Why the Fasnacht? A visit to Helvetia, W.Va.

Ever since a couple years ago when I heard of Fasnacht, a pre-Lenten celebration in the Swiss-heritage community of Helvetia, West Virginia, I’ve wanted to go. This year I got to go and shoot video.

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Helvetia is a tiny town of fewer than 100 people in the mountains of Randolph County. The residents are descendants of Swiss and German immigrants and the town has kept many of their traditions. Every year on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, they have a big celebration where they wear masks, play music, dance and drink. The party ends at midnight when they burn an effigy of Old Man Winter.

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Old Man Winter

Fasnacht is a happy time for residents, who in winter are typically in a sort of hibernation mode, one of the residents there told us. The winters there are typically so cold and snowy that people don’t leave their houses for days. Plus the festival brings hundreds of visitors to a town that typically has few. It’s not quite the coming of spring, but it means its closer.

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A jam session early in the night

Some of the masks that people have made through the years are really impressive. These are just a couple that are on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Masks on display at the mask museum/general store.

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Another impressive mask

The majority of the night was spent square dancing, which I don’t know how to do, so I watched. As a friend who was there Saturday told me, the people take their dancing pretty seriously.

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Helvetia’s Star Band Hall

There were a ton of people and they were all squished into a tiny space, so inside it got warm rather quickly. Though the weather was warm on Friday (80 degrees in Charleston, where I live) winter had returned to Helvetia on Saturday. Outside the town hall, the snow fell and temperatures dipped into the 20s. Relief from the heat and the dancing was as close as the bonfire that was building outside the town hall. A crowd gathered there to drink and wait for Old Man Winter.

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What I think is interesting about Fasnacht, is its mix of cultures. Helvetia has lots of Swiss traditions, but Fasnacht is very West Virginian, too. There was lots of old-time music. I think we sang “County Roads” at least three times and at one point around the fire, people were chanting a familiar chant that disparaged a WVU rival. It doesn’t get much more Mountain Mama than that.

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An original cabin that belonged to one of the town’s settlers

Coverage of Fasnacht is running in Wednesday’s Gazette-Mail, and there’s a photo essay in Saturday’s edition.

PS: If you’re going to Helvetia, the West Virginia State Wildlife Center, located about a half hour away from there, is definitely worth a stop. It was all sorts of wildlife that are native to the Mountain State. The animals are kept in spacious enclosures, but you can see wolves, mountain lions, elk, bald eagles and more in just a short walk around the center.

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When the president comes to town

Being a reporter has afforded me lots of interesting opportunities over the past few years, but none so cool as sitting in a community center gymnasium in my hometown while the president of the United States spoke.

President Obama visited Charleston for a few hours earlier this week to address the state’s opioid epidemic.

I found out about the visit last Wednesday and was sworn to secrecy for 9 whole hours before we published the story. (Longest hours of my life. BTW, your friends won’t like it if you tell them you have a secret but you can’t tell them what it is).

I looked forward to sharing the news all day, and when I finally posted the story, I was disappointed in the comments that people were making. I’m not sure why I was expecting anything different, but some of the comments were just hateful.

President Obama and his politics are divisive topics in West Virginia, but if anything should unite us, it’s the problem of drug abuse, which has killed thousands of West Virginians over the past few years. And regardless of your political leanings, the man was elected to the highest office in the country. He deserves respect.

The day of the event, I and scores of other journalists got to the event a couple hours early to go through security. Part of my job that day was to live tweet the president’s speech. I nearly had a heart attack when my cellphone battery died. Luckily a couple reporters let me borrow their chargers (it happened twice).

(Note to self: bring one with you next time.)

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading about the event, check out our coverage herehere and here.

Here are a few grainy (sorry) pictures from the event.

President Barack Obama speaks to a crowd in Charleston earlier this week.

“Country Roads” played over the speaker as Obama left the building.

This guy was holding a sign welcoming the president to West Virginia. Others weren’t as friendly.

Obama greets guests at the East End Family Resource Center Wednesday.

The little gym at the East End Family Resource Center looks a lot grander all dressed up for the president.

This was the line for the media to go through security and receive or press badges.

Guest post : Who says there’s nothing to do in West Virginia?

