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Are Black Walnuts Ready to Boom?

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The first car arrives over two hours before the hulling station officially opens in Jeffersonville, Kentucky. By the time that Renee Zaharie appears and starts the hulling machine, four more vehicles have pulled in and are waiting under the darkening evening sky.

The steady murmur of conversation (and the occasional guffaw) hums beneath the tent protecting the machine from the elements, as walnut hullers shoot the breeze after a long day of picking. Occasionally, a plaintive mew announces the otherwise-silent arrival of one of the 40 cats that Renee and her husband, William, foster. Out front, cars zip by on the busy county road. All around, the soft chirps of crickets sing their nightly chorus.

It’s the first weekend of the annual black walnut harvest that takes place each October, and the air is festive.

Money That Grows on Trees

During black walnut season in October, the tree nuts rain down everywhere. For homeowners, they present a nuisance that can damage lawn mowers. Mike Foight of South Shore, Ky. enlists his grandchildren to clear his yard (pictured here) and earn some spending money. Photo by Eileen Guo.

Black walnuts are native to North America (including six Appalachia states) and, unlike many other tree nuts, grow in the wild. The green, tennis ball-sized nuts rain onto fields, roads, vehicles and sometimes, people, presenting a nuisance to cars parked beneath them and a danger to lawn mowers everywhere.

While some may dread black walnuts for these reasons, for many others, the annual harvest is a welcome time of the year: a sign of the changing seasons, the return of a beloved baking ingredient, and, perhaps most importantly, an opportunity to earn extra cash.

Black walnut harvesters gather the nuts locally—from their yards, nearby yards, roadsides and forests—and bring them to one of 238 hulling stations in 14 states across the country. There, hulling operators use specialized machinery to removes the hulls (which can make up to half of a black walnut’s weight), weigh the hulled walnuts, purchase them, and send them to Stockton, Missouri for shelling and further processing. Stockton, the unofficial black walnut capital of the world, is home to Hammons Product Company (HPC), a family-owned business that has been shelling black walnuts for the past 71 years. The company sets the price for black walnuts every year. This past October, they paid $0.15 per pound to walnut pickers, and an additional $0.05 per pound to hulling stations.

Brian Hammons, the company’s president, says that they produce an average of 23 million pounds annually and are expecting a bumper crop in Appalachia this year that will push that figure upwards of 30 million. After shelling the nuts, HPC sells them raw in grocery stores and specialty retailers, as well as directly to chefs and ice cream makers (black walnut ice cream is wildly popular in certain parts of the country). There’s also an ever-increasing selection of black walnut products, like black walnut oil, and even myriad uses for the shells, which can serve as eco-friendly ingredients in sand-blasting agents, water filtration systems and even sports fields. Every part of the nut is able to be used.

At Gerlach Farm and Feed in Wheelersburg, Ohio, Paul Riggle receives cash for his load of black walnuts. This year, Hammons Product Company is offering $0.15 per pound, the highest price that they’ve ever paid. Photo by Eileen Guo.

Black walnut harvesting is also a unique business because it’s low-risk for the hulling operator, say Christina Gerlach-Armstrong and her husband, Darryl Armstrong, who run Gerlach Farm and Feed, the only remaining family-owned feed store in Scioto County, Ohio. In October, their store also hulls black walnuts. In good years like this one, as much as 25 percent of their business activity will be dedicated to the hulling.

HPC reimburses the hulling stations for their payouts to individual harvesters, pays the hulling stations a commission, and handles the nut delivery by scheduling regular semi-truck pick-ups. On years with low yields, they’ll even connect the hulling stations with other buyers, which saves them on trucking costs while giving the hullers a market and benefiting the buyer.

A few years ago, Darryl and Christina recalled that Hammons connected them to West Virginia’s Department of Natural Resources, whose forestry division used the nuts as squirrel feed.

Portraits of the Black Walnut ‘Village’

In addition to the financial benefits of the harvest, Gerlach-Armstrong also finds it meaningful to be part of a process that takes “a village of people from many states.”

