The Untold Story of the Black Bear — Part Two

A black bear is hanging by its feet on a 1970s type hoist at a maintenace garage at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia. This black bear was shot by a man out of season in the fall of 1971 at Calvin Price State Forest which adjoins Watoga State Park.. Brothers Ronnie and Johnny Dean are crouched on each side of the bear which appears to weigh close to 500 pounds.. Bllood from the bear is dripping into a garage drain next to the brothers' shoes. Photographer: Unknown. Date: Circa 1971.
Brothers Ronnie and Johnny Dean crouched beside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Watoga State Park, circa 1971. | Photographer unknown.

Editor’s Note: The Department of Natural Resources advises all state forest and park visitors to NEVER approach wildlife in an attempt to touch it. The Department of Natural Resources protects the state’s wildlife so that all can enjoy their beauty in West Virginia.

The Black Bear’s Blood Drains Near Me

I noticed something bright red on my scuffed Converse tennis shoes. Equally important, the enormity of what loomed above quickly distracted me from the blood on those worn basketball shoes. This is the untold story of the black bear part two.

When I touched the black bear, its fur felt rough, like a worn dish rag. Looking up, I saw the hoist that held the animal aloft. As a matter of fact, the bear’s blood had emptied into the garage’s drain too.

“Who killed this bear, Dad?” Ronnie asks.

“A hunter.”

My dad was Vernon Dean (1912-2001). Moreover, he also served in various roles for 43 years at Watoga State Park, nestled in the panoramic mountains of Pocahontas County.

The Search for Answers About the Black Bear

Now, almost 50 years later, this is the never-before-published story of the black bear. First, who killed this bear? Second, why? Third, what happened? Fourth, how? Fifth, when did this occur? Sixth, where did this take place?

Recently, I rediscovered a photo of my brother, Ronnie, and I crouched next to this bear. Notice that neither of us is smiling in this photo. Likewise, this image stoked my need to know more – a journalistic skill fine-tuned as a reporter with The Register-Herald in the mid-1980s.

I could remember parts of that day, but I didn’t know the entire story.

“Humans can make mistakes; memories are notoriously faulty and humans are often biased,” Ken Springer wrote in an article detailing the origins of the name Watoga.

Besides not wanting to rely solely on my memory, I made calls, sent emails and spoke to friends and family members who may have remembered what had happened. As a result, I received some leads and helpful information, but not the “end” story. Also, was there even a story to tell here?

Digging deeper, I contacted Suzanne Stewart, staff writer at The Pocahontas Times, in Marlinton. Similarly, a search of the newspaper’s archives from 1970-79 for information about a bear being killed at the park came up empty. In fact, Bill McNeel, local historian and former editor at The Times, also did not recall a story being published about a Watoga bear death.

Undeterred, I kept searching for answers. Together with the memories of Richard and Jerry Dale, further details about the black bear emerge.

The Watoga State Park Superintendent and His Son

In 1971, Richard Dale was superintendent at Watoga and served in that role from 1966-75. Furthermore, Mr. Dale’s son, Jerry, grew up at Watoga during that time. Jerry is a former sheriff of Pocahontas County. In addition to being a therapist for Pocahontas County schools, Jerry teaches psychology and criminal justice courses as well at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.

Even now, at 94, Mr. Dale is sharp-witted and provides the final clues as to what most likely happened to that gigantic black bear.

The Untold Story of the Black Bear Unfolds

Many hunters camp at Beaver Creek Campground during small game season. Moreover, the 9,400+ acres of nearby Calvin Price State Forest provide hunting enthusiasts easy access to an abundance of squirrels, turkeys, deer, pheasants, and more.

In the early fall of 1971, two men pitch a tent at the rustic campground. Apparently, they begin bragging to other campers about killing a black bear. But, at this time of year, it was not bear season.

During this time, a concerned bystander at the rustic campground hear the man’s account about killing the black bear. Because of concerns that the bear may have been illegally killed, that person promptly reports it to park personnel.

“When we interviewed this guy, he was saying that the bear had attacked him and that’s why he killed it,” Mr. Dale says.

Upon learning of where the bear had been killed, Mr. Dale and a group of four men began the laborious trek to remove the black bear from deep within the adjoining state forest, off a trail at the end of the airstrip. The most likely participants were Mr. Dale, Henry Burr, park employee, Bull Poling, local game warden, and my dad.

The Black Bear — “Quite the Endeavor.”

“It was a huge bear. I am not sure of the exact weight,” Mr. Dale states.

