Zack Harold

writer/editor

JOE’S HAIR AND THE FLOWBEE? IT’S NOT A JOKE SENATOR’S WIFE CALLS HAIRCUTTING GADGET ‘A PRETTY NIFTY DEVICE’

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on September 26, 2012.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s latest ad claims his wife, Gayle, has cut his hair for more than 20 years.

What the ad fails to mention is Gayle routinely receives assistance during those ear-lowering sessions.

Joe Manchin – former W.Va. governor and secretary of state, licensed pilot, Harley-Davidson rider and yacht co-owner – is a devout user of an electrically powered vacuum cleaner attachment made for cutting hair.

Yep, the senator is a fan of the Flowbee, that technological miracle and pop culture sensation.

Manchin’s campaign unveiled the ad, titled “Haircut,” in an email Sunday night to supporters. It was uploaded to YouTube on Monday and is running on television stations throughout the state.

“For more than 20 years, Joe Manchin has got his hair cut by the same barber . . . his wife, Gayle,” the announcer says.

In the commercial, Joe sits in his Charleston townhouse kitchen, a towel draped over his shoulders. Gayle snips at his graying hair with a pair of scissors and trims the back of his neck with electric clippers. He occasionally inspects her work with a hand mirror and sometimes touches his hair as if to say “a little more off the sides, please.”

“I’m Joe Manchin and I sponsor this ad because a penny saved is a penny earned,” he says at the end of the 30-second clip.

“And he’s cheap,” Gayle adds.

The Flowbee never appears.

Was the campaign worried the as-seen-on-TV device would look too hokey for a U.S. senator? Were Manchin staffers trying to avoid a backlash from fans of the Robocut, the Flowbee’s longtime rival? Was Joe just hesitant to reveal his styling tips?

In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, Gayle explained why she chose not to use the Flowbee on television.

“With a sweeper running, there would be a tremendous amount of noise,” she said.

Oh. That makes sense.

Joe used to go to a real barber, the kind who works in a barbershop, when he and Gale lived in Farmington. The barber cut Joe’s hair for years and even gave the future governor a pre-wedding trim before his marriage to Gayle in 1967.

But one day the barber moved to a shop in Morgantown and Joe, then a busy businessman, found it difficult to make the drive.

“He had come to me a couple of times and I said ‘Joe, I don’t cut hair,’ ” Gayle remembers.

But her husband, a born negotiator, eventually wore her down. Though her training was limited to a few suggestions from Joe and what little she learned from watching stylists cut her own hair, Gayle took scissors to his head.

It turned out quite well.

“I am a woman of many talents, what can I say?” she said.

The arrangement worked wonderfully during the summer months. Anytime Joe needed a haircut, he would pull up a chair on the porch. Gayle could just sweep away the hair when they were finished.

But the process got complicated as the weather turned colder. When it was too chilly to sit on the porch, Joe had to get his hair cut in the house. That created a mess. Gayle tried to get him to sit in a chair in the bathtub, but that did not work very well.

They faced this dilemma every winter for years until Joe found the solution to their problem in a late-night infomercial.

“My husband, a lot of times at night if he can’t sleep, he’ll turn the TV on and he’ll turn it on QVC. Which is dangerous.”

One fateful night the shopping network was hawking the Flowbee, a haircutting attachment for household vacuum cleaners. Joe called the 1-800 number and ordered one.

Gayle didn’t learn of his late-night purchase until a box appeared on the porch a few days later.

“I said, ‘I can’t believe we’re cutting your hair with a vacuum cleaner,’ ” Gayle said. “As it turns out, it’s a pretty nifty device.”

The Flowbee is a simple machine: You just attach its hose to your household vacuum cleaner and then point it at your head. The hair gets sucked into the Flowbee, where spinning blades chop it off at a prescribed length.

“The results are a refreshing vacuum haircut,” according to the company’s official website, www.Flowbee.com.

Although Gayle still uses scissors when she and Joe are on the road – it’s too difficult to lug the Flowbee and a vacuum cleaner along on trips – she much prefers the Flowbee.