That village includes a variety of motivations, as well. There are harvesters like Annabelle Richie, who returned to walnut picking after a long hiatus to make money for her husband’s Christmas present. Some simply enjoy spending time outdoors, like retiree Paul Riggle, and others want to teach the next generation the value of hard work, like Mike Foight, who takes all of his grandkids out walnut picking. Full-time walnut harvesters like Penny Hednell spend September picking pawpaws, October culling black walnuts and, in the spring, wild ramps that are also native to many parts of Appalachia.

Then, there are those who simply need to clear their yards.

For many of the hullers, interacting with these community members is part of the appeal. Such is the case for Chris Chmiel, the owner of Integration Acres and a county commissioner in Athens County.

“I like providing this service to people,” he says, even though his main passion is not black walnuts, but Ohio’s native fruit, the pawpaw. He organizes the annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival, and found his way to the black walnut business because of the overlap between the two. In addition to both being native fruits, a lot of Chmiel’s pawpaw foragers also collect walnuts. Pawpaws, it turns out, grow well beneath walnut trees.

“It becomes part of who you are in a way,” he says of black walnuts. “It’s [one of] your seasonal traditions and rituals.”

Reconnecting to the Earth and a Simpler Way of Life

For the Zaharies, who run the hulling station from their modest five-acre property, black walnuts are the only source of income for both themselves and the animal rescue that they run on site.

 

The first customer of the night watches as her walnuts are weighed in Jeffersonville, Ky. This year’s price is $0.15 per pound of black walnut. Photo by Eileen Guo.


The couple started out as walnut pickers themselves, but the nearest hulling station was more than an hour’s drive away. When they bought their property, they decided to begin hulling at home. In the 11 years since starting, their hulling operation has become the most productive in all of Kentucky, and many neighboring states as well.

The Zaharies live simply. They own their property (lowering their overhead costs), drive older cars, and eat a vegan diet. “We like to do things in a natural way,” Renee notes. “This is a nice way to be able to make ends meet and give back to the earth.”

While the duo’s dependence on hulling as their income is not the norm among hullers, they are not alone in their desire to challenge the dominant economic and food systems.

“Native plants are a more efficient and more cost-effective agricultural crop,” Chmiel says. “In these hills of Appalachia, we’re not going to grow soybean and corn. Diversity is part of the resiliency of Appalachia.”

John Stock of United Plant Savers—an organization dedicated to protecting native medicinal plants—agrees with Chmiel’s assessment. “The real value is the intact forest and the diversity. In these communities, that’s what we’re trying to instill.” But he recognizes that money talks. “We are trying to find ways to demonstrate that [the value of native plants] in a monetary way, even though the bigger value is beyond money. We can’t exist without these ecosystems.”

The Future of Black Walnuts

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, $7 billion worth of tree nuts are grown in the United States annually. But unlike black walnuts, most tree nuts are grown and harvested in large-scale, monocultural orchards concentrated in California. Orchards mean a much more stable supply of crops, and the improved varieties typically grown also improve nut yield and profitability. However, orchards are more resource-intensive, and their lack of genetic diversity makes them less resilient against disease.

 

Chris Chmiel of Integration Acres writes out a check to Penny and Larry, his first two customers of the season. Penny and Larry are retired, and spend all of October picking black walnuts from around the county. Photo by Eileen Guo.

Brian Hammons believes that black walnuts have the potential to become a much bigger industry—his annual net sales are in the range of $12-14 million. Black walnuts also meet many of the current demands in the food industry, which is placing greater value on native and foraged products, as well as sustainability and health.

But getting there is a problem of supply, not demand. Because the vast majority of black walnuts are foraged, and naturally-occurring black walnuts produce low yields of nut meat, the company has partnered with various agricultural extension programs to develop a faster growing variety that produces more walnut meat. Today, a small number of black walnut orchards are already producing grown, rather than foraged, nuts. (Still, these represent less than 1 percent of the annual harvest.) Hammons does not believe that orchard-grown black walnuts will negatively impact the wild black walnut harvest. If anything, he says, the increased market will benefit everyone.

