5 QUESTIONS: John W. Miller on taking a deep dive into a small West Virginia town


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The Native American burial mound that lends Moundsville its name. | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The documentary “Moundsville,” which debuted on PBS in 2020, is the biography of a classic, small American town—Moundsville, WV (pop. 8,400). The town in northeast West Virginia sits along the Ohio River, at one of the intersections of Appalachia and Middle America. Crafted by John W. Miller and David Bernabo, the film tells the tale of Moundsville’s past, present, and possible future through the voices of its residents. It sidesteps the usual reflexive filters for media depictions of West Virginia in 2020, like the opioid crisis, coal, and Trump. Rather, it traces the town’s story from the Native American burial mound it is named after, through the rise and fall of industry—including stalwarts such as Fostoria glass and the Marx toy plant (did you enjoy Rock’em Sock’em robots as a kid?)—to the age of WalMart and shale gas. It winds up with a new generation trying to figure out Moundsville’s future. WestVirginiaVille editor Douglas John Imbrogno interviewed John W. Miller via e-mail for our ongoing “5 Questions” series—on intriguing people doing intriguing things with a West Virginia connection.


VIEW THE “MOUNDSVILLE” TRAILER at this on-demand Vimeo link: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/moundsville/305873404


1.

An historic image of a busy train depot from one of Moundsville’s heydays. | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

WESTVIRGINIAVILLE: How did you come to journalism and what was your interest in crafting a documentary such as “Moundsville”?

JOHN W. MILLER: I grew up in Belgium, where my parents from Maryland dropped an anchor after backpacking through Europe in the summer of 1976. My joke is they fled the terror of the Ford administration. I went to school in French. From afar, I was fascinated by America, and American newspapers. My parents are classical musicians. We didn’t have a TV or computer. My dad’s favorite newspaper, the International Herald Tribune (at the time, a joint venture between the New York Times and Washington Post) was the sexiest thing around. Crackling prose. Elections. Earthquakes. Baseball. Comics. I knew I wanted to be a part of that.


“I left the [Wall Street Journal] and started to cast around for a big, creative project that would satisfy my yearning to do something different.”


I worked my way from a small magazine to Time to the Wall Street Journal, which moved me to Pittsburgh in 2011, to cover global mining and steel. That’s how I discovered West Virginia. I loved everything about working at the Wall Street Journal: the people, the quality of work that was expected, the assignments (to 40 countries). Then, as the 2016 election happened, I had a crisis. It was very painful to fall out of love with a job—but I knew I wanted to pursue something deep and meaningful about what was happening in the world, and America. So I left the paper and started to cast around for a big, creative project that would satisfy my yearning to do something different. I met the filmmaker Dave Bernabo and proposed we do a documentary, about Moundsville. 


John W. Miller, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, co-produced the 2020 documentary “Moundsville” along with Pittsburgh-based filmmaker David Bernabo.

2.

WV: What was the original impetus behind wishing to do a documentary on a small town in West Virginia? What were some of the compelling reasons why you wished to study the story—the history, the current state of the town and beyond—of Moundsville?

JOHN W. MILLER: Moundsville is the most fascinating American town I’ve ever visited. Having grown up overseas, traveling around America is always revealing to me—not just about the particular place I’m visiting, but about the whole country. Every place tells a bigger story. And, in that sense, Moundsville is the most revealing—the biggest story. That bump in the middle of the town was built by humans who lived here 2,200 years ago. How many small towns have that? It’s a connection to this pre-Columbian world that existed for thousands and thousands of years that Americans almost never think about.


“One way to look at Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency is that he’s been selling ghosts: ‘Vote for me and I’ll resurrect the 1950s.’ And here’s a town that actually markets ghosts. It’s perfect.”


The contemporary town was settled around the start of this little blip in history called the United States, when the Ohio River was the frontier. Moundsville incarnates—more than any other place I’ve ever seen—the American capitalism that stretched from the industrial revolution in the 19th century to globalization in the late 20th and early 21st. That prosperity was deep and transformative, and forged these myths about what America should be—a dreamy place where people get jobs for life and build big homes.


“As a baby Boomer, I grew up in a time when business was flourishing in Moundsville,” says town historian Gary Rider. “You always had somewhere to go.” | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

In Moundsville’s current struggles, I find it so representative. It’s still a nice place to live. There’s still work. But it’s just not as prosperous. But you still have these people trying new stuff and being energetic and entrepreneurial. Most people are not on opioids. Instead, they’re hustling, trying to crack the code. I love that.

And there’s the ghost economy. Moundsville has this pretty good business selling paranormal quests at the former state prison and other kinds of ghost hunting. And one way to look at Trump’s 2016 campaign and presidency is that he’s been selling ghosts: ‘Vote for me and I’ll resurrect the 1950s.’ And here’s a town that actually markets ghosts. It’s perfect. And because Moundsville is this perfect place to tell a bigger story about America, it’s also a template for how we can still have a shared narrative about this country, a story we all agree is true. We’ve screened to conservative and liberal audiences, and gotten appreciation from both, which has made for these great, open-minded earnest conversations after and around the film. I’m proud of that.


From the top of the Native American mound at the heart of Moundsville, you spy the old state prison, which lives on as a popular place for ghostly visitations. | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

3.

WV: What did you learn about the town—and maybe about small-town life and the realities of life in a sometimes struggling town—that you did not know before your deep dive into the place?

JOHN W. MILLER: I’ve made a lot of friends in Moundsville, and I love the people there, but my interest is journalistic. I don’t pretend to be from the area, or understand everything about it. The biggest thing I learned me was how broad the range of industries was. I knew a small town in West Virginia would have had coal mines and steel mills around it. And Moundsville did. But the Ohio River, at one point, made everything! Cigars, toys, shoes, even airplanes. And in that economic diversity there was a cultural richness.


