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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 

An “excellent oral history” that unfolds “like a non-fiction novel” reminiscent of Errol Morris’ seminal 1981 film, Vernon, Florida. — Jonathan W. Hickman, Times-Herald

“Deeply humane and has it all: postindustrial decline, race, fracking, the carceral state, paranormal activity. I recommend it.” — Alec MacGillis, ProPublica

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 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

How to Draw People Back to Appalachia — Family Builds a New Life in West Virginia

In 2016, Andrew Kefer, a quality analyst, his wife Jessica, a counselor hired by companies to help employees, and their three children, moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia from the Philadelphia suburbs to be closer to her family. For the region, that’s part of a welcome trend. As Emily Badger’s recent exploration of West Virginia in the New York Times points out, crucial to Appalachia’s resurrection is attracting more people with capital and talent back to the area. After deindustrialization from the 1970s onwards, a story told in our PBS film Moundsville, millions fled to coastal meccas like New York and San Francisco, or bigger inland cities, like Pittsburgh or Cincinnati. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic and higher costs are prompting people to settle in Appalachia and the nearby Rust Belt. For many, a life where rent is $1,000 a month for a nice house is a godsend. Architect Mary O’Connor moved to Akron from New York City eight year ago for a job, After the job ended, Ms. O’Connor decided to stay in Akron. “All my friends in New York were complaining,“ she said, “and I was like, here I can have all thing things they were complaining about not having.”

To be sure, living in West Virginia isn’t always easy. Kefer says his family misses “the fact that there’s more of everything, more restaurants, shops, doctors, hospitals” and “more choices for everything.” The kids yearn for “Wawa, Wegmans and PA Dutch Country, and being close to New York City.” However, in West Virginia, he points out, he “can walk to restaurants, doctors offices, a grocery store, a great bakery and two pharmacies very easily.” The family has taken to local customs: 

Pre-pandemic, we enjoyed many local traditions such as the Wheeling Celtic Festival (usually held the 1st Saturday in March), annual trips to Kennywood Park, and semi-annual trips to Hozak Farms in Clinton, PA for Pumpkins and Christmas Trees. Except for this year, we’ve always gotten a hotel room and done First Night in Downtown Pittsburgh. In the Summer of 2019 we went to Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. Locally, we have enjoyed the Old Time Fair at Tomlinson Run State Park, New Cumberland Riverfest and Chester’s Hometown 4th of July. Our house is a block and a half from where they set off the fireworks, we have a terrific view. I’ve personally adopted cheering on the WVU Mountaineers, Marshall Thundering Herd and Pitt Panthers.

I asked Andrew to reflect on what political and economic leaders might do to bring the region back economically. — John W. Miller

How to Draw More People to Appalachia and the Rust Belt

The Coronavirus Pandemic has created an opportunity for this region to attract new residents once again with the rise of remote work. People now have an option to live where they want to live. Perhaps some might be attracted by intangibles that this area already has such as quality and affordable housing stock, friendly people, and some of the best outdoor and cultural activities anywhere. The trick is how can we identify policy decisions that could ultimately attract newcomers to the area? I believe there are four items the region should focus on to grow the population.

Broadband: This is by far, the single greatest issue and hinderance to attracting the kind of remote employee that the area so desperately needs. There must be cheap, fast, reliable Broadband for everyone, from folks in the hollers, to our inner cities. The tech worker who loves to rock climb and kayak will not move to the New River Gorge Area if she does not have access to reliable internet. The artist looking for loft space in Akron, will not move there if he cannot find a place with Broadband.

The Fairness Act (WV Only): Currently, in WV it is legal to be fired from a job or removed from an apartment due to the person that you love. This is discrimination at its most basic form. Folks will not come here if this behavior is tolerated. To their credit, 14 West Virginia Municipalities have updated or created their own equal rights and protection laws on their own. This must be done on a state level to benefit all current and future residents.

Welcome New Immigrants: Soon, the Biden Administration will open U.S. borders to migrants and refugees again. We must aggressively pursue and attract migrants and refugees to the region. Not only does this add much needed diversity here, but these people have proven to be industrious and entrepreneurial citizens once they arrive.

Marketing and relocation incentives: The region needs better and more targeted marketing to attract new residents. Perhaps some advertisements placed in the Sunday New York Times or Sunday Washington Post touting the inexpensive housing and abundant outdoor opportunities of West Virginia, or a website showcasing the myriad of legacy cultural opportunities in Pittsburgh or the Akron/Cleveland Areas. Another idea would be to establish a relocation incentive program. See existing programs like Tulsa Remote or Relocate to Vermont as examples of successful programs. Rather than funded with government dollars, these could be funded by local philanthropies.

