State set to mark birthday Thursday

CHARLESTON (AP) — When Chelsea Ruby became executive director of the West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission a few years ago, her hope was to set up some type of ceremony in Charleston to mark the state’s 150th birthday.

“And now a ceremony has grown into a four-day event at the Capitol, and then a very long list of events all around the state,” Ruby said.

How long? How about at least 140 events over the next week alone. From fireworks to concerts to old-time baseball games, residents have a big list to choose from.

Chances are, you’ll run into a celebration somewhere, even when going to the bathroom — rest area welcome centers throughout the state will have information booths and pass out free refreshments and food.

Of course, the celebrations are about history: After Virginia voted to secede from the Union in 1861, West Virginia began a two-year process of seceding from Virginia and became the 35th state on June 20, 1863.

West Virginia is the only state to secede from a Confederate state. Nevada, which separated from the Utah Territory and joined the Union in October 1864, is the only other state formed during the Civil War.

Some West Virginia sesquicentennial events will focus on President Abraham Lincoln, who signed a bill in December 1862 approving West Virginia’s creation as a pro-Union state.

A traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” will open at West Virginia University’s Erickson Alumni Center in Morgantown next Saturday. A Lincoln re-enactor will be on hand to share stories about the 16th president’s views on West Virginia’s statehood.

West Virginia families sent troops to both the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War. Some communities are planning Civil War re-enactments this week, and scholars will give talks about the state’s birth.

“To me, that’s really what the remembrance is: how 150 years ago we created this state and the unusual way it which it was created,” said David Javersak, a retired history professor and Wheeling Conventions scholar who serves on the Sesquicentennial Commission. “Let’s face it, no other state came into being in the fashion that West Virginia did. It’s fascinating.”

The 150th celebration kicks into high gear on Thursday with a statewide bell ringing at 1:50 p.m. That evening in Charleston starts the first of three straight nights of fireworks at the state Capitol. A 3-D movie will be projected onto the steps and columns of the Capitol all three nights.

The West Virginia Symphony and the Appalachian Children’s Chorus will perform Capitol concerts Thursday night, and Lonestar and Ronnie Milsap are on tap for Saturday night.

Other activities in Charleston on Saturday include a parade, free sternwheeler rides on the Kanawha River, a chili cook-off, a vintage car show, and a food and craft festival.

“It’s been a privilege to help plan this historic event,” Ruby said. “I won’t tell you I’m not tired.”

Charleston will hardly be the focal point.

The Legislature will hold its three-day interim meetings in Wheeling — the state’s first capital — starting Wednesday. One of the highlights is a Thursday night concert with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra at Heritage Port that will include performances by Johnny Staats, Kathy Mattea, and ÆAmerica’s Got TalentÆ winner Landau Eugene Murphy Jr.

There will be some athletic tie-ins to the celebration.

Baseball was a favorite activity for Civil War soldiers. In honor of that, next Saturday a game with vintage uniforms will be played under 1865 rules between the Pittsburgh Franklins and the Fulton Mules of Ohio at the Bridgeport Recreation complex. A question-and-answer session before the game will give the public a chance to learn about what soldiers’ lives were like.

“It’s learning about history through sports,” said Michelle Duez, executive director of the Greater Bridgeport Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a great opportunity for citizens to get a glimpse into the past through these guys’ eyes.”

And a look back on the history of West Virginia wouldn’t be complete without the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who represented West Virginia in Congress for six decades. An exhibit honoring him will open next Friday at the state museum at the Capitol complex.

Ruby said she has talked to hundreds of callers who shared their memories of West Virginia’s 100th birthday celebration in 1963 and are looking forward to creating new ones this year.

“We’re hoping people across the state, whether they come to our celebration or go to their own, we want to make sure and that they’re excited about the birthday and that they’re proud to be West Virginians,” she said.

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