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Today in West Virginia History: A Look at the Total Eclipse of the Sun

Jane Metters LaBarbara
August 21, 2017

Artist's rendering of an eclipse, titled Total Eclipse of the Sun

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian

As the old saying goes, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun,” and that holds true for West Virginia as newspapers reported on the solar eclipse over the years.

The Weston Democrat reported on March 22, 1875, that an eclipse would be occurring in April, announcing “The Eclipse of the Sun, Observations to be Made – The Information to be Gained.”  The article stated that the eclipse “may mark an important era in all solar and stellar physics.”

Here’s the thrilling headline for The Clarksburg Daily Telegram, August 20, 1914, “Moon to Cut off Rays of the Sun!”

Martinsburg’s Pioneer Press, the first African American newspaper in West Virginia, ran this story on August 22, 1914, “War May Prevent Observations of the Total Eclipse of the Sun Tomorrow in Europe, Asia and Part of America.”  Although the United States had yet to enter World War I at this time, the eclipse was seen as posing problems for military activities throughout its path.

If you’re not able to view the eclipse today, stop by the West Virginia and Regional History Center to look at Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, read the blog post, “It’s Astronomical! The Biggest Book in the Rare Book Room,” here, https://news.lib.wvu.edu/2017/05/08/its-astronomical-the-biggest-book-in-the-rare-book-room/  or visit Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/ , to read all about newspaper reporting of the eclipse in West Virginia history.



Eclipse Image: The Atlantic:  How Artists Have Depicted Eclipses Across History.  https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/an-artists-view-of-an-eclipse/498548/  Etienne Trouvelot, Lithograph in colour, Total eclipse of sun; observed 29 July 1878

Trouvelot, Etienne.  Trouvelot’s Astronomical Drawings, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881.

Chronicling America: 

Daily Telegram:


Pioneer Press: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83025146/1914-08-22/ed-1/seq-1/#date1=1789&index=10&rows=20&words=solar&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=West+Virginia&date2=1924&proxtext=solar&y=13&x=12&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1


Challenges of Fragile WWII Era Films

Jane Metters LaBarbara
August 21, 2017

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC


The WVRHC is more than a fantastic repository of the history and culture of West Virginia and the central Appalachian region—we are the Special Collections division of the WVU Libraries, so we also preserve selected materials beyond our state and regional scope.  This is a story of some of those out-of-state materials—56 reels of 16mm motion picture film that have nothing to do with Appalachia.


I picked up these films from the Potomac State College library in 2014.  The library director at the time told me that the films had been in the library since at least 1986, with no indication of where or who they had come from or whether they had a connection to Potomac State College.  PSC librarians gave the films to the Center so we could try to identify them, preserve them, and make them accessible.  Each film was housed in a plastic case, and some of those were carefully cataloged in a wooden box.  The labels on the film cases indicated World War II subject matter, and those labels formed the foundation of the collection’s contents list, available online.


Interior of box meant to hold film canisters

View of interior of a box meant to hold film canisters, with labels at each slot.

In the photo above, you can see the effort that a previous owner went to in order to keep the photos organized.


In addition to our lack of information about the creation of these films and how they got to Potomac State College, we faced a few other challenges with these films.

Challenge 1: the ravages of time


Film doesn’t last forever, and these films smell because they are decaying.  The smell may be an indication of vinegar syndrome, which is the slow chemical decay of acetate film that causes this vinegar-y smell and causes the film to shrink and become brittle. Alternatively, if the smell is more like mothballs, the film is diacetate, but still decaying.  Some of the films are more delicate than others, with brittle spots, missing sprocket holes, etc.


Reel of film with a note beside it

Some reels came with notes, like the one above, which says “Bad reel.  Perforations faulty about 1/3 down.  Can’t run.  Needs previewed, cut, and spliced to save what you can.  Going to lose some on this one.”


