Zack Harold

writer/editor

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.

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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They Keep Old Trains A-Rolling

This story originally appeared in the June 4, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

CASS — When something breaks on a train at Cass Scenic Railroad, whether it’s as small as a bracket or as big as a boiler, the men and women in the park’s locomotive shops fix it.

They have to. Chances are, you can’t buy a replacement part.

Forget about instruction manuals, too. Although the state park serves as a living museum of the United States’ steam-powered history, there aren’t many reference books lying around.

“You pretty well go by what’s already there. You make it as it was,” said Danny Hoover, engineer for the Cass No. 5 locomotive.

Hoover, 52, has worked at Cass for 15 years.

He said he always has been fascinated by the trains—he remembers when engineers from Cass used to drive their locomotives to the Strawberry Festival in Buckhannon—but had no real knowledge about the machines when he started working in the shop.

Like all of the railroad’s employees, Hoover learned on the job.

“These old men passed it down to us,” said longtime engineer Danny Seldomridge. “What we learned from them is better than books.”

Seldomridge, 56, has worked at Cass for 37 years, but has been around the trains for much longer. His dad worked on the park’s track crew and in the railroad shop.

He originally wanted to work with airplanes after high school but married a local girl and started working with his dad.

“They started letting me mess around with these things, and that was it,” he said. “I’m train crazy.”

Seldomridge said he enjoys the challenge of working on antique machines.

“I just like fooling with them. I like taking something, building it back to where it’s better than new,” he said. “Every day you learn a little bit more. I’ve never stopped learning.”

Although most of Cass Scenic Railroad’s 96 staff members are seasonal, the dozen full-time employees in the locomotive shop work year-round. During tourist season, which runs from Memorial Day to the end of October, they work six or seven days a week.

There’s always something to do.

In addition to their duties in the repair shop, they also ride the trains as engineers and firemen (the lucky souls who shovel coal into a locomotive’s white-hot fireboxes). When their trains aren’t running, they work in the shop.

Once a month, crews take the firebox out of each train, let the engine cool down and wash the sediment out of the boiler. The job takes a week “at the fastest,”Hoover said.

“That’s if you’ve got several guys to help you,” he said.

Then, after a locomotive reaches 1,492 hours of service, railroad mechanics have to break down the train’s boiler and replace its flues, the pipes that run through the water-filled boiler carrying hot gases from burning coal.

If, for some reason, crews can’t repair a part, they hire a pattern maker to fabricate a copy of the original. The shop is rarely able to provide blueprints, so they send either the old, broken part or exact measurements.

Crews don’t get to do many heavy-duty repairs until the off-season, however.
Most shop workers take their vacations between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, because the real work begins in January. That’s when the major repairs take place, when all the trains get broken down and put back together. Axles are replaced, boilers are overhauled and coal bunkers are rebuilt.

“I came here in the first of February and everything was torn apart,” park superintendent Rod Sovine said. “I said, ‘We’re not going to make it!'”

They made it. Cass Scenic Railroad has four trains up and running this season.

Seldomridge’s engine, the Western Maryland No. 6, is the newest train in the rail yard. Built in 1945, it’s the last Shay locomotive ever made. It worked for four years in Elkins before retiring to live in the B&O Railroad museum in Baltimore. Cass obtained the train in the early ’80s.

The Cass No. 5, Hoover’s pet engine, is the oldest train on the lot.
A Shay locomotive built in 1905, it;s the only train that worked at Cass when it was still owned by West Virginia Pulp and Paper. Cass No. 4 was built in 1922 but arrived in Cass in 1943, when the Mower Lumber Company owned the property.

The Cass No. 11 came from San Diego, where it started working in 1923. It is the railroad’s newest acquisition and has been in West Virginia for 12 years.

“It didn’t look like that when we got it,” Hoover said.

He said the shiny-black Shay arrived in West Virginia as a bucket of rust. Shop employees gave it a major overhaul.

Two trains are still down for repairs.

Workers are replacing the coal bunker on Cass No. 6, a Heisler locomotive born in 1928. The train worked in Rainelle for the Meadow River Lumber Co. before the state purchased it in 1967 and brought the train to Cass.

Cass No. 2 is getting a major overhaul. Built in 1928 by the Shay Locomotive Co., it originally rode the rails in Vancouver, British Columbia.

It’s now in pieces at the Cass Railroad shop. It doesn’t look much like a train. The firebox and coal bunker still sit on the axles, but workers have removed the engine’s boiler for repairs.

Boilers in steam-powered engines are constantly expanding and contracting, which eventually weakens the metal. Crews are working to replace those weakened sections in the No. 2 boiler. When they’re finished, workers will use an ultrasound machine to determine the thickness of the steel.

Once that’s completed, workers plan to take the axles from under the locomotive and reshape the wheels on the shop’s massive lathe.

There’s no guidebook to read, no website to consult and no schematic to reference. The older guys like Seldomridge and Hoover teach the younger workers. That way, when Seldomridge and Hoover retire, the trains will keep running. Some young fireman will take their place in the engineer’s seat.

That’s what Andrew Cassell, 27, plans to do.
He’s currently the fireman on the Western Maryland No. 6. When Seldomridge pulls levers to move the train forward and back, Cassell stomps on a pedal to opens the train’s firebox. He heaves shovel after shovel of coal into the opening, working almost the whole time the train is in operation.

Remember the Bible story about Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the great fiery furnace? That’s what Cassell stares into all day long.

He doesn’t make much money for the backbreaking work. Hoover said firemen make minimum wage. Cassell hopes to become an engineer, however. He’s worked at Cass since 2003.

“They handed me my diploma on Saturday, and I went to work on Monday morning,” Cassell said. “Once you get started. . .”

“You don’t ever leave,” Seldomridge said.

Live from Oak Hill

This story originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of WV Living magazine.

Angel Acevedo was known to Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ fans as Assassin No. 1 of the tag-team duo The Cuban Assassins. Richie Acevedo did not doubt his father’s stories about being Fidel Castro’s bodyguard.

To his young mind, the evidence was all there. There was the star tattoo on father’s left hand, which he claimed was the secret brand of the Communist revolutionary’s inner circle. He also fit the part. Small but brawny, Angel Acevedo had a wild mane of thick black hair, an equally thick accent, an unruly beard, and the gaze of a man possessed. But perhaps most convincingly, all the adults in Richie’s life also seemed to believe his dad’s stories.

From 1969 until 1973, Angel regularly appeared in homes all over West Virginia as part of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’, broadcast live from the studios of WOAY-TV in Oak Hill. Known only to fans as “Assassin No. 1,” one-half of the fearsome tag team known as “the Cuban Assassins,” he was one of the program’s most ruthless characters, willing to take whatever means necessary to win a match.

