‘Moundsville’ Recommended as ‘Refreshing Change’ from ‘Hillbilly Elegy’, by West Virginia Council of Teachers of English Co-Director — ‘Put on Watch List’

Grave Creek Mound, Moundsville, WV.

I’m proud to announce that we picked up a prestigious endorsement this week, from the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, an “organization dedicated to serving the students and teachers of WV through language arts and literacy.” The WVCTE’s co-director, Jessica Salfia, has penned a blog post recommending Moundsville (available on the website and pbs.org) to the state’s teachers. She praises our film, an oral history of over 2,000 years of a patch of American soil, as a “refreshing change from the extraction narratives that delivered us Hillbilly Elegy and this recent, awful essay about a woman escaping New York with her puppy to “somewhere in Appalachia.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Grave Creek Mound, the spiritual heart of the movie, and the place it describes, as America faces profound, permanent change. The 69-foot-high structure is over 2,000 years old, a reminder that every civilization falls to the passage of time and cycle of seasons. In Salfia’s writing, the classically American story of the town “blossoms” out of the mound. The story is still happening, of course, and we continue to chronicle life in Moundsville at Moundsville.org.

Salfia lauds our storytelling choice: “My favorite part of this documentary is that the narrative is controlled completely by the town’s residents.”

She concludes:

This documentary and its resources would be an excellent addition to any West Virginia History or Appalachian studies curriculum, but also, this doc would be a great study on perspective and narrative in an ELA course–focusing on what story gets told and how you tell it when you let the people of a place tell their own story.

As Salfia notes, we’re happy to cooperate with any West Virginia-based English teacher who’d like to show the film, online for now, or in person after the pandemic lockdown ends. You can reach me by email at jmjournalist@gmail.com

John W. Miller

Small-Town USA During Covid-19: Rose Hart, Wearing Mask, Delivers Aid in Ford Pick-Up Truck — In Resilient West Virginia, ‘Neighbor Helping Neighbor’ — ‘You Don’t Give Up’

Rose Hart, founder, Appalachian Outreach

Rose Hart is worried about catching Covid-19.

But when a flood hit Ohio County in the northern part of the state a couple weeks ago, the retired West Virginia United States Post Service mail carrier got in her Ford pick-up truck and drove to help her neighbors. Wearing a mask, she joined the Red Cross and Community Lutheran Partners to deliver mops, brooms, buckets and cleaning supplies to people whose homes and yards had been ravaged by the overflowing Middle Wheeling Creek and other Ohio River tributaries.

“Emergencies trump self-concern,” Hart texted me. “No help was available for these families. We wore our masks and kept our distance. So sad the older people had no help with restoring their yards. Truly this was neighbor helping neighbor where possible.”

Hart and Moundsville have been hustling since the 1980s when factories started closing like they had caught a viral disease. Along with millions of people in hundreds of other American towns rocked by globalization and a changing economy, residents faced the soul-crushing shock of losing good jobs they had counted on since birth.

What the world is going through economically, with tens of millions of people losing blue and white-collar jobs because of the economic shutdown, people in Rust Belt factory towns have suffered for 40 years. Fear. Anxiety. Boredom. Depression. The Hustle. None of these things are new to Moundsville.

In 2001, Hart, who lives off her USPS pension, started Appalachian Outreach, a charity devoted to helping people in West Virginia during floods and other emergencies. I love her story, which we included in our movie, because it’s one of people who are struggling helping people who are struggling.

“The way the economy is now, I think you have to be more creative and think outside the box,” Hart says in the movie, predicting the call of a planet coping with changes wrought by what my friend, writer Neil King, calls The Great Pause. “You have to look for your opportunities,” Hart continues in the film “You have to build networks, and try to connect with other people so you all find a good solution. If you’re out there on your own, and you don’t want to put out the energy and effort, you’re gonna suffer.”

In Moundsville, which once boasted world-class factories making toys, glass and chemicals, almost 10,000 good jobs were lost after 1980, shrinking the town’s population in half, to 7,500 from 15,000. A lot of people left. Those who decided to stay, in the only home they had know, had to adapt, to be entrepreneurial and learn to live with less. Fred Wilkerson, for example, started a home glassmaking business after getting laid off from the glass factory.

