A 150th birthday bash in West Virginia

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - Dennie Spires, left, of the band Big Country, plays for attendees of the Henderson Square Dance in Henderson, W.Va.

(Amanda Voisard/ For The Washington Post ) - Dennie Spires, left, of the band Big Country, plays for attendees of the Henderson Square Dance in Henderson, W.Va.

My, my, West Virginia, you are looking good for your age. Though you’re a chick compared to that old hen Virginia, you’re getting up there in years. On June 20, your statehood cake flickered with 150 birthday candles. But don’t start cashing those Social Security checks just yet: You’re as wild and wonderful as you were a century and a half ago, when you were the newest star on the flag.

For the year-long celebration of your anniversary, you didn’t ask for any gifts, not that I could have thought of any to leave on your stoop (well, maybe better cellphone service). You already have so much: the Alleghenies and roaring rivers, moonshine and mountain music, wild berries and cultivated cherries, artisanal glass and Fiesta tableware.

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Detail of the cover illustration for Travel 18, Way to Go issue.

Travel Guide 2014

Which is the best form of transit if you’re heading someplace that’s not really close, but not all that far? And

In a twist of generosity, you’ve given back more than you’ve received, compiling a 150-piece bucket list of attractions and adventures for visitors to your parts. Just what I’ve always wanted for your birthday: travel ideas for West Virginia. In a fairytale land of no clocks and rain clouds of cash, I would have tackled all 150 items in one mighty Appalachian Trail-style outing. I might have had to fake a few of the suggestions, though, such as shooting a whitetail deer or flinging my rag doll body off the bridge in Fayetteville. To stay within a realistic frame, I circled 15 attractions (10 percent, math geniuses) and set aside five days to explore the Mountain State. Remember, this is humpy, lumpy territory, and the truckin’ is mighty slow.

Details: 150th birthday tour of West Virginia

In making my selections from the master list available on the tourism office’s Web site, I avoided any repeats, such as revisiting the waterfall at Blackwater Falls State Park in Davis or sipping another cup of tea at the Greenbrier, both of which I’d done before. I sought a mix of classic standards (a mining museum, for instance) and unexpected wonders (a top-caliber rose garden in Huntington). Then I threw on my party shoes for West Virginia’s birthday bash.

Hills alive with music

My route of more than 1,000 miles followed a peripatetic compass, the needle quivering from east to southwest to northeast to east again. On occasion, I would slip out of the state and into a borderland. One night, while bumbling around Mingo County in the dark, I ended up in Kentucky. Driving from Point Pleasant to Wheeling, I purposely detoured to Ohio, to take advantage of the state’s faster and flatter interstates and sturdier cellphone service. I shamelessly used Pennsylvania for the same reasons.

For the most part, though, I belly-crawled along mountainous one-lane roads, often trapped behind a giant tortoise of a truck. I stopped believing in signage. As one local told me, don’t base your ETA on miles. Thirty miles in West Virginia is akin to 60 miles in Kansas.

To its credit, the driving in West Virginia can be soothing and almost hallucinatory. On my way from Summersville to Madison in the southern region, I imagined that I was driving through a bountiful kale salad. It then switched to broccoli, and then to mounds of caviar as I entered coal-mining territory. When I arrived in semi-populated centers, I felt as if I were returning to civilization after a long absence. I almost high-fived the McDonald’s arches in Elkins.

I’d traversed a mountain chain that rose 4,000 feet up and fell nearly 2,000 to hear music that bubbled over like a swollen stream and carried me away.

“So send me the pillow that you dream on, so, darling, I can dream on it, too,” sang a dozen or so regulars at the Pickin’ in the Park jam session held in the Elkins city park on fine-weathered Wednesday nights.

The musicians, many of whom hovered around the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, gathered at picnic tables beneath a pavilion. They strummed guitars and plucked mandolins as a sole fiddler lifted his bow to the darkening sky.

I joined Donald Stern, an Elkins resident who brings his own lawn chair to the event, setting it up as if he were attending a show at Tanglewood. He explained the arrangement: Various musical genres congregate around the city park; the bluegrass contingent, for example, had snagged a prime spot behind us. One night, he’d counted seven groups scattered around the green space.

The group we were listening to, he continued, specialized in old-time standards from the mid-20th century — songs that pitter-patter with romantic longings or lament the loss of youth (you, sir, are just too old to cut the mustard). Most of the tunes were outside my personal playbook, though I did recognize one, “Wagon Wheel,” which the group performed twice.

Most of the local musicians picked up their skills the traditional way, by listening to their mother hum or whistle or by studying the craft at the knee of a friend or family member.