But Angel’s down-and-dirty antics did not win him many fans, especially in an America where the Cuban Missile Crisis remained a not-yet-distant memory. Richie, now 46, remembers sitting in the auditorium where the show was taped and hearing spectators holler violent threats at his father. “I thought my dad was one of the most dangerous men in the world,” he says.

Angel, like many professional wrestlers of his generation, never broke character, even outside the ring. “What he told us was what he told everybody else,” Richie says. It wasn’t until his teenage years that Richie began to ask questions. He eventually found out his father actually hailed from Puerto Rico and had never met Fidel Castro. He also learned that Raul, the man he’d been raised to think was his uncle, was actually just his father’s tag-team partner.

You might expect Richie to be bitter about these revelations. He’s not. When he got old enough, he became a professional wrestler, too. Although he did not devote his life to the sport in quite the same way as Angel, he still spent decades bouncing between ropes and jumping off turnbuckles.

Richie says he understands his father’s deceptions now. He had a character to portray and a story to tell, and was willing to do whatever was necessary to keep fans invested. “Magicians have known this for a long time,” he says. “The word ‘fake’ is irrelevant.”

“Don’t let those people cuss on the air”

Professional wrestling, for all its artifice, has roots in reality. It began as a sideshow attraction in the 19th century. These were, for the most part, true athletic competitions—a direct outgrowth of Greco-Roman and “catch-as-catch-can” grappling, often featuring a traveling strongman going up against audacious locals. It usually wasn’t much fun to watch. A single match could last for hours. Competitors seldom left the mat as they shifted from one submission hold to another.

In an effort to liven things up for the crowd—and make more money—one 1920s sideshow act known as the Gold Dust Trio began fixing its matches. Wrestlers Ed “Strangler” Lewis and Joseph “Toots” Mondt, with help from manager Billy Sandow, adopted outlandish personas and began scripting dramatic near-defeats and comebacks. Since they weren’t actually trying to hurt one another, they could work together to make fights seem more violent than ever.

By the end of the ’20s, there was a clear distinction between the two varieties of wrestling: the legitimate competitive version and the scripted “professional” version. While it is sometimes suggested fans in the early days did not know professional wrestling was scripted, newspaper and magazine clippings reveal a winking acknowledgment of what was really happening in the ring. Fans weren’t too naive to realize wrestling was “fake”—they just didn’t care.

Wrestling came to television early in the medium’s history. KTLA of Los Angeles, California, began broadcasting matches as early as 1946. Promoters initially worried television would hurt ticket sales to live matches, but the opposite proved true. Television offered something traveling shows never could: an opportunity to create ongoing storylines and feuds between wrestlers. This made fans more invested in their favorite characters so, when the wrestlers came to their towns, they flocked to see their heroes in person.

Wrestling came to WOAY-TV in 1954. A station in Columbus, Ohio, was already broadcasting live wrestling, which a station in Huntington picked up and re-aired with great success. WOAY’s owner Robert Thomas smelled an opportunity and struck a deal with a band of wrestlers who regularly performed at the Memorial Building in nearby Fayetteville. The wrestlers would get 90 minutes of free airtime. In return, the station got free content as well as proceeds from advertising revenue, ticket sales, and concessions sales. Bob Kent, the manager of the Memorial Building, agreed to be the program’s host. But after the first night, when a flying chair knocked over his announcer’s desk, Kent told Thomas he would have to find another emcee. Thomas had just the man for the job.

About a year earlier, Thomas’s father had discovered Shirley Love singing in the choir of the local Methodist church and got the honey-voiced youngster to drop by the station for an audition. Soon Love was working the microphone on WOAY-FM, doing public service announcements, station breaks, and newscasts. He began working at the company’s TV station, too, manning the microphone boom and cranking the homemade teleprompter.

Now Love, still in his early 20s and with little broadcasting experience, was being offered a high-profile job. He didn’t want it. “I said, ‘Mr. Thomas, I can’t do that. I don’t know anything about wrestling,’” Love remembers. “He said, ‘All you’ve got to do is describe what they’re doing.’” So, with his blonde hair perfectly coiffed, Love stepped in front of the cameras to host the second-ever episode of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’. He would continue hosting the show until its finale in 1977.

Despite his initial reluctance, it wasn’t long before Love was getting in on the act. One night, when wrestlers staged a very real strike against promoter–wrestler Jan Madrid and refused to perform, WOAY instead devoted the entire night’s program to an impromptu grudge match between Madrid and one of the auxiliary police officers hired to provide security for the event. It ended with an enraged Madrid grabbing both Love and co-host Sandy Higgins by their shirts—which, unknown to viewers, had been pre-slashed with razor blades—and ripping them off.

Now naked to the waist except for his sport coat, Love picked up his microphone. “I said ‘Sandy, I come out here and try to be as dignified as I can. This is humiliating. Look at me. I don’t know about you but I’m going home.’” The show only ran a half-hour short that night. By the next week, the strike was settled and it was back to the regularly scheduled entertainment.

One of the show’s most popular features was Love’s interviews with spectators between matches. While the action in the ring was prearranged, these provided truly unscripted entertainment. One night Love complimented a young boy on his coonskin cap. “He said, ‘Grandpa found it in the trash dump!’”

Another time, a man from Prince bragged he’d killed 12 squirrels on the first day of squirrel season. “I said, ‘No, you only killed four.’ He said, ‘No, Shirley. I killed 12. We fried four and I got the others in my sister’s freezer.’” It wasn’t until Love gingerly pointed out the state’s four-squirrel bag limit that the man’s count suddenly changed. Love later learned the local game warden was watching that night. “He fell off the couch laughing. He said, ‘I couldn’t have arrested that guy, he was so serious.’”
Sometimes even the most unassuming interviewees could cause trouble. One Saturday, Love noticed Madrid flick sweat on an elderly heckler. She was first in line for an interview when the match was over. “She looked like a little old Sunday school teacher. I said, ‘What do you think of Jan Madrid?’ She said, ‘I’d like to smack that son of a b—h right in the mouth.’

“The boss would always tell me, ‘Don’t let those people cuss on the air. I could lose my license.’” It was an ongoing struggle.

Wrestlin’ gets real

Unlike Richie Acevedo, Jan Madrid’s son Monty was in on the act—literally. “They called me ‘the booker.’ Dad would let me carry a briefcase to the matches. That way I felt included. It was my little make-believe thing,” says Monty, now 53.
Monty was not much of a wrestling fan, though. He was a shy and nervous kid. Even though he knew everything was prearranged, he’d hide in the locker room or at the back of the auditorium during particularly brutal matches.

