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Authors’ works capture area history

December 26, 2012
By IAN HICKS - Special to the Herald-Star , The Herald-Star

WHEELING - Local authors have highlighted unique aspects of Wheeling's history - including its heritage as a river town and a Great Depression-era radio show that achieved national fame - in new works of both fiction and nonfiction.

Several years of work by Wheeling residents Lee Kelvington and Baird Kloss have resulted in the book, "It's Wheeling Steel," a compilation of photos, documents and commentary related to the radio show of the same name. It celebrates what began as one company's experiment in creative advertising and eventually became the fifth most popular program on NBC Radio, serving as a morale booster during World War II for troops overseas and those on the home front.

"It's Wheeling Steel" debuted on Nov. 8, 1936, in the midst of the Great Depression, when the company's advertising director, John Grimes, decided it would be cheaper to produce a weekly half-hour radio show than advertise on the back cover of the "Saturday Evening Post." The musical variety show, performed at the Capitol Theatre and broadcast over WWVA-AM, was an instant hit locally and helped develop camaraderie among the steelworkers.

As the steelworking musicians' show was picked up by NBC in 1941 and became increasingly popular, the program received a great deal of positive press from national publications such as Life magazine, which is well documented in the book, compiled by the nonprofit Wheeling Big Band Society Inc.

"It is truly unique ... particularly the fact that it originated in a little town like Wheeling," Kelvington said of the radio show. "This program was during an era when 'coast-to-coast' really meant something."

One of the show's most unique aspects, Kelvington said, was the quality and depth of its amateur talent. All of the show's performers throughout its eight-year run were Wheeling Steel employees and their family members, some of whom had the opportunity to make a living in music.

"Some of the ladies turned down those opportunities to be housewives, which is something you wouldn't necessarily see today," he said.

Copies of "It's Wheeling Steel" are available at the Wheeling Artisan Center Gift Shop, the Words & Music Bookshop at Stratford Springs and the Kruger Street Toy and Train Museum. Wheeling Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Bruce Wheeler designed the cover, and the Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp. assisted with the book's production.

Meanwhile, Wetzel County native Chuck Clegg has written "Return of the Gunboat," a work of fiction set against the backdrop of the Ohio River in 1895. Clegg has brought his fictional characters to life in a tale of adventure and intrigue using the history of the time.

The story follows Capt. Jack Dulin as he and his crew set out on what they believe to be a routine job on the river. But events soon spin out of control as Dulin tries to find answers, avoid danger and manage a love interest that comes into his life.

"Return of the Gunboat" brings to life what Clegg imagines life may have been like along the river in the late 1800s. Wheeling, an industrial giant of the time, is home to several of the characters in the story.

Clegg compares his storytelling to that of a modern-day Mark Twain, with a rich imagination and love of the people who lived and worked the Ohio River. He noted he grew up playing in creeks and streams that fed into the Ohio, and man's attempt to tame the river has been among his chief historical interests.

The book's cover, which incorporates an image of the Wheeling Suspension Bridge, was designed and created by local artist Earl Yost. "Return of the Gunboat" is available at the Wheeling Artisan Center as well as The Book Store and Witschey's Market in New Martinsville. It also is available for sale online.

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