We have a kids friendly swimming pool and great playgrounds. Paddle boats on the lake. Amazing mountaintop overlooks. Best soft serve ice cream in the universe at Jack Horner’s Corner in Seebert. Beautiful mountain valley around nearby Hillsboro, WV.
Experience Watoga’s old growth forest!
Watoga State Park is 10,000 acres. The southwestern section of the Park is unmaintained Wilderness. Hike the Burnside Ridge Trail to access this area. Allow yourself several hours to get out and back. Further south from this area is the Spice Run Wilderness Area of the Monongahela National Forest.
Talk about a park with views and news! Happy News Year from Watoga State Park. It’s going to be a memorable one here in this 10,000-acre magical forest.
You may be wondering why I wrote Happy “News” Year to start this blog. To begin with, it’s going to be a busy news year for Watoga State Park, dominated by the Dark Sky Project and synchronous fireflies. But rest assured that there will a variety of Watoga news in 2021.
Learning the Basics of Accurate and Factual Newswriting
But first, a little background about how I became interested in journalism and how I learned to write a news story.
At Pocahontas County High School (WV) in the 1970s, I was first introduced to newswriting by journalism teacher, Grace Jane Wigal. In those days before computers, spell checks, and print-on-demand technology, Mrs. Wigal expertly taught us how to put together the high school’s first-ever newspaper, the Smoke Signal—mostly by hand.
The newspaper staff conducted interviews utilizing the 5 W’s and H (who, what, when, where, why, and how), took their own photos, and watched as stories came to life on a Royal manual typewriter. Then the tedious process of carefully cutting (yeah, with scissors) from an 8-1/2” x 11” sheet of paper began. Next, we carefully glued those articles onto a layout template. After that, Mrs. Wigal sent those pages to the printer while we waited impatiently to see the end result.
Notably, Mrs. Wigal’s leadership and guidance in the 1970s and 1980s helped her students consistently produce award-winning newspapers and yearbooks. Furthermore, many newspaper and yearbook staff members won state and national journalism awards. Moreover, multiple students under Mrs. Wigal’s direction pursued degrees and careers in journalism, including me.
Above all, Mrs. Wigal taught us how critical it was to accurately report facts.
Newswriting Dreams: My Role Models, and Their Inspiration and Impact
After PCHS, in 1989, Mrs. Wigal earned a Doctor of Law degree (J.D.) from the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law. From 1989-1992, she practiced law with Steptoe and Johnson, a Clarksburg, West Virginia law firm. Later, Mrs. Wigal taught aspiring attorneys as a professor at the WVU College of Law, serving as Director of Academic Excellence, Director of Legal Research and Writing Program, and Director of Appellate Advocacy Program. She is a retired Teaching Professor Emerita.
Thank you, Mrs. Wigal. You will forever have a special place in my life, along with my Dad, for motivating me to pursue my newswriting dreams. Not only did she set the bar high for myself and others, but she also explained why. Years ago, she gave me permission to call her “Grace,” but she’s fondly known to me as Mrs. Wigal. However, she will always be THE TEACHER who inspired me to aim for more than what I thought I could accomplish.
And here’s a special thank you to Mr. William P. McNeel for the influence and impact you have had and still do in my writing and editing career. Mr. McNeel is an editor emeritus of the Pocahontas Times (WV). Additionally, he’s a well-respected historian and a board member of the Watoga State Park Foundation.
News You Can View at Watoga
Which brings me back to the topic at hand. For Watoga, 2021 could be one of the busiest news years ever for Watoga State Park. Here’s why:
Second, the discovery of synchronous fireflies at Watoga could mean more big “news” for you. Officials have confirmed the existence of this wondrous species in a location yet to be disclosed publicly. Additionally, the Dark Sky Project and those lightning bugs are intertwined. Likewise, I’ll explore why and how both of these impact Watoga and you in the near future.
Third, I’m also going to write about improvements at the park that will enhance your stay or visit.
Fourth, I’ll be penning a unique, two-part, Ten Best Things to Do at Watoga article.
Fifth, there will be personal anecdotes and adventures from visitors and myself while growing up at Watoga. For instance, there even may be some never-before-published news.
Happy News Year. Until next time, signing off from Watoga’s Wild, Wonderful World of dark skies and synchronous fireflies.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. He credits Mrs. Wigal for helping him earn a journalism degree with a focus on newswriting from WVU. John lived on-site at Watoga for 16 years. You can send your news tips to him at .
Christmas at Watoga State Park meant always receiving a special present from my Mom. I still cherish that gift all these years later.
Of course, the park unwrapped presents for me to enjoy year-round, especially at Christmas. Watoga appeared to hibernate, but it was alive with life. White-tailed deer still foraged for food in the snow-covered hillsides. Otter, fox, and racoon tracks could still be seen in the freshly fallen snow. The male and female cardinals still landed with ease in the nearby white oak trees.
While growing up at the state’s largest park, I loved all the seasons. Winter at Watoga arrived early, usually in late November, and it snowed a lot – like by the foot!
But first, a little background about my family.