And now another shock; the coronavirus and the lockdown. They are not sparing towns like Moundsville. The area has reported a few dozens cases.

Appalachian Outreach canceled its spring $12,000 fundraiser, and is losing $9,000 a month, said Hart. (You can contact Rose and/or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.)

Just like everywhere else, businesses are dying. Restaurants have laid off staff and are surviving on takeout orders.

“The schools are delivering meals once a week,” Hart texted me. “I hope all the kids are getting them. With addictions in the area, some kids have to be parents and they don’t drive to meet the food bus.” She added: “The lack of connectivity is a large problem here and around the state. Even though teachers make a packet of homework for the kids, some may not be getting it.”

But if there’s anything Moundsville has learned these last 40 years, if there is any graced reward for enduring so much social and economic pain, it’s resiliency. “You have to believe that things will turn out for the better,” town historian Gary Rider told me when I called him last week. “You keep looking for jobs. You do odd jobs.  You don’t give up.”

John W. Miller

“These Are Slow, Weird Days” — In Covid-19 Crisis, Restaurants in Moundsville, WV Cope With Layoffs, Takeout, Bandanas Instead of Masks — Chinese Buffet Closed — Shortage of To-Go Containers

Alex Martinez, Acapulco Mexican Restaurant

When we were shooting Moundsville, our favorite places to eat were the New Great Chinese Buffet and Acapulco Mexican Restaurant, both on Lafayette Ave, and Bob’s Diner, where we shot some scenes, on 3rd street. (The other options were fast food joints like Burger King and McDonald’s.) Dave loved the Reuben at Bob’s, and I devoured the roast pork fried rice at New Great Chinese, and the taco salad at Acapulco.

I called these three smaller, privately-held restaurants, two of them owned by immigrants, to find out how they’re coping with the coronavirus pandemic. A couple weeks ago, West Virginia ordered all restaurants to close to customers. With an elderly and disease-heavy population, the state faces a risk of widespread coronavirus fatalities.

The Chinese buffet is closed, an answering machine message explained, “until further notice, thank you for your understanding and stay safe.” It is not a great time to operate a germ-spreading buffet, and there have been reports across the U.S. of harassment of Asian Americans. I left a message and haven’t heard back.

At Bob’s Diner, opened (by a man named Bob) in 1947, owner Gary Workman has retained a couple cooks, a driver, and somebody to answer the phone.  The restaurant is making around 50 meals a day, far below the usual. Workman said he can handle “a couple more months of this, but after that, I don’t know.”

The biggest challenge, he said, has been finding enough to-go containers, after lockdown forced all restaurants to transition to takeout.

Acapulco, which Isaias Martinez, an immigrant from the Tamaulipas region in Mexico opened in 2000, has had to lay off “16 or 17” people, said Alex Martinez, his son, who appears in our film. A small, skeleton crew of cooks, cashiers and deliverers is still taking, making and sending out orders of fish tacos, grilled chicken salads and other favorites.

“These are slow, weird days,” Alex told me. In the film, Martinez, now 26, is a voice of reason, reflecting on how working-class Americans of different backgrounds share much more with each other than with the wealthy of their own groups.

“When you’re young in America, they teach you that whatever happens in the rest of the world, like famine, pandemics and wars, it doesn’t happen here,” he said this week. “Well, now it’s happened here, and nobody’s ready.”

The restaurant is pulling in 30 to 50 takeout customers a day, down from a couple hundred a day in normal times. “If it keeps going like this, we’ll be fine,” he said. “We are employing fewer people, and those we let go had to file for unemployment.” They can keep buying supplies and making food people need to eat.

Working the register, Martinez has been wearing a bandana he folds four times. He wasn’t able to find any protective masks in town. “There still are a lot of people who are uninformed and who aren’t that careful about spreading germs when they come in to make an order,” he said. “When you do any kind of service job, you’re on the front lines.”

