Zack Harold

writer/editor

Silver Bridge tragedy still haunts river city residents

This story originally appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ben Cedar crossed the Silver Bridge three times on the day it fell.

He was working as a Kirby sweeper salesman back then, and crossing the bridge was the fastest way to get across the Ohio River from his home base in Ravenswood.

“I was worried about that bridge every time I crossed over,” he said. “If you got stuck in the middle of that bridge, it would wave back and forth, back and forth.”

He crossed the Silver Bridge for the final time just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, headed for Gallipolis, Ohio. Once there he stopped at a Kroger store and used a payphone to call his office, just to check in.

As he was in the store, he overheard other customers talking about a bridge collapse. “I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about,” said Cedar, now 75. He asked someone what had happened, and they told him the Silver Bridge had fallen. “I said, ‘I just crossed that bridge 15 or 20 minutes ago.'”

Cedar headed back toward the span. He remembers seeing a large truck stuck on the Ohio side of the bridge, its trailer hanging down into the water. One of his co-workers was supposed to meet him in Gallipolis but had not yet arrived. For all Cedar knew, the man was on the bridge when it fell.

About the same time, 31-year-old State Trooper Rudy Odell was standing on the West Virginia side of the river. He also was surveying the damage. Odell, now 76, might have been the first law enforcement officer to respond to the disaster.

He was in downtown Point Pleasant when the bridge collapsed. Earlier that day, a man from Hutchinson Insurance called the local State Police detachment office wanting to talk with Odell, but he wasn’t at his desk. The secretary radioed Odell and asked him to stop by the man’s office. He parked his car on Main Street, just two blocks from the bridge’s on-ramp. He got out of the cruiser and had started to walk inside the insurance agency when he heard a low rumble. “It sounded like someone upstairs moving furniture,” he said.

Odell stepped back onto the sidewalk. A man across the street hollered at him, saying someone had gone through the bridge. Odell ran toward the river and up the bridge’s ramp, where he found a “very pregnant” lady standing beside her car. Her name was Charlene Clark. She had been on the bridge as it began to fall. Seeing the road collapsing before her, she shifted into reverse and sped backward toward land. Odell said Clark was “shook up,” but otherwise fine. “I would have been shook up, too,” he said. “It sheered off right at the water line on the West Virginia side.”

He left Clark and continued toward the collapse. It was a dreary, murky day, so Odell couldn’t see much of the wreckage. Some trailers had broken loose from their trucks and were floating downstream.

The murkiness did nothing to quiet the cries coming from the river, however. “I could hear them hollering for help. I didn’t know how many there were at that time,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a long way out into the water. Nobody could get to it.”

Odell headed back to his car and radioed the State Police headquarters in South Charleston. He doesn’t remember what he did for the rest of his shift, but for the next few weeks he was stationed on a river barge helping recover vehicles and bodies from the river.

Forty-six people died in the disaster, but Cedar’s coworker was not one of them. He was one car back when the bridge collapsed, right behind Charlene Clark.

* * *

Opened in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and was the first bridge in the United State to forgo a wire cable suspension for an “eyebar link” suspension, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The bridge was held above the water using a series of flat metal links joined by steel “eyebars.”

These eyebars were about 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick, resembling giant-sized automotive wrenches. A crack in eyebar number 330, on the Ohio side of the bridge, brought the entire structure down. Odell said as the bridge collapsed, the deck turned upside down, dumping cars and trucks into the water. The bridge fell moments later, crushing many of those vehicles.

Workers had to remove pieces of the bridge from atop the cars before they could bring the vehicles out of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased 50-ton cranes to make the work easier, but the process was painfully slow.

Odell’s primary job was to tag victims found inside the cars with the location and approximate time of their deaths before sending them to the morgue. He said police weren’t attempting to identify the bodies at that point, but often could.

The State Police had received calls from people all over the United States concerned their relatives might have been on the bridge when it collapsed. When one of those loved ones arrived home safely, Odell said the families often called back so police could remove their names from the list of the missing. “We never brought up a vehicle or a person that we didn’t know was there before they came up,” he said.

Once, when the Army Corps of Engineer’s crane brought up a car, Odell found a father and the man’s young son. “He had one of those little winter suits on, with the fur around the collar,” he said. “And I knew the little boy. I knew his mother. You don’t get used to it.”

