27 Jun Cleo Jailed & Other Midwest Adventures
Due to a last-minute cancellation (because a librarian — in a city I will not name — forgot she had booked me!), Cleo and I have spent most of this week in the Ohio River Valley. We had a fabulous event at the Ohio County Library, in Wheeling, WV, thanks to the librarian Sean Duffy, who filled the house with enthusiastic listeners — they bought all of the books I had! And they gave Cleo lots of love. I met some people from the Ohio Valley Young Preservationists who are working hard to raise awareness about the value of old buildings in Wheeling and surrounding areas. Wheeling has great old architecture. Although it isn’t far from Maryland, this is a part of the country I wasn’t familiar with. I told Jill we’ve got to come back for a visit because there’s so much to see.
The broad Ohio River separates Ohio from West Virginia. It was the engine that fueled all kinds of industry on both shores. Much of that industry is gone and so most of those river towns have dwindled. But, actually, the thing that did in the river towns wasn’t so much the desmise of industry as the ill-planned highways, like Highway 7, which guts every river town on the Ohio side by diverting traffic away from those towns’ business districts. Thoughtless planning like that has done more damage to U.S. towns and cities than just about anything else. The famous Route 66 is an example of how highways were integrated with businesses in the best (and often colorful) way. Route 66 is now a mostly-deserted relic (found in pieces from Chicago to L.A.) because the interstate highway system — built in the 1950s and ’60s — rolled over or around that vibrant auto route.
The big deal now in the Ohio Valley is fracking — farmers are leasing drilling rights (for 25 years) to power companies for big bucks, with the promise of more money (royalties) if the drillers hit a well. The motels are full with oil workers from Texas and Oklahoma; rents have sky-rocketed; and there’s plenty of work to be had if you know a trade, like welding. New refineries are going up along the river. The gas-filled shale deposit lies one mile underground on the West Virginia side and two miles below the Ohio side. The new gas f inds will make coal irrelevant . . . until the gas runs out.
I’ve been doing a number of interviews for the Preservation America project. Today I talked with the owner of Wissmach Glass factory,which has been in operation since 1904. They make sheets of stained glass and are known around the world for their high-quality. The factory operates much the way it did a century years ago, and is one of the few remaining in the U.S. At one time there were more than 100 glass companies in West Virginia. I’m not talking about plate glass, the stuff you find in your every-day window. I’m talking about art glass — hand-blown glassware, stained glass, jewelry glass, glass marbles.
Yesterday, I talked to the people who run the West Virginia State Penitentiary, built in 1866 and in operation — amazingly — until 1994. This frightening place is now a tourist destination that sees 30,000 visitors a year, and it offers some gruesome tales about inmate life. Cleo and I took the tour but Cleo didn’t like it at all: the smells were all wrong. I just happened upon the Penitentiary while driving around aimlessly, as I often do when I have the time. I also came upon The Roosevelt, a funky little restaurant in Bellaire that makes its own pasta. If it’s the real-deal and homemade, I’ll eat it. They did a good job. I got some meatballs too because I can’t remember the last time I ate meatballs.
There are other sights to see in these parts, like the Palace of Gold, a holy shrine built by the Hari Krishnas in 1973 (completed in 1977) and now considered culturally significant — called “America’s Taj Mahal” — a tourist destination for many Indians. Why the Krishnas’ leader at the time chose to build their shrine here in West Virginia coal country remains a holy mystery. If you like rose gardens, you should check out theirs: it’s quite impressive.
This is the last week of my near-Midwest book tour for the paperback of From Animal House to Our House. Friday night I’ve got an event at Pittsburgh’s Construction Junction, where I expect to meet lots of enthusiastic, hard-core DIYers and old house rehabbers. Then it’s my return home, where the first thing on my to-do list is to get rid of the marauding rats that have made a home behind our gold fish pond. We’ve been missing some frogs of late and we now know why.