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Inside Appalachia

How Fly Fishing Saved a Veteran’s Life

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Kyle Chanitz ties a fly at his home studio in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Army veteran Kyle Chanitz spent two and a half years deployed in Afghanistan, where he saw intense fighting and suffered concussions that led to seizures. When he returned to the U.S., he started taking college classes, but then dropped out to follow the jam band Phish around the country.

INside Appalachia’s story: how fishing and tying flies turned a veteran’s life around.

He spent 18 months on the road, got into drugs and spiraled out of control. 

“I had eight accidental heroin overdoses in a year,” Chanitz said. “And the whole time it was like, man, I don’t want to be doing this.”

Then one day, Chanitz was driving through Richmond, Virginia, on his way to the beach when he said he saw a sign for a Veterans Affairs hospital. He was in the midst of a methamphetamine binge and felt suicidal. Chanitz pulled over at a Walmart and convinced his meth-maker, who was riding with him, to get out of the car. Then he drove off to check himself into the hospital.

The VA moved him to a facility in Salem, Virginia, which sits at the eastern gateway to central Appalachia. After rehab, Chanitz tried to settle into life in the Roanoke Valley. He spent a lot of time in programs for disabled vets. He was learning how to garden when someone told him about Project Healing Waters, a fly-fishing program for disabled vets. 

“We take vets that have never fished, and we walk them into the middle of the river, and it just washes over them,” said Bob Crawshaw, a Navy veteran who works with Project Healing Waters. “They just relax. They just go … whoooooooo.”

The program is designed to tap into the veterans’ situational awareness—the training that soldiers need to stay alive in a combat situation, but which can become intolerable when they return home to civilian life. In Afghanistan, Chanitz was usually the first guy through the door when his unit was searching for enemy combatants. He was trained to immediately process his surroundings and detect potential threats — a stray wire, a person holding a gun or knife. 

But you can’t just turn that off after leaving the military. Even today, seven years after he got out of the Army, Chanitz said his eyes still dart around, followed by his arms and upper torso. It’s the muscle memory of maneuvering with a bullet-proof vest and rifle.

Crawshaw said that fly fishing takes those instincts and applies them to a serene, peaceful environment. 

Kyle Chanitz makes a gear change while fishing on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On the banks of Wolf Creek, in Bland County, Virginia, Chanitz watched for insects in the air and on the water, then used that information to choose a lure that mimics what’s he’s saw.

“So you see that right there on top of the water?” Chanitz said as he waded through Wolf Creek. “That’s a crane fly. I have a lot of crane fly imitations.”

Chanitz enjoyed fly-fishing and fly-tying so much that he got obsessed. He quickly got bored in the classes at the VA. He started watching Youtube videos to learn new fly-making techniques. He bought tons of gear and went fishing every week. 

Fishing also provided Chanitz an outlet to connect with other veterans. Some of them took him under their wing and became mentors. That’s how he met his future wife, Jessica.

“My dad kind of took him under his wing, which my dad does,” Jessica Chanitz said. “He’s that kind of person. But there was always something special about Kyle.”

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz married and bought a house in Roanoke. Fly-fishing and fly-tying have been part of their relationship since the beginning.

“I think at this point I know more about fly fishing and fly tying than a lot of people,” Jessica Chanitz said. “I’ve slowly gotten used to the names of the material. He can tell me about a fly and the material he’s using or the hooks he’s using, and I can visualize pretty well what he’s talking about.”

The cluttered desk in Kyle Chanitz’s fly-tying studio at his home in Roanoke, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Chanitz blends old-school and new-school techniques to make flies that are utterly his. For example, he’ll use a modern, neon-colored synthetic thread but mix it with natural feathers, all tied in a traditional way. He’s also developed a special blend of glues to secure his eyes on lures, which gives them extra action in the water and makes them more attractive to fish. 

His fly-tying workshop takes up a sizable room on the second floor in the Chanitz house. Both Kyle and Jessica Chanitz spend a lot of time here—he tying fishing flies and her making jewelry, including with Kyle’s old flies.

“I get kind of my own little bit of my own little creativity,” Jessica said. “I don’t have his creativity, but I take something that’s very much a sport into something that has some beauty to it.”

Jessica Chantiz displays a necklace she made out of one of her husband Kyle’s old flies. Photo by Mason Adams. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Kyle and Jessica Chanitz sell their creations online mostly through social media, but it’s not their main source of income.