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Here’s the third in a three-part series in honor of West Virginia. Thursday’s guest post was about leaving West Virginia. Here’s a post about staying, by my friend Dave Humphreys:

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve heard people close to my own age talking about how they “couldn’t wait to get out” of our state because there is “nothing to do here.” My response to that has always been “why not stick around and make it better?” West Virginia has to be one of the most exciting places in the country to live right now because, thanks to those that chose to better it rather than evacuate, we’re left with a rare and valuable type of younger generation that is concerned with both preserving history and progressing forward.

Charleston is working hard to become an artistic hub, and as a result, you’d be very hard-pressed to find a place full of creative opportunities that are more easily accessible. It’s almost impossible to overstate how fortunate we are in that regard. There isn’t the sense of exclusivity you’d find elsewhere; our people are as welcoming as they are talented. Today’s Charleston is a place where any visual artist with the will to create is blessed with numerous opportunities to have their work publicly displayed and seen by anyone who passes through our city. We’ve got a great live music scene that, again, is highly accessible, and a world-class concert series in Mountain Stage. In a city that supposedly never gets any good concerts, I’ve discovered a ton of great artists playing less than ten minutes from my front door.

I’d also like to mention an area of impressive growth that isn’t brought up often enough. One of my favorite things in the world is attending comic and various other pop culture conventions. It always drove me nuts that we live in an area where people are so passionate about their interests, but the closest cons were in Columbus or Pittsburgh. Within the last few years, not only have we gained the ability to complain about Michael Bay while flipping through longboxes with guys dressed as Stormtroopers without leaving our borders. Now, we even have conventions in many different subgenres – Comics (Tri-con, Huntington), Steampunk (Vandalia Con, Parkersburg), Horror (ShockaCon, Charleston), Anime (Tsubasacon, Huntington), general pop culture (WV POP, Morgantown), and more I’m sure I’ve left out.

Speaking of Vandalia Con, I can’t think of an experience that better sums up my love for the state. While staying in the historic Blennerhassett Hotel, I was fortunate enough to befriend quite a varied group of people who live here – sideshow performers, fire dancers, war re-enactors,  storytellers, and a couple of magicians. I toured the catacombs of the Smoot Theater- a 1920s era Vaudeville palace – with them, played cards for coal mining scrypt, and swapped stories over drinks while watching impromptu bluegrass jam sessions until the sun came up. To me, this is exactly what West Virginia is.

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There’s nothing to do in this state? This weekend, I plan to visit the Mt. Zion Drive-In, one of our last remaining drive-in theaters and a beautiful and surreal place that, despite being only an hour outside of our capitol city, sets under a starry sky that has to be seen to be believed. The following morning, I’ll head to Capitol Street for the kick-off parade of FestivALL, our city’s annual week-long celebration of the arts. Then I’ll throw on my proton pack and the rest of my Ghostbusters gear to join the Causeplayers – a West Virginia-based group of superhero re-enactors for charity who visit children in hospitals – in a fundraiser for statewide foster care and adoption that’s sure to be a blast.

 

Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to see than the things we learned about while studying for the Golden Horseshoe test. I couldn’t be more excited to see where we go next.

Dave Humphreys is a graduate of the Marshall University School of Journalism and Mass Communications. He has worked as a production assistant and makeup artist for the Huntington-based film-making group Brainwrap Productions. Dave is also a history buff, pop culture fanatic, guitarist, and lover of all things retro. He lives in Charleston, W.Va. 

Guest post: On West Virginia

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Note: I asked for your thoughts about the best parts of West Virginia and you didn’t disappoint. This will be the first of three posts for West Virginia Day. I liked this one, from my brother Daniel Kersey, too much to edit down to fit in a list. Check back tomorrow for a list of what you all said are your favorite parts about West Virginia and Friday, for another guest post.

Having moved away three years ago, my opinions might not fit well with some residents of West Virginia that stayed but being away allows for a different perspective.

I spent my childhood to my mid 20s roaming those mountains hopping from Summersville to Richwood to Marlinton to Snowshoe then to Canaan Valley and back home. I’ve tramped among the virgin hemlocks of Cathedral State Park in Aurora and swam in the cold waters of the New under its bridge. Studying at both West Virginia University and Marshall University, I was able to see a mountain town proud of its team and its history and also a town trying to get back to its glory years prior to the 1950s.

