The Times West Virginian

May 30, 2013

McNeill: ‘Poet embracing Central Appalachia’

Folklife Center hosts sesquicentennial event this weekend

By Jonathan Williams
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — With West Virginia’s 150th birthday coming up in less in less than a month, organizations all over the state are coming up with their own unique ways to celebrate the sesquicentennial.

The Frank and Jane Gabor Folklife Center on the Fairmont State University and Pierpont Community & Technical College campus has been dedicated to preserving Appalachia’s unique folklore and traditions with a variety of exhibits and activities throughout the years they’ve been open.

Starting Saturday with their annual gala, the center is launching a special exhibit on Louise McNeill, one of West Virginia’s most notable poet laureates, to celebrate the sesquicentennial by highlighting the state’s literary and folkloric past.

“We wanted a literary, cultural salute to our state’s birthday,” said Dr. Judy Byers, director of the center, “and Louise McNeill certainly represents that.”

Not very many states have a poet laureate, Byers said — about 13 by her count — which makes West Virginia somewhat unique. The poet’s duty is to “laurel,” or honor, aspects of their state they believe are worthy of praise or remembrance.

McNeill’s academic background was in history, Byers said, and she used that knowledge of the state’s past to depict its heritage.

“She very cleverly entwines history with the poetic form,” she said. “Her poems are often wonderful character vignettes.”

The exhibit will feature a fusion of “word and visual imagery,” as Byers called it.

For instance, one of McNeill’s poems is about her grandmother trudging up and down the hills looking for herbs, accompanied by her trusty blackthorn walking stick.

To bridge the gap between the poem and imagination, the exhibit places a blackthorn stick in the display so as to create a more vivid picture.

“I compare her to Robert Frost,” Byers said. “As he embraced New England, I think Louise McNeill is our poet embracing Central appalachia, which is the heart of Appalachia.”

The exhibit will be open for the first time Saturday from 4-9:30 p.m., coinciding with the annual gala fundraiser the Folklife Center has every year. The cost of entry for the gala is $25.

“We’re emphasizing the folklore,” Byers said, and all its elements: “the oral, the music, the dance traditions.”

Beginning at 4 p.m., visitors can stop in the downstairs of the Folklife Center to sign up for a raffle and silent auction for homemade and historic items, such as a handknit wool wrap made by Debbie Tropea or a quilt by Patti Murray-Fidura.

Outside will be a “Savory and Sweets” display of the best tastes of the area, Byers said, along with artisan vendors, live music and history/folklore presentations through about 6 p.m.

From 6-6:30 will be dedicated to the presentation of the Traditions Salute Award to Pricketts Fort director Greg Bray. The award is given to “an individual or group for their great contribution to the identification, preservation or perpetuation through education of our rich West Virginian heritage.”

In addition to his work administering the fort, Byers said Bray teaches blacksmithing, keeping the art alive in ongoing generations.

After that it will be time for the event’s first-ever barn dance, hopefully to be held in the restored barn itself. With music by the center’s Kennedy Barn String Band, Taylor Runner and Charles Burkin will teach guests and call the dance moves.

“I’m just a wee bit excited,” Byers said.

Also performing throughout the day will be Jeff Fedan, Mark Crabtree, Bill Stalnaker, Elmer Rich, We Three, Michael Ginsburg, Dan’l Musick and others.

Sunday, the center will host a West Virginia History Alive! presentation on Martin Delany, an African-American Charles Town abolitionist. Delany will be portrayed by Joe Bundy, giving a glimpse into the state’s history.

If the weather forecast indicates bad weather is coming, Byers said the event would be in Colebank Hall, its historic home, instead.

Email Jonathan Williams at or follow him on Twitter @JWilliamsTWV.