Neighbors stand in for gaps in services in western Monongalia County
By Ciara Litchfield, Emilee Kessler, Cate Burgan and Ayah Mahana
A tan pickup truck sits in the parking lot of Mary’s Bar and Hot Spot facing Route 7 on a hot Friday afternoon in May. Allen “Cowboy” Hixenbaugh balances his ladder on the gravel as his wife, Beth, hands him the tools to install a new hot pink sign that reads Mary’s Bar.
His brown ball cap shields Cowboy’s eyes from the sun, as he perches on the ladder in his blue jeans and work boots while trucks roar by on the road behind him.
The Hixenbaughs are regulars at the bar on the outskirts of the small town of Blacksville, West Virginia, and the 65-year-old owner, Mary Stanley, has been fighting cancer this year.
Cowboy decided to raise her spirits by inviting her friends and family for a surprise birthday party at her bar, where they invited her patrons and friends outside and unveiled the new sign to Stanley in her pink sun dress.
Mary Stanley, right, watches with friends and patrons from her bar as Allen “Cowboy” and Mary Hixenbaugh unveil the new sign they made for the bar at her surprise birthday party in May in Blacksville, West Virginia.
“It’s been a hard year, but this week’s been a good week,” she said.
Neighbors who take care of each other are one of the reasons Stanley and her friends give for choosing to live in western Monongalia County where resources can be scarce.
Morgantown and its suburbs dominate the eastern part of the county, with approximately 50,301 of the county’s 106,196 people. The rest of the county to the west is mostly rural. There are dozens of unincorporated towns like Core, Wana and Wadestown where groups of people live in areas with few municipal services, and governance is the responsibility of another town or the county.
Lack of public transportation, local grocery stores and senior services, as well as limited emergency services are among the challenges for residents of these areas.
Phyllis Bruce, who runs the food pantry in Wadestown, at the far western border of the county, said, “We’ve observed that not much comes this direction, actually past Star City bridge.”
The residents fill the gaps themselves.
In the northwestern part of the county, the town of Blacksville has a population of 177 residents and sits on the Pennsylvania border. It is 19.1 miles from Morgantown, and it marks the beginning of what is known as the western end zone to Monongalia County emergency medical services. It is the most remote location where an ambulance is stationed for the county, though the county’s western border is more than 20 miles further on.
Monongalia County EMS rural response times a concern
During her first week living in Wadestown, West Virginia, Lynn Keener saw a car drop off the shoulder of the road in front of her, hit a hole and blow a tire. The car ended its roll in a ditch. The driver asked her to call for help, but because she had no mobile phone service where they were, she had to drive to her home to call 9-1-1 for an ambulance. “I went home and called for him, and it took an hour,” Keener said.
With a navy shirt, blue jeans and a holster phone case, John Miller, an elderly resident of Wadestown, 28.5 miles west of Morgantown, said he remembers a time when he received a call from a neighbor at 2 a.m. The neighbor said he would rather be driven to the hospital by Miller than an ambulance. Miller is part of the Wadestown Volunteer Fire Department and mows the lawn for the church down the road from the pantry.
“Down here actually people … know to call me before they call 911. What’s a little bit of time if I can help someone.” -John Miller, Wadestown resident
“Down here actually people … know to call me before they call 911,” Miller said. “What’s a little bit of time if I can help someone.”
In the western parts of Monongalia County, there are no strangers. People are rarely reachable by phone numbers. Instead, they know where everyone lives or where they would be at a given time of day. A large value shared across these towns is the compassion they show their neighbors.
Junior Copeland, a resident of Blacksville, takes it upon himself to help his neighbors when they are physically unable to mow their grass. Copeland helps mow their yards as well as the area in front of the bridge leading to Clay-Battelle Middle and Senior High School. He is always willing to help with whatever a neighbor may need.
Junior Copeland talks about helping neighbors.
“Right before my dad passed away he said he wanted to be remembered for helping people. I guess that’s the way I look at things too because that’s the way he brought me up. That is to help people.” -Junior Copeland, Blacksville resident
“Right before my dad passed away he said he wanted to be remembered for helping people,” Copeland said. “I guess that’s the way I look at things too because that’s the way he brought me up. That is to help people.”
He doesn’t stop with Blacksville. Last winter, he drove over to Brave, Pennsylvania, and helped plow the snow in front of their fire department. He said that they were trying to do it with a shovel and that he would do it for them since “he could do it quicker.”
On a Wednesday afternoon between mowing jobs, Copeland lounges in an Adirondack chair in a t-shirt and jean shorts, which reveal a prosthetic leg painted with tractors because he lost the leg in a mowing accident. “I don’t do it to be paid,” he said
Photo by Cate Burgan
The mayor of Blacksville, Bryan Kelly, said that Copeland’s contribution to the community cannot be overstated.
“He’s been a big help for keeping some of the grass mowed, and even in the wintertime, he loves to take out… his side by side,” Kelly said.
Copeland helps to clear snow from parking lots during the winter for local businesses around the town. These businesses include a café called the Creek N’ Rail, the insurance agency and the funeral home.
He doesn’t want to be financially compensated because, as he puts it, “You ain’t charging your neighbors.”
“I’ve always been privileged to have pretty decent neighbors.” -Junior Copeland
Copeland said “I’ve always been privileged to have pretty decent neighbors.”
