A castle, commissioner & cemetery

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year (2016) I’ve made two trips, one in January and one in March.

Wheeling’s castle at Wheeling Hill is an urban version of the castle at Berkeley Springs.

The January trip, to the Eastern Panhandle, was during a weekend when the temperature on Saturday was 60 degrees and fell to near zero by Monday morning. It was so cold, I chose not to walk around my favorite place in the world, Harpers Ferry, that morning. My old bones feel the cold more acutely these days, it seems.

Author’s note: This blog was originally published in March 2016; it has been re-published as part of the site’s redesign in 2020.

My March trip to the Northern Panhandle was on a Saturday. It’s about 100 miles from my house to the tip of W.Va., Chester. After all these years, I still feel a sense of relief, of coming home, whenever I cross that state line heading south, and a twinge of sadness when my front tires hit that Buckeye pavement.

The weather Saturday was perfect. When I left home, the trees were weeping with the frost melting from their branches; there was golden steam everywhere. I could have passed for a May morning.

Within three hours, I was in Wellsburg and Highland Springs Farm, where I was greeted by Cooper, a pot-bellied pig who was coming back from his morning walk.

WV Department of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick and his wife Rita Fay talk to Chatman Neely (right) on the porch of the bed and breakfast room where the couple stayed the night before. Barn With Inn has three rooms, one in a hay loft, one in a former horse stall and one in the innkeepers’ home.

The innkeepers were expecting a state dignitary, Walt Helmick, the commissioner of agriculture, and agreed to give me a tour while we awaited the commissioner’s arrival. I won’t go into details about the farm except to say these gentlemen, Harry Sanford and Chatman Neely, have assembled a near-perfect repose for animals and people using mostly reclaimed materials (as in an old log barn for the frame of their dining room and a discarded pig pen for their dogs’ condo). They operate the Barn With Inn bed and breakfast on the property. You can stay in a loft room in the barn and look out the window into the animals’ stalls, take an outdoor shower and enjoy West Virginia sourced appetizers and drinks at night and eggs straight from the hen house in the morning.

Read more about them at the website.

I tagged along with the commissioner, his wife and staff as they toured the farm, which raises hay and vegetables, and provides shelter for animals that otherwise would not have a home. It was during that stroll that we came across this:

Garter snakes enjoying the spring warmth.

Everybody was fascinated by these intertwined garter snakes, including the commissioner, who being from Pocahontas County, had a few good snake stories to tell. I’m guessing that, between all the cameras pointed at these reptiles, at least 100 pictures of them were snapped trying to get them with their tongues out. (I didn’t get one, I was too busy making sure they didn’t strike! Yes, I know garter snakes don’t strike.)

It was a real pleasure meeting Walt Helmick, his wife and their staff. They were friendly and down-to-earth folks, the kind of people you’d like to find as your neighbors at a bed and breakfast or on a three-hour tour. And Chatman and Harry were equally hospitable, as well as their assortment of cats and dogs, all of them adopted (Harry’s a vet so a lot of their “livestock” comes in as tough-luck cases at the clinic).

From there I traveled to the Family Roots Farm, also in Wellsburg, where the owners, Charlie and Britney, were waiting for me with a customized welcome sign:

Britney Hervey Farris and Charlie Farris were waiting for me at their farm.


Married just three years, this young couple is building a farm for the 21st century on the farmland that Britney’s ancestors, the Herveys, first settled on in 1770. Their specialty is maple syrup, and although they’ve been at it just a few years, their maple sugar won best in the world at an international competition in 2015. Their maple syrup received a perfect score.

They’re branching beyond maple trees to sorghum, sweet corn and other vegetables. Last year they planted five acres of vegetables and this year they’re shooting for 10 acres. And they both work full-time jobs.

Hopefully my editor will find their stories worthwhile and you can read more about them in a future Back Roads column in Goldenseal.

After wrapping up at Family Roots, I was ready for lunch/dinner. I went to my favorite restaurant in Wheeling, Coleman’s, and ate the fish sandwich and fries. Yes, I am a vegetarian, but once in a very great while, as in when I’m in Wheeling, I do eat fish. Coleman’s is the only fish I’ll eat.

Old cemetery on a hilll in Wheeling, WV
The “rural” Mount Wood Cemetery overlooks the city of Wheeling, W.Va.


Next stop, Wheeling Hill, Mount Wood Cemetery and the castle. The cemetery is amazing. Built on a steep hill, the top is reserved for the movers and shakers of 19th-century Wheeling. My Goldenseal Back Roads story will feature one of these fascinating residents.

Descending the slope of the rural cemetery, the graves become more prosaic, the obelisks give way to broken sandstone tablets. At the base is the Jewish cemetery.

Across the street, at the overlook/castle, there is a great view of the Ohio River and the city.

The magic hour, when the light takes on a beautiful quality and bathes the city in blue, was rolling across the streets. It was a perfect time for a walk with my little Fuji X100T, a digital rangefinder with a fixed 23mm, effective 35mm, lens.

I looked for Wheeling’s most famous citizen, Moon Dog, but he was not patrolling, at least not yet. As the lights on the suspension bridge came on, I walked on the bridge toward Wheeling Island and was lucky enough to see a tow boat and barges heading down river. I positioned myself to take a series of pictures.

