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.
After selecting items to use for the exhibit, she scanned and inserted the items into Prezi, the program used for the online exhibit. She focused on ensuring that the pieces accurately depicted the theater’s history. As a result, some of the pieces originally chosen were removed, while new things were added as the research uncovered more aspects of the theater’s history. She states, “working on this exhibit was definitely challenging at times, trying to fill all the gaps in the theater’s history but overall it was an enjoyable experience.” The theater has a unique and vital history to the Clarksburg community. This exhibit demonstrates and documents this role.
The original Robinson Grand Theater was built in 1913. It was constructed by the Clarksburg Amusement Company, which was owned by the Robinson brothers, Claude and Reuben. Reuben Robinson got the idea to open the Robinson Grand after a fire destroyed the town’s opera house, leaving little to no places for people to go for entertainment. Reuben would serve as the first manager of the theater before handing it over to Claude. To keep up with the entertainment industry, the theater underwent several renovations and an expansion. Claude ensured the theater remained at the forefront of technology in Clarksburg by bringing silent films to the theater in 1915 and later “talkies.”
In 1927, the Robinson brothers expanded the theater to add more seating and the interior was redecorated to reflect a 19th century English style Garden. In 1939, a fire broke out on the roof destroying a majority of the stage and seating areas. The theater was restored and reopened on Christmas Eve, 1939. Many saw the Robinson Grand’s reopening as a Christmas gift to Clarksburg. In 1984, the Robinson Grand was bought and turned into the Rose Garden, which continued to culturally enrich the residents of Clarksburg. In 2014, the theater was acquired by the City. Since then, the city has received a series of grants and loans to re-establish the building as the Robinson Grand. The theater will be re-opening in the summer of 2018. The Robinson Grand Theater has long played an important role among the residents of Clarksburg and will continue to in the future.
The online exhibit is posted on Waldomore’s web page at http://clarksburglibrary.info/waldomore/exhibits. Please check it out! Waldomore is an elegant antebellum built in 1842 by local businessman Waldo P. Goff and his wife, Harriet Moore. Today, Waldomore is a local history archive, genealogical research facility, and museum associated with Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library.
Helen in its heyday was home to over 1,000 people.
The Raleigh County coal camp bustled with multiple mines, a company store, a miner’s clubhouse and even a movie theater.
Today, like many of the coal camps in the area, Helen’s population has nearly gone away altogether, along with some of the prominent buildings of the town.
What is left are memories and a group of people who would like to see those memories preserved.
Some of those folks were at the town’s Miners Memorial Tuesday morning to install interpretive signs discussing Helen and the surrounding area’s history.
Six signs in total were installed thanks to a cooperative effort between the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia and a local nonprofit, the Winding Gulf Restoration Organization, commonly called We Grow.
"This has been a long time coming,” said Traci Lewis, president of We Grow.
According to Lewis, the signage was years in the making and she hopes that it will help draw more visitors to the area.
Founded in 2004, We Grow aims at keeping alive the history and heritage of the Winding Gulf Coalfield region and has organized many events and projects, including the installation of the Miner’s Memorial on the site of Helen’s old company store.
Lewis isn’t the only one in her household involved; her husband John L. Lewis Jr. has also been part of We Grow since the beginning.
John Lewis was raised in Helen and the project is very personal for him.
“People don’t understand throughout this nation what a true coal mining community meant,” he said. “This was all family.”
According to John Lewis, families in the town traded each other for individual family specialties, often based on their nationalities, and relied on each other for support.
In the case of Lewis’ own family, which was Greek, it was baking bread.
According to the Helen native, the community involvement and the self-sustaining nature of a coal camp meant a tighter community bond. A fact that he reminisces about.
“I remember the vibrance as a young man,” John Lewis said.
Many of Lewis’s memories are based on his time with his grandfather who is featured on one of the interpretive signs.
“I remember as a child, I couldn’t have been 5 or 6 years old, going to that company store with my grandfather. I can remember it clear as day, an orange creamsicle Popsicle walking across this bridge and eating it with my grandfather,” John Lewis said in the exact location of the memory.
While personal, Lewis also views the region’s coal heritage as a central part of the American story.
“It wasn’t about coal-fired electric,” Lewis said. “It was about steel. Steel was what built this nation. All the big warships. All the tanks.”
Read the rest of this story at the Register Herald website.
A New Deal-era house in Arthurdale is better preserved thanks to a collaborative project between Arthurdale Heritage, Inc., and local AmeriCorps members.
On March 15, AmeriCorps members with the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia worked with the Arthurdale Heritage community to apply UV protection film to the windows of the site’s historic house museum. This UV film will help ensure the longevity of artifacts inside the house, such as documents, photographs, textiles, and furniture, that are sensitive to light and changes in temperature.
The two-story Wagner-style house built in 1935 gives visitors a sense of life at Arthurdale, the nation’s first New Deal Subsistence Homestead Community. Established by the Roosevelt administration in 1933, Arthurdale provided jobs, education, and modern housing for impoverished and unemployed local people. It also served as a laboratory for new educational, industrial, and farming techniques. Arthurdale Heritage, Inc.,was formed in 1985 as a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring and preserving the cultural heritage of historic Arthurdale, located in Preston County.
This hands-on service project brought together a number of AmeriCorps members from West Virginia. It was organized by Pamela Curtin, a Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving with Clio, a nonprofit website and mobile app developed by Marshall University that connects the public to historic and cultural sites.
“Arthurdale’s historic structures and artifacts have unique stories to tell,” says Curtin, who is based in Morgantown. “These stories are not only nationally-significant, but also personally meaningful to the families who lived and continue to live there. This project presented a wonderful opportunity to help preserve this history.”
