Press & Reviews

Fresh and valuable… The Moundsville film, by Miller and Bernabo, presents the results in a way different from most other documentaries I’ve seen… worth watching. — James Fallows, The Atlantic 

Summarizes the core problem that many small cities and towns face in 21st century America. — Matt Stroud, Postindustrial

This sort of entrepreneurial revival is “one thing that’s happening in Appalachia that is not talked about enough,” says Miller. “There are young creative people doing different kinds of things, and building a new kind of future. And we’re not going back to the past. One thing the mound reminds us of is that civilizations and cultures do eventually move on, and change is inevitable.” — Bill O’Driscoll, WESA 90.5 (NPR)

The city’s rise and fall will be familiar to many who grew up in small, rust-belt towns — yet there’s something distinct about Moundsville, named for the ancient burial mound in the center of town. The Grave Creek Mound Burial Site — which dates so far into antiquity that little is known about the native Americans who built it — provides a physical and spiritual backdrop for the film. — Sean Collier, Pittsburgh Magazine 

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story… The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. – Nora Edinger, Weelunk.com

Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work. — Sherry Greenfield, Hagerstown Herald-Mail

Any hard conversation about America’s future needs to start with a shared understanding of our past and present, free of myth and easy narrative. When you’re trying to accept and understand change, the truth always helps. — John W. Miller, Buzzfeednews.com

“Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.” — John W. Miller, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“A gripping look at a fascinating West Virginia town wrestling with its past and fighting for its future, with lots of surprises along the way.” — Joe Barrett, Wall Street Journal 

“This film succeeds by allowing people to tell their own stories – with moments of nostalgia and pride interspersed with flashes of frustration and grief – just like real life. It’s hard to predict the future, but as a viewer (or reviewer, as the case may be), it’s impossible to deny that I’m rooting for Moundsville. These are good folks who certainly deserve a win.” — Tony Montana, United Steelworkers

“I feel energized by the thoughts that this movie has provoked. The way the story is told is brilliant. Communities throughout history like to think others’ success is the reason for their own woes. Rather, they need to look within to figure out how to have their own rebirth. This movie is a step in the direction of understanding.” — C. Donald Brasher, Jr., President, Trade Data Monitor, Inc.

“A provocative documentary about the economic geography of a West Virginia mountain town. It was fantastic! I’m still thinking about it.” – Dr. Bob Ross, Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA

“A lot of stories about the Heartland are depressing, bleak, hopeless — or angry. It’s more complicated than that, and this movie finds a path between the extremes that gets you closer to reality. Everyone should take the trip to Moundsville.”– Joe White, Reuters

“Fantastic! A great job showing the multiple forces driving Appalachian thinking and acting.” – Dr. Jason King, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA

“A beautiful, thoughtful, and respectful documentary about my hometown of Moundsville, WV.” – Tracey Whorton, drummer from Moundsville

“Gets to the truth of the place by leaving Trump out of conversations.” Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal

“I highly recommend this absorbing and enlightening documentary about a small West Virginia town and its travails since the halcyon days of the 1950s.” — Paul Blustein, former economics reporter for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, author of “The Chastening” and other books about global trade

Can a New Factory Save an Old Town? Moundsville Awaits Plastic-Making ‘Cracker’ Plant

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Chevron gas plant in Moundsville, WV

One future path that came up when we were reporting and shooting our movie (which you can watch for $3.99 here) was the possible construction of a so-called “cracker” plant in Ohio across the river from Moundsville.

People like mayor Phil Remke say it could revitalize the town, creating thousands of high-paying to jobs to build the plant, and hundreds of permanent positions when it’s finished. Opponents warn of pollution, higher cancer rates, overcrowding, and a shortage of jobs local residents are qualified for. (The gas industry’s best jobs typically go to highly-qualified transplants, not locals.)

Before we tackle our headline question, let’s answer this one: what’s a cracker plant?

Short: It turns gas into plastic.

Long: The first synthetic version of plastic, made out of coal, was invented early last century to replace rubber. The innovation was to turn hydrocarbons into polymers, a string of molecules, that can be moulded into anything from Coke bottles and bags to car parts and iPhone cases. In 2019, the cheapest way to make plastic is with natural gas, in a cracker plant. It employs high-pressure steam to “crack” ethane molecules from natural gas into little beads made out of a polyethylene, which are packed in bags and shipped around the world.

And America is currently going through a cracker boom, sprouting new factories in gas-rich regions.

Despite an environmental movement that’s led some governments to restrict plastic usage, people want bags, pens, cell phones and cars. Plastic is cheap, easy to use, and can save fuel by making cars lighter.  Annual demand is expected to top 500 million tons by the end of next decade, from 311 million tons in 2014. The global plastics market is worth over $500 billion a year. Human consumption of plastic bottles topped 500 billion units last year.

That’s why the expansion of shale gas drilling in the US this decade, using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has prompted firms like Shell, Exxon and Dow to build $150 billion worth of new US gas-reliant chemical plants, in places like the Ohio Valley and the Gulf of Mexico.

This week, President Trump toured one, a plant Dutch oil company Shell is building near Pittsburgh. The 386-acre $6 billion project is employing over 5,000 workers, and, once operational in a few years, will produce over a million tons of plastic a year. At full capacity, it will require around 600 permanent workers, the company says. 