When we first met a few years ago, Martinez had been thinking about college and medical school. Now, he’s decided the debt wouldn’t be worth it, and wants to pursue a short training course in computer programming instead. “We’re definitely going to be in an economic depression after this,” he said. “I don’t think college is worth it, unless the government steps in and make it affordable.”

Martinez is worried about racism against his Chinese restaurant neighbors down the road. “There needs to be huge systemic change in this country,” he said. “Who knows? It could happen. This country is so unpredictable.”

John W. Miller

How Moundsville, WV Made A Poet — Interview with Paterson Prize Finalist Carrie Conners — Even in Hard Times, “Joy and Humor and Life Keep Happening”


Carrie Conners was born in Moundsville, WV in 1979, and is now a professional poet who teaches at La Guardia Community College-City University of New York.

This week, her collection Luscious Struggle (which you can buy here or here or here) was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 2020 Paterson Poetry Prize.

Growing up on Jefferson Ave, a stone’s throw from the prehistoric native American burial bound and the state prison, was an ideal formation for a poet.

In second grade, Conners said, her class was assigned to write a poem about the mound. Most of the kids rhymed words with the subject, going round and round on their way to the top.

“I wrote a two-page dark thing about Indians who were buried there,” she said.  Around that time, she started reading Stephen King: “I got interested in the macabre because of the mound and because of the penitentiary.”

In addition, Conners’ mom worked with West Virginia state poet laureate Marc Harshman, a star of our documentary, and he remains a mentor.

Even living in New York, Conners is a proud West Virginian. “I get annoyed at the way people in West Virginia are portrayed as lazy” or not smart, she said. “People are hard-working, even if it means helping others when jobs aren’t available.” Like other writers with ties to the region, she “hate-read” JD Vance’s stereotype-laden Hillbilly Elegy. “I grew up with some of the cleverest people I know.”

Not surprisingly, even though Conners left Moundsville for college in Pittsburgh when she was 18, a bunch of her poems sound notes from her hometown. “Growing up in Moundsville was a gift,” she said. “I could never not write about it.”

The region has a rich language and storytelling tradition, said Conners. “And my dad was a steelworker, so I heard a lot of colorful language growing up.”

For example, here is Sex Ed:

After my mom declared You’re just showing off when I asked at 12 years old if my bras had shrunk in the dryer I started going lingerie shopping with my former babysitter. On break from college, she’d pick me up in The Banana, her decomposing Volkswagen Rabbit—one day the turn signal wand snapped off in her hand at a Stop sign by the old Fostoria factory—and she’d drive us to the Stone & Thomas in Wheeling with my mom’s credit card in my pocket. As our thighs fused to the black vinyl seats in the summer heat, she’d tell me about college parties with stolen nitrous tanks this guy’s dad’s a dentist, a history professor she dated his stomach is flat, not washboard, just smooth, so sexy, raking a hand through her blond hair, more Malibu than Moundsville, WV and I’d pretend to understand. We’d stop at a dive bar to get vodka cranberries in Styrofoam to-go cups with bendy straws, bartenders never questioning my age, half a foot taller than my chauffeur, before greeting the hairsprayed sales ladies with their frayed tape measurers. She’d dare me to try on red satin or black lace and we’d laugh in the fitting room, mock the sale ladies’ judgmental stares at her cutoffs with the hole in the ass revealing a peek of her Jockey’s, and she’d push me to pick at least one that wasn’t beige cotton. After, we’d visit her boyfriend, a mortician her parents didn’t like, sometimes at the funeral home while he was preparing a body for viewing, Metallica blaring from the radio, more often at his apartment where they’d pop open beers, kiss, try not to openly resent the girl preventing them from doing more, while I read the liner notes of his record collection, always made more nervous by the charge between them than the corpses, by the way he’d pick her up and spin her around so fast for too long, because I had never loved anything so hard in my short life that I needed to grab it, try to make it fly.

“It’s easy to write depressing things about Moundsville,” said Conners. “But joy and humor and life keep happening. You’re always going to teenage girls laughing about silly things, people falling in love, like normal life.”

She worries about Moundsville and its elderly population coping with the coronavirus, and about the lingering impacts of deindustrialisation. “There’ve been so many jobs and factories lost,” she said. “People’s dignity takes a hit. Even as a kid, you would sense how important having a job is to people.”

