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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

‘American Factory’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary – The Rust Belt Doc’s Essential Lessons About America, China, Unions, and Global Capitalism – Why We Need To Keep Telling These Stories

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‘America Factory’, the 2019 documentary about a glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, won the best feature documentary award at last night’s Oscars.

The film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground company and available on Netflix, is a masterpiece in observational journalism. It’s the second year in a row that a documentary about the Midwest got nominated for an Oscar, after‘Mind the Gap’ in 2019, a stunning skateboarding memoir by Bing Liu.

The success of both movies, like the acquisition of ‘Moundsville’ by PBS distributor NETA, and James and Deb Fallows’ “Our Towns” book and coming HBO film, shows the appetite for reported storytelling — not related to presidential campaigns and elections — about former industrial America as it transitions away from lucrative manufacturing toward an undetermined future — both promising and scary — that is not as industrially wealthy, has lots of opportunities for life and rebirth, and is challenged by automation, aging population, brain drain and opioid addiction.

I had seen it before but I watched ‘American Factory’ again on Monday during my lunch break. You should, too.

The backstory is the winds of global trade and capitalism. For over a decade, Chinese investors have been shopping in Europe and the U.S. for companies to acquire so they could manufacture closer to the markets where they were selling.  Since Beijing embraced state-sponsored capitalism after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, it’s invited integration with the industrial West. When I reported for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels, I accompanied a Chinese CEO on what was basically a shopping trip. Over a meal, he casually mentioned he would be happy to spend tens of billions of dollars on buying a “top-three European food company.”

The particular incarnation recounted in ‘American Factory’ is the fate of a glass-making plant in Dayton, Ohio. It used to belong to GM. Now it’s been acquired by China’s Fuyao.

What makes the film so great, I think, is the access Bognar and Reichert negotiated with Fuyao, with the help of Chinese filmmakers. In the manner of prize-winning journalism, it channels a lucid, conscience-raising vision of what’s actually happening.

GM can’t make money off the factory. Chinese investors think they can. The workplace cultures, forged by history and business practice, are radically different. The Chinese firm pays its employees under $15 an hour, half the GM rate, and expect total unrelenting devotion. They dismiss concepts like work-life balance and fight unions.

Below the forces driving investment and acquisition of capital are people doing their best to survive. Just like in ‘Moundsville’, the characters in ‘American Factory’ are surfing forces beyond their control.

In China, companies and workers were formed by authoritarian socialist rule, followed by a giant leap into capitalism, managed by the state. Western companies were happy to come calling, helping Beijing negotiate trade deals and join the WTO, and jacking up profits by moving their production to China.

In America, business culture was formed by a post-World War Two boom that invited unionization and lifted generations out of the Depression into the middle class, followed by a sharper focus on profits and returning value to shareholders.

As in any colonial enterprise, cultures clash. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” an American manager tells workers, as he offers three shifts, with a “30-minute unpaid lunch” and two paid 15-minute breaks.

The Chinese manager lecturing his Chinese charges who’ve moved to Ohio to work educates them.  “America is a place to let your personality run free,” he says. “You’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” Other lessons: “They are very obvious.” “They don’t hide anything.” “Everything is practical and realistic.” “They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.”

There is sweetness in these efforts to understand, and the best attempts at connecting, like when an American worker invites Chinese migrants to his house to check out his handguns and eat turkey with all the trimmings.

In Ohio, they’re enduring the reality that their slice of the planet has become a little bit poorer, and that the 1950s are not coming back. What’s next for Dayton and other similar places in the Midwest? Universal Basic Income? Tourism? Tech? Stronger unions? I don’t know but everything needs to be on the table and the truth must light the way; we need to keep sharing stories like ‘American Factory.’

John W. Miller

Moundsville 2020: “We’re Doing Great, Thanks to Trump” — Former Mayor Remke Loves the President, Fox News, and Supports “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson” in 2024

As “Moundsville” heads to PBS stations around the country, we’re starting a new series of features on this blog around the election. We don’t talk about politics in the film, but it is an election year, and Moundsville is a good place to check in on Trump country, with, hopefully, as much accuracy and nuance as possible. We’ll talk to characters in the film and others, on all sides of the debate. First up is Phil Remke, who opens and closes the film. Remke is no longer mayor, but he’s still on city council and he was keen to show off new construction. We met at Bob’s Diner, and then he drove me around town. 

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Phil Remke

Underlying the Senate’s certain acquittal of President Trump is a floor of support from Republican voters around the country that seems impossible to erode.

Phil Remke is one of them. He’s not changing his mind. “The president is a businessman and he’s doing a great job,” he told me when we sat down for coffee. “This impeachment thing is ridiculous. I haven’t seen any facts.”

Phil gets most of his national news from Fox. He also watches NBC, CBS and ABC, but not CNN, which “needs to look deeper into the issues as I believe Fox does.” Until Fox changes its approach or other media companies figure out ways of reaching people like Remke, Trump will reign in Moundsville. (In 2016, 73% of voters in the county voted for the president, compared to 23% for Hillary Clinton.)

Remke’s perception of good times rolls on two things: the stock market, and shiny new local construction. Moundsville has a new Holiday Inn with 123 rooms, its second chain hotel. The market for beds is strong, thanks to the gas industry and a possible plastic-making plant that might get build across the river in Ohio. The other is the Sleep Inn, with 75 rooms. If the plastics plant gets built across the river in Ohio, a new Marriott will get built, too, said Remke. There’s a new bank under construction. And a spectacular new high school football stadium that cost over $5 million. 

“We’re doing well, thanks to Trump,” said Remke. “He’s doing everything he said he would do, and everybody’s doing better in the stock market, everybody’s saying that.”

