castle

“Mount Hope Municipal Stadium”

A visitor taking an exit off U.S. 19 into town recently drove past the imposing old football stadium, deeply impressed with the structure that stands as a proud throwback to a long ago era.

After chatting a while with Mayor Michael Martin, the man turned his thoughts back to the stadium.

“I didn’t realize you had a prison in Mount Hope,” he remarked.

Martin initially assumed he meant the new juvenile detention facility on the other side of town, but soon learned he referred instead to the athletic stadium.

The man’s error was understandable, given the fortress-like structure with its crenelated walls that remind one of the romantic days of King Arthur, when breaks were installed along the tops of castles to allow archers room to fire their arrows.

In fact, the design of the stone work on the stadium front and portal emerged from the creative mind of George Siems Jr., then a student of mechanical drawing, caught up in the chivalrous time of Ivanhoe, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

His father, George Siems Sr., a highway designer, road builder and civil engineer, who had prepared the preliminary plans and estimates, called on his son’s youthful expertise for a design. Thus, two generations of the Siems family, beginning in the 1930s, had a huge hand in bringing the stadium to fruition.

As time passed, the younger Siems even played football on the field, scoring a touchdown.

Formally known as “Mount Hope Municipal Stadium,” it stands as a massive, natural bowl, encircled by an eight-foot wall, and adjacent Sugar Creek, from which a coal company derived its name.

Besides the senior Siems, the vision for such a facility was shared in the Depression Era by W.A. “Bill” Tissue, Mayor P.H. Garrett, P.H. Snyder, and W.R. Gray. Townspeople chipped in $1,000 via donations, and for the princely sum of $910, some 4.55 acres were purchased in late 1933.

A formal deed handed the property over to the town of Mount Hope. Another 1.1 acres were bought in 1946 to accommodate a perimeter road and walls on the west side.

Construction money came through a series of federal grants via public works programs in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the absence of heavy earth movers now common on any construction site, workers handled picks and shovels, and pushed a one-ton mine car on narrow gauge rails from the start of the excavation to a dump site.

One necessary task was the draining of water from above the fill at the stadium’s upper end. Work crews installed a 30-inch, concrete pipe from behind the fill to escort the unwanted water to just below the stadium’s front.

Italian stone masons who had arrived in this region, adept in the skills honed back in the Old Country, performed the tedious mission of stone work, using rock quarried in Fayette County.

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Martin still chuckles at his visitor’s erroneous identification of the stadium as a prison.

Admittedly, the football field in no way can stack up to the foreboding old West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, closed more than a decade ago with the opening of Mount Olive Correctional Complex.

“But I can see how you could glance over and think you were looking at a prison,” Martin reflected.

Times have changed, and now it seems as if Mount Hope High School is destined to be closed, as talk of consolidation and new construction accelerates.

Will the Mustangs be put out to pasture for good? Is nothing to remain but the fond memories of so many champions this once-booming coal town produced over the decades, covering two centuries?

No one can say for sure at this stage, but Martin is aware of the push toward fewer and larger schools, with Mount Hope ultimately getting swallowed up with at least one, and perhaps two, other schools.

“I’m not saying that’s absolutely going to happen,” the mayor observed.

“We all know that’s the direction the Fayette County Board of Education wants to go. As a matter of fact, they would like to close four high schools.”

There’s one hitch in the potential shakeup as Martin is swift to remind anyone -- Municipal Stadium isn’t owned by the school board.

“That’s a city facility, built by the city and the city owns it today,” he said.

“It’s not something for the board of education to figure out what to do with. It’s an important and unique landmark here in Mount Hope.”

However the final consolidation plan is shaped and approved, Martin has a suggestion for the education powers: Use his town’s stadium for home football games.

That facility boasts a seating capacity of 4,000, and the mayor sees one of equal size an unlikely prospect being erected for any new school.

“Anyway you look at it, that’s as nice a stadium as there certainly is in southern West Virginia, and maybe all of West Virginia,” he said.

Mount Hope has no midget football league to take advantage of its roominess. Soccer is out of the question, since the stadium’s dimensions aren’t conducive to that sport. Moreover, as the mayor reasons, it would be tough to compete with the complex in nearby Beckley. Track teams can practice here, but there is no surface to conduct meets.

So, what’s in the future?

“I can’t bring the Rolling Stones in here,” the mayor laughed.

“Rugby? I don’t know of any rugby played in the state of West Virginia. Every time I take somebody new into that stadium, I ask them this question: If this were in your community, and it weren’t being used for football any more, what do you think it should be used for?

“And the answers are always the same as my own answer right now, ‘I don’t know.’”

One thing is certain. Town officials cannot afford to just let it sit idle. In almost no time, the weeds would wage a victorious assault and overwhelm it. Life Without Football could rapidly mirror a real-life version of a television documentary, Life Without People.

“One way or another, we’ll have to care for it,” Martin said.

“We’ll have to keep the ring road around the inside graveled. Have to keep that heat turned on in the facilities building.”

And, in the interim, just wait and see what direction school consolidation takes.

“It almost looks inevitable,” the mayor added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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