Things were much different outside the ring, however. “Wrestlers were my playmates growing up,” he says. He remembers dinners at his house with all the WOAY wrestlers, since the good guys and bad guys couldn’t be seen together in public. “Everybody was friends. Gosh knows it cost a fortune to feed all those wrestlers,” he says.

Sometimes a wrestling bear would show up. Whoever was scheduled to wrestle the creature that night would earn its trust by feeding it Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies in the Madrids’ backyard. “It would just grab me up and put me in its paws and just roll me around the yard. It was the sweetest thing in the world,” Monty says. “Growing up like that isn’t the real world.”

But as Monty would find out, real life has an unfortunate tendency to infringe on make-believe. Jan Madrid always wrestled as a villain, or “heel.” That way, the wrestlers he booked always had a bad guy to play against. He portrayed himself as a cocksure, arrogant immigrant “from parts unknown.” “He would talk about his country versus America. He was an American-born citizen, of course,” Monty says.

It was all scripted, but the bad feelings he created among fans were very real. Monty remembers getting threatening phone calls at the house. More than once, disgruntled viewers mailed the Madrids receipts for new televisions—seeking reimbursement for the TVs they had shot in rage. “We’d come out many times, all four tires slit, sugar in the gas tank,” Monty says. “It cost a lot of money, being a villain.”

It wasn’t just the fans. In 1969, the West Virginia state government came after the wrestlers—who were listed by both their ring names and given names in court documents—of WOAY. On a Monday night in August, promoter Warren Schernbach had booked eight of Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s most popular wrestlers—including Jan Madrid and the Cuban Assassins—at the Bluefield Auditorium for a show benefitting local church and school groups. But then the police showed up. They rounded up all the wrestlers, along with Shernbach and referee Larry Swiger, and placed them under arrest. The charges: wrestling, refereeing, and promoting without a license.

Since Shernbach, Swiger, and the wrestlers had not paid their Athletic Commission dues, West Virginia Athletic Commissioner Doug Epperly contended they were violating state law. He told reporters he was hesitant to stop the event, especially since it was a charity event. “However, fair is fair,” he said.

Each of the men posted his $280 bond and was released. Schernbach maintained everyone’s innocence from the start. “The commission is trying to deprive us of our right to entertain the public,” he told a reporter with the Beckley Post-Herald. “Legally, we are entertainers. Not athletes.”

The gang of 10 was scheduled to appear before Mercer County Magistrate Court but, before that could happen, their lawyer, W. Dale Greene, made an appeal to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals to prohibit further proceedings on the charges. “The petitioners are showmen, actors, artist thespians, not engaged in any contest of strength but rather engaged in the thespian arts of facial grimaces, make-believe, mat pounding, and use of all the props,” Greene wrote in his memorandum. “While the petitioners may have billed themselves as wrestlers, a rose is a rose and the public at large knows it.”

The high court granted a hearing on the matter, barring any proceedings on the misdemeanor charges until a ruling was issued. Newspapers lose the thread of the story there, and court documents are nowhere to be found. But an entry deep in the Supreme Court’s daily ledger, recorded January 23, 1970, shows that judges dismissed the case. The Athletics Commission evidently decided not to pursue the charges further. The reason behind this change of heart is lost to history.

The Athletic Commission also came knocking on WOAY’s door early on in Saturday Nite Wrestlin’s history, threatening to shut down the broadcast unless Thomas paid his fees. The station owner responded by changing the spelling on the marquee from Wrestling to Wrestlin’ and adding a disclaimer to the beginning of the broadcast: “Pre-arranged for your entertainment. This is not an athletic event.”

The changes satisfied the government, but Love says it didn’t have much of an effect on the fans. “The people didn’t pay attention to it,” Love says. “They got right into it.”

Down for the count

Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ came to an end in a deservedly dramatic fashion. In September 1977 a generator overheated, caught fire, and burned WOAY’s studios to the ground. The station, scrambling to get back on air, moved its operations next door into the auditorium where matches were broadcast. When everything was back up and running two months later, WOAY had nowhere to host its wrestling program and lacked the equipment to do a remote broadcast. It was the end of a 23-year run. “A year longer than Gunsmoke,” Love says.

There’s no way to really know how popular Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ was during its run. Thomas, a consummate penny pincher, refused to pay for Nielsen and Arbitron ratings. But in 1972 he hatched a scheme to get his own demographic data: he convinced Love to run for a spot at the Democratic National Convention. Since it was a statewide election based mostly on name recognition, Thomas knew he could tell where his station was most popular by seeing which counties gave Love the most votes. Love came in ninth out of nine delegates, but was the top vote-getter for Nicholas, Clay, Fayette, and Raleigh counties.

For Love, it was an introduction to a whole new kind of bloodsport. He ran several more times for the Democratic National Convention and, in 1994, he was elected to the West Virginia State Senate. He served 15 years in the chamber before retiring. Then, in 2017 and at the age of 83, he was sworn in for his first term in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Love has now spent longer as a politician than he was a wrestling announcer. But he knows Saturday Nite Wrestlin’ will be his legacy. “We could go anywhere right now and if we met 10 people, eight of them—if they’re over 40—would say ‘I used to sit on Grandpa’s lap and watch you,’” he says. “It was everybody’s Saturday night opera.”

 

Protectors of the Forest

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, May 3, 2012. 

LANSING — Zeus has been growing in Mill Creek canyon for four centuries.
The massive hemlock tree stood watch as white explorers moved in, replacing the land’s native inhabitants.

Zeus was there as the descendants of those explorers formed a new country, and looked on as the sons of those descendants ripped the new country apart.

The old tree, named by Adventures on the Gorge when the company set up its zip line course in 2008, has seen generations of fishermen, hunters and hikers.

Some have patted his trunk, and some have climbed his branches. Some, undoubtedly, didn’t even notice the silent giant.

But Zeus might not see his 500th birthday.

There’s another hemlock standing near the old sentinel. On a recent day, that tree looked like it had just received a light snowfall, except it was late April and the weather was a comfortable 70 degrees.

Almost every limb is covered with tiny white dots. They are hemlock woolly adelgid, pests that live and lay eggs in waxy coverings between a hemlock’s needles.

“They feed on the starches within the hemlock tree, that the tree needs to grow and thrive,” said Andrea Brandon, Central Appalachian program coordinator for The Nature Conservancy.

“It’ll essentially suck the juice out of it.”

