When I drive to Wyoming County, I feel like I’m taking a trip back in time.
No, I’m not taking a cheap shot at the county or any other part of Southern West Virginia. In fact, I mean it as a compliment because it is something that I love so much. It’s so thoroughly West Virginia.
I make my home in Boone County. In fact, I chose to make it here, and I love it. (I’m a transplant, so no I don’t know Jesco White. Thanks for not ever asking me that.) One of the interesting aspects of Boone County, at least to me, is that some parts of the county are remote and isolated while others are more like a suburb. I live in Madison (West Madison, to be more exact, a few blocks from the school), and I’m only about 20-25 minutes from the Southridge section of Charleston. While some folks in other parts of the county hardly have access to a decent grocery store, I can pretty quickly be to just about any major chain restaurant or retailer I want. (God bless Corridor G.)
I’m not headed to Charleston on this night, though. My destination is Wyoming East High School for a basketball game. I count four reasonable ways to get from my house to the school, and none of them are any good. I could go over and hit the Turnpike down to Beckley, then slip down to Mullins and over to the school, but that is making a big, unnecessary circle. I could go down to Logan and hit Rt. 10. Some people like this way because for some reason they believe Rt. 10 is a better road than the others, but really it’s not. (Once that 4-lane gets completed, though, this may be a different story. We West Virginians are always waiting on a 4-lane to get finished, aren’t we?) The other two routes involve taking Rt. 85 to the county line and then either going up through Bolt and then down to the school or dropping down through Oceana and over. I’m headed through Oceana tonight.
I push off from Madison in my Toyota Tacoma and head south on Rt. 85 to make the 63 mile, 1 hour and 45 minute drive. (That’s some WV math for you. Miles are meaningless in relation to time.) My first stop is at the edge of the Scott district in a little community called Uneeda, home of the world, or at least county, famous Uneeda Lemonade. (Get it? Get it?) I’m stopping at a combined gas station, pharmacy, and restaurant. Could a pharmacy make it on its own in Uneeda? Probably not. Could a restaurant? Doubtful. But put those two together with some gas pumps outside, and you have a thriving store. I get a couple of hot dogs (with chili and slaw, of course), and I’m on my way.
Before long, I’m in Van. Though it’s only about 12 miles away, for many people in Madison, it might as well be 40 miles. Van is pretty isolated, and I’ve already said goodbye to cell service for a while. You pass the store, go across the bridge, and then the school is up on the hill to the right. Van is one of three high schools in the county alongside Scott and Sherman. It seems like Boone County has had three, and only three, high schools pretty much forever. Attendance at Van is down. The school is now one of the five smallest public schools in the state and barely has more than 100 students in grades 9-12. The area is extremely dependent on coal mining, and there’s not a whole lot of that activity going on right now. When coal is down, budgets tighten, and people are increasingly worried that Van will fall victim to a budget cut. The community loves it’s school, though, and Van won’t go down without a fight. There are no current plans to close Van, and it’s currently one of the last single A schools still holding out in Southern WV. I hope it stays open forever. I snake through Van, pass Giovanni’s and the auction, and keep heading south.
The road winds through the mountains. Those who have driven through the Coalfields know that the concept of a field really doesn’t exist here, outside of the ones where they play football and baseball. There’s a mountain, a road, a row of houses, a river or stream, railroad tracks, and then another mountain. If wide-open spaces are what you’re looking for, then this surely isn’t the place for you.
After 10 or so miles, I come upon the community of Wharton. Here, you’ll find a crumbling elementary school that has a shiny new gym of which tons of middle schools and even a couple high schools would be jealous. (The gym was paid for by a coal company. When coal times are good, there’s often great benefit in the community.) Wharton is also home to the Van High School Baseball Complex. State Champions: 1982, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993. I’ve heard stories from people far and wide who came all the way to Wharton just to get mowed down by the Bulldogs. I’d love to have seen one of those great ‘80s and ‘90s teams play here. The last time Van was in the title game was 2004, when they lost a 10-inning heartbreaker. The last few years, the Bulldogs have had to struggle just to get enough boys to field a team.
Once you get south of Wharton, there’s not all that many signs of life. You pass a few massive coal productions. There’s a whole lot of coal sitting on the ground, which isn’t a great sign. That just means they probably don’t need to get much more out of the ground right now. You can also make great time through this stretch. You just have to watch, because occasionally you’ll come upon a pothole big enough to swallow your whole vehicle.
When you get to the top of the mountain at the county line, if you look off to your right, you will see a gorgeous view that ranks right up there with the best in the state. It might just be my favorite. (You’ll have to ignore some of the trash that’s inevitably on the ground there. Oh, Southern WV.) If you take a left, you literally drive through the mountain and head towards Bolt and eventually Beckley. This is the preferred route from Madison to Beckley for those who aren’t afraid of driving a road with some curves. I head straight, though, and come down off the mountain and into Wyoming County.
Once you get all the way down off the mountain, you drop into Oceana. There are many nights that I’ll be taking a right to go down through Oceana to Westside High School in Clear Fork. I’m headed for the eastern side of the county tonight, though, so after a quick stop at the famous (for what I’m not exactly sure) Oceana McDonalds, I take a left on to Rt. 10.
On the way out of town, you pass the old Oceana High School. Oh, there’s some history in this school. Three-time AA boys’ basketball state champions. Four more trips to the title game. Bunches of trips to the state tournament. Growing up far away from here in the Eastern Panhandle, Oceana was always one of my favorite teams to watch at the state tournament. So many fans and supporters always came to watch, cheering and chanting in that Southern WV accent. Oceana is part of the reason I fell in love with Coalfield basketball long before I ever visited the region. Though the school is no longer in operation, there’s no question the spirit and tradition of Oceana basketball lives on at Westside. I would have loved to watch a game here.