While population growth should not be the be all end all goal, it does supply much needed funding to local services, such as schools, police, and fire departments. More importantly, new residents support and patronize arts, culture, sports, and other activities that all contribute to the collective quality of life of this region. My wife and I chose to move here with our family four and a half years ago. She wanted to be closer to her family and we wanted a fresh start. We have found this and so much more.

Andrew Kefer

Lady and Baby Skeletons: Ancient or Modern Americans? West Virginia News Startup Tackles Mysterious Case

This past December, Lede News, a lively startup news outlet in Wheeling, WV, broke an unusual and interesting story. It concerned the skeletal remains of a woman and her newborn child who had been found in 1991 under the overhang of a nearby cliff. The bones did not appear to be recent, and they didn’t match any reports of missing people. In an area rich with Native American artifacts, including the Meadowcroft settlement and the Grave Creek Mound, documented in our PBS film Moundsville, the question, naturally, was whether the skeletons might be, not tens or hundreds of years old, but thousands. Authorities did not crack the case, and, although they determined a couple years ago that no crime had been committed, they still have not conducted radiocarbon dating that would nail down the exact ages of the remains.

What was discovered by the property owners on March 17, 1991, were skeletons, and many of the bones had been fractured by rocks that fell from the rock overhang where the remains were uncovered. A pair of McCardle family members, according to the reports on file at the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, were walking their property and decided to take shelter under the same overhang, and that’s where this mystery begins.

Investigators did not find “a belt buckle, a shirt button, a rivet from a pair of jeans, or the underwire of a bra” that might indicate the bodies were modern, Lede News‘ Steve Novotney wrote. “Even today, I do believe that the remains are from Native Americans, and the female must have lived nearby,” Deputy Investigator Dan Livingston told Lede News. “In Marshall County, you really never know what you are going to find because of all the history in this area.”

It’s been a long time since Livingston has thought about the bones, but, he said, “I do remember it because of the hike it was to get to the location, and because of what those guys stumbled across. Those men really didn’t know what they had found that morning, and now, we still don’t know.” After all, the area has been occupied by humans, and often rife with conflict, for many thousands of years.

The story illustrates the crucial importance of local journalism. Novotney got the story, he told me, because he knows Bill Helms, former chief deputy and now sheriff of Marshall County. In other words, he’s a well-networked reporter who’s been in the business for decades. That is the essence of journalism: A storyteller wiring up a community and curating the most essential tales for everybody else. Newspapers might die, but, as Lede News shows, we can keep the journalism.

Novotney, a popular and well-known veteran of West Virginia journalism, founded Lede News, named after newspaper jargon for the first line of a story, in 2019. He runs it with Erika Donaghy, who handles business and IT issues. Novotney intends the site, which has gotten almost a million reads, to be “a complement to other news sites” instead of a competitor. In a growing news desert, I think Lede News is more than a complement. It’s a thorough, professional news operation, covering nuts and bolts like Covid, city council meetings, and sports, but also carrying a juicy slate of features, on topics from baking cakes to the mob. The opinion section, delightfully, is called “Free Speech”. (Full disclosure: Lede News has republished several articles from this blog.)

Novotney chased down and wrote up the Lady and the Baby story hoping to prod authorities to accelerate the radiocarbon dating process that might nail down the ages of the bones. He intends to keep following the case, and possibly publish a follow-up. That’s another important role journalists play: Reminding those in charge to serve their community. This is not a momentous story, to be sure, but it is a piece of a community’s shared narrative, and history. Cracking the case binds people together in fact and shared humanity. That woman and child, after all, were our partners in the miracle of the human experience. And, in truth, these stories can only be told by journalists. On the beat. Making phone calls. Checking multiple sources. Listening.

John W. Miller

Top 10 Things To Do in Moundsville: The Perfect American Weekend or Day Trip

It was the sign touting the Grave Creek Mound that lured me off the highway, but as I dug into the story of this unique West Virginia town for a PBS movie, I discovered a world of amazing places. Put together, they make for a day or weekend that is fun, fascinating, family-friendly, and the perfect American short trip, with nature, history, culture, and food. And the good news is it’s not far: Under five hours from Washington and a bit over an hour from Pittsburgh. Here’s your perfect day in Moundsville. (Mix and match, or spread over two days as desired.)

