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 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, praised the movie for

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, West Virginia, area in the 1970s, part of the wave of exiles portrayed in our film Moundsville (which you can rent for $3.99 here), was Cynthia Bissett, mother of mega popstar of the universe Lady Gaga.

Bissett reared Gaga, aka Sefani Germanotta, in New York, but her own mother, Ronnie, still lives near Moundsville. 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

The Inspiring Story of the Stubborn West Virginia Glassmaker Who Lost His Job at Fostoria and Kept On Making Glass


One of the characters in our movie Moundsville (which you can watch here) is glassmaker Fred Wilkerson, Jr. (pictured above, on the right) who talks about his deep roots in the area and the closure of Fostoria, once one of the town’s main employers. The amazing backstory of how his small glass manufacturing firm got started didn’t make it into the final version of the movie, so I want to tell it here. It’s one of my favorite stories I’ve ever encountered as a reporter, all about pride, work ethic, self-reliance, stubbornness and American ingenuity.


Fred’s dad, Fred, Sr. (left), worked for Fostoria Glass for 30 years. After it closed, and he lost his job, in the 1980s — because of imports, consolidation and people eating more off plastic and paper plates — he opened his own artisanal glass shop, in a barn of his house off a winding West Virginia country road outside of Moundsville. It focuses on making paperweight, and sells to customers in the US and around the world; it’s also done contract work for Owens Corning and Danbury Mint, and even the White House.


Making glass was Fred, Sr.’s vocation and he wanted to keep doing it, even if the factory closed and there was no longer a stable and lucrative corporate structure around him. After a tour in the Air Force, Fred, Jr. joined him. They take commissions, attend craft fairs and sell online. “It’s often seven days a week of hard work,” says Fred Jr. “But we think of ourselves as artists.”

You can learn more about the Wilkersons and buy their glass here.

John W. Miller

What Would Barbara Tuchman Say?

Moundsville town historian Gary Rider

Our panicky short-attention span era could use Barbara Tuchman. For younger readers, Tuchman (1912-1989) was, arguably, the 20thcentury’s greatest popular historian. Her books about World War One, the Middle Ages, Israel, China, and the American revolution were paperback staples on the bookshelves of people like my baby boomer parents. Tuchman won two Pulitzers. When I was a book-gobbling teenager, my dad told me to read her, and I did.

Beyond commanding the stories of different ages, Tuchman was a deep and refreshing thinker about the current events of her day, like Watergate and Vietnam, the news in general, and her dancing crafts of writer and historian, as I rediscovered this week when I dug back into some of her books, to prepare for speeches this spring to students, teachers and union organizers about Moundsville, and related questions about journalism, perceptions of history and public discourse.

What’s so enchanting about Tuchman is that her imagination and prose match her command of the facts, and that she seems to never fall into easy generalizations, ideological traps, or nostalgia.

As “Tuchman’s Law”, she posited that “The fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five- to tenfold”, and pointed out that “persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of the disturbance.”

Persistence of the normal. If you’re looking for refuge from spiraling news madness, take a deep breathe and meditate on that one.

In her forward to A Distant Mirror, her classic account of 14thcentury France, Tuchman reminds us that “No age is tidy or made of whole cloth” and that breakdowns and rebirths are normal.

When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide, the system breaks down. Legend and story have always reflected this; in the Arthurian romances the Round Table is shattered from within. The sword is returned to the lake; the effort begins anew. Violent, destructive, greedy, fallible as he may be, man retains his vision of order and resumes his search.

In her classic 1966 essay, “The Historian as Artist”, Barbara Tuchman takes up the argument that “when you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.” She assails the term “nonfiction” – “as if it were some sort of remainder.”

I do not feel like a Non-something; I feel quite specific. I wish I could think of a name in place of “Nonfiction.” In the hope of finding an antonym I looked up “Fiction” in Webster and found it defined as opposed to “Fact, Truth and Reality”. I thought for a while of adopting FTR, standing for Fact, Truth and Reality, as my new term, but it is awkward to use. “Writer of Reality” is the nearest I can come to what I want, but I cannot very well call us “Realtors” because that has been pre-empted—although as a matter of fact I would like to. “Real Estate”, when you come to think of it, is a very fine phrase and it is exactly the sphere that writers of nonfiction deal in: the real estate of man, of human conduct. I wish we could get it back from the dealers in land. Then the categories could be poets, novelists, and realtors.

A good historian is an artist: “What the artist has is an extra vision and an inner vision plus the ability to express it.”

