It was officially "Alexandria Day" in faraway Webster Springs yesterday.
Not long ago, Virginia planners announced that if nuclear attack seemed imminent 19,000 Alexandrians were to descend upon this town of about 1,000 nestled in the Allegheny Mountains six hours away. That was news to people in Webster Springs. But using considerable rural wile, folks here decided this weekend's 18th annual Woodchopping Festival would be a nice, and perhaps profitable, time to acquaint city brother and country cousin. So Webster Springs invited Alexandria in for the weekend.
"Maybe while the Alexandrians are here, hosted by the most friendly people anywhere," said festival director and Webster Springs undertaker John Reed, "they may decide they like their new home and plan to invest in homes and businesses."
Now, fewer than 19,000 Alexandrians made the trip, but those who did, including Vice Mayor-elect James Moran, found considerable cordiality. Moran led the festival parade down Main Street and came in third in the Chattanooga Chew spitting contest. He spit 21 feet, 7 inches after which he announced, "I feel sick." And turning away, he promptly was.
Though there is a new Pac-Man in the local bar, the pace in Webster Springs decidedly contrasts that of Alexandria. "What do we do for recreation?" asks Fred W. Dickinson, a Webster Springs resident. "Well, we play cards and we sit on the benches and talk."
It turned out that the one thing Alexandrians and Webster Springs residents do have in common, however, is the belief that Virginia's nuclear war evacuation plan is absurd. "We think it's hilarious," said Zane Lowther, a Webster Springs resident. "Our plan is to assign everyone a tree. They can sit in it, climb it, or chop it down. Why, I'd say looking at these mountains we can guarantee a tree to everyone in the entire state of Virginia."
"It's a classic case of a GS16 justifying his job," said local Civil Defense Director Wayne Clutter, who has yet to be consulted by Virginia's evacuation planners.But as it turns out, Webster Springs has had plenty of experience with crowds--the Woodchopping Festival draws about 10,000 visitors each year.
They crowd the town's three motels, jam its bars and restaurants and this year, with the new traffic light over the Elk River Bridge, their cars back up all over Webster Spring's half-mile Main Street. The residents take it in stride. The town is rimmed by three mountains, velvety green with the summer foliage. An assortment of stately Victorians, simple bungalows and aluminum trailers dot the town's steep streets.
"I left for three months when I was 19," says Mary Clayton Wilson. "I couldn't take it. I had to get back to my mountains."
There is little crime in Webster Springs. Houses are unlocked even on festival weekend. There is no racial tension in Webster County, population 13,000, say residents, because there are no blacks. No one can remember the last time Webster Springs voted for a Republican president. Homogeneity, however, stops at the church door. "We've got a Lebanese mayor, more Mormons than anything else after you count Methodists and Baptists and 57 other Protestant varieties," says Lowther, an auto parts sales manager, whose teen-age daughter is Miss Woodchopper this year.
"The people are rough," says a local lawyer who hasn't been here long, "and they're slow to accept newcomers. But if they like you, they love you, and if they don't, they'll probably never change their minds."
"The nicest thing about the festival," says local and world champion woodchopper Arden Cogar, "is that it brings everybody back." And that is no simple task. For the thousands who left Webster County since the late 1950s, bound for steel towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania, the festival is an annual reason to return.
They play cards in front of the courthouse, gossip on the benches under the trees in front of the old mineral water well, which in the early 1900s lured health-conscious visitors to a sprawling hotel. The hotel burned down in the '20s and the mineral elixir is now called "rotten egg water" and Webster's young men and women still leave, now for Texas, to find work.
But for this week, Webster Springs shines again. There are firemen's parades, beauty pageants, square dancing, horse shows and, in a town with a tree for every person in the state of Virginia, the woodchopping competition.
The 50 choppers come from English-speaking countries all over the world, Vancouver to Auckland, New Zealand to the timber country in the American Northwest. The blades of the axes are honed so fine they can slice through a man's foot and he won't know it's been cleaved until he steps forward to take the next frantic swing.
It is because of Arden Cogar that all of this goes on. A woodsman's all his life, Cogar, 42, began the festival 20 years ago. Today, there are contests for vertical and horizontal chopping and an unusual event called the springboard, where choppers hack shelf space in a nine-foot pole, insert a board into that space and leap up on it to chop some more.
The prize money totals at least $9,000, making the Webster Springs' competition one of the best paying stops on a woodchopper's contest circuit, which stretches from Oregon to Spain. In his best year, Cogar won $10,000 competing. Cogar lost the Webster Springs title last year to a 24-year-old from McCloud, Calif., who also won the two-man saw competition, which he entered with his mother.
Standing near the municipal building adorned with a sign that read "Welcome Alexandrians, Webster Springs Mayor R. J. Jorishie says, "The Woodchopping Festival is the only tool we have to promote ourselves. But while you're here I hope you'll notice the fishing is pretty good, too."