A native shares why her small town has been deemed the “Friendliest City in the USA.”
When you cross the Memorial Bridge and drive through Keyser, you are greeted by a time-worn sign proclaiming the small town the “Friendliest City in the USA.” The sign may be showing some age after decades of service, but the friendship and welcome Keyser extends to every visitor is as warm and fresh as ever.
The small town is home to 5,439 people—friends, neighbors, and family. To paraphrase the late President John F. Kennedy’s remarks about all of West Virginia during one of his visits to our great state, the sun doesn’t always shine in Keyser, but the people always do. It is a place where residents have known each other most of their lives, and if someone doesn’t know you, he or she knows your granny or your sister. It’s a place where people discuss the state of the world over breakfast and at ballgames, and where 911 calls are answered by neighbors as well as paramedics. Cool autumn nights are lit up at the high school football field, and chests swell with “Keyser Pride” for the Golden Tornado sports teams.
Hidden Gems of History
Keyser began as a quiet rural community known as Paddy Town. But the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad arrived in 1852, transforming the town into a thriving industrial center named New Creek Station. During the Civil War, its leadership is said to have changed hands 14 times. Fort Fuller, a Civil War stronghold atop the hill where Potomac State College now sits, was an important gateway to the South Branch and Shenandoah Valleys—and critical for Union troops to retain control of the railroad. There were two notable commanders of Fort Fuller: Major Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel Ben Hur, and Major Benjamin Harrison, who would become 23rd president of the United States. Finally, in 1875, after the battles of the Civil War subsided, the town was incorporated as Keyser after William Keyser, the railroad’s vice president.
The Awesome Might of the Mountains
Keyser is just east of the point where the Allegheny Front crosses the Potomac River. So it is no surprise that the character of Keyser has been shaped by what our very own, author Catherine Marshall, called “the awesome might of the mountains.” Keyser has touched so many souls in addition to Marshall’s—some famous, some known by few other than loved ones.
One of our nation’s greatest presidents may have lineage to the Keyser area. The mother of Abraham Lincoln, Nancy Hanks, is said to have been born near Keyser. Many decades ago the state tucked a marker into the foot of New Creek Mountain near her purported birthplace. Since then historical commissions and legislators have paid homage to her ties to the area and her significance to the nation.
That a woman born in the rugged Appalachian frontier could have a son who would rise to be one of the most revered American presidents shows that anything is possible in America, especially when you have the steel spine of a West Virginian. In Keyser we celebrate America and pay homage to those who step forward in military service. Abraham Lincoln’s words about honoring dedicated veterans ring especially true in Keyser: “Honor to the soldier and sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor, also, to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field and serves, as he best can, the same cause.” Flags fly in the shadow of World War II Medal of Honor recipient Sergeant Ed Kelley’s memorial, and a high school senior is honored every year in his memory. The annual Ed Kelley Award commemoration, a several-day affair, draws 500 or more veterans, supporters, and alumni.
Jack Rollins, who wrote the iconic holiday tunes Frosty the Snowman and Here Comes Peter Cottontail, grew up and is buried in Keyser. Former Major League baseball star John Kruk, now an ESPN analyst, honed his athletic skills on the baseball fields in Keyser. And historian and Emmy Award-winning journalist Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. started his scholastic career at Potomac State College in Keyser.
Jobs in Keyser are steady, and the unemployment rate in the town and surrounding Mineral County is consistently below the state average. Nearly 1,500 work at Allegany Ballistics Laboratory at the manufacturing plant Orbital ATK or at the IBM federal data center. Automated Packaging, Mineral Fabrication, and the nearby Verso paper mill are also major employers. Teachers are respected in the community, and the Board of Education is the second-highest employer in the county. Respect for educators is literally seen in the beauty of the schools; the land surrounding the high school is some of the prettiest in the state. The Mineral County Technical Center, or Votech, was the first in the state. Fifty years ago my grandfather Dick Campbell became the first director of the Votech, which is what brought my family from Greenbrier County to settle in Keyser.
Mountaineer Pride is strong in the town, especially because West Virginia University has such a large presence in Keyser. Potomac State College offers both two- and four-year degrees as part of the WVU family. Recently the local Potomac Valley Hospital became part of the WVU Healthcare System.
Local Haunts Bring You Home
The city is a gem for restaurants, which line Route 220, the town’s thoroughfare. Rose and Jerry will welcome you home to Castiglia’s for high-quality Italian food. Their large portions will keep you fed for a week. When you travel around the state and mention “Keyser,” more times than not people will ask about Castiglia’s and will rave about the food, especially the salads, lasagna and pizza. As Rose will tell you, Jerry cooks in the authentic, old-fashioned Italian way; he doesn’t even have a microwave in the restaurant because he values quality. Rose and Jerry recently renovated the premises to accommodate more customers and invested in custom stonework. Much like the food, the stonework is a work of art in this restaurant.
