Zack Harold


Famed cronut finally debuts in city

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, February 12, 2014.

The cronut has landed.

More than six months after the flaky, deep-fried confection took New York City by storm, Charleston residents can now get a little piece of the action.

Sarah’s Bakery on Bridge Road debuted its version of the half-croissant, half-doughnut last Friday, and has already created a stir among the city’s sweet teeth.

On Friday, the bakery sold all four-dozen of its cronuts within an hour. Owner Sarah Plumley fried up another four-dozen cronuts the next day and sold out within 45 minutes.

“I literally had a line of people come in,” she said.

Some customers called to reserve a cronut, but Plumley said she is not taking pre-orders. If she did, there might not be any left for walk-in customers.

“They’ll sell out before I cook them,” she said.

Plumley had never made a cronut before receiving her deep fryer last week, but researched recipes online, reading articles on blogs and watching YouTube videos.

“Apparently, they are a huge hit in the Philippines,” she said.

Although cronuts are a relatively simple treat – it’s just croissant dough shaped into a ring and deep-fried – Plumley said preparing them is a very labor-intensive process.

“You’ve got to make the dough, let it rise, fry them, let them cool and then fill them,” she said.

Sarah’s Bakery has a small kitchen and a small deep fryer to match, which limits Plumley’s ability to churn out large batches of the flaky pastries.

Just making the dough is a long process. Croissant dough is known for its flaky layers, but to achieve that effect, Plumley must subject the dough to round after round of folding and rolling. That’s why Sarah’s sells its cronuts for $4.25 apiece.

Customers are more than happy to pay the price for Plumley’s hard work, however.

“I’ve had a lot of people coming and saying ‘Finally cronuts come to Charleston,’ ” she said.

Except the bakery cannot call them “cronuts.” That name is trademarked by Dominique Ansel, who invented the pastry in his New York bakery.

“I’m just calling them ‘croissant doughnut,’ ” Plumley said.

The bakery currently is offering two standard flavors, brown sugar bacon chocolate and vanilla cream, but Plumley hopes to experiment with more flavors in the coming weeks. She plans to make strawberry cronuts for Valentine’s Day.

The bakery will continue selling the pastries on a first-come, first-served basis for the time being. She recommends customers show up around noon to get one.

A Taste of Tradition

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Imagine your great-great-great-grandpa rambling down some cobblestone street, out on the town with his buddies. They bust through swinging doors into a dark saloon, step past the tables and brass spittoons, and belly up to the bar. What do they order? Whiskey or bourbon or rum, maybe, but beer—probably not. More than likely, the barkeep serves up big mugs of hard apple cider.

“It was the quintessential American beverage,” says Josh Bennet, co-owner of Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead, located just outside Lewisburg. “There was more cider drunk in the 1700s and  1800s, per capita, than all soda pop now.” This is difficult for us to imagine, in a time when hard cider commands about as much respect among serious drinkers as a strawberry daiquiri. But that’s why Bennet and his friend Will Lewis started Hawk Knob last year. They wanted to create a product—available soon in stores and restaurants around the state—that would remind Americans of this forgotten chapter of our palliative past.

Cider began to fall out of fashion in the 1800s but it was Prohibition that really struck the industry to its core. When the 21st Amendment made it illegal to produce or sell alcohol in the United States, apple  growers suddenly had lots of fruit and no one to sell it to. All the apple pies in the world couldn’t replace the demand lost when cideries closed. Many of the nation’s orchards were razed as farmers were forced to find other, more profitable crops.

Prohibition was lifted 13 years later but the cider business has never fully recovered—until recently. Sales of cider increased by more than 75 percent between November 2013 and November 2014, raking in $366.4 million according to a January report by FiveThirtyEight, the website run by statistics guru Nate Silver. The vast majority of those sales went to large cideries like Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Johnny Cider, and Strongbow. But the guys at Hawk Knob are quick to point out their products are very different from—much more in line with tradition than—those grocery store brands.

“What we do and what Angry Orchard does is not the same thing,” Bennet says. He says big commercial cideries use newer apple varieties like Fuji, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith for their products or, in some cases, pre-made concentrate. Hawk Knob uses heirloom apple breeds like Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black, varieties traditionally used for cider production.

For their first commercial pressing last year, Bennet and Lewis purchased their apples from Morgan Orchard in Monroe County—they’re committed to having an entirely West Virginia-grown product. They plan to grow some of their own apples, too. Last year, Lewis grafted 175 apple trees at Bennet’s farm in Pocahontas County, although it will be several years before those trees are fully productive.

Bennet and Lewis also hope to convince local farmers to plant apple trees on their farms. “This region of Appalachia is a perfect apple-growing region. We want to create a network of farmers that work with us. There’s plenty of opportunity,” Bennet says. “We can guarantee we’ll be there every year to get them.” He says West Virginia should seize this opportunity to boost its agricultural output. With enough commitment from farmers and cider makers, the state could become a leader in the growing hard cider movement.

Great-great-great-grandpa would be proud.

Casts of Character

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


The Native American hunter, all bulging muscle and sinew, lies close to his horse’s neck as the beast reaches full gallop. He clutches a flint-tipped spear in his right hand. With his left he holds a buffalo hide, draping the skin over himself and his pony.

We are witnessing a “buffalo jump,” where a disguised horseman drives a herd of bison into the path of a hunting party. In milliseconds the hide will fall away and the stunned herd will be doomed. But the climax never occurs. The whole scene is frozen in time.

This is the work of sculptor Burl Jones. He takes characters and scenes from the adventure magazines he read as a kid growing up near Charleston and—with clay, bronze, and an eye for detail—hits the pause button.

Like so many young West Virginia boys and girls, Jones spent his childhood was outdoors. He remembers thrilling over the rabbits and squirrels his father brought home after hunting trips and began accompanying his father on those trips as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun. He fantasized about the American West—the Rocky Mountains and the badlands of Montana that he read about in Jack O’Connor’s stories for Outdoor Life magazine.

Jones finally got a chance to see those landscapes himself when, after finishing dental school at West Virginia University in 1966, he went to Montana for two years to work on an Indian reservation. It was during this time in Big Sky Country that he first encountered the bronze work of renowned artist Robert Scriver, who had a gallery on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He began seeking out other bronze artists after that, but only as an admirer. Jones had an artistic bent—he’d carved a few gunstocks, and he’d tried painting for a while until his colorblindness made the exercise too frustrating—but did not consider himself an artist. “I was intrigued by it (but) it never registered in my mind that it was something I’d do,” he says.

He returned to West Virginia in 1968 and set up a dental practice in Sissonville. His artistic impulses continued to goad him, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Jones finally tried his hand at sculpture, making little figurines from dental wax. He learned by observing other artists and asking questions, but it was largely an effort of trial and error. “Mostly error,” he says.

He tried to cast his miniature sculptures in copper and bronze, the way he was taught to make dental prostheses in dentistry school, but was not satisfied with the results. “I didn’t know enough about the casting process. I discovered if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to enlist the aid of a professional foundry,” he says.

After a lot of shopping around, Jones finally found a foundry he liked and began having his sculptures turned into bronzes. He had no intentions to sell the pieces—sculpture was nothing more than a creative outlet at the time—but his work started attracting attention from friends and, eventually, from art galleries in Montana.

In 1982, Jones sold his dentistry practice in West Virginia and moved with his wife to Livingstone, Montana where he spent half his time tackling cavities and root canals and the other half sculpting birds, bears, horses, fish, Native American warriors, and coonskin-capped mountaineers. He eventually opened his own art gallery and, in 1992, decided to quit dentistry and give his full attention to art.