As a child, I was fortunate enough to ride in a Ford Model T through the streets of Ripley on the Fourth of July during America’s “Biggest Small Town Fourth of July Celebration.”

I’ve witnessed billions and billions of stars over Dolly Sods give way to our closest star as it rose above the mountains to the east over round, wind-shaped, rocks.

My friends and I have been followed by river otters (If my memory serves me well, a friend mistook it for a platypus) as we floated down the Greenbrier River in kayaks during some of the hottest summer days that I can recall.

West Virginia is a beautiful place and I am fond of all my memories I have of it stored up.

And then there are the bad parts. West Virginia has one of the highest (if not, the highest) drug overdose mortality rates in the nation and a pair of cities that continue to land in the top 5 of the most unhealthy or unhappy cities in the United States. Fifty years after the start of the War on Poverty, many West Virginians are still waiting to see how this “war” will affect them by ridding hunger or alleviating the crippling depression caused by year after year of hardship, but nothing changes.

Coal and oil companies move in, promise a few hundred jobs, lobby Washington to change the laws to fit their needs, pollute the waters and lands, remove mountains, fill in valleys, cover up streams, take a bulk of all earnings to other parts of the country and then leave the place a mess for someone else to deal with.

Big corporations promise low prices which may seem like a good idea but the cheap products need replaced sooner than later and the wages generated are marginal at best and really do not help the employees get out of the cycle of poverty.

I simply cannot argue with anyone who says they want to leave the state in order to find a better life. Ask me three years ago, just as I was driving that U-Haul truck out of town and toward Cincinnati, when I would return to live in West Virginia again and I would have said “as soon as possible.” Ask me now and I may ignore the question as to not upset any of the great people from West Virginia who have labored and endured their entire life in hopes of a better tomorrow.

I do not feel like I am turning my back on my state (yes, I still consider it “my state”). Ask my wife, I still get excited when I see a WV license plate on a car here in Cincinnati. I love West Virginia. I love the Herd and the Mountaineers. (Tell me I can’t love them both. Try it).

I love the mountains, the streams and the wildlife. I also love that I am not living there being forced to flush my water pipes in my home because a chemical company decided that my health was not worth plugging a hole from which hazardous chemicals leaked into the Elk River and straight into the water supply. To me, West Virginia has become a getaway. I am glad that I do not have to deal with the issues that plague the area but my heart still aches for those struggling there among the beauty.

Daniel and I grew up in Sissonville, W.Va. He now lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Gabby, two cats and two dogs. The image here is his own. See more of his work at http://www.kerseyphoto.com/.

A few of my favorite (West Virginia) things

A couple weeks ago a friend and I were having a drink at a Charleston bar. We were minding our own business, when an argument between a couple other bar-goers caught our attention. An angry drunk man was arguing about West Virginia with a couple other people. Angry Drunk Man had apparently grown up here, moved away, and was visiting from Florida.

He was essentially berating the other people because they still lived here rather than move away. It was your typical West Virginia complaints: “there’re no jobs here,” “there’s nothing to do,” and the relatively new but well-established, “they poisoned our water.” He talked as if Florida were the freaking Promised Land and we were still wandering in the desert. It was kind of amusing until he turned his attention to us, and picked the same argument.

“You’re obviously educated people,” he said, after hearing what we do for a living and noting our choice of drinks. “Why do you stay here? Get out of this place.”

Whether or not you run into Angry Drunk Man (and I hope you don’t), we West Virginians are used to hearing negative things about our home.

In honor of West Virginia Day coming up next week (She’s turning the big 1-5-1) and to spite Angry Drunk Man, I’m compiling a list of the best things about West Virginia. I’d like to hear from you. Whether you’re a lifelong resident,  you moved away years ago, or you’re new to the Mountain State, what do you love about West Virginia?

You can leave them in the comment section, on Facebook, or email them to lorithebrave@gmail.com. I’ll post the responses Friday, June 20th.

Charleston in the snow (pictures)

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, here’s 4,000 and then some about winter in Charleston.

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Quarrier Street, Charleston January 2014

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Virginia Street, Charleston from parking garage January 2014

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Capitol Street, Charleston January 2014

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Dickinson Street, Charleston January 2014

Snow always makes me think of a clean, blank slate or a new beginning. And who couldn’t use that?