Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Welcome to Nail City -- an excellent weekend adventure in Wheeling, WV, circa autumn, 2001.

Ever wondered where the church pews in Rich O's were procured? Here's the story.


Welcome to Nail City.

Heavily laden with provisions, Syd Lewison and I exited the package store, where we had been directed because it had the “best” selection in town. It certainly wasn’t the best section of town, and when a raggedly dressed man approached us, a number of potential shakedown scenarios, none of them particularly savory, flashed through my mind.

“Excuse me, sir … ”

The possibilities loomed like the dreaded sub-sections on an income tax return. Did I have some spare change? A cigarette, perhaps? Would I care to purchase a pharmaceutical from his vast selection, to medicate? Or was he a representative of Watchtowers-R-Us?

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

“We Feature Gallo, Bartles & Jaymes, and Other Fine Wines.”

Fine wines? It must be true; hell, it was right there in the Yellow Pages for Wheeling, West Virginia, which was another five minutes east from our vantage point at a motel near St. Clairesville, Ohio. It was a late autumn weekend, it was deer season, and as soon as we had made it 50 miles east of Columbus, the interstate highway became littered with road kill and filled bumper to bumper with pickup trucks hauling uncovered carcasses.

Venison is fine by me, but I’m not a hunter, and although cigars are an important part of my life, this was no pilgrimage to the former home of Marsh-Wheeling cigars (ironically, they’re now made in Indiana).

We had one, and only one, reason to drive from Louisville to Wheeling: Business, or to be more specific, the business of capitalizing on the misfortune of certain elderly residents of the city.

Apparently, some of the old folks in question had died, while others had become too infirm to climb the double staircases leading to the second-floor sanctuary of their Pentecostal church. The church had relocated to smaller, more level quarters elsewhere in Wheeling, and a local used furniture dealer was conducting a sale of fixtures prior to the building being put on the block.

Among the items being sold were the church’s venerable oak pews, some six feet and other nine feet long, which were estimated by our intermediary to be more than 60 years old. Our mission in Wheeling was to relieve the congregation of a baker’s dozen of these pews. On Sunday morning, we were slated to meet the broker at the church, load the liberated pews into a Ryder rental truck, and haul them back to New Albany for use in Rich O’s – another charismatic place where the patrons speak in tongues and gargle snake oil.

However, all this had yet to happen. It wasn’t even 1:00 p.m. on Saturday. We’d checked into our hotel and were searching the yellow pages, not quite in the mood for fine wines, but wondering what the local beer scene was like in Wheeling.

We were about to learn that good beer in Wheeling is about as plentiful as strip clubs (or, for that matter, strip steaks) are in Kabul.

Act II, in which the outsider pauses to assist the eager natives.

“Excuse me, please, sir, but can one of you read?”

The man waved a sheet of paper inches from my skull as I paused to reflect that it had been quite some time since such an easy question had been asked of me. But what was the catch?

Suspicious yet intrigued, wary but accommodating, I decided to acknowledge that yes, since at least the mid-1960s, during some point in the LBJ administration, I have been able to read – quite well, actually.

“Thank you, sir,” he said, “because if you can help me read this, maybe I can get this (expletive deleted, but referring to a procreative female dog) to shut up.”

He motioned to an indifferent and perfectly quiet female waiting in the shadows by the pay phone. She rolled her eyes toward the darkening firmament, seemingly less afraid of potential violence from her boyfriend than of yet another worthless evening of futility and trash talk.

Seconds later, Tom Henderson emerged from the store toting his evening’s refreshment. Right alongside him was my illiterate friend’s best buddy, a veritable Sancho Panza, who announced that he had invested in bottled water for himself and a 40-ouncer for my questioner, just as instructed … and here’s the change to prove it.

Examining the man’s sheet of paper, I saw immediately that it was a “VIP club” circular for the dog track located down the street. He pointed at the bottom of the page, where there were three coupons, each for a complimentary slot machine pull. Visibly triumphant at his good fortune, as he had managed to find someone literate, pliant and reasonably sober so late in the afternoon – it obviously was a novel experience – he asked if the three coupons could be used, all at once, before midnight that day.

