Sunday, November 22, 2009
Follow the River: On The Road to Moundsville, West Virginia
On the final day of our October road trip, we spent the afternoon in Moundsville, West Virginia. The first stop was the West Virginia State Penitentiary. While waiting for our tour to begin, I looked at a display of old newspaper clippings about the filming of Fools’ Parade, which was based on Davis Grubb’s novel of the same title. The 1971 movie, filmed on location in Moundsville, starred Jimmy Stewart, George Kennedy, Anne Baxter, William Windom, and Kurt Russell, and it must’ve been a very big deal to have Hollywood come to Moundsville. The articles included photographs of the movie stars in town during the filming, but what really caught my attention was a paragraph near the end of one article: Before the excitement of the movie production, only three copies of Grubb’s book had been sold locally. After the filming, 3400 copies were sold in Moundsville.
The prison offers a haunted tour each year around Halloween, but we wanted to go on the regular tour. Reality was scary enough. In fact, I’m pretty convinced that if I were locked up in one of those 5’x7’ cells, as the inmates were with at least one and sometimes two cellmates, I’d be rioting at the first opportunity. If an inmate wasn’t an animal the day he was incarcerated, he most certainly was after a few hours on the inside. This penitentiary seemed far worse than Alcatraz (which I’ve also toured). Our guide told us that the cell block pictured above, temperatures could reach 120 degrees on the top tier in summer, and in winter the average temperature on the bottom tier was a damp 40 degrees. The penitentiary was finally closed in 1995, after the small cells and conditions were deemed cruel and inhuman punishment by the West Virginia Supreme Court. Evidently one woman on our tour did not agree with that decision since at nearly every stop on the tour she proclaimed “and that’s the way it should still be today.” I’m against the death penalty, but by the end of the 90-minute tour, which concludes in an area where the electric chair is on exhibit, she had nearly changed my mind. By that point I was hoping they’d let her sit in Old Sparky.
Davis Grubb was not a favorite son of Moundsville, and described himself as “the sore thumb on the hand of the town” in a conversation with Norman Julian (scroll down to the second essay by Julian, via the website of Meredith Sue Willis). Our prison tour guide stressed that the inmates Davis had based characters on were highly fictionalized and that the real convicts were the hardest of criminals. He was especially critical of Fools’ Parade, where ex-convict Mattie Appleyard is set up by the town’s banker, prison guard, and sheriff (Jimmy Stewart played the role of Mattie Appleyard in the film).
After leaving the penitentiary, we went looking for Davis Grubb’s childhood home. In the foreword to the Appalachian Echoes edition of Fools’ Parade (published by the University of Tennessee Press), fiction editor Thomas E. Douglass describes Davis as traumatized by the loss of the family home after his father had remortgaged it to obtain a business loan. The family was evicted just before Christmas in 1934 after the loan was defaulted. Douglass writes of Grubb’s childhood home: “It was an idyllic life, living in the large rambling two-story frame house at 318 Seventh Street, mere blocks away from the river and the train tracks that ran along its banks, not far from the Indian burial mounds, for which the town was named. The house was also near the West Virginia State Penitentiary and the Strand Theater, other places that would become firmly fixed in his imagination . . . . He carried a photo of the house with him throughout his life . . . . On his way to school, young Davis walked past the oldest structure in town, the Adena Indian burial mounds . . . and the West Virginia State Penitentiary, one of the oldest in the nation, built in 1866 like a gray granite castle. Walking by the prison’s twenty-four-foot-high wall, four-feet thick, Grubb did not fear those inside nor the possibility of their escape, but rather felt sorry for the inmates, who were cut off from life and separated from their families. Grubb once wrote ‘[I]n the innocence and confusion of my child’s brain, the great mound and the penitentiary were bound together in ambiguous and dreadful brotherhood. One was the burial place of the unknown dead; the other of the unknown living’ [in “The Valley of the Ohio,” 56].”
The Grave Creek burial mound is directly across the street from the penitentiary. As I mentioned in an earlier post, both can be seen from the nearby elementary school. Our itinerary following the penitentiary tour included a stop at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex. And, to end the day on a light note, we visited the Marx Toy Museum, where we indulged memories of our own childhood imaginations while looking at displays that included some of our own favorite toys, as well as a few we dreamed of but are still waiting to receive.
News and Updates:
Lee Maynard’s newest book The Pale Light of Sunset has just been published by the West Virginia University Press. Read a review by Cat Pleska at Meredith Sue Willis’ blog and listen to a podcast interview with Lee at WV Writers, Inc.
Top photo: WV State Penitentiary Interior, copyright 2009 by Dory Adams
Middle photo: Cell Block, copyright 2009 by Dory Adams
Bottom photo: Cell Graffiti, copyright 2009 by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission