Zack Harold

writer/editor

Getting Over: The Disgraced W.Va. Gospel Music Promoter Who Found Redemption in Indie Wrestling

This story was published on 100 Days in Appalachia on July 30, 2019.

The sound of twanging electric guitars fills the Madison Civic Center, a small gymnasium in the heart of southern West Virginia’s coalfields. It’s “Ride Stallion Ride,” the entrance music for WWE Hall of Fame inductee Cowboy Bob Orton.

The 300 fans seated on folding chairs and wooden bleachers during this May 2018 show clap and cheer as they wait for the wrestler to appear from behind the black polyester curtain. But the Orton that finally emerges is not the young, scowling, curly-haired villain pictured on the posters for tonight’s show. It’s not the big dumb oaf who, during the inaugural Wrestlemania in 1985, accidentally whacked his pal Mr. Wonderful Paul Orndoff on the head to give Hulk Hogan an easy pin.

The fringe vest and Stetson are the same. So is the prominent nose. But this white-haired, 70-year-old version of Cowboy Bob Orton has a keg where decades before a six-pack used to be. Yet his feet are light as he trots to the ring with Louis Moore, his tag-team partner for the night. He scales the ringside steps and swings his body through the ropes, then jogs slowly around the ring as the ring announcer introduces his opponents.

Now it is Fall Out Boy’s “Centuries” blaring from the speakers. The good guy tag team O.V.E.R. appears from behind the curtain. Skinny, pale and dressed in black, Christian Kobain and Shane Kryzak look like members of a heavy metal cover band. They strut down the aisle, jump into the ring and mount adjacent turnbuckles to flex for their devotees — the majority of whom, from the sound of the squeals, seem to be women.

The referee checks everyone’s boots and signals for the bell.

If you’ve ever seen a tag team match, you can guess how this will go. Orton and Moore spend much of the match abusing Kobain while keeping him safely out of Kryzak’s reach. When the battered babyface finally gets to his corner and makes the tag, his comrade explodes into the ring — only to promptly fall into Moore and Orton’s clutches. For a moment, it looks like the bad guys will win. Orton goes for an RKO, a neckbreaker finishing move made famous by his son and fellow WWE superstar Randy Orton. But at the last second, Kobain reaches into the ring and pulls Kryzak from Orton’s grasp.

This destabilizes the big cowboy. He stumbles and falls to the mat. Both members of O.V.E.R. dogpile onto his hefty frame. The referee flops on his belly and pounds the mat with an open palm. One. Two. Three.

The ref signals for the bell and Fall Out Boy again fills the gymnasium, the emo pop mixing with shouts from fans. But instead of cheering the victorious good guys, the crowd sing-songs at Orton.

“YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!” clap clap clapclapclap “YOU STILL GOT IT!”

Moore grabs a microphone and accosts Orton for losing the match. “All these people out here say ‘You still got it.’ From what I saw here tonight, you don’t have it anymore old man.”

The fans begin chanting again. “R-K-O! R-K-O! R-K-O!” In a flash, Orton locks his arm around Moore’s head and drops to the mat. Moore flops on the canvas like his spine has been separated from his brainstem. Now Orton’s music is blasting through the sound system.

The crowd erupts with a fervor usually reserved for tent revivals and championship football games. Grown men leap to their feet in ecstatic applause. Preteen boys in basketball shorts move to the aisle to slap Orton’s hands before he disappears behind the curtain. This is something they might tell their own preteen boys about someday, the night they saw Cowboy Bob Orton administer an RKO at the Madison Civic Center.

Little do fans realize that Gary Damron, who has promoted wrestling shows like this for the last 14 years under the name All Star Wrestling, has worked for months trying to bring this moment to fruition — and he saw almost none of it. Damron spent the majority of Orton’s match hidden away in the civic center’s kitchen, stuffing cash into white envelopes to pay his wrestlers.

Many wrestling promoters are former wrestlers themselves. Damron is not. He is a short, soft-spoken, soft-bodied, spectacled midnight shift movie theater custodian with plantar fasciitis. He loves All You Can Eat Wings Wednesdays at Quaker Steak & Lube, his dachshund Chico, and ’80s pop culture — especially The Golden Girls. He has no interest in administering or receiving a drop kick, frog splash, figure four, or piledriver. He has too much work to do.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

The Greatest’s First Foe

This story originally appeared in the Spring ’19 issue of WV Living magazine. 

In early October 1960, Associated Press teleprinters clattered to life in smoke-filled newsrooms across the United States. The harried editors assigned to monitor the machines couldn’t have known it at the time, but the rapid-fire hammers were pounding out words that would change the history of sports forever.

LOUISVILLE — Cassius Clay, the Olympic light-heavyweight champion, today signed for his first professional bout, a six-rounder against Tunney Hunsaker. Hunsaker, 29-year-old police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va., has a 15–7 record.

Although only 18 years old, Clay was already a global celebrity—not only for his gold-winning performance at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but also for his outsized persona. After his medal ceremony, he treated members of the press to a celebratory poem that began, “To make America the greatest is my goal, so I beat the Russian and I beat the Pole and for the USA won the medal of gold.”

Now that he was turning pro, Clay agreed to be managed by a coterie of 11 businessmen from his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Choosing the first professional opponent for their star required careful consideration. Naturally, they wanted someone their man could defeat. But the opponent also needed to provide enough competition to showcase Clay’s fistic talents.