“It cuts every hair exactly the same length. And I can’t guarantee that. You couldn’t ask for a more perfect haircut, if you layer your hair,” she said.

She said Joe has recommended the Flowbee to many of his friends. He also has offered to cut his friends’ hair using the device, though only his grandson has accepted the offer.

The Manchins are still using the same Flowbee that Joe purchased on QVC more than a decade ago.

When they moved into the Governor’s Mansion in 2005, they took the Flowbee along with them. It did not make the trip to Washington, D.C. when Joe became a Senator, however. Gayle said he makes it back to Charleston often enough she can just cut his hair when he’s here. If he needs a trim while in the nation’s capital, she just uses scissors.

“He definitely has got his money’s worth,” Gayle said.

She said she thinks the haircut commercial is “hysterical,” even without the Flowbee.

“It’s just who Joe is at the end of the day. He’s all about what’s most efficient, most effective and cheap,” she said.

She said the ad’s light-heartedness also provides a respite from the typical mud slinging commercials that usually hit television screens in the months before a general election.

“I think things have gotten real cynical. We need to lighten up a little bit. Maybe it is just kind of a little breath of fresh air before the nastiness comes back,” she said.

‘BROKEN SYSTEM’ CAUSES HOLDUPS OFFICIAL SAYS CONTRACTOR IS TAKING TOO LONG TO PROCESS BACKGROUND CHECKS 

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 9, 2013.

Problems with a contractor hired to process state background checks are leaving job seekers in limbo for months and costing state businesses lots of money.

The holdups have even slowed the adoption process for some children.

Speaking at a legislative interim meeting on Tuesday, Mark Drennan, executive director of the West Virginia Behavioral Health Care Providers Association, told lawmakers that glitches with MorphoTrust have caused some employers to wait three or four months before receiving results of background checks for potential employees.

“This broken system prevents individuals from being gainfully employed,” he said.

Scott Boileau, executive director of the Alliance for Children, Inc., said parents wanting to adopt or foster children have experienced similar delays.

Background checks are required in West Virginia for anyone wanting to work with children, the elderly or the mentally ill. Anyone wanting to adopt or foster a child who has been deemed a ward of the state also is required to get a background check.

Boileau said he knows of one family that has waited nine months for the results of their background check. Other families become frustrated with the process and drop out.

“Folks are not going to put up with that,” he said.

Although problems with background checks have not slowed any active adoptions, Boileau said the slow turnaround times have kept some children in the state’s care for much longer than necessary.

“The fact is, there probably have been kids that could have been placed sooner,” he said.

The state hired MorphoTrust, previously known as L-1 Enrollment Services, in August 2011. Before that, the State Police processed all background checks.

The contract was renewed in August, even though Drennan wrote a letter to Tomblin in July warning of problems with the contractor.

Capt. Michael Corsaro of the State Police told lawmakers on Tuesday that before hiring the company, background checks sometimes would not be processed for two months or longer.

He said the Huntington State Police detachment often had so many people waiting in line for background checks that troopers could not respond to calls because they had to stay in the office and take fingerprints.

Members of the Legislature’s Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long Term Care were not pleased to hear of the problems.

“In an age of technology, it’s not acceptable to have to wait that long,” Delegate Larry Williams, D-Preston, said.

Williams is the co-chairman of the committee.

Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, said she knows of businesses in her district that have waited two or three months to receive the results of a background check.

“By then, somebody has already found another job,” she said.

Hiring MorphoTrust was supposed to free up troopers for police work and reduce the turnaround time for background checks.

“Our excitement quickly turned in the opposite direction, to agitation,” Drennan said.

Drennan said there were often problems with the company’s digital fingerprint system, so MorphoTrust would take old-fashioned ink fingerprints. The company purchased a scanner to digitize those inked cards, but the device did not work.

Drennan said everyone who had their fingerprints taken while MorpoTrust was using that scanner had to go back and get new prints.

He said many providers have returned to inking fingerprints themselves and sending the cards to MorphoTrust for processing. It’s the same process as before the state hired the company, he said, except it costs businesses $9 more per background check.