Considering how delicate the films are AND the fact that we don’t know how unique or rare they are, we decided not to run them through a regular film projector at normal speeds to view them.  We would have to find a less physically stressful way to learn about these films.  This led us to…


Challenge 2: viewing fragile film


I began looking at a film frame by frame, by putting it on the reel winder/light table contraption that we generally use to fix microfilm that’s been wound backwards, then viewing it through a magnifying glass.  I realized that viewing the first frames of each reel, in hopes of finding producer and title information, was going to be time-consuming.


Two film reel winders atop a light table


Above you can see my Instagram post of our second set-up, which was a step up from the microfilm reel winder I had started with.  I had a great volunteer who worked with this setup to research the first few films.  Later, we were able to add a microfilm reader screen, which was easier on the eyes (and necks) of the two students and one volunteer who worked with it.


Challenge 3: language barrier



Film strip with a frame of text and a frame of animation

Most of the films are live-action, but one is animated.

Text on film: “Meine Damen und Herren!  Mein Vortrag beschreibt unsere gefahrliche Filmexpedition durch das dunkelste Afrika…”

Loose translation: “Ladies and gentlemen! My presentation will describe our dangerous film-expedition through darkest Africa…”


None of these films have sound, but a lot of them have frames of German text.  While Google Translate can help us a bit with figuring out the overall subject of a film, looking for materials that are most likely held in the archives of another country is a challenge I’d never faced before, and is tougher than I thought.


Why bother?


When we first acquired these films, I was excited about the possibility of having all 56 reels digitized so WVU classes could use them.  I can see these films being useful in German language courses, film courses, history classes on World War II, classes on racism and propaganda, and more.  It would be fantastic to have more students in our reading room, discussing the historical significance of these valuable primary sources. Continued study of the rise of the Nazi party and their particular brand of racism seems especially important in light of the recent white supremacist/white nationalist rally and counter-protest in Charlottesville, VA.


My enthusiasm for making these materials accessible was tempered a bit when I got estimates for how much it would cost to digitize each reel.  However, if we take no action with these films, they cannot be used by patrons and eventually they will degrade to the point that they cannot be copied.  If we cannot make them available, what is the point in keeping them?


To balance the cost of digitizing these films with our mission to allow people to access them, my colleagues and I decided to try to determine the uniqueness of these reels.  In theory, if nobody else has them, or if there are only a few copies, creating and preserving a digital copy would be a worthy use of our funds.  Unfortunately, I have no subject knowledge in the area of 1930s and 1940s German newsreels, so I looked for other experts.


RVD or RDV logo from a film strip

One of the logos on reel 6–I haven’t yet identified the company that it corresponds to.


I found that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive has a copy of one of our films (except theirs has sound!), so I thought they might be able to offer some advice.  After looking over the list of titles that had been affixed to the film canisters, they told me that most of the films are probably not rare because they are official newsreels, and they are likely held within other repositories or archives, such as the Bundesarchiv in Germany or the U.S. National Archives.


However, three of the films were interesting enough that the US Holocaust Memorial Museum was willing to digitize them for us and provide access to them on their film collection website. Click the links below to view the films–they range from 8 to 15 minutes.

Reel 14: “Bobsledding; Soviet War Memorial”

Reel 15: “Soviet War Memorial; atomic bomb explosion”

Reel 20: “Funeral for Werner von Fritsch; Ciano motorcade; Hitler Youth training; Polish Jews”


Film strip showing a frame of text in German above an image of presumably Polish Jews

Above are frames from reel 20, one which was digitized by the USHMM.

Text on film: “Zurück nach Polen: Das schwierigste Problem, vor das sich unsere Zivilverwaltung in den besetzten Gebieten gestellt sieht, ist die Judenfrage, hier einige Ghetto-Typen!”

Loose translation: “Back to Poland: The most difficult problem facing our civil administration looks provided in the occupied territories, the Jewish question, here’s some ghetto-types!”


Since then, I have had a succession of wonderful volunteers and student workers carefully reviewing films to see if we can locate other physical and/or digital copies of these films.  My next step will be a review of my students’ research, and a discussion with my colleagues about how we’d like to move forward with this collection of potentially valuable research materials.


