It is Memorial Day weekend in the United States, but in Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, it is more commonly referred to as “Decoration Day.”
My parents, Carl J. and Cossette (Watring) Feather, seemed to have a standing engagement in West Virginia each May, for the sole purpose of decorating the graves of parents, siblings and grandparents. They traveled to the Rose Hill Cemetery in Thomas, where Mom’s parents and grandparents are buried, and to the Gnegy Church Cemetery at Horse Shoe Run, where Dad’s parents rest, along with his grandparents, sister and brother.
Plastic flower arrangements along with bags of mulch, grass clippers, weed eaters, hoes and rakes were packed in the back of my father’s Jeep, leaving only enough room for a change of clothing and their beloved dog, Lucy Mae, as they made the trip and executed their duties in the course of two or three days. Each time they returned home, my mother declared she would not make that trip again, it was just too exhausting. And come the next Decoration Day, they made it.
They did so much more than simply fill the urn on the Watring grave with a bouquet or push the flimsy metal stakes of an artificial arrangement into the Preston County clay. Weeds and grass that grew around the stones were cut away with a string trimmer; stubborn weeds were dug out with trowels. Mulch was applied around the perimeters, then the stones cleaned of stains. It was time consuming and at times hard work for folks in their 80s, but it is what we do here on Decoration Day.
My heart attack earlier this year is limiting my mobility and travel, so I won’t be able to carry on my parents’ Decoration Day efforts until later. I suspect my father will make it a point to travel from Ohio to Preston and Tucker counties to “take care of the graves.”
Graves. What is worse than the grave?
Within the tight clan structure of traditional Appalachian families, ancestors are remembered and honored. Their stories and accomplishments live on through generations of family that remembers and honors them on Decoration Day, as well as around the campfire and hearth the rest of the year. These stories turn tombs into tomes, graves into gateways to gaining a better understanding ourselves.
My ancestors Jacob and Mary Feather are buried five miles south of my home in the Lenox Memorial Cemetery. Jacob was 16 years old when his family immigrated to the colonies in 1775. He sailed into Philadelphia and a war for independence. Within a couple of years, he was fighting in that war, as well.
By virtue of that service, Jacob and Mary are honored with bronze plaques, in addition to their damaged gravestones. I first visited these graves in July 2019, after beginning research for a book about the family and its attraction to the mountains. As I talk to my father about his dad and granddad, my own persona comes into focus. I understand what drives me, for it largely the same things that drove my ancestors: working hard, living in the mountains (as Jacob’s family did in Rhineland), a deep love for animals, frugality and faith in God. I am proud to be a Feather, Watring, Harsh, Fike, Judy, Sypolt, Broomhall, Moats, Lipscomb, Arnold and Weimer.
My search for their stories has taken me from Bedford and Somerset counties in Pennsylvania to the Crab Orchard of Preston County, where my cousin, Kelvin Feather, and I uncovered an old family cemetery of the Rodenheavers, who do not appear to be in my line. The Feather children and grandchildren would have know the Rodenheavers as neighbors, and I wonder if their association with this “colored boy” inspired my great great grandfather, Adam, to enlist in the Union Army along with his cousin. Both were wounded in battle, captured and did time in Confederate prisons, where Adam’s cousin died.
I have discovered that I and Barack Obama share a fourth great-grandmother, and one of my ancestors on the Arnold line was the first to preach the gospel in Eglon, where my father grew up. An Anabaptist ancestor went on to establish the Amish community in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. I have learned of the amazing physical strength and stamina of the Harsh men, of which I, unfortunately, inherited not a lick, although both my father and son possess it, and the spiritual fervor of my father’s cousin, who was martyred while he and his wife were doing missionary work with the Church of the Brethren in China. And my great-grandfather’s reputation as a hometown, self-educated veterinarian who loved animals explains my deep compassion for those lesser among us.
My unique mix of passions, frustrations, quirkiness and deepest aspirations come into focus when I view them through this telescope of genealogy. One ought to climb a family tree if for no other reason to find oneself among the leaves and twigs. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we understand what motivates us. For that reason, I believe that genealogy ought to be a required subject in our educational system; it could spare us much of the angst of “finding one’s self” as a teenager.
Perhaps if we all understood our ancestors better, there would not be one undecorated grave in the cemetery on Decoration Day.
Most of us will have one memorial, our gravestone.
According to writer Derek Coleman, an England native living in West Virginia, Louis Bennett Jr. has at least 12, all funded by his late mother, Sallie Maxwell Bennett of Weston, Lewis County.
