Mar 16, 2020

guyandotte park

Staff works to improve river park 


NEW RICHMOND – Despite the slippery mud left by the early morning rain, 15 James Madison University staff members were hard at work in the Guyandotte River Park, near Wyoming County East High School, Wednesday morning. 

The group of university professionals was moving a wooden bridge back into place, and above the flood plain, after recent flooding moved it about 150 yards downriver, explained Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) president. 

RAIL created the roadside park several years ago. Part of the Coal Heritage Trail, the park is also a river access point for the 160-mile Guyandotte River Water Trail. 

With a kayak/canoe launch site in the park, RAIL has established the first four of 20 access points along the Guyandotte River, Houck said. 

Additionally, the university group was rebuilding walking trails around the park and clearing out the trash during their three-day stay. 

The group also planned to place a sign marking the spot where the “Fletcher Treasure” was discovered by the Boy Scouts in 2017. 

Wrapped in a deteriorating cloth, the large weathered box contained what appeared to be pearls, along with colorful beads and other jewelry items, tarnishing metals, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, along with old coins and paper money. 

A faded letter instructed the “finders to keep” the treasure and Houck gave it to the Scouts, who came from Huntington and were part of the summer’s Boy Scout Jamboree community service projects. 

“The letter said it belonged to the finders,” Houck said at the time. “They found it; they should take it with them as far as I’m concerned.” 

As to who buried the treasure, or when it was placed in the ground, or from where the loot could have come may always be in question, Houck maintained. 


Using their spring break from the university, the 15-member team is in the final phase of an intensive, year-long leadership program, known as IMPACT 3, explained Khalil Garriott, the university’s digital content director. 

“We’re trying to do our part to help the community,” Garriott said. 

However, the team also used the trip to build their working partnerships, improve communication, get to know each other better, while learning to work together and develop problem solving skills, he noted. 

Another leadership unit from the school spent their spring break volunteering with RAIL last year, Garriott said. 

“We’ve been building on what they did last year.”

May 16, 2018

AmeriCorps teams working to make a difference

AmeriCorps members have been working in conjunction with the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), housed in the Mullens Opportunity Center, for several years. The members have completed numerous projects at the center during that time, making a difference for the community.

The RAIL/AmeriCorps partnership is a winning combination, resulting in completed community projects and AmeriCorps members learning a variety of marketable skills.

“AmeriCorps is providing on the job training and community service that can help introduce new businesses into the coalfields,” according to Dewey Houck, president of RAIL.

In a partnership with Citizens Conservation Corps West Virginia (CCCWV) and Corporation for National and Community Service, four AmeriCorps members are performing community service work in Wyoming County.

The four AmeriCorps workers are assigned to RAIL and headquartered at the Mullens Opportunity Center.

In addition to maintaining RAIL projects that include the MOC, Guyandotte River Park, assisting at the area food bank, and numerous other community enhancement projects, the AmeriCorps members are learning a trade and exploring opportunities based on local attributes, Houck explained.

The team has removed the former steam heating system and is replacing it with an individual gas and electric heating system that will dramatically decrease the utilities cost at the Mullens Opportunity Center.

The MOC building, the former Mullens Grade School facility, is now almost 70 years old and keeping the plumbing, heating, and electrical system operational is an almost daily task, Houck noted.

“This kind of experience works well to prepare the team for starting a demolition and restoration business,” he said.

With no budget for maintenance, the work is completed at the MOC by volunteers and staff.

“That said, the entrepreneurial spirit is present and the AmeriCorps team continues to look at building business, based on the area’s natural resources, that will help build a new economic base,” Houck said.

Currently, timber is being taken out of Wyoming County that can jump start an industry of processing logs into authentic 17th century log home kits, Houck noted.

“A benefactor is providing the logs as well as specialized tools and equipment to build at least two prototype log houses

“The erected kits will be used to develop a cost/profit analyses and marketing program,” Houck said.

“All important in the training is to have volunteers such as Gary Runion, Reece Neely, Bobby Davis, and others provide professional guidance and expertise necessary to keep the MOC operational while finding other ways to improve their community,” Houck emphasized.

“Theresa McGraw, from Business Solutions, is very ably providing advice on how to start and maintain a business,” Houck said. “The AmeriCorps team is already setting aside funds to begin a business.”

At this point, the AmeriCorps team is made up of Chris Hicks, Ariel Martin, Ian Halsey, and Chris Trent.

The AmeriCorps term is six months with an option of serving an additional six months with approval of the sponsoring organization. AmeriCorps provides health insurance, a college education award of $2,907 after six months of service, as well as a living allowance of $490 on the first and 15th of each month.

Anyone interested in an AmeriCorps position is urged to phone Charlene Cook, MOC director, at 304-294-6188.

“RAIL is most proud to be affiliated with the AmeriCorps program and CCC WV,” Houck emphasized.

Citizens Conservation Corps West Virginia has an allocation of 12 AmeriCorps members, with eight assigned to the Twin Branch Recreational Facility in McDowell County and four assigned to the MOC in Wyoming County.


Apr 25, 2018

Mullens Spring Festival set May 9-12

The Avalons, family-oriented entertainers who perform rock-n-roll oldies, will headline the second annual Mullens Spring Festival.

Fallen Rock, a well-known Mullens area band, will be the featured performers Friday from 8 until 10 p.m.

The Spring Festival is scheduled May 9-12, Wednesday-Saturday, featuring carnival rides, by Myers Amusements, on the former Ray Wells Preowned Auto property.

Returning favorites include the Mullens Fire Department’s hot dog sale, Mullens Idol contest, Spaghetti Eating contest, among numerous popular activities, along with a variety of vendors.

Concerts and other events will be held at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), the former Mullens Grade School building, across from the carnival.

The Avalons, formerly Sh-Boom of Ohio, are a nationally-known band that performs music from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s along with comedic antics and audience participation. They will take the stage Saturday at 8 p.m.

The Avalons have shared the stage with such well-known artists as the Beach Boys, America, Four Tops, Temptations, Smothers Brothers, Vogues, Mamas and Papas, among numerous other stars.

Myers Amusements provided rides and other carnival activities for last year’s festival and, in previous years, for the Dogwood Festival, Dewey Houck, one of the organizers, explained.

“The Spring Festival is a feature, orchestrated by the City of Mullens, that is designed to have something for every member of the family – young and old,” Houck emphasized.

❖ On Wednesday, vendors will set up at 9 a.m. along with registration for the E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest, sponsored by BJW Printing, in the MOC gym. Divisions include kindergarten through fourth grade, fifth to eighth grades, and ninth grade to adult. There is a three-item limit.

The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at 5 p.m. in the MOC gym.

Myers Amusements will be open from 6 until 10 p.m., with a $20 hand-stamp special.

❖ On Thursday, vendors will open at 10 a.m. along with E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest registration in the MOC gym.

The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at noon in the MOC gym. Carnival rides will be open from 6 until 10 p.m., again with a $20 hand-stamp special.

Registration for the Mullens Idol contest, sponsored by KISS FM, will be conducted from 6 until 7 p.m. Prizes will be awarded to first, second and third place winners.

❖ On Friday, vendors again open at 10 a.m. along with the E.B. And Janet Weaver Memorial Art and Photography contest registration.

The fire department’s hot dog sale will begin at noon in the MOC gym.

The Dogwood Tree Planting Memorial ceremony, sponsored by Tankersley Funeral Home, will be conducted at 4 p.m. on the MOC stage.

Carnival rides will be open from 6 until 11 p.m., again with a $20 hand-stamp special.

Fallen Rock will be the featured performers from 8 until 10 p.m.

❖ On Saturday, Sidewalk Chalk, sponsored by Butch McNeely’s State Farm Insurance, is scheduled from 9 a.m. until noon.

Vendors will again open at 10 a.m. with judging for the art and photo contest.

The Kids Cake Championship, sponsored by Christy’s Creative Confections, is scheduled at noon for 8- to 12-year-olds and 13- to 16-year-olds. Prizes will be awarded for first place and runners-up along with certificates of participation for all those entered.

Myers Amusements rides will be open from 1 until 5 p.m. with a $20 hand-stamp special; then, re-open from 6 until 11 p.m. with a $20 hand-stamp special.

The Spaghetti Eating contest, sponsored by Second Street Station, is scheduled at 2 p.m. in front of the MOC stage for children ages 6 to 9 and 10 to 13. A $50 prize will be awarded to the winner of each age category.

Stoney Trent will perform as Elvis on stage at 4 p.m.

At 7 p.m., contest winners will be announced on stage.

The festival will culminate with The Avalons at 8 p.m. on the MOC stage.


Sep 24, 2017

Houck working to create opportunities for his community

By Mary Catherine Brooks


Dewey Houck, RAIL president, stands on a handicap access deck to the Guyandotte River that was built by the Boys Scouts during the 2013 Jamboree. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald

Dewey Houck has worked hard all his life. Today, at the age of 82, he is still working, but now as a volunteer and community leader.

After retiring from the railroad at the age of 55 in 1989, he went to work to give back to his beloved community.

Today, nearly three decades later, he is president of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) which has built a very successful community center in the former Mullens Grade School building. Known as the Mullens Opportunity Center, or MOC, the center houses a variety of activities, and opportunities, for residents.

You currently reside where?

I have a house in Roanoke, Va., that I share with my daughter. I am making my primary residence in Pierpont, in a house built especially for me by my friends. I also have a room at the MOC where I have lived since my wife died about a year ago.

How many children?

I have two children that I am very proud of. My son, who was born at the Mullens General Hospital in 1956, just retired from Boeing as a senior vice president. My daughter, born in Bluefield, is a medical doctor and Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Education, degrees:

I graduated from Mullens High School in 1955 and married fellow classmate Sheila Snyder. We joined in marriage that same year and began attending Concord College. After a year and half at Concord, I took a job with the Virginian Railroad in Mullens that was much better suited to my upbringing and educational capacity.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Pierpoint in 1934. We moved to Otsego, Mullens, Wyco, and then back to Pierpoint when I was in the fourth grade. I went through the eighth grade at Maben Grade school.

Dewey Houck, RAIL president, look over corn they are growing at the RAIL office in Mulleins. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald

Share a story that best typifies your childhood.

Like many youth of my culture, I quit high school in the ninth grade. Going from a small school, such as Maben, where many of the teachers taught two classes in the same room, I was not properly prepared for high school. The high school teachers taught the brightest and those of us who could not keep up were quickly getting failing grades.

Rather than being embarrassed, I took the easiest way out. I tried coal mining and truck driving, but pressure to get me back into high school, from my parents and other family, did not cease.

The best thing that ever happened to me was going back to high school where I met Miss Sheila Snyder.

The second try at high school presented no problems with grades, it was some of the best years of my life. I graduated the oldest in my class.

Who, or what, has been the biggest influence in your life and why?

My life began with a loving mother and father that were role models and taught me the value of family and community.

My wife instilled in me that we are all God’s children and we must do good for all and not discriminate.

My church (Presbyterian) taught me to witness by doing good for others.

I was fortunate to take a job with the Virginian Railroad in 1957. My career, with the railroad, that I felt was honest and well managed, supported my modest family lifestyle and now retirement.

All these influences shaped my life and prepared me to give back to the society that had given me a good life.

How would you best describe your work ethic?

I believe in, and practice doing, the best I can at whatever I attempt.

You were retired from the railroad, then organized RAIL; is that right?

I retired from the Norfolk Southern Railroad in Atlanta, Ga., in 1989 at the age of 55. The first 10 years of retirement were spent volunteering on projects that were meaningful, but had little effect on the society that had provided a good life for me and my family.

My health was good and I had a modest pension that would allow me to return to my favorite place in the world to spend a couple years doing community service in Wyoming County. I have spent most of my time here ever since and I hope to spend as much of my remaining years as possible here.

Dewey Houck, RAIL president, left, and Chris Hicks, Americorps, use a portable saw mill setup at the RAIL office in Mulleins. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald

How long ago was that?

In April 2001, I went to a Mullens City Commission meeting and offered to volunteer to do whatever I could to help the city. They gave me a recently completed, high quality Community Design Team plan and supported efforts to build the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, Inc. (RAIL).

The 2001 flood occurred before we could get the plan under way and I spent almost two years assisting with the flood cleanup.

You now drive from Roanoke, Va., to Mullens, W.Va., almost daily to essentially volunteer through RAIL. Why have you decided to do that?

When I first came back to Mullens, I lived with my brother Terry and his wife Bobbie during the week and returned to Roanoke for the weekend.

My wife was not in good health and we decided to continue living in Roanoke because of better medical facilities. Since my wife’s death last August, I have spent almost all of my time in Mullens.

What other types of jobs have you had?

I spent my 18th birthday working in a pony mine at Josephine, W.Va., earning $10 per day. My job was to derail runaway coal cars being pulled by a team of ponies to keep them from meeting head-on and killing or crippling each other.

I returned to a mechanized coal mine at Itmann while in college, working on the track for one summer. Had it not been for a family member working on the railroad, who had the influence to get a job for me, I would probably have gone back into the mines.

What did you hope to accomplish when you created RAIL?

My initial interest in volunteering was to find ways to help improve life quality for families living in the coalfields, with a strong interest on environment. My interest was not to demonstrate, but to take what we had and treat our mine-scarred lands as a resource.

One of my goals was to start a watershed association. With the efforts and guidance of RAIL AmeriCorps VISTA Kelly Jo Drey, a very successful and active watershed association (Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association) was founded as a non-profit corporation. When Kelly Jo left, UGWA floundered for several years and finally discontinued operation this year.

RAIL did a study to bring Groundwork USA, a federal program similar to RAIL, to Wyoming County. Although Groundwork was well funded, I did not feel it fit the needs of Wyoming County. Additionally, Groundwork would have to replace RAIL.

RAIL had made a good case to bring Groundwork to Wyoming County, but decided not give up its mission for Groundwork and abandoned its own efforts. Proponents at the federal and local level decided to take on the responsibility of establishing Groundwork in Wyoming County.

Now Groundwork, UGWA, and a dozen or so other similar startups in Wyoming County have failed since the 2001 flood with little visibility of their efforts.