And, with the number of nuts that lie unpicked every year, he may be right.

Eileen Guo is an independent print and audio journalist covering communities and subcultures on the fringe. She has reported from both urban and rural America, as well as Afghanistan, China, and Mexico. Follow her on Twitter (@eileenguo) and visit her at eileenguo.com.

Culture

The Evolving Culture of W.Va. River Guides

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Guests of Adventures on the Gorge float down the lower New River. Along with the Gauley River, the New River is one of the top destinations for white water rafting in West Virginia. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Just about any search on Google for “best white water rafting” includes West Virginia. Around 150,000 people commercially raft a West Virginia river each year, mostly on the New River and Gauley River, which are near Fayetteville, West Virginia. At one point there were just less than 30 rafting companies in the area. Today, they have consolidated into six adventure businesses. 

Taking many of the people down the river is a raft guide – someone who is professionally trained to know water, but also to know people. The concept of a river guide in West Virginia started to form in the late 1960s, creating an entire guiding community culture. It is one that has been passed down for decades and is developing more each year.

Every guided raft trip provides guests with a taste of the culture. Especially with experienced guides like Ray Ray, a senior river guide for Adventures on the Gorge – a river guiding outfit in Fayetteville.

It Is In Your Blood, Or It Is Not

On this day, Ray Ray guides eight guests down the lower New River. The water is warm. The canyon surrounding them is tall and covered in thick green trees. Birds are chirping, there is a slight rain drizzle. The arch of the New River Gorge Bridge glimmers in the distance. 

Ray Ray paddles a raft down the lower New River. He has been guiding since 1992. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s the best job in the world. I actually have two college degrees I’ve never used a day in my life,” Ray Ray says.

Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge, says all the guides have a deep love for the outdoors. 

“There’s something that happens when that first wave hits you. White Water rafting is either in your blood or it’s not. And when that first wave hit me, I was addicted,” Roger says.

He says guiding is not for everyone, as there is a large social aspect. One must be able to read people just as well as one reads the water.

Dave Bassage, who has been guiding since 1984, says there is a close, mutual respect between him and the customer.

“I really love the dynamic of having a crew of different people every day and introducing them to what I think of as the dance with moving water,” Dave says. “We’re just one of its partners, and we’ve got all these other partners in the raft.”

Roger Wilson (left) and Dave Bassage in front of the main Adventures on the Gorge building. Roger started guiding in 1975 and he took Dave on his first raft trip – Dave later started guiding in 1984. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Being a river guide can be a nomadic lifestyle, as the season goes from March until October. Jay Young, media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says many of the river guides work at ski resorts in the winter or they continue guiding in South America. 

“Those people, everything they own fits in the back of their truck or car and they’re off to the next destination to whatever’s in season,” Jay says.

“Ya’ll Ready?”

The guide leading the boat on this day has made a career out of the industry. Ray Ray has guided in West Virginia since 1992, and he has worked on dozens of other rivers across the world. 

On this trip, there are four other rafts with guides in the group, but Ray Ray is the trip leader. He consistently checks in with the other guides.

“Ya’ll ready? You ready Caveman?” he asks.  

All the river guides have nicknames. One man with shoulder-length blonde hair goes by ‘Caveman.’ He got the name because of where he lived for about eight months — the span of a full rafting season.

“I was looking around through the woods one day and found this cool little rock house overhang and just made it into a house,” Caveman says. “I actually had an endangered species of salamander living with me – it was pretty neat.”

And Ray Ray’s nickname is a bit of a mystery, but Jay has a theory. 

“Ray Ray is Ray Ray because he’s twice the fun,” Jay says.

Ray Ray gives the raft paddling commands. 

“Forward and back, forward and back, don’t use your arms,” he says.

