Written by Charlie Hughes
Sometimes a site’s success brings with it new challenges. The Pocahontas County Opera House will soon be 20 years out from its original restoration. The Opera House was built in 1910 by J. G. Tilton. The original glory days of this grand facility were short lived. Mr. Tilton ran into financial trouble and the building was sold in 1914. Over the years, it was variously used for church services, as a gymnasium, a roller skating rink, for car sales, and finally for many years as lumber storage. After a huge community effort and a seven year process the rehabilitation of the building from a dilapidated warehouse to its original glory was completed in 1998.
Today the Opera House is Pocahontas County’s preeminent performing arts center, part of the West Virginia Historic Theatre Trail, listed on the historic register, and brings more than two dozen performances to its stage each year, ranging from bluegrass to jazz, folk to world, to musical theater, and everything in between. Additionally, the site brings in funding as a rental for weddings and community events. The facility continues to grow in its mission! This year the Opera House Foundation began kids and teens after-school theater clubs and held its first Kids Theater Camp in July. The extensive use of this historic space has made it vital and relevant to the community. But it sure leads to a lot of ware and tare!
Recently, I looked up at a lighting fixture and noticed a giant green paper clip bent around its decorative tip, remnant of some renter’s decoration rigging. As I looked more closely I found fishing wire, and every sort of banned tape forgotten along pillars, molding, and bead board edges.
18 seasons of touring musical and theatrical groups have signed the walls of the dressing room, a wonderful tribute to the art that has happened within our walls. Unfortunately, more than a few other names have crept in over the years.
The roller shades hung on the 32 windows no longer all roll up. Scuffs on the stain have marred the apron of the stage and ware has left the stage and steps to the balcony with patches of unsealed spongy wood.
Additionally, because the community has come to associate music and theater with this space, donations of everything from pianos to fur coats come to us and our balcony over flows with boxes of items people thought might be useful to the space.
As I pull down tape and tacs, paint away graffiti, and mothball donated costumes of every type, I am thankful for the problems my site grapples with. After a year of service with the Opera House I have come to see how important this space is to the people. Their thoughtlessness in removing décor or thoughtfulness in donating items happens because they think of the space as theirs. So many historic structures won’t be saved and renovated, many more won’t be revitalized. Having completed a list of tlc projects and presented them to the board, I’ve decided to sign on for another year of service here at the Opera House. I am looking forward to reorganizing, touching up paint and stain, and replacing the shades, precisely because this is a place that will continue to be used until it is worn.
In May 2018, Elizabeth Herrick, the PAWV AmeriCorps member serving with WV National History Day, organized a clean-up project at the Easton Roller Mill, a National Register of Historic Places site on the outskirts of Morgantown. From May through September on the third Sunday of each month, this well preserved two and half story tall Gothic revival structure opens its 150 year old doors to guided tours for visitors of near and far. The mill exists as a hidden gem of local history that remains in the memory of many and represents a significant portion of the area’s heritage.
The mill was founded by entrepreneur Henry Koontz and built by carpenter Henry Mack and the full project was completed around 1967. The mill was a unique structure that ran on steam powered by West Virginia coal, rather than the usual water wheel system. Mr. Koontz operated the mill for about a decade with two or three sets of millstones using the traditional stone-grinding techniques. By the turn of the century, the current owner Mr. Morris installed the hot new milling technology of roller mills. These machines were much more efficient and produced more product faster than the grist millstones. This business prosperity lasted until the years of the Great Depression, when the doors were closed. After the final owner’s death, the mill became the property of Estella Ley Pickenpaugh. Her and her husband preserved the site to the best of their abilities for many years, but willed it to the Monongalia County Historical Society in 1980 for continued efforts. Many other vital community members are responsible for the preservation of the mill and the ability for the current holders to achieve their goals for the site. The mill has many goals: preservation of the site and machinery, making at least some of the machinery operative for demonstrations through air pressure fuel, developing interpretive materials on the mill, and helping promote greater understanding and appreciation of the mill and milling heritage in the region.
On the Saturday before the advent of the annual summer tour season, community volunteers and AmeriCorps members met at the site with cleaning implements in hand and filled with motivation. They took time to extensively sweep all the wooden floors, in-between machinery, and in corners that had been gathering dust for several months. The volunteers also worked diligently to dust the display case that houses the Monongalia County Historical Society’s publications, cabinets that store supplies of other local history books for sale, and the mill’s collection of era relevant farming tools. Getting their hands a little dirty by vacuuming up all the dust and dirt collected, they successfully got the mill in shape for visitors!
This clean-up project served the greater Monongalia county area and the county’s Historical Society. The success of this project was an invaluable help to the mill’s seasonal tour guides and the mill’s typical community volunteers who are normally tasked with the large clean-up project. Dick Walters, Monongalia County Historical Society Treasurer, was thankful for the project’s organization and the amount of volunteers that participated. Roger Ruckle, the master of the mill’s machinery, was also truly grateful that the project was implemented. “It is wonderful to see the younger generation involved in preserving historic places, especially the mill. It needs a people to care about it and this project was an incredible help. I hope that more community events like this can be organized in the future.”
By Brooke Thomson
The Dunbar School has a lot of history and meaning to the city of Fairmont. During my service, I chose to help clean up and paint the first level hallway of the school. The Dunbar School opened in 1929 and was the only school for black children in Fairmont, WV and the only African-American high school in Marion County. It was home to grades one through twelve. The Dunbar School officially closed in 1955 due to the federally mandated end of segregated public education. The school was then put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. I luckily had the help of some great volunteers to complete this project including: Nikki Lewis, Sandra Scaffidi, John Pitman, Robin Gomez, and Houston Richardson.
This building has some great potential and just needs a little love and paint. Hopefully one day this building will serve the community of Fairmont just like it did back in the day. Community member, John Pittman stated “I’m so thankful for the efforts of PAWV AmeriCorps and volunteers who, through their efforts, showed how important this structure is. Not only are we preserving a significant building, but we are creating a community gathering space for a new generation”. As John stated this building would be a great place for a new generation to use, whether it be used for the school system, sports, or child care. Through PAWV AmeriCorps and the community members of Fairmont, this goal can be accomplished.
This is just one foot in the right direction of saving this building. With the help of the city, county, and volunteers the hope is for this building to be restored and put back to use by Marion County community members.
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