The tour took us to a converted church near the site being used by the Friends of Blair Mountain, which is fighting to have the battlefield protected as an historic monument.

Brandon Nida, an archaeologist working with the preservation group, said recent discoveries are challenging many of the previous assumptions about the course of the battle.

"There's 30 to 40 years of archaeological research that can be done here," he told the group.

One of the emotional moments came when we heard from a frail-looking Jimmy Weakley of nearby Pigeon Roost Hollow, a 71-year-old retired miner who has been fighting mountaintop removal for more than a decade.

"It's about the future for our kids, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren," he said. "It's hard to do — fighting the coal company."

From Blair Mountain the tour took us to Matewan, in the heart of Hatfield-and-McCoy country in the far southwest region of the state.

It was there on May 19, 1920, that town Police Chief Sid Hatfield, a union sympathizer, and local miners squared off against a group of Baldwin-Felts strikebreakers who had come to town to evict miners and their families from company-owned housing.

Who fired the first shot is unknown, but by the time the firing stopped, 10 people lay dead — including seven Baldwin-Felts detectives and the town's pro-union mayor, C.C. Testerman.

The tour took us through a hardscrabble town where many of the buildings from which miners fired still stand and where bullet holes can still be seen in the brick. At the local United Mine Workers hall, which remains open though the union has been severely weakened in recent years, the Matewan Massacre Drama Team in period dress presented a re-enactment of the town's fateful day.

The players are serious about preserving history. Some, like carpenter Chuck Scott, have done extensive research into the events in Matewan and the stories behind their characters.

"We try to get it just as close to the truth as we can," said Scott, who plays Baldwin-Felts agent Lee Felts, who died along with his brother Albert that day.

Though he grew up in Mingo and suspects his grandfather might have been involved on the union side that day, Scott said he never heard about the events of that day until the movie came out. He said it was something people in town just didn't talk about.

"It's a story that needs to be told because this type of stuff is still going on," said Scott, who sees parallels between what happened in Matewan and the uprisings this year in Egypt and Yemen. "This story will just get ahold of you and shake you to your core."

The next chapter of the story played out at the tour's stop the next morning in Welch, W.Va., where Hatfield was summoned to appear for trial in the company stronghold of McDowell County on charges not related to the Matewan Massacre. On Aug. 1, 1921, he and his friend Ed Chambers were gunned down by Baldwin-Felts agents as they climbed the steep steps to the ornate 1894 Romanesque Revival courthouse.

Though the event was the most dramatic in the history of Welch, the historical marker outside the courthouse makes no mention of the assassination, which helped spark the march on Blair Mountain.

McDowell County Judge Rudolph J. "Rick" Murinsky said his grandmother was a witness to the killings.

"All she ever would say is they killed those people right in front of their wives," he said.

The meeting with Murinsky was one of the unscheduled encounters with West Virginians that were among the highlights of the trip. Time and time again, people who weren't on the program added their insights to the state's history.

Estepp said one of the prime motivations for launching the tours is to encourage people to visit the often-overlooked southern part of the state.

Another highlight of the trip was the countryside itself — more rugged than the parts of Appalachia closer to Baltimore and in many ways more interesting. Scenes of exquisite natural beauty are interspersed with scenes of environmental degradation and economic abandonment. Especially striking was the sheer number of closed-down public schools going to ruin.