Community attends 'calling hours,' a memorial for its deceased coal plant
Coal-burning power plants around the nation have been closing. Last month, it was announced that the Homer City Generating Station in Indiana County, the largest coal-fired power plant in Pennsylvania, would close by July.
During the Covid pandemic, the eastern Ohio town of Coshocton saw the same thing happen. The Conesville coal-burning power plant, the backbone of the community, shut its doors. With its closure came the loss of a way of life for many of its residents. Earlier this month, the community gathered for a memorial to what was lost.
Erich Skelley and his granddaughter sat at a cafe table set up in an open courtyard in downtown Coshocton. He greeted friends he hadn’t seen since 2020 when the Conesville coal plant closed down. They were here to see Calling Hours, a theater production about the coal plant. Skelley worked there for nearly 42 years.
“I graduated high school, didn’t think college was for me,” he said. “There were opportunities at a couple of facilities here. I chose to go to the power plant because I thought it was most interesting.”
The plant burned coal to make electricity.
“Fired boilers, made steam, turned turbines, made electricity. I mean, that’s all I ever did for my whole life,” Skelley said.
‘Calling Hours’ Begins
We think of calling hours when people gather at a wake for a person who’s died. And actually, this performance was written as a series of eulogies from different people who cared for the plant, including the community, the schools, and plant supervisors, like Skelley.
“I started on the floor, and I worked my way up into management,” said local actor Denny Blanford, in the voice of his character, a plant supervisor.
“No matter what I was doing, there wasn’t a day when I walked into the heat and noise that it didn’t feel right.”
He described the work of the plant.
“At our peak, we put out 2,000 megawatts. That’s a lot. That’s electricity for 2 million homes. That’s a lot of lights, laundry machines running, houses heated and cooled. And now these days, a lot of devices being charged,” Blanford continued.
The performance could be called a theatrical documentary, as it was initiated by the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University. The plant closure was coming for years, but also happened suddenly when COVID hit, according to Jeffrey Jacquet, OSU associate professor of rural sociology.
“There were no formal goodbyes. Everyone was sort of on lockdown, and then the plant just sort of stopped operating. And so there was no send-off,” he said.
Communities across the nation are going through transitions like this, closing coal plants, and looking toward what is next for their economies.
“It’s really hard for communities to understand these transitions and the trajectories they’re on,” Jacquet said. “And so hopefully this [the theater piece] is a way for people to reflect and to think about the journey that their community has been on.”
Researchers interviewed some 50 people, including coal miners, power plant workers, elected officials, residents and experts, about the loss of coal and the energy transition in Coshocton, and two other nearby counties.
During that process, they met Anne Cornell, artistic director at the Pomerene Center for the Arts in Coshocton. Using the words, ideas and feelings expressed by people in their interviews, Cornell wrote “Calling Hours,” and, along with Thomas Dugdale, OSU associate professor of theatre, film, and media arts, set up this performance.
“It’s giving a voice to the people that – these were their lives, and that way of life is gone,” Cornell said. “Environmentally, we need to be changing, obviously. And coal got pushed out largely by gas… But, it’s just a very hard transition.”
During the performance, actor Russ Fehrman played an older resident, who remembered all the different plant owners, starting in 1957, when it was opened by the Ohio Power Company. Then the Columbus Southern Ohio Electric Company, and finally, American Electric Power.
“Feels important to name you, neighbor,” Fehrman read, talking directly to the plant. “You were huge. And at the end of the day, you were the life and the blood of the community, or a big piece of it.”
And the plant’s smokestacks meant home to many people.
“You could be up to 30 or 40 miles away at certain points when you saw those stacks. And even my three-year-old great-grandson, when he’d see your stacks, he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s home,’ ” Fehrman continued.
Another eulogy, performed by Kathy Reid, remembered how the Conesville plant adopted a local elementary school, and the resources that brought with it.
“When our teachers and administrators asked for books, they got books. If they wanted to go on field trips, we sent them,” Reid said, in the voice of his character, a school administrator.
She explained that because of support from the plant, the district was able to build a Junior High School in 1980, with cash.
Now the elementary school in Conesville is closing, along with other nearby schools. People here want to send a message to other communities that are currently benefiting from coal’s replacement: natural gas, and fracking.
“If I were going to give advice to the Harrison Centrals of the world, newly flush with fracking dollars, a new state of the art athletic facilities… the best of the best,” Reid’s character said, “I’d say if you have the ability to invest for the future, put your plan in place so you can get back to the coming generations and not end up right back where you used to be.”
There was much gratitude expressed for the good-paying jobs that helped create a stable blue-collar economy here for many decades. But it was even deeper than that for some who worked there, it was their whole lives, as expressed in the eulogy by the Band of Brothers.
“Yes, brotherhood was a big part of it,” said actor Ernie Galajda, reading as a union worker. “I think it’s been the hardest thing for me to transition from. We were all friends, close-knit. We hung together. We raised our kids together. We went to ball games together…spent Christmases together. You know, we did everything.”
In late 2021, much of the plant structure was demolished to make way for a new industrial park on the site. But the meaning of the place carries on for many people.
“If something’s going to happen good out of this, provided people want to see good out of it, I suggest that we have something where we can go and talk,” said actor Scott Thompson, playing the part of another union worker. “Just talk and be together, even if it’s just a few hours. Even if it’s just a few guys. I think for a lot of us, that would go a long way towards helping us move forward.”