In the 1930s, Dad and Granddad (Pap) were part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They helped with various projects at Watoga. A few months before the park opened in 1937, Dad wed my Mom, Devada Goldie Scott from nearby Lobelia.
Dad was promoted to maintenance foreman at Watoga in the spring of 1960, which meant on-site housing at the park. Dad, Mom and five of my siblings moved into a three-bedroom, one-bath cabin near the Beaver Creek Campground. Mom was pregnant with me.
Later that year, I was born — on Christmas night. For years, and even to this day, many people lament that I must not have received many birthday gifts. Although this may be true, I proudly tell them that I need neither Christmas nor birthday gifts. Soon, the reason why is explained.
Christmas at Watoga
Leading up to Christmas, my older brother, Ronnie, and I ventured to nearby hillsides to sleigh ride. We built many snowmen with rocks for eyes, large carrots for a nose, and a curved twig for a smile. Snowball fights lasting hours then ensued. Later, we ventured to nearby Calvin Price State Forest to be the architects of secret passageways in the snow drifts. When we returned home, four-foot icicle daggers frozen on our home’s gutters entranced us.
Coming in from the cold, we sat next to the warmth from dancing flames in the native stone fireplace. In the small kitchen, the aroma of Mom’s homemade hot chocolate wafted throughout. The smells, sights, and sounds of Christmas at Watoga filled the air.
And then came the day to select our Christmas tree. Dad would take Ronnie and I to Pap’s nearby farm. Each year, we took turns picking out the pine tree to grace our living room at the park.
By 1968, my “baby” sister, Vicki was five. She, Ronnie and I would decorate the tree. Mom had a collection of large ornaments with a family story behind each one. Regardless of the year, Mom always made homemade popcorn for us as we used needle and thread to string festive garlands around the tree. I usually ate more popcorn than what ended up on the tree.
Growing Up Poor
I did not realize it until my teenage years that we were poor.
Mom and Dad provided us with the necessities to survive. Dad used to say, “be thankful that you have a roof over your head, some food on the table, and clothes on your back.”
On Granddad’s nearby farm, Mom worked in the fields like a man, planting, hoeing, clearing rocks from the soil, and harvesting the fruits of that labor. Later, in the fall, colorful vegetables, juices and jellies in Mason jars lined the shelves in Grandma and Granddad’s cellar.
The Deans shared that bounty to get through the winter as a family. Mom always made sure that we had something to eat throughout the year.
In 1966, Mom joined the cabin cleaning crew at Watoga to help the family financially. Della, my older sister, watched me, Ronnie, and my younger sister, Vicki, while Mom worked. A warm evening meal as a family was never missed. Christmas at Watoga arrived in many splendid ways throughout the year.
A Christmas Story Like No Other
Every Christmas Eve though, Mom would tell me her Christmas Story at Watoga.
With Christmas just hours away, Mom would ask me to sit beside her on the couch. The fire’s embers still glowed. The 13-inch black and white TV had been turned off for the night.
“Johnny, when I was pregnant with you,” Mom began, “I had a craving for popcorn.”
During Mom’s pregnancy, she and my older brother, Gilbert, would eat bowl after bowl of popcorn. It had been perfected in a well-worn, time-scarred, aluminum clad kettle bearing black marks on its bottom. Gilbert was six.
On Christmas Day, Gilbert and Mom continued the popcorn tradition they both loved so much. Unbeknownst to either Gilbert or Mom, something got in the way of that day’s plans to eat more popcorn. It was me! Just as Mom and Gilbert savored a few bites out of that big ole bowl of warm popcorn, Mom’s labor pains began. And they would not stop.
Not known for his patience, Dad sprang into action. He quickly started the blue Chevy Impala to transport Mom to the hospital in Marlinton, 16 miles away. Before Mom left, she opened the screen door and glanced at Gilbert, who was still clutching that big bowl of popcorn.
“Mom, mom, here, want some more popcorn?” asked Gilbert.
After my birth, Mom never enjoyed popcorn the same way again like she had with Gilbert.
Every Christmas Eve, Mom always ended the story the same way.
“Johnny, you’re the best Christmas present I ever received. I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom. Merry Christmas.”
About the Author
John Dean is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist. He lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. You can contact John at
So with that in mind, we decided to feature fall’s parade of colors from this year and prior years. Nonetheless, Watoga is West Virginia’s largest recreation area at 10,100 acres. Since 2010, Watoga has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Moreover, it is located in scenic Pocahontas County in the Appalachian Mountains.
Indeed, There Were Star-Filled Nights and More
Specifically, from Watoga Lake to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower and beyond, our photographers captured images of what Watoga offers visitors in the fall. During late September through November, we experienced crisp mornings, sunny afternoons, and star-filled nights exploring Watoga’s vistas. Consequently, we hope that you will enjoy these photos of Watoga as much as we did taking them.
But, as each season fades and a new one begins, we will publish even more sights and sounds of Watoga from photographers and videographers. Also, for information about submitting your photos and videos of Watoga State Park for use in a future pictorial, please email .
As 18-year-olds, Judy and Ken Caplinger, II began a 45-year journey of making memories together at Watoga State Park. That first stop: Staying in the aptly named Honeymoon Cabin at West Virginia’s largest state park. This is Part 2.