Rafts floating down the lower New River. Today, guides are in almost every commercial raft; however, in the 60s, 70s and 80s that was not as common. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Pubilc Broadcasting

There are long stretches of calm, scenic floating. Ray Ray explains the history of the area, and he tells stories, like how different rapids and obstacles in the river got their names. There is Greyhound, Flea Flicker, Meat Grinder, Old Nasty and Miller’s Foley. 

“A kayaker named Miller got stuffed up underneath that rock over there. He was trying to run a real gnarly line, but he swam out alive, which was a million to one shot,” Ray Ray says. “He needed to go buy himself a lottery ticket.”

Ray Ray’s skin seems to be permanently tan. The fine lines on his face are of a person who has worked outside all of their life. When he sits on the back of the raft, paddle in hand, he is in his element. 

Mostly he jokes in a playful voice with the guests.

“Remember I told you if I don’t bring you back they’re gonna dock my pay. So, you better make your swim,” he says.

But in serious moments, Ray Ray exudes confidence. His voice booms, his commands are clear. 

Danger Lurks 

In the rapid sections of the river, the raft pushes itself through the raging white water. Everyone gets soaked, but Ray Ray guides the entire time.

“Forward go – go! Keep going guys,” he says.

Some of the guests scream from a mix of fear and excitement.

After the rapids, Ray Ray pauses to check on the other rafts in the group.

We’re approaching an obstacle called ‘Meat Grinder.’ 

“It’s a collection of undercut rocks where water goes under and through it,” Ray Ray says. “We say water goes through and bodies do not.”

Some people are thrown out of their raft in the rapid above Meat Grinder. They are not part of Ray Ray’s group, but he immediately springs into action. The possibility of something catastrophic happening is low, but ‘Meat Grinder’ is one of the more dangerous areas on the river.

The guides react quickly, and Ray Ray shouts to the people bobbing in the white water, trying to save their raft.

“Leave the boat. Swim – swim!”

Everybody is fine, but it is because Ray Ray and the other guides on the trip are experts on reading the water and reading each other. Something Jay Young, the media manager for Adventures on the Gorge, says is just part of being a professional guide.

“If you were to hang out at the guide camp or even a bar on a Saturday night, you wouldn’t think these guys are the professionals that they are,” Jay says. “But when the poo hits the fan on a river, there’s nobody else I’d want out with me, because they rush into action; they all know exactly what to do, and it gets done fast.”

Passing the Paddle Down

Guides have always had their own language, whether it is hand signals on the river, or talking about water depth or names of rapids. Ray Ray says it has evolved over time. 

“We’re gonna be running one down here called ‘Flea Flicker’ that a lot of old-timers used to call ‘Last Kick in the Pants,’” he says. “For the most part over time, it’s evolved and it’s just a way for us to communicate, it’s our language. It’s like speaking river guide or speaking hippy.”

Guests that were a part of Ray Ray’s group. There are typically eight people to a raft. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcast

And it is the senior guides, like Ray Ray, that teach this new language to the up and coming guides. People who might not have prior rafting experience but are brought together through their love of the outdoors. 

Claire Hemme, a former Inside Appalachia intern, is a first-year river guide. She took the job because she wanted to be paid to work outside.

“It’s just this wonderful eclectic mix of everyone from everywhere who just want to be outside,” she says.

The Glory Days

River guides have always been adventure-seeking people, says Roger Wilson, the Adventures on the Gorge CEO. He started guiding in 1975, and he says the concept of the commercial rafting industry was still new.

“Every rock wasn’t named, every route wasn’t ran. There was still that point of discovery,” Roger says. “We were developing an industry – developing something new that no one had ever done before.”

Today, safety is a top priority. Before getting on the river, everyone signs a waiver, and guides ask each person about specific health issues.

But that was not always the case. Charlie Walbridge guided on the Cheat River in northern West Virginia from the late 1970s until the early 1980s. He says there was not a guide in every raft, people did not sign a waiver and guests were often treated like friends rather than a paying customer.

“If somebody fell out of the boat, we’d certainly go help them, but we’d laugh at them,” Charlie says. “There were all kinds of slang. When I first started the guests were turkeys, and then carp and then geeks.”