No matter what he’s making, each of Jones’s sculptures begins with in-depth research. Jones is a stickler for detail. “I’ve got shelves full of books that show profiles and dimensions on hawks and eagles. They have a certain number of feathers. They have a proportion of wing to tail to body.” For living human subjects, he’s been known to make exhaustive photographic records and even measure the person’s facial features.

Small pieces can take up to a month to sculpt, plus two or three months at the foundry. For portraiture projects, he prefers to have at least a year. To date, Jones has created more than 225 limited edition sculptures. His work is a mainstay at Tamarack, West Virginia’s art and craft showcase in Beckley, and prized by collectors who share the artist’s affinity for the outdoors. His reputation for intensely detailed work has led to larger projects including a monument outside WVU’s Alumni Center, a statue of a coal miner on the state Capitol grounds, and the bust outside Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium commemorating players killed in the 1970 plane crash.

Jones plans to do three or four sculptures this year. Now 74, he says he doesn’t get as much time to sculpt as he’d like. He splits his time between a home in Huntley, Montana, a “medium-sized” ranch in the northeastern part of the state, and a residence back home in Kanawha County. Between his grandkids’ ballgames, marketing his work, tending to his ranch, hunting, and fishing, there’s not as much time to spend in his art studio. But sculpture remains Jones’ favorite pastime. “I could work at it every day and be happy doing it,” he says.

He’s currently finishing work on a small eagle, its wings canted and tail feathers spread as the bird turns in midair. In life, this moment would be over in a split second. But soon the sculpture will go to the foundry and the eagle—along with a small piece of its creator—will be frozen in time, forever.

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name,, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.

A Boy and His Bird

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

For more than a millennium, people in Japan and China have used aquatic birds called cormorants to help them catch fish. Fishermen tie hemp snares around a trained bird’s throat so that, when the animal dives into the water after its prey, big fish remain stuck in its gullet. The fisherman then brings the bird back onto his boat and makes it spit up the trapped fish.

In West Africa, the Boran people of Ethiopia have for centuries worked alongside a bird known as the greater honeyguide. The bird leads tribespeople to honeybee nests using its calls and flight patterns. After the humans smoke the bees away and rob the honey, the bird gets to eat the leftover wax and insect larvae.

In Randolph County, West Virginia, Collin Waybright and his red tailed hawk Ace have been hunting together for about a year. Ace flies from tree to tree as Collin walks below. “He knows I’m going to flush something out,” Collin says. When a critter eventually does emerge from the underbrush, Ace dives from his perch and—usually before Collin knows what is going on—overtakes the prey and quickly dispatches it with the crushing grip and razor-sharp tips of his talons.

This bird isn’t much interested in fish or honeybee larvae. He prefers to hunt chipmunks, although he and Collin caught their first grey squirrel together last November. Ace once caught a king blacksnake, too, which gave Collin quite a scare. “They’ll take anything they can catch. You never know what you’re going to get if you go hunting with a hawk,” he says. “It’s never a boring time.”

Never boring and almost always successful. Collin says Ace catches something almost every time he goes into the woods—which is more than any other hunter can say for his prized shotgun or rifle. This is probably why ancient humans got the idea of hunting with birds in the first place. “I think at some point early man realized these birds were catching the quarry he himself was pursuing,” says Matthew Frey, co-founder of the West Virginia Falconry Club.

The origins of falconry are hazy. The practice likely goes back before the written word, but historians know the Mongols practiced falconry between five and six thousand years ago. It spread throughout Asia and the Middle East—there is even a mention of the sport in the Quran—but did not take hold in Europe until the Crusades, becoming extremely popular during the Renaissance period.

It was more than an entertainment, however. “Way back when, it was a viable way of bringing meat,” says master falconer Paul Fowler. Reliable firearms were not available until the 1700s and even then the weapons were not very efficient or accurate. “Even then, falconry was one of the only reliable ways to take winged prey,” Paul says.

The sport declined in popularity as weapons improved. It is relatively obscure today, with only a few thousand licensed falconers in the United States and fewer than 20 falconers in West Virginia. Matthew says he has seen increased interest in falconry over the last few years, but he also knows the sport likely will not and maybe should not become totally mainstream. “It’s really not for everybody. And, in fact, the people that are successful are a small, esoteric few,” he says. “You really have to be an expert in it, and to be an expert you have to be passionate about it.”

At 15 years old Collin is, as far as he knows, the youngest falconer in the state. He got his apprentice falconer’s license when he was 14, after being introduced to the sport at West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. At an age when most boys his age are thinking about learner’s permits, Collin began the long process of becoming a licensed falconer.

West Virginia law requires beginning falconers to pass a huge multiple-choice test and have all their equipment inspected by the Division of Natural Resources. Applicants must then spend two years under the tutelage of a more experienced falconer. Collin didn’t know any falconers when he started but contacted the DNR and found, as luck would have it, there was a guy about 10 minutes away who could help him get started—Paul Fowler.

Once he passed his test and had all the necessary equipment, Paul helped his apprentice catch his first bird. State regulations only allow apprentices to hunt with red tailed hawks or American kestrels, and each student must catch their own hunting birds.

Paul loaned Collin a Swedish goshawk trap. The device features a hinged A-frame design so when it is set, the sides stand straight up to expose a bait animal in a special compartment at the bottom of the trap. When a bird swoops down after the bait, the sides of the A-frame snap together and enclose the raptor.

In early January 2015, Collin and Paul dropped the trap along a back road and drove away, hoping a bird of prey would come along and be hungry enough to take the bait. When they returned a short time later, the trap was closed. Collin’s pulse quickened but he tried not to get his hopes up. “I thought the trap had been blown shut or something. We drove closer, and there he was.”

Inside the box was a red tailed hawk—the bird soon to be known as Ace.

He was a little on the small side and missing one of his toes, likely from a bad encounter with some would-be prey. Paul helped Collin put a hood on the hawk to calm the bird down, then taped Ace’s legs together and wrapped a towel over his wings to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Back at Collin’s house they placed the hawk in the eight-foot-square “mew” Collin and his dad built to house the bird, and hooked anklets and a leash to his feet.

Collin and Ace began training the next day. The first step was to get Ace to eat from Collin’s glove, a way to establish trust. Food is the only thing that motivates a bird of prey. Raptors used for falconry do not desire the approval of their human partners, and do not consider hunting as a means of play. This means falconers must keep an extremely close eye on their birds’ weight and food intake, keeping them hungry enough to cooperate but not so hungry they become malnourished.

Once Collin earned Ace’s trust—and established himself as a reliable source of food—it was on to the next step: getting Ace to jump from his perch onto Collin’s leather glove. The more they practiced the farther Collin moved from the perch, giving Ace the confidence to jump longer distances. Soon they moved this exercise outside the mew. With Ace attached to a creance—a cord falconers attach to their birds’ feet to keep them from flying away during training—Collin started jumping the little hawk from 50 feet away, then slowly progressed to 150 feet. Once he was comfortably flying 150 feet to Collin’s fist, it was time to give Ace his first free flight.

Collin walked to a field near his home with Ace firmly planted on his gauntlet. It had been only two weeks since Collin first trapped Ace, and he was nervous about what would happen once he allowed the bird to take off on his own, with no tethers on its feet. “It was nerve-wracking. Some people’s birds just up and go.”

Standing with his arms and legs apart, Collin turned at his waist and stretched his arm toward Ace’s target—a large trailer filled with hay bales. The bird took off, fast. The tracking bells on his feet jingled as his wings flapped, and in a few seconds Ace was perched atop one of the bales. Collin blew two sharp chirps on his whistle and Ace came off the perch, soared across the snowy ground, and lighted back on Collin’s forearm.

