Living in Spencer
A small town in rural West Virginia has a big personality.
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Driving to Spencer is half the fun. Although the small city is located just 50 miles from Charleston, travelers have to get off the well-worn path of I-79 and take the scenic back roads through the mountains of Roane County to reach this picturesque town of 2,400 residents. It seems everyone knows everyone in Spencer, and they all take pride in their hometown. “The people here are invested in their community,” says Jacob Fetty, the city’s marketing director.
And it shows. Locals are not only proud of their history—a Civil War park with earthen works and an old cemetery is one attraction—but they take great strides to preserve their downtown with inviting storefronts and clean streets. A historic movie theater, bed and breakfasts, and antique stores keep people coming back, while tens of thousands of people travel to Spencer annually for the Black Walnut Festival.
Things to Do
This progressive mountain town has a quirky, wholesome flavor that blacksmith artist Jeff Fetty just loves showing off. Both Jeff and his son Jacob have traveled the world, but all roads led back to Spencer. “I could have my business anywhere, and I’ve been a lucky bum, traveling all over Europe and Mexico,” Jeff says from his design studio at Chestnut Ridge Artist Colony, which overlooks town. But Jeff, who’s featured in the book “Metal Design International” that showcases the finest blacksmiths in the world, wanted to be in relaxing, friendly Spencer—his hometown.
From stepping back in time with movies at the Robey Theatre to buying contemporary art to mountain biking, residents and visitors alike have plenty of activities to choose from. In the evening, the Robey Theatre, on the National Historic Register and one of the oldest continually operating theaters in the country, offers up popcorn and a flick. The Robey was founded in 1907 and hasn’t changed much since—in a good way—according to patrons. “It’s a big deal for us to have the Robey Theatre with the lights still on the marquee,” says Mayor Terry A. Williams—mayor for more than 30 years.
Downtown, a sprawling antique mall with more than 40 dealers beckons shoppers inside with the promise of colorful glass, unique gifts, and collectibles. Berries & Vines is another favorite stop for those looking for primitive décor and antiques. Hungry shoppers can rest their feet on the nearby porch at Church Street Deli with a sandwich or wrap or pop in for pizza at George’s on Main Street.
For more objects to please the eye, art lovers can follow the anvil signs up a winding hill in Spencer to hang out at the Chestnut Ridge Artist Colony, where Jeff and other artists have shops and studios. The artist colony sits on a couple hundred acres and has caught on quickly. Word continues to spread as developments continue—including plans for gardens, a welcome center, more parking and improved roads, and expanded hiking trails.
Inside the studio, sparks fly as Jeff and his apprentice perfect their craft. Upstairs in Jeff’s retail and design space, visitors can see the work in progress or buy an iron flower candleholder or one-of-a-kind side table. Jeff has been blacksmithing since 1973 and, for a long time, worked in a small barn. “I promised myself I wouldn’t build another studio unless it was on a mountaintop with a beautiful view.” Then, with help from the city, he landed on top of the hill. “It’s totally exceeded my expectations,” he says.
When Jeff asked longtime friends Phillip and Teresa Holcomb to join the colony, they jumped at the chance. Behind Jeff’s studio now sits another beautiful space—Holcomb’s Woodworking, where the couple creates a wide array of jewelry and wood products. Visitors should call before stopping by, but the studio and retail shop also hosts special events. An open house will take place 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November 12 and 13.
Holcomb’s Woodworking is expanding, with a second studio and more jewelry in the next year. Phil started his career making musical instruments—violins especially. Now he and his wife make and sell wooden bowls, bookmarks, dulcimers, and more using domestic lumber from the Roane County region. Their work can be found in 120 galleries across the U.S. Phil’s handmade instruments have been sold on six continents. “Everywhere but Antarctica,” he says.
Black Walnut Festival
In October, Spencer is transformed into an autumnal Norman Rockwell painting. Colorful banners drape from building to building and large displays of pumpkins, gourds, and buckets of black walnuts decorate the streets—all in anticipation of the annual Black Walnut Festival, celebrating its 57th year. This year, the festival takes place October 13 to 17. As many as 90,000 people show up for the long weekend of fun with a grand parade, kids parade, arts and crafts, carnival, live music, and exhibits. “It gives us a great opportunity to showcase our community,” Jacob says.
The festival celebrates the black walnut with scrumptious food and contests. The kids even get out of school on Friday as part of Kids Day, and the festivities take over downtown. “This happens in the streets and in the parking lots and any crevices where we can find space. Flat land is a premium in West Virginia and we don’t have that much in Spencer,” Jacob laughs.
The festival is an event people have looked forward to for many autumns. Jacob has fond memories of being young in Spencer. “I remember when the carnival rolled into town—it was so exciting,” he says. “I remember trying to win the games and smelling the food.”
Some of the food vendors have been setting up for more than 30 years and now their kids and their grandkids work at the festival. Jacob says, “When you see these same people, they become part of your family.”
(Black walnuts photo by Nikki Bowman)