The Caplingers spent time after their wedding at Cabin 34 in the Pine Run Cabin Area. Like so many couples before and after them, in a dining table pullout drawer, the newly married teenagers inscribed “Kenny and Judy Caplinger, May 19, 1975”.
In Part One, Caplinger explained how he spent some of his “coming of age” years at the park. In the 1960s, Caplinger’s dad, Ken, was assistant superintendent. He also touched on his time in the same role as his dad from 1979 to 1984. Watoga is nestled in mountainous terrain near Seebert in Pocahontas County.
The Next Chapter of the Caplingers Making Memories at Watoga State Park
Coincidentally, just four years later, the couple began another journey making additional memories at Watoga.
Now, the Caplingers are revealing what it was like as a young couple beginning their lives together at Watoga.
“It not only was a park I lived in as a child, but it is also where Judy and I got our start as a team/couple working/living in the park system,” said Caplinger.
Judy said she was excited and enthusiastic. “It seemed like a great adventure.” Her first impressions? “How appreciative I was for the welcome we received from employees, their families, and all the local folks,” she said.
Caplinger said that once they moved into the assistant superintendent’s residence, a new journey had begun.
“We both had officially embarked on the next chapter of our young lives.”
Ken Caplinger, II
Soon the two began writing that first chapter together at Watoga. For fun, they enjoyed swimming at the pool, and playing softball games in the summer with park visitors and staff at the airstrip. Judy’s hobbies included cross-stitching, biking and cooking. Her husband enjoyed hunting, fishing, weightlifting, and running.
Moreover, Caplinger stated that Judy “has a great singing voice, but is too shy to often reveal it. Back in the day, when she would occasionally sing in karaoke venues, she sounded a lot like Patty Loveless, the well-known country music star.”
Transforming Challenges and Obstacles into Memories
Judy’s biggest challenge at Watoga was adjusting to the park’s remote nature and the distance required to travel to obtain basic necessities. Her favorite times and places were “family get-togethers at the park, gathering at the swimming pool, hiking, and Cabin 34, of course.”
Along the way, the Caplingers made lifelong friends, became immersed in the park’s natural beauties, and enjoyed a plethora of Watoga’s activities for five years. While this sounds idyllic, there were adjustments and obstacles to overcome as young parents.
When the Caplingers moved to Watoga in 1979, their son Kenneth Caplinger, III (fondly called KC) was a toddler. Living there had its happy moments, but it also presented challenges as well. Thus begins the story of how the Caplingers make memories at Watoga as a family.
In 1977, while the family lived in Morgantown, doctors diagnosed KC with Kawasaki disease and he barely survived. Even after moving to Watoga, they had to deal with KC’s residual coronary artery damage. Additionally, they traveled several hours one way to West Virginia University Medical Center (now J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital) for KC’s appointments.
But in 1981 when KC was five, they received an unforgettable phone call from that medical facility.
“We were told that KC had finally recovered enough from the damage done by Kawasaki disease,” Caplinger said, “and that he could go off medications and should be able to live a more normal life.”
KC, now 44, is doing just that. He’s a successful businessman who owns an insurance agency in the greater Nashville, Tennessee area.
They Loved Watoga So Much That . . .
When the couple returned to Watoga earlier this year, the Caplingers said they had a “main and recurring conversation about their five years at Watoga.
“Our time at Watoga was among the happiest and most satisfying of our entire lives due to the beautiful park we had the good fortune to live in,” Caplinger said. “The great local folks and park workers welcomed us with open arms, and there were great friendships we developed with superintendent Craig Ackerman and his wife Cindy as well as with conservation officer Dick Morris, his wife Pam and their kids Sam and David who lived next door to us.”
So, what would be the couple’s advice to making memories to first-time park visitors?
“Hike the trails. Make sure you go to the Ann Bailey Lookout Tower. Use the swimming pool. Go explore a bit along the Greenbrier River. Fish the Greenbrier, Watoga Lake, and Laurel Run.”
Nevertheless, the Caplingers echoed a commonly heard sentiment from former park personnel. “We loved Watoga so much we really would have liked to remain there longer.”
Many still do . . .
After Watoga, Caplinger culminated a 35-year career with West Virginia’s state parks system by serving as its parks chief. He retired in 2013. Currently, Judy is Director of Office Operations for a home furniture company.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a former journalist, also grew up at Watoga. Caplinger was John’s supervisor in 1979 at Watoga. From 1962-1964, the Caplingers lived next door to the Dean family at the park. John is a legal editor and writer. He can be reached at .
Long before Ken Caplinger, II reached a career pinnacle as West Virginia’s parks chief, he had his coming of age at Watoga State Park. This is Part One.
During the early 1960s, Ken, Sr. and his wife, Doris, lived next door to my family from 1962-1964. Accompanying them were their four children – Ken II, Dave, Kaye, and Sue. The siblings’ sister Carol already had become independent and brother Mike was not born yet.
