Opening a Can of Black Snakes at Watoga — Hiss!

You may be familiar with the idiom “opening a can of worms,” but what about “opening a can of black snakes”?

Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin
Profile of the head of a black snake, Durham County, North Carolina. | 📸: Patrick Coin

In fact, this is the story about a can of black snakes rearing their heads and hissing!

For reptile lovers, copperheads, rattlesnakes and black snakes can be found at Watoga State Park. However, this post concentrates on just one species: the seemingly harmless black snake — the Northern black racer: (Coluber c. constrictor).

“This snake is slender, glossy black in color and may attain a length of six feet. The dorsal scales are smooth and the chin and throat are white. Black Racers occur throughout the state in moist woodlands and fields, where they feed on birds and mammals, as well as amphibians and reptiles. Approximately 25 off-white, elliptical eggs are deposited in loose soil or sawdust piles. Hatchlings have 30 or more reddish brown blotches on a gray background. The banded juvenile pattern slowly disappears as the snake grows larger, and the snake is completely black by the time it reaches 30 inches in length.”

Snakes of West Virginia,” published by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, Wildlife Resources Section.


So, do snakes scare you too?

Before opening that can of black snakes, let me confess that snakes scare me! All snakes. This phobia is known as Ophidiophobia, or ophiophobia. Furthermore, I don’t care if they are venomous or not. For example, just researching and reading a blog post about snakes at West Virginia‘s largest state park creeps me out. Maybe you have nightmares about these reptilians too. In that regard, a future blog will delve into the vivid details of how I became so terrified of snakes.

Let’s Talk About This Can of Black Snakes

Now that you know one of my greatest fears in life, let’s begin to open (ever so carefully) that can of black snakes.

The year: 1963. The place: Near Beaver Creek Campground. The participants: My brother, Gilbert, my sister, Della, and my mom. Gilbert is 9. Della is almost a teenager. Mom is pregnant with my youngest sister, Vicki Lynn.

However, I am just a toddler in the early 60s, Freckles, our pet deer has yet to be rescued by my dad, and the black bear with Paul McCartney eyes has yet to be seen near Calvin Price State Forest.

To begin with, my brother Gilbert is behind the adventurous and daring display that leads to those snakes becoming the topic of Dean conversations for decades to come. When snowstorms knock out our electricity for days on end at the park, we sometimes tell ghost stories and, of course, this snake story too, as we sit huddled together with kerosene lanterns casting an eerie glow about the living room at Watoga.

I recall mom (1921-1998) telling us about Gilbert’s antics, but I wanted to hear Gilbert’s and Della’s versions of those events once more.

The Black Snakes are Hissing

“C’mon mom, I wanna show you something,” Gilbert says.

Even though mom is tired after a day of working in the fields at my grandparents’ 211-acre farm that borders Watoga, she follows Gib that hot summer day at the park. Della, 12, walks beside mom.

At 9, Gib is excited to reveal his “surprise” to Mom. As with most Deans, adventures at Watoga oftentimes lead to interesting and mischievous adventures and practical jokes.

The trio walk to the trash cans situated between our home and the brown wooden sided maintenance garage near the campground.

“Look, Mom, look what I found!” Gilbert excitedly says. “Look inside the garbage can.”

Opening the shiny metal lid, Mom sees about 20 black snakes of various sizes and shapes encircling the bottom of the 30-gallon trash container trying to slither their way to the top of the can.

“The black snakes are all curled up. They are trying to climb up the side of the garbage can. Their heads rear, their mouths open, and they hiss loudly.”

— Della Dean Johnson

A New Version of Afternoon Sickness

After peering inside the trash receptacle, Mom lets out a scream that can be heard as far away as Kennison Mountain, about 16 miles from the park.

Obviously, Mom is not a fan of snakes either.

“Git rid of those snakes right now, right away,” she sternly tells Gib. Della remembers that Mom got sick after seeing the snakes, and it is not your typical morning sickness either. So, instead, a new version of afternoon sickness is unleashed that day.

