Moundsville Named as West Virginia’s Entry in USA Today Contest for “Best Historic Small Town” — Vote Here (Once Per Day) Before May 6


USA Today is holding a contest for “Best Historic Small Town” in the country, and Moundsville, WV (subject of our movie, which you can rent for $3.99 here) is one of the 20 contestants, along with places like Granbury, Texas; Mackinac Island, Michigan and Willamsburg, VA. (Full list here). It’s the contest’s only town in West Virginia.

Cast your vote here.

Here’s what USA Today says:

The town of Moundsville is home to one of West Virginia’s most fascinating historical attractions, the West Virginia State Penitentiary, dating back to 1876. The town also serves as the gateway to the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex, one of the country’s largest conical burial grounds and a National Historic Landmark.

Votes are due by May 6, and you can vote once per day. The ten winning small towns will be announced on Friday, May 17.

A panel of experts including travel writers Eric Grossman, Marla Cimini and Gerrish Lopez, and Deborah Fallows (co-author of Our Towns: A 100,000 Journey into the Heart of America with James Fallows who recently reviewed Moundsville in The Atlantic), and Anna Hider of Roadtrippers chose these towns because they have “big histories and small populations – fewer than 30,000 people as of the last census – making them fun and affordable ways to dive into our nation’s past.”

John W. Miller




April is National Poetry Month: Write a Moundsville-Themed Poem, Win DVD, Jewelry, Publication — Hosted by Affrilachian Poet Crystal Good

West Virginia poet, activist Crystal Good. (Photo by Renee Ferguson)

For National Poetry Month, we’re holding a Moundsville-related poetry contest with African-American Appalachian (“Affrilachian”) poet Crystal Good. Email her your poem, to The winner, to be declared in May, will receive a free Moundsville DVD, a custom piece of Good’s sassafrass jewelry, and publication and promotion on this website. Submissions (which are free) are due by April 30.

To help, Good wrote 17 Moundsville “prompts”, short ideas intended to start or suggest a poem (if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can rent it for $3.99 here):

  1. How to pronounce my hometown.
  2. A man/woman shouts “Top Of The Mourning” or “Morning” to you from a hill. Your response.
  3. The day you lost your job.
  4. Listen to this and write about your favorite childhood toy.
  5. Rockem Sockem Robots. The Red is one industry (coal) the Blue another (gas). Commentate the “fight”.
  6. You’re walking by a prison to get an icecream cone…
  7. Imagine you are a child being raised in a town by a ghost, a prisoner, an ancient “indian” and a pioneer frontier settler.
  8. A lullaby by Charles Manson’s mother.
  9. Tell the story about (you name them) who got drunk in the bar on top of an Indian Mound and rolled down. Spoiler: He dies.
  10. Write about your first ______.
  11. You are the Mayor of _______ville. (insert your name).
  12. First line: They carried the earth in baskets.
  13. Write a bilingual poem. One language is: West Virginia/Appalachian
  14. Take up a collection of words.
  15. You find a bone.
  16. What do old people eat?
  17. You meet a woman crying. You ask her why. She says: For labor.

An acclaimed activist and poet based in Charleston, WV, Good is the author of “Valley Girl”, a book of poetry. In 2013, she gave a thought-provoking Tedx Talk entitled “West Virginia & Quantum Physics” which posited that whether you think her state is “alive or dead” depends on the observer.

She tells me she likes Moundsville‘s treatment of race, its meditation on the cyclical nature of history, and the voice given in the movie to Marc Harshman, West Virginia’s poet laureate. “Marc is a fantastic poet and human,” she writes me in a follow-up email. This month, she plans to read his book “Believe What You Can”, which “explores the difficulty of living with an awareness of the eventual death of all living things”. Poets, says Good, “are keepers of the past, present and future. Poets look for the poem and Moundsville is full of them.”

She counsels not to be intimated by National Poetry Month — “a delightful way of dread if can dread can be delightful.”

The month creates anxiety in me to do the thing I love, write. The cause? Traditionally in writers circles the month challenges poets to write a poem a day. I have yet to write a poem a day in any month much less April. I do however enjoy the month by reading new poems as the month opens the door to so much poetry.

This year, says Good, “I have decided to write 30 poetry prompts for myself. The idea was sparked while receiving Moundsville.”

