By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
It only took a few questions at the Region I History Bowl at Pikeview Middle School for me to realize that I know very little about West Virginia history. Eighth graders knew more than I did about the state, and I’ve written nine pictorial history books, eight of them that deal with West Virginia history. I couldn’t even answer the question: “What’s the county seat of Randolph County?” although I’ve been to Elkins many times. Unfortunately, I knew the answer to a question about Boone County’s “Dancing Outlaw,” but the students from the Peterstown and Sandy River middle schools did not.
Bryan E. Ward Jr., assistant director of archives and history at the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, observed in an aside after the Sandy River and Peterstown students didn’t know about Jessco White: “I don’t know that that’s not a good thing,” but it was on the test and it carried as much weight as not knowing that bituminous coal is West Virginia’s most plentiful coal and that Graceland is the name of U.S. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis’s mansion in Elkins. Davis built his Graceland in 1893 while Elvis Presley’s Memphis Graceland dates from 1939.
While I was feeling bad for myself, I also felt bad for one of the eighth graders from Park Middle School who responded that the Monongalia River was formed in Fairmont where the West Fork and Tygart rivers joined. Deputy Commissioner Caryn Gresham smiled a Dikembe Mutombo-like “Not in my house,” smile when the student pronounced the name of the county in West Virginia instead of the Monongahela River that starts in West Virginia and joins the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.
In the final months of my formal education, I became friends with an archivist who worked in the West Virginia rare books room at the West Virginia University library. I loved the stacks in the old library. As a student, I could bury myself in one of the small cubicles on one of the upper floors in the stacks and not even know when closing time came. I loved cuddling up in the dark, musty, dusty racks of books to look for answers to questions that danced across my mind. I found the crowded book shelves warm, and took comfort in knowing that I was enveloped in that much knowledge.
My archivist friend frequently said that he would rather spend time in the most dank and foul library archives than to spend a day walking around among “the great unwashed.” That was his favorite term: “The great unwashed.” Since I was a naive country boy, I recalled thinking at the time that my archivist friend was no one to talk about the great unwashed. I knew he was referring to the “huddled masses yearning to break free.” But in a more general sense, he was talking about people — the same kind of people who I was — who I am. I laughed to think that if we encountered one another in a convenience store, I would be one of the great unwashed too. It made me feel like I was working undercover as a book worm.
I don’t read many books now, but I still read lots of documents. In my work as a reporter, I can examine hundreds of pages of documents in a single setting in search of an obscure reference, sentence or paragraph that helps clarify the story I’m working on. Sometimes I spend hours in the library just to get one sentence. My memory of the detail I discover will vanish as quickly as the time spent in discovery, but I’m usually able to retrace the steps I took to find that information and go right to the spot again.
Most of the world rarely gets the opportunity to interact with people who sequester themselves in the bowels of incunabula and live like vampires who feed on the illumination of untold thousands of tomes propped between rickety walnut slats on the uneven floors of any library anywhere. Like Hugo’s Quasimodo of the “Hunchback of Notre-Dame,” or Hornung’s Heisman half-back of Notre Dame, the pump up the volumes world of true archivists rarely even reach the on-ramp of the rat race that most people face daily.
The bottom line here is that I think it’s great that the state Division of Culture and History has been hosting a “History Bowl” for the past four years. Too often, students think of history as old, dry and stale, but in truth, it’s as vibrant and alive as each individual wants to make it. I would be the first to admit that I love to blow the dust off the old history books and breathe life into stories that are interesting and provide a pathway to learn how we got where we are and where we’re headed. And I did it all without knowing that Clarksburg was named for George Rogers Clark, the second banana along with James Meriwether Lewis who traversed what would become the continental U.S. in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806.
Bill Archer is the Daily Telegraph’s senior editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org