Zack Harold

writer/editor

‘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.

‘THIS MAY DO ME IN, I MAY RETIRE’

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on April 07, 2010. 

WHITESVILLE – Ed Runyon, 83, walked to the flag pole in his front yard shortly before noon Tuesday and raised his American flag for the first time this year. He tied it off at half-staff.

Although he didn’t know any of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the retired miner said the incident troubles him deeply.

“It’s a sad thing,” Runyon said.

Runyon worked as a miner for 34 years, suffering two broken fingers and a broken toe during his career. The Korean War veteran said he counts himself lucky he didn’t see any explosions, although he was working underground when several men died over the years.

He said he knew something was wrong at the mine, located a few miles from his house, when he saw a slew of police cars and fire trucks speeding along W.Va. 3 to the scene Monday afternoon.

“We knew something happened,” Runyon said. “Then it got to us pretty quick.”

Many in this Boone County town of about 500 people expressed sadness and shock.

Marlena Adkins, 45, said her husband, Robert, works at the mine and could have easily been among the victims had the company not switched workers’ shifts.

Robert now works the same hours as the victims did – a six day-on, three day-off schedule. His first day off work was Monday.

“That would’ve been the shift he would’ve been on,” Marlena said.

She said her husband was hit hard by the tragedy.

“He was pretty shook up,” she said. “He said, ‘This may do me in. I may retire.’ ”

Tobie Hilderbrand, pastor at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, said his stepson, Kory Ferrell, 20, worked on the same shift until Massey transferred him a couple of weeks ago.

“All of a sudden they needed some guys at the other mine,” he said.

Hilderbrand said Kory was initially upset about the move because of the co-workers he had become friends with. Obviously, the family is now thankful.

“The Lord’s really worked on our behalf on that,” Hilderbrand said.

But the family did not escape the tragedy. Hilderbrand said his wife’s uncle, Ricky Workman, was one of the miners killed.

“It’s hit home pretty hard,” he said.

Hilderbrand’s church opened its doors to those needing refreshments and prayer.

The church also changed its front sign to read, “Pray for our miners.”

Someone later affixed a small paper note to the sign: “With deep sympathy and concern for all miners who have lost their lives and all who are still trapped – (from) students and faculty at Marshall University.”

Church member Billy Pettry said the church would remain open “as long as anybody needs us.”

Pettry, a retired miner with black lung, said he once worked with many of the victims and some of their fathers. He was close to Workman, a former classmate and basketball teammate.

“We were like brothers there for a long time,” he said.

Mike Gordon and other members of the New Life Assembly in Pettus are keeping their lights on, too. Gordon said he didn’t leave the church Monday night and he was still there at mid-morning Tuesday.

“We’ll be here all day, I know,” he said. “If we’re not, somebody will be.”

Gordon said about 80 percent of men in the church, including Pastor Gary Williams, are coal miners. He works at the Pine Ridge Mine in Prenter.

“It could’ve been us instead of them,” Gordon said.

He said no family members have passed through the church, but plenty of rescue workers and journalists have.

“They came in off and on all night,” he said.

Gordon said the church doesn’t have a radio or TV on hand to keep updated with the news but is monitoring a police scanner. He said church members get most of their news from people returning from the mines.

“The information we’re getting is only what people are getting and bringing back,” he said.

He said the church members were deeply saddened when they heard of the miners who had lost their lives but are praying for the four miners still trapped inside.

“We’ve got hope,” Gordon said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the rest of the story.

The Greatest’s First Foe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the rest of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, crap,” Thomas says.

Read the rest of the story here.

Moonshiner’s Got Nothing to Hide

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

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

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

There are a few minor differences, however.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he ran the still for the first time.

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

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

The process starts with corn. And lots of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paradise Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the rest. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surrounding Byrd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recording site

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Completely live

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple rehearsals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He wore everybody out,” Poss said.

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

Byrd on tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission complete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Keep Old Trains A-Rolling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always something to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two trains are still down for repairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quest Gets Tougher

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

Becoming a knight or lady of the Golden Horseshoe has never been a small feat, but winning the state history award now requires an even deeper understanding of West Virginia’s past.

Every West Virginia student takes the Golden Horseshoe test during his or her eighth-grade year. The top finishers from each county are invited to Charleston to be “knighted” by the state superintendent and receive a Golden Horseshoe pin.

For years, the test was made up of trivia questions like “What year did Morgan Morgan establish the first settlement in modern day West Virginia?” The correct answer is 1731, but Mary Johnson, a historian at the state Archives, said questions like that don’t do much to further students’ knowledge of history.

Historians don’t just memorize facts: they analyze original documents, oral histories and other primary sources to understand history. The Golden Horseshoe now reflects that.

“The test doesn’t deal directly with just trivia. It’s important that our students use critical thinking skills,” said Joey Wiseman, social studies coordinator for the state Department of Education.

The education department keeps a database of about 500 Golden Horseshoe test questions and uses it to come up with five different tests for students around the state.

Each year the department releases 30 questions from its archives as a practice test for students. Staff at the West Virginia State Archives replaces those questions with 30 brand-new ones.

Over the last few years, the education department has asked Culture and History staff to come up with more map- and data-based questions.

Students also have to read passages from speeches or documents important to West Virginia’s history—maybe a stump speech during John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 campaign, or a snippet from John Brown’s diaries—and answer questions about the passage.

“What they’re looking for is having students read primary source materials and understand that. They’re coming a little closer as a researcher, understanding material at a deeper level than just the bare facts,” Johnson said.

“It’s a very important skill to develop, whether you’re taking an English course or a history course,” said Joe Geiger, director of the state archives.
Wiseman said it’s still important to know the facts. The test covers a wide swath of West Virginia’s history, from before white settlers arrived in North America to current events.

If students don’t know the context behind some famous document or speech, it’s still difficult for them to answer the questions correctly.

The top finishers in each county visited Charleston on Thursday to be knighted by state Superintendent Jorea Marple and receive their Golden Horseshoe pins.

“I thought it was a joke when they told me they were going to knight my kid,” Meena Bunn said.

She and her son, Francis, moved to West Virginia from New York three years ago. Bunn said she quickly found out how important the Golden Horseshoe is to state residents.

“A lot of West Virginians I told about it got really excited.”

Marlene Simmons’ son, Chase, was really excited when he learned he would get knighted at Thursday’s ceremony.

“He said, ‘Our teacher told us it is one of the most prestigious awards you can get,'” Simmons said.

Marple, her husband, Attorney General Darrell McGraw; Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; Secretary of State Natalie Tennant; and state Board of Education member Priscilla Haden all attended the ceremony to congratulate this year’s 222 winners.

“This will be one of the most memorable days of your young life,” Marple told the students.

She said McGraw and their son, Darrell McGraw III, are both knights of the Golden Horseshoe and still talk about the experience.

“It’s a symbol of academic excellence, and it’s a symbol of your knowledge and understanding of this great state,” she said.

The governor also spoke to students before the knighting ceremony began. He told them about the history of the Golden Horseshoe award, how it was inspired by Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood’s 1716 expedition into what is now West Virginia.

Each of the 50 members of that expedition were given small, golden horseshoes upon their return. West Virginia began giving awards in their honor in 1931.

“You should take note of Gov. Spotswood’s courage. Never stop learning, and never stop exploring,” Tomblin told students. “You are the future of our great state, and I can’t wait to see what each of you become.”