Happy 158th birthday, West Virginia!
Tomorrow is West Virginia Day, the anniversary of our statehood in 1863, and this year is also the 50th anniversary of John Denver’s famous hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
You know, I’ve spent quite a bit of time outside of West Virginia. And seeing our state from the outside, I’d be the first to admit that it has problems. Between the corruption, the drugs, and perhaps the worst, the pollution, it seems like every time we make national news it’s for something awful. When books are written on West Virginia, they’re always along the lines of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” It’s all those poor hicks who just don’t know any better and need to get “civilized,” written by people who either 1) presume to speak for all of Appalachia, a region that encompasses parts of 13 states and 25 million people, or 2) aren’t even from Appalachia.
I’d be the first to admit we have our problems, but whether it shows up in the news or not, we also have a lot of good. This is home, for better or worse, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather live and work because…
We have a rich and storied history, an Appalachian story but also an American story. From the Native Americans thousands of years ago to colonial settlement and the first major example of America’s western expansion, from the state’s beginnings as part of the slaveholding South to the Ohio Valley’s abolitionists declaring that Mountaineers are Always Free, from the labor unionists and suffragists and civil rights activists who fought to make that true for all West Virginians, to those still working today to finish the job, and from the miners who have powered a nation to everyone working to make West Virginia an international destination for tourists… There’s certainly plenty for historians to write about, and if one knows where to look, plenty of lessons to learn.
We have the best opportunities for outdoor recreation east of the Rocky Mountains! Nine of our lakes (Bluestone, Cheat, East Lynn, Mount Storm, Stonecoal, Stonewall Jackson, Summersville, Sutton, and Tygart) are over 1,000 acres, not to mention dozens of smaller lakes, and we have hundreds of miles of rivers perfect for kayaking and standup paddleboarding. Scattered around the state, there are also a brand new National Park, two National Historical Parks, two National Forests, two National Recreation Areas, two National Wildlife Refuges, 8 State Forests, 37 State Parks, and 78 State Wildlife Management Areas.
Here in Mason County, that all includes the Ohio and Kanawha rivers and our dozen riverfront parks and river access points, Ohio River Island National Wildlife Refuge, Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, Cornstalk WMA, McClintic WMA, and part of Green Bottom WMA. And of course, we also have the wonderful Krodel Park and Letart Nature Park for hiking, fishing, kayaking, and just enjoying the outdoors.
But though our history and mountains and rivers bring in the tourists, it’s the people of West Virginia that make this state home. There’s something to be said for growing up in a small town, still having a hometown newspaper, knowing your entire graduating class (if not most of your school), and being on a real first name basis with your teachers, pastor, doctor, banker, mayor, neighbors, etc. and the list goes on. Sure, it makes shopping at Walmart a bit tedious, stopping to talk to everybody and their brother, but it also makes life a lot simpler and our community stronger.
Most of my readers remember the 1985 Election Day floods in the northern and eastern counties, the more recent 2016 flash floods across most of the southern counties, the semi-trailers full of water, clothing, and even animal feed for the livestock that were collected by our own farmers and students and churches and hauled to the disaster zones by local truckers, and even the many people who made trips to those areas on their own dime to help them rebuild.
I’ve spent a lot of time in a lot of states, from Vermont to Louisiana to Oklahoma, and let me tell you, that kind of community strength and charity is unique. Small things like pulling over for funeral processions and taking food to your neighbors after a death are unheard of and get you weird looks in other places, but around here we look out for each other and support our community. That’s what makes West Virginia “Almost Heaven.”
Chris Rizer is the president of the Mason County Historical & Preservation Society and director of Main Street Point Pleasant, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.