Northern Panhandle Alive and Well at West Virginia Museum

Any resident of the Northern Panhandle should not feel like a stranger when visiting the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston.

Our neck of the state is quite well represented at the museum.

Located at the State Capitol Complex, the museum has more than 6,000 artifacts on display – many of them relevant to Wheeling and other cities and counties in our panhandle.

I kept a running log of connections to our area as I made my way through the museum, enveloped in the sights and sounds of our history, from a time 300 million years ago, when the story of our state began, to the present day,

Betty Zane, McColloch’s Leap, the Wheeling Intelligencer, Independence Hall, the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, the Windsor Hotel, Marsh Wheeling, Weirton Steel, Wheeling Steel, LaBelle Nail Co., Marble King, Interstate 70, Doc and Chickie Williams, Homer Laughlin, Wheeling Pottery, LaBelle Pottery, Edwin M. Knowles China, Warwick China, the Wheeling Symphony, Schmulbach Beer, Wheeling Corrugating, the 1852 flood … the list goes on and on.

When standing in the Independence Hall room, I felt I had been immediately transported back to Wheeling.

A full room is dedicated to the Wheeling Intelligencer, with old papers and printers’ trays, as well as information about publisher Archibald Campbell’s role in our statehood.

Discovery Room 8 focused on “The Big City,” of Wheeling, where Marsh Wheeling Stogies, LaBelle Nail. Co. and other businesses were featured. Also noted in the “All Roads Lead to Wheeling” display were the Wheeling Suspension Bridge and baseball player Jesse “The Crab” Burkett who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Wheeling was quite the “big city” back in 1861:

“When we entered the Union, Wheeling stood in stark contrast to the mostly rural state. The city’s busy streets were lined with potteries, tobacco shops, woolen mills, hat shops, calico works, tin shops, paper mills, bakeries, breweries and distilleries, meat packers, boat yards and glass factories.

“Wheeling also boasted the first hospital in the state, highly regarded private schools, a daily newspaper and a theater,” according to information in a display case.

In the entertainment area, Wheeling country singers Doc and Chickie Williams are in the forefront in a large display case.

The museum takes you on a chronological tour of our state, with a number of side trips to Discovery Rooms throughout. The Discovery Rooms each focus on one topic – floods, industrialization, glassmaking, industry, mining, the state capitol, boats and rivers, to name a few.

As you wander from one time period to the next, each marked with a brass plate, the surface beneath your feet advances as well – from footprints in the “earth” to hardwood to railroad tracks to coal to brick to a paved road with yellow lines.

Sound effects add to the authenticity of the experience, as well. As you walk through a coal mine, you can hear the rhythmic drip, drip, drip of water, and the creaking wagon wheels of the coal car. Sounds of traffic accompany you while walking along the stretch of road with guardrails, historical markers and a Bloch Brothers’ Mail Pouch barn.

Touch screens, sculptures, music, videos and, of course, the thousands of artifacts impart information throughout the museum. I learned a lot that day, in my two-hour tour.

I learned about Daniel Boone, who lived in West Virginia for a time in the late 1700s. He moved to Point Pleasant in 1788 and later relocated to Charleston. He represented Kanawha County in the Virginia General Assembly. He moved to Kentucky in 1795 and died in Missouri in 1820. His rifle, walking stick, surveying stone and beaver trap are on display.

I saw the noose allegedly used to hang John Brown in 1859, and read about his actions that led to his demise.

I walked through a coal mine, No. 18 – one of my favorite parts of the museum.

I learned that before 1935, only 25 percent of West Virginia had electricity. I learned about Sid Hatfield and the Matewan Massacre. I read about West Virginia’s deadliest disasters: Silver Bridge, the Marshall University plane crash, Willow Island and Buffalo Creek. I watched a video of the first Vandalia Gathering in 1977. I read “What W.Va. Means To …” David Selby, David C. Hardesty, Nick Joe Rahall, Bill Stewart, Pearl S. Buck, Robert C. Byrd, Henry Gates and others.

I can’t imagine a better W.Va. history lesson that a day spent at the West Virginia State Museum.

In fact, students from more than 282 public and private schools have visited the museum in the last year.

The museum offers tips to teachers as to what they can do before and after their students’ visits to the museum, as well as lesson plans to use while there.

They also are working on outreach programming and assistive technology that will allow those who can’t visit to view the exhibits online.

“If they can’t get here, we’ll try our best to bring the museum to them.”

The state museum originally was founded in 1894 in the Capitol Building. In 1903, it moved to the Capitol Annex and then in 1976 to the West Virginia Science and Culture Center.

The 24,000-square-foot renovated museum opened on West Virginia Day of 2009, with “significant changes,” according to Holli Vanater, museum operations manager.

“The best way to describe the changes,” she said, is that the exhibits went from “static” to “a more immersive experience.”

“The entire environment becomes part of the experience,” Vanater said. “It tells more about the historical perspectives based on people, history and the land.”

She noted that one writer tagged the museum as “the Smithsonian meets Disney.”

“When you walk out of the museum, it makes you feel proud to be a West Virginian,” Vanater said.