Huntington, the Big City
When I was growing up I was reminded many times that I had been born in Huntington rather than in Louisa. My mother lived in Louisa at the time in a house on Water Street, so I envisioned that we must have been taken by ambulance to the Memorial Hospital in the west end of Huntington. I assumed it was because of some risk either with mom, or maybe me. In my old age I have figured out that perhaps my mother was temporarily living with my uncle, Dr. Loyal Wray, who had a practice in the big city. That fits and makes sense given her young age, a slight deformity she had as a result of a birth defect, the recent death of her grandfather, Dr. WW Wray, and that her mother was in ‘faraway’ Salt Lick, KY. I don’t ever remember seeing the hospital of mention. I think it was razed right after my birth, perhaps to insure no other such birth should damage its heretofore good reputation. Nonetheless, as I recanted in a recent article, I had a few occasions to make day trips to what was then the largest city in the great Mountain State. That honor now belongs to Charleston.
I do remember the shopping trips to Huntington, usually combined with a visit to some relative that I hardly knew. I think one was kin to the Chapman’s, the family of George Edward Chapman, Sr., the husband of Shirley Wray Chapman, a well-known math teacher at LHS. I recall visiting them in a pretty stone-faced house on one of the quieter streets. Their daughter was deeply involved with ballet and had been since her earliest age. She was now an older teen and had just been named ‘prima ballerina’ in her ballet troop. I recall that I thought she was pretty, but very thin, and several years my senior. I was not yet a teen-ager, yet she was nearing college age. I was too young to have any interest in her or her chosen vocation.
I remember that on one visit, the father of the house, whose name I long ago have forgotten, turned on his small-screened television. The whole crowd gathered, not just to see the TV, but the program was of national interest. It was the Jersey Joe Walcott fight of the century! On another trip I got to see Rocky Marciano fight. I remember everyone was excited and screaming after each brutal punch. I backed away in the crowd, not wanting to get hit, or splattered by the ample amount of blood flying around. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. I thought that perhaps this was how the crowds in the Roman Coliseum felt during the gladiator battles.
I mentioned in two earlier articles about going into Huntington to get my Cub Scout uniform. I was so proud and pleased to join the troop. Our troop met at the Christian Church on Madison once a week. I was pushed by the scoutmaster to learn the pledge, and other things so I might attain the exalted title of ‘tenderfoot.’ Some of the boys had already attained rank and were earning badges of merit. That required some memorization, not my strong suit, or developing a skill like knot tying, also not my strong suit.
I mentioned recently a trip by Bailey’s Cafeteria, and to Shoney’s. There were more trips, usually with purpose. A common visit included the West Virginia building downtown. It was a place I got to visit multiple times. The first floor had a large Walgreen’s with a lunch counter, miles of things like hair coloring, perfumes, greeting cards, and remedies, none of which were of much interest to this kid. They did have something I liked. It was a hot nut display. They would fry peanuts or cashews and sell you a little bag of the hot nuts. On one occasion I got to see and shake hands with Mr. Peanut! There he was in his shell, top hat, monocle, bow tie and shiny leather shoes. I think someone took a picture of us, but I don’t recall ever seeing the result. I had no idea that many years later I would be working in Suffolk, Virginia for the City that invented Mr. Peanut. I attended some receptions at the home of the Planters owner and enjoyed the history lessons that led to my meeting Mr. Peanut.
The West Virginia building is a grand fifteen story building that was the tallest building in West Virginia when built. It had a fine marble-trimmed lobby. There was a set of elevators that went all the way to the top floor. It was my first elevator ride and it felt as if I had left my stomach in the lobby. Afterward I settled and felt rather sophisticated for having accomplished one of life’s important feats. From the top I was taken to a window where I could look out at all the other buildings downtown. I remember seeing a bridge which mom told me went to Ohio. Just think! I was in West Virginia but I could actually see Ohio!
There was one time that we went on a tour of the TV station, Channel 3. This was the one I watched most often at home. It is likely that it may have been the one with the best reception. I got to see the news station ‘set,’ and several big box cameras on wheels so the newsman could be seen from several angles. There were lots of lights hanging from the ceiling and the set was so bright it nearly blinded me. It was hot, too. It felt as if you could melt in front of those strong lights. The guide showed us monitors of what was playing right then, and also showed us a bunch of engineers behind a wall of glass that would run commercials during the breaks. We saw a live commercial on another set, but I don’t remember the product. Maybe baking powder or something.