* * *

The Point Pleasant River Museum will have a special memorial service at 2 p.m. this Saturday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster and remember the 46 people who died.”

This is a part of history. A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Ruth Fout, who works at the museum and helped organize the event. “If they didn’t have a loved one on the bridge. . . they knew someone, or maybe their best friend’s father was on the bridge.”

Three of Fout’s neighbors died in the collapse. She was working as a clerk at Mason County Insurance at the time, just a few blocks from the bridge. “We were getting our coats ready to go home, and we heard a large noise. I can’t exactly explain how it was; I can just remember it sounded like a swoosh. Then the lights went off in the office. We didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

Then Steve Darst, her supervisor’s husband, came into the office. He always picked up his wife, Virginia, from work. As he was driving to the office that evening, he got held up in traffic near the bridge. While he waited, he watched as the bridge began to shake.” He said the eyebars looked like clapping hands,” Fout said. “He saw it fall.”

Fout was parked near the base of the bridge, but a floodwall blocked her view of the river. She could have walked another block to look in the water but did not want to. She got in her car and went home.

When she returned to Point Pleasant for a hair appointment the next day, Fout said the town was very quiet yet busy with activity as recovery efforts began. She continued to avoid looking at the river. “I never went back there during the time of the recovery,” she said.

Fout no longer averts her eyes. Beginning last year, she and her sister Ruth helped Hartford College professor Stephan Bullard and student Bridget Gromek write a new book, The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967.

The book, which contains 200 photos and a history of the bridge and its collapse, debuted Oct. 1 and has been an instant success.”We’re trying to keep it alive for the future generations because, as time goes on . . . the story gets fainter and fainter,” Fout said. “It is something we don’t want to forget.”

And even a half-century later, parts of the story are left to be told.

About three years ago, Bill Needham, a former truck driver from North Carolina, came into the river museum and told Fout he was on the bridge when it collapsed. Needham said his rig quickly sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. He held his breath until he was able to roll down a window and swim out.

Fout said Needham told her the water was pitch-black when he finally escaped his truck but as he got closer to the surface, “he could feel the water getting lighter.” He grabbed onto some floating debris, and after 15 minutes in the water was pulled onto a rescue boat.

Needham’s driving partner, Robert Towe, did not make it out of the truck. Towe, of Cana, Va., was a husband and father of three small children. He had just built a new home and purchased a farm.

It was to be his last day as a long-haul trucker.

In Search of the Stone Man

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

Russ Jones navigates the woods with an ease that only comes through vast experience. His running shoes do not lose their footing on this steep, unmarked trail in Kanawha State Forest. As a certified Master Naturalist, he readily spots animal tracks and identifies birdsong, and he can name just about any plant he finds while also ticking off the bugs that like to munch on it. He’s seen just about everything there is to see in the woods. But this morning, Jones is in pursuit of something he’s never seen.

Russ Jones is looking for Bigfoot.

He doesn’t really expect to come nose-to-nose with Sasquatch in broad daylight in a popular state park. It’s more accurate to say he’s looking for evidence of Bigfoot. Jones is a local investigator for the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, a 20-year-old group made famous by Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. The group has received several reports of encounters in Kanawha State Forest, so Jones is looking for places to stash his top-of-the-line field cameras to catch photos of the fabled beast.

The trail levels off, giving us a brief respite from the steep climb. Then Jones notices something a few yards in front of him. Something that shouldn’t be there.

For the Record

Russ Jones has never seen a Bigfoot, but he has on five occasions found what he believes are Bigfoot tracks. “I don’t mean a smudge in the ground. I mean a clear track, with toes,” he says. The first time, he was a boy in southern Ohio and knew nothing about Bigfoot. He was walking in the woods with his uncle shortly after a snowstorm. They came to a cave and found a print in the snow that looked like it had been made by a human’s bare foot. “We thought maybe some druggie found that cave to get out of a storm.” Years later, after Bigfoot research became his passion, Jones saw it differently.

He also thinks he has heard a Bigfoot a few times. Recently, Jones was hiking with his wife, Cheryl, near Thurmond in the New River Gorge. He heard four “wood knocks” from across the river. Bigfoot researchers believe the creatures bang pieces of wood together to communicate. There were no Bigfoot to be seen, however, when Jones reached the location of the noises an hour and a half later.

