Is West Virginia really that bad?
The state is trending in the news after actress Bette Midler, responding to West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Machin’s decision not to back President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion spending bill as is, declared it something akin to America’s armpit.
Manchin “wants us all to be just like his state, West Virginia. Poor, illiterate and strung out,” Midler tweeted on Monday.
The actress expressed regret for her remarks in a later tweet. “I apologize to the good people of WVA for my last outburst. I’m just seeing red,” she said.
Midler has hardly been the only one to beat up on the state, recently or in the past, and describe it in such backwater terms. And one could argue the critics have a point. For example, West Virginia has ranked highest in the nation in rates of drug-overdose fatalities. And it’s near the bottom in many definitive categories, such as quality of education and health care, according to U.S. News & World Report’s annual survey of the states. (Overall, the publication ranks the state 47th in the nation.)
Still, locals and those who simply know and love West Virginia complain that critics often miss the bigger picture.
“Lots of people who have never been near it come up with ideas of what the people and places in the state are like. Many of those ideas are wrong,” said writer Kristina Gaddy on the Culture Trip website.
How wrong? We looked at some key facts and data to find examples of how the state stands out — in a good way. Here are seven examples.
Its natural beauty
West Virginia is known as the Mountain State for a good reason: It’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain range. And it’s home to one of America’s newest national parks: the New River Gorge, which earned the designation in late 2020 with passage of the COVID-19 relief bill. Sen. Manchin himself sang the praises of the park at the time. “The New River Gorge is truly one of West Virginia’s most treasured playgrounds,” he said in a statement.
Its booming tourism industry
In part because of its natural beauty, West Virginia attracts more than its share of visitors — some 65 million-plus annually, according to the latest report from the state’s tourism office. (And they shell out some big bucks, with traveler spending reaching $4.6 billion.) The numbers don’t place West Virginia in the top ranks among states — California attracts 286 million visitors, for example — but it puts the state on par with, say, New York City, which welcomed a record 66.6 million visitors in 2019. Conde Nast Traveler even put West Virginia on its list of 22 best places to go in 2022.
The Toyota plant in Buffalo, West Virginia
Stephen Zenner/Getty Images
Its economic opportunities
State leaders pride themselves on trying to make West Virginia a welcoming place for business, especially as they look beyond the local, all-important coal industry. (Coal-mining employment has declined by about 50% in the state since 2012, according to Statista.) And there’s proof they may be achieving their goals. In its annual survey, U.S. News & World does rank West Virginia 18th in the “opportunity” category. The state has indeed achieved growth in a number of industries, including aerospace and auto manufacturing. It has also pitched itself as a place for remote workers to call home, going so far as to provide $12,000 in cash incentives to individuals considering moving to the state (plus, free co-working spaces).
Yes, lots of cool and interesting stuff has happened in West Virginia. The state can claim many unusual firsts, from the first free rural mail-delivery service in the country to the first brick street (or, at least, the first such street with a patented construction process). The state is home to one of the oldest — if not the oldest — five-and-dime stores in the country, Berdine’s, which has been in business since 1908. And it’s a “worldly” state: West Virginia has a number of towns named after cities throughout the globe, including Athens, Berlin, Cairo, Geneva and Shanghai. Perhaps oddest of all: West Virginia has a town named “Odd.”
Its art and culture
Because of its mountain-living roots, West Virginia has a thriving scene when it comes to all things folk-related. Consider the Tamarack Marketplace, which opened in 1996 as a symbol of Appalachian pride and bills itself as showcasing the work of more than 2,800 artists and artisans from throughout the state. Or consider Mountain Stage, a nationally distributed radio program produced by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that featured veteran and up-and-coming musical artists, particularly in the fields of folk, blues and country music. West Virginia also has its very own Carnegie Hall — literally. It’s a performance venue, located in Lewisburg, that was built in 1902, in large part with funding from Andrew Carnegie.
Squirrel: It could be what’s for dinner in West Virginia
Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
Make all the jokes you want about roadkill cuisine. West Virginia has some real culinary credentials. The state’s signature foods range from pepperoni rolls — it was the classic coal-miner’s lunch — to buckwheat pancakes. West Virginia also gave us the Golden Delicious apple (and sure enough, it’s the state fruit). Oh, and if roadkill happens to be your thing, the state is famous for a roadkill cook-off event, which has been known to feature such specialties as squirrel gravy over biscuits and teriyaki-marinated bear.
Its famous people
West Virginia can claim many a noteworthy native son and daughter or well-known current or former resident. Among athletes, there are baseball great George Brett and Olympic star gymnast Mary Lou Retton. Among artists and entertainers, there are actress Jennifer Garner and country singer Brad Paisley. Among titans of industry, there’s former Cisco CSCO, +1.11% chief executive John T. Chambers. Finally, among politicians, there’s the late Robert Byrd, who was the longest-serving senator (51 years) in U.S. history. By contrast, Joe Manchin has been serving only 11 years in the chamber.