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Finding a niche

This is part six of an eight-part Sunday Gazette-Mail series focusing on the state of regional economies in West Virginia.

PROCTOR — There’s an ugly black mark on the map of West Virginia, a charcoal smudge that trails from Clay to Wetzel, darkening all the counties in between: Roane, Calhoun, Wirt, Ritchie, Tyler.

The darker the shade, the more unemployment — that’s how the color-coded, state Bureau of Employment Programs’ map reads.

Beneath the ominous colors, down at the hill-and-hollow level, are many tales of layoffs and factory closings, of packing up and getting out.

The utter joblessness has bred hopelessness in some, but resolve in others.

Most often, the latter group stays out of the unemployment statistics one of three ways: by scoring a coveted job at one of the few local employers; by commuting east over the winding roads to Parkersburg and the smattering of Ohio River factories; or by finding a niche, staying in place and reaping quality of life as the greatest reward.

“Find a niche or stay in the ditch, I’ve heard,” says Steve Conlon, who owns ThistleDew Farm, a honey-making operation in the sparsely populated Wetzel County hills near Proctor.

From Paden City’s Marble King, where workers churn out 1 million marbles a day, to the nationally recognized goat cheese created at Greg and Verena Sava’s Brier Run Farm on the Braxton/Nicholas border, to ThistleDew’s thousands of gallons of golden honey, the niche market is alive and well in West Virginia’s northwestern counties.

“As you get further away from urban areas, and you survive, you get more resourceful,” said Conlon, who moved to Proctor from Philadelphia 30 years ago with his wife, Ellie.

Conlon attributes the survival of ThistleDew to diversification.

“If you just sell one thing, it better be gasoline or slot machines,” Conlon said ... not honey.

While ThistleDew’s 600 hives turn out as much as 80,000 pounds of honey a year, it is the diversified products, such as honey mustards, beeswax candles and cosmetics, that have helped the operation stay afloat.

The Conlons also recently bought a nearby Appalachian folk toys business and moved it to the old school building where they base their operations.

“The Mountain Craft Shop, where we have handmade toys, has been a good addition,” Conlon said. “It’s helping make us a destination — to get people to come here.”

Meanwhile, the shop is creating spin-off jobs for others who have had trouble finding steady work.

“A laid-off carpenter from Tyler County — his wife has MS — makes about 3,000 of these a year,” Conlon said, as he demonstrated a type of perpetual motion toy called a Jacob’s Ladder.

“There’s a lot of creative, brilliant people out here,” he said. “If they’re not doing something already, they’re figuring something out.”

From a workshop area next to ThistleDew’s gift shop, John Hopkins, a local man who has been doing odd jobs around the farm since 1998, added his advice for making do in the wilds of Wetzel and the surrounding counties:

“Best thing to do is raise a big garden.”

Back to the hills

Gilmer County has Glenville State. Doddridge has the North Central Regional Jail. Ritchie has Simonton Windows. Most counties have at least one solid employer, the one that completes the local mantra: “If I could just get on at ...”

In Roane and Calhoun counties, that employer used to be Goodrich, where workers drove from miles around to make airline evacuation chutes.

The 2001 downturn in air travel led Goodrich to pull out and consolidate operations at plants in Colorado and Arizona.

The loss of Goodrich came on the heels of the 2000 closure of Kellwood clothing, a Roane garment plant that for many years had been the county’s largest employer.

Greg Stover, a manager at Goodrich’s Spencer plant, accepted the company’s offer to continue his job in Phoenix.

The Beckley native stayed four months until a former Goodrich crony called and asked if he would like to come home to West Virginia, to a job in Wirt County.

“I said ‘sign me up,’” Stover said. “I’m a West Virginia boy. I had to get back to the hills.”

Today, Stover is plant manager at Mustang Survival, Wirt County’s largest private employer.

The friend who called him, Cheryl Woods, is resources manager at the 80-employee operation, which specializes in creating high-tech outfits for the military.

“We have a couple of Goodrich folks, a couple of Kellwood folks, and some that were here when this was Wirt Inflatable,” Woods said, referring to the company Mustang bought out in 1999.

Wirt Inflatable Specialists made air mattresses for ground troops. Mustang has similar government contracts, but for things such as air crewmen’s vests, swimmer’s suits for the Coast Guard, and anti-gravity suits for fighter pilots.

In West Virginia, Mustang has found a steady labor stream, many with sewing know-how, and a pile of good publicity because of its military ties and proximity to the home of former POW Jessica Lynch.

Then again, the company has also learned what it’s like to have a plant along a West Virginia river.

The Little Kanawha has spilled its banks near the Elizabeth plant several times in recent years.

Why not tofu?

“In the early ’80s, I remember seeing what we then called ‘hippies’ coming in and out of this building,” Donald “Ray” Carpenter recalled from behind his desk in Spencer.

He had no idea what was going on inside.

These days, he’s literally up to his ankles in what’s going on inside. (He and everyone else inside Spring Creek Natural Foods wears knee-high rubber boots. Making tofu can be messy.)

With his bushy beard and burly, tattooed arms, Carpenter won’t soon be mistaken for one of the “hippies” who started Spring Creek.

But the former chemical cleanup man, former TV/VCR repairman, former sanitation worker, former janitor, handyman, you name it, found a way to earn a steady paycheck and stay in his hometown in 1998 when he hired on at Spring Creek.

“You do what you can in this area,” he said. “You make a place for yourself. It’s not that you can’t find work here, you just can’t find good-paying work.”

Carpenter said people in the area often talk about the promise of good-paying jobs out of state.

“We’ve had several who worked here who left, and then they’re back. If they did a good job before they left, we’ll take them back.”

Meanwhile, Carpenter is overseeing the production of about 500,000 pounds of tofu a year.

He would like to up that production to a million pounds or more.

“We’ve had several opportunities to sell [Spring Creek], but we couldn’t guarantee they would keep the business here,” he said.

“I talked with the other shareholders and board members and we really want to keep it here in Spencer. No one expected this place to survive ... It belongs here.”

Spring Creek’s narrow building and limited parking along U.S. 33 are less than ideal for shipping, and delivery truckers make a fuss about the winding roads leading to Spencer, particularly in winter.

“But that’s what makes Spencer such a good place to live,” Carpenter said. “Because it’s so isolated.”

‘These are today’s babies’

Eleanor Rose raises a big garden.

Tendrils from her squash plants reach up onto her gravel driveway, which is off a gravel road, miles out into the Roane County hills near Walton.

The vegetables are mostly for her and her husband, Jim, but she takes any excess to a farmer’s market in neighboring Calhoun County.

“You can do it; you can survive here,” she said as she stepped inside a dusty outbuilding filled with wire cages.

From inside the cages, rabbits of every size and color peered at their visitors.

“These are today’s babies,” she said, holding two squirming pink Holland Lops in one palm.

Rose, who calls her farm Willow Moor, has about 60 rabbits and averages 20 babies a week.

She used to have hundreds more, and not long after her rabbit venture started, she landed a contract to supply feeder rabbits for the pythons and such at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

When the contract expired after two years, she sold to a few processing plants. Now, she limits her business to pet sales. She sells most of her babies to Petland on Corridor G in South Charleston.

She and her first husband settled in Roane County after their car broke down there in 1985. They were traveling from Virginia Beach, Va., on their way to Missouri to look for land.

“Life is like a spider web,” she said, explaining away the twists and turns in a life.

In a nearby pen, a proud little bantam rooster was strutting among the hens, crowing repeatedly, ignoring the fact that the sun was quickly retreating behind the hill.

To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.


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