No president should be above the law, said Remke, “but I don’t think Trump has broken any laws, at least not that I’ve seen from watching the news.” The former mayor believes in democracy. “I believe everyone has the right to their own opinion without fighting,” he said. “That’s the way it should be in the greatest county in the world.”

You can’t overstate the role Fox News plays in the cultural and political lives of people in Moundsville. With newspapers shrinking in their availability and influence, it’s Fox, almost alone, that feeds people the national narratives they carry to their dinner tables, commutes, golf courses, voting booths, and reporters who show up at Bob’s Diner asking questions. The loop doesn’t crack.

On a big screen in the McDonald’s where sources often ask to meet me for coffee, the station plays all day. “You go into people’s homes and they’re always watching Fox,” Father That Son Nguyen told me when I stopped by the town’s Catholic Church, where Remke worships. (He also attends a nondenominational church on Sunday mornings, which “works hard to bring God into the picture for the younger people”. In a follow-up text message, Remke wrote that he is “a Catholic and always will be” although he doesn’t “believe everything that is done in the Catholic faith is correct.” Without God, he wrote, “we are nothing.”) Fox “validates what people believe, especially religious beliefs,” said Susan Board, who works at the church.

Here’s how powerful Fox is: Remke speaks of its anchors as if they were national leaders. When I asked him who he would support in the 2024 election, Remke said he would like “Ivanka, Don Jr. or one of the Fox boys, Hannity or Carlson”. Of the other Republican politicians, Remke said “they just don’t have the guts, the toughness we need right now.”

Remke’s boosterism lies on top of some harsh realities Moundsville still faces. The population is still aging. Opioids are killing people. Facing low prices, gas companies have been laying off workers. The hotels are owned by out-of-town chain operators and will create mostly low-paying jobs for people in Moundsville. The town’s unemployment rate is 6%, higher than the national average. There are 30 gambling joints in Moundsville, with slot machines and other games. Remke is trying to shut them down: “People don’t have the money to spend on that stuff, and we need to help people.”

And then there’s the demographic challenge. “We need more young people down here,” said Board. “It’s still a great community for people to live.”

John W. Miller

‘Moundsville’ Acquired by PBS Distributor Ahead of 2020 Election — Will Screen On Up to 338 PBS Stations Serving 100 Million Viewers

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Moundsville was a dream that Dave Bernabo and I had to tell an inclusive story about America after the 2016 election. We got a small grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council and spent 2018 traveling to Moundsville, shooting and editing. From start to finish, it was a two-man job. The film got great reviews, and we spent much of 2019 promoting and screening the movie everywhere from Moundsville itself and WVU in Morgantown to America Magazine in New York and United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and talking and writing about it. This blog, with stories on George Brett, Lady Gaga and Brad Paisley (all with roots near Moundsville), economic development, Appalachian books, characters in the movie, and much else, attracted a following of over 50,000 unique visitors and 65,000 views.

We weren’t sure what would happen next. Last month, we got a call from Angee Simmons, the new director of content at NETA, an organization that supplies 338 PBS stations around the country. Moundsville, she said, was in a stack submitted almost a year ago. It had fallen through the cracks. But she had watched it and loved it, and now she wanted to screen it on PBS.

Finally, we had a next. It’s not clear how many stations will pick it up, and how many people will watch it over the next three years. It could be hundreds of stations and millions of people. Or zero. But I’m beyond thrilled and proud that our little project is finally entering the big ring, and will have a shelf life in the culture of this country ahead of the 2020 election. Simply, I hope it helps people understand and listen to each other better.

Below, I’m pasting the full press release that’s going out to media this week.

John W. Miller

PRESS RELEASE

MOUNDSVILLE ACQUIRED BY PBS DISTRIBUTOR NETA

–        SCREEN ON UP TO 338 PBS STATIONS OVER NEXT THREE YEARS

–        PLAY FOR AS MANY AS 100 MILLION VIEWERS

–        AVAILABLE ON PBS YOUTUBE CHANEL

–        AHEAD OF 2020 ELECTION, MOUNDSVILLE STIMULATES BETTER CONVERSATIONS AROUND ECONOMICS & POLITICS

–        “FRESH AND VALUABLE” – JAMES FALLOWS, THE ATLANTIC

PITTSBURGH, PA– The National Educational Telecommunications Association and filmmakers David Bernabo and John W. Miller have reached an agreement to distribute the feature documentary film Moundsville to 338 PBS stations around the country over the next three years. The film will be cut to 57 minutes from 74 minutes and close-captioned to suit PBS standards.

Moundsville is the biography of a classic American town, Moundsville, WV, told through the voices of residents. It’s a Trump-supporting town, but there is no mention of Trump or any other national political leader in the film. The story told is a bigger one, from the native American mound the town is named after, to the arrival of the world’s biggest toy factory, to an economy based on Wal-Mart and fracking and a new generation figuring it all out. The goal of the film is affirm the community-building and healing value of shared narrative.

After premiering in Moundsville in December, 2018, the film in 2019 was distributed online, on Vimeo, and screened publicly in New York City, Pittsburgh, and various locations in West Virginia.

Moundsville is an excellent addition to our catalog,” says NETA vice president for content Angee Simmons. “NETA’s program service celebrates local voices and stories from all corners of our country.”

Moundsville “just happens to be home to my favorite childhood toy, The Big Wheel, and unbeknownst to me the largest indigenous burial mound in the country,” says Simmons. “But more importantly is told with a lot of heart from the people who call it home.  After watching, I knew I wanted to share it with public television audiences.”

“We’re thrilled to find a wider audience for Moundsville,” says co-director John W. Miller. “We want to share the story of a place in a way that affirms the dignity and purpose of all communities in this country, free of the poison of national politics and propaganda.”