The entourage slipped past Wheeling Island, then followed the strings of industrial and residential lights toward Moundsville, Cincinnati and perhaps Nashville. Their destiny was downriver, mine was to follow the river north, to Chester, away from the mountains and that inexplicable sense of peace I feel when I’m there, back to Ohio and The Feather Cottage.

Pleasure Grounds

Bathing beauties enjoy Lake Erie near Sturgeon Point, where The Pleasure Grounds got their start in 1869. It grew into GOTL.

Our newest book, Pleasure Grounds, arrives May 22 and will be available for purchase from this website, at Bridge Street Artworks and several vendors at Geneva-on-the-Lake, which is book’s topic.

July 4 of this year marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of these Lake Erie picnic grounds, referred to as a “Pleasure Grounds,” by the founders, Edwin Pratt and Cullen Spencer. Our new book traces the history of Ohio’s first summer resort town (it beats Cedar Point by a year through more than 500 historical and recent documentary photographs, maps and brochures. The book has 578 pages, is 8.5×11 inches and weighs nearly five pounds!

Exhaustive, and exhausting for the author/designer, Pleasure Grounds is our biggest book yet. It grew out of the work I did with my former employer, The Ashtabula County County Commissioners, who loaned me the Geneva-on-the-Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau to work on interpretive signage about key events, people and attractions at “The Lake.” This work became known as the Summer Fun Heritage Trail.

The many bars along The Strip provide a Pleasure Grounds during Thunder on The Strip, one of the topics explored in the new book.

After a new board commissioners decided to eliminate my position, I decided to use my new status as a freelance writer to delve much deeper in The Resort’s story and provide readers with a narrative that looks at all aspects of this unique town and resort.

I sparingly use the word “unique” when I write, but when it comes to GOTL, it earns it.

Where else can you find an incorporated Ohio village without a single franchised business except Dairy Queen? It has no banks, no payday loan joints, no doctor’s or dentist’s offices, no traffic lights and no big-box stores, not even a pharmacy. Yet there are 17 bars, hundreds of cottages to rent, a state park, a lodge, wineries, zip lines, mom-and-pop stores and what appears to be the nation’s oldest miniature golf course. GOTL even has a magic store!

This little microcosm has developed totally independent of outside investment, until recently, when Delaware North Companies began building high-end amenities like the zip line/challenge course and cottages development. Most of GOTL’s commercial district is operated by families in the third and fourth generation of ownership. They have created the businesses vacationers associate with GOTL: Eddie’s Grill, The Cove, Firehouse Winery and many more.

This little resort soon became a vacation destination for blue-collar steel-mill towns of Western Pennsylvania and the Youngstown region. Many of them camped at Chestnut Grove. Their voices and stories run flow through the book like 3.2-beer once flowed through the village. Topics covered in the book include dance halls, alcohol, lodging, amusements, beaches, the riots, cottages and much more.

There is both pleasure and sadness in this place, a microcosm of human experience and emotions, joys and disappointments.

Pleasure Grounds will be available at select merchants at GOTL this summer. We have chosen not to distribute through Amazon at this time. It can be purchased through this website as well as our retail location, Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge Street, Ashtabula. Books will be in stock starting May 23.

Confirmed GOTL locations selling Pleasure Grounds are the Eagle Cliff Hotel and Anchor Inn. The Covered Bridge Shoppe at the Harpersfield Covered Bridge also will stock the book. .

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be posting supplemental videos and stories about GOTL as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this unique town and resort.

See you on The Strip!

Pleasure grounds book cover.

Pleasure Grounds, 500-plus pages, fully indexed, hundreds of photos. 8 1/2 x 11 inches, silk laminate paper cover

In good company

Pumpkins rest on the stone wall today. Other hands built the wall, but I grew the fruit, in a garden plot a hundred feet or so south of the wall.

There are less than a dozen of pumpkins; most are small, too small for carving. One small one, perfectly shaped, made it indoors, where it will serve as decor until the weekend after Thanksgiving, assuming it lasts that long.

If I were to take this harvest to market, it would not bring enough money to justify the effort. At best, this crop is worth $8 or so. And what is $8 these days?

The dirt I grew them in cost $200 for the load, and the seeds were 33 cents. I grew other stuff in the dirt, and dirt being recyclable, the expense is a pittance for such pleasure, for I enjoy pumpkins and their company. I like their variations on orange, smooth complexion, curvaceous forms and contrasting, crusty stem. I’ve not a single bad pumpkin memory, and that’s saying something, for by the time we turn 64, we’ve accumulated painful memories of most everything. From salad bars to blue cars; from Prairie Home Companion to Mahler’s First Symphony, I’ve quite a collection. But pumpkins? Not a bad one in the patch.

Judging by the popularity of pumpkin-flavored beverages, soaps, scented candles and sweets this time of year, I am in good company in my adoration of Curcubito pepo. And while I am drinking pumpkin-spice coffee as I write this, I say let the pumpkin be a pumpkin, not a flavor (artificial, at that), color chip or scent. I even prefer my pumpkins au naturel. No face painting, no carving and no sequins or googly eyes. Born a pumpkin, died a pumpkin, not a Jack O’Lantern.

And so I plant them every year, and hope to raise a crop worthy of the stone wall. That wall is one of the reasons I stay here, in a house and yard way too large for our needs. But Ruth and I find comfort in stone and wood. Truth of the matter is, this property is a lot of work, far from her job and the county real estate, city income tax and school income tax make this an expensive place to live. But we have enough to grown pumpkins and display the harvest on a stone wall come late September, then watch as oak, magnolia and oak leaves accumulate around them until only stems are visible. There is joy in all of that.