Although Hunsaker’s name probably did not ring any bells with newspaper readers, he was exactly the kind of boxer Clay’s people were looking for.

This is the story of a tobacco farmer’s son, a lifelong public servant, and a middling boxer whose athletic career might have been forgotten if not for a chance meeting with a man who would become the most famous athlete of all time.

Click here to read the rest of the story.

LOAN DEBT MAY LEAD TO DOCTOR SHORTAGE MORE LUCRATIVE SPECIALTIES, JOB DEALS COULD DRIVE NEW PHYSICIANS OUT OF STATE

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

Medical school graduates in West Virginia are graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, which could eventually lead to a shortage of physicians in the Mountain State.

West Virginia’s newly minted doctors graduated with an average of $186,000 in medical school debt last year, according to a report released earlier this month by the state Higher Education Policy Commission.

Dr. Norman Ferrari, vice dean for education and academic affairs at WVU’s medical school, said that crushing debt is beginning to affect which specialties new doctors choose.

While students might have wanted to become family doctors, Ferrari said that specialty typically does not make as much money as a cardiologist or oncologist, or another specialty where doctors perform expensive procedures.

“I sometimes hear students say ‘Gee, I would like to be a pediatrician but I need to be a’ . . . whatever kind of ‘ologist’ they think they need to be,” Ferrari said. “The debt is starting to influence their decision making.”

Students at West Virginia University’s medical school graduated with an average $156,425 in debt in 2012, while students at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine were $162,010 in debt, on average.

Doctors leaving the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine incurred the most debt, however, with an average $240,283 in student loans.

And it appears the numbers are only getting higher.

In 2008, Marshall med school graduates were an average $147,902 in debt while West Virginia University grads had $125,438 in loans and WVSOM graduates had $176,297.

“Theoretically, it could make people stop applying to medical school,” Ferrari said.

What’s more, medical school debt figures only tell half the story. The Higher Education Policy Commission’s statistics do not include loans students might have taken out while completing their undergraduate degrees.

West Virginia’s public college students who completed their undergraduate degrees in 2008 – the year most 2012 medical school graduates got their bachelor’s degrees – had an average $29,065 in debt, according to a separate report from the commission.

That means a student who obtained a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University before heading to the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine could have more than $233,000 when he or she leaves school.

Ferrari said there are several reasons for the increasing debt.

Tuition is always increasing, he said, and more nontraditional students are entering medical school. These students are older, and are sometimes married with children. Ferrari said they often take on more debt than their younger counterparts because the demands of medical school prevent them from having a job, and they need cash to keep their families going.

But simply reducing tuition is not a viable option, Ferrari said. The cost of providing medical education is constantly climbing. Medical schools must pay faculty salaries and facility maintenance costs while trying to provide students with the latest technologies.

“Providing the learning environment has become very expensive,” he said.

So universities are taking other steps to help students keep their debt under control.

Ferrari said WVU tries to provide students with debt management training, and funnel as much money as possible to scholarships. The school also provides students with a notice every year to show how much debt they have incurred.

He said doctors are also finding creative ways to pay off their loans, agreeing to work for specific communities or hospitals in return for some money toward their debt. Others make similar deals with the U.S. military. Ferrari said joining the armed forces might be a good move for students, but does little to help the shortage of doctors in rural communities.

“Once they’ve been stationed in Germany or Hawaii it may be difficult to get them back,” he said.

Linda Holmes, director of development and alumni affairs for Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, said her school is attempting to provide medical students with more scholarship money.

The school handed out $1.93 million in scholarships to medical school students for the 2012-2013 school year. About 65 percent of Marshall medical school students receive scholarships from the university, at about $10,000 per student.

Last year, the school gave about $825,000 in scholarships to about 33 percent of the student body.

Holmes said by providing more money in scholarships, the university reduces the need for student loans.

Marshall’s medical school previously was put on probation by its accrediting body, the Liaison Committee for Medical Education, because graduating students’ debt was higher than the national average. When the medical school hired its new dean Dr. Joe Shapiro last year, he began pushing administrators to generate more money in scholarships.

The money has come from alumni, businesses, friends of the medical school and Marshall Health, the university’s private practice arm.

Denise Getson, spokeswoman for the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, said the school has not raised its tuition in several years as an attempt to help students control their debt. She said the school also tries to direct students to resources like the National Health Service Corps, which helps new doctors repay their loans in return for service in high-need areas.

Getson said WVSOM’s debt figures are likely much higher than other state medical schools because of its large number of out-of-state students. The school has 255 in-state students and 582 students from outside West Virginia.

Tuition for in-state students is about $20,000, while out-of-state students pay nearly $50,000 per year.

STORM REPORT RECOMMENDS ‘EASY FIXES’ POST-DERECHO REVIEW CALLS FOR BACKUP POWER SOURCES, TEXT MESSAGING SYSTEM

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Thursday, June 13, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

A report commissioned after last year’s derecho recommends state government and other entities institute backup communication methods, do a better job of communicating with the public and purchase lots and lots of generators before the next big storm comes our way.

Strong winds caused by the June 29, 2012, derecho damaged buildings, uprooted trees and took down power lines across the state, leaving up to 1.6 million West Virginia residents without electricity for days.

About two weeks later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin commissioned an “after action report” to review the state’s response to the storm. That report was released on Wednesday evening, along with a 19-page summary.

Many of the report’s recommendations are focused on backup power and communication methods in an emergency.