A Few Slithery Details

A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan
A curling black snake on a fall day at Cacapon State Park, Berkeley Springs, West Viriginia. | 📸: @clark.stan

So, just how do those reptiles get in the trash can?

Gib discovers a nest of the black snakes in a couple piles of saw dust between our home and the nearby maintenance garage about 200 yards from the campground.

“I find quite a number of them,” Gib recalls. “These are not baby snakes either. They range in size from about 2 or 3 feet to about 5 feet. Because I didn’t have a stick or anything to catch them with, I grab them with my hands; I put two fingers at the base of the snake’s neck to where it cannot bite me. I didn’t get bit once. They did climb up my arm and squeeze it though.”

I wanted to know if Vicki also had a fear of snakes. She says emphatically: “I hate them!”

Needless to say, I am leery of opening any garbage can lids.

In conclusion, I like a good laugh or two or enjoy pulling a prank too — just none involving black snakes, copperheads or rattlers. To put it another way, and as my mom screamed that day, “Git rid of those snakes right now, right away!”

About the Author

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

The Black Bear Story at Watoga — Creative Endings

Large black bear turns the corner of Cabin 12 at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia in June 2014. The black bear is West Virginia's state animal. Photo by Stanley Clark.
Black bear meandering the corner near Cabin 12 at Watoga. | 📸: @clark.stan

Ever eat a peanut butter sandwich right before coming face-to-face with a black bear? And how about seeing a bear with Paul McCartney eyes? With this in mind, the following are readers’ creative endings to earlier posts (Part 1 and Part 2) about the black bear at Watoga State Park.

Peanut Butter Sammie, Anyone?

The black bear lifts his head, moving his snout inches from my face. Now, I feel his breath as he sniffs and snorts. Lastly, I did not consider the peanut butter sandwich I had recently eaten.

— David Bott

The Bear with Paul McCartney Eyes

There I stood with my feet frozen to the ground like I was standing in water and Lake Watoga froze right around them. Of course, I didn’t try to break free and run; instead, I relax to go with the flow.

The first thing I notice are this bear’s eyes. While he’s standing on his hind legs and looking right at me, I am so close to him that my nose is hardly a foot from his. I can smell his hot bear-breath. Up this close, his eyes seem larger than normal, and there is a distant light behind the brown color. Keep in mind that these aren’t the vacuous eyes of a wild animal. And this mammal’s eyes are windows to something I cannot put a word on. Simultaneous love and sadness? Something like that.

Meanwhile, there the four of us stood — for how long I don’t know. Be that as it may, you may think that the woods are a quiet place where you can hear a pin drop. News flash! What’s more, the Watoga woods are not as quiet as you’d expect if you’re from the city. In short, birds are tweeting, insects are chirping, flies are buzzing, woodpeckers are pecking, and there are a thousand other members of the forest’s orchestra.

A September afternoon in the woods is anything but quiet. And that’s something else I remember very clearly about this moment. Not only are we mesmerized by this bear with Paul McCartney eyes, but we also cannot hear any of the noises we have come to expect.

Nothing. In fact, if you’ve heard the expression “deafening silence,” this was it.

That is up until the bear says, “Follow me.”

— Ernie Zore

And the Moral of the Story is . . .

I notice the biggest black bear I have ever seen climb up and into the bed of Henry Burr’s maintenance truck.

Moreover, this huge animal is having himself a big ole feast, ripping into a number of trash bags that Henry had thrown into the park vehicle earlier from the campsites at Beaver Creek Campground.

After discovering this mess later that same day, Vernon says: “Ok, Johnny and Ronnie. The lesson in this is to never put off ’til tomorrow what you could’ve done today. Particularly, Mr. Burr is gonna have a mess to clean up in the mornin’.

— Brenda Waugh

All You Need is a Little Love

Nestling with the sow bear and her cub is a fawn. Apparently, the fawn has lost its mother. This gentle giant has adopted the fawn as her own.

Many times, through the years, I would see a black bear playing in the woods with a deer. Surprisingly, they were not fighting; just playing, chasing and enjoying the special bond they developed as babies.

