Welcome to Buckhannon, a small town in north central West Virginia nestled snugly in the Appalachian Mountains. Buckhannon is a rarity in our modernized, technologically-savvy world: while it retains the small-town, nostalgic charm visitors often associate with Main Streets in the 1950s, its thriving downtown and diversified economy continue to flourish.
When you ask people about growing up in Upshur County, the common thread that runs through their memories are the connections they formed: with their friends, with family, with employees.
Now, years later, downtown Buckhannon has stood the test of time, boldly defying the fate that has befallen other small, rural towns in Appalachia.
The common thread of community life
On any given day, Main Street is bursting with sights and sounds and smells that hearken back to those fondly remembered days of yesteryear. Laughter and music fill the air as visitors and locals alike wander into unique restaurants — from stalwarts like C.J Maggies to the farm-to-table Fish Hawk Acres market to the modern coffee-and-craft beer combo at Stonetower Brews.
Today, Stone Tower Brews coffee shop is an ideal meeting location, where residents rendezvous with their friends while grabbing white chocolate strawberry mocha.
For decades, however, G.C. Murphy & Co. served as a five-and-dime store and central meeting place. Now, it’s home to the Buckhannon Opera House and the Upshur County Visitor’s Center.
Back then, it was simply “Murphy’s.”
As Noel Tenney, Upshur County Historical Society board member and secretary, described the five-and-dime store in the historical society’s Spring 2018 newsletter, Murphy’s was “more than just a place of business, but a gathering place, a place of memories.”
“You would have thought that I was in the largest department store in New York City,” Tenney recalled of one of his visits as a child to Murphy’s. “So, here I had been left by myself at the dime store with my few dollars to buy Christmas gifts. I must have wandered all over the store several times before someone came to pick me up. Even at that, all I remember buying was 5-cents-worth of chocolate from the candy counter and a big blue bottle of ‘Evening in Paris’ perfume for my mother.”
Amelia DeRico, a longtime Murphy’s employee, summed up the store’s role as a town square of sorts in the historical society’s spring newsletter.
“There used to be chairs up front where people could sit down and rest,” she reminisced. “Benches outside where men would trade watches and knives. Murphy’s wasn’t just a store, it was a gathering place. If someone was waiting to get their car worked on … or waiting to meet a friend, they’d meet at Murphy’s … a place where people could visit.”
South of downtown, there was the Spudnut Shop in Tennerton, which opened in August of 1958 and, according to information from the historical society, was one of the first places to serve fresh Italian-style pizza, as well as their trademark potato flour doughnuts.
A 9-inch cheese pizza cost 65 cents, and a 12-inch pepperoni pie was just $1.10.
Others recall whiling away their days at the Stardust Drive-in, which was situated along Route 20, or the Acme Bookstore downtown.
Joan Harman recalls “buzzing the ‘Dust,’” as the Stardust Drive-in was called.
“It was so much fun cruising through there, seeing who was driving what; who was on a date with whom. So fun!” she said. “So many great memories driving through there with the tape player blaring.”
Upshur County staples that have stayed put
While the Acme Bookstore is now an antique shop and you can no longer cruise by the Stardust, a few Upshur County mainstays have survived the test of time.
There’s the West Virginia Wildlife Center — commonly called the Game Farm — a one-of-a-kind zoological park in southern Upshur County that annually attracts visitors from nearly all 50 states and a dozen or more different countries, and the Donut Shop, whose sweet circular pastries are considered the best in the country by people as far away as Houston, Texas.
Upshur County Board of Education President Tammy Samples said visiting the “game farm” left her with many unforgettable memories.
“I remember going to the ‘game farm’ and feeding the bears moon pies, and they would drink from a glass bottle of soda!” she said. “In those days, there was virtually nothing but the fence separating you from the animals. I don’t recall any fear at being that close to the animals.”
And don’t forget DQ.
The Buckhannon Dairy Queen is an iconic landmark on Main Street that celebrated its 65th year in March 2019. Its old-fashioned sign, illuminated with neon lights, blazes blue and pink March 1 to signify the shop’s opening and the coming of spring.
The original owner of the store, Betty Booth, passed away, but the franchise has remained in the family, and Booth’s daughter, Mary Ann Spears, has pleasant memories of working in DQ with her sister, Linda, when she was 8 or 9 years old.
