STRANGE AND STUPENDOUS STORIES WITH STAYING POWER.
Monsters, ghosts, and legends populate every reach of our peculiarly shaped state. But wherever they came from to start with, it’s the telling that keeps them alive. The stories we hear and get inspired to pass along, probably with a little adornment of our own—those tales live among us in the West Virginia landscape of our minds.
If this sampling of Mountain State stories that have one leg in reality, one in invention, and one that might have gotten pulled along the way says anything about us, we’re a people with a healthy respect for our dark woods and hollers and a twinkle in our eyes.
Legends: Folk heroes and sham desperados
Tales tall and tales true are equally likely to become legends, if they strike the right chord. West Virginia has a profusion of both.
To prove that men were better than machines and save his fellow workers’ jobs, the famously mighty, two-fisted steel driver John Henry is said to have gone up against a salesman’s newfangled steam jackhammer at the Chesapeake & Ohio’s Big Bend Tunnel near Talcott in Summers County around 1870. Henry won, and his story is preserved in verses and ballads. Unlike many folk legends, the story of John Henry may have a basis in reality.
Men in Black
Pilot Ken Arnold’s 1947 flying saucer sighting, followed shortly by the infamous crash at Roswell, New Mexico, launched the modern UFO era. Just nine years later, in 1956, Clarksburg businessman Gray Barker published his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. Barker detailed his investigation of the 1952 Flatwoods Monster and UFO incident, his slide into “saucer addiction,” and the official-seeming coercions that intimidated UFO witnesses and researchers into silence. These were the first accounts of Men in Black—and fodder for Tommy Lee Jones’ best deadpan. “You here to make fun of me, too?” “No, ma’am. We at the FBI do not have a sense of humor we’re aware of.”
We all know it was Paul Bunyan’s boot, as he leapt across our land on his way west, that created the giant crook in the Ohio River between Parkersburg and Huntington. But have you heard of his cousin, Tony Beaver? He is said to have invented clothespins and peanut brittle and made West Virginia a state. Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, can be admired outside Town & Country Supply in Nitro—but our own legendary Mr. Beaver is yet to get his statue.
John Chapman spent more time in other states than in the future West Virginia, but here, too, he made a difference. The Grimes Golden apple discovered in the early 1800s on the farm of Thomas Grimes near Wellsburg, in the northern panhandle, is thought to have been planted by the wandering nurseryman known as Johnny Appleseed. Prized especially for applesauce, that variety is later said to have given rise to West Virginia’s other famous apple—the crisp and ubiquitous Golden Delicious.
Newspapers across the nation reported on a rip-roaring November 7, 1897, church shoot-out in Muddlety. A Milton Hickman and his gang had been looting post offices for years, reports said. When U.S. Deputy Marshal H.W. Rader and his posse finally cornered the desperadoes at Sunday service, the two-hour gunfight left Hickman and Rader dead. “About 300 shots were exchanged,” the Martinsburg Independent reported. Details appeared in newspapers as far away as Texas and Wisconsin, including the esteemed New York Times. To their shame! On November 12, The Wheeling Intelligencer printed an angry retraction, lambasting “newspaper fakirs” and “journalistic bunco men” from the center of the state. Hickman was in fact pursued for violation of liquor laws, but only one shot was fired—he lived until 1960 and is buried in Doddridge County. It was all a legendary hoax by an unnamed bunco man.