Miller and Bernabo filmed Moundsville in 2018 with a grant from Pittsburgh Arts Council

For more information or receive a digital copy of the film, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391 or jmjournalist@gmail.com

John W. Miller

John W. Miller is an award-winning journalist with over 20 years experiences in print, radio, TV and film. As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, Miller reported from 45 countries and covered global mining and global trade, elections, trade negotiations, the World Cup and Tour de France. Miller has also reported and written for Time, America, Heated, NPR, Buzzfeed, the Baltimore Sun, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and serves as chief economic analyst of Trade Data Monitor. Moundsville is his first movie.

David Bernabo

David Bernabo is a filmmaker, musician, dancer, visual artist, and writer, performing with the bands Host Skull, Watererer, and How Things Are Made; devising dances with his variable dance company, MODULES; and often collaborating with Maree ReMalia | merrygogo. He curates and produces work for the Ongoing Box imprint and co-curates the Lightlab Performance Series with slowdanger. Bernabo’s films have screened at the On Art Film Festival, JFilm Festival, Re:NEW Festival, Afronaut(a) Film Club, the Foodable Film Festival, and on WQED’s Filmmakers Corner.

The National Educational Telecommunications Association

The NETA Program Service distributes quality documentaries and specials to 338 public television stations across the country. With our member stations and independent producers as our partners, we celebrate diverse voices and unique perspectives representing every state in the country and share those stories with a national audience.

 

World Series Special: George Brett’s West Virginia Birth and the American Dream — Moundsville and Glen Dale Claim “Throwback” Hall of Fame Third Baseman

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It’s day one of the World Series, one of this country’s superior inventions, a good time to remind you that one of baseball’s greatest ever players was born in Glen Dale, West Virginia, the hamlet that forms a twin town with Moundsville. (Movie still available here.)

George Brett is the most accomplished of the 120 Major League Baseball players born in West Virginia, who include Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski and Toby Harrah, and a couple of 19th century greats, Jack Glasscock and Jesse Burkett.

The Hall of Fame third baseman played 21 years with the Kansas City Royals. In 1993, he retired with 3,154 hits, most ever by a third baseman, and 317 homeruns. In 1980, Brett hit .390, flirting with a mythical .400 batting average. Maybe even more impressive: He homered 24 times and struck out only 22 times. He won a World Series with the 1985 Royals, and famously beat the Yankees in 1983 with a game-winning homerun with a bat loaded with pine tar.

“A throwback to an earlier time, Brett favored pine tar over batting gloves, chewing tobacco over bubble gum, and cold beer over weightlifting,” reads his Society for American Baseball Research bio.

How Brett came to be born in West Virginia reflects the prosperous movement of Americans in the 20th century, from war to peace and play, cities to suburbs, and toil in the crowded east to comfort in the big western sun.

George Brett’s father Jack was born in Brooklyn in 1923. His dad worked on Wall Street. Jack “quit high school and went to work in a factory in a very large machine shop,” he told Brett biographer John Garrity, author of The George Brett Story.

And when I was eighteen the war came along and I joined the army, and I was in the army until 1945. I had been wounded– shot in the leg in France. They said, ‘What you should do is go to school and learn something.’ So I went to Pace College in New York and got a degree in business administration. Got through by the skin of my teeth.

“George was born in West Virginia,” Jack Brett said. “Two towns claim George. We really lived in Glen Dale, West Virginia. The next town down the road, about two miles, was Moundvsville had the daily newspaper. But he was really born in Glen Dale.”

Shortly after that, the family moved to California, where Brett played football and baseball at El Segundo high school in suburban Los Angeles. (One teammate: future Baltimore Orioles lefty Scott McGregor.)  The Royals selected him in the second round, with the 29th overall pick, in the 1971 draft. According to SABR:

Because Brett still had some baby fat around his midsection, many scouts passed on him. Even some of the scouts for the expansion Kansas City Royals were skeptical. However, scouts Tom Ferrick and Rosey Gilhousen saw Brett as a diamond in the rough. Gilhousen pushed the hardest for the Royals to draft Brett, basing his assessment on the intangibles of desire, instincts, and aggressiveness. He persuaded the Royals vice president for player personnel, Lou Gorman, to see Brett in action during a high-school game.

In California, the family lived at the ballpark. “With all four of them playing baseball from Little League on to high school and American Legion ball, his dad always followed Ken more,” his mother said. “If there were conflicting games, I always followed George.”

Brett’s dad was a tough customer, according to Garrity:

More than once, George has told this story: how he struck out twice in one game, and endured that short but painful drive up Mariposa Street with a silent, furious Jack Brett behind the wheel. “I remember I got out of the car in my uniform, my head banging,” George says, “and the next thing I felt was a foot coming right my ass! For embarrassing the family.” Brett shakes his head and smiles wanly. “That’s probably where I got my hemorrhoids.”

Of his father, Brett says, “he used to steal cars. He used to get in a lot of scrapes. I think he just didn’t want us to be like him.” As Garrity describes, Brett senior mellowed, the relationship healed, and George grew up to become one of the game’s all-time greats.

The book, published in 1981 and hard to track down, is a spirited trip through 1970s and 1980s baseball. Garrity relates the anecdotes of Brett’s mom visiting and doing “fifteen loads” of his laundry, and the ballplayer’s legendary carousing as one of America’s most famous bachelors with teammates Jamie Quirk and Clint Hurdle.

One night, the three bachelors went partying in Kansas, all in the same car– unusual, Hurdle says, because, “You don’t wanta depend on one of those guys for a ride” — and Brett found a date and went off with her. Hurdle and Quirk got back to the house at four in the morning, drunk, and discovered they had no key to the front door. And Brett was not at home, either. “We said, the hell with it,” Hurdle laughs. “I put my shoes up on the doorstep and slept on the lawn. A neighbor lady came out at about six thirty in the morning and asked if we wanted to come in the house.” Hurdle snorts. “There was dew all over us.”