These days, living near Elmhurst hospital in New York, Connors and her husband hear sirens and helicopters. She’s been advising students to write as much as possible, even if not for imminent publication. “Writer write stuff down, writers document,” she said. “As I tell students, your perspective matters.”

In Moundsville, for a young Conners, that meant paying attention to the humans around her, even those inside the prison walls:

Resolution: New Year’s Day, Moundsville, WV 1986

Sauerkraut and black-eyed peas cooking in the kitchen
on New Year’s Day, hopes for a spell of good luck.
Nana said each pea you eat adds a dollar to your name in a year’s time.
Dad called them dirt beans, said he’d rather eat his wallet
Good for nothing anyway, but forced down a bowlful this year.
Laid off six months, little girl wearing hand-me-downs
There’s your trickle-down economics.
Mom looks out the window, sees the state pen across the street,
bites the inside of her cheek, stares hard enough to raze it to the ground.
Kids called it Castle Grayskull, gothic turrets like the He-Man lair.
Behind those walls another holiday dinner is underway.
Prisoners, more tense than usual, file into the cafeteria,
for once not thinking about what’s ground up in their food.
A guard still sweating out last night’s whiskey
doesn’t hear the footsteps of the two prisoners charging from behind.
The shiv pinching into the skin of his neck sobers him
quicker than an ice bath. They strip his gun, cuff him
to an old food service worker shaking with fear and age.
The new man in charge bellows like a circus master
at a guard locked out of the caf, demands good, hot food,
decent medicine, a pizza, and some women,
to tell Governor Moore that they are men, not dogs.
Long a cons’ prison, most of the cell locks picked,
men walked the halls freely, making up for the 5X7 cells
a judge deemed cruel and unusual punishment.
Once where you wanted to end up, now too crowded,
100 men over capacity, new sadistic warden
serving three cold meals a day, closed down the Sugar Shack,
the rec room where men played cards, threw dice,
painted nightmare cartoon characters on the walls.
On day two of the riot, reclaimed, it’s the site
where one of the leaders forces a guard-turned-hostage,
to watch him cut the heart out of a suspected informant
It’s amazing how this little thing will keep a fellow alive.

Sirens cry through the town louder than midnight’s din
of whistles and kids drumming on pots with metal spoons.
Mom steers her children to the basement after a statey knocks
on the door, tells Dad about the riot across the street, to stay home,
just like the mill did too many weeks ago.
Resolved to keep things calm, Dad plays Candyland with the kids,
Mom calls the relatives to lie that everything’s fine
while on the television a prisoner spokesman says
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 10-below-degree weather in winter,
We don’t know why we have to sleep in 110-degree weather in the summer.
We don’t know why we can’t wear our hair long or grow a mustache or beard.
They say, ‘Act like men and we’ll treat you like men’; but it’s all talk.
All we want is to be treated like human beings, like the people that we are.

John W. Miller


EXCLUSIVE: Moundsville WVU Hoops Hero Chase Harler on Covid-19, Coach Huggins And Proposing to Fiancée He’d Dated Since 8th Grade — “Coach Huggins always talks about how tough West Virginia people are. It may take toughness to stay inside.”


Q: First, most importantly, you earned some fame by proposing to your fiancée Lindsey Baker a few weeks ago, before the last WVU basketball game of the year, against Baylor. How long had you been planning that? And is it true you’ve been dating since 8th grade?

I had the idea my freshman year of college. It is true! We started dating on Dec 20, 2011.

Q: What are you doing to cope with the pandemic crisis?

My fiancée and I live together in Morgantown. We have a dog and two cats. They are keeping us pretty entertained, as well as binge watching TV shows. Below Deck: Mediterranean is what we are watching right now.

Q: How many colleges did you look at? Why did you choose WVU?

I was being recruited by Winthrop, James Madison, Marshall, and Elon. I grew up a huge WVU fan. I take so much pride being from Moundsville and West Virginia and I wanted to represent both the best way I could think of. So once they started recruiting me, I wanted to hold out as long as possible for them to offer me a scholarship so I could commit. Luckily, they offered be the summer going into my junior year of high school. I committed on the spot to [Legendary WVU] Coach [Bob] Huggins when he did it.