“Well, it doesn’t say you can’t use them all tonight,” I said, studying the various expiration dates emblazoned on the coupons, “so good luck, and have a good life.”

If you will look on the map …

Wheeling is located between Ohio and Pennsylvania in that strange angular panhandle of West Virginia that points northward not unlike a bony, outstretched middle finger. Much of the city lies on the left bank of the Ohio River, but the central district spills over onto an island in the river, where we were directed to buy beer and to counsel colorful local illiterates.

Wooded hills define the physical character of the area. Towns are wedged into the flat bottomlands between the heights. To look at Wheeling on a road map is to see an urban area seemingly one mile wide and twelve miles long, poured between the river to the west and a long ridge to the east.

At one time, Wheeling was the “Gateway to the West,” the later an industrial powerhouse, producing steel, iron, nails, glass, cigars and even beer, the latter inspiring these words from a history of the area written in 1879:

To historically review the dawn or subsequent development of man's appreciation for ale and beer, would be no sinecure achievement, suffice it to say that since the arrival of the earliest pioneers in this section, brewing, in some shape, has ever held its own. But the nutritious and palatable blending of malt and hops found little difficulty in fascinating the popular taste, even our grand-fathers were free to extol the merits of "John Barleycorn."

Contrary to enduring stereotypes of West Virginia as the hillbilly type of place where squirrel brains stubbornly remain on the collective dinner table, Wheeling has enjoyed a diverse cultural history engendered by the immigrants who came to work in the city’s factories. The last names of three pro sports luminaries born just across the river in the state of Ohio, John Havlicek and the brothers Niekro, attest to this, as does the presence of Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish congregations to spice the backwoods fundamentalist broth.

But the pendulum never stops swinging. It was well into the 20th century before an expedience borne of economic decline compelled local movers and shakers to reconnect with Wheeling’s southern heritage, and thus with some of the cultural themes that West Virginia’s original secession from secessionist Virginia had been intended to forestall. Nowadays, outsiders are lured with country music and the relaxed ambience of the South, even though the largely outdated industrial landscape appears suspiciously northern in character.

On Saturday afternoon, driving east on the interstate, we crossed into downtown Wheeling while admiring the city’s graceful, ancient long-span suspension bridge, the world’s oldest, which dates from pre-Civil War times.

Stopping briefly to make final arrangements for the truck, I was struck by the surplus of aging and generally derelict red brick warehouses, victims of the downturn that has plagued Rust Belt cities like Wheeling for decades. They’re the sort of building that microbrewery start-ups so eagerly sought in the 1990’s, before that particular industry suffered its own leveling off.

Downtown, in the vicinity of the approaches to the suspension bridge and the epicenter of attempted tourism, several of the city’s old commercial buildings -- the banks and corporate headquarters of another age – have been renovated. One of them, at 1400 Main Street, has become the Wheeling Artisan Center. On the building’s upper floors are housed West Virginia arts and crafts shops, the folksy milieu of the south, and the staple attraction for blue hair bus tours and visiting groups, which the local visitor’s bureau directs to the River City Ale Works on the first floor, which is where we were seated at the bar wondering if this was as good as it gets in a place like Wheeling.

Comrade, can I see your ration coupon?

For me to have a good life, it meant a desperate effort to remain upwind from my interrogator. Besides, the conversation seemed to have gone about as far as it could, so I started to turn toward the sanctuary offered by our rental car, but he wasn’t finished with me quite yet.

“Fine, thanks, but Jesus Christ, I don’t want to use the damn coupons – look, I just want to cash these in and get back the money for drinks. Does it say I can do that?”

Pondering the theory and practice of loopholes, I caught the scents of burning leaves and cold river water. Traffic hummed on the adjacent interstate. Elsewhere on Wheeling Island, West Virginia’s state high school football championship game would be starting later in the evening.

Exactly what do people drink at dog tracks, anyway?

Why? Why? Why?

