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Appalachia at Heart

The Coal Miner’s Granddaughter

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My grandfather, John Fustich, sits on the porch of a Van Meter building, while my father stands nearby. John was an employee of the coal mining company for many years, before he died of Black Lung. Photo courtesy of Katie Fustich.

I tend to shy away from my origins. When you live in New York City, admitting to being a geographical transplant, unless you hail from somewhere hip like Abu Dhabi or Cape Town, is guaranteed to produce the most unenthused chorus of “Oh okay … cool”’s you will ever hear.

Over time, my answer to “Where are you from originally?” has zoomed out from the city of Pittsburgh, to just Pennsylvania, until finally I just mumble that I’m from the North East while trying to think of a redeeming personal fun fact. Yet my background, the core of who I am, stretches much farther back in time and place to a 100-person town called Van Meter.

My father was born here in 1943. The town occupies a small corner of riverside land, with the Pennsylvania-Erie Railroad line separating it from the litter-lined bank of the Youghiogheny. It is unclear when the town of Van Meter was founded. Likely, the town sprung up, as many others did, with the arrival of the Pittsburgh Coal Company in the early 1900s. Small company-based towns formed within walking distance to coal mines, and village life operated in a sort-of corporate harmony with them.

Van Meter (or Metre, depending) is not an uncommon name for place or person. As a surname, Van Meter is Dutch in origin; a derivative of the longer Van Meteren. Meaning literally “From Meteren” (a village in the Gelderland Region of the Netherlands), the name was American-born when Joosten Van Meteren settled Kingston, New York in 1662  —  or so various genealogy websites have been kind enough to inform me.

Van Meter’s sole credit to fame was as the site of the worst coal-mining disaster in Pennsylvania history. The Darr Mine collapsed on December 19th, 1907. A record 239 men and children were killed due to a gas explosion caused by the use of open-flame lamps in underground areas. The Pittsburgh Coal Company was not found liable for the incident, and operations resumed as usual (though, open-flame lamps were now conveniently removed from the equation). This is the stuff of town legend.

My father’s father, John, like three-quarters of all other men in the town, was an employee of the Pittsburgh Coal Company. John and the men of the mine had been exempt from fighting in World War II. A “critical deferment” was issued, keeping him deep in the important work of creating energy on the home front, otherwise known as a bargain for black lung over German bullets. This came as a harsh blow to the intensely patriotic immigrant population of Van Meter, but they dutifully remained in the mines. Regardless, in 1943, there was time for my father to be born.

They, meaning my grandparents, dad, and his older brother Donald, lived in a duplex-style house provided by the coal company. Each half of the building featured four rooms: a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms. A steep and narrow staircase led to damp unfinished basement. Behind their house, and most houses, was a 20’ by 30’ of patchy grass. Rickety tire swings and corrugated metal sliding boards often featured.

Most notably, the backyard was home to a tall wooden outhouse shared amongst the two families of the duplex. Indoor plumbing did not make its way to the dirt valley of Van Meter until the 1950’s. My dad was at least thirteen years old the first time he had the pleasure of watching his urine swirl into oblivion.

Yes, Van Meter was by no means advanced. Children were educated Laura Ingalls style in a two-room schoolhouse. Grades one through three occupied one room, and four through six the other. My father has a b

achelor’s degree in Biology and an MBA, as well as a decent grasp of the English language, so I assume things actually went pretty well in there. Nevertheless, the schoolhouse was finally shut down in 1955 and the youths of Van Meter entered into the modern, palatial-in-comparison world of the Rostraver public school system.

My grandmother, Madeline Fustich (center), holds my father while posing for a family photo outside their company-owned home. Photo courtesy of Katie Fustich.

Few other public places existed in Van Meter. Activity was often centralized at the general store. Yet another establishment created by the Pittsburgh Coal Company, the store was a one stop shop for groceries, hardware, fishing and sports equipment, and everything else an impoverished community needed to keep the edges relatively smooth. During the holidays, the store would decorate their second floor with string lights and wreaths. For Christmas one year, my father asked for a basketball. He received a lopsided brown orb complete with laces — a feature that began its decline in the 1930’s — courtesy of the general store. Employees of the coal company could charge purchases directly out of their paycheck — a practice my grandfather rejected completely. The nearest comparable establishment was more than five miles out of town.

A novelty store was the only other institution to be found in town. This store sold popsicles, soft drinks, and beer. There was a pool table where the local old coots would gather to be crotchety in unison.