For seniors in the western part of the county, neighbors and family become particularly valuable since senior services often don’t go far beyond Morgantown. People like Chris Speers, who is a member of the Blacksville town council, try to fill that gap.
Rural living comes with limited services for Monongalia County seniors
On a Tuesday afternoon in April, at the Senior Monongalians Senior Center in Morgantown, West Virginia, there are a few people in the cafe, sipping coffee and reading, and two men playing pool. One of them laments how the art classes must have damaged the pool table after he narrowly missed the corner pocket. The center, which reopened to the public in June of 2021, is the one place he can play for hours, undisturbed, without the alcohol-fueled bustle of a bar or pool hall.
Anytime I get asked for help I do what I can,” he said. “I go around and get lots of phone calls to help out some of my elderly neighbors.”
He regularly helps upkeep his neighbor’s yard as he feels there is an unspoken understanding that they all just help each other out. Speers says that when you are finished helping people you can see the appreciation in their faces.
“Some of it is just, you know, you see something you offer, but they’re not afraid to call and contact me,” Speers said.
Out in Wadestown, John Miller said he just knows to check in with some of his elderly neighbors if their lights don’t come on or go off at particular times of the day.
In Morgantown, there is a variety of grocery stores with fresh produce while Blacksville is home to a Dollar General Store and the Mountaineer Mart convenience store where residents can shop for groceries. The choices for those at the western end of the county are to travel into Morgantown or out to other counties.
Phyllis Bruce said her mother started the Wadestown Food Pantry in response to the needs she saw in the community. After helping with the pantry her whole life, Bruce officially took charge about 10 years ago, when the responsibility became too much for her 91-year-old mother.
Bruce said, “She just felt that [the pantry] was a need, and she wanted to fill it. And then I want to keep going.”
Volunteers at the pantry have served people in the community for the past 25 years. Currently, they serve fresh fruits and vegetables to between 60 and 80 families each month. One resident donates food to the pantry directly from his garden during growing seasons.
The pantry is located 42 minutes away from Morgantown by car, at the very western edge that separates the county from two others.
“We’re just centrally located. It’s the perfect position to be in to be able to help everyone.” –Phyllis Bruce, Wadestown Food Pantry director
“We’re just centrally located. It’s the perfect position to be in to be able to help everyone,” Bruce said.
Volunteers at the Wadestown Food Pantry offer additional support by driving food supplies to those who lack transportation. They complete many food drop offs with an estimated four to five families in a singular trip.
Another food pantry, the Clay-Battelle Area Family Services, provides necessities to families in the Blacksville area. While providing food is one of its missions, it is also a thrift shop that provides funding to purchase much-needed food supplies that the pantry can’t get through donations alone.
Volunteer Director Sue Ross began her time at the Family Services after she suffered the loss of her child.
“This really helps me, and I hope I’m helping other people,” Ross said.
Ross teared up when she recalled why she started volunteering. She said working at the pantry and being around all the people kept her sane when she was depressed.
“We have a lot of older people, mostly older people. We have some young couples with children but not many,” Ross said. “And we know they need, and that makes me feel good that we can help.”
Her volunteer Assistant Director, Tammy Cody, wore a bright pink t-shirt and blonde hair pulled up out of her face. She said that the days at the food pantry are often very busy either filling large numbers of food orders or sorting the clothes donations.
Cody estimated that in a given month the food pantry can see up to almost 67 families.
“Some people don’t even have running water or gas or anything,” Cody said. She said the pantry tries to give whatever food the families can make with the appliances and utilities they already have.
“I enjoy helping people. That’s my thing. I always help kids, so now I’m [helping] adults,” Cody said.
Barbara Minger frequents the Wadestown Pantry because they give more variety in comparison to the pantries closer to Morgantown. One of the reasons she loves it there is because they are responsive to her needs, asking what she needs and attempting to provide it for her the next time she comes.
“I enjoy coming here,” Minger said. “And I try to get other people to come.”
Part of the appeal of living in these rural communities is the strong ties between neighbors that most feel they would not have if they lived in Morgantown.
When the husband of longtime resident, Diana Dittman, passed away in October of last year, she found that her neighbors were prepared to take care of her.
“I had more food in my house than I knew what to do [with],” Diana said. She recalled that many neighbors brought her covered dishes so she wouldn’t have to worry about cooking.
She received gift cards to both restaurants in Blacksville, however, it didn’t matter.
“Whenever I go to the restaurant, I can’t pay for a meal,” she said. “It’s already paid for by somebody.”
Greg Shriver, lives between Wana and Wadestown on a farm that has been in his family for 200 years. The barns, painted with H Shriver, on his property are direction markers for people traveling through this end of the county. He attributes the survival of his cattle to his neighbors after his bout with COVID-19 in September last year.
He was hospitalized for 14 days with the virus. Many of his neighbors used their farm equipment to bale hay in his fields so that he would be able to feed his cows throughout the winter.
“Because of [being] that late in the year, I wouldn’t have been able to make anymore, and I’m very appreciative to all of my neighbors coming out there,” Shriver said.
“They made probably 80 to 100 round bales, which I’d have to sell the cows without them.”
Mary Stanley sat outside the birthday party at her bar in Blacksville and teared up talking about the help and support she has received from her community. Many years ago, when her first bar burned down, her family asked her if she would move back closer to Morgantown. She never considered it. She said God brought her to Blacksville.
“People just come and they help you,” Stanley said. “You’re not going to find that in a lot of places.”