After 16 years of service, RAIL is now more active than ever.

I feel like we have gone beyond what I had hoped for when RAIL was created in 2001.

Hopefully, what has been accomplished by RAIL will convince those that have resources to support its continued efforts.

Dewey Houck, RAIL president, looks over a repliica of a Virginian train in the museum of the RAIL office in Mulleins. (Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald

What do you enjoy most about it?

For me, it is most enjoyable to work with the wonderful and loyal staff and volunteers. Charlene Cook does a very good job managing the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC) which was the former Mullens Grade School. Her assistants include Joey Ashley, Tim McGraw, and Brenda Tilley.

The structures that surround the MOC would not be there without volunteer leader Gary Runion, who also is the first one that gets a call when the electricity or plumbing is malfunctioning.

The RAIL/CCCWV AmeriCorps team – which includes Chris Hicks, Matt Sink, and Wyatt Smith – are all important to maintaining the RAIL facilities and building parks and recreation facilities along the Coal Heritage Trail.

Ruby Ingram is doing an excellent job managing a garden startup program through a Berea College program.

And it is always exciting to work with college spring and fall break teams. University of Kentucky and William and Mary will be visiting in October.

Utilizing the 10,000 hours of volunteer service RAIL receives each year to build sustainable projects is very satisfying and educational for the staff.

For the 2018 spring break, Baltimore University and Delaware University will be here in March. Baltimore has spent their spring break for the past three years establishing an orchard on a nearby abandoned mountain farm.

A friend has provided RAIL a portable sawmill.

A friend has agreed to provide RAIL logs sufficient to build a 17th century hand-hewed log cabin at the former mountain farm orchard.

RAIL volunteers, staff, and AmeriCorps will bring all these resources together, with help from the spring break teams, and leave another tangible asset in Wyoming County.

Not only do we have an authentic mountain hand-hewed cabin, but we are hopeful that one or more of the AmeriCorps will start a business of building and marketing hand-hewed mountain cabins.

Building and marketing cabins meets one of RAIL’s goals of using local products in West Virginia to produce jobs.

I firmly believe that people living in the coalfields must solve their social and economic problems. And the best place to start solving those problems is with the young people.

Not much of this can be accomplished without sound management and the best leadership possible.

What frustrates you, or maybe limits you, as president of RAIL?

I will readily admit I am frustrated and disappointed that I am not able to accomplish as much as can be achieved based on available resources. I did not have the education, training, and had only limited energy and intellect which is essential to building a successful business. Perhaps attempting to start a new kind of business at the age of 67 limited my ability to do more.

I firmly believe that if we had a professional person equipped with energy, creativity, intellect, and the desire to help build a new economic base in the coalfields, RAIL would be a much more successful and sustainable organization.

Our local agencies are doing their job and can well use the versatility that a non-profit has to offer in helping build a new and prosperous social order.

The fact that I take no compensation for my labor and work long hours has allowed RAIL to operate somewhat successfully for the past 16 years.

At 82 years old, time, energy, intellect, and an old folk’s memory are taking a toll. I would like to have been and should have been gone from RAIL long ago, but finding someone that will work for nothing is difficult.

Sadly, and probably with good reason, funders do not like to fund operating costs which includes people, utilities, and other costs associated with running a business. Not much can happen without a business and I feel like our limited staff and volunteers have built a business worthy of support from agencies and foundations.

So I am frustrated that I cannot compete with other entities that have highly trained and educated grant writers.

How big a difference do you believe RAIL has made for Mullens?

I feel like RAIL has had a positive effect on Mullens. On a national, state, and local level, RAIL is small. Those of us that put our sweat and best efforts into building and maintaining RAIL programs and projects feel our results are effective.

Perhaps giving a synopsis of RAIL’s accomplishments in Mullens is in order. A good place to start is with salvaging and taking ownership of the former Mullens Grade School Complex, now called Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC).

The facilities are open to the public and used extensively as a community center. A healthy lifestyle and diabetes prevention and support are offered to the public as a service.

Volunteers have constructed a mini museum/information center patterned after a Virginian outlying telegraph office, concrete handicap access to river, high tunnel, garden complex, and outdoor theater.

Inside the MOC is a railroad museum, excellent fitness center, computer center, gym, two kitchens, and 22 rooms available for a host of uses.

Do you believe you can make a difference in Wyoming County through RAIL? How?

Yes, I think RAIL can help make a positive difference in Wyoming County – socially and economically.

Thanks to CCC WV, RAIL has an AmeriCorps program that not only is a powerful workforce, but it is preparing our young people to become leaders and assist them in starting businesses.

Thanks to the generosity of Pocahontas Land, RAIL now owns the former Itmann Grade School and has established a well-used roadside park along the Coal Heritage Trail.

The mission of RAIL is to help improve life quality for all families in the coalfields, focusing on Wyoming County needs and opportunities.

I would like to emphasize RAIL can only help solve the problems that exist in the coalfields. It takes us all working together to build a new and sustainable economic base.

You’ve been a proponent of saving the historic buildings in Mullens. Why? And, have you been successful in that?

I feel we need to save historic buildings to preserve their history and also to give local citizens a sense of pride in their community.

It is hard to feel good about your location when you are surrounded by decaying buildings.

In addition, the restoration provides needed jobs and is an excellent opportunity to teach our youth marketable skills.

What do you believe are the attributes of a successful leader? How do you incorporate these attributes as president of RAIL?

Leaders must have capacity to see positive possibilities where others see only negativity. Then leaders turn their dreams into workable plans. They find ways to share their plans that entice, and welcome, others to become involved in implementing the plans.

As RAIL president, I devote hours assessing needs and possibilities; then I work to pair each volunteer, and each employee, with the task for which they are best suited.

How do you want to be remembered after you’ve left RAIL?

If I am remembered as a man who cared for people, and the environment, and then put that caring into action to work for a better world, then I would feel my life was meaningful.

Anything you want to add?

I think of RAIL as people coming together to improve life quality for all families living in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. Without these people that have worked hard to better conditions in the coalfields, I would have nothing to write about.

July 26, 2017

Boy Scouts unearth ‘buried treasure’ in Wyoming County


Staff photos by Mary Catherine Brooks (2)Boy Scouts working in New Richmond Tuesday morning unearthed a large wooden box containing numerous items, including tarnished metals, colorful beads, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, old coins and paper money, among other items. A faded letter said the bounty belonged to the finders.

NEW RICHMOND — While Boy Scout Troops from across the nation have participated in community service projects across southern West Virginia, it was a West Virginia Troop that uncovered what appeared to be buried treasure Tuesday morning in Wyoming County.

Thirty-one Boy Scouts from the Huntington area, along with two more Scouts from Colorado, unearthed a large wooden box while constructing a foot bridge in Guyandotte Park, near Wyoming County East High School.

“We’re rich! We’re rich!” the Scouts chanted as four boys pulled their discovery from the ground.

Wrapped in a deteriorating cloth, there was a key to unlock the large weathered box. However, in the excitement and with Scouts pushing in to get a closer look, the key was lost in the dirt.

The lock was broken with the nearby digging tools to reveal pearls, colorful beads, jewelry, tarnishing metals, campaign buttons from the early 1900s, along with old coins and paper money.

Afterward, pandemonium ensued with Scouts and local volunteers wanting to get a closer look at the discovery.

With one Scout commanding all the items be placed back onto a rug where the new found wealth was laid out, the onlookers were much too curious to follow the instructions.

Some of the Scouts, however, doubted the authenticity of the discovery, wondering about the age of the items included in the weathered box and the gluey remains of a vanished sticker on the bottom of a small statue.

A faded letter instructed the “finders to keep” the treasure and Dewey Houck, president of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), said as far as he is concerned, that is exactly what will happen.

“The letter said it belonged to the finders,” Houck said.

“They found it; they should take it with them as far as I’m concerned.”

As to who buried the treasure, or when it was placed in the ground, or from where the loot could have come may be a mystery that is never solved.

  • • •

Under the direction of Houck and the RAIL staff, the Scouts were making improvements to the small roadside park on the Guyandotte, including new signage, improved walking paths, a river access point and a new foot bridge.

Much of the work on the park thus far has been completed with college students who participated in service projects during their spring breaks.

The park is one of several tourism projects Houck is coordinating to lure more visitors to the area.

— Email:


July 22, 2017

Boy Scout public service enhances Wyoming County, WV tourism development

The Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) has selected the Guyandotte River Park to hold a news conference on July 25 at 10:00 AM to demonstrate what can be accomplished and what it takes to get the best benefits from the Boy Scout community service initiative.  RAIL, that operates out of Mullens, WV, will be constructing two walk bridges, a sign for the park, a boat ramp for launching small river craft, and a PVC raft that will be used to clean up trash and fallen trees along the river.  This public park, owned and operated by RAIL, is situated on the Coal Heritage Trail (Route 16) between Wyoming East High School and New Richmond.  David Sebastiao, of Baltimore University, will be videoing the scouts’ work as an integral part of his documentary of the RAIL Guyandotte River projects.

Although RAIL is spearheading four days of Boy Scout initiatives it would not be possible without wide cooperation and support from other agencies.  Coal Heritage Highway Authority provided funding for the river project; Wyoming County EDA provided the guidance and connection to CCC WV essential to being awarded a day of Boy Scout community service.  CCC WV also provided materials and, more importantly, is sponsoring an AmeriCorps team to RAIL without which these and other community enhancements would not be possible.  WV DOH improved access to the site; Lowe’s of Beckley and Princeton donated materials and gave special attention to providing other materials that were purchased.  Gary Runion and other local volunteers have spent many hours getting materials ready for the days of building.  The Boy Scout community service initiative gives those living in southern West Virginia an opportunity to come together and demonstrate their strength in taking steps to build a new economic base.

All are invited to celebrate the Boy Scouts’ community service at a music program at the Mullens Opportunity Center, Tuesday, July 25, beginning at 8:00 PM.  The evening’s entertainment is Provided by RAIL.  Come and enjoy Buddy Allen and the Cheat River Band.

Feb 27, 2017

RAIL working to bring tourists into area


Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) is working to develop the area tourism industry, based on the region’s culture and heritage and naturally occurring attributes, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL president.

“RAIL is working on ways to transform mine-scarred lands into community assets such as parks and recreational facilities, mountain biking trails, and assuring the Great Eastern Trail is routed through the coalfields,” Houck explained.

“Geographically, the area RAIL serves is located within 500 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population and has great potential to prosper as a tourism destination,” he said.

“A new four-lane highway will soon connect Mullens to Interstates 64 and 77 by a 20-minute drive.

“The Coal Heritage Trail, the Guyandotte River Water Trail, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, and the planned Great Eastern Trail pass through the Mullens’ city limits,” Houck said.

At this point, however, Mullens is receiving few benefits from the projects, Houck said.

“RAIL has invested thousands of volunteer hours into making the area more tourism friendly,” Houck emphasized.

“It now needs to develop a professionally-managed, comprehensive plan and pull together a dedicated labor force to reach the full potential of the benefits of a tourism economy,” Houck noted.

The Rural Appalachian Improvement League staff and dozens of volunteers have breathed new life into the former Mullens Grade School building which sits on the banks of the Guyandotte River.

The center features camp sites for travelers and ATV riders, picnicking and fishing along the river, a coal/railroad museum, as well as both indoor and outdoor stages for concerts and other community events.

“The MOC is home for a fall and spring festival as well as many functions that bring people together,” Houck said.

The Mullens Opportunity Center, known locally as the MOC, now houses a variety of projects – from agriculture, to health and wellness, to tourism.

In addition to amenities for tourists, the three-acre parcel is home to a vibrant community center that also offers healthy living classes, a safe place to exercise, youth development programs, space for small businesses, agriculture programs that include community gardens and a seasonal farmer’s market.

Currently, RAIL does not have sufficient management capacity to fully utilize the amenities to produce a profit, Houck said.

“The MOC has very good profit potential and can become an important stop for ATV riders along the Hatfield-McCoy (Recreational) Trail.”


Feb 6, 2017

Youth work to improve communities


Through a partnership with the state Citizens Conservation Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service, RAIL has six new CCC AmeriCorps members, including, standing from second left, Kody Lester, Jacob Stewart, Matt Wilcox, Wyatt Smith along with, in front, Meredith Helmick and Whitney Mitchell. Also pictured are Joey Ashley, standing left, of the National Council on Aging, formerly Experience Works; Dorothy Horne, standing far right, of CCC, and Charlene Cook, of RAIL.

Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) is combining the talents of area youth with those who are more mature in an effort to improve the community.

Through a partnership with the state Citizens Conservation Corps and Corporation for National and Community Service, RAIL has six AmeriCorps members who recently joined the program.

Four positions through the National Council on Aging, formerly known as Experience Works, are also providing assistance for RAIL at no cost.

“Our goal is to train, prepare and assist this group in helping to build a new, improved social order and economic base in the coalfields,” Dewey Houck, RAIL president, said of the CCC AmeriCorps program.

“What we are attempting to do is take resources that are readily available, or at little cost, and use these resources wisely to help work our way out of poverty,” Houck said.

The program involving the youth is called West Virginia Coalfield Communities Conservation Corps and will be modeled along the same lines as the CCC program of the Great Depression era, Houck explained.

The federal program provides the youth a monthly living allowance and a $5,815 education scholarship following one year of service, he added.

Program participants include Matt Wilcox of Mullens, Kody Lester of Herndon, Whitney Mitchell of Indian Creek, along with Meredith Helmick, Jacob Stewart and Wyatt Smith, all of Pineville.

The high school graduates all indicated they want to stay in Wyoming County, Houck said, thus the program works to provide them the job skills to do that.

“A significant emphasis will be placed on utilizing their labor for developing business on lands damaged by coal mining and related industries,” Houck said.

Under the direction of Dorothy Horne, of CCC, which is part of Volunteer West Virginia, the Wyoming County participants are working in conjunction with those at the Twin Branch Adventure Facility in McDowell County.

As part of the education elements, the youth will be concentrating on environmental skills that include erosion control, wetlands, vegetation and stream banks.

Additionally, individualized training geared toward each participant’s interests will be integrated into his/her training.