 Q: What are some of the qualities that people in West Virginia have that will help them get through the pandemic crisis?

Coach Huggins always talks about how tough West Virginia people are. I have seen it first hand from my parents, other family members, and friends. I know everyone is a bit shook about the virus – but having a tough enough mindset will help everyone get through it. It may take toughness to stay inside when you really do not want to.

Q: You played four years at WVU, and went to two Sweet Sixteens, but it all started in Moundsville. How did you start playing basketball? Who taught you?

I started playing organized basketball in 4th grade. I was fortunate enough to play on the 5th & 6th grade team at St. Francis Xavier School (the school is not there anymore, but the building is) as a 4th grader. My dad was by far the biggest influence in my life for the game of basketball. Also, my mom has never missed a sporting event of mine in middle school and high school. Her support had a huge impact on me as well.

 Q: What’s your favorite memory of youth basketball?

One of my favorite youth basketball memories was in 8th grade. For my 7th and 8th grade years, I attended Our Lady of Peace. In 8th grade, we won the championship. My dad was the assistant coach, so it was a great moment to share with him.

Q: How long has your family been in Moundsville?

My mom and dad are both from Moundsville, and have lived there most of their lives. I have never lived anywhere else – same house growing up and all. 

Q: What kind of jobs did people in your family do?

My dad is in an issuance agent in Glen Dale. My mom is a dentist in St. Clairsville, OH. My dad’s dad worked in the Chemical Plant, Allied Chemical, in Moundsville. My mother’s dad worked at Blaw Knox, in Wheeling.

 Q: You’ve seen our documentary “Moundsville”? What’s something you learned from it?

Since my elementary / middle was right by the mound, we would take yearly visits there for class. It is hard for me to remember all the facts I learned back then. It was very refreshing to hear about all the history about the mound.

 Q: What are some of your favorite places in Moundsville?

One of my favorite places in Moundsville as a kid was East End basketball courts, Maxwell Acres, and the baseball fields. This is where I spent a majority of my time growing up.

 Q: What’s the significance of the mound to you? How about the prison?

There are both very popular landmarks, and most people know about both throughout the state. It is pretty cool to think people travel from all over to visit the mound and prison.

 Q: What are your dreams for the future, personal, professional and basketball?

My next step is to play professional basketball overseas. I plan to play basketball as long as I can. When the ball stops bouncing – I plan to begin my basketball coaching career, most likely at the collegiate level.

John W. Miller

Special Offer for Residents of Moundsville/Glen Dale: Get Free Copy of ‘Moundsville’ (On PBS Soon) To Watch At Home


This is a hard time for everybody. If you’re stuck at home, you need books to read, and movies to watch. To help out the people of the Moundsville/Glen Dale area, we’re offering a free copy of ‘Moundsville’, which will be on PBS starting in April.

To obtain your free copy, send me an email at jmjournalist@gmail.com and tell me a bit about your connection to the town and what you love (or don’t like) about it, and what gives you hope or what’s helping you get through these hard times. I’ll print the best reflections in a blog post.

John W. Miller

PS: Credit to Jodi Sandvik for this idea. She posted a nice note about how Moundsville will be okay. “We may be poor but we take care of each other in so many ways,” she wrote.

Bracing for Covid-19 in Moundsville — U.S. Rust Belt Towns Face Big Risks With Aging Populations, Hospital Bed Shortages — ‘I Know I’m Vulnerable’

“I know I’m vulnerable,” said Rose Hart.

I’m worried about my friends in Moundsville. We spent a whole year working together to tell the story of their town in a documentary headed for PBS this spring, and I think of those we worked with as extended family.

Like thousands of American towns left behind by globalization, Moundsville (pop. 8,000), and surrounding Marshall County, are full of old people and don’t have the resources to cope with a global pandemic. The brain drain to the bigger cities has left these towns undermanned and underfunded in a way that is going to be badly exposed by the sweep of the Coronavirus. The light of truth is about to shine on America’s abandoned towns, rotting infrastructure and scattershot health care system.