In truth, we had been forewarned. Before departing Louisville, I visited and searched for brewpubs and beer bars in Wheeling. There were none of the latter, and to put it charitably, the reviews for the only listed brewpub, River City Ale Works, were mixed.

I learned that the original occupant of the space was called Nail City, an establishment billed as West Virginia’s largest brewpub. When asked about this, the bartender informed us that the current River City Ale Works was the only brewpub in West Virginia, making it the largest by default.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true; there is at least one other brewpub operating in the state, but we had no access to floor space measurements, and it seemed that the first of many Brewpub Warning Signs was about to be raised: When you spend valuable moments debating ephemera rather than the merits of the beer on offer, you might be headed for trouble.

Should we stay or should we go? Alternatives seemed few in number, other than hitting the road for nearby Pittsburgh, a scant hour up the interstate, but which of us would drive?

We elected to stay at Wheeling’s largest and only brewpub, the reward for which was an admittedly fine meal, as well as fine views of the shapely, athletic female bartender who tried her best to be helpful. However, for aficionados of brewpubs, even great food and buxom hired hands are small consolation when the beer is unimpressive.

Here, then, are a few warning signs to consider during a brewpub visit. They are specific to Wheeling’s River City Ale Works as experienced during our visit, but equally applicable, in varying forms, to similar establishments.

You become worried when:

A brewpub’s dining menu lists at least 75 different meals, but only six house beers are described on the table tents.

The six everyday beers listed on the table tents aren’t available.

The two beers that are available, neither of which are listed on the table tents, are written on a chalkboard half-obscured by Miller Lite point-of-sale materials.

The two house beers are competent, if unspectacular, but they’re served ice-cold in frozen glasses.

For every glass of house beer the bartender pours, another glass goes cascading down the drains as foam is “poured off.”

The bartender explains that the reason for the discrepancy between the six beers listed on the table tents and the chalkboard’s two like this: “Well, we didn’t brew for a while, but now we’re brewing again.”

You ask why this is the case, and she replies, “Because the brewery was broke.”

The brewpub offers “happy hour” pricing, but a large and readily visible sign reminds customers that the special prices do not apply to the two house-brewed beers that are available.

The preceding bears repeating: A brewpub offers “happy hour” pricing for mass- market swill, not its own beer.

You look around the bar, and no one else is drinking the house beer. You conclude that you must be strange for insisting to do so, speculating that your interest in beer is greater than that of the management, and wondering why such a place even bothers maintaining a brewery when so little is done to nurture and support it.

The overwhelming evidence available to us was that it might be a long time before craft beer becomes a priority in Wheeling, notwithstanding the freedom once enjoyed by the city’s residents to “extol the merits of John Barleycorn." Eyes affixed to the plunging neckline of our bartender, we asked for directions to the best package liquor store with the best selection in the city.

“That’d be Cut Rate over on Wheeling Island. We all go there. Go across the suspension bridge, fourth stop sign, turn right … “

Beer and circus.

Like the set pieces at Madame Tussaud’s, the tableau outside the liquor store was frozen in time. Myself, Syd Lewison and Tom Henderson, each with paper sacks of cold beer in hand, and the sun setting to the west, behind our hotel in Ohio. Standing before us was a man with a sheet of paper. His pal’s arm was extended in an almost Biblical offering of refreshment. Just off stage, silently, drearily, there reposed a woman.

In the fading light, the fine print on the coupons was way too small, and my patience far too gone, for me to bother trying to read it.

“It doesn’t say you can’t,” I offered. “Go for it.”

Thusly reassured, the man thanked me a final time and accepted the bottle of malt liquor. The three forlorn bearers of dog track “drink” tickets shuffled off toward their ultimate redemption, to the greyhounds, to the southernmost extremity of Wheeling Island.

Come to think of it, the woman hadn’t said a word the whole time … and all because I could read.

Editor’s note:
For abundant historical information on Wheeling, as well as numerous photographs both old and new, go to …

1 comment:

Matthew D Dunn said...

Great piece. Top notch.

I love Wheeling.