While it was not the first place I ever lived, Big Chimney WV was the place where I grew up, and is what I consider to be my hometown. I was surprised that I haven't been able to find a blog entry about Big Chimney, so I've taken it as my duty to write a little something about our town.
First off, I didn't actually live IN the unicorporated town of Big Chimney. Our place was across the Elk River from the town in an area that I didn't even think of as having a name until one day some government agency decided to erect signs naming our crook in the highway as "Milliken." Don't know where that name came from, and I can't recall the name ever being useful when giving directions. "Across the river from Big Chimney" was the most efficient way to describe the location of our neighborhood.
Big Chimney is about eight miles upriver from the mouth of the Elk River (northeast, but West Virginians don't use compass points to describe directions) , at Cooper's Creek. The mouth of the Elk River is in downtown Charleston WV, where the Elk joins the Great Kanawha (can-NAW-uh) River. The Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River at Pt Pleasant WV. So our little Elk River is part of the mighty Mississippi watershed, which is a primary reason Charleston and the Kanawha Valley was settled in the first place.
Another reason was the abundance of natural resources: coal, oil, gas, water and timber for example. One valuable minieral resource found locally is potassium nitrate, commonly known as saltpeter. Saltpeter is an important component in the making of explosives, first gunpower, and later dynamite. In trying to extract calcium from limestone, a 19th century experimenter got carbide instead. Carbide is a rock-like substance that gives off acetylene gas when exposed to water. One of the uses of carbide was to fuel the little lanterns that coal miners wore on their hard hats. In the town of Clendenin, about 10 miles further up the Elk River, the first Union Carbide plant was built to make the stuff.
When I was a kid, Charleston was to the chemical industry what Pittsburgh was to the steel industry. All the major players were there. Union Carbide was the largest employer with several major plants and the corporate R&D center in the Valley. Next was duPont, where my Dad and Grandfather worked. FMC, Dow Chemical, Diamond Shamrock and Monsanto were also large employers.
Some of the business and landmarks in Big Chimney:
- O.V. Smith & Sons Grocery Store: This is the first place I worked where I got a real paycheck. O.V. was still alive when I was a kid, although his sons Jim and Bill were running the business when I worked there. In the 60s, the Smiths added a hardware store, a furniture store, had a little strip mall with a couple of other tenants like the barber shop, and eventually built a second grocery store up the river about five miles, in Elkview. The grocery stores are still in operation, and being managed by Bill's son, Bob -- who is a definite knockoff of his grandfather, O.V.
- Big Chimney Elementary School: When I started school there in the 1st grade (we didn't have kindergarten in our school system), the school was a big white building that had been constructed early in the 20th century. It had one classroom for each grade, one through six, a special education classroom, an office and a kitchen. There wasn't a lunch room. Each teacher lined her kids up in the hallway,SAID A PRAYER, then marched to the kitchen to be served on trays, cafeteria style. Then you walked back to your room with your tray and ate. When everyone was done, you marched as a class back to the kitchen and dropped off your trays to be washed.While I was in the first grade, a 'new' building was built adjacent to the old one. It had six classrooms, the new offices, and a multipurpose room that served as both gym and cafeteria. We could actually get everyone in there all at once for lunch. It was cool! The old building was left standing, so there were now 12 classrooms, allowing each grade to be divided into two sections, with the dividing being done according to standardized test scores and grades.There was an old school bus garage on the property that our parents talked the school system into letting us refurb as a Scout building. Our folks replaced the dirt floor with concrete, my Dad hung new lighting and wired the place up, the windows were replaced, and the big old garage doors were replaced with a block wall. It was very cool to have this place of our own. I doubt that the school systems could support Scouting like this today.
- Big Chimney Baptist Church: Although we weren't big churchgoers when I was a kid, we connected to this church and my Dad was even baptized there. It became the sponsoring organization for our Scout Troop, but eventually did what many Baptist churches do -- it split into two congregations. The original building is now a branch library.
- Advent Christian Church: I didn't understand these folks who went to church on Saturday, even though I attended Sunday School there a couple of times with one of my buddies. The building is still there, although now instead of being hidden on a back street, it's right at the end of the 'new' Big Chimney bridge. Not sure what it's used for.
- Big Chimney Bridge: (the old one): Nothing special other than being a landmark. It was a one lane bridge across the Elk River, meaning that if someone was coming your way, you needed to pull over before getting on the bridge, and wait until that person cleared. I don't ever remember anyone honking their horn or getting impatient. Maybe it was because the person coming your way, or in front of you in the waiting line, was likely to be a friend and neighbor. Funny how folks lose their manners in big cities where no one knows anyone else.
- Chicken Shack: One of the several drive-in diners that were all around before McDonald's and Wendy's. It burned down one day when they had a kitchen fire. The story is that the guys of the Pinch Volunteer Fire Department showed up to put out the fire, but forgot to set the parking brake on the pumper truck. So it rolled backwards across the road and over the hill. No more Chicken Shack and no more firetruck.