Charlie Walbridge with his kayak at his home in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia. After trying out for the U.S. whitewater rafting team in 1975, Charlie started guiding on the Cheat River. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

These days, guides are almost always in every raft, and there is more respect between the guide and customer. Roger says guiding has become a way to share the love of the sport. 

“It evolves to watching these new guests hit these rapids for the first time and watching the smile on their face,” Roger says.

Don’t Watch Life Go By 

Back on the New River, in the raft with Ray Ray, the trip is almost over.  

For most of the guests in the boat, it is their first time down the rapids, but Ray Ray has done it thousands of times. He will be out again the next day, likely guiding more guests down the same rapids, but he still has a big grin and excitement for the river. 

Guests on the bus after four hours of rafting. Buses transport guides and guests to and from the river. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Thanks ya’ll very much,” he says. “Ya’ll played super hard today. I told you that was going to be a fun ride today – that was a rowdy ride.”

On shore, all the rafts are deflated and loaded on a trailer.

All 32 people in the group load up on a bus, where cold beer and soft drinks are waiting. Ray Ray has one last message.

“Guys, keep getting off your couch and living your life. Don’t watch this go by.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting and is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. 

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Culture

Thomas, W.Va.: The Town the Arts (Re) Built

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The Purple Fiddle. Photo: Purple Fiddle Facebook page

The downtown of this town of 600 sat nearly vacant until a music venue and artists began to create a new economic future for the former coal town. A new guide from the National Association of Governors says arts and culture can be part of rebuilding economies in rural communities.

The city of Thomas, West Virginia, like a lot of municipalities in the Mountain State, owes its initial development to coal.

Today, however, the downtown of the small town in eastern West Virginia has redeveloped in response to another economic sector – arts and culture.

“All over West Virginia the arts and culture economy, coupled with outdoor recreation and tourism, are just growing,” said Emily Wilson-Hauger, program director of Woodlands Development Group.

The trend is national, according to a National Governor’s Association “action guide” that describes how rural communities can build on culture and art to renew distressed economies.

In Thomas, the downtown was nearly lifeless before artists started establishing businesses, Wilson-Hauger said. The effort to rebuild picked up in the early 2000s with the launch of a local music venue, The Purple Fiddle, whose founders saw opportunity instead of decline.

“There was the Fiddle, an antique shop and a bar. That’s it. The rest of the buildings were empty,” Wilson-Hauger said.

“Then a few artists started to trickle in after the music scene developed, young artists that were getting priced out of Pittsburgh and D.C. and wherever else,” she said. “A couple of these artists moved in and rented downtown space really cheap, they lived upstairs.”

A staircase mural created by high school students in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for the town’s May Festival of the Arts. Eureka Springs is one of the rural communities profiled in a new National Governors Association guide on arts and economic development. Photo: Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission for the National Governor’s Association Rural Arts Report

Wilson-Hauger, whose organization has helped the downtown to plan and find funding, said there’s a new enthusiasm in the town.

“More and more artists started moving in and we ended with the crazy, amazing mix of people in town. Artists and friends of artists. They could rent or buy these buildings really cheaply, and many are still process of fixing them up.”

Thomas isn’t the only town in the region that has improved a local economy with arts and cultural development.

“I’ve seen this happening in other parts of our region (Appalachia) heavily focused on the arts and economic opportunity through the arts and revitalization,” Wilson-Hauger said. “These artists are shaping the communities they’d like to see, really revitalizing community around the arts. And it’s important to say that there was already a great arts tradition, a great music tradition here to build on. This gives it a little boost.”

The sector is a significant economic engine in many rural communities, according to the National Governors Association’s new guide on rural development and the arts. Economically “struggling rural communities have found new life through smart public policies that boost the creative sector,” the guide says.

Among other examples, the guide reports on Montana’s Artrepreneur Program, which includes 10 months of entrepreneurial training for rural visual artists, and southwestern Virginia’s “Crooked Road,” a heritage music trail with venues for traditional gospel, bluegrass and mountain music. The guide says these programs have injected millions of dollars into their state’s rural economies.

