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The Indy Issue from Friday March 12, 2021

 

 

Visions of the Development of Salem

By Kevin Zorn

An oil on canvas mural is displayed in the post office in Salem, West Virginia. It was painted by an artist named Berni Glasgow and its production was funded
through the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture. It is titled “Visions of the Development of Salem” and depicts a group of people
receiving mail, in the background is a village and cattle.

 

Berni Glasgow was one of more than 800 artists commissioned to paint 1371 murals, the majority of which are featured in post offices.
Often mistaken as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative, these Treasury funded murals were created with the intent of fostering i
nspiration in the American people who were still feeling the devastating economic and social effects of the Great Depression.

 

It is a testament to the shift in the ideological landscape today that I cannot believe the US Government, in tandem with local governments,
was capable of doing what the WPA accomplished. Yet, here are just some of the facts: from 1935 to 1943 8.5 million unemployed men and
women were hired by the government to build over 10,000 bridges, 620,000 miles of streets and roads, 40,000 new and 85,000 renovated
buildings including thousands of schools, gymnasiums, auditoriums, playgrounds, parks, libraries, college dormitories, tennis courts, and skating rinks.

 

The WPA employed artists, writers, historians, and musicians whose work directly affected the lives of millions of Americans during some of the
country’s most painful years. Musicians hired under the Federal Music Project taught free lessons to 132,000 children and adults every week.
Those hired in the Federal Writers’ Project, in addition to their popular state tourism guidebooks, recorded over 2,300 slave narratives -
an invaluable collection for scholars and historians. Under the Federal Theatre Project 1,000 plays were performed across the country every month.
Incalculable is the number of children and adults inspired by this work.

 

Through the colossal endeavors of the WPA in both its pre-war effort and its public projects America achieved full employment by 1942,
the same year “Visions” was painted in Salem.

 

It is clear that the America many of us grew up in, the structures that supported our lives, the parks we enjoyed, the schools we attended,
the infrastructure we relied upon for travel, even the art classes that inspired the next generation of creators was largely built under the
auspices of the WPA and the New Deal.

 

This is a salient reminder that capital “H” History is not simply a collection of memorized facts and figures, dates and obscure names.
No, History is alive in the communities in which we live. It not only teaches us, it haunts us as well. It haunts us with what was
possible before and what is possible tomorrow.

 

Perhaps that is the greatest battle waged in the spectacle of media and politics today - the question of what is possible.
Our expectations are managed lower and lower. We learn that the climate crisis is inevitable, that homelesness is natural,
that workers are essential until they ask for a living wage. All to say that change is impossible. Visions of better futures recede from view.

But history haunts us with an alternative. By the time Berni Glasgow painted the mural in the Salem post office, the American
government had provided millions of meaningful jobs improving, with concrete and paintbrushes, nearly every community across the nation.

 

Nick Taylor, the author of “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA”, writes this: 

 

“These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation.
They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy
that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them,
thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.” 

 

This weeks front page:

 

 

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APRIL FOOLS STORY:

These “Kings of the Forest” once stood tall among our timber.

The earliest known written reference to the giant Morels in West Virginia was made in 1823 by an expedition of game hunters. This was written in the diary of the explorer C. I. Foundem; the reference does not mention any locality, but his planned route would have taken him through what is now Doddridge and Ritchie Counties. This discovery was not publicized. In 1850, surveyor, William Thomas Flannagan claimed that he had carved his initials in the trunk of a mushroom along the South Fork of the Hughes River, but again, this received no publicity.

The first certain and widely documented sighting of a giant Morel took place in the spring of 1852. A hunter who was tracking a bear in the Appalachian mountains, entered the woods, an area now known as ‘Oxford’ in Doddridge County. The famed tracker, Oscar M. Goodfried, could not believe his eyes.  Once he arrived at a nearby logging camp, no one would believe him before seeing the enormous mushrooms themselves. The gigantic mushrooms gained instant popularity and became well known by the general public. Roads were constructed into these remote locations and a lot of harvesters got dollar signs in their eyes.

In the following years, more and larger giant morel groves were discovered, although it needs to be said that these forest were known for centuries by the local Indian tribes. They called the mushrooms Mee-Oow-Wa, an onomatopoeia that imitates the sound of the Northern Bobcat, which was believed by the Chunkee Indians to be the guardian of the forest. The tribes who lived along the Hughes River called the mushroom Moo-rell-chuk-saw.  Local tribes knew of the light, delicious flavor of the giant fungi.  Many would carve out a small piece from the cap area to serve with venison, rabbit and other meats.  Often lightly breaded in corn flour and fried in deer butter, these meals were truly a treat in early spring.

After withstanding storms and forest fires for many centuries, in 1902 a giant morel encountered a team of loggers who knew they could fell the mushroom and rush it to market in several cities on the newly established railroads. Without proper refrigeration, the giant morel wilted and dried out before it could get to market.

It took five men about twenty two days to chop the largest mushroom down. After counting the rings it appeared that this mushroom was 300 years old. The remaining stump was used as a dance floor until it too rotted away.   

It tells us a lot about the mentality of the time. The felling of the largest giant morels sounds like a sad and disrespectful waste, but is understandable in the zeitgeist of the Industrial Age.

Almost everywhere in the remote mountain valleys of West Virginia, small and large culinary mills and farms sprouted up along the railroads. While the first were felling numerous old growth morels that were many centuries old, the latter brought the harvesting of smaller mushrooms.

The giant morels yield was minimal: because of the lack of refrigeration.  Most of the huge fungi was wasted in transit.  Several were left on the side of the railways when the mushroom would become to soft and slippery to stay chained onto the flatbed cars.

In many of these places you can barely see these harvested remains after more than 100 years: due to its high demand early on and successive yields, recent satellite searches and analysis conducted by West Virginia University have shown that none of the giant Morels have survived to date.  Dr. Reginald Morchella stated “We had some idea that the devastation of the last harvests in 1920’s had pretty well wiped out any morel that stood over four feet high.  This is why we search, to find answers to these culinary questions.”

With all of the giant morels gone, it is still possible to hunt these delightful wild treats in several areas of the county today.  Although most never reach more than a few inches in height, some mycologists believe it is a survival mechanism that the mushrooms have adopted.  The massive underground root systems are believed to harbor the small morel mushrooms we know today.  

Typically they are found in moist areas, around dying or dead Elm trees, Sycamore and Ash trees, old apple orchards and maybe even in your own back yard. Ground cover varies and it is very likely that each patch of mushrooms you come across may be growing in totally different conditions. It is a common practice of mushroom hunters to hit their favorite spots year after year.

 

Photos courtesy of the Doddridge County Hysterical Society.