Most of his Bigfoot experiences have come vicariously. Following up on reports of encounters in West Virginia or Ohio on the BFRO website, Jones has talked to policemen, teachers, nurses, and prominent politicians. “If someone said, ‘What’s the most shocking thing about Bigfoot?’ I’d say it’s the witnesses. They’re so ordinary,” he says.

Scrolling through recent reports in his Dunbar chiropractic office during a lunch break, Jones finds one witness who reports working on a deer stand deep in the woods when he noticed something odd—banging noises rang through the air long after his hammer stopped. Later that day the man heard something large moving through the trees, although he was certain no other humans were anywhere near, and he smelled a musty, body odor-like stench.

Jones decides this account is credible, as much for what the witness wrote as how he wrote it. “This guy knows how to spell. His grammar’s really good. He knows where to use commas. I think it’s important to evaluate the context of a report.” Jones’ standards for credibility have risen over time. And for good reason. “When you make a remarkable claim, remarkable evidence is required,” he says.

Burden of Proof

The woods are quiet as Jones approaches a faded blue object near a sapling, now just a few feet away. It’s a Dora the Explorer sippy cup. He picks it up, sniffs the contents, and throws the cup back on the ground. Farther up the hill Jones finds something else: a gleaming white golf ball sitting on a bed of dark, decomposing leaves. To me, the discovery feels significant—what are these things doing here, on a steep hillside in the middle of the woods with no marked trail anywhere close? When you’re looking for Bigfoot evidence, everything seems like it could be Bigfoot evidence. This is a common amateur mistake, Jones says. “I think having an experience is an exciting thing at first but after a while, when you’re sure something exists, you’ve run out of interest in experiences.”

Jones admits the cup and ball are odd finds, but the hard evidence he’s looking for eludes him. He attributes this to the animal’s primate intelligence and its high wariness of humans. Unbelievers say evidence just doesn’t exist, but Jones believes most of them simply have not reviewed the evidence. That’s why he took it upon himself to plead Bigfoot’s case.

Earlier this year Jones released his book, Tracking the Stone Man. The title is taken from the Cherokee name for the mysterious, hairy creature the tribespeople sometimes encountered in the woods. The book is part memoir. It’s also a field guide, detailing common beliefs about Bigfoot and its behaviors, with tips on running an expedition. He discusses DNA tests on alleged Bigfoot hair and scat samples and includes several witness reports, the best of the best. “I put the ones in the book I know are true.”

Jones poured two years of his life into the book, yet he knows it isn’t enough. Only one thing will ultimately prove Bigfoot exists: a dead Bigfoot. “Eventually I think that’s going to happen. A coal truck is going to go around a curve and hit it,” he says. “Then the university people are going to come out of the universities and act like they know stuff.”

If they are someday proven correct, Jones and his fellow believers will be in good company. Up until the late 1920s, many Westerners believed the giant panda was just a myth—until Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. and his brother Kermit went on an expedition to China and shot one.

But let’s admit, even if Jones will not, there is a very real chance he has spent a significant portion of his life and a large amount of money pursuing a falsehood. What will Jones have lost?

Less than you might think. Real or not, this obsession has colored Jones’ life with a rare sense of adventure. “People have this idea that we’ve explored and found all there is to find. I just don’t think that we have. Maybe it’s romantic at heart to believe there’s something left for man to discover. But I think there’s a chance.”

And when you look at it like that—who doesn’t want him to be right?

High Hopes for a New Cash Crop

This story originally appeared in the August/September ’16 issue of Morgantown Magazine.

Susanna Wheeler prefers not to divulge the location of her summer garden. She’ll admit it is planted on WVU property, but that is as much information as she’s comfortable giving out. “We don’t want people to try to come up here and see what’s going on,” says the agronomy graduate student.

That’s because her crop, planted in neat rows on a quarter-acre plot, is instantly recognizable from certain dorm room posters, reggae albums, and Willie Nelson T-shirts. If you’ve ever stumbled into a shop that sells “for tobacco use only” items, you’ll instantly recognize its green, serrated leaves. Susanna Wheeler is growing Cannabis sativa.