In Thomas, local leadership combined with technical assistance and access to capital helped ramp things up, said Wilson-Hauger.

“The artists formed a volunteer non-profit organization focused on downtown revitalization, so we help with their planning efforts, provide technical assistance to the group and still are really helping them implement some of their bigger projects,” Wilson-Hauger said, explaining her organization’s role.

“In more recent years, we’ve been able to provide direct technical assistance to some of those building owners to help with their pre-development costs, architectural services, etc. to get them up over the hump and get the buildings up to par,” she said. “Then we come in with the CDFI (community development financial institutions) and provide lending. We’ve lent to a number of galleries and some of the artists themselves.”

Rural CDFIs provide loans, capital and financial products to rural communities that are underserved by traditional banks. Woodlands Community Lenders (WCL) works in Barbour, Randolph and Tucker counties in North Central West Virginia. Since 2012, the nonprofit lender has provided more than $1.4 million in loans to the region, helping to launch 20 news businesses and provide working capital for 50 established entrepreneurs.

“We found our spot in this mix in a very organic way, and that’s with lending, technical assistance and planning help,” Wilson-Hauger said.

Though the organization got involved through affordable housing development, Wilson-Hauger said that Woodlands Development Group decided to help support the arts because of the sector’s role in leading downtown revitalization. “We’ve focused on a three-county area and kept our organization small on purpose. We have good and effective local relationships with county governments, city governments, volunteer groups, non-profit groups and other institutions.”

The local efforts have also been spurred with funding from U. S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI Fund, Housing and Urban Development money, Trans-federal Highway Administration money that comes through the West Virginia Division of Highways for trail building, EPA money for brownfields projects that clean-up vacant lots for parks with a lot of arts components, Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs, the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Recreational infrastructure is also part of the plan. The decommissioned railroad that runs past downtown Thomas has been converted into a biking and walking trail.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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Telling the Story of Small-town America, without Donald Trump

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Photo: David Bernabo

When two Minnesota writers busted a star reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel for skewering their town with fabrications, it affirmed the worst stereotypes about condescending city journalists wading into the heartland.

But you don’t have to make stuff up to worry about how your reporting on small-town America is going to be received. Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.

That’s why I was so nervous a few Fridays ago, when filmmaker Dave Bernabo and I drove 75 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, to Moundsville, W.Va., for the premiere of our feature documentary about the town.

The movie, which is available online, will debut in New York on Jan. 14 and in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Jan. 17. But the Moundsville performance was the one I was nervous about. For the first time in my two-decade career in journalism, on publication day, I would be facing my sources.

Small town

Dave and I were two city intellectuals, blue dots floating into a red town, and we’d committed to answering questions from the audience after the movie.

Our goal with “Moundsville” was to tell the economic biography of a classic American small town— a place out of a Jimmy Stewart movie — and show how it had changed and how it was coping, in a way that illustrated this moment in American history.

Moundsville, pop. 8,494, was the perfect fit. Its industrial boom included dozens of factories, including the Marx toy plant, which made the Rock’em Sock’em robots. Now it enjoyed a typical service economy, anchored around a Walmart, a hospital and a prison. And in the middle was the Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric burial site left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed Appalachia thousands of years ago, and a sure mark of time’s insistence on change.

Moundsville is the seat of a county that had voted 73.1 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 22.1 percent for Hillary Clinton, so, yes, maybe we’d reveal something deeper about the Trump phenomenon, but that wasn’t the primary goal.

Instead, we wanted mainly to tell the truth about the past, present and future of an iconic small town in a way that avoided nationalist nostalgia or liberal condescension. By focusing on shared history, without getting distracted by Washington politics, we’d show that Americans can still have common reality-based narratives that lay the groundwork for healthier debate.