Kyle has benefitted from his interest in fishing and tying flies, but he’s also paid it forward by working with other vets, like Moir Edwards, another military veteran who also loves fishing. Edwards served 20 years in the Air Force as a mechanic. He learned to tie flies by reading books, but then he found Project Healing Waters, where he met Chanitz.

Kyle Chanitz (left) talks with fellow veteran Moir Edwards (right) on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia. Photo: Mason Adams/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Kyle has given me some flies that he tied,” Edwards said. “I try to imitate them. He’ll come in sometimes and he’ll just say, ‘Here’s a fly.’ You take it.”

This story is part of our Folklife Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folklife Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Inside Appalachia

Great, Great Granddaughter of ‘Devil Anse’ Hatfield Carrying on Family Traditions

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Nancy Justus, the great, great granddaughter of “Devil Anse", and the owner of Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine in Gilbert, W.Va. Photo: Chuck Roberts/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Spring, summer and fall in Gilbert, West Virginia, in Mingo County, most days you can find a barrage of ATVs rolling through town. 

Most of the riders are visiting for an adventurous vacation. The asphalt road runs are usually a short trip from their cabins, or hotels to the woods onto the Hatfield and McCoy Trail systems. 

Chad Bishop is the master distiller in a nearby distillery. 

“You come down here at any given time and you’ll see twenty four-wheelers over here, five over there six, ya know,” Chad said. “Those people come in here to spend their money.”

To get there, you have to drive up a steep hillside to get to the Hatfield and McCoy Distillery. Most of the customers are ATV tourists. 

“When they come up my distillery if they want a bottle of my product they’re getting the best money can buy,” Chad said. 

Chad Bishop, master distiller at Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine. Photo: Chuck Roberts/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Chad takes a lot of pride in making moonshine. Technically it’s whiskey according to the Alcohol and Beverage Commission, but for Chad, the craft of brewing corn mash will always be moonshine. Chad said the recipe comes from the infamous William Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield himself. 

Chad married into the family. His mother-in-law is Nancy Justus, the great, great-granddaughter of “Devil Anse”. 

Nancy’s father worked in the coal mines. But the boom and bust cycle meant he was often out of work. 

“Everybody was poor. We didn’t know no better,” Nancy explained. “He had a tough life. Coal mining’s hard. It’s a hard life. We would have starved to death if it hadn’t been for bootlegging back in the 50s.”

Her daddy made moonshine with a radiator. She said today, it would take a lot longer if they had to make moonshine that way.

But the moonshine tradition goes back even before the 50s, according to Nancy’s mom, Billie Hatfield; often people call her ‘Granny Hatfield’. 

Billie Hatfield. Photo: Chuck Roberts/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“Back when I was 20 years old, we got married and we moved to Ben Creek a little hole in the ground; one way in one way out,” Granny Hatfield said. “To make extra money, we made moonshine and sold it. We hid it when he’d bring it out of the mountains, I would mix it in a bathtub. And I got pretty good on my 90 proof and all of that. Back then we made 90 proof and 100 proof. You had to watch the feds all of the time because they were all the time after us.” 

Today, the family business is legit, a registered, tax-paying business that helps them make a living and stay in West Virginia. 

In addition to the distillery, Nancy Justus also runs a small lodging company that rents vacation cabins and hotel rooms to tourists. She doesn’t mind sharing her family’s story with visitors. 

“I enjoy talking to them,” Nancy said. “I talk to so many people, take so many pictures. I’m not famous or anything, but they always a picture.”

Nancy said she feels like she’s reclaiming her family’s name through her businesses, and by telling these stories. Even though the family wasn’t consulted before construction of the trail system that uses their name, both Chad and Nancy said the Hatfield and McCoy Trail system has been great for business.

Still, running a business that depends on tourists isn’t profitable year-round. 

“There’s only seven months of business,” Nancy said. “It’s dead for five months and it’s hard to come back when you come back in March, first of April, because you had to spend all your money for the winter. That’s the only downfall, you know. It’s so hard.”

Photo: Chuck Roberts/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Just recently, Nancy’s moonshine company won a long battle with producers in other states, including Missouri and California, who were trying to use the name for their own brands of liquor. 

“I got what I wanted. I want my name,” Nancy said. “I don’t want anybody to have my name that’s not the real people. It’s not fair.”          