I’ll never forget Ruth’s joy early in the summer when the first orange horns appeared on the vines, followed by the fruit. One, in particular, showed great promise, and she beamed when we pulled back the prickly leaves to reveal the perfect form taking shape in the compost. It’s hard not to love a woman who gets excited about a pumpkin being born.

We had not gotten around to the pumpkin topic when we were dating, and so it was with great relief that I discovered she enjoys the company of a few good pumpkins as much as I do. She approved my exhibition of the crop, as well.

Lined up on the wall, our harvest is safe from pumpkins smashers and thieves. I can see their noggins from my office window. And down the hill, in the enclosure where they were born and raised, their vines are brown, dry sinew, ready to be discarded. I procrastinate; I would much rather harvest pumpkins and line them up on a stone wall than deal with the withered umbilical cords.

And so I wonder if we subconsciously associate the shape of pumpkins with the womb, and thereby find comfort in their presence? I wonder they take us back to that singular season of gestation? If these premises be true, I wonder why some smash and carve pumpkins, while others are content to place them on stone walls that other hands built?

 

 

Hats off to this artist neighbor

For the artist, the road to perfection is littered with tests, failures and near-perfect pieces that admiring eyes never see.

Had you been in the Geneva workshop of woodturning artist Ron Tomasch the evening of February 7, you would have seen in the trash bin one half of a wooden cowboy hat with a broken top. The prior day, after Ron invested six hours of lathe work into the piece, the hat’s top suddenly snapped off as it spun on the lathe, sending the hat flying toward Ron. The artist’s chisel had removed a critical layer of wood around the top, the piece was ruined.

Ron took the “failure” in stride, walked across the workshop, flipped the switch on the band saw and made a longitudinal cut through the hat. The postmortem examination revealed that he still had a ways to go in hollowing out the object, but had misjudged the amount of material remaining at the top.

“Sometimes ‘oops’ things happen,” Ron says. “I’ve had a couple of them where I punched through (the rotating wood with the chisel).”

He doesn’t give up. Within minutes of having his day’s work destroyed, Ron was in his truck headed to the tree trimmer’s lot where he’d found the piece of ambrosia maple that he reduced to shavings and a topless hat. Working in hand-numbing cold, he cut two more chunks from the log of the freshly felled tree and prepared one of them for his lathe. The next morning, he was back in the shop, a wiser, more skilled woodturner determined to make a hat.

Turning heads with his work

Determination and a passion for challenge keep Ron on track as an artist. Although the 69-year-old woodturner has been turning since he was 8 years old, he neither tires of the hobby nor has learned all its tricks and intricacies.

As vice-president of the North Coast Woodturners Association, Ron has the pleasure of booking into the club’s learning events top talent from the profession. Four to five times a year, he gets to meet and learn from professional turners, who sometimes visit his shop or allow him to turn in their shops.

“I’m the one who gets to talk to all these guys,” says Ron, who has lived in Geneva for the past four years.

The Olmsted Falls native came east following a chance meeting with Isabell Quayle, a retired teacher and licensed drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor who lives in Geneva. Ron calls Isabell his “girlfriend.” They met at Geneva-on-the-Lake, a place Ron once frequented as a young man, but had not been back to for many years when he decided to revisit one summer day several years ago. He and Isabell struck up a conversation, exchanged cell phone numbers and parted ways. A short distance west of Geneva, Isabell called Ron and asked if he’d like to meet her mother. He turned around, came back for introductions, and the conversation continues.

“We decided we’d get together, and I knocked down her garage and built this,” Ron says of the 850-square-foot workshop he built behind Isabell’s house on Geneva’s east side. The shop is equipped with a dust collection system and all the comforts of home, right down to a large freezer. But the freezer does not store food; it has been cleverly repurposed as a drying kiln for the lumber Ron turns on the three lathes in his shop.

“A woodworker can never have enough tools,” says Ron, a statement reinforced by the plethora of power tools, many of which run on 220-volt current, and neatly arranged hand tools strategically placed, neatly ordered, throughout the shop. The attention to safety, lighting, convenience and efficiency evident throughout the shop bear witness to Ron’s penchant for perfectionism and professionalism in all he creates here.

Ron with some of his work at the Bridge Street Art Works, Ashtabula Harbor.

Turning since childhood

Ron credits his late father for introducing him to wood turning.

“I grew up with three sisters, so my Dad made a lathe out of wood and I would go the basement and make a few things on it,” he says. “But I wasn’t very good at it.”

Ron devoured mechanical arts classes in junior high school and honed his lathe skills in senior high. Marriage, children and the responsibilities that come with those commitments kept him away from lathes for many years. His journey back began when he was a truck driver; Ron made a delivery to a store that sold lathes, and when he learned that the inventory on the delivery dock was for an upcoming sale, he purchased one of the lathes before it even entered the store.

The tool remained boxed in his basement for three years before he finally had time to delve into it. He joined the North Coast Woodturners group 10 years ago and began accumulating the tools, skills and friendships that would enrich his retirement years. In the process, the basement workshop of his house in Cleveland became very cramped.

Fate seemed to be at work for Ron in meeting Isabell, who just happened to have the old garage that needed to be razed. Isabell introduced him to the community during a Grape Jamboree, where decided to get a booth and attempt to sell some of his creations.