First, a small tree was cut, and the bear’s front and back legs were tied to the ends of the hardwood. Then, with two men on either end, they were able to lift the bear onto their shoulders.

“Well, the first sapling that we cut — it broke because of the weight of the bear. So, we cut another, sturdier one. Getting the bear back to the park was a chore. Quite the endeavor.”

Second, walking a considerable distance, the men carry the bear to the maintenance garage near the assistant superintendent’s residence.

Third, a hoist-type system is used to lift the bear. Jerry Dale remembers that hoist well: “It’s nothing mechanical. Muscle power. Slow moving – a few inches at a time and foot-by-foot going up. You could then lift it up or lower it down. It was strong enough, say, to even lift an engine out of a ’57 Chevy. The hoist was tied to a big wooden beam that went across the garage.”

The Consequences of Killing a Black Bear

Mr. Dale adds: “The man told me he’d always wanted to kill a bear and that he wanted to keep the hide.” Not only is the man fined, but also he pays a replacement fee, Mr. Dale says. Additionally, no one interviewed could recall whether the bear was a boar or a sow, but gambling enthusiasts are placing odds that it was a boar based on the size of the bear in available photographs, most likely weighing in excess of 400 pounds.

“Entrance and exit wounds indicated that the black bear was running away,” Jerry notes. “The entry wound was at the back end of the bear and the exit path was on the bear’s front side. You don’t give anyone an incentive to do anything like this ever again.”

Vernon Dean "posing" with his personal weapon alongside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton, West Virginia, circa 1971 | Photographer unknown.
Vernon Dean “posing” with his personal weapon alongside a black bear killed at Calvin Price State Forest near Watoga State Park, Marlinton, West Virginia, circa 1971 | Photographer unknown.

The End of the Black Bear Story — For Now?

As a result of the unfortunate demise of this bear, I had a “hands-on” education about West Virginia’s state animal prior to the black bear’s official designation in 1973.

Finally, Part Three will be selected creative endings from readers to the untold story of this bear. Tune in.

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years from 1960-1976, until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at jcamerondean@gmail.com.

State of Watoga Park 2020

The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

For the uninitiated, the thought of managing a state park may conjure up visions of spending your days walking on wooded trails and talking to park visitors. The sort of job that many people would call a “dream” job. And to a certain extent, this was true at one time. But in today’s world, you would most likely find yourself behind a desk looking at a computer screen.

You would not have to spend much time at that dream job before realizing that running a park is not that different from running a resort, but with far fewer resources and a much smaller budget.

Successfully managing a large park today requires a whole new set of skills that was not necessary just a few decades ago.

The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

Watoga State Park has 35 cabins, two campgrounds, 50 miles of trail, roads, bridges, work vehicles, water and sewage treatment plants, swimming pool, lake, Recreation Hall and a whole host of other buildings.

All of this infrastructure must be maintained while at the same time providing the visitor with a quality experience; one that makes them want to return over and over.

In addition to the ability to manage employees effectively, today’s park superintendent must have considerable business acumen. Most parks, particularly state parks, have a limited amount of money in their annual budget and it must meet all of the infrastructure and labor needs discussed above.

In short, managing a park in this day and age requires a new breed of management. Jody Spencer, Superintendent of Watoga State Park, represents that new breed of manager.

Jody Spencer, Superintendent Watoga State Park

In a recent conversation with Jody, he explained to me that, “Few parks are actually designed to be self-sufficient, in part because the facilities are spread out over much greater distances than that found at typical resorts. And, unlike large resorts, we have a limited number of lodging and camping sites.”

“Some West Virginia parks”, he said, “have no means of generating revenue so they must be supported by the other parks that do generate revenue.”

Private resorts can afford to invest a good portion of their earnings back into their business. This is not so with West Virginia State Parks where earnings go into a state-wide fund that is then redistributed to all of the parks in the system, even the ones that do not generate revenue. Therein lies the challenge to the modern park superintendent.

In July of 2016, after 14 years as Superintendent of the Greenbrier River Trail, Jody was asked to take the helm of the very park where he had served his college internship, Watoga State Park.

During those years overseeing the Greenbrier River Trail, his office was located in the administration building at Watoga. Jody said that this arrangement afforded him, “An insider’s view of Watoga State Park.”

Unlike the Greenbrier River Trail, Watoga has cabins and campgrounds that bring in visitors expecting certain amenities and standards. And like all modern park managers, Jody takes in-service classes on hospitality right along with the mandated law enforcement training.

Shortly after Jody became superintendent an order went out to five state parks in West Virginia to close their swimming pools due to decreased use by park visitors and the resulting loss of revenue. Watoga was one of those parks.

