Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sistersville Storytellers Retreat and Willow Island

I haven't had a chance yet to tell you about the storytellers' retreat last weekend. What can I say? It was awesome. A dozen or so storytellers, some with their spouses, traveled to the Wells Inn in Sistersville to share a weekend of fellowship and stories. The weather was not promising: there were reports of violent storms and heavy rains, with a possibility of snow in the forecast. We ventured forth anyway.

And everyone arrived safely, despite one couple having to help move a large tree out of the road and another traveling miles out of her way trying to find a bridge across the Ohio River. She was from Pittsburgh where bridges are everywhere, but along the Ohio it might be 20 miles before another bridge is found.

We spent the first evening having dinner in the hotel and just talking. We made a circle of chairs in front of the gas fireplace, opened a few bottles of wine and planned our weekend, telling a few stories and singing a few songs along the way. Since this retreat was my brainchild last year, I do most of the groundwork and this year that included a concert of Celtic stories at the Gaslight Theater in town. Eleven tellers were on the list to tell. How to crowd all of them into two hours, have a few sing-alongs and have an intermission? Only one way can that happen: short stories. So that is what we planned.

Saturday morning, after a good breakfast (the food at the Inn is outstanding; we were well fed all weekend) we broke into 3 groups to work on stories. Some wanted to work on the story they would be telling that night. Others had other things with them they wanted to share for feedback and suggestions. The morning was productive for my group as we worked on stories for the evening and a historical story told from the perspective of an old house.

Lunch break was long enough to allow us to check out the theater, double-check the sound system (I'd set mine up the day before) and browse theater owner Terry Wiley's antique shop. I came away with a few finds, of course. Then we met again in new groups, getting more feedback and hearing new stories. The afternoon passed quickly and it was soon time to break for dinner. Good food again, then change for the evening concert. A couple decided to take a tour of the Greenwood Cemetery, a place well worth visiting for its history and beautiful monuments. The sense of the past is strong in the cemetery with its view over the town and the river.

As we waited to begin, we wondered if we'd have an audience. After all the annual Lincoln's Day Dinnner was being held, there was a wrestling match and other events in the small town. And it was really cold too. Who would come out on such a night to hear stories?

We should not have worried. As the tellers for the first half settled onstage, about 40 people came to the theater and all stayed for the duration of the concert. It was a fabulous time--songs, stories, laughter, some eerie tales, a few historical, and all excellent. I was sorry when it was over and I believe the audience was too as many stayed around afterward to chat with the storytellers and urge Terry to host more such events.

We went back to the hotel very happy and ready for more stories. The chairs were drawn up to the fire again and stories and songs were soon flowing. Some of us who held on til late got a tour of the lower regions of this supposedly haunted hotel. Late night conversations continued until after midnight.

Morning came too soon for me! But I was up and at breakfast by 8:30. As we ate we discussed ideas for the future and for more retreats like this one. There is nothing as creatively energizing as spending time with people who share the same passion, is there? I hope some of the ideas we bounced around actually come to pass. But if not, I will look forward to next year in this tiny town by the river, its welcoming hotel, eager audiences, and the enveloping sense of history that make Sistersville the perfect place for our retreat.

I had to make a detour on the way home to investigate an abandoned church that had caught my eye some time ago.This is located at Willow Island. Looking through the building through the missing windows is sad, isn't it? The bell is still in the steeple. I don't know the name of this church, and couldn't get too close because there were signs marking it as private property.

The cooling towers of the Willow Island power plant loom behind, an odd juxtaposition of present and past. These are the cooling towers where 51 men lost their lives in 1976, a disaster I wrote about briefly when I first began blogging. I think about them every time I pass by on Route 2.

A bit down the road is this former bus station that was turned into a post office. Now it too is abandoned. This is such an art deco building  with tile roof and fancy brickwork. It is sad to see such a structure left to rot away. I had to drive through, of course! There was no sign to say this was private property although I'm sure I was trespassing when I was poking around here.
I could not help but wonder how much mail had gone through this slot, how many cars and of what vintage had driven through the post office to pick up mail, and even  how many passengers waited on a greyhound in the shade of that canopy.
Inside I was surprised to see a fireplace! Not at all what you might expect in a bus station or post office is it?

I have always wanted to see someone take this little place and make it into a coffee shop or antique store, but reality reminds me that it is located in a lonesome place nowhere near a town, and even the closest towns are small. Who would drive out to this place for coffee, especially with the American Cyanamid plant right across the road? That plant, by the way, was involved in a notorious sterilization lawsuit brought by female workers in 1979. Perhaps there were reasons for the empty buildings located near a plant with admitted potential toxic hazards? I don't know, but there is an odd ghost town feeling to the area with the abandoned church, the old post office/bus stop and a few other empty houses in the area.

A sign beside the crumbled brick gatepost to the bus station pointed the way to St. John's Presbyterian Cemetery. The peeling paint made it difficult to read but when I saw that the cemetery was established in 1840 I wanted to have a look. I ventured down the narrow track only to discover the way blocked by a gate and a sign that said there was a shooting range beyond, for American Cyanamid workers only. I backed out and left, wondering if the families with ancestors in those graves had to call ahead and make arrangements to visit.

Further reading when I got home led to an article about slavery along the river, written by the researcher and historian Henry Burke. Apparently the very area I explored was once a plantation owned by the Henderson family, and their graves may well have been in the two cemeteries in the region, or perhaps at the one church that seemed to have quite an active congregation which was located just before the post office building. I wished that I had known this bit of the area's history prior to stopping, but then maybe I will have to explore further on another day.

Willow Island. It sounds so romantic, and yet the reality and history left me feeling sad as I pulled away and headed home.


momalizzie said...

I'm so glad your weekend went smoothly. You put so much work into the retreats that it must be gratifying to see it all play out. I'm also happy that you took time to shop!!! I love the treasures you find!

Ronda said...

I had been told your conference had been cancelled!? Obviously not? I'm glad it went well. That sounds like such a great time!

Debra Jane Seltzer (aka agilitynut) said...

You might be interested to know that the former bus station & post office building was originally built as a Gulf gas station. It would have originally looked like this station in Henderson, NC -- note the identical details on the columns which were uniquely Gulf:

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