Along with educational components of the program, the participants will be doing physical labor such as building community gardens, constructing trails, wild life enhancement projects, working with school gardening programs, and with the Mullens Opportunity Center’s agriculture projects.

“A portion of their labor will be dedicated to learning opportunities, such as specialized farming, building high tunnel greenhouses and producing specialty family farm products to include nuts, chestnuts, berries, mushrooms, poultry, beef, pork, and fish,” Houck said.

“Local business people have volunteered to mentor the participants.”

Horne said the group will also be assisting with special community events such concerts, craft shows, among others.

She noted the participants will be “job ready” when they complete the highly structured program.

Participating in the program will also build their confidence, Horne said.

“When they leave (the program), they know they can do whatever they need to do,” she emphasized.

The program goal is to help participants create at least three new businesses that will employ others, Houck said.

More than $72,000 in payroll benefits will be generated in Wyoming County due to the program, Houck emphasized, along with nearly $35,000 in scholarships.


Jan 30, 2017

MOC needs families for program


One of several programs now under way at the Mullens Opportunity Center, also known as the MOC, is a farming program available to 25 families in Wyoming County.

Families are being recruited now and those interested are urged to contact the MOC.

Developing specialty agricultural and energy programs is another way to help support families in the Appalachian coalfields, emphasized Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens.

The RAIL program is housed in the MOC.

“Berea College has just awarded RAIL a grant to assist 25 families with starting a vegetable garden,” Houck noted.

Assistance will be provided with plowing and planting, RAIL will also provide the seeds and tools, Houck said.

The gardens can be planted in whatever location the family wants, he added.

Additionally, participants will also be instructed on how to “can” their harvest.

“This is a pretty nifty program,” Houck emphasized.

For families that are interested, RAIL can also provide a high tunnel greenhouse at a reduced cost.

Ruby Ingram, who has managed the Farm to School program for RAIL, will manage the project.

“With the demise of the coal business economy, families must turn to other vocations to earn a livelihood if they desire to remain in coal country,” Houck said.

“For the past four years, RAIL has worked diligently to establish an agricultural program by managing a Farmers Market that accepts SNAP benefits in addition to establishing a Farmers CO-OP,” Houck said.

A $7,250 grant from WVU Appalachian Foodshed paid for an AmeriCorps VISTA member to help build the MOC into a model farming project.

Duquesne University donated $2,400 and a $1,000 fundraiser paid for a high tunnel, a watering system, tool house, and composting bin.

“The system is a small scale farming operation that can demonstrate the economic value as well as health benefits for local families,” Houck explained.

RAIL acquired its high tunnel from Grow Appalachia, a program at Berea College that fabricates high tunnels.

RAIL is now working with David Cook at Grow Appalachia, a subsidiary of Berea College, to fabricate and assemble components at its Commerce Center in Itmann.

“RAIL looks at high tunnels and greenhouses as a potentially lucrative business on mine-scarred lands, mountaintop removal sites, and old abandoned mountain farms,” Houck said.

“RAIL has reestablished an orchard on a former mountain farm that will provide fruit for all the local schools and those of need.

“The property has a gas well and high energy electric lines within sight.

“The property has a series of gas wells, and coal mining cleanup and AML sites within a four-mile radius.

“The area is very conducive to building solar farms and highly efficient gas-powered electricity turbine generators.

“The operation envisioned by RAIL would grow fresh vegetables year-round and produce surplus electricity for the grid.

“Most properties involved are owned by the Norfolk Southern Railway, who has been very supportive of RAIL programs. Norfolk Southern can provide rail service to transport heavy articles, such as gas turbines, that can provide enough electricity for the greenhouses and the entire county at 60 to 70 percent efficiency when supplemented by solar,” Houck noted.

“One site in the area would probably support a wind turbine.

“With the advancements in solar technology this can become a very profitable operation that could produce fresh vegetables as well as very environmentally-friendly energy that can be marketed through the local grid.”

Houck said, in 2015, UMW President Cecil Roberts called for the state Legislature to take advantage of a 1985 law that allows a state agency to issue public bonds to construct new power plants, using a public-private partnership.

“These are the kinds of opportunities that need to be explored,” Houck emphasized. “Give the people the tools they really need to help themselves – and that is energetic, creative, and professional leadership at the grassroots level and they will solve their own problems.”

The Mullens Opportunity Center is located at 300 Front Street in Mullens, in the former Mullens Grade School building.

For more information, phone 304-294-6188.


May 9, 2016

Mullens Opportunity Center will conduct farmers market

Photo courtesy of Dewey Houck

Butch McNeely, in orange shirt, State Farm agent in Mullens, assisted young adults in the garden at the Mullens Opportunity Center. McNeely arranged a $5,000 grant through State Farm to support the agriculture programs at the center.

Beginning in late June, the Mullens Opportunity Center staff will again offer free space for those who wish to sell their fresh produce this summer during their farmers market.

Charlene Cook, director of operations at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), and Ruby Ingram, Farm To School coordinator, have peas in the garden and half-runners in the high tunnel greenhouse to help boost the fresh produce that will be offered to those that support the farmers market at the center.

All who have a garden and wish to earn a little extra cash are urged to bring their extra produce to the MOC farmers market and offer it for sale.

“There is no fee to sell at the market and good produce goes quickly,” said Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

“The MOC hopes to provide produce through the SNAP program again this year,” Houck noted.

“Only those that sell their own produce and other goods will be welcome to sell their goods at the gardeners’ market,” he emphasized.

The free services and opportunities offered at the MOC are funded through many sources and volunteers, Houck explained.

Most importantly is Wyoming County Board of Education which provides the facility, Houck said.

The young adult labor is provided through a ROSS IES youth program which is funded through Region 1 Workforce.

Experience Works also provides labor through an older adult training program, Houck said.

Additionally, two AmeriCorps positions are provided through CCC West Virginia.

“RAIL must pay a fee for one AmeriCorps State and one AmeriCorps VISTA,” Houck noted.

Additionally, Butch McNeely, RAIL charter member and State Farm agent in Mullens, coordinated a $5,000 State Farm grant to assist with funding the Young Adult program at the center.

McNeely has supported the Mullens Opportunity Center since it opened in 2002, Houck said.


Nov 23, 2015

RAIL volunteers clear, research the ‘Lost Cemetery of Mullens’


Tim McGraw, right, and University of Kentucky volunteers identify and document African American graves from World War II in the “Lost Cemetery of Mullens.” The house in the background is where Nuriva coal tipple once stood, according to officials.

Several University of Kentucky students spent a weekend cleaning up and identifying grave sites in the “Lost Cemetery of Mullens,” along with local volunteers and staff from the Mullens Opportunity Center.

“Perched on a hillside across Slab Fork creek from the former coal camp of Nuriva, the cemetery is now a part of the city of Mullens,” explained Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) director.

The RAIL Culture and Heritage Team is currently researching graves in the cemetery, Houck said.

During a recent visit, team members discovered the graves of three African American veterans from World War II.

“In addition, several unmarked graves were uncovered, buried under fallen leaves, branches and other debris.

“Some believe the Chinese workers, who died from the Caloric tunnel collapse while the Virginian Railway was being constructed, are also buried in the cemetery,” Houck said.

The Mullens Opportunity Center and RAIL have hosted several spring break teams and other volunteers during the past year, Houck emphasized. “Teams from Duquesne, Ohio State, Northwestern, Connecticut, Baltimore, Christopher Newport, Elon, Kentucky, and Madonna High School…”

“Weirton committed more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service this past year,” he said.

“Wyoming County volunteers committed over 2,000 hours planning, supervising, and assisting the volunteers,” Houck noted.

“University spring break teams account for about half of RAIL volunteer efforts,” Houck said.

These community projects are possible due to support from Wyoming County Schools, which provides the MOC facilities to host volunteers during their stays, according to Houck.

“Volunteer hours are completely dedicated to projects that enhance the community.

“For example, a high tunnel and gardening complex was built at the MOC,” Houck said. “Flood debris was cleared along the Guyandotte River. Raised beds were also installed at local schools for gardening.”

In September, more than 50 people participated in a cleanup project at the historic Itmann Company Store building.

In addition, the Guyandotte River Park was cleaned up and a boat ramp was installed with the help of Wyoming County East High School students.

“A trail was also built along Milam Creek, and building repairs and other projects were completed, all helping to make Wyoming County a better place to live and attract businesses,” Houck said.

Five spring break teams are booked for the 2016 season, which begins the last week in February and ends the last week of March.

“RAIL is considering an AmeriCorps NCCC team that would arrive in May, with a team of 10 and stay for six to 10 weeks.

“Since 2000, RAIL has averaged over 10,000 (volunteer) hours per year and looks to exceed the average in 2015 and 2016,” Houck emphasized.


Oct 5, 2015

Volunteers working to save historic Itmann Co. Store


Elron University students hauled load after load of clothing and other debris from the Itmann Company Store to dumpsters Tuesday as part of the statewide Day to Serve observance. Area volunteers, bottom photo, armed with chainsaws, weed-eaters and brush hogs chewed through the brush and weeds overtaking the Itmann Company Store building Tuesday. The massive cleanup project was spearheaded by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

ITMANN – Area volunteers and a team of students and advisors from Elon University, in North Carolina, worked to clean up the iconic Itmann Company Store building, as well as begin construction of a “boat ramp” at the Guyandotte River Park, Tuesday, part of the statewide Day to Serve observance.

Once a picturesque testament to the early 20th century coal boom, the crumbling Itmann structure had become a community eyesore. Over the last few years, the historic facility has been seriously damaged by vandals, looted by thieves, overshadowed by thick brush and tall weeds, with portions used as a dump for tons of old clothing and other trash.

”This may be the most important project we’ve ever done,” emphasized Dewey Houck, executive director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

While men armed with chainsaws, weed-eaters and brush hogs chewed at the outside overgrowth, the students hauled load after load of clothing and other trash from the building to dumpsters provided by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Wyoming County Commission.

Houck said the property would be boarded up, at least temporarily, to secure the building and keep vandals from further destroying the facility until a plan could be devised to make the property a viable part of the community again.

“Everything takes money,” Houck noted. “As a non-profit, RAIL can get involved and at least get the property cleaned up with no cost to anybody.”

In cooperation with Billy Wayne Bailey, property owner, “the cleanup comes at a time when RAIL is working with local youth to assist with other community projects,” Houck said.

“We hope to get our youth program in operation later this fall,” Houck added. “That will provide a work team to keep the property clean and secure until a plan is developed to find the best use for it.

“We must all pull together to assure it’s not lost to decay.

“Hopefully, we can build a partnership of governments, resource providers, and others to begin a dialogue with Billy Wayne,” Houck said. “We need to determine if there might be some way to preserve the structure and include it in a plan to produce jobs in Wyoming County.”

Designed by Bluefield architect Alexander Mahood, the gigantic facility was constructed by Italian stonemasons in the mid 1920s. It housed the Pocahontas Fuel Company offices and store, as well as the post office, doctor’s office, among other services. The town was named after company president, Issac T. Mann. The mine and company store closed in the 1980s, and the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The 15 Elon University students, along with two advisors, were divided between cleaning up the Itmann property and assisting with the beginning phase of the Guyandotte River Park boat ramp.

The students are part of the university’s Gap Program, according to Elizabeth Coder, program coordinator.

The college freshman will not begin traditional campus courses until the next semester begins in January.

This semester, the students are being trained in leadership, environmental science and outdoor living skills.

Thus far, they have participated in a 25-day, 75-mile backpack hike through the Wind River Mountain Range in Wyoming, service projects in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D., and St. Louis, Mo., and will spend six weeks in Costa Rica before their semester ends.

“This is just the first phase,” explained Maria Dimengo, of RAIL, as volunteers cleared a path to the Guyandotte River from the small roadside park, near Wyoming County East High School.

When completed, park visitors may launch a small water craft from the ramp.

It is an effort to make the park and the river more “water craft friendly,” she said.

Additionally, the volunteers completed maintenance on the walking paths and picnic area in the park.


Sep 14, 2015

Agricultural programs expanding locally


A high tunnel greenhouse, pictured right, and gardens at the Mullens Opportunity Center can easily provide a large portion of food necessary to feed a large family, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL director. The MOC gardening practices are providing produce for the weekly farmers’ market. Pictured are Tim McGraw, left, and Ruby Ingram at the MOC garden complex which will produce fresh vegetables April-November. For more information or assistance in obtaining a high tunnel greenhouse at little or no cost, Houck is urging residents to phone the MOC at 304-294-6188.

Agricultural programs in Wyoming County are moving forward, including a Farm To School project and a farmers’ market, according to Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) director.

“Projects being implemented in 2015 are paving the way to establish agriculture as a new business in the southern West Virginia coalfields,” Houck said.

“A lot of people are involved in the process and I feel like we can help bring gardening back as a way of life in the coalfields,” Houck said.

“Since Secretary of Agriculture Walt Helmick visited Wyoming County in January, much has transpired to promote agriculture in the coalfields,” Houck noted.

Helmick discussed the benefits of high tunnel greenhouses, and other agricultural practices, with area farmers at the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC).

“Wyoming County residents and the local school system are proving to be a ready market for fresh fruits and produce.”

Ruby Ingram, an AmeriCorps member sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Education, established a Farm to School Program in the county.

Through the program, raised beds and other gardening practices were established at Herndon Consolidated Elementary and Middle, Mullens Middle and Mullens Elementary schools, Houck said.

The goal is for students to grow fresh vegetables for their school meals.

Lowe’s in Beckley provided lumber at no cost for the raised beds.

Also making contributions to the Farm to School program were Second Street Station, Tankersly Funeral Home, First Peoples Bank, Wyoming County Board of Education, First Community Bank, Leah Brewer and Charlene Cook.

Area businesses also provided additional resources, Houck said.

“The Farm to School Program will eventually connect farmers to schools so that local produce can be sold directly to the school,” Houck explained.

West Virginia University, through the Appalachian Foodshed Project, provided seed funding for a farmers’ market in Mullens.

The market has been conducted each Thursday at the MOC through the summer.