Twenty-two percent of Marshall County’s population of around 30,000 is over 65, compared to 16% in the general population of the U.S., and 13.7% of those under 65 have a disability, compared to 8.6% in the rest of the country. Local newspapers have been pared down, meaning it’s harder for people to get accurate information and help each other.

West Virginia was the final state to record a case of Covid-19, which it finally did this week, and it’s now proceeded to shut down schools. More closures are planned, and Gov. Jim Justice has declared a state of emergency, and is asking for federal help.

As a state, West Virginia has the highest percentage – 51%, compared to a national average of 41% — of inhabitants vulnerable to infection from the disease, according to study by the Kaiser Foundation. It’s older, and has high rates of diabetes, black lung disease from coal mining, obesity, opioid addiction, and smoking.

To be sure, its towns and hollers are more disconnected than cities like New York and Washington, so the disease will spread more slowly. But over the next few months, it will extend its reach, as it has in rural communities elsewhere.

The upshot, as gubernatorial candidate Stephen Smith put it to Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, will be “an inequality of pain.”

The Moundsville area has a few hospitals, but in September, one of them, the Ohio Valley Medical Center, announced it was closing. The hospital, which opened in 1914 and had 200 beds, employed over 1,000 people, who were laid off.

For a while, West Virginians weren’t worried. Somebody printed a T-shirt that said: “West Virginia: COVID-19 National Champions, Self-Isolating Since 1863.” Moundsville city councilman and former mayor Phil Remke, when I emailed him a couple days ago, dismissed worries as “panic” caused by “the media, all media.” Remke is a Fox News watcher, and that had been the network’s tune, echoing President Trump’s before the real damage caused by the virus made confronting its reality inevitable. When I texted him back today, he wrote: “Live and learn, politics aside, it’s time we all work together, Democrats and Republicans, instead of criticizing each other.”

Everybody in Moundsville “is taking this very seriously,” said Susan Board, who works at St. Francis Xavier, the town’s Catholic church. “Everything’s getting canceled. The fish fry. Even the bingo.”

People are worried, said Board. “While they might not have paid too much attention when it was on the West Coast and the East Coast, now they are because there are a lot of cases in Ohio. It’s coming closer and closer.”

Stores in Moundsville have sold out of toilet paper. “We’re like the rest of the country,” said Board.

“We’re distancing and isolating ourselves, but we’re not really ready,” said Fr. That Son Ngoc Nguyen, who’s cancelled mass. “It’s mostly elderly people. That’s why it’s worse for us.”

If a person is sick, he would visit them. “I’m not worried about my own health because I’m young, I think I would make it, but 75% of our parishioners are elderly.”

Steve Hummel said he’s keeping his museum, Archives of the Afterlife, open for now but is using hand sanitizer and keeping his distance. I asked about his grandfather, Les Barker. Both are stars in the movie. Les even has my favorite line (“What do you want out of this world? You wanna set the world on fire? Or do you want enough for a weenie roast now and then.”)

“Well, he’s recovering,” said Steve. “We went fishing today, and he slipped in the mud.”

Rose Hart, a retired mail carrier featured in the film, is in the middle of moving her Appalachian Outreach charity, which helps poor people in the state, to an abandoned furniture store from an abandoned supermarket.

Hart had to cancel her April fundraiser, which was to bring in $12,000. “That’s a big hole to plug,” she told me. “I’m trying to get people to commit to quarterly donations but it’s tough.” In addition, other charities she works with around the region, including one fixing homes damaged by the 2016 flood, have had to cease activities, she said.

You can contact Rose or donate to Appalachian Outreach here.

She’s most worried about her three female employees, all of whom have children. “With the schools closing, that means they have to find child care if they want to come to work,” she said.

Rose said she’s been battling a sinus infection but doctors told her it wasn’t Covid-19 and gave her antibiotics. “I had an infection from a surgery last year,” said Rose. “I know I’m vulnerable.”

John W. Miller

STAY-AT-HOME SALE: Rent ‘Moundsville’ Documentary for $2.99, Buy for $5.99



Coronavirus quarantine means we’re all prisoners.

