Travel to Princeton
This southern city full of history and culture gets brighter every day.
Photographed by Nikki Bowman & Laura Wilcox Rote
In southern West Virginia, Princeton leads by example. When children need a creative outlet, a music school opens. When old buildings or alleys appear dark or rundown, artists take over. The once bustling coal and railroad town has reinvented itself, and it’s working.
Driving through downtown, you can’t miss the murals. There’s not one or two, but half a dozen—a man and his violin, a girl and her Hula-Hoop, a scene honoring veterans at Dick Copeland Town Square, where music plays on Wednesdays in summer. All of the murals contain a positive message—Create Joy and Peace, Celebrate Life.
While Mercer County is a Certified Arts Community in West Virginia, Princeton—population 6,432 as of 2010—is a West Virginia Community Development Hub Blueprint Community. Blueprint Communities receive resources to help them develop and implement community revitalization plans, and suffice it to say the people of Princeton have some great plans.
“The murals are a big thing here,” says Marie Blackwell, executive director of the Mercer County Convention & Visitors Bureau, as she drives through town. Artists’ Alley, tucked between buildings on Mercer Street, shows off some of the latest paintings—these created entirely by locals, including a couple of 13-year-olds. Mural organizer Lori McKinney calls the alley a 24-hour art gallery and says that transformation was a highlight of 2013. “Everybody was there painting at the same time, and it just so happened that all the big murals started going up when Artists’ Alley started, too.”
Up the street, a bright blue and green mural depicts things everyone loves—a marching band, a boy throwing a Frisbee, a child painting. Across the way, a mural by Charleston artist and Princeton native Patch Whisky shows colorful creatures and is a focal point of town, overlooking a community garden set to open in spring 2014. Some days Lori stands by the window at her building nearby just to take all of it in. “This is one of my favorite spots,” she says of the murals outside the window from The Room Upstairs. The Room Upstairs is one part of the inspiring RiffRaff Arts Collective she co-founded with her husband, Robert Blankenship. The 10,000-square-foot gallery, recording studio, and performance space opened in 2006. The Room Upstairs is an expansive loft with mismatched couches and an eclectic New York City feel. The live music spot also has a recording studio built by Robert.
Creativity runs in this family. Lori’s sister, Melissa McKinney, is the owner and director of Stages Music School in town. Melissa moved back to Princeton after years of success in Charlotte, and Lori’s glad she did. “I feel so inspired every time I walk in here,” Lori says. Stages is a safe, creative place for nearly 200 middle and high school students as they take lessons, form bands, or just jam out. “It’s kind of like a School of Rock,” Lori says. Melissa was excited in winter to announce her programming is expanding even more, with a more intensive after-school program at Turnaround Concert & Gathering Hall, also on Mercer Street. And that’s not all of the exciting plans downtown. As part of the Princeton Renaissance Project, the historic Lavon Theater is also undergoing a transformation in 2014.
Less than two miles away, creativity continues at the state-of-the-art Chuck Mathena Center. People travel from all over to take one of the 900-plus seats in in this $14 million facility. “We are very lucky some dedicated individuals spent so many years bringing this to us,” says Marketing Manager Ashley Dillow. “Our theater rivals absolutely any theater in New York, Chicago, or anywhere. Not to mention you go anywhere else and you’ll pay $50 a ticket.”
Established in 2008 and named for the founders’ son who was killed in a vehicle accident, the Chuck Mathena Center hosts meetings, weddings, and art exhibits in addition to shows like Seussical on March 18, 2014, and The Buddy Holly Experience on June 14, 2014. “Our average ticket price this year was $16 for adults, and then rentals are super cheap. You cannot beat it,” Ashley says. “People look at the building and think, ‘No way can I afford to go to a show there,’ or ‘No way can I afford to rent.’ But our rentals start at $25.”
In February the airy rotunda of the center was home to a host of area artists’ work, including that of Bluefield’s Gary Bowling.
The Mercer County War Museum grew from one man’s collection into several rooms that tell the stories of those who served in many wars. Just inside, past a World War II Jeep and upstairs in the Memorial Building in Princeton, Tony Whitlow shares soldiers’ tales with all who will listen. In one corner, a bloodstained flag brought back from the South Pacific is a reminder of the man who nearly died by sniper fire but went on to lead a long life in Mercer County as an attorney. In the center of the room, a wooden cross brought back from Europe marks the death of local man Dana White. “This museum is a collection of veterans’ things—their uniforms, weapons,” says Tony, president of the Those Who Served War Museum Board. “We’ve got stories on a lot of them, and that, to me, kind of lets them live again.”
The museum is run by volunteers—most of them veterans, and some of them having served as far back as World War II. Tony himself has always been fascinated by World War II, and he served in the Korean War. “I wasn’t old enough for World War II but old enough to remember. My brother and my first cousin went,” he says. Across the hall from the museum’s main room are more exhibits commemorating soldiers.
More Civil War history lives on at The McNutt House in Princeton on North Walker Street. Circa 1840, the house is the only Civil War-era home left standing in Princeton after the town was burned by 300 Rebel defenders. The home was used as headquarters for Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes and Sgt. William McKinley, and it was also used as a hospital in 1862.
The Princeton Railroad Museum is another memorable space in town and it’s a beauty, with natural light streaming through windows that look out onto the tracks. Opened in 2006 as a replica of the train depot that sat there until the ’70s, the two-story museum features artifacts any train buff will love as it transports them to the Virginian Railway. “It was so important to Princeton and it was so important to transporting coal across the Appalachias,” says volunteer Carol Lawless. The Virginian ran for 50 years, starting in 1909.
“I brought my 7-year-old grandson here the other day,” Marie says. “He said, ‘Nana, do you think we’ll see a train?’ I said, ‘Oh, the trains don’t really run on Saturdays.’ But then we were standing at the window and he was looking out and goes, ‘Nana! Here comes a train!’ Sure enough, there went a train.”
Kids love the museum and learn a lot there, too. Outside, a red caboose is open as part of the tour, and Carol marvels at the many people who have no idea what a caboose looks like inside. “It’s very cozy,” Carol smiles, looking over the small sink, table, and bed. “In the early days they would assign one of these to a conductor and he treated it like his home.” Next door the Agricultural Museum—open by appointment—offers up even more history with farming artifacts, antique tools, and more.
Spend the day exploring the artists’ wares at The RiffRaff Gallery, a co-op of local artists with everything from glass rings and clothing to photo prints and paintings.
Enjoy America’s pastime with a Princeton Rays game at H.P. Hunnicutt Field. The Rays are a minor league team in the Appalachian League and have one of the nicest stadiums around, Marie says. They are an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. “It’s great family entertainment and inexpensive,” she says. “It’s really fun when Princeton and Bluefield play each other.”
Curl up with a good book at Dayfly Books and Collectibles, where owner Rachel Parsons invites you to have a cup of coffee and relax in the comfortable seating area to read and connect to the WiFi.
Opened in late 2013 Diamonds ’N Gold Look is a known entity as owner Randolph Evans ships fine jewelry, rare coins, and more all over the country. Peruse everything from Blenko and Fenton glass to West Virginia paintings to Coach purses at this bright store. “This is a shop where you can get really unique gifts,” Marie says. Randolph also owns The Bronze Look in town, which sells Civil War photos, among other items.