If you are interested in learning more about these films, or if you want to participate in this project, feel free to contact me at jane.labarbara@mail.wvu.edu.



Looking Back (and Up) at Spruce Knob

Jane Metters LaBarbara
August 14, 2017

Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Assistant Director, WVRHC.

Spruce Knob is West Virginia’s highest point and one of my favorite places. Located in Pendleton County, the Knob, the summit of Spruce Mountain, stands 4,861 feet above sea level.  The mountain takes its name from the growth of Red Spruce trees.  At Spruce Knob, many of these trees grow one-sided or in a flag shape due to high winds.

Scenic view from Spruce Knob, July 2017

Scenic view from Spruce Knob, July 2017

Scenic views from Spruce Knob, July 2017, photos by Lori Hostuttler. 

Child taking in the view from Spruce Knob

Taking in the view from Spruce Knob, date unknown.  Image from West Virginia History OnView.

The resources and collections at the West Virginia & Regional History Center shed light on the history of Spruce Knob and the surrounding area.  Norma Venable’s short book, Sentinels in the Sky: Seneca Rocks & Spruce Knob provides a nice overview of the two West Virginia landmarks.  According to Venable, early settlers burned thousands of acres of land on Spruce Mountain to create pasture for livestock.  Timbering was the main industry in the area at the turn of the century and the last stand of old growth timber was cut down in the late 1920s. Forest fires were frequent, so much so that local residents called the Knob, “Big Burn.”

Children in an old fire watch tower on Spruce Knob in 1938

Children in an old fire watch tower on Spruce Knob in 1938. Image from West Virginia History OnView.

In 1921, Spruce Knob was acquired by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Monongahela National Forest and since then it has been fire free. Travel to the area was greatly enhanced when a road was built across Spruce Mountain in 1936 but it was not until 1960 that a spur road ran all the way to the top.

A partial view of Spruce Knob Lake, July 2017

A partial view of nearby Spruce Knob Lake, July 2017, photo by Lori Hostuttler.

Spruce Knob Lake is only a short drive from the summit.  The lake was constructed in 1952 for fishing and is still regularly stocked.  The 25 acre lake is the highest in the state at 3,840 feet.

The rocky summit of Spruce Knob ca. 1910

The summit of Spruce Knob ca. 1910. Photo in the West Virginia Geological Survey, Vol. V, page 229.

Conservationist and educator A. B. Brooks described Spruce Knob in the West Virginia Geological Survey in 1910.  He observed that “the crest of the mountain varies in width from one fourth to one half mile and is everywhere strewn with seamed and broken fragments of sandstone.” Brooks also provided detailed lists of plants and animals that could be found on the Knob at that time.  The most common trees were Red Spruce, but Yellow Pines and Mountain Ash trees were also plentiful.  Black Huckleberry, Wintergreen, Trailing Arbutus, Mountain Cranberry, Black Chokeberry, Red Raspberry, Yellow Clintonia, and Running Pine were also quite common.  Bracken Fern was then “the most abundant plant in the region covering thousands of acres of burnt lands.”  Black bears, red foxes, varying hares, and red squirrels frequented the area. They were accompanied by birds such as the Veery Thrush, Olive Backed Thrush, Gold Crowned Kinglet, Windsor Wren, and the Magnolia Warbler.

Nest of Olive Backed Thrush on Spruce Knob, date unknown

Nest of Olive Backed Thrush on Spruce Knob, date unknown. Image from West Virginia History OnView.

Fifty years later in 1960, William C. Robinson revisited Brook’s survey of vegetation on Spruce Knob in Castanea: The Journal of the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society.  He noted that the most significant changes during that time were the increase in the number of Red Spruce trees, the establishment of Red Maple trees in the area, the appearance of new shrubs and herbaceous species, as well as the disappearance of several shrubs that were common in the earlier survey.