The Appalachian Foodshed Project is a program that assists West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky in expanding farming projects.

“Funding from the AFP Project made it possible to double SNAP and other benefits so those of need could receive twice the amount of their benefits,” Houck said. “Their funding also paid the cost for an AmeriCorps position and half the cost of a VISTA.”

Only local products can be sold at the farmers’ market, which will continue until the end of September.

Some vegetables from the MOC high tunnel greenhouse and fall crops will be sold as they become available later in the season.

Building a Farmers CO-OP is in the planning process in an effort to sell vegetables and fruits to the public and to the school system next year, he said.

Charlene Cook, along with Experience Works and ROSS IES workforces, have been able to use the MOC high tunnel greenhouse and gardens to provide an abundance of fresh vegetables to help get the farmers’ market established in Mullens, Houck said.

Local vendors as well as farmers from McDowell County are also selling their vegetables at the MOC market.

“The farming program would not have been possible without the help and momentum that came about through local volunteers and spring break teams from Ohio State, Baltimore University, Northwestern, Christopher Newport, and Duquesne,” Houck emphasized.

The volunteer effort, led by Gary Runion, provided more than 3,000 hours building the high tunnel complex.

Shirley Weaver, RAIL board member, spearheaded a fundraiser in her Florida hometown and raised $2,000.

Duquesne University participants coordinated a fundraiser that raised $2,400 to help jumpstart the agricultural program at the MOC, Houck noted.

“Although the mountainous area does not have large level parcels, there is more than enough space to feed the local population with plenty left over to market elsewhere,” Houck said.

“There is a demand for agricultural products that need little land and low investment to produce fruit, berries, nuts, mushrooms, honey, ginseng, pork, venison, goat and fish.

“By bringing together available resources and by applying human perseverance, farming can once again help support the livelihood of families in Appalachia.

“Once established, a high tunnel greenhouse and garden the size of the MOC complex can easily provide a large portion of food necessary to feed a large family,” he said.

The MOC garden complex includes a high tunnel greenhouse, vegetable garden, tool shed, watering system and compost bin that will produce fresh vegetables April through November.

“Through a USDA program, Wyoming County families are eligible to receive a high tunnel greenhouse at no cost or little cost,” Houck emphasized.

A high tunnel greenhouse can cost up to $10,000, Houck said.

For more information or assistance in obtaining a high tunnel greenhouse, Houck is urging residents to phone the MOC at 304-294-6188.


AUG 23, 2014

Rahall meets with miners on black lung issues


MULLENS — They came for hope — some with questions, some with myriad paperwork to claim federal black lung benefits, some pulling oxygen machines to help them breathe due to the debilitating lung disease.

The miners attending a meeting Friday in the Mullens Opportunity Center wanted to know that benefits they’d been promised would be delivered.

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., met with Wyoming County coal miners to discuss the changes in the laws regarding black lung benefits and the efforts under way now in Congress to overturn recent gains in the legislation.

Also talking with miners were Dennis Robertson, of the Bluestone Health Association; Joe Massey, president of the Fayette County and the National Black Lung Association; and Nancy Massey, who serves as secretary of the national organization; along with Sam Petsonk and Brenda Ellis, of the Wyoming County Black Lung Association.

Nancy Massey said her husband, Joe, deals with black lung health issues and uses oxygen.

“It’s no fun, when you’re trying to sleep,” she said, and you can hear your husband trying to breathe.

“And it doesn’t get any better. It just gets worse,” she said.

“The loss of a loved one to this debilitating disease is hard enough without having to jump through bureaucratic hoops,” Rahall told the group.

For several years, Rahall said he had introduced legislation to overturn Reagan-era changes to the black lung program. Those changes resulted in longtime and sick coal miners having to overcome new legal hurdles to claim their benefits, usually fighting against an array of lawyers. Rahall’s legislation, which U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd sponsored as an amendment to the new health care law in 2010, partially repealed those Reagan-era changes, and also made it easier for miners’ widows to claim benefits.

Byrd, in the final days of his life and in failing health himself, took the Senate floor to have language included in the Affordable Health Care Act that deemed any coal miner who has worked for 15 years in mining has the presumption of black lung disease, Rahall said.

Since that 2010 change in legislation, about 1,700 claims have been processed with more than 1,000 claims for surviving widows.

“There is a callous — and, let’s be honest, partisan — effort under way to undercut the programs designed to help treat the crippling effects of this terrible illness,” Rahall said.

“It may be that (the process) is so long and drawn out because, maybe, the coal miners won’t be with us to collect the benefits,” Rahall told the group.

“The too often callous treatment extended toward miners and surviving family members because of these burdensome requirements is being remedied, and I am so proud to have worked closely with Sen. Byrd to have helped make that happen,” Rahall said.

On average, Rahall said, it takes 42 months to process a claim for black lung benefits due to the backlog. He’s made suggestions that he believes will reduce that time to 34 months.

Dewey Houck, director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, along with Robertson and other panel members lauded Rahall’s continuing efforts to support coal miners.

“I want to thank our coal miners for laboring beneath the bowels of the earth to extract our energy … ,” Rahall said. “Unfortunately, their efforts are taken for granted in other places — especially the cities, where they just flip the lights on and don’t think about the sacrifices of our miners.”


July 14, 2014

AmeriCorps team, volunteers work on projects By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming, County Bureau Chief 

An AmeriCorps NCCC six-member team from Vicksburg, Miss., is spending 10 weeks in Mullens through the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL). On Friday, the team, along with local volunteers, will work at the Guyandotte River Park, located near Wyoming County East High School and part of the Coal Heritage Trail, according to Dewey Houck, RAIL director. The team will also assist with Wyco Church restoration efforts, a Friends of Milam Creek plan and Mullens Opportunity Center tourism enhancement projects. Ages 18-24, the group will be housed in the MOC, Houck said, and contribute more than 2,400 volunteer hours at no cost to the community, with the exception of their lodging. AmeriCorps NCCC is a federal program similar to the Citizens Conservation Corps of the 1930s. Sponsoring organizations, such as RAIL, must provide sleeping and cooking accommodations as well as community service projects, Houck noted. Sponsors must also provide a detailed grant application and concise project schedule. Team members provide their own transportation, purchase their food and cook their own meals, Houck said. “The Mullens Opportunity Center has facilities for teams such as NCCC, and MOC staff and volunteers are excellent hosts for out-of-town work crews,” Houck emphasized. “The NCCC team visit to Mullens is made possible by volunteers that make up RAIL that will orchestrate over 15,000 hours of volunteer service dedicated to community and economic development in southern West Virginia in 2014,” Houck said. Last year, three NCCC teams assisted with Boy Scout Community Service Initiative projects at the MOC, Houck said. Prior to 2013, six teams helped with flood cleanup, building the Tater Hill picnic pavilion, and constructing the MOC’s outdoor stage and Jack Feller Information Center.

See more at:

April 14, 2014

Free garden plots available for disabled individuals By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Free garden spaces are being made available to physically-challenged individuals at the Mullens Opportunity Center, in conjunction with the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), on a first-come, first-serve basis. Only a limited number of the small garden spots are available to those with such disabilities as arthritis, respiratory illnesses, among other physical limitations. Ergonomic tools will also be available for the physically-challenged gardeners, according to Charlene Cook, project director. Over the past few years, RAIL has sponsored multiple community gardens at the center, Cook said. “This year, we are making an extra effort to support physically-challenged persons,” she noted. “You may have COPD, or other chronic illnesses, and would like to plant a garden. We welcome you to the MOC.” Cook, with the Wyoming County Diabetes Coalition Healthy Lifestyle Program, and Faron Lucas, Experience Works, will co-direct the project. “We have raised beds and regular gardening spaces available with concrete walkway accessibility to accommodate gardeners with physical limitations,” she noted. The mission of RAIL is to improve life quality for families living in the coalfields and the Healthy Lifestyle program is an important component in that pursuit, Cook said.  “RAIL is managed by the people and for the residents in the coalfields, and we look to those that have a need to participate in the process. “Dealing with those who are plagued with arthritis would be a new specialized target, but we feel a good place to help bring comfort to those who suffer with joint pain,” she said.

For more information or to reserve a space, phone 304-294-6188.

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October 28, 2013

New roadside park being constructed By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

NEW RICHMOND — Work on a new roadside park, between Mullens and Pineville, is well under way, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

Creating the Guyandotte River Roadside Park/Outdoor Educational Center began in July as part of the Boy Scouts’ community service projects. With fires blazing and the sounds of tools shattering the riverside oasis, a team of students and staff from Butler University, in Indianapolis, Ind., completed three days of work, Oct. 17-19, clearing a picnic area and a walking trail that loops the park, Houck said. With the help of local volunteers, the students cut brush and trees, removed trash, constructed steps along the trail and placed picnic tables. The three-acre site, leased from Pocahontas Land, will be an engaging stop for travelers along the Coal Heritage Trail, Houck believes. “People traveling need a place to stop,” Houck noted. “This is such a beautiful spot; it’s a wonderful roadside park. “It’s just off the highway. “Everything will be handicap-accessible. “You will be able to put a canoe in the river here,” he added. “You’ll be able to watch the train from here. The train will be something that makes the park unique.” The picnic area sits atop a knoll overlooking the trail, the Guyandotte River as well as W. Va. 10/16. Additionally, Houck wants to create an outdoor classroom for students. Wyoming County East High School sits only half-a-mile away. “It would be an easy walk from the school,” Houck noted. He said students could conduct water testing, explore aquatic life, and study the environment. “Can you imagine a student who wouldn’t rather be here than the classroom?” asked Ann Pauley, of Harrisburg. Pauley is one of several retired professionals who serve as RAIL volunteers. She has written grants and completed other projects, Houck said. Thus far, Houck has completed work on the new park with volunteer labor, including Gary Runion and Wayne Compton, both of Mullens.

“They do all kinds of work for RAIL,” Houck explained. Darren Lusk will soon move in equipment to level the parking area. “We couldn’t do any of this without our volunteers,” Houck emphasized. The only cost will be $2,000 for guardrails, he said. The Butler students spent one entire day working in the rain, Pauley said. “They were wet and muddy; I didn’t hear any complaining,” she said. “We are thrilled to be in your community,” said Rachel Hahn, one of the student volunteers. “It’s been a joy. We hope everyone comes out to enjoy the Guyandotte River Park.” “It’s exciting to see the trail finished,” added Josh Etchberger, also one of the students. The students spent their fall break completing the work, staying in the Mullens Opportunity Center. Alex Petersen, also one of the student volunteers, has spent his last three autumn breaks doing volunteer work at similar locations. He said the students take such community service projects very seriously. “It’s one of the most powerful experiences,” Petersen emphasized.

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July 29, 2013

California troop, AmeriCorps volunteers team up in Mullens

By Mary Catherine Brooks Wyoming County Bureau Chief

MULLENS —Moving in tandem, Boy Scout Troop D207, of California, worked alongside an AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team at the Mullens Opportunity Center Tuesday.

The Scouts were building picnic tables that will be placed at the campsites, and the picnic areas, behind the center.

While the NCCC members assisted with the picnic table project, they also wheeled wheelbarrows of cement to complete a 120-foot handicap ramp that will allow visitors access to the Guyandotte River, which flows behind what was once the grade school building in Mullens.

Visitors with physical limitations may use their wheelchairs to fish, to picnic, or just sit by the water, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

The complete campground project has been in the making for nearly two years and now boasts 10 sites with electricity, water, and sewage services, Houck said.

Three primitive camp sites will sit on the banks of the river, he said.

Additionally, the new ramp provides easy access to the Guyandotte and a hiking trail is also under construction.

“Local people are taking advantage of this already,” Houck said of the campground. “We’ve had some who’ve rented a month at a time.”

Nearly 200 Scouts have participated and signed the “RAIL board,” with every state represented on the board.

“Everybody that works on this project signs the board,” Houck emphasized.

He also noted that AmeriCorps NCCC teams from years past have signed the various projects that have added to the numerous services offered at the MOC, including the outdoor stage for community events and the museum exhibiting the area’s coal and rail history.

Additionally, the Scouts worked to create river access on state Rt. 10, between Mullens and Pineville, on a three-acre roadside park that will be developed by RAIL, Houck noted.

Houck lauded his volunteers, most notably Gary Runion, who designed all the projects at the center and supervised construction.

He also complimented Charlene Cook, who works with all the teams, the volunteers, and mans the center daily.

“We’ve got about 35 volunteers and they all do a fantastic job,” Houck emphasized.

Houck said none of the projects would have been possible without the assistance of the AmeriCorps teams and volunteers.

“There’s no way we would have finished these projects without the help of the Scouts,” he said.