Under ideal conditions, trees can live up to a decade after they’ve been infested.

“It can live another six to 10 years, if it’s in a healthy stand and there aren’t any additional stressors,” Brandon said.

But ideal conditions rarely exist. If the tree encounters any other stressors, like unseasonable weather or a lack of water, death is expedited.

“If they get hit by a drought, it puts them over the edge,” Bartgis said.

In the late ’90s, the Mountain State saw a mild winter followed by a really hot, dry summer. Hemlocks in the Eastern Panhandle, already infested with woolly adelgid, became drought-stressed and died. Shenandoah Mountain was hit particularly hard.

“It killed over 90 percent of the hemlock trees,” Bartgis said.

Slow-moving threat

The hemlock woolly adelgid came to Appalachia from southern Japan over half a century ago.

Bartgis said Asia’s climate is very similar to that of the United States. The woods of eastern China are filled with maple trees, oaks, pines, hemlocks and dogwood trees, just like West Virginia. It even has rhododendrons.

“You walk through their forests and they’re amazingly like this,” Bartgis said. “Except there are monkeys in the trees.”

That makes it easy for pests like the woolly adelgid to survive the transcontinental trip, catching a ride with goods shipped from the Far East to the East Coast.

Adelgid are good hitchhikers, traveling on the wind, animal backs, bird feathers, people’s clothes and tractor-trailers. The pests reproduce asexually, so it takes only one healthy bug to start an infestation.

Hemlock woolly adelgid were first spotted in the United States in 1951, in Richmond, Va., but didn’t arrive in West Virginia until 1992, when arborists found them in trees in Grant and Pendleton counties.

Since then, the bug has slowly moved westward. The adelgid is only now reaching trees in West Virginia’s western counties.

Bud Frantz, manager of Treetops Canopy Tour, said it was difficult to spot woolly adelgid on the Adventures on the Gorge property about four years ago.

“In a few years, it exploded,” he said.

Brandon and Rodney Bartgis, state director for The Nature Conservancy’s West Virginia chapter, are worried about the recent mild winter. They said temperatures were much too warm to hurt the woolly adelgid population, and the state appears to be moving into a warm, dry spring with possible drought-like conditions.

“What could be happening is the development of the perfect storm,” Brandon said.

Trees in trouble

It’s easy to gauge the health of a hemlock: You stand at its base and look up. If you see lots of blue sky as you peer through the canopy, the tree is not very healthy.

“Fern,” the first hemlock on Adventures on the Gorge’s Treetops Canopy Tour, is not very healthy. In some places, the tree offers an almost unobstructed view of the sky. Some of its branches are almost completely barren of needles.

“If we get a warm summer, that tree’s going to be in trouble,” Bartgis said.

Cold temperatures are the pest’s worst enemy. That’s why the adelgid have ravaged hemlocks in the south, including Tennessee’s Smokey Mountains. The winters are much milder, so the adelgid populations don’t get thinned out as much.

Bartgis said temperatures must reach 16 below to significantly affect woolly adelgid populations. He said this year, temperatures barely hit zero in the coldest parts of the Mountain State.

Some pesticides can be used against the adelgid. Workers at Adventures on the Gorge treat their hemlocks with a nicotine-based compound. The chemical shrinks the adelgid’s appetite, just as cigarettes work as a hunger suppressant for humans.

“They starve themselves to death,” Frantz said.

The treatment appears to be working.

Walking across the tour’s first swinging bridge, you can see the first stand of trees Adventures on the Gorge treated against the woolly adelgid. These trees are doing well, with evidence of new growth and healthy green buds on the tips of the branches.

Zeus also was among the first group of Adventures on the Gorge’s trees to be treated against the woolly adelgid in 2009. Because of that early intervention, it has never had a bad infestation.

Unfortunately, treatment is extremely labor intensive. Workers have to treat each hemlock individually, by burying pesticide pellets in the ground near the root system or drilling a hole in the tree’s bark and injecting the chemical directly into its stem.

Scientists around the country have been trying for years to find widespread treatment against woolly adelgid. So far, they haven’t had any luck.
Bartgis said researchers have looked at beetles that might eat the woolly adelgid, but those tests have not been successful.

Brandon said in some stands of hemlock in the eastern United States, one tree is perfectly healthy while those around it are dead, victims of woolly adelgid infestations. Researchers are studying those healthy trees to figure out what made them resistant to attack.

“We really don’t have an answer right now,” she said.

‘About a hemlock’

Hemlocks make up about 1 percent of trees in West Virginia’s forests. According to a state Department of Agriculture forest health study in 2010, more than 200,000 acres in the state are at risk for hemlock woolly adelgid infestations.

Tucker County has the highest density of hemlocks in West Virginia, with the trees accounting for 7 to 9 percent of the forests there. Pocahontas and Mercer Counties come in second, with 4 to 6 percent of their woods populated by hemlocks.

Although they’re not the most common tree in West Virginia’s woods, hemlocks are very important.

“Hemlocks are like beaver. They really affect their surroundings,” Bartgis said.

Some birds prefer to nest in hemlocks. The shade from the big evergreens makes their surrounding environments cooler.

“That’s important for species that need that cool climate, like brook trout in the stream,” Bartgis said.

Adventures on the Gorge co-owner Dave Arnold said he had no idea what woolly adelgid were when the company started planning its zip line course.

It wasn’t until an arborist was hired to determine the health of its trees that Arnold learned the hemlocks were in danger.

The company has since built a prevention plan into its business strategy. One dollar of every guest’s zip line tour goes toward treating the hemlocks. There are about 5,000 mature hemlocks on Adventures on the Gorge’s 40-acre plot.
Workers now have treated more than 1,000 of the trees. The company has spent about $30,000 on treatment, not including some labor costs.

Arnold, a longtime whitewater rafting guide, said the hemlocks along the Gauley River are among his favorite features of the waterway. He said the shady evergreens give the forest an intimate feel rafters just don’t get on the New River.

“It makes the Gauley,” he said. “These hemlocks create a mood. They create an atmosphere. Any trout fisherman understands it.”

Arnold said rafting the Gauley might be a completely different experience 20 years from now, if scientists don’t find a way to stop the woolly adelgid.

“Someday we may really have a unique place. If something doesn’t change, you’re going to have a few small places where hemlocks exist,” he said.

The stakes are high. If researchers don’t find a way to wipe out woolly adelgid once and for all, West Virginia’s forests—already irrevocably changed over the state’s history by forest fires, disease and irresponsible human behavior—may never look the same.

And the next generation of explorers will never see a tree like Zeus.

