A new, Clendenin-centric book reveals hundreds of captured moments — some eventful, some everyday — of 19th and 20th century life in the northern Kanawha County community.
Clendenin area native Kim Johnson assembled, authored and released “Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past” earlier this summer.
“I was born in Bufflick in my grandma’s house near Clendenin way back in the olden days of 1952,” Johnson said with a laugh during a telephone interview from her Dunbar home. “I grew up in Clendenin and lived there until about three or four years ago when I moved to be closer to work.”
“Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past” is the product of decades of her preparation and collection, ultimately brought from notion to fruition as a result of her COVID-19 pandemic downtime.
The book contains more than 200 pages and approximately 475 photographs.
Johnson said she had had access to a variety of vintage historical pictures when she worked at Goldenseal, retiring from the state-published magazine in November 2018.
“They had a treasure trove of old pictures, but there are not many photographs of Clendenin available I could find online. If you Google, it seems you’ll just find the same few pictures,” she said.
Neighbors and acquaintances throughout the Elk River area were wellsprings of both photographs, documents and other local lore for Johnson, as well.
“I always knew older men, such as Henry Young and Leonard Shaffer, and some women in the area who were local historian types. They had all of these photographs and I borrowed and scanned them. Henry wrote a lot of notes and I kept them. And I thought, ‘What am I going to do with these?’” she said.
“Last summer, I thought, ‘This is crazy. I have all of these photos on computer files and some physical files.’ As it got along in the fall, I got it all together, and, in March, we got hit with the pandemic. All of a sudden, I had lots of free time.”
Johnson had also amassed a panoply of photographs over the years from her grandmother and mother, as well as more formal sources such as the West Virginia State Archives and state Historic Preservation office — “and it became a 220-page book.”
“A few [of the photographs] have been seen before, but not too many of them,” she said. “Henry Young had a 5-inch-by-7-inch photo that we thought was damaged; it was the color of sand and you couldn’t see any image on it.
“I thought it might be something, so I took it up to Archives. They put the photo through some kind of filter, and it brought out the image of the Clendenin Bridge from around 1890 or 1895. It shows people on the bridge with horses and kids.”
A number of photographs in “Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past” show the Union Carbide plant that was built in Clendenin in the early 1920s, prior to the facilities moving across the county to South Charleston a few years later.
“My grandfather worked there as a welder after World War I,” Johnson said. “There are several good pictures of the original Carbide in there I’m sure a lot of people hadn’t seen; they’d never been published before.”
The book also contains an older image that had hung for years inside the former Farmers and Citizens Bank in Clendenin.
“It shows Main Street in Clendenin with horses and wagons on a dirt road,” Johnson said, “and ox teams pulling pipe for the oil fields. It’s a really cool picture.”
Along with her amateur historian status, Johnson is an acclaimed banjo player who has appeared at numerous festivals around the state, most recently in the City of Ripley’s Fourth of July Grand Parade.
“With all of the music events canceled [because of the pandemic], I entertained myself by putting this book together.”
Rapid reader response
More than 50 copies of the book were ordered within a week of Johnson’s announcement of its publication on social media.
“There’s a Facebook page called ‘You Know You’re From Clendenin WV When ...’ and I put up a mention about the book. That thing lit up like a Christmas tree. People are loving it.”
Loving it so much that Johnson has had to order — and likely will continue to re-order — extra copies within the first month of the book’s release, she said.
“I’ve already had to order a reprint of 100 books, and I probably will have to get more. These things are going fast.
“I had originally ordered 300 copies,” she said, “and I thought that would last a little while, but they were gone in about two-and-a-half weeks. A new order just came yesterday and half of those are gone. Those things are flying out the door.
“I really didn’t expect that that many people would be interested in the book; I thought copies would just trickle out after a few months.”
To date, orders have been placed from California, Arizona, Montana and several other states east and west of the Mississippi River.
“I guess they’re people who’ve moved away from the area,” Johnson said.
Moreover, inquiries are already being made about a sequel, and Johnson said she isn’t completely averse to the idea.
“At least five or six people have already mentioned it and asked me if there will be a Volume II,” she said. “I’d be really glad to, if we come up with more pictures. I have a few, but I put the best in the book.”
“Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past” can be ordered for $20, with a $5 fee for postage and shipping, from Johnson at P.O. 333, Dunbar, WV 25064 by mail or email@example.com via email.
“I can also deliver it around the Clendenin and Charleston area, but I don’t want to go out too far beyond that,” Johnson noted.
“Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past” is also available for purchase at Ore’s Pharmacy in downtown Clendenin.
A pandemic-borne banjo ban
Johnson said she has been playing the banjo since she was 25 years old, having met Ivydale fiddler Wilson Douglas circa 1979 when he performed at the annual Vandalia Gathering at the state Capitol Complex in Charleston. With the help and encouragement of Douglas and other old-time music makers, she taught herself how to play the banjo.
“I was always interested in music, but that was from the audience; I never had tried to play,” she recounted. “I ended up playing with Wilson until he passed away in ‘99. He’d say, ‘Come up whenever you can,’ so I’d go once or twice a week, sit in his kitchen and we’d play.
“After he passed away, I played with Lester McCumbers from Calhoun County at festivals. I’ve played with Bobby Taylor and a couple of young men from Point Pleasant that I met around 2013 at a conference at Marshall University.
“I lucked into playing with some of the nicest fiddle players you’ve ever heard in your life,” she said.
In recent years, she’s accompanied the two Mason County musicians, known as The Modock Rounders, she met at Marshall at various venues around the state.
“They’re really fun and energetic guys,” Johnson said. “They’re both about 30 years old, and I’m way older than them, but we have a lot of fun.”
But the fun — and the music — have stopped for the nonce.
With Gov. Jim Justice’s July 13 executive order canceling West Virginia’s fairs, festivals and other large gatherings to lessen the risks of COVID-19 spread, Johnson’s banjo strings may go unplucked — at least publicly — for the immediate future.
“Now it’s not happening, with all of the cancellations. The Modock Rounders and I did a lot of square dances. They go throughout the year, but they’re in the fall and winter, mostly, and they’re not going to be happening.
“It’s kind of a dry year for music,” Johnson said.
That dry spell may, however, provide the time and impetus for her to start working on another compendium of Clendenin memories.
“People are just fascinated by it,” she said of the early, widespread success of “Clendenin, West Virginia, Images of the Past.” “I think of that little town, really damaged from the flood and still rebuilding, and how that little town has provoked a lot of interest in people for some reason.”