Nancy and her company won the lawsuit. Now they get to keep the name, Hatfield and McCoy Moonshine, to label their liquor. Chad said it’s good for tourism too. Along with the Hatfield and McCoy Country Museum in Williamson, it’s just one more way to bring another layer of authentic heritage to share with visitors.    

“You can come here and go to a museum, and you can come here and watch whiskey being made the mountains you know, just like they did 150 years ago,” Chad said. “So yeah. I mean, they use the name but I think if anybody’s got the right to use it, it should be them.”

After all, the craft and recipe for this liquor were developed and preserved in the backwoods of the West Virginia hills. So the only way for it to be authentic is to keep the name. 

“We don’t really play off of the name but we want what we want people to know is here we stick true to tradition,” Chad said. “We’re from the mountains, we make whiskey in the mountains. We do it all in the mountains.”

Reclaiming their name for their business is also about taking back the narrative that has been told over the years, said Nancy. Ever since the feud, reports have traditionally focused on the fights and anger among the families. 

“I could write a book on our family,” Nancy said. “It was Hatfields. The curse was handed down there’s a lot of temperament. They have a lot of problems with forgiving. They can’t forgive. It’s sad.”

Family photos of the William Anderson Devil Anse Hatfield hang on the wall of Nancy Hatfield’s house. Nancy is Davil Anse’s great, great-granddaughter. Photo: Chuck Roberts/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

While she admits that most of her family members have a bit of a temper, she’s quick to point out that there’s more to her family. 

“Hatfields are great people. My daddy would have given you the shirt off his back. I loved my daddy,” Nancy said. 

“I was his sidekick and anything he told me to do, I’d do it. And there was things I did that I probably shouldn’t have done. I should have been killed. He bought me race cars. I raced them. What was I going to do with Corvettes? I raced them. Camaroes. Daddy taught me all of that.”

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that explores tourism in southern West Virginia and the lasting impacts the Hatfield and McCoy feud has had on the region’s identity. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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‘Blood Creek’ Tells Mine Wars Story From Woman’s Perspective

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Author Kimberly Collins. Photo: Courtesy Image
Photo: Courtesy Image

In her new novel, “Blood Creek”, author Kimberly Collins writes about the strikes that gripped the southern West Virginia coalfields in the early 20th Century from the perspective of the women who lived through them.

“Blood Creek” is the first in the Mingo Chronicles series. It starts with the strike at Paint Creek and Cabin Creek in 1912. Collins used real characters from history in her books, several of whom she is related to. 

“The story starts with a character named Ellie, and Ellie was a real person,” Collins told West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Eric Douglas in an interview. “The overarching theme of the book is the mine wars and the thread that’s kind of woven through the entire book is the relationship between Ellie, her sister and her cousin,” she said. “So it’s a book about relationships and just the fighting human spirit getting through some pretty pretty dark, violent times in southern West Virginia.” 

Collins said the idea for the story came about when a cousin told her stories about her own great-grandmother she had never heard. 

Author Kimberly Collins. Photo: Courtesy Image

“I just thought it was important to tell the women’s stories because coal is a man’s world. And the women really played a huge part in it, but I don’t think that that story is told enough,” she said. 

“Blood Creek” is about the 1912 coal mine strike in Paint Creek. Collins said she began writing about the 1920 mine wars in Matewan, but stumbled across a story about the real-life Ellie and knew she had to write it into a book. The Matewan Massacre will be the focus of the second book in the “Mingo Chronicles” series. 

Collins is from Matewan, although she now lives in Tennessee. She said the research she did for the book has opened her eyes to her own history. 

“I realized that my heritage, my Appalachian heritage, is pretty amazing. I learned so much about the people of Appalachia and southern West Virginia, and that they were hardworking and intelligent, and smart and clever, and really fighting for their rights,” Collins said. “All those things that came before me have made me who I am today.”

This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia that explores tourism in southern West Virginia and the lasting impacts the Hatfield and McCoy feud has had on the region’s identity. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Hauntings From The Civil War: A Snapshot of the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

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Rick Garland took over the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry 10 years ago. He holds the tour year-round and meets tourists on the steps of the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church. Photo: Liz McCormick/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This story is part of a Halloween episode of Inside Appalachia, which features ghost tales and legends from across Appalachia.

