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Inside Appalachia

Possum in Kentucky Artist’s Mural Reveals Complicated Connection to Marsupial’s Symbolism

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Possum and pokeweed mural designed by Lacy Hale in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Courtesy of Lacy Hale

Scavenger. Trash animal. Chicken killer. Hero. People here in Appalachia have lots of feelings when it comes to opossums — or “possums” as some people call them. A town in Harlan County, Kentucky, found this out first-hand when they decided to feature a possum on a mural in their downtown.

It was a clear, sunny day in May and Lacy Hale was putting the finishing touches on a mural destined for a brick wall in downtown Harlan, Kentucky.

Panels of mural fabric sprawled across the floor of Hale’s workspace. She walked barefoot, bent over, creating sweeping brushstrokes of vibrant greens and deep purples. 

Lacy Hale puts the finishing touches on the mural in her workspace in Whitesburg, Kentucky before it is installed in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

“You know, possums are everywhere. You see them all the time when you’re driving around,” Hale explained. “They kill ticks, they kill snakes. They’re North America’s only marsupial. So I thought they were super cool animals.”

Hale worked with high school students and other community partners on the project, which was spearheaded by Southeast Kentucky Community & Technical College’s Appalachian Program. Robert Gipe, a staff member of the Appalachian Program, explained that they sought community input on the mural design. “We did a long community engagement process for several months, and we had people giving us ideas for murals all over the county,” Gipe said.

Community partners Carrie Billett (left) and April Collins (right) install the mural on the side of Sassy Trash, a retail shop owned by April and her husband Paul Collins in Harlan, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

Based on that input, they chose local plants and animals as the mural’s theme. They decided to feature pokeweed as a nod to Harlan’s annual Poke Sallet Festival, which celebrates a dish made from the plant’s leafy greens.

Hale researched pokeweed and found that it relies on certain animals to spread its seeds.

“One of the biggest proponents of that was the possum, when I was reading about it,” Hale said. Possums are one of the only mammals that can tolerate the berries’ toxins.  

In the mural, a baby possum hangs by its tail from the pokeweed’s purple stem.

‘There Were Just a Lot of Feelings’

This isn’t the first time that possums have been favorably featured in eastern Kentucky’s music and art. For example, WMMT-FM, out of Whitesburg, is fondly nicknamed “Possum Radio.” But not everybody feels so warmly toward these creatures.

A painting of a possum hovers above the on-air studio at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which is nicknamed “Possum Radio.” Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

When Knott County, Kentucky, named the possum their official animal in 1986, some took offense. In a letter to the editor of the local paper, one reader wrote:

“My personal opinion is that an opossum is a very low and unintelligent animal. A scavenger is a better word. This action insults the intelligence of our county and Appalachian area, which we should all love.” 

When Gipe showed a draft of the mural to college students in his Appalachian Studies class, the possum caused a bit of a stir. 

“They felt that this possum would be perceived as a representation of our community and of them. And that they had had negative associations with possums due to [it] often being found dead in the road and in their trash cans. Maybe its rodent-like nature, that seemed to come up in some of the students’ responses. But there were just a lot of feelings,” Gipe said.

When Hale heard about some of the negative reactions to the possum, she was surprised. 

“I was completely shocked because I’ve never really encountered anybody that’s been so vehemently against an animal being in a piece of artwork,” she said.

Hale learned that people associate possums with negative stereotypes about hillbillies that often appear in popular media. For example, the 1960s television show The Beverly Hillbillies regularly featured bits about eating possum.

‘They’re Resilient’

But increasingly, artists from within the region are turning those negative associations inside out. Artists like Raina Rue, the creative force behind Juniper Moon Folk Arts. Rue’s currently based in Winchester, Kentucky, but hails from Irvine.

Raina Rue, of Juniper Moon Folk Arts, sifts through a suitcase full of pins that she designs and makes at her home in Winchester, Kentucky. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

She describes her work as “a weird ‘lil hodgepodge of rural queer art you can wear.” Her pins feature pawpaws, rainbows and morel mushrooms, with phrases like “homegrown in the holler,” and “kudzu queer.”  

“My top sellers are my possums. I sell more possums than anything else. Which I love. It makes me so happy,” Rue said. 

Some of the possums are cute and cuddly, some look tough and ornery. One hangs from a rainbow flag by its tail, another sports a red bandana around its neck.  

Amid pins that feature images and words of rural-ness and queer-ness is a possum pin, all by Raina Rue of Juniper Moon Folk Arts. Photo: Nicole Musgrave/Inside Appalachia

Rue’s favorite possum design is her most recent. 

