SUNNY CAL JOURNAL - Calhoun: Dreaming Of The Way Things Ought To Be

By Bob Weaver

The foibles of our faded-from-glory county are not unlike many West Virginia counties and towns, with populations barely able to support a local government.

For many, country life is a dream of what life ought to be. Most everyone complains about the problems, but it is the conventional that appeals to most of them, routine.

Calhoun's appeal is that of the small, rural and undeveloped, a quiet that for many is deafening.

Politicians have proclaimed they want to "Make Calhoun Great Again." In fact, by most standards, it never was great, without the "advancements" proclaimed by most Americans, its population dropping in half (12,000) since 1940.

Here in the 21st century, it is likely that the population of the county has more transplants than people of place, most of them coming here for low taxes and quiet under a persimmon tree.

The economic drivers of merging, centralizing, consolidating and globalization have further sucked the lifeblood from rural communities.

While on the one hand the effects have been devastating, on the other hand, it has caused the framework for one the best places to live in rural communities.

In fact, the reason it is a diamond, is the lack of development, the absence of the frenzy of the urbanized world, peacefulness and quiet abounding, the biggest racket is from politicians who want to "save it."

The county barely joined the military-industrial complex, except to enjoy its benefits.

There are places in Calhoun County where no human being has yet to step foot.

Life in the backwoods is further enhanced by the absence of most natural disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and wildfires. Although we have floods, most of us can flee to a hill, expect in southern West Virginia.

The lack of the unusual - like twenty-five murders, a hundred shootings and acts of violence down at the Mouth of the Elk.

Calhouners often complain about not having the conveniences and good people to straighten out the problems, like Simon Stinson, the church organist in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town."

Simon 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.

Ordinary human events become fodder for life.

Aunt Glady's Weaver Stump, when asked what residents did for entertainment in Grantsville, 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 knowed you'd be back for the funeral."

When oldtimers come to Grantsville, they often say, "I didn't see anyone I know, with newcomers often cycling into the town for cheap rent. Unfortunately, rapidly fading are "People of Place."

Grantsville has long been the subject of disdain from the southern Calhoun districts of Washington and Lee, sometimes with good cause.

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, Peregrine Hays.

Hays, a politician, soldier, businessman and landowner, often played both ends against the middle. Lots of jockeying for the land.

Several years prior to 1856 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, he and his associates went to Big Bend in northern Calhoun and bought up land, just in case the seat of government went there.

In the meantime, he likely portrayed himself as the champion of southern Calhoun, deriding the "political weasels" that were later known as "the Grantsville bunch." He seemed to enjoy violence as a leader the the Civil War Mossician Rangers.

In 1998 Calhouners went to a new centralized school at Mt. Zion, the lifeblood Grantsvlle went with it. Sometimes the north-south divide appears to be alive and well, even after efforts to support more government services to southern Calhoun.

Sometimes voters in Washington/Leee District did not approve a county levy to provide their nearby ambulance and fire services, and showed little interest in bringing public water to southern Cal (it happened anyway), or even building a new Arnoldsburg School.

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.

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

Compared to many rural West Virginia towns, Grantsville still looks pretty good.

Some would say it is Appalachian culture at its very best. You can't trust those people on the other side of the mountain.

Topography created by steep hills and narrow hollows, once a long days ride from here to there. It is still not an easy drive from one end of the county to the other, except for those of us who pay it no mind.

Since modern dial phones replaced the crank'em up system, the division has been described as 655 vs. 354, an unfortunate numbering of telephone exchanges that defines the northern and southern sections of the county.

Now we struggle to join the 21st Century with real broadband and cell service.

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 Walmart, more 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 tiny place has tried to obtain an improved highway like the Little Kanawha Parkway.

A nearly 50-year-old idea - the Blue-Gray Trail that would have connected Ripley with I-79 through Sunny Cal went down the drain with the L-K Parkway.

Those ideas vanished into the wilderness.

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. Lots of folks favor the dis-connect with the big world.

Grantsville is more about what it used to be, remembered as a bustling little town 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 J & B Drug - People of Place.

The only businesses left from my early days in the town are the J & B Drug, The Calhoun Chronicle and Stump Funeral Home. Nearly 30 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 little room to relocate the town.

Despite differences, gratitude must go to those who do show up and propose solutions, run for public office, and try to help the fading town or county.

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

That most people are driven by their selfish interests.

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

"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 . . . of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years."

It is likely when the sun comes up tomorrow, most of us will be concerned about potholes and problems and dream of the way things ought to be.