When Melcenia Fields failed to retrieve her groceries, railroad workers knew something was wrong.
Fields, inexplicably to all but herself, lived in the ruins of Beury, WV, one of dozens of company towns in the New River Gorge that residents completely abandoned when the adjacent coal seams were mined out. Fields lived there alone for decades, miles from another soul, without power or plumbing, as Beury (pronounced “berry”) literally crumbled around her.
Melcenia Fields. Collection of George Bragg.
There’s little indication exactly when Fields moved in; she was certainly there by the mid-1960s, and might have come a decade or more before that, but the town had long since been given back to nature by the time she took up residence.
No one’s sure why Fields chose this reclusive lifestyle, only that she fiercely protected this self-imposed isolation. She refused contact with all but a trusted few locals, and would hurl rocks, not to mention insults (telling one bearded man he looked like the “missing link”), at hikers passing by.
Whatever her motivation, Fields was unabashedly odd. She seemed more comfortable with animals than people. Liz Watson, who lived in Thurmond in the 1970s, remembers hiking by Beury with a couple pack mules, and Fields taking special interest in the beasts—one of only a couple times Watson had direct contact with the hermit. Another local remembers Fields carting around a dead turtle in a bucket, upset, she said, because the creature was one of her children.
Top: Beury Company Store, where fields lived as the town crumbled around her. Bottom: Church in Beury. Collection of George Bragg.
Fields decorated the trees that grew among Beury’s disintegrating structures with dangling ornaments—strings of empty tin cans and shiny packages. She spent much of her time in Beury’s company store, a grand stone building that once served the town’s 500 residents. As different sections of the building’s roof collapsed, Fields moved from room to room, putting up frozen blankets as windbreaks to keep out frigid winters.
Fields was literate (in fact she had magnificent penmanship) and had enough wits about her to collect food stamps. She kept abreast of local news and music with a transistor radio and would regularly hike along the railroad tracks to Thurmond and back—seven miles total—when she needed supplies, wrapping her groceries in a bandana, preferring to walk even when engineers offered her a lift on the train.
Many came to regard Fields with affection and even built her a shack along the railroad tracks when the company store became unlivable. Nearing her 70th birthday Fields became too frail to make the trip to Thurmond, so railroad personnel delivered groceries and saw that coal “fell” off a car in front of Beury. In 1982, however, those supplies went unclaimed and a train crew found her body; Melcenia Fields faded into history like the town she called home for so long.
To read more about Beury and dozens of other similar communities, check out New River Gorge by J. Scott Legg and the Fayette County Chamber of Commerce.
Two views of Beury, WV. Collection of George Bragg.
L: Joseph Beury, founder of Beury, WV. R: Note written by Melcenia Fields. Collection of George Bragg.
Mrs. M.C. Fields touris
This cabin Here sold|
September 21 1967.
Rats + Bugs are destroyed
here the health [illegible]
Please be careful with Fire
Thank you Mrs. M. C. Fields
Borned at Dimmock, W. Va.
on September 7th, 1912
Mixed Dog [illegible]
Members its time For
Fix ops 1975
Melcenia Fields’s quiet grave, fittingly enough beside railroad tracks, in Ingram Branch, WV.
Modern-day Thurmond, WV. Fields walked the three miles from Beury to Thurmond for groceries. Today Thurmond has fewer than ten residents, though the National Park Service maintains the old buildings and train depot.