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A 91-Year-Old Diner, DIY Zines And Remembering A Legendary Hot Dog Maker

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Credit Fred Sauceman/TimesNews
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The Texas Tavern in Roanoke, Virginia has been in business since 1930 and celebrated its 91st birthday in February.

This week on Inside Appalachia, we listen to an encore episode about places in Appalachia that are drawing visitors and newcomers, sometimes at a cost. The region needs new residents to drive economic prosperity, but an influx of buyers can also squeeze out lower income people and put stress on community infrastructure.

West Virginia’s New River Gorge was recently designated as a National Park. That change will likely attract even more visitors — but it will also cut hunting rights in part of the park.

Even with these changes, there remain stalwarts across Appalachia, places that hang on even as the world around them transforms, including a restaurant in downtown Roanoke that has remained open more than 90 years.

We also remember Russell Yann, the longtime owner of Yann’s Hotdogs in Fairmont, who passed away earlier this year. “If there was a fire in the community, usually when the firefighters got back to the station, there would be hotdogs and drinks for them,” said Marion County Sheriff Jimmy Riffle, who worked for Yann for over 20 years. “If you’d gone in there more than once or twice. He would remember your order. Customers would just come in, sit down and we knew what they wanted.”

These stories remind us how the things that we’re passionate about can touch others, build community and create memories that outlast individual lives.

In This Episode:

Pandemic-Fueled Homebuyers Moving To Appalachia

The pandemic has caused a boom in the housing market across the country — and Appalachia is no exception. People have been spending more time inside their homes these days. This, coupled with an increased popularity in remote work, has had people rethinking their lives in big cities. Some have even bought houses in the region — sight unseen.

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Courtesy Bijoulea Finney
Drew and his wife Bijoulea Finney recently moved from Austin Texas to southwest Virginia, with their two rescue dogs. They both work remotely, and were able to purchase a house outside Floyd for about the same amount they were paying in rent in downtown Austin.

The demand for houses is high, and that’s putting extra pressure on people like Olivia Morris. “It is really good for West Virginia, that people are moving here,” said 31-year-old Morris, who wanted to purchase a home in Fayetteville, but was priced out amid the growing popularity of the area. “But it is also hard, and two things can exist at the same time. And those are the two realities that are existing for me.”

Since this story originally aired in March, Olivia Morris found a house in Fayette County, West Virginia. It’s not in Fayetteville like she’d hoped, but down the road in Oak Hill.

National Park Designation Has Some Worried

The New River Gorge has long been a destination for tourists and outdoor adventurers. The area was originally given federal protection as a National River in 1978. Late last year, it became West Virginia’s first national park.

The new designation will bring more people to the gorge, and some new challenges, too. Less land will be open to hunting, while more visitors will place an additional burden on the infrastructure within the park, and in the communities around it.

Ten percent of the New River Gorge has become a national park. Hunters have lost access to this section of land. That’s because hunting is not permitted in national parks. While hunters are losing access to sections of the park, the new park status is expected to improve the local economy. Several rafting outfitters in the Gorge have seen a large rebound in business after COVID-19 restrictions began to lift.

“We were shut down, we had no booking. And then we had record sales, record website visits, phone calls, phones ringing off the hook,” said Haynes Mansfield, marketing director at ACE Adventure Resort.

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Courtesy of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
Lizzie Watts, Superintendent of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve stands in front of the new park sign at the park’s administrative headquarters in Glen Jean.

The park’s new designation puts the New River Gorge in a better position to receive additional funding to aid in the upgrades needed to suit the influx of visitors. Regardless of the changes, the national park designation will likely continue to bring new visitors to the area.

Texas Tavern Celebrates 91st Birthday

While many businesses have struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic, the Texas Tavern in downtown Roanoke, Virginia has been a steadfast business in the area. The Star City institution celebrated its 91st birthday in February.

The current owner’s great grandfather, Nick Bullington, opened the restaurant in 1930 after visiting a White Castle. The city began to grow, and with it, the Texas Tavern grew in popularity.

The restaurant and its menu is small, but that’s part of the appeal. Patrons can order chili dogs, small hamburgers, and the Cheese Western — a hamburger with a scrambled egg and the tavern’s signature relish. They’re also known for their “two and a bowl with” which translates to two hamburgers and a bowl of chile beans with onions.

While they had to make adjustments during the pandemic — including switching to take-out only — the restaurant continues to be a staple in the town. Roanoke continues to see new growth in the area, but the Texas Tavern remains the same. And that’s how customers like it.