There are other problems, too.

Drennan said the company does not cash checks in a timely manner, knocking many businesses’ bank ledgers out of whack. MorphoTrust also bills providers for background checks not connected with their business, and contesting the charges takes a long time, he said.

One member of his association received a $12,000 bill from the company, though it insists it owes only $8,000, Drennan said. The disagreement has dragged on for four months.

Drennan also sent a letter to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Tuesday regarding MorphoTrust’s service.

“We have tried to make this work for more than a year and, frankly, have given up on this vendor,” he wrote.

“They promised an electronic process that reduces errors and improves access. Instead what we have is a fragmented system that does not provide enough active centers across the state to accommodate the demand.”

Drennan told the governor members of his organization have paid $220,000 to MorphoTrust since the state hired the company.

“It is unacceptable that we should have to pay for a service that, at a minimum, does not deliver the expected results,” he wrote.

Representatives from the company assured lawmakers they would fix any problems with the state background check system.

“We realize we screwed up. That’s all we can say,” MorphoTrust representative Patrick Kelly said. “We get it. There’s been a lot of problems with our technology and what we’ve done.”

Kelly said the company has flown 25 people to West Virginia over the last three weeks, including an engineering team, to fix technical problems.

Danny Wear, senior director of program management for MorphoTrust, said the company also is meeting with agencies to find out what problems they are having and is now reviewing all 12 fingerprinting sites to see where it can increase staff.

Wear said the company hopes to open three additional fingerprinting sites in the next few months.

He said the company also held a three-and-a-half-hour training session with call center employees to teach them to be attentive to customers’ needs and follow up on every question that comes in.

He said the company is working to set up an email notification system to keep agencies updated on the status of potential employees’ background checks and also hopes to build a secure website that would do the same job in case employers miss the email notifications.

Speaking after the meeting, Kelly said he was not aware of months-long turnaround for background checks but said it could happen. He said the backlogs were not caused by staffing problems but blamed “technical issues.”

He said turnaround times for background checks have dropped each month.

“It’s trending the right way,” he said.

Drennan said he is skeptical. He knows of businesses that are still awaiting background check results from May.

Boileau said ultimately he would like to see all background checks processed within 72 hours. He said he does not care how that is accomplished, whether the state fires MorphoTrust or allows the company to get its act together.

Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, committee co-chairman, said MorphoTrust’s service has been “unacceptable” so far. He said the subcommittee would continue to watch the company’s progress over the next few months.

W.Va. Knights, Ladies Honored: Rumors Surround Golden Horseshoe Artifact

This story originally appeared in the May 7, 2010 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

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 (www.ruble-enterprises.com), 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.”

Coffee keeps friendships warm

This column originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on January 2, 2015.

I remember the day I became a coffee drinker.

I stayed home from school with a blazing sore throat. That afternoon, as I laid on my grandmother’s couch in misery, I got an idea.

I went to the kitchen, grabbed one of her green plastic mugs and poured myself a steaming cup of black coffee.

My sore throat was instantly soothed but the relief didn’t last long. I drank another cup and another and another.

Momaw cut me off after I downed a whole pot and started to make another one.

My dad was never much of a coffee fan — his beverage of choice is Pepsi in a can, not a bottle thank you very much — but my mom always seems to have a cup nearby.

I always liked the way it smelled (who doesn’t?) but never understood the appeal of the bitter brew… until that day I stayed home from school. The bitterness didn’t offend my taste buds any more. Now, it held a strange attraction.

My relationship with coffee has changed over the years.

At first, I drank it when I craved it. Then, in college, I drank it to keep me awake through early-morning classes.

I didn’t develop a full-blown dependency on the stuff I began working at the Daily Mail.

The old movies portray journalists as whiskey drinkers and cigarette smokers. That stuff isn’t allowed in the newsroom anymore, but reporters have more than made up for it with their caffeine habits.

But coffee is more than just a morning pick-me-up. It has become one of my central excuses for getting together with people.

