An email arrived this week from William Sypher, an 80-year-old retired literature scholar in Barboursville, VA who grew up in Moundsville and spent his career teaching in the Middle East, including stints in Saudi Arabia and Iran. He didn’t like “Moundsville” and attached an authoritative, charming and engaging 6,400-word review explaining why. “I wish I could praise your film as much as I admire your writing but I cannot,” he wrote in his introductory email. His review calls the movie “sleep-inducing” and “a ragbag of sincere but not particularly insightful opinions”. I called him immediately and asked if we could publish his review on our blog. He said yes. — John W. Miller
Moundsville Revisited? Maybe Not, by William Sypher
Watched an hour-long documentary last night based on the small town in northern West Virginia where I grew up and left when I was 18 to attend college in Pittsburgh. It should have been riveting for me as a native son to learn more of the history of the place that nurtured me. It was not. Rather, it was an hour and 14 minutes of the most sleep-inducing footage I have ever watched outside of some home movies. The precious few facts offered are well-known to those who grew up here so this was a film aimed at the rest of the country who might be amused at the prospect of an insider view of troubled Appalachia as told by its colorful but fairly dim hillbillies. That this film does not go down that road does not rescue it from banality.
Purportedly, the film’s goal was to show how a once prosperous small town with ample energy resources and industrial jobs for everyone, began to decline in the late 50s and early 60s when coal mining and manufacturing of steel, toys, enamel ware and glassware started to shrink in the face of determined international competition.
Marx Toys which opened its first factory in 1934 employed two thousand locals. At one time, one-third of all toys in the world were manufactured there. Its specialty was wind-up toys and play sets (plastic figures of farmers, miners, soldiers and TV shows).
In a bizarre and unexpected way, as a boy in the mid-50s I witnessed the symbolic decline of toy-making at the giant Marx plant by going regularly to its burn pile where truckloads of broken, defective, unsellable toys were torched, sending up toxic fumes of burning plastic day and night. I hoped to find a mostly intact toy which had survived the burning and I did. The incessant smoke was tolerated in a booming economy as an unavoidable by-product and sign of robust industrial activity, but the “eternal flame” burn pile was a curious foreshadowing of sadly dangerous air pollution as toy production waned.
The filmmakers chose narration completely by current residents who, while solid and earnest and thoroughly likable, might be among the most ordinary folks ever to appear in a documentary. They appear early on, their names scrolled like credits, saying “Moundsville” one by one, with slightly embarrassed grins which foretold what was to come. “Moundsville” is more lamentation than explanation—in 2020, there is not much left to be proud of. As one resident put it, “We are grieving.” With rare exceptions, the locals’ narrative turned mostly on banalities like “There used to be jobs for anyone and they were jobs for life. These days the young people leave because there is nothing for them to do.” “We’ve always struggled.” “Some say things are better now. Some say they are worse.” Young bank teller Rosemary Tagorsky said, “People think we are a rinky dink town, but I tell them, we have stores: Walmart and Burger King and we have an Exxon station and other stations.” Two of the residents did not blame the foreign competition. Retired teacher Bill Wnek said, “That’s capitalism. If someone can make it cheaper…“ “Loss of industry leads to loss of community.” Retired boiler operator Les Barker blamed his townsfolk for wanting everything to be cheap: “That’s what brings the Walmarts here.” Okay . . . so how does Moundsville’s despair differ in any significant way from the plight of hundreds, if not thousands, of small industrial towns in decline in America? That was not discussed. Context was not on the menu.
Using authentic local voices sounds like a good idea until you realize how little they have to say and how blandly they say it. Sometimes it makes sense to have a voiceover with perspective, sense of history, and analytical skill to clarify what has happened rather than having well-meaning but ordinary folk offer up shallow coffee shop versions of their town’s history. The directors’ entirely laudable determination to produce a different sort of Appalachian film led them to avoid stereotypes of lazy, know-nothing hillbillies ( a slap at Hillbilly Elegy) but unfortunately also led them to sidestep pressing social problems like opioid addiction ( a half-sentence mention) and the hollowing out of unions. Fostoria glassworkers, coal miners and Benwood Steel employees had strong unions backing them, which produced good wages and better working conditions until an alliance of big business and lawmakers began to squeeze them into insignificance.
