When Americans Took to the Rails to Find Work, Inspiring Books and Songs; Some Vets Became Hoboes to Cope with PTSD.

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From the spread of railroads in the 1870s until the suburbanization of American life in the 1960s, millions of Americans took to the rails.

Although boxcar life acquired a romantic whiff of freedom, it was a difficult, dangerous life, and illegally riding train cars had a practical purpose: Most hoboes were itinerant workers, traveling until they found the next job at a mill or in a field.

Most hoboes were men, although an estimated 5%, including Cora D. Harvey, who became secretary of the International Brotherhood Welfare Association, were women. Some, like Railroad Bill and Hobo John, became legends, inspiring a genre of magazine article, books and songs.

Hoboes were a large enough class of people that their plight became wrapped in wider labor struggles in the decades before World War Two. Unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World, organized them. The first popular recording of the hobo anthem “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was made by a former IWW activist named Harry McClintock. The community even had a newspaper, Hobo News, published by James Eads How, the heir to a railroad fortune who became a socialist and himself lived as penniless itinerant.

There are different theories about the origin of that word, according to Iain McIntyre, editor of On the Fly! Hobo Literature and Songs, 1879-1941. One is that it comes from the Latin Homo bonus, or “good man.” It could also have come from the salutation “Ho, boy!” or the designation of farm laborers at “hoe boys.”

I picked up McIntyre’s completely fascinating anthology after an artist from Moundsville, John Mowder, invited me to his home in Pittsburgh to show me a series of paintings he’s working on to celebrate his cherished 1950s childhood. “After growing up there, I could go anywhere in the world,” he says. “I had a small town in my pocket.”

In the painting featured here, John is bringing an ear of corn to the town’s hobo camp. By that time, cars were pushing railroads into decline, and the hobo community dwindling.

But for a number of men, the lifestyle, even if often hard and lonely, provided community and support.

One was Mowder’s uncle, also named John.

He had served in World War Two, was part of a troupe of veterans who helped each other as they wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder from the anguish and suffering of the war. In the 1950s, they often hung out in Moundsville, Mowder says, and he ran errands for them.

“Uncle John lived by himself,” Mowder told me. “He drank too much, but he was a nice man, and his friends were nice. They took care of each other. They didn’t have a real diagnosis for PTSD back then, so this was how they coped.”

John W. Miller

Moundsville Mayor Phil Remke on Trump, Traffic and Where He Gets News, and other things not in our doc (We also talked about our doc)