In 1965, Congressman Harley O. Staggers proposed that the area encompassing Spruce Knob and nearby Seneca Rocks become a national recreation area for the purposes of public outdoor recreation use. The Harley O. Staggers Papers, A&M 913, contain records that document his efforts.

The first page of HR 9584 introduced by Rep. Staggers on June 30, 1965

The first page of HB 9584 introduced by Rep. Staggers on June 30, 1965.

A telegram from West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd to Congressman Staggers, July 22, 1965, indicating that his bill would pass

A telegram from West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd to Congressman Staggers indicating that his bill would pass.

First page of Public Law 89-207

Public Law 89-207 established the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area on September 28, 1965.

A.B. Brooks concluded his 1910 article by saying:

“To the purchaser of coal or oil, to the farmer or even to the lumberman, Spruce Mountain offers little or nothing.  But to the lover of mountain air and mountain scenery, to the student of nature and the collector it offers much and possesses for these a peculiar interest and charm.”

Spruce Knob has certainly charmed me over the years with its spectacular views, but this was the first time I reviewed our holdings to see what materials were available to document West Virginia’s highest point.  I only included a sampling of related books, photos, and manuscripts in this post.  I am very pleased that the rich history and changing ecology of the area are well documented at the West Virginia & Regional History Center.


WVRHC receives fourth grant to digitize historical newspapers

Monte Maxwell
August 11, 2017

Newspaper front page

The West Virginia University Libraries’ West Virginia & Regional History Center has received a $210,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to continue digitizing newspapers published in West Virginia from 1836 to 1922.

The award is the Libraries’ fourth NEH grant as part of the National Digital Newspaper Program. The collaboration between the NEH and the Library of Congress enlists libraries and institutions from around the country to create a digital database of historical United States newspapers.

“We are honored that the NEH recognizes the tremendous value of the historical newspapers archived in the WVRHC,” WVRHC Director John Cuthbert said. “We are thrilled to make more of these resources accessible to the world.

The Chronicling America website provides access to more than 12 million newspaper pages from 1789 to 1924. So far, the WVRHC has contributed 300,000 pages from 39 historic West Virginia newspapers.

The WVRHC holds the most comprehensive collection of West Virginia newspapers, including more than 50,000 reels of microfilm. The collection is the Center’s most frequently consulted resource.

“Newspapers are possibly the most significant single resource for studying the history of civilization since newspaper publishing began. They are a daily chronicle of what is happening in society,” Cuthbert said.

WVRHC Curator Stewart Plein said the grant will enable the Center to digitize 100,000 more newspaper pages. They will focus on a period of significant change with the opening of coalfields and the influx of African-Americans who migrated to West Virginia for jobs, and the expansion of the railroad and the corresponding birth of Huntington as a city developed to serve the exportation of coal.

The African-American population in the state increased from 25,800 in 1880 to more than 64,000 by 1910.

“African-Americans in Huntington developed and established a self-supporting community within the city that drew on the African American quest for identity, the need for education, the desire to own property, supportive kinship relationships and steady employment,” Plein said.

With the initial $266,000 grant in 2011, the WVRHC began it efforts by focusing on the Wheeling Intelligencer, which they identified as the most significant newspaper of the antebellum and early statehood period. Along with being the only daily newspaper being published in western Virginia at the start of the Civil War, it held anti-slavery and pro-Union stances, and supported the statehood movement.

Over the next six years, the WVRHC received grants of $135,000 in 2013 and $155,000 in 2015 and expanded its scope to include papers from around the state. These additions bring reporting on both sides of the Civil War conflict and pivotal issues and events such as the growing antebellum conflict between eastern and western Virginia, John Brown’s Raid, West Virginia’s statehood movement and establishment, West Virginia’s 1872 Constitution, Reconstruction, and the United States’ Centennial.

Also, reflecting West Virginia’s unique heritage, the WVRHC contributed two socialist papers, Charleston’s Labor Argus (May 1906 – April 1913) and Huntington’s Socialist and Labor Star (May 1913 – January 1915); Pioneer Press (1884–1888 and 1911–1917) published in Martinsburg for African-Americans; and La Sentinella del West Virginia (February 1911–May 1912), an Italian language paper published in Thomas.