“He’s punk and he’s wearing a vest that says homesick on the back and he’s crying and smoking a cigarette in a trashy alley.”  Rue calls him the Homesick Possum. “It’s kind of like a little ode to displaced country folk,” she said.

It’s also a tribute to Appalachia’s DIY arts and punk communities, some of which are embracing the underdog animal as a kind of mascot. 

For Rue, the misunderstood possum is more than just a cute, weird little creature. 

“They’re resilient, they don’t need any sort of special surroundings to live in,” Rue said. “They can live under a truck, or in the woods in a hole in a tree. And I guess I can relate resiliency, scrappiness, all those things to where I come from and the kind of people that I come from.”

Hale also hopes more people will begin to think possums are awesome. “I would like to see them appreciated for what they are,” she said.

And her wish seems to be coming true, as possums are popping up on jewelry and T-shirts, as tattoos, in memes that possum fans share on social media and on the now-colorful wall in downtown Harlan.

As Hale put it, “Possums are in, possums are it, possums are the thing.”

This story is part of the Inside Appalachia  Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virignia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stores of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.

Inside Appalachia

Inside Appalachia: Politics Is A Difficult Topic, But Necessary

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Taking a vote in the West Virginia Legislature. Each session, state legislatures make decisions that directly affect their citizens. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislature

Last week’s episode of Inside Appalachia is doing something a bit different. The West Virginia Public Broadcasting team took a temperature check on how people are feeling about politics as we head into what is sure to be a critical election year. While most people have the presidential race on their minds, there are many local races throughout Appalachia that will have lasting impacts as well.

How Appalachia votes could affect how lawmakers make decisions on a range of issues, like abortion, or how much severance tax coal and natural gas companies pay to states. It could also affect how federal aid is spent on economic development in local communities, and on things like Medicare and SNAP benefits. We all have something in our lives that likely will be affected by the upcoming election.  

Coal Country

Following the 2016 election, many in the national news media looked to Appalachia to explain President Donald Trump’s victory. There were seemingly endless stories about voters in the region — talking to voters inside and outside coal mines. There was a clear fascination with central Appalachia, which was dubbed “Coal Country”. 

For those who had been paying attention to this place long before 2016, Trump’s big win here wasn’t a huge surprise. After all, the region had been growing as a Republican base for decades.

“The trend line in Appalachia has been pretty bad for Democrats over the course of the last several decades,” said Kyle Kondik. the managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “When Jimmy Carter ran for President 1976. He won 68 percent of all the Appalachian counties. But by 2008, Barack Obama 113 percent of the Appalachian counties and then by 2016, Hillary Clinton only one 6 percent.”

But Kondik points out larger metropolitan places, like Pittsburgh, bucked that trend and voted Democrat in 2016. So did college towns, like Athens, Ohio, and Morgantown, West Virginia.

Kentucky

Last year, elections in Kentucky drew a lot of attention, and Democrat Andy Beshear won the governor’s race. But Republicans came away with wins in all of the other offices in Kentucky’s executive branch. In this episode, guest host Dave Mistich speaks with Kentucky’s Public Radio’s Ryland Barton about how state races in Kentucky could play out in 2020 and what implications this may have for the country as a whole.

Virginia

Eileen Filler-Corn takes her oath of office, becoming the first woman and first Jewish speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates. Photo: Michael Pope/WVTF

Virginia’s 2019 elections may paint a different picture. Democrats flipped the statehouse, giving them a majority in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly for the first time since 1996. WVTF’s Michael Pope and Mallory Noe-Payne produced a report on election night about the outcome. 

House Democrats in Virginia chose Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn to become speaker just days after the election. She is not only the first woman to hold that title, but also the first Jewish person to take the gavel in that chamber.

West Virginia

In the upcoming election in West Virginia, all three seats in the House of Representatives will be on the ballot, as well as a U.S. Senate seat. Then, there’s 17 of 34 state Senate seats, all 100 seats in the House of Delegates, five constitutional officers and the governor’s seat also up for grabs. 

Gov. Jim Justice, R-W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: Tyler Evert/AP Photo
Gov. Jim Justice, R-W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Tyler Evert/AP Photo

According to the Secretary of State’s website, 18 people are running for governor against incumbent Republican Jim Justice. Justice has often been compared to President Donald Trump —  he’s a billionaire, for one thing. But in other ways, Justice is completely unique. He was elected as a Democrat but switched to the Republican party only seven months into his term. 

This is one reason both the Republican and Democratic parties are facing an identity crisis in West Virginia as they head into the 2020 gubernatorial election. Independent producer Kyle Vass took us through how each party is gearing up.