(To bring the story full circle, Romney High School, the now defunct school in the town where I was raised, defeated Oceana in the 1960 AA basketball state championship. This is the only basketball state championship in Hampshire County history one of only two team state championships. Somewhere, there’s an old guy in Oceana talking about that time they lost to the great Bill Maphis, who went on to play at WVU.)
The next place of note that Rt. 10 takes me is Pineville, the seat of Wyoming County, where a beautiful courthouse sits majestically up on a hill overlooking the town. Perhaps the town’s biggest claim to fame, and certainly its biggest athletic claim, is football great Curt Warner. (No, not the grocery bagging, Super Bowl winning QB. That’s Kurt.) Warner won the Kennedy Award as the state’s top football player in 1978 after rushing for about a million yards his senior year. Many wrote him off since he came from such a small school playing against other small schools, but then he went on to lead Penn State in rushing for three seasons, was twice named an all-American, won a national championship, and had an 8-year career in the NFL. I would have loved to see him play in Pineville. The school still sits right in the heart of town, but the kids now attend Wyoming East.
I continue out of town on Rt. 10. (The road has merged with Rt. 16 at this point.) This time, my trip will end just short of Mullens. That town takes a back seat to no one when it comes to basketball tradition. The Rebels won 7 boys state championships, with the last of those coming in the school’s final season before consolidation in 1998. (Wyoming County teams had a flair for making a great state tournament run in the final year of the school. Mullens, Oceana, and Herndon all did it.) The most famous Mullens player would probably have to be Herbie Brooks (with great apologies to Willie Akers and others). Herbie’s 50 points against Parkersburg Catholic in the 1983 state tournament, is possibly the most iconic record and moment in the storied history of the tournament. Conley High School, an all-black school in Mullens, won the 1963 “A” title before integration, giving Mullens an added piece of hoops history and tradition. I’m told that all the banners still hang in the Mullens gym, even one commemorating “50.” (You don’t even have to say Herbie Brooks’ name. Just say the number “50” and most state basketball fans know exactly what you mean.) Consolidation has been more than 15 years ago now, but this tradition will never go away; it’s just combined with others now in Wyoming East. Oh, to have seen one of those great games at Mullens.
Anyway, I stop before I get to Mullens at the school in a community named New Richmond. New Richmond is really little more than a string of houses alongside the road. It’s roughly half way between Mullens and Pineville, and they found a wide spot big enough to build the school there. One of the great tragedies of consolidation is that the new schools are rarely built in town. I understand why they aren’t (combination of splitting distance and finding a place big enough to build), but it’s still a shame. There’s something so charming about a school being right in town, serving as the lifeblood of the community.
Wyoming East has been one of the state’s signature AA basketball programs since it opened for the 1998-99 season. (It’s one of the rare instances in the state when you thought a consolidation was going to produce great athletics and it actually did work out that way.) East has state titles in 2002, ’07, and ’08, title game losses in ’09 and ’10, and a few other tourney appearances. They would undoubtedly have more deep state tournament runs if it weren’t for some years when the school just down the road in Clear Fork knocked them off to claim county supremacy.
That Wyoming East and Westside rivalry is called the best in the state by many. I am one of those people. I have seen a bunch of games in a bunch of parts of the state, and with respects to the likes of Martinsburg/Hedgesville, Woodrow Wilson/Greenbrier East, etc., I’ve never seen it mean more to a community than it does in Wyoming County. It’s really the perfect storm. There are only two high schools in the county, and they are nearly identical. Each of the districts has one of the two biggest towns/population bases, and the schools are very similar in size. Each had a school going into it that had an outstanding basketball tradition. Heck, the actual physical schools are even almost identical, to the point where someone who is color blind could forget which school they were in. Both have really cool display cases honoring the storied traditions of the schools that combined to form them. And honestly, there’s not a whole lot else going on in Wyoming County. I’m quite familiar with the basketball rivalries in the Eastern Panhandle, and while they are wild for that night, people who live there have any number of things to do the next day. In Wyoming County, athletics, and particularly basketball, plays much more of a central role in the lives of its residents, even if it East vs. Westside now instead of Mullens vs. Oceana. That makes Wyoming County my type of place.
On this particular night, Wyoming East is playing the Scott Skyhawks. The boys from Madison likely took the same route I did to New Richmond, though they likely failed to appreciate it the same way I did. The visitors came away with the win, dropping the home standing Warriors to 0-2 on the season. Some of the natives are getting a little restless. A few leave the game early when they realize East’s fate in the game is sealed. I hear some others talking after the game filled with concern about the way the Warriors have started the season. This is very unfamiliar territory for those on the Eastern side of the county (and really the Western side too). East is young, starting 5 underclassmen. They’re talented, too, in need only of a few games to get going. They won’t be down for long. They never are in Wyoming County. Hasn’t history at least taught us that much?
When the game concludes, I head for home, only to make a trip back to the county within a couple weeks, I’m sure. Maybe next time I’ll take that right on to Rt. 10 and head towards Clear Fork. This drive is so unique, only it really isn’t. There are any number of these Coalfield roads that could take me back in time just as this one did, like Rt. 3 or Rt. 52. These roads would take me to places like Northfork, Harts Creek, and Williamson. Places where the great West Virginia traditions fade, but they never disappear.
(Photos Courtesy of Jack Withrow unless otherwise noted. If you have any photos relevant to this story that you would like to share, you can mail them to email@example.com.)