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Phil Remke, who turns 65 this month, became mayor of Moundsville in December. Phil has an important role in the film, and is a representative small-town citizen– and Republican. He’s spent almost his whole life in the town, running a furniture store and medical supply business, and managing tourism at the shuttered state penitentiary. He tells stories about playing basketball as an 18-year-old against a team at the pen. “I got fouled hard into the wall” by an inmate, he recalls. Another time, after his family’s furniture story was robbed, he traded a TV with an inmate in exchange for information about where the stolen goods, worth around $4,800, were located. After the goods were recovered, he got the TV back.
I decided to follow up with Phil on national politics, the prospective gas cracking plant across the river, and some of the other stuff we didn’t cover in the movie.
How do you feel about Trump these days? (Marshall County, where Moundsville is located, voted 73%-22% for Trump over Clinton in 2016)
I’m still a supporter. I watched some of the union thing last night, and I see some Democrats clapped for him. Unforunately, you have the people who want to fight him. From the time he won the office, he has been bashed every day. How many times when the Democrats ran the office did they get bashed? Not many. I don’t believe in what he’s done in his personal life, but what he’s doing in politics, it’s all about business and trying to create jobs. But unfortunately, the news media doesn’t show it that way.
What are your sources of news?
Local TV: Channel 7 and channel 9. Nationally, I watch Fox. My wife does not watch Fox. She doesn’t understand. My son and I are devout Republicans. My daughter and my wife are true Democrats. If you ask them questions they always go back to issues in Trump’s past. We’re looking to the future. Podcasts, I like Motley Fool and Fox podcasts. Newspaper; the Wheeling News-Register. I don’t know how to use Twitter.
Do people in town support Trump?
Oh yeah. I don’t feel uncomfortable walking around this town wearing my Trump hat. If I went to LA I’d probably get shot, but in this town, people understand we need business. What he’s doing with bringing jobs and doing this and doing that. If it doesn’t work at least he’s tried. Those other people aren’t even trying.
Do you think there are any Democrats that get people in Moundsville excited for 2020?
It’s too early to say.
What are the biggest issues Moundsville faces in 2019?
It’s a mess around Route 2 because of the rain and the weather’s been bad, but you have to tear things up to make things happen. They’re replacing a bridge and fixing a new bridge. It’s taking 45 minutes to get through town. It’s like driving through LA. That’ll be over at the end of 2019, supposedly. This town has never really worked with cost of living. I don’t want an area that’s depressed. I want to see medium to upper income coming in.
A lot of residents in Moundsville work service jobs at WalMart and other businesses along Route 2. Do you support a higher minimum wage?
The problem is when the minimum wage goes up everything else goes up. It’d be fine to have a $2 minimum wage if prices were the way they used to be. The only way I can see [wages going up] is if they go across the river and start building. Then Moundsville’s going to have to look to getting truck licenses and earning higher pay. Then [the service employers] will have to adjust wages to meet demand.
What the latest on the cracker plant? (A consortium led by PTT of Thailand has secured permits to build a plant that turns natural gas into the raw material for plastic, creating thousands of jobs, across the river from Moundsville, but hasn’t said yet if it will build it.)
Things are quiet. They’re going to have a meeting in [Ohio] soon. I just got a gut feeling they’re waiting to get more done, and then they’ll start moving people. I’ve heard the power company did eminent domain on some property, but that’s hearsay. They were talking about March but they told us that two years ago. I can’t say but when it happens, it’s going to be heck on earth.
What if it doesn’t happen?
That’s possible, but something will go there. In Marshall county (where Moundsville is located), I’ve heard there’s more gas and oil than anywhere else in the world.
Have people in Moundsville benefited from gas royalties?
Some people have done well. Some haven’t gotten any yet. This world is tied up with lawyers. I don’t want the gas well people to collect all the money. I want everybody to be happy.
What have you done since becoming mayor? 
It’s only been a few weeks. We’re moving along. The one hotel is intending to start digging in April. It’ll be a Holiday Inn Express with 123 rooms. Two restaurants are in negotiations. One will be a steakhouse, and the other a Japanese restaurant, I hope.
Will they be chains?
Not necessarily. The chains won’t come into this area because we don’t have that big a population. But if they build that cracker plant across the river, we’ll be working on numerous other ones.
Are there any other big sources of jobs in the works?
Nothing for now.
What are the things you hope to accomplish this year and next?
The sky’s the limit. I want better roads. With the one-percent sales tax we got off home rule. If I can put that into water and sewer, we can get better infrastructure.
What did people in town think about our movie?
The movie was a downer to some of them. But that’s the way society was, and what’s happened. I want to make Moundsville the premier city in West Virginia and a model in the United States. We just have to keep pounding and making things positive.
We tried to show the truth, in a way all sides can agree on.
And that’s what I’m about, bringing people together.
When people in Moundsville talk about the way things were in the 1950s and 1960s, does it make them proud, sad, angry or what?
We had an issue last night at council. They want to put in trailers on first street, to make some money. There were 80-year-olds and 88-year-olds fighting it. It passed 4-3. You can’t stop progress. We have to think of our future generations, and I understand that’s going to be trailers and that’s going to be in and out. But that’s the future.
John W. Miller

Meet the Fokker: Making Airplanes in 1920s West Virginia

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Anthony Fokker standing next to an F-10 tri-motor, one of Pan-American Airways’ first-ever fleet flying passengers between the U.S. and Cuba.

There’s only a brief reference to the Fokker aircraft company in Moundsville, so I wanted to tell a full version of its story:

In the 1920s, as fledgling passenger transport firms raced to connect towns all over the world by propeller, one of aviation’s most famous pioneers came to northern West Virginia to make airplanes.

Anthony Fokker was a Dutch-born entrepreneur and inventor who made propeller planes in Germany before and during World War One.  He built the fighter used by Manfred von Richtofen, aka the Red Baron, and invented a machine gun that timed its bullets to avoid the propeller in front of it.

After the war, with Germany’s aviation ambition curtailed by the Treaty of Versailles, Fokker left and looked elsewhere.

At the same time, in northern West Virginia, as in other prospering places, aviation was becoming popular. It was an easy way to travel in a hilly state with a lot of country roads And with industry thriving, local leaders saw airplane-making as a logical step.

The Ohio Valley Industrial Corporation, backed by investors, pitched leading aviation engineers free land, a supply chain of nearby factories making glass, steel and other raw materials, and funds to build a factory. They even had an airfield: Langin Field, which welcomed Charles Lindbergh on a cross-country tour in August of 1927.

