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Road Work in West Virginia

Council projects explore two West Virginia highways

August 15, 2012 | By West Virginia Humanities Council

Taken together, U.S. Routes 219 and 33 form a great “X” whose four arms embrace a large part of West Virginia. These roads follow historic routes established long before our state itself was created, incorporating sections of the antebellum turnpikes that once served Western Virginia. Crossing at Elkins, they traverse more than a dozen counties and pass through nearly as many county seats. Rambling from the headwaters of the Potomac to the banks of the Ohio, these rural thoroughfares connect sites associated with the frontier era, including the Fairfax Stone, as well as several Civil War battlefields, and great natural landmarks including the incomparable Seneca Rocks.

Needless to say, much of [West Virginia's] history and traditional culture may be found along these winding ways. That’s the idea behind Humanities Council grants recently awarded to organizations in Randolph and Pocahontas counties.

U.S. 219 will be the special focus of a humanities project sponsored by Pocahontas County Free Libraries of Marlinton. The “219 Writers Project” takes its inspiration from a classic book, the 1941 West Virginia: A Guide to the Mountain State. Produced by the West Virginia Writers Project, a New Deal program of the federal Works Progress Administration, the Guide was part of a national series of WPA state guidebooks. It divided West Virginia into more than 20 driving tours, following U.S. 219 and other major highways of that day (coincidentally including U.S. 33, though that is not part of the Pocahontas Libraries project).

According to its proposal to the Humanities Council, the project’s goal is “to bring historical material from the Federal Writers Project to a modern audience and to promote heritage tourism by celebrating the history, culture, and natural wonders along U.S. 219.” Project staff will revisit sites from the original Guide, using photographs and interviews to depict changes that have taken place since 1941. The 219 Writers Project will produce a website to showcase its findings, and interviews have been featured on West Virginia Public Radio.

The other project is sponsored by the Augusta Heritage Center at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins. It represents a first step toward establishing a Mountain Dance Trail across the middle of the Mountain State, falling roughly along the east-west route of U.S. 33. The project will emphasize community dances as a living tradition in a dozen locations along the proposed trail, which stretches from Pendleton County to Jackson County through the rural heart of West Virginia.

The roads scholars in charge of the two projects are Gibbs Kinderman of Pocahontas County and Gerald Milnes of Elkins. Both are veteran Humanities Council project directors. Milnes, one of the West Virginia’s top folklorists, has been working with dance project personnel to gather preliminary documentation of local dance venues.

These two grants are good examples of the range of support offered by the West Virginia Humanities Council. The U.S. 219 project falls under [the Council's] media grants category, with the main object to establish the website. The dance trail project was funded under a planning grant, falling into [the Council's] minigrants category. Successful planning grants often result in a later proposal for more extensive funding through the Council’s major grants program.

While the two projects remain separate efforts, Milnes, Kinderman, and others are now working together to explore the possible establishment of a Mountain Music Trail modeled after the popular Crooked Road heritage music trail in neighboring Virginia. Planners will meet this spring and summer in Lewisburg, Marlinton, and Elkins, also under Humanities Council auspices. The idea in all these undertakings is to preserve and document the traditional culture and to give more people the chance to enjoy it.

In the meantime, Milnes, a square dance fiddler and himself a dancer, rejoices in the opportunities already available in West Virginia. “Community square dancing can be found somewhere in the heart of the state every weekend,” he recently told the Elkins Intermountain newspaper. “No other state in the Appalachian region has a comparable tradition.”

This article originally appeared in People & Mountains, the West Virginia Humanities Council's newsletter published three times a year.