The memorials range from a stained-glass window in Westminster Abbey, London, England, to a bronze statue on the campus of Linsly, a private boarding school (grades 5 through 12), in Wheeling, W.Va.
Established in 1814, Linsly features a beautiful campus overseen by the bronze statuary, dubbed “The Aviator.” The sculptor was Augustus Lukeman, an artist of international fame. The face of “The Aviator” is that of Louis Bennett Jr.
Born in Weston, W.Va., Louis Bennett Jr. was one of the three children of Louis and Sallie Maxwell Bennett. Sallie came from a wealthy family and Louis Bennett was a well-connected politician and ran for governor of West Virginia in 1908. The family had the means to send their son to schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Louis Jr. studied at Yale and was nearing graduation when the war in Europe distracted him to loftier goals.
While at Yale, Bennett joined the Aero Club of America and learned to fly. He foresaw the potential of aircraft in military applications, which led to him volunteering his services to the United States Army. He established in 1917 his West Virginia Flying Corps at Beech Bottom, near Wheeling. State funds and donations were used to train the American volunteer pilots who hoped to serve the US Army efforts. But Bennett’s offer to attach the flying corps to operations in Europe was rejected by the United States. Frustrated and full of youthful determination and bravery, Bennett volunteered for the British Royal Flying Corps in Canada. He was sent to London and assigned to home defense of which he soon became bored. Bennett wanted to see more action than chasing down the occasional Zeppelin or Gotha bomber that came across the channel.
Assignment to the No. 40 Squadron in France on July 21, 1918, gave Louis Bennett Jr. his opportunity to demonstrate his bravery and skill. The Germans made extensive use of manned balloons that rose several hundred yards over the battlefields and worked with ground artillery to more accurately direct their fire. The balloons became an important target for the fighter planes of the flying corps.
Bennett was credited with shooting down nine of these German observation balloons. The Linsey website states that he also took out three enemy planes between Aug. 15 and 24. The latter was the day ground fire hit Bennett’s aircraft as he moved in on a balloon target. The plane caught on fire and Bennett was trapped inside. He was badly burned, both legs were broken and a bullet had pierced his head.
Barely alive, Bennett was taken to a German hospital, where he died within a few hours. He was buried in grave number 590 in Wavrin, northern France.
Back home, his mother was grieving the loss her husband, who died while in Atlantic City three weeks prior to her son’s demise. During the agonizing two months following the incident, Sallie received a series of conflicting reports about her son’s status. As if her losses and struggles with settling her husband’s estate were not enough, Sallie contracted the Spanish flu during this time.
The Red Cross officially confirmed her son’s death in late October 1918. She began using her contacts and influence to do what she must: Travel to Europe, locate her son’s grave and have his remains returned to Lewis County for burial. She arrived in France in March 1919 to discover that the church at the cemetery had been destroyed during the war. Thus was established the first memorial to her son; Sallie Bennett paid to have the church at Wavrin rebuilt. Her generosity was an act of gratitude for the assistance she received from the citizens of Wavrin in finding her son’s grave, and perhaps more importantly, smuggle his remains out of France and back to West Virginia, illegal act under French law. He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery, West.
Neither the United States or British governments recognized her son for his bravery, loss of life and contributions to the use of airpower in war. For the rest of her life, his mother did all she could to make sure her son would not be forgotten by spending the family fortune on memorials.
A stained glass window in Westminster Abbey is dedicated to Louis and his Royal Flying Corps aviators who lost their lives in the Great War. It over looks the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and features Archangel Michael looking down at Louis, depicted as an angel. The memorial was established in 1922.
That same year she donated to Lewis County the mansion that had been the family home since 1875. The family’s extensive collection of books were also donated in memory of her son and husband, and The Louis Bennett Public Library was thus established the following year. The four-story mansion continues to meet the library needs of Lewis County.
In 1922, she donated to St. Thomas’s Church in NYC a 16th-century Flemish tapestry. Louis Jr. was confirmed there as a boy. Back in the Mountain State, she worked to rename the local airfield in his honor and establish a group to continue his memory.
It was Armistice Day 1925 when The Aviator sculpture was unveiled. Standing on a granite pedestal, the 7-1/2-foot-tall sculpture depicts her son with angel wings. The inscription at the base states “And thus this man died, leaving his spirit as an example of able courage, not only unto young men, but unto all the nation.”