Fokker bit, and in 1928, supervised the building of a factory on the banks of the Ohio river, in Glen Dale, adjacent to Moundsville. (In practice and in spirit, the two constitute one town.)

The Glen Dale plant employed 500 workers and made the Fokker F-10 tri-motor plane, one of the world’s first commercial planes. It could seat 12 passengers and two pilots, and cruise at around 120 miles per hour. Pan-American Airways bought it as part of its first-ever commercial passenger service between the U.S. and Cuba. The fuselage was made out of fabricated metal, the wings out of laminated wood.

Here’s how Thomas O. James describesits maiden flight:

  The flight originated on the grassy airfield located on the banks of the Ohio River adjacent to the Fokker plant. Teams of men pushed open the accordion style doors at the northern end of the factory and the plane was towed into the daylight. Ignition of the three engines produced a distinctive oscillating sound from the combined output of 1,275 horsepower. Captain Haynes taxied the craft under its own power to the southern edge of the airfield where he performed his pre-flight checks, and at four o’clock, with the sun low on the western horizon, the new airplane raced down the uneven turf runway and ascended gracefully into the air over Glen Dale. The beautiful starch-white craft banked easily to the left over the Ohio River climbing an upward spiral until reaching a height of 4,000 feet.

The West Virginia Fokker factory also made the tri-motor bomber for the U.S. military. In 1929, General Motors bought the Fokker plant, retaining Anthony Fokker as technical director. The plant cranked out a plane every couple weeks or so.

In 1931, a Fokker-10, flying for Transcontinental and Western Air, with legendary Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne aboard, hit a thunderstorm over Kansas and crashed, killing Rockne.

The company was already struggling because of the Great Depression, but bad publicity from the crash sealed the factory’s fate. It closed. Fokker went back to Europe. The Marx toy company bought the the Glen Dale plant in 1932.  (There’s lots about Marx in Moundsville.)

Our movie is in large part about the cycles of capitalism, how they change people’s lives, and how to reckon with that change – by going through the stages of grief, by accepting change, or by fighting back.

But it’s also about the wonder of what’s been lost– and one of the first things that filled me with wonder me when I first came to Moundsville in 2013 was this: Wow, they used to make airplanes here.

John W. Miller

On Loving Small-Town Newspapers

 

 

Every time I report in an American small town, I am drawn to its newspaper building. I like to drop in, buy a paper and chat with a journalist or two. Then I go get a coffee and read about a famous son or daughter who just died, the drama of the high school football game last week and the op-ed decrying or celebrating the president from afar.

Believe it or not, almost every small American town still has a newspaper. (Moundsville has the Echo.) It’s one of the reasons I love making these visits: I can’t believe all these papers are still going! It amazes and delights me. Many readers depend on their paper, and many older people don’t like reading news online. Some tiny newspapers are brilliant and win Pulitzer Prizes.

The newspaper is often housed in a grand building that looks like a bank. Typically, in the back is an ancient printing press, made a hundred years ago in Germany or Chicago. Usually, it’s a monument, but sometimes, as in Moundsville, that is what is still printing the paper. Sometimes, there are plaques or even statues commemorating legendary newspaper editors. Journalists used to be heroes in small towns. They were leaders in the community, people you knew you could count on. Some of that spirit of admiration remains. I’ve seen old people walk in to drop off the checks for their subscription, as they chat with editors wrapping their newspapers in rubber bands before piling them into delivery trucks.

Today, I was in Washington, PA, a bit under an hour south of Pittsburgh, on assignment for a start-up online magazine, and I dropped in on the Observer-Reporter‘s beautiful old stone building. The paper has roots dating back to 1808 and a circulation a bit over 20,000, and it’s experimenting with a paywall it hopes will keep it profitable, an employee told me, adding that things have been hard. The paper was recently purchased by the Ogden Newspapers, which belongs to Bob Nutting, owner of the Pirates.

These days, my love for these old newspapers, and enthusiasm for these visits, is tinged with sadness. The industry is in turmoil, bleeding readers and jobs. Fewer and fewer people understand and love newspapers. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post are doing fine, but these little papers are on death’s door. It’s likely that in a few decades, most will be gone.

But even as they die, we should watch carefully, and cherish them, and grieve their loss. And think about what they represent, and what they still are– an entire industry dedicated to the assembly and publication of the truth, with precious principles of integrity and verification, shared and enforced broadly by editors and reporters around the country. That, when done right and done well, is worth more than any billion-dollar tech company, political cause or phone app. I wish more Americans understood what’s being lost.

John W. Miller

People In Small Towns Like Moundsville Used to Go Watch Prison Baseball For Fun

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One extraordinary thing about Moundsville’s old West Virginia state penitentiary, which closed in 1995, is how much it was integrated into the lives of residents.