“You would visit the old man on the porch, sit at his feet and learn the tune that way,” said Margo Blevin Denton, the retired director of the Augusta Heritage Center, which sponsors the Pickin’.

As the evening drew to a close, Margo introduced me to Philmore Kelley, an octogenarian dressed in suspenders and a straw hat. He had played the mandolin all evening and said that he was dog-tired. He often picks up his instruments several times a day, visiting senior centers to entertain the residents. After 40 years working for the railroad, performing was his retirement plan.

“We were dirt poor. I didn’t get much education,” said Philmore. “This is the way I express myself, through music.”

Margo, a fiddler, said that when she meets someone from West Virginia, “the first question I ask is, ‘What instrument do you play?’ ”

On the way to our cars, Don and I met a young man walking a dog. He had just moved to Elkins and was finding his way around. We asked his name, but only after learning which instruments he played. Fiddle, guitar and mandolin, he responded.

A state is born

West Virginia’s was a difficult birth. State No. 35 didn’t pop out easily like, say, North Dakota, which simply tumbled out with its sister to the south.

I knew the general story about the state’s creation: West Virginia seceded from Virginia in the early years of the Civil War, severing ties with the Confederate state and aligning itself with the Union. But that’s the cheat-sheet version. For the full chronicle of events, I needed to understand the serial drama that unfolded in Wheeling 152 years ago. (Yes, it can take two years to create a state.)

At the Belle Boyd House in Martinsburg, most of the attention is heaped upon Maria Isabella Boyd, a Confederate spy who used some wily moves to extract secrets from the opposing forces. Known for her attractive ankles, she teased out information during dances with Union soldiers and, at her family’s hotel in Front Royal, removed a knothole in the upstairs closet to eavesdrop on enemy strategists. With her ear pressed to the floor, she learned that the Virginia town was not well protected, a juicy tidbit that the Confederates used to gain control of that place. For her contribution, she earned the title of honorary captain and aide de camp. She also received a skirted uniform that made her the (fashionable) belle of the Civil War.

“Belle would be hard to handle today,” said Todd Funkhouser, president of the Berkeley County Historical Society, which runs the museum.

A few personal photos exist, including one of the well-coiffed informer dressed up in her snappy regalia, but no other mementos remain. To capture the spirit of the times, the historical society has filled the rooms of her merchant father’s house with period furniture, approximations of her spy gear, such as a doll with a stash hole in its head, and examples of her self-confidence, including a letter to a relative that reads: “I am decidedly the most beautiful of all your cousins.”

On the ground floor, a year-long special exhibit focuses on statehood, with a brief overview of the period when West Virginia was western Virginia and a wild frontier. “The Civil War was the linchpin,” Funkhouser said about the state’s creation.

The counties were all reborn in the same delivery room: the third-floor courthouse chamber in Independence Hall in Wheeling. And they all share the same papa: Francis Harrison Pierpont, the governor of the breakaway Virginia and the so-called Father of West Virginia.

Independence Hall, a former customs house that experienced its own rebirth as a public museum in 1981, invites visitors to enter the lofty space of Corinthian columns and polished wooden benches. Here, you can envision what was: impassioned delegates on a mission to split from Virginia. They first gathered here in June 1861 for the Second Wheeling Convention, creating the Restored Government of Virginia, the Union’s touche to Richmond’s Confederate government. In August, they returned to decree the founding of a new state. Months later, they were back again for the Constitutional Convention, hammering out such sticky points as borders, slavery and the new state’s moniker.

If certain legislators had been more persuasive, I could be wishing Kanawha, Western Virginia or New Virginia a happy 150th.

Moonshine and marbles

I swear that I will never, ever make moonshine in my studio apartment. But I will drink it.

At the Isaiah Morgan Distillery in Summersville, employee Mark Pritt didn’t pussyfoot around the issue. Homemade moonshine is illegal, he said, because “it is against the law to drink untaxed whiskey or distilled alcohol.” (A set amount of DIY wine and beer, however, is allowed.) If caught, he explained, I would suffer serious repercussions, including a $250,000 fine and at least five years in the federal penitentiary. I could also lose my house, car and guns and ammo. To hammer home the point, he handed me a photocopied sheet spelling out the risks. In short, friends don’t let friends distill moonshine, and enemies can rat you out for a $2,500 reward.

In the safe environs of the distillery, which is licensed to sell the liquor, Mark walked me through the process. Squeezed into a stuffy room lined with oak barrels, he listed the main ingredients: corn, water, sugar and yeast. I peered into a tub of fermenting corn, the water fizzing as if tiny scuba divers were swimming below. For the next step, he turned to the steel heat source, which resembled the body of the Tin Man. As the sugar ferments, a thumper keg on top catches the steam and condenses it back into liquid. And around and around we go, till cocktail hour.