Republicans: According to a West Virginia MetroNews poll released late last year, Gov. Justice holds a commanding lead in the Republican Primary. The poll says 56 percent support Justice, 21 percent support Woody Thrasher and 11 percent are backing Michael Folk. 

Democrats: In the Democratic primary, things are much less clear. According to another poll from West Virginia Metro News, 42 percent of likely Democratic voters aren’t sure who’ll they pick at the ballot box. Between the top three candidates, things seem neck-and-neck as of now. 21 percent expressed support for Stephen Smith. 19 percent favor Sen. Stollings and 18 percent say they’re behind Salango. 

Census and Reapportionment

With all of this talk about the 2020 elections, there’s a big story looming in the background that will have consequences for years to come. That’s the 2020 census, when the federal government takes a count of the population of the entire country. 

Census experts say losing residents means losing money, business, jobs and federal assistance for emergencies and infrastructure.  

After the upcoming census, one study projects West Virginia could lose a member in the U.S. House of Representatives. Emily Allen takes us through one recent example of when this happened in West Virginia to see how it might play out after the 2020 census.

Register to Vote!

With all this talk of elections, now is a good time to make sure your voter registration is up-to-date and, if you’re not registered, make sure to do that. If you’re in West Virginia, you can register at your county clerk’s office, or by going online to the Secretary of State’s website at govotewv.com

If you’re in another state, be sure to check with the officials that handle elections there.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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How One University Mascot Has Influenced Generations of West Virginians

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The 66th Mountaineer, Timmy Eads, in the 2019 WVU Homecoming parade. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

West Virginia University’s mascot, the Mountaineer, is a big deal in the state. In fact, fans are called ‘Mountaineer Nation.’ West Virginians have long identified with the mascot as it symbolizes independence, strength and curiosity — a true frontiersman attitude. 

On a football gameday, the Mountaineer stampedes down the field, rallying the crowd. The mascot wears a tan leather buckskin shirt and pants with long fringes that flap in the wind. There is a raccoon skin hat with a bushy tail and beady eyes, knee-high moccasins and a bison horn that holds black powder — the ammunition for the rifle held in the Mountaineer’s hand. 

Among a cheering crowd of 60,000 fans and a stadium with a giant screen, is a Mountaineer who looks like he stepped straight out of the 1800s Appalachian frontier.

“Growing up in West Virginia, you’re instilled with that mountaineer pride at a very young age,” said Timmy Eads, the current WVU Mountaineer.

Becoming The Mountaineer

The mascot was officially recognized in the state in 1934. It is unique in that unlike most other university mascots, the Mountaineer does not wear a foam head – one can see the person’s face.

Also, there are no top-tier pro-sports teams in the state, so most sports fans rally around the Mountaineer.

Rosemary Hathaway, author of the upcoming book about the Mountaineer, talks with Timmy Eads. The two were speaking at WVU about history and culture of the mascot. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Rosemary Hathaway is the author of the soon to be released book “Mountaineers Are Always Free.” She said former Mountaineers she interviewed all say it is more than a mascot for them.

“Putting on the outfit and feeling almost this magical transformation; I’m both myself but I’m also sort of this symbol of the state,” she said.

Becoming the Mountaineer is a rigorous process. One has to be able to handle a gun, take a full class load, be a good public speaker, be willing to travel across the country, have the energy to serve as a role model daily and be able to represent not only the university, but West Virginia as a whole. 

Gene Wotring started making the Mountaineer rifle last year. His father, Marvin Wotring, made rifles for the university for more than 40 years before he passed away in 2018. 

Growing up, Gene watched many Mountaineers come in and out of his father’s shop.

“The Mountaineers, they were little kids dreaming about being a mountaineer and they’re here now, and going through it,” Gene said. “I think they have to mature in the role because it’s a big responsibility.”

The Buckskins

In just about six months, Timmy has attended over 250 events as the Mountaineer – including everything from elementary school visits to sports games to hospitals to rural hollow communities. He said he wears his buckskins almost every day, and one can tell. The leather has darkened, the creases look permanent, there is a musky smell and it is a little rough around the edges. 

“What I was told by former Mountaineers to do if you come home and are absolutely drenched in sweat or you catch an odor, just freeze the entire thing and the freezer will help kill the bacteria and help it not smell so bad,” Timmy said.

Timmy’s worn-in buckskins and satchel. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Each Mountaineer keeps their buckskins at the end of their reign. 

Gary Nebel has been hand-stitching deer hides together to create the Mountaineer outfit since the 1980s. All his work is in the style of pre-1840s.

“We even make some of the buttons — we roll the leather buttons or put antler buttons on them,” Gary said.