His courage, while not officially recognized by the governments he served, was ironically acknowledge by a German officer who was in the observation balloon that came under fire. Four years after her son’s death, Sallie Maxwell Bennett received a letter from Emil Merkelbach, who identified himself as that German officer. Of the events of Aug. 24, 1918, he wrote:
Thus, the enemy placed one more memorial to this West Virginian aviator whose short life touched two continents and many cities where he is still honored and memorialized. On this Memorial Day, my first as a West Virginia resident, my thoughts echo those of the enemy rather than the government for which he fought. Merkelbach concluded his letter by stating, “I hope that the foregoing lines, a memorial to your son, will be received by you living—he was my bravest enemy. Honor to his memory.”
One might guess that Preston County’s oldest, continuously operating business is a funeral home. Not so, although at one time, a funeral home operated in the north section of the Lenox Store, founded in 1882.
Located on the Brandonville Pike just a stone’s throw south of the “Lenox unincorporated” highway sign, the general store was originally known as Forman’s Store. Charles W. Forman and his father-in-law, Jacob C. Smith, established it the same year Charles married Mahala I. Smith, the daughter of Jacob and Catherine (Feather) Smith. Charles and Mahala’s hard work at the business paid off, and on May 16, 1900, Charles became the sole owner.
In that era, traffic through the frame building was guaranteed because it was also home to the Lenox Post Office. Legend is that when the locals learned that their hamlet was getting a post office, they met in Forman’s Store to determine a name for their previously anonymous wide spot in the road. The suggestions were tossed into a hat, and someone pulled the Lenox moniker. The post office closed in the early 1900s, but the store hummed along without it, aided by another ancillary service: the town’s funeral home.
Astute visitors today will notice the 40-inch-wide door to the right of the store’s smaller main entrance, an artifact from that business. The extra width was necessary to accommodate the caskets that traveled through this portal. Owned by funeral director/embalmer William McKinley Wilhelm, the Lenox Funeral Home was separated from the store by a wall later removed. According to an advertising calendar, the funeral home was still operating in the late 1930s. The parlor lights still hang from the ceiling, one with an intact globe.
Charles died in 1915 and Mahala in 1924. Their son, Worley Klet Forman, and his wife, Nina, were the next owners. Worley was the undertaker’s assistant and helped his parents with shop-keeping whenever the undertaking business was slow.
“He has a prosperous business, the country ‘round Lenox being rich and patronage good,” noted H. S. Whetsell of Worley Klet in his second volume of A History of Preston County, in which Whetsell dates the store’s construction to 1892. That’s likely a typo since S. T. Wiley’s History of Preston County confirms the 1882 date for the business start.
Today, Evajean Bolinger and her son and daughter-in-law, William “Bill” F. II and Janice, own the store, which has been in the family since the early 1960s. Bill’s parents, William and Evajean, and his grandmother, Mabel Graham, purchased it from the Forman family in 1961. The Bolinger’s son, Billy III, is the fourth generation of Bolingers to work there.
“Originally, my grandmother (Mabel Graham) who had half-interest, was a nurse’s aid in Kingwood,” co-owner Bill II tells me as we sit in his office in the back of the store. “She moved here and needed a little bit of extra income, something to do. And when granddad retired from the board of education as the head of maintenance, he needed something to do and worked in it. When my mother retired from teaching school, she needed a little something to do, as well. So, everybody had been using it for retirement, something to keep them going, until we bought it. I’d like to see [my son] get a job, then I’d come down here, and it would be a little something to do,” Bill says.
Bill and Janice have three boys: Nathaniel, a lineman; Cordell, a civil engineer; and Bill “Billy” III, a WVU grad who runs the store and fixes computers on the side to generate extra income. If his parents were to pay Billy what he’s really worth, it would put the business in the red.
“What he eats from here is basically his pay,” Bill II says.
When asked why he sticks around the store working for snacks, Billy replies, “I don’t really have a reason.”
“He’s a bit shy . . . and this has helped him a lot, being in here,” his father says.
Bill recalls a better time, when the place grossed about 50% more than it does these days. Better days were back when Preston County’s coal mines were busy and miners filled their gas tanks, coffee mugs, and lunch pails at the Lenox Store. But the mines have closed; most of the former miners and their families have departed the community.
Further, there’s intense competition from the local Dollar General. Interstate 68, just nine miles north of the store, offers quick access to shopping in Morgantown. And while Bruceton Mills and the surrounding area are enjoying a housing boom due to municipal water becoming available, Bill says most new residents don’t “realize we’re open.”
Billy says he can spot a newbie by his or her puzzlement over the self-service gas pump. There’s no place to swipe a credit card, so the motorist comes inside and says, “I need $20 worth of gas, but I don’t see where to pay.”