The operation sells only the natural flavor, but to add some sweetness, you can drop in fruit or spices. Apple pie, a blend of cinnamon and apple juice, is currently in vogue, though Mark again rang the warning bell: Because the drink tastes like dessert, you can get seriously intoxicated without knowing it.

I bought a small bottle of Southern Moon Corn Liquor, which is packaged in a plastic maple syrup bottle. As I turned to leave, he issued one more alert: Don’t open the bottle or I could get busted for possessing an open container.

The moonshine sample joined a growing ant hill of souvenirs forming in the back seat of my car. Experiencing West Virginia wasn’t enough; I wanted to own a piece of it, too, especially as certain industries start to fade away and go dark.

The Museum of American Glass in Weston wraps protective arms around a trade that’s celebrating an even bigger birthday than its home state: 200 years of glass production in West Virginia. Isaac Duvall and Co. in Wellsburg, then-Va., created the first piece of glass in 1813, an innovation that spun into a booming business of more than 400 manufacturers statewide.

Three essential factors helped support the glassmakers: fuel (coal and then natural gas), transportation (rivers and rails) and proximity to Pittsburgh and its trained labor forces. However, the glass ball has come crashing down, with only five manufacturers left in the state, of which one, Masterpiece Crystal, is faltering. Sadly, the industry is going the way of the celery dish (a Victorian-era vase used to display the fancy veggie) and the salt dip (a dish that held a salt crystal, which diners would shave onto their food, Parmesan cheese-style).

The museum, which displays 15,000 pieces, not including the marbles collection, is a small graveyard of the glass industry. Labels with the firms’ names accompany the delicate creations and include the birth and death dates of the company. Riverside Glass Works, 1897-1906. Fostoria Glass Co., 1887-1984. Blenko, 1931- still alive. Another West Virginia company with a beating heart: Marble King, founded in 1949. However, the Paden City-based company is one of the sole survivors among the nation’s marblemakers.

Keeping this in mind, I bought a 10-count pouch of Marble King targets plus shooter, in case I’d have to donate them back to the museum one day.

I’m certain that the Coal Heritage Foundation Museum won’t need the lump of coal I discovered on the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System in Matewan. The museum, in a storefront space in Madison, the Gateway to the Coal Fields, has mounds of coal in its front, back and side yards.

For 20 years, Madison has hosted the West Virginia Coal Festival, which overlaps with the state’s June 20 birthday. The multi-day event draws 8,000 to 10,000 folks, about three times more than the town’s total population.

“We’re not at all ashamed of our history,” said Kris Richmond, assistant director of Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation. “We’re proud of it. This country was built on coal.”

Sixty percent of U.S. coal exports originate from West Virginia, said Kris, with the majority coming from Boone County. In addition, the state’s coal is the primary source of electricity for the eastern half of the country. Yet the mines, and the men and women who work in them, are struggling.

“It’s getting harder and harder to sell in the country,” said Kris, whose grandfathers, father and brother all worked in strip mines or railroads.

Boone County is still a dynamic coal center, with most residents earning their paychecks from mining operations. Miners, who work staggered shifts, come and go along Madison’s main street. “There goes one,” said Kris, as a man drove past wearing the signature reflective outerwear.

I missed the sighting, but soon enough, another miner rolled through town.

Surplus surprises

I hit my 15th stop in Harpers Ferry: “Hike the iconic Appalachian Trail,” stated suggestion No. 57. So I did, placing a heel and a toe on the 1.3-mile path above town.

Yet when I reviewed my final tally, I had accumulated more than my set number of attractions.

For example, at the Buffalo Mountain Trail System, part of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail System, I’d crossed off No. 85 but also No. 12: “Learn more about a fascinating feud in the Hatfield-McCoy Mountains.” How did I accomplish this double-dipping feat? My innkeeper at the Historic Matewan House (No. 12, “experience Southern hospitality at cozy B&Bs statewide”) had sent me to bed with a pile of books and articles about the hot-headed feud. In addition, the Matewan Depot provided exhibits about the infamous families who’d dug their nails into these hills.

I went to the coal museum for No. 24 (“tour the coal heritage museum”) but earned a bonus No. 106 when Kris relayed the story about the tragic Battle of Blair Mountain. The Mothman Museum and statue in Point Pleasant (No. 110) led me to No. 136, Tudor’s Biscuit World, where I was told to “start the day.” And at the end of the journey in Harpers Ferry, I gained an impressive trio of prizes — the Jefferson Rock, a ghost tour and the living history staged in the national park — without any effort beyond walking from car to hotel to trail and back to car.

I assume that West Virginia threw the extras in for good luck.

 
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