That project is similar to what could happen down the river, across the water from Moundsville, where Thailand’s PTT Global Chemical and Daelim Industrial Co. of South Korea have permits to build. According to a recent story in The Intelligencer, Wheeling’s newspaper, PTT, the lead investor, has hired Bechtel, a major international contractor which has been building the Shell plant.

With Bechtel overseeing both projects, there’s a stronger possibility that workers from the Shell site, once it’s completed, could relocate to the local region to begin work on the PTT site.

It’s still unclear when that will happen. PTT has yet to commit to building the plant. (That’s why we decided to not include the project in our film.) But, still, a groundbreaking seems increasingly possible.

So can a factory save a town? In other words, how badly should Moundsville want this? Are the jobs worth the crowded roads and dirtier skies? (A cracker plant is likely cleaner than a coal-fired power plant, but environmental impact is never zero.)

I posed the question to the University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem, who studies economic development in the region. “The question of whether (a) people follow jobs or (b) jobs follow people is an absolutely enormous topic at the center of many if not all debates on economic development,” he wrote me in an email. With many sectors, like tech, education and medical, able to operate almost anywhere, investment is driven by “things like fiscal incentives and tax competition and especially as labor markets tighten the availability of labor,” Briem wrote. However,

for gas and coal mining, it’s clear that the jobs will follow the resources, he said. So you will get a bunch of jobs. But will other sectors and industries follow? The answer is probably not.

For a place like Moundsville, the challenge is that so many working age people have left, making it difficult to rebuild a strong diversified economy.

 You see just unbelievable losses across the medium-sized regions of the Rust Belt, especially those in proximity to Pittsburgh: Altoona, Johnstown, Weirton, Erie. Hard to rebuild a new competitive advantage (especially in an era where workforce is a more important factor) when you have lost the part of the workforce most able to adapt and change.

To mayor Remke’s delight, the cracker plant will create jobs. And the people working at the plant will spend cash at Bob’s Diner and other restaurants, shop at the Wal-Mart, and sleep at the Sleep Inn. (One strike against local economic development: These days, most businesses in places like Moundsville are owned by outsiders unlikely to reinvent profits in the community.)

How much more new job-making business follows the cracker plant will depend on other factors, like Remke’s leadership, and whether Moundsville can incite enough qualified working age people to move there.

Whatever comes first, in the end, an economy is only ever as good as its people.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brad Paisley is the Proudest West Virginian — Country Star Shares State, Small Town Roots With Lady Gaga — Putting WV On Everything: “Pitt Fans Aren’t Happy”

Brad Paisley's H2O II: Wetter & Wilder Tour

Lady Gaga isn’t the only celebrity with roots in the Moundsville, WV area, subject of our documentary about a classic American town, which you can still rent for $3.99 here.

Amazingly, with a population of only 1.8 million, West Virginia can claim the roots of two of the biggest musical superstars on the planet.

Driving into Glen Dale, part of greater Moundsville, there is a sign that says: “Home of Brad Paisley.” It’s hard to miss, and there’s a reason for the pride: Country star Paisley just might be the West Virginianest West Virginian of them all.

His dad started taking him to Mountaineer football games when he was five. On game day, the stadium in Morgantown is the biggest city in the state, he notes. He proudly sings “Country Roads” and wears the blue and yellow WV hat all over the world. He would have attended WVU but instead went to Nashville to pursue his musical career. His dad, he says, puts WV on everything. “If it doesn’t have a WV on it, it will,” he says. When you wear a WV hat, Paisley says, “you’re not saying this is my team, you’re saying this is my state.” He likes to come back, he told West Virginia University’s magazine‘s Jake Stump, because:

My parents still live here, and a lot of my friends are still here. West Virginia isn’t an easy place to forget. It’s too ideal. It’s a wonderful place to grow up. You can’t just move on and not want some part of that in your life.

Paisley was born in Glen Dale. He’s the only son of a Dept. of Transportation worker and a schoolteacher, and, like Lady Gaga’s mom Cynthia, he is a graduate of John Marshall high school. His grandfather Warren Jarvis taught him to play guitar. The talent was obvious, electric. Fame spread like wildfire. Paisley played at churches, rotary clubs and Christmas and Mother’s Day parties. An invite to the radio station in Wheeling followed, which led to regular appearances on a popular variety show called Jamboree USA.

He moved to Nashville to study and play music. Stardom followed: over 12 million albums, three Grammys, and two American Music and 14 Academy of Country Music awards. Membership in the Grand Ole Opry. He’s written songs — like “Behind the Clouds” and “Find Yourself” for the Cars movies made by Pixar.

You can take the kid out of WV, but you can’t take WV out of the kid. Paisley even gets instruments made in Moundsville, by guitar maker Bill Crook.

Bill Crook, the guy who builds me guitars, built me a gold-and-blue Telecaster in gold-and-blue paisley print. I said, “You should stick a WV on that,” because he’s from here, too. He lives in Moundsville. And so, there it was. It looked great. But I soon realized that we’re not loved by everyone when I play guitar like that on TV. I always think, “This will be really cool.” And then you read Twitter. And Pitt fans aren’t happy.

And, of course, he loves to play John Denver’s iconic “Country Roads” all over the world. In the state, the song is

like the national anthem. It’s a great song. It’s iconic. It’s sort of a worldwide anthem, and I don’t understand why it means anything to anyone who’s not from here. But it does. And it’s a really proud thing for us. It’s such an iconic and wonderful piece of country music history that really is about love for this state. As you imagine, it means a lot to me.

