In a belated celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day several AFHA AmeriCorps Members organized a screening of the film Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. Braden was a lifelong social justice advocate and an active part of the Civil Rights Movement.
While Braden is perhaps mostly recognized for her work in the 1950’s and 60’s, the documentary looked at her activism throughout her life, right up until her death in 2006. Growing up white and relatively well off in segregated Alabama, Braden defied the beliefs and expectations of those around with her embrace of integration, causing her to get blackballed from jobs and be labeled a communist. Her and her husband Carl faced state and federal and charges for their work, including sedition charges in Kentucky for helping an African American couple buy a house in a segregated suburb.
In addition to the Civil Rights Movement, Braden was involved in workers movements in Appalachia and opposed both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, each of which was documented in Anne Braden: Southern Patriot. Braden saw issues of war and racial and economic inequality as all related, a view she says she shared with Dr. King in a clip from the film.
The screening was originally supposed to take place on MLK Day, January 21st, but was delayed because of below zero degree temperatures in Thomas that day. The rescheduled screening drew an audience of about twenty-five Thomas residents and AFHA AmeriCorps who drove up from Elkins. Donations from the screening went to support ArtSpring.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day service projects are a requirement for AFHA AmeriCorps to complete their terms of service. They are typically completed in small groups and may happen either on the day itself or in the surrounding weeks. Other AFHA AmeriCorps projects this year included a book drive and charity fundraiser events in Arthurdale and Elkins.
On January 16th, a small group of area non-profit, medical and business workers traveled down to the state capital of Charleston to meet with their representatives and discuss some of the most pressing issues facing Thomas, Davis and the rest of Tucker County.
The day kicked off at the morning session of the State Senate, with Senators taking part in the ceremonial vote to declare the day “Tucker County Day.” A group of boys from the Rubenstein Center in Davis provided flag bearing duties, and the two State Senators representing the district that includes Tucker County, Randy Smith and Dave Sypolt, each gave brief remarks.
From there, the Tucker County group spent several hours darting from meeting to meeting across the State House campus. They started with a morning meeting with Smith and Sypolt that followed the adjournment of the Senate session. The afternoon saw two sit-downs; first with representatives from the Division of Highways and then West Virginia’s recently appointed Secretary of Commerce, accompanied by the representatives from the Division of Natural Resources and West Virginia Tourism. The meeting with Smith and Sypolt focused on EMS funding and a possible hydroelectric dam in Tucker County, while the Highways meeting looked at the upcoming work on Corridor H as well the high number of trucks driving through downtown Thomas. The Commerce meeting looked at possible improvements coming to Blackwater Falls and Canaan Valley Resort State Parks, along with the state’s overall tourism branding.
The day concluded with a reception held in the state’s Culture Center, featuring booths from a variety of Tucker County businesses and drinks from Thomas favorites Mountain State Brewing Company. The reception was particularly focused on the growth of medical facilities in Tucker County, with booths from Cortland Acres in Thomas and the St. George Medical Clinic. Other represented groups included the City of Parsons, Woodlands Development Group, and the Tucker County Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as appetizers catered by the Canaan Valley Resort.
Each of West Virginia’s 55 counties have the opportunity to have their own “day” in Charleston, although many either combine with neighboring counties or don’t use the opportunity. While reportedly not as well attended as in previous years, the Tucker County Day reception has become a particular favorite of representatives in recent years, in part because of the free beer from Mountain State and Stumptown Ales.
Two Kinds of Work: Business and Art at Creature and Santangelo
Art is all around us in Thomas, from public murals to bathroom installations. With five different galleries on Front Street, many of which display the work of folks working right in town, artists in Thomas are not just eking out a living but thriving. But what goes on behind the scenes that make this possible?
“Most of the artists that exist inside of the galleries are running their own businesses outside of that, which is something that I don’t think is super apparent to people,” says artist Seth Pitt.
Pitt either owns or co-owns three of the galleries on Front Street, one of which, Creature, serves as a showroom for his illustrations. For Pitt, separating being an artist from being a small business owner is extremely important, a sentiment that he feels that many of his fellow artists can relate to.
“One of the big challenges is realizing that you are running a business and also keeping that very separate from your creative output…. You don’t get to draw and then check your email and then draw again. I think most all [the artists] on the street do that. That’s a necessity for several reasons.”
Each day, Pitt makes a clear divide between the time he’s working on selling his art and the time he spends creating it. When he’s working at Creature, he focuses on answering emails, looking at orders that need to get filled and making the Instagram and Facebook posts needed to promote his brand. By six at the latest, most of the times even if there’s still office work to be done, he switches gears and heads to the studio. The divide isn’t only about maximizing creativity. It’s also about maintaining creative integrity, essentially making sure that business trends don’t influence the direction of Pitt’s art.