When the family moved to Watoga from Babcock State Park, Caplinger was six. At Watoga, his dad was assistant superintendent and Herb Robinson was superintendent. Caplinger’s dad spent 20 years at various parks including Blackwater Falls, Cass Scenic Railroad and Babcock.
So when a young Caplinger grew up at Watoga, he and his dad often fished together at the lake.
“Dad taught me how to fish there in a rowboat,” said Caplinger. “He used to laugh about me hooking him in the lip with a big hook with a nightcrawler on it during one of our first fishing excursions on the lake.”
Caplinger’s Coming of Age at Watoga Using Education, Inspiration and Dedication
Caplinger’s first full-time job: A maintenance worker at Blackwater Falls State Park. Prior to that, he worked seasonally as a desk clerk, recreation attendant, campground attendant, and maintenance worker. Starting his management career, Caplinger spent five years as Watoga’s assistant superintendent. After Watoga, he moved to Pipestem State Park and was its assistant superintendent for two years and its superintendent for six years.
“Dad inspired an understanding of state parks as a legacy held in trust for future generations. Keith Simmons, Blackwater Falls Assistant Superintendent provided me with great examples of how to be businesslike and focused on goals. Henry Burr at Watoga taught me a lot of park maintenance skills and how to lead by example in tackling any challenge ‘hands on’ instead of relying on others to do all the hard work.”
Moreover, Caplinger said he grasped how important education, inspiration and dedication were from his “heroes.”
Sage Advice About Coming of Age
Caplinger’s dad reinforced that “you are just a part of something greater than yourself.”
Keith Simmons advised him to “avoid drama and just do your job.”
Henry Burr recommended that “if something works, give others credit for it. If it fails, be prepared to take responsibility yourself.”
A Slippin’ and a Slidin’ at Watoga Lake
Furthermore, Caplinger recalled a memorable experience that occurred when he received that first park assignment in 1979 at Watoga.
In fact, that residence at the park as a child growing up later became his and wife Judy’s home.
“About a year after I was hired as assistant superintendent, I finally got a box delivered to the house with my ‘official’ full superintendent’s unform,” Caplinger recalled. “I excitedly put it on and drove over to the lake to check the licenses of the many trout fishermen at the base of the dam. And I took one step down the hill and slipped and slid all the way on my back into the water between two fishermen who looked down and asked, ‘want to check our licenses?’ I said ‘No.’”
Coming of Age Sometimes Means Turning Lemons into Lemonade at Watoga
After that humorous misstep at Watoga, Caplinger, however, had more serious hurdles to overcome.
One such obstacle included “dealing with an extremely limited budget compared to the magnitude and size of the park and its extensive infrastructure,” he said. “I recall especially one year when we were only provided $2,000 for building repairs/alterations in a park with almost 60 structures of various types.”
As an assistant superintendent, Caplinger oversaw nine full-time staff, a dozen summer employees and eight seasonal housekeepers.
But overcoming obstacles also led to coming-of-age accomplishments while at Watoga for Caplinger.
“One such success was working with Superintendent Craig Ackerman (now Superintendent at Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon), Henry Burr and the maintenance crew of Dale, Tom, Wayne, Basil and Letch Pyles, and Charlie McComb to re-roof, paint, and do interior renovations on all 34 cabins over several years and with very little budget. It was done by hard work and ‘elbow grease’ and dedication from all of the named individuals.”
And this is just another example of Caplinger’s coming of age at Watoga that assisted in his career development. With 35 years experience in hands-on and management roles, Caplinger has seen a little bit of everything. However, specifically, what would he tell future assistant superintendents/superintendents at Watoga?
“Make sure you enjoy and remember every day at one of the greatest state parks in the U.S.A. Embrace and get to know the great people in the local community and make them your friends. Go talk to Henry Burr regularly and use his advice.”
Watoga: Then and Now
When Caplinger returned to Watoga with Judy earlier this year, he did notice a couple differences from 1979 and today.
“All the great intrinsic values remain the same. But the cabins and other infrastructure are in even better condition now due to the park system having had more fiscal resources for repair/renovation,” he said. “Also, the forest was impressive and looking mature even when we were there. But it has gotten even more impressive and wonderful in the 35-40 years since we were there.”
Would that be a coming of age at Watoga?
Watoga Through Caplinger’s Eyes
While at Watoga earlier this year, Caplinger had a few observations.
“I would like to see the Arboretum somewhat restored/improved. We need to be vigilant and active in preventing resource exploitation such as the park logging initiative of two years ago. I see Watoga’s core value of nature and the great outdoors always being its biggest and most valuable attraction.
“Looking ahead, how about a 100th anniversary to be held in 2037 to celebrate the park’s opening in 1937?”
Furthermore, Caplinger stated that it would be nice to commemorate Watoga’s past, long-time workers.
“For example, maybe something like the ‘Gaylor Recreation Center,’ the ‘Henry Burr Picnic Shelter’ and the ‘Vernon Dean Trail.’ Honor them somehow for their lifetimes of service,” Caplinger suggested.
To explain, the Gaylor sisters (Nettie and Lillie Mae) lived on Chicken House Run Road that borders the park. They were decades-long cabin cleaners. Likewise, Henry Burr devoted 54 years of service to Watoga. Vernon Dean is my dad. He worked at the park for more than four decades. And like Caplinger, I also had coming of age moments at Watoga.