High winds during last year’s storms knocked out phone lines and cellular towers in the state. Other cell towers stopped functioning in subsequent days as their backup power sources ran out.

“Many of the findings and recommendations included in this Review are common sense conclusions that can be implemented with ease,” the report says. “Often it is the ‘easy fixes’ that can make the most difference.

“The path forward requires immediate action to ensure that the lessons of the past will contribute to the successes of the future.”

The report recommends state, county and local officials develop alternative communication plans – making use of battery-powered radios and texting, for example – to better transmit and collect information.

The report also advocates the creation of a statewide emergency text messaging system to keep the public better informed, as well as increasing the use of social media services.

“We needed to streamline communication and, in particular, we are now looking into alternative methods to be able to educate the public even when the entire state lacks electricity,” Tomblin said in a press release Wednesday.

The report also focuses on emergency power and generator needs, recommending that radio stations, telecommunication companies and public service districts all have backup plans when the power goes out.

The report found that although public service districts play a vital role in water and sewer services, they currently have no access to alternative power.

Generators became a prime target for thieves following last year’s derecho. Frontier Communications had 20 generators stolen, and police were able to recover only five.

The report recommends utilities coordinate with local law enforcement to patrol the areas near generators. State Police patrolled near generators following another round of widespread outages last fall after Hurricane Sandy and generator thefts “dropped significantly,” reviewers found.

Reviewers recommended power restoration efforts be prioritized to first ensure “preservation of life” and public safety and then to move on to the largest service areas.

Colleges and universities also should be considered high priority in power restoration efforts since they serve large groups of people, the report says.

Utility companies should have designated contacts within the state Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and should increase their efforts to cut trees around utility lines, it says.

In what probably comes as a surprise to many state residents – especially those who waited in long lines at gas stations after the derecho – the after action review claims “there was not a gasoline shortage in West Virginia.”

“There was, instead, a perceived shortage because West Virginians rushed to the pumps in a panic, exhausting the supply on hand before it could be restocked,” the report said.

A footnote in the report acknowledges a real shortage did exist in some areas of the state, where panicking customers overwhelmed stations.

“In these locations, the panic caused the shortage,” the report said.

Since gas shortages made it difficult for emergency personnel and utility workers to fill their vehicles and generators, the report recommends the Department of Homeland Security begin rationing gasoline during future statewide emergencies.

The report also encourages private gas stations to set aside certain pumps during emergencies to be used only by emergency vehicles.

STUDY SUGGESTS TRACKING EX-CONS GROUP SAYS SUPERVISING RELEASED INMATES WOULD HELP EASE OVERCROWDING

Publication: CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL
Published: Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Page: 1A
Byline: ZACK HAROLD DAILY MAIL CAPITOL REPORTER

A national nonprofit group says West Virginia could save millions of dollars over the next five years – and avoid building a new prison – if it kept closer tabs on inmates once they leave the prison system and increased substance abuse treatment programs for ex-cons.

Officials expect the changes to save the state about $116.3 million over the next five years.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced last June that the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, had agreed to conduct a thorough review of the state’s jails and prisons.

The work group has now finished that study, which was funded by the Pew Center on the States and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, and is making recommendations to Tomblin’s office for a major overhaul to the state’s criminal justice system.

There currently are about 7,500 people in West Virginia’s prison system – including about 1,700 prisoners held in regional jails due to overcrowding in prisons – and that number is expected to climb to about 8,900 by 2018 if no changes are made.

But work group members predict the state’s prison population could actually fall by about 2 percent in the next five years if their proposed policy changes are adopted.

The group estimates the changes would save West Virginia $141.8 million in gross operational costs between now and 2018, with about $25.5 million reinvested in substance use treatment programs.

Carl Reynolds, senior legal and policy advisor for the Justice Center, said the suggestions cover two main areas, increasing supervision of offenders once they leave the criminal justice system and reducing substance abuse.

According to the group’s report, 22 percent of new commitments are for drug offenses and 66 percent of people entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment.

But Reynolds said the state’s criminal justice system currently offers no substance abuse programs other than the ones available in prisons. He said there are 13 substance abuse treatment providers in the state, but court and jail officials sometimes have difficulty securing those services for offenders.

In addition to spending more money to increase the availability of treatment services, work group members recommended the state give judges authority to sentence convicted persons to treatment programs.

The report also calls for the state’s criminal justice system to better monitor individuals once they are released from prison.

It says 28.5 percent of people released from prison in 2008 returned to prison within three years. In 2011, 28 percent of individuals released from prison returned to society without any kind of court supervision.

“They serve their time, and once they walk out the door, there’s no supervision,” Reynolds said.

That is a problem because many prisoners have become so accustomed to having their every decision made for them that they cannot function in normal society. He said recidivism, or return, rates could be reduced if the state kept a better eye on ex-prisoners.

The group suggests all newly released prisoners be monitored upon their release. The length of supervision could depend on the seriousness of the prisoner’s crime and his or her likelihood to commit another crime.

Individuals who violated the conditions of their supervision would be subject to “swift, certain and cost-effective sanctions,” the report said. Those actions could include placing the person on probation or home confinement or sending them back to jail for a short time.

If a person was sent back to jail for breaking the terms of their parole, they would not automatically receive a harsh sentence.

Reynolds said the average individual who violates parole spends two years in jail. Those who violate their probation agreements spend an average 1.7 years in jail.