- Dairy Queen: The Dairy Queen was built when I was in junior high. I ever worked there one summer. During the summer of 1969, Derald Rollyson, Mike Hively and I wore out the phone booth in the parking lot. We were all dating girls who lived in Clendenin (Derald and Mike were dating sisters). Our neighborhood was in the Charleston exchange (34x), so it was a long-distance call to Clendenin. But if you crossed the river, that area was served by the 965 exchange, and calls to Clendenin were local - meaning they cost a dime. So every evening, the three of us (and usually Deb Rollyson, Mark Hively and Deb Hively) all piled in one of Rollyson's VWs and went to the Dairy Queen. While one guy was talking to his girlfriend in the phone booth, everyone else would grab a cone or a shake and hang out.
- Charlie Six's Gulf Station: Classic post-war gas station. A little block building with one garage bay with a pit instead of a lift, two pumps and a little store. Charlie was probably in his 60s when I was a kid. He and Mrs Six would sit on stools behind the counter. If someone drove up for gas, Charlie would go out, pump the gas, wash the windshield and check the oil. Mrs Six ran the register and sold the goodies in the store. They had this unusual soda pop vending machine -- I never saw another like it. The machine was like a chest freezer in that you opened up a big lid on the top. The pop was in bottles of course. Rows of metal strips were mounted crosswise far enough up from the bottom of the chest, and far enough apart so that the bottles would hang between them. The right end of the strips were attached to the wall of the chest, but the other end was open to a channel that ran front to back in the chest. The width of this channel was enough to move the bottle around, but not enough to pull the bottle out. To get the bottle out, you moved it to a position where there was a gate. When you put you dime in the slot, the gate would release, and you could get that one bottle out. But the gate blocked any more bottles from getting out, and relocked once you got your one bottle out.The trick was that Charlie carried more flavors of pop than there were rows on the machine. So it could be that the bottle of Grape Nehi you wanted was at the trapped end of a row, and you would have to move all the bottles on that row to other rows to get your bottle of Grape out. If the machine was too full, there might not be enough space to move all the bottles off your row. Charlie was good about never filling the machine that full, and for mixing the bottles up enough so that whatever flavor you wanted was close to the front. But sometimes when he went out to pump gas, and if Mrs Six wasn't in the store, we would try to rearrange the bottles so when the next kid came in, it would be a pain to get his favorite flavor out (there were only about ten of us at any given time who were old enough to cross the road to Charlie's, and not old enough to drive).
- Little League Baseball field: I think it was Jim Hively who got Little League going in our area. The Hively's moved to the neighborhood from the exotic town of Sandusky Ohio when I was 4 or 5 years old. The boys, Mike and Mark, had played Little League in Sandusky, but we had no such thing in the Elk Valley. So one summer, Jim and a bunch of Dads assembled a league. The teams were the Big Chimney Indians (since the Hively's were Cleveland fans), the Pinch Tigers, the Elkview Braves, Blue Creek Cubs .. and I'm thinking there were a couple more. There was a minor league squad, and the major leaguers. I played a couple of years in the minors (Dad coached one year), and played at least one year in the majors. The majors were cool because you got a whole uniform: hat, button-up shirt, real baseball pants (wool of course), and even stirrup socks.The Big Chimney field was in a flat spot at the creek level, well below the main road. The good news was that the field was very level and made of the natural clay that was everywhere. The bad news was that it would easily flood in a big rain storm. But I spent many a day on that diamond.
- The River and The Island: The Elk River was lots of things to us. It was a natural barrier that caused us to plan travel routes that included driving miles to cross a bridge to get to a place I could see from my front porch. It was something that flooded, sometimes with disasterous results. If was a good place to go fishing and catch whopper catfish (some of the big channel cats looked like monsters). On a hot day, it was a great place to go swimming.There was some shoals and a permanent sand island just downstream from the mouth of Cooper's Creek. While the margins of the sand island might move around a little, the core of the island was kept in place by large trees that had probably been there for decades. You could camp on the island, and even build fires using the rounded lumps of coal that washed up. It would disappear in a flood. I saw a chest freezer full of food stuck in a tree about ten feet up after one flood.The whole river ran over shoals on either side of the island, and these shoales were only a foot or so deep in some places. It was great fun to sit in these shoals and let the power of the river push you downstream. I once had a catfish get caught in my swim trucks doing this very thing. If you had real guts, you could go upstream of the shoals, lie face down with your head downstream, and run the rapids. Usually a bad idea because you never knew if a sharp rock had become exposed (most of the rocks were well rounded).Downstream of the island was a deep pool where the river widened and slowed. Some of the older kids had hung a tire swing with a steel cable way up in a tree so that you could get up on the upper bank, and swing WAY out over the river. The downside was that you had to swim back to the bank, and even though the river ran slower here, that would usually mean getting out 50 yards downstream and having to walk back. If you didn't swim reasonably hard, you could easily end up a mile downstream.
Big Chimney is still there, as are many of these landmarks. But my friends are all gone, as are most of the parents (moved away or passed on). The access road for Interstate 79 was run along Cooper's Creek to mate up with a new, much higher and wider bridge just downriver from Smith's store. It doesn't feel so small and intimate any more. Rather it feels small and exposed. I think there are just a lot fewer trees around than there used to be.
It's just different.