As a remote and insular town, those who came and went were counted among the strange and the wandering. The Pennsylvania-Erie line running along the river brought many of the stereotypical “hobo” character, tattered newsboy cap, tin cup and all. Though, these men were much less friendly than those in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. These men were dark, grisly, and of questionable origins. They would hop off the car and go door to door asking for money, often explicitly with the intention of immediately re-investing it in the liquor industry. Once, my grandmother Madeline offered one of these men a bologna sandwich. My dad watched from the window as the man took the sandwich, examined it, and threw it on the front lawn in disgust.\

In the 1930’s Van Meter had boasted a boarding house, owned by my great-grandmother. Immigrants quickly filled the rooms with hopes of securing work in the coal mine. From its earliest days, the town was composed almost entirely of immigrants. One third of the population was fresh off the boat, and the other two-thirds were merely their spawn. If your relatives claimed connections to the Mayflower, Van Meter was not the place for you.

Van Meter’s prime paralleled an era where ethnic ghettos solidified and racial discrimination was rampant. Yet, almost idyllically, Van Meter was nearly devoid of such things. Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Italian, and African-American families lived in almost equal proportions with non-existent divides between the factions. Unification existed based on the fact that no one had any hereditary claim to the land, and more importantly, everyone was poor.

Being the Fruit Roll-Up of poverty and dirt that it was, it was no secret that the outside world had little positive to say about Van Meter. Adults and children alike were scorned as river rats and lowlifes. Many years later, long after my father had left home for college and my grandparents had relocated to the nearby suburban area of Belle Vernon, my grandfather would find himself laden with guilt, wishing they had moved the family away from the town long before; offering a different childhood experience to my dad and his brother — perhaps one where the basketballs were made without laces. My dad vetoed this theory, asserting there never could have been a better place to grow up. It was a magical, isolated world of Little Rascals-style shenanigans and below minimum-wage idealism.

The way he tells things, it genuinely seems Van Meter was its own twinkling little planet. My own childhood was pleasantly over-populated with stories about the Van Meter days. Kids in the town had funny old-timey nicknames like “Peanuts” and “Skippy.” My dad and his friends would walk a mile and a half down the train tracks into the town of Smithton, where they’d see a Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey picture for the price of a nickel. At home, my dad and brother cut the bottom out of a metal coffee can, knotted together some wires to create a net, and used a ping-pong ball to play one on one in the basement. Sometimes, while flipping through the infinite pages of my Pokémon card collection, I thought I could only be so lucky to warm the bench of a ping-pong basketball game.

I speak of Van Meter in the past tense, as if it no longer exists. Certainly it does. Yet, there’s something about it that will forever be lodged midcentury, like a hair forever tickling the back of your throat. I was slightly less than ten years old when my dad drove my brother and I there on a sticky day of our summer vacation. I was crestfallen to have it revealed to me that the amusement park of my imagination was now a glorified trailer park. Oversized satellite dishes and dirty Playskool jungle gyms omnipresent. Men in American flag t-shirts and trucker hats sat on their porches with a Bud Light tucked into their meaty fists. They squinted carefully as we cruised by. The mine had closed almost half a century ago, leaving this miniature world a confused blip on the map. My dad informed us that, in fact, many of the people from his stories had remained here for the rest of their lives, raising children and grandchildren just as they had been raised. I half expected my dad’s return would warrant a parade and shouts of “Speech! Speech!!”

My father and uncle (center, right) stand with a friend (left) in a open field near Van Meter. Local children were often responsible for fashioning their own entertainment. Photo courtesy of Katie Fustich.

Coming of age in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, part of me was constantly fixated on loathing my surroundings. How could my parents let me grow up in such a cultural and intellectual wasteland? If I couldn’t walk to the grocery store or post office like a kid from Hey Arnold!, then what was the point in living at all? (I now live in New York City and am, more often than not, too lazy to walk to the post office.) Years later, at the age of 21, I understand what my dad was trying to tell me without ever really telling me — or maybe he did and I was just rolling my eyes and ignoring him. My dad had cut a thick slice of Van Meter and shared each morsel of it with my brother and I as we grew up. Though we were allowed an excess of cartoons and didn’t have to worry about a hobo knocking on our door, we knew how to explore the woods, play catch, wade in a creek, and clean the house. My brother even knew how to bait a fishing hook (I was too afraid of worms). I look at my friends who don’t know how to use detergent or be patient with waitresses and sigh, but I am also grateful.