Carnival of Soles

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 7, 2012. 

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

She owned a cleaning business and then worked as a pizza dough maker at Gino’s Pizza in Sissonville. She drives cars for the St. Albans Auction and repairs purses and leather jackets at the Fife Street Shoe Shop in downtown Charleston.

But over a decade ago, Jordan, 53, held her coolest gig of all. For one day, she was KISS bassist Gene Simmons’ cobbler.

The storied rock band played Charleston on May 2, 2000, on the first leg of their “Farewell Tour.”

KISS didn’t actually retire after that tour – they’ve embarked on seven more since then – but the Charleston date was one of the last times the band’s original lineup took the stage together.

Chris Dickerson, the Daily Mail’s city editor at the time, was eagerly anticipating that concert.

“I’m a huge KISS fan and over the years I became friends with KISS’s tour manager,” Dickerson said.

Tommy Thayer, who now plays lead guitar for the group, was KISS’s manager during the 2000 tour.

“I don’t remember all the details, but they had just got into town and there was something wrong with Gene’s boot. Tommy called me and asked me, ‘Where’s a good place I could take them?'” Dickerson said.

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

That was the last Dickerson heard of Simmons’ boot problems. But it was the beginning of a very interesting day for Jordan.

On the afternoon of May 2, one of Simmons’ assistants brought the boots into the shop.

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

She had worked at the Fife Street Shoe Shop for about a year, spending much of her time repairing leather jackets and purses, mending rips, replacing zippers and fixing busted buckles. She learned to sew from her mother, Nadine.

“She sewed my sister’s wedding dress and bridesmaids’ dresses,” Jordan said. “I’ve got her old sewing machine, one of those real heavy-duty ones that you can sew blue jeans with.”

Jordan didn’t do a lot of work on shoes, though. Most of the broken heels and worn-out soles went to Andy Arthur, the shop’s manager.

But Jordan knew her client well. She graduated high school in 1977, two years after KISS got its first top 40 hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

“I used to jam out to them when I was younger. I used to have them on an 8-track. We had a Cutlass, we called it a ‘Gutless.’ We used to jam to that,” she said.

The wildly costumed group became as famous for their onstage antics – Simmons’ fire breathing and blood spitting, Ace Frehley’s fireworks-spewing guitar, Peter Criss’ levitating drum set – as for hard-rocking hits like “Detroit Rock City” and “Calling Dr. Love.”

Well, Gene Simmons had aged a lot since Jordan was riding around in the Gutless.

He still was breathing fire and letting his foot-long tongue unfurl, but his ankles were swollen when he arrived in Charleston.

He needed wider zippers installed on the sides of his platform boots.

Though Jordan had done similar jobs before, replacing the zippers on Simmons’ boots presented some unique problems.

First, they were heavy. Even with all of Simmons’ metal adornments removed, the oversized footwear still weighed 35 pounds.

“I don’t know how he wore them onstage,” she said.

The boots also were wet when they arrived on Jordan’s workbench.

“That leather was real soft and the boots were still sweaty from the night before. It was hard to get them cut out,” she said.

Jordan was working on deadline, too: KISS was performing at the Civic Center that night and Simmons needed his boots fixed, pronto.

She started by slicing the threads that held the zippers to the boots’ leather. She had to be careful not to cut the soft, supple, soggy leather.

With the zippers removed, Jordan glued new ones in place. The glue normally sets up fast, but Jordan said the wet leather slowed the process. She used a fan to dry them, but that didn’t work very well.

Finally, after about an hour, the glue set up and Jordan stitched the zippers back into the leather.

“I guess he made it. He performed that night,” she said.

Jordan didn’t get to see her handiwork on stage, though.

Arthur told her he had received free tickets for helping the band, but that was just a little good-natured teasing among co-workers.

Jordan left the shoe shop about eight months after her chance encounter with the famous footwear. She got her old job back about two months ago but spent the intervening years as business-cleaner, dough-maker and car-driver.

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

She put them in a plastic bag and placed it in a Pintor cigar box with newspaper clippings from the concert. For a long time, the zippers still smelled like Simmons’ sweat.

“I said, ‘I’m going to keep these ’cause someday something might happen with them.'”

If nothing else, the zippers help her prove that she’s not lying about her most famous client.

Dogs, by Design

This story originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

Look around Old Hemlock, the historic Preston County home of writer and illustrator George Bird Evans and his wife Kay, and it doesn’t take long to get a sense of the lives that once filled these walls. There’s a folksy quilt on the bed, cozy wooden furnishings, a grand piano of the rectangular variety rarely seen anymore, and a big black manual Remington typewriter on a desk. There’s a well-worn long gun above the mantle and a deer skull on another wall. The bookshelves are sotcked with nature guides and books on dog breeding, as well as a sandstone carving of a long-snouted, floppy eared dog’s head.

Now, look closer. Notice how the woodwork and some of the furniture has been gnawed on. See the grooves carved in the hardwood floors, dug by thousands of cuts from excited clawed feet, the same paws that left scratches on the backs of doors. “He called it the patina of time,” says LeJay Graffious, administrator of the Old Hemlock Foundation. Graffious is the caretaker of the house now, and has staged it like George or Kay—or one of their dogs—might walk in any second. “You can’t really separate Old Hemlock from the setters.”

Known for their intelligence, unique appearance, and innate skill in the field, Old Hemlock setters have become one of the most storied bird dog breeds in the country. And it all stems from Evans’ desire to design.

Evans was a designer, by trade and by nature. When he decided to be a magazine illustrator, he spent years crafting a portfolio that would appeal to Cosmopolitan magazine and landed a job the day he dropped it off. When he saw magazines transitioning from illustrations to photography, he designed a life for himself and Kay at Old Hemlock, where he drew on a lifetime of hunting experience and fashioned a new career as an outdoors writer.

When he couldn’t find a bird dog that suited his tastes, he decided to design one of those, too.

* * *

There is a sepia-tone photo of George Bird Evans at 13 months old, seated on a small stool and dressed in a pale gown and severe black boots. Beside him lies Ted, his father’s black and white setter. Both boy and bird dog look off to the right of the camera’s lens, as if tracking the flight of a grouse just flushed from its nest.

As Evans writes in his 1971 book The Upland Hunting Life, some of his earliest memories are of his father and Ted leaving for a day of hunting. “It is things like this that mark us as shooting men years before we are men,” he wrote. Evans got his first shotgun just before his 13th birthday and learned to shoot quail with a setter named Nat. It was Nat’s son, Speck, that found the first grouse Evans shot, after hours of searching. “After he was gone, I carried his collar in my shooting coat until the scent of him had disappeared.”