“We say, ‘Go ahead and pump it,’” Bill says. “That really shocks them. The pump won’t shut down [automatically]. Then they’ll come back in with their 10 cents or whatever it went over.”
The store extends credit for gas and other purchases to established customers. Despite Billy’s work with computers, purchases are kept on handwritten ledgers. Most customers settle their debts when they get paid; a few want a statement before settling, and even fewer require a phone-call reminder.
“We still do a little bit of the old ‘jot-’em-down’ stuff, but we try not to take on any new [credit] customers,” Bill says.
Then again, many of their credit accounts are extended family who live within a radius of two or three miles. As Bill talks about his customer base of 100 to 150 regulars, one of his nieces calls to tell him that her kids will be down to get some snacks and that she’ll stop over to pay for them later in the day. Bill says immediate family members have a key to the store so they can go in whenever, get what they need, jot it down, and go on their way.
“We’re our own best customers,” Bill says. “We all live so close we could walk down here if we had to.”
Another relative, Eugene Jordan, Janice’s brother, stops to buy some air-compressor line fittings. He lives a half-mile away and says he’d do “a lot more traveling” if his family didn’t have the Lenox Store. To meet the handyman needs of customers like Eugene, the Bolingers stock plumbing, electrical, and HVAC supplies at the back of the store.
“It’s more of a convenience,” Bill says, explaining the store’s role in the community. “It is not a necessity. If we are going grocery shopping and we’re in town, like anybody else, we go to the supermarket.”
That said, it’s a godsend for older and handicapped people in the community. For these folks, the Bolingers will assemble their orders for pickup, calculate the total, and pack everything into their vehicles. They’ll even make change in the parking lot.
“They also have pulled into the parking lot and blown their horn to have full service at the gas pump and/or give us a list for inside purchases,” Janice says. “We happily oblige.”
The Bolingers close the store on Sundays, but residents know that if an emergency arises, a phone call will get them access.
“I’ve had people call me at two in the morning and say, ‘My stovepipe fell off. Can I come down and get one?’ And I’ll go down and open the store,” Bill says.
Once, when search teams were scouring the countryside around Lenox for “a local boy who was involved in an airplane accident,” the store was a local source for fuel and provisions. And when a wide-ranging power outage shut down gas pumps and stores in the Kingwood area, the Lenox Store’s generators kept its pumps up and running.
In addition to selling one grade of gas, the store has diesel and fuel oil, the latter typically sold and delivered to homes by a supplier. But Bill says that by offering it by the gallon, they help their neighbors who can’t afford a delivery of 100 gallons or more at a time. Bill even provides one customer with a 50-gallon tank for his fuel purchases.
While the store occasionally gets a passing motorist who stops to fill up, most fuel sales are for four-wheelers and other ATVs that buzz past the store and across the trails and ridges of Pleasants and Portland districts. “We sell a bunch of gas in five-gallon cans,” Bill says.
Fuel accounts for more than 50% of the sales; profits pay the electric bill. While their own fuel supplier usually delivers 1,000 gallons at a time, Bill or Janice must travel to obtain certain stock. He once drove to Albright to meet a delivery truck to pick up dairy products for the store. They now have a regular supplier for dairy and other products. Bill says they order what customers ask for—thus there are school supplies as well as canned fruits and vegetables alongside a few knickknacks, pre-viewed DVDs, and hunting licenses. The mainstays of many rural mom-and-pop stores, alcohol and lottery tickets, are not sold at Lenox Store.
“It’s always been a dry community, and we honor that,” Bill says.
Lenox Store is also a local gathering place, although the community center is across the street and can be rented for formal gatherings, such as weddings or baby showers. But the store has a role in that service, as well. The store often takes reservations for the center and another community asset down the road: lots in the Lenox (Lutheran Church) Memorial Cemetery.
Bill serves as the de facto sexton of the cemetery, which operates on donations left at the store, earmarked for upkeep of the cemetery and the church. The church is used only once a year anymore—a memorial service in June—but the donations have helped preserve the historic structure. Bill says he’s fulfilling his grandmother’s dying wishes by caring for the cemetery, which has burials going back to 1814.
“My grandmother, before she died, told my mother, ‘Don’t let it go to rot and ruin,’” Bill says. “Nina Forman and Paul Feather started a perpetual care fund.”