My dad left Van Meter behind, so I too could leave somewhere behind. Of my four other siblings, I was the only one to set my sights beyond the borders of Southwestern Pennsylvania. While my friends’ parents urged them to remain close to home when choosing a college, I was concerned as to why my parents just smiled and nodded when I told them I was packing for Europe. But I get it now. It is wanted of me to want more. My forbearers emerged daily from a hole in the ground, soot-covered and weary to the core with the intention that I would sit here as I do now, whether they would ever know it or not. For Van Meter, I will keep the flame burning. Just not in an open-flame lamp.

Katie Fustich, born in Pittsburgh, lives in New York City. Her work appears in Vice, Jezebel, The Pacific Standard, Salon, and more. Visit her at http://katefustich.com

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Appalachia at Heart

W.Va. Students Adapt Old Time Appalachian Story Telling Technique

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Eddie Spaghetti helps a student make a crankie during a summer BOPARC art class. Crankies are rooted in Appalachian tradition. Eddie Spaghetti helps a student make a crankie during a summer BOPARC art class. Crankies are rooted in Appalachian tradition. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPBPhoto: Jesse Wright/WVPB

This summer in West Virginia, elementary school students had access to  a special summer art camp series almost every week.

Students learned a  story telling art form rooted in Appalachian tradition called crankies. Crankies are also sometimes called moving panoramas, as they are a drawing or painting that can be manually moved and is portrayed within a box.

“It has paper wrapped around two scrolls and when you turn the cranks it moves forward and you can draw either different frames or one big picture that you scroll to see,” said 11-year-old Timmy Carlson. “And it moves and it’s like an old form of entertainment before TV.”

Eddie Spaghetti helps Timmy Carlson complete her crankie. She chose the song ‘Looking Through a Window’ from the musical ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

At the camp, Carlson is painting a crankie box bright orange. 

The crankie is thought to have originated in the United Kingdom in the 1800s. It made its way to Appalachia to tell stories and accompany music.

World-renowned storyteller Peter Stevenson is something of a crankie expert. He lives in Wales, but was in West Virginia this spring for an art exhibit which featured some of his handmade crankies. 

Stevenson is especially interested in the historical connection of crankies to Appalachia.

“They would sing a song, and old mountain ballad, play music, tell a story, while the picture was moving,” he said. “If you think about it, it’s early animated film. It’s like animation special effects movies, but without electricity. It’s what they did up in the mountains before they had electric, they used these crankies.”

A completed crankie. Inside the boxes is a 10-foot-long scroll that can be turned with two wood spools. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

Local artist Eddie Spaghetti also specializes in making crankies. His work was part of the art exhibit, as well, and he is teaching the crankie class. He said they are similar to old timey YouTube videos.

“In a way this crankie idea connects to something that we’re very comfortable and familiar with in our modern age, but bringing back an old thing,” Spaghetti said.

One of his students drew a story about Ned Flanders from The Simpson’s. Spaghetti helps interpret the story with a song and ukulele. 

Each student illustrates their song on a 10-foot-long paper. They write the song lyrics on it and draw and paint images that represent the song for them. 

Carlo Arthurs chose ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen. 

“Around the mid it says “Don’t stop me now.” So, I did the finger wag, a stop sign, and then me. So it’s “Don’t stop me now,”” Arthurs said.

Once the scrolls are finished, they have to be installed on the wooden spools in a box. 

“They’ve been sawing, they’ve been clipping, they’ve been cutting, they’ve been painting,” Spaghetti said.

He helps the kids use a drill to create holes in the box for the spools…so the scroll can be turned.

“Yeah, it’s nice they get to do a little carpentry work too,” Spaghetti said.

Dashiel Harms and Zoey Gilliam work on an art project. At the end of the week there were 16 different completed crankies. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

On the last day of the camp, the kids present their crankies. The room is filled with wooden boxes that are a little bigger than a piece of printer paper. They are painted in every color.

Zoey Gilliam chose the song ‘Something Just Like This’ by the Chainsmokers and Coldplay. 

You can hear the distinct sound of wood turning while she sings…

Carlo Arthurs, the one who chose the Queen song, said learning to make a crankie has revealed his artistic side. 