Ron says the most common question he heard was “what do you make?” And after hearing it perhaps one too many times, Isabell just blurted out “He just makes stuff.”

“And I thought, ‘That’s a pretty catchy title,’” Ron says.

I Just Make Stuff—especially hats

And so it is that the license plate on Ron’s pickup is “I J M S” and “I Just Make Stuff” is on his T-shirt and business card.

He makes items that challenge and enlarge his skills as a woodturner, items that beg to be released from a block of potential firewood, and functional items, like pet urns, pepper mills and, yes, wood cowboy hats.

He makes the hats in both miniature and full-size incarnations, like the one Kentucky woodturner made for President George W. Bush, NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and singer Charlie Daniels.

Ron credits JoHannes Michelsen, a Manchester, Vt., wood turning professional, with originating the process of transforming an 80-pound chunk of wood into a hat that weighs less than a pound and is 3/32s of an inch thick in most places. Ron discovered the project about a year ago, purchased an instructional DVD made by Michelsen and got hands-on instruction from Columbus, Ohio, woodturner/firefighter Mike Trucco. Ron says Trucco told him to expect lots of failures if he was serious about learning the techniques and skills demanded by the project.

Ron’s custom-made hat; it brings comments wherever he wears it.

On a scale of 1-10 in difficulty, the cowboy hat rates a 10, says Ron. He has no idea how many woodturners are regularly turning out hats, but this much he knows: Any turner who is successful at the project also has a string of failures behind the finished product.

In the year he’s been turning the projects, Ron has turned 15 successfully. “But 12 of them failed. Most of them kept cracking,” he says.

Conventional, very sharp carving chisels are used to chip away at the wood block from which the hat is released. Ron prefers Thompson tools (http://thompsonlathetools.com/), both for their quality and the fact they are “made by a woodturner for woodturners” in North Olmsted. Ron sharpens the tools numerous times throughout the six to seven hours of turning that are required to reduce the block to a hat.

In the process of turning a hat, several garbage bags full of wood shavings are produced. The shavings pile up to knee-high and coat the hand tools on the walls with aromatic streamers. Because the wood must be carved when wet to take advantage of its pliable nature in that state, water drops fly off the log and Ron wears a face mask to protect his vision. Although it has its hazards, Ron prefers to work with freshly harvested wood, as in within 24 hours of being felled, in order to have the higher moisture content in the wood.

There comes a point when Ron must hollow out the inside of the hat to a depth of 3/32nds of an inch. Many things can go wrong at this point and reduce the unfinished piece to firewood. While he can and does use calipers to gauge his progress, Ron finds that shining a bright light source through the translucent wood provides a good visual guide.

A light outside the hat guides Ron as to the thickness of the wood remaining as he hollows out the hat’s interior.

Once the hat is successfully turned, the round opening must be compressed to an oval and the flat brim pulled upward to create the characteristic form of a cowboy hat. The wet hat is placed into a custom-built jig that allows Ron to slowly add compression to the side and flex the brim using strong rubber bands. The process continues over 24-36 hours, during which time the wood can suddenly crack. Ron’s been known to sleep with the jig next to his bed so he can get up every so often and add more pressure to the piece.

“Once it is dry, completely dry, it will never lose its shape,” Ron says.

Finishing takes days because Ron is as meticulous about the smoothness, uniformity and quality of every piece he produces.

“Most people get to the point where they don’t like to do the sanding. I don’t mind it. I want my finishes to be perfect,” he says.

Time is perfection’s currency. Ron says it will take him 40 to 50 hours of work to produce one hat, which he sells at Bridge Street Art Works for $250.00. The artist doesn’t even want to do the math to figure out his hourly wage.

“I do not make a profit,” he says. “What I make from selling this stuff, I use to buy more stuff to turn things with.”

“This is a hobby for me,” he adds. “It’s not to make a living. It’s a hobby I’ve done my whole life.”

Ron’s work is for sale at Bridge Street Art Works, 1009 Bridge St., Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio.

Reach him by email at ron@ijustmakestuff.com, or 216-438-1003.

Ron turns a bowl in his Geneva workshop.

 

A covered bridge date

My third “date” with Ruth was a long one; four days back in October 2017.

We started planning it as soon as it was evident that we had a lot in common and needed some extended together. As it turned out, by the time we actually were able to make the trip, we were already engaged, although we had kept it a secret. Aiding in that effort was the fact that the ring I bought her was too big and had to go back to the artisan not once, but twice. And so we say we were engaged three times before we got married.

The McGee’s Mill Covered Bridge in Clearfield County, Pa., where I presented Ruth with “the ring.”

I proposed to Ruth, the first time, at a covered bridge near Clearfield, Pa., during our second date. Yikes! I know that sounds that like rushing things, but we’d talked two to three a hours a night, plus had sent something like 600 emails to each other by that point. We got to know ourselves and each other during those long conversations and emails, and it just felt so comfortable.

Still, actually being with another person for an entire day is a lot different from being able to say “goodbye,” put the cell phone back in the bag and get on with life alone. So we planned an all-day adventure in Columbia County, Pa., exploring the covered bridges of a county that boasts Pennsylvania’s third largest concentration of 20 legacy wooden bridges.

