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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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. 

Area woman too flattered to report stalker

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CHARLESTON, W.Va — Calling his habit of following her and leaving gifts in the foyer of her East End apartment “sweet,” Charleston, W.Va. woman Lorithebrave told reporters Thursday she has not yet reported to police the stalking behavior of her ex-boyfriend. The two broke up three months ago when he insisted on naming their non-existent children. They had dated for three weeks.

“Last Friday he texted that he had left me a surprise at my door,” Lori, who was home at the time, said. “Once I got over the fear of it being him with a gun, I actually loved the roses he sent.”

Witnessed confirmed of the 12 pink, long-stemmed roses, one was plastic.

The roses came with a note that said “I’ll love you until the last flower dies.”

Note: This is satire. Inspired by The Onion.

A followup to “Dear Charleston”

Last week I wrote a note describing all the things I love about living in Charleston, West Virginia. That post has been shared on Facebook more than 3,000 times and drove my blog site views to about 2,500 the first day and to around 6,800 the second day after it published. That’s not exactly “viral” but it’s certainly well beyond the number of reader I typically get.  People from more than 15 different countries read that post. I got around 30 comments about it.

The popularity certainly was not because the writing was anything special. I think it was more a testament to the love West Virginians — those still living here and those who have moved on —  have for their home. I got a lot of notes from native West Virginians living all around the country and in other countries who are still pining for the Mountain State.

I get that. I was born and raised about 10 miles north of Charleston in Sissonville. After college I lived for a short time in the Lexington, Ky. area and in Ashland Ky. before moving to Charleston two years ago for a job.  I’ve never been too far from home, but even from a short distance, I missed it.

It’s a difficult thing to decide whether or not to leave home. Most often it’s not really a choice — people leave because they can’t find work or the right type of work here. It’s not a secret that West Virginia has a brain drain problem. I’ve seen it first hand. Several of my native West Virginia friends have left the state for bigger cities and better opportunities over the last year. I don’t blame them for that. As I said, I don’t know where life will lead me. One day my letter to this place could have a break-up theme.

But West Virginia is part of me. I’m not sure exactly what it is about this place that gets into your blood. Sure, the mountains are beautiful and just about everyone loves their home, but I think it goes deeper than that. I think it has something to do with understanding and loving a place that, from the outside, seems so destitute. I think our affection for this place is a defiance of the worst-of lists and stereotypes they try to attach to us.

On the other hand, there are reasons for West Virginia to be on some of those lists. It’s a complicated relationship, for sure.

But most relationships are, aren’t they?

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A view of the New River Gorge Bridge, Fayetteville, It’s one of my favorite things in West Virginia.

Dear Charleston, WV (A love letter)

I know you don’t hear this enough. Your state tops everyone’s “Worst of” lists and someone even said your people are the most unhappy. You do have your problems, but you don’t get the affection you deserve. Even I sometimes catch myself complaining about your small size and a lack of things to do. But I really do love you.
I love your local coffee shops, Taylor’s and Moxxee and the way that locals congregate in them on Saturday mornings or after Sunday services. I can walk in by myself to write and never want for company or a familiar face.

Snow falls outside the window at Taylor Books, one of Charleston’s favorite coffee shops.

I love the way I feel safe walking your streets, even late at night. Despite the occasional bad news reports, I’ve never worried about walking home from the bar after midnight. Never thought to hold my purse close to my chest or to obsess over whether the car doors were locked. No one here has ever cut my purse strap and made off with my belongings while I wasn’t paying attention.

The corner of Virginia and Capitol streets, Charleston.

I dearly love your music scene and the people who play your open mic nights and the Third Eye Cabaret. I love how there’s always live music somewhere. I love the artists that I’ve come to know after hearing them play Mountain Stage.

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Singer/songwriter Mark Bates jams with the Coal River Yacht Club at the Empty Glass one Sunday night.

I love the Red Carpet, the local bar where reporters and lawmakers, hipsters and drag queens alike gather on Friday nights to unwind after a long week.  I love that I can be away for months and yet the bartenders still call me by name when I walk through the door again. I love your cat, even if she won’t go near me.

I love your historic houses on the East End and their inviting porches and yards. I dream of owning one someday.

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East End porch, Summer 2013.

I love the gold dome on the state capitol. I’m convinced it’s the prettiest in the country. Even when I was living away from you, I could drive into town and know I was home when I saw the sunlight gleaming off that gold.

Dear Charleston, I don’t promise never to leave. Life has a way of making those decisions for us. But I promise to always call you home.