Transcript: Youghiogheny Forest Colony

August 3, 2012 |

Youghiogheny Forest Colony

It’s the year 1935. The Hemlock forest outside Aurora, WV is full of laughter, and music. Through the snowy trees a cabin is aglow, with about 12 people gathered inside. This was the Youghiogheny Forest Colony.

Viola: Oh they had weird theories, like it was a camp of nudists, which it never was (laughs).  I think for a while they thought that Lottie was a spy simply because she was German. She would have been a very odd spy. What was she spying at in rural West Virginia (laughs)? 

That’s Viola Wentzel, whose husband Volkmar came to Youghiogheny as a runaway teenager from Germany, and ended up finishing high school at the local Aurora school.

The people that my husband truly loved were Bessie and Gene Schoemaker. When the studios got too cold, he would stay in their house in a tiny bedroom upstairs. I was lucky to still know Bessie and Gene, and they were just wonderful people.  They sort of took care of him.  It was nice for him to have a home up here. They fed him and they were very hard working people.  They had a big garden and a horse and a buggy, and they drove their vegetables to market in Oakland.

When the Great Depression hit hard, a small group of intellectuals decided to leave the cities and head for the hills. Jobs were scarce, and life wasn’t easy for a poor artist in D.C. They came to Preston County because they could live very cheaply, in the forest property of Preston County geologist, Frank Reeves, and his wife Lottie.

Viola: Arved Kuntzin for instance was also very musical, and he would dam Rhine Creek, which was below there, and flood it. Then he had loud speakers and he would play Edward Greek music and skate to it on the flood line. It must have been very odd for the population here to see people like that (laughs).

He remembered that very enthusiastically and lovingly, the whole colony. It was amazing, the minute the Depression was over, they all left. Of course they only were in those little 12 x 12 cabins, so it probably wasn’t too comfortable in the cold West Virginia Winter. They all seem to have been characters, and inventive, and also determined not to be beat down by the Depression. It was their way of survival. They loved it up here. And when they couldn’t work at their chosen jobs in Washington, they did other things like paint or write or have a good time at Lottie’s tavern.

Those who stayed at Youghiogheny often gathered in Reeves’s Tavern for their meals, enjoying the brief spell of that place that was a combination of good conversation, the smell of the ancient pines, and, surely, their emotional ties to an outside world that was changing rapidly. It was around this communal table, often with drink in hand, that the fluctuating crowd at the Youghiogheny Forest enjoyed a momentary escape away from the clang of what would be, and the troubles that challenged the unsteady world. Mrs. Wentzel recalls one particular story her husband told about a Youghiogheny tradition of driving a hot goose down from D.C. on Christmas Eve:

There was a Bavarian Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.  He would order a roasted goose and red cabbage and all the trimmings that go with it, then wrap it into a feather quilt so that it would stay hot. Then they would drive, I don’t know if they had speed limits then, then they would drive like crazy uphill so that the goose was still warm. That was one of these Christmas dinners. In Washington D.C. (laughs). Going straight to the white house! That was the Christmas dinner.  They did things like that all the time to contribute so it wasn’t all of us stuck on Lottie every night.

That’s Viola Wentzel, president of the Aurora Project, which her husband Volkmar helped to get started before his death in 2006. This is an interview from the Wentzel log cabin house, built by Elmer Strausser from Terra Alta, in Preston County, WV. Next door is where the Shoemakers used to live, where the young photographer was often invited to dinner, and to stay during the cold winter nights. A few of the other cabins from the Youghiogheny Forest Colony, including the Reeves’ tavern, are still standing within a few miles of the Wentzel home.

Illustration: “German Christmas.” Lottie is shown in bottom left.

Music by the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys. “A Million Lonely Days”, and “East Virginia”,

photo: one of the cabins at the Youghiogheny Forest Colony, By Volkmar Wentzel, courtesy of Wentzel family estate

Reference: Michele Mouré-Reeves. “Youghiogheny Forest Colony”. West Virginia Encyclopedia.

Interview with Viola Wentzel. 07-12-11





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