By Peggy Mackenzie
Down in the River City, it is clear upon entering the store-fronted Ronceverte Museum on Edgar Avenue, that this is the place where relics are collected and memories are preserved.
The pragmatic nature of the collection tells the story of what these bits of history might mean. Placed almost arbitrarily on the walls and in glass-paned wooden cabinets, that are historical in their own right, having been recycled from now long gone local businesses, everything has a story, a place, a connection.
Be it an old rusted sign denoting The Corner Cafe – the precursor of Rudy’s Corner Grill – or some stone remains of the demolished Greenbrier High School building, a hand-written ledger in the era of the town’s lumber mill, detailing the minutia of the workers’ hours and wages, or the minutes, taken in 1883, of the town’s first city council meeting. In the front windows sit two apothecary urns, a couple of railway signal lights and the town’s last traffic light. A hat box on the counter displays a sampling of fashionable hats from the 1920s, while, near by, are bustled, lacy gowns from the 1800s.
As the museum’s curator, Ronceverte resident Doug Hylton is a fount of information, spewing out names, places and dates at about a mile a minute. Cast an eye on whatever piques your curiosity, like the three Levi dolls dressed in railroad and cowboy getup or the very bizarre cardboard toe tags taken from persons long dead, and Hylton will quickly unravel their stories. Hylton may simply be a consummate historian. He welcomes every item, no matter how mundane, that finds its way to the museum, building the record of Ronceverte’s history bit by bit.
The Ronceverte Museum is open on Sundays, reads a note on the door, but Hylton’s phone number is listed, indicating his readiness to be on hand any day of the week within five minutes and open up the shop to share the contents within until curiosity is satisfied. That is, unless he’s in Charleston getting his picture taken beside the governor, holding a giant check for yet another worthy grant-funded endeavor.
As grant consultant for several Greenbrier County townships – and the county itself – Hylton has for several years been the go-to resource person to procure federal and state funding for numerous high dollar projects, including revitalizing city streetscapes, upgrading water and sewer works, preserving historic relics, and creating playgrounds, parks and trailways. Hylton says he’s a Type-A person; its what contributes to his boundless energy and what generates the steam to tackle any new project and keep at it to the last detail. His participation has proved vital to many organizations around the county, but Ronceverte, as his hometown, holds a special place for him.
At one time, Ronceverte was a thriving mill town where trains stopped daily in front of the depot depositing thousands of people to the area. Hotels lined Edgar Avenue and a fleet of taxis were on hand to serve the influx of visitors. It was a time of growth and promise.
Over the years, the town of Hylton’s childhood had become mostly blighted storefronts and homes, courtesy of floods, neglect, and a new interstate highway. Hylton and other concerned residents and city council members tried to jump start redevelopment, but it wasn’t happening.
Then, 10 years ago, a group of professors and students from West Virginia University came to town. Skilled in design, public policy, redevelopment, architecture, and community recreation, they created a plan that identified the town’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ronceverte now has a historic commission, is a member of Main Street West Virginia, and formed the Ronceverte Development Corp. Millions of dollars in grant funding later, the town has grown several new businesses, redeveloped ten commercial buildings with 15 retail spaces and ten apartments in the downtown district, and expanded the town’s recreational options with a walking trail and a skate park. These developments were aided with the help of Hylton’s participation and grant funding oversight.
How about a shout out to Doug – “Thank you, Doug!” – and now, go visit the museum.