Coming “Home” to West Virginia
A native Floridian finds a new place to belong in Morgantown.
I was not born in West Virginia. I am, in fact, a rarity in today’s world—a native Floridian. My family migrated from Georgia to Florida around 1800. They were pioneers in a day when Florida was a vast territory of cowboys, Indians, mosquitoes, and alligators.
I grew up with stories of Indian wars, Confederate captains, and statesmen. My cousins told tales of cattle boats to Cuba, returning on midnight runs smuggling rum into Tampa Bay during Prohibition. The south Florida of my childhood was a land of rodeos, citrus groves, grand homes with sprawling front porches, and vast stretches of prairie and orange groves—a glimpse of what Florida was before the air conditioning, retirees, and theme parks of today. Although I “officially” grew up in Winter Park and Orlando, I always felt a part of that land—a living remnant of the movers, shakers, and lawmakers of bygones past. As a child I would ride with my grandmother and great-grandmother down to Arcadia for visits and sit at their feet soaking up every story.
In 2004, Hurricane Charley laid waste the town where my grandmother grew up. The only tangible remnant of the past is a small cemetery near the Peace River with my ancestors’ gravestones of Whiddens and Welles, two centuries old. The people who were living history for me as a child are now laid to rest under cypress trees in a land time forgot. Never again will they sit on a squeaky porch swing with me on a jasmine scented summer evening, sipping bourbon and telling tales. I never thought of a day where that generation would be lost to me and had no idea how orphaned I would feel without them.
In 2003, while living in Winter Park, I met Alexander Wade Dering (Alex), a native of Morgantown. Alex and I shared a similar genealogical story. Both of our families had arrived in this country before the Revolutionary War, and while the Whiddens were driving cattle down through Florida territory, the Derings were leaving Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and heading down to a new town called Morgantown, then in Virginia, on the Monongalia River.
Henry Dering came to Morgantown in 1792 with a cartload of shoes to sell. He stayed and lived in an old stone house on Chestnut Street and opened a tavern on High Street. Later generations ran saddle shops and funeral homes. Alexander Wade worked to create a working school system for rural West Virginia in the 1880s.
Alex had a pride in West Virginia that mirrored my own feelings about my Florida. He hadn’t stayed in Morgantown. Like many baby boomers, he graduated from college and headed out for new adventures and climbed the corporate ladder.
In 2003, Alex took me to meet his mother and see his hometown. I looked longingly at the eclectic old mansions of South Park with their Greek Revival columns, Victorian gingerbread, and craftsman woodwork. I walked around downtown and looked up at buildings that had served different purposes for each generation, but were still standing as part of the community. Instead of fading into history as a “town that was,” Morgantown reinvented itself over the decades while keeping a sense of history.
I immediately felt a kindred spirit with the city. I wanted my children to have that sense of belonging that I grew up with. I could no longer give it to them in Florida, but Morgantown offered it in a unique and wonderful way.
In 2010, we broke ground on our home in Morgantown. It is new, but was designed with an eye to history and tradition in a beautiful established neighborhood. I can’t wait to hear the laughter of my children ringing out through the neighborhoods where their daddy grew up. I want them to go fishing “out Cheat” and ride their bikes “over town.” They will skip rocks on Deckers Creek and cheer for the Mountaineers on game day.
I can’t tell you a story about growing up in West Virginia. I’ll let my husband tell you one over a glass of wine in the kitchen. But, one day my children will have stories to tell you—new stories with a touch of history. They will walk past the house on Prairie Street, where Alexander Wade sat writing his books. And maybe Henry Dering’s ghost will one day sit beside Alexander when he lifts his first pint at a High Street pub. And perhaps as my daughter, Adeline, is getting ready for her first dance at Morgantown High School, her grandmother’s echo will whisper over her shoulder. My oldest son, Andrew, will trade the suburban life he now leads for a town. Country roads will always take them home. And that is just fine with me.