Hidden in the southern hills of West Virginia, Hinton sports what most American towns can only dream of: a train station. Built as a terminal of the C&O railroad, the history of Hinton hinged on this connection. The railroad brought industry to the town, with warehouses like the New River Grocery Co. lining Hinton’s downtown to process wares from across the country. Once a center of business, the building has suffered from decades of neglect, but no longer! Thanks in part to a $108,000 Saving Historic Places Grant from the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia, the New River Grocery Co. building will once again be a center of activity in Hinton.
Situated close to the New River, the three-story brick warehouse, also known as the Hardwoods Building, contributes to the Hinton Historic District, a listed area on the National Register of Historic Places. The warehouse and the district were vital to the system of railroad freight that made Hinton a boomtown in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “The City of Hinton would not exist without our railroad history,” says Charles Saunders, President of the Summers County Commission. It’s no coincidence that Hinton is also home to the Hinton Railroad Museum.
As Hinton evolved, so did the New River Grocery Co. building, transforming from a railroad warehouse to a woodworking shop, and even housing a skating rink at one time. Although popular with the locals, the building would eventually fall into disuse and disrepair. In August 2021, the vacant building suffered a ceiling collapse. Yet the town of Hinton has not given up. After a structural analysis funded by the WV Community Development Hub, plans are in motion to restore the building to community use.
PAWV’s Saving Historic Places Grant will fund repair work on the roof and lead the way to resurrecting the building. Further funding from both the local government and other sources will see the building first used as an event space and multipurpose area for local nonprofits and volunteer organizations. There is also an opportunity to relocate the Railroad History Museum to the building. Long-term plans include the development of a restaurant or brewery on the first floor with apartments on the 3rd floor with access to a rooftop patio. As a former warehouse, the interior space is so large that it can accommodate all kinds of possibilities.
While industrial rail usage in the area may be gone, Hinton isn’t going anywhere. And by the way, you can still take a train to Hinton! The local train station is still active, with Amtrak’s Cardinal route running from Chicago to New York right through Hinton.
The New Deal lives on in West Virginia! Just southeast of Morgantown, Arthurdale was the nation’s first New Deal community, influenced personally by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as a model subsistence community. Visitors from across the country traveled to study the community, taking information back to their own communities. Aside from the homesteads, the key feature of the planned community was its school. Led by Elsie Clapp in the mid-1930’s, Arthurdale’s school system showed how progressive education could shape and be shaped by the local community with a focus on student needs. Today, the history of this progressive education and the New Deal are preserved by Arthurdale Heritage, a group dedicated to maintaining the historic district and recipient of a Saving Historic Places Grant from the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia.
Elsie Clapp and Progressive Education
Elsie Clapp, a native of New York, brought the ideals of progressive education to Arthurdale. For progressives like Clapp as well as her mentor John Dewey, the subjects taught in public schools needed to reflect the desires of the community. Schools were not simply institutions that governments filled with books and furniture–they were vessels of the future to prepare students for practical careers. Contemporary public education, according to the progressives, was too focused on teaching the subjects that the elite few decided were important: typically, things like classic literature, mathematics, and philosophy. These subjects were commonly rooted in preparation for higher education, a path that was not inclusive of all students.
Impressed by Clapp’s resume and ideals, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt personally selected Clapp as principal of the Arthurdale school. Clapp previously served as a key member of the National Committee on Rural Education for the Progressive Education Association (PEA) from 1926-1936 and as chairman from 1933-1934. Roosevelt developed Arthurdale as a personal project within the Subsistence Homestead Division, an agency of the New Deal. Clapp became an official employee of Arthurdale on July 7, 1934.
The Battle for Progressive Education in Rural Appalachia
When Clapp first arrived at Arthurdale, she was given a mere skeleton of a school. There were no furniture, books, teaching tools, or amenities. During the first year on the job, Arthurdale’s teachers had to limp by with what supplies they could scrape together themselves. Members of the community were more than willing to pitch in and help–lending desks, tables, even going so far as to make chairs. When supplies finally arrived, Clapp and her staff could finally begin their teaching efforts in earnest.
Teachers in and out of state came to observe and visit the classes of the community school. Teacher diaries reveal that some weeks the school had as many as 200 visitors. School staff arranged and labeled the work up in the classrooms to make it easier for the guests to understand what projects were happening at the school in a way that caused the least intrusion to the students. It seems that a big part of the community school’s role was to be an exhibition school–educating not only children but the world at large.
Due to diminishing funding and support, Clapp’s time at Arthurdale ended in 1936, just two years after her arrival. During her time at the Arthurdale community school, Clapp successfully tested her beliefs that schools should be democratic institutions. She used progressive curriculum to teach students the value of community involvement, hard work, and perseverance. When she left, so too did her progressive ideas and teachings. The school struggled to maintain its center as a progressive school with the absence of Clapp and her staff. Within a few years of their departure the school curriculum transitioned from practical classes like cheese making, surveying, folk songs, and practical craft application to a more traditional curriculum in line with other Preston County schools.
The Schools Today
The school continued on for many years, providing traditional education to the children who remained in the Arthurdale community. Eventually the building began to feel the wear and tear of time, having been exposed to both the harshness of Preston County’s seasons and the rambunctiousness of child’s play for several decades. Eventually the county decided to consolidate schools, shuttering the Arthurdale community school.
Today, the Arthurdale school buildings stand as empty monuments to a dream of a more progressive America. The properties are owned by the Arthurdale Heritage Inc. (AHI), a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of the nation’s first New Deal community. The group was organized in 1985 by a collective of community members and homestead descendants who came together to save some of Arthurdale’s community buildings from demolition. Today, the nonprofit has saved a total of 9 structures including Center Hall, the Administration Building, the blacksmith’s forge, the Esso gas station, and two homestead houses.
The current vision for the Arthurdale school’s historic school buildings is rehabilitation for community use. AHI and PAWV have teamed up to preserve the high school and convert it into a historic preservation training center. Darlene Bolyard, Executive Director of AHI, believes the other two schools should serve the community. Today, the area desperately needs affordable daycare and senior care facilities. Bolyard said that these buildings don’t need to stand as relics, but can instead be repurposed to suit the needs of the community. The idea of giving these buildings back to the community fits perfectly with the original spirit of the progressive founders of Arthurdale.
To learn more about Elsie Ripley Clapp and the Arthurdale Schools, we recommend Clapp’s book Community Schools in Action (published in 1939) as well as Sam Stack’s book The Arthurdale Community School (published in 2016).