Caplinger was deputy parks chief from 1991-2006. Then he served for seven years as West Virginia’s parks chief overseeing 35 state parks, recreational use management of seven state forests, five wildlife areas, and two rail trails before retiring. He stays involved with park initiatives as an at-large board member of the West Virginia State Parks Foundation.
Now, Caplinger spends time with his three grandsons. He goes golfing, works on cars and home improvements, and creates artwork with an emphasis on wildlife subjects.
Next up: What was life like during the Caplingers’ five-year stay at Watoga in the late 1970s and early 1980s? Tune in then.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a former journalist. Currently, he is a writer and legal editor. He can be reached at .
. . . The more things change the more they stay the same The same sunrise, it’s just another day If you hang in long enough they say you’re comin’ back Just take a look, we’re living proof and baby that’s a fact . . .
Earlier this month, I came back to where I grew up for more 6,000 wondrous, fun-filled days of my life.
Getting Much-Needed Watoga Hugs
As I drove past the historic swimming pool where I once worked, Watoga accepted me with open arms, reminding me to inhale the exotic mountain air frequently. Unbeknownst to most of the world, Watoga is unique in many ways — its pristine wilderness first and foremost. It stays the same. I love that fact.
Near and dear to my heart are my Watoga friends, co-workers, and the local mountain folks. I grew up with them. I am one of them. They are kind, community-minded and would give you the shirt off their backs.
But in early October, I came home and stayed at Cabin 11 — marvelously restored and updated in the Island Lick Cabin area. On several occasions, I admired the handicraft and attention to detail in the two-bedroom rustic log cabin.
To begin with, Jack and Max, my two, seven-year-old labs, excitedly conquered the 15-step uphill climb to our encampment in a matter of seconds. Their sense of smell went into overdrive for several days.
While at Watoga, a friend told me that coming back “must be like a nostalgia tour.” And it was. Importantly though, I made new memories. Fresh mountain air intoxicated my senses once again. Nostalgic moments with breathtaking views unfurled before my eyes. In essence, those precious scenes are now indelibly etched in my mind.
There’s just something about Watoga that reinvigorates my inner being. After years of rush hour traffic and corporate deadlines, grasping nature’s artwork is the ultimate stress reliever. You see, Watoga’s magic never seems to transform itself into anything other than what is painted so perfectly. This vast paradise was and still is my home.
It’s a mesmerizing place. “The more things change . . .”
Meanwhile, on our first morning leaving Cabin 11, a westerly breeze rustled through the trees as Jack, Max and I trekked along a freshly cleared Bear Pen Trail. Among the century-old stands of birch, maple and oak, we stopped and listened to the familiar call of whippoorwills and the steady drumbeat of woodpeckers. Nearby, a gentle mountain stream flowed ever so softly. The harmony of other songbirds spoke to me in a classic Watoga-style melody.
Yet, when those tell-tale sounds of nature stopped, the tranquility of quietness took over. Some who are used to the constant humming of traffic and music may find this unnerving. However, I savor the stillness. This is the never-changing wilderness that always welcomes me with open arms. After all, Watoga is like Christmas morning as I open thousands of its gifts with childlike excitement. And therefore, at Watoga, I know that “the more things change the more they stay the same.”
As a youngster and teenager, every spring, summer, fall or winter, blooming rhododendron, billions of dazzling stars, spectacular sunsets, a fall tapestry of red, yellow and orange leaves, fresh fallen, pure-white snow greeted me in brilliant fashion. Obviously, Watoga is unique in its own spectacular manner. Once you visit or live there as I did for more than 16 years, this park tugs at your heartstrings, calling your name to return.
Watoga Didn’t Change. I Did.
Now, on this memorable reunion tour, Watoga blessed me with several stunning vistas, unfolding in picturesque format. I am ecstatic to report that those vivid scenes stay the same no matter what else changes. I think Ansel Adams would agree.
As I walked throughout various areas of the park, a multitude of improvements to the cabins, the trails, signage, the administration building were clearly noticeable. However, Watoga’s backdrop of natural beauty has not changed. The more things change . . .
Watoga aged gracefully all these decades while I was elsewhere in America. She withstood the brunt of Mother Nature’s forces. Still today, Watoga continues to sing her melodies and bless us with her plethora of natural wonders — some new and some old.
In any event, Watoga didn’t change. I did.
The Stories Still to Come . . .
Nestled near a brook flowing to the 11-acre Watoga Lake is Kermit McKeever‘s bench. Jack, Max and I took a few minutes to pay tribute to “Mac” who helped my dad further his career at Watoga. They were good friends working together tirelessly during Watoga’s infancy in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Oh, the stories yet to be told!
Mr. McKeever was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948. He is commonly known as the father of West Virginia’s network of state parks. Many parks came to fruition under his leadership from 1948-1979.
On this occasion, I wondered how ecstatic the legendary Mr. McKeever and dad would be about today’s Watoga. Of course, as long as I can, I am determined to continue their love affair with Watoga.