Ruth was well organized with a picnic that included our favorite meal, cheese and crackers, plus enough beverages and ice to sustain us for several days in the field. In fact, I got so involved in loading her car with the bags of food and plastic silverware, I forgot the tripod from my own vehicle.

And so I had to wing it and hold all the shots of the bridges we visited. For architectural and landscape subjects, I use my Nikon D800E and Zeiss optics. Both the 35 f/2 and 50mm/f2 Makro were all I needed.

We couldn’t visit all 20 covered bridge in one day, so I picked those of greatest interest and within the same vicinity. At the top of the list were the East and West Paden bridges (38-19-12 and 38-19-11, respectively), the only “twin” covered bridges remaining in the country. At one time, Ashtabula County had twin covered bridges at Farnham, south of Conneaut. One was over a mill race, the other over the creek. They were on a dangerous curve and by the mid 1920s had been eliminated. The old mill that stood there is, likewise, long one.

Back in the days, the 1920s, Conneaut, Ohio, had twin covered bridges at Farnham, the site of a mill.

Twin is a bit of a misnomer, for the bridges are of different design, despite being built by the same builder and in the same year. W.C. Pennington charged $720 for the two bridges, named for John Paden, who operated a sawmill nearby.

While the East bridge is original, the West structure is a “reconstruction,” the original bridge having been washed away by a flood in June 2006.

These are not working bridges; they were bypassed in 1963 and repurposed as the centerpiece of Twin Bridges County Park. Picnic tables benefit from their coverings. We crossed the bridges and strolled down the lane to the driveway of a beautiful farmhouse, a photo of which now hangs in our living room, a sliver of a memory from that date.

A stone wall along the driveway and lovely lighting drew me to this private residence near the East and West Paden covered bridges in Columbia County, Pa.

The bridges we visited were all painted red, which turned out to be the most colorful subject matter on this October journey. The fall of 2017 will be remembered by landscape photographers in the East as one of the dullest and most uneventful in recent memory. That said, we did come across some acceptable foliage change along Huntington Creek, Fishing Creek Township. The Josiah Hess bridge awaited us here.

This delightful Burr arch bridge is 110 feet long and was built in 1875. It has a very pronounced camber, or slight arch, to the deck. Ruth soaked up the scenery while I went to work photographing the bridge under less-than-idea light. At least it wasn’t raining.

By the time we reached the Patterson Bridge, the sun had busted through the clouds and the light had become too contrasty for my tastes. This little bridge spans Green Creek and was built in 1875. It has windows on one side, and slanting roofs extend from the bridge to prevent water from entering from the windows—after all, the whole purpose of covering the bridge trusses was to keep water and weather off them. I’d never seen this treatment before on a covered bridge.

Our travels also took us to the Fowlersville and Kramer covered bridges before we decided it was time to get ice cream. We found some at a huge crafts fair near Bloomsburg, then headed toward a spot Ruth recalled from her childhood, one that promised a vista of the Susquehanna River and sunset. It sounded perfect to me; the engagement ring was in my pocket, and I figured a sunset would be a great setting. But we never found the place and ended up watching the sun’s departure over a pasture as we searched maps and the GPS screen in the car for the wrong turn we’d taken.

So on the way back to my motel room, I asked her to pull off in a park and take a walk. Turns out the park was in the shadow of a nuclear power plant, not the most romantic spot in the world. We started walking toward the river, but the mosquitoes were bad, so I just stopped and gave her the ring, which was too big.

We laughed and hugged and promised we’d get engaged a third time. And we did, without benefit of covered bridges, in Clearfield, on the fourth date.

The gallery located on the home page exhibits a selection of images from our outing, one of what we hope will be many, many more in the back roads of the Eastern United States.

 

 

Calemine’s Patriotic Shoe Repair Shop

[trx_image url=”http://thefeathercottage.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Calemine-31-of-35-1024×683.jpg” shape=”square” top=”inherit” bottom=”inherit” left=”inherit” right=”inherit”] 

Guerino “Reno” Calemine died this year. Feb. 23, to be exact.

He was almost 91, but up until a few days before his death, Reno was still working in his shoe repair shop at 25 Armstrong St., Keyser, W.Va.

“He was the ‘Mayor of Keyser,’” said Bart Lay, owner of the Solar Mountain Records shop, next door to Reno’s shoe repair shop. “(His passing) has left a big hole in the community. He lived a great life, right up until a week before he died. He was just rocking.”

I met Reno during a Goldenseal Magazine assignment trip in the fall of 2016. The affable Reno welcomed me into his shop, and we spent an afternoon talking his work, family and passion for life.

 “My father started in 1904,” Guerino said, launching into the story of how his father, Dominic immigrated from Italy, survived a narrow escape from death and found a way to make a living despite a disability sustained in that escape.

“He came here when he was 16 years old,” Reno said. “He came by himself. He landed in Rome, New York, where he paid $5 to get a job. He worked a week, then was let go. “That’s the way they treated immigrants back then,” Reno said.

Next came a job in a nail factory in Youngstown, Ohio. Then Dominic received word from a cousin, John Fanto, that he could get him a job on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Piedmont, W.Va.

“He got a job on the work train, and that’s how he ended up in Piedmont,” Reno said of the town near Keyser.

As was the custom, the workers played poker in a caboose when the work was done. “Another train came along and collided with their caboose. Two people got killed, and my father’s legs were smashed, all broken,” Reno said.

