Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Fort New Salem

Fort New Salem is a collection of relocated log structures on a wooded hillside near Salem University above the junction of U.S. Route 50 and West Virginia Route 23. It began in the early 1970s as part of what was then known as Salem College. The original intent was for this to be an educational component of the college, but hard times befell Salem University, and by 2005 Fort New Salem no longer fit into their financial plans. However, community members from the area wanted to keep it going, so an independent 501(c)3 organization was formed.

The good folks who run the independent Fort New Salem Foundation work very hard to maintain this outdoor living history museum. Most of them are history lovers who enjoy passing on their passion for the past to the younger generation. My daughter enjoyed the Christmas-time visit we made back in the ‘90s when she was young, and I’m glad that Fort New Salem has been able to continue as a tribute to the frontiersmen (and women) who settled West Virginia for new generations of youngsters.

I recently attended their “Spirit of Christmas in the Mountains” which is held the last weekend in November and the first weekend in December. The cabins were open for visitors as docents explained various trades or other activities. Nearly all of these cabins had a warm fire in the hearth, and the fragrance of wood smoke surrounded the compound.

There was a blacksmith shop, a tinsmith, a print shop, the apothecary, the tavern, and more. A few of the cabins were demonstrating fireplace cooking. A dulcimer band in one building provided a musical background that could be heard throughout this little village.

Despite its name, Fort New Salem does not have the wooden stockade surrounding its perimeter that is often associated with the frontier forts. Aside from the lack of an exterior wall, Fort New Salem is somewhat similar to Prickett’s Fort State Park near Fairmont, WV. Both have numerous small cabins (14 at Prickett’s Fort, 18 at Fort New Salem) devoted to different activities where visitors get a first-hand experience with history.

Unlike Prickett’s Fort State Park, the folks who banded together to save this “museum” don’t have the financial backing that comes with being part of the state park system. The volunteer board members work hard to get some grant money here and there, generate some funds from admission fees, and use a lot of donated labor. Fort New Salem is only open for the special events that are held there, usually one weekend a month from April through December.

Life on the frontier of western Virginia two centuries ago was not easy. Although the challenges are vastly different, trying to maintain an outdoor history museum on a financial shoestring isn’t easy either. I’m grateful that folks in the Salem area stepped up to save this valuable resource. I hope they are able to keep it going for many future generations.

[This story appeared in the February 2015
issue of Two-Lane Livin' magazine

Monday, January 12, 2015

Selma and my Congressman

The movie “Selma” covers a number of individuals who were involved in the civil rights movement, but not every thread could be woven into the story. I’m glad they included Unitarian Universalist minister James Reeb (killed by white thugs after traveling from Boston to support the march) and Viola Luiza (a white woman from Detroit who was shot by the KKK shortly after the march).

One of the many story threads that didn’t make the movie was the only member of Congress who marched in Selma with Dr. King. This Congressman had been invited on a junket to watch a Gemini spaceflight launch at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but decided instead that he should go participate in the march.

This resolute Congressman was not from a state known for its progressivism. It is doubtful that any of his constituents were at the march. However, his conscience led him to take a stand against the discrimination that prevented American citizens from being able to exercise their right to vote. He knew he had to be there that day—not for any publicity, but because it was the right thing to do.

His name was Ken Hechler from West Virginia.

Ken Hechler was the first congressman I knew about as I grew up. His district originally ran up the Ohio Valley from Huntington to Parkersburg. I can remember my grandmother went on a trip to Washington and came back with some very neat publications for me about the Constitution, the American Flag, etc., all stamped as coming from his office.

I was still very young during the ‘60s, but Ken Hechler helped form my expectations for Congressional service. One of the practices he had was when Congress was on break, he would come back to the district and work various jobs to get a better sense about the lives of his constituents. One week he might be working at a bakery, and the next he might be mowing lawns. He was a bit like today’s TV star Mike “Dirty Jobs” Rowe. I may not have understood complex policy decisions at that point in my young life, but I could appreciate a Congressman who “worked” during his vacation.