As much as I enjoy social media, there is nothing like a face-to-face conversation with a friend. But asking someone to lunch feels like a commitment.

Asking someone for coffee, however, feels like a fun errand. It’s something you can slip out of the office to complete without feeling guilty.

And drinking coffee, unlike eating, leaves lots of time for conversation. No need to worry about talking with your mouth full. If there’s a lull in the conversation, just take a swig and continue on.

In 2012, comedian Jerry Seinfeld started a web video series called “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

The title says it all. In each episode, Seinfeld picks up his guest in a special car — his most recent two-part episode with Jimmy Fallon featured both a 1956 Chevrolet Corvette and a 1994 Land Rover Defender 90 — and takes them to get coffee.

Seinfeld did not begin drinking coffee until middle age but, once he did, discovered something that avowed caffeine addicts already knew.

“Meeting someone for coffee suddenly seemed like a wonderful, compact, accessible and portable social interaction,” he told National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” in 2013. “You don’t even really need a place. But you feel like you’re doing something. That is what coffee is.”

I suspect I will come to rely on these “portable social interactions” more frequently in the coming months.

Today marks my last day at the Charleston Daily Mail. And while I am very excited for my next job, I will really miss all the friends I have made at this newspaper.

When I first arrived in the newsroom back in 2009, it didn’t take me long to realize this newspaper’s staff are more than just co-workers. The Daily Mail is a family.

I have celebrated my co-workers’ marriages and new births, mourned with them, laughed, argued and marveled with them as we watched history unfold before our eyes.

I count every one of the people here as a dear friend and I know they feel the same way about me.

So, now that we will work in separate offices, we will need an excuse to get together. And if I know one thing about newspaper reporters, they won’t pass up a cup of coffee.

The next one’s on me.

Carnival of Soles

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

Jina Jordan has held several jobs in her life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I suggested the Fife Street Shoe Shop.”

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

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

“It was a rush order,” Jordan remembers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She never forgot her most famous job, though.

“I still have the zippers.”

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

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

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

Appalachian Distillery makes moonshine, legally

 

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

RIPLEY — Dwayne Freeman makes his moonshine almost the same way as the old-timers. He uses big sacks of corn and a kettle connected to shiny copper lines.

There are a few minor differences, however. First, Freeman doesn’t make his whiskey in the moonlight. In fact, he usually works the day shift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he ran the still for the first time.

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

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

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever happened to Randolph Scott?

This story was originally published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Friday, May 30, 2014.

Donald Moore knows everything there is to know about film projectors.

He’s sold bunches of them over his half-century running Moore Theater Supply Company on Lee Street. When a repair call came in, he could usually diagnose the problem over the phone.

Moore, 69, knows which lenses and bulbs to use, based on the screen size and the distance to the screen. He set up theaters all over West Virginia and its surrounding states, including a 1,200-seat movie house in the federal penitentiary in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Unfortunately, there’s just not much demand for his services anymore.

Nobody needs a film projector anymore because there’s no more film. The major movie studios stopped releasing movies on 35 millimeter film last year.

The West Side business is still hanging on, but mostly as Moore’s “man cave.” The space is filled with memorabilia, from old film canisters and projector lenses to movie posters and leftover theater seats.

“It’s just a thing of the past,” Moore said. “It’s a total different business. It’s nothing like it was.”

Here’s how it was:

At one point, Moore’s father owned 15 theaters throughout southern West Virginia, mostly in coal camps.

Every member of the family was expected to help out. On any given Friday night, Moore and his three brothers were at one of the theaters, selling tickets or concessions.

The movie business followed them home, too.

“We popped popcorn year-round in the basement, bagged it up and took it to the theaters,” Moore said. “It was hotter than hell.”

They also made up the preview reels in the basement, taking big rolls of movie trailers and cutting them apart with razor blades. They would pick the trailers they wanted to show and splice them back together with tape.

Each theater would run six movies a week plus cartoons, trailers and newsreels. They got their films from a distributor in Cincinnati. They only received one copy of each film, however, so theaters had to take turns.

“You just bicycled them from one theater to the other.”