Among other missing items is the prominent historical fact that WV was part of Virginia until June 20, 1863 when WV separated over the issue of slavery. It was the best and worst of times. Families were split down the middle. Not that the state was then or became a bastion of liberal thinking on race. It was just that a majority in the newly constituted state simply thought slavery was wrong. Over the decades, the Klan remained a strong force and Senator Robert Byrd had once been a Klansman. As Moundsville’s former African-American mayor Eugene Saunders recalls, it was rough going growing up where he was often the only black in a group. As a band member, on bus trips he was not even given a seat but had to sit on the horn cases. In one of the most telling scenes, Saunders points out the empty lot where his boyhood home once sat. The unintended symbolism of this is powerful: the past does not exist materially but only in memory. “Moundsville” does deserve credit for not shying from reporting the racism that permeated the town in the last fifty years before it elected Saunders in 2016.
What is most sadly missing from the narratives are stories which would have enlivened it. I cannot recall one resident telling a story — “. . . which has a point or is surprising or even mildly amusing”– as Steve Martin schooled John Candy in the film “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” I grew up in this colorful town. It was full of characters: blowhards, dreamers, liars, petty thieves, bullies, hustlers, soreheads, ne’er-do-well’s, and alive with stories that enriched my boyhood. My Uncle Bud was a gifted storyteller who had survived combat in WWII but never told war stories. He recalled instead the unusual, often quirky townspeople he grew up with. One story that sticks out was of a car trip he and a friend took to Cameron, WV, a postage stamp-size town about 20 miles out of town on the Ridge. They pulled into a service station for gas, which was being offered at two cents a gallon discount. For some reason they drove off swigging their sodas and eating cupcakes without collecting the discount. In the rear view mirror they saw the station attendant running toward them, gesturing wildly. When they stopped, the boy said, “You forgot your discount,” and handed them about a dime. Unimpressed by the piddling sum, the friend growled, “Don’t hurt yourself none.” In telling me this story, Uncle Bud laughed so hard he was wheezing.
But “Moundsville” forsook genuine historical analysis for mostly a-factual, plain vanilla folksiness. The film was conceived and directed by two men who had no genuine connection to Moundsville and it showed. John Miller was a globe-trotting Wall Street Journal reporter for 20 years. His connection? He once reported on a West Virginia coal mine story seven years ago. David Barenbo is a Pittsburgh dancer, musician, and visual artist. That such an ordinary place could interest them or anyone enough to make a lengthy documentary there surprises me. I think the driving reason is that filmmakers are drawn to distinctive settings and Moundsville was a gem, with a giant, notorious prison and a burial mound, cheek by jowl. What a nice, compact theatrical set. The Prison and the Mound became the mute stars of the show in an otherwise lackluster cast. The film cut repeatedly and extensively to these sites for historical tidbits apparently trying to make it visually appealing.
The 2,200 -year old mound near the center of town is the largest conical one in the United States, and is 62-feet high and 240 feet in diameter. The precise description of the history of the mound, down to how many baskets of earth, 3 million, were hand-carried to build it is revealing. These physical facts and the precise dating of excavations contrast dramatically with the near absence of facts which could have fleshed out Moundsville’s economic doldrums. Were economic facts too boring to compete with an ancient mound and a colorful, turbulent prison?
Each year during the Christmas season, a giant artificial Xmas trees made of strings of lights was erected by prisoners on the top of the mound. The tree was visible two miles away in Ohio across the river. That proud rite of the season came to an end when one of the descendants of the Tomlinson family who had discovered the Mound, realized that it was a sacred burial site and insisted that it must be respected.
West Virginia State Penitentiary
The Pen, as it was locally known, was an important source of jobs, especially for men with little formal education. This high-walled sandstone block fortress blackened by decades of air pollution, took up an entire city block and was the site of executions. Stories that lights dimmed in Moundsville when a prisoner was executed were surely untrue, given the infinitesimal fraction of amps used by an electric chair compared to the consumption by a town of 14,000. During the history of the prison, a total of 94 men were executed. The last, in 1965 when the state abolished capital punishment.
Though the Pen is a visual centerpiece of the film, few facts are offered. I’ll supply a few. The prison was reportedly one of the ten most violent in the country while housing as many as 2,000 in 5×7 cells in the 60s. Over the 100-plus years of its existence, 95 inmates were stabbed. The prison had two severe riots: in March 1973 five guards and two convicts were hospitalized and one inmate left dead after a convict committed arson and a full-scale riot and fire ensued. On New Years Day, 1986, a riot started in which inmates took sixteen prison staff hostage for 53 hours demanding “better medical services, better living quarters, a pizza, and some women.” When the Governor refused to negotiate, the situation deteriorated and three inmates were killed.
