Ashtabula Harbor

“Ashtabula Habor: A History of the World’s Greatest Iron Ore Receiving Port” makes a great Christmas gift for former residents and history lovers.

We recently completed a video about the book, available on this website.

Maple syrup and snakes

In a typical year, I would make my first West Virginia/Back Roads journey in early May. But so far this year 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.

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.

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.

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:

Lodge (1 of 1)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.

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.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

Mount Wood cemetery is a rural cemetery that overlooks the city.

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.

Memories of a dream past

I spent a few hours this past weekend sorting through equipment that I purchased several years ago for the freelance photography business I launched way back in 2000.

The art and retail photography markets were much more hopeful and inviting back then. Consumers had disposable income and seemed to appreciate good photography. I always enjoyed capturing the romance of weddings, the joy of children and the wisdom of the mature adult’s face on film. I needed a second income so I could give money to faith-based initiatives and put away something for retirement. So I started Feather Multimedia.

The first five years were fantastic, the business grew quickly and I was working most weekends and every night. I worked harder at that than I had at any job. I kept investing profits back into the business, but I never made enough so I could step away from the 9-9 job and do the thing I loved full time. Health insurance was one of the big issues back then … this was before Obamacare.

And then everthing went down the toilet. The recession hit. Digital cameras became commonplace and photographers with their aresenal of special lighting equipment, expensive lenses and large sensors were no longer needed, especially in an economy where discretionary income was drying up. Good enough was good enough.

I started losing some important clients, ones I had come to depend upon for paying the overhead. I started paring back, and spent the next five years divesting myself of equipment to keep pace with the overhead.

The backdrops will go out the door this week. As I packed them, I thought of the many couples, youngsters and families who had been photographed in front of them. Ditto for the light stands that held the heavy monolights and soft boxes, which delivered the smooth, face-enhancing lighting that gave my images an edge over the myriad on-the-camera flash photos.

I’m not bitter about all of this. I will soon turn 60 and, frankly, I just don’t feel like making photos of screaming kids and babies, or uncooperative, half-smashed couples. Those caveats aside, I did enjoy my  years behind the wedding and portrait lenses. I loved thoses Sunday and Monday afternoons after a wedding, when the images popped up in Lightroom and I made the final tweaks to the RAW files. And I loved posting them into a gallery that was ready just 48 hours after the event, and creating multimedia shows of the wedding or photo session. Hopefully, at some point down the road, a couple who is having strife in their marriage and considering calling it quits, will look at their DVD and recall what it was that attracted them to each other in the first place. Or that mother and father will be able to pull out the slide show of their three-month-old baby and enjoy those fleeting moments again.

Nothing lasts forever, especially in this crazy, fad-driven economy. That includes the value of the artist’s work. I recently came across this blogger’s post  and I could not agree more. Most consumers have no idea how much money goes into the photographer’s equipment, software, training, computers and insurances. It’s been a few years since I purchased any new photo equipment, but my guess is that Nikon is not giving away equipment; I wonder why consumers think that photos ought to be given away or no value be attached to the photographer’s time spent in getting to a location, setting up the lights, figuring out the best angles, shooting the job, loading and archiving it, processing it and burning CDs or uploading images? There are expenses every step of the way. And unfortunately photographers require food, their cars burn gasoline and they get sick and require medical tests and drugs.

I constantly see new photographers come onto the local market, and I feel sorry for them, especially when they price their work incredibly low. They are setting themselves up for failure, especially if they ever plan to grow beyond using a simple DSLR and kit zoom lens.

At least they will have some good memories when it’s time to pack up the gear and sell it to the next starry-eyed photographer.