It might be weeks before the new John Wayne reached the movie house in your hometown.

On the upside, going to the movies was pretty cheap back then. Moore said in the 1960s, regular price admission at his dad’s theaters was 75 cents for adults and 35 cents for children. On bargain nights—usually Wednesdays and Thursdays, when they played older movies—it dropped to 35 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.

Children could also get in for 15 cents on Saturday mornings, when the theaters would show cartoon reels. They could get a small popcorn and soft drink for 10 cents more.

The theater business started declining by the end of the 1950s, so Moore’s father diversified his business plan. He went to work for Charleston Theater Supply and, a few years later, opened his own theater supply business.

Moore started working with his father in 1962, after graduating from Stonewall Jackson High School. He took over the business when his dad died in 1966, and in 1969 bought out Charleston Theater Supply.

For years he sold everything from projectors, theater seats, movie poster frames and marquee letters. Moore still does the occasional stage curtain installation, although those are few and far between.

“Those jobs only come every 20 years. You put it in, you put it in right and they last forever,” he said.

He now uses the space as a workshop for his other business, the South Charleston Antique Mall, which he and his wife opened in 2005. The tools Moore once used to fix projectors now are used on items he plans to sell at the antique store.

He still likes movies—his favorites are “Shane: and “The High and the Mighty”—but he hasn’t been to a theater in years.

“They don’t match my expectations,” he said.

Moore said it’s difficult to enjoy himself, since he’s trained his eyes to notice every little detail about the projection.

Some things just aren’t like they used to be.

Sushi and exotic fish shop makes for odd but apt combo

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

It could be an uncomfortable experience, enjoying sushi in the middle of an aquarium shop.

There are all those very-alive fish, just bubbling along while you enjoy a dish of very-recently-alive fish.

But Yuichi Fujita, 59, has made it work.

He is the owner of Fuji’s Sushi and Teriyaki along Jefferson Road in South Charleston. The tiny restaurant shares the building with Fujita’s other business, Fuji’s Reef Shop.

On one side of the small space, there are lights, tanks and chemicals for maintaining saltwater fish tanks, along with several tanks filled with exotic fish.

On the other, there’s a kitchen and a small seating area, including a four-seat counter where diners can eat in the blue light of a large burbling saltwater tank filled with colorful fish and swaying underwater plants.

“Japanese food, one thing that’s good, they put food and nature together,” Fujita said.

He keeps a folder of pictures ripped from Japanese-language museums, depicting restaurants with elaborate gardens or those built into picturesque landscapes. Fujita admires those restaurants and has captured some of that vibe with his shop.

When he opened the business in 2005, it was only supposed to be an aquarium store.

Fujita spent years working in kitchens before opening his own sushi restaurant, Fujita Express, in downtown Charleston. He grew tired of the restaurant business, however, and wanted to switch gears.

Some years before, he saw a saltwater tank in a pet shop and immediately fell in love.

He began researching the hobby, and although the Internet was a much smaller place in the early 2000s, Fujita was soon a self-made expert.

“I’m the kind of person, when you get in, that’s it.”

He installed a saltwater tank in his home, and then another and another.

His wife, Dawn, began to grow impatient with the fishtanks that were taking over their home—there were eventually so many aquariums they had to bring in contractors to upgrade the wiring—so Fujita decided to spin off his hobby into a business.

Things went swimmingly for a few years but business dropped off dramatically after the economy crashed in 2008, as people began cutting back on luxuries.

So Fujita decided to get back into the restaurant business. He built a kitchen in his shop and started doing to-go orders.

He soon had a sizable group of regular customers.

“Then people said, ‘why don’t you open a few seats?’”

Fujita added a few tables and a counter last year but kept the seating capacity low.

The restaurant is a small operation—Fujita and his wife, Dawn, who comes in around 5 p.m. after she leaves her day job, are the store’s only employees—but Fujita keeps it that way on purpose.

“I don’t want to deal with employees. I do everything. Lot of work, but less headaches.”

It gives him a close relationship with his customers.

“Pretty much every customer, I remember.”