We spent almost a year reporting, filming and editing. The approach we developed was to select the most thoughtful residents we could find, and let them tell the story. Our characters included a waiter, an archeologist, a paranormal collector, a toy historian and the poet laureate of West Virginia.

When we asked about politics, the answers were almost always clichés, copied and pasted from cable news. We made a decision: No Trump.

When we finished in November, we got an offer from Phil Remke, one of the main characters in the movie, and now the mayor of Moundsville: How about premiering at the Strand, that boxy red-brick theatre at the end of Moundsville’s main street, Jefferson Avenue?

The Strand opened in 1920 and seats 400. When Moundsville flourished, it hosted traveling plays and vaudeville acts. These days, it welcomes everything from bluegrass concerts and musicals for kids to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stand-up comedy. It also hosts birthday parties and dance recitals.

We booked a Friday night and set ticket prices at $5, and then worried if anybody would show up.

Fulfilling the code

Media coverage of post-industrial towns tends to focus on economic poverty. This plant closed. This number of jobs were lost. Less discussed is the loss of culture. Factories with good jobs attract educated people with disposable income. An economy based on service jobs at the Walmart, the prison and the hospital offers less of a base to support theaters, museums and bookstores. “People have less money to spend, and it’s mostly older people,” Sadie Crowe, the young part-time general manager of the Strand, told me.

As soon as I got to the Strand on opening night, an hour before the show, I knew we’d be OK. There was a line.

We sold 146 tickets, mostly to people in their 50s and older. The box office tally “blows any other movie we’ve had this year out of the water,” Ms. Crowe told me later.

John W. Miller, a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter (pictured), has made a feature documentary about the town of Moundsville, W.Va. with Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo. Photo: Matt McDermit/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The audience went quiet with concentration when the movie started. We got some laughs.

Then came a scene where a young Latino man talks about “racism in Moundsville.” A hush. Later, there was another conspicuous silence when Bill Wnek, a retired teacher, blames plant closures on capitalism. Local factories are bound to close “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,” he says.

I was worried when the lights went up and it was time for the Q&A.

Suzanne Park, the director of the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction, took the microphone. “Thank you for not making this political,” she said. “We didn’t know if we could trust you, because, you know, big-city journalists,” she said. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” Others raised their hand. They had all liked the movie.

After the premiere, I discovered that we had fulfilled a code developed by some anthropologists. Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about interaction, collaboration and growth,” University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me.

For example, native communities that Mr. Barton has studied in Alaska “have used my work in negotiations with other landowners,” he said. “Self-knowledge can give a community political power.” There’s a long history of outsiders “using and abusing the history of a place for their own purposes, and you’d don’t want to do that,” he said.

Shared history

I called a handful of locals for more conversation.

Like Ms. Park, others thanked me for not making the movie about Mr. Trump. It didn’t bother them that we had presented Moundsville’s decline, as well as problems with the gas industry and Walmart. They know things are hard; they just don’t like being lectured to, they explained.

“We all have opinions about politics and history will judge,” said Rose Hart, founder of a charity called Appalachian Outreach. “But both parties are so dysfunctional it’s better to stick to reality.”

By offering a shared history, the movie “makes it easier for us to talk about how to improve the town,” said Steve Hummel, a collector of haunted objects.

Gene Saunders, the town’s first and only African-American mayor, has a key role in the movie, explaining the discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s. “A lot of people here didn’t know Moundsville was segregated,” he said. “Your movie told them.”

Mary Britt moved to Moundsville six years ago to accompany her husband, who got a job at the local hospital. “I just liked learning more about the town,” she said. “You told a lot of stories that even people here don’t know.”

And she, too, thanked us, for avoiding the T word.

“I bet 90 percent percent of the people at the premiere voted for him,” said Ms. Britt. “But they don’t want an outsider telling them about it.”

A few weeks after the premiere, Ms. Crowe, the Strand’s manager, emailed to say people in town liked the movie so much that the theater will screen it twice more, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m on Jan. 19.

And on Facebook, one town resident declared she was downloading “Moundsville” — as a Christmas gift.

This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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