Did such antics constitute a public nuisance? Did the neighbors complain? Hurdle shakes his head. “Everybody loved George.”

Brett was also famous for this incident, related in the SABR bio:

On May 15, 1980, Brett’s 27th birthday, the Royals were 16-14 while enjoying an offday. In lieu of a ballgame it was the nationally televised Miss USA Beauty Pageant that had fans in Kansas City cheering. The contest’s “Miss New York,” Debra Sue Maurice, informed host Bob Barker that she was dating George Brett. Brett, who tried to downplay his long reputation of being a ladies’ man, was caught off-guard by her statement. He acknowledged having had a few dates with Miss Maurice but nothing more serious than that.

Brett, now an older and wiser married father of three, remains beloved in Kansas City, where his number is retired, he’s still involved with the team, and he can look back on a great and colorful American life that started in the West Virginia northern panhandle.

John W. Miller

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Burning Under: Why You Should Read Tom Bennitt’s Grisham-Style Coal Mining Thriller to Understand Rust Belt Geography

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Tom Bennitt

Last month, I was driving by White Whale, Pittsburgh’s best independent bookstore, noticed a sign for an author reading, parked and walked in to listen to Tom Bennitt, a young Western Pennsylvania novelist reading from his first book. (Bonus: Stewart O’Nan, Pittsburgh’s great living novelist and a mentor to Bennitt, was moderating.)

Burning Under (which you can buy here) is a 182-page thriller about a young lawyer — Bennitt’s alter ego — who investigates a deadly accident at one of his company’s coal mines. In his fight for justice, he faces down the miner’s evil tycoon owners and allies himself with coal miners and their families.

What I loved about the book was — and why it’s worth mentioning on a blog about a movie about a small town — is how precisely Bennitt nails all the different geographical spaces of this part of the country, from coal mine and decaying industrial town to gentrifying city street and rich suburb.

Bennitt is from Butler, PA, a town of roughly 13,000, much like Moundsville (and you can still see our documentary film here), and the writer is sensitive to the tapestry of towns, cities and suburbs, interstates, rivers and two-lane roads, and farms, mines and gas wells that covers America between New York and Chicago.

The writer’s pitch-perfect descriptions serve the telling of the story, as characters drift from one locale to another; as the 2020 elections grows up, they’re a valuable addition to the conversation about so-called Trump country. The hinterlands are not a monolith. There’s endless variety out here, in places and in people.

Visiting his hometown, based loosely on Butler, Simon, the protagonist, drives “past the empty Woolworth’s building, Phat Matt’s Tattoos, the Elks Lodge, and Thompson’s Funeral Home.”

Once a vibrant town of immigrants, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, today it was a strange mix of churches and bars. Another notch along the rust belt. Some meth house had sprung up on the edge of town. There were a few Amish communities in the western part of the county, but they weren’t hardcore Amish: you’d see them at Wal-Mart, or eating Blizzards outside Dairy Queen.

The surburbs are endlessly diverse in income and appearance. Simon visits a friend who works at The Parlor, a high-end furniture store in a sprawling McMansion neighborhood: “Framed by large white columns, the store’s exterior had a Southern antebellum aesthetic.”

These were not homes, they were estates, flanked by mature trees and big yards. Some orthopedic surgeons lived back here. She wanted to peek inside their homes and see what happiness looked like. On Saxonburg Road, more modest ranch houses. Steeler flags on porches and Support the Troops ribbons on mailboxes. She passed that creepy old house on the bluff with the basement window light one. Home to a squatter, maybe, but she pictured something more depraved, like a surgeon cutting up young girls.

On one trip out of town, he drives through another kind of suburb.

He gazed out the window as the bus chugged up Route 8, past a glass factory and The North Park Lounge, once a great watering hole before it turned into another cheesedick sports bar. They passed Hilliard’s Truck Sales and the Chevy dealership, owned by the McConnell Brothers: two high school football legends who played at Notre Dame. Almost home, he thought, as the bus raced down Armco Hill and crossed Hansen Avenue Bridge.

Big cities are prospering again, thanks to hospitals, universities and tech companies.

Pittsburgh: The Steel City. The City of Bridges. The Paris of Appalachia. During the French & Indian War, it was a tiny frontier outpost called Fort Duquesne. When British troops invaded, the French decided to burn their own fort, rather than surrender it to their enemy Simon admired the purity and passion of their hatred. But Pittsburgh today looked far different. Since the turn of the century, the city had greened itself – cleaning rivers, erasing industrial blight – and transitioned from a blue-collar steel town to a center of finance.

Young, wealthy white-collar workers are moving into offices and buying real estate, a gentrification Bennitt captures in a succinct paragraph, when a character cuts

through East Liberty. A century ago, home to steel barons. Now Section Eight housing and vacant buildings. Recently, they’d built a Home Depot and Trader Joe’s, part of the urban renewal project, and a row of colorful town homes. On Negley avenue, church was letting out. Black families, dressed in colorful suits and dresses.

And outside the city, there’s also the farmland, whose soil is plowed, mined or fracked, depending on current technology and the demands of the global economy.

Passing into Seneca County, she whizzed by the mushroom farm, picking up the same foul odor that clung to her skin during the summer she worked there. She remembered the cold dark tunnels and helmet lamps, crouched over the mushroom trays, slicing the stems with a paring knife. She crested a hill and glimpsed a fracking well above the tree line.

And finally, there’s the coal mine — an economic engine of towns for the last 150 years.

