Sunday, July 12, 2009

Moundsville, West Virginia: Hometown of Davis Grubb

We took the long way to Roanoke, Virginia last October when we were driving to an event there as part of our fall vacation. Our first stop was Moundsville, West Virginia to take a look at the prison, an impressive gothic fortress which takes up several blocks in a residential neighborhood. I was intrigued by what it might be like to grow up with a 19th century maximum security prison in your back yard. It was in use up until the end of the 20th century and looks sinister even in the daylight, and if I were a child trying to fall asleep at night with that looming outside my bedroom window I’m sure I’d have some pretty terrifying nightmares.

But wait, it gets better. Across the street, directly in front of the penitentiary, is the Indian Mound that the town is named for, and just beyond the Indian Mound is the elementary school. Not only would I be unable to sleep, I’d be afraid to walk past them on the way to school. And since I spent most of my own school days gazing out the windows and daydreaming, I know the prison and Indian burial mound would be huge distractions since both can be seen from the front windows of the school.

As we drove further on that day along the Ohio River, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to grow up in that town, telling my husband it would be the perfect place to turn an imaginative kid into a writer. Later, when listening to a CD set of Kate Long’s radio series “In Their Own Country,” I learned that writer Davis Grubb had grown up in Moundsville. Grubb wrote several novels, including Night of the Hunter, which was made into a 1955 movie with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. Charles Laughton directed and James Agee wrote the screenplay. If you’ve never seen it, you must. Robert Mitchum plays a nasty bad guy of the nightmare sort, an escaped convict posing as a preacher. And if you’ve never heard Kate Long’s "In Their Own Country" radio series, see if you can track down a copy which includes 14 CDs, each with wonderful interviews and a focus on a different West Virginia writer. Taylor Books in Charleston, WV -- which is one of my all time favorite book stores -- had several copies in stock last fall, and you may be able to order it through them.

Leaving Moundsville behind, we continued our journey and crossed the river at Sistersville, West Virginia to Fly, Ohio simply because we wanted to ride on the tiny car ferry we’d watched from the riverbank. Later that same day, we also stopped at Point Pleasant, WV so that we could look at the Mothman statue and take a walk along the river where the Silver Bridge once stood. We were due in Ashland, Kentucky that night, where we’d booked a hotel with a view of a steel mill, but from there our plans were intentionally vague for the next three days until we were due in Roanoke on Friday morning. The mill at Ashland, AK Steel Works, looked pretty impressive shooting flames high into the air against the night sky, and I was surprised to find that I’d forgotten how a working blast furnace sounds.

After a night in the shadow of the steel mill and some early dawn industrial photography we traveled on (OK, it was Kevin who got up before daybreak to photograph the mill while I slept, but I now regret my priorities), stopping to photograph things of interest: mountaintop removal coal mines, railroads, a vintage 1950s style amusement park and other roadside attractions. In White Sulphur Springs we splurged on lunch at the Greenbrier Hotel, where I had the best fried green tomato sandwich I’ve ever tasted, and by the time we arrived in Roanoke we’d listened to most of the CDs from “In Their Own Country.”

My coworkers tend to bring back the usual pictures of white sand beaches and sparkling blue water from their vacations, but I return with photographs of ravaged mountains, industrial wastelands, monster statues, and 19th century prisons, not to mention notes and ideas for more stories than I can find time to write. Those coworkers of mine seem to always be interested in where I’m going on my next trip, and they always want to see my photographs when I get back. They’re already asking about what’s on the vacation agenda for this fall, but I’m wondering what stories and images I’ll discover that aren’t even part of the plan.

Photo Credits

Top Photo: Moundsville Penitentiary, copyright (c) 2008 Dory Adams

Middle and Bottom Photos: Moundsville Penitentiary, copyright (c) 2008 Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

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