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Published: Sunday, March 13, 1994
Page: P1C
Byline: Robert J. Byers

CARETTA _ Years ago, McDowell County banked all its time and energy on coal and lost - lost heavily. A drive down winding U.S. 52 from the Mercer County line to Welch shows the extent.

In towns like Maybeury, Northfork and Keystone, crumbled hillside houses bleed long streaks of trash down the slopes and into the creeks, vacant company stores fall to ruin, and youths stand framed in burned-out storefronts.

Somewhere in this slanted land is the road to recovery. But some roads weave up narrow hollows, following dangerously close to the creeks, some come to a dead end at the railroad tracks, and others, seeing no alternative, climb directly over the mountains.

A long time coming Franki Patton Rutherford slipped off her white flats, the soles ringed with black McDowell County mud.

"Sorry about the shoes thing, but I just waxed the floor," a contractor explained, glancing down at his own stocking feet.

"Oh, I don't care," Rutherford said, and took off across the shining tile, a look of excitement on her face.

"This is where it's all gonna happen," she yelled. "Come Monday, March 14, this thing goes on line." It would be hard to find someone more excited about a new water treatment plant.

The McDowell County Public Service District's new treatment plant at Coalwood smells of fresh paint. On one counter, clean beakers and test tubes are stacked up like the first day of chemistry class.

Rutherford goes smiling from gadget to gadget, gauge to gauge "Looks a little better than the one we got now, doesn't it?" she asked.

From the outside, the current water plant at nearby Caretta resembles a small outdoor bathroom. On the inside, it's a bit worse.

Rusted, leaking pipes and valves spew water across the concrete walls, forming white mineral deposits.

Rutherford, 44, has been chairwoman of the McDowell County PSD board of directors since it began in March 1990. She was appointed by the County Commission.

She had been outspoken about the water problems in her native county. In Caretta, her hometown, and Coalwood, a boil-water advisory has been in effect for five years.

On Monday, Rutherford and the PSD will see years of work put into action when the new water systems kick on. In the past four years, they managed to get millions of dollars in grants and loans for the project.

Clean water is foreign to much of McDowell County. Rutherford and others believe it is another step toward the rescue of their homeland.

The two new treatment systems will serve about 400 customers.

Rutherford said the McDowell PSD has a long way to go before all of the county is provided with clean drinking water, but the struggle is well under way.

New vs. old When the PSD was formed in 1990, many residents saw it as part of a growing trend toward the progressive in McDowell County.

While to many, "progressive" and "McDowell County" sound like polar opposites, an emerging group of county leaders, weary of the old ways, want to work to take their county into the 21st century.

Addie Davis is one of those people.

In 1989, Davis became director of the county Economic Development Authority, an agency loosely affiliated with the County Commission.

"When this agency was set up, it was basically set up to fail," Davis said. "Our only source of income was to be from the sale of industrial bonds, and there wasn't any business coming in." Davis took the agency on another course. She rounded up grant funding, much the same way Rutherford did at the PSD, and things started happening. A sewing factory opened in Bradshaw, the first certified day-care center opened in the county, training and GED programs were developed.

"Just today, a member of our board said the thinking in McDowell County has changed," Davis said. "He said we are progressive and looking to the future, and he doesn't think we will allow some of the things that happened in the past to happen to us again. I just love to hear that kind of talk." Davis was born and raised in southern McDowell County. She still lives on Bradshaw Mountain. Rutherford lives in Caretta, just a few miles from her birthplace in War.

"I tried to leave, and I stayed away for 12 years, but I just love this old place," Rutherford said. "Those of us who have decided to remain hereknow we have to make this a better place for our children. My daughter's eight years old. What if she were 18?

What could she do? Get pregnant and go on welfare? That's no kind of life for a child." Davis said Rutherford has put her life on the line for the county. As chairwoman of the PSD, she has the unpleasant job of bill collecting. She has had her life threatened and her daughter has been beaten by the children of those being forced to pay their water bills.

"A guy brought a concealed weapon into one of our board meetings," Rutherford recalled. "It's scary, but nobody said it was going to be easy." Rutherford has made a few enemies along the way, and she believes the conservative part of the county continues to work to keep its toehold.

"The conservative Democrats and the progressive Democrats is the closest we've ever come to a two-party system down here," she said.

Davis attests that there are those who like to stay with the status quo.

"Just because I have a vision does not mean everybody's going to buy into it," Davis said. "But there's more and more people saying we can't hang on to the same things we did during the coal boom. We need to all get on the same bandwagon." The rocky road The McDowell County Commission chambers were small and smoke-filled Wednesday.

Commissioner Mike Cortellesi took a drag from his cigarette and addressed Rutherford. "I'm very aware you've worked hard, but there was a problem presented to this commission," he said.

A group of about 20 of Rutherford's "progressive" supporters grumbled at Cortellesi's statement.

She had come before the commission Wednesday to find out what was going on with her PSD post.

During the preceding week, the commission had removed her from the post without notification, an apparent violation of state law. It called another meeting and rescinded its order.

At Wednesday's meeting, the question of whether she should continue to serve was forwarded to McDowell Circuit Court.

"In 1990, when the commission appointed me, Bobby Lewis was commission president and he said there would be no politics involved," Rutherford said. "Now Bobby is gone, and this all starts fresh." Lewis was recently appointed as state Farm Administration director.

Shortly before his appointment, Rutherford moved three miles away from her Caretta home and joined her new husband in Warriormine.

She telephoned the state Public Service Commission to see if it would affect her service to the PSD, because Warriormine is just outside the PSD district.

"They said you have to live in the district to serve on the board, but since I was keeping my home in Caretta and paying the water bill there, it wouldn't be a problem," Rutherford said.

Apparently it was a problem. The commission, now including Gordon Lambert, Lewis' replacement, sought Rutherford's removal from the board.

"It's not up to us to make those decisions," Cortellesi said.

"It's now up to the circuit judge." Rutherford recalled that Cortellesi a few years before said water service should be in the hands of private entities, not the county.

Lambert would not allow any of Rutherford's entourage to speak because they had not signed up ahead of time. They left angry.

Outside on the sloping Welch street, Rutherford was visibly angry and she smoked her own cigarette.

"It's the same old thing," she said. "It never stops around here. If moving a few miles away was a problem, why couldn't someone have told me when I asked about it?" It remains to be seen whether Rutherford will be allowed to continue to work with the water system she helped to develop.

Days before the meeting, she moved back to Caretta.

Hours before the meeting, she had described how nice it was up on the mountain at Warriormine where her husband lives.

"You're back out of the way of everything. No noise, no coal trucks," she smiled. "And Carl, my husband, sits out on the porch and plays his music. It's just real nice." The road from Welch back to Caretta is winding and climbs directly over the mountain.

"I never minded these mountains," she said.

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