There’s been a surge of interest in the cemetery, through both genealogy and the fact that, previously, the lots were free—that’s the way it was set up. “People way outside the community would hear that we had these free lots, and they’d come from 25 or more miles. So, we have implemented a $100 grave-reservation fee. We’re not selling them; we’re reserving them for you,” says Bill, who counts a couple dozen reservations.
The cemetery records are among the many historical and cultural gems in this simple white building. If you look closely at the wood wall toward the back of the store, you’ll see a jagged chunk of metal protruding from the boards. Bill says it was from the store’s safe, which thieves once blew up to get the cash.
The store’s floor of rough-cut lumber has been sanded by decades of foot traffic and scrubbing. To protect the surface and impart a finish, the owners periodically apply linseed oil, but the foot traffic of farmers, hunters, and ATV riders makes it challenging to keep up with.
“They come in with cow manure on their boots, and they kick it off on the porch; they don’t kick it off in the parking lot,” Bill says.
The centerpiece of the store is the brass scale, used to weigh the slab bacon, cheese, screws, nails, grass seed, and any other merchandise sold by weight. The device’s accuracy is certified annually by a state employee. It can weigh up to 10 pounds without adding counter-balancing weights, which extend its capacity to 90 pounds. That’s adequate for the most common purchases.
“People will bring their babies in to have them weighed. We put a box on the scale and weigh it, then put the baby in the box and weigh it,” Bill says. “As infants, our children were weighed frequently on it,” Janice adds. Customers also bring in their fish and other game for an official weight.
Life comes full circle in this store. Babies are weighed and cemetery lots reserved at the same counter where milk and bacon are sold and where farmers buy fuel that powers their tractors, which transform Preston County’s lush green meadows to tan hay for the black Angus. Stories are swapped, complaints aired, weather observed, and fat chewed on cell phones as it was once discussed in front of the pot-bellied stove of the Forman’s Store. No wonder the Bolingers continue to keep the doors open, despite its lethargic financial performance.
“The place really needs to be closed,” Bill admits. “It would take a lot of stress off us. But we don’t want to close it up on our watch. It’s a piece of history . . . and that is why we want to keep it open as long as we have it.”
You can visit the Lenox Store at 10737 Brandonville Pike in Lenox. They’re open every day but Sunday, 8:30-5:00. You can give them a call at 304-329-0306.
One of my direct routes to West Virginia from northeast Ohio was down Route 11 to Route 2 on the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. At New Cumberland, Route 2 climbs a steep embankment and rewards the motorist with stunning views of the river on one side and a residential section that includes many stately houses and the historical society’s museum.
Amid this natural beauty and shady lawns is a scrapyard owned by Ken Sinsel, a metal artist whose skill, creativity and genius are expressed through metal sculptures that invite gawkers to stop and take a tour.
Ken and his daughter Joy Sinsel are the sole creators of these massive sculptures, which have quickly become a Hancock County tourist attraction. Their work also can be found also in New Cumberland and Weirton parks as commissioned, public art. His front-yard gallery’s masterpieces include a life-size horse and 15-foot-tall dragon whose throat spews smoke and whose humps and tail undulate above and below the yard.
The outdoor gallery stops traffic and encourages visitation; tire tracks on the tree lawn suggest that at least one gawker almost lost control of his or her vehicle while trying to take in the sights (without slowing down). Across the road, on a precipitous and narrow strip of land overlooking the Ohio River, more creations beckon, including an angular fish priced at $495.
“Somebody will buy it. It just takes the right person to come along,” Ken says.
From the street, these pieces look like well-executed metal sculptures, but their true composition and genius come into focus once one’s eyes are close enough to discern the thousands of bolts, springs, hinges, chains, car parts, and tools that comprise each statue. An astute observer will notice that curved surfaces on the sculptures are often common shovels, sans the handle, or in the case of the horse, the base of a log carrier pressed into service as a saddle.
“Somebody gave it to me, and that’s how I got started on the horse,” Ken says as he gives me a tour of the gallery. “I just started laying out pieces and seeing how they would go together.”
When Ken found several engine pistons in a scrapyard, the horse got his hooves. Between the pistons and ribbons of scrap-metal mane are flywheels, a garden-rake head, tin snips, dozens of wrenches, and a spoon his wife had discarded.
Joy says a frame of sheet metal and bolts undergirds the creation, which was Ken’s first after his father-in-law taught him how to use an electric welder.
“Carl Quinn of New Manchester,” Ken says of his mentor. “He had been a certified welder for 35 years, but he was getting sick and talked me into buying (the welder). I’d been a woodworker for as long as I can remember, and he taught me how to weld.”