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in Jefferson County is well known for its American Civil War history. The town was the site of John Brown’s Raid, the Battle of Harpers Ferry, and the town changed hands from Union to Confederate several times. 

Harpers Ferry saw so much destruction during the war that many now say it’s a town home to ghosts and hauntings.

Up a series of steep, stone steps and just beyond a screeching gate is the entrance to the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Harpers Ferry.

Built in 1833, it still holds mass on Sunday, and is open for special occasions like Christmas. But at night, and year-round, its courtyard is the meeting place for the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry – said to be the oldest ghost tour in America at nearly 50 years old.

On a recent night, about 50 people have gathered to attend the two-hour tour. There are parents with young children, older couples, and a handful of teenagers. Many tour attendees are from out of town, like Melanie Ray, from Baltimore, Maryland. Ray said she and her boyfriend were visiting the area and looking for something to do. 

“I love anything that has anything to do with history, and Harpers Ferry has a lot of pretty bad history, like a lot of bad things happened,” Ray said. 

That history is what makes Harpers Ferry a pretty cool backdrop for spooky tales, and tourists like Ray are intrigued by that. 

Not everyone believes in the stories, but some do. 

Rick Garland took over the Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry 10 years ago. He’s a local historian and tour guide. During the day, he runs a four-hour historical tour in Harpers Ferry, but at night he tells tales of hauntings.

The Ghost Tours of Harpers Ferry was originally run by a woman named Shirley Dougherty, who started the tour in 1970. She has since passed away. Garland continues Dougherty’s legacy because her family asked him to, and because he loves history. Garland also believes in ghosts, but he has a sense of humor about it.

“Is there anybody here who does not believe in ghosts? What are you doing here? I’m only kidding,” Garland said to the laughing crowd.

Garland telling one of his ghost stories to a large crowd in Harpers Ferry, W.Va. Photo: Liz McCormick/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

With his lantern in hand, Garland takes the large group around the town, highlighting spots that are known for ghostly sightings. He encourages folks to take photos – just in case they might catch something paranormal.

Garland tells many ghost stories on the tour. One of them describes how in the 1980s, a man and his three children moved into an apartment in town, but every night, the father heard a crying baby in his bedroom. 

“A few minutes later, the crying sound started up for a third time,” Garland said to the crowd. “It was louder this time, and he’s getting very fed up with this. So, now [he] says louder, ‘I told you, you have to shut up,’ and the moment that got out of his mouth, he saw something flash across his bedroom.”

But when the father goes to check it out, there’s nothing there. Later, the crying starts again, but this time, when the father yells, there’s a crashing sound almost like an explosion of bricks.

Garland describes a possible explanation for the haunting. Apparently, a diary was discovered, written by a little girl named Anne, who lived in that building during the Battle of Harpers Ferry in 1862.

“Anne continues to write, ‘when the Confederates are bombing our town there’s a woman upstairs in this house on the top floor with a newborn baby, a little infant in her arms, rocking the baby back and forth,” Garland tells the crowd.

Garland said the diary entry describes how a cannonball smashed into the house killing the baby and severely injuring the mother. 

The crowd is silent.

A section of the town of Harpers Ferry, W.Va. as seen during a recent ghost tour. Photo: Liz McCormick/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A lot of the ghost stories Garland tells are connected in some way to the Civil War. 

By the end of the tour, many who came out, chat with Garland, ask questions and share photos of what they captured, including one woman, Cindy Rhodes from Charlotte, North Carolina.

Rhodes and her husband travel all over the country to check out ghost tours like the one in Harpers Ferry. The history, for them, is the biggest draw. 

“That’s what they’re more fun for, you know what I mean?” Rhodes said. “There’s a ghost here and there, but they’re more fun for the history, I think.”

And for some who come out to tours like this one, like Brandon Schaefer of Baltimore, they like to be scared and to run into something spooky. 

“I like the haunting stuff, and I always hope to see a ghost, so that’s mainly why we came out here,” Schaefer said.

Being a tour guide is Garland’s full-time job, and though he does other historical tours, the ghost tour, is his favorite. 

“It’s great to see how this affects other people,” he noted. “So, if you can entertain them, whether it’s with the history part of it, or with the ghost tour part of it, or the spooky part of it, or with a joke, the fact is, that they want to be entertained; they came out to be entertained, and if you can do that for them, they feel good, you feel good, everybody has a good time.”

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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