His nerves dissolved into a heady rush. He repeated the exercise a few more times, and each time Ace found his perch before returning gracefully to Collin’s arm. It wasn’t long before they took these newfound skills into the woods. There is a video on Collin’s Facebook page, showing him flushing an animal from a big brush pile with a large stick. Ace sits atop the heap with his eyes peeled for movement. In an instant, he drops off his branch and onto the ground—his talons wrapped around a chipmunk.

The power dynamic is fascinating. We humans are so used to being at the top of the food chain and yet, when Collin goes hunting with ace, he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. He is the bird’s assistant—and it’s exhilarating. “I have this relationship with this wild animal that not very many people get to have. He actually comes to me when I call him,” he says. “And you’re hunting with it. You’re working with it cooperatively.”

Falconry creates a unique, rewarding relationship between birds and mankind, but it’s nothing like most relationships humans forge with animals. Although they work closely together, Ace does not seek Collin’s approval and does not express love. Some days Ace will allow Collin to pet him but on other days he’s skittish and does not want to be touched. Some days he’s ready to hunt. Other days he’s not interested. “They’re always going to be wild, no matter how long you’re with them.”

But the boy and his bird do share a special bond. The longer Collin hunts with Ace, the more he understands his hunting partner. “You figure out how it thinks.” Collin believes Ace is learning about him, too. He has seen the way the hawk reacts to his body language and emotions. Ace is learning how Collin thinks, too. “He trusts me.”

* * *

As we were readying this story for publication, I got a call from Collin’s mother Marsha. “I have some bad news,” she told me. Just a few days after our interview, Collin found Ace on the floor of his mew, dead. “It looked like he had just dropped. My heart just sank to my stomach,” Collin says.

There were few signs the hawk was sick. He was a little sluggish a few days before but seemed fine otherwise. “He had performed awesome. He was coming to the fist even before I whistled,” Collin says. Then all at once Ace stopped eating and wouldn’t hop on Collin’s glove.

The family called the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont for help, and made arrangements for Ace to see one of the center’s veterinarians if his health did not improve. The hawk took a turn for the worse before that could happen, however. Collin is still working with the center to figure out what killed Ace but they believe it could have been a congenital condition. His time with Collin might have even lengthened his life—captivity has been known to double or even triple the average lifespan of red tailed hawks.

Ace’s death hasn’t affected Collin’s interest in falconry. He plans to get another bird, he just doesn’t know when. “It’s just part of the sport. You get a bird and you like it and you keep it, it’s going to happen eventually.”

But that doesn’t make losing Ace, his first bird, any easier. This was the animal whose willing cooperation inducted Colin into a fellowship that predates recorded history. But more than that, Ace was a huge part of Collin’s everyday routine. “It’s a way of life. You’ve got to plan everything around the bird,” he says. “I’m having a hard time just believing he’s gone.”



Blackout: Scenes from a Coal-Dependent Economy

This article was originally published in the Jan./Feb. 2016 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

One day Bill Thompson, 76, decided to just sit and wait by the front door of his Boone County home improvement store. Thompson bought Danville Lumber from his uncle after he left the Army in 1963. Business was strong back then. In the 1970s, the company had more than 70 employees on three shifts.

But this day, as Thompson waited by the front door, there were only about a dozen people on staff. The inventory that used to tally upwards of $1 million was down to about $200,000. And the phones that used to ring off the hook don’t ring as often anymore. Thompson sat and waited, and more than an hour passed before one customer walked through the door.

As the coal industry has declined, thousands of Boone County coal miners have found themselves without jobs. That drastically affects the demand for construction materials—folks who don’t have jobs don’t build houses. “And the ones that are working are afraid to spend money,” Thompson says. Most of Danville Lumber’s local sales are now for smaller stuff, emergency repairs. If a big order does arrive, it usually comes from Kanawha or Putnam County.

Danville Lumber used to offer customers in-house credit, but not anymore. “We’re scared to death they won’t pay us,” says Arthur “Cooter” Berry, Thompson’s son-in-law. “They’re going to pay the power bill before they pay us.”

Thompson and Berry understand what it’s like to have bills that are difficult to pay. In October 2014, Thompson realized the company could no longer afford to provide its employees with health insurance. He spent a week mulling the decision before finally telling employees. “I thought how many are going to quit today? I thought that would be the end of the company.” But to Thompson’s surprise, no one quit. “There’s no other jobs,” he says.

Danville Lumber has been in Thompson’s family since the 1920s. The business has weathered many ups and downs in the coal market, but Thompson says he has never seen times as bad as this. “It seems like everything in Boone County is going against you right now,” he says. “It’s a different world out here, and the public away from here doesn’t know that.”

* * *

Recent declines in the coal industry are wreaking havoc on West Virginia’s economy, especially in the southern part of the state.

The state produced 166 million short tons of coal in 2008, according to data compiled by the West Virginia Coal Association. By the end of 2014, production was down to around 117 million. The state has also seen massive layoffs during that time. In 2009, there were nearly 28,000 people working in mining jobs. That has fallen by 65 percent, with just 18,000 coal mine employees in 2014.

The slide in production and jobs can be attributed to four main factors: the ever-growing difficulty of mining coal in southern West Virginia, competition from cheap natural gas, tougher carbon emissions standards from the federal government, and a weak international export market.

These factors have been studied by economists and geologists and debated by politicians and lawyers, as they should be. But something that is often lost in those high-level conversations is the very real effect these declines have had in small communities all across West Virginia.
And nowhere has been more affected than Boone County.

* * *

In some ways West Virginia owes its coal industry to Boone County. It was here that, in 1742, European explorer John Peter Salley was exploring a tributary of the Kanawha River when he noticed a thick black seam running through the rocks along the river. Salley would dub the waterway “Coal River,” a name it still bears today.

Just like West Virginia as a whole, Boone County has based almost its entire economy on coal mining for a very long time. And for a very long time this made perfect sense because Boone County produced vastly more coal than anywhere else in the state. In 2008, the county mined 30.9 million short tons of coal. Its closest competitor, Mingo County, produced 11.9 million short tons that year.

As a result, the county government received lots and lots of money from coal severance taxes. In 2010 alone, Boone County received $5.3 million in severance taxes. The county commission used this money in myriad ways—including hiring college students for summer jobs at the courthouse, stocking rivers and streams with catfish and trout, paying for public transportation, and funding construction projects on county offices and parks.

But over the last few years coal severance monies have steadily declined, forcing the county to cut back. County Commissioner Mickey Brown says the summer job program ended around 2012. The county stopped stocking fish in 2014. In 2015, the commission dropped funding for public transportation and cut its contributions to local municipalities, the county health department, and the county parks and recreation department by 30 percent.

On January 30, 2016, the county will close its public dump, where many Boone County residents dispose of their household trash for free. The program cost about $1.2 million per year and was paid for entirely by coal severance taxes. Commissioners are also looking at ways to bring down the county’s $1 million jail bill using less expensive sentencing options like day report centers, home confinement, and drug court. Brown estimates this will save the county about $150,000. “We knew things were going down but we didn’t know how drastic it was going to be,” he says.

* * *

The lights are off in the front room of Bill Stone’s office in Danville. He sits behind the receptionist’s desk with a large cup of coffee and some store-bought muffins. He has Fox News on a small television screen but the sound is turned off.

Stone, 77, is dressed in hiking boots, pressed chinos, and a denim shirt with his company’s name embroidered on the left lapel: J&R Cable. He started working here in 1980 and bought the business from its original owners, J.R. Roger and Larry Javins, three years later. He never bothered to change the name, or even add his own initial. There wasn’t time.

The business provides industrial-grade cables to underground and surface mining operations. Since mines use a lot of power, they need a lot of heavy-duty cables. In the good years—basically anytime before 2008—J & R Cable serviced between 50 and 60 mines in a 150-mile radius from its Boone County headquarters. Now the company has about 10 clients.