Wheeler’s secrecy has nothing to do with getting in trouble with the law. She’s not worried about that. She just doesn’t want to attract any snooping onlookers who might interrupt her very important work—a research project that could potentially change West Virginia’s agriculture industry forever.

While her cannabis plants look identical to marijuana, they contain only trace levels of THC, the psychoactive chemical responsible for the plant’s popularity as a recreational drug. That’s why Wheeler and others who work with the crop usually refer to it as “hemp.” It’s the hard-working, buttoned-down member of the cannabis family, with a long history of industrial use. The ships that brought European settlers to the New World were all outfitted with strong hemp ropes, and hemp was one of the first crops grown in the English colonies. But it fell out of use over the last century as it was outlawed alongside its psychedelic cousins.

There is hope for a comeback, however. Laws are slowly changing, and farmers around the country are beginning to take an interest in hemp again. West Virginia is beginning its own experiment with hemp this year. If the plant is able to thrive in West Virginia’s soil and growers can find willing markets, proponents believe hemp could be the next big industry our state so desperately needs—to the tune of millions of dollars and dozens of market applications.

ROOM TO GROW

It wasn’t too long ago that growing hemp, for any reason, was downright illegal. Despite hemp’s lack of THC, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) still considers any varietal of cannabis a Schedule 1 drug. It’s on the same list as heroin, LSD, mescaline, and MDMA, also popularly known as Ecstasy. But when Congress passed the 2014 Farm Bill, lawmakers included a provision allowing state agriculture departments and colleges and universities to grow hemp for research purposes, as long as state law allowed for hemp farming.

West Virginia’s neighboring state of Kentucky, which was the nation’s largest grower of hemp before it was outlawed, has made a large investment in hemp research. After beginning with just about 30 acres of hemp in 2014, this year the Kentucky Department of Agriculture approved more than 160 individual growers, not including university projects, to produce almost 4,500 acres of hemp.

Although Kentucky’s program is still focused entirely on research—that’s all federal law allows, after all—several processors have sprung up in the state to purchase growers’ crops. There are companies that process the fiber for textile production, clean the seeds for food use, and extract and refine oil from the seeds. There’s even a distillery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, that makes hemp grain moonshine.

Hemp farming has technically been legal in West Virginia since the 1990s. The law as it was written allowed growers to raise hemp as long as they obtained permits from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture and the DEA. No hemp was ever legally grown since neither agency was issuing hemp permits back then, but the state wanted to be ready in case that day eventually arrived.

After Congress revised the Farm Bill, state lawmakers in 2015 removed the requirements for a DEA permit from West Virginia Code and created an application process for the hemp program. Eric Ewing, director of the agriculture department’s Plant Industries Division, says he got many phone calls when that application process began on June 1, 2015. But only a few growers actually decided to take the plunge.

Seven West Virginia growers, including Wheeler, now have full licenses to grow hemp. Morgan Leach, executive director of the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative, estimates those growers have a combined 10 acres of hemp in the ground. Each operation will receive regular visits by Ewing and his staff as they test THC levels in the plants, because state law requires levels to be below 0.3 percent. “Most of them are starting small, which makes sense,” Ewing says. “Anything new like this, you’ve got to start somewhere. We’re in our infancy.”

ROOTS OF AN INDUSTRY

Marty Biafora, director of operations for Morgantown-based iHemp, says his company is growing about 5 acres of hemp this year and soon will begin growing plants indoors at a 1,000-square-foot hydroponic facility. When it comes time this fall to harvest those plants, Biafora says there isn’t much use for them. Hemp can’t be transported across state lines—more about that below— and there’s nowhere to process hemp in West Virginia right now.

But Biafora isn’t concerned. He fully expects it will be years before the hemp industry turns a profit. “Our goal is to just get seed in the ground, get it up, go through the process of harvesting whatever amount we have, so we can know what to expect next year,” he says. “This is just an exploratory process to get the industry up and rolling.”

So what might the hemp industry look like once it’s all grown up? Leach imagines a day when the abandoned warehouses dotting the

Ohio River Valley are filled with hemp or hemp products waiting to be loaded onto river barges, trains, and trucks and shipped to the rest of the world.