And Paisley even refers to his hometown in his music. In the song “Letter to Me”, a missive to his 17-year-old self, he refers to local streets and thanks his teacher Mrs. Brinkman at John Marshall:

At the stop sign at Tomlinson and Eighth
Always stop completely, don’t just tap your brakes.
And when you get a date with Bridgett make sure the tank is full.
On second thought forget it. That one turns out kinda cool.

Each and every time you have a fight
Just assume you’re wrong and dad is right.
And you should really thank Mrs. Brinkman:
She spends so much extra time.
It’s like she sees the diamond underneath,
And she’s polishing you ’til you shine.

And you should really thank Mrs. Brinkman:
She spends so much extra time.
It’s like she sees the diamond underneath,
And she’s polishing you ’til you shine.

Diamonds, of course, are made out of carbon, just like coal. West Virginia is famous for mining the black rock. It’s also got some gems, and as Paisley points out, sometimes all you need is a little polishing.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

 

Rise of a Christian Ghost Hunter: The Amazing Story of West Virginia’s Steve Hummel, Star of Paranormal Quest

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Steve Hummel, paranormal archivist, in the film “Moundsville”.

Steve Hummel, 36, is a West Virginia artist, museum director, paranormal investigator and archivist, filmmaker and tour guide. His museum Archives of the Afterlife is one of Moundsville, WV’s top tourist attractions, with 292 reviews and 5 stars on Tripadvisor.

Steve’s also one of the stars of the Youtube channel Paranormal Quest which investigates the paranormal, from demonic dolls to haunted houses, around the region and has over 26,000 subscribers, and of the movie Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here.)

Steve’s a small-town West Virginia guy with city street smarts who sees no contradiction between his lifelong Christian faith and ghost hunting. “Scripture talks about people with different kinds of spiritual gifts,” he says. “I think I have a gift for discerning people and energies, good or bad, and for feeling comfortable or uncomfortable based on the spirits around me.”

The objects in Steve’s collection carry with them the spirits of the people who used or otherwise interacted with them, like Catholic relics.

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Moundsville is one of the best places in the U.S. to hunt for ghosts because of the long history of human settlement there, says Steve:

We believe that some of the energies and entities we discover are there because of Native Americans. The whole Ohio valley was pretty much burial ground. So you have these haunted relics that carry energies. We haven’t heard any non-English voices yet, but a lot of times people make the claim there’s something that doesn’t want them around. We’re thinking it could only possibly be Native Americans.

How do you meet a ghost? I ask.

It varies, depends on where you’re at, depends on a location, on which item you’re looking at. Get a voice recorder. That way you can document it. A phone could work, although I don’t think the microphone is as good as a high-end Sony digital recorder. Start out by asking questions: What’s your name? What year is it for you? Are you male or female? A proximity meter can help, too.

Steve was the first person I met in Moundsville, standing behind the counter of a store on Jefferson Ave. advertised as a “paranormal hot dog stand.” It sold franks in one room and in another carried a collection of spooky items. Steve had owned a gym, too, and was trying to improve business at his diner, a story I told in the Wall Street Journal in 2013.

His new museum is the Archives, featured in our film and housed in an old Moundsville school building, which he says “provides good spirits”.

Steve has deep roots in the town, being a descendant of its 18th century founder, and his story reflects the fortunes of the Rust Belt. He decided to stay in Moundsville, despite the dwindling opportunities following the closure of factories in the Ohio Valley in the 1970s and 1980s. “If it weren’t for friend and family, I might consider a different location, but this is where I’m from,” he says.

Where once his ancestors could count on factory jobs, Steve is a hustling entrepreneur who has to eat and kill his own game. It’s not the easiest life: Steve, divorced and single, lives on only a $1,000 or so a month. He doesn’t have health insurance.

He stays with his grandparents and takes care of them, renting out a house he still owns for $475 a month. His Archives of the Afterlife, in an old school building, charges $3 per visit. It gets 100 to 200 visits a month. “If I could do anything, it would be to expand tourism in this town,” he says. “Tourism and sales, that’s what I know how to do.” He also sells acrylic paintings. (Call or text Steve on 1-304-231-7134 if you’re interested in buying one.)

Another admirable thing about Steve is that he is committed to developing his skills. This year, he earned a degree in spiritual warfare and demonology from the Omega Bible Institute in Monroe, LA. That took six months and cost $750.

It doesn’t matter how hard life has become in a small West Virginia town. Steve is always hustling. That takes a special kind of spirit.

John W. Miller

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Dave Bernabo (r) interviews Steve Hummel (r) for the film “Moundsville”

“Good Journalism Is Loving Because It Cares About People” — A Speech on Journalism to High School Students

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Dave Bernabo (r) interviews Bill Wnek (l) for our film, at Bob’s Lunch in Moundsville, WV.

Screening Moundsville this year has taken us to magazines, schools, libraries, old-age homes, theaters, small towns, and art galleries. My impulse in making the film was journalistic: I wanted to report an American story that everybody agreed was true. In post-film talks, I found myself having to explain, and thinking a lot about, what I think journalism is. Most people don’t really know. So when my neighbor, an English teacher at a high school in suburban Pittsburgh, invited me this spring to speak to his class, I said yes, and this is what I said:

First, don’t confuse journalism with media. You’re familiar with that: You have smartphones. Media is what you see on it.

