Rural Librarian: West Virginia: A History by John Alexander Williams

Friday, October 19, 2012

West Virginia: A History by John Alexander Williams

OK, back to some history of West Virginia today.

I am almost finished reading a most excellent book "West Virginia: A History" by John Alexander Williams. This history book is well written and fascinating for a number of reasons.

Williams discusses the colonial nature of West Virginia that has abided since its earliest days as the western frontier of old Virginia. Colonialism is the idea of land, property, and businesses being owned by absentee landlords who take the money out of state. Many in old Virginia grabbed up as much western Virginia land as they could. Even George Washington claimed the best bottom land for himself.

Williams makes much mention of the idea that West Virginia was predicted to be one of the wealthiest states in the colonies because of its rich natural resources and natural beauty. But in reality, this was not to be. West Virginia remains one of the poorest states in the US.

"That such a country so full of the varied treasures of the forest and the mine...should lack inhabitants, or the hum of industry, or the show of wealth is an absurdity in the present and an impossibility in the future." This quote from J. H. Diss Debar shows how wrong he and many others were about the Mountain State.

The challenge of West Virginia geography has made road building here very expensive. The Department of Highways estimates that it takes $1 million dollars per mile of road to create new highways here. The great ridges of the Allegheny Mountains have always served as a natural barrier to business and wealth in WV.

Then there is the idea of the company store. In coal mining and log camp days, workers were indentured servants who had no choice but to spend their pay scrip at the company store. Prices were outrageously inflated and the workers had to pay rent on shacks and shanties owned by the company.

There are suggestions in this book that West Virginia continues to be impoverished by generations of West Virginians waiting for an employer to give them better wages and benefits. Entrepreneurialism is lacking here, and perhaps in the country overall. Instead of relying on a company or wealthy out-of-state patron, West Virginia needs to build its own capital and wealth at home.

West Virginia has also been victimized by wealthy companies that use our labor and export the wealth back to their own home states. During and after prohibition, entrepreneurial moonshiners were shut down by the government. Even today one of the complaints of the wind turbine industry is that our natural resources are being used to create electricity that is being exported to other states.

Reading this book, for me, was very enlightening. As a flatlander and transplant from Maryland, our culture and history is much different from that of West Virginia. "West Virginia: A History" is a must-read for anyone who wants to have a better understanding of where WV came from and where it might go in the future. I also have to say that the writing of Williams is fabulously rich and woven with wonderfully long paragraphs of elucidation. I found myself re-reading whole sentences that I thought were well-crafted and insightful. Consider this wonderful piece about the late, great Senator Byrd:

"Byrd's critics, especially those in the metropolitan Washington area, denounce him as a 'prince of pork' and note the frequency with which his name is chiseled onto the buildings that his largesse makes possible. But it is just as reasonable --given West Virginia's long history of exploitation by non-resident energy corporations and its failure to gain much from the federal defense and aerospace budgets of the Cold War years--to regard Byrd's efforts as reparations, not pork barrel."

We have a copy of this classic West Virginia history book at the Pioneer Memorial Public Library in Harman, WV. Come check it out!

Source: Williams, "West Virginia: A History." First published in 1976 by W. W. Norton, this is now reprinted by West Virginia University Press in Morgantown, WV.

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