If you haven’t seen Moundsville yet, or want to show your support for independent filmmakers during a difficult time, we’re making the film available to rent ($2.99) or buy ($5.99) at a reduced price.

Just click on this link.

We hope you enjoy the movie, the biography of a classic American town, and that things get back to normal for you soon.

John W. Miller

‘We Don’t Even Make Baseballs’ Anymore — New Political Opera ‘The Last American Hammer’ Nails Working-Class America’s Pain

0299 The Last American Hammer
Timothy Mix as Milcom Negley, and Antonia Botti-Lodovico as Dee Dee Reyes in the Pittsburgh Opera production of ‘The Last American Hammer’

What to do in America when the America you know vanishes?

That’s the question posed by Moundsville (still available here), and by The Last American Hammer, a 2018 opera that made its Pittsburgh debut Saturday night.

I checked out the show and chatted afterwards with librettist Matt Boresi about its origins. Boresi, who describes himself as “one of the only full-time opera librettists,” is the descendant of Italian immigrants from Coal City, Illinois (pop. 5,400), near Chicago, a Midwestern town that, like Moundsville, has fallen on hard times.

Boresi said he had the idea for an opera before the 2016 election, and teamed up with composer Peter Hilliard to write The Last American Hammer. “We could already see the civil disruption, things falling apart,” he told me. During the Trump presidency, it seems even more topical, he conceded: “People ask me if I wrote it this morning.” It’s smart, provocative political satire, an opera easily digestible at 90 minutes, and I recommend seeing it at Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters, where it will play February 25 and 28, and March 1.

Boresi set the opera in a small town near Akron, Ohio, and made his hero an angry would-be right-wing militant vigilante named Milcom Negley. The sense of place is strong, especially in the language, for example when Negley croons, in perfect Ohioese: “This is some bullshit.” There are jokes about sauerkraut balls, a local delicacy.  The characters describe a downtown hollowed out “by big boxes”, and a geography of taverns and dollar stores. “There are no more dances at the VFW.”

Negley used to work at a hammer factory. (Last year, I profiled one of the actual last hammer factories in the U.S., in Wheeling, WV, for Postindustrial Magazine.) Negley’s plant is closed now. He’s holed himself up in a museum full of old ceramic jugs shaped like people, conversing with the owner Tink Enraught, herself a left-wing domestic terrorist in the 1970s. She built the museum with money her dad got from selling the hammer factory. Negley’s behavior is alarming, and Enraught has called the FBI. Agent Dee Dee Reyes arrives, and the three archetypical characters carry on a poetic, poignant, and often very funny conversation about the state of America, which includes quips about TED Talks, and Google and Youtube. The libretto would work as a play.

At the heart of Negley’s frustration is the decline of the factory job. “We don’t make a goddamned thing in this country anymore.” Not even baseballs. “Little red wagons get put together by tiny yellows hands in big red countries.” The root cause of Negley’s pain is economic: Losing his job has unmoored him.

“You’re wounded because you’re falling through the cracks of society,” agent Reyes tells Negley, who hits back with pained pantings. “The American dream is the most powerful myth in history,” he sings. “The idea that anybody can do anything. How appealing. You’d trade an awful lot to keep a dream like that alive.”

In a clever twist, Negley the militiaman complains about foreign interference — at a time when most right-wing libertarian types find themselves cheering Russia’s support of President Trump. More specifically, Negley’s conspiratorial beef is that the country abandoned an earlier version of the 13th amendment, which would have banned “any American citizen from receiving any foreign title of nobility or receiving foreign favors, such as a pension, without congressional approval” on pain of losing citizenship. There really are 13th amendment truthers, Boresi explained.

As an America based on a post-World War Two prosperous middle class and solid democratic habits transitions into something else, we’re facing no small amount of chaos and pain.

So what is next for the Negleys of this country?

In Moundsville, and as James and Deborah Fallows describe in their book Our Towns, the landscape vacated by one kind of society has opened opportunities to build another. There is hope. And life after the factory; it’ll just be a lot different.