Media is Netflix, Snapchat, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and radio, TV and newspapers. A Youtube clip by Taylor Swift, a tweet by Trump, a quiz on which Disney character you are. All of that.

I’m not here to talk about media. I’m here to talk about a subset: journalism.

Journalism is a type of media. It’s also a craft, a practice, a job, a way of looking at the world.

It’s work, driven by curiosity, integrity, a love of words and a love of the truth. It’s introducing the world to people, places, ideas and stories that don’t exist anywhere on page, stage, screen or speaker.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to do journalism.

Here’s the right way: find a story that is interesting and relevant to people, and introduces the world to a new idea, person or place.

Go talk to people. Make phone calls. Present yourself honestly. Write down what people say. Be persistent. A honey badger. Take some pictures with your phone. Do some reading. Write a story. Get somebody to edit it.

Without editors, you’ll get stuck in your own worldview and language. Editors will help you write for your readers instead of for yourself.

If you make a mistake, fix it, and print a correction.

Do this over and over again. There’s a right way to do it. Like any craft, the more you do it, the better you get it.

When I was in college, the textbooks and teachers told us that the mission of journalists was to inform, entertain and educate. That’s still true.

Another mission is holding powerful institutions, especially governments and corporations, accountable to the truth.

When big institutions see more value in their survival than in people, they lie.

The Catholic church lied to protect pedophile priests, Nixon lied to protect a burglary, and a company called Enron lied to protect profits. Journalists learned the truth by talking to people.

Good journalism is loving because it cares about people.

There’s so much media out there. Read, watch or listen to journalism done by people doing this work right.

Figure this out: Are they making a lot of phone calls? Are they talking to a lot of people before they write their story? Do they work hard to make it easy to read? When they make mistakes, do they hold themselves accountable and print corrections? If they do those things, it’s journalism and you can trust it. If not, it’s some other kind of media.

You’re so lucky: This country has a great tradition of trustworthy journalism. And you get to read, watch and listen.

You know you might want to be a journalist if your worldview is driven by curiosity. Look around you. Do you have questions? Who’s in charge here? Why? How? How is this room lit? Look up. Where were those lightbulbs made? Who invented the lightbulb? Who dug up at the sand used to make the glass used to make the bulb?

In America, we’re lucky because we have the first amendment that means you’re free to try to answer these questions. Don’t take that freedom for granted.

If you want to become a journalist, do it now, for your high school newspaper. Find a story. Go talk to people. You don’t ever have to study journalism, even in college. Like I said, it’s a craft. That means that, when you get a job, somebody will teach you how do it. And the more you do it, the better you’ll get. In school, learn stuff nobody will teach you later, like Shakespeare or physics.

Journalism will continue because, done right, the work is so valuable that we’ll always figure out a way to pay for it.

Journalism will endure because we will always love stories and words, and want to know more about the truth; and we will always be curious.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

The Badass Life of the ‘Mother of the Civil War’ Whose Children Fought on Both Sides: A Teenage Bride, She Got a Divorce, Outlived Husbands, and Loved to Smoke.

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Sarah Brandon

Now a salute to Sarah Brandon, a Moundsville woman whose 1914 obituary described her as the “Mother of the Civil War”. According to a story in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Gazette, she died at 113, and had 23 children, including 16 boys who fought in the Civil War. (14 for the Union, two for the Confederacy.) It also mentioned this fact: “She drank and smoked moderately for 90 years.”

I discovered Brandon’s story thanks to a recent mention on Twitter by University of Tennessee-Knoxville historian and Appalachian writer Bob Hutton. (He did not return a couple emails seeking comment; I’m happy to publish his comments here if he wants to add something.)

Brandon’s life story shows how early media legends were created, and illustrates in vivid detail the tough, painful lot of women in 19th century America.

A search of newspaper archives shows that Brandon was a minor media sensation in the 1900s and 1910s. Her likeness hung in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, and the Ohio state gallery in Columbus. Then she was forgotten. I never heard her story while researching material for our movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here.)

Moundsville town historian Gary Rider hadn’t either, but he found and emailed me genealogical research indicating that newspaper accounts exaggerated her age and number of children.

Here is the most likely truth, according to those records: Sarah Barker was born in Ohio in 1819, 16 years after it became a state. So she was 95 when she died, not 113. But still: She came into the world only a few decades after the age of Washington and Jefferson, and lived into the century of the Wright brothers, the Atom bomb, Hitler, the moon landing, and Eminem.

And this is even crazier: At 15, she married a 74-year-old man named Charles Brandon, who was born in England in 1761 and was one of the Ohio Valley’s first white settlers, establishing a homestead and fighting against Native Americans. When they tied the knot, Charles had already fathered over 20 children in two previous marriages. Together, they had 15 children. The large number of Charles’ other children explains why newspaper accounts credit Sarah herself with as many as 32 offspring.

No wonder she filed for a divorce in 1856, even though she reportedly never learned to read. In 1887, she told the Xenia, Indiana Journal that she had divorced her husband the year he died. According to descendants, he died 10 years later. In 1863, she remarried a man named William Swaney or Sweney. By the 1910 census, he was no longer around either.

By then, Brandon was getting old and newspaper reporters were flocking the Moundsville to write stories about her.