The Sarver Mine was one of the last underground mines in Pennsylvania. Most companies had switched over to strip mining, using machines – rippers and hydraulic shovels – instead of human labor. Sometimes the land above would subside, and some old farmer would have to be compensated for the damage, but this method was still cheaper than underground mining. And while strip mining could not be considered eco-friendly, it was child’s play compared to the mountaintop removal mining – scalping the tops of mountains with gigantic dozers and front-loaders – done in West Virginia and Kentucky. Down there nothing was sacred.

In an interview last year, Bennitt describes his emphasis on place:

I think setting is an underrated craft tool in fiction, and I admire writers who describe place with vivid, sensory details. Burning Under is firmly rooted in western Pennsylvania. It’s a unique ecosystem, physically and culturally, that includes the Rust Belt, the coal mining region, rolling farmland, mountains, and deep river valleys. I grew up in Butler, a steel mill town north of Pittsburgh, in the eighties and early nineties. I also lived and worked in Pittsburgh for six years (2004-09.)

Most people know about the new-and-improved Pittsburgh, yet the Rust Belt is misunderstood. There’s a pretty sharp divide. If you drive along the Ohio or Monongahela Rivers, you still see a lot of empty Main Streets and rusted-out mills. In the novel, the (fictional) town of Millburg captures the pulse of the Rust Belt, or I hope so.

The changing geographic quilt Bennitt describes is the result, mostly, of forceful economic change that lies beyond the control of people doing their best to earn their bread, enjoy their ballgames and beer, and rear their families. We’d all be well-deserved to be as careful and precise as he is in noting the reality of, and differences between, all these different places.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Taj Mahal of Appalachia’ — West Virginia’s Hare Krishna Temple Named To National Register of Historic Places Has Crazy, Fascinating History– Known for Drugs and Murder in 1980s

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Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban, near Moundsville, WV

A Hare Krishna temple in the hills of West Virginia?

When people see Moundsville (which you can here), the Palace of Gold at New Vrindaban always surprises. Last week it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Hare Krishna site, a few miles from downtown Moundsville, is one of the more extraordinary you’ll see in West Virginia, well worth making part of any trip to the area, , and still a sacred space for Krishna followers. Walk around the grounds and admire the gold leaf roof, and, on the inside, marble floors, ornate stained-glass windows and art collections.

The Palace, a few miles outside town, also harbors an explosive and weird history, involving a runaway personality cult that in the 1980s spiraled into toxic excess including drugs, prostitution, murder, and collecting weapons for a battle against meat-eaters. (We didn’t have time in the film to tell this part of the story, but it’s nutty and fascinating, and worth digging into.)

In 1970s hippie America, Krishna devotees embraced the religion’s principles of abstinence from worldly pleasures, community and vegetarianism. Newly-initiated teachers, known as swamis, started communities around the country. (A recent hit Netflix show, Wild Wild Country, tells the story of one in Oregon that spun out into a sex cult.)

Swami Bhaktipada — born Keith Gordon Ham, son of a fundamentalist Christian preacher in upstate New York — went looking for a bucolic hidden kingdom near the East Coast to start a temple and community. He found available land in West Virginia, raised money, some of it fraudulently, and ordered that his followers build a temple for the movement.

Devotees flocked to this pristine retreat on top of a hill in this quiet corner of Appalachia. By the 1980s, New Vrindaban had over 500 followers– and an elephant. Tourism boomed. It was working. Heaven on earth.

Things fell apart.

According to former members, Bhaktipada slowly built a personality cult, funded by illegal activities including alleged drug running and prostitution, and enforced by violence. Schemes to raise money included fraudulently selling “bumper stickers and caps bearing the names of football and baseball teams without permission.”

The wider Krishna community blacklisted New Vrindaban. Things were getting crazy. As the 1988 book Monkey on a Stick, by John Hubner and Lindsey Gruson, recounts:

[Bhaktipada]’s devotees carried him on a jeweled palanquin, knelt when he passed and, while he barked orders, worked 14-hour days without pay to build him a temple of marble, onyx and 24-karat gold leaf. They also built an arsenal of illegal weapons to defend the community from attack by karmis (meat-eating barbarians – i.e., anyone who was not a member of the movement).

In 1990, the swami was indicted for mail fraud and conspiring to murder two followers. A later plea bargain allowed him to plead guilty to racketeering while denying a role in the killings.

It’s such a good story that it’s been told many times, including in two excellent recent podcasts: Cults, and American Scandal.

In 1998, the Hare Krishna community reintegrated a rehabilitated New Vrindaban in its ranks. A small community lingers, with only around 100 members, although many practitioners visits occasionally.

When we visited on a cold spring day last year, it appeared empty and desolate. Members declined a request for an interview.

Its dark history aside, it’s a lovely, peaceful place, which has inspired generations of pilgrims.

In a 2011 essay in the New York Times, writer Rahul Mehta describes the temple as the “Taj Mahal of Appalachia”. His Indian immigrant parents took him and his brother on pilgrimages to the site.

At the commune, we saw white women wearing the very saris I begged my mother not to wear to my school functions. We saw Americans chanting ecstatically in the same Sanskrit I deliberately garbled and mumbled under my breath during my family’s weekly pujas at home. When my parents tried to send my brother and me to summer camp there, we refused. When they considered renting a cabin by the commune’s lake, we protested. Our classmates spent summers inner tubing on the river. Why couldn’t we do that? Why couldn’t we be more like them?

Although they hated it — they wanted to become more American, not wax nostalgic about India — Mehta describes softening his views about those family visits.

