PICTURE/SHOW: 36 Ways of Looking at Thomas WV

Walk this way. | A narrow European-style walkway between two hugging buildings in Thomas WV.

PHOTOGRAPHS & TEXT by Douglas John Imbrogno | Click to Enlarge Photos

The Tucker County town of Thomas may be about as close as you are going to get to experiencing the streets of an old European town in West Virginia. I recently spent a couple weeks in an apartment down an alley and up the steps off the town’s main street. When I posted to social media a shot (above) of the walkway to my lodging, not a few commentators remarked: “At first glance, I thought it was a photo from Europe.”

This will not be a definitive history of Thomas, but an impressionistic photographic encounter of a brief stay there. Yet the Old European stylings of the town arise from its history. As one of the informative signs around the tiny burg recalls, its “rapid transformation from isolated mountain town to small cosmopolitan city,” occurred as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, fueled by an influx of Italian and Eastern European workers.

The railroad into the area that juiced its local coal industry — opening global markets for the Davis Coal and Coke Company — also brought workers, goods and delicacies from around the world. The immigrants recreated what they knew, such as close-cropped buildings separated by alleys leading to back-of-building apartments. The remnants of now-unused iron balustrades hanging off brick buildings also recall the way New World immigrants sought to evoke Old World life.

As the son of an Italian immigrant myself, I could not have been more pleased to discover that, as the nearby coke ovens roared, so many Italians flooded into the area that Rocco D. Benedetto published La Sentinella del West Virginia, an Italian language newspaper with a statewide circulation of 3,500 out of Thomas.

Molto bene, Signore Benedetto.[ Very good.]

You can find more details of the notable, occasionally fiery, history of Thomas (it nearly burned to the ground twice) here and here. You’ll learn of the familial connection that saw Thomas named for Thomas Beall Davis, brother of W.Va. Senator Henry Gassaway Davis, after whom the nearby town of Davis earned its name. It says something of the town’s bustle in its coal-powered, timber-cutting days that at one time workers off their shifts had a choice of eight bars on the main drag of Front Street. In 1909, the thoroughfare would become Tucker County’s first brick-paved street.

Among the places to socialize was an elegant saloon on the first floor of Cottrill’s Opera House, a performance venue which long served as a cultural hub through the ebb and flow of the town’s fortunes. It hosted vaudeville shows, then silent films, then the coming of “talkies” as movies began to speak up. These days, you’ll hear the daily buzz and jangle of the historic renovation underway to revive the Opera House to a semblance of its past glory, as a 425-seat multi-purpose performing arts center and cultural hub.

GALLERY: Revival underway

Anyone tuned into the West Virginia music scene and its handful of prominent venues will know of The Purple Fiddle. It opened in 2001 on Front Street in what was formerly the DePollo Building, home to a general store Joseph DePollo opened in 1903. The current building went up in 1915-16, serving as home to a family of 10 on the upper floors. As a Preservation Alliance of WV blogpost notes, the general store “functioned as a gathering place for miners on the way to and from work.”

Nowadays, the Fiddle functions as a gathering place for audiences come to see touring and regional musicians, including the likes of the Avett Brothers, who’ve gone on to global fame. With the Purple Fiddle’s success as an anchor location at one end of the town, many more creatives have flowed into town, launching a raft of art galleries and artful businesses.

The Purple Fiddle by night in Thomas WV. | WestVirginiaVille.com photo

Speaking of juicing, the artist known as Seth has been a prime mover in bolstering the local scene. You encounter the Michigan immigrant’s hearty artwork up and down the main street, reflecting an antic spirit that animates the town’s creative vibe. A sample of said spirit from his website:

“I live in the very tiny town in the mountains which is named Thomas and which is my favorite town in the entire universe. There, I have a gallery of my own called Creature and a studio in White Room, a collaborative gallery and workspace down the street. Thomas is located in what a lot of people call West Virginia, which is located within the United States which was created by some very confused humans drawing imaginary lines across a landmass they had also named North America on a planet called earth which is a rock in a universe that no-one really understands.”