Evans gave up dogs when he moved to New York City to work in magazines. But he wanted to get back to bird hunting when he and Kay moved to West Virginia in 1939 and began searching for a setter. He grew frustrated at his options, however. Breeders at the time seemed to care either about hunting or winning dog shows—so the good-looking dogs had lost their hunting abilities and the good hunters weren’t very pretty. Evans wanted both qualities in the same dog. “Form and function,” as Graffious puts it.

He purchased a stud dog from breeder George Ryman of Shohola, Pennsylvania, who had his own renowned line of setters. Evans named the dog “Blue” for his blue belton coloring. Several years later he brought Dawn, an orange belton, to Old Hemlock as Blue’s mate. The pair produced the first litter of Old Hemlock setters in 1947. When the dogs were just five weeks old, Evans selected an orange pup for his own and named him Ruff. This dog would become the template for the entire Old Hemlock line.

Ruff was a natural bird dog, helping Evans bag 547 grouse over his lifetime, and he never got sick. Evans also liked the shape of Ruff ’s head. He believed the formation of a dog’s skull affected its brain, and a long headbone meant a dog would be intelligent and sensitive with a good nose. This was certainly true of Ruff.

Ruff sired three litters of puppies, the third of which produced Dixie, “an exceptionally comfortable dog to shoot over, with intelligence to a degree that borders on neurotic,” Evans wrote. And Dixie later gave birth to Bliss. “I didn’t know it then, but it was Ruff coming back to me,” Evans wrote. “Although blue instead of orange, she had his type, his nose, his style on point and his magic way with grouse.” Bliss spent five hunting seasons with Evans, taking 250 birds. She likely would have had many more successful seasons but died during spay surgery the summer after she turned five years old.

Bliss’s abrupt death left Evans reeling, for more reasons than one. Not only did he lose a faithful companion and favorite dog, but his carefully curated Old Hemlock bloodline was about to come to an end. Luckily, a friend had bred one of Bliss’s siblings, Mark, to a Ryman setter. The friend gave Evans an orange puppy from that litter, which Evans named Briar. And, as fate and genetics would have it, Briar was as much a hunter as his great-grandfather, Ruff.

Evans made good use of this second chance. Briar sired a dozen litters during his lifetime, ensuring the Old Hemlock line would never again be in jeopardy.

* * *

Today there are 82 Old Hemlock setters scattered across the United States, from Maine down to South Carolina and as far west as Wisconsin and Minnesota. The breed’s renown grew alongside Evans’ reputation as an outdoors writer. His finely crafted prose brought Blue, Dixie, Ruff, Briar, and the rest of the Old Hemlock brood to life on the page and left readers wanting some of that magic for themselves.

That’s how Ray Brown first learned about Old Hemlock setters. He read Evans’ debut book, 1971’s The Upland Shooting Life, shortly after it was released and wrote a letter to inquire about getting one of the dogs. Evans agreed to put Brown on the waiting list, but only after he thoroughly vetted him over several more letters and phone calls. Two years later, in 1973, Kay called Brown with the news: George had a puppy for him.

Brown and Evans kept up their correspondence and became friends. The men found they had similar philosophies about hunting dogs. They appreciated animals that constantly quest for game with fire and drive but also check back in with their masters. Both men also believed in treating dogs like members of the family. This might be taken for granted today, but it was a remarkable idea in Evans’ time. Other men of his generation might trade dogs like pocket knives, but when a dog entered Evans’ life, it was there for life. Kay joked Old Hemlock was “the most elegant kennel south of the Mason-Dixon Line.”

Evans’ philosophy of dog-as-companion extended to breeding, too. He didn’t want a kennel of brooding bitches just waiting for a sire—he wanted both father and mother to be someone’s proven hunting partner. This created some logistical challenges, since Evans had to rely on each dog’s owner to facilitate breeding matches. He also wanted owners to agree they would not breed their dogs without his permission. “At first it was a gentlemen’s agreement, and a lot of people broke the gentlemen’s agreement,” Graffious says.

So Evans made things official. When owners got one of his Old Hemlock setters, he made sure to have both the owner’s name and his name on the papers. That way, no one could breed an official Old Hemlock setter without his permission.

When Evans died in May 1998, Brown took over the Old Hemlock line. Now, each dog’s certificate bears both the owner’s name and Brown’s. It’s all about quality control. “Not all dogs should be bred. We’re trying to use the best of the best to produce the kind of dog we’re looking for,” Brown says.

It is also now Brown’s job to vet potential owners—to ensure they share his and Evans’ beliefs about dogs and how they should be treated. It’s important to match dogs with the right people, because owners are automatically entered into an exclusive club. “You get an Old Hemlock setter, it’s more like an adoption and you become more like a family member,” Graffious says.

Until the end of his life, Evans stayed in close contact with all the owners, who often sent him photos of the dogs in the field and at home. He kept these mementos in a big wooden bowl in his studio, like a proud grandfather.

The family bond did not break when Evans died. Owners keep in touch through a newsletter. Each issue includes information about breeding activities, allows owners to ask questions or offer advice, and shares stories about training and hunting with Old Hemlock setters. And, each March, the setters and their owners get together for a family reunion of sorts.

The tradition began the spring after Evans died and now draws anywhere from 30 to 50 people, plus dogs, each year. Each year’s gathering begins with a big dinner on Wednesday night at Old Hemlock, followed by three days of hunting at a preserve in Pennsylvania.

There’s no need to wonder how George Bird Evans might feel about all this. He told us. “Humans seek immortality in bloodlines, even bird dog bloodlines,” he wrote in Troubles With Bird Dogs. “It is pleasant to hope that when Kay and I are no longer gunning, Old Hemlock setters will keep our ideals alive.”

At River’s Bottom

This story originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

At first, no one knew exactly what was happening, or why. But one fact was clear—lots of things were dying in Dunkard Creek.

Division of Natural Resources fisheries biologists Frank Jernejcic and Dave Wellman were at the Monongalia County stream almost every day during the September 2009 fish kill, surveying the damage. Lifeless fish lay dead on the shores and sandbars. The fish that remained alive thronged into pools of unspoiled water created by the confluence of Dunkard’s tributaries with the main waterway. “They couldn’t move into the main flow of the stream. They were stuck in these little areas,” says Jernejcic, who retired in late 2014.

The fish couldn’t swim upstream into those tributaries because the water level was too low. “They were frantic, like if someone sets off a bomb in the middle of a fairground and people try to make it to the exit,” Wellman says. Jernejcic remembers the last two he saw alive, a carp and a muskie. By the next time he visited the pool, those fish were died, too.

