By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Since the Boy Scouts are gone now, I can say that last Monday and Tuesday I had the opportunity to talk with two troops about the development of the area and regional history. The first group I spoke with was from Amarillo, Texas, and the second group was from Wisconsin. I had no way of knowing where they were from before I arrived at the East River Mountain Overlook. I believe it was the same for about everyone.
With the first group —the Texans — I was able to tie in regional history with Moses Austin’s failed colonial attempt in Wythe County, Va. Moses Austin’s son, Stephen F. Austin, who was born in Austinville, Va., led the colony west and settled in what is now Texas. Gen. Sam Houston, who defeated Mexican Gen. Santa Anna in the Battle of San Jacinto, called Austin “the father of Texas.” I was with Sam Houston IV when he and several others dedicated the Stephen F. Austin monument in Austinville some years ago.
I learned a lot from my visit with the Texas Boy Scouts, and when I spoke to the Wisconsin Scouts, I brought more props for them to pass around and examine. My wife has a fossilized tree trunk that came out of the Beckley coal seam and I brought some fossilized ferns in core samples. I also brought a Native American ax head from the Woodland Period to use as an illustration of the Native Americans who entered this part of North America about 10,000 years ago.
When I was a young teenager like the Scouts I spoke with, there is no way that I could have understood the geological process of plate tectonics, continental drift and the way coal is formed from organic material, but these young people knowingly nodded their heads and even asked several questions on point that demonstrated that they comprehended what I was talking about. It took me years of study to understand the basic processes that make the earth what it is, and much longer than that to find a context that I could understand and use to explain to others.
In 1671, Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam became the first European explorers to journey into the New River Valley and, on Sept. 13, 1671, they likely visited what is now the state of West Virginia. Fallam wrote in his journal that when the explorers reached the top of a mountain, they observed mountains to the north as far as they could see as well as essentially the same view to the south.
Although I was trying to be as economical as I could with the words I used to get my point across, I paused during each presentation to read the words that Fallam wrote. “It was a pleasing tho’ dreadful sight to see the mountains and Hills piled one upon another,” he wrote. Fallam’s words took on special emphasis when read from the East River Mountain Overlook. Now as then, it is a scene of incredible beauty.
The thing I enjoy most about understanding history is the work of unraveling the stories buried among those “mountains and Hills piled one upon another.” I find the history of this region to be exciting. The story of Bastian, Amonate, Big Rock and Boissevain, Va., is different from the story of Bradshaw, Kimball, Crumpler, Cucumber and Duhring, but each community’s history is unique. Fortunes were made and lost, families were started, lives were lost and songs were sung totally within the folds of the “pleasing tho’ dreadful” mountains that Fallam wrote about.
I had to smile as I stood at the East River Mountain Overlook and told the Scouts from Texas and Wisconsin the 15- to 25-minute version of 300 million years of history. I told part of that story while I was wearing an animal skin hat courtesy of my dear friends Carolyn and Denos DeMopoulos. What a blessing it is to have good friends who are always eager to help me in my mission of telling the story I tell over and over again! I wore a Yankee hat, a feather stuck in a leather shoe lace and ball caps as well.
I told both groups of Scouts that their community service efforts have become a part of the region’s history. Each time when I finished my presentation, several Scouts wanted to see what the overlook looked like in the 1960s when it was home to the state’s first tourist information center, and to see what the Ridge Runner railroad looked like on the mountain top.
History isn’t stagnant. It flows constantly, with new stories emerging each new dawn to become part of a much greater story. I told the Scouts how community volunteers have constantly made a difference in the appearance and the function of the overlook, and I tried to leave them with the thought that no mater who they are, where they’re from or what they do, they can make a difference in their community.
Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.