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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

‘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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Appalachia at Heart

Making a Living as a Traditional Weaver in Appalachia

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Jane Gilchrist working on her overshot pot holder. Gilchrist’s pot holders are one of her best-selling items. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Most Americans typically wear clothes made in factories overseas. The same goes for fabrics in homes, such as potholders, rugs and blankets. But it has not always been this way.

Hand weavers once made a majority of people’s fabrics and rugs using old wooden fashioned looms that one can often find today in a historical museum. But as the textile industry became more industrialized, hand weavers no longer were a necessity.

However, there are some people who still remember the craft of weaving and even practice it today. One such person is Jane Gilchrist.

Her shop is just off a narrow neighborhood road in Stonewood, West Virginia. It is a small, brick store with a sign titled, “Loomy Ladi Handwovens.” 

The Art of Weaving

When she is weaving, Gilchrist sits on a sheepskin covered bench facing the loom.

On the day I visited, she wore a green top patterned with teal petunia petals. Her nails were painted a rouge pink.

Jane weaving a pot holder. She said she is drawn to weaving because it is a relaxing, repetitive movement that still requires focus. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Floor-to-ceiling shelves were filled with colorful yarns, and a hand-woven, baby blue coverlet blanket with little white flowers was on display. In the corner were some of Gilchrist’s square pot holders and scarves for sale.

“So this is the overshot pot holder,” she said. “A real pretty earthy green with a natural warp.”

The small shop is also Gilchrist’s space for creating.

In the center of the room are three wooden looms, and one table loom hanging on the wall. All of them are no bigger than a desk, and each held a different project. Several looms even sat, folded up in the corner.

When she steps on a treadle, or a peddle, a layer of the tightly strung yarn lifts up, which allows her to thread the colored yarn through. With enough threading she will create a tightly woven item, like a pot holder.

‘I Always Knew’

Gilchrist has been weaving as a hobby for almost two decades, but it only recently became her main source of income.

She grew up in Ohio with eight other siblings and not a lot of money. “I was the next to the youngest and I just always felt lost,” she said. “I was the little fat kid without a lot of friends, middle of nowhere living on a farm and I was pretty lonely.”

She made friends with a woman who was quadriplegic, although she had some use of her arms. This woman introduced Gilchrest to weaving.

“She had a big rug loom and she made rugs, and I sat next to her and I got introduced to weaving. I always knew someday I wanted to be a weaver; that just felt right to me.”

Jane Gilchrist works out of her shop in Stonewood, West Virginia. She recently opened the shop under the name, “Loomy Ladi Handwovens.” Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It felt right because weaving is her happy place. Gilchrist said she finds the repetitive motion relaxing, but also stimulating.

“I don’t have time to think about what is or isn’t, the good or the bad, and dwell on things I can’t change and can’t control,” she said.

Later in life, she learned that weaving was a part of her family’s history. She has record that her great-great grandfather used weaving as a source of income during the long, cold West Virginia winters.

Weaving was vital in the early settler days in Appalachia, Gilchrist said, adding that it helped create cloth for clothing and blankets – items that were not yet available in the rural region.

But as clothing became more available during the Industrial Revolution, weaving became a lost art.

“It went from being an essential, ‘you have to do this,’ to being a hobby,” she said.

Gilchrist does her part to help keep an Appalachian tradition alive.

“When I sit down at one of those looms and I start creating a piece of cloth, I feel connected to my ancestors. I feel connected to the people that have come before,” she said.

Over the years Gilchrist has become a reputable weaver. She is part of the Tamarack Foundation, an organization for professional artists that is not easy to get into.

She sells some of her products, like the pot holders, through Tamarack.

She also has her master’s in education, so she has developed several weaving tutorials for classroom settings. In fact, about 60 percent of her income is from teaching weaving.

‘Mug Ruggin’ It’

But her biggest claim to fame is something she calls “Mug Ruggin’ It.”

It is a hand-woven rug for one’s coffee mug. Gilchrist teaches “Mug Ruggin It” as an informal class at several West Virginian art festivals and fairs, where people can weave the rugs themselves. It’s a spinoff of a traditional Appalachian rag rug, just downsized.

Over the past five years,  about 3,000 people have been through the “Mug Ruggin It” program, Gilchrist estimates.

Gilchrist dying fabric with natural indigo dye. She tries to die her fabrics and threads whenever she can to keep her weaving as traditional as possible. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I hope when I’m old and decrepit, and I’m walking through a craft show or flea market and I see somebody who’s got their wares for sale and I say, ‘Where’d you learn to weave?’ And they say, ‘Oh, well I went to the Vandalia festival and there were these people who set up these looms. I did this thing called ‘Mug Ruggin’ it’ and I fell in love with weaving.'”