In addition to violence, escapes and attempted escapes became commonplace. Between 1960 and 1995, 510 inmates escaped by means as various as hiding in a cement mixer, commandeering a prison truck, and tunneling under six-foot-thick walls which continued five feet below ground. During the history of the prison, a total of 94 men were executed.
The film refers to the violence in general terms, but fails even to mention the inhumane conditions that led inmates to the 1986 riot over filthy living conditions, including raw sewage flowing from pipes, rats in the cells, and maggots in food. in 1952, the escape of 14 inmates made the cover of Life Magazine.
The prison substantially influenced the local economy and culture but locals believe it lost out to a far better prospective employer. The story, likely apocryphal is that when state government officials were considering the site of the state’s flagship West Virginia University and the state penitentiary, the choice came down to hilly Morgantown squeezed onto the steep banks along the Monongahela river or the expansive flats of Grave Creek in Moundsville. When Morgantown won out for the site of the University, Moundsville was stuck with the prison. Wags liked to counsel that locals should not complain because, like the university, the prison also offered all-expense paid scholarships and on-campus housing.
Curiously “Moundsville” does not even mention local author Davis Grubb’s highly successful novels, two of which were based on inmates from the Prison getting out and causing havoc. These were big-time films with name actors like Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters in “The Night of the Hunter” and Jimmy Stewart and George Kennedy in “Fool’s Parade” Both were filmed partly in Moundsville. This fact would have added luster to Moundsville’s golden era.
Prisons are naturally intriguing places; there is no need to hype them. Viewers will be drawn to the accounts of maddening confinement, daily brutality, and retribution. But the West Virginia State Penitentiary prison was far more than a warren of dark, unconscionably cramped cells.
Some inmates are decent men made who wronged society but can be rehabilitated and need not be confined to cells 24-7. They are called “trustees” for good reason. The state operated a prison farm about a mile from town on the way to Fork Ridge where my family lived. Here trustees could breathe the open air, tend crops and chickens and milk cows. I often walked into town and back, feeling perfectly at ease passing close to those who were working near the road and would exchange greetings. I saw these men not as hardened criminals or irredeemable miscreants to be feared, but as men who had made serious mistakes and were being justly punished. As a friend of the warden’s two sons who were teammates on our 4th Ward Pony League baseball team, I was often inside the warden’s mansion and met two special trustees, who cooked for the Warden: gaunt Jay, who resembled an aging Lincoln, and Sid whose radiant smile belied the fact that he was a prisoner. They told me men escaped when they had only a short time left on their sentences because they’d reach a point when the lure of going home overwhelmed them. They just couldn’t take another day of prison life even though by escaping they were guaranteeing more time. They saw it as a trade-off. Sure enough, they usually headed for home where the state police or sheriffs’ deputies were waiting for them. These outcomes seemed scripted.
In the early days, and well before peonage laws prevented it, the prison made money from inmate labor, and prisoners did jobs to support the prison community including blacksmith, carpenter, coal miner, stone mason, brick layer, tailor, baker, and hospital orderly. The prison became virtually a self-sufficient business, taking little money from the government. Prisoners were also given an education from the start of the twentieth century with the construction of a school and library in 1900.
Growing up, I was often asked by people who lived in other states if I wasn’t scared to live and play so close to the prison. I had a ready answer: “It’s the safest place to be. Escapees want to get away as fast and as far from there as possible.” I hadn’t considered the possibility that they might break into nearby houses to get food or steal a car to speed their getaway.
For reasons that escape me, for years the Wardens of the prison administered the Mound and its attendant gift shop, the little stone building seen in the film at the foot of the mound. It was once a thriving gift and souvenir shop which sold crafts made by prisoners. Some were remarkably elaborate flower designs made from saved and carefully pressed shiny foil candy bar wrappers which were encased in glass in trays framed by wood.
