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Himlerville, Kentucky

The tiny town of Beauty, Kentucky, located near the West Virginia border, was once a unique and successful coal mining community called Himlerville.

The town’s founder, Martin Himler, immigrated from Hungary to the U.S. in 1907. He arrived with no savings or resources, but found work in the coal mines.

“He saw the way that coal miners were abused,” says Cathy Cassady Corbin, editor of The Making of an American. “They were totally underpaid. People thought because [the miners] were immigrants, the mine operators should get away with this underpayment.”

Himler saw a better way. In 1919, he set out to run his own coal company and opened a mine in Martin County, bringing with him hundreds of Hungarian immigrants.

“Himlerville was unique because it was, as far as I can tell, the only cooperative coal mining town in the world,” says Doug Cantrell, Professor, Elizabethtown Community & Technical College. “The workers owned stock in the company. They were not only ordinary miners, they were stockholders and they got paid dividends on top of wages.”

The miners owned the mine and made up the community of Himlerville, which eventually had its own school and post office along with businesses including a bakery and an ice cream parlor. Himler’s newspaper, Magyar Bányászlap (Hungarian Mining Journal) was published out of an office in town.

Though the town celebrated the Hungarian heritage of its residents, Himler was proud of his adopted country, and insisted that all of the miners and stockholders of Himlerville Coal Company become American citizens. He hosted an annual Fourth of July celebration out of his stunning home in Himlerville.

“The home became a real gathering place for miners,” says Corbin. “Mr. Himler felt his home was not just his home, it was their home too.”

By the mid-1920s, the coal boom had cooled and the mine wasn’t productive enough to be profitable. The company filed for bankruptcy. But it was an act of nature that brought a swift end to the Himlerville town and coal company.

“That flood came on June 28, 1928, and it washed away most of Himlerville,” says Corbin. “Houses just floated down Buck Creek. Mr. Himmler said, ‘I believe this is a sign from God himself, that Himlerville can no longer be.’”

The company went bankrupt and the settlement was renamed Beauty. Many of the Hungarian immigrants left for other coal mining towns in the region, or searched for better opportunities in the cities. But many families stayed and rebuilt new lives in Martin County. As for Himler, he left town with just four dollars in his pocket.

“Himler left Himlerville and went to Columbus, Ohio, where he took the newspaper Magyar Bányászlap and published it in Ohio,” says Cantrell.

Later, he served in the U.S. military.

“In WWII, Col. Martin Himler was asked by the office of strategic services, which is now the Central Intelligence Agency, to be the interrogator of the Nazi war criminals in Hungary and Austria,” says Corbin.

Himler’s great mansion remains on the hill overlooking Beauty, but it has fallen into disrepair. Members of the Martin County Historical Society are working to restore the house to its former glory. While some components are beyond repair, the foundation and the brickwork are said to be solid. Volunteer groups are already working to clean up the grounds.

Once completed under the current plan, the Himler House would become a center for Kentucky coal mining history and Hungarian culture in Appalachia.

This segment is part of Kentucky Life episode #2009, which originally aired on February 7, 2015. Watch the full episode.