Ken practiced on whatever scrap he had around the house and soon found himself creating shapes and figures rather than randomly welded globs of iron. A short time after beginning his hobby, he asked Joy to assist him by holding a piece while he welded; afterward, she too became interested in creating scrapyard art.
“Now she welds by herself,” Ken says.
Her works include a scorpion, a pig, flowers, and a catfish. Like her father, she rarely refers to a photo, drawing, or plan. All it takes to get a project going is an unusually shaped piece of scrap that inspires the artists’ imagination.
“You look at a piece, a wrench, or a sawblade—or like on the horse, a hubcap—and you think of animals that might have an anatomy like that. And then you start looking for other shapes that would (express) that anatomy,” Ken says of the creative process.
Depending on what scrap they have on hand, a small sculpture can come together in a matter of days once the creativity is flowing. Joy says her father will work from early morning until dark once he gets moving on a sculpture. Other pieces, such as the dragon, have required a year or more of scrounging for the right scrap. They work in an outdoor studio, the driveway to a small garage where scrap and equipment are stored and secured.
Once a week, Ken and Joy cross the river to Steubenville, Ohio, to rummage through the recycling scrapyard. Material from defunct steel mills in the region ends up at the yard, and Ken finds all manner of hand tools and large hardware pieces mixed in with less-inspiring scrap.
“A lot of people will say ‘How come you are using all those good tools in these things?’” Ken says. “But I got my own tools, so I don’t need these.” Among unusual tools and gadgets Ken and Joy have embedded in a sculpture are a Model T Ford wrench and various gauges and precision machining tools. Everything from a gas-pump nozzle to kitchen-knife blades, from car springs to an engine’s oil pan, are in the sculptures.
Some of the scrap comes from folks who stop to admire the work and later return with donations from their own scrap heap, fodder for future aliens, spacecraft and mythical creatures. Gather up what you have and bring it to him. Ken welcomes visitors to the gallery, located in his front yard at 1110 Ridge Ave., New Cumberland. Parking at the residence can be a problem, so you may need to park on a side street and walk to the scrapyard gallery.
“A lot of people tell me they like it,” Ken says. “And that’s what keeps me going.”
A longer version of this story appears in the winter 2020 Goldenseal Magazine
At 3:36 p.m. November 14, 2020, my 2013 blue Scion XD crossed the state line on Interstate 79 north of Morgantown, West Virginia.
As the WVU billboard near the state welcome center declared, I was home. Finally.
My parents left West Virginia in 1956 and headed north on two-lane highways to Ashtabula County, Ohio, where better jobs and opportunities existed for the young couple. They reared me in Kingsville Township, but every four to six weeks returned “home” to visit kin for the weekend or summer vacation. Thus, in the vernacular of my childhood, “home” was always West Virginia.
For all my adult life I dreamed of returning home to the mountains and perhaps making my living there rather than in Ohio. It never happened. Family ties, once bound up in marriage vows and a household, are difficult to break. Even more difficult is the prospect of pulling up stakes, selling out and relocating to a new house, state, job and culture.
Ironically, as the years in Ohio passed, the county in which my parents had landed began to look more and more like Appalachia. Indeed, Ashtabula County was eventually added to the list of Ohio counties that are part of the Appalachian Regional Commission, essentially a federal pork program that offers counties in Appalachia the hope of turning around their economies to the point they are not “Appalachian,” at least not economically.
It is painfully ironic that, at the end of the day, my parents, and many other displaced Applachians who left the coal belt for the rust belt traded one corner of Appalachia for another.
My guess is that the powers that be in Ashtabula, Trumbull and Mahoning counties will continue to talk out of both sides of their mouths as the need arises–to promote their domains as vibrant, economically sound and progressive when trying to attract taxpayers, businesses, campaign donations and votes, and to cry poor mouth when it comes to getting another slice of pork from the federal deficit. Further, handing out an ARC check to a project always makes for a good photo op for county commissioners, especially in an election year.
Still, Appalachia without mountains will never be Appalachia to me. I’ve never been a lake person. At times awe-inspiring, Lake Erie is more often a gray-headed bitch hungry for land, lives and snow.
From my viewpoint, mountains have always felt more like beacons than obstacles; the valleys like cradles rather than crucibles. And so it was I returned frequently to those valley’s rocky, rushing streams currents that recharged my depleted cells and gave me the energy to labor on in the flat lands until the next visit. I worked and lived to leave home, if for just a weekend or week.