The prison also had regular boxing matches among inmates and baseball games against good local teams, both open to the public. The baseball games were played in the southeastern corner of the yard. Outside the wall on this same corner, the State Police had a barracks. Trustees were sent outside the wall to retrieve foul balls that had escaped the field. As I was walking past one day, a trustee said that he would drop one of the balls he had collected along the wall up the street so I could have it. He did and I sauntered along the wall nonchalantly and picked it up. I was thrilled . . . for about one minute when a state police cruiser stopped beside me. “Get in,” the officer said coldly. Some criminal I was: I had picked up the ball in full view of the barracks. I was shaking. He said, “A lot of guys are behind the walls for taking things that do not belong to them. Do you want to end up there?” “No sir,” I said humbly. He took the ball and said, “Don’t let it happen again.”
By April 1995, West Virginia Penitentiary was silent, empty, for the first time in its 129- year history. The once-feared Penitentiary now draws legions of tourists who want to see the gallows and electric chair and hear stories of some of its most notorious inmates and other parts of the history. About a mile from the prison is “Archive of the Afterlife”dubbed the National Museum of the Paranormal which holds many artifacts from the prison and exploits the fact that many believe the prison was and still is haunted by ghosts. The altogether serious historical museum adjacent to the Mound, which displays artifacts from the excavated tombs and other items of local history, is barely mentioned. Just another example of how the filmmakers opted for what was glitzy rather than factual.
While the Mound and the Prison draw many tourists (the latter, 40,000 annually), the most-visited attraction (50,000 annually) is the Hare Krishnas’ seven-story, Prabhupada’s Palace of Gold in the New Vrindaban community in the hills about seven miles outside Moundsville. Details of power struggles, fraud, threats, theft and even murder came to light in a book, “Monkey On A Stick.” Ironically, the title is the name of a Marx toy, where a child pulls a string to get the monkey to go up and down. If a town’s chief tourist attraction is not something historical or homegrown or representative of the local people, but a turbulent site introduced to the community, partly by fraud and stealth, it might be time to hire a new PR firm.
Extensive video shot from a car driving along nondescript residential streets and commercial streets pointing out “that used to be” stores now boarded up, is yawn-producing, not illuminating. The overwhelmingly depressing nature of the town could not be rescued by the proud black former mayor driving up 2nd Street and rhapsodizing about the glazed doughnuts one could get at the Quality Bakery, a classic salient example that overwhelms the day-to-day reality. Funny, what I remember most about the bakery was not its glazed doughnuts, but its mad dogs, a tasty confection of suspect ingredients. It looked like a hot dog bun with a creamy filling. Detractors around town said that the filling was mostly Crisco and powdered sugar. The mad dog label came from the fact that it looked like a hot dog bun (a dog’s open mouth) and the filling was white and foamy, thus a “mad dog.” Yeah, it’s a stretch but that was the local story.
The loss of major manufacturers, Marx Toy, Wheeling Steel, and Fostoria were devastating amputations. These losses were only partially offset by the chemical industries, Allied Chemical-Olin and Mobay, that set up shop south of Moundsville from 1960-1980, joining PPG which had been there in Natrium for decades because of its vast mile-deep salt deposit. We learn in the film that two Allied plants are no longer there but we don’t learn why.
So little is going on in Moundsville today as its population has shrunk by 50 percent, and precious few new businesses have started up, that there actually is little to talk about. (see Wilkerson Glass as a rare exception at the end of the Fostoria section, P. 8). The lights have been gone out. One pointed example of young resident going nowhere fast is Seth Hill. He spent his hard-earned college savings on a house and does not regret it. Wallowing in classic “sour grapes” juice, he said, “I know many people who got college degrees and landed at Walmart.”
Since the early 2,000s, natural gas from fracking has arrived in a big way to exploit the vast Marcellus Shale deposit that underlies northern WV, eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. According to historian Gary Rider, the new guys in town employ surprisingly few in long-term good jobs and WV poet laureate Marc Harshman said he worries about ground water pollution. Mayor Saunders said somewhat sarcastically that it has been a boost to restaurants. Tellingly, the employees, overwhelmingly migrants from other parts of the U.S. or possibly Latin America, are living in sprawling RV parks. One can infer that these must be bachelor quarters and that the workers either cannot afford real housing, or know they are short-timers.
Strange that a highlight of Moundsville’s supposed commercial rejuvenation is a Walmart (narrowly accepted by a 4-3 vote of City Council) which draws shoppers from a part of Ohio that has few stores. No mention that this shopper influx is due to a bridge which spans the Ohio and was completed in 1986 at taxpayer expense. Moundsville can take no credit for this boost. Walmart gets so much repeated and undeserved attention in the film, one wonders if it underwrote some of the project.
