In the midst of the uncertainty surrounding our current situation, and as the U.S. death toll of the coronavirus reaches passes double that of 9/11, I’d like to offer some reassurance from our local history.
The 1832 flood and resulting cholera pandemic, the Civil War, 1870 smallpox outbreak, 1884 “Mother of All Floods,” 1892 smallpox outbreak, 1913 flood, 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Great Depression, 1937 flood, the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse, the 2008 recession… A long list, to be certain, and I’m sure I’ve left a few out.
Mason County, like the rest of West Virginia, is no stranger to hardship. We still have folks that can remember the 1937 flood, an unimaginable disaster made worse by striking during the Great Depression. Yet in the face of adversity, we rise up and come together as one community, one family. We always have.
Just days after the 1884 flood receded, Editor Tippett was able to clean enough mud from his printing press and cast metal type to revive the Weekly Register. An entire page, which in those old newspapers was quite a lot of information, was filled with the damage from the flood. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, houses off foundations, salt furnaces ruined, coal mines flooded, and several deaths due to the floodwaters and the pneumonia that followed make for grim reading.
Yet, among those records of loss are tales of hope. “Those who had houses on high ground kindly threw open their doors and their tables to the distressed people… He (Colonel J.P.R.B Smith) commanded a flat boat and went to the assistance of the distressed day and night… He (Dr. Sawyer) not only tended to the sick free of charge, but furnished drugs and medicine at the same price… Gallipolis did nobly her part toward our people… All honor to Kanawha County for the efficient and substantial aid rendered our houseless and homeless people during the recent flood… donations from the county of Berkeley, including of course the town of Martinsburg, which deserves special praise…”
My great-grandparents remembered and often recounted similar stories regarding the 1937 flood. Neighbors opened their homes to those who had lost theirs, and the Red Cross and Coast Guard brought in supplies from across the country by boat while the roads and railroads were being repaired.
And of course, Mason County returned the favor when other regions of the state faced similar hardships. I know several truckers that delivered supplies to areas devastated by the 1985 floods, and I’m sure many of us remember the fundraisers and relief efforts just a few years ago when the 2016 floods tore through the Elk, Gauley, and Greenbrier Valleys.
Though a disaster of a different type and certainly not as simple as a flood, I have no doubt that Mason County will display its strength before this is over. For now, businesses will close, and we will practice social distancing. We will protect our family and neighbors by staying home, limiting our exposure, and helping slow the spread of this disease.
Already, we have seen our teachers, first responders, and medical professionals adapt to this situation with remarkable energy and determination. We have seen truckers, shelf stockers, and cashiers working diligently to maintain a steady supply chain. We have watched as factories and breweries convert their resources to manufacture ventilators, masks, and hand sanitizer. Those are American values on display, and they shine brightest in times of hardship.
Then, when this is over in May or June or whenever it happens to be, we must display once again those values that make West Virginia so special. We must support our neighbors and our local businesses who are hurting the most during this shutdown. Shop on Main Street, take a stay-cation at the Lowe Hotel, eat at local restaurants, and come out for festivals and events. Do this, and we will come out of this stronger than ever! I have no doubt about that, whatsoever.
In the meantime, we will persevere. We always have.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.