John Henry Museum takes shape in town where steel driving man is more fact than folklore
TALCOTT — Having the 1905-vintage general store she and her husband operated for decades converted into a museum commemorating the life and times of John Henry, the legendary steel-driving man, was Donna Dillon Wykle’s dying wish.
For 30 years, the Talcott woman, who died last November, and her husband, Ellery Wykle, ran the Dillon Superette, found less than a mile down the CSX tracks from the Great Bend Tunnel’s eastern entrance. It was there, in 1870, that Henry, using hand tools, is said to have won a rock-boring contest against a steam-powered drill.
The Wykles kept a display of John Henry memorabilia in their store, the center of activity in Talcott during its final years of operation. Donna Wykle served on the John Henry Historical Society’s board, and on the steering committee for the John Henry Days celebration, Talcott’s largest annual event.
“She was quite a John Henry booster,” said William Jones, a member of the John Henry Historical Association, the organization leading the effort to repurpose the store and develop the adjacent park. “We’re glad she got to see some of the renovation process get underway before she died.”
After countless hours of work being devoted to the old store by a squad of volunteers, including Ellery Wykle, the old store is about to embark on a new life as a museum and gift shop catering to visitors to nearby John Henry Park, taking shape on a 26-acre tract linking downtown Talcott and the museum to the John Henry statue and Great Bend Tunnel.
“The restoration’s been a slow process,” said Jones, “but we’re moving ahead. We’ll have our grand opening here on May 25.”
Initially the museum and gift shop will be open Fridays through Sundays.
Items on display in the museum will include collections of books, movies, videos about John Henry, donated tools associated with tunnel-building and mining, memorabilia from now-defunct Talcott High School, and photographs of the area during the period of tunnel construction. The gift shop will include crafts made by area artisans, as well as souvenir items like t-shirts and statuettes.
During Talcott’s heyday, the store was the largest of four groceries and general stores operating in the Summers County town.
It was built and initially operated by L.G. Rhodes, who built a two-story home a few paces away from the store.
“Rhode’s brother built a store like this in Pence Spring, and built a house next to it that was identical to the one L.G. Rhodes built here,” Jones said.
Opening the museum and gift shop and completing work on the adjacent park “will be good for the community,” said Larry Moorman of Talcott, one of the volunteers working on the store’s interior earlier this week. It was Moorman and his welding gear that helped restore the eight-foot-tall John Henry Statue after it was removed from a roadside pull-out area along W.Va. 3, where it had been subjected to decades of abuse by vandals.
“He had 22 bullet holes in him and a lot of dents from bullets that didn’t go through,” said Moorman, who plugged the 700-pound bronze statue’s accumulation of gunshot wounds and repaired other injuries, including a cracked neck and broken arm, before repositioning it in John Henry Park near the Great Bend Tunnel entrance.
“He hasn’t been shot once since he’s been there,” Moorman said of the statue.
To folks in and around Talcott, John Henry is more than a mythical character from folklore. In the 1920s and 1930s, researchers from WVU and the University of North Carolina interviewed residents the town who worked on the Great Bend Tunnel at the same time Henry was said to have worked there. The former tunnel workers validated many of the basic details of the John Henry narrative: That a powerful black man named John Henry worked as a rock driller at the tunnel, was considered the best of the drillers in the construction crew, and that Henry prevailed in an 1870 contest that pitted him against a Burleigh steam drill operator who hoped to sell the new machine to the tunnel’s contractor.
Talcott resident C.S. “Neal” Miller, who carried water and drills to crews working at the face of the tunnel, was interviewed by researchers from both universities. According to Miller’s interviews, the man-versus-machine aspect of 1870 contest didn’t draw much attention at the time.
“It was just considered a sort of test on the steam drill,” Miller is quoted as saying. “There wasn’t any big crowd around to see it. I was going and coming with water and steel, so I saw how they were getting along from time to time, but I didn’t get excited over it.”
According to Miller’s recollections, defects in the steam drill’s design had as much to do with the machine losing the drilling contest as Henry’s strength, stamina and skill with a hammer did.
“The drill got hung up on rock all the time,” he told the researchers. “It was operated by an eight horsepower steam engine” and “mounted on steel supports — something like table legs — and could only be used on a fairly flat surface. Several times during the contest they had to take the drill out of the hole and clear the gravel out.”
In 1969, Washington Post columnist Hank Burchard interviewed Talcott resident Banks Terry, who worked odd jobs at the tunnel in his youth.
Terry told Burchard that Henry sang while he worked, and wore out drills as fast as replacements could be brought to him. Burchard and the university researchers all concluded that a black steel-driving man named John Henry worked at the Great Bend Tunnel and was victorious in a drilling contest against a steam-powered drill
“That he drove steel against a steam drill and beat it seems likely,” Burchard wrote in a 1969 Post column. “That he died from over-exertion in the contest seems somewhat less likely, if wonderfully poetic. But there is no doubt that John Henry is high among America’s towering authentic folk heroes and a symbol of the proud working man who would not yield his human strength to the coming of the machine.”
To help pay for the complete renovation and restoration of the store, including the installation of an open, second-floor porch to match the one that was removed from the 1905 structure many years ago, and the conversion of a former Masonic meeting hall on the second floor into a conference room, the John Henry Historical Society is hosting a Restoration Gala at the store, starting at 5 p.m. on May 10.
The gala will feature a silent auction of more than 200 donated items, including John Henry memorabilia, glassware, antiques, and gift certificates from area merchants. Appetizers and refreshments will be served, John Henry documentaries will be aired, and live music will be provided by the Chosen Generation and the Jacob Woodrum Band. Donations are requested.