Those trips were centered around my writing and photography for Goldenseal Magazine. Published by the West Virginia Department of Culture and Tourism, the quarterly is reader-supported, oral-history oriented and beloved by transplanted and native West Virginians, alike. I was introduced to it back in the early 1980s, while visiting my paternal grandparents, Russel and Maud Feather, in Eglon, Preston County. They kept a shelf of the black-and-white magazines in their washroom off the kitchen, and I always looked forward to reading the latest issue. With help from editor Ken Sullivan, I had my first story published in Goldenseal in 1985. Fittingly, it was “First Cutting,” about making hay with my grandfather on his farm.
Since then, more than 100 of my photo/text packages have appeared in the pages of the magazine and my “Back Roads” stories are a regular feature. That has required logging thousands of miles in the state annually, as well as the miles logged to get to the West Virginia border (typically 250-300 miles one way, depending where I was headed).
As one gets older, you either accept your dreams will never come true or you work even harder to make them happen. The former described my state as I entered 2020; my wife, a Certified Ophthalmic Technician, was employed in Chardon, Ohio. I had been eliminated from the staff at the Ashtabula County Commissioners’ office two years earlier and forced to take Social Security three years earlier than planned. I wrote books and became house husband/groundskeeper for “The Feather Cottage,” our historical stone house in Geneva. But with each round of real estate tax increases and the addition of a school income tax, it became evident we would not be able to retire in the stone house that we both loved so much. It was as if God was putting us on notice that changes were about to take place, and we needed to get ready.
A trip to the credit union for another home improvement loan and months of dawn-to-bedtime work on the old house got it in shape for the market, although I prayed it would not sell. The old stone house had protected and nurtured me through some tough times. Further, it was the first house I lived in that I felt truly represented my quirky tastes in rustic décor and personal interests. I wrote four books in its chilly knotty-pine study and spent many a sad-yet-peaceful evenings on the front lawn with my two faithful canine friends, Polly and Brody, who are buried on the property. The property, with its mature red oaks and magnificent magnolia tree, gave me great comfort and pleasure.
The pandemic hit, Ruth was laid off and, when she returned, it was to a vastly changed atmosphere full of stress. She began putting out feelers, and a strong response came from a practice in Morgantown—West Virginia. But there was the issue of my father; a widower and 88 years old, he still has a house and active lifestyle. We did not want to leave him alone, especially in a pandemic and with winter coming. After a short discussion, he said: “We’ll move to West Virginia.”
In a matter of less than two months, our house sold, Ruth accepted the job, we packed up all our possessions, loaded them in U-Hauls, and, with the help of Ruth’s son and his family, moved to Bruceton Mills on the weekend of Nov. 14 and 15. It was like the Beverly Hillbillies, in reverse.
We’d purchased the house pretty much sight unseen, depending upon the photos and description on Realtor.com and a seller-sponsored home inspection report. By the time we looked at the house, ours was under contract and we were under tremendous pressure to find a place in which to land so Ruth could meet the start date for her new job. We did a 40-minute walkthrough of the property, negotiated and purchased that afternoon.
Real estate in West Virginia is expensive, scarce and either new construction, manufactured, mobile homes or old farmhouses in need of extensive work. Ours fell into the last category, and I will just say that you can’t trust the Photoshop-enhanced photography on real estate websites nor can you rely upon home inspectors to reveal the hidden issues that can quickly add up to tens of thousands of dollars beyond the purchase price. Buyer beware.
So, the first three months of our time in West Virginia have been extremely stressful, exhausting and expensive. We tackled what our aging bodies could, and a few things they ought not have tackled. There is still much to do, but most of it is way beyond my limited skills set: the failing roof patched with tarps, a cantankerous pellet stove that gives me fits and nightmares, and the absence of a garage for my father’s pride-and-joy vehicles. All will require the expertise and strength of people far greater than me come spring.
The commute to Morgantown across three mountains is treacherous, even on the interstate. Ruth has had some harrowing drives in her Subaru (appears to the official state vehicle brand of West Virginia). Snow and ice have stretched out the 30-minute commute to three hours or more. I’ve not heard her complain once.
I, on the other hand, have moaned and groaned about the litany of house-related issues that needed correction, updated, replaced and renewed. I ate and breathed sawdust for weeks as I ripped and sanded a variety of hardwood lumber to address the mishmash of trim throughout the house. Dad and I worked 12-16 hour days installing new flooring throughout the downstairs after tearing out ceramic tile that was so stained and dirty we’d been unable to initially see that virtually tile was broken/cracked. Installed over a cardboard substrate, the tile had broken under the weight of living.