Ken Hechler set a high bar for me, because I grew up thinking that was what all members of Congress did. Nowadays Congressmen seem to spend all their free time raising money from the “fat cats.” Few (if any) of them would agree to get their hands dirty or break a sweat while working among “commoners” during their vacation. Indeed, it was his desire to see “what things were really like” that inspired me to visit all of the county schools, the bus garages, and other locations during my tenure as an elected member of the Wood County School Board (some of you know the story about how my desire to see the schools and the controversy that ensued).

Although not a native West Virginian, Ken Hechler had landed at Marshall University as a professor in the 1950s. He had served in WWII (and later wrote the book that became the Hollywood movie “The Bridge at Remagen”) and then worked for President Truman in the White House. A popular professor once he arrived at Marshall, his students urged him to run for Congress in 1958 and he won.

The Democratic Party power brokers in West Virginia were never very high on this “egghead” professor who was originally from New York. When the decline in population after the 1970 census meant that West Virginia had to cut down from five to four congressional districts, Hechler’s district was the one that got chopped up. Parkersburg got moved in with the northern panhandle’s district, but Huntington was added to the southernmost district. This meant that this Marshall professor would have to run against the established incumbent (James Kee) from Bluefield. Despite the party bosses’ efforts to gerrymander him out of his position, Hechler was able to pull off an upset. He continued in Congress until 1976, when he decided to run for governor and lost to Jay Rockefeller in the primary. In 1984, Hechler was elected Secretary of State, and served in that position for 16 years.

Another interesting tidbit about Hechler was that he didn’t ride around in big cars like many politicians. Instead, he drove a small red 4-wheel drive Jeep (similar in design to what he drove in WWII) which enabled to get just about anywhere in rural West Virginia.

In 1999, a 90 year old woman from New Hampshire set out to walk across the country to call attention to the need for campaign finance reform (which ultimately was passed as the McCain-Feingold Act). Doris Haddock (known as Granny D) had made it across Ohio by December 1999. As she approached Belpre, she was joined by Ohio’s Secretary of State (Ken Blackwell, a Republican). West Virginia’s Secretary of State Ken Hechler met them in Belpre and, along with nearly a hundred others, they all crossed the bridge and into West Virginia. Granny D was a wonderful woman and I had the honor of walking with her from Belpre that day. I also walked with her the next day from the Wood County Courthouse as far as the Route 50/Interstate 77 interchange as she headed east to Washington, DC.

Ken Hechler was good friends with Dr. Evelyn Harris, my mentor at the University of Charleston whom I wrote about yesterday. They were both academicians who had migrated from New York to West Virginia. During my time as a political science student at UC, Ken Hechler came to campus a couple of times, and was always a fascinating speaker.

When I started teaching American Government and Constitutional Law as an adjunct faculty member at WVU-Parkersburg, I liked bringing in a guest speaker for my students. On two different occasions, I was honored to be able to bring Ken Hechler to speak with my students, just as he had done when I was a sitting at a desk as a student. He had so many experiences to tell my students, and they enjoyed hearing them.

I can’t say that I knew Ken Hechler all that well, or that I necessarily agreed with him on all his political positions, but I definitely admired him. He turned 100 years old last September, and is currently the oldest living former member of Congress. I was fortunate enough to get my picture taken with him several years ago (shown below) when he came to speak where I work at the U.S. Bureau of the Public Debt in Parkersburg for a Martin Luther King Day presentation.

I’m glad that he was my first view of what a Congressman is supposed to be. I’m very proud that he was the only congressman to have marched in Selma—even if it didn’t make it into the movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly encourage you to watch “Selma” and witness this important chapter of American history.