“There is not another crop on the planet that has the utility of hemp,” Leach says. Its fiber can be used to make paper, textiles, rope, insulation, plastics, concrete substitutes, and fiberboard that’s stronger and lighter than wood. Leach is president of Agri Carb Electric, a company that he hopes will make hyper-efficient batteries from hemp fiber.

But the uses don’t end there. Hemp seeds are packed with proteins, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that proponents claim boost immunity, prevent varicose veins, and lower cholesterol, among other purported health benefits. Hemp seeds also can be pressed to extract oils, which can be turned into biofuels, paint, detergent, and a legion of other products.

In 2015, the U.S. retail market sold more than $570 million in products made from hemp fiber, hemp seeds, and hemp oil, the Hemp Industries Association estimates. That includes $280 million in hemp food, food supplements, and body care products, up more than 10 percent over 2014 sales figures.

Leach believes sales will continue to grow as the industry develops—28 states now have laws allowing hemp research—and he’s confident hemp could be the big diversifier West Virginia’s fossil fuel-focused economy needs. He’s been in contact with a company that makes mats for mechanics, for which it imports 500 tons of hemp each year from Bangladesh. There’s also a food producer that uses 400 tons of hemp seed per year.

Capturing even a fraction of the international hemp market could be an unprecedented boon for the state’s agriculture sector. Most of West Virginia’s farmers do their work on evenings and weekends while relying on day jobs to pay the bills. According to 2007 Census statistics, four out of five West Virginia farms make less than $10,000 a year.

Leach says he doesn’t know how large the Department of Agriculture will allow the pilot program to get, but the West Virginia Hemp Farmers Cooperative already has about 40 people interested in growing hemp on their properties next year. “It’s a wide-open space, if you can navigate the legal hurdles to get it done,” he says. “As long as the sun shines, we’re in business.”

But, as Ewing at the agriculture department pointed out, the modern hemp industry is still only a seedling. It’s unclear what the fully grown business would look like—how deep its roots would go, how wide its leaves would reach. We don’t even know for sure how well the plant will grow in the state.

This is where Susanna Wheeler comes in.

FARMING IN THE DARK

If a West Virginia farmer needs advice for growing tomatoes, watermelons, wheat, asparagus, alfalfa, or any other common agricultural product, experts at the WVU Extension Service can provide most of the information she needs. Extension agents have access to data on the best times to plant crops, the best times to fertilize them, proper soil acidities, the optimal spacing of plants in fields, and many other variables. But, for the most part, hemp growers in West Virginia are flying blind.

Wheeler came back to WVU last fall. The Charleston native earned her undergraduate degree in agriculture in 2012, then moved to Nicholas County, where she spent some time growing vegetables for farmers’ markets, growing sorghum for molasses, and tapping maple trees for syrup. When she returned to Morgantown to work on her master’s degree, she planned to spend her first summer researching cover crops, varieties of plants grown during agricultural downtimes to protect and enrich the soil.

But then her roommate mentioned the agriculture department’s hemp program. “I started reading about the legislation that was passed and decided I’d like to do a small experiment on the side,” she says.

The more she learned about hemp, however, the more she realized a small experiment wouldn’t be enough. “We know almost nothing about how it will grow in the state. We don’t know what varieties to recommend, we don’t know what fertilizer to recommend,” says Louis McDonald, WVU professor of plant and soil sciences and Wheeler’s adviser. Most of the U.S.-based hemp research Wheeler has uncovered dates back to the 1940s. “It’s not really relevant to our modern agricultural practices,” she says.

Wheeler discovered some basic information from a French textbook, along with a few journal articles and research papers. She got some advice from growers in Kentucky whose own hemp

experiments began a few years back. But there’s nowhere for West Virginia farmers to get state-specific information about hemp. “There’s so much research that needs to be done. I immediately became overwhelmed,” she says. She pitched the idea to McDonald, who agreed to give it a shot.

After completing the application process with the state agriculture department—which included state and federal background checks—Wheeler obtained an importer permit from the DEA before tracking down overseas companies to provide her hemp seeds. “They’re not plentiful. It’s not like, let’s go to Southern States and get some varieties or do a quick Google search.” She eventually found a broker based in Kentucky who had relationships with Italian and Polish hemp seed vendors. The seeds mostly arrived without incident, although U.S. Customs in New York held up one order for three weeks.