An 1887 story in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has her walking as many as 20 miles in a day between towns on the Ohio River. It says that Mrs. Brandon was known

as a somewhat eccentric personage, and many interesting stories are told about her. Although verging on seventy years her strength and powers of endurance are remarkable, exceeding, as they do, that of the average man… In personal appearance Mrs. Brandon is striking. Six feet tall, she has the build of a backwoodsman… Her features are not unpleasant, but her countenance is marred by the absence of her right eye, shot out with an arrow by one of the second wife’s children a generation ago, in a fit of childish rage. She is unable to read or write, but in conversation is intelligent, quick witter and possessed of great will power. She is a wonderful woman and one of the few remaining links binding the civilization at present existing along the Upper Ohio Valley with the savage and bloody past.

A 1911 story from The Appeal, a St. Paul, Minnesota paper, describes her as

hale and hearty. She does all her own housework and cultivates a small garden patch in the rear of her home. She smokes a pipe constantly, favoring only the strongest tobacco. Without the pipe, she says, she grows nervous and lonesome.

The little house in which she resides snuggles against a hill within a few yards of the city limits of the Ohio River town [Moundsville], and every week Mrs. Brandon can be seen wending her way to the city for supplies of her Sunday dinner.

Almost all the stories about Brandon refer again and again to her fondness for smoking tobacco. A 1911 story from the Rutland Daily Herald (Vermont) with a Moundsville dateline discusses how her reportedly 80-year-old son Evan went to buy “the annual supply of smoking tobacco” for his reportedly 111-year-old mother. “There are authentic records to prove that she is as old as she says she is,” the story says.

Mrs. Brandon is wonderfully active and is able to do much of the work around the house and even goes into the fields and assists there. She has had the very best of health all her life and in the last 30 years has not had a suck day. She, with other women of her day, learned to smoke and today her pipe is her constant companion.

An account in the Central News of Perkasie, PA makes her sounds like a hippie smoking weed:

Mrs. Brandon began to corner the smoking tobacco market at an early age, yielding to the lure of the pipe, and for many years requiring her son to lay in an ample supply of bright, golden, burley tobacco for her own special use. She hits the pipe freely and every day and night witnesses angelic visions through the curling smoke of the fragrant weed.

Of her children who fought in the Civil War, the Rutland Daily Herald story, says, “some were killed in battle, some were wounded, while others returned home unscathed.” One story from 1911 mentioned her reportedly 89-year-old son Hiram. He “works every day in a steel mill and boasts that he was never sick a day in his life.” Her son Evan “digs coal” and “carries scars from bullet and saber wounds received while fighting for the Union in the Civil War.”

Brandon lived in an age even more divided than our own, soiled by the blood of a literal civil war that killed some of her children. Initially celebrated only as a mother of soldiers, she comes across in later newspaper accounts as somebody who, despite illiteracy, a quasi-forced marriage and a life in a society painfully oppressive to women, persisted, and died very much her own person. May we all be so lucky.

John W. Miller.

Race and the American Dream in Appalachia: The Patriotism and Pain of Gene Saunders, the Only Black Mayor in the History of a Small West Virginia Town

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Viewers’ favorite character in Moundsville is almost always Eugene “Gene” Saunders, a retired coal miner and the first and only African-American mayor in the history of the Ohio river town of 8,000.

Gene is an earnest, engaging and energetic presence on the screen, and his life illuminates contradictions about America, and challenges mass-media narratives about Appalachia, a broad region encompassing 13 states and 25 million people, which tend to focus solely on white hillbillies and often obscure the role of racial minorities, including African-Americans, who have made up around 10% of the region’s population since the 1860s.

Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) has a lot of threads, and we decided to tackle race and racism through the story of Gene, an interview with Alexis Martinez, a Latino immigrant, and the story of the mound, a monument to Native American peoples overrun by time and other enemies, and, later, white settlers, which speaks to all kinds of tensions in American life.

Gene refuses to let any of the truths about his identity and beliefs drown each other out, asserting the right we all have to contain multitudes. He’s an African-American who still suffers from the painful discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s, and a proud coal miner and American fierce in his old-school patriotism and love for his small West Virginia town and its traditional values. He’s an unabashed booster who declares that Quality Baker on 2nd Street has the “best doughnuts in the country.”

“I love America,” he says. “I think it’s the best country to live in. I love our rights, and our freedoms.”

Gene, a Democrat, says he holds old-school small-town conservative values, nostalgically recalling a time “when the neighborhood raised you.” Young people today “want an easy life. They want everything right now. We made it easy for them. Nothing like when we were kids. These days the parents want to be their friends more than their parents. They’re also telling them they’re always number one. I don’t agree with that. My parents didn’t even know what a vacation was. ”

He’s also skeptical about the benefits of immigration. “I wouldn’t have a problem with immigration if we took care of our own,” he says. “We got blacks and whites here who can’t find jobs. And it’s tough when you have foreigners who’ll work for less pay.”

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Gene was born on Nov. 11, 1948, making him 70 years old. He has three living sons, 10 grandkids and six great-grandkids. He attended segregated schools. “I didn’t understand why I could play with white kids but not go to their schools,” he says. Gene and his family couldn’t go to parts of town off-limits to black people. (In the same 1950s neighborhood he grew up in, he says, lived the last surviving Native Americans, born in the 19th century.)

After the schools desegregated, Gene had to be the first to integrate baseball and basketball teams. Kids wouldn’t let him sit with them on the bus. Later, as a young adult, he struggled to find housing in Moundsville “because of the color of my skin,” he says. “It was really rough.” (Some older residents in Moundsville don’t like hearing these stories, and objected to us including Gene’s telling of them in our movie.)