I only wish there were more inspiring politicians for youngsters to emulate today!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

“Selma” and Dr. Harris

Anna and I went to see “Selma” today—it is a very powerful movie. One of the initial scenes involves the character played by Oprah Winfrey attempting to register to vote at the county courthouse. Whites would get a few easy questions for their voting test, but blacks were given ridiculously difficult questions. Oprah’s first question was to recite the Constitution’s Preamble (which she nailed), the second was an obscure question that she got right, but the final question was impossibly hard—and thus she was denied again.

This scene reminded of my American Government and Constitutional Law classes. I always expected my ConLaw students to stand before the class and recite the Preamble—and despite their initial grumbling each semester, all of them did it. I hope my former students (many of whom have friended me on Facebook) will see this movie, and will remember the night that they—just like Oprah—had to recite the Preamble written by our Founding Fathers.

This “voting test” used by southern states to keep blacks from voting was another part of ConLaw classes, and it was a direct result of the most inspiring teacher I had in college. Her name was Dr. Evelyn Harris, and she had come to Charleston after WWII when her scientist husband (who had worked on the Manhattan Project) landed a job at the Union Carbide. She taught at the University of Charleston for about 60 years with great success, influencing many students along the way. In fact, the late Senator Robert Byrd (who took classes at UC while in the state legislature) always referred to her as his favorite teacher of all.

I had kept in touch with Dr. Harris after graduation, and she was very supportive of my adjunct teaching experience at WVU-Parkersburg. One of my “tricks” was to give AmGov students a “quiz” their first night, composed of questions from the U.S. Citizenship Test. I wanted them to realize how hard those who want to become students must study, and I wanted my students to realize how lucky they were to have been born in the U.S.A.

While on a visit to Charleston, I told Dr. Harris that I was now teaching ConLaw as well, but hated it that I could not give the citizenship test, since many students signing up for ConLaw had already taken my AmGov course, so it would not have the same impact. It was her idea for me to research voting test questions that had been given by southern county clerks to prevent blacks from registering. Luckily, I found some of those questions that had been given in Alabama, and used it as an “extra credit” quiz for my ConLaw classes. Seeing the difficulty of naming the current FBI director or the head of the state’s National Guard (just 2 of the 15 questions on my quiz) gave my students a better idea of what segregation was like in the south.

Thus after seeing this thought-provoking movie today, I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite teacher. I found a photograph recently of the two of us talking together while on a cruise up the Kanawha River on the sternwheeler P.A.Denny. It may be the only picture I have of the two of us, and I had forgotten all about it. Here we are seeking shade next to the pilot house on the upper deck, as she “talks with her hands” making some sort of point to me.

If any of my former students enjoyed my class, this is the woman they should thank (although she passed away a couple of years ago). I was merely trying to pass along the inspired teaching style that she used to teach me. The noblest way for me to really thank her was to “pay it forward” to future generations. I tried my best to do so, but I still think she was a better teacher than I was.

Although the travels required by my current job preclude me from teaching, I still like to see people become enlightened (just as Dr. Harris did). That is why I’d like to encourage everyone to see the movie “Selma”—it will make you realize just how things were during the 1960s. And Dr. Harris would have loved this movie!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

My Fortunate '14

2014 was a big year for me! It was the last of the traditional working years for me, as I plan to retire in 2015 (if all goes well). Knowing it might be my last year with my largest career income, we took several major trips and did lots of activities. Here are some of the highlights that I will treasure for a long time. [The links in the rest of this story provide additional information about these activities, in case you'd be interested in reading more.]

This was a big year for my interest in auto racing. The pinnacle was my first trip to the Indy 500. However, I was able to hit a trifecta of racing landmarks by stopping at Daytona Speedway the day after the Daytona 500 (on our way back from our cruise) and driving on the beach. Plus, during our trip out west, we stopped at the incredible Bonneville Salt Flats. Indy, Daytona, and Bonneville--all in the same year!

I also made a nostalgic return (after an absence of over 35 years) to Martinsville Speedway, visited the Wood Brothers museum, drove at racing school again, attended the Hot Rod Magazine Power Tour at their stop in Charleston, and made another visit to the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix.

