Every year in August, the small town of Marissa, Illinois, celebrates the fossil fuel that gave it prosperity: coal. The area around the town, which sits about 40 miles southeast of St. Louis, used to be known for its number of coal mines, and Marissa was considered its capital.
The celebration, known colloquially as Marissa Coal Fest, is a weekend of carnival-like festivities. This year’s, held from August 11 to 13, included a meet-the-miner event, food stands, and a parade featuring the candidates for the coal court who were vying for the titles of Coal Princess, Coal Prince, and the Queen of Coal.
Despite there only being a few actual coal mines left in the area, coal is sacred here. An underground coal mine and power plant still employs a number of people in town and is a source of pride. Prairie State Energy Campus was built during the last wave of coal-fired power plants in the early 2010s, and still employs hundreds of people.
Though Beverly Terveer was not born in Marissa, and lives in nearby St. Libory, she finds the Marissa community welcoming and friendly. She said that folks around town are the type of people to help each other out after a disaster hits. “It’s a very warm, tight-knit community, but it also has had a big decline because of the coal industry,” said Terveer.
Despite the fact that Terveer’s house is fitted with a solar panel, a passion project of her late husband’s, she is skeptical of using farmland for renewable energy.
“I think we still need to keep the electric power grids going with coal,” she said. She attends the coal festival every year and loves to see the town come together.
Scenes from the 2023 Marissa Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold
Beverly Terveer was one of the many locals watching the Coal Festival parade. Virginia Harold
Most people in town are fiercely protective of coal, and Marissa’s history with commercial coal mining stretches back to the 1850s. Generations of Marissa residents were employed by coal companies — often mom-and-pop operations, unlike the large corporations that dominate the fossil fuel energy sector today.
For resident Paul Weilmuenster, who was watching the parade from the front porch of his home on Main Street, becoming a coal miner was a no-brainer.
He started young, at 20, following the career path of his father, who was also a miner. He relished carrying on the tradition. Now, though, he sees how the decline of the industry has meant less investment in the town, a place he’s lived his whole life.
“Who wants to build a new home, a $300,000 to $400,000 home in Marissa?” said Weilmuenster.
Still, he’s hoping Prairie State can stay open as long as possible to keep employing local people.
“So that could be another [400 to 500] people in Marissa losing their jobs — and then what are they going to do?”
A man from the Banana Bike Brigade rides a bicycle with an attached paper-mache lion’s head during the parade. Virginia Harold
Paul Weilmuenster, a former coal miner, watches the parade from his porch with Roy Dean Dickey, a Marissa Village board trustee. Virginia Harold
Although the power plant has served as a huge economic driver for the town, not every Marissa resident has a positive experience with coal. Maria Cathcart is the daughter of a coal miner, but she said that climate change means coal needs to be phased out to prevent further warming from fossil fuel emissions.
“I see how we’re cutting back on coal, so it is cutting back on, kind of, a tradition, but it needs to be done,” Cathcart said. “We’re tearing apart our world. And we need to stop, because it’s going to get to a point where it’s going to be irreversible.”
The personal impact of coal on miners’ families was real for her. She remembers her father fondly, but also knows that the career he committed his life to contributed to his death from black lung.
“He actually died in my arms, so it really hurt me,” she said. “I was right there when he died.”
Still, she comes every year to the coal festival with her mother, Carmen. Not doing so is out of the question, even though Cathcart’s relationship to coal and the town itself remains complicated. Life in Marissa revolves around the event, and Cathcart cheered in the crowd when the parade started, alongside everyone else.
Locals set up chairs to watch the parade. Virginia Harold
Coal Queen candidates participate in the parade. Later, they will compete for the title. Virginia Harold
The Coal Festival includes food, rides, and games as part of the weekend-long celebration. And, as the carnival roars in the background and the sun begins to set, the festivities culminate in the annual crowning of a Coal Prince, Coal Princess, and Coal Queen.
Scenes from the carnival grounds. Virginia Harold
MacKenzie Jetton, a local high school graduate, was named 2023 Coal Queen. Virginia Harold
Photography by Virginia Harold