- Associated Press - Saturday, April 5, 2014

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) - Using Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog, Beth Crowder and her husband, David Wentz and some friends scoured ads for cheap land until they found 420 acres for sale in Doddridge County, where the couple moved in 1977.

Crowder and Wentz had been living in a communal home in Denver, but members wanted to get away from the city and give rural life a try, taking the practices they cultivated sharing a house among six to 12 people and spreading it out on a tract of land. Several members paid $5,000 for the land.

Then, using a series of books called “Foxfire” that outlined Appalachian culture step by step, the couple, among the first in their group to move to West Virginia, set about building a dovetailed log home, a process that took a few years. In the meantime, they lived on their property in a mobile home.

“Ironically, we live 12 miles from Fort New Salem and that’s exactly the kind of construction they had,” Crowder said recently. “We didn’t know. We could have seen what it looked like, but we were going by the ‘Foxfire’ books.”

Crowder and Wentz expected others who had gone in on the land to join them and a few did, coming and going through the years. Also, they each set about making a living. Wentz learned how to be a wood turner. Always artistic, Crowder set up shop in places like Middletown Mall in Fairmont and painted portraits of people and their pets and also served as an artist-in-residence for Harrison County schools. Eventually, she had more time to devote to her own pieces and won two Governor’s Awards and one Award of Excellence in the West Virginia Juried Exhibition.

Nearly 40 years later, the two, now divorced, own about three-fourths of the original 420 acres, but have been discouraged by the hydraulic fracturing for gas that has been taking place on Wentz’s property, which has meant increased traffic and noise that they both experience, so much that Wentz plans to move to Washington state to be closer to the couple’s son. Wentz owns the land, but not the mineral rights.

“I used to be able to hear if somebody was driving up my road,” Crowder said. “Now I couldn’t tell if somebody was standing on my front porch beating on the door.”

And those are just two of many stories of the back-to-the-landers who moved to West Virginia during the 1970s in large numbers.

Carter Taylor Seaton of Huntington has written a book detailing how West Virginia benefited from these residents. “Hippie Homesteaders: Arts, Crafts, Music, and Living on the Land in West Virginia,” was set for release last Tuesday by West Virginia University Press.

Many of the new state residents turned to art to make a living and many of them in turn also were helped out by a variety of outreach programs and movements, such as artist-in-residencies and eventually, Tamarack, the Best of West Virginia facility in Beckley that sells the works of juried artists. Plus, those West Virginia Juried Exhibition prizes not only put Crowder’s work in the state’s permanent collection; it also meant a four-figure payday each time she won.

Seaton worked with a craft cooperative in Huntington and came in contact with many of these new West Virginia residents. But not until much later did she decide to look into why so many non-natives had ended up as artists in her home state.

“I learned that many of them would admit to the fact that if it hadn’t been for the people they found on the land already - older couples - they would have frozen or starved to death,” Seaton said.

“Also, what was interesting was these people they met were a generation older and they turned out to be the same age as these older couples’ children who had left West Virginia during the out-migration where so many young people had left. It was like a whole cycle of somebody leaves and somebody else comes back in.”

Not only that, but the older people had surrogate children to whom they could pass on their knowledge of the land, Seaton said.

Also helping artists was a craft revival that began with the state’s centennial in 1963, as well as the creation of events such as the Mountain State Art and Craft Fair at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, Seaton added.

Crowder and Wentz are not among the many artists that Seaton profiles in her book, but Sutton sculptor Bill Hopen, who carved “The Immigrants” statue that can be found at the Harrison County Courthouse, is.

Like Crowder and Wentz, Hopen also bought land in rural West Virginia - this time in Braxton County, in 1973. The New York City native wanted to move to a place where he could afford to build studio space, which was not possible in a crowded, high-priced metropolis.

However, he never really lived on his land, instead opting to buy a place closer to town, which gave him some cultural amenities while still affording him the amount of room he wanted.

“Homesteading - I found out how much work that was, and I ended up not becoming a true back-to-the-lander,” Hopen said. “I did build a little place in the country, but I never lived in it.

“What I found living in town was that the economic pressure was off living in West Virginia and I was able to make a decent living as a carpenter and a tree trimmer and I had time left over to pick up art again.”

Like Crowder, Hopen spent time in Harrison County schools as an artist-in-residence, which led to a commission for “The Immigrants,” which he did in 1985. Hopen found the environment in West Virginia to be welcoming, although now he has mostly out-of-state clients and his successful career can boast commissions of up to six figures.

“It seems like everything I did was appreciated as out of the ordinary here,” he added.

No hard and fast numbers exist as to how many people moved to West Virginia with the intention of living off the land. But Seaton said West Virginia census figures indicate that the only population increase in the past 50 years was in the 1970s, with about 10,000 of the 200,000 new residents estimated to be part of the movement.

Seaton believes that in addition to Tamarack, the state also would not be home to the West Virginia Public Radio music show “Mountain Stage” without the back-to-the-landers. The show’s house band evolved from the Putnam County Pickers, with the members independently migrating to West Virginia, mostly from Texas, to live on land in Putnam County.

The show’s host, Larry Groce, also grew up in Texas but he arrived in the state as a National Endowment for the Arts musician-in-residence in 1972 and decided to stay, originally settling in Barbour County.

Hopen also has added to the quality of life in Sutton, smack-dab in the middle of the state. He bought and renovated two circa 1885 churches that had been slated to be torn down; one of them now serves as the Landmark Studio for the Arts and the other is his metal shop.

These artistic newcomers, Seaton said, usually “were college educated and brought with them a different sophistication to their art than the people who were already here, and a willingness to go outside their comfort zone to sell it and push the edges of design rather than sticking with what granny had done.”

All these years later, Crowder has some mixed feelings about her move to Doddridge County.

When she and her then-husband bought their land, they gave no thought to their future ability to sell it. Also, Crowder realizes if she loses her ability to drive, she would not be able to get out and sell her art - which she does at arts festivals up and down the East Coast - let alone go to the grocery store.

“I want to live in an adorable town like Lewisburg and walk to the coffee shop and yoga class,” she said. “I am jealous that I wasn’t one of those people who moved to Lewisburg. They got land for cheap and when they sold it, they got loads of money, because it was outside of Lewisburg.”

On the other hand, she appreciates the lifestyle she has had in West Virginia and the support she has received as an artist from entities such as Tamarack and the state in general.

“I feel like I’ve had a pretty leisurely lifestyle,” she said. “You see on the news how people talk about juggling career and marriage and how stressed they are. I never felt any of that. We never got a babysitter until our son was 3. We could have made more money, but what kind of price do you pay on not having pressure?”


Information from: The Exponent Telegram, https://www.theet.com



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