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Discover the sounds of West Virginia during the timber boom in the new exhibit at WVU’s Watts Museum

Timber/Timbre exhibit at the Watts Museum

Timber/Timbre debuts this month (January) at the Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum in the Statler College. (Submitted Photo)

A new exhibit at West Virginia University’s Royce J. and Caroline B. Watts Museum at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources highlights the role that music played in West Virginia’s logging communities as the timber boom arrived and transformed the region.

Story by Adrianne Uphold, Graduate Assistant
Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—

The exhibit, “Timber/Timbre: Falling Trees and Rising Voices – Logging and Music in West Virginia, 1880-1930,” uses folk music to explore the history of logging in West Virginia’s Allegheny Highland region. To express some of the timber industry’s impacts on the locals, both migratory timber workers and local mountain folks turned to the power of music.

Danielle Petrak, curator of the Watts Museum, conceptualized the theme for this exhibit and worked with WVU graduate students in her exhibition development course to create the content of Timber/Timbre.

“We wanted to find an innovative approach to interpreting the history of the timber industry and a creative way of presenting that history to our audience,” Petrak said. “By exploring the songs once sung in the Allegheny Highlands, the exhibit gives audiences a glimpse into the everyday lives of West Virginians and the social and cultural issues that played a large part in shaping their communities.”

Whether traditional tunes that originated in Appalachia or songs transmitted to the region by outside influences, the music heard and performed in West Virginia’s timberlands offers a glimpse into the concerns, sentiments and values of those who lived and worked along the hillsides of the Alleghenies.

While the Watts Museum’s collections largely focus on the coal and petroleum industries, the story of those industries in West Virginia cannot be told without addressing the history of related enterprises, Petrak explained.

“The coal and timber industries shared transportation routes, fuel and supplies, political networks and even workers,” Petrak said. “They also shared similar life cycles, with the boom and bust nature of their business having a dramatic impact on the lives of West Virginians. It was important for this exhibit to explore the timber industry’s connections to the larger narrative of industrialization in West Virginia.”

Petrak and the students working on the project utilized the WVU Libraries West Virginia and Regional Center to find more than 200 songs that could be useful and relevant to the exhibit. 

History doctoral student Kristen Bailey led the grant-writing efforts to secure funding and is organizing a series of events held in conjunction with the exhibit’s tour. 

“The generous grant funding provided the opportunity to combine WVU’s academic strengths with folk music experts from around the state and community involvement of Pocahontas County’s residents to create a unique program experience,” Bailey said. “While COVID restrictions have slowed some of the planning stages, we are hopeful to move forward in 2021 with a songwriting program for 4H students in Pocahontas County, and several public programs, including a cooking competition with ingredients and tools historically used in timber camps, a hands-on workshop on traditional music in timber camps, and a roundtable discussion of the role music played in communities — followed by a harvest square dance.” 

The exhibit debuts at the Watts Museum this month (January), later traveling to Cass Scenic Railroad State Park and the McClintic Public Library in Marlinton as part of Pocahontas County’s bicentennial commemoration in 2021. The project has been made possible, in part, by grants from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the WVU Humanities Center.

Due to COVID restrictions on visitation, Timber/Timbre is open by appointment only. Please contact the Watts Museum at (304) 293-4609 or wattsmuseum@mail.wvu.edu to schedule a visit.

More information on the exhibit can be found in this video.


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Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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