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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. 

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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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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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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