Wheeling Celebrates In Style

It’s certainly been a patriotic and fun-filled week in Wheeling and the Upper Ohio Valley.

Despite a thunderstorm near concert time, the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s Celebrate America performance took place Thursday night at Heritage Port on the Wheeling waterfront. Many area residents braved the summer elements to enjoy the free concert.

In addition to listening to patriotic music and other favorite selections, audience members were treated to hearing West Virginia Poet Laureate Marc Harshman read his new poem, “Wheeling at 250,” written to commemorate Wheeling’s 250th anniversary.

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Earlier in the day, a large, enthusiastic crowd filled St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Wheeling for the popular Independence Day Extravaganza.

This year’s concert celebrated several significant milestones: the 35th edition of the extravaganza, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the 170th anniversary of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the parish’s 200th anniversary, the nation’s 243rd birthday and Wheeling’s 250th anniversary. Shout-outs also were given to Temple Shalom’s 170th anniversary and the Wheeling Fire Department’s 150th anniversary.

Soloist and song leader Sue Pettit thrilled the crowd again with her spectacular singing and inventive costumes. To commemorate a pivotal moment in the community’s early history and with a nod to the country’s birthday, Pettit made a memorable entrance into the church’s nave. Attired as Betty Zane and carrying a cloth bag of “gunpowder,” she re-enacted Zane’s famous act of bravery during the Battle of Fort Henry. However, she employed a new stealth tactic to cross the battlefield — hiding in a giant fake birthday cake — a la the Trojan horse. After the cake was wheeled down the center aisle by a “baker” and assistant, “Betty Zane” emerged from the top of the cake and sprinted to complete the powder run.

Later in the concert, Pettit reappeared, dressed as Rosie the Riveter, in a salute to D-Day and as an homage to the dedicated women who worked in factories and on assembly lines on the home front during World War II.

The audience also enjoyed the excellent playing of St. Matthew’s music director, Robert Troeger, on organ and keyboards, along with accompaniment by drummer Seth Bell. To mark the anniversary of the opening of the city’s iconic bridge, Troeger played “The Suspension Bridge Polka,” a rarely-heard tune written many years ago by an immigrant in tribute to Wheeling’s noble span.

Guest organist Lukas Hasler, a young virtuoso from Austria, also thrilled the audience by playing some notable European selections. Hasler, who is touring the United States, performed an organ concert on Saturday as part of St. Matthew’s year-long 200th anniversary celebration.

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Important contributions of immigrants to Wheeling’s development were recognized in a special Lunch With Book program offered Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library.

The multi-media presentation, “Wheeling 250: The Immigrant Experience,” was conceived, written and narrated by Lunch with Books coordinator Sean Duffy and history professor Hal Gorby. Library staffer Erin Rothenbuehler coordinated the audio-visual components of the program.

Attendees were treated to tasty ethnic fare: pierogies prepared by Chris Villamagna, tabbouleh salad made by Linda Duffy and Alli Duffy-Totterdale and pizzelles baked by Mary Ann Duffy,

To the delight of audience members, Rose Zelinski, who performed with the Jolly J’s polka band, played a clarinet and sang polka-style selections while Steve Gretchen and Sophia Gretchen danced a polka. Dalton Haas demonstrated traditional Greek and Lebanese dances.

Film clips were shown from “Avalon,” depicting an extended Jewish family’s Thanksgiving dinner; scenes from “The Godfather” and a memorable scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” starring Wheeling native John Corbett.

The presentation included a recording of Wheeling native Tim O’Brien’s song, “Where the River Meets the Road,” recounting his Irish ancestor’s experiences in Wheeling, where the National Road meets the banks of the Ohio River.

Also shared were a passage from Wheeling native Rebecca Harding Davis’ book, “Life in the Iron Mills,” describing the experience of Welsh immigrants working in Wheeling mills, and “The Valley of the Ohio,” written by Moundsville native Davis Grubb in 1960 and describing work done in coal mines and steel mills by immigrants from Italy, Poland and Eastern European countries; a portion of a poem by Martins Ferry native James Wright and Wheeling native Keith Maillard’s depiction of a Paczki Ball in the South Wheeling-Benwood area.

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

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