As Tracey Whorton describes in our movie, inmates would shout out their windows about her choice of flavor at a nearby ice cream parlor. Inmates worked excavating the mound across the street, and decorated its Christmas tree.

The prison was also a place to go for entertainment, like watching baseball games.

Phil Yoho, a retired chemist who grew up in Moundsville, attended our screening last week at the Carnegie Museum of Art. After the movie, he handed me a roll of printed papers with some memories of his childhood, including a description of going to watch boxing fights and ballgames at the prison.

“Called the Prison Red Sox, the inmates even had their own band and vendors selling snacks during the games,” he writes. “Other attractions at the pen for me, were the fish ponds at the main entrance and watching the khaki-clad inmates file singly through the wagon gate, upon returning from the fields during the warm weather.”

Mr. Yoho also describes grabbing softballs hit over the prison walls during the day and trying to heave them back in. He remembers the day his throw cleared the wall and the guard shouted, “Today you went from half pint to quart.”

John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian, writes me it used to be common in America for locals to go watch prison baseball games for fun. Historians believe the tradition lasted into the 1950s, “especially in the South, until TV became the way fans watched games,” according to Mr. Thorn.

In fact, one prisoner, Alabama Pitts, became a three-sport star at Sing Sing in the 1930s. After his release in 1935, Pitts played centerfield for the Albany Senators. He bounced around the minors for a few years before getting killed in 1941 in a knife fight on a dance floor in North Carolina.

In an article published on the Hall of Fame’s website, Katherine Adriaanse writes that “there is a long history of baseball teams and even entire leagues being formed within prison walls all across the country from the earliest days of the game itself.”

At Sing Sing, the game was lauded as a path to “self-government.”

In 1929, Sing Sing even scrimmaged the New York Yankees. The Yankees won, 17-3. Babe Ruth hit three homeruns, including one that, it was said, traveled 620 feet. “Prison statisticians,” the New York Times wrote, noted that one “as the longest non-stop flight by any object or person leaving Sing Sing by that route for the past handful of decades.”

There’s still baseball in prisons like San Quentin, but, as a rule, nobody heads out to the local pen to watch baseball as entertainment anymore.

I don’t like how much our culture sometimes romanticizes incarceration, but I think it’s worth celebrating the humanity of a tradition that allowed prisoners to be part of society in some way, even if it was just playing a ballgame people could enjoy going to watch.

John W. Miller

 

 

 

‘Moundsville’ debuts in New York, Pittsburgh; returns to Moundsville

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We spent last week touring the movie, and meeting new audiences. On Monday, we screened “Moundsville” at America Magazine headquarters in mid-town Manhattan. America is a thoughtful Catholic magazine, and it published a cover story on Moundsville last year. The magazine’s motto in “Pursuing the truth in love.” More and more, the movie has felt like an exercise in encountering the other, bridging the gap between city and town, and just plain listening without judgment of other people.

The Q&A’s after each screening have been wide-ranging, interesting, and mostly peaceful conversations, touching on subjects like health care, unions, and Trump, without people getting angry. Trump supporters and liberals praised the movie equally as being true. “Y’all showed us how we got in this pickle,” a woman from Arkansas told us.

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A crowd of around 70 people packed the magazine’s conference room. We got some nice reviews.

On Thursday night, we were at the Carnegie Museum of Art, for the Pittsburgh premiere of Moundsville. As in New York, we took questions from the audience after the show.

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People asked about the economics and politics of the region. Some wondered about how we made the movie. People from Moundsville stood up and said we got the story right.

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On Saturday, the Strand in Moundsville screened the movie two more times. It was an ice-cold day, and we couldn’t make it, but 52 people showed up. There was some grumbling that the movie is “too depressing.” The sentiment is understandable. There is a lot about decline in the film.

Somebody asked us in New York if the movie is “hopeful”. The more we watch it, the more we think it is. In the last chapter, we show a successful small business, a fledgling family farm, and the town’s booming tourism sector. Moundsville’s people have a chance to build an exciting new future. They are also grieving the loss of something. Both those parts are important to unlocking a happier, healthier future.

As for the future of “Moundsville”, we have other screenings planned. We’re submitting to festivals, talking to journalists and marketing the movie online. Please keep spreading the word, sharing the link to this site and giving us feedback.

 

What they’re saying about “Moundsville”

“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.

“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 

“Great documentary… Moundsville, the story of so many U.S. towns.” — Valentina Pop, Wall Street Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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