 

Towns Face Expensive Flooding Threat

When it comes to major weather events, Appalachia is somewhat protected, thanks to the mountain ranges. While the region doesn’t have to worry about hurricanes and wildfires compared to other regions across the country, flooding and mudslides are a different story.

Kentucky and other parts of Appalachia were recently hit by severe floods — and are still recovering. Across the country, more than four million homes are at risk of major flood damage. Scientists say climate change is driving a lot of this flooding. And poorer people stand to lose the most.

NPR’s Rebecca Hersher reported on the recent flooding in Rainelle, West Virginia. Many are still recovering from the flooding in June 2016. Many have since left the area, which has only exacerbated the issues.

Vaccination Rates Continue To Fall

When we originally aired this episode back in March, West Virginia ranked among the best in the world for its vaccination rates. Now, five months later, the numbers have plateaued. As of mid-July, nearly 60 percent of state residents have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine and almost half are fully vaccinated, according to West Virginia’s health department. That puts the state behind the U.S. vaccine rate. Still, Gov. Jim Justice lifted mask requirements in public spaces beginning on June 20, West Virginia Day. June Leffler spoke with folks the weekend restrictions were lifted.

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Courtesy of the Governor's office
Fairmont nurse Denise Morrison receives a $1 million check from Gov. Jim Justice and Babydog, making her a winner in the state's vaccination sweepstakes.

Vaccine Lottery Hopes To Increase Vaccination Rates

A month has passed since Justice lifted mask requirements in West Virginia. Also on West Virginia’s Birthday, Justice launched a COVID-19 vaccine lottery. In the last few weeks, dozens of West Virginians have gotten guns, trucks and money. For those lucky few, the incentive program has been a hit. As June Leffler reports, for the state’s overall goal of increasing vaccinations, the lottery might be a flop.

Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing

Also in this episode, Inside Appalachia co-host Mason Adams interviews Shaun Slifer, a Pittsburgh artist who recently published a book, “So Much to Be Angry About: Appalachian Movement Press and Radical DIY Publishing, 1969-1979.”

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Photo by Jonathon Bush
Shaun Slifer in his studio with an antique platen printing press that he refurbished and uses to print some of his art.

The Appalachian Movement Press began in the late 1960s in Huntington, West Virginia, when a group of young people began printing pamphlets, with the aim of helping tell Appalachia’s story from the people, by the people. It was partly an effort to counteract writing by national reporters and writers, who since the late 1800s had promoted the “hillbilly” stereotype, as well as other stereotypes about Appalachia and its inhabitants. Since then, there’s been no shortage in writing about the region and its visitors. What’s rarer is to find Appalachians with a platform to tell their own stories.

“It’s definitely true that I get excited about digging at stories that nobody else has tried to unearth,” Slifer said. “You know that there’s some kind of ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ type of challenge to that.”

Remembering Russell Yann

Earlier in this episode, we heard about the Texas Tavern in Roanoke, Virginia. Over the last year, we’ve produced stories about other distinctive Appalachian restaurants. If you live in West Virginia and care about food, you probably know that when it comes to hotdog joints, Yann’s Hotdogs in Fairmont is on a level all its own. Russell Yann — the owner of the iconic lunch spot — died earlier this year. Reporter Zack Harold brings us a story about Yann’s life and legacy.

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Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by John Wyatt, Dinosaur Burps, Kaia Kater and Spencer Elliot.

Roxy Todd is our producer. Jade Artherhults is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode. You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.

Mason Adams grew up near the Virginia/West Virginia border in Clifton Forge, Virginia. He’s covered mountain communities and the issues affecting them since 2001. His work has appeared in Southerly, Daily Yonder, 100 Days in Appalachia, Mother Jones, Huffington Post and elsewhere. He lives with his family and a small herd of goats in Floyd County, Virginia. Follow him on Twitter @MasonAtoms.
Roxy Todd joined West Virginia Public Broadcasting in 2014 and works as the producer for Inside Appalachia. She's the recipient of a National Edward R. Murrow Award for "Excellence in Video," for a story about the demands small farmers face in West Virginia. She also won a National PMJA Award For "Best Feature" for her story about the history of John Denver's song "Country Roads." You can reach her at rtodd@wvpublic.org.
Jade Artherhults is the associate producer for Inside Appalachia and is based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at jartherhults@wvpublic.org or @JArtherhults on Twitter.