He would write on a green Oliver typewriter, seated on a child-sized armchair with rollers at the bottom. Each day he would write, hour after hour, facing the trains that rushed past him on their way to the Blackwater Canyon. He’d write a poem and if he didn’t like it he would crumple it up, start over again. Day after day. Often, he would drink. It didn’t take but a few beers to drown him because Karl Dewey Myers never weighed more than 60 pounds.
Dr. Walter Barnes, the former Dean of Fairmont State College wrote that Dewey was “absorbed in the basic, eternal problems of mortal existence, struggling to make beauty and truth and mercy prevail.” In his poems, Karl Dewey Myers wrote devotedly about Tucker County, with a sensitivity to its graceful, changing beauty. He wrote of the forests transformed by railroads and logging trains, with an awe for both the natural beauty and the momentum that carried the trains up the steep mountains towards the sky.
Sometimes, Dewey’s profound sense of wonder was mixed with bitterness, as he struggled to stay above the heavy burden of grief for the dead (all of his close family had died when he was still a teenager). With words, he fought to persevere over the harsh cruelty of being labeled a “cripple” by the human society he craved. With women, he wrote continuously, though he never experienced romance.
But just before the nation fell into its Great Depression, Karl Dewey Myers was offered a short stint of fame. On June 9, 1927, he was named the first poet laureate of West Virginia.
Cindy Karelis, graduate student of History at West Virginia University, first drew my attention to the story of Karl Dewey Myers. Like me, she had never heard of the poet when one day last fall she found countless writings by Dewey when she was researching the archived writing from the 1930s done by the Federal Writers’ Project. A Tucker County writer for the FWP, Gordon Shrader, knew the poet personally and included Dewey’s poetry in many of his reports. The FWP was a Depression era, federally funded program which employed out of work writers and teachers to complete local guides to their communities, similar to what the CCC boys were doing in the woods, or thousands of WPA workers were doing to tirelessly rebuild our roads and our bridges. Gordon Shrader was given a job by the FWP to chronicle the history and local lives of people from Tucker County, and without his careful documentation of the poet’s works, Cindy and I would never have even heard of the poet.
Cindy Karelis and I traveled to Tucker County to interview Dave Strahin, who is probably the only living person today who was good friends with Karl Dewey Myers. Dave pulled out a dusty hardbound book, Homer Fansler’s A History of Tucker County, and pointed to a chapter written about Dewey. It’s a book which Dave knows very well because he helped Homer do a lot of the historical research.“Homer and Dewey had been friends for an awful lot of years. I guess since the time they were kids. Stayed that way. When Homer was still in service, after WWII, he’d go and hunt Duke up and see him,” says Dave.
Homer and Dewey were the oddballs in town— people stayed away from Homer, as they did from Dewey. “Poor old Duke, and poor old Homer. They just pitied each other, as all good friends do. He pitied Homer, and Homer pitied Duke. Him and Duke used to sit down and laugh about the things they got into. It was fun to sit and listen to those two,” says Dave.
According to local accounts, Dewey was adored by animals and by children. But on days when he’d been drinking too much, the parents would put a call to each other as a warning. And all the parents would tell their children, “You can’t go see Dewey today.” Carol Sue Carr, who was a child in Hendrix where Dewey lived, told us that she never knew what happened when her mother came to tell her that Dewey was “unwell”. Was he violent, gruesome, belligerent, or sick?
To Carol Sue, this only added to the mystery and awe the children felt for Dewey. He radiated a sense of being that dies away in most people as they grow old. And he could speak! He could describe the water and the legends of the woods with such words and phrases, nothing like listening to a teacher or a parent. Yes, he could speak. And those stories stuck with the neighborhood children. They could sit and listen to him for hours. But not on the bad days, which there were more and more of, as the children got older. Then at some point, he just went away. The kids were older then and hadn’t been to see him much lately. And she doesn’t remember where he went, but it was just that he was gone, and nobody was ever like him again.
In 1951, Karl Dewey Myers made a pact with his best friend Homer Fansler that each would write the other’s biographies. At the time, Homer was stationed in Tacoma, WA. Homer received his biography from Dewey in the mail on November 29th. The next day, Homer read of Dewey’s death in the Parsons newspaper. Karl Dewey Myers, who died from complications due to alcoholism, was 52 years old. Very likely, Homer’s biography was Dewey’s final piece of writing. The former poet laureate died broke, with only his small green typewriter and his books of poetry, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. White just outside of Elkins. The White family had been one of many homes he had bounced between the last two decades. As Dave said, Dewey was “just from pillow to post”, from the time when his mother died and his childhood home in Moore had burned down, Dewey had slept in any bed he was offered.
Homer did not complete his history of Tucker County for years. He still had one last chapter that sat in his files incomplete. It was the biography of his beloved friend, Karl Dewey Myers. But one day Homer was diagnosed with a very severe case of Leukemia. Doctors gave him just months to live. He had to finish the book now, or never.All writers know the reason it took him his entire life to write this final chapter of his book, because friendship is never finished. Even when the person has passed away, there is the sense that you will still see them, that they are still alive someplace, that you will make time for them somewhere, somehow. Homer and Dewey were that type of friends.
In his biography, Homer writes that “the State of West Virginia should be interested enough in its gifted writer and first Poet Laureate to erect a simple plaque at his last resting place.” Dave Strahin even says that Homer left money for the cost for Dewey’s body to be exhumed, but the problem, apparently, was that Dewey’s body could not be found. It seems that nobody had kept records of the placement for the bodies at the cemetery, so there was no way to know just where he was buried. And so it’s rumored that someone scooped up a bucket of dirt as a symbol of Dewey and transfered that to the Myers Family Cemetery, located just off US 219 in Moore WV. A monument stands there, not far from US 219. A monument was also placed at the I.O.O.F. Cemetery in Elkins, though it is just an approximate resting place for West Virginia’s first poet Laureate, Karl Dewey Myers.
A poem by Dewey:
The Seneca Trail
By Karl Dewey Myers
Where the red men swung with a stealthy stride
Through the endless oak and pin a-row,
While sharp eyes swept each rod they stepped
For the wary game or the lurking foe,
Giving the title of “Warrior Road”
To the lane that ran for a thousand miles,
In the days of old adventure bold
When it filled anon with the dusky files,
With the mad war-whoop or the friendly hail –
This was the Seneca Trail.
Where a purr of engines never ides,
And a hurry of wheels is never gone
From a belt of gray that stretches away,
Broad, smooth, beckoning on and on
From bustling village to clanging town,
Through fruitful meadows and vales of dream;
In arrowy flights to conquered heights,
And over many a harnessed stream;
By mine and quarry and burdened rail –
This is the Seneca Trail.
Poem by Karl Dewey Myers, Cross and Crown (1951, no publisher given, page 37).