It makes me smile now to remember how miserable my brother and I were at New Vrindaban. We might not have even gotten out of the car were it not for one thing: the gold leaf that covered the palace. We’d heard it was real gold. So we would walk around staring at the marble floors, hoping we’d glimpse a glimmer, a flake forgotten somewhere in a corner, something precious we could secret into our pockets and take back home. We weren’t so different from our parents, then, after all. What the temple gave them wasn’t much, a day trip, now and then. But at a time when there was so much about America to make them feel lonely and insignificant, New Vrindaban made them feel rich.

Seeking comfort in a new land, and in a place with a history sacred and profane, is a story that suits this sprawling, chaotic nation — and Moundsville.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

Why Lady Gaga in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ Musical Would Be Perfect Homage to West Virginia/Appalachia Roots

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Lady Gaga

The news that Lady Gaga is being considered for the role of Audrey in a new Hollywood remake of Little Shop of Horrors should delight her fans in West Virginia. (A quick reminder: Gaga’s mom Cynthia Bissett grew up in Glen Dale, Moundsville’s adjacent twin town. You can still watch our film Moundsville here.)

Little Shop is one of the greatest musicals ever made. The Great American Musical, maybe; the story of a lonely loser named Seymour who works in a flower shop in a downtrodden American city (New York City in the film– but these days, maybe Butler or Wheeling?), and dreams of a romance with a goofy blonde named Audrey — who Lady Gaga would play — who dreams of living “somewhere that’s green.”

A matchbox of our own
A fence of real chain link, 
A grill out on the patio 
Disposal in the sink

That possibility becomes real when Seymour discovers a carnivorous Venus flytrap-like plant that feeds on blood and flesh– and talks and sings. The smart plant becomes a sensation, attracting crowds and TV crews, and making Seymour rich and successful.

But this money-spinning natural resource can’t be contained; Seymour must feed the plant human flesh to keep it alive. In the Broadway ending, the plant wins and plots to take over the earth. (The movie version has a happier ending, where the plant dies.)

The show began as a low-budget 1960 cult horror film, then became  a huge hit as a Broadway musical in the 1980s. Frank Oz remade it into a movie in 1986, starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin, which is how I discovered it.

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Lady Gaga’s luscious mezzo-soprano tones make her perfect to incarnate Audrey– but also because it would also suit her West Virginia origins. The show is a parable for American capitalism, and for the Mountain State and its complicated relationship with exploiting natural resources, about lower-middle class people striving to achieve escape velocity from their humble roots, and dreaming of white-picket fence material prosperity.

On their way up, they have to confront the price of their ascent: The path to riches is exploiting a natural resource — the plant — which is destructive, and potentially murderous. Can they get there without losing their souls?

As Seymour sings:

My future’s starting, I’ve got to let it
Stick with that plant and gee
My bank account will thrive
What am I saying? No way! Forget it!
It’s much too dangerous to keep the plant alive
I take these offers
That means more killing
Who knew success would come with
Messy, nasty strings?
I sign these contracts
That means I’m willing
To keep on doing bloody, awful, evil things!

The tension between material riches and their cost underlies our economy and the choices we make as a society. It’s also the story of America, a vast land colonized, cleared, farmed, mined, smelted and manufactured into the world’s richest-ever superpower– at a price.

(Also, most importantly: Little Shop has the best tunes!)

In any case, I can’t wait for this movie to be made — hopefully starring Lady Gaga!

John W. Miller

Review: Ancient America: 50 U.S. Sites To Discover American Antiquity — Rock Art, Cliff Dwellings, Mounds, Campsites, From Ice Age to Spice Age

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Mesa Verde National Monument, Colorado

The United States is 241 years old, resting on ancient land.

We argue about who gets to live here now, but it’s a fact that the first settlers walked from Asia into America, across a land bridge, at least 13,000 years ago. After that: thousands of years of rise-fall civilizations, trade, tribes, travel. And us.

You know it’s true– but what if you want to see ancient America in the U.S., or to show it to your kids?

One answer is Kenneth L. Feder’s useful 232-page guide with pictures Ancient America: Fifty Archeological Sites To See For Yourself.

One thing that frustrated me when I was researching Moundsville was the considerable volume of pseudoscience on prehistoric America: Aliens! Lost tribes of Israel! 8-foot giants roaming the tundra!

Feder, a professor of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, declares himself well aware of the gunk, and countering it was one of his motivations for writing this book.

Feder picked 50 sites that were “iconic in some sense, representative of a specific period in American antiquity, and emblematic of a particular ancient culture or region.”

Number 21 on the list of 50 sites is Moundsville, which Feder calls “an impressive Adena Culture burial mound located within the confines of an old industry city in West Virginia.” (If that tweaks your interest, you can rent the movie for $3.99 here.)

The 50 sites, he says, confront visitors with the “evidence of conflict, the impacts of short-term environmental disasters like droughts and long-term processes of climate change, as well as the devastating effects of economic collapse.”

The first European explorers who arrived after Columbus, he says, encountered “vast empires of pyramid-building farmers whose quite sedentary population centers were flanked by miles of cornfields and whose societies were governed by powerful kings.”

Large rivers, among them waterways we now call the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers, provided natural, navigable avenues for the movement of people and raw materials, as well as finished goods. Trade flourished, and even raw materials available only from a great distance away – for example, shell from the Gulf Coast or copper from Michigan – moved along those rivers to the residents of present-day Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and the rest of the Midwest and Southeast, who then used them to produce beautiful and impressive works.

In the Southwest, they found farmers “living in enormous, finely constructed and elaborate adobe and stone apartment complexes” and “beautiful buildings ensconced in seemingly inaccessible cliff niches, leaving the impression of breathtaking castles suspended in midair.”

Besides a chapter on Moundsville, WV, there are also segments on mounds in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Ohio and Tennessee.

But Feder isn’t just into mounds. The book is divided into three main sections: Mound Builders; Cliff Dwellings, Great Houses and Stone Towers; and Rock Art.