1.   Have breakfast at Bob’s Lunch. Start your day with some coffee, pancakes, and scrambled eggs at Bob’s, a classic all-American diner that opened in 1947. You’ll also recognize the diner as the setting for Bill Wnek’s interview in the film. (800, 3rd St)

2.   At 9 a.m., head over to the Grave Creek Mound for a hike. It’s gated, and you have to walk through the Del Norona museum. Walk up the steps to the top, and take a look at the Ohio River and the town. It’s an incredible view, and a testament to the Adena people who built the mound over 2,000 years ago. (801, Jefferson Ave)

3.   Visit the Del Norona museum, which includes the West Virginia state archeological complex. Learn about the prehistoric animals like mammoths, the Adena people, white settlement in the 19th century, and the evolution of Moundsville in the 19th and 20th centuries. (801, Jefferson Ave)

4.   Walk across the street to the old West Virginia state penitentiary. Book a tour on the website. See the inside of a classic American prison, site of the last public hanging in America, an electric chair (“Old Sparky”), and where Charles Manson’s mother was held. (818, Jefferson Ave)

5. Make sure you walk around the Central Business District and Jefferson Avenue. Lots of interesting craft, antique and retail shops.

6.   For lunch, head over to Acapulco Mexican restaurant for some quesadillas or tacos. (800, Lafayette Ave)

7.   Start you afternoon with a visit to the Fostoria Glass Museum. It’s open 1pm to 4pm, Wed.-Sat. (511, Tomlinson Ave)

9.   Explore Grand Vue Park, a stunning beautiful place with zip lines, cabins, and a miniature golf course. One complaint about the movie Moundsville was that we didn’t feature Grand Vue, so it’s nice to include it here. (250, Trail Dr)

9.   New Vrindaban temple. A storied Krishna temple in the middle of Appalachia. Check the website for details about visiting. (3759 McCrearys Ridge Rd)

10.   Finish your day at Steve Hummel’s Archives of the Afterlife, a must-see collection of spooky objects and historical arcana. Steve was my first friend in Moundsville, and is a gracious and generous host. He’s in the process of moving the Archives to Cameron, WV. Check out his website for address and hours.

WHERE TO DINE

Head back into town for dinner at the Prima Marina (1501, Water St), where you can sit by the river; Varsity Pizzeria (2203 Ohio St), which is old-fashioned fun; or Mason Dixon BBQ Co (115 Lafayette Ave), a delicious new BBQ joined operated by a veteran.

WHERE TO STAY

We recommend Grand Vue Park, (250, Trail Dr),where you can get a cabin, or a couple of smaller places, Lafayette Inn (95, Teletech Dr) and Bonnie Dwaine (505 Wheeling Ave).

Have fun in Moundsville!

John W. Miller

The True Story of West Virginia’s 1863 (Bourgeois) Revolution and Birth

West Virginia is known for mines, mountains and working-class grit, but the state was born from a merchant-class revolt seeking freedom from punitive Richmond tax policies and the Virginia of colonial plantations dependent on slave labor.

That business past, part of the story we tell in Moundsville, has shaped the consciousness of the region, and illustrates how the history of America is often the history of its industry and commerce.

In a union that’s always been divided, the Mountain State stands out for how much it’s changed politically, socially, and culturally since its founding in 1863. In many ways tracking America, it started as a Republican rebellion against Southern Democrats, and turned into a Democratic party stronghold with the New Deal and unions, and then flipped back to the GOP of the Tea Party and Trump.

The founding of West Virginia is often characterized as a political rejection of slavery by the northwestern part of the state. It was the only state created by the Civil War, and one of only three states carved out of existing states. (Maine was made from Massachusetts, and Kentucky from Virginia, a cool slice of trivia I’ll be using.)

And that is a big part of the story. But as “Seceding from Secession: The Civil War, Politics, and the Creation of West Virginia”, a fascinating new history of the 35th state points out, its founders led a region that clashed with the old Virginia for decades before the Civil War.

The grounds for divorce, write authors Eric J. Wittenberg, Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., and Penny L. Barrick, were centered around the economy. The western part of Virginia, yeoman farmers, builders, merchants and makers, was headed toward the 20th century, while the old Virginia of plantation slave-owners was sliding back into the 18th.

In fact, Wittenberg says, the book came about after somebody on Facebook “commented that if it hadn’t been for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, there would be no West Virginia.”