This is what Monet does in one of those shimmering rivers reflecting poplars, or El Greco in the stormy sky over Toledo, or Jane Austen compressing a whole society into Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lady Catherine, and Mr. Darcy. We realtors, at least those of us who aspire to write literature, do the same thing. Lytton Strachey perceived a truth about Queen Victoria and the Eminent Victorians, and the style and form which he created to portray what he saw have changed the whole approach to biography since his time. Rachel Carson perceived truth about the seashore or the silent spring, Thoreau about Walden Pond, De Tocqueville and James Bryce about America, Gibbon about Rome, Karl Marx about Capital, Carlyle about the French Revolution. Their work is based on study, observation, and accumulation of fact, but does anyone suppose that these realtors did not make use of their imagination? Certainly they did; that is what gave them their extra vision.

Tuchman anticipated the analytics revolution, and saw the downside in relying on artificial intelligence to tell stories and analyze history. In a 1966 speech to the Chicago Historical Society, she mused about doing her work “in the midst of the electronic age when computers are already chewing at the skirts of history in the process called Quantification.”

Applied to history, quantification, I believe, has its limits. It depends on a method called “data manipulation”, which means that the facts, or data, or the historical past—that is, of human behavior, are manipulated into named categories so that they can be programmed into computers. Out comes – hopefully – a pattern. I can only tell you that for history “data manipulation” is a built-in invalidator, because to the degree that you manipulate your data to suit some extraneous requirement, in this case the requirement od the machine, to that degree your results will be suspect – and run the risk of being invalid. Everything depends on the naming of the categories and the assigning of the facts to them, and this depends on the quantifier’s individual judgment at the very base of the process. The categories are not revealed doctrine nor are the results scientific truth.

Humans will always be unpredictable, she concludes:

The eager electronic optimists will go on chopping up man’s past behavior into thousands of little definable segments which they call Input, and the machines will whirr and buzz and flash its lights and in no time at all will give back Output. But will Output be dependable? I would lay ten to one that history will pay no more attention to Output than it did to Karl Marx. It will still need historians. Electronics will have its uses, but it will not, I am confident, transform historians into button-pushers or history into a system.

As we push back against the temptation to do nothing but harvest data and wait for Output, reading Tuchman is a reminder that there is a persistent path to normal in writing and reading, and sober tellings of the paths that have led us here.

John W. Miller

Refuting the Stereotypes of Hillbilly Elegy With Poetry: A Review of Ryan Walsh’s Reckonings


American’s national crisis hinges in part on how hard it is to accept this time of change. We want progress without pain, transformation without torpedoes, and turnover without stuff we like getting turned over. The resistance brakes support for turning the page, blinds us to what’s ahead, and makes us vulnerable to fantastic promises, and offerings of utopia.

America chooses capitalism, engine of creativity, consumption, construction—and destruction. When the latter gets creative in our backyard, we act shocked. But, as diner denizen Bill Wnek points out in Moundsville, the whole point is to shut down the hometown factory “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else.” Our journey making Moundsville has led us on a close study of this fact. Few places have been rocked by creative destruction and global trade harder than West Virginia. The state wants badly to flip the script.

I was thrilled this past weekend to discover Reckonings, an elegant, subtle book of poetry by Ryan Walsh, just published by Baobab Press. The collection of 38 poems, divided into four parts, tackles Walsh’s West Virginian childhood, meditations on Appalachia, and hopes for the future. (You can buy the book here.) At a packed launch at White Whale bookstore in Pittsburgh, Walsh read, preceded by acclaimed West Virginia novelist Ann Pancake. An exciting evening of homegrown Appalachian literary buzz.

The 37-year-old Walsh grew up in Elkins, WV and near the zinc plant in Spelter, WV where his grandfather worked for 28 years. After living in Michigan and Vermont, he landed in Pittsburgh as a fundraiser and communications director for Grow Pittsburgh, a non-profit that fosters gardening in the city.

In a phone interview, Walsh says he hopes for West Virginia to remake its economy in a more sustainable way. “Industry is what people know, so it’s easier to wish that back than to do the hard work of creating something new,” he says.

His book of poems traces an arc from factory days and a childhood among the trees, free of phones and screens, to a new century of hopeful environmental activism, technological makeovers, and reckoning with America’s changing place in the world.


It is imprinted on me, the factory on the hill

(no more factory, no more hill).


Grand and silent as a church.

Rusted hulk like a breathing scab


I couldn’t help but touch.

Those powder hills and slag heaps


We raced bikes over raising dust.

DuPont dismantled the smelter brick


by brick then brought down the shell.

Cadmium, arsenic, lead. Shadow


plant rooting down like a black star

black-holing the whole town.


All night the ghost factory is awake

making new ghosts.


Somewhere someone else

will do this for even less.


