RICHWOOD: Memories of the Past
The former News Stand store front
The Disneyland of My Youth
There is a small town in central West Virginia, between two mountains, in the valley, by the name of Richwood. You probably have never heard of it unless you live in West Virginia or were driving through West Virginia and got lost. Oh, it has a few claims to fame. At one time it was the Clothespin capital of the world. Of course not many people use wooden clothes pins anymore and the factory that made them left the area many years ago. Mike Barrett was born there and played basketball for Richwood High School and later for the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics. He won a gold medal. I saw it once on display in the lobby of the Cherry River National Bank on Main Street. The Cherry River National Bank is now long gone also. Jim Comstock, use to publish a newspaper in Richwood called The Hillbilly. The paper and Jim are also long gone. About the only thing Richwood is famous for now is its annual Ramp Festival. A ramp being a wild onion with a very strong scent. There is a legend that Jim Comstock once published The Hillbilly newspaper with ink made from ramps which gave the newspaper a very strong repugnant odor which caused the Postmaster of the United States to issue new guidelines on odoriferous things being sent through the United States postal system.
Like many small towns, Richwood's glory days are long gone. Time has passed it by. But at one time, Richwood was my Disneyland. It was where dreams came true. It was a magical place to be. Imagine the fictional town of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show. The kind of town everyone wishes their town could be.
Find Out More About Jim Comstock and West Virginia Hillbilly
The House on Cranberry Street Today
A Day Spent in Richwood
I never lived in Richwood. I was always a visitor. Spending weekends or a couple of weeks vacation or the entire summer with my two retired school teacher great aunts. Their house, to me, was like the castle at Disneyland. It was during a time when children could walk downtown by themselves with a pocket full of change and visit the Dime Store. (Although it should be noted that our great Aunts always gave us those rubber change purses to hold our money in. You know the kind. You squeeze both ends and the middle pops open. Or maybe those are long gone also.) Outside G.C. Murphy's was a mechanical horse you could ride for a dime. After the ride we would walk inside and go toy shopping in the basement of the store. Then walk back upstairs to the candy counter where they had fresh chocolate candy and freshly popped popcorn. It was several years later, at G.C. Murphy's that I purchased my very first hand held calculator. Fifteen dollars. Hand held calculators had just recently come out.
A walk down Main Street, past the Post Office, was a place called The News Stand. With large picture windows at the front and toys always displayed, it was fun just to stand there looking at the toys. Inside it reminded me of how an old fashioned store would have been. Shelves behind the counter filled with interesting toys and grocery products. If you wanted to see something you asked the old woman who worked there and she got it off the shelf for you. At the back of the store was an Ice Cream counter where we would order milk shake floats or sometimes pink lemonade which came with a paper straw. The place had wooden floors that creaked when you walked on them. Over to one side of the store were two pinball machines. Now, according to my great aunts, pinball was pretty much like gambling and we should stay away from them. Especially on Sundays. The only kinds of kids who played pinball machines were hippies and those who smoked cigarettes. So we only got to play the pinball machines on the rare occasions our great aunts weren't with us. One quarter for five balls.
Near the front door was one of those old fashioned weight machines. Put in a penny and it told your weight and a fortune. I remember having to stand on my tippy toes in order to look into the window where the weight was displayed.
Beside The News Stand was a door which always seemed to be locked. When we peered through the window of the door we could see stairs leading down and a big painted picture of Santa Claus with the words, "Santa's Workshop". It was on very rare occasions that were we ever able to get in there. Phone calls had to be made, times arranged and we would meet with Bob Smith, who owned the place. Following him down the darkened stairs we couldn't wait to see what wonderful toys awaited us. When we finally reached the bottom, he flicked a switch, the lights came on and even though it was the middle of summer, it really felt like we were in Santa's workshop. Toys of every description stacked from the floor to ceiling. It was the only store in town devoted to nothing but toys.
A look back to Richwood's Glory days
America Needs More Richwoods
After leaving the News Stand and Toyland, we would head over to the high school and lay in the grass and hunt for four leaf clovers. Sometimes we even found some. Then we headed to the swinging bridge, which actually swung when you walked across it. We would walk to the center of it, swaying it back and forth having a grand time. Then we would head down to the river below it where we would see how many times we could get rocks to skip across the top of the water.
If it was a hot day, we would walk down to The Falls, a local place the kids liked to swim in the river. We would find a place on a large rock as our base and then splash about in the rough waters of the Cherry River. Sometimes we would carry rocks from the banks of the river to middle and try to build a dam.
By about this time it was nearing lunchtime. We would walk back to town and have lunch at a small diner, the kind where waitresses still wore uniforms to wait on customers. The kind where you could sit at a booth or at the counter where you sat on a stool which spun around. The kind that displayed sliced pie in a glass display case. It was during a time when fifty cents was considered a good tip. I remember seeing my great aunt lay two quarters on the counter for our waitress and thinking that was two more games of pinball I could have played. Of course I could never tell her that.
After lunch, we would walk back on Main Street but this time on the opposite side where we would visit Dietz-Spencer Department Store. Our Aunts would have us try on new dungarees and shirts. After we each had something new and the sales lady put them in boxes and a large paper bag with handles, one of our Aunts would say, "charge it to my account". She wouldn't even have to tell her her name. Everyone knew everyone. She just wrote up what we bought and put it in a pile with other purchases of the day. No money exchanged hands, no credit cards sliding though a machine. She just wrote it down. Later a bill would be mailed at the end of the month and my great aunts would send them a check. It seemed so simple back then.
A Link to Richwood
- Richwood Postcards That's stood the test of time!
Here are some Postcards enjoyed by generations of Richwooders.
RIchwood Was More Than a Town: It Was An Adventure
Even though we had done a lot, there was still more daylight. They might take us up the mountain, walking of course, in hunt of raspberries or blackberries. Sometimes it would be a trek to the other side of town to the city pool and park where we would ride a merry go round, slide down the slide and swing on the swings. Or chase butterflies through the field.
In the evenings, we didn't watch television, we sat around and listened to the adults talk while we colored in coloring books or played a board game. Sometimes our great aunts would make us home-made play doh. At night, with the windows open and the cool mountain air cooling the rooms, we could hear the cars driving downtown, the sounds of people talking, crickets chirping and a wind rustling the leaves on the trees.
In the mornings, as you still lay in bed you could smell bacon and hear the sizzling in the frying pan, the smell of coffee drifting upstairs and the hushed voices of the adults as they spoke quiet as to not wake the children.
The dawn of a new day and new adventures awaited us. Wherever we went we walked. If it was rainy out and we needed groceries, a phone call to the store with what we needed and a delivery boy brought them to the door in an hour or so.
That was Richwood.
Just a town in the mountains whose better days are behind it. The store fronts are still there but today they mainly sit empty. All along Main Street. Empty. Boarded up. The Swinging Bridge is still there but it too is boarded up with a Danger/ No Trespassing sign hanging on it. My great aunts too, long gone, buried on a mountain overlooking their once vibrant town.
Their house still stands but it too slowly is overcome by the nature around it. All that remains are the memories of what once was.
Shortly after one of my great aunts passed away, I came across some of her writings. In one, she pondered the past, the present and the future of her town. It was 1944, while sitting at her typewriter in a room overlooking the town below when she typed, “I can see the headlights of cars downtown and hear their engines as they come over the mountain. One hundred years past, I wonder what stood where Richwood now sits? Tall pines, oaks, birch and of course cherry stood along the banks of the river. Perhaps an Indian tracking a deer. What about one hundred years from now when we are all gone? I think nature will reclaim the land.”
She was right.