The western part of Virginia, centered around Wheeling, was linked to Ohio and Pennsylvania through commerce, the National Road and the B&O Railroad. In the 19th century, as America industrialized, communities of hustling entrepreneurs, merchants and bankers, built factories, ports and roads, dug canals, and founded towns that would shape the American manufacturing economy for the next 150 years. Like Scottish-born Andrew Carnegie, they were often immigrants. The northwest region of Virginia, the authors write, “had significant numbers of Scotch-Irish, Welsh, and German immigrants who came in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries and later as part of the large exodus of the 1840s.”

Wheeling, the authors remind us, “vied with Pittsburgh to be the center of commerce in that part of the country” in the early 19th century. “Its location at the head of low-water navigation on the Ohio River made it a nineteenth century boat-building center.” It also had “significant nail and tobacco plants.”

The suspension bridge in Wheeling across the Ohio River, built by Charles Ellet in 1847, was at 1,010 feet the longest suspension bridge in the world, carrying the national road across the river.

Prior to the Civil War, the western merchant class disputed its status under the law. Slaveholding was taxed at a lower rates other “businesses”, a provision which “ended up subsidizing slaveholders at the expense of” merchants and businessmen.

West Virginia’s young “continued to attend schools in free states rather than the schools across the Blue Ridge,” wrote an early historian. “Her markets were in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and the Mississippi River towns rather than Norfolk. Her geographic conditions allied her interests with those of Pennsylvania and Ohio and her industries with those which called for white rather than slave labor.”

The Civil War, in other words, was the spark that lit the fuse. Assembled in Wheeling, leaders of the region got around a rule saying a state couldn’t split up without legislative approval, by declaring itself the official legislature for the entire state of Virginia. The original state legislators, they argued, had forfeited their right to govern by seceding from the union. The government ran referendums on statehood and debated proposed names including Vandalia, Westsylvania, New Virginia, and Kanahwa, some of which had been suggested by past state secessionists.

Once it seceded from secession, West Virginia needed support from Abraham Lincoln and the federal government. One big reason Washington signed up to defend West Virginia was the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) railroad, which has become essential for industrial development and western settlement. The Civil War made the B&O a strategic asset, able to move supplies and soldiers faster than horses and wagons.

“The construction, maintenance and operation of the B&O represented one of the first instances of a national system of transportation connecting the United States,” the authors write. The corridor of people living near the railroad former a bastion of union support. “It was no coincidence that the counties traversed by the B&O most strongly supported Lincoln.”

And, in fact, before the Civil War, Virginia leaders resisted building the B&O because they feared it would help the western part of the state economically surpass the slaveholding east.

With support from Lincoln, rulers in Wheeling managed to secure statehood. “Without Abraham Lincoln, there would be no West Virginia,” the authors write. The creation of the state was legitimized by Supreme Court rulings in 1871 and 1911, both included in this book. Wittenberg and Barrick are lawyers. Sargus is a federal district judge.

And West Virginia was admitted to the union as the first state to contain a gradual emancipation clause in its constitution.

The discovery of rich deposits of coal and gas would shape the state for the next 150 years. Luckily, West Virginia has this book to understand its first chapters, and to help it figure out what the next ones will say.

John W. Miller

National Family Anthem: Lady Gaga’s Grandpa Was a West Virginia Crooner — Manchin Grabs Gaga Selfie

Lady Gaga’s stunning national anthem performance, and gold brooch of a peace dove, at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration drew another round of reminders that her mom grew up in Glen Dale, WV. That’s near Wheeling, and the twin town of Moundville, the subject of Moundsville, our PBS biography of a classic American town.

Sen. Joe Manchin led the charge, grabbing a selfie of Gaga and chatting about her West Virginia roots.

People in West Virginia are still proud of the family, even if Gaga’s mother Cynthia Bissett decamped the region for New York City in the 1970s, part of a wave of emigration described in our film. And Gaga herself has spoken of her roots in the region, including during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh the day before the election.

Gaga has made frequent trips to visit her grandmother in West Virginia. A lesser-known tale concerns 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. As a child, she 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.”

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

New Film About Portsmouth, OH Inspired by ‘Moundsville’

Dave Bernabo and I made Moundsville, now on PBS, to attempt a different kind of conversation about American industrial towns. If we could tell a deeper, more human story, we thought, we could help rebuild parts of the shared narrative America needs to grieve deindustrialization, heal divisions, and move forward.

When Amanda Page, a writer living in Columbus, saw the film, she decided she wanted to create something similar about her hometown, Portsmouth, OH. We started talking last year. I’ve been informally advising Page, and Dave has agreed to co-direct the film, titled “Peerless City”, which will premiere at a literary festival Page is organizing next spring.