At the Keyser hospital where the injured were taken, Dr. Hoffman insisted that Dominic’s mangled leg be amputated. Dominici, unable to speak English, adamantly expressed through an interpreter that he would be extremely “disappointed” with the doctor if that happened. After several impassioned exchanges about the leg, the doctor agreed to do surgery. Reno said the doctor wired together the pieces of his father’s shattered leg.

“And you know, I saw an X-ray of that leg when my father was 80 years old, and you coulc see the wire still in there,” Reno said.

His father spent a year in the hospital; Reno said the railroad paid for his care. A nurse, “Mrs. Romig,” took special interest in the immigrant and taught him how to speak and read English. When Dominic was finally released to resume his life, he decided to stay in Keyser and open a cobbler shop.

Reno said his father learned the trade as a child and teenager in Italy. With Keyser being a railroad town and enjoying prosperity, there was plenty of work to be had, even though the town already had several shoe repair shops. His father set up shop in a frame building on Armstrong Street. The little shop, run by an immigrant with a limp, prospered.

“In 1913 he went back to Italy. Apparently, he had made enough money that he could afford to close up this place and go back. While he was there, he met his wife, Teresa Calemine. No relation to each other,” Reno said.

Dominic brought his bride to the United States and he resumed his cobbler work in Keyser.

“He liked Keyser, and this is where he wanted to stay,” Reno said. “My father and mother are both buried here.”

When America sent its young men into the battlefields of World War I, Dominic tried to enlist. But he was rejected by the armed services because of his injury. So Dominic did his part by being the most patriotic person in Keyser. He played the part of Uncle Sam in minstrel shows and parades and sold Liberty Bonds at his shop.

“He sold more Liberty Bonds than anybody else around here,” Reno said. “One day, he came to work and the sign was on his shoe shop: “Calemine Patriotic Shoe Shop.”

The name stuck, and to this day Reno proudly holds fast to the patriotic legacy of his father and mother. The couple had four boys, all of who served their country. Three of them became cobblers, as well.

Carlo, the first born, was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack came. He served in the Army Air Force throughout World War II and received several Purple Hearts.

“He had shrapnel in his head, and they buried him with that in there,” Reno said of his brother, who lived to be 89 and is buried in Wisconsin. He chose a career path other than shoe repair.

Orlando, the second born, went into shoe repair in North Carolina. He was the shortest lived of the boys and died at 68.

Reno, born March 5, 1926, was next in line. He entered the armed forces as soon as he turned 18 in 1945. He was assigned to Camp Lee, Va., where he taught shoe repair. While that seems like a strange military assignment, Reno said there was a need because so many wounded soldiers required orthopedic footwear.

A sergeant who taught in the orthopedics section gave Reno access to the lab and Reno learned human anatomy and orthopedic skills.

“He let me fool around in there, and that’s where I really picked up the skills to take care of wounded soldiers,” Reno said.

Julio was the last child born to the couple.

“He was in the shoe repair business, too. He went into it in the Cumberland (Maryland) area. He retired 10 years ago, and he wanted me to retire, too, but I never did,” Reno said.

“He told me he wished he had not retired. He told me, ‘Retirement is not the best thing when you are our age. All you do is sit and sit. And pretty soon you can’t walk,’” Reno said.

Julio, a widower, lives in Michigan, where his step-children live.

Reno heeded his brother’s advice and refuses to suffer the same fate brought on by inactivity. Depending upon the company he’s in, Reno has several explanations for why he continues to work.

“I’m here because I didn’t want to stay home,” he said. “My wife pays me $50 a month to come over here.” When pressed, however, Reno admits he does not get a stipend from his wife, Elva, a retired nurse.

He said that working late into life is all about self-preservation.

“I want to stay mobile until I die,” he said. “If I keep working, I’ll be that way, that’s the trick. Whoever said that retirement is the golden years is crazy. Those people who retire and sit down end up in the nursing home. Retirement is not the golden years unless you keep yourself busy. The truth is, the golden years are those years leading up to retirement.”

“There ain’t no disgrace to growing old. It’s just inconvenient,” Reno adds.

His shop is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If Reno has a doctor’s appointment or other personal obligation, he calls his friend, Greg Rotrock, who comes down and opens the shop.

“He has the key to this place, and when I can’t come over, I give him a ring. I’ve always kept this place open so (his friends who loiter in the shop) have a place to go,” Reno said.

“I usually have company from the time I am open,” he adds. “If I am busy, I don’t pay any attention to them and go back and work.”

Reno and his comrades take their seats in the front of the 14-foot-wide shop. They sit in the four elevated, repurposed metal kitchen chairs on the shoeshine platform that came from a Main Street, Keyser, hotel. The platform is made of marble and the stanchions are pure brass.

“This was a five-seater,” Reno said. “But this place is too small for five seats, so (his father) cut it down to four.”

The shoeshine station is closed for business; if a customer wants his shoes polished, Reno uses a lathe-like machine in the backroom. But for decades, the shoeshine station was the busiest spot in the shop. Reno said there were numerous dance halls in the Keyser area in the first half of the 20th century, and no dapper gentleman would go to a dance without a shine on his shoes. Dominic, and later Reno, paid young men to shine shoes long after the repair shop closed on Saturday evening. Many of those men who worked for Reno still stop by to reminisce about those days. “Jimmy, Gerald, Bubb … Reno said, naming off a few of the dozens of young men who made money shining shoes for him.