“I’m better than I thought I was at art, and I feel like art is something I will do more often and try to do more often,” he said.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia at Heart

Reviving Small, Appalachian Towns with Local Assets

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Shane McManus is the founder of the Greensboro Art Cooperative. He is an established artist and musician in the region. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Walking down the streets of Greensboro, Pennsylvania, it feels a bit like a ghost town. There are houses, business signs, a post office, but only two cars drive by in 10 minutes and no one is walking the streets.

The small town in southern Pennsylvania is just across the West Virginia border. It sits on the banks of the Monongahela River, surrounded by small hills and patches of trees. In years past, the town has weathered the boom and bust of a pottery industry, river trade and coal. Lately, it has been more bust than boom.

But now, some artists are trying to stimulate the local economy using what they know best: creativity. They are all part of the Greensboro Art Cooperative – a non-profit art collective.

The Co-Op

Shane McManus, a West Virginia native, is the founder of the co-op. He’s spent his life immersed in music and arts. Now at 31 years old, McManus is trying to use his love of the arts to revive the town.

“Our goal is to preserve the past but promote the future. Through using what the past has given us, we can create really beautiful art in our small Appalachian towns, which in my opinion is diminishing,” he said.

One of the buildings of the Greensboro Art Cooperative. This building features finished pottery, as well as a pottery room, bike room and wood-working room. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

Three buildings on the main street of Greensboro make up the art co-op. The quiet atmosphere of the town abruptly changes when one walks into the former ice cream parlor turned ‘Music Shop,’ where McManus and his friends play music.

The entire room is filled with artwork and antiques. There’s a stone chair shaped like a hand, porcelain dolls lining the bookcases and a boar’s head hanging near the ceiling.

Live old-time Appalachian music fills the room. McManus and his friends Niko Kreider and Evan Collins are playing the tune called “Water Bound.”

McManus playing guitar in an impromptu jam. He is well-known in the region as a musician. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

The co-op not only provides a space for artists to sell their work, but it’s also a space for artists to create. There is a woodshop, a bike shop, pottery room, music room, painting area – anything an artist wants to do there is likely a tool for it.

Members pay a $200-lifetime membership or the equivalent in labor, and profits from wares made at the co-op are split 50/50 with the artist.

McManus says the goal is for the co-op to be a centerpiece for Greensboro, where the population is down to 249 people. He wants the co-op to be a reason for people to come visit, and a reason for people to stay.

“Getting them to see hope, where there was none. That’s why people leave, to find greener pastures,” McManus said.

History of Greensboro

Greensboro was once a thriving town with a rich artisan history. It was originally settled by German glass blowers in the 1700s.

Evan Collins (left) playing music with Niko Kreider (right.) The ‘Music Shop’ was formerly an ice cream parlor. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

It is also right on the Monongahela River, so it was part of a major river trading route.  

Greensboro’s mayor Katie Sill says she’s heard stories of the early days when a hotel stood right by the river.

“At one point a circus came down the river and they had an elephant in the lobby. It was a booming and bustling town,” Sill said.

In the 1800s, the first large-scale pottery operation opened in Greensboro. The wet, muddy soil near the river creates rich clay — perfect for pottery.

“A lot of these New Geneva or Greensboro pots you see on Antiques Roadshow that go for $30,000 to $40,000 were made right here,” McManus said.

In fact, it is not rare to find 200-year-old pottery today. The co-op has preserved an original kiln used by settlers.

Finished pottery from members of the co-op. Profits from wares are split 50/50 with the artist and the co-op. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

But, as artisans moved away and trade moved away from rivers, Greensboro became less relevant. It made a slight comeback in the coal industry in the mid-1900s, but Sill says that too has disappeared.

“Some buildings have fallen into disrepair or [have] been torn down,” Sill said. “There are not really many businesses left in the town.”

The Economics

In some ways, Greensboro is not that different than many small Appalachian towns, where the coal industry, which was once a driving economic force, is now declining.

This leaves many towns without a sustainable economy, much like Greensboro.

Tim Ezzell is a research scientist at the University of Kentucky, and he focuses on asset-based development, which, as he explains it, means “using the assets you have at hand or at your disposal, basically what your community already has in place. Your local talents, resources, skills, art, heritage and using those to create economic opportunities for people in your community,” he said.

Ezzell says concepts like the co-op can grow a town, but it has to be done realistically. As in, it is not cheap, it can take many years, it needs momentum and, most importantly, the local community must be accepting of change.

“Change is hard and you have to be willing to accept change in order to move forward,” he said.