Gary is not from West Virginia, nor has he ever lived in the state. He lives in Indiana, but WVU still sought him out to make the outfit. That is just how rare his skill set is.

Gary said, hand-making these buckskin outfits — much like our Appalachian ancestors did — is a knowledge that is also dwindling. 

“When I’m gone I don’t know who will take it over. I don’t know if my son will do it or not,” Gary said.

But he does not plan to retire anytime soon.

The Rifle

Gene Wotring — the new maker of the Mountaineer rifle — is someone who did take over his dad’s business. His dad, Marvin, made 949 black powder rifles. Gene is on number nine. 

The Mountaineer uses a .45 caliber Kentucky Long Rifle, a weapon developed in the early 1700s. Gene said it is a primitive technology, and the pressure of making the WVU rifle is huge. 

“It’s not just the Mountaineer, it’s all of Mountaineer Nation,” he said. “If the rifle doesn’t go boom, a lot of people are upset.”

Rifles made by Gene Wotring, who has taken over his father’s role of making the Mountaineer rifle. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In a football game, the rifle is shot dozens of times, with a stadium and thousands of fans at home watching. 

The Mountaineer rifle Gene made last year is striking. It is a dark, maple brown and about four-feet long. There is a gold metal, hand-carved emblem in the shape of West Virginia on the side. Underneath, in gold metal, are the words “Country roads take me,” with the shape of West Virginia as the implied home.

“I had to do like five of these to get the state and get the arc right and get the words to fit in there,” Gene said.

And on the other side are the distinctive flying letters “WV” — the letters almost look painted on.

“It’s coal, and it’s inlaid in there,” Gene said. “I took coal and crushed it up and put it in a resin and molded it in there. Yeah, coal’s just a big part of West Virginia.”

The WVU rifle is passed down each year to the new Mountaineer. It is only replaced every five or six years. 

Seeking Diversity

These days, the Mountaineer typically has a big, bushy beard. Although, prior to the 1970s, that was not the case. Rosemary Hathaway, the author of the upcoming Mountaineer book, said beards were seen as being unkempt and represented someone who has radical politics.

In fact, the Mountaineer statue at WVU does not have a beard, and two women have been the mountaineer — Natalie Tennent in 1990 and Rebecca Durst in 2009. Rosemary said the beard was used as an argument for not having a female as the mascot.

“In their minds, I think they’re thinking, ‘You’re not being sexist, right? Because you just can’t grow a beard so you can’t be the Mountaineer,’” Rosemary said. “But, I think it was really just a cover for a woman not being the Mountaineer for a whole lot of other reasons, and not growing a beard was just one of them.” 

Rosemary Hathaway and Timmy Eads speaking at an event at WVU during Mountaineer Week in 2019. Pictured in the slideshow is Rebecca Durst who was the mascot in 2009. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

In the 84 years since the mascot was officially recognized, there has not been a person of color in the role. Granted, over 75 percent of WVU’s population is white, but there are students of color, and only one person of color has ever applied. 

Rosemary said the women who were the mountaineer faced a lot of backlash, and that could be intimidating for any minority student who is thinking of applying.

“I don’t know what the reaction would be, if people would be cool about it or if they’d think, ‘It’d be politically incorrect for me to say something, so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut.’ Or whether there would be an out-and-out racist response to it,” Rosemary said.

However, according to the mascot application the “Mountaineer Mascot selection committee and the Mountaineer Advisory Committee do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, veteran’s status, religion, sexual orientation, color or national origin.”

Timmy Eads will be passing the rifle that Gene made onto the new mountaineer this spring.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. 

Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture. 

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W.Va. Artist Repurposes Flea Market Finds, Reflects On Rust Belt

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Robert Villamagna and his red wagon at the Rogers, Ohio Flea Market. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Flea markets are a common feature across rural landscapes, especially in Appalachia. If you have never been, there is typically something for everyone, and one West Virginian artist is turning the unique finds into art. 

“Sometimes it’s the imagery. A portion of my work has an industrial aspect to it, and I don’t mean just the materials, but the imagery,” Robert Villamagna said.

Finding The ‘Junk’

Robert at the flea market. He has been going to this particular market for much of his life. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Robert’s primary art medium is patterned tin — like what is used to make old chip cans or coffee canisters or toys — and there is an abundance at flea markets.

He comes to Roger’s Flea Market in Rogers, Ohio, every other Friday and has been doing that off and on for almost 40 years. He was named West Virginian Artist of the Year in 2016, and much of the materials he uses he finds at this market.

Vendors know him so well they sometimes set certain items aside for him.

“I got something for ya. It’s free,” said Mike Rosati to Robert.