January 28, 2013

Volunteers spruce up church at Tams

By C.V. Moore Register-Herald Reporter

It’s midmorning, and a group of volunteers pauses its vacuuming and dusting to listen to a song of praise from the pulpit of New Salem Baptist Church in Tams. “I feel good, good, good down in my soul,” sings Queen Schoolfield, born and raised in Tams and a member of church ever since she was a little girl. Back in those days, New Salem was full to brimming every Sunday. So was Tams. Now, the congregation has dwindled to about a dozen regulars, and the church is the only building left standing in the abandoned coal camp. But community members hope to breathe new life into this spot as a cultural heritage site. Backing Schoolfield up in the choir are volunteers of all ages who are participating in the yearly Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. On Monday, the Appalachian Coal Country Team worked alongside the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s (RAIL) youth program to clean up the church, and an African American cemetery up the road. As he videotaped the performance, Dewey Houck, president of RAIL, said, “Coalfield history is important to us, and this is definitely a part of it.” When the hymns are over, it’s back to work. Wobbling on a ladder, a group of young people struggled to dismantle a ceiling light and rid it of dead insects. “I’m so happy they’re cleaning those lights,” said Schoolfield. “Thank the Lord.” There’s no question that New Salem is in need of some TLC, but it has obviously been well-loved by generations of congregants. Built in 1922, it served the black community of Tams through the heyday of coal mining in the Winding Gulf Coalfield of Raleigh County. Flanked by old portraits of its earliest pastors, its pulpit rises slightly above dozens of peach-colored pews. The late morning winter sunshine streams through its antique rolled glass windows, shaped in gothic arches. It strikes on old hymnals, fans printed with images of a black Jesus and plaques honoring congregants who have passed away. “In Loving Memory of Ivory Wiley Lavender,” reads one. “She was like Queenie. If you got around her, you got a blessing,” said Tom Cox of Stotesbury, a town right up the road. Cox is one of the leaders in the effort to restore historic structures along the Coal Heritage Trail and present them to visitors. As a boy, he sold loads of coal to area households, getting to know quite a few people in the Winding Gulf in the process. “This is the life of a coal camp, the church,” he said. “When we were kids, life revolved around the church, and that lifestyle is drying up. If we don’t save these structures, there’s a way of life that’s leaving here.” Like many of the coal towns around it, Tams has a rich history that lives on mostly in memory and a few photographs, since its abandonment in the mid-1980s. Founded in 1909 by the coal baron W.P. Tams, owner of The Gulf Smokeless Coal Co., its segregated neighborhoods included Upper Tams for African Americans and Hunk Hill for the foreign-born. Every house was painted white with green trim. “People often think West Virginia is an ethnically homogenous place, and this is one of the last physical relics in the Winding Gulf that is proof that that story isn’t entirely true,” said Jack Seitz, volunteer field coordinator for the Appalachian Coal Country Team. “I think it’s neat and important that it challenges that stereotype.” New Salem was one of two black churches in town; the three white churches were Baptist, Methodist and Catholic. After a 10-year community effort, New Salem will finally get a new roof this spring. There are plans to repaint as well. But it still needs running water, and even paying utility bills is a struggle. For years, Schoolfield has sold hot dogs and baked goods on the street in Beckley to keep the building heated. RAIL has a vision to turn places like New Salem Baptist Church into a basis for cultural tourism in southern West Virginia. They’d like to see the church on the National Register of Historic Places. They hope to restore the church at Wyco as a repository for coalfields history. They want to catalog and record coal camp culture by those who lived it. They see the Winding Gulf and its relics as a “Gateway to the Southern West Virginia Coalfields” on the Coal Heritage Trail. The trail includes 187 miles of “scenic industrial heritage” through a five-county region that reflects a “legacy of working-class culture, industrial might, racial and ethnic diversity,” according to trail promoters. “We’ve got to protect and restore our heritage to build a new economy,” said Seitz. ATV trails from nearby Burning Rock Off Road Park wind right past New Salem. That’s one market to be tapped, said Houck. Another are the people who left the coalfields when the industry went bust. “You’d be surprised the number of people in the summer who return here. They show up in my driveway looking for help finding this or that,” said Cox. “They are a part of our history and if we’re going to attract visitors to our community to see what it was like 50 years ago at the height of the coal boom, then we’ve got to preserve these churches,” said Houck. But the group says it needs more support to make it work, whether in the form of cash donations or additional volunteer organizers. They want to create the Coal Heritage Trail Coalition of Volunteers for Community Enrichment to see the organization’s goals through to completion. But on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, they had hands enough at least to spiff up New Salem and also clean up the abandoned St. Johns Church cemetery for the African American coal camp at Stotesbury. Those buried at St. Johns include black veterans from World War I. At least one served with the 803 Pioneer Infantry Battalion, as reflected on a gravestone. Local residents want to preserve the foundation and corner stone of the church; put up a memorial to African American miners; and dedicate the cemetery to WWI African American veterans. Daniels resident Glenda Apple showed up in Tams to volunteer after searching for a nearby project on the Day of Service’s official website. “When I saw what the project was, I thought it was very important for the area. I really think it’s worthwhile,” she said. Right away, Houck began recruiting her to become more deeply involved in the preservation work his organization wants to accomplish. Meanwhile, Tyler Stafford, a student at Wyoming County East High School, did janitorial duty in the church sanctuary. Stafford is a part of the West Virginia Coalfields Communities Youth Corps, RAIL’s youth program for high school students. They work 18 hours a week after school on various community development projects. They get a paycheck, experience and mentorship. “I’ve met a lot of people and made new friends,” said Stafford. “It’s fun.” The youth program’s director, Charlene Cook, said it teaches students a work ethic that will come in handy later. “Your future wives will thank me,” she told two teenage boys running a sweeper in the church basement. One room over, Schoolfield heats up water for cleaning. One day she hopes for a water hookup at the church, but for now she uses jugs that were purchased and hauled in. “I feel like a million dollars,” she says. For more information on the Rural Appalachian Improvement League’s efforts to restore relics at Tams, Stotesbury and other coalfield towns, visit, send an e-mail to, or call 304-294-6188.

F. BRIAN FERGUSON/THE REGISTER-HERALD=Volunteers Brantley Kirkland, left, and Robert McDaniel, right, do some repair work on the lights at the New Salem Baptist Church in Tames on Monday during the Martin Luther King Day of Volunteering in the Southern Coalfields.

Jan 28, 2013

Senior center set to relocate

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

This summer, the Wyoming County Council On Aging will move from the Itmann location to the former Big Lots building in Mullens.

“We’re excited,” said Jennifer Gibson, director. “Everything will be on one level. It will be easier for the seniors.”

The current facility, located in the former school building in Itmann, has been flooded multiple times and has sustained structural damage, Gibson explained.

“The corner is starting to crumble,” she said.

Engineers are checking the structure about every six months, so it is still safe for the time being, Gibson noted.

The Council On Aging purchased the supermarket portion of the Mullens building in addition to the adjoining three acres with state grant funding and some monies from the council, she said.

An architect has been hired to plan the new facility.

“This building has 15,000 square feet,” Gibson said of the new location. “With the (additional property) we can expand if we need to.

“With The Way next door, it will be a multi-generational site,” she emphasized.

The Way is a community youth center.

On Jan. 19, the President’s Day of National Service, several volunteers were helping to ready the building for the new occupants.

Among the New Coalition of Volunteers were the Rural Appalachian Improvement League and the Mullens Opportunity Center’s Coalfields Communities Youth Corps, a group of at risk youngsters, under the direction of Charlene Cook and Dewey Houck, among other groups.

“We are building an outstanding program for at risk youth, ages 14 to 21, at the MOC,” Houck said. “We are very proud of these kids and want to expose them to as much of the social environment as possible.

“Statistics tell us they will some day make up the bulk of population in our county.”

The volunteers were moving church pews that had been stored there while the historic Wyco Church is being restored.

“The first thing we’ll have to do is put on a new roof,” Gibson said as the volunteers moved the items from the frigid building.

She lauded the assistance of state Sens. Mike Green and Daniel Hall, Del. Linda Goode Phillips, and former Sen. Richard Browning in obtaining funding for the project.

“We’ll still be doing some fundraising,” Gibson said.

Additionally, volunteers will be working at the new site Saturday mornings to get ready for the move, she noted. All volunteers and organizations are welcome to participate.

The Wyoming County Council On Aging serves about 800 seniors a day, according to Gibson, through the center, Meals On Wheels, transportation, and in-home care programs.

The council’s meals program provides lunch in the center or home delivery, she said.

Transportation is also provided, through a center program, for seniors and the disabled to local doctor’s appointments, pharmacies, and shopping. Additionally, the van will provide transportation to the center, she said.

While the services are free, donations are accepted for the meals and transportation programs, she noted.

The Council on Aging also provides in-home personal care services for those in need. Eligibility guidelines can be explained by staff members.

The Itmann center is open Monday-Friday from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m.; phone 304-294-8800 for more information concerning available services.

The New Coalition Of Volunteers, as it exists today, Houck noted, is made up of volunteers from the Appalachian Coal Country Team, Rural Appalachian Improvement League, Wyoming County Diabetes Coalition, Appalachia Energy and Environment Partnership, Friends of the Appalachian Coal Country Team, Stotesbury Historical and Preservation Committee, Wyco Historical and Preservation Committee, Coalfields Communities Youth Corps, and others.

“The coalition is organized to provide a network of volunteers to maximize efforts performing community and economic development in the coalfields,” Houck explained.

“The coalition welcomes all that are interested in volunteering on projects that improves life-quality for families living in the Appalachian coalfields that have a tangible measurable outcome,” he said.

Nov 5, 2012

Museums showcase heritage

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

From the first settler in what is now Oceana to the railroad boom in Mullens, museums across Wyoming County are showcasing the origins of civilization, industry, and life through the centuries.

In Mullens, an AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) team, working with several local volunteers, completed painting the Jack Feller Coalfields History and Culture Information Center, or Feller Heritage Center, earlier this year.

The mini-museum houses exhibits focusing on the area’s railroading, coal mining, and timbering histories, along with other Appalachian legacies, according to Dewey Houck, president of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), which operates the center.

The structure is a replica of the Virginian Railway telegraph office, located in Ellett, Va., that controlled eastbound movement of trains through the mile-long Allegheny Tunnel, Houck explained.

Feller has written a series of books on the history of Mullens and is a Virginian Railroad enthusiast responsible for coordinating annual local tours for visiting railroad devotees, Houck said.

Feller was honored during ceremonies last fall at the Mullens Opportunity Center, where the mini museum is located.

W. H. “Bill” Wade donated the telegraph key used at the Mullens railroad station, Houck said. The telegraph will be a central part of the museum exhibits.

“In the early days of railroading, trains relied on the telegraph to keep up with trains moving from place to place,” Houck explained. “The mini museum will be furnished as an early telegraph office and flag stop for passengers to get on or off trains.

“Mullens sprang up as a railroading, coal mining, and timbering center of commerce — supporting almost two dozen coal camps, a lumber mill town, and other small communities,” Houck noted.

“Many of these sites have some remainder of history that can be pointed out and many have substantial evidence of a once thriving commercial base,” Houck said.

“Sponsors of the initiative envision the facility as a first stop for tourists exiting the Coalfields Expressway in Mullens who desire to visit local sites of interests or purchase local crafts or specialty agricultural products.

“When the Coalfields Expressway gets to Mullens, we want to be in some kind of condition to welcome people onto the Coal Heritage Trail,” Houck said of the center.

“The building (will) contain one large room, with half containing a replica of a mid-20th century railroad telegraph office,” Houck added.

The remainder of the structure will contain photographs and other displays.

The Wyoming County Historical Museum opened in 2010 in the bottom portion of Oceana’s former town hall building.

One year later, the museum was expanded into the upper level and is running out of room for the number of historical items people want to display, explained Betsy Ross, museum board treasurer.

The centerpiece of the museum is John Cooke’s rifle, which has been loaned to the museum by Mildred Shannon, widow of U.J. Shannon, a direct descendent of Cooke.

John Cooke is the first known permanent settler of Wyoming County. He built his cabin at the mouth of Laurel Fork, in what is today Oceana, in the late 1790s, according to historians. His gun is believed to have been constructed in the 1700s as well. Cooke fought in the Revolutionary War and fought against the Indians as a soldier, according to historians.

Additionally, prior to his death, historian Paul Ray Blankenship provided a brick, made by slaves on the McDonald Plantation, to the museum.

Capt. Edward McDonald is believed to be the third permanent settler of Wyoming County, in 1802. McDonald was the first to bring slaves into Wyoming County.

The 7,000-acre farm included barns, tool sheds, tobacco shelters, a blacksmith shop, a gristmill, among other structures.

“Some structures were made, at least partially, of pressed clay brick, so such facilities were also available on the plantation,” Blankenship said when he presented the item for exhibit.

The brick was discovered in the 1970s during some excavation near the location of the McDonald gristmill.

The area today is known as Crouch’s Farm.

In addition to the various exhibits, the museum also serves as an information center for the two Civil War Trails markers, located near Oceana, depicting two historic Civil War incidents that occurred in Wyoming County.

The museum’s board of directors is also working to organize the second annual Civil War Days reenactment, scheduled next spring, according to Ross.

Providing the living history demonstrations was the brainchild of Jesse Womack, the first museum board president.

Other smaller museums are also being planned in other areas of the county, depending on available funding, according to officials.

Sep 24, 2012

Annual farm parade slated Saturday

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Mullens’ year-long centennial celebration will continue with the annual farm parade Saturday, Sept. 29, at noon. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., will serve as grand marshal.

Tractors, along with horses and wagons, will be featured during the popular event.

Prizes will be awarded to the three best parade participants, according to organizers.

The parade coincides with Gov. Earl Tomblin’s Day to Serve, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

A weekend of service and celebration have been planned, Houck said.

Two AmeriCorps NCCC teams will arrive Friday, Sept. 28, “to assist local volunteers in building their community into a destination for travelers and guests who desire to come and enjoy the mountains and pleasing culture,” Houck said.

The Mullens Opportunity Center is the site for 10 RV/camper sites and 15 primitive camp sites.

“All the labor is being provided by volunteers and AmeriCorps,” Houck said. “This will be the eighth time NCCC has visited Mullens to help with community and economic development projects.

“Previous NCCC teams have assisted in building a full size outdoor theater in a setting that will accommodate over 1,000 people,” Houck noted.

“They also assisted in establishing Tater Hill Park and trail system, complete with a pavilion and overlook.

“Additionally, NCCC assisted in constructing a replica of a railroad remote telegraph office that serves as a mini museum/information center,” Houck said.

On Saturday, the work day will begin at 8 a.m., then participants will join in the parade.

Following the parade, prizes will be awarded, at the outdoor theater, for best in parade along with best dressed male and best dressed female in farmer outfits.

A cornbread and beans dinner will be served from 3 until 5 p.m. followed by a gospel sing beginning at 5 p.m.

On Sunday, Cheat River Band will perform beginning at 3 p.m.

Houck lauded volunteers Jimmy and Iris Manning, Dee and Ronnie Lusk, and Karen Bowers for their hard work in organizing the parade.

“Having volunteers take on projects, such as this, is very good for community building; that is so necessary in building a new economy,” Houck emphasized.

Aug 20, 2012

RV/camper park

 Ten RV/camper sites were completed Aug. 10-13 at the Mullens Opportunity Center, according to Dewey Houck, president of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) which operates the center. The group’s 11th AmeriCorps NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps) team worked with several local volunteers to construct the sites, clear the banks of the adjacent Guyandotte River for picnic tables, and to paint the Jack Feller Coalfields History and Culture Information Center. The sites will serve ATV riders and other visitors, Houck said. The project was funded through a state grant and much of the materials donated by Gordan Brooks, who grew up in Mullens and now owns an electrical services company in Roanoke, Va.