At one time Stone employed 17 workers. Now there are just eight people, including him. As business has dried up, Stone has been forced to cut back on overtime. Three years ago, he cut his employees back to four days a week. That’s why the office is dark—his office staff is out on Fridays.

Stone says there isn’t any way to pivot the business, to find new clients for the service he offers. A few times a year he might get a call from a gravel pit or cement company, but those businesses don’t need nearly as much cabling as the mines.

Nearing his eighth decade, Stone would like to retire in the next few years. But even quitting might be difficult. “I don’t think this business will ever sell. It’s not feasible or practical.” He imagines the company will have to be liquidated, sold off piece by piece. He jokes he’ll turn the property into a bed and breakfast. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. They’ll be mining coal, but it won’t be like anything we’ve seen in the past.”

* * *

In a small cinderblock gymnasium, under humming lights, a crowd of about 90 people sat on folding chairs and plywood bleachers waiting for a meeting to begin. Members of the Boone County Board of Education and school system administrators sat at a long table at the front on the room.

Off to the side was a large projection screen showing a PowerPoint presentation with an unwieldy title: “Reasons and Supporting Data Required for the Closure of Nellis Elementary school and the Consolidation of Nellis Elementary with Ashford-Rumble Elementary.”

Boone County Schools had three of these meetings in fall 2015, one for each of the three elementary schools that will permanently close once this school year ends. It’s not uncommon for counties to close schools but usually when that happens students are moved into larger, newer, nicer schools. Not here. Students at the three closing schools will just be sent to three other small elementary schools.

It’s a drastic cost-saving maneuver, but a necessary one when you look at the school system’s budget. The county’s student population fell from 4,599 in the 2013-14 school year to 4,331 in 2014-15, leading to a $1.2 million cut in state Department of Education funding. Then in October, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called for a 1 percent cut in state aid to schools. That cost Boone County $176,000.

But worst of all, the county’s property tax income has taken a major hit. Collections fell by $2.2 million between the 2014 and 2015 budget years. During the first four months of the 2016 budget year, property tax revenue was $4.8 million lower than it was the year before.

The school system had only one option to make up the shortfall—deep budget cuts. “We tried our best not to touch our schools,” Superintendent John Hudson says. The school board cut operation costs, eliminated 37 positions in middle and high schools, as well as five positions at the central office. That amounted to $2.6 million, but it wasn’t enough.

Closing the elementary schools is expected to save around $1.8 million. Hudson figures he will have to find an additional $1.6 million in cuts just to balance next year’s budget. “People say, ‘Do something else.’ Well, what is the something else?” he says.

All West Virginia schools receive money from the state Department of Education according to the size of their student populations. Many counties supplement that income using property taxes, collected through regular and excess levies. For a long time schools in the southern part of the state greatly benefited from these levies, because they were able to collect property taxes from coal mining operations.

During the industry’s salad days, Boone County Schools were able to hire as many as 130 more employees than state education funding allowed, based on that property tax money alone. “We had that luxury,” Hudson says.

Now things are heading in the opposite direction. “When you see companies going out of business, that affects our tax collections,” Hudson says. He sees the evidence every time he leaves his Madison office and drives on West Virginia Route 85 toward Van High School, or State Route 3 toward Sherman High School in Seth—big pieces of machinery being hauled away on the backs of trucks. With each one that crosses the county line, Boone County Schools loses a little more money.

The economic realities of the situation provided little comfort to the parents, teachers, and community members for at the consolidation meeting at Nellis Elementary, however. Some parents begged—and some demanded—board members find other ways to save money. “Give yourself a pay cut,” said Sandra Evans, whose grown children once attended Nellis.

Robert Blaylock, a parent, suggested cutting one of the system’s two assistant superintendents. “You’re taking the heart plumb out of this community,” he said. Kim Lay, who has taught at Nellis for 10 years, asked if the board was going to let “the almighty dollar” cloud their judgment. “Cuts need to start from the top. Not our children. Not our future.”

* * *

Christina Adams spent more than 20 years in the classroom, including 10 years teaching kindergarten, before she became principal of Wharton Elementary three years ago. “I just felt like I was ready for that challenge,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference. A big picture difference.” She says she cried for a week when she found out Wharton would soon close its doors for good.

With three fewer schools to staff, Boone County will likely lay off many teachers and service workers, although it’s still unclear how many layoffs will be necessary. Adams will have a job next year—she has over 25 years seniority with the school system—but it’s doubtful she will be able to find another principal position. “Change is good because it keeps you on your toes, but I haven’t got comfortable enough in this job to be ready for that change yet,” she says.

It hasn’t been an easy couple years for Adams’ family. Her husband worked for Patriot Coal and was laid off for three months in 2014 before going back to work for about a year. He was laid off again in March 2015. “We saw the handwriting on the wall and decided we’ve got to have a plan B,” Adams says.

Her husband had been making extra money by running heavy machinery. He decided in July 2015 to make that his full-time job. Business is doing “fairly well,” Adams says, but she doesn’t know what will happen if the venture doesn’t work out. “There’s no plan C. Plan C might be to move out of state—although that’s not what we want to do.”

Adams has seen many families in her school face similar decisions. When she first took the job, Wharton had 124 students. Now the school has 96. “A lot of them, parents come in and say we’re leaving the area. I’m going out west, I’ve got a job, I’m taking my family and going.”

* * *

It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to pinpoint ways Boone County might have avoided its current financial turmoil. The school system could have consolidated some of its elementary schools years ago to avoid having to shutter three schools at once. The county commission could have depended less on coal severance money to fund services. Leaders could have put more emphasis on diversifying the economy, creating more opportunities at home for young people.

But it’s also easy to see why none of those things occurred. “We were so spoiled by coal and what it was doing for us we were never able to bring in another industry,” says Bill Stone at J & R Cable.

There are a few reasons to be hopeful about the coal business. “Some doomsday people are saying coal is going to go to zero. That is absolutely not true,” says John Deskins, director of West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Deskins’ office released a report last year predicting coal production will drop to 98 million short tons in 2016 but rise to about 105 million tons in 2020. Rising natural gas prices, a continued demand for coal in the steel industry, and a healthy international export market will fuel this resurgence, Deskins and his team believe.

But what happens from there? In the worst-case scenario, annual production could fall to 80 million short tons by 2035 if the government imposes strict carbon-cutting environmental regulations, Deskins says.
In the best-case scenario, a growing global economy will drive up the demand for both steel and coal.

This will not be enough to completely revive the industry, however. “We don’t expect anything like we saw even a decade ago,” Deskins says. “Best case scenario, coal may go back to 110 or 115 million (short tons per year), and that’s still a big drop.”

Which scenario is more likely? It doesn’t really matter. Even in the most optimistic future, West Virginia’s coal production will still only be a fraction of its heyday. Which means, at least for the foreseeable future, the people of Boone County and the rest of southern West Virginia will continue to face some very difficult choices.

* * *

About a month before their ninth wedding anniversary in October 2015, Brittany and Derek Chase packed up their three children in the family minivan and made the ten-hour drive from their home in Boone County to an apartment in Bristol, Connecticut. They stayed there for two months before moving again, this time to Hazelton, Pennsylvania. They will probably move again in a couple more months—Brittany hopes to somewhere warmer.

The Chase family has adopted this nomadic lifestyle because of Brittany’s new job. She is a travel nurse, transferring between hospitals every few months, wherever there’s a shortage of help. It’s a career move she has wanted to make for a long time but Derek was always hesitant. “We’d talked about it before but we didn’t do it. I still had a job and I didn’t want to pick up and move,” he says.