The section on ancient homes, in places like Mesa Verde, in Colorado and Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico, feels familiar.

But I knew hardly anything about rock art, mostly in the Southwest, which covers petroglyphs, images sketched into stone, and pictographs, done with paint. The Blythe Intaglios, in Blythe, California, for example, are eery etchings as big as 170 feet high and 150 feet across of human forms, animals and geometric shapes. At Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you can see artful etchings of birds, carved 700 to 400 years ago.

There’s also a special first chapter on Meadowcroft, a site located near my home in Pittsburgh, that is considered the first documented human settlement in North America. It’s between 13,000 and 16,000 years old, dating it to a few thousand years before the end of the Ice Age.

“When you visit” Meadowcroft, Feder writes, “imagine those first Americans huddled under the roof of the shelter, creating a life in this new world as an enormous glacier covered the landscape mere miles to the north.”

John W. Miller

 

 

 

 

American Shakespeare: Historical Memory and the Genius of August Wilson

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PPTC’s production of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Sept. 1, 2019.

Making Moundsville (available here for $3.99) got me thinking about place and people, and how their relationship makes this thing we call history. Last night, on a blustery September evening in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, I saw a masterful piece of theatre that weaves these themes together.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company runs until September 22. Directed by Andrea Frye. Starring Chrystal Bates, Jonathan Berry, Kevin Brown, Les Howard, Wali Jamal, Marcus Muzopappa and Candace Walker. Tickets available here. Go.

The work is part of Wilson’s 10-part series American Century Cycle. The prize-winning Pittsburgh playwright and poet — dazzling language, razor sharp characterizations and historical depth make his case as America’s Shakespeare — aimed to capture how history shaped modern African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. His best known work is Fences, about the 1950s, which HBO produced in 2016 starring Denzel Washington, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. Washington wants to produce all ten plays.

As John Lahr wrote in a 2001 New Yorker profile:

Wilson’s work is a conscious answer to James Baldwin’s call for “a profound articulation of the Black Tradition.” He says he wanted to demonstrate that black American culture “was capable of sustaining you, so that when you left your father’s or your mother’s house you didn’t go into the world naked. You were fully clothed in manners and a way of life.”

Gem of the Ocean is being staged outdoors in its exact fictional setting, 1839 Wylie Ave, in the Hill District, on a slope rising from downtown Pittsburgh. When Wilson was born in the Hill in 1945, it had a population of over 50,000 and was known as Little Harlem. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong hung out there with Josh Gibson and other black luminaries. Since that glittering era, the neighborhood has been tragically decimated by urban planners who knocked down homes to build a hockey arena, riots in the 1960s, and suburban flight.

On stage, the year is 1904, less than 40 years after the end of the Civil War, but this is a modern, familiar world. The mills of the three rivers are firing, pouring steel to build the bridges, roads and buildings of a booming and expanding nation. African-Americans, many of whom were born enslaved, struggle to find their way in a society bent on keeping them as second-class citizens.

You watch the show on plastic chairs lined up on a grassy hill, looking at a sturdy wooden set, and, above that, the upper deck of the South Hills rising above the Monongahela River. The wind gusts through curtains on stage. Near the end, our show was cut short by a lighting and rain.

The action takes place at the house of Aunt Ester, a recurring character in Wilson’s plays. She’s a 285-year-old good witch, protector and counsellor, born in 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans landed in the U.S.

Aunt Ester (a pun on “ancestor”) welcomes people into her home, like Citizen Barlow, a young man who’s emigrated from Klannish Alabama to look for a job and a home. Solly Two Kings is an old man who was born enslaved and became a foot soldier on the Underground Railroad, leading 62 people to freedom. But, asks Two Kings about the America he’s living in, “what good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?”

Ester leads Citizen Barlow on a painful and cleansing dream journey, on a ship that gives the play its name, to the City of Bones, a mythical kingdom built from the remains of Africans who didn’t survive the ocean crossing. Facing truth leads to freedom, Ester advises. That scene of mystical time-travel from Pittsburgh to Africa, acted in a stiff wind under a sky of dark, gathering clouds, stunned with rich insight and love.

Meanwhile, typically for 1904, there’s labor unrest at the steel mill, which leads to further strife, and a tragic end.

History throws place and people together in ways promising and destructive, rich and hungry. In the history of peoples, myth bends. The physical reality of place is more secure. Pittsburgh gets the same sun and shadows as the day Christ was born. From then to now is just one moment after another. Place puts us all on equal ground, and affirms that events are connected. You can own land, but you can’t own history. Place is the constant that frames our efforts to understand the truth of history, and love each other, better.

As Wilson chronicles, African-Americans fled the hot, cruel South for Pittsburgh and other northern and western cities. From 1619 to 1904 to 2019 is just one moment after another. America, the place, stays the same.

John W. Miller

 

American Cathedrals: Why We Should Treasure, Protect (and Visit) Native American Mounds — “Sacred centers of their communities, like Notre Dame for the French.”

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Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, WV.

It was the promise of a Native American burial mound that pulled me off I-70 in 2013 while I was reporting a story in West Virginia for The Wall Street Journal.

Grave Creek Mound, 69 feet high, 2,200 old, in Moundsville, WV, on the left bank of the Ohio river as it snakes from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. My fascination was instant, and turned into a 2018 documentary feature on the town and its rich history with Dave Bernabo, Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here).

I hadn’t known anything about the tens of thousands of mounds left behind by Native American groups– from 7,000 years ago until around the time European colonization of the Americas started in the 15th century.

Europeans immigrants knocked down most of the mounds as they rolled west in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Grave Creek is a survivor. Like a few thousand other sties, including Poverty Point in Louisiana, and Cahokia, near St. Louis, which is on the verge of being declared a National Park.