Now wind rakes the reclaimed site

each grass blade blazing


and a family pulls from the creek

fish no one should eat

Walsh says he got interested in chronicling his childhood in industrial Appalachia in part after chemical company DuPont, which had owned the zinc plant, paid a cash settlement and offered medical monitoring to people who had lived near the plant, where his grandfather had worked.

His focus is on honoring the humanity of people in forgotten places. “A book like Hillbilly Elegy gets so much attention because it reinforces stereotypes,” he says. “There are colorful people living everywhere in all cultures, and the poverty as entertainment thing is tiring. Typically, West Virginia makes it in the news because something horrible happens or something seems wild enough to document.”

That, concludes Walsh, “is a different kind of extraction.”

Reckonings also addresses the challenge posed by new technologies, a world of:

Fox cries and filaments

Wi-fi and wet dreams.


And what did you want–

confirmation of your smallness?

You are a creature in a body


Little planet

your gravity

little something.


Fields filled with fire-

flies, bodies blinking off

across the grasses–


Off     on     off

through dark grasses,


as words on a page

in night black night

In the end, the battle is for acceptance — of that more prosperous, more polluted past, and reality as it is today, with all its hope and desolation —  and for dreams of a better future.

From the book’s last poem, THE PINES:

We’ll gather like new-day monks or moths

A fire between us

Each heart-warm friend

we reckon them one by one

Each name a bead in the bracelet

Each arrival a thanksgiving


In the face of the lake

stars make replicas of themselves

forgetting our names for them


so we can all begin

tender as children

making a new life in the trees


John W. Miller

When Serial Murderer Charles Manson Tried to Move to Moundsville, WV




In 1983, cult leader, musician and serial murderer Charles Manson was in California state prison when he wrote to the warden of the West Virginia state penitentiary in Moundsville, requesting a transfer there.

This is one of the stories about the prison that paranormal collector Steve Hummel tells in our movie, Moundsville (which you can watch by ordering here) and it’s a popular one in town.

Manson, who died in 2017, was born in 1934 in Cincinnati to a 16-year-old girl, Kathleen Maddox, who went on to live a life of petty crime. Charles’ youth was spent bouncing around West Virginia and Kentucky, including long stretches in McMechen, a small town near Moundsville in Marshall County.

Locked up in 1971, for seven murders, including that of actress Sharon Tate, he requested to be moved to West Virginia.

“Dear Sir,” he began, in a letter to the warden that’s displayed in the Moundsville pen, which closed in 1995 and is now a museum. “You may know some of my ken folks God knows they been enough of us in & out of your place. I’m a beanie brother from way back. California prison people had me in the hole for 14 years. They done told a pack of lies & built up so much fear.”

“Would you accept me at your place?” Manson continues in the letter. “I’m a good worker & I give you my word I’ll start no trouble. I’ve been in prison hallways over 30 years & never lied to you & never rated. That should count for something somewhere. Thank you, Charles Manson.”

Warden Donald Bordenkircher declined, telling the United Press International that it would be a “a cold day in hell” before he admitted Manson.

“I’m not really into Charles Manson,” Steve says in a phone call. “There were prisoners in the Moundsville pen who were a lot more violent than he was.”

At his own museum in Moundsville, “Archives of the Afterlife”, which I recommend visiting, Steve has a postcard from Charles Manson to a PO Box address in Orange, CA, with a certificate of authenticity. He texted me pictures of the front and back of the card:


So why the fascination in town with the Manson anecdote? “We don’t have too many celebrities associated with this area,” says Steve, listing baseball player George Brett, singer Brad Paisley and the writer Davis Grubb.

Maybe, I suggest, a small town yearns for any connection to the wider world. Steve agrees.

John W. Miller


USW To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Dialogue on Politics, Economics



United Steelworkers Local 3657 To Screen Moundsville To Foster Better Conversations About Politics, Economics

Pittsburgh, PA– United Steelworkers Local 3657 will screen the documentary film Moundsville for its members, the international union’s technicians, auditors and administrative assistants, over two days, March 20 and 21, 2019 and host a conversation with co-directors John W. Miller and David Bernabo.

“Many of our members and retirees live in communities struggling to establish new economic identities after factories and manufacturing jobs disappear,” says Tony Montana, a member of Local 3657 who facilitated the screening for USW. “As we begin to prepare for the 2020 elections, I think we can learn from the conversational approach John Miller and David Bernabo have taken in the documentary film, Moundsville, which examines the history and culture of a West Virginia town not far from here – but is unmistakably set in Donald Trump’s America.”

“I think the film really succeeds by letting the people of Moundsville tell their own stories,” says Montana. “They reveal what’s important to them, and we learn that they are far more than the caricatures of bigotry, bitterness and anger that we expect to find in a place where Trump received more than 70 percent of the votes in 2016.”

