Full Circle in Lenox

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.

The Lenox Store, Brandonville Pike, is Preston County’s oldest business.

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 Bollinger II owns the store with his mother. Bill also does contract excavating work and maintains a cubbyhole office in the store.

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.

Billy Bollinger weighs cheese on the store’s antique scales, which still pass accuracy inspections.

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.”

Being a contractor, Bill Bollinger II understands the frustration of having to drive an hour to a home improvement or hardware store. A section of the general store carries pipe fittings and other needs the handyman needs for his country living.

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.

Bill Bollinger II jokes with a customer while Bill III rings up a sale.

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.”

The Lenox Store’s scales and Browning calendar, one per household, are traditions of shop keeping in Lenox.

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.

New Cumberland’s amazing ‘scrapyard’

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.

Joy became interested in metal sculpting after her father started building things from whatever he had available. The fish is her creation.

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.

A shiny horse shares the lawn with a dragon and alien.

“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.

All manner of metal objects-household, industrial and automotive-go into Ken’s and Joy’s creations.

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