The group suggests parole violators be sentenced to 60 days in jail for an initial offense and 120 days for a second offense, provided the person did not commit a new crime or try to flee supervision.

Reynolds estimates a supervision program would free about 800 beds each year in jails, and that would “chip away” at the backlog of prisoners awaiting beds in prisons.

The group also proposed changes to streamline the state’s parole process.

Bureaucratic hiccups currently leave hundreds of prisoners in limbo as they await parole.

When the Parole Board is considering releasing a prisoner, members review the inmate’s “home plan,” their criminal history and a psychological evaluation. Prisoners are placed under “further consideration” if any of those documents are missing, and their hearing is postponed until all documents are completed and submitted.

According to the report, more than 1,400 people were placed “under further consideration” in 2011, up from 730 in 2007.

Fifty-seven percent of the 1,400 in 2011 were given that status because they did not have a home plan, while 17 percent were awaiting a psychological evaluation.

The workgroup suggested the state streamline the parole process by helping prisoners without home plans find housing and by requiring full psychological assessments only when a preliminary screening indicates it is needed.

Suggestions from the report likely will make their way into proposed bills once the 2013 legislative session begins next month.

The state Supreme Court took more immediate action on Tuesday, issuing a new policy directive partially inspired by the work group’s findings.

Beginning Aug. 1, 2013, every felon convicted in circuit court will undergo a risk and needs assessment test.

“This assessment gives each judge objective information about the likelihood of the felon re-offending and what needs must be met to prevent such recidivism,” state Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury said in a statement.

“It’s another tool at the judge’s disposal to help enhance public safety.”

Canterbury, who was a member of the work group and is the former executive director of the state’s Regional Jail Authority, praised the recommendations.

“Having run the jails for eight years and done this job for eight years, it’s pretty clear that we face a real public safety problem when you have a person sitting in a cell one day and on the street the next day,” he said.

“Public safety is not always enhanced by locking people up. Some people, by being placed on probation and having to do certain things to meet the terms of that probation, will be able to turn his or her life around.”

Coach Kellie: A Tiny West Virginia High School is Making Football History

This story originally appeared on 100 Days in Appalachia on Nov. 9, 2018.

It took a few weeks for Hannan High School principal Karen Oldham to realize her school might have made history. She was so busy with the day-to-day grind of running the small, rural Mason County school that it didn’t cross her mind, until an elderly alumnus brought it to her attention.

Oldham still was not completely certain the school had done anything significant, so before making any kind of formal announcement, she phoned the West Virginia Secondary Schools Athletics Commission and asked officials there to do some digging. They called back a few days later.

It was true: Hannan had hired the first female head football coach in West Virginia history.

The Point Pleasant Register got the scoop. Then, Huntington’s Herald Dispatch and local television stations picked up the story, which led to national coverage in USA Today.

It was all a shock for Oldham. It seems that no one—not Oldham, not the hiring committee she put together, not the superintendent who added the hire to the school board’s agenda, nor the board members who unanimously approved it—realized they were doing anything newsworthy.

“Never did her gender come into our minds,” Oldham says.

All everyone knew was, they had found the best person for the job. And that person was Kellie Thomas.

* * *

The voice of Axel Rose singing “Welcome to the Jungle” cuts through the sour air of the Hannan Wildcats’ locker room as players lace up their cleats and tug navy blue jerseys over their shoulder pads.

In her office, Kellie Thomas is wearing her own uniform: a ballcap with a turquoise H, a Hannan polo shirt with a long sleeve shirt underneath, khaki cargo shorts with a Washington Redskins lanyard hanging from the left pocket and leather Carhartt boots with pink wool socks climbing her bare calves. She pulls on a hooded jacket to protect herself from the night’s drizzling rain and begins going through her pre-game preparations.

She replaces the batteries in the headsets she and her two assistant coaches will use to communicate during the night. She pumps up the three footballs that, as the home team, Hannan is required to supply for the game. Then she calls defensive back and running back Isaac Colecchia into her office.

Colecchia isn’t wearing pads. He suffered a concussion in last week’s game and is sitting out this week. Together, he and Thomas go through a checklist of symptoms—headache, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, insomnia, anxiousness, depression, and a few dozen more—that Colecchia ranks on a scale of zero to six. He gives most symptoms a zero, but ranks “sensitivity to light” and “sensitivity to noise” at one each. Once the symptoms go away and he’s cleared by his doctor, Colecchia will be eligible to play again.

The moment offers a glimpse at Thomas’s recent past. Although this is her first season as head football coach, she spent close to two decades as Hannan’s athletic trainer. She was there at every practice, scrimmage and game to tape up players’ ankles and wrists. Thomas was such a constant, stable presence that, over time, she became a confidant for players.

“She was their go-to when they had problems with previous coaches,” Oldham says.

That is why, when former Hannan coach Brian Scott resigned following the 2017 season, players approached Thomas and begged her to apply for the position.

With the questionnaire completed, Thomas dismisses Colecchia and leaves the office. She rallies her troops and leads the team out of the corrugated aluminum fieldhouse to a patch of grass just outside, where players arrange themselves into four rows and begin their warm ups.

The team normally warms up on the field, but tonight is homecoming. The field is currently occupied by members of the homecoming court and their parents, awaiting the announcement of this year’s king and queen.

As her players stretch and run drills, Thomas and defensive coordinator Thomas Miller size up tonight’s opponents, the Parkersburg Catholic Crusaders. The team isn’t much bigger than Hannan but the Crusaders are coming into this late October contest with a 7–1 record. Hannan hasn’t won a game all season.