The experience of working at DQ enabled Spears and her sister to get well-acquainted with their customers – or at least their orders.
“As teenaged workers, Linda and I had a lot of private fun in there,” Spears said. “We recognized that people could be easily identified by individual habits or certain peculiar personality types. Our favorites were the ‘regulars’: These were the townspeople who could be counted upon to order the same item, time after time.
“The Kenny Davidson family ordered chocolate freezes, and that was all there was to it,” she continued. “The ladies from the bank had their own specialized preferences, and they did not vary. Bud Cutright inevitably ordered the same milkshake, no matter the time or weather … one gentle lady always ordered two Dilly bars – one for herself and one for her dog.”
A modern city with small-town charm
Today, Buckhannon’s downtown and the surrounding area now boasts an alluring, assorted mix of coffee shops (check out Stone Tower Brews on Main Street and Dough Re Mi on College Avenue), dessert spots (there’s the classic soft-serve at Dairy Queen and Brake’s Dairy King, as well as Sweet-A-Licious, which serves up hand-dipped Hershey’s ice cream), and cultural and performing arts venues (Artistry on Main Gallery, the Buckhannon Opera House and the Colonial Theatre, which is in the midst of being refurbished).
Boutiques abound, too: there’s Anita’s Flowers and Boutique — which specializes in breathtaking bouquets, house plants and wedding décor – as well as Tateep Unique Boutique; and Caroline’s Closet, all of which offer collections of exclusive, designer apparel and specialized lines of jewelry, makeup, handbags, scarves and more.
Buckhannon’s restaurant scene is thriving, with classic American restaurants like C.J. Maggie’s American Grill. But lately, more diverse cuisine has also popped up, from freshly rolled sushi to authentic Italian, Greek, Thai and Indian food.
Then there’s the quaint and quirky Fish Hawk Acres, which is a marketplace full of fresh food, a catering service and a restaurant that serves up freshly made daily specials.
All these stores and restaurants – several of which have sprung up over the last decade – serve as public places in which people can mix and mingle, as they did “back then.”
Dozens of local artists offer their wares for sale at Artistry on Main, a gallery that’s run by the artists themselves, with each working about one day each month. In return, they keep 100 percent of their sales. The gallery also has a creative space in the back that’s used for various classes hosted by the artists.
Laura Meadows, executive director of the Upshur County Convention and Visitors Bureau says shopping on Main Street still today is about more than just buying something.
“You’re going in somewhere to get that certain atmosphere, that experience, and I think that’s one reasons why Buckhannon’s downtown is thriving, because there’s a lot of people who are attracted to that,” Meadows said.
Escaping into the gorgeous surrounding wilderness at Audra State Park, which spreads from Upshur County into neighboring Barbour County, has always been an ideal option. Since 1950, residents and visitors alike have enjoyed sunning themselves by the Middle Fork River, which flows fast and fresh at Audra State Park. The park is a pristine wooded area with plenty of swimming, hiking, camping and fishing opportunities.
City councilman CJ Rylands said the assets Buckhannon has gained now aren’t an accident: the community began to work together about a decade ago to transition into a more welcoming place with ample public spaces and a generous free parking policy.
“The more invitations to spend time in public spaces, the better off we are,” Rylands said. “One of the main intentions of Festival Fridays was to get people physically approximate to each other and to have them say, ‘Oh, I haven’t seen you for so long.’ The square dances are intentional to bring a different group of people into a friendly, welcoming environment.”
Mountain Dances, including square and contra dancing, regularly take place at the Buckhannon Opera House, and every Friday evening in the summer, music-lovers and arts and crafts enthusiasts gather at Jawbone Park, home of the Buckhannon-Upshur Farmers Market, to soak in some live music.
Soon, performing arts will have a home on Main Street in the form of the restored and refurbished historic Colonial Theatre, which is undergoing extensive renovations. The former movie theater will function as the home of the Buckhannon Community Theatre and a community arts center.
Once built, the new theatre will stand as a metaphor for the process Buckhannon itself has undergone: with time, care and effort, the community, like the Colonial, still stands, but it’s been revitalized and reborn in contemporary Appalachia.
This article was produced in a partnership with the Upshur County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.