But in Negley’s world, as he puts it: “When you’re holding the last American hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

John W. Miller

‘American Factory’ Wins Oscar for Best Documentary – The Rust Belt Doc’s Essential Lessons About America, China, Unions, and Global Capitalism – Why We Need To Keep Telling These Stories


‘America Factory’, the 2019 documentary about a glassmaking plant in Dayton, Ohio, won the best feature documentary award at last night’s Oscars.

The film by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, produced by the Obamas’ Higher Ground company and available on Netflix, is a masterpiece in observational journalism. It’s the second year in a row that a documentary about the Midwest got nominated for an Oscar, after‘Mind the Gap’ in 2019, a stunning skateboarding memoir by Bing Liu.

The success of both movies, like the acquisition of ‘Moundsville’ by PBS distributor NETA, and James and Deb Fallows’ “Our Towns” book and coming HBO film, shows the appetite for reported storytelling — not related to presidential campaigns and elections — about former industrial America as it transitions away from lucrative manufacturing toward an undetermined future — both promising and scary — that is not as industrially wealthy, has lots of opportunities for life and rebirth, and is challenged by automation, aging population, brain drain and opioid addiction.

I had seen it before but I watched ‘American Factory’ again on Monday during my lunch break. You should, too.

The backstory is the winds of global trade and capitalism. For over a decade, Chinese investors have been shopping in Europe and the U.S. for companies to acquire so they could manufacture closer to the markets where they were selling.  Since Beijing embraced state-sponsored capitalism after the death of Chairman Mao in 1976, it’s invited integration with the industrial West. When I reported for the Wall Street Journal in Brussels, I accompanied a Chinese CEO on what was basically a shopping trip. Over a meal, he casually mentioned he would be happy to spend tens of billions of dollars on buying a “top-three European food company.”

The particular incarnation recounted in ‘American Factory’ is the fate of a glass-making plant in Dayton, Ohio. It used to belong to GM. Now it’s been acquired by China’s Fuyao.

What makes the film so great, I think, is the access Bognar and Reichert negotiated with Fuyao, with the help of Chinese filmmakers. In the manner of prize-winning journalism, it channels a lucid, conscience-raising vision of what’s actually happening.

GM can’t make money off the factory. Chinese investors think they can. The workplace cultures, forged by history and business practice, are radically different. The Chinese firm pays its employees under $15 an hour, half the GM rate, and expect total unrelenting devotion. They dismiss concepts like work-life balance and fight unions.

Below the forces driving investment and acquisition of capital are people doing their best to survive. Just like in ‘Moundsville’, the characters in ‘American Factory’ are surfing forces beyond their control.

In China, companies and workers were formed by authoritarian socialist rule, followed by a giant leap into capitalism, managed by the state. Western companies were happy to come calling, helping Beijing negotiate trade deals and join the WTO, and jacking up profits by moving their production to China.

In America, business culture was formed by a post-World War Two boom that invited unionization and lifted generations out of the Depression into the middle class, followed by a sharper focus on profits and returning value to shareholders.

As in any colonial enterprise, cultures clash. “What we’re doing is melding two cultures together,” an American manager tells workers, as he offers three shifts, with a “30-minute unpaid lunch” and two paid 15-minute breaks.

The Chinese manager lecturing his Chinese charges who’ve moved to Ohio to work educates them.  “America is a place to let your personality run free,” he says. “You’re free to follow your heart. You can even joke about the president. Nobody will do anything to you.” Other lessons: “They are very obvious.” “They don’t hide anything.” “Everything is practical and realistic.” “They dislike abstractions and theory in their daily lives.”

There is sweetness in these efforts to understand, and the best attempts at connecting, like when an American worker invites Chinese migrants to his house to check out his handguns and eat turkey with all the trimmings.

In Ohio, they’re enduring the reality that their slice of the planet has become a little bit poorer, and that the 1950s are not coming back. What’s next for Dayton and other similar places in the Midwest? Universal Basic Income? Tourism? Tech? Stronger unions? I don’t know but everything needs to be on the table and the truth must light the way; we need to keep sharing stories like ‘American Factory.’

John W. Miller