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Residents hope for peace in War, W.Va.

Courtesy photo
Light traffic rolls down the main drag in War, West Virginia's southernmost incorporated town.

Author Homer Hickam and his fellow Rocket Boys went to high school in West Virginia's southernmost incorporated town.

It was at Big Creek High School in the McDowell County town of War that physics teacher Freida Riley inspired the Rocket Boys to enter, and win, the National Science Fair in 1960 with a project titled "A Study of Amateur Rocketry Techniques."

The exploits of Hickam and his colleagues in the Big Creek Missile Agency, along with those of other memorable figures in the coal towns of Coalwood and War, were brought to life in Hickam's bestseller "Rocket Boys," on which the movie "October Sky" is based.

But War has changed dramatically since Hickam graduated from Big Creek High, due mainly to a shortage of recoverable coal in the heavily mined area. In 1960, the town had a population of more than 3,000. Today, War's population has dwindled to fewer than 900.

Big Creek High School, the center of the town's social life and a football powerhouse known throughout the state, closed in 2010 due to consolidation.

In 2012, then-Mayor Tom Hatcher was found dead in his home. Police charged Hatcher's daughter-in-law and her brother with his murder and with taking at least $1,100 from Hatcher's home to buy prescription pills.

Last November, a McDowell County jury found the daughter-in-law, Rebecca Hatcher, not guilty of the crime. Her brother, Earl Click, was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy in the case last month.

"It's been sad and tough to go through," current War Mayor Carolyn Cempella said of Hatcher's death and the subsequent trial. "Everyone liked Tom."

The former mayor grew up in War, earned bachelor and master's degrees at WVU, and went on to earn a doctorate at Ohio State. Hatcher taught in Monongalia County schools and later joined the faculty at WVU. In the early 1990s, he returned to War and taught at Big Creek High. He was elected Mayor in 1997.

In addition to bringing water and sewer systems to Man and working on economic development projects, Hatcher focused attention on the rising rate of prescription drug abuse in his town.

"Drugs are still the main problem here," Cempella said. "They're a problem in every city in every state. We have a good task force working here now that's taken down four meth labs in recent months."

While Charleston is a three-hour drive from War, "We feel well-connected to state government and the rest of West Virginia," Cempella said. "We have good representatives in Charleston who look out for us."

While War has a supermarket, a Dollar General Store, and other businesses providing the essentials, "a lot of people go to Bluefield and Princeton for their medical visits," according to the mayor. To shop at box stores, people generally drive either to Welch or Tazewell, Va., she said.

War gets its name from War Creek, which joins Dry Fork in the town. War Creek was named after an American Indian battle, apparently involving settlers, fought along the creek's headwaters in the 1780s.

Before 1904, the community was known as Miners City, a name officials with the Norfolk & Western Railroad didn't favor. Railroad employees reportedly attached a sign with "War" painted on it to an N & W shed in the community, and the name was picked up by the U.S. Post Office when the first postal station opened in 1906. The town was incorporated as War in 1920.

One of the state's most developed wildlife management areas, Berwind Lake, lies three miles south of War. A 20-acre lake, a swimming pool, picnic area and hiking trails can be found there.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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