While most artists in Thomas sell their works exclusively out of galleries in town, Pitt uses a different approach. Because his work is easily reproducible and can be put on a variety of products, such as posters, pins and cards, Pitt is able to place his work in galleries and venues around the country. Each gallery places a monthly order for Pitt and his team to fill. Many of his prints are also available online.
None of this part of the process is possible without Pitt’s two business managers, who work on promoting Pitt’s work and coordinating getting it into galleries across the country. Without them, Pitt feels that the rest of his business model would not be possible. Pitt also called hiring business managers “smart business,” because it allows him to spend more time in the studio, and thus create more art.
In addition to assistance with the overall business of running an art gallery, Pitt gets a boost in the actual production of art. Once Pitt has made an original design, the job of reproducing it often falls to someone else on staff. Trey Rayborn works in Creature and Santangelo and often spends his spare time reproducing prints when he’s not talking to customers.
“When I’m working at Santangelo sometimes I’ll take materials from Creature, or prints or buttons or whatever needs to be made, and I’ll sit on Santangelo and I’ll work on that,” said Rayborn.
Pitt’s nationwide approach to selling art has not just benefitted him but also other artists.
“I was in Kalamazoo [Michigan] and Seth had a good number of his prints in a gallery there and there was also art there from people we had featured in Santangelo. So Seth brought his work and then brought his peers,” said Rayborn.
Despite the national reach, however, the majority of business for Pitt and other artists still comes out of the galleries right here in Thomas. Whether it’s tourists stopping in on the way to Blackwater Falls or a neighbor in town who is “looking for gifts…or has been eyeballing something for a really long time,” art-related business in Thomas has been steadily increasing. The influx in tourism over the last few years in particular has created a cyclical effect. As being an artist in Thomas has become more financially viable and more galleries have opened, more people are coming to Thomas to look at, and buy, art.
“At this point, there are people who come through our doors primarily to come to our art galleries, which is a change that’s happened over the last two or three years. That’s a huge deal… That didn’t start happening until there was a critical mass of artists working here and art galleries to show it,” said Pitt.
That’s not to say that tourism alone is driving business.
“It’s important to acknowledge that aside from tourists coming here we have a really, really strong local support base… I don’t think that’s as common to have that kind of support in areas this size. I think a lot of other places would be a lot more reliant on tourists. Not that we aren’t reliant on tourists.”
While Pitt knows that his business process is a bit different from some of his peers, putting the time into being both an entrepreneur and an artist is something he sees others working hard oat as well. Watching his friends succeed in doing both is something that he says inspires him.
“Most of the artists here spend a portion of their day trying to be a small business owner and then they get off work and go and work.”
Dec 1 Caroline Cotter - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 1 The Judy Chops - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 2 Caroline Cotter - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 7 ArtSpring Local Music Showcase - 7:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 8 Alex Brubaker - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 8 The Parachute Brigade - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 9 Alex Brubaker - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 9 Dale's Trail Ribbon Cutting Ceremony - 1:00 PM @Thomas City Park
Dec 11 Open Mic - Host EMay - 8:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 14 Kaleta & Super Yamba Band - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 15 Tom Smith - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 15 The Company Stores - A Christmas Show - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 16 Tom Smith - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 21 Chaga Tea Project - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 22 Elonzo Wesley - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 22 Haint Blue - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 23 Elonzo Wesley - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 23 The Jack Dunlap Band - 8:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 25 Groundhog Gravy - 8:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 26 The Hillbilly Gypsies - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 27 Yarn - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 28 Zach Deputy - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 29 Jason Ring - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 29 The David Mayfield Parade - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 30 Jason Ring - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 30 Hackensaw Boys - 8:30 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 31 Jason Ring - 1:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
Dec 31 New Years Eve with Davis Wax Museum - 9:00 PM @Purple Fiddle
While it may be across the bridge from the rest of town, the Thomas City Park Trails are undeniably a Thomas gem. Whether you’re a serious mountain biker, a beginner or just looking for nice spot to walk the dog or go on a nature walk, Thomas City Park has the trail for you:
Dale’s Trail: The newest addition to the family. Dale’s Trail, at less than two miles long and featuring a smooth path, is designed specifically for the newest and youngest riders in town.
Jr. Davis Trail: There’s nothing “Jr.” about this one. The outermost loop of the system features some tough climbs and goes all the way from the banks of the river to the top of the park.
