“Moundsville”: The Rise and Fall of a Small Town

Directed by David Bernabo and John W. Miller, Moundsville tells the story of the small town of Moundsville, West Virginia through the eyes of its residents, who describe the rise and fall of industry in the town over several decades. The larger story of Moundsville could be told about hundreds of small towns across America, and this fact — the telling of a local story that is also universal — imbues Moundsvillle with its resonance and poignancy.

Moundsville, not far from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River, is named after the Grave Creek Mound, which is a sacred conical burial mound that rises more than 60 feet high and was built between 250 and 150 BC by the indigenous people of the Adena culture. The mound and the infamous West Virginia State Penitentiary known as “Blood Alley,” decommissioned in 1995 and now used for historical and paranormal tours, are the town’s central tourist attractions.

The concise hour-long documentary, available for viewing on PBS, details the town’s boom in the early to mid-twentieth century and its bust from the 1980s until the present day. The filmmakers interview numerous residents, including the current and former mayors, the state poet laureate, the mound “coordinator,” the manager of the penitentiary, and several retirees. They intersperse excerpts from these interviews with cutaways (still shots) and video of the town as it looks today, much of that video taken while driving around Moundsville with the town’s former mayor, Eugene Saunders. The film doesn’t rely on live action, archive footage, or process footage, although we occasionally hear one of the directors ask a follow-up question.

The strength of the documentary lies in the interviews, filmed on location and featuring real Moundsville residents, many of whom are middle-aged and older long-term residents. They reminisce about the town’s past, its sense of community, its former closeness and congeniality. They remember a time when “everybody knew everybody” and “you always had a job.” “People were crying for labor,” recalls Gary Rider, town historian.

And, indeed, labor — work and its cohesive value — is a central theme here. Jobs used to be plentiful in oil and gas, steel, and coal mining, and companies like Fostoria Glass, U.S. Stamping, and Marx Toys were based in Moundsville. But this was in the town’s heyday before jobs were lost due to international competition and “capitalism” — at least according to one former teacher. An omission of the documentary is that it doesn’t explore and expand on this idea. Was it, in fact, international competition that led to Moundsville’s decline? It’s unclear what the filmmakers are saying about the rise and fall of small towns like Moundsville and what the call to action might be.

Nonfiction filmmaking seems to be experiencing a sort of revival right now, and documentaries and docuseries are popular on streaming services. I think of Moundsville as a sort of quasi-ethnography, a case study for a course in city politics, with the central themes of jobs and generational change. Bernabo and Miller are right to include mention of the city council fight that led to Walmart setting up shop in Moundsville, because fights about the arrival of a big box store or mega-retailer reveal a lot about a community, especially given that big boxes have been associated with declines in independent businesses and in civic engagement. This could be a documentary all on its own. “If it hadn’t been Walmart, it would’ve been something else,” Saunders says. “Because times change.”

Times change, for sure, and people — especially young people — move on. “I asked my grandkids,” retired boiler operator Les Barker says, “You want to set the world on fire? Or do you want enough for a weenie roast now and then? They said set the world on fire.” Young people, looking to set the world on fire, are leaving Moundsville. Its population is decreasing. Those that remain are getting older, and trying to look forward even as they look back.

DOCUMENTARY
Moundsville
Directors: David Bernabo and John W. Miller
First Aired: May 21, 2020
Available to watch on PBS