Gene’s dad went to work in the coal mines when he was eight and labored underground for 51 years, developing black lung disease. He tried to dissuade Gene from following his path, but it was one of the only good jobs available to African-Americans at the time.

Gene had tried living in Pittsburgh and hated it, so he moved back to Moundsville and in 1967 got a job shoveling coal for 15 dollars a day. He lasted 40 years, treasuring the good salary and prestige. He never had lung problems, which he credits to not smoking. (His dad smoked cigars.)

I loved working in the coal mines. In 1972, I became a boss. What was tough was people taking orders from a black guy. My first six-eight years I had some hard times. People would write things about me. When I got transferred to another mine the superintendent said we almost didn’t want you down here this is a red neck coal mine. and I said well as long as these people do what I tell them to do there will be no problem.

Eventually, Gene says, he won people over by his hard work and by saving a white man’s life. What about the awful double standard? “It is what it is,” says Gene. “I chose to focus on my opportunities.”

In 2005, Gene lost part of his right leg when it was crushed by a machine.

I was in a very serious accident where I should have by rights been gone. I should have died that day. My leg was crushed. Luckily, an EMT happened to be there and saved me. I was in the hospital for over a month. They tried to save my leg. The doctor came in and said I would have a gimp leg if they could save it. I had already had nine operations. I ended up telling him to take my leg because I wanted out of the hospital.

After retiring from mining following his injury, Gene got active in city politics, running for council in 2008. “Everybody thought I was nuts,” he says. “Everybody said you’ll never elected. I thought the worst thing that can happen is I don’t get elected.” He won.

Why do voters like him? “All my adult life, I’ve always given,” he says. “I joined the Lions Club, which my dad could never have dreamed of.  I’ve been a baseball umpire in the Ohio Valley for 40 years. I’ve coached football for 40 years. All that must have helped me get elected. There are still people in town who will never vote for me, though.”

In 2012, Gene was elevated to mayor, a position he held for almost five years. The wall of mayor’s portraits in the Moundsville city building is a sea of white faces — and Gene.

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Moundsville, WV city council meeting room. (Gene is second from left in last row.)

Like many people in Appalachia, Gene has children who live elsewhere. “They can’t find the opportunities in Moundsville they can in other places,” he says. Two sons live in Virginia, one a grade school teacher and the second a retired military computer engineer; and the third works in sports management at the University of Maryland.

There are only 30 to 35 African-Americans living in Moundsville, says Gene. “My wife and I might want to live elsewhere, but this is where I grew up, it’s what I’m used to. And I’m thrilled to be alive, and to have had the life I’ve had.”

John W. Miller

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“They carried earth in baskets” — Virginia Tech Researcher Jordan Laney Wins Moundsville Film Poetry Contest

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Jordan Laney, winner of Moundsville poetry contest

Jordan Laney, a postdoc researcher at the Virginia Tech Dept. of Religion and Culture, has won the Moundsville poetry contest.

Poet Crystal Good says she was inspired by the documentary film (which you can rent for $3.99 here) to run the competition for national poetry month in April because of the film’s treatment of race, the cyclical nature of history, and the part we gave to West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman, one of her favorites.

The three poems she picked as winners — all meditations around the 2,250-year-old Native American mound — “were rich and lovely and I hope you enjoy reading them,” she says.

Laney, the first-place finisher, says she “entered the contest as a challenge to myself during National Poetry Month– to be more productive and public with my work.”

The film, she wrote me in an email,

had a story and cadence that reminded me of my hometown, Marion, North Carolina and our beloved “old Wal-Mart” (not to be confused with the new Wal-Mart on I-40). The “old Wal-Mart” that I went to as a child is now half Big Lots, half vacant building and sits on top of/in front of an indigenous burial ground. I was moved by the similar emotions of different generations throughout rural America can be seen through the stories you captured in Moundsville– the ability to stay for older generations (the hope the mill and mines offered) and the struggle to return and thrive for younger generations (despite a college education). Through the film, I enjoyed being reminded of the rich material culture in our small towns and the way the present moment interacts with history through both stories and the literal ground we walk on. I’m looking forward to visiting Moundsville, WV.

Here’s her poem:

To Know

They carried earth in baskets

        high          above furrowed brows

feet in Ursa Major, dragging

onward, to Polaris

wandering, making hollers

and ridges of skylines

For supper, soft round soil

silt     clay     sand

dirt between teeth, sweet on the tongue

swallowing, to know

what it means to be

of a place in a place

to be        a place

After long days of work

water wheel planting

Pelleted fertilizer, fire

deep in good dirt

pushing life into emptiness

backs bent and dreaming

At nightfall

we closed our eyes and we ate

feasting

glutinous by nature

When baskets were empty, stomachs

swollen (all water, organic matter gone)

we carried seeds in our teeth

         blood blistered lips to the ground

speaking life         into rows

tilling      ripping

subsoil        topsoil         red soil

peat        chernozems         loess

Praying, bleeding, waiting

          drought and flood

resigning.       until only

the gathering

the discovery recovery uncovering

is left

Second place goes to Nora Edinger, a writer for Weelunk.com in Wheeling, who wrote one of the first reviews of Moundsville. (Disclosure: We had no say in the selection process.)

The Moundsville Method

They carried the earth in baskets.

One does what one can to make a forever mark.

Have a baby. Write a book.

Attract 90 million followers on You Tube.

