A Local Look at the West Virginia State Museum
The West Virginia State Museum referred to by locals as the Cultural Center, is located on the complex of the West Virginia State Capitol. It first opened in 1976 and has been modernized over the past few years. I was blown away by how stylish and upscale the museum has become. The WV State Museum is the home to the state’s artistic, historical, and cultural heritage at its finest, and two government offices. One of my dearest friends, Charles Morris, is the Museum Director.
(this article was originally published in July 2015, and updated in April 2020)
Discovering the West Virginia State Museum
The West Virginia State Museum has a private parking lot and is only a few steps from the capitol complex.
Upon entering the Great Hall of the State Museum, expect to be wowed by the white marble walls accented by oak, gold, and coffee-colored ceilings. The bronze and crystal dodecahedron-shaped (a Greek symbol for infinity) chandeliers have 86 lights each and weigh 1600 pounds each. Even as a child on field trips to the Cultural Center, I was in awe and still am today.
On my visit, an annual Quilt Exhibition was taking place. Beautiful, handcrafted quilts were strewn upon the walls, complete with ribbons showing their scores from the contest. My favorite was WV mountaineer quilt.
Exhibits For All Ages
The Cultural Center tour begins with a walk through the coal forest into a western settlement and finally into current displays, representing the people, land, and industries of West Virginia life.
26 Discovery rooms, such as Frontier Life (cabin setting displaying craftsman of the pioneers, roles of women on the frontier, and mineral springs), the War Within a State (Civil War artifacts, weaponry, soldier life), and Industrialization (introducing the states most important industries including oil, gas, chemical, glass, timber, and pottery) contain artifacts for your educational and viewing pleasure. Company Store is a mock setting of coal company stores and has bunches of nostalgic merchandise.
I especially loved the Industrialization exhibit, full of Homer Laughlin pottery (the china and dinnerware giant that includes Fiesta) and bottling plant discoveries.
My dad, a US Veteran, loved the West Virginians at War room with exhibits showcasing military uniforms. It also has artifacts from the Spanish-American War through current wars and conflicts. Pay close attention as the drawers open and there are even more treasures to see.
Famous West Virginians
The Celebrating West Virginia room showcases some West Virginia’s most famous residents and noteworthy people, including basketball legend Jerry West, Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, astronaut Jon McBride, and actress Jennifer Garner. Artists and musicians will enjoy the last two rooms: Traditions of Music and A Legacy of Craftmanship. Many of the events in the museum are animated, contain AV presentations, audio, and feature spectacular displays.
West Virginia is Known for Many Firsts
Did you know that West Virginia was first for these things?
- Mary Lou Retton, of Fairmont, was the first American to win the gold medal at the Olympics for women’s all-around.
- Mother’s Day was first observed at Andrews Church in Grafton on May 10, 1908.
- The first spa open to the public was at Berkeley Springs, in 1756. (at that time this was Bath, Virginia)
- The first brick street in the world was laid in Charleston on October 23, 1870, on Summers Street, between Kanawha and Virginia Streets.
- The Pinch Reunion is the oldest continuous reunion in the US.
- The Battle of Philippi was the first land battle of the Civil War.
- At its peak, Meadow River Lumber Company, in Rainelle, cut an average of 110,000 board feet per day and was the world’s largest hardwood sawmill.
- Kelly Axe and Tool Company, on Charleston’s west side, was the largest producer of axes, hatchets, and related tools in the world.
- In 1915, Randolph County held the first organized 4-H Camp in the world.
- Coal House, the only residence in the world built entirely of coal, is located in White Sulphur Springs and was occupied on June 1, 1961.
- Father’s Day originated in Fairmont on July 5, 1908, in the Williams Memorial Methodist Episcopal Church South, now known as Central Methodist Church.
- Michael Owens, of Mason County, invented the first automated bottle making machine used at Owens Bottling Co. in Kanawha City.
- The first natural gas well drilling in the US occurred in 1815 when Captain James Wilson accidentally hit the natural gas while drilling for salt near the foot of the present-day Brooks Street in Charleston.
- The first steamboat was launched by James Rumsey in the Potomac River at New Mecklenburg (Shepherdstown) on December 3, 1787.
- A variety of the yellow apple, the Golden Delicious, originated in Clay County. The original Grimes Golden Apple Tree was discovered in 1775 near Wellsburg.
- Outdoor advertising had its origin in Wheeling about 1908 when the Block Brothers Tobacco Company painted bridges and barns with the wording “Treat Yourself to the Best, Chew Mail Pouch”.
- The first electric railroad in the world, built as a commercial enterprise, was constructed between Huntington and Guyandotte.
- The Kanawha Valley was once known as the Chemical Center of the World.
- West Virginia was the first state to have a sales tax, effective July 1, 1921.
- Libbey-Owens-Ford, in Kanawha City, Charleston, was the largest window glass plant under one roof in the world.
- Elkinisia Polymorpha is the oldest seed in the world, Devonian Period, 360 million years ago, discovered near Elkins.
- The first organized golf club in America is the Oakhurst Links in White Sulphur Springs, 1884.
- West Virginia’s Memorial Tunnel was the first in the nation to be monitored by television. It opened on November 8, 1954.
- Charles Elwood “Chuck” Yeager, of Hamlin, became the first man to fly faster than the speed of sound on October 14, 1947.
- Marble King in Paden City is the only producer of 100% glass marbles in the world.
- The first rural free mail delivery was started in Charles Town on October 6, 1896, and then spread throughout the US.
Home to Mountain Stage
The West Virginia State Museum is home to the famous Mountain Stage, with Larry Groce, featuring live musical performances. Each two-hour show typically features four to five artists or musical groups. The show tapes live and is aired on over 150 public radio stations across the country.
Started in 1983, Mountain Show has hosted new and well-known artists for years. My favorite performances have been R.E.M, Natalie Merchant, Zap Mama, Jonatha Brooke, Paula Cole, Joan Baez, Ben Harper, and Amy Levere.
You Should Visit…It’s Free!
The West Virginia State Museum (Cultural Center) is an enjoyable family activity for those that live in West Virginia or are just passing through. The best part is that admission is free. Be sure to visit the museum gift shop, loaded with West Virginia based souvenirs, while you are there. The museum is handicap accessible and available for group tours.
You may also wish to enjoy the beautifully manicured lawns of the gorgeous West Virginia State Capitol while you are there. You’ll love the landscape, dotted with magnolia and dogwood trees, and plenty of fat squirrels running around.
Thanks to Charles W. Morris III for helping me with this post.
Charles, a former member of the University of Charleston basketball team, loves sports, art, and history. His life’s work has been the preservation and presentation of contemporary and historic art as well as the history of the state of West Virginia.
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