There are those who would describe us Southerners as being a bit “rough around the edges.” We might laugh a little loud and talk a little much, but if that’s part of the definition of being rough, so be it. But what about our physical edges? As a region loosely defined by state lines and thickness of accents, the definition of our edges is roughly estimated too. But those extremities and edges, roughly carved by mountains or smoothly delineated by government, are as wholly Southern as the swamps and creek beds of our center. After all, we are defined just as much by our extremities—the polish on our toes, the calluses on our palms—as we are by our whole.
Our most debated, fought for, and controversial extremity lies to North. The rugged outline of West Virginia juts northward into Ohio before following the systematically straight line of Pennsylvania, a short outcrop of Southern territory into Northern lands. At the very tip of this physiological anomaly known as the West Virginia Panhandle lies the small town of Chester. As is true of many Southern towns, Chester owes its humble beginnings to fertile farmland. According to local legend, Chester arose from the organization of two farmsteads, one to the east and one to the west; one of these small farms belonged to the noble ancestry of America’s own father, George Washington. Once the two farms incorporated themselves into a single town, Chester, the limits of the city totaled one square mile—the same boundaries the town possesses today.
Chester’s fecund farmland came to be a profitable draw for the small city, but it was the fruits found deeper within its soils that would prove to be Chester’s blessing and bane. In the early twentieth century, yellow clay was discovered beneath the fertile green lands of the panhandle. Locals began mining the thick, yellowed soil for brick and china, using the nearby current of the Ohio River to send the clay around the country on frequently passing barges and ferries. It was that simple and dirty discovery that would also prove to be the impetus for the city’s claim to fame, their own landmark.
In 1938, local pottery business booming thanks to the mining of the natural resource, William “Babe” Devon of Devon Pottery made a questionable investment. He purchased a large barrel, formerly used as advertisement for Hires Root Beer, and carted it down to his storefront in Chester. He set to work transforming the massive root beer barrel into the World’s Largest Teapot, affixing a spout and handle to opposing sides and covering its exterior in tin. Devon’s masterpiece was a tangibly figurative representative of Chester’s hold on the title for largest pottery industry in the world. Once completed, Devon used the massive kettle as a concession and souvenir stand for visitors to his pottery shop.
The World’s Largest Teapot was used, on and off, for retail over the course of the next several decades, but after falling into decline the teapot sat abandoned for years in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s. On the brink of destruction following the purchase of the kettle’s homeland by greedy investors, the townsfolk of Chester came together to save their local landmark. Today, after a series of restorations, the teapot sits just off a main local highway, greeting visitors with its cheery red and white exterior, all thanks to the alliance of devoted Chesterians.
Though clay proved to be a true ally for little Chester, it was also from the ground that the small city gained its most formidable foe. Throughout the twentieth century, coal mining became a large source of economic profit for Chester and her surrounding lands, the region proudly shouldering the burden of producing power for the country. The power plants, however, were faced with a dilemma: how to dispose of the massive quantities of waste being produced by coal mining.
In 1974, the local power company unveiled their plan for the coal slurry in the form of Little Blue Run Lake. At its opening, the corporation advertised the man-made lake as the future home of Beaver County (in nearby Pennsylvania) and Hancock County’s elite: a desirable new neighborhood would form along the banks of the lake with bike trails and sunshiny summers spent on its crystalline blue waters. The reality of Little Blue Run Lake turned out to be in near opposition to those dreamlike visions. What actually arose was an eerie, fluorescent blue body of water, its stench filling the surrounding air with the sulfurous and unearthly scent of coal ash. Little Blue Run Lake grew to be the largest coal ash dump in the nation, covering 1,700 acres and holding twenty billion gallons of ash and waste.
Over the decades, debates over the health risks associated with Little Blue Run Lake, and ash dumps around the country, have simmered and grown, finally reaching boiling point in recent years. Power companies argue that coal ash doesn’t go anywhere or harm anyone, but studies show that the waste leaches into groundwater and local surface waters, infecting drinking water for rural communities. Scientists have found worrisome levels of dangerous metals, including arsenic, selenium, cadmium, lead, and mercury, in the ash. After a large coal ash discharge occurred accidentally in a lake in North Carolina in the 1970’s, the marine life of the lake was decimated; a single generation of malformed fish with curved spines and bulging ear-like eyes populated the lake before dying off, taking nineteen out of twenty native fish species with them.
Despite the evidence, the EPA has not federally classified coal ash as hazardous waste, leaving states and citizens to fight private battles against wealthy energy conglomerates. The residents of Chester are just such a group. Along with their neighbors in Pennsylvania, inhabitants of Chester negatively affected by Little Blue Run have banded together to form the Little Blue Regional Action Group. Although the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection already brought a lawsuit against FirstEnergy (the current owner of Little Blue Run) and demanded the site by cleaned by 2031, residents surrounding the Lake wanted reparations for the injuries already suffered.
After Vice News covered the case, profiling their struggles with the Lake, the case gained traction. With national media attention and plucky resolve, Chester’s residents proved they were a small but mighty opponent to the FirstEnergy Corporation. In February of 2015, fifteen residents of Beaver County and thirty-six of Hancock County resolved the case out of court and received the reparations they deserved. Despite their small size and rural location, Chester and her neighbors came together as a community to win their battle.
That sense of community, a loyalty to each other and old-time values, is what defines Chester today. The tiny town, made up of a mere 2,500 residents, maintains that small-town, neighborly atmosphere so indicative of the South. In times of need—whether that be something as frivolous as a giant wooden teapot or as serious as hazardous drinking water—Chester bands together against adversaries far more powerful than themselves. Though the edges of Chester, and the South, may be roughly hewn, they are no weaker for it; instead, it is that very roughness and uniqueness that builds our strength and makes us us.