Page told me she wants to “highlight our resilience and ability to support people in and through recovery, therefore creating recovery in people and the place.” What she doesn’t want, she added, are “poverty tours” or “elegies for anything.” Amen.

Portsmouth is a town of 20,000, 180 miles down the Ohio River from Moundsville. Its history has had a similar arc. Once bustling with a prosperous community, it’s lost thousands of factory jobs, and now has an economy anchored around low-wage service jobs.

People who’ve stayed behind do the best they can. There’s suffering, and grief that needs to be acknowledged. But, as in Moundsville, in the empty spaces, there is opportunity and renewal. People are starting new businesses and getting after it.

A brief sketch: The Hopewell people lived in the area over 2,000 years ago, leaving behind earthworks. In the 19th century, white settlement arrived, sprinkling the seeds of industrial development. It was also an important stopping point on the Underground Railroad, for slaves fleeing the South.

In the 20th century, Portsmouth became a manufacturing hub, with over 100 factories. The Ohio River was once of the world’s mightiest manufacturing arteries. A factory for the world. Portsmouth made bricks, shoes and steel. The city hummed. Life was good. Around 1930, population peaked at over 40,000, twice its current level.

Page has obtained a grant from Ohio Humanities, and is currently raising other money. The team will shoot this May to July, and follow up with a final shoot in the fall. If you’d like to make a donation to help the project, you can do it on Facebook here.

John W. Miller

‘Night of the Hunter’: Rise and Fall of an American Con Man

In the 1955 thriller Night of the Hunter, Harry Powell, a classic American con man posing as an itinerant preacher, settles in Moundsville, WV. He seduces, marries, and kills Willa, a bank robber’s widow. He then charms the pants off the entire town while hunting Willa’s escaped children and $10,000 their father had hid with them.

Dave Bernabo and I weren’t the first to shoot a movie in Moundsville. With its classic gothic penitentiary, wide Ohio river views, and cozy streets, the West Virginia town has hosted bundles of films and TV shows, including Fools Parade, Out of the Furnace, Mindhunter, and Castle Rock.

But no Moundsville movie is as celebrated as Night of the Hunter, a true masterpiece of 1950s noir. Directed by English actor Charles Laughton, it stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Importantly, it’s based on a novel by Davis Grubb (1919-1980), Moundsville’s most celebrated writer, who drew on the true story of Harry Powers, a serial killer who lured women through lonely hearts ads. There was so much public interest in the case that Powers was tried in the same theatre where we premiered Moundsville in 2018, before he was hanged in the Moundsville prison.

Parts of the movie, mostly background elements, were filmed in Moundsville. An August 27, 1954 item in the Echo reported that “actual shooting of background scenes for the forthcoming movie, ‘Night of the Hunter’ was scheduled to get under way in the local area this afternoon.”

It’s a simple story, which you can listen to while watching clips from the film in this thrilling reading by Laughton, which I recommend. After killing the widow Willa (Winters), Powell (Mitchum) chases the children up, down and around the Ohio River, often on horseback. The film is drenched in gothic symbol, and clanging with the sounds of good clashing against evil. The photography is shadowy, the script heavy with Bible quotes and stories, and the soundtrack hums with haunting hymns.

The movie starts with a Sunday school lecture: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits”.

It’s a lesson the town takes too long to learn. Preacher Powell is an evil, sadistic, manipulative, misogynistic, cunning, charismatic, charming con man, and people love him and his rhapsodic street sermons, especially the one where he explains the “HATE” tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and “LOVE” on the fingers of his right. Life, he explains as he rolls his clenched fists in circles, is a battle of good against evil.

Like an emperor, the preacher struts sidewalks and markets, drawing adoration and praise. Nobody sees that he’s a sociopathic liar. It’s only Willa’s son John, and Rachel Cooper (Gish), a kind old lady who takes in him and his sister Pearl, who see that Harry is, in fact, a false prophet. “It’s a hard world for little things,” says Rachel, speaking for all the vulnerable. She protects the children from Harry.

In the end, Rachel shoots Harry, chases him into her barn, and calls the state troopers. Once Harry is caught and shamed, the town flips and, of course, forms a mob to chase him to prison.

The book was Davis Grubb’s first novel, and it was a best-seller. “As we read this brilliant novel we live in a world where all human decency is lost through the character of the Preacher,” wrote Herbert West in the New York Times. “But human nature is redeemed by old Rachel Cooper… One comes to the satisfying end of the story with a profound sense of relief.”