Gilchrist keeps her weaving as traditional as possible. She has even learned to dye her own yarn, as well as spin her own wool – which she has dedicated a decent amount of her living space to. She has a yarn dying station setup near the laundry room, a wool spinner near the T.V. and another loom in the corner.

Some people might caution turning a hobby into a livelihood, but Gilchrist says it’s not work for her. She says she knows she will never get rich off it either, but that’s OK.

“But if I can make the world more creative, and they understand our heritage as we get further and further away from those days, and if I can share that, I think I’ll have done something pretty successful.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Appalachia at Heart

Woman Leaves Puerto Rico to Learn Farming in West Virginia

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It was April and snowing when Aura Broida Fontánez came to West Virginia, and there were no leaves on the trees.

It reminded her of the trees in Puerto Rico, when the leaves were swept away by Hurricane Maria.

Months after the hurricane, Broida arrived as an intern at Harmony Farm, a 5-acre farm in Morgantown that grows around 60 different crops, such as tomatoes and microgreens.

She met the farm’s owner, Sky Harman, at a community garden in Vieques, an island around 8 miles east of mainland Puerto Rico. After the hurricane, Harman flew in with the Climate Justice Alliance and Organización Boricuá to repair and rebuild farms across Puerto Rico. Broida lived on Vieques when both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria hit in September 2017.

Now, they both work on the Morgantown farm. Broida is learning to be a farmer, a job she started wanting due to the lack of fresh food in Puerto Rico, especially following the hurricanes.

Damage on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria last year.

“It’s a large learning curve, but she’s doing really well,” Harman said.

One of the first adjustments she had to make was to the weather.

“I was not mentally prepared for how cold it was. I was surprised at the snow,” Broida said. Puerto Rico has no winter, only a dry season and a wet season.

As West Virginia grew warmer, and the leaves returned, Broida found herself surrounded by more and more fresh food. Her work varies by the day. She does things like weeding, fertilizing, mowing and planting. She also participates in the Bridgeport and Morgantown farmers markets.

“I feel like I am learning quite a bit, like [about] the rhythm of a larger food production system,” Broida said.

In September, she left behind her house to stay with the owners of Villa Coral Guesthouse, a business where she had worked at the front desk. Their home, in a different part of Vieques, was better suited to withstand hurricanes, Broida said.

Before Maria, Broida helped with preparations, what she called “hurricane chores.” When Hurricane Irma struck two weeks before, Broida said it swung mostly north of the island.

Broida said she was grateful for that first storm. It helped prepare them for the larger one to follow.

On the morning of Sept. 19, 2017, Hurricane Maria was only a breeze. At around 8 p.m., Broida said, the storm fully hit.

The storm shutters prevented Broida from seeing the storm, but she could hear it.

“It’s like rain is coming down in sheets,” she said. “I was sleeping, but I was having nightmares because of all the sound. Every once in a while, you could hear something crashing. Most of the time it was trees. Afterwards, we realized it was also electrical poles and stuff crashing on top of cars or stuff breaking.”

Mireya Padín Nadal, the owner of Villa Coral, credited Broida with helping before, during and after the hurricane.

Padín said Broida helped do things like put up storm shutters before Maria hit. During the storm, she helped roll furniture to block doors, and helped when wind forced water through the storm shutters. Afterwards, she collected food and water and cleared trees.

“She was our one and only person we could definitely rely on,” Padín said. “She was the backbone of helping keep everything together.”

Padín’s business still does not have a working landline phone. Power did not come back to the guest house until late February. Padín’s home received power in March. They didn’t have running water for around a month, and then it was available off and on.

Broida’s own home, which she was caretaking for a friend, was damaged by the hurricane. The windows were broken, the inside damaged by wind and water. Another house, which she had been planning to soon rent, fell in on itself. Without phone reception, she was unable to contact her mother, who lived on the mainland.

Still, she helped others in Vieques. She did work for a governmental administration addressing mental health following the hurricanes. She worked at kitchens making food for those in need, she put up tarps, cleaned yards and houses, and worked at the community garden, where she met Harman.

Broida expressed an interest in farming to Harman, and Harman told her about his farm’s internship program.

“That’s how farming goes,” Harman said about the encounter that led Broida to his farm. “It’s a serendipitous kind of activity where you meet a lot of interesting people who find common ground and can work together to build a better future.”

Her internship ends in November. Broida said she’s not sure if she will stay another season in West Virginia, or work and learn at farms in other countries, like Cuba or Peru.

For now, Broida is enjoying West Virginia. She’s gone swimming in Cheat Lake, hiked at Coopers Rock and plans to explore the bike trails of West Virginia University’s Arboretum.

“I’m enjoying seeing all of the different blooms and getting to know the birds,” Broida said.

This article was originally published by the Charleton Gazette-Mail.

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