When homecoming festivities are finally completed, the team moves its warm-ups onto the field. Then it’s the national anthem, handshakes between team captains and the coin flip.

Hannan wins the flip and elects to receive. Parkersburg punts and stops the return at Hannan’s 25 yard line. Then, in the first drive of the game, Hannan quarterback Matthew Qualls takes the snap, hops back on his right leg to pass and launches the ball into the air.

Immediately, a Crusader linebacker reaches up and swats the ball back to Earth.

“Oh, crap,” Thomas says.

Read the rest of the story here.

Moonshiner’s Got Nothing to Hide

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on August 27, 2014. 

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers.

He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however.

First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

He also did not hide his moonshine distillery very well. It’s pretty easy to find, right off Interstate 77 between the Jackson County Livestock Market and the I-77 Raceway Park.

And even though his grandfather once went to jail for moonshining, Freeman doesn’t worry when the police drive by. He doesn’t have to.

His company Appalachian Distillery is part of a new generation of Appalachian moonshiners, making high-octane whiskey on the right side of the law.

Freeman first got the idea to open a moonshine distillery about five years ago, after the West Virginia Legislature legalized the small-scale manufacture of whiskey in the state.

At the time Freeman was working as a purchasing agent at a coal mine.

He started crunching the numbers and realized, much to his surprise, that he could make money in the whiskey business.

“I said, There’s got to be something wrong.’

He took the idea to James Hager, a contractor friend who also worked for the mines.

Hager looked at Freeman’s business plan and agreed it might work. He also agreed to come aboard as Freeman’s business partner.

“I said I’ll make it, you sell it,’” Freeman said. He took the plunge.

Freeman decided to move forward with his plans after being laid off from the mines.

He signed a lease on a former grocery store in Ravenswood, but quickly realized the building would require lots of work before the distillery could begin operating.

Then a nearby church convinced city leaders to yank the distillery’s permit over a zoning error.

Freeman didn’t mind. Losing his license freed him from the lease, allowing him to move his distillery into a brand-new building on Cedar Lakes Drive near Ripley.

The building was custom designed for the distillery with tall ceilings and drains in the concrete floor. It also proved to be good for business.

The distillery hasn’t done much advertising, but Freeman said the word-of-mouth buzz has been enough to drive flocks of visitors to the distillery.

Freeman said when he started out, he worried he would not be able to produce legal moonshine that tasted as good as the illegal whiskey he had tasted.

Then he ran the still for the first time.

“It was better, Freeman said. “Everybody says it’s some of the best they’ve tasted.”

Cooking moonshine in larger batches, it turns out, brings out more flavor in the finished product.

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

Each run of the moonshine still requires between 1,300 and 1,500 pounds of cracked corn, which Appalachian Distillery buys from a man in Sissonville, who grinds the grain himself.

The corn goes into a large vat of water, where it cooks for four hours until it takes on an oatmeal-like consistency.

This “mash” also contains barley, which converts the starch in the corn into sugar.

The corn mash is now pumped into one of the distillery’s five fermenting tanks.

Workers pitch yeast on top of the corn. Over the next five to seven days, the bacteria in the yeast will turn the sugars in the mash into alcohol.

That alcohol will then be extracted from the mash using the moonshine still.

Appalachian Distillery’s still looks just like the illegal backwoods pot stills you see in the movies, except much larger.

The fermented mash is pumped into a big stainless steel pot, where it is heated. The heat releases alcohol vapor. The vapor then floats up through the copper “onion head and into a copper line.

The copper is more than just tradition. Fermenting yeast creates sulfur, which would ruin the taste of the final product.

Copper binds with the sulfur, causing it to collect on the inside of the lines like big pepper flakes. Meanwhile, the vapor continues through the still and re-condenses into liquid alcohol.

Freeman’s moonshine still does an especially good job of removing sulfur from the alcohol, thanks to its special “reflux column” filled with copper plates.

The alcohol makes several passes through the chamber, condensing and evaporating over and over. The copper plates remove more sulfur with each pass.

This is where Appalachian Distillery departs from moonshining tradition. The old timers didn’t have reflux columns. They just made seven or eight batches of whiskey and ran it all back through the still.

The resulting whiskey wasn’t nearly as clean as Appalachian Distillery’s moonshine, however.

“The taste is extraordinarily cleaner,” master distiller Darrell Lee said.

Each run of the still produces about 80 gallons of 175- to 180-proof alcohol.

The liquid is transferred to a “spirit safe” where some of the alcohol is allowed to evaporate, causing the proof to drop.

Workers then pour the moonshine into big blue food-safe barrels, where they mix it with water and further reduce the proof.

Appalachian Distillery’s flagship product is 90-proof “original moonshine.”

They also offer four flavored versions, a 70-proof cinnamon drink called “Spitfire” and three 40-proof flavors: apple pie, “orange stuff” and pawpaw.

These flavors are added in a large mixer, where workers mix the alcohol with pre-mixed flavors.

Lee said pawpaw moonshine, flavored like West Virginia’s indigenous “hillbilly banana,” has been the most popular item so far.

“Just because it’s something unique,” he said.

Each flavor is available in two sizes, a 750-milliliter bottle and a 375-milliliter bottle, and can be purchased at Rite Aid and CVS stores around the state.