So narrowly focused is the film on declining industrialization and job loss that no mention is made of the attractive forested hills that embrace Moundsville and the looming presence of the broad Ohio River, except to say it’s good for fishing and sport boating. The River had once been a bustling waterway, alive with barges transporting coal, coke, chemicals and steel.
“Moundsville” does not examine how or if the culture of a small town is adjusting. No mention of the quality of education –has it been sustained as the economy tanked?–or the prevalence of crime — is it still the friendly low-crime place I grew up in? Years ago, Moundsville was made up of many neighborhoods who cared about each other and about what happened on the streets, according to Mayor Saunders. Life was regarded as so safe that my three sisters and I would set out on weekends and summer days for hours-long hikes out the Ridge and through the woods, ranging over many miles. I often walked home in darkness about two-and-a-half miles from basketball or baseball practice in town, to our home at the top of the Ridge. No one thought it amiss or as instances of parental neglect. It just was that safe.
One of the few residents interviewed who stands out as someone with moxie and who tries to do good is Rose Hart, a retired postal worker, probably in her early 70’s. She is a vibrant exception to the tired and resigned visages of many of the townspeople interviewed. She refers to a 500-year storm that struck southern WV in 2001. It did not deter her that the storm occurred hundreds of miles away. These were thousands of fellow West Virginians desperate for help of any kind. Hart founded Appalachian Outreach which in one month collected 45 tons of items and $6,000 in cash for flood victims. It still operates as a thriving charity.
At several points in the film, small segments or anecdotes appear which have the feel of something just thrown in or stuck on to add color. One of these was mentioning that Charles Manson grew up in neighboring McMechen and that when he was imprisoned for life in California, he sought transfer to the Penitentiary, so he could be near his mother who was serving time for armed robbery downstate. In fact, his link to WV is tenuous. He had been born in Cincinnati and lived only a few years as a boy in McMechen. The notion that he wanted to be near his mother does not rest easy with the facts of his early home life with her. She was basically operating a brothel out of their home.
Another obvious stick-on segment shows Tracey Thornton sitting among a number of kettle drums, a few 50-gallon industrial drums off to one side. The setting suggests that she is an enterprising resident who recycles industrial drums to make kettle drums. Score one for resurgence of the locals. But the point is unclear–she is simply identified as a drummer, not as an entrepreneur and is the only person in the film who comes off as a free spirit. She advocates legalizing pot. “If we are the first to do it among our five neighbor states, it will solve all our problems in one to two years. Many people have called me a pothead, pinko communist, but that doesn’t bother me.” If the point of including her is to demonstrate diversity, it falls flat in the face of the cast of relentlessly conventional narrators.
Oh, country singer megastar Brad Paisley grew up near the Marx Toy factory and went to high school in Moundsville. Yeah, why not add him to the film?
Like small towns everywhere, Moundsville sent its young men off to WWII, my Uncle Bud among them. I was too young to understand what was going on but some of my earliest memories growing up on First Street were experiencing the blackouts during the War and aiding in the war effort by bundling newspapers with twine and putting them out at curbside for pick-up. I also recall civil defense sirens. Dad scorned the concept of civil defense watch towers where volunteer spotters perched to give advance warning of aerial attacks. He scoffed at the idea that any amateur spotters could see an incoming fighter plane or bomber soon enough to be helpful.
Most homes in the 40s and even into the 50s had ice boxes and Dad took me regularly to the ice house where we listened as a 60-pound block of ice clattered down a metal chute and bashed open a swinging door hinged at the top. There a burly man picked it up with tongs and placed it in the trunk of our car. His size and those sharp tongs scared but impressed me. It was the age of burning coal and coal wagons or trucks made home deliveries and poured the dusty, black chunks down a chute into our basement. A town warmed by coal fires did not smell good and the presence of a power plant and a busy smelter on the south side of town added to the stench. But this was before the age when citizens learned of the link between air quality and health. The observable link then was between air quality and work. When industrial smokestacks were spewing out orange or black smoke, factories were humming. It meant jobs.