Sep 17, 2012

Feller Heritage Center set to open in Mullens

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Jack Feller was about three years old when his family moved to Mullens from Raleigh County. The 13-year-old city was bustling with money from the timber, coal and railroad industries.

Feller’s father, C.V. Feller, for whom the family-owned business is still named, moved his insurance business to Mullens.

“It’s probably the oldest family-owned business in Wyoming County,” Feller said of his family’s insurance business. Though he is retired, both his sons — Charles and Steve — now operate the business in Mullens and Oceana.

“They had just put in the streets, the water lines, and the sewer,” Feller said of his family’s move to Mullens.

In a sense, the city and Feller grew up together. The city was incorporated in 1912; Feller was born in 1922 and moved to Mullens in 1925.

About the same time, Mullens had three banks, Feller recalls. Two of the banks failed in the mid-1920s.

“The depression hit in Mullens before it hit the rest of the nation,” Feller said.

A.J. Mullins, city founder, and a few others bought one of the banks and created the Peoples Bank of Mullens, which today is First Peoples Bank.

Feller said there was a push to make Mullens the county seat of Wyoming County and Ben Dunham, a prominent citizen, would donate the land for the courthouse.

Of course that plan fell through and the land went to the site for what became Ben Dunham Elementary School, then later a high school, Feller said.

Feller did a series of five books on the history of Mullens, through 1946. He began the series in an effort to put his father’s large collection of photos and other memorabilia into some type of order.

He also began talking with people in his own age group and added to his own vast collection.

Then, he researched old newspaper articles along with high school newspapers and yearbooks to add to the collection.

“It was more of a scrapbook collection, things I had gathered up piece by piece,” he said. “Memories and photos, just like the title.”

The books are now sold out and much of Feller’s collection was lost in the July 8, 2001, flood in Mullens.

The Jack Feller Coalfields History and Culture Information Center, or more briefly the Feller Heritage Center, is expected to open later this fall at the Mullens Opportunity Center.

The mini museum will house items from the area’s railroad, coal, timber, and other Appalachian legacies, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), which is coordinating the project.

The structure is a replica of the Virginian Railway telegraph office, located in Ellett, Va., that controlled eastbound movement of trains through the mile-long Allegheny Tunnel.

While Feller’s love of Mullens’ history continues, he maintains someone else will have to pick up the gauntlet from 1946 to the present.

RAIL projects getting on track

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Jun 27, 2011

Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) will have 10 work teams this year, according to Dewey Houck, director.

One of the most recent was an eight-member team from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church of Centre County, Pa.

The trip was arranged by Laura Brown, a senior undergraduate studies adviser at Penn State University, Houck said.

“A lot of people take vacation to come here,” Houck said. “It intrigues me that people will take vacation to come here and work.”

Unitarian team members must earn the money to participate in a mission trip, Houck explained, adding this group brought $1,500 to purchase materials.

They sponsored a dinner and washed windows to raise the funds, Houck noted.

“They raise sufficient funds to pay for all the materials they use on a project,” he said.

In addition to working on the historic Wyco church, the group has assisted with work on three Mullens area houses, according to Ken Riznyk, a retired psychologist who worked for the state of Pennsylvania.

Additionally, the volunteers hauled off roofing shingles for an 88-year-old who had replaced his own roof but had no way to dispose of the old shingles.

One of the handicaps of working in the area is the lack of ready supplies, Riznyk said.

“If you need something, you’ve got to drive at least 45 minutes, then 45 minutes back,” he said. “Takes up a lot of the day.”

Riznyk has spent previous vacations in Puerto Rico and New Orleans helping to rehab housing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

“I’ve had a comfortable life,” Riznyk said, adding he wanted to help people who need it.

“I’ve been doing this for over 10 years,” Houck said, “and there is a satisfaction you get from volunteering and helping people.”

The four women in the group spent most of their time at the church, painting the newly-installed siding and other work, Houck said.

Built in 1917, the Wyco Independent Baptist Church was built for the community’s white miners and their families during the 20th century coal boom, when segregation was a way of life. Now owned by RAIL, the church hasn’t been used for services since the early 1980s.

The church was named to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 endangered properties list, and, in 2010, was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

Houck wants to restore the structure to its original grace and has been working to garner funding and volunteer labor.

He hopes to house a coal camp museum inside the restored church, complete with audio recordings of the area’s history now being made across the southern coalfields. He hopes to return the church to a community resource, as well as a place where visitors can meditate.

Restoration is being completed in phases, Houck notes.

A new road to the church has been constructed and a bridge over Allen Creek was built to create a path to the church.

Improvements to the church thus far will be showcased during a public event in July, Houck said.

Mar 22, 2010

N.Y. students plant trees in Mullens for spring break
By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Both Kayley Hanencrat, of Canton, Ohio, and Virginia Burger, of Minnesota, were making return trips.

Hanencrat’s parents also came down for the weekend to help plant 40 trees around the Mullens Opportunity Center, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

“I really love coming here,” Hanencrat said. “People here appreciate it so. It’s nice doing projects where the people are so appreciative.”

Burger returned for the third time last week.

“I’ve made friends here, real friends,” she said. “It’s nice to see how the work you did before is holding up, how it turned out.”

In addition to planting the trees, the students helped clear a Hatfied-McCoy ATV trail near Pineville, painted a bathroom in an area school, cleaned the pavilion in Mullens, among other projects.

Under the direction of RAIL, Houck said, more than 130 students from Columbia, Cornell, Illinois State, Michigan Tech, and University of Illinois Chicago will provide more than 4,000 hours of volunteer community service over the course of a month.

“The lure of our mountains is drawing young folks from universities during their spring break,” Houck said. “When so many young people choose to spend their time at play, it is encouraging that these students will spend their time assisting with projects in our area.

“It gives us hope for the future of the next generation. When so many young people are self-absorbed, it is wonderful to witness this kind of spirit,” he said.

Alongside local residents and AmeriCorps VISTA members, the college students will clean vacant storefront windows in Mullens to make space for local art work, help landscape parks and recreation areas, pull debris from streams and do stream bank restoration, assist with restoration of the Mullens Caboose Museum, among numerous other projects, according to Houck.

Additionally, the students are working in Stotesbury, hometown of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, to restore a local cemetery and Mark Twain School, Byrd’s alma mater.

“This effort is an attempt to salvage some of the history of the early 20th century coal boom culture,” Houck explained.

RAIL was founded by Houck, a Purpose Prize Fellow, who has volunteered for 10 years, utilizing the capacity of AmeriCorps programs and volunteers to build RAIL.

“These students are not only accomplishing important tasks that benefit society, but are working to achieve the goals of RAIL and that is to help people help themselves,” Houck emphasized.

Mar 22, 2010

New electrical system

In the coming weeks, Brooks will return to assist with the installation of motorhome sites at the center. Also pictured are Dewey Houck, Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) director, and Jim Kosowski, right, of Cliffs Natural Resources, which contributed $2,500 for the new electrical system.

Aug 7, 2010

 Historic Proportions

By Mary Catherine Brooks
Wyoming County Bureau Chief

Volunteers from Georgia stop for lunch Friday while working to restore the historic Wyco Church.

Chainsaw motors and pounding hammers shattered the quiet solitude of the hillside where the 93-year-old church sits overlooking the small coalfield community of Wyco Friday morning.

Built in 1917, the Wyco Independent Baptist Church was built for the community’s white miners and their families during the 20th century coal boom, when segregation was a way of life.

Now owned by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) in Mullens, the historic church hasn’t been used for services since the early 1980s and sits in disrepair.

Dewey Houck, RAIL director, wants to restore the structure to its original grace and has been working to garner funding and volunteer labor.

Houck hopes to house a coal camp museum inside the restored church, complete with audio recordings of the area’s history now being made across the southern coalfields. He hopes to return the church to a community resource, as well as a place where visitors can meditate.

The church was named to the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 endangered properties list; then, in March, was named to the National Register of Historic Places, opening the door for “a whole range of funding opportunities,” according to Lynn Stasick, statewide field representative for the Preservation Alliance.

Stasick has provided suggestions on what needs to be done to preserve the structure and assisted with getting the church placed on the prestigious lists.

Restoration is being completed in phases, Houck notes.

The first phase was to clean up the property and prevent further damage from the elements. The deteriorating roof has resulted in significant water damage inside the church.

With about $50,000 available in funding, a contractor will be hired to shore up and bring the structure back, Houck explained.

Then, volunteers will again step in and complete the work.

Houck believes the project will take another year.

Volunteers have been the backbone of the work completed over the last couple of years and a group from Atlanta, Ga., was busy during a return trip Friday. They will spend the weekend painting and cleaning.

The group cut down trees, cleared away brush,and worked inside the structure Friday.

Shirley Farmer Weaver, who grew up in Itmann, along with fellow First Presbyterian Church members from Douglasville, Ga., co-workers from Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., and other friends spent time working at the church last year.

“Dewey went to this church,” she explained. “This is very important to him, so it became very important to us.”

Weaver said she and her husband, Charles Weaver, met Houck when they volunteered after the July 2001 flood.

“He’s done a lot for southern Wyoming County and this was something we could do for him,” she added.

Both her parents as well as her husband’s parents still live in the area, she noted, and they hope to see a community reunion held in the church next year.

The Wyco church, however, is not the only church Houck hopes to save. He hopes to save as many old churches along the Coal Heritage Trail as possible. The trail is a nationally designated scenic highway showcasing the area’s coal history.

“This church will be the model,” he said. “I hope the rest of them won’t be as difficult as this one.

“This is what we have left — our coal culture — to sell to tourists,” Houck emphasized.

Aug 6, 2009

Volunteers begin preservation project
By Mary Catherine Brooks

Shirley Farmer Weaver, along with 16 of her fellow employees at Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., worked at the Wyco Church July 24-26, beginning the demolition phase of the restoration, according to Dewey Houck, executive director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL).

Wyco Church building is one of eight structures placed on Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 Endangered Properties list.

RAIL is seeking funding to fully restore the structure and grounds to original condition, Houck noted.

“When restored, Wyco Church will become a showcase and museum to depict rural coal boom culture and history,” Houck pledged.

“Shirley Weaver, whom I have known and worked with for awhile, approached us with a challenge about four months ago that involved volunteering for a mission opportunity in her hometown of Mullens,” explained David Adams, one of the volunteers from Lockheed.

“She explained that it would involve several people from her church in Douglasville (Ga.) and other co-workers from Lockheed to take a trip to the Mullens area which had been devastated by recent floods and neglected during economic turmoil,” he said.

“Shirley has family and friends in this part of West Virginia and felt compelled to do something extraordinary,” Adams said.

“Our group was touched by Shirley’s passion and sincerity and felt like it was time to do something for our neighbors in need,” Adams said. “We had seen all the pictures of the flooding and decided to roll up our sleeves and do what we could to help.”

Following several teleconferences with Houck, the Georgia group arrived ready to work on the church which has fallen into dangerous disrepair.

“Forty volunteers were prepared to do anything from tearing out ceiling tile to clearing brush, and building an outhouse on the property,” Adams said.

Volunteers from Weaver’s church, Douglasville (Ga.) Presbyterian, assisted with repairs to area homes damaged during flooding.

“Our Lockheed group from Georgia worked nonstop with the help of some local families that were so kind to feed, lodge and also work by our side for the two days that we were there,” Adams said.

“Our hope and dream is that the good folks from Mullens and surrounding areas will now continue to recruit people to assist in the project of preservation of this beautiful historic church. One day it will serve as a community center and museum for the local area to enjoy with their families and pass on the incredible coal mining legacy of West Virginia to their children and grandchildren for decades to come.”

Apr 9, 2009

RAIL works to preserve church
Mary Catherine Brooks

Now sitting in disrepair among the encroaching weeds and brush, Wyco Church was built by Wyoming Coal Co. in 1917 for the white miners and their families in the little coal community. The church has been placed on this year’s Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s endangered properties list, according to Karen Carper, executive director.

Coal baron Maj. W.T. Tams built Wyco in 1914, including a coal camp, superintendent’s house and two churches — one for white miners and families, another for African-American miners and their families.

That came after he had built Tams coal camp in Raleigh County, according to historians.

The second Wyco church, known today as Mount Grove Baptist Church, was built for African-American miners and their families, according to historians. The church is still active today.

Sometime in the 1990s, Wyco Church, near Mullens, was abandoned.

Since that time, the roof has become compromised and water intrusion has led to ongoing deterioration of the structure, according to Dewey Houck, director of the Rural Appalachian Improvement League.

In 2003, ownership of the church was transferred to RAIL.

Currently, RAIL is seeking assistance in it efforts to stabilize and eventually restore the historic church.

“Our best product is our historic structures,” Houck said. “Some of our buildings are gone; I hated to see that.

“Our mission is to clean up the city and create a tourist attraction,” he explained.

Walking trails, complete with brochures and markers, have been mapped through Mullens, showcasing the historic structures. New parks and gardens have been created and existing parks improved.

Houck hopes to save historic structures in the surrounding areas, such as Wyco, as well.

The historic church is part of this year’s diverse endangered properties.

“We have a church, a school, two historic hotels, a theater, a bridge, a private home and a historic homeless shelter,” Carper said.

Other properties include Hinton’s McCreery Hotel, Capitol Theatre of Wheeling, First Ward School of Elkins, Tyler County Home, Glenville Bridge and the Waldo Hotel of Clarksburg.

All properties are listed or eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and meet other criteria such as historic significance, geographic location, preservation emergency and resources available to resolve the endangerment.

A $75,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation Partners in the Field challenge grant will support services to these and other endangered West Virginia properties.

The grant will fund one new staff person at Preservation Alliance. The field services representative will work to provide on-site assistance to properties, help with redevelopment and sustainability plans and identify funding sources for preservation projects.

