Published On: Fri, Nov 8th, 2013

Memories of Alderson’s past

Dear Editor:

The Saturday afternoon audience at Alderson’s Alpine Theatre burst into laughter as a small child could be seen climbing onto the stage, then attempting to grab the cowboy’s gun from the projected image. My mother said she was chuckling until she looked at my seat next to her and saw it was empty. Pauline Kael, writer for the New Yorker Magazine wrote a best seller, “I Lost It At The Movies” so it would be fair to say my title would be “I Found It At The Movies.” It would be a few years before I learned that the famous movie studio owners “Warner Bros.” lived in Bluefield, WV where their father had a butcher shop. And, the famous Dorothy Gish, sister to Lillian attended the Baptist Academy in Alderson. In fact, the father of American Film, D.W. Griffith and Lillian had stopped over, had lunch at the Alderson Hotel (before the trains had diners), on their way to New York City, after picking up Dorothy.

The only film directed by Charles Laughton, “Night of the Hunter” written by West Virginia author Davis Grubb began on location in Moundsville Prison. The famed filmmaker Pare Lorentz who was chosen as the official New Deal motion picture documentarian by President Franklin Roosevelt was from Clarksburg, WV.

Before there was frequent candidate Ralph Nader, there was Harold Stassen and before him William Jennings Brian. You may remember the motion picture “Inherit The Wind” where he was portrayed by Fredric March opposite Spencer Tracy in a dramatic telling of the 1925 Scopes monkey trial. His political fame, besides his frequent presidential campaigns is largely due to his “Cross of Gold” speech in which he challenged the United States going to a “silver standard” instead of, as previously, one dollar in gold backing up paper currency.

Mr. Brian had a daughter, who had married a member of the royal family in the Netherlands. She anticipated being named the superintendent of the new Federal prison being constructed at Alderson and with her husband purchased the grand estate, previously owned by Alex McVey Miller, noted legislator and whose wife amassed a fortune writing romantic novels using her husband’s name.

Instead, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of the President, selected construction of the prison as her personal project. Mrs. Roosevelt appointed Dr. Mary B. Harris, an experienced hand in prison management. She was fair, competent and strict. One story was that smoking was forbidden in the residential cottages that housed the inmates. One evening Dr. Harris received a group of the residents who suggested that if the smokers could all be assigned to particular cottages everyone would have a better experience. The inmates then returned to their cottages to await the decision of Dr. Hams. Some time later transportation arrived at the various residences and the inmates were told to gather their effects for transfer. To their surprise, the vehicles left the grounds and did not stop until they arrived at the Alderson railroad station and a waiting train.

Alderson’s Station Master Framk Dameron, was later to explain that this was one of most unusual experiences he had ever had. That particular train was not scheduled for a stop but he had received instructions from The White House to flag it down.

Later, the group of inmates were to learn their destination was to be the Chicago Work House.

Jack Ballard

Lewisburg