Although they are much older, Native American mounds are like Europe’s cathedrals, Andrea Keller, a curator at Grave Creek and star of our film, told me after she watched flames tear destroy part of the 12th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris this spring.

Like cathedrals, mounds were built across a vast region, from Florida to Wisconsin, in all kinds of styles, often shaped like cones, but also sometimes like lizards, bears, birds and alligators. Serpent Mound, in Peebles, OH, is shaped like a 1,330-foot-long snake.

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Serpent Mound, Peebles, OH

And like European cathedrals, you can visit mounds as a tourist.

Which every American should; mounds are a window to America’s deep past– a reminder that civilizations ebb and flow, and a frame to check the American affinity for newness, and this nostalgia for the 1950s that helped elect Donald Trump. Whatever our politics, this is stuff worth thinking about.

As Keller watched Notre Dame burn, she marveled at the Gothic architecture and unfathomable stone craftsmanship: 13,000 oak trees culled in the 12th century to build the roof. Une forêt. Some of those trees, according to the cathedral’s website, were three or four hundred years old; that oak sprouted in the eighth century.

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Fire at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, April 15-16, 2019.

Moundsville’s earthwork is “not as ornate as a European cathedral,” Keller told me. “But the mounds were sacred centers of their communities, like Notre Dame for the French.”

The grandest of all the mound complexes was Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis and built around 1,000 AD. Until the 18th century, it was the largest city north of Mexico, with a population estimated at over 10,000 people. Less than a thousand years ago, it was bigger than London.

Cahokia hosted a busy port that included plazas, blocks of houses, waterways and walking highways patrolled by farmers and traders peddling grains, pot, jewelry and clay figurines. (Charles Mann’s 1491, one of the many books on pre-Columbian civilizations I read as research for Moundsville, includes an excellent description of the site and its context.)

“We’re lucky to have the archaeological treasures right here in our backyard,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, a Republican congressman who sponsored the bill to turn the site into a national park.

The bipartisan support for the idea should give us all hope. In the 19th century, Americans resisted the notion that the mounds were built by Native Americans. They wanted to preserve their myth of an unspoiled Eden. It was the Vikings, the Huns, a lost tribe of Israel, space aliens, or a mythical race of Mound Builders, they said. It took serious scholarship, including a famous excavation by Thomas Jefferson, to debunk the wild theories. In the last century, carbon dating confirmed unequivocally that Native American groups built the mounds, all of them.

Many mounds, like Grave Creek, housed burial vaults, but mounds were also used as homes, trading centers, lookout points and social centers. A complex of 29 platform mounds in Moundville, Alabama, was maintained by the Mississippian culture partly to defend itself against invaders. The 18 mounds at the Toltec site in central Arkansas were used for feasts, a fact deduced by large quantities of unearthed deer bones.

What’s fascinated me most is what mounds reveal about ancient continental trade on footpaths and rivers. “By around 4000 BC, the exchange of non-local materials, among them copper marine shell, steatite, banded slate, and colorful cherts, had taken off,” George Milner writes in The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America:

It is also clear from goods found in the graves of elite persons that moundbuilding centers participated in exchange networks that eventually grew to almost continental proportions. Products from far-off places can be found at many sites, but they tend to be concentrated at the largest centers. Some of the more notable items on a long list that appear to have enjoyed wide circulation include Rocky Mountain stones used to make cutting edges, minerals from the upper reaches of the Mississippi used to make paint pigments, marine shells from Florida, copper from the Great Lakes, stones pipes from the Ohio River valley, and mica from southern Appalachia.

Grave Creek was erected by the Adena people, hunter-gatherers and occasional gardeners of Early Woodland (800 BC-100AD) period who lived in parts of Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Western Pennsylvania and New York, and traded with groups as far away as Lake Michigan and he Gulf of Mexico. In one Adena mound, diggers found a piece of the jaw of a barracuda.

In Native Americans Before 1492: Moundbuilding Realms of the Mississippian Woodlands, Lynda N. Shaffer and Thomas Reilly write:

Canoe traffic plied the rivers, and both people and the goods they could carry moved through the woodlands along overland trails. Ceremonial centers knit the various people together in a web of grand dimensions. Throughout the region people buried their illustrious dead with the finest goods available from the Rocky Mountains to the beaches of Florida. Later, after AD400, the bow and arrow became the principal weapon, corn became the mainstay of the diet, and palisaded towns became the centers of ceremony and exchange. Thus were the cultural continuities of the moundbuilding region created, without the aid of bronze, iron, chariots, cavalries, or any beast of burden.

Grave Creek is safe for now. “It can’t burn,” says Keller. “Our biggest challenge is erosion” and farming. Elsewhere, she said, “somebody might have a mound on their property they could just plow it over and over again it would get smaller and smaller until it disappeared.” And some mounds are still being destroyed.

The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, signed by President Bush, prohibits illegal trafficking of human remains and cultural items, but doesn’t prevent destruction of mounds on private property– a statute local governments around the country has been debating.

In Ohio, Gary Scherer, a Republican state representative, has worked on legislation requiring a permit before digging into mounds, a response to complaints from archeologists that private developers in Southeastern Ohio have bulldozed mounds. And in Louisiana, which has over 700 sites, property owners who have mounds on their land and agree to keep looters and farmers away are given a certificate from the state.

Jon Erpenbach, a state senator from Wisconsin, has called for increased state protection of native mounds on private property, a move protested by business groups. “The more I learned about mounds, the more I felt a connection to the land when I walk and drive around it,” he told me. “What happened with Notre Dame was tragic. But if a cathedral burns down, you can rebuild it. Once a mound is gone, you can’t replace it.”

John W. Miller