And Sill says the town is ready for that change.

“We’re all really hopeful that we’ll get that next wave of whatever that wave will be,” she said. “Something new to bring a little bit of bustle into the town. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be quite the same, but every phase is different.”

Co-op merchandise for sale. On cold days McManus uses a space heater to keep rooms warm. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

And the co-op is relying on local assets to try to bring about that next wave. Members are fixing up old storefronts to use as studios. They’re also using local clay to create art.

“Everything is donation, all of our resources have been found, donated, upcycled and recycled,” McManus said. “It’s really amazing what you can put together just with what you find around.”

As for operational costs, McManus said he’s been quite fortunate. His father, Keith McManus, has funded most of the co-op. A former mayor of the town, Keith is something of a musical legend in the region because of his involvement in the old-time music community over the years.  

Looking Forward

People can be assets too, and in many ways, Keith himself is one of the town’s greatest resources.

Because of the financial cushion, and Keith’s arts and music connections, McManus says there is not a push for co-op artists to mass produce and or even sell their work. Rather, they can focus on creating art.

A bust of Keith McManus in the former ice cream parlor. Keith has helped fund much of the co-op. Photo: Caitlin Tan, WVPB

“Our goal is to stay within a tri-county, if not a tri-state area. We don’t want to branch out as far as what we sell on the internet. We’ve purposely held out to keep our wares locally,” McManus said.

During the past eight years, the co-op has renovated Greensboro’s old, abandoned theatre into a studio space. And it has 65 members — some from the Appalachian region and others from across the world. Many are people McManus has met through work in the music and arts industry.

McManus says the co-op has given some of these artists a reason to either stay or come back to create in Appalachia.

“So many of my peers and friends have had to go and move out of the state, out of Appalachia where they are from just to find a studio,” he said.

So artists come and go throughout the year — whether it is for an impromptu jam, to fix their bicycle or to make their next piece of pottery. Sill says this is important for the town.

“They breathe that extra bit of life when they are there,” she said.

The next goal for the co-op is for artists to work and live in Greensboro, but right now it is not fully developed.

The studio spaces are a little rough around the edges, and the storefront is still more of a working space. McManus hopes to renovate two buildings into a coffee shop and restaurant, but he says it takes time.

It takes time to create change, to bring Greensboro’s artisan history forward into the modern day. And it also takes a vision, like the ability to find strengths and assets in unlikely places.

This story is part of an Inside Appalachia episode exploring folklife and material culture in Appalachia. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia at Heart

‘Foot by Foot’: Artists Illustrate Ohio’s Appalachian Region

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A screenshot from the documentary "Foot by Foot" by Doug Swift.

David Mitzel believes people have stereotypes about Appalachia– about Appalachian attitudes, Appalachia culture, and even Appalachian art.

Mitzel organizes the annual Zanesville, Ohio, exhibit “Foot by Foot,” which celebrates art depicting Appalachian Ohio communities.

“These [sterotypes] are all wrong,” Mitzel said. “It’s a much broader and deeper type of response to the world.”

Mitzel distributes 12 inch by 12 inch canvas or gesso boards to artists in Ohio counties as far south as Athens, and as far north as Coshocton. Completed artworks are then delivered to an opening event and the exhibit forms a patchwork vision of the region.

In the accompanying mini-doc, I selected five participating artists to film in-process as they prepared their piece for the 2018 “Foot by Foot” exhibit. My objective was to illustrate the diversity of Ohio’s Appalachian region.  

A screenshot from the documentary “Foot by Foot” by Doug Swift.

Jane Evans is a sheep farmer who works in fiber arts and plays saxophone in her spare time; Paul Emory restores buildings in downtown Zanesville, Ohio, and sometimes paints the ones which are about to be demolished; Michael J. Rosen works in ceramics and has created a kind of nature reserve in Perry County where he meditates on ecological dilemmas and has begun to etch haiku into his plates.

The documentary short also contextualizes the “Foot by Foot” project within The Winding Road initiative, which, in addition to the arts, seeks to highlight other aspects of Appalachian Ohio, such as heritage, recreation, local foods and more.

“The region has experienced major extraction of its resources,” Mitzel said, but through The Winding Roads initiatives, including such arts programs as “Foot by Foot,” Mitzel and others are working to “make the region [one] of attraction rather than extraction.”

Watch Doug Swift’s short documentary “Foot by Foot.”
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