Bear Bone Trail: The Bear Bone Trail connects to Jr. Davis by the river and up the ridge. Either a challenging ride up or fast one down.
Quattro Cutover: Short and sweet. A rock and dirt filled tribute to our own mayor, Matt Quattro.
Dottie Smith Trail: Another hilly connector that will get you from the river to the ridge in no time.
When Gary Riggs looks around the interior of County Roads Saloon, the town watering hole that he and his wife Vicki have owned since 2015, he doesn’t just see a bar; he sees Thomas’ history.
“That doorway was the Davis Coal & Gas Company Gas Station…I think in the sixties the addition was added on and it an Exxon Gas Station…It was turned into a restaurant and then a bar. The previous leasers did the woodlork,” says Riggs, giving a tour of the premises.
“The bar top was originally part of the old Thomas bowling alley. And then it was repurposed for the sportsman’s club… So this bar top is easily 125 years old.”
While Riggs may have the knowledge and community pride of a longtime local, he’s actually a relative newcomer to Thomas. A native Floridian, Riggs spent more than two decades working for the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Despite a lifelong “heart-link” with the mountains, it took until 2015 to make the move. Vicki’s class reunion in Oakland proved to be the unlikely inspiration.
“We came up in 2015 for her 50th class reunion. We came up through the mountains here and she put a CD in the player and it was Steve Earle playing “The Mountain.” And that moved me…I wasn’t born in the mountains but I was reborn here.”
After returning to Jacksonville, Gary and Vicky found the building that would become Country Roads and drove up to Thomas with all of their belongings. The pair didn’t even come up with the name for their bar until they were already on the road. By the following year they had bought the building. While a health crisis kept them in Florida for some of the time since then, they are now back in Thomas to stay.
For Riggs, life in Thomas is all about community. Throughout our talk, Riggs went out of his way to credit his and Vicki’s success to the support of neighbors, friends, and even “rival” businesses like the Purple Fiddle; the two establishments frequently direct customers each other’s way. Riggs wants this community-first approach to show in the atmosphere at Country Roads, which he says is modeled on the English idea of a pub as a town-meeting house.
“[It’s] where you make friends, where you discuss the news and what’s going on in the town.”
The rules, he says, are simple.
“There’s no subject that’s off limits. In my experience you can talk about religion, you can talk about politics, if you start out with the basic concept of respect… You’re a human being and you are welcome here.”
To Gary Riggs, Country Roads is more than just a bar. It’s a slice of Thomas’ history and meeting place for its present. It’s his “retirement,” the culmination of a lifetime of work. And it’ll be forever entwined in his and Vicki’s story. You can see it all on the walls.
Walk into Country Roads, through that gas station doorway, and look around the corner from the century old bar. Two of the wood panels there are painted gold. They mark the spots on stage where the couple stood on their wedding day. In the bar.
It is hard to believe almost one year has come and gone since I moved to Thomas to begin my service year. When I first came here I had no idea what was in store for me during my year in West Virginia. I had limited to no knowledge about this beautiful, wild and wonderful state, and came in with preconceived notions about what life in WV would be like, and boy was I wrong. I found a community here in Tucker County that I never expected to find. My year living in serving in Thomas has allowed me to not only grow personally, but also professionally and it is all thanks to you all! This community has allowed me to work on projects that I never anticipated. I was able to help put in a trail that I have come to love, learned what it takes to write a comprehensive plan, write this incredible newsletter for you all, and advertise for all of the amazing events that make our town unique. Above all the things I have accomplished during my year of service, the thing that I am the most grateful for is being welcomed into your community with open arms. I have considered it an absolute honor to be able to get to know each and every one of you. Whether we danced together at the Purple Fiddle, attended a yoga class, or even just said hello on Front Street, your kindness in welcoming me into the community is one that I won't soon forget.
My time in Thomas has provided me with some incredible memories. From discovering all of the amazing hikes that lead to the most beautiful views to trying something new like cross country skiing and mountain biking, my time here has definitely not been boring. I have continued to discover my love for all things outdoors. I have learned to love the mountains even though I'm a self described coastal gal. I have learned to take challenges head on. I have learned to be patient with city projects, which tend to take a long time. I have learned to work with all sorts of people, and have come to realize that almost everyone who calls Thomas home are incredibly proud of this small town. I am so incredibly grateful for each and every person I have come to know during my time in Thomas. Though I am sad to say goodbye, I know I can always come back and visit. Thank you to everyone who has made my time here so special. Know that this isn't goodbye, it is just see ya later. As I hand the torch over to the AmeriCorps taking my place in September I am excited to see the amazing work he will do during his service year! I hope you welcome him as graciously as you welcomed me!