Jul 16, 2009

Group to preserve Wyco Church
By Mary Catherine Brooks

Wyco Church building is one of eight structures placed on Preservation Alliance of West Virginia’s 2009 Endangered Properties list.

The possibility of losing this icon of the coal boom has prompted one former Wyoming County resident to take action, according to Dewey Houck, director of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), which now owns the structure.

Shirley Farmer Weaver, along with 17 of her fellow employees at Lockheed Martin in Marietta, Ga., will begin preparing the structure for major repairs July 24, Houck said.

“Weaver, working from her home in Douglasville, Ga., has worked diligently to have everything in place to go to work bright and early on July 24,” Houck said.

“… (Weaver is) doing her part to save this stately building that is perched on a hillside above the former Wyco Coal Camp.”

Major W.T. Tams, a coal baron, built Wyco in 1914, including a coal camp, superintendent’s house, and two churches — one for white miners and families, another for African-American miners and their families.

This came after he had built Tams coal camp in Raleigh County, according to historians.

“At one time, Tams had 1,500 residents, making it larger than Beckley,” Houck explained. “Today, no families live at Tams and only two structures continue to exist.”

The second Wyco church building, known today as the Mount Grove Baptist Church, was constructed for African-American miners and their families, according to historians.

The rigid segregation of the Wyco coal camp continued for decades as ownership of the camp changed from Wyoming Coal Company to Amigo Smokeless Coal Company to Blackburn-Patterson Land Company, according to historians.

In 1962, the land company gave the Mount Grove Baptist Church to the African-American community, according to historians. The church remains active today.

Sometime in the 1990s, the Wyco Church, near Mullens, was abandoned and has fallen into disrepair.

“Wyco still survives and its residents are determined to save their homes as well as both their churches and the superintendent’s mansion,” Houck said. “Wyco sits just one mile off the Coal Heritage Trail and is within the Coal Heritage area.”

RAIL is seeking funding to fully restore the structure and grounds to original condition, Houck noted.

“When restored, Wyco Church will become a showcase and museum to depict rural coal boom culture and history,” he pledged.

The Wyoming County Commission has provided resources to slow deterioration, according to Houck.

Local legislators have also been “very supportive of salvaging Wyco Church as well as other historic landmarks in the coalfields,” Houck said.

Weaver, and the residents of Wyco, are encouraging volunteers to join them in beginning the restoration process, Houck emphasized. Interested volunteers are urged to contact Houck at 304-294-6188.

Along with the Lockheed Martin work crew, Weaver will accompany 16 volunteers from the Douglasville (Ga.) Presbyterian Church to repair homes damaged as a result of May flooding. All area church congregations, and others interested, are invited to join the volunteers at the Mullens Opportunity Center outdoor stage for worship services beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday, July 26.

Those in need of repairs due to the flooding are urged to contact Linda at 304-294-6188.

Apr 2, 2009

Junior Achievement awarded RAIL grant

The Mullens Project, part of Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), awarded a $1,000 grant to Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. to support the kick off of Junior Achievement’s “Entrepreneurial Education Initiative Project.”

This project will assist in providing approximately 40 Wyoming County youth “an experienced-based curriculum which will improve the lives of youth through work force development, providing greater opportunities in school and life,” according to Dewey Houck, director of RAIL.

The students will be selected from schools with 50 percent or more of the student body receiving free or reduced lunches.

Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. will create a learning laboratory within the classroom using a practical, interactive learning approach, Houck explained.

“The support of The Mullens Project is critical to teaching students to focus on the future, with the understanding needed to acquire an applied vision of the work force. Each young achiever is provided the opportunity to explore, think critically, and team build,” Houck said.

“RAIL and The Mullens Project is a guiding force in improving the lives of West Virginia children,” according to Houck. “Junior Achievement of West Virginia and the Advantage Valley Inc. is one of many non-profits who would not be able to complete their mission without the support and encouragement of The Mullens Project.”

Jun 19, 2008  

‘Sarge’ McGhee to be honored 

By Mary Catherine Brook 


William “Sarge” McGhee is a familiar face and a familiar voice in the Mullens area. His talents are exhibited across the city in the numerous murals depicting life as it was, and as it is, in the once-bustling railroad metropolis. 
McGhee, 86, will be honored with a Governor’s Service Award for Lifetime Achievement July 16 during a Faces of Leadership banquet, as part of the annual state volunteerism conference in the Charleston Civic Center. The awards honor those “who exemplify outstanding dedication to volunteerism and community service” in the state. 
McGhee’s work — from paintings to woodworking to writing to storytelling — can be seen in the storefronts across Mullens. 
“Due to the decline of the population of Mullens since the 1950s, the town was faced with empty storefronts and vacant parking lots,” according to a spokesperson for the West Virginia Commission for National and Community Service. “Seeing a need to salvage and preserve the culture of the town, town leaders asked McGhee to use his artistic talents to paint murals on vacant downtown buildings. McGhee’s only stipulation was that the people of the town share in their creation.” 
There are now nearly 25 murals in different locations — from churches, to the Veterans Memorial Building, to city hall. 
His artwork has become a tourist attraction as part of the Artisans Trail, coordinated through West Virginia State University and the Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL). 
“McGhee’s handiwork and legacy is a cornerstone for building an industry that will help revitalize a community that is desperate to become self-sustaining,” emphasized Dewey Houck, president of RAIL. 
McGhee has been honored numerous times for his contributions to the city, including as a West Virginia History Hero and as a finalist for the Governor’s Distinguished Arts Award for lifetime achievement. 
Painting and drawing, however, is only part of McGhee’s talent. He has written dozens of poems and stories, capturing the humble grace of a writer captivated by the world’s beauty as created by God. 
His alter ego — Samuel, the Hobo — is a well-known cartoon character to area residents. Samuel offers the simplest, and sometimes very profound, musings of someone with lots of time to contemplate the universe. 
McGhee’s family came to Mullens during the Depression, when he was just a lad of six. Men, who road the railroads and were known locally as hobos, would come to their door and McGhee’s mother would feed them. In turn, they would chop wood or do other chores for their meal. 
“They taught me to sketch and told me stories,” McGhee recalls. He has used those gifts in his own stories and sketches. 
“Samuel was a very important person in the Bible,” McGhee explains. “He was very wise. 
“Earnest Hemingway was a hobo,” he notes. 
After he graduated from high school, McGhee joined the Marines and served in both World War II and Korea for a time. 
“I served with people of all different nationalities and races, and I learned that everybody goes to the bathroom alike,” he said with a grin. 
He returned to Mullens and went to work for the railroad. He and his wife, Marjore, have been married for 62 years and have five children, six grandchildren, and one great grandchild. 
Today, he still shares his artistic ability by helping with the local theater group, painting the murals, and he is working on a second book of poems and short stories. 
His favorite art, however, might surprise people who do not know him well. 
“I love the art children do,” he said. “There are no lines, no rulers, no rules. To me, it is the most beautiful art, because it’s done freely.” 
McGhee wants no credit for his part in Mullens becoming known as “The Mural City,” but rather credits the men, women, and children who helped with the larger-than-life images that depict life in a small town and honor the sacrifices of veterans. 
“They brought paint. They would bring photographs and suggest this and that. They helped paint. What they did is just as important as what I did,” McGhee emphasizes. “Without them, I couldn’t have done it.”

May 29, 2008 

Mullens native keeps RAIL on track 

By Mary Catherine Brooks 


MULLENS — Dewey Houck is firmly committed to community service and he’s come home, at least in a manner of speaking, to improve the area. 
Houck grew up in Pierpoint and is a graduate of Mullens High School, but he and his family have lived in several locations since those early years. 
Though today, he and his wife, Sheila, make their home in Roanoke, Va., Houck returns at least once a week to Mullens in an effort to manage the non-profit agency Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL). 
RAIL was organized following the devastation of the July 8, 2001 flood, which nearly destroyed the tiny city of Mullens. 
“My heart has always been here,” Houck said from his office in the Mullens Opportunity Center, which is actually the former grade school building. The flood waters topped off at the first-floor ceiling in the building. 
Volunteers shoveled out the mud and muck, then cleaned and painted the facility. 
The building is once again alive with activity, due in great part to Houck, along with numerous other city residents and volunteers, he emphasizes. 
“We do use it as a business incubator — a space to start a business,” Houck said. “That gives them the opportunity to try it. That’s not only an opportunity, but another resource to build opportunity.” 
The building also houses adult education classes, a public computer center with high-speed Internet, spaces for exercise and other health programs, and hosts a variety of community events. 
RAIL also partners with groups to provide housing repairs and improvements for those in need. 
RAIL also spawned the creation of the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association, which works to improve water quality, thus improving public health and the environment. 
The agency has also assisted with the Brownfields Assessment Grant process, obtaining grant funding to identify contaminated land that can be improved and used for economic development purposes, along with the Blueprint Communities and Groundwork Wyoming County programs, which brings in funding for a variety of purposes. 
Houck is quick to give others the credit for improving Mullens — the volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, and local residents. 
“The best product I produce comes from the efforts of others,” he emphasized. 
A design team from West Virginia University created a plan for Mullens — a plan that would improve the aesthetic appeal, the economy, among other aspects of local life. 
“The plan was ready to go; all that was needed was someone to volunteer to implement that plan,” Houck said. 
“We started with 12 people, including the city commission at the time,” Houck explained. “I think Butch McNeely was the one who actually came up with ‘RAIL.’ It happened in about five minutes. 
“That first year (after the flood), we worked with out-of-town teams and tried to show them where they could do the most good,” Houck recalled. 
“That was our first big effort,” he said. 
“We had funds coming in from a lot of different places and teams of volunteers from a lot of different places. 
“We borrowed a van from Bob Graham (Council on Aging) to take these workers in and out of town, around to the jobs, and housed them at the Presbyterian Church. 
“We never had a sponsoring agency. We built from wherever we could find funding or resources,” he said. 
RAIL is now active in 13 southern West Virginia counties and those associated with the organization work “to destroy the root causes of poverty.” 
Among the supporting agencies that Houck found to be a gold mine for Mullens and RAIL is AmeriCorps VISTA. In the last few years, about two dozen VISTA members have spent time working to improve Mullens. 
“They’re young and energetic,” Houck said of the volunteers. 
Several of the VISTA members from other states have married local men and made Mullens their home, he noted. 
“They’re good people, and there seems to be something about these ol’ Mullens boys that appeal to the girls,” he joked. 
Many of them have found permanent employment in the area after their year of VISTA service has ended, making Mullens their adopted hometown. 
Without AmeriCorps programs, RAIL would not be in existence, Houck emphasizes. 
“AmeriCorps is the lifeblood of RAIL,” he said. “We are getting some of the best and it makes my job easier to get the best if their efforts become a part of the history.” 
RAIL volunteers, alongside VISTA members and area residents, work to improve the city in six areas, including community, economic development, environment, culture and heritage, adult education, and healthy lifestyle initiatives. 
“Our best product is our historic structures,” Houck said. “Some of our buildings are gone; I hated to see that. 
“Our mission is to clean up the city and create a tourist attraction,” he explained. 
Walking trails, complete with brochures and markers, have been mapped through the city, showcasing the historic structures. New parks and gardens have been created and existing parks improved. 
Currently, an Artisans Trail, to feature area artists who work in a variety of mediums, is being created through RAIL, coordinated by a VISTA member. 
An outdoor theatre is planned to promote the arts, among numerous other community improvement projects. 
Houck’s role, he said, is to recruit volunteers, manage the business, do the bookkeeping, write grants to sustain the funding, among other chores. 
“There’s lots and lots of work to all this,” he said. “We are a business and there are requirements.” 
Houck hopes to pass off the responsibilities to someone who will work to keep RAIL a success and, as a result, improve the area. 
“If my health holds (for another five years), I’ll be involved in some program that helps people who can’t help themselves,” he said. 
For 30 years, Houck worked for the railroad. He left high school and went to work in the mines. 
“I figured out it wasn’t much fun not having a high school diploma,” he recalled. 
So he returned to the classroom and graduated from Mullens High at the age of 20. 
The best part of going back to school was meeting his wife-to-be, Sheila Snyder. 
“We were married as soon as the school year was over,” he recalled. 
The two went on to Concord College after their wedding and made their home in Athens for a time. 
Married now for 52 years, the couple has also lived in Bluefield, Mullens, Atlanta, and now back in Roanoke. 
Though there have been some weeks that Houck has made nearly half-a-dozen trips back to Mullens, his wife has supported him completely. 
“She’s very supportive,” Houck said. “She loves the area like I do. We’re doing what we think needs to be done – paying back to society.” 
Houck’s faith in God has always been his strength, he believes. 
“Whatever I need, somehow it happens. That’s the way my life is,” he said. 
His most difficult lesson, he notes, “To talk less and listen more. 
“I have made many mistakes and have done things that produced bad results. However, my station in life has been set by my actions and I have much to be thankful for; therefore, I would not change anything. 
“I believe in the adage that ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger.’ 
“I’m content with what I have done; I’m content with my life. I’m enjoying my life; I’m never bored.”

Dec 6 2007

Groundwork Steering Committee Organizes

By Mary Catherine Brooks

Representatives from across Wyoming County are exploring the possibility of becoming part of the Groundwork USA Network, a national partnership of communities working to restore brownfields and to develop under-utilized land.

A dozen candidates for a steering committee, known as Groundwork Wyoming County, met Tuesday afternoon to begin work on the project, which will include an outline of sites across the county that can be developed for recreational opportunities, housing sites, and/or economic development.

“I want this to be a Wyoming County project, so everybody in Wyoming County feels like they have a part in this,” emphasized county Commissioner Silas Mullins.

All three municipalities — Mullens, Pineville, and Oceana – were represented, along with other areas, including Baileysville, Hanover, Pierpoint, the faith-based community, among others.

Two public meetings will be conducted this week to collect additional public input as to possible projects. Groundwork Wyoming County representatives will conduct a public meeting today, Dec. 10, from 4 until 6 p.m. at Wyoming County East High School in New Richmond. The group will conduct a second meeting Tuesday, Dec. 11, from 4 until 6 p.m. at Westside High School in Clear Fork.