He knows which flavors they like and those they do not. There’s a lawyer who doesn’t want anything green on his plate. There’s another customer that can’t stand green onions or anything with a similarly strong taste.

Some regulars trust Fujita so implicitly they don’t even order.

“Some customers, they’ll just say ’make me something,'” he said.

Fujita doesn’t think he’s that impressive, however. It’s part of his job to have a good relationship with his clientele. He used to work with a bartender who could remember the usual drinks for a few hundred regular customers.

“If you do it a long time, that’s your skill,” he said. “I have a good long-term memory.”

Running a small shop also gives Fujita the freedom to take time off. The store is closed this week while he goes fly fishing in Pocahontas County.

Fujita says he didn’t have any hobbies when he first arrived in West Virginia about 20 years ago but wanted something to occupy his time outside the restaurant.

“I didn’t want to be like my father. Work, work, work,” he said. “You want to enjoy your life.”

He saw a travel brochure with photos of fly fishermen and was intrigued. It wasn’t long before his obsessive nature took hold. He drove to Pocahontas County every week to practice casting in the trout-filled Cranberry River. He learned to tie his own flies.

“It’s a beautiful way to catch fish.”

He enjoys stepping into his waders and standing in the middle of a river, witnessing nature from a vantage point few people take time to enjoy.

You could say it’s another way to appreciate the balance between food and nature, except . . .

“I’m 100 percent catch and release,” Fujita said.

 

Swiftwater Cafe adds catering, general store

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Last Friday morning, the folks at Swiftwater Cafe were already hard at work on lunch.

The long metal prep table in the restaurant’s new catering kitchen was filled with fruit, sandwich and cookie trays as employees rushed to fill orders.

The space—located on the first floor of the Daniel Boone Building on Capitol Street—was formerly a beauty salon, but when the salon’s owner retired earlier this year, Swiftwater owner Teddy Queen purchased the space and had it completely renovated.

The walls are painted bright green to match the restaurant’s color scheme, and a big window decal announces “Swiftwater Catering is open for business.”

Queen, 39, started doing small breakfast and lunch catering orders as soon as Swiftwater opened in 2003, although the workspace wasn’t ideal.

He and his employees were trying to prepare large numbers of sandwiches and wraps in the same small kitchen where they fixed lunch orders.

“It was very crowded,” he said.

After a few years he expanded the operation into a small closet-like space in the back of the beauty salon next door. That allowed a little more room for catering, but the space was not equipped for large orders.

Then earlier this year, the hair salon went out of business and Queen had the chance to buy the space.

He hadn’t planned to expand just yet. Last year, he opened the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol Street and purchased a new van for the business. But he decided to take the leap anyway.

“I said ‘Well, we’re stretched a little thin but let’s go for it.’ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and the demand was there,” he said.

He opened the catering kitchen in early April.

The storefront gives Swiftwater a larger presence on Washington St., which Queen hopes will catch peoples’ attention and bring in more business. His catering operation is mostly limited to downtown Charleston right now but he wants to expand into Kanawha City and South Charleston, too.

The expanded catering business also has allowed Swiftwater to hire more employees.

While the cafe once had just three employees, plus Queen, the restaurant now has 12 people on staff, including two at the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol St.

Queen originally wanted to build a country store in Fayetteville, and even bought a piece of property and had architects draw up some blueprints. But there were problems with the land’s septic permits and Queen couldn’t seem to get any help from county officials. Then his wife, Lisa, got a new job she really enjoyed, and the couple was hesitant about moving their children.

“I said, ‘Too many factors are building up.’”

He decided to put his plans on hold for a while. Then, last year, a storefront opened across from Davis Park on Capitol Street and Queen jumped at the opportunity.

The Swiftwater General Store opened in September 2013.

“It’s been an immediate success,” he said. “I get thanked 15 times a day for putting it there.”

The store’s interior evokes an old-timey general store, which was partly inspired by Queen’s family history. His great-grandparents ran a coal company store in Fayette County, and one of his grandfathers ran a grocery store in Matewan.

