SUNNY CAL JOURNAL - "Some People Ain't Made For Small Town Life," Ordinary Fodder For Comfort

(06/18/2017)

ORDINARY FODDER FOR COMFORT

By Bob Weaver

Everyone wants their place on earth to be better, but fewer show up to get the task done.

There is more interest in being entertained, life in front of a screen.

Volunteerism, except for a dependable few, has fallen from grace.

While we say American Democracy is the greatest thing on earth, fewer and fewer actually show up and vote. A minority determines elections.

In the recent 2017 Grantsville election only 20% of registered voters turned out, just over 50 people. Following the 2016 General Election, state officials said Calhoun had the lowest voter turnout.

The foibles of our faded-from-glory county seat are not unlike many mountain towns, no longer business centers with populations barely able to support a local government.

Small town life is a dream of what life ought to be.

Most everyone complains about the problems, but it is the conventional and quiet that appeals to most folks who enjoy life in the hills, while others just struggle to survive.

Routine matters. It seems that most people just don't like to be bothered, a well described Appalachian trait, while many complain about not having conveniences or some good people to straighten out the problems.

Life in Calhoun County takes some getting use do, particularly if you're not an original.

Simon Stinson, the church organist in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," had been drinking when he said, "Some people ain't made for small town life."

His drinking was a protest against commonplace routines, and yet, ironically, his drinking had become routine as he played the church organ.

Could it be that ordinary human events really are the fodder of comfort?

Aunt Gladys Stump, when asked what residents do for entertainment in Grantsville's days gone by, would always say, "We go over to Stump's (the funeral home)" to see people we haven't seen for a long time.

A line from "Our Town" says, "Gracious sakes alive! Of all people! I should'a knowed you'd be back for the funeral."

The greater world might think it troubling that Grantsville has lost half its population, the demographics having changed since the town's hey-day in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

In the big world, they would think it never mattered much to begin with.

Poor Grantsville has long been battered.

Some people blame the local civic leaders, the town having been the subject of disdain from the southern Calhoun districts, sometimes with due cause.

I often hear people say, "I never go to Grantsville except to pay my taxes."

The battle over the location of the county seat to Grantsville in 1856 was lost by Arnoldsburg, with early dissent promoted by one of the county's historical figures, including Peregrine Hays.

Hays, a politician, soldier, businessman, slave holder and large landowner, played both ends against the middle.

There was a lot of jockeying for the land in what is now Calhoun.

Hays went about collecting signatures on a petition to have Washington and Lee become part of Roane County, creating a new entity called California County.

If that didn't work, Hays and his associates went to Big Bend in northern Calhoun and bought up land, just in case the seat of government went there.

Not unlike modern day politicians, he likely portrayed himself a champion of southern Calhoun, deriding the political weasels known as the "Grantsville bunch."

A newspaper story said "They part their hair in the middle in Grantsville."

I'm sure Grantsville didn't have a monopoly on weasels.

Much like the political, religious and cultural divisions going back thousands of years in the Middle East, the resentment and distrust is still kicking around 150 years later.

Virtually every politician worth his or her salt has tried to use the north-south division to their advantage, convincing voters they favor one section over the other.

For most Calhouners, it has always been difficult to trust what is happening on the other side of the mountain.

Some would say it is Appalachian culture at its very best.

Outsiders are startled by our backwardness, steep hills, narrow hollows and crooked roads - a rough terrain covered by a great forest.

Frankly, driving around the county, one end to the other, it still brings me great joy, as I continue to revel over the place.

Since modern dial phones replaced the crank'em up system, the county is now defined by the 655 and 354 exchanges.

Few citizens travel from northern or southern Calhoun to attend their respective annual festivals, the Wood Festival in Grantsville (north) or the Molasses Festival in Arnoldsburg (south).

That decision by the phone company didn't help any.

Since the early part of last century, most residents of Washington District, and many from Lee, took their pocketbooks to Spencer.

With the opening of Spencer's Wal-Mart, more county residents have joined the trend.

Grantsville sits patiently at the crossroads of two crooked and narrow state highways (Route 16 and 5), a far piece from Interstate access.

For years this rural county tried to obtain an improved highway like the Little Kanawha Parkway, now totally faded.

More recently, a nearly 40-year-old idea called the Blue-Gray Trail would have connected Ripley's I-77 to I-79 through Sunny Cal. That too has faded.

Some businessmen who held political domain back in the 1960's, opposed the construction of I-79 through the county, although it was the original straight shot on the map.

Who knows, maybe there is virtue of being off the beaten path and its commercial development, more fodder for the commonplace, the county being one of the most forested in West Virginia.

Now we struggle to be part of the 21st Century with high-speed Internet service.

Grantsville and Calhoun, for the most part, is more about what it use to be, with nary a stoplight. Maybe that is good.

The town will be remembered as a bustling little place with people-filled streets, talking and visiting until late at night, going to the Kanawha Theater for a picture show and drinking sodas at the drug store.

The only businesses left from my early days in the town are the J & B Drug Store, The Calhoun Chronicle and Stump Funeral Home.

Nearly 25 other businesses listed in my high school yearbook from 1958 no longer exist.

Much of the town sits on the flood plain, with replacement housing or new construction difficult to finance.

There is little flat land.

Emily Gibbs ("Our Town") discovered after her life and death in Grover's Corners, that the living really have time only for themselves.

The inability to see life beyond death seemed ironic to Emily, whose town's central activity was to focus on church and the commonplace.

"Yes, now you know! Now you know! That's what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years," Emily said.

It is likely when the sun comes up tomorrow, most of us will be concerned about potholes, the failures of others, water and sewage problems, or wrongful people being in charge - dreaming of the way things ought to be.

And some will continue to utter the well-worn phrase, "Somebody ought to do something about..."

Meanwhile, for many who find grace in this backwoods existence, some will sleep well for yet another night.

It's a pretty safe place to be.


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