“The place would be open until 9 or 10 p.m.,” Reno said. “There were five shoe shops in Keyser in those days, and there were three more in Piedmont.”

A black-and-white shoeshine cost a nickel, a white shine a dime and tan shoes were 15 cents when Reno began polishing shoes at the age of 8.

“This is where I learned the shoe repair business,” Reno said, pointing to the row of seats.

“I bought my first bicycle with money from shining shoes,” Reno adds. The bicycle cost $24. Reno said that he also purchased all his clothes with his shoeshine money; his father allowed him to keep everything he made, but he did pay his father for the polish he used.

“Ever since I started shining shoes, I never asked Dad for money,” Reno said.

Reno received free vocational education as part of the deal. The first task he learned in the workroom was removing the soles from shoes.

“Step by step, that’s how I learned,” he said.

The shoe repair business is the only job Reno has ever known.

“There was never a better boss,” said Reno, who worked with his father for decades. His father taught him that it makes more sense to the job right the first time rather than rush through it and risk having to do it over again and alienate a customer. Reno retains that work ethic.

“If it took me all day to put on a pair of heels, that was OK. He wanted it done right,” Reno said. “ ‘Speed comes after perfection,’ he used to tell me. ‘I want you to do the job right.’ And he always said ‘The customer is always right. Right or wrong, he or she is always right.’ We tried to do everything right.”

Reno and Elva raised two children on the wages he earned from the shop and Elva from her job as a registered nurse. Reno trained their son, also named Guerino, but he chose a career in food service.

“He retired from Kentucky Fried Chicken, he was a vice president,” Reno said proudly. His son and his wife, Sue, live in Culpepper, Va., and have a son, Guerino “Jody” Calemine III, a lawyer, and a daughter, Jillian, a physician and researcher in California.

Their daughter, Carla Hastings, lives in Keyser and has a son, Howard J. Hastings, Jr., who has six children. Reno and Elva have two great-grandchildren.

Reno is one of a handful of cobblers left in West Virginia. Even in metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., finding a cobbler can be difficult said David White, who drove 110 miles from Ashburn, Va., to have new soles put on his dress shoes. Even factoring in the cost of driving 440 miles, White considered it a bargain.

“For $27 I got a new pair of shoes,” said the U.S. Coast Guard/Navy commander retired, who grew up in Keyser.

Reno tells his customer that the job was a tough one because modern shoes are not manufactured to be repaired. He pulls out the mangled mess of plastic that was the original sole. Reno said using the old technique of putting soles on shoes with nails no longer works because the materials won’t accept the nails. For David White’s shoes, Reno tried a new type of adhesive that will, with any luck, do the job as well as traditional methods.

Reno said the job probably would have cost his customer two to three times as much in a metropolitan shop, and chances are the shop would be that of a tailor or dry cleaner that is a drop off point for the cobbler. Even Reno could not survive on the shoe trade from Keyser alone, and his completed-work shelves are filled with shoes, boots and purses from out-of-town, out-of-state and occasionally foreign customers who found the shop through word of mouth.

“If I were to advertise I would be so doggone busy,” Reno said. “But I’m doing fine this way.”

Reno said that most of what he makes in the shop goes for overhead: taxes, insurance, utilities and rent. He has always rented the storefront at 25 Armstrong Street since it was built in 1959, following a fire that caused heavy damage to the wooden structure on the same location. Reno said the fire was March 5, 1959. As flames raced toward the shoe shop, neighbors and strangers alike pitched in carry out the cobblers’ precious equipment and tools – the economic lifeblood of two families.

“I was so surprised at how all these people came out to save the shoe shop,” Reno said.

The equipment suffered smoke and water damage, but was salvaged and stored in a building across the street from the shop. The next day, Reno and Dominic received an offer from the bank where Reno had recently signed for a $6,500 loan to finish Reno’s house. At first, he was worried the bank was not going to honor the loan commitment after reading about the fire. Instead, it was an offer to set up shop in a building next to the bank, a former whiskey store where bank records were stored. The space was huge.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? I got enough to pay without that big place,’” Reno said. But the bank was more interested in keeping a cobbler’s shop open than getting what the space was worth, and for the next six months, while a new block building was built on the old site, the shop was located next to the bank, now the library.

“I had a (cobbler shop supplies) salesman come in and told me that I had the biggest shoe repair shop in the world!” Reno said.

Nearly 70 years later, Reno worked with the same vintage tools and equipment that were purchased by his father and salvaged from the fire. Reno said one of the reasons he can keep his prices low is because the equipment was paid off long ago. He keeps it running with a stash of spare parts. Reno takes care of his equipment because it has to last him the rest of his working life, which he anticipates will be the rest of his life.

“It is OK if I die over here because that will mean that I died on my two feet,” Reno said. “As long as I can come over here and work, I am going to do that.”

 

 

 

Sorghum

Sorghum harvest,
Wellsburg, W.Va.,
October 2016

The day we harvested sorghum
it did not matter if the sorghum
grew on red or blue land.
The cane was green,
the community a rainbow
of calloused hands and smiles.
The sky voted for life,
the sun for abundance,
the sap for a sweet finish,
its excess cooking off
over the wood fire, late into the night,
our differences as steam
rising to the October moon.

A veteran for peace

Walter S. Nicholes slid into the school bus seat next to me, nodded and asked me where I was from.