Besides email you can also find Good on Facebook (Crystal Good) or on Twitter @cgoodwoman

John W. Miller

PS: Here’s my entry:


Build and tell, show and burn

Towns ancient and modern 

All these stories in order

Fire the glory recorder

Spirits linger below and above 

We’re still trying to sort it out, love





WVU, 100 Days in Appalachia To Screen Moundsville (Free&Open to Public) Monday, April 8 at 7pm at WVU in Morgantown



The Humanities Center of West Virginia University and 100 Days in Appalachia present a free, public screening of the new documentary film Moundsville on Monday, April 8 at 7pm at WVU in Morgantown. The screening will be followed by a Q&A and discussion with the filmmakers, David Bernabo and John W. Miller.

Moundsville, which The Atlantic called “fresh and valuable” (and which you can rent for $3.99 here), is the biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of WalMart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, or stereotypes (or talking about Trump), Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

More at

The Humanities Center at West Virginia University cultivates critical humanistic inquiry, fostering innovative, collaborative, interdisciplinary, and publicly accessible scholarship and teaching to benefit the common good of the University, the state, and the world. Website:

100 Days in Appalachia ( was born the day after the 2016 election in response to the national narrative that reduced the region to a handful of narrow stories. Its mission is to share the diverse stories of Appalachia, which stretches from the Rust Belt to the Black Belt, by working with local voices to apply a cultural lens to what’s happening in our backyards and share what that means for the rest of the world.

LOCATION: Media Innovation Center on the 4th floor of the Evansdale Crossing Building, 62 Morrill Way, Morgantown, WV 26506

TIME&COST: Monday, April 8, 7PM. Entry free & open to the public.

MORE INFO: John W. Miller (412-298-0391) re Moundsville;

and Ashton Marra (304-838-0540) re WVU and 100 Days in Appalachia.

Free Screening of Moundsville at Wheeling Jesuit University on Monday, March 25 at 630 p.m.


Wheeling, WV– The Moundsville documentary film will screen in the CET Recital Hall at the Wheeling Jesuit University at 630 p.m. on Monday, March 25. After the movie, the filmmakers will answer questions and lead a discussion.

You can find details about screening location and other information here.

The screening of the 74-minute film is organized by the Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University. Although Moundsville is a secular movie, and there’s no overt discussion of religion or church in the movie, the film shares with religious thought, and in particular Catholic social teaching, its intense focus on the deeper truths of people’s lived experience.  In particular, it discusses how the community has changed over time, and how people in this classic American industrial town are coping with changes in economic fortunes.

Moundsville is the economic biography of a classic American town, from the prehistoric burial mound it’s named after, through the rise and fall of industry, to the age of WalMart and shale gas, and a new generation figuring it all out. Told through the voices of residents, the story covers an arc that includes Moundsville’s Native American origins, white settlement, Marx toy plant (it made Rock’em Sock’em robots), legendary prison, first African-American mayor, post-industrial decline, and current small businesses. The constant is the 2,200-year-old mound left behind by a Native American people, a Greek chorus reciting time’s insistence on change. By reckoning with deeper truths about the heartland and its economy, without nationalist nostalgia, liberal condescension, stereotypes, or talking about Trump, Moundsville plants seeds for better conversations about America’s future.

The Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University promotes research, service, and advocacy for and with the people of Appalachia to build healthier, stronger, and more sustainable communities. Rooted in Jesuit tradition, the Institute facilitates objective conversation around topics pertinent to the region, including: public health, environment, energy, culture, and community development. The Appalachian Institute carries out its mission by coordinating service and experiential learning immersion trips for several high school and college groups across the country, facilitating student and faculty research and engagement opportunities, and presenting public forums and workshops throughout the academic year. The Appalachian Institute also manages sustainability programs on WJU’s campus.


Why the United Steelworkers Screened ‘Moundsville’ 


Pittsburgh, PA– Like most families and communities in 2019 America, the United Steelworkers doesn’t relish talking politics. Many of the union’s 1.2 million members and retirees are enthusiastic about President Trump’s agenda, especially tariff protection for U.S. industries. And an equal number, it seems, oppose the president, despairing over the President’s rightwing policies and angry rhetoric. (Traditionally, unions in America have leaned Democrat.)

For the people who manage communications at the Pittsburgh-based union, the bitterness of the Trump era has prompted soul searching about how to promote better dialogues inside and outside the USW. “We should be talking about the things we all want: a safe community, good jobs, the chance to spend time with our families,” says Tony Montana, a senior communications official at the union.

When I covered the steel industry for the Wall Street Journal, Tony was my main USW contact. Since I’ve left the Journal, we’ve stayed in touch, meeting for lunch or coffee to chew the fat. After he watched Moundsville, (which you can rent for $3.99 here), he invited me and Dave to lunch. The three of us, and another union official named John Lepley, got sandwiches and arranged to screen the movie at USW headquarters in Pittsburgh. “I think your movie may be able to help avoid politics and address issues that really matter,” Tony told us.