A New Gift for the Rare Book Room

Jane Metters LaBarbara
July 31, 2017

Blog post by Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian

Posed photo of Mike Murphy, Stewart Plein, and John Cuthbert

A seventeenth century book has found a new home in the WVU Rare Book Room.  WVU alumnus, Mike Murphy, above left, with Stewart Plein, Rare Book Librarian, and John Cuthbert, Director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, recently donated a religious text published in Seville, Spain by Ioannis (Juan) de Cardenas of the Society of Jesus, a Jesuit monastic order.  

A graduate of Morgantown’s St. Francis High School, Mike followed in his family’s footsteps when he attended WVU.  Mike’s father, Joseph Murphy, taught Foreign Languages at WVU, and two of Mike’s brothers also attended.  Murphy graduated in 1985 with a BS in Landscape Architecture and a minor in Geography.  Today Murphy is a Member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a writer[1] and book collector.

Although Spanish in origin, Cardena’s book was printed in Latin.  Translated, the lengthy title, Geminum sidus mariani diadematis, sive duplex disputatio, de infinitâ dignitate Matris Dei, atque de eius gratia habituali infinita simpliciter, reads, Mariani Geminus, the Images, the Star of a Crown, or a Disputation about the Infinite Dignity of the Mother of God is Twofold, and Moved Him from his Habitual Grace of the Infinite in an Absolute.  The text is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Printed in 1660, the book is the first edition of the Geminum Sidus Mariani DiadematisBound in vellum, a soft leather resulting from the tanning process and typically pale in color, is made from calfskin, shown below left.  Although it is in excellent condition, the passage of time is evident on its binding.  The title page, below right, shows an engraved colophon, or vignette, documenting the printer as Ioannem de Ossuna.

Vellum book cover

Title page of Geminum sidus mariani diadematis...


Decorative chapter initials, below, add to the text of this theological work by the renowned Spanish Jesuit scholar Juan Cardenas.

Decorative chapter initial in Geminum sidus mariani diadematis...



Decorative printer's ornament in Geminum sidus mariani diadematis...

Decorative printer’s ornaments, above, and below the Resources, from the Geminum Sidus Mariani Diadematis.


The Rare Book Room collection is made possible by generous donors like Mike Murphy.  Since its founding in 1951, decades of donors have influenced how the library shapes and expands the Rare Book Collection, from a rare seventeenth century book like this one, to the Shakespeare Folios donated by alumnus Arthur Dayton, to the 20th century Isaac Asimov Science Fiction collection donated by alumnus Larry Shaver, and Asimov fan Carlos Patterson.  As Mike Murphy reports, he spent “many enjoyable hours wandering the stacks of the old Wise Library.” Mike also encourages other alumni to consider a gift of rare or special books to help build and develop the Rare Book Collection at WVU.

Please call or make an appointment with the West Virginia and Regional History Center to make a donation or to view this book, and others like it.



Images taken by Jessica Eichlin, West Virginia and Regional History Center

Translation: https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=la&u=https://books.google.com/books%3Fid%3DbmtaTBlLp7gC%26pg%3DPP45%26lpg%3DPP45%26dq%3DJuan%2Bde%2BCadenas%2BGeminum%2Bsidus%26source%3Dbl%26ots%3DuMzPZfjehc%26sig%3DYgAdMVHl1MJaHCDiinoZZ-oFWdQ&prev=search

Catalog record: https://libwvu.on.worldcat.org/oclc/30649711

Decorative printer's ornament in Geminum sidus mariani diadematis...


[1] Read Mike Murphy’s recent article on WV author, Breece D’J Pancake, “American Myth: The Short, Beautiful Life of Breece D’J Pancake,” at The Millions.com: http://www.themillions.com/2017/06/american-myth-short-beautiful-life-breece-dj-pancake.html