This nearly forgotten Huntington district is becoming a tourist destination.
A forgotten business hub, Central City until recently sat nearly abandoned on Huntington’s West End—empty save for the beer halls and bars that were home to rough and tumble men from nightfall to the early morning hours. Now a part of Huntington proper, the once-standalone city had a mayor of its own to organize countless small businesses and industry giants packed into one tiny section of land between train tracks and a moody river prone to flooding. Remnants of those businesses—early department stores and hardware stores, groceries and bakeries and factories—continue to hold out. Their signs still adorn weatherworn early 20th century buildings that, today, host the self-proclaimed antiques capital of West Virginia, a handful of eclectic museums, and a growing local foodie hub. Styling itself “Old Central City,” modern Central City is a far cry from the bustling industrial town of the 1910s and the Wild West bar crawl of the ’70s and ’80s. With a laid-back Southern vibe, rows of antique shops filled with treasures and amiable storekeepers, and a location just off of Interstate 64, it’s become a must-stop summer travel destination for locals and passersby alike.
“If these buildings could talk, the tales that would come out of them. Unbelievable guys hung out here, and they were really rough rodeo. This was wild man’s turf,” says Joanna Sexton, owner of Hattie and Nan’s Antiques on 14th Street and member of the Old Central City Association. “Huntington just has everything. All of the great society, all of the common man, it’s all here. It’s a wonderful tapestry of people.”
Central City was founded as an industrial complement to Huntington. At one time it was the bung capital of the world. An odd word that’s mostly passed from modern vocabulary, bungs were the cork stops sealing barrels of goods. “Before the turn of the last century, barrels were used to send everything and they shipped everywhere. We are the largest inland seaport in the country in Huntington. It was a big secret where we got our corks. You were sworn to secrecy if you worked in this factory, and it was a big factory,” Joanna says. “That’s what started Central City and made it go over the top.” Next came several installments of a brewery and Abbott framing. “You’ll see their name on a building down the street. Kincaid Furniture, you’ll see their name on a building here as well. Georgetown Galleries came out of that and became one of the most sought-after furniture makers.” The cycle of industry rolled on, but by the late 1980s it had rolled out of Central City and Huntington. The rough rodeo of bars and strip clubs moved in until Huntington began the area’s reclamation around the early ’90s, an effort still in progress. There are some big plans for Old Central City.
So Much to See
Pulling in off the Ohio River Scenic Byway now, travelers pass over railway tracks and find themselves in the middle of Old Central City within seconds. The faded signs of furniture builders and hardware stores harken to the city’s past, but now the brick-lined stretch of 14th Street blooms with the pinks, purples, and whites of summertime flowers and the heady scent of midsummer buds lingers on the air. On warm Saturdays the Central City gazebo often echoes with music and children’s laughter, while across the street shoppers fill baskets with local produce, meats, cheeses, pastas, and crafts, and a group of out-of-town tourists wanders with map in hand to take a tour of the many historical quilts lining local shops on the Old Central City Quilt Trail. Each pattern, inspired by patterns from Fawn Valentine’s West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers, carries its own story, lovingly re-created by local artists. Where downtown Huntington, with its grandiose theaters and restaurants, is reinvigorating its big-city feel, Central City is all mom and pops. “It really serves as a tourist area, shopping district, and arts and crafts area,” Joanna says. “We have about 24 storefronts and at any given time about 18 are up and operating,” she says. “We’re filling up again now with mostly antiques and florists.”
Heiner’s Bakery, a holdout from the area’s industrial boom, continues to manufacture thousands of loaves of bread a day, now under the Bimbo umbrella, to ship across the United States. It’s no longer open to tours, but the smell of freshly baked loaves still wafts through the area at certain hours of the day. Take a second to look up and you just might spot the production tube carrying ingredients from train cars on the rail tracks across the street to the bakery. Walking down the street, visitors encounter rows of antiques, each store specializing in its own kitsch. From West Virginia glass to turn-of-the-century furniture to Marx toys and old Marshall University letterman jackets, a plethora of West Virginia history awaits collectors. “We all do something different and bring something different to the game,” Joanna says. She likens it to a restaurant row with options upon options for even the pickiest of eaters. “It’s the same with antiques.”
Wild Ramp, a relative newcomer to the area, sits directly across from the Central City gazebo. Like its antique row neighbors, Wild Ramp is home to myriad options—this time of the food variety. “Central City is wonderful with all these beautiful antique shops, but it needed an anchor and food is definitely an anchor to have in any community,” says Wild Ramp Market Manager Shelly Keeney. “We want this to be a community market.” Since its conception in 2012, the nonprofit organization has provided space for more than 150 local food producers and artisans to sell products on a consignment basis. Producers receive 90 percent of the sales price—nearly half a million dollars as of June 2014. In addition to providing a year-round indoor market and a summertime outdoor farmers’ market, Wild Ramp offers classes and events on everything from mushroom picking to making soap.
“We are a farmers’ market, we have local artisan products, but we’re more than just a retail storefront. We try to grow our farmers, and part of thatz is to help market them,” Shelly says. “We do that through having classes, whether it’s a forage hike with one of the farmers or a local cooking class.” On weekends the store hosts demonstrations and food tastings, one of the most popular being Cinnamon Roll Saturday with a local baker. Shopgoers line the store waiting to sample fresh cinnamon rolls with a strong cup of coffee from the in-house café before a day of antiquing. Wild Ramp outgrew its original space in Huntington’s Heritage Station and moved to Old Central City in 2014 with the support of the city government. The store leases its space for only $1 a year, allowing the organization’s reach and mission to continue to expand.
Nearby, Central City Café, made famous by Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, continues to sling good ol’ country cooking from white Formica counters atop black and white checkered floors. It’s the place to grab a bite in Old Central City, right on the 14th Street stretch. Up the street sits the Taylor Auto Museum, displaying 30 antique and collectible cars. “We have five important museums in town—one of the leading radio museums in the country is a half-mile from here,” Joanna says. Heritage Farm Museum and Village, displaying 16 restored heritage buildings, Huntington’s railroad museum, and the Huntington Museum of Art, a national award-winning museum designed by the legendary Walter Gropius, all sit a few miles away. Camden Park, one of the country’s oldest amusement parks, operates nearby as well.
History and variety have come to a head in Old Central City each summer for more than 20 years during Old Central City Days. Every third weekend in June, 14th Street closes for the summertime festival, a time when vendors and shop owners pour outside to peddle wares among music, food, and children’s activities. This year’s events take place June 19 to 21, 2015. “We have an antique fair, people have sidewalk sales, we have concessions and inflatables for the kids,” says Terry Bryan, owner of Camelot Antiques and president of the Old Central City Association. The gazebo sits at the center of the activity, hosting event entertainment like the Gate City Gunslingers, portraying old Western shootouts. Wild Ramp will be on-hand with food this year, while the antique shops fill in the activities. “Central City is thriving. People are excited,” Terry says. “We have a great community and it’s getting better all the time. At one point we had five or six empty stores and now they don’t stay empty for long.”
written by KATIE GRIFFITH
photographed by KATIE GRIFFITH & NIKKI BOWMAN