Another early memory was of Bill Lilly, the grizzled garbage man who plied First Street daily with his horse-drawn wagon piled high. All of us kids on the street taunted him as he passed by and he would always respond with something incoherent, which only stimulated us to further mockery. On occasion, he would stop and snarl and this sent us running for fear he might get down off the wagon and come after us. I am not proud of the fact that I joined in the taunts.
Moundsville was renowned for its Fostoria Glass Company where Dad worked all his life from age 14, when he dropped out of high school to support his family, with time out for resuming high school at age 22. He often took me there, I think, so I could see what he did for a living. Among other jobs, he was in charge of mixing and adding the small ingredients that produced the colors. He would scoop the various powdery components from small bins, almost like flour bins in a country store, combine them in a bucket, and carry them up a 30-foot metal staircase into a room where the main ingredients (sand, potash, etc.) were loaded from hoppers onto a conveyor which took them to the furnaces. The colors fascinated me but for him the job was deadening; Dad literally hated his job and told me so many times, but he did not see alternatives to supporting our family. Possibly, he did not strike out for better work because he felt loyalty to the company. Even in the hardest times, like the Depression, he was never laid off, though many others were. He appreciated that and wanted to repay the company’s loyalty to him.
While he loathed his job, he was proud of the quality he and others built into the glassware. Fostoria did not produce much colored glass; it was more famous for its brilliantly clear crystal ware, which even found its way to the Royal Family in England. I remember visiting the upscale Stone & Thomas department Store in Wheeling. To this day, I don’t understand why we often went there to shop because its goods were pricey. Mom and Dad knew quality even if they could rarely afford it. Perhaps they wanted us at least to know quality, too. One time we visited the store’s display of Fostoria ware and Dad became agitated. The glassware was arrayed on thick, green-tinted plate glass shelves that were attached to lavender-colored stucco walls. The overall effect was to tint the renowned Fostoria lead crystal an unmistakable green, precisely what Fostoria strove to avoid at great cost. Dad summoned the clerk and pointed out the problem. I don’t think the clerk fully appreciated the aesthetic point being made so Dad became more forceful, telling him that Fostoria worked very hard to produce colorless glass of stunning clarity and that this display, in a store that should know better, was defeating Fostoria’s purpose and should not be allowed to sell the stuff. Whether this more vigorous criticism carried the day or whether it was Dad’s presumed report to the Fostoria president, the display was soon changed and the true beauty of the glassware shone through at Stone & Thomas.
Though the largest employer in Moundsville (1,000 in its heydey) and a steady source of jobs over many decades, when Fostoria first came to Moundsville, it was resented by many long-time residents because so many workers were brought in from outside and enjoyed wages that locals could only dream of.
In a large work force, studded with recent immigrants, there will be characters. Two that dad liked to talk about were called Moe and Joe. They were illiterate and knew only rudimentary English; this was a regular source of amusement for their fellow workers. The pair were inseparable but one day Joe didn’t show up and the boys asked Moe why. Moe said, “Oh, he slipped on an empty banana and broke his leg a little.” The men erupted with laughter. Another time, Moe came up to Joe in the presence of several fellow workers and asked him what time it was, solely for the purpose of embarrassing him. Joe wanted to hide the fact that he couldn’t read so he thrust his pocket watch at Moe and said, “There she be.” Moe, also illiterate, was lightning quick to hide his deficit: “Damned if she ain’t.”
Stoking the ovens which held molten glass at 1500 degrees C. and carrying the hot glass to areas where it could be blown or rolled or shaped by molds into finished form was brutally hot work. When in the summer it got too hot, the men would “knock off” as they say and go home. Their union contracts permitted this as a health measure.
The Fostoria factory whistle blew shrilly at 7: 00 each morning; it could be heard miles away across the valley and in the surrounding mountains where we lived. On the morning of the day after he retired, Dad was still up early and when he heard the whistle, he looked down at the valley where the factory was, and bellowed out, “Hell no, I won’t go.” which had become an anti-Viet Nam War cry. There is a back story here. It had taken me years to try to persuade Dad of the awful wrongfulness of the War and in his subtle way he was showing me he had finally turned the corner and agreed with me.
A Fostoria-related story is that of Fostoria veteran Fred Wilkerson, who lost his job when the factory closed in 1985. Glassblowing was what he knew and did well so he and his son developed his own” baby Fostoria” producing high quality, artistic hand-blown glass paperweights and figurines which they sell worldwide.This economic success story did not make it into the film, which very briefly showed his son, Fred Jr., identified only as “a glassware maker.” This was a serious omission as Fred Sr. stands out among those interviewed as one who did not give up and as a living relic of what used to be at Fostoria.
