 30 daily. Souvenirs sales have skyrocketed.

"We're just going to roll with it ... hold on tight and market it as well as we can," Tackett said.

In Matewan, Kathy McCoy operates the Hatfield McCoy Resort-Inn with her husband, Donald. The couple has ties to both families.

"Ever since the feud, the Hatfields and the McCoys have been mingling together," she said, adding that she sees plenty of untapped potential for the region. "We need to jump on it while it's hot."

Attendance was up this June at the three-day festival held in Matewan and Williamson in West Virginia and in Pike County, Ky. The event featured tours, re-enactments, book signings, arts and crafts and a marathon run. Descendants showed their allegiance by wearing ribbons, red for Hatfields, blue for McCoys.

"There's no reason why this area can't prosper from this," said Barry Hatfield, 27, of Stone, Ky., who portrayed his long-distant kinsman Johnson "Johnse" Hatfield, son of Devil Anse, in a re-enactment. "The coal industry is sort of suffering right now."

A history teacher at Mingo Central High School in West Virginia, Hatfield's blood ties reach all the way back to an uncle of the clan's patriarch. He began researching the feud when he was in middle school.

"We don't think nothing about it," he said, adding that he's even played a McCoy a few times. "We just look at it as history and now entertainment."

The feud officially ended June 14, 2003, when about 60 descendants of the two families gathered in Pikeville, Ky., to sign a truce during the fourth festival.

The bus tours on the West Virginia side used to run only during the festival, but additional tours are planned for June along with once-a-month tours from July through September because of greater demand, said Natalie Young, executive director of the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Williamson Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The sites feature historical markers that describe the pivotal events. Visitors can see the spot where three McCoys — Tolbert, Pharmer and Randolph Jr., all sons of Ole Ran'l McCoy — were tied to pawpaw trees and shot to death by an unofficial posse organized by Devil Anse Hatfield. He was seeking to avenge the death of his brother, Elliston, at the hands of the McCoys.

Many believe the feud was rooted in the Civil War, but the bitterness was perpetuated by disputes over timber rights and even a pig. The tour includes a stop at the site of the trial over the contested swine and at the place where Johnse Hatfield and Roseanna McCoy began their ill-fated love affair. Another stop is at their child's grave.

Lisa Alther, author of the book "Blood Feud" about the warring families, said other feuds happened in the Southern Appalachians during that era but none captured the public's imagination like the Hatfields and McCoys, due partly to its web of compelling plot lines.

"It's partly a culture of honor, where insults can lead to fights and nobody would step down," she said. "There was too much alcohol for sure, too many guns, possibly too little formal education so people hadn't learned how to discuss rather than fight."

From an ancestral McCoy home in nearby Kentucky where the family had gathered for the reunion, Elliott McCoy said the hatred and distrust between the families died out long ago.

"I don't know anybody that would have a bitter feeling toward them," McCoy, a gospel singer who lives in Nashville, Tenn., said of the Hatfields. "If they did, they wouldn't be in their right mind."

Descendants on both sides share a pride in their heritage, though they disavow the violent streak.

"It's knowing that you come from a long line of people that didn't make a lot of right decisions at times, but they thought it was right in their mind, so that's what they did," said Michael Maurice Hatfield. "Now I've got a short fuse myself, and I understand where it comes from."

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On the Web:

Pike County Tourism, Convention & Visitors Bureau: http://www.tourpikecounty.com

Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce: http://www.tugvalleychamber.com/

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Associated Press writer Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.

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