Another mainstay of Keyser is the Candlewyck Inn. Fred and Sharon Engle, along with their children, Cole and Anna, have made The Candlewyck a staple for 31 years with American fare and “Wyckedly” good cupcakes. Fred and Sharon know how to keep traditions going, but are always looking to innovate and bring new tastes and ideas to Keyser. They recently started “guest chef” evenings and host renowned chefs for fine dining on the weekends.The Engles are keeping the tradition of Warner’s Restaurant “Beesting” cake alive too. Warner’s Restaurant in nearby Cresaptown is long-closed, but at one time it was known for its Beesting Cake. President John F. Kennedy reportedly ordered dozens of the Beesting cakes from Warner’s to be served at the White House. Now Fred and Sharon serveBeesting cakes and cupcakes, which are just as good as the fabled Beestings of Warner’s.
The Royal Restaurant has a loyal following, especially for morning breakfast and conversation. Artie Hartman’s Stray Cat Wing Shack has the best buffalo chicken dip you’ll ever eat, and many swear by his chimichangas. West Virginia heritage is celebrated at The Mountaineer, which specializes in great burgers. There’s even a pub—Clancy’s —that serves great Irish food and warms your spirit too. El Jinete Mexican restaurant offers a nice atmosphere reminiscent of Samson’s restaurant that once occupied the same location.
Keyser is well worth a trip for the shopping. Betty Howell and her daughter Tonya have been dressing generations of women for 36 years at Country Classics Ladies’ Shop. Women come from all over to buy their clothes and accessories at Country Classics and to leave a wish list so that husbands always know the right thing to buy for Christmas. whether you are looking for something to wear around town or for a high-level business meeting, Betty and Tonya will make you feel at home with their warm Keyser way and will help you look your best.
Family-run Reed’s Drug Store recently expanded its location and gift shop. And if you like to go antiquing, many small stores and thrift shops can keep you coming back again and again to Main Street.
Keyser’s Main Street has had its ups and downs like so many other main streets in West Virginia. Through the years it hasn’t lost its charm. Holidays are marked by parades on Keyser’s Main Street, and several festivals occur throughout the year. The staples of a small town are found on Main Street: a library, the economic development agency, Chamber of Commerce, and the Farmers and Merchants Bank. And there are the Mane Street Studio Hair Salon, the Keyser Decorating Center, a music shop, two florists—Christy’s and Minnich’s, and some good restaurants like the Smoke Ring, Martie’s Hot Dog Stand, and Soda Pops Sandwich Shoppe. Reno Calemine, who is 89 years old, has shined shoes in the family-owned Calemine’s Patriotic Shoe Shop for decades by following in the footsteps of his patriotic father, Domenico Cosimo Calemine.
There’s much more to do in Keyser than eat or shop, whether you are a history buff, sportsman, or outdoor enthusiast. The Civil War era is of such importance to the formation of Keyser that “McNeill’s Rangers” bring the Civil War alive in McNeill’s Rangers’ plays at Larenim Park. Thomas Carskadon’s House, built in 1866, is a monument to the influential politician who formed much of Keyser and who was active in state and national government. Sportsmen fish the world-class trout stream in nearby Barnum on the North Branch of the Potomac River; and there’s plenty of fishing, golf, hunting, hiking, biking and canoeing in the nearby mountains and valleys. Newly constructed Corridor-H runs near Keyser, and businesses are coming on strong. A new adventure resort, Blackrock, is drawing adventure seekers and sports enthusiasts for races and outdoor activities.
Country Roads Bring You Home
I’m proud of my hometown. Yet, it wasn’t until I was near the end of a military career that I fully appreciated just how special Keyser is. I’ve had the great fortune of living across the world and country, including two years in Iraq and multiple trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and throughout the Middle East, Europe and Central America. Through some very dangerous times, I have found strength by remembering my roots, as well as my family and friends who love me. All the roads that I’ve traveled lead right back to where I started: Keyser, my hometown.
I hear anecdotally that West Virginians are leaving our great state in droves. To that, I always offer my story of hope for those who don’t want to leave: My husband and I worked an entire military career to come home to West Virginia and to raise our children here. I’m so fortunate that I came home to work for our state’s senior senator. In my role as Senator Joe Manchin’s State Director, I traveled with him to all 55 West Virginia counties last year and saw firsthand that each county is special in its own way. But everywhere I went, I was reminded of my hometown because Keyser is like so many places in West Virginia: full of good, hard-working, patriotic Americans who put in an honest day’s work to provide for their families.
As we all know, “there’s no place like home.” That place, for me, is Keyser. And when I’m there–when I cross that bridge into the “Friendliest City in the USA”–my heart swells with happiness and Keyser pride. I invite you to come for a visit and soak up the “awesome might of the mountains.”
WRITTEN BY MARA BOGGS