Moundsville, West Virginia, about an hour and fifteen minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, is both an utterly unique place, and an utterly typical one.
Pittsburgh-based filmmakers John Miller and David Bernabo’s documentary, “Moundsville,” attempts to tell the story of this town, without resorting to the sorts of cliches that typify so much coverage of this part of the country. It’s now being distributed to 338 PBS stations around the country over the next three years starting March 21, via the National Educational Telecommunications Association. It can also be seen online.
The idea came to John Miller while covering the region as a journalist.
“I grew up in Belgium, in Brussels,” says Miller. “I spent some summers in the states but had a very European childhood. I moved to Pittsburgh in 2011 for the Wall Street Journal. It was kind of like being a foreign correspondent in the U.S.
“I was assigned to cover global mining, so I was driving around West Virginia, going to all these mining towns. So I was also discovering America and learning about the history of the past 100 years. What drew me to Moundsville was that it had like every chapter of American history embedded in it, starting with the mound, which is over 2,000 years old.”
The Grave Creek Mound, a burial ground for the Adena people, looms above the town — giving it its name, and a minor tourist attraction.
“You had the arrival of white settlers and the 18th-century Native American wars,” explains Miller. “You had the rise of industry, the world’s biggest toy factory and a huge glass factory. Now it’s a Walmart, a hospital, and a prison.”
The history of Moundsville has very much influenced the story of the present, and how we got here.
“I turned 40, and was distraught about the tenor of the election,” says Miller. “I thought, ‘What can I do to tell a more meaningful story that will help people understand each other?’”
“Moundsville can set the context so perfectly — it incarnates this lost world that Trump appealed to, to get elected, basically. Because it had such a prosperous time of it in the 20th century, and three-quarters of the population voted for Trump.”
Miller was thinking about writing a book about Moundsville until he met filmmaker Dave Bernabo at a party. Then the idea for a movie began to take shape.
“We got a small, under $10,000, grant from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council,” says Miller. “Dave had a lot of gear. We basically did it for free.”
One thing that Miller learned about Moundsville was how prosperous this place was, at one time.
“What’s remarkable is the richness of the Ohio Valley, circa 1960, was not apparent to me before doing this,” says Miller. “Between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, it was one of the world’s top five manufacturing places, like the Ruhr Valley in Germany. They had the raw materials and supply chains. They made everything: clothes, toys, steel, aluminum, cars, everything.”
“You had intellectuals and artists who studied art at Yale and then got a job as a designer at Marx Toys. That very broad-based prosperity was very integral to the health of these towns.”
There’s not really a single, identifiable villain in the slow-motion collapse of this prosperity.
“What the movie, I hope, shows is that there’s no evil empire that intentionally destroys a place like this,” says Miller. “It’s kind of like the life cycle of capitalism. What I like is that we have normal people saying stuff academics say a lot.
“Capitalism makes you prosperous, and then the market for whatever you’re making dries up, and kids start playing with video games instead of toys, and all of a sudden the factory closes because the demand goes away. It’s not always because of foreign imports and trade deals — I mean, that’s part of it, but it’s really complicated. In that sense, Moundsville is similar to a lot of places, from here to Chicago.”
The film interviews dozens of residents, many of whom have memories of the town’s better days.
“I think they’re doing the best they can with limited resources,” says Miller. “Amazon’s not moving to Moundsville. Good middle-class jobs are not moving to Moundsville. The new reality is a hustle. There is a factory in the movie, that employs 14 people, that makes kitchen cabinets. It has German robotic technology and it’s heavily automated.”
This hustle includes a growing tourism industry, which takes some strange forms. The closed penitentiary —infamous for its violent past — is considered by many to be haunted, which draws a certain kind of tourist. Another resident created his own tourist attraction — the Archive of the Afterlife: The National Museum Museum of the Paranormal.
There are lessons for postindustrial American places here, if not easy answers.
“What makes it less prosperous now is that it doesn’t have a college,” says Miller. “James Fallows has a book about this. What he says is that if you have a college, all of a sudden you have coffee shops, restaurants, people who come there who are smart who want to stay and build stuff. And so it kind of tempers the brain drain.”
“Without a college, you struggle. There’s opportunity if you can figure out the modern American economy. If you can start a company that doesn’t require a lot of labor and use automation, like the kitchen cabinet guy. Tourism employs a few dozen people. But all of America can’t become this big museum. The gas thing (fracking) — you can make some money, but it’s not a panacea for employment, because most people come from outside the town. Accepting population decline seems pretty inevitable. Baby Boomers are going to die out, and the town is going to shrink.”
After screening “Moundsville” all over, Miller has found that this story resonates for plenty of people outside West Virginia.
“What I was pleased to discover is that people from Carnegie or Donora or Altoona, they identify with it: ‘Oh, that’s the story of my town, too,’” says Miller.