By Mannix Porterfield
Earl Ray Tomblin was a long way from the Capitol the last time West Virginia rolled out a massive birthday cake.
That was June 20, 1963, when the state needed 100 candles to light the baked delight.
Only 11 at the time, Tomblin didn’t make the trip to Charleston to hear President John Kennedy recognize West Virginia as the state that catapulted him into the White House.
Yet, the governor-to-be certainly stashed some memories of that milestone birthday.
“The centennial celebration was a reflection of the time, with families visiting each other often,” Tomblin told The Register-Herald, as he prepared to lead West Virginia’s blowout for its 150th anniversary.
His memory bank is fraught with gatherings of an extended family, capped by the traditional Sunday dinner.
“To me, the centennial was about celebrating our family heritage as much as it was about our state’s birthday,” the governor said.
“Of course, I remember what a hit some of the centennial events were — the centennial train, the traditional West Virginia music. It was a time that made us proud to be West Virginians.”
Now, half a century later, Tomblin carved his niche in West Virginia political history, first as the longest serving president of the Senate, and now as the 35th governor — the number fitting, since this was the 35th state admitted to the Union, arriving in the heat of the Civil War.
“I hope, 50 years from now, our young people will look back on this year’s 150th birthday with the same fondness as those of us who were fortunate enough to experience the centennial celebration.”
In a ceremony, Tomblin pointed to the turmoil of the Civil War that gave birth to West Virginia.
“There is no place like West Virginia,” he said.
“We have a unique spirit, friendly people who are faithful to our American values, and we love our home. It deserves to be celebrated as our state turns 150 years old.”
Everyone with some connection to the state joined in the Thursday celebration.
The U.S. Postal Service got into the act with a special West Virginia Statehood stamp, depicting a scene from the Highland Scenic Highway in Pocahontas County, photographed by Roger Spencer.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey pointed to the concept of freedom that motivated West Virginia to break away from Virginia.
“One hundred fifty years later, our citizens are still dedicated to this fundamental principle,” he said.
“Becoming an independent state was not an easy task, but our Founding Fathers had a vision of great things for this region,” Morrisey said.
“Their vision should be an inspiration for all West Virginians to continue working to make this state the best she can be, to not fear or shy away from difficult decisions to always embrace and fight for freedom.”
This is one long birthday bash, one that is scheduled to continue through the weekend, with a variety of plays, concerts, speeches and fireworks.
At mid-afternoon Thursday, the governor cut the colorful cake, after bells pealed across the land where “Mountaineers Are Always Free” to kick off the sesquicentennial ceremony.
In today’s second round of merriment, the festivities include “Civil War,” a Broadway musical performed by the Charleston Light Opera Guild at the Cultural Center, and the world-renowned Zambelli’s Fireworks lighting up the night sky for a second time.
For Saturday, participants can get a free sternwheeler ride at Haddad Park, while the night is set aside for the Smoke on the Water Chili Cook-Off, a vintage car show, outdoor concerts, the Vandalia Gathering, history lectures, Civil War re-enactors, state food and craft vendors, and, of course, birthday cake.
And, yes, Virginia, we plan to shoot off a third session of fireworks to mark the 150th anniversary of our no-fault divorce from the Old Dominion.
On Capitol Hill, a special resolution was put before the Senate by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., noting the real estate beyond the Allegheny Mountains was claimed for King George I in 1716 in an expedition by Virginia Lt. Gov. Alexander Spotswood.
Historical facts were enumerated in the resolution, past and present, with some emphasis on the bedrock coal industry.
“West Virginia workers are the salt of the earth and set hard work as a cornerstone of a life rich with pride, especially our miners, who daily travel deep underground to mine the coal that keeps this nation humming,” the senators said.
The resolution paid homage to some home-grown icons, such as Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson, Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, educator Booker T. Washington, Mother’s Day founder Anna Jarvis, and Brig. Gen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager.
Doing her part, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant sealed a time capsule, filled with code books, pictures of her office, and items linked to the sesquicentennial.
Two former secretaries — Hike Heiskell and Joe Manchin, along with Manchin’s wife, Gayle — watched as the capsule was locked inside a vault in Tennant’s office.
“I hope when this time capsule is opened on the day of our bicentennial that the people of this state can look back on the challenges we face today as examples of times that we made the best decisions for all of the citizens of West Virginia,” Tennant said.
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