The Times West Virginian

Local News

November 25, 2013

Nick Raspa recalls a bustling Rivesville in the 1950s

RIVESVILLE — Nick Raspa has known Rivesville a long time.

“I can go way back. See, I was born and raised in Rivesville, and then of course I worked for Prudential in Rivesville for 41 years,” Raspa said.

Raspa was born in Rivesville in 1928. And his memory of Rivesville goes back even further than that.

“I used to hear all of these stories from the older people,” Raspa said.

One of those stories is the settling of Rivesville.

“The Morgans came from the eastern part of the United States. It was getting a little crowded, and so they wanted to come west,” Raspa said. “They came toward the Appalachian Mountains, and they hit West Virginia and came toward Rivesville. And they saw how beautiful it was, and they liked it and they settled.”

That was all the way back in the mid-18th century.

Raspa’s family came to Rivesville a bit later than that.

His father, Frank Raspa, was born in Italy in 1892. He was also educated in Italy, and came to Rivesville in 1909, after hearing the promise of good job opportunities in the area. The town was still small, with less than 200 people, but was starting to see some growth because of the mines.

“Well, he worked there for about six months and said that’s not for him,” Raspa said.

So in 1911, his father opened a small grocer’s store.

“Then he had to go to the service,” he said.

While he was serving in World War I, his sister ran the store. But when he came back, she wanted to keep it.

“So he built the theater in Rivesville in 1921,” he said.

The State Theater was a one-screen theater. It mostly showed westerns and adventure movies, and sometimes had live “hillbilly music” and a magician named Jarvis. There was another theater in town at the time, later known as the Rex Theater.

Nick Raspa was born seven years later. He and his brothers would help out around the theater.

“The kids, the grown-ups, everyone used to go there for entertainment,” Raspa said, adding that the theater was very popular until the rise of television. It closed in 1960.

When he was growing up, there were three big neighborhoods in Rivesville: Greentown, where coal miners and recent European immigrants lived, Rivesville proper, where the middle class lived, and the Highlawns, where the rich and the coal barons lived. Raspa’s family lived in Greentown.

“Greentown was where most people came to have fun,” Raspa said. “It had all the beer joints, and you had your card games there. It had a lot of kids, and it was a really nice place to come from. At that time, you never even had to lock your doors, because you never had to worry about crime back then.”

The kids would play games and go swimming. Before 1919, there was a ball field that kids as far away as Fairmont would come to play in, Raspa said. After 1919, the power plant was built there.

Kids would even play in the streets.

“There were no cars going through then,” Raspa said.

When Raspa was growing up, everyone had a garden.

“You saw no grass. Everyone put a garden in. They planted every vegetable you can think of,” Raspa said.

People could also raise chickens and pigs within city limits.

“And all around Rivesville, they had all kinds of fruit — apples, peaches, pears, blackberries and pawpaws,” Raspa said. “We were never out of fruit.”

In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Rivesville was known on Ripley’s Believe It or Not! as the “richest little town in the country,” Raspa said. The seven mines in the area and the power plant contributed to that growth, and in the 1950s, the town had around 2,400 people. Today, it has around 940.

“Now the big question is, what happened to the money?” Raspa said.

Raspa went to Rivesville High School and graduated in 1945.

When he was in high school, kids would ride the streetcar into Fairmont for fun. Sometimes, they would “thumb it,” hitchhiking into town, and if they couldn’t find a ride back, they would beg the driver to forgive them the 25-cent fair. He usually agreed.

Raspa graduated from Fairmont State in 1949 with a degree in business administration. He said he had some trouble finding a job right away because of his Italian heritage. Most of his friends left the area for that reason. But eventually, he found a position with Berlo Vending Co.

He got married in 1950 to his wife Helen, who he started dating in college. They had two children, a son, Robert, and a daughter, Kathryn.

From 1961-63, he worked as the Rivesville town recorder.

Raspa moved to Fairmont in 1964, but continued to work in Rivesville, working for the insurance company Prudential from 1963 until he retired in 1994. He was the president of its union, Insurance Workers International Union, for more than 20 years.

Raspa also continued to be involved in the area through the Rivesville Lions Club, which he joined in 1955. The club donated money to organizations, bought eyeglasses for people in need, did other charity work and held parties.

He’s still a member today, though the club isn’t active anymore.

“When I joined, we had 70 members. Today, I think we have eight or nine,” Raspa said.

Raspa still looks back on his years in Rivesville fondly.

“Everyone was so friendly,” Raspa said. “If you went to visit someone, they’d always have coffee and hard bread for you. Everyone made their own bread — it was delicious.”

Raspa loves talking about the old days when he can find someone interested to listen.

“Most of the time, when you talk to young people, they don’t care about the old days,” Raspa laughed.

Email Colleen S. Good at cgood@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.

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