Build a mountain where there was nothing but flatness.

Same difference.

And third place goes to Andrea Keller, a conservationist at the Grave Creek Mound and a participant in the film. (Same note as for number 2.)

Grave Creek Mound Contemplation

I stand looking up

             Contemplating

                             Those who rest here

                                                       Eternally

Three million loads of Earth

               Monumental creation

                         Remembering

                                Those who rest here

                                                        Eternally

I  wonder:

       Who will remember me

                                 When I rest

                                                       Eternally ?

All three winners will receive a free Moundsville DVD, and jewelry made by Crystal Good. Poets, she told me, “are keepers of the past, present and future. Poets look for the poem and Moundsville is full of them.”

John W. Miller

Review: King Lear as Allegory for U.S. Industrial Decline

 

 

 

I saw a preview last night of Quantum Theatre’s new Pittsburgh production of Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Carrie Furnace. (It runs May 10-June 2; tickets here.)

Lear is the story of a king gone mad in the sunset of life. Immediately, this stylish production by the Pittsburgh experimental theatre troupe hits the note in a political key: The actors march out chanting the 1931 miners’ union anthem “Which Side Are You On?” Is decline making America go crazy? Can Shakespeare help decode our moment of madness? Is Lear Uncle Sam?

The sets are two rounds — the first, industrial; the second, bucolic — carved out of the Carrie Furnace, now a National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction. The Furnace was part of a steel mill on the banks of the Monongahela river that was shut down in 1982. Within sight is U.S. Steel’s famous Edgar Thomson works in Braddock, still a working steel mill.

This production’s embrace of these themes of industrial rise and fall reminded me of Moundsville (which, yes, you can still rent for $3.99 here) and its characters’ wrestling with loss and identity.

In the program notes, director Risher Reddick makes this Rust Belt meditation explicit:

Our jobs our status, our wealth and possessions demand our attention and define us. We can come to believe that these traits are intrinsic to who we are, but what happened when one of these defining pillars of self is taken away? Who are we then? If Lear is not a king, who is he? If Pittsburgh is not a steel town, what is it?

In Lear, he continues

we witness a man stripped of everything that seemed to define him, and through that stripping, find out who he is. Painful as it is, Lear’s journey, like Pittsburgh’s, is not simply a story of loss; it is a story of transformation, redemption and ultimately, liberation. Lear’s story reminds us that in the end we gather – possession, status, relationships – we must let go, and in letting go, we find out what we hold dear.

Pittsburgh has not, in fact, completely let go of steel. From the Carrie Furnace, you can see the U.S. Steel mill in Braddock, a struggling hamlet made somewhat famous by the films of favorite filmmaker son Tony Buba and former charismatic reforming mayor John Fetterman, now lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. (Pittsburgh-based) U.S. Steel is investing $1.2 billion in refurbishing the Braddock mill and its network of plants in the valley.

My companion last night was a writer friend in his 70s who grew up in Braddock during the booming 1950s. The reason the town is poor now, he pointed out, is “not that the factory closed but that the steelworkers in the 60s moved to the suburbs. That was the cool thing to do. My family looked into it, went driving around looking at houses, but my dad liked going for walks around here, and this is where his friends were, so we stayed put.”

In an email today, my friend added:

The town’s history, from olden times to its heyday, is a great thing. It’s worth preserving and building on, in way that you can. But for present purposes we’ve got to stop looking at this place as a 20th-century mill town in decline. This is a 21st-century community with state-of-the-art, 21st-century problems, and the people here need and want to find a better future that can work out from where they are now.

Outside of Braddock, Pittsburgh’s richer, whiter parts prosper, thanks to colleges, hospitals and a rich tech sector, sprouting condos, bakers and vegan restaurants. It is towns elsewhere in Appalachia and the Midwest — like Moundsville — that are having a harder time recovering from the collapse of manufacturing, and struggling with opioids, brain drain, and the resurgence of white supremacist movements.

The Quantum production is straightforward and strong, I thought, with period costumes and classic Shakespearian acting that was mostly very good, with a few flat tones. The play’s text was edited for length. We were back in our cars in under three hours.  The flourishes come from the surroundings and a few clever touches. The fool sings her song of wisdom as a blues number. (“Have more than thou showest…) In the opening scene, Lear walks out carrying his big, heavy cape adorned with the map of his kingdom he’s about to split apart.

Lear can’t handle decline, even as he divides his kingdom between his three daughters so he can

shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

The negotiation splits the family and ostracizes the good daughter Cordelia who refuses to “heave [her] heave her heart into [her] mouth” and falsely flatter her father. She flees and leads the French army to wrestle back control of the kingdom from her two evil sisters.

The characters wrestle with decay, what to do when

love cools,
friendship falls off, brothers divide: in
cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in
palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son
and father. This villain of mine comes under the
prediction; there’s son against father: the king
falls from bias of nature; there’s father against
child. We have seen the best of our time:
machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all
ruinous disorders, follow us disquietly to our
graves.

In King Lear’s case, traveling without his crown is a journey through madness, arrogance and victimhood – “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” he says into humility and truth. The once vainglorious king is left to plead:

Pray, do not mock me:
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.