And so did I. By the middle of January I was so exhausted, stress and anxious, I could not sleep. I coughed constantly and walking to the top of the staircase left me so out of breath I had to lie down. I was certain I had Covid-19. But the test came back negative, and I made an appointment with the local medical clinic, just two miles down the road.
I called at 9 a.m. and was talking to its doctor in his office four hours later. He listened to my heart and lungs, chatted about what had been going on my life and pulled an index card from his pocket and offered to make a copy of his recipe for immunity and health during these days of flu and Covid. Along with a course of oral steroids and antibiotics, he gave me some sound advice, “Do only what you absolutely have to.”
I slept better than night than I have in four or five months.
The next day, the problems were still there, but I had a different perspective on them. I looked at the house from a new angle. Perhaps what I’ve been railing about are its quirks, and perhaps those quirks were reminding me of my own quirkiness. Perhaps I will change what I change and accept what I can’t, including the fact that the restroom is right next door to my upstairs office, but it is part of the new construction and the office, although an addition, is over the old farmhouse section. So there is a trip down one flight of stairs, through half the house to the other set of steps going upstairs, when a restroom break is needed.
I can’t do much about the low water pressure and the strange tasting municipal water supply sourced from “ground water” that, I’m told, is laced with chemicals pertaining to fracking and mining. The doctor says I need to drink three quarts of water a day, so we’re investing in five-gallon water jugs. Filling them is a 45-mile round trip to the county seat: down the pike to Prison Road; down 26 through Albright to Route 7 at Kingwood.
We’ve bought three tons of hardwood pellets thus far and are praying for warmer weather. The oil tank needs filled every two months, and the bill is a few dollars shy of $500 each time. The first time we had it filled, the oil leaked out of a faulty gauge, ran down the tank and encircled the running furnace. I figure we came within a minute of the oil igniting and losing everything we’d moved into the house from Ohio just three days earlier. God is good, even when the situation is bad.
We keep the furnace set at 64 degrees and the house is cold, even standing next to that cantankerous pellet insert that, come spring, will be offered from the front lawn to passersby on the pike. The electric stove and mirror attached to a pallet, stored on the back deck will be gone, as well (my wife says we will have cookouts on the stove).
A contractor has been secured for the new roof, but it won’t go on until late summer. The colors of my office walls have been transformed from light purple to tan and pine-bough green. Progress is slow, but I am home.
We’re also exploring the fantastic 230-some acres of our neighbor, The Old Hemlock Foundation, about which I will share much more later. Hiking trails are throughout the nature preserve, one of the main appeals of this property to me.
The neighbors up the lane are friendly and gather across the street from our house to collect their mail and, late into the night on Mondays, to unload their trash (our front yard is the collection site for the lane). There is a rhythm of life here that is starting to speak of home, a vaguely familiar routine transplanted, re-ordered, rewritten and rearranged to fit the topography of the mountains rather than the flat land.
The air here is the air of home: fresh, tinged with hemlock and pine, the smoke of hardwoods and anthracite, and so very still and quiet. The silence here is excelled only by the brightness of the night sky; a small deck off our bedroom provides a view of that vastness that the lights of northeast Ohio smothered.
The mountains make you feel small, yet a part of a greater community of life, from the feral tortoise cat that we’ve named “Geneva” to the neighbors up the lane who gather at the line of mailboxes whenever mailman Jim’s white SUV makes its appearance, usually after 5 p.m. From the legion of celestial objects that I’d forgotten that were there to gravestones in the Lenox Memorial Cemetery, where my great-great-great grandfather, Jacob, rests beneath his Revolutionary War veteran plaque. A German immigrant, he relocated here circa 1810 and made a home for his family on several hundred acres of farmland.
I am reminded that through all the trials and tribulations of moving that Jacob and his family had a much more difficult time of it—no house with running water and an oil furnace awaited them when their arduous trek across the mountains from Somerset County in Pennsylvania was completed. There were no U-Haul trucks and no Interstates. Awaiting them were more callouses, ax injuries, runaway horses, sick cattle, failed crops and ill children, 12 of them eventually. He was middle-aged and could have stayed in Pennsylvania with his in-laws, but something drew him deeper into the backwoods and mountains. Whatever it was, it kept his clan locked to this soil, or at least to Appalachia, and drew them back as opportunity arose.
More than 210 years later, I return to learn much more of his story and write about it in “My Fathers’ Land,” not as a visitor but as one who owns a piece of this story and place, a place we call home.