Mike is a regular merchant at Roger’s. He saved an old children’s noise maker made out of tin for Robert. It is brightly colored, with a painted dancing cartoon character in the middle.

“I know he makes tin sculptures and pictures and stuff so I saw that and thought he could use it,” Mike said.

Robert’s wearing red, circle rimmed glasses and a grey fedora. He pulls a little red, canvas wagon to carry his treasures.

Robert Villamagna (left) and Mike Rosati. Robert’s holding the metal toy maker Mike saved for him. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Robert loves what he calls “old junk.” He said it adds another dimension to his art.

“Some of this stuff carries a little bit of the history or spirit of the people that used it or carried it or made it,” he said. “In amongst the big story of the main piece of work, these little stories of these little pieces of metal are coming thr and they have a story too.”

Turning ‘Junk’ Into Art

Robert works out of his studio in Wheeling, West Virginia. Back in that studio — directly behind his home — it looks like what Rogers Flea Market would look like if it were chopped up and condensed into a single large room.

“This is more than lived-in. Actually, it’s the worst it’s ever been,” he said “I call it organized chaos.”

Robert organizes all of his flea market finds into bins. He later uses the materials in his artwork. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

It’s not messy, but over the years Robert has amassed a lot of material. The room is filled with deconstructed flea market finds in labeled boxes. For example, one bin is marked, “blue plastic eyes from stuffed animals.”

Robert spends a lot of time breaking down objects — especially tin — into small pieces he can use for his art. For instance, a large coffee can will become a dozen flattened pieces. He uses sheers to cut out words, patterns and colors he likes. 

“Here I got some nice white, I might need it for something. So, I’ll put it in my white box. And then there’s red boxes, grey and brown,” he said. “And then there’s more bins with colors — over here there’s a lot of patterns.”  

Some of his work resembles sculptures, but a lot of it is like a painting, except instead of paint, he uses metal to create an image. His pieces are bold — brightly colored with a bit of a modern art flare. Sometimes he includes words or other materials, like buttons off a doll or old black and white photographs.

One of Robert’s pieces. He likes to use metal of different colors, textures and sizes to create his art. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Appalachian Roots

Robert is comfortable working with tin, because in some ways it is a part of him. He grew up next to a steel mill in Ohio, not far from Rogers Flea Market. He worked many different jobs in his life, but he spent 13 years in the steel mill. Robert said he was depressed, and his boss picked up on it. 

“And he said, “Where would you rather be?” And I said, “I’d rather be working as an artist or making art or something in the arts.” And he said, “Why don’t you make art about this place?” Robert said. “And I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me. I couldn’t wait every day to walk out and punch out, and then to make art about it? No way.”

But he could not resist. During breaks Robert started painting portraits of his fellow steel mill workers on the brick walls on the mill with fluorescent marking paint.

“We called it the Hall of Laborers,” he said.

Now as a professional artist, Robert’s work still reflects issues within Appalachia. 

Energy Industry And Flea Markets

One of his finished pieces peaks out from behind a stack of boxes in his studio. 

It is called ‘Old King Coal.’ It has a wooden, square frame about 4 feet tall, lined with license plates from Appalachian states. The image inside is made up of different colored tin pieces – each nailed carefully into place.

Robert Villamagna and his piece ‘Old King Coal.’ The piece represents the coal industry being pushed out by natural gas. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It’s a big hunk of coal crying and he’s wearing a crown. He’s on crutches,” Robert says. “In the background you see some windmills and you see some fossil fuel burning plants. Down below his feet he’s stepping over a gas line.”

The overall idea being the gas industry is overtaking energy production in Appalachia, which is oddly reflected in the flea markets, too. 

Rogers Flea Market is 90 minutes away from Robert’s home in Wheeling, and that is the closest one to him. There used to be others, but in recent years they have shut down. Robert said he has noticed a lot of the land occupied with gas pipeline. 

Back At Roger’s

So, he makes the trip to Ohio religiously. 

Back at Roger’s, he said sometimes things just speak to him, like this oversized baby doll. She is wearing red and blue pajamas, her face is plastic with painted on red cheeks, and she has big blue eyes with eerily long eyelashes.

“I got a feeling he’s going home with me,” Robert said. “It’s somewhere between creepy, spooky and wonderful. It’s just going to have to be something, I [just] don’t know what.” 

Weeks after this story was reported, regional news outlets indicated a fire consumed a portion of the market, but apparently it is a resilient community. Robert said he went a couple weeks later, wagon in tow, and things were back to normal.

Robert and the doll he found at the flea market. He plans to use it in his art. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting. It is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture. 

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