I alluded to our Caribbean cruise when I mentioned Daytona in the paragraph above. We had a fabulous time during February on a cruise that included a trip into the Panama Canal. We also had an interesting journey to get to the cruiseport when Amtrak cancelled our train due to weather conditions.

I also mentioned our western trip with regard to the visually stunning Bonneville Salt Flats. I got to add two more new states (Idaho and New Mexico) to the list of those I’ve visited in my life, but this trip also included Utah, Colorado, Nevada, and a few feet’s worth of Arizona.

Another state I was able to cross off my list this year was Maine (the final state that I needed to visit in the eastern half of the U.S.). I wrote a separate story about riding the train from Washington to Boston, from where we rented a car to explore the fascinating state of Maine (plus a quick trip across the border into Quebec). We really loved Maine and I highly recommend it as an interesting vacation destination.

One of the early major trips in 2014 was going to Nashville for Anna’s doctoral graduation, which included some interesting stops in Kentucky along the way. We also took another one of Lisa Starcher Collins’ bus trips to New York City, and brought Anna’s teenage niece along for her first visit to the Big Apple. Finally, even though it wasn’t an out-of-state trip, our first ever visit to the luxurious Greenbrier Resort is worth noting as a major event for us.

Traveling around our home state of West Virginia is one of our favorite activities, and we did a lot of it in 2014. Although I did some bicycling, motorcycling, and kayaking, this year turned out to be a major year for ziplining. With my daughter and with Anna’s niece, I did two separate trips on our state’s longest zipline. I also got to check out the unusual zipline at Moundsville. Although it isn’t exactly ziplining, I did another trip attached to the safety cable under the New River Gorge Bridge.

On July 4, I returned to Nelson Rocks for the first time since writing my story about their “Via Ferrata”. This time I was there to try out their zipline adventure, but the bigger adventure might have been the “climbing downhill” hike that Anna joined me for that day. That July 4 weekend also included camping at Sherwood Lake, the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament, exploring historic downtown Lewisburg, enjoying the Jimmy Buffett concert with close friends, and checking out a pair of nearby state parks.

2014 was also an interesting year for honoring coal miners. We visited the memorial for the UBB victims and attended a ceremony remembering the Everettville disaster. I also made yet another visit (via the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine) to Homer Hickam’s hometown of Coalwood.

Of course, 2014 had plenty of special memories related to my two alma maters—UC and WVU. I was fortunate to see the UC basketball team win the state championship game, plus I watched a couple of football games including the big homecoming weekend. I also wrote about Governor’s Cup alumni reunion weekend and had a great time with friends at the Blues, Brews, and BBQ concert on the riverbank—which was the night before the half-marathon (the highlight of my diet and exercising efforts this year).

I went to many WVU sporting events this past year, including two road trips to Mountaineer football games. Perhaps the most memorable event for me this past year was that the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences honored me with one of their alumni awards—a beautiful cobalt blue Blenko glass vase—given at a dinner that my family was able to attend.

Finally, the year 2014 got off to a great start when Anna and I attended the New Year’s Eve party put on by our friends at ShadowboxLive in Columbus. We also convinced two other couples (dear friends from my college years) to join us for an overnight trip to Columbus to see their first “sketch comedy and rock ’n’ roll” Shadowbox show. Although we had to drive through a blizzard to get there (something we will remember for a long time), we all had a great time. I was also able to make it back to Columbus after the Indianapolis 500 to join Anna and another UC friend at Shadowbox’s annual outdoor tribute to Woodstock. In addition to these special events, we were able to attend most of Shadowbox’s shows this year, including our trip last weekend to see the Christmas show (with Anna’s sister-in-law).

These are just a select few of the many wonderful times I enjoyed during 2014. I am grateful for my relationship with Anna, my parents, my sister, and my daughter. The coming year will see many MAJOR changes for me (anybody want to buy my house or motorcycle?). It will be interesting to see what my life will be like this time next year.