In any event, take a few minutes to sit on any of the park benches strategically located throughout the park. Visualize what is before you — 10,100 acres of pristine magnificence and dreams yet to be realized.
Watoga, I Love You! See You Soon!
Then, before I am even a whisper in Watoga’s wind, I visualize my next encounter with my forever Wild and Wonderful Watoga State Park. Leaving on that melancholy fall day, I glanced into my car’s rear-view mirror. Cabin 1 was quickly fading into a symphony of colors. I slowed down instinctively. To my left, rays of light glistened off the Greenbrier River.
Then as if on cue, the lyrics to “The More Things Change” started playing again. Jack and Max leaned their heads out the rolled down windows, their noses twitching. I couldn’t resist but yell “Watoga, I love you! See you soon!”
Benches honoring two former superintendents were installed in June as part of the Watoga State Park Bench Project. Both are situated near the statue honoring the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with a nearby small stream flowing gently to Watoga Lake. In the background is the park’s administration building.
Bench for Kermit McKeever
Kermit McKeever (1910-1995), oftentimes referred to as the “father of West Virginia’s modern state park system,” was Watoga’s superintendent from 1944-1948.
For the next 31 years, McKeever was the state’s Parks Director. Furthermore, he was instrumental in expanding the number of parks from 14 to 34. During that time, 100 vacation cabins and nine lodges were built, golf courses and ski slopes were created, naturalist programs were established, and crucial infrastructure such as roads, bridges and utilities were completed. McKeever Lodge at Pipestem State Park is named in his honor.
“All of my family are very appreciative of the bench and also where it’s located,” said Charlotte McKeever Emswiler, McKeever’s daughter. “I think that’s because it was one of the parks built by the CCC.”
Kermit and Arenna McKeever’s bench was donated by Emswiler and her daughters, Jacqueline Hersch, Vicki Evans and Jennifer Abbott.
Bench for Richard Dale
Richard Dale, who turns 95 this month, devoted 32 years of service to other parks within the state including Audra, Cass, Cedar Creek, Holly River, Prickett’s Fork, and Watoga. Likewise, he was the superintendent at Watoga from 1966-1975.
“I’ve been blessed with a lot more than I deserve,” Dale told The Pocahontas Times, “and I’m thankful every day. I asked the Lord to make me a kind person.”
Mr. Dale’s bench was donated by Jim and Judy Meads of Glenville. In 1967 and 1968, Mead was the park’s naturalist. Thus, the Meads began a friendship that has lasted more than 50 years.
“We setup our camper beside the Beaver Creek Campground’s bath house and lived there for a couple of weeks,” said Meads in a May 2019 article detailing his adventures as Watoga’s park naturalist in 1967 and 1968. “Mr. Dale realized our accommodations were a little cramped and asked if we would like to move to a large room over the restaurant in the Administration Building, which was built in the mid 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp.”
Due to Covid-19, the dedication ceremonies for the Dale and McKeever benches have been postponed until 2021, according to Mac Gray, Watoga State Park Foundation Treasurer.
Plan Your Watoga State Park Bench Now
Want your own bench when you visit Watoga? Whether it’s to remember a loved one or to mark your favorite spot at the state’s largest and oldest park, our professional crew can assist you. And with more than 10,000 acres of pristine wilderness, Watoga has ample room for your bench.
Significantly, the Watoga State Park Bench Project has completed the installation of 31 benches throughout the park’s 10,000 acres – 28 donated by park supporters. Further, three others have been provided by the Foundation.
Click here for more information about the Watoga State Park Bench Project.
Future Blogs About the Dales and the McKeevers
In the meantime, we will be writing more about Richard Dale’s and Kermit McKeever’s time at Watoga, including never-before-revealed details. Stay tuned.
About the Author
John C. Dean, a former journalist, lived at Watoga in the 1960s and 1970s. His dad, Vernon C., worked with Richard Dale and Kermit McKeever. More than 75 years later, the Dale, Dean and McKeever families remain friends.
Reminiscing has a way of putting things into perspective, especially during a pandemic.
With the pool closed and Labor Day in the rearview mirror, it’s time for our readers’ perspective of their times at Watoga State Park.
Where do I start? Watoga was my adolescence. It’s the place a significant number of my memories begin and where I grew up.
The pool was my place of refuge where I went to get away. We would either walk ourselves or bum a ride to make it there, but we made sure to get there every day before it opened and stayed until closing. We would gather together to round up our money to make sure we had enough to get in and some extra money for the vending machines.
As kids we always found ways to make the day even more exciting than the day before. Back then, the pool didn’t have the solar panels to warm it, so the water was always freezing. But that didn’t matter to us. We made a game of who would jump in first and who would be the first to chicken out.
Spending Everyday There
We spent every day of our childhood there. Even when it was raining and storming we still went; it didn’t matter to us if we weren’t allowed to swim. It gave us an excuse to hang out in the Rec Room and play numerous games of life and listen to the “Funky Cold Medina” or “Wild Thing” over and over on the old jukebox.