This was the same place that sometimes had country legends Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs playing around suppertime. Hank Williams also did performances and commercials there before his untimely passing. They did resend out some network shows from New York like “What’s my Line?” They had big national news stories broadcast, too, and some national entertainment programs. In those early days nearly all shows were broadcasted live. That meant if the performer made a mistake an awful lot of people would see what he did. Lucile Ball, Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, and Red Skelton shows were even better when they had goof-ups! Later others like Carol Burnet followed and America kept laughing. It was there in that studio in the West Virginia Building that early TV struggled to find its place in the American home. Growth of the industry would snowball over time when one channel turned into three, then eight, and finally into the hundreds. It went from a fuzzy black and white image to high definition via satellites and cable.
Other trips to Huntington took me to visit Marshall College (at that time) where Joan Carol Bailey took music lessons and Billy Elkins later played football. I went to the State Hospital where my uncle worked as their general practitioner, and where my mother had a job at a building supply center.
Sometimes when we went to Huntington we’d take the road through Fort Gay, up over a mountain with sharp horse-shoe curves, and through Wayne, WV. From there we drove on to Huntington. My aunt who drove a loaner car would fly up the road at 35 miles an hour. Oh, I know, the speed limit was a good bit higher than that, but Aunt Shirley was a ‘careful’ driver. Never mind that twenty cars were backed up behind her, some honking, and one or two were driving tractors. She would still go at her own pace. I would slide down in the seat in embarrassment, but that’s what kids do.
The other way was out through Fallsburg, then past Uncle John’s farm outside of Catlettsburg. From there we crossed the Big Sandy to Ceredo Kenova and then on to Huntington. Both took over an hour and both took us over some winding roads and steep mountains. I think the higher ones were on the Wayne road. A few times we took the train, loading of course at our depot. I loved the little whistle stops along the way, but I think mother was irritated when the train was flagged by too many. When I joined the Air Force years later I found myself traveling the same line once I got to Ashland. I had to travel across West Virginia and Virginia to get to coastal Newport News. Travel was less curvy and many times faster without my aunt at the helm.
The little railroad town was named Huntington after railroad magnet Collis Huntington. He had a big hand in the building of the transcontinental railroad. He was there when the golden spike was driven on Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, to connect both coasts and begin an amazing transition of our country. Of course Huntington had grown into a big city by the time I was born in that hospital somewhere in the western end. I learned over the years that the Huntington name seems to pop up now again in different areas. In California Collis also had Huntington Beach named after him. He built the C&O railway that ran from the Ohio all the way to Newport News point where he built the piers for shipping the coal mined from the Kentucky and West Virginia mountains. From there it was put on colliers and shipped out to the heavy industrial sites in the north, and then also overseas to fire the industrial revolution. He built the largest private shipyard in Newport News and had a park named for him right on the banks of the James River. He was smart, rich, and willing to take risks to continue building his businesses.
As antitrust laws strengthened and the economy was affected by an economic downturn, or two, and two major wars the overwhelming power of the railroads lessoned. Newer and faster highways brought competition from the trucking industry. Life changed for many. Huntington had enormous wealth and his heirs did well after his death. They took over the family business, but the time of that level of profits was past. Even today, his legacy, especially here in eastern Virginia, is still huge. When we think of the tunnels and bridges that helped the C&O grow and supply the nation’s needs, and its effect on our little valley, his influence was and remains substantial. Even though we didn’t know him, his life had a big effect on ours.
I remember going to a couple of shows at the Field House in Huntington. One was the Hadacol Show sponsored by a miracle medicine that was the rage in those days. I think had Carmen Mirada sang and flirted about the stage with her fruit-bearing hats and colorful outfit. The tallest man on earth was there standing at over nine feet. Memories the way they are could be confused and they may have been in different shows. I’m just not sure since I was a preschooler. Another show I saw at the fieldhouse was Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Trigger was there as was ‘Nelly Bell.’ I shyly asked for and got an autograph from Roy’s comic sidekick Pat Brady. This was ‘big time’ for us. While Huntington wasn’t New York, it was big enough for a little guy from a small town in Kentucky. We got to see some great events, some super stars, and the busy streets of a city.