That’s the biggest thing people miss about what’s been lost—local cultural wealth. It’s a big thing people are grieving.


Here’s an example: The Marx toy factory in Glen Dale, next to Moundsville, employed all these artists and designers. Think about what a hundred creative types on corporate salaries do for a town’s cultural life—sustaining musical theater, lectures, arts camps for the kids in the summer, a great little newspaper. Now, think about what was lost when all those well-paid creative types moved to Pittsburgh, Columbus, and New York. That’s the biggest thing people miss about what’s been lost—local cultural wealth. It’s a big thing people are grieving. 


Among the many famous toys made at the Mark toy factory in Glen Dale, next to Moundsville, were “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” as well as Big Wheels and Johnny West and Jane West Western action figures. | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

4.

WV: There is a long-running discourse on the future of West Virginia and life in more rural places—out-migration. Young people leaving. An economy dependent on the fading industry of coal-mining and the only transitional industry of fracking. These came up in your documentary from Moundsville residents. What is your view on the prospects for the state? What is needed to create a better present and future for the state and historic towns the size and locale of Moundsville?

JOHN W. MILLER: Yes, the brain drain is one of the biggest things happening to West Virginia. The first thing is to understand and accept the reality of the modern economy, which our film aims to help with. Coal mining really is dying. Gas doesn’t employ many people. Factories are not coming back to the Ohio River anytime soon. So, you have to accept, I think, that many towns will have less population than before, especially as Baby Boomers die out. But, hopefully, the people who stay behind will have better jobs and quality of life, and that will attract young people back. A brain gain.


“I don’t understand why there’s not a big rural development budget like the European Union has, to dump some dollars on education, training, infrastructure, and health care in places like Moundsville.”


I see a few hopeful areas for development: 1. There’s no reason West Virginia can’t ramp up tourism even more. In the early 20th century, it was a classy resort destination for DC aristocracy. Make it so again. 2. Remote work, which has expanded during the pandemic, means you can live anywhere. And depopulation means prices for homes and other assets have fallen, creating opportunity. Why not West Virginia? 3. Our society is hungry for community, right now, for living closer to each other. West Virginia has dozens of these small towns, and Moundsville is one of them, already laid out for communal living.


“Hopefully, the people who stay behind will have better jobs and quality of life, and that will attract young people back. A brain gain,” says John W. Miller. | Image of Moundsville from the documentary.

I wish Americans were less squeamish about the role of government. The state already has a huge role in the economy, from Medicare to the military. I don’t understand why there’s not a big rural development budget like the European Union has, to dump some dollars on education, training, infrastructure and health care in places like Moundsville. (Jim and Deb Fallows, with their Our Towns project, are the best cheerleaders for this conversation about rebuilding America).


5.

WV: West Virginia is now reflexively covered in the national media as almost the world headquarters of Trumpism. Yet this papers over the state’s history as a crucible for the labor movement, a stomping ground for Mother Jones, and a state key to putting John F. Kennedy in the White House. What are your views on the current state of politics in West Virginia—do you see it destined to remain a bastion of Trumpian-style politics ? From your street-level view in Moundsville, how do competing camps of West Virginians make politics and community work given our often great divide in views?

JOHN W. MILLER: Well, I’m not going to win any Pulitzers for saying that Trump won by appealing to white working class anger. For West Virginia, as for the rest of America, the question is how to move constructively beyond that. The state has this incredible union history. It’s a piece of the puzzle I wish we had tackled better in the film. The good news is that people in West Virginia still have this incredible sense of solidarity with everyday workers. My sense is that will never go away. The problem is that it’s not clear where to put that energy.


“With ‘Moundsville,’ I wanted to point the way toward a truth-based, shared reality.”


I think what I learned is that you get somewhere in politics right now by refocusing on local stuff. One thing that struck us interviewing people in Moundsville was that when we asked about Trump, we got answers repeating stuff people had seen on TV. When we asked about local stuff, we got real, original knowledge, and a lot of fact-based wisdom. And I know from staying in touch with people in local government that divisions at the national level do usually disappear when you’re trying to organize trash pickup or build a new highway through town.


Rose Hart, founder of Appalachian Outreach in the town. | From the documentary “Moundsville.”

But everybody is so wired to the adrenaline-triggering national conversation that it’s hard to kick everything back to the local where it belongs. To me, that’s an obvious way of refocusing the conversation and making it healthier. If anything, the Trump years have made me less political. I’ve come to realize that deep down I’m a journalist, not an activist. My outrage is over truth, not policy. My heart breaks for the collapse of thousands of local newspapers, and how that’s crippled the place of truth in our shared conversations. It has made it a lot easier to peddle conspiracy theories and other made-up garbage. With “Moundsville,” I wanted to point the way toward a truth-based, shared reality. 


P.S.

WV: Ask yourself a question—and answer it.
JOHN W. MILLER: What do Brussels and Pittsburgh have in common?

JOHN W. MILLER: As an adult, I’ve lived in two places: Brussels, capital of Belgium (and Europe), and Pittsburgh, capital of Appalachia. They were both centers of global capitalism in the 1880s, both built on rivers with rolling hills to the south, the Ardennes, and the Appalachians. They have both a chip on their shoulders: Brussels toward Paris and Pittsburgh toward New York. They love good beer. And Belgium has this region in the south, Wallonia, that has the same history of coal mining and decline as West Virginia. And the story that’s happening now, including the drift toward political populism, is the same in both places. So making “Moundsville” felt like telling a story about home, too. I loved that. 

NOTE: Since the release of the documentary, Miller has used the web address, Moundsville.org, not only to promote the film and collects news about Moundsville, but to feature ongoing historical sketches, poetry contests, and essays about journalism, rural economics and American history.


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