In the past 10 years, most of the communities working as part of Groundwork USA to reclaim under-utilized land have been urban areas, such as Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colo.; and San Diego, Calif.

Wyoming County is the first entire county and the first exclusively rural area to participate, according to officials.

The county will participate as a pilot project, Mullins explained.

The steering committee will work with an initial grant of $15,000 – administered by Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) – to develop a feasibility study and create a strategic plan for developing sites that may include abandoned mine sites, industrial areas, and other possible points to create development.

Wyoming County qualified for the program as the result of a federal Brownfields Assessment Grant of $200,000 to identify contaminated land parcels for possible clean-up and development — in other words, turning the “brown,” or contaminated land to “green,” or useable.

The second phase of the project will be to obtain an $85,000 Groundwork USA grant to move forward with any possible projects; however, the grant must be matched by $25,000 from local sources each year for three years.

The steering committee can decide not to move forward, according to Peggy Pings, of the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program.

In the event the committee moves forward, it will become an independent, non-profit environmental business.

Several possible sites and projects have been tentatively outlined by RAIL, but the list is not all encompassing, noted Dvon Duncan, director.

One of the listed projects included clearing out derelict housing and abandoned vehicles.

“We have about 200 homes that have been abandoned in Wyoming County,” Mullins explained.

“We have about 100 trailers that are hindering our environment,” he added.

Whether the Groundwork Wyoming County project is pursued, Mullins pledged to continue working with other agencies to clean up the county.

Jan 5, 2007 

RAIL projects help put Mullens on track 

By Mary Catherine Brooks 


Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) was an idea to improve economic conditions as well as the quality of life in Mullens. 
“When I left Mullens in 1961, there were four new car dealerships, two theaters, a bowling alley, a wholesale grocery, three chain grocery stores, two furniture stores, Murphy’s, Bailey Lumber Company, the Dollar Store, and a dozen or more other profitable businesses,” explained Dewey Houck, who conceived RAIL. 
Houck has been retired for about 17 years. He began his railroad career in Mullens — his hometown. That career, however, took him to Bluefield, to Atlanta, Ga., and to Roanoke, Va., where he lives today. 
“When I returned 40 years later and took note that all these businesses were gone and many of the buildings were vacant, I think the sadness of seeing this wonderful little city suffering depression presented a challenge and I offered my time to help.” 
Houck has spent countless hours searching for grant money to fund RAIL projects, driving back and forth from Roanoke to Mullens, in addition to rolling up his sleeves and tackling the problems of his hometown. 
He is one of many who have volunteered time to improve economic conditions in Mullens, but his efforts have led RAIL to a remarkable success. 
“We started at the time of the flood,” Houck said of the non-profit organization. “We had a meeting scheduled July 9, but the flood happened July 8 — the day before.” 
The July 8, 2001 flood devastated the downtown business district, several of the buildings have been torn down. Some of the businesses did not re-open. Some of the residents left the area. However, business owners who chose to stay have worked to put new life into the small municipality, now known as the “Comeback City.” 
RAIL is housed in the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), which, at one time, was the community’s elementary school. “Opportunity” is indeed the keyword and the volunteer staff strive to make a difference for local residents. 
The former school building is now used for a variety of purposes, including space for the Wyoming County Day Report Center in which non-violent offenders are sentenced to community service and classes to help manage anger or other issues. 
The building also houses a community exercise room, computer classes, literacy program, offices for the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association, among other uses. 
In the future, some of the space may be used as a business incubator to assist small businesses. 
The building sits alongside the Guyandotte River, which has engulfed the facility on more than one occasion. The flood waters of July 8, 2001 put the high water mark at the second floor. Volunteers cleared the mud and made the building useable again. 
It is that volunteer spirit that is making a difference for Mullens, Houck believes. 
“I guess you might say RAIL was my brainchild, but an idea is of little consequence without the resources to make it happen,” Houck emphasized. 
Houck lauds numerous people, including those who serve on the board of directors, city officials, in addition to several volunteers who’ve worked alongside him to improve the city. He also emphasizes without the support of his wife, Sheila, he would not have been able to commit his efforts. 
“RAIL is a product of the people and had no sponsoring agency or organization, but it has had wonderful partners,” Houck explained. 
Some of those partners include Charles Pace, the attorney who helped establish RAIL’s non-profit status and organize the corporation; Frank Blackwell and the Wyoming County Board of Education, who provided the former school building; Marshall University, which provided an Internet center at the MOC, one of the most used in the state; AmeriCorps VISTA, through which volunteers have provided about 27,000 hours of service, Houck noted. 
“Early in the formation of RAIL, it became evident that domestic issues had to be addressed to attract business and commerce,” Houck explained. “Per the 2000 census, Wyoming County had a 25 percent poverty rate and 35 percent of the working age group had some sort of disability. 
“Wyoming County has one of the best high school graduation rates in the state, yet only 35 percent of residents over 25 have a high school equivalency… 
“Wyoming County is rich in natural resources, yet utilizes little of these resources to produce jobs.” 
After two years, RAIL volunteers identified six areas on which to focus attention, including economic development, community development, culture and heritage preservation, environmental issues, adult education, and improving life quality. 
They’ve done more than talk, they’ve put their grant money where their mouths are. 
RAIL owns one historic building and is taking steps to restore it and have it added to the National Historic Register, has nurtured the Mullens Community Theatre group in presenting locally-produced plays and music, founded the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association which is now a non-profit organization working to cleanup the watershed and improve the environment, established an adult literacy and GED program, as well as offered regular sessions addressing cancer, black lung, diabetes, and other chronic health problems, while encouraging residents to exercise regularly in the facility’s exercise room. 
Houck has been honored with several awards for his work, including “West Virginia Volunteer of the Year.” 
“Of course these recognitions were significant for all of us, but I think my most satisfying moment will come on Feb. 1 when a new professional executive director takes over the operation of RAIL,” Houck noted. 
Dvon Duncan will become the director, Houck said. She grew up in McGraws and left the area to pursue her career, he said. 
“To date RAIL has been managed by volunteers and has never had paid staff. I am proud of the fact that we have the credibility and gained necessary capacity to successfully compete on a national level for federal funding,” he added. 
RAIL successfully competed against more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations across the nation to obtain the funding for a director. 
“For the most part this work has been accomplished through volunteering,” Houck noted. “The most important thing that can be done to attract funding and sponsors, and indeed, to break the vicious cycle of persistent poverty, is for the community to demonstrate that it is willing to put forth its own effort to help itself. There is positive evidence that this is happening in Wyoming County.”

Dec 30, 2006

Envisioning a place where people can thrive
By Mary Catherine Brooks


Sam Petsonk, as part of his year of service at Rural Appalachian Improvement League, works at the Mullens Opportunity Center.
The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia
Sam Petsonk spends his days studying what drives poverty in a community and what can be done to change it.

“Entrenched poverty flies in the face of the American dream,” he explains.

Petsonk is about halfway through his one year of service at Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL), as part of the VISTA program. He works at the Mullens Opportunity Center, which, at one time, was the community’s elementary school.

On this day, he walks the halls of the former school building, explaining how each of the numerous rooms is now being utilized, and that includes everything from classes for non-violent offenders to a community exercise room to offices.

His cluttered second-floor office overlooks the railroad track as well as the Guyandotte River, which has engulfed the building on more than one occasion. The floodwaters of 2001 put the high water mark at the second floor. Volunteers cleared the mud and made the building useable again.

“This is a place people can come together to celebrate and foster a sense of community,” he emphasized of the community center.

Petsonk grew up just outside Morgantown, on a small farm. In the future, he hopes to own a small farm just outside a large city, also in West Virginia. For the 22-year-old, however, graduate school — most likely a law school — will come next.

Also, in his future, the young man sees more world travel.

“I want to experience the variety of human experiences,” he said.

“I’m not the kind of person who has an insatiable appetite for things or power. I’m thoroughly content with my days here — dinner at the Coffee Pot, spending time with my friends in Corinne Bottom.”

He’s studied at West Virginia University, at Hyderabad University in India, and is a graduate of Brandeis University.

“This is a great place to learn,” Petsonk said of Mullens. “It’s really beneficial to me.”

While he was searching for a place to complete his service, Petsonk said he kept making connections with people from southern West Virginia.

“I started to realize, the economics of West Virginia — the economic situation of southern West Virginia — is as complex as that in southern India.”

Through his studies and travel, Petsonk interacted with a “lot of wealthy people who are so far disconnected from the real world, they don’t realize what life in America is actually like.”

He felt like a fish out of water and believed he needed to get away from that type of environment before going on to graduate school.

“I wanted to deal with real problems,” he explained.

While Petsonk studied economics, liberal arts and philosophy, working in Mullens has helped him to get a first-hand look at issues that affect people in real life.

“I’m learning about the coal mine industry from real coal miners,” he said.

“I get to work with my hands every day. In this building, we’re always working on the plumbing, the pipes, the ceiling, something. I may be helping to fix up a house for someone.

“I really love this place,” he emphasized.

“There wasn’t anywhere else … no place I would be happier or make more of an impact,” Petsonk said.

“There is so much to love in this area.”

He also enjoys playing bluegrass music, and the Mullens Opportunity Center is becoming home to up-and-coming musical talent throughout the area during the open mic nights.

Petsonk believes cooperative projects linking government with the private sector may help address some of the poverty issues in southern West Virginia.

“That really hasn’t happened here as much as in other places,” he said, noting it is beginning to happen in Mingo County.

Officials also need to create a plan to determine how to take advantage of the Coalfields Expressway, once it is constructed in Wyoming County, Petsonk believes.

“Without a plan, this may just be a faster corridor out of West Virginia,” he said. “This is a concern that people here have voiced.”

Petsonk believes his role is to create a healthy place in which people can thrive, and come together for discussions about local issues.

“If people who come through here don’t have the opportunity to go out and get jobs, then all the discussions won’t amount to a hill of beans,” he emphasized.

Dec 7, 2006 

Coal miners updated on health, safety issues 

By Mary Catherine Brooks 


Providing coal miners with information concerning health and safety issues, as well as creating a dialogue between miners, lawmakers, attorneys, health care providers, and other officials was the focus of a public meeting Dec. 2 at the Mullens Opportunity Center. 
A vast variety of booklets and other information was provided, along with a panel discussion that included Rep. Nick Rahall; Dr. Edward L. Petsonk of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health; Joe Carter, president of United Mine Workers District 17; John Cline, attorney; Rocky McKinney, Mine Safety and Health Administration Mine Academy; among others. 
Debbie Johnson, of Bluestone Health Clinic, explained how the clinic staff can assist miners in filing for black lung benefits. 
Officials explained the lengthy, complicated, and, most often, frustrating process for trying to obtain black lung benefits. 
Dr. Petsonk, who is conducting a national “survey” to determine the prevalence and severity of lung disease among coal miners, said the number of lung diseases in miners are increasing, progressing rapidly, and are now being found in young miners, some in their 30s. 
“I thought I might see one case in my lifetime,” he said, adding he has seen numerous advanced cases. 
The “hot spot” for miner-related lung diseases — pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and emphysema — includes an area that encompasses connecting counties in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Virginia, the lung specialist said. 
There are no cures for the respiratory illnesses caused by coal mining, Dr. Petsonk explained, but there are available treatments. He encouraged miners to obtain regular chest x-rays, as well as avail themselves of available treatments. 
A few miners complained — some with obviously congested, choking coughs — that the system is designed to keep them from getting the benefits to which they are entitled. 
Laughter could be heard across the gym when MSHA dust sampling methods were discussed. The samples are collected in a manner that does not reflect the true amount of dust in which miners work, the miners agreed. Some of the miners contend the samples are collected in airways in the mines where most of the dust is blown away, and not in areas where miners actually work. Samples with higher readings are deemed inaccurate by officials, the miners told panelists. 
Rahall noted he wants to change the federal law so that a widow does not have to “reprove” her husband had black lung disease upon his death, even though he was awarded benefits prior to his death. 
Current laws, which randomly cut off benefits to recipients, are inequitable and unreasonable, Rahall contended. 
Rahall also discussed the MINER Act, signed into law in June, which was created to improve safety conditions inside the mine in the wake of a year “of unrelenting sorrow in our coalfields.” By Nov. 5, 45 coal miners had died across the United States this year, Rahall said. 
The new federal law requires more oxygen along escape routes in the mine, communication devices that link miners to rescuers on the surface, wireless tracking to help locate trapped miners, better preparedness for rescue teams, continuously updated emergency response plans, and mandates accidents be reported within 15 minutes, Rahall said. 
He wants to see future laws require the prohibition of belt entries to draw fresh air into a mine and the creation of employee refuges. 
“Under this administration,” Rahall said, “MSHA has operated in alliance with operators. It has not been the check it is supposed to be under the law. 
“But we now have a new administrator, Richard Stickler. He has pledged to change direction at MSHA. I hope that he does. I hope that his actions at MSHA live up to his name and that he is, in fact, a stickler for the safety of America’s miners as he moves to implement the requirements of the MINER Act. 
“That act is a good, solid step, but it is just one step in the effort needed to make our mines safer,” Rahall emphasized. “Inspections are critical. Enforcement is essential. And the ability of miners to stand up for safety, to speak out when they see problems in their work areas, to report violations without fear of reprisal, must be protected.” 
“Miners who weren’t able to make it to the event can pick up important information at the MOC about their rights and protections under the law, and about how they can send ideas to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) about new rules that would be helpful on the job,” emphasized Sam Petsonk, VISTA member, who organized the event. “MSHA is required to consider all credible comments, and to issue reasoned responses incorporating the suggestions into law.” 
Miners also participated in lung function testing and had the opportunity to talk with panel members individually. 
Future meetings are planned, Sam Petsonk noted. 
The meeting was sponsored by Bluestone Health Clinic in Princeton, United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds, Volunteers in Service to America, and Rural Appalachian Improvement League. 
For more information about miners’ health and safety, drug abuse in the mines, on-the-job injuries, state workers compensation, or other miners’ issues, contact Sam Petsonk, AmeriCorps VISTA, at Rural Appalachian Improvement League, P.O. Box 171, Mullens, WV 25882, or phone 294-6188.