The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

April 27, 2014

Talcott carrying the hammer to etch John Henry in eternity

He was a steel-driving man who could slam steel better than any steam drill could.

John Henry became a legend when he beat a steam drill in a steel-driving race around 1870. That legend lives on in the town of Talcott.

To keep it alive, local groups are working together to create a museum dedicated to the story of John Henry. The museum would be born from a shop that has served the community since the early 1900s.

“My brother-in-law and baby sister, Donna, they thought the best thing for this area would be this museum,” John Henry Days President Bill Dillon said. “We’ll be right in the middle of where the John Henry story is. It’s where the museum and the park will be. We’ve got 26 acres in the park for trails.

“It was her dying wish to see the building back to its original state. The only thing they asked was that we get the drop-ceiling out, clean it, paint it and redo the floor. We have done that and the only thing they wanted to do was take the vinyl siding off the building and restore the wood underneath it.”

Dillon said the story of John Henry is so important to preserve because it shows what race relations were like in the late 1800s.

“We’ve got one of the greatest stories about a man beating a steam drill before he died,” he said. “Why would you not be interested? The white people that were working as supervisors or captains didn’t care if a black man died. If a black man died, you hire another one. If a mule died, you’d buy another one. If a white man died, they’d get a funeral.

“If a white man would have beaten the steam drill, they would have had an instant hero. John Henry wasn’t an instant hero. He wasn’t really in the notion of a hero until later. The black people would sing songs on the railroad about John Henry. They kept those songs going. At one time, in 1940, they had a Broadway musical about John Henry.”

To help fund the building’s restoration and get the word out about the coming museum, there’s going to be a fundraiser gala.

“This gala is two weeks before the grand opening,” Dillon said. “We’ll do that on the 10th of May and two weeks later we’ll be able to exhibit some things at a grand opening.”

One of the volunteers who helped put the gala together says the event is a community effort.

“Me, my mother, and Donna’s son, Chad, were trying to raise a little bit of money to help out,” William Jones said. “We started contacting local artisans and businesses. It wasn’t long before we realized that this was going to be a much bigger event than we thought.

“We approached the John Henry Historical Society ... with the idea and agreed that the best place was this building. The community needs to see what we’ve done and what our future plans are.”

Jones says the event will feature a silent auction, live entertainment and good eating.

“A couple of local bands, ‘Chosen Generation’ from Hinton and ‘Jacob Woodrum Band,’ agreed to come and play some railroad music and traditional bluegrass,” he said. “There will be a silent auction with over 200 items including John Henry memorabilia.”

“The food will be provided by Chad Wykle and community volunteers. It’s a night of fellowship for people to come out and see what’s been done. It’s a way for the community to contribute to the cause.”

Hinton Hope Foundation is sponsoring the advertising for the gala and Jones says two of the items in the auction are pretty valuable.

The gala will be at the John Henry Museum on Barger Springs Road in Talcott on May 10 from 5 to 8 p.m. Instead of admission, donations will be taken at the door.

— E-mail: cneff@register-herald.com

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