In the end, Lear loses the loving daughter Cordelia to civil war, and himself dies, but not before awakening to the depth of their bond and fostering, in the crisis, burgeoning wisdom from his son-in-law Albany:

The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Lear teaches us that loss is a trigger. The world spins. You rock. Fight. Cry. Journey. These things cannot be escaped. But we still have choices. If, like Albany, you keep your eye on reality, and love, you can hold on to something decent and sane, and keep going with a stranger strength. An old, useful truth to ponder in the shadow of a dead blast furnace that made steel for 20th century warships.

John W. Miller

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Before The Star Was Born: The Legend of Lady Gaga’s Singing West Virginia Grandpa

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Our story of how Lady Gaga was inspired by her West Virginia grandmother to “pick yourself up” during a difficult time is the most-read post on this site — with over 30,000 views.

People in West Virginia are proud of the family, even if Gaga’s mother Cynthia Bissett left the region for New York City in the 1970s, part of a wave of emigration described in our movie Moundsville, available for $3.99 here. (If you enjoy these posts, please consider supporting us by renting or buying the film.)

With Gaga making news this week with her stunning display of fashion at the Met Gala, it’s a good time to pass on a story we heard from readers who wrote in after our first post.

This one’s not about Gaga’s grandmother, which has been told many times– but instead a lesser-known tale about her grandfather, a man named Paul Bissett, Sr. who was a legendary West Virginia amateur crooner in the 1960s, singing at weddings, birthdays and public events.

Gaga gets her golden voice from him, people in Moundsville and Glen Dale like to say.

A woman named Mary Butler emailed me to tell the charming story of Mr. Bissett singing at her wedding.

Not only was Paul Bissett a State Farm Agent, he was gifted with a beautiful voice.  He sang in the McMechen Methodist Choir, but also in the McMechen Mens Chorus.  The chorus was directed by Ray Ponzo, bass player in the Wheeling Symphony, band director at Union High School in Benwood and later for Shadyside High School.  The chorus sang at many events around the Ohio Valley.  Paul sang The Twelfth Of Never at my wedding.  My uncle, Earl Summers, Jr. played the violin, making it a very musical wedding.

Gaga grew up in New York City, but often visited her proud grandparents. Sometimes, they would take her to talent shows, another reader wrote.

When Mr. Bissett died in 2013, his obituary noted that he was a “a very well known singer throughout the [Ohio] valley.” Amazingly, it makes zero mention that he was the grandfather of possibly the most famous singer on the planet.

Among his survivors, the obituary mentioned “his loving wife of 63 years, Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Ferrie Bissett”, and four grandchildren, including a woman named Stefani Germanotta — also known as Lady Gaga.

John W. Miller

 

 

Meet Marc Harshman, Proud Poet Laureate of West Virginia, Star of Moundsville

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One of the most eloquent, defining voices in Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) is Marc Harshman, a former Moundsville resident, grade school teacher, storyteller, children’s book author– and the ninth poet laureate of West Virginia.

Since earning that title from Governor Earl Ray Tomblin in 2012 — after the death of Irene McKinney — Marc has traveled widely around the state to support poets, novelists, journalists and other artists. “Although we are a small state, it’s hard for me to imagine any state with a greater pool of accomplished artists—painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, as well as, of course, writers,” he said in an interview with Zach Davis for Fluent Magazine.

Working with Marc was a treat. He was generous with his time when we met with him at his home in Wheeling last spring. We turned on the camera, and talked for two hours, on religion, small towns, economics, class, race, poetry, politics and American history.

Marc hit a lot of sweet, smart notes during our conversation, which is why he is featured so prominently in the film. Clearly, he had been thinking for decades about the stuff we had to ask him.

And, luckily for us, he really, really loves West Virginia, in a way that’s deep and thoughtful and true and impossible to fake.

For example, this poem is from his book “Woman In Red Anorak”, published by Lynx House, which you can order here:

SMALL TOWN, WEST VIRGINIA
after Tomas Tranströmer

Town is closed today.
Smokeless chimneys, rain-slicked and empty streets.
I don’t know why.
It hasn’t asked much of me lately.
Like a fever, perhaps, it will pass, open again tomorrow.
The sun glints on the damp pavements
and a few windows shine
in the dark face of the warehouse.

I haul myself up the ridge
to where my words race, then tumble, soundlessly
over the cliff.
I hold myself close, and listen,
and with my back to the wind,
lift my arms, and try again, say
the word feather, say the word soar.

The quiet answers with its own names.
I should do this more often,
and whether or not the peopled world below
goes on or not,
this older world remains
as these sun-drenched warblers testify
with their reedy whistling.
I should more often do, at least, this much.
I should this much do, as if even the least of us mattered.
I lift up a stone and watch it soar.
I can almost see where its feathers begin . . .

That book won the 20th Annual Blue Lynx Prize. “In Marc Harshman’s prize-winning collection,” the publisher says, “actual war, age, and disaster mingle with dream and hallucinatory sadness to produce an edgy sweetness few American poets have managed to give us.

That edgy sweetness is tinged with hope. This poem is from a book called “Believe What You Can”, published by WVU Press and available here.

JACKSON POLLOCK AND THE STARLINGS, MOUNDSVILLE, WEST
VIRGINIA

The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through. — Jackson Pollock

The starlings have again held their revival here.
The sidewalk below their power line pulpits
is stippled with rose and ivory starbursts.
A few linger near yet this morning, whistling,
as if they were unaware
of their art, unaware
of the limits of transcendence,
unaware
of the neighbors’ lack of appreciation
of mulberries, of art, of starlings with a purpose.

May we all be starlings with a purpose. Thank you, Marc.

John W. Miller