Both the film and novel close with Rachel reflecting on resilience:

Lord save little children! For each of them has his Preacher to hound him down the dark river of fear and tonguelessness and never-a-door. Each one is mute and alone because there is no word for a child’s fear and no ear to heed it if there were a word and no one to understand it if it heard. Lord save little children! They abide and and they endure.

Film directors are gaga for Night of the Hunter. The Coen Brothers have drawn on its religious language and symbolism for many of their own scripts. The Dude abides!

America abides.

John W. Miller

The Polish and Ohio Valley Origins of Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

This blog promotes the PBS film ‘Moundsville’, and publishes stories about West Virginia and Appalachia.

The obituaries for Phil Niekro, who died of cancer at age 81 on Dec. 26, focused on his legendary knuckleball. In the Ohio Valley, the Appalachian mining country southwest of Pittsburgh where “Knucksie” grew up, the Hall of Famer is also remembered as a loyal friend, enthusiastic booster, and son and grandson of hardworking Polish coalminers who lived a thrilling American dream.

This immigrant’s fable that ends with a celebrated millionaire athlete conquering America for the Braves and Yankees begins in 19th century Poland, where Phil’s grandfather, Jozef Niekra, was born in Slodkow, so-called “Russian Poland”. He emigrated to West Virginia around 1901, and strapped on shovel and axe to dig for coal underground. He married Magdalena “Maggie” Mieszegr, from Blinow, Polish Russia, only a few weeks after her arrival in America, according to Tom Hufford’s excellent essay for the Society for American Baseball Research.

Phil Niekro, Sr., name now Americanized, was born in 1913. Both his parents died before he turned five. After minimal schooling, he also went to work in the mines, when he was 15. He married another Polish immigrant orphaned young, Henrietta “Ivy” Klinkoski. They had three children — Phyllis, Phil, Jr., and Joe, and settled in Lansing, Ohio, seven miles west of Wheeling, WV.

That’s where Phil, Jr. and Joe starred for Bridgeport High School in the 1950s. When he wasn’t slogging away in the mines, Phil Sr. pitched in the Mine Workers League, the kind of amateur baseball that used to proliferate all over America. A coworker showed him how to throw a knuckleball, which he taught his sons. Phil, Jr. practiced with his childhood friend John Havlicek, the Boston Celtics Hall of Famer. “The only things I could ever do better than John was catch fish, shoot squirrels and throw the knuckleball,” Niekro said.

Amazingly, Niekro threw his knuckleball for Bridgeport High. In the only game he lost, he gave up a homerun to future Pirates Hall of Fame secondbaseman Bill Mazeroski, which is crazy because it feels like Maz belongs to the 1960s and Niekro to the 1980s. At 19, he rocked up to an open tryout for the Milwaukee Braves with 150 other kids on a place in the Ohio River called, simply, The Island. He got $500 to sign. The year was 1958.

Phil made the majors in 1964. Over the following 23 years, mostly playing for the Atlanta Braves, he pitched 5,404 innings, won 318 games, and struck out 3,342 batters. In 1997, baseball writers chose him for the Hall of Fame. You can read all about it in the obituaries. He was also a very funny man, appearing on Dave Letterman twice.

The story I’d like to retell here happened on October 6, 1985, when Phil Niekro pitched one of the most remarkable games in baseball history, for the New York Yankees against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s available for free on Youtube, and I recommend watching as a snapshot of 1980s hardball, portrait of Reagan’s America, inspirational sports movie, and primer on pitching strategy, guts, and guile.

For weeks, Niekro had been chasing his 300th win, after capturing his 299th on September 8. He was 46 years old, so it wasn’t clear he’d ever get there. In Wheeling, WV, 72-year-old Phil Sr. was in a hospital fighting for his life. The hospital put the game on the radio. In Toronto, Joe Niekro, who also pitched in the Major Leagues and had just been traded to the Yankees, kept tabs on Phil, Sr., with help from manager Billy Martin and owner George Steinbrenner.

In the stands, childhood friend Gordie Longshaw was thinking about a conversation at dinner the night before. “The Yankees had just gotten eliminated,” he said, “and, according to Phil, Billy Martin got so drunk he passed out on the trainers’ table, and [baseball great] Al Oliver [of the Toronto Blue Jays] came by the table, and Phil said, I’m not going to throw you a single knuckleball tomorrow.”

Longshaw, a 73-year-old retired educator and county commissioner who now owns City Advertisers in Bridgeport, OH, grew up with the Niekros. “My dad worked in the same coal mine,” he told me. “Phil was quick-witted, and Joe was more moody like their mother.”