Every day brought a new adventure and every day we became avid swimmers. We learned to hold our breath longer and swim a little harder which was a great accomplishment as a child. Even when my best friend passed away during my 8th grade year of middle school, and we all grew up and went our own ways, the memories we made at Watoga will always hold a special place in my heart. And the stories I can tell will always keep those memories alive. So, it’s the place we created relationships of best friends and grew as children.
Alyssa Hall, 1997-2003
Reminiscing as a Former Employee
If you look at the window on the second story of the building [at the swimming pool], you’ll notice it has a curtain in it. That section of the building was actually a dormitory for the male summer workers at Watoga. The lifeguards and utility workers were housed there.
Moreover, I spent two wonderful summers there in the early 60s. What fun we had. The female workers were quartered over the dining room in the Administration Building. They were waitresses in the dining room. About 10 total summer employees. Great group. Fun times.
Gary Mitchell Hershman
Reminiscing About What Watoga Offers
Love, love Watoga! Beautiful place to spend time. So peaceful and lots of wildlife.
Recalling the Cold
When mom asked if we were cold [after swimming], we always said, “No,” through chattering teeth!
Mary Beth Norman
Every 4th of July swimming in that cold, cold swimming pool and the best ever picnic with juicy watermelon as desert! Fond memories.
Judy Brown Cooksey
Refreshing! Not Cold!
I worked there in 1957 through the early 60s. I don’t remember the water being that cold. We were there most days between serving lunch and dinner. I know we sunbathed, but I just don’t remember the issue being that the water was too cold. Those were wonderful times. I lived at home and went to college so Watoga was my coming of age time.
I worked at Watoga 1956 thru 1959 and also lived at Watoga as a child while my father was superintendent so I am very familiar with the Watoga pool. I called it refreshing.
Charlotte McKeever Emswiler
Cabin 20 Reminiscing
My family rented the cabin next door years ago. Great vacation. We went several times.
Talk About Something “Near and Dear to my Heart”
I lived there for one summer, either 1984 or 1985. Two college students lived over the pool building, and every Wednesday night was poker night. Me and two other girls lived over top of the restaurant, and worked there during the day. So Watoga was ours for one summer. Best summer ever! Lots of great memories.
That summer was the year of my first job, my first apartment on my own. . . . I was so young, 19, with all my life ahead of me. I explored every inch of that park and hiked every trail that summer, but you could usually find me floating in the lake on a paddle boat, reading a book.
Later, I would bring all my children back to that park, and all of them learned to swim in that pool.
So Watoga State Park, has always been near and dear to my heart. My children grew up visiting this beautiful place. Listening to me tell them all about nature, the trails, the CCC camp builders. We all love this park!
Cherie Williams Hall
Hark Back to the Future?
Like going back in time.
About the Author
John C. Dean is a former journalist who grew up at Watoga State Park. His father, Vernon, worked at Watoga for 43 years. John is a freelance editor and can be reached at .
Watoga dark sky good for bats. Cindy Sandeno, District Ranger of the Marlinton/White Sulphur Springs Ranger District, visited Watoga State Park this past Saturday evening to teach an assembled group of campers, park employees and other interested parties why we need bats, and why they now need us. Sandeno discussed light pollution and how bats and humans can benefit by installing downlight fixtures.
Cindy, whose background includes managing regionally threatened, endangered, and sensitive species for the Forest Service spoke about the diminishing population of bats throughout the country and the profound effects that spell for the environment and agriculture.
It’s a thankless job being a bat when you consider that most people still regard them as they did in the Middle Ages; as vermin of the night whose only purpose is to spread disease and worse. Many associate bats with witches and vampires, and as creepy creatures who enjoy becoming entangled in our hair – not a problem for me, of course.
In truth, bats are pollinators, they are distributors of seeds, and they are estimated to save $3.7 to $53 billion dollars per year as non-toxic pest control agents. And, if you take the time to learn about bats, you will learn that they are wonderful parents of their young and, all in all, bats are quite cute.
Many bat species are threatened by diseases such as White Nose Syndrome that is responsible for the death of 5.7 million bats since 2006. On top of that, much of their habitat is at threat due to light pollution. Watoga State Park is a candidate Dark Sky Park and is a favorable bat habitat.
But you can help save these beneficial critters just educating yourself, friends, and family members about bats. Bat Week is designated from October 24th to the 31st every year.
I was definitely motivated by Cindy’s presentation; so much so that I decided to build a bat house.
For more than seven decades, the Botts have stayed in various cabins at Watoga State Park. The family fished, swam, hiked, and rode horses at the stables. This is Rachelle Bott Beckner’s memories about growing up spending summer vacations at Watoga.
Cabins Have Personality Too
It’s difficult to choose my favorite cabin at Watoga State Park. I think, over the years, we’ve stayed at nearly all of them. In particular, I have fond memories in Cabins 2 (River Cabin Area), 3 (Island Lick Cabin Area), 14 (Bucks Run Cabin Area), 20 (next door to the swimming pool) and 21 (Pine Run Cabin Area).
Of course, the years that Grandma and Grandpa Bott (who started this tradition when my father, David Bott, was a child) stayed at Cabin 20 were great. We would visit the pool daily and Grandma would give us money to buy treats from the vending machines inside the pool.