His hesitation waned once his employer Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy. Sensing layoffs in the near future, Derek applied for a job with CSX. He got the job, but the railroad kept pushing back his training—first it was scheduled to begin in July, then August or September, and then it was canceled altogether. CSX is having financial difficulties of its own, partially because of the lack of coal being shipped on the rails.

The family decided it was time for a change. Brittany hired on with a travel nursing agency and they headed for New England. It was excellent timing. Just two months after they arrived, Patriot laid off 1,900 workers in Boone and Kanawha counties, including Derek’s former coworkers.

Their new life in New England has been an adjustment. Brittany is now the family’s sole breadwinner. Instead of going off to work, Derek now spends his days homeschooling the kids while trying to finish his bachelor’s degree online through Marshall University.

Their children—Rylee Jo, 2, five-year-old Jackson, 5, and Brooklyn, 7—are adjusting well, making new friends in each new place. “They think it’s the best thing ever,” Brittany says. But after the family returned from a trip back to West Virginia for Thanksgiving, they started asking why they couldn’t go “home.”

For Brittany, missing home is mostly about missing her mom. “Every time I talk on the phone with her, she cries,” she says. “I feel like I’ve broken my mom’s heart.”

The Forgotten Disease

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

For a time, it seemed black lung was headed the way of smallpox and polio. When Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, about 35 percent of coal miners with 25 or more years on the job were diagnosed with coal miners’ pneumoconiosis, the disease’s official name. But once the federal government established dust limits for mines, black lung rates began a steady decline that would last for three decades. By 1999, only 5 percent of workers with 25 or more years of service had the disease.

Then the numbers stopped dropping. “It kind of looks like we hit a brick wall,” says Anita Wolfe, public health advisor at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). “For some reason we started noticing the little lines on the graph were starting to go up again. Now they’re back to about 10 percent.”

The folks at NIOSH were perplexed. “This should be a disease that is gone,” Wolfe says. “This should be a disease we should not be seeing anymore.” The agency created a mobile testing unit, visiting different mining communities around the country for in-depth medical screenings and interviews with miners. Their findings were worrisome. New black lung patients were younger than in the past, and the disease seemed to progress faster than it once did. “Instead of it taking 20 years to go from (the early to late stage), some of them were progressing in as little as seven years,” Wolfe says.

Although researchers have not pinpointed the exact causes, there are a few possible explanations for the recent resurgence of black lung and the disease’s newfound aggressiveness. The coal seams mined today are thinner than in the past, so machines cut into lots of rock as well as coal, and rock dust can be even worse for miners’ lungs than coal dust. NIOSH is also seeing more black lung cases in mines with fewer numbers of employees— operations that often have older, dustier equipment and do not have robust safety programs like those at larger mines. Employees also tend to work longer hours than in the past and, as a result, inhale more dust.

Black lung is a brutally simple sickness. “It’s not rocket science,” Wolfe says. “The way you get black lung disease is, you breathe in coal dust.” The body recognizes this dust as a foreign object and tries to expel it by coughing. Much of the dust is unmoved, however. This remaining dust irritates the lungs and creates scar tissue, which inhibits the lungs’ capacity to turn oxygen into carbon dioxide.

Patients sometimes do not show symptoms during the disease’s earliest stages, although the damage can be picked up on x-rays. Scar tissue continues to build up as things progress, however, eventually leading to late-stage black lung known as “progressive massive fibrosis.” By this stage the lungs are almost completely covered in fibrous scar tissue. Patients usually rely on bottled oxygen to help them breathe. Once the disease reaches this final stage, black lung will only continue to grow worse. “There’s no drug that can help this,” says NIOSH epidemiologist Cara Halldin. Some late-stage patients get lung transplants. although the survival rates for that procedure are not promising.

The only thing that will stop the progression of the disease is to stop the patients’ exposure to coal dust while they are still in the disease’s earliest stages. There are measures mines can take to limit miners’ exposure to dust, including curtains, airflow control systems, and water sprayers on machines. But Halldin says sometimes, if a piece of equipment breaks or the production has fallen behind schedule, mines don’t want to take the time for these safety precautions.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also offers guaranteed transfers to miners diagnosed with black lung, allowing them to move from the dustiest parts of an operation to somewhere with less exposure. Only about 10 percent of eligible workers use the transfer orders. “We don’t know for sure why that is,” Wolfe says. Anecdotally, Wolfe has heard some workers don’t use the transfer orders because they like their jobs or are worried they will be fired or passed over for promotions, even though federal law protects transferred miners against workplace discrimination.

Some workers also seem to hold onto their transfer order until they are ready to retire, in hopes of working their last few years in an easier assignment. Of course, this completely undermines the idea behind the transfer program. By continuing to breathe harmful coal dust, these diagnosed miners have only helped their ailment to advance.

Wolfe says this is the biggest challenge to combating black lung: making sure employers and employees understand the disease and take appropriate precautions to prevent it, or at least slow its progression. She says mines constantly talk about safety to prevent major catastrophes but there is little focus on preventing disease, even though conditions like black lung are more deadly in the long run.

Many young miners don’t even believe the disease is still around. “They look at me with a blank face and say ‘We didn’t think you could get that anymore,’” Wolfe says. They do not realize every breath brings them closer to their own diagnosis.

Rumors surround Golden Horseshoe artifact

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, May 7, 2010.

This morning, State Schools Superintendent Steve Paine will dub more than 200 West Virginia eighth-graders “knights and ladies of the Golden Horseshoe” for their knowledge of state history.

But there’s one question none of these adolescent history aces, or anybody else for that matter, can answer: Where did the silver sword, used for decades to knight students, come from?

There’s only one thing officials know for certain about this antique weapon.

“The sword is really old, I can tell you that,” said Regina Scotchie, the state Department of Education’s social studies coordinator.

“All the history that we have on where the sword came from is hearsay,” she said.

Scotchie said she heard a men’s club donated the piece years ago and that the current sword is the second in the Golden Horseshoe’s history, but has no proof that would substantiate either rumor.

The sword’s ornate scabbard features several images of the Crusades and an engraving that reads, “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.” There’s also a large, fanciful engraving that says “Howard S. Chenoweth” in an Old English font.

The pommel on the end of the sword is shaped like a knight’s helmet. The weapon’s cross-guard, which separates the blade from the grip, displays a sword and crown emblem.

The sword’s ivory grip features an “HC” engraving on one side – presumably for “Howard Chenoweth” – and a cross passing through a triangle on the other side.

The blade is stamped with a logo, “The M.C. Lilley & Company, Columbus, Ohio.” It also features several more Crusader scenes and an engraving that reads “memento mori” -“remember that you must die” in Latin – with a skull and crossbones.

Ron Ruble, owner of an online antique weapon shop (, said those markings indicate the sword once belonged to a Mason.

He said a sword was a standard-issued weapon until after the Civil War. Even a company’s musicians carried swords.

But following the war, Ruble said government officials realized a soldier’s sword was a “worthless piece of crap,” seldom used and extremely outdated in an age of long-range weapons like cannons and guns.

So the military stopped ordering as many swords for soldiers and started using the pieces for ceremonial purposes only. Ruble said the drop in sales put sword companies in difficult financial straits, forcing them to adapt their business strategies.

Because most men alive at the time were either Civil War, Mexican-American War or Indian War veterans, members of fraternal organizations like the Masons, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Independent Order of Oddfellows started wearing ornamental swords to the groups’ ceremonies.

“Since they were so used to carrying swords in the military, it was a natural thing,” Ruble said.

Sword manufacturers realized this business opportunity and started making personalized weapons for members. Ruble said this tradition lasted up until the 1920s and 1930s, when a new group of members came along that weren’t so “sword-oriented.”

“They made literally thousands of different ones,” he said. “They’re all over the place if you really start looking around.”

