Inside Appalachia: Remembering the Elk River Chemical Spill, Honoring Two Musical Legends


This week on Inside Appalachia, we’re marking the one-year anniversary of the Elk River Chemical Spill in Charleston, W.Va. that temporarily left 300,000 without water.

Remembering West Virginia Native, “Little” Jimmy Dickens

 Credit Flickr bot / wikimedia Commons

West Virginia native “Little” Jimmy Dickens has died at the age of 94. Born in Bolt, West Virginia on December 19, 1920, Dickens would go on to be the longest running member of The Grand Ole Opry. He first performed on the show in 1948 and last played on December 20, 2014-just a day after his 94th birthday. But as Suzanne Higgins found out, there was a much more serious, humble, and grateful side to the Raleigh County, West Virginia native. Higgins spoke to Little Jimmy Dickens as he was about to be inducted into the first class of the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Reactions to the Elk River Chemical Spill, One Year Later

Last January, news of the chemical spill spread across the country. Folks reacted in many different ways … some were furious, others felt helpless, some were encouraged to send donations of water.

A West Virginian’s Raw Response to Water Crisis Goes Viral

A professor of Literature and Culture was surprised when his audacious essay in response to the chemical spill went viral. Eric Waggoner first published the essay under the title “Elemental” on his blog, Cultural Slagheap, and it was subsequently featured on CNN and Huffington Post. Waggoner is a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan who says he’s surprised his words have traveled so far and wide. The best part, he says, is hearing from West Virginians who say, “That’s how I feel.”

“You Should Know What’s Right Next Door”

We’ll also hear an award winning story produced last fall, by independent radio producer, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch. She talked with one family affected by the spill. Her work is called “You Should Know What’s Right Next Door.” It won 1st place in what’s known as the 24-hour radio race from KCRW’s independent producer project and first aired on the program called Unfictional.

Mother and Daughter Still Don’t Drink Tap Water

It was some ten days before all of the families affected by the tap water ban following Charleston’s chemical spill were able to return to life as usual within their homes. And many did just that, once again drinking, cooking and bathing with water straight from the tap. The same, however, can’t be said for every family in the valley including Lida Shepherd. Liz McCormick met up with Shepherd who says she still won’t drink the water.

Citizen Action Groups Join Together to Protect W.Va.’s Water Systems

Leaders of citizen groups, a water scientist and an impacted mother held a phone-based news conference this week to look back on the water crisis and outline the progress, pitfalls and next steps in their work to ensure safe drinking water for all West Virginians. Glynis Board reports.


Neighbor Helping Neighbor

But the chemical spill also brought out something that folks can take pride in … pulling together and helping out. Some water and supply donations came from water drives in West Virginia. Some of them came from folks like Charlene Cook, from Mullens, a town that’s struggled with its own water issues in the past. I spoke with her shortly after the spill last January.

Bill Withers Selected for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Bill Withers

Credit wikimedia commons
wikimedia commons

Times of tragedy often bring out that spirit of resilience that is such a strong part of Appalachian communities. That community support during coal mining accidents is part of what inspired W.Va. native, Bill Withers, to write “Lean on Me”.

Withers was recently selected for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Back in 2007 he was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. Anna Sale, now with WNYC in New York, spoke with Withers just before the ceremony.

What’s in the Name of Toast, NC

photo courtesy of Jerry P. Snow

The old store and post office in Toast, NC

Each week on Inside Appalachia we have a segment called “What’s in a Name”, where we explore the story behind the name of Appalachian towns. This week we wanted to find a place that might be a good spot to ring in the New Year with a traditional ‘toast’. But is that really how Toast, North Carolina got its name? For help, we asked Amy Snyder, curator at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, who said there are conflicting tales about how this town got its name.

"One day, in desperation, a gentleman took a shoe box off a shelf, saw the word "Toast" (the color of the shoes) and said, "'What the hell, lets just call it Toast!'"- Jerry P. Snow, of Toast, N.C.


Not the Toast you Make Over Drinks

According to Peter Bowman, the original postmaster, Mr. Hutchens, had to inform his superiors in Washington that the town simply couldn’t settle on a name.

So it was assumed that in some way, somewhere, perhaps by someone in Washington while some clerk was nibbling on a piece of dry toast in a cafe, the name of Toast was chosen.

Not the Toast you Eat

But Jerry P. Snow and others from Toast responded on Facebook that they disagree with this version. Snow says that in the 1930s his grandfather, Philip Snow, became postmaster. He was always adamant that the name had nothing to do with the toast you eat. The story he was told about the naming of Toast is that, originally, the local residents wanted to name it Franklin, in honor of a prominent local family. But the postal service said that wouldn’t work since there was already a post office in NC named Franklin. The local old timers really didn’t have any good 2nd or 3rd choices so they sat around for days, “cussin’ and discussing” various names. One day, in desperation, a gentleman took a shoe box off a shelf, saw the word “Toast” (the color of the shoes) and said, “What the hell, lets just call it Toast!” and they did.


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Music in today’s show was provided by Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Withers, Andy Agnew Jr. , Tim O’ Brien and Kathy Mattea with “Brush my Teeth”, Jake Schepps, and the Glennville State Bluegrass Band.