Wheeler finally planted the first of her seeds in late May, in that undisclosed half-acre plot on WVU property. She planted five varieties of hemp to see how well they would grow in West Virginia’s soil and climate conditions under different fertility levels, which she controls by adding compost to the plants.

She also began a second, smaller research project in late June to test hemp’s abilities as a “hyperaccumulator.” Other researchers’ findings suggest the plant might be able to extract harmful elements like cadmium, lead, and zinc from the ground. Wheeler has a few dozen plants growing in pots of contaminated soil at a WVU greenhouse. If the results prove promising, hemp eventually could be used to remediate former industrial sites.

GROWING PAINS

For all the excitement surrounding hemp, there are still a lot of hurdles to clear before the plant can become a full-fledged cash crop. Lawmakers earlier this year passed an amendment to the agriculture department’s rules to exclude private growers from the hemp program.

“That’s what our attorneys advised us,” says State Senator Bob Williams, a Democrat from Taylor County, who made the amendment. He says West Virginia Code only allows the Department of Agriculture and state colleges and universities to grow hemp, so issuing permits to private growers is beyond the department’s authority. “We were trying to make the rule conform with the code.”

The changes disquieted hemp growers, many of whom had already invested money into the project, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill but Williams still believes the Department of Agriculture is operating the project outside the bounds of state law. “I’m not a lawyer, that’s just my opinion. But I think the law is clear as to what is allowed,” he says.

The agriculture department reads the law a little differently.

Chris Ferro, the department’s chief of staff, says the Farm Bill clearly allows for cultivation and marketing of hemp. “While there’s no definition of marketing (in the law), a dictionary definition of marketing means to sell,” he says. “Our interpretation was, if Congress wanted us to research and market, that’s what we intended to do.”

Federal laws and regulations provide their own challenges to hemp growers and officials. When Eric Ewing had to take hemp seeds from his office in Charleston to a grower in the Eastern Panhandle, he couldn’t drive his normal route through Virginia and Maryland. “I had to go all back roads, staying in-state, because if I’d crossed state lines I would have been transporting controlled substances across state lines.” That’s a felony.

Ewing also made sure to bring lots of identification and paperwork on the off chance he’d be stopped by a curious police officer along the way. “We were very careful not to speed. Not that we aren’t always, but we were extra careful,” he says.

And even once the hemp is fully grown, growers cannot transport their crop across state lines—it must first be processed into textiles, paper, seed oil, or other products. But as of right now, there aren’t any producers in West Virginia ready to turn raw hemp into end-use products. One grower does have plans to buy a seed oil press, but his operation is not up and running yet. “It’s going to lose its novelty unless you can sell it,” Louis McDonald says.

Morgan Leach at the hemp farmers’ co-op says these issues likely will not go away until Congress completely legalizes hemp. And until that happens, the hemp industry likely will not get the one thing it needs most to thrive: money.

For the time being, Wheeler is doing all her research alone, for no pay. McDonald says the agronomic study of hemp is so new it’s difficult to get funding for research. “Because it’s such a rigmarole to get seed, nobody’s willing to give you money until you can show you’re able to get seed. My hope is we can do this little project now, get the seed, collect data, secure our plots, do the research … (and) next year it will give us leverage,” he says. “Lots of university people are interested, but they don’t have money to do additional research. It’s always the problem: Where’s the money going to come from?”

McDonald says if the industry ever takes off in West Virginia, we’ll have Wheeler to thank. “She has done an enormous amount of work,” he says. “She’s the one who’s worked with these seed companies, worked with the Department of Agriculture, tried to get these additional growers to participate. It would not be here without her.”

Despite worries about money and legality, Wheeler is plowing ahead. Her projects will likely run through October, when she will harvest seed from the hemp plants. If she’s able to get enough funding, she’d like to test soil samples to see how hemp changes soil’s chemical makeup.

She knows these experiments will only answer a handful of the questions that remain about hemp. But it’s a start. “There’s a lot of speculation,” Wheeler says. “There are prolific pro- and anti-hemp beliefs. But right now, they’re just that. Beliefs.”

At River’s Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.