Jody remembers a time when the pool was packed every day of the summer. He remembers it well because he had worked at the pool as a young man. The pool was a popular attraction at Watoga, and Jody knew that with some work it could be popular again, saying, “If you fix it, they will come.” The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

He appealed for and was granted a chance from his boss to draw those visitors back to Watoga. He asked for ideas from others, a hallmark of his management style, and one of the things that kept coming up was the legendary low temperatures of the water.

Jody knew that this could be remedied with solar panels, so with some help from the Watoga State Park Foundation, an array of panels was purchased and installed. The water is now much warmer and far less appealing to polar bears.

Adding to the improvements was the addition of Wi-Fi, sliding boards and snacks. The park naturalist, Chris Bartley, ran special pool events, bringing young swimmers in by the busload, literally.

Revenue from the pool increased within the first season proving something that Jody shared with me during our discussion, “It’s all about figuring out what the public wants and balancing that with the needs of the park.”

“I look at what makes the resorts that I take my family to successful,” said Jody. “People expect clean facilities; you don’t want to take a shower in a place that creeps you out.”

Improvements slated for 2020

Over the last two years, the shower houses at the Riverside Campground have been fully renovated, as well as major improvements made to the campsites. This year this same effort will be focused on the other side of the park at the Beaver Creek Campground. The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

A welcome infusion of money from oil and gas dollars was responsible for the remodeling of eight of the classic cabins. As well, 24 of the Legacy cabins are undergoing remodeling, including new heating/AC, and decks. All thanks to three million dollars of bond money that found its way to the park.

An added benefit is the opportunity for local contractors to perform the work of renovating the cabins.

As the park continues to be improved there is an increased number of paying visitors. More people are staying in the campgrounds and cabins and using the swimming pool. Plus, the new West Virginia State Park reservation system is making it much easier and more convenient for those wishing to make a reservation.

Gone are the bad old days when you had to send a postmarked application to the park. It had to arrive no earlier than February 15 to get a reservation to camp at the Riverside Campground for the calendar year ahead. Now you can make all camping and cabin reservations online with immediate confirmation. If you prefer calling, you may call the park call center or the park for reservations.

It was recently revealed that the swimming pool has not only been removed from the imminent closing list but will receive the largest upgrade since its original construction. “The swimming pool will be replaced with a new system within the next 18 months,” says Jody.

The swimming pool has deteriorated quite a bit since it was built by the CCC in the 1930s. It was recently examined by a state engineer who humorously commented that “The only thing that we can re-use is the hole in the ground.”

Accordingly, the plans include an entirely new pool structure with a maximum depth of five feet. Being considered is a “Zero-Depth Entry” such as that found at water parks. In other words, you enter the water on a gradual slope like you would at a beach.

This will provide a much safer entry to the pool, particularly for the young and those with physical limitations that would not allow a conventional ladder entry. The State of Watoga Park 2020 is strong!

“We are always looking for ways to make people linger,” says Jody. So he is looking into the installation of the popular splash pad for kids. A splash pad consists of a series of fountains arranged within a slightly concave textured concrete pad. Suffice it to say, youngsters love running around in a splash pad, confirming Jody’s assertion that with the right attractions people will linger.

Also slated for improvement are the 15 plus miles of road within the park. Watoga is on the 2020 list for resurfacing by the West Virginia Division of Highways.

Other projects on the horizon for Watoga include the Dark Sky designation. All outdoor lighting at Watoga will soon be fitted with proper shielding to attenuate artificial light as required for the designation. Further testing of the night sky will be conducted and plans are already underway for educational programs on astronomy for the public.

Plans are underway to expand the popular disc golf course; which may result in a single 18- hole course or two 9-hole courses located in different areas within the park.

The long-awaited bike trail is still in the planning stage and we hope to get moving on its construction soon. This will be a family-friendly mountain bike trail that will be located adjacent to the Ann Bailey Trail. Historic stops along the way will be the Workman Settlement Area and the Ann Bailey Tower.

With Jody’s business-minded approach to managing Watoga State Park, we can expect continued improvements to the park. Jody represents the very best of this new breed of park manager. And for the folks here in Pocahontas County who cherish Watoga State Park, we can be assured it will continue to be the largest and best park in West Virginia.

Jody can often be seen driving around the park checking up on projects and talking with employees and visitors alike. And every once in a while he is known to head out on one of Watoga’s trails. You can be sure that when he walks among the beauty of this park it reminds him of why he chose a career with West Virginia Parks.

From the mountain trails of Watoga State Park,

Ken Springer