And then there were the white soft clumps of matter Wellman noticed floating downstream. “The first couple times I saw them, I thought it was clumps of toilet paper,” he says. But he realized it was much more worrisome than litter. After checking with fellow DNR biologist Janet Clayton, Wellman confirmed his hypothesis: those white clumps were actually mussels, floating free of their shells after they were killed by whatever unseen force wiped out the rest of Dunkard Creek’s aquatic life.

More than a week later, biologists finally figured out what caused the Dunkard Creek kill. A mine drainage pipe was dumping high levels of chlorides into the stream, creating brackish conditions that, when combined with low water levels and hot weather, created a perfect environment for Prymnesium parvum—more commonly known as “golden algae”—to grow. When the algae bloomed, it released deadly toxins that damaged the gills of fish and mussels, causing them to choke to death.

In the end, around 21,000 fish and 25,000 mussels died in the kill—every single living thing that called Dunkard Creek home. “Normally you have some fish alive. In this case, there were no fish left,” says Jernejcic, who saw hundreds of events like this in his career, and even served on the national committee that wrote the handbook on investigating fish kills.

Then, over the following weeks and months, something amazing began to happen. The algae dissipated as weather and water conditions shifted. Fish moved up from the Monongahela River and lower sections of Dunkard Creek. Within a year, biologists found 90 percent of fish species had returned to the stream. Within two years, 100 percent of species had returned, although the populations took a few more years to reach pre-kill levels. “It recovered very quickly,” Jernejcic says. “Two or three years later, I fished it and had one of the best smallmouth trips of my life.”

But not everything bounced back so easily. Years passed and the mussel population in Dunkard Creek remained nonexistent. Clayton, DNR’s foremost expert on mussels, says it can take centuries for mussel populations to recover after a catastrophic event because of the slow and cumbersome way these mollusks reproduce. “In a case like Dunkard Creek, it probably never would,” she says.

Luckily, Mother Nature has people like Clayton to help her along.

* * *

DNR began its mussel restoration project in Dunkard Creek in 2011. Crews began collecting fully mature mussels during stream surveys and pulling others from streams where construction projects threatened the native mussel populations. They came from the Ohio River, Elk River, Tygart River, and several smaller streams including the unaffected north West Virginia fork of Dunkard Creek, and were planted directly in the substrate of Dunkard Creek.

Clayton and company also began growing their own mussels. In 2011, Clayton and her team moved their first brood stock into DNR’s facility in Belleville, Wood County. Mussels reproduce sexually—meaning both a male and female are required for the process—but since they can’t move to find a mate, male mussels release their sperm into the water, hoping a female somewhere downstream will catch it and use it to fertilize her eggs. This fertilization can take some time. For mussel species known as “long-term brooders,” this stage can last the entire winter.

Once the eggs have matured into larvae called “glochidia,” it’s time for another trip downstream. The mother mussel releases her glochidia into the water where, if they’re lucky, they will latch onto the gills of a passing fish. Or at least that’s how it works in the wild. At Belleville, Clayton’s crew placed the glochidia in a holding tank with small fish and then used a pump to aerate the water to keep the glochidia moving around, increasing their exposure to a potential host.

Mussels are picky about their hosts. While some species of mussels will work with entire groups of fish, other mussels require an exact subspecies before they’ll grab hold. Some, for example, only use skipjack herring. “There’s others that use catfish, there’s others that use darters,” Clayton says. “There are mussels that we still don’t know what their host is.”

For mussel species that require larger fish as hosts, Clayton had to take a more hands-on approach to inoculation. She collected the glochidia in a syringe, and then squirted it onto the gills of an appropriate host fish. She only used one side of the fish, however, to ensure the fish were not over-inoculated and had difficulty breathing.

Larvae develop into juvenile mussels during their time as parasites. When the mollusks have developed enough to survive on their own, juvenile mussels simply drop off their fish hosts and find a home on the bottom of the stream. In 2012, Clayton and her team released inoculated bluegill and drum fish at four different sites on Dunkard Creek, hoping the juveniles would settle into the streambed and begin to replenish the population. They also released fish in 2013 and 2014.

Things have not gone as Clayton hoped. “So far we’ve not seen any response,” she says. This difficulty did not come as a surprise, however—she knew from the beginning the odds were stacked against her project. The mussel reproductive process is long and finicky, and in the wild is largely a product of luck. Despite biologists’ efforts to circumvent luck, sometimes the natural order still prevails.

But that doesn’t mean Clayton has stopped trying. Mussels are far too important for that.

* * *

Clayton first became interested in mussels back in 1989. She worked for DNR’s Office of Water Resources at the time, and was in her office one day when she overhead a new employee complaining just outside her door. Their boss was going to make him attend a class on mussels, and he did not want to go. Clayton jumped at the chance and volunteered to take his place. “Once I took the class, I was fascinated. They’re just amazing,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she moved to DNR’s office in Elkins where she got involved with a research tracking acid rain’s effects on fish. She still was working on mussel projects on the side, and over time her work became less about acid rain and more about mussels. When the research program wrapped up, her bosses asked Clayton developing a new mussel program for the agency.

Mussels are found all over the state—West Virginia is home to about 63 species, nine of which are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. And despite their humble appearance, mussels are extremely important to their ecosystems. Because they bury themselves into the streambed, they help prevent erosion like trees on a hillside.

They are also nature’s sewage treatment plants. Mussels feed themselves by drawing water through their siphons and filtering out particulate matter and small organisms—a single mussel can filter five gallons of water a day. It’s not just food they are pulling from the water, however. “They also filter out the contaminants,” Clayton says. “They’re filtering everything out of the water. What they don’t use in their bodies, they’re binding into pseudofeces. Other critters can eat that. That’s less for that our water treatment plants have to deal with.”

But as helpful as they are to their ecosystems, mussels are also extremely vulnerable creatures. Most of the events that lead to mussel deaths are not big, dramatic happenings like Dunkard Creek. Clayton says mussel deaths are usually caused by a slow accumulation of sediments over time. “We have a lot of sediment impacts from road construction, from the oil and gas industry,” she says. Chlorides, like those found in fracking fluid or road salt, are especially dangerous. “That’s highly toxic to mussels, and even more toxic to juvenile mussels.”

They are also threatened by invasive species. Zebra mussels—a nickel-sized freshwater mollusk originally native to Russia—killed 25 percent of the native mussels in the Ohio River in 2000. The native mussels sucked the microscopic zebra mussel larvae through the water column while trying to feed. As the larvae develop, “they become this ball of zebra mussels on top of the native mussel,” Clayton says. The intruders use up all the food and oxygen in the water and starve out the native mussel.