Over two lunch breaks this week, a couple dozen USW officials showed up, in person and remotely, to watch Moundsville and talk the issues it raises. One official, who phoned in from Missouri, said she had “never seen anything like” Moundsville, one of my favorite compliments so far. Among the questions (and answers):

How can small towns in Appalachia and the Midwest recover? (It helps to have a college, or become the suburb of a big city.)

Can manufacturing return to the US? (Yes, via small, heavily automated shops with niche markets like Shutler cabinets, featured in the movie.)

How do the people we talked to in West Virginia feel about unions? (They still like them, mostly. There’s lots of nostalgia for the unionized factory days.)

How come the characters in Moundsville “don’t seem angry”? (Because we mainly asked them questions about themselves and the history of their town.)

What’s the best way to engage people on sensitive issues like immigration? (Ask people about how the issue affects them personally. “Tell me about your friends who are immigrants.”)

Are things better in the European Rust Belt? (Kind of. The social safety net is stronger. But those regions are still struggling.)

Making this movie — my first, Dave’s 11th — was an adventure. Another, largely unexpected, adventure has been developing the social mission around it. I didn’t expect Tony’s invitation but it delighted me. Moundsville is about people and the quality and texture of their lives, and those are things we should all be talking about.

John W. Miller

L to R: John W. Miller, Tony Montana, David Bernabo


What Appalachians Want: ‘Honorable Work at a Living Wage’ — ‘Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?’


In a new essay, Kentucky-based writer Robert Gipe argues for a hardheaded humanist approach to tackling Appalachia’s issues. Applying the lens of national politics — an easy, entertaining method for big newspapers, website, and TV stations — usually hurts discourse. “The national political rhetoric plays on our worst selves and drives us apart,” writes Gipe in the essay, which was published Friday by the New York Times. (As regional newspapers struggle, big media bears an ever greater responsibility for careful, levelheaded coverage that brings out people’s best selves.)

As the story of Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here) shows, people in Appalachia are busy working out their future. “We still are looking,” writes Gipe, “but that is more difficult to do when we are pitted against one another.”

One answer, suggested in Moundsville, is to take Trump and other faraway figures out of the conversation and rebuild a shared narrative, based on reality and the lived experience of individuals. Yes, that narrative is messy. As Gipe points out:

Appalachia has been going through rapid, often painful changes for the past hundred years, and our communities have been working hard to rebuild our economies. Over the past decade, many of us have put aside partisan politics to work together to do what’s best for the places we live in, the places we love.

Instead of dividing the region according to its pro- and anti-Trump factions, outsiders would do well first to acknowledge the truth of what’s happened, and the basic human needs of people in the region, which, as he points out, encompasses parts of 13 states, and 25 million people.  Writes Gipe:

We all crave honorable work at a living wage. We want success tied to the success of the community. We want to be safe. We are weary of fear. We are exhausted by hate. We in Appalachia join our fellow Americans in asking: Who will encourage our best selves? Who will enable our joy? Who will release the energy hiding in our hearts?

One joy of making this movie has been connecting to a community of people pushing back against stereotypes, condescension and manipulative political rhetoric, like Gipe, public historian Elizabeth Catte, who wrote What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, and her Cleveland-based publisher, writer Anne Trubek, founder of Belt Publishing.

In fact, I am an outsider – my home is Brussels, Belgium – and not an academic expert on the region. I have lived in Pittsburgh (yes, that’s Appalachia, since 2011) and I am a professional journalist, and I love the region and believe there can’t be enough of the work of reaffirming the humanity of people ignored by our coastal celebrity-obsessed culture, and nudging the national conversation toward stories of earnest, interesting people who believe in hard work, honesty and keeping your word.

Another writer doing this work is The Atlantic’s Jim Fallows, whose book Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into The Heart of America with his wife Deb is an exploration of down of American towns from Charleston, WV, Erie, PA and Louisville, KY to Rapid City, SD, Bend, OR and Riverside, CA. (Fallows has also written two posts about Moundsville, here and here.)

In his chapter on Charleston, WV, the Fallows attends a performance of Mountain Stage, the public radio Appalachian musical variety show and talks to its host, Larry Groce.

The list of artists who had their first live-broadcast exposure to a national audience under Groce’s auspices is so long and impressive that at first I didn’t really believe it (but then I checked it out.) The performers include Lyle Lovett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Barenaked Ladies, Alison Krauss, Ani DiFranco, Phish, Counting Crows, Lucinda Williams, and many more.