Ruble said West Virginia’s Golden Horseshoe sword is a replica of an 1840 model militia blade and Howard Chenoweth was probably the weapon’s original owner.

He said the manufacturer’s logo indicates the blade was manufactured between 1882 and 1925, making it 85- to 128-years-old.

Scotchie said the weapon’s age might negate the rumor of an earlier Golden Horseshoe sword, but questions remain.

Who, for instance, is Howard S. Chenoweth?

Joe Geiger, director of the state archives, provided the Daily Mail with a death certificate for a Howard Scott Chenoweth, an Elkins native who died in Huntington in December 1943 from a diabetic coma.

A 1944 obituary from the Elkins Inter-Mountain newspaper reveals that Chenoweth, 60 when he died, was a member and former master of Elkins’ Masonic lodge. According to Ruble’s timeline, it’s likely this Chenoweth would have owned a ceremonial sword.

It’s still unclear, however, how the sword made it to the state superintendent’s office.

Social Security death records indicate that Chenoweth’s wife, Helen, and children, Robert Neil and Mary Virginia, are all deceased, and further research didn’t turn up any additional heirs.

Chenoweth has no apparent connections to the state Department of Education, and members of Elkins Lodge 108 say they don’t know anything about the sword or Chenoweth.

The case of the Golden Horseshoe sword may have grown cold, but no matter its origins, it’s still part of a memory thousands of “knights” and “ladies” share, and it’s an artifact of the West Virginia history it represents.

As another group of amateur historians prepared today to have their shoulders tapped by its silver blade, Scotchie said she would like them to remember one thing: Don’t get nervous.

“I always say ‘Guys, we could not cut soft butter with this sword,'” she said. “He hasn’t cut an ear off yet.”

The Flip

This story was originally published in the March/April 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Talking with Bill Cole, you get the sense he doesn’t use phrases like “over the moon” very often. But that’s how the baritone-voiced, serious-faced Senate President describes his frame of mind on election night 2014.

Although he was not up for reelection, Cole was the chairman for state Senator Evan Jenkins’ campaign for U.S. House of Representatives. He started off election night at a party for Jenkins in Huntington before hopping in his car and speeding down Interstate 64 toward Embassy Suites in Charleston, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and members of the state GOP were watching election returns for her U.S. Senate race.

When he was about 10 miles outside the capital city, his cell phone rang with some big news. Jenkins had successfully unseated 38-year incumbent Congressman Nick Rahall. Cole kept the hammer down. “About the time I hit city limits, my phone started blowing up,” he says. It was more big news. The Republican Party, long relegated to a nearly powerless minority status in West Virginia politics, had taken control of the state House of Delegates. By the end of the night, the GOP also would succeed in tying the formerly Democrat-controlled state Senate.

The national Republican “wave,” as it was being called on cable news networks, had come crashing ashore in the landlocked Mountain State. “I was over the moon,” Cole says. “It was a phenomenal night.” The victory celebrations did not last long, however. By the next morning Cole was at the state Capitol, huddling with fellow Republican senators, trying to figure out how a 17-17 tie in the state Senate might work. Then the phone rang again, with a solution to their problem.

Daniel Hall, the 40-year-old Democratic state senator from Wyoming County, had an interesting election night as well. He spent much of 2014 working on the reelection campaign of his friend Raleigh County state Senator Mike Green, who was running against Republican challenger Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins.

Shortly before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Hall sent Mullins a text message to congratulate him for a well-fought campaign. “I was fully confident Mike Green was going to win,” he says. Not long after, the first election returns were released. Green was trailing behind Mullins, but Hall remained optimistic. “I’ve been around politics long enough to know not to panic,” he says. The tide never turned, however. As each batch of poll results came through, Mullins remained in the lead. Hall noticed something else happening, too. All around the state, Republicans were beating their Democrat opponents.

He watched as the Associated Press called the 3rd Congressional District race for Jenkins. In Kanawha County, Delegate Doug Skaff—who was running for a seat in the state Senate—lost to political newcomer Tom Takubo. By the end of the night, Mullins would beat Green with nearly 57 percent of the vote. “All around the state, you’re talking about a complete swing,” Hall says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”

Soon, Hall got a text from Republican Senator Dave Sypolt, of Preston County. “He said, ‘You always said if it ever got close, you’d consider switching. I think 17-17 is pretty close.’” Sypolt was right; Hall had said that. In 2006 Hall ran for the House of Delegates in Raleigh County as a Republican, only to lose in the primaries. He thought he was finished with politics, got married and moved to Wyoming County, where he registered as a Democrat. “I changed parties just so I could vote,” he says. Like many places in the West Virginia coalfields, Democrats had such tight control of Wyoming County, the outcome of many local races was decided in primary elections. In general elections, Democrats either ran unopposed or faced very weak challengers.

Of course, Hall’s political career was far from over. In 2008 the newly minted Democrat ran for, and won, a seat in the House. After serving two terms in the lower chamber, he made a successful bid for the state Senate in 2012. From that time on, Hall says Republicans tried to court him back. “I said, ‘Guys, why would I join the minority party?’” Now things had changed. Hall tapped out a two-word message to Sypolt: “Let’s talk.”

The morning after the election, Hall had to be in Huntington for his day job with Frontier Communications. At some point that morning he found out Cole, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, and several other Senate Republicans had already convened at the Capitol. So as he was driving back to Charleston, following the same route Cole had taken the night before, Hall called up Carmichael to begin negotiating the terms of his defection.

Hall stopped at the Capitol that afternoon for face-to-face meetings with Cole and Carmichael. “I did make one demand that was turned down,” he says. Hall wanted to be the Senate Finance Committee chairman, but was informed former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, of Putnam County, was taking that job. The leadership team instead offered Daniel Hall the position of Senate Majority Whip. He accepted. “Let’s be honest, we’re playing poker,” he says.

That afternoon Hall walked to the Secretary of State’s office on the Capitol’s first floor and switched his party affiliation. “We were going to wait until the next morning, and they said, ‘Let’s just go do it now.’ Some of them were nervous I would back out,” Hall says. “I said, ‘Fine, lets go.’” He waited until almost 5 p.m., hoping he could sneak in and do the paperwork without anyone noticing. “Somebody in the office tweeted it out and within a little bit it was viral,” he says. Reporters jumped on the story and, within the hour, the news was all over the state: The GOP had successfully taken control of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.

He wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain the decision. “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate,” he wrote. “I have always picked our people over party … and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”

His constituents largely did not mind the switch—“If I can deliver, they’re not going to care,” Hall says—but his decision did upset some members of his former caucus. “Overall it’s been great. A few of them will never get over it.” It’s easy to understand why. With one swipe of a pen, Hall cast Democrats into a role they had never played under the current Capitol building’s big gold dome. Suddenly, historically, they were the minority party.

The Wave

The change in leadership at the statehouse has been described as a “Republican wave,” but the phenomenon is more akin to a volcanic eruption than a tsunami. The signs were there if you paid attention. For instance, West Virginia has been trending red in national elections for some time. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Voters in the state’s 1st congressional district elected Representative David McKinley in 2010, making him the first Republican to serve that district since Arch Moore left the seat to become governor in 1969. Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, remained vastly popular in the 2nd congressional district since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. And while Rahall was able to keep his seat through several fiercely contested races, in recent years his margin of victory over Republican challengers shrank with every election.

As Republicans made inroads on the federal level, voters began electing more Republicans in state races, too. The GOP has steadily gained seats in the House of Delegates since 2006. In 2012 voters picked Republican candidate Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

This rising swell of Republican support joined with several other factors in 2014 to pave the way for a leadership change in the statehouse. First, President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, which turned many voters against state Democrats, too. Republican voters also were motivated to get out to the polls, thanks to several high-profile races at the top of the general election ballot: Capito was running for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Jenkins was running against Rahall, Alex Mooney was vying for Capito’s old House of Representatives seat, and McKinley was up for reelection.