By and large, there’s little anyone can do about these threats. The golden algae could come back, if the conditions are right. Clayton says industrial disasters seem to be getting more and more frequent. There’s nothing to prevent zebra mussels from entering the state’s waterways.

But she can try to repair what’s been broken. Although the Dunkard Creek restoration isn’t going very well at the moment, there have been other, more successful projects. When chemical spills on the Ohio River killed thousands of mussels, Clayton and her team went into the river to stock adult muscles. “Our main purpose was to get some mussels in there to help hold the substrate,” she says. But those mussels made way for more to follow. “The last time we surveyed it four years ago, we picked up an endangered species that has naturally recruited back into that site.”

It’s these kinds of victories that keep Clayton fighting her fight. Although it has been nearly 30 years since she attended that first class on mussels, her passion for the creatures remains as strong as ever. It might seem odd to some to devote so much energy—not to mention a career—to these often overlooked, not very attractive, bottom-feeding creatures. But for Clayton, it’s no mystery. “They’re quite important,” she says.

Making the Stage

This story originally appeared in the summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Jerry Run 14 small resArrive late to a show at the Jerry Run Summer Theater and you can hear the music as soon as you open the car door. Low frequencies seep from the uninsulated walls, drawing you along the worn grass path toward the green front doors. Inside, after you’ve paid the $5 entrance fee and a few bucks more for a hot dog and bottle of pop, the theater will be dark except for the stage lights and the fading sunlight that wriggles through the louvered, glassless windows.

Slip into the rows of thickly padded auditorium seats and you’ll likely go unnoticed. The crowds at Jerry Run are known for their attentiveness to the entertainment. But look around. See the scores of smiling faces. Neighbors will be tapping their feet and bobbing their heads to the music, alongside folks from farther away who’ve come to see this little theater in rural Webster County. And in the corner of the balcony, show after show, you’ll find Dusty Anderson—the soundman, master of ceremonies, handyman, and janitor, and the guy who designed and built the theater from the ground up.

Anderson is a lifelong music fan, having learned the basics at the knee of his organ-playing grandfather. In high school, he played electric bass in a rock band. But when he graduated and started working as a carpenter, his interests shifted—instead of playing music, he dreamed of building a place where he could host performances by other artists.

He was inspired by a benefit concert he and wife Renee organized to help save the local elementary school from consolidation. The school’s gymnasium wasn’t the most acoustically appealing space, but the response was overwhelming. “People really enjoyed themselves. It brought pleasure to their lives,” says Renee.

Dusty started researching theater construction, trying to find books about acoustical design at the local library. “I believe in a blueprint,” he says. The information proved lacking. Good acoustics, the authors seemed to suggest, are as much a matter of luck as anything else. This did not intimidate Dusty, however. He began making models of his theater, planning how it all would fit together.

A tract of land eventually came up for sale across the road from the Andersons’ home. They bought the property and Dusty began clearing trees. He designed and built tall arching trusses that make up the building’s rib cage, hoisting them upright with some assistance from helpful neighbors. “People were thinking, ‘What’s he doing out there?’” he says with a laugh.

He included skylights down the middle of the roof to provide ventilation and a little light, and built louvered windows for the same purpose. He built a tidy concession stand in one corner of the foyer and left the opposite side open for a seating area.

Dusty bought a speaker system from a friend who upgraded to a more high-tech setup. “They go back to the ’80s but they sound good,” he says. The theater seats also came second-hand, from a lecture hall at West Virginia Wesleyan College. The school had planned to send them to the landfill, but Dusty spent a whole weekend hauling them back to his theater. Each seat still has a fold-up desk bolted to the right-hand side—which makes for a handy place to rest your hotdog and pop while enjoying a show.

After years of planning and years of construction, the theater opened its doors in 2003. Now in its 14th season, Jerry Run hosts about 25 shows each year, beginning in late spring and running until early fall. Despite its out-of-the-way location, the theater has attracted scores of musical acts from across the state and around the country, as evidenced by the wall of framed pictures hanging in the foyer. Most are bluegrass bands—that’s what most local bands play, and that’s what audiences like to hear—but there have been rock, country, and folk groups, too. As word of the quaint little venue has spread, so has its roster.

In October 2014, Jerry Run Summer Theater got its biggest act to date:
internationally renowned songwriter Sam Beam, who goes by the stage name Iron & Wine. Beam’s manager Howard Greynolds saw an article about Jerry Run in a Chicago newspaper. Greynolds has family in Clarksburg, so he decided to stop by on his next visit to the Mountain State. He asked Dusty if Jerry Run would host one of his acts someday—to which Dusty agreed, although he didn’t expect anything would come from it. “We thought, we’ll never hear from this guy again,” Renee says.

More than a year later, however, Greynolds called the Andersons and asked if they would put on a special concert by Iron & Wine. Beam had been inspired by Dusty’s story and wanted to feature the theater in a short concert film to promote his new collection of early songs, Archive Series Volume No. 1.

Beam’s people trucked in loads of fancy cameras and lighting rigs, along with generators to power everything. The show attracted fans from Charleston and Morgantown and Pittsburgh, along with Jerry Run’s usual band of regulars. “People were just so thrilled. The crowd was hanging on every word,” Renee says.

The concert film—called “Dreamers and Makers are my Favorite People,” now easily found on YouTube—has gained Jerry Run national recognition, but it hasn’t changed the venue’s handmade charm. When the Andersons opened the theater in late April for this year’s first show, Renee was still at the concession stand, slinging hot dogs, pepperoni rolls, and popcorn with her longtime helper Barb Kopanko. Renee’s sister Linda Pugh was still behind the cash box collecting admission. “Glad to see you open again,” a woman said as she handed over her five-dollar bill.

At seven o’clock sharp the night’s entertainment, a Buffalo, New York-based folk rock group, walked onstage with Dusty in hot pursuit. He strode up to the mic, hands tugging at the lapels of his unbuttoned denim shirt. “Please welcome—Savannah and the Kings!”

Dusty was off the stage almost before the applause began. His tall, lanky frame quickly carried him to the darkened balcony, where he took his place behind the mixing board. Next week he’ll sweep up the popcorn off the floor and wipe up any coffee rings left on the folding desks. If a breaker knocks out the lights again, he’ll be the one hunting down the problem. But while the band is onstage, Dusty can just sit back, enjoy the songs, and appreciate a music scene he built with his own two hands.