I knew his father before I knew Joe.
Joe DePollo was the son of John DePollo, who owned DePollo’s Store in Thomas, W.Va. The store was started by John’s parents, first-generation Italian immigrants, who eventually built the three-story brick building on Front Street in 1915. They operated a general store that supplied dry goods and fresh food to the families of the town’s coal miners and railroaders.
My maternal grandfather, Clayton Watring, was among the latter class of workers. Whenever my parents went back home to Thomas, I tagged along in his 1957 turquoise-and-white Chevy as he fulfilled the grocery list prepared by my grandmother, Violet. DePollo’s was usually one of the stops.
Thirty years later, in the summer of 1993, I wandered into DePollo’s store to find its iconic owner and the son of its founders still taking care of business at the age of 88. That day I interviewed and photographed John and Jim Cooper, his haberdashery-owner friend down the street, and later wrote a story and sold it to Goldenseal, the West Virginia Department of Culture and History magazine. It was my second piece for the magazine and set me on a course to write more than 100 stories for the publication, for which I still freelance. It is the most gratifying work I do, and my memories of travels in the state and the acquaintances I’ve made are precious to me.
John DePollo died in June 1994, and in keeping with his wishes, the family sold the building to provide for the care of his widow, Elsie. John Bright eventually purchased the old store and in 2002 established there the Purple Fiddle, another iconic Tucker County business, which I also wrote about for Goldenseal.
Back in 2015, the Purple Fiddle hosted a revival of what had been a longstanding tradition for John DePollo: a concert of polka music performed by his twin sons, Joe and John, on the occasion of his birthday. For those memorable birthday parties, the store closed for business, a sign announcing the party and free beer went in the window, and the twins played The Tucker County Polka and dozens of other zippy tunes to their father’s honor and delight . It’s said that Joe Sr. danced all the polkas, even when he was in his late 80s, and often recruited a a few lady guests to join him on the wooden floor.
Joe told me that his father’s love of this music and the accordion was behind the gifts of two accordions for his sons back in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Joe and John took lessons for a couple of years, but after their teacher was drafted into the army, the boys turned to recorded music and attending dances to complete their education. Thus, they never learned to read music, but they amassed a repertoire of a hundred songs or so, including square dances, which they performed at wedding receptions, parties, family gatherings and Bill Slaughbaugh’s Horse Shoe Run Tavern. Teamed with other Elkins-area musicians, the twins played as the Polka Dots and Godfathers.
In July 2018 I traveled to the Purple Fiddle for the revival of what had become another tradition involving the DePollo family: An annual reunion that included a concert featuring Joe and John on the Fiddle’s stage. This event got its start in 2015 and roughly coincided with the late John DePollo’s birthday.
I interviewed Joe at his home and attended the concert, filmed it and share the story online. The reunion will be a future Goldenseal Back Roads story, the quarterly column I write for the magazine.
Joe and John did not perform at the Purple Fiddle this year due to a previously booked engagement at the venue. And Joe became ill shortly thereafter and passed away in Virginia September 13. One family member predicted that John would never pick up and play his accordion again because they played as a duo all their lives (Joe, by 15 minutes the older of the two twins, told me his brother always played the lead part).
Losses like this always remind me of the immediacy of the work in which I am engaged. The human landscape is constantly changing, and ever since I wandered into DePollo’s store back in the 1993, I’ve followed this passion of preserving the stories of my home state, West Virginia, to the second and third generations …