Keith Gibson, owner of Hatfield and McCoy Airboat Tours
by Melissa Gillespie & Tyler Clendenin
A giant propeller-powered airboat skimming in as little as two inches of water isn’t the first adventure that comes to mind for prospective visitors to Matewan, West Virginia. But for Keith Gibson, owner and operator of the Hatfield McCoy Airboat Tours, it’s a regular day for him and his passengers, speeding between West Virginia and Kentucky state lines on the Tug Fork River.
A West Virginia native, Gibson has lived along the Tug River in Matewan his entire life. It’s where he has planted his roots and started his family; it’s the only home he’s ever known. He’s proud of the history and passionate about his community.
“It’s just home. It’s all I know, it’s home. I always wanted to be here and stay here. Everybody knows everybody. There is just no place like home,” Gibson says when describing what keeps him in Matewan. “I would like to be able to have my kids stay here and live here.”
After ending his career as an on-surface equipment operator in the coal industry, Gibson began his airboat tours in 2013. He says he wanted a way to attract more visitors to Matewan to showcase the area’s rich history.
“The most enjoyable thing for me is to get to meet all of these new people. I’ve actually made some pretty good friends from it,” he says.
His 550-horsepower supercharged engine and custom-made, 6-passenger Diamond Back airboat is not just for gliding up and down the river, past blue heron, king fishers and paw paw trees. It’s also giving back to the community.
In June 2013, grants from Turn This Town Around, the National Coal Heritage and the Mingo County Commission helped Gibson and a group of fellow impassioned community members begin cleaning up the Tug River. Within the past two years, garbage, debris and nearly 2,000 tires have been removed from the river with the help of Gibson and his airboat.
Gibson’s riverfront property sits just 100 yards from the water’s edge. And the success of his business relies on the Tug. He wants the river and the community to thrive. Gibson believes that Matewan has yet to reach its full potential, and he is willing put in the work to ensure its success.
Gibson also works with the Big Sandy River Basin Coalition to schedule cleanups annually around the area. He is a part of the King Coal Fest and regularly volunteers in the community. Living outside of city limits, Gibson isn’t eligible for election to the Matewan Town Council, but he does his part through donating hours, equipment and funds to the community.
Most recently, Gibson has stepped forward as a community leader join the Community Branding Committee. He and four other community members are working closely with a student branding team from West Virginia University. The team will create a branding plan with goals to increase tourism and potentially stimulate economic development in the area in the long term.
“Matewan has a lot of great people,” Gibson says. “They are real friendly to the tourists. Most tourists coming from big cities, they look at these people like they’re crazy, saying ‘hi’ as they walk down the road. I guess they feel just as much a fish out of water as I do when I go to New York City.”
Gibson never knew that a hobby would one day become a way for him to give back to the community and contribute to the town’s economic growth.
“I don’t get too much into sports,” says Gibson. “I like horsepower. I love the river. I love the airboat and I want to see the river cleaned up. It could be better.”
About 5 miles down the river from where the airboat tours begin, Gibson owns property that he has turned into a farm. There’s a small pond and a barn with goats, horses, ducks and other farm animals. He’s considered adding a petting zoo attraction to his airboat tours. By adding another layer to the tours, he hopes to attract more people, especially families with small children.
“At the end of the day, I would just like to see Matewan be successful and have viable businesses in it,” Gibson says. “In the end, I just want to do anything and everything I can do to help.”