“Screening at USW fits squarely in the evolving social mission behind the movie,” says Miller. “There’s been too much talk about what people in small towns think about Trump, and not enough talk about the reality of what’s happened in those places, and the shape of their future economies. Healing divisions starts with a shared narrative based on reality.”

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.

USW Local 3657 represents the technicians, auditors and administrative assistants employed by the United Steelworkers international union to support and serve its 1.2 million active and retired members in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Members are located throughout the country in district offices and at the USW International headquarters in Pittsburgh. Improving the way we individually communicate about important issues with the members we serve as well as each other will only strengthen our collective voice and make us more effective advocates for fairness, equality and dignity for all workers.

For more information call John W. Miller at 412-298-0391 or Tony Montana at 216-308-4798

Moundsville At Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville, Sunday, March 17 at 4pm

Steve Hummel, paranormal collector, in the film “Moundsville”


Pittsburgh, PA—Row House Cinema (4115 Butler St, Pittsburgh, PA 15201 in Lawrenceville) will show Moundsville on Sunday, March 17 at 4 pm.

Filmmakers John W. Miller and David Bernabo will make a short presentation before the 75-minute movie.

Book tickets ($10)

See for trailer, info, and options to rent/buy.

Moundsville, which has been shown in New York, Pittsburgh and Moundsville, and is available to rent or buy online, 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.

Row House Cinema is a single screen theater in the historic Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Each week it selects a new movie theme. Its concession stand features natural popcorn with real butter & pure sea salt. In addition, it sells tasty chocolate popcorn, craft beer, locally made ice cream, pepperoni rolls, hot dogs, popsicles, coffee, tea, as well as vegan options.

For more information, contact John W. Miller on 412-298-0391

A Reflection on Moundsville and Our Towns by James and Deborah Fallows

I went to see Deborah and James Fallows last night at City of Asylum, a marvelous literary non-profit, restaurant, event space and bookstore on the North Side of Pittsburgh.

While we were making Moundsville last year, I bought and read the Fallows’ book Our Towns: A 100,000-mile Journey Into The Heart of America. It’s the result of dozens of trips they took to American towns, including Pittsburgh, between 2012 and 2017, in a single-engine prop plane.

Their mostly two-week stops included bigger post-industrial towns like Erie, PA; Louisville, KY and Columbus, OH; Southern outposts I’ve never heard of like Demopolis, AL, Starkville, MS, and Greer, SC; and Western communities like Rapid City, SD, Bend, OR and Riverside, CA.

What inspired me most reading the book was their basic approach to reporting, which Dave and I were slowly figuring out in our parallel Moundsville adventure.

As James Fallows, a longtime Atlantic correspondent, said last night in presenting the book, his advice to anybody seeking to escape the poison of national politics is to visit towns “and don’t ask about national politics or anything they’ve seen on cable news, just ask people about their lives.”

We usually begin our visits talking about dollars-and-cents topics – how the economy was doing, whether businesses were moving into downtown or away from it, how the schools were funded and how well they were preparing students for opportunities in the area or beyond.

It’s what Dave and I ended up doing while making Moundsville, mostly because our questions about national politics yielded such predictable, cliché answers. The stories about people’s lives, jobs and families were the ones with depth and heart.

Our Towns is a rich argument for assessing the reality of the current moment, grieving the past when necessary, and then getting on with it. The Fallows’ don’t pretend to have the policy answer to how to rebuild the middle class out of an economy currently based, in many places, on $10ish-an-hour services jobs. There are no utopias. Change happens slowly, and it starts by acknowledging the truth of people’s lives, and by cheering their successes, as loudly as possible. It’s the only way to avoid the traps of fantasy and nostalgia, and their dire political consequences.

As James Fallows writes:

After our current Gilded Age, the national mood will change again. When it does, a new set of ideas and plans will be at hand. We’ve seen them being tested in towns we never would have suspected, by people who would never join forces in the national capital but who work together “at home.” Their projects, the progress they have made, and their goals are more congruent than even they might ever imagine.

The last chapter of Our Towns is a checklist of “the traits that distinguished a place where things seemed to work.” These include:

People work together on practical local possibilities, rather than allowing bitter disagreements about national politics to keep them apart.

They have, and care about, a community college.

They have distinctive, innovative schools.

And this: People know the civic story.

The future of Moundsville the town is unclear to me. After all, it doesn’t have a community college, or a big employer promising a future of good middle-class jobs. Like a lot of places, it’s been getting progressively poorer. There is hope, but not all towns will last forever.

What Moundsville does have is a great story, and our goal in making the movie, like the goal, I think, of Our Towns, was to show that the way forward for all of us is to tune out the other stuff and give depth and dignity to the true story of every place. This can’t be happening often enough.

John W. Miller