In addition to snack cakes, potato chips and other convenience store fare, the wood shelves along the left wall of the store are stocked with essentials: canned food, toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries, a big jar of pickled eggs. Just about anything customers might need in a pinch.

The opposite wall is lined with coolers. The grab-and-go cooler is stocked with sandwiches, wraps, salads and other quick, healthy lunch offerings. There are pop coolers and a few beer coolers stocked with craft brews. Customers are welcome to build their own six packs.

The store has a steady stream of regulars, who pop in to pick up a cup of fresh coffee or a cinnamon roll from the bakery case. Queen said the store is perfectly positioned to attract business from surrounding office buildings as well as Davis Park.

“It’s going to be the best decision I’ve made long-term,” he said.

Play helps director heal

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Thursday, March 20, 2014.

Carrie Kirk was acting angry.

In a pivotal scene in the Kanawha Players’ production of “Extremities,” Kirk’s character Terry is in the middle of a heated argument with her roommates when she reveals she was raped as a teenager.

Kirk recited the lines with venom in her voice, just as she’d done dozens of times in previous rehearsals.

But this time, the words caught director Sheila Kerr’s ear. And Kerr realized something was wrong.

“I said, no, no, no. She’s not angry. She’s broken and vulnerable. This is the first time she’s laid it out there for the whole world to see.”

Kerr knew, because she also felt broken and vulnerable. Because earlier that day she had made a very similar confession.

She had appeared on a local radio show to promote her memoir “Distorted Thoughts,” a largely unedited compilation of blog and journal entries chronicling a lifelong struggle with various kinds of abuse.

During the interview, she mentioned that she had been raped as a girl.

Kerr, a first-time director as unfiltered as a pack of Lucky Strikes, didn’t realize she made the confession until she listened back to the interview.

It was the first time she had talked about the assault publicly. And sitting in the Kanawha Players’ theater that night, she knew exactly how Terry would feel.

So Kirk changed her delivery. She faced the empty theater, tugged her sweater a little closer and spoke the words with new fragility. When the scene ended, everyone in the theater was crying.

“Even the non-smokers were like, ‘I need a cigarette,’” Kerr said.

“It was a really intense moment but hands-down one of the most beautiful.”

The play, written by William Mastrosimone, is notoriously difficult for both actors and audience members.

Kanawha Players president Ginger Workman says the play is an exploration not just of violence against women, but also of justice and punishment. And it takes a long, hard look at all of those things.

“It’s not a play you want to get into if you have any past with some of these issues. It can be difficult,” she said.

The Players’ production of “Extremities” opens this Friday at 8 p.m.

The play opens with the main character Marjorie alone in her home, making tea and killing bugs with bug spray.

A man—later discovered to be a stalker that has been spying on Marjorie and her roommates for some time—walks through the front door, attacks the woman and attempts to rape her.

Marjorie is able to overpower her attacker with the help of the bug spray. When her roommates return, they find the would-be rapist tied to a chair inside the fireplace. The women then must decide what they should do to the man.

They could call the police, but since he didn’t succeed in raping Marjorie, won’t they just let him go? Wouldn’t he just come back?

The women also discuss killing the attacker, but there are obvious complications with that plan, too.

“There’s been times I’ve been in rehearsal and wanted to throw up. You feel like you’re watching a crime happen,” Kerr said.

It’s especially difficult for Kerr, a survivor of both domestic abuse and sexual assault.

“I feel like it has me written all over it, she said. There’s parts of this play, there are things that I’ve pushed down deep.”

But in a way, Kerr said that history has helped with “Extremities.”

She’s worked with the Kanawha Players since 2010 but has always stayed behind the scenes, building sets and doing makeup. She tried out for a role in “Extremities,” but didn’t get one.

But then the play’s director dropped out. Then his replacement left, too.

Workman, impressed with Kerr’s strong vision for the play, asked her to take the helm even though she had never directed a play before.

Kerr was initially concerned but has enjoyed being able to bring someone else’s story to life onstage, while giving it her own spin.

“I won’t lie: I’m getting something out of it,” she said.