I love watching this 1985 Niekro game against the Blue Jays. Sure, it was a meaningless game. Both teams were exhausted from the season and almost certainly hung over. The strike zone is a billboard wide. “They better be cutting and slashing from the time they leave the dugout,” says Phil Rizzuto on the telecast. But still. The Big Leagues.

And Niekro pitches a shutout, concluding with his only three knuckleballs of the day. “An astounding switch in strategy and style,” Murray Chass called it in the New York Times. He throws the craziest mix of junk I’ve ever seen — curves, slurves, eephus pitches, slow, slower and slowest. Just watch. It’s a thing of beauty.

In the 9th, Billy Martin sends Joe out to catch his warmup tosses. After the game, Joe comes out to congratulate him and tell him their dad is feeling better. “The nicest feeling of the whole day was right after I came off the mound Joe told me they took my dad out of intensive care,” Phil said. “I’ll go home tomorrow. I’m going to take him my hat and give him my baseball. He was as much a part of these 300 wins as I was.” 

After a pit stop in a midtown bar with Martin — “Billy wouldn’t let me just get on the plane,” said Longshaw, “he said, this here is a 300-game winner, you have to celebrate with us” — the coalminers’s sons fly to Pittsburgh, and drive to Wheeling to present Phil, Sr. with the game ball from the shutout. He would live three more years. Longshaw flew with them. “It was all very special,” he said. “Phil was a special guy. He always had a fun story to tell about George Steinbrenner.”

Together, Phil and Joe, who died in 2006, would win 539 Major League games, a record for brothers. (Phil Niekro, Sr.’s tombstone in Saint Anthony’s Cemetery in Blaine, Ohio has a baseball on top inscribed with the number “539”). When he beat the record set by the Perry brothers in 1987, while pitching for Cleveland, Phil joked that “you can’t find good polka music on a Tuesday night in Cleveland. If it had been Saturday, I’d have raised some hell!” Both brothers are in the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

In the 1990s, Phil and Joe coached the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-women’s baseball team. “Women should have every opportunity to play competitive professional ball,” said Phil. He died as the greatest knuckleball pitcher who ever lived, and one of seven Hall of Famers to pass away in 2020, along with Al KalineTom SeaverLou BrockBob GibsonWhitey Ford, and Joe Morgan.

In the week after his death, local stations celebrated Phil Niekro as “a man that never forgot where he came from,” Bridgeport High School Athletic Director Greg Harkness told WTOV-9. “Whether it was the golf scramble in his name that benefitted the school or helping with the fieldhouse, Phil was a great contributor to the youth of Bridgeport.”

Phil and his wife Nancy retired to the Atlanta area, where their three sons live. The family, like millions of others, has left the Ohio Valley, an aging slice of the Rust Belt that has lost thousands of factories and millions of people, a story chronicled in Moundsville.

But Phil grew up in a different world. He once took Braves teammates Bruce Benedict to visit. Niekro “showed me the fields where he used to play ball,” Benedict told Steve Wulf of Sports Illustrated in 1984. “His mother is the best cook in the world—we had stuffed pork chops and cabbage roll. We went over to the Polish Club, and those guys put down a shot with every beer. Before I knew it, I got floppy-legged.”

When “Phil drove through the Wheeling tunnel, he’d say ‘I’m home’,” Gordie Longshaw said. “He never forgot his roots.”

John W. Miller

Downriver from the Moundsville Prison Graveyard: Story of a Lyric

This post has been updated to include information from an email from Mark Kozelek.

When singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek was a teenager in the 1980s, he used to visit Moundsville prison. “We’d sit on a curb outside of a residential neighborhood and watch guards enter and exit the front gate,” he wrote me in an email. “They always looked so brooding. We were amazed that spooky old prison sat right in the center of a neighborhood.”

It was those visits, part of an Ohio childhood, that were the ingredients of his 2013 song “You Missed My Heart”, which Phoebe Bridgers covered on her 2017 debut studio album Stranger in the Alps. The tune ends with the singer repeating, as if chanting a religious mantra: “Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.” I’ve seen the lyric popping up lone, especially on Twitter.

A mention of Moundsville by one of the brightest young musical artists in America — Bridgers’s eloquent songwriting, soulful storytelling, and “frank anxious music” have earned Grammy nominations and comparisons to Bob Dylan — caught our attention here at the blog promoting the PBS film Moundsville.

“You Missed My Heart” is a long (over 6 minutes) first-person murder ballad, narrated from the grave by the killer. It’s a story about not hitting your mark: The murderer stabs his old flame’s new lover in the wrong place, just as the ex tells him he didn’t love her right. “You missed my heart,” she says. And, after “the priest read my last rites/And just before everything went dark, I said, He missed my heart.” The narrator is probably talking about the guard who killed him, but couldn’t pierce his love. He could also be referring to the priest failing to connect him to God.

