Rural Appalachian Improvement League (RAIL) was an idea to improve economic conditions as well as the quality of life in Mullens.

“When I left Mullens in 1961, there were four new car dealerships, two theaters, a bowling alley, a wholesale grocery, three chain grocery stores, two furniture stores, Murphy’s, Bailey Lumber Company, the Dollar Store, and a dozen or more other profitable businesses,” explained Dewey Houck, who conceived RAIL.

Houck has been retired for about 17 years. He began his railroad career in Mullens — his hometown. That career, however, took him to Bluefield, to Atlanta, Ga., and to Roanoke, Va., where he lives today.

“When I returned 40 years later and took note that all these businesses were gone and many of the buildings were vacant, I think the sadness of seeing this wonderful little city suffering depression presented a challenge and I offered my time to help.”

Houck has spent countless hours searching for grant money to fund RAIL projects, driving back and forth from Roanoke to Mullens, in addition to rolling up his sleeves and tackling the problems of his hometown.

He is one of many who have volunteered time to improve economic conditions in Mullens, but his efforts have led RAIL to a remarkable success.

“We started at the time of the flood,” Houck said of the non-profit organization. “We had a meeting scheduled July 9, but the flood happened July 8 — the day before.”

The July 8, 2001 flood devastated the downtown business district, several of the buildings have been torn down. Some of the businesses did not re-open. Some of the residents left the area. However, business owners who chose to stay have worked to put new life into the small municipality, now known as the “Comeback City.”

RAIL is housed in the Mullens Opportunity Center (MOC), which, at one time, was the community’s elementary school. “Opportunity” is indeed the keyword and the volunteer staff strive to make a difference for local residents.

The former school building is now used for a variety of purposes, including space for the Wyoming County Day Report Center in which non-violent offenders are sentenced to community service and classes to help manage anger or other issues.

The building also houses a community exercise room, computer classes, literacy program, offices for the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association, among other uses.

In the future, some of the space may be used as a business incubator to assist small businesses.

The building sits alongside the Guyandotte River, which has engulfed the facility on more than one occasion. The flood waters of July 8, 2001 put the high water mark at the second floor. Volunteers cleared the mud and made the building useable again.

It is that volunteer spirit that is making a difference for Mullens, Houck believes.

“I guess you might say RAIL was my brainchild, but an idea is of little consequence without the resources to make it happen,” Houck emphasized.

Houck lauds numerous people, including those who serve on the board of directors, city officials, in addition to several volunteers who’ve worked alongside him to improve the city. He also emphasizes without the support of his wife, Sheila, he would not have been able to commit his efforts.

“RAIL is a product of the people and had no sponsoring agency or organization, but it has had wonderful partners,” Houck explained.

Some of those partners include Charles Pace, the attorney who helped establish RAIL’s non-profit status and organize the corporation; Frank Blackwell and the Wyoming County Board of Education, who provided the former school building; Marshall University, which provided an Internet center at the MOC, one of the most used in the state; AmeriCorps VISTA, through which volunteers have provided about 27,000 hours of service, Houck noted.

“Early in the formation of RAIL, it became evident that domestic issues had to be addressed to attract business and commerce,” Houck explained. “Per the 2000 census, Wyoming County had a 25 percent poverty rate and 35 percent of the working age group had some sort of disability.

“Wyoming County has one of the best high school graduation rates in the state, yet only 35 percent of residents over 25 have a high school equivalency...

“Wyoming County is rich in natural resources, yet utilizes little of these resources to produce jobs.”

After two years, RAIL volunteers identified six areas on which to focus attention, including economic development, community development, culture and heritage preservation, environmental issues, adult education, and improving life quality.

They’ve done more than talk, they’ve put their grant money where their mouths are.

RAIL owns one historic building and is taking steps to restore it and have it added to the National Historic Register, has nurtured the Mullens Community Theatre group in presenting locally-produced plays and music, founded the Upper Guyandotte Watershed Association which is now a non-profit organization working to cleanup the watershed and improve the environment, established an adult literacy and GED program, as well as offered regular sessions addressing cancer, black lung, diabetes, and other chronic health problems, while encouraging residents to exercise regularly in the facility’s exercise room.

Houck has been honored with several awards for his work, including “West Virginia Volunteer of the Year.”

“Of course these recognitions were significant for all of us, but I think my most satisfying moment will come on Feb. 1 when a new professional executive director takes over the operation of RAIL,” Houck noted.

Dvon Duncan will become the director, Houck said. She grew up in McGraws and left the area to pursue her career, he said.

“To date RAIL has been managed by volunteers and has never had paid staff. I am proud of the fact that we have the credibility and gained necessary capacity to successfully compete on a national level for federal funding,” he added.

RAIL successfully competed against more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations across the nation to obtain the funding for a director.

“For the most part this work has been accomplished through volunteering,” Houck noted. “The most important thing that can be done to attract funding and sponsors, and indeed, to break the vicious cycle of persistent poverty, is for the community to demonstrate that it is willing to put forth its own effort to help itself. There is positive evidence that this is happening in Wyoming County.”

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