Hip, Hip Huzzah, W.Va.!

WOW! Wheeling did the Mountain State proud with a week chock-full of statehood sesquicentennial programs and activities.

With the state Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in town, Wheeling residents showed the spirit and enthusiasm that made Wheeling the first capital of the 35th state in the Union. The banner day, of course, was Thursday, June 20, the 150th birthday of the state’s founding right here in Wheeling. The West Virginia Day ceremony outside West Virginia Independence Hall – the former U.S. custom house that became the new state’s birthplace – and the sesquicentennial concert at Heritage Port were festive events that area residents will long remember.

I overheard it pointed out that Wheeling holds an unusual distinction in U.S. history: it is the only city to have served as the capital of two states – Virginia (during the Restored Government years of 1861-63) and West Virginia.

While the major festivities took place Thursday, the celebration continued for two more days. As I wrote this column, still on the agenda were the Beards and Beers event, the Blue-Grey Choir concert, an outdoor showing of the critically acclaimed film, “Lincoln,” on Friday and the Wheeling Arts Fest and the Statehood Sesquicentennial Ball on Saturday.

Events began Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library with two separate presentations by history professors David Zimring of Baltimore and David Javersak of Wheeling regarding the secession and statehood movements and the Wheeling conventions.

It was thrilling to be in the audience Wednesday evening for the historic meeting of the Legislature and the governor in West Virginia Independence Hall’s courtroom where it all began 150 years ago. During the state centennial celebration in 1963, the Legislature met at the hall – sitting on folding chairs in the dusty, dirty, then-unrestored building – but this week was the first time the state’s governing body met in the restored courtroom, which has been returned beautifully to its 1860s appearance.

An audience also filled West Virginia Independence Hall’s lower-level theater later Wednesday evening for the premiere of the West Virginia PBS documentary, “The Road to Statehood.” The filmmakers and PBS officials remarked that the crowd was larger in Wheeling than it had been for a premiere in Charleston the previous night.

The documentary, which includes several scenes filmed inside West Virginia Independence Hall, is well done, with excellent cinematography, a balanced portrayal of the statehood movement and historically accurate commentary and explanation by scholars and historians.

Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee co-chairs Jeremy Morris, executive director of the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., and Travis Henline, site manager of West Virginia Independence Hall, kicked off events at the hall Thursday morning with the unveiling of maquettes (small models) of the proposed statue of Gov. Francis Harrison Pierpont, “the father of West Virginia.”

The winning sculptor, Gareth Curtiss of Montana, was on hand to unveil the two maquettes – one a life-size model and one a bust – that he created as one of the four finalists for the Pierpont statue. Curtiss, who works in Montana and Washington, explained that it will take about a year to create the full-size bronze statue.

The statue, which is to be erected in front of the hall at the corner of Market and 16th streets, is expected to be dedicated on West Virginia Day 2014. The planning committee has already raised half of the funds necessary for the statue project.

Special guests on hand for the Pierpont maquette unveiling were Ted Beyer, great-great-grandson of Pierpont, and his wife, Pat, who traveled from Connecticut for the sesquicentennial celebration. Many spectators commented about the uncanny resemblance between Ted Beyer and his famous ancestor, the first and only governor of the Restored Government of Virginia and later governor of Virginia after the war’s end. A photograph that I took of Ted Beyer and his wife, situated between the two maquettes, shows that Ted Beyer’s mouth, facial structure and jawline match his great-great-grandfather’s features remarkably.

During the event, Morris presented Ted Beyer with a commemorative sesquicentennial coin – bearing Pierpont’s image – that WNHAC commissioned for the celebration.

Ted Beyer’s mother, Frances P. Beyer, who resides in Osprey, Fla., is Pierpont’s great-granddaughter. Reportedly, at least one person in every generation of the family has been named Francis or Frances.

The noonday ceremony outside West Virginia Independence Hall Thursday re-created festivities that occurred there on June 20, 1863 when West Virginia became a state.

The ever-popular Wildcat Regiment Band played music of the era on period instruments, the Thursday Music Club chorus sang the national anthem as did a choir of 35 women in 1863, cannons were fired and the crowd cheered the new state with cries of “Hip, hip, huzzah!” Henline re-created Pierpont’s farewell speech and actor-playwright Jeremy Richter re-created the inaugural address given by West Virginia’s first governor, Arthur I. Boreman. Messages also were read from West Virginia’s current congressional delegation.

West Virginia Day culminated with the sesquicentennial concert on the Wheeling waterfront, as a large crowd filled Heritage Port on a picture-perfect evening. Maestro Andre Raphel led the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra as it performed the world premiere of “Fanfare for West Virginia” that the WSO commissioned composer Kenneth Fuchs to write for the state’s 150th birthday.

The orchestra accompanied West Virginia natives Johnny Staats, Landau Eugene Murphy Jr. and Kathy Mattea as they performed spirited sets. West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman of Wheeling read his beautiful, moving sesquicentennial poem, commissioned by WNHAC and the Wheeling Civil War 150 Committee. West Virginia Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, narrated Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” played by the Wheeling Symphony. The grand evening climaxed with a spectacular fireworks display – with pyrotechnics shot off from two locations – on the waterfront.

Hip, hip, huzzah, West Virginia!

Linda Comins can be reached via email at: lcomins@theintelligencer.net