Culture / Travel

A Love Letter to West Virginia — The Most Underrated State in America?

Houston Museum Transplant Shares the Hidden Finds of His Weird, Wonderful Homeland

BY Tommy Napier // 01.27.19

The Menil Collection’s Tommy Napier weighs in on wild, wonderful West Virginia and the meaning of home.

People have a hard time placing my accent. In my five years as a Houstonian, I have been told it is endearing, even comforting, but new acquaintances are always left wondering, where is he from?

Most end up labeling it Southern, but I have always felt that was too general a term.

Regardless, it does not take long for people to figure it out, because within about five minutes of meeting anyone new I blurt out that I am from Kenova, West Virginia, a small town (population 3,007) in a rugged land set apart in the rolling hills of Appalachia.

As a matter of fact, I share all kinds of things about West Virginia with my Texas friends.

If you have been lucky enough to dine with me at any Houston-area Barnaby’s, you have heard me identify their enormous salad bowls as the legendary, rainbow-colored Fiestaware. Those bowls (and plates, and mugs, and saucers) are made in West Virginia, you know.

Rainbow-colored, iconic Fiestaware plates

If I have driven you somewhere, I explained how my Uncle Paul, a Pineville native, made sure that I put a West Virginia University Flying WV logo sticker on my back windshield.

“You never know if you will break down on the Katy Freeway and a West Virginian will stop to help,” he explained. While I have not had to test this theory, it is comforting to believe a friendly face from home might not be too far behind.

Or maybe you saw me the day after I spontaneously decided to pop into the Guild Shop on Dunlavy and stumbled upon a cobalt blue, crackled Blenko Glass decanter. Guess where Blenko is produced? Milton, West Virginia. A 40-minute drive from where I grew up.

And you want to know another thing? Cobalt blue is same color of Blenko my mamaw collected. Did I buy it? You bet I did, and I might just pour you some West Virginia moonshine from it the next time you come over.

Maybe part of my desire to spread the Mountain State gospel is the fact that most Houstonians do not seem to know much about my homeland other than the fact that the Texans practiced at the Greenbrier Resort the last two summers (unfortunately, that’s ending)  and that Dana Holgorsen is now the University of Houston’s coach instead of a WVU Mountaineer.

The West Virginia state capital building sits in Charleston.

Appalachia Calling

But probably more than that, I love to share the products and symbols of West Virginia because they help define my sense of place and community. So after a trip home for Christmas, I am back in the Bayou City sharing my latest finds once again. This time, I had the pleasure of staying with my Aunt Karen in the state capital of Charleston, and I discovered three small businesses worth a visit if you find yourself passing through those wonderful hills.

If you love fresh produce, it seems that Charleston may be home to the greenhouse of the future. Manchin’s, a state-of-the-art aeroponic greenhouse, hosts about a dozen indoor tower gardens. Imagine a strawberry pot stretched into a sleek, six-foot tall cylinder with every plant imaginable overflowing from the cupped openings.

This place has a total NASA vibe. I bought a lot of kale.

About a dozen indoor tower gardens lie inside of Manchin’s, a new greenhouse of the future. The author bought a lot of kale.

Word to the wise: it can get chilly in those narrow valleys, so be sure to make your way to Kin Ship Goods on Charleston’s West Side. If you are looking to “stay cozy” and buy a sweatshirt or T-shirt with a point of view, this is your place. The designs are eclectic, and often political, with phrases like “Keep Up the Fight” and “This Shirt Kills Fascists.” My personal favorite is a navy tee emblazoned with “West Virginia vs. the World.”


A Kin Ship slogan: Keep Up the Fight.

And if you are ready to scratch your head, I am here to tell you that as a land-locked state West Virginia produces some of the finest sea salt in the world. Sitting above the ancient Iapetus Ocean, seventh-generation salt-makers Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne have tapped the source at J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works. Salts for finishing, popcorn, and cocktails are available among a variety of artisanal goods.

Back at my Aunt Karen’s as I slipped on my cozy Kin Ship tee, chopped up the Manchin’s kale for a beautiful salad (served in Fiesta of course), and snacked on chocolate-covered peanuts garnished with J.Q. Dickinson salt, I felt a surge of gratitude for the simple joys of home and community.

May 2019 bring more to discover and share.

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