Curtin coordinated the project with Nora Sutton, an Appalachian Forest Heritage Area AmeriCorps member serving with Arthurdale Heritage as a Museum Associate. “Collaborative projects like this one are so important to Arthurdale Heritage’s mission to preserve the structures and artifacts in our care,” says Sutton. “Applying this protective film to the house windows will help us care for unique textiles and furniture that were made here by original homesteaders. It was great to work with other AmeriCorps members dedicated to preserving the past.”
Both Curtin and Sutton are alumni of West Virginia University’s Public History MA program.
Several other AmeriCorps members volunteered for the project, including Rachel Niswander, Charlotte Riestenberg, Sydney Stapleton, and Jason Wright. Ed Turnley, Vice President of the Board of Directors and member of the Arthurdale Heritage Maintenance Committee, oversaw volunteer tasks, such as cleaning the windows and measuring, cutting, and applying the UV film. Turnley is also an Arthurdale homesteader descendant whose family lived not far from the house the volunteers worked on.
This project contributes to a larger effort by Arthurdale Heritage to preserve its historic structures, which also include community and administrative buildings, barns, a former gas station, and an iron forge.
Supplies for this project, including the professional UV film, were generously funded by the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, the state’s leading grassroots organization dedicated to the support and promotion of historic preservation. In addition to education, outreach, and advocacy, PAWV coordinates an AmeriCorps program that places volunteers with small museums, heritage tourism agencies, and main street groups.
AmeriCorps is a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service, an independent federal agency whose mission is to improve lives, strengthen communities, and foster civic engagement through service and volunteering.
By Rachel Niswander, Preserve WV AmeriCorps serving at Happy Retreat
My name is Rachel Niswander and I am the Preserve WV AmeriCorps member with Happy Retreat. One of my duties was to create an archive for the organization during my year of service. Over the course of ten years, Happy Retreat has accumulated plenty of donations and various documents, letters, and blueprints from a previous owner of the home. In order to sort, document, and archive all these items, I began archiving all these items into the museum archiving software Musarch.
I had previously used Musarch at an internship I had in college. This, along with the fact that Happy Retreat wouldn’t have to pay anything to obtain it or set it up, was the primary reason I chose this archiving software. After I set up Musarch, I began the process of putting all the items that Happy Retreat has acquired into the software. I first began with the McCabe items.
The McCabes owned Happy Retreat in the 1950s and conducted a substantial restoration of the home. We have in our collection blueprints showing the alterations and modifications done to the home as well as correspondence and letters between the McCabes and the architect. The blueprints are incredibly helpful for Happy Retreat to have, as they show every change and alteration that the McCabes did to the home. These include putting in a bathroom, a curved staircase in the west wing of the house, bookshelves in the parlors, and other small alterations throughout the house.
Other items put into the collection are furniture and books. Most of the furniture was either donated by board members or purchased from estates. Happy Retreat's books, however, came from donations. With over 300 history books donated, this took up the bulk of my time. It was a difficult task not to read every single book that I archived!
In my final weeks of service with Happy Retreat, I set up a training session for interested Happy Retreat board members to learn the software and continue the efforts to maintain Happy Retreat’s archive.
PRESERVE WV AMERICORPS MEETS WITH DR. EMORY KEMP - ESTEEMED WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR EMERITUS AND PAWV CO-FOUNDER
Written by Samuel Richardson, Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving at the West Virginia & Regional History Center (Samuel (left) pictured above with Dr. Emory Kemp (right))
It was no surprise that I was going to face some serious challenges in my Year of Service with AmeriCorps. I would be examining and arranging the life’s work of Dr. Emory Kemp, with the goal of making his 300 box collection of blueprints, maps, restoration project reports, structural analysis papers, drawings, correspondence, and much more accessible to patrons of the West Virginia and Regional History Center (WVRHC). Public History, as an academic field, was foreign territory for me. However, as a graduate from the Public Administration program at West Virginia University, I was prepared to tackle any project that served the public’s interest. The transdisciplinary shift was a challenge, but complimented my “Clifton Strength’s Finder” examination which discovered my strength in adaptability.
Transdisciplinary shifts into public history are not unheard of, as according to Dr. Kemp, the structural mechanics PhD, was moved from civil engineering to the History Department at West Virginia University. Despite resistance in his early educational career to studying history as an academic discipline, he choose to remain in engineering. His resistance however, was no match for the orders of West Virginia University President James G. Harlow, who would implore Dr. Kemp lead the newly founded Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology in the Department of History, not engineering.
This was one of the many anecdotes that developed in the Monday afternoon meeting with the retired academic stalwart. Perhaps, in the process of officially retiring, as he promises his newest developing book on the Big Sandy River will be his last.
The materials in the collection were assembled to support projects over Dr. Kemp’s 50 year career. The materials were arranged in a manner with no particular emphasis on a preserved original order. Dr. Kemp stated that he expected the professional expertise of the faculty and staff at the WVRHC to arrange the materials in a fashion that would make his work most accessible to researchers.
Kemp also agreed with the proposed series arrangement, where WVRHC faculty member, Jane LaBarbara, and I hope to divide the collection into three major series, Kemp’s Personal Library, Publications by Kemp, and finally, “Subject Files” or “Research Projects.”
In hopes of understanding which areas of the large collection are appropriate to highlight and exhibit, Dr. Kemp will provide Jane and I with a list of 35 projects that were of noteworthy accomplishment and could be listed as potential engineering breakthroughs. Some of which, were his role in the construction of the Sydney Opera House, and saving the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company potentially millions of dollars, by engineering a way for them to integrate new equipment without completely destroying an older building. Kemp hopes to sit down with LaBarbara and me to discuss each of the projects in further detail.
Preserve WV Stories