Jason Crowder, a Cole staffer who first moved to West Virginia to help run his boss’s 2012 state Senate campaign, says Republicans also managed to out-campaign Democrats. Crowder says the GOP worked hard to recruit a slate of top-notch candidates, then used data on voter registration and voter turnout trends to target areas where their message would be most effective. “Like anything, it’s planning and execution,” he says.

Although there was some sense the House of Delegates might flip in the 2014 election, not many people believed the state Senate would follow suit. But about two weeks before Election Day, Crowder began handicapping Democrat and Republican campaigns. It became clear the GOP had a real shot at taking control of both chambers. “If you look at it district by district, it tells a different story,” he says.

Take, for instance, the sixth state Senate district. State Senator Truman Chafin had represented the district since 1982, so no one expected much when political newcomer Mark Maynard signed up to face him in November’s election. Maynard didn’t even raise money for his campaign. According to the Associated Press, he just spent some money out of his pocket to have pamphlets printed, and someone donated $350 in yard signs to his campaign. Yet, to the shock of many, Maynard eked out a victory over Chafin, taking the seat by fewer than 400 votes.

Crowder wasn’t surprised, however. He says Chafin’s district was redrawn in 2011 to include new sections of Mercer County, where voters did not have a strong historical connection to the longtime lawmaker. Maynard also had a geographical advantage because he lived in Wayne County. “So many people vote addresses in West Virginia,” Crowder says. Maynard also had another advantage Chafin did not—the “R” beside his name on the ballot. Crowder says Chafin, like many Democrats across the state, did not think Republicans would put up such a strong fight. They dismissed their opponents, at their own peril. “They didn’t expect it. It’s easier to do when people think it’s impossible,” he says.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler agrees. He says his party did not see the Republican wave coming—although he’s not sure Republicans did, either. “Politics are volatile. Nobody’s backside is welded to any of these seats,” he says. Kessler admits Democrats are partly to blame for their losses, however. Instead of touting their accomplishments—like repealing the state’s food and business franchise taxes, privatizing worker’s compensation, tackling the state’s mounting pension debts, and expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 previously uninsured state residents—Democrats chose instead to let their challengers control the conversation. “We were so unwilling to call ourselves Democrats because of the association with federal Democrats we stood back, kept our mouths shut, wrung our hands and hoped our two-to-one (voter registration) average played out,” he says. “We did a terrible job of giving the electorate a reason to rehire us.”

Playing Defense

While he’s not happy with the outcome of the election, Kessler says Democrats still have an important role to play in the Legislature. They no longer have the privilege of setting the Legislature’s agenda, but they still can work to influence the agenda set by Republicans.

That’s probably easier done in the Senate, however, where the majority hangs on one vote. Democrats in the House of Delegates have a bit more working against them. “It’s much harder to play defense when one team has a lot more people on the field,” says Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin. Pushkin was one of the few first-time Democrat lawmakers elected last year, so he has no idea what it was like to serve in the majority party. But he says many Democrat lawmakers have found the change in leadership frustrating. “There’s a lot of people who have served for a long time, and they’ve won every battle they’ve fought for years. That’s not happening now,” he says.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley’s frustration is palpable. “We have … very little, if any, influence on what gets on agendas,” he says. Democrats have managed to amend some bills, but nothing that diverts too dramatically from the Republican leadership’s original intentions. “The working relationship has been very cordial, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a whole lot of compromise,” he says. “I believe it was different in the past … but that’s politics. When you have a new majority with a new ideology, they don’t have to compromise.” Miley, who served as speaker of the House during the Democrats’ last session as the majority party, says he is concerned the Legislature will make lots of concessions for corporate interests, but do little to help average citizens. “There’s very little that’s going to be done to help individual families in West Virginia,” he says.

Newly elected House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, does not share his predecessor’s sentiments. “I really believe the voters have called for change, and we’re giving them change,” he says. “So many of the things we’ve tried to do for years, we’re finally able to get them on the agenda.” The party wasted no time getting to work. Within days of the new session’s start, the Republicans were running bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, establish charter schools, abolish straight-ticket voting, create alternative certification requirements for teachers, establish nonpartisan elections for judges, repeal prevailing wage requirements for state construction projects, audit the state Department of Highways, and reinstate a section of code protecting private property owners from lawsuits if dangers on their property are “open and obvious,” among other things.

Democrats, for the most part, only succeeded in making piecemeal changes to legislation. But the party was not without its victories. Senate Democrats convinced two of their Republican colleagues—Hall and Sen. Chris Walters—to side with the minority and defeat a bill that would limit cash awards in civil lawsuits. Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also were able to convince their GOP colleagues to table a bill requiring photo identification at voting booths. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County, successfully amended a revenue bill to divert about $1.5 million annually from the state lottery fund for “veteran-related projects.”

Democrats have also joined their Republican colleagues to support many pieces of legislation, including a repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The law, originally passed in 2009, would have required state power plants to begin using more alternative fuels, including clean coal technologies. Republicans decried the legislation as a “cap and trade” law, saying it would hurt the state’s coal industry and raise families’ utility bills. Some Democrats argued the bill wouldn’t do anything at all, except maybe give the impression West Virginia is not interested in alternative energies. Republican lawmakers pushed the bill forward, however, and it eventually passed the House on a 95-4 vote and the Senate with a unanimous vote. It was the first bill to land on the governor’s desk in the 2015 legislative session.

“There’s an energy here you’ve never seen before,” Armstead says. “Our goal was to be running legislation in the first week. There is a natural procrastination to the legislative process. Our view is, we have 60 days to make significant changes and we don’t want to waste any of those days.” During his 16 years in the minority party, Armstead says the 60-day session seemed to stretch on forever. It seems to go much faster now that his caucus is running the show.

Armstead is the first Republican Speaker of the House to serve in the marbled halls of the current West Virginia Capitol building. Cass Gilbert’s grand statehouse did not open its doors until June 1932, just six months after Republicans ceded control of the Legislature.

Armstead says he tries not to think about his place in West Virginia history, but it sometimes creeps up on him. It usually happens when he’s standing behind his podium at the front of the House chamber. He remembers, early in the session, watching as members debated nonpartisan elections for judges. Republicans have supported the idea for years but never had any success getting it through the legislative process. “It just hit me—we are on the floors of this house, discussing this issue,” Armstead says. “I want the people of West Virginia to look back at 2015 and say, ‘That’s when we changed the direction of our state.’”

Too Soon to Tell

Despite those 83 years wandering in the wilderness of political obscurity, Republicans once had a long, successful run in West Virginia politics. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Republicans dominated the West Virginia Legislature for the first eight years of the state’s existence. And though Democrats would gain control in the early 1870s, the GOP again rose to prominence following the election of 1896.

“We were a progressive state, as progressive as any around us,” says West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton. The demand for coal was growing by leaps and bounds, especially after competition from European coal markets dwindled after World War I. That boded well for West Virginia’s economy, as well as Republicans’ pro-business policies. “We became the world’s number one industrial nation, and coal was powering that industry,” Peyton says.

But toward the mid-1920s, European economies began to rebound. It was good news for the global economy, but bad for West Virginia coal mines. “Our production dropped because demand decreased. The price of coal went down, wages went down, miners went out of work,” Peyton says. Although the Great Depression was still years away, the state’s economy began to slip—taking with it Republicans’ foothold in the statehouse. “It’s the party in charge that gets the blame, even if they’re not responsible,” Peyton says. “The Republican Party was the face of the collapse.” The West Virginia House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control after the election of 1930, when voters added 37 Democrats to the lower chamber, giving the party a 68-26 majority.