Walter is from Shaker Heights. He is a World War II veteran. He served in the Merchant Marines; entered the academy in July 1942. He saw the world but not much of the war. When the D-Day landing was going on, Walter was in the Mediterranean.

View a slide show of the D-Day Conneaut, Aug. 19, 2016, morning events.

That’s one of the reasons he and his son came to Conneaut on Friday morning, Aug. 19, 2016. Walter wanted to experience the war he had “missed” as a Merchant Marine. The re-enactors, the machinery of war, the uniforms, the invasion – they would all serve to give him a taste of the fighting to which he and other Merchant Marines had been party by supplying and transporting the troops.

Walter also wanted to bring a message to this event.

“To reveal to the public the full costs of war, and to end the use of wars as U.S. foreign policy,” Walter tells me.

He gives me his business card with contact information and the website and mission of the group to which he belongs, Veterans for Peace.

Five minutes later, the bus arrives at Conneaut Township Park, and Walter and his son are soon lost in the interpretive signs, the encampments, the souvenir stands and the events. I don’t see him again.

Some might say Walter is an anomaly in this place, just as much as the World War II equipment and soldiers are anomalies and anachronisms in a place where people come to relax and have fun.

There is tension in this park when D-Day Ohio brings its D-Day Conneaut Invasion to Conneaut every summer. There is the tension of facing down the enemy, of seeing the Germans as humans just like you and me. Of looking at the bayonets, and tanks, and guns that claimed the lives of Americans and made mothers weep rivers of tears and fathers grieve alone in the barns and pubs of our nation for decades to come.

There is tension in making the transition from talking to re-enactors who are bankers, teachers, machinists and engineers when they are not in uniform, to the real soldiers, the World War II veterans who come on canes and in wheelchairs, with wives and sons by their sides, to be honored, remember, let their stories mingle with the other billions of words that have been spoken about this war.

Walter hopes war will never happen again, at least not for money or power. He is not a pacifist, but he is no lover of war, either. And as a veteran, he has every right to speak his mind on the subject. After all, Walter S. Nicholes put his life on the line to defend that right.

He did his duty back in 1942; and 75 years later, is still doing it.

Thank you, Walter S. Nicholes. Thank you for serving; thank you for sitting next to me on that bus. I am honored to meet you.

Fletcher Bridge

 

Fletcher Covered Bridge, Harrison County, W.Va.

 

West of Clarksburg, W.Va., a few miles off U.S. Route 50, is the Fletcher Covered Bridge. I first visited this bridge in April 2012 and scouted it as a location for a night-time, Night Crossings image.

The opportunity arose in October, 2013, when I was in Clarksburg during the day on an assignment.

I drove to the bridge and arrived before dusk, giving me plenty of time to set up the tripod and find the best angle. Once night fell, I went to work in the dark countryside. The road that passes by the bridge, although a narrow, two-lane country byway, was heavily traveled, but no one stopped to see what I was doing. Even the neighbors didn’t bother to venture out and check on the flashing and arcs of LED lights around the bridge.

While I had planned to do a view from the end of the bridge opposite of the road, I could not get the framing that I wanted. So I opted for the road-side of the bridge, which is still in use but did not receive any traffic that night.

The 62-foot bridge is a multiple king post and was built by Soloman Swiger and L.E. Strum.

Located in Harrison County, it spans Tenmile Creek.

The bridge was built for just $1,372 back in 1891. It’s said that the stone for the abutments was quarried at the top of a hill near the bridge site.

The red bridge was restored a few years ago. Allegheny Restoration and Builders of Morgantown charged the state $447,000 for the work, which included replacement of some structural timber and the attractive red siding and roof.

It was a pleasure to photograph this short entry in the nation’s gallery of covered bridges.

 

A 65th anniversary

 

Henry Ruppenthal enjoyed celebrity status as a teenager as a result of being a cooperative weather observer for Morgan County, W.Va. He holds a clipping of a class field trip at which Henry was the speaker.

Henry Ruppenthal enjoyed celebrity status as a teenager as a result of being a cooperative weather observer for Morgan County, W.Va. He holds a clipping of a class field trip at which Henry was the speaker.

Last month marked a 65th anniversary for Henry Ruppenthal III of Wheeling, W.Va.

It was the 65th anniversary of his becoming a cooperative weather observer. At the time, Henry was living in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., where his father was the county’s only professional photographer and camera shop owner. His dad heard about the job opening and encouraged his son to apply.

Henry was accepted and, with a little help from his father, soon found his picture and story in national newspapers. He became somewhat a celebrity in his hometown, and was called upon by teachers at his school to host field trips to his observation station and explain his important work as a weather observer.

Although he was just shy of his 12th birthday when named to the post, Henry proved that he could make accurate observations and complete the monthly reports that were required. For years, he faithfully checked the guages and thermometers at 6 p.m. and recorded his findings. He even did a weather report for the local radio station, which eventually took over his job when Henry moved away from the Eastern Panhandle.

Henry’s story will be in a future issue of Goldenseal Magazine. It was a pleasure to catch up with him in Wheeling several weeks ago and look at his scrapbook. Amazingly, he still has all his weather records from 65 years ago. One to keep up with technology, Henry is in the process of digitizing them.

You can learn more about this fascinating man, who grew up just a short distance from the Berkeley Castle, by visiting his website, http://www.ruppenthalweb.com/Henryiii.htm