The Moundsville Daily Echo
A generally beloved was the town newspaper, the Moundsville Daily Echo. Sam Shaw, its redoubtable editor whose grandfather had founded the paper in 1891, was an erudite, brilliant, eccentric man and inventor, who was almost a one-man newspaper staff. He wrote stories, perhaps the whole paper, took photos, and edited copy anyone else produced. He was an ardent walker, a charter member of the local hiking group, The Hoof and Mouth Club. Old-timers used to sit in the old Kreglow Hotel at the corner of Seventh Street and Tomlinson Avenue, and lay bets on how many more steps an always hurrying Shaw would take before breaking into a run. He was keen to get a good angle on photos and I recall his setting up a stepladder even in the middle of an auditorium and climbing up to get a good shot at events.
Rumors abounded about the eccentric Shaw family. Sam and his sister Alexandra never married and lived together in the family house. The paper was only about four pages, half- filled with reports of social events which invariably ended,” . . . and a good time was had by all.” The paper was so spare, it probably could not be folded into a suitably weighty missile that could be chucked onto porches from a bike-riding paper boy.
Poor people on the road to Fork Ridge
On the road across the flats of Little Grave Creek, which led to Fork Ridge Road, lived the Parker and Richards families, the dirt poor of Moundsville. Charley Parker, his wife and his hugely extended family, mostly with red hair and blue eyes, lived along one side of the road in shanty houses, in an area that was known as Angel Swamp. They picked up coal that fell off prison dump trucks that rounded a steep corner at the fairgrounds on the way to the prison farm. Charley always walked some paces behind Mrs. Parker who pushed the wheelbarrow filled with coal. The Parkers and the Richards, the castoffs of our small-town society lived on the north side of the creek road; castoffs of a different sort, piles of broken and crushed Fostoria glass known as cullet, were dumped on the south side of the road for reasons I never understood.
Mom and Dad did not have much sympathy for the Parkers and the Richards. They saw them as shiftless and dirty and did not seem to ask themselves how some people end up like this. Dad even repeated the widely told story that Charley accepted only $10 in reparations from a local man who had gotten one of his many daughters pregnant. Such a story would only cement the notion that these poor folk attached little value to human life. But when it came to race, Mom and Dad taught us to respect people of color. It was a special treat for Mom to take us to the YWCA cafeteria in Wheeling when we went shopping. The roast chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and biscuits were first-rate. At the time I thought it the best food I had ever eaten. So when Mom told us one day that we would no longer be going to the cafeteria, we were stunned and saddened. She told us the “Y” had refused to serve a black family. That was intolerable for her. It was a weighty lesson.
Then, as with the “Y,” Hamburger Heaven, a favorite stop for Dad and me in Wheeling, became off limits for us. It was reported in the newspaper that it, too, had also refused to serve black patrons. As far as I knew Moundsville had only a few black families, one of which owned a restaurant, “Mitchells,” on First Street across from Fostoria. Sim Mitchell, drove a big shiny Packard with wide whitewall tires and dressed fashionably in suits and a broad-brimmed hat. Dad sometimes took me there to eat and always spoke admiringly of Sim. That was another lesson.
Italian, and Eastern European immigrants (Hungarians, Poles, Serbians, Czechs and Croatians) who worked in the mines and steel mills in nearby Benwood could have been a much bigger part of the story. They brought an ethnic diversity and Catholicism to a state that had been strongly Anglo-Saxon and 97 percent Protestant up through the presidential campaign of John Kennedy who was keen to win the WV Democrat primary to show he appealed to non-Catholics. As a boy I heard the term Micky used regularly and disparagingly for Catholics and “hunky” and “bo-hunk” as slurs of those from eastern Europe. There were enough Catholic Europeans to support a Catholic school and church in Moundsville.
“Moundsville” is a ragbag of sincere but not particularly insightful opinions. Significant facts are left at the side of the road. As for predicting what the future holds, most were pessimistic: the most commonly heard was effectively, “It’s not coming back.” In lamenting the loss of Moundsville’s young people to other states, Les Barker said what it came down was what he asks his grandkids, “What do you want out of life–to set the world on fire, or be happy to have enough for a weenie roast now and then? They choose to set the world on fire.”