Freeman and Hager are working to get Appalachian Distillery moonshine into every liquor store in the state and eventually hope to branch out to stores in Kentucky and Ohio, too.

Freeman also is planning additional flavors – including blackberry, strawberry, strawberry lemonade and limited-run holiday flavors like peppermint – and he eventually hopes to produce barrel-aged moonshine.

For more information about Appalachian Distillery, visit www.appalachian-moonshine.com or search “Appalachian Distillery” on Facebook.

Jackie Mitchell Couldn’t Win

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on March 29, 2018. Click here to read the full story.

On the first pitch of that April 1931 game, Chattanooga Lookouts pitcher Clyde Barfoot gave up a double to New York Yankees outfielder Earle Combs. Then Lyn Larry singled to centerfield, bringing Combs home. Now Babe Ruth, who had led the American League the year before in both home runs and slugging, was coming to bat with no outs and a man on base.

Ruth approached the plate with “a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth,” an Associated Press reporter wrote. The crowd of four thousand at Engel Stadium began cheering wildly. Like the smiling Ruth, they knew what was coming.

Lookouts manager Bert Niehoff walked to the mound, took the ball from Barfoot, and brought in his new pitcher—a seventeen-year-old left-hander named Beatrice Mitchell. Everybody called her Jackie.

Mitchell had first made national news two months earlier, in a short article that ran in sports pages around the country: “Enrolled in a new baseball school conducted at Atlanta, Georgia, by Norman (Kid) Elberfeld, former major and minor league figure, is Miss Jackie Mitchell, age seventeen, a left-handed pitcher.”

At the time, the sports media’s interest did not extend beyond that one sentence. For decades, women had been playing baseball in college intramural teams and novelty barnstorming clubs such as the Bloomer Girls, named for the billowy trousers they wore during games. Some women had even made it into men’s semipro leagues. It was hardly newsworthy that a girl would participate in America’s pastime.

But then, beginning the last week of March 1931, Mitchell’s name reappeared in the papers. Lookouts owner Joe Engel announced he was adding Mitchell to his team’s pitching rotation. Her first appearance would be in an exhibition game against the New York Yankees.

Mitchell was scheduled to make her first public appearance at Engel Stadium on March 31, where she was supposed to pitch for the press. But much to waiting fans’ disappointment, Engel kept her out of the public eye until the game and showed her off to reporters at a backyard pitching session instead.

It was at this point Mitchell’s origin story began to trickle into the papers. Her parents encouraged her to play sports from an early age—doctor’s orders after she was born premature. When she was seven years old, her family lived in a Memphis duplex beside future Hall of Fame pitcher Charles “Dazzy” Vance, who was then playing for the Memphis Chicks. When Vance saw his young neighbor playing ball with the boys and noticed she was left-handed—a coveted trait for a baseball pitcher—he taught her to throw.

As she grew older, Mitchell showed promise in tennis, swimming, and basketball. She thought about becoming an aviator like Amelia Earhart. But baseball remained her first love. When the family moved to Chattanooga, Mitchell joined the Englettes, a girls-only team owned by Engel and managed by her father.

Watching her pitch to a “boy friend” who agreed to serve as catcher, sports scribes noted Mitchell’s “odd side-armed delivery” but complimented her speed, control, and curve. They asked if she was nervous. “There is no use to get nervous over a ball game when I have been playing ball nearly all my life,” she said. “I will just go out there and do my best, and I believe I can fool the Babe.”

During his thirty-five years with the Lookouts, Engel became known for his vaudevillian antics. He once traded a slumping shortstop for a turkey, which he cooked and served to sportswriters. He staged a phone call to Adolf Hitler and held an “elephant hunt” in the outfield with papier-mâché pachyderms. Another time, he lured a newly recruited Native American player inside a teepee he’d erected on the pitcher’s mound. Engel emerged a short time later, bellowing “Custer’s revenge!” and holding a butcher knife in one hand and a “scalp”—actually a dark-colored wig—in the other.

But all that would come later. Engel’s first big stunt would be pitting a teenage girl against the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row batting lineup.

Newspapers across the U.S. picked up the story but remained skeptical. Writers pointed out the game was scheduled for April 1, a sure sign the whole thing was a prank. When a photographer telegraphed The Sporting News and offered to shoot Mitchell’s contract signing, the receiving editor thought it was a joke: “Quit your kidding. What is Chattanooga trying to do, burlesque the game?” The photographer wired back to assure the newspaper he was not kidding, but the editor was not convinced. “Yeah! Presume Al Capone or Charlie Chaplin will be catcher. In sending any more wires please pay for them so I can enjoy the laugh.”

The game would not take place on April Fools’ Day, however. Cold weather forced Engel to postpone until the next day. The delay did nothing to dampen anticipation. By the time the game began on Thursday afternoon, bells were ringing on teletype machines across the country as reporters filed accounts of the game.

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Paradise Lost

This article originally appeared on Lapham’s Quarterly‘s Roundtable blog on November 29, 2017. Click here to read the full story.

Harman and Margaret Blennerhassett moved to the United States to lay low. Although some have suggested they left England to avoid scandal—Margaret was both Harman’s wife and his niece—their flight had more to do with Harman’s political allegiances. Just a short time after receiving his inheritance from his wealthy aristocratic parents, Harman became a financial backer and secretary for the Society of United Irishmen, a group seeking to free Ireland from British rule. When British authorities began locking up its leaders and trying them for sedition, Harman sold the family estate and, in the spring of 1796, sailed from Europe with hopes of starting over.