But what’s “downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard” is not the scene of the crime, or where our antihero is buried after being “shot down by a tower guard” trying to escape. Instead, the graveyard is a place from the past, a geographical marker of the memory of “a childhood scene, night sky, moon beams/Fishing with friends, sittn’ in the wild reeds/Watching the Ohio River flow at night/Waitn’ for the bullheaded catfishes to bite/Downriver from the Moundsville prison graveyard.”

As Gene Saunders points out in Moundsville, “there’s great fishing” on the Ohio River. “My friends and I did do a lot of fishing along the Ohio River in West Virginia – but from my memory – it was in Parkersburg,” Kozelek wrote in his email. In the song, the narrator nostalgically recalls “driving into Wheeling, showing her off/Backyard barbecues and reunions in the park.”

The “Moundsville prison” is actually the former West Virginia state penitentiary, located in town across the street from the old Native American burial mound the town is named after. The prison, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1995, housed thousands of convicts, including Charles Manson’s mom, and was used to shoot famous movies like Fools’ Parade and Night of the Hunter. For generations, the pen was a part of the fabric of the town. Residents walked there to watch baseball games inside. Prisoners decorated a Christmas tree atop the Native American mound.

The Moundsville prison, not to be a confused with a smaller, much more modern regional correctional facility in town, is now a tourist attraction, luring visitors to see the electric chair, “Old Sparky”, and paranormal investigators hunting ghosts, one of the main draws for a postindustrial town. And it does have a graveyard, which Kozelek told me he’s not visited. It’s off the beaten path, a few miles from the grounds framed by the Gothic castle structure, in a secluded area. I visited with Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguye, a Catholic priest from Vietnam based in Moundsville. “I like to go and pray for the souls of prisoners buried there,” he told me. “They were lonely in life, I imagine, and God loves them, too.”

Father That Son Ngoc Nguye at the Moundsville prison graveyard

I reached out to Bridgers, who is from Los Angeles, but didn’t get a reply. I’d love to know if she’s visited this segment of the Ohio River, where Lady Gaga’s mom grew up.

Kozelek, the songwriter, and chief vocalist of the indie band Sun Kil Moon, is from Massillon, Ohio, which is not on the Ohio River. It’s close, however, so it makes sense that he visited Moundsville when he was young. (Kozelek has been the source of controversy recently, including accusations of sexual misconduct, which he’s denied.)

In a 2018 interview with Bridgers, Kozelek said the song came from a bad dream:

The first part of the song was literally taken from a nightmare that I had in a hotel room in St. Catherine’s, Ontario. In reality, I was frustrated with a repair man and then dreamed that I pulled a knife out of a drawer and stabbed him and that he turned to me and said “you missed my heart”. The song was written in that moment. I don’t recall how much time I spent writing it, but not long.

“You Missed My Heart” is an old-fashioned murder ballad, reminiscent of Pretty Polly, Delia’s Gone, and Frankie and Johnny. But in its painful, nostalgic longing, it’s also a taste of Ohio River summers, when the beer was cold, the factories hummed, and going to see a new movie in Wheeling was the greatest thrill on Earth.

John W. Miller

How Moundsville is Celebrating Christmas in 2020

David Seum, a Moundsville, WV resident we’ve profiled on this blog, walked around his Ohio River town this week taking pictures, and put together this lovely photo essay.

Decorating your home in the same way you dress up a Christmas tree is a great American tradition, taken up in towns large and small, from sea to shining sea. When I was growing up in Belgium, I never saw holiday homes decorated like they are in the U.S., as open-hearted manifestations of festive public cheer. It’s a cool thing to see, and, you can tell, Moundsville has a special Christmas spirit.

In our movie, Moundsville, now playing on PBS, we relate the story of how prison inmates used to decorate a Christmas tree on the mound that could be seen across the Ohio River. The tree was taken down decades ago, given sensitivities to the mound’s character as a sacred burial mound. It’s a story that shows America’s shifting debate around culture and cultural appropriation. The town around the mound, of course, went on celebrating Christmas as hard as it could.

To the residents of Moundsville, especially those who shared their stories with me for the blog this year: Thank you, God bless, and Merry Christmas!

John W. Miller

PS: If you’d like to add photo of homes ornamented for Christmas to this slide show, email your pictures to jmjournalist@gmail.com