GALLERY: The Art of Art & Craft

GALLERY: The Bicycles of Thomas

They are not quite art installations, but as you walk the daytime and nighttime streets of Thomas, you encounter strategically parked bicycles up and down the main drag. I kept snapping pictures of them, wondering if some were, in fact, art objects. But, then, the same bike would reappear in multiple locales, so local locomotion is moving creatives from place to place, while artfully creating ‘found bike’ installations.

GALLERY: To the Grotto

The Grotto is an occasional music/spoken word/soul effusion that takes place out back of a couple of the historic old buildings in Thomas. I happened to be in town and Grotto-adjacent when one of the shows took place. I don’t think I can convey the spirit of the night any better than how I described it after posting some of the photos below to Instagram under the title “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

To visit a gathering at The Grotto out back the historic flats of Thomas WV is to wander out of 2021, into a candlelit bohemian space that might as well have been a Paris club 75 years gone, or a Berlin interwar cabaret. Thoughtful, evocative songtelling, chased by perfect-pitch readings from a prim Englishwoman’s doorfront diary as she sips brandy from a paper-thin tea cup, to a Broadway music theatrical piano romp, to cello-driven elegies. A sweet way to spend a night of one’s life.

GALLERY: Confessions of a Cappuccino-holic

My name is Douglas and I am a coffee snob. I tell you this because I wandered in the wilderness for many decades, as we Mountain State coffeeheads watched from afar as the coffeeshop revolution swept America. Did you know Ethiopia got a Starbucks before West Virginia? I know this because I wrote a Charleston Gazette story about the first Starbucks that opened in West Virginia, learning this factoid.

I say all of this by way of stating some fighting words. First, ever since Starbucks switched from barista-pulled espresso years ago in favor of high-volume push-button machines, their coffee has settled into a groove of sameness akin to the reliability — and indistinction — of McDonald’s hamburgers, which taste exactly the same everywhere in the world.

Don’t get me wrong. In the middle of nowhere, a Starbucks is a welcome sight when life requires caffeination. But what a delight to encounter skilled baristas at Tip Top Coffee along Front Street, not push-button coffee clerks, and who are skilled in Advanced Cappuccino Foam Decoration. Which brings me to this ‘Official WestVirginiaVille.com Declaration’:

Tip Top Coffee in Thomas, W.Va., serves the best cup of espresso/cappucino in all of West Virginia.

And possibly this side of Greenwich Village’s Cafe Reggio (which claims to have served the first cappuccino in America after its founding in 1927). And a nod of my cup to Sarah, one of Tip Top’s several worthy baristas. When I friended her on Instagram a week after leaving Thomas, she recalled my daily caffeination requirment. (A caramel-flavored cappuccino made with oat milk — that is a photo of her craftwork below).

That is some major league barista mojo, there.

GALLERY: Indigenous encounters

So, there is this indigenous American — I like to call him — you encounter if you spend any time at all walking and stalking the Thomas streets. I kept on trying to snap a photo that might capture a bit of his husky, sturdy spirit, as he brings a stag home for dinner or for haberdashery or both.

GALLERY: Four to go

I leave you with four photos that seem to me to sum up a little of the spirit of Thomas, a little bump in the road several thousand feet up in the mountain air. It is one of those — at least for the moment— special places. It is a locale perhaps perched precariously, as all special places are. The floodtide of tourists fills the streets and sometimes locks up the free street parking from Thursday through Sunday. Which is fine — a teensy tourist destination in a bend in a Tucker County road!

But will a rising tide of touristry lead the town to put on that awful tourist-first face, which can turn a real town into a simulacrum of itself? Will rising housing costs and the re-making of available rental property into an empire of Air B&Bs price out of the market the starving artists, eager entrepreneurs, and creative worldlings who helped to seed the town’s revival?

I am just passing through. But I am smitten enough to wish to return as often as I might. May Thomas, WV keep its little bit of Old Europe alive and thriving for decades to come.

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