The Blennerhassetts had the means to make nearly any kind of life they wanted. Harman sold his estate for £28,000, about $4.5 million today. But the couple wanted a secluded home, away from the East Coast’s major cities. They found one: a 169-acre plot on an island in the Ohio River, just south of modern-day Parkersburg, West Virginia. It would have made a perfect hideaway if not for the Blennerhassetts’ conspicuous tastes.

At a time when most nearby structures would have been built from logs, the couple set about constructing a mansion with a two-and-a-half-story main house and curving Palladian breezeways, all painted in brilliant white. They seated the home on the island’s highest point and had workers cut down trees along the water’s edge to create an unobstructed view. Passing boats couldn’t help but notice their miniature Mount Vernon.

Socialites from nearby Marietta, Ohio, and as far away as Pittsburgh flocked to what came to be known as Blennerhassett Island for dances, dinners, concerts, and readings. Everyone in the valley soon knew about Harman, the accomplished musician, amateur physician and scientist, lawyer, bibliophile, and businessman. He became known for his loyalty, kindness, and near-blindness. He was so myopic that he read with his hooked nose nearly touching the page and, when he went bird hunting, required assistance aiming his gun.

Margaret drew even more attention. She was tall and thin with fair skin, blue eyes, and a quick mind. She recited Shakespeare, read some French, was a talented cook and seamstress, and enjoyed dancing and card games. She wore high-waisted empire dresses around the house but, when riding her favorite horse, Robin, donned a scarlet habit with gold buttons, gloves, leather boots, and a white beaver fur hat with ostrich feathers.

The couple’s outsize personalities won them a prominent place among the frontier bourgeois in Marietta, Ohio, and nearby Wood County, Virginia. But that notoriety also brought trouble to their door.

One day in the spring of 1805, Aaron Burr’s boat docked at Blennerhassett Island.

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The making of Robert C. Byrd’s “Mountain Fiddler”

This story originally appeared in the July 6, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

In all of the obituaries written about the late Sen. Robert Byrd over the last week, there’s one detail nearly everyone made sure to include alongside his political victories and infamous missteps—his love of traditional mountain music.

A longtime fiddler himself, Byrd held onto his love of old-time tunes when he left the hills of West Virginia for Washington, D.C.

Among his countless, historic accomplishments, the nation’s longest-serving senator is also the only person to have recorded a musical album on Capitol Hill.

His record, “Mountain Fiddler,” was released on County Records in 1978. The project began two years earlier, when Alan Jabbour from the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center contacted Barry Poss, a producer with the record company.

“They had been talking with Sen. Byrd about doing some recording, but it really wasn’t part of the Library of Congress’s mission to get involved. They weren’t really set up for this kind of venture because it was a public recording,” Poss said.

So Jabbour asked if Poss was interested in the project. He was, and made a trip to D.C. to meet with Byrd.

“It was a little bit different. My normal routine was to meet artists at a club or backstage at a festival at 2 o’clock in the morning,” Poss said.

Instead, Poss met the senator in his Capitol Hill office, where Byrd played him some rough demo tapes he had already prepared. The men met several more times to work through Byrd’s extensive repertoire and come up with songs for the record.

Poss said the goal was to cover a broad range of music, from old folk songs and dance to gospel tunes.

“The kinds of music that, growing up in rural West Virginia or even anywhere in the southern Appalachians, you would have heard,” Poss said.

The men eventually chose 14 songs, including “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Cripple Creek,” “Durang’s Hornpipe,” “Turkey in the Straw,” “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” and “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die.”

Surrounding Byrd

The producer then was charged with booking a recording studio and finding musicians to back the Senate majority leader. And he knew exactly who to call first—Doyle Lawson.

Poss had just produced Doyle Lawson’s first solo album, “Tennessee Dream,” also released on County Records.

Lawson, a multi-instrumentalist who first appeared on the national bluegrass scene in the early ’60s as Jimmy Martin’s banjo player, was at the time playing mandolin in the Washington D.C.-based group the Country Gentlemen.

“He was just the right person, because Doyle is a born leader,” Poss said of Lawson. “He has this incredible ability to bring others around him to inspire him and bring them along to where there’s really good studio-quality material.”

Although he was an accomplished musician, Byrd performed solo for most of his musical life. He often would crack open his fiddle case to play some tunes at fundraisers, rallies and campaign stops but was unaccustomed to playing with other pickers.

Without a strong, talented rhythm section behind the senator, Poss worried the songs might fall apart.

“People who (perform by themselves) have a different sense of rhythm. They can be a little freer with the rhythm,” he said. “I had to make sure the caliber of the musicians was high enough to bring Sen. Byrd along.”

Lawson accepted Poss’ offer and recruited Country Gentlemen band mate James Bailey to play banjo on the record. Lawson then picked Spider Gilliam, the Gentlemen’s road manager and sometime bass player, to hold down the low end.

Recording site

Poss said his original plan was to have Byrd record in a professional studio. He took the senator to Bias Studios in northwest Virginia for a pre-recording visit but could tell something was wrong.

“He looked a bit uncomfortable to me, and of course you wouldn’t want someone to be uncomfortable in a recording,” he said.

Poss said he thinks the jungle of microphones, mixing boards and isolation booths intimidated Byrd.

“It was a little bit of an alien environment,” he said.

With a professional studio out of the question, Poss now had to find a place where Byrd would be more comfortable, a place where he spent a lot of time.