Later, the Fallows visit Groce at his house, and interview him. Groce is originally from Dallas, Texas, and has an easy time explaining his appreciation of Appalachian values. One is a lack of pretension: “A hillbilly isn’t an ignorant fool,” he tells Fallows. “He’s a straightforward, self-effacing, ‘what you see is what you get’ person. He relies on his friends because he doesn’t trust a lot of other things. He is not necessarily formally educated. But he is smart.”

Another value he names is generosity, which makes me think about the time that my car wouldn’t start in Moundsville, and Phil Remke broke away from his day to help me find a garage. Phil is the mayor of Moundsville. “I appreciate you being here,” he told me as I apologized over and over again for the bother.

Although many older people are “looking backward,” Groce tells Fallows in the book, younger people “are starting new businesses and families and projects.” In the last 10 years, “there has been a renaissance,” he says. “It’s easy to go to a place because the money is good. It’s different because you like being there. I am optimistic about this place.”

John W. Miller




Screening Moundsville at the Mount

Photos by Vincent Chesney and Ed Egan

Last night, we showed the movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here), at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, in Western Maryland, just south of Gettysburg. It’s where I attended college 1995-1999.  It was lovely to see former fellow students and professors who still teach there, and a thrill to present work almost exactly 20 years after I graduated. The college, because of its isolation and shared commitments, is like an idyllic small town. If I wanted to pick a professor’s brain about evolution, I could take my lunch tray and sit down next to the chair of the science department; or Shakespeare, English. They were generous, a delight for the curious, and kind.

L to R: Dave Bernabo, John W. Miller and Ed Egan

Unlike Moundsville, this warm, stable Mount community is dependent on a few hundred decent middle-class jobs that won’t get cut if the price of X goes down. It’s no accident that many of this country’s best places to live — with nice restaurants, coffee shops, bookstores and museums, are college towns. (First rule of travel in Appalachia: Coffee follows college.)

We were asked last night about the impact of declining attendance in civic groups, clubs and churches. Those organizations are suffering in Moundsville and around the country, contributing to fraying social ties. (In a future post, I’ll explore the chicken-or-egg question of whether labor force/community or business “comes first”.) I was pleased that the dozen or so students who showed up seemed to pay attention, laughed at the funny lines, and stayed afterwards to chat. Moundsville, I think, can help explain to young people what’s been lost so they can help their parents and grandparents grieve, avoid false nostalgia and utopian fantasies, and build a better future.

John W. Miller


Seeing Your Own Ohio/Michigan/Pennsylvania/Indiana/Illinois/New York/Wisconsin/Iowa Town in Moundsville, WV

Mound View 1

The first time we screened a rough cut of Moundsville, for friends, my favorite reaction was from my pal (and neighbor) Matt, who grew up in a small town called Cresson, in central Pennsylvania. “I see Cresson in Moundsville,” he said. His reaction confirmed my sense that in West Virginia, we had found a wider story, and a place with an arc that matched that of hundreds, if not thousands of towns across the country but especially in the so-called Rust Belt: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Wisconsin and Iowa.

As the movie (which you can rent for $3.99 here) gets more attention, we hear from more viewers having the same experience Matt did. The economic forces that compelled companies to build factories and pay good wages in Moundsville — proximate natural resources, rivers, railroads, labor and markets in a time of national economic expansion during the rise of the 20th century consumer society — were the same that sustained Main Street prosperity around the country.

The declines triggered by a complicated mix of capitalist cycles, changing markets, free trade, private equity, the stock market, big box stores, automation, the cultural popularity of suburban living, and the internet were similar.

Their grief over increasing poverty, the brain drain, and the people who stayed feeling left behind, and desire for a savior, drove them in similar ways to vote for Trump. (And, also, Obama.) And the ways in which they now hope and confront reality, and some are trying to build something new between the cracks, are widespread.

This weekend, Moundsville received its first review in a national publication, The Atlantic. James Fallows, one of the great American journalists of his generation, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic, praised the movie for, among other things.

a completely clear-eyed understanding … of the inevitability of ceaseless economic and technological change—i.e., the absence of any thoughts on the line of, “We’ll be just fine, once the factories and the mines open back up again”

Last night, a viewer named Ken Stump posted this note on Vimeo:

Thanks to James Fallows for his mention of this documentary in The Atlantic, which is how I found out about it. I lived in a southeastern Ohio town about 50 miles west of Moundsville and Wheeling during my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, where my father found work in manufacturing. Today the manufacturing plants are gone, the young people have mostly moved away in search of better opportunities elsewhere, and those who stayed face the same post-industrial realities and voice the same sentiments as the characters in this documentary. I recognize their wistfulness and pride in the rich history of the place, and I admire their realism and honesty about the prospects for the future. Theirs is a dilemma faced by so many other small towns and rural communities across America’s heartland. No amount of wishful thinking or dwelling on the past will restore the region’s former greatness, but there is no obvious or easy path to renewal and reinvention either. But the underlying decency and humanity of the people shines through this film and gives me some hope. Thank you for this wonderful portrait and character study of Moundsville.

