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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

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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Appalachia

Children Share Memories of Growing Up in the Mountains, Puppy Pilates & More: Inside Appalachia

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Our region has challenges, from the economic decline of the coal industry, to the opioid epidemic, there’s work to do in our communities. In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll hear from several people who are trying to reinvigorate our region with opportunities for change. We’ll also hear from some younger voices in Appalachian, North Carolina about growing up in the mountains.

Newly Appointed ARC Co-Chair Lays Out Vision for the Region
We’ll start this episode with someone who is now charged with helping to give Appalachia an economic boost. President Donald Trump recently appointed a new federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, or ARC. Tim Thomas spent the past three years working for U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell out of Kentucky. Inside Appalachia host Jessica Lilly spoke with the newly appointed ARC leader to find out what vision he sees for our region, and what approaches he plans to try that may be different from things the federal government has tried in years past.

Coal Country Students Working For a Power Switch
The coal industry’s decline is felt in many school districts across coal country. Tax revenue from mining has decreased, along with the local economy, while rising electricity rates make it a struggle to keep schools open. But as Benny Becker reports, there’s no shortage of students who are trying to create a new energy future.

What Teacher Protests Portend For Schools, Labor & Elections
Recent demonstrations in Arizona were just the latest in a series of walkouts, protests and pickets by teachers in four states from West Virginia to Oklahoma to Kentucky. Glynis Board reports on what the unrest among teachers could mean for schools, for labor, and for upcoming elections.

Student from Appalachian North Carolina who studied with the PAGE program
Photo by Mikalah Creasman.

Kids in North Carolina Share What it’s Like to Live in Appalachia
In this episode we’ll also hear the voices of several students sharing personal stories about growing up in the mountains of rural North Carolina.

The pieces were crafted during a summer program of the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education (PAGE) for girls in grades 6 through 9. The youth in the program worked with facilitators to write, edit, and voice “digital stories” that say something about their lives. In this episode we’ll hear from Wrenn Treadway, Preslea Harwood, Megan Anderson, Katlyn Lewis, and Skyler Shelton.

These students wrote, voiced, and produced their own stories as part of a summer project with a group called PAGE. It’s part of a series called Postcards from Madison County, which originally aired on WUNC.

Kids in Charleston play soccer at the 25th annual Healthy Kids Day while volunteers from the WV State football team supervise on Saturday, April 21, 2018.
Photo by Kara Lofton, WVPB.

 Community Celebrates Healthy Kids Day
The small community of Montgomery, West Virginia, in Kanawha and Fayette Counties, used to be home to West Virginia University Institute of Technology, or WVU Tech. But the school moved to Beckley last year. Now, people in Montgomery are wondering how this change may affect the town’s economic future. But in the midst of these challenges, there is a bright spot. A new YMCA gym has opened there for families. The gym hosted an event recently, called Healthy Kids Day, aimed at teaching kids and families how to eat well and stay active through the summer months.

Puppy Pilates
West Virginia University students had an unusual way of decompressing during finals week this semester. Have you ever heard of Puppy Pilates? Recently, as WVU students were preparing for finals, the school’s student health center hosted a Puppy Pilates class aimed at de-stressing students before exams.

Photo by Kara Lofton/WVPB

We’ll also hear a piece that StoryCorps recorded a few years ago when they were in Morgantown, West Virginia. Gene Kendzior told his daughter, Jennifer, about her grandfather, who died working in a coal mine in 1967.

Kendzior told his daugther that coal mining “was a hard, dirty job. And everyone who worked there suffered from it. And most of the people went right from high school to the coal mine.”

She asked him to talk about his father. “It was a very hard life for him. I’m sure it was. And he died in a coal mine as so many others have. And to think that as I sit here I’m older than he was when he died. And just think how nice it would be to have your father to talk to. That was a great loss.”

Shortly after recording this interview for Father’s Day, Gene Kendzior passed away.

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy ToddLiz McCormick edited this episode. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can e-mail us atInsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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A simpler way of life

Sugar Shacks and Maple–Glazed Rabbit: Appalachian Cuisine Beyond the Stereotypes

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In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’ll travel to the sugar shacks of Appalachian maple producers, and we’ll learn how to use syrup in everything from glazed greens to buttermilk ice cream – and even roasted rabbit.

Maple syrup production in West Virginia has increased by about 30 percent each year since the state Department of Agriculture began keeping track in 2016, and that’s partly due to new technologies that make producing large quantities of syrup more efficient for farmers. We’ll hear from several maple producers in the Mountain State, some who have been working for decades, and one who just started this year.

We’ll also talk with a farmer, food writer and chef, Mike Costello, who runs Lost Creek Farm in Harrison County, W.Va., about his favorite stories from the history of maple syrup production in these mountains, a practice that dates back thousands of years to when Native Americans used it as their main sweetener.

Photo courtesy of Mike Costello.

Costello, who prepares Appalachian meals across West Virginia and in some mid-Atlantic cities with his wife, Amy, will share a few tips for cooking with maple syrup. (Check out his recipe for Maple-Glazed Garden Greens.) He’ll also give us some insights on cooking with local ingredients. Although Appalachian cuisine is often regarded as high in fat and sugar, Costello argues that plants – including preserved vegetables, ramps and other springtime greens – and lean meats like rabbit and venison are the foundation of traditional Appalachian cooking. Many of these time-consuming traditions have faded over time, but Costello said he’s hopeful that more people will reconnect with their past.

“It’s kind of cool to see that in this moment, where Appalachia is being so stereotyped, that there’s still this opportunity to take back our food heritage,” he said.

Lost Creek Farm, where Mike Costello lives. Photo courtesy of Mike Costello.

We’ll also learn more the threat against ginseng root, a valuable commodity grow in Appalachia that’s often steeped in teas or taken as an herbal supplement. While not traditionally consumed here, ginseng is often sold overseas to consumers in China, who willing to pay top dollar for the root: A pound alone can go for several hundred dollars.

For generations, selling ginseng has been a source of extra income for many Appalachians.  Like maple farming it takes a lot of work to gather a pound of the root, and farmers spend several decades waiting for their plants to mature. But thieves and poachers are making it even harder to harvest, and the situation may be getting worse. Journalist Eileen Guo spent a day in southern Ohio last fall, exploring what the ongoing conflicts between ginseng farmers and poachers could mean for this native Appalachian plant.

And finally, we’ll explore a program in West Virginia that’s teaching medical students to cook healthy foods. The idea from West Virginia University and Charleston Area Medical Center aims to encourage future doctors to prescribe healthy eating as a way to help prevent diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

The stories featuring maple producers Brandon Daniels and Jeremy Ray were produced by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, as part of a collaboration among the agency, West Virginia Public Broadcasting and Inside Appalachia. Check out more from our “Appetite Appalachia” series to find more stories about foods, restaurants, and recipes with Appalachian roots. We also had help this week from 100 Days in Appalachia and Appalachia Health News.

This story originally appeared on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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