For Byrd, an infamous workaholic, that place was his Senate office. So that’s where Poss decided to hold the recording sessions.

He tapped Bias recording engineer Bill McElroy to make it happen.

“I asked him to build a portable console that would be stripped down and unobtrusive. I guess the idea was to have the recording process be as natural as possible,” Poss said.

McElroy built a two-track recording unit and set it up in Byrd’s conference room.

Completely live

With only two tracks to record on – one for the left stereo channel and another for the right – the band recorded the album completely live. They couldn’t go back and overdub any flubbed parts. If someone messed up, everyone had to redo the song.

“What went on there, that’s what you had,” Gilliam, the bass player, said. “It put the pressure on.”

Poss said, “They basically stood in a circle, performing live, just as though they were playing in his living room.”

Lawson said, “We didn’t practice or anything until we got to the Capitol building.”

Lawson said Byrd had some trouble getting started so he suggested the senator warm up with a “Georgia shuffle,” where fiddlers run their bow over the strings in rhythm for a song intro.

He said the recording went smoothly after that, except for some false starts and a few other typical studio mishaps.

“If he got in a big way of fiddling, his bow might hit the microphone,” Lawson said.

Multiple rehearsals

The senator soon grew accustomed to his new band, and the music fell into place.

“He was really open and very observant and picked it up immediately,” Lawson said. “To be honest, I was really surprised at how well he played old-time fiddle. He had drive, authority and passion.”

He said Byrd’s singing wasn’t anything to be ashamed of either.

“He would sing with the same gusto that he played with. It was a lot of fun,” Lawson said.

Banjo picker Bailey said he also was impressed by Byrd’s knowledge of old-time music.

He said Byrd knew lyrics to songs that most musicians only know as instrumental numbers, like “Cumberland Gap.” And if the senator knew the words, he would sing them all.

“If a song had 15 verses, that’s what he did,” Bailey said. “He looked at a song as a work and that’s what he would do. He would cover the whole thing.

“His heart and soul were in old-time numbers,” he said.

Poss remembers recording the album was “amazingly fun” and said Byrd’s enthusiasm for his music infected everyone involved.

“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.

“Musicians typically tend to like to warm up a little bit to limber up, but not too much because they don’t want to lose that edge. Sen. Byrd was different. The more he rehearsed, the more he wanted to rehearse.”

Byrd on tour

After the record was finished and released, Byrd and his band went on a short promotional tour.

One of the first stops was at Discount Records and Books, a record store in Washington, D.C. Byrd gave an in-store performance and signed records for fans.

“I remember showing up. It was a scene like I’d never seen,” Poss said. “The store was mobbed, the street was just jammed with cars and people lined up around the block.”

The tour also included stops on the hit variety show “Hee Haw” and the “Grand Ole Opry.” Byrd’s appearance marked the Opry’s second-ever national broadcast, shown then on PBS.

Poss, Gilliam and Bailey accompanied Byrd on his trip to Nashville.

“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poss said.

Byrd listened to AM broadcasts of the Opry as a child, and sawing his fiddle on its hallowed stage was a lifelong dream.

But when his moment in the spotlight came, Poss said the senator was quite nervous. “That quickly went away because of what goes on backstage at the Opry,” Poss said.

Byrd and his band hung out in Opry legend Roy Acuff’s dressing room that night. As country music stars like Minnie Pearl and fellow West Virginian Little Jimmie Dickens stopped by to chat, his nerves started to calm.

“They welcomed him, not as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, but as a fellow artist. They really made him feel right at home,” Poss said.

“I almost had the feeling he was ready to go on the road.”

Gilliam remembers stopping at a restaurant after their Opry performance. It was about 3 a.m.

“He asked me, ‘How old are you, Spider?’ “Gilliam said. The bass player was 38 at the time. Byrd was in his late 50s.

“He told me, ‘If I was your age, I’d give up my seat in the Senate and do this for a living,'” Gilliam remembered. “I thought, ‘Yes, sir. And you would flat starve to death.'”

Mission complete

While Byrd stuck to his day job, he continued to wow D.C. crowds with his playing.

Gilliam said the senator often invited him and Bailey to Capitol Hill get-togethers, and even to the National Democratic Convention a time or two. Lawson often couldn’t make the performances, since he was on the road with the Gentlemen and later his band Quicksilver.

Gilliam said he saw Byrd play so long and so hard that he wore the hide off his fingers.

But even that wouldn’t stop the senator from sawing the strings.

“He’d bandage those things up and keep on going. One of the hardest-working people I’ve ever seen. He’d work all day and beat on that fiddle all night if he could,” Gilliam said.

But Poss said there was never talk of doing another album.

“I think he understood that this was something he needed to do and this wasn’t his career,” he said. “I think that was kind of a mission accomplished.”

Still the record producer, who went on to found Sugar Hill Records and sign artists like Nickel Creek, Del McCoury and Ricky Skaggs, said he’s proud of his work with Byrd.

Recently, he and Jabbour wrote a new set of liner notes for “Mountain Fiddler’s” first CD release.

“It’s great,” he said. “I was delighted to hear how well it stood up, and I think that was his goal. The music had already stood the test, and I think his recordings will stand the test of time.”

Poss said, “He had put as much work into this as he did anything else in his life.”

“Mountain Fiddler” is now available for sale at www.countysales.com. The album will appear in music stores and online in a couple of weeks.