I loved Cabin 14 because my sister, Sara, and I would fly down the driveway on our bikes and ride down the hill with no hands until we reached the commissary. We’d visit the commissary nightly after dinner to buy an ice cream treat.
Finding Hidden Artwork in Wood Knots
Perhaps some of my favorite memories, though, are from Cabin 3, which was large enough to hold the extended family. Both of my aunts, Barbara Bott Joseph and Flora Jane Bott, would stay with us with their spouses or significant others. My sister and I would share a room. Some of our favorite pastimes were laying in our beds and finding pictures and stories in the wood knots in the paneling. I remember laying in bed one afternoon for an hour or more and my grandmother became worried what we were up to because we were so quiet. She expected some mischievous act, but we were just using our imaginations to find art in the walls.
Our family was devastated when it burned down one year and we couldn’t stay there again. Cabin 3 had the space to accommodate the extended family.
One year, there was a mix-up with the reservations in the office and we all had to stay in Cabin 14. The office gave us cots to use for everyone to sleep there. Sara and I were kids at the time so it didn’t bother us and we wouldn’t have thought anything about having nine people stuffed into a cabin built for four. As an adult, I can’t imagine how everyone survived that week.
Watoga is Near and Dear to Our Hearts
Growing up, my grandparents were mine and my sister’s best friends. I’m not gonna lie. We were spoiled. We were the only grandchildren at that time on my father’s side of the family. I was the first grandbaby on both sides of the family. We could do no wrong in my grandmother’s eyes. We loved to spend Friday nights at their house, so a week at Watoga was like a weeklong sleepover. We’d stay up late and build fires, roasting marshmallows. A running family joke we have is the year it was too hot to build a fire in the cabin, but my mother did anyway. She built a scorcher of a fire and roasted my grandfather out of the house. He stood on the porch until it died down.
Creating a Lifetime of Memories with the Gift of Watoga
For all of the Botts, but especially me and my sister, Watoga holds a lifetime of memories. We will cherish our memories forever because they remind us of our grandparents.
Their love for us was shown by giving us the gift of Watoga and the beauty of West Virginia. During the week, Grandpa would take us down to the Greenbrier River across from Cabin 1 and teach us how to skip rocks. Sometimes, we’d drive down to Seebert to the little convenience store there. What’s more, on every trip, Grandpa would make his classic Dad joke and ask us if we knew where Seebert got its name. “There was a man named, Bert,” he said, “and he’d wandered off. The townspeople started asking, did you see Bert?” Thus, the town became named Seebert.
Grandpa wanted us to know our state and appreciate nature. Of course, he’d take us on hikes around the lake and sometimes the whole family would go on the planned nature hikes on one of the many trails in the park. One year, most of the family (not my grandmother or mom) took a night hike with the park ranger.
The Allure of Watoga
During the day, we’d swim at the pool or go horseback riding at the stables. We’d stay at Pine Run when we were preteens. Grandma would bring her jar of quarters she saved all year for us to use at the rec center near the pool. We’d walk the trail from Pine Run around the lake and to the rec center, where we’d spend our quarters on the jukebox, arcade games and rounds of ping pong.
Later in the evening, the entire family would visit the rec center for the family movie night, which was usually Woodsy the Owl or Smokey the Bear. In particular, it didn’t matter how many times we had watched the films at Watoga or the nearby Cranberry Glades; it was so familiar to us it felt like home. We’d sing along with the song, “Give a hoot—don’t pollute!”
In the evenings, we’d go down to the lake at dusk to catch a few more bluegills with our trusty crickets for bait. Later, we’d drive through the park spotting deer. When we returned to the cabin, we’d wait and watch for the raccoons to come out.
Watoga—A Most Precious Gem
In this slower quarantine time, your mind can easily float back to the slower days at Watoga, which weren’t so rare then. In today’s crazy-paced, high-tech life, the real beauty that Watoga offers families is a rare opportunity to unplug; to take a deep breath and smell the pine trees; to switch off the phones and TVs and cut a switch off a bush to roast marshmallows; to find yourself and connect with your family and one of the state’s most precious gems.
Generations of the Bott family have enjoyed the quiet reprieve of Watoga. Without doubt, it is important to me for that tradition to carry on, which is why when my girls were infants we stayed at Cabin 20 for a week. Like me, they were bathed in the kitchen sink. Like me, they swam in the freezing waters of Watoga pool. Like me, Belle and Lilly fished with crickets to catch bluegills from Watoga Lake.
Now, our family has a cabin near Green Bank and the family cabin has become our home away from home. In fact, it’s Watoga that was the impetus for my grandparents to build our family cabin. It’s Watoga that the Botts have to thank for a love of nature, the state and her people.
In conclusion, I invite all West Virginians to reconnect with their families and rediscover all that Watoga has to offer. You won’t be sorry you did.
About the Author
Rachelle is a West Virginia native and former journalist. She now lives in Clemson, S.C., with husband, Andrew, daughters, Belle and Lilly, and their dog, Whittaker. Rachelle works with Tigers United, which is dedicated to preserving natural habitat around the world to save wild tigers.