As Fallows argues in his prescient book, written with his wife Deb, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, redemption isn’t coming from Washington or any national politician. Instead, Americans can rebuild by facing reality, grieving the past when necessary, turning off their TV, and then getting to work in the places they live. That’s the journey Michele Anderson, an arts manager from Fergus Falls, Minn., describes in her excellent New York Times op-ed published this week.

Utopias don’t exist. The 20th century is never coming back. In the scheme of things, America is still a rich country, with an almost infinite number of places where you can live decently, if modestly, and build something new. The only thing we know about the future is that it will be different. And, we believe, it will be better if we can share an honest story about where we’ve been and where we are.

John W. Miller


“Pick Yourself Up” – Lady Gaga’s West Virginia Roots and Her Grandma’s Inspiring Words That Helped Make a Star

Lady Gaga at premiere of “A Star is Born” in London, September 27, 2018. Courtesy of Wikimedia. License:

One of the people who left the Moundsville area in the 1970s, part of a wave of exiles portrayed in the movie Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here), was Cynthia Bissett, mother of mega popstar of the universe Lady Gaga.

Bissett raised Gaga, aka Sefani Germanotta, in New York, but her own mother, Ronnie, still lives in Glen Dale, next to Moundsville.  (The two are twinned in many ways, sharing a high school — John Marshall, which Cynthia attended — parks and other facilities.) The family doesn’t talk to the media, but Lady Gaga still visits.

“It’s not uncommon to have a Gaga sighting,” says Nora Edinger, a Wheeling-based writer for, a trendy media start-up that covers the region. “You’ll hear about her popping up at Kroger, or in a restaurant.”

That happened in November, when Gaga shopped for Thanksgiving groceries at Kroger, which was reported by TMZ. She also showed up at the Later Alligator, a cozy restaurant off Wheeling’s main square, and dined with family and friends in the same room where, a few weeks later, we held a party after the premiere of Moundsville at the Strand theatre (in Moundsville.) As reported:

“One of the servers who has waited on the family for years, said, ‘Susan, guess who’s in the back room?’… ‘I don’t know’ … [She] said, ‘Lady Gaga’s in the back room!’ and my heart fell on the floor!

Gaga isn’t the only celebrity with ties to the area. Country music star Brad Paisley and Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett also have roots in the northern part of West Virginia.

In a 2010 story, The Charleston Gazette quoted Becky Lofstead, who went to school with Lady Gaga’s mom.

“I remember Cindy,” Lofstead said. “We were sorority sisters. We both pledged Chi Omega back in the fall of 1972.” Lofstead remembered Bissett as being very outgoing, smart and having a flair for fashion. She was also a cheerleader.

“Cindy was just this young, beautiful brunette — everyone liked her. Lady Gaga actually looks a lot like Cindy — only blonde.” The two lived in the sorority house their junior year. Lofstead remembers Bissett was just about the only one who could cook. After graduation, they lost touch. Bissett later moved to New York and married Joseph Germanotta.

Lady Gaga herself posted this picture of her mom in a WVU cheerleader outfit.

In a 2010 Vanity Fair story, Gaga recalled visiting her grandmother during a rough patch before securing her current status as one of the greatest pop stars who’s ever lived.

“All I will say is I hit rock bottom, and it was enough to send a person over the edge. My mother knew the truth about that day, and she screamed so loud on the other end of the phone, I’ll never forget it. And she said, ‘I’m coming to get you.’” Gaga says they went to her 82-year-old grandmother’s house in West Virginia. “I cried. I told her I thought my life was over and I have no hope and I’ve worked so hard, and I knew I was good. What would I do now? And she said, ‘I’m gonna let you cry for a few more hours. And then after those few hours are up, you’re gonna stop crying, you’re gonna pick yourself up, you’re gonna go back to New York, and you’re gonna kick some ass.’”

That she did. A star was born. As the natural gas boom has wracked the coal industry, and factories have fled West Virginia in the last few decades, a lot of creative cultural energy has also left the region. But the stubborn spirit and work ethic that mined coal, hammered steel and assembled toys on the factory line live on in people like Lady Gaga, and her mother and grandmother, and the eternal wisdom that all you can ever do, really, is pick yourself up.

John W. Miller