The transformation was complete in 1932. Voters nationwide went looking for change and found it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal.” The Democrats’ sweep in Washington was matched in West Virginia with the election of 22 more Democratic lawmakers, giving the party a 24-6 majority in the state Senate and a 79-15 majority in the House. Voters also elected Governor Herman Kump, the second Democratic chief executive in 40 years.

It would be more than 80 years before the floodwaters would recede. At times, Republican numbers in the House of Delegates got so small the entire caucus could fit in a family sedan.

The parallels are evident. Just like the 1930s, we have the combination of a flagging coal market, voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and a contentious national political climate creating a surge that carried the minority party into power. What remains to be seen, Peyton says, is whether it will last this time. “As a historian, it’s years before you can assess change. It’s too early to tell right now,” he says. “Everybody’s talking about change, but until we see what the results are, you might as well just throw up a coin and see how it lands.”

The farmer makes a run

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Aug. 28, 2012.

FAIRVIEW, W.Va. – Kent Leonhardt wants you to make him the state’s next agriculture commissioner.

He promises he’ll work hard to improve food safety and increase the number of farms in West Virginia. A career Marine who took up farming following two decades in the military, he also wants to find ways to get returning veterans into the agriculture business.

But Leonhardt wants you to know this: Right now, the cows come first.

One recent day, the candidate spent his mid-morning mowing hay in a field he leases from a neighbor a few miles from his own farm. This was the second cut of the year, when the hay is protein- and nutrient-rich, so he’ll use the resulting bales to feed his sheep and goats this winter.

A Ford pickup pulled onto the dirt road running alongside the field. It was Ward Wyatt, a political consultant from Austin, Texas, who moved to West Virginia a few months back to run Leonhardt’s campaign.

Wyatt had driven from his Huntington office to spend the day with Leonhardt. After making one last pass around the field with his tractor, Leonhardt hopped off to talk. He asked Wyatt if he needed to attend the Farm Bureau meeting that night.

Wyatt said it was Leonhardt’s decision. The bureau wasn’t expecting a big turnout, and the group already had promised to support the campaign.

“Well, I might just stay here and cut this hay,” the candidate said.

Such are the dilemmas of the agriculture commissioner race.

On a typical day, Leonhardt, 58, gets out of bed at 5:30 a.m. After firing off a few emails to Wyatt, he goes to meet the constituents he can already claim.

The 380-acre farm is mostly hillside, but Leonhardt has a few pastures divided into paddocks where he keeps 29 goats, 46 sheep and about 30 head of cattle. He visits each group to make sure everyone is OK.

“You make sure your animals have food and water and a healthy environment before you do anything else. The animals’ health is the most important thing,” he said. “The healthier the animal, the better the growth.”

If all is well in the barn, he moves to other chores. He might mow a field or mend some fences. Other times, he will do maintenance work on his farm equipment.

Or, as has been the case in recent months, Leonhardt will try to convince West Virginians he’s the best man to run one of the state’s largest agencies.

He doesn’t have any political experience. He ran twice for Monongalia County Conservation District supervisor and lost both times, although he says those were half-hearted endeavors.

There is nothing half-hearted about his campaign for state agriculture commissioner, however. There can’t be. Leonhardt is running for an office that’s been held by a Democrat for more than 40 years, except for a four-year fluke in the 1980s.

And he’s running against longtime Democratic State Senator Walt Helmick, who has political experience in spades and name recognition from a highly publicized primary campaign.

The Republicans have tried to make up for that handicap by attacking Helmick’s farming background.

State law says the agriculture commissioner should be a “practical farmer” and have made agriculture his or her “chief business” for 10 years before being elected.

Helmick raises neither livestock nor crops, but he runs a successful water bottling operation from his Pocahontas County property.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled earlier this year the “practical farmer” requirement is unconstitutional and unenforceable, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from constantly deriding Helmick as a “fake farmer.”

Wyatt said the GOP plans to challenge Helmick to a goat-milking contest before the Nov. 6 election. Leonhardt recently won third place in a goat-milking contest at the Berkeley County Fair.

But the race is about more than farms and farmers, and Leonhardt acknowledges that. The Department of Agriculture also manages animal health, plant science and food safety and has some environmental regulation duties.

“Every West Virginian needs to be concerned with this race,” he said. “This isn’t just about farmers. It’s about every West Virginian.”

He points to the windstorms that rocked West Virginia and neighboring states in late June.

“There’s only a seven-day supply of food in West Virginia,” he said. “When the derecho went through, it wiped out a lot of freezers.”

He said the Department of Agriculture did a good job after the storm, mobilizing to distribute food to state residents.

“They did a monumental job for something that was unexpected,” he said.

But Leonhardt is worried about what would happen if a crisis were more widespread. West Virginia received help from outside the state after the derecho hit, but those resources might not be available in a larger event.

Leonhardt said increasing the number of farmers in the state would give West Virginia access to a larger in-state food supply.

It’s a safety issue, too. He said the longer food travels before it gets to the dinner table, the greater chance it will be contaminated.

“We need to shorten the distance from producer to consumer,” he said.

Leonhardt figures the state could increase the number of farmers with a four-point approach: educate would-be farmers about opportunities in agriculture, provide them with business models, offer low-cost loans to get started and help market their products.

“The farmers will grow a product if they have a market,” he said.

Leonhardt got into farming because he’s always been interested in animals. His father, a general practice physician in Floren Park, N.J, was a hunter and fisherman and helped his son develop a love of the outdoors.

Leonhardt attended the University of Missouri, where he majored in wildlife management and pre-veterinary studies. He finished that degree but then decided to enlist in the military, realizing returning Vietnam veterans were getting most of the state and federal jobs.

“The only wildlife I ever managed was Marines,” he now jokes.

Still, his interest in animals endured. Despite a complete lack of farming experience, Leonhardt and his wife, Shirley, bought their Monongalia County farm in 1982 while he was still on active duty.

The property had been abandoned since 1957. The fields were overgrown and the house, now beautifully restored, was used to store hay.

Kent and Shirley visited occasionally to clean up the place, often camping in their unfinished home. They moved onto the property full time in 1996, finished fixing up the house and started their farm.

“Most of this is self-taught,” Leonhardt said as he led a tour of his property.

He opened a gate and started across the pasture, a plastic bucket of corn in his right hand.

“Here sheep! C’mon sheep.”

Leonhardt shook the bucket and the animals came running, anticipating a snack.

The cows, goats and sheep are kept in separate paddocks but are rotated regularly because cows will eat weeds that sheep won’t, and sheep will eat weeds that goats don’t, and goats will eat grass and weeds that cows and sheep avoid.

Rotating the animals also helps reduce parasite infections, because cows and goats are not affected by the same bugs that affect sheep.

The farm doesn’t grow any crops except hay, but Leonhardt used to have a large garden where he grew vegetables. The garden is mostly empty this year, however, because the campaign has kept him away from home.

Leonhardt figures he will have to reduce his operation even further if he wins the race.

He would have to work in Charleston during the week so farming would be limited to the weekends. He and Shirley would have to sell some of their livestock to make the herd more manageable. They might have to hire some help, too.

“I’m not going to get rich off of this,” he said, walking back to the house after giving the goats their own bucket of corn.

But that wasn’t ever the plan. Leonhardt said his parents raised him to believe everyone should give their best to help others. That’s another reason he joined the Marines, and why he decided to run for agriculture commissioner.

“I felt I had the knowledge and the experience to do the job,” he said. “The farmer has done it from the ground up. The veteran has led men and women in peace and war and has worked in crises.

“Personally, I don’t think there’s a choice.”

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or Follow him at

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