Every town has a local historian like Gary Rider, earnestly clipping, saving, storing, scribbling. As local news systems shrink, the local historian remains a creator of shared narratives that can bind people together and transcend divisions. Their work can also be, well, news. As my friend Neil King, whose new book will weave together local histories he encountered on a walk this spring from DC to New York, put it in a text message during one of our recent discourses on the dance of news and history, “the tide of forgetting is always so strong that any real active remembering is an act of reporting.” I was in Moundsville a couple weeks ago, and, as usual, ran into Gary at the library, where he was busy researching a new book on the Marx toy factory, once a Moundsville-Glen Dale institution which employed 1,500 people and made the Rock’em Sock’em robot, Big Wheel, and other famous toys. (It closed in 1980 and plays a big role in our PBS film Moundsville.) Gary was a star of our film, and a valuable advisor in our researching the town’s history. I proposed a Q&A on his work, which I’m publishing here without any edits. Gary focused much of his earlier efforts on veterans but more recently he’s turned to local industrial history. “Younger people are unaware of all the successful businesses that were in Marshall County during the 1960s through the 1980s.” — John W. Miller
Q&A With Gary Rider
1. Tell us a bit about your background? How did you get interested in local history? My profession was teaching Social Studies, which I did for 34 years at John Marshall High School in Glen Dale, WV. [Moundsville’s adjacent locale in Marshall County.] Mainly, I taught students in the 10th grade, in either American History or World Cultures, depending on the state mandates each year. Teaching was something I always wanted to do and I was lucky enough to be able to do that and meet some of the best individuals who have been part of my life for many years. I earned a Masters Degree +30 in Secondary Education. Now, I am employed by the Moundsville-Marshall County Public Library and have been there for 15 years. I am married to Patricia Briggs and we have two children, Gregory and Amanda.
2. Why is it important to tell local stories? Telling the stories of our local veterans became a passion for myself and my co-writer Roseanna Dakan Keller. Veterans sacrifice for us, and only ask to be able to return home to normal lives. But, due to what our soldiers experience in war and combat, many are not able to have any normalcy. By telling the stories, we give them recognition for their service and a feeling that someone cares about what they did for us. We have also branched out into writing the history of our industries that have been lost. Younger people are unaware of all the successful businesses that were in Marshall County during the 1960s through the 1980s.
3. Do you get any interest in your local history work from outside of Moundsville? Marshall Countians have moved all over the United States for jobs and changes in lifestyles. As a result, our books have gone to Florida, Texas, California, New England, and even to the countries of England and Australia. We often hear from people that want us to tell their story of military service or that worked in one of our industries.
4. Do you have a favorite character from Moundsville history? My favorite person has to be the one that started me waiting about our military men and women. Jonathan Hopkins Lockwood was the Lt. Colonel of the “Bloody Seventh West Virginia Infantry” during the Civil War. He entered the Union Army at the age of 53 and was wounded several times during the war. He was also a prosperous businessman and community leader.
5. What is special about the history of Marx toys in Moundsville? Marx Toys was the largest producer of toys in the world. At its height, it employed 1,500 people making toys for Christmas. Marx was the “Toy King” and had close connections with presidents and military generals, who were the godfathers of his children. Young people just starting out looking for work, could be employed at the Marx Toy Plant until a better job came along.
6. Why is the history of companies so important in Moundsville? Marshall County had companies like Fostoria Glass, U.S. Stamping, Marx Toys, Triangle Conduit, Benwoods U.S. Steel Plant, chemical plants, coal mines and railroads. Most of these businesses are gone. The coal mines have suffered due to pollution concerns in recent years.
7. Why is it important to tell the story of veterans? The stories of our veterans must be told to show that our freedom, which we take for granted, has a price paid for by these men and women. Their service time was not always easy, as many served in conflicts from World War II to Afghanistan. Our younger generation must know that “Freedom is not Free” and the price for it has been paid by many and often times is very high. Marshall County has lost many a brave young man to war.
8. How do you feel about the future of Moundsville compared to 4-5 years ago? Moundsville’s future is still in limbo. We have one new business moving in, south of the city. A great deal depends on the Fracking plant that would be built just across the river in Ohio. If that occurs, many subsidiary businesses would follow to gain from that facility. This will affect our housing, social services and tax base.
9. Where do people get information about what’s going on in their community these days? The City of Moundsville and our Arts and Culture Commission have web sites. People may also access the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce site to find activities that are going on in our community.
10. What’s the solution for the decline of local journalism? The “Moundsville Daily Echo” continues to print a newspaper five days a week. All of their delivery is by USPS. The appeal of the “Echo” was its reporting local news and the jots column. But due to economic factors, the paper doesn’t have the luxury of hiring a reporter to cover the local news. Only the die-hard determination of its editor has kept the newspaper alive to this point.
11. What’s been the feedback to you about the Moundsville film on PBS? People are mixed on their feelings. Some felt it downplayed Moundsville with all of its loss of business. But that is the reality of our situation. Overall, people enjoyed the view of Moundsville and our tourism. Also, the fact that we continue to work hard even in difficult times.
12. What will be your next projects after Marx? After our Marx Toys book, we plan on finishing a book on the Benwood Steel Mill. We also have other projects in mind and still will do some individual stories of our local veterans.
13. The Moundsville library is very impressive. How does it keep going? The Moundsville Library has a staff that understands the use of Facebook, Hoopla, Dial-a-Story, Virtual programming and Story Walks. They use outreach tools such as video boxes and book boxes. These things keep us in contact with our community.
14. What are things in Moundsville that really bring people together? People in Moundsville are very caring. Our community will rise to any need that comes along, even in difficult economic times. Marshall Countians are willing to do whatever is necessary to help out a business or a family. Ours is a community that knows the value of kindness and generosity.
15. What’s a website where people can find/read your work? Five of my books are on Amazon. The Marshall County Patriots and Heroes series are local and are only available in some stores in town and by contacting me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
16. How is local history rewarding to practice? When we have book signings, it is such a wonderful feeling to see a veteran or family hold the book which includes their stories. Often tears come to the eyes of the people and you know that you have accomplished something worthwhile.