I will never forget their special friendship. Undoubtedly, it taught me to always be understanding of individuals no matter their background.

With this in mind, don’t we all need a little love?

— Donna Dilley

Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.
Drawing of black bear killed near Watoga, circa 1970; L-R: Ronnie, Johnny and Vernon Dean. Artistic impression by Debra Lynn Kimball.


In conclusion, while researching the untold aspects of the black bear, I came across an interesting paragraph in The Pocahontas Times. Significantly, was this the animal killed at Watoga almost 50 years ago? Maybe it was.

Fifty Years Ago … The Pocahontas Times

Thursday, January 8, 1970


George Schoolcraft saw a large bear track on Pyles Mountain. He reported it to A. G. Dean. The bear traveled to Beaver Creek – from Beaver Creek into Burr Valley, bedded down on Briery Knob. The next day Eldridge McComb heard his dog barking and went to investigate. The dog had the bear in a large fallen tree. They returned to W. S. Smith’s for information about shooting bears. When they returned, the bear and dog were gone – heading for Anthonys Creek.

Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

Mechanical Milieu

Probably the best advice that was ever given to me by an uncle who freely dispensed advice, much of it unsolicited, was to be good to your mechanic. He was spot on; if you are fortunate enough to find a competent and trustworthy person to entrust the health of your car to, it pays to show your appreciation. We appreciate Mister Good Wrench of Watoga.

Even more so because, like many professions, this one is fraught with unscrupulous operators – but not here in Pocahontas County of course.

Car Talk was a radio show about auto repairs that ran for 35 years on National Public Radio. It was hosted by brothers, Tom and Ray Magliozzi also called “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” The two actually ran an auto repair shop in Boston’s Harvard Square.

People would call into the show with their car troubles and Click and Clack would diagnose the problem with a great deal of hilarity. I never missed a show in all those years for two reasons; yes, they were funny, very funny. But the show explored every possible problem you might encounter with a vehicle – so it was also very practical.

Gone are the days when you could pick up a distributor cap, a set of points and spark plugs at the NAPA store and do your own tune-up. Today’s auto mechanic must be skilled in technical diagnostics and computerized systems, in addition to being handy with a torque wrench.

Car Talk made me realize that a good mechanic has to have a lot of smarts and must think like a detective. A problem with a vehicle may be caused by a multitude of things and the right questions must be asked to pinpoint the actual cause of the problem. Computerized diagnostics also help, but you have to have the skills to operate this technology.

Meet Mister Good Wrench of Watoga

Watoga State Park got a good deal when they hired Arthur Sharp to maintain the fleet of trucks, backhoes, grader, mowers, and chainsaws necessary to keep the park running smoothly.

Arthur Sharp, Mr Goodwrench of Watoga State Park

Arthur, a native of Pocahontas County, came to the job with skills learned as a diesel mechanic for the West Virginia National Guard.

He attended the twelve-week school at Fort Jackson, South Carolina where he graduated an “all wheels” mechanic.

In fact, Arthur wears a lot of hats. In addition to being a full-time mechanic at the park, he is active in the West Virginia National Guard, operates a farm

and is the fire chief at Cass. It tired me out just writing that paragraph.

Where does a guy that busy find time to marry his wife Kristine and produce three great kids; Noah, Evan, and 8-month old Hope? Arthur manages it by taking care of the farm work in the evening when he can also be there with his family.

When visitors return to Watoga State Park this season they will find the Riverside Campground boasting many improvements. Backhoes and graders have been in the campground all winter pulling ditches, putting in new drainage systems, and resurfacing many of the campsites.

In other areas of the park, employees have been preemptively cutting down trees that pose a falling hazard to nearby buildings. The half-dozen mowers required to keep the grass down throughout the park, have been repaired and are awaiting use this spring.

It is Arthur who keeps all of this equipment running.

Part of the goal of the Watoga Trail Report is to make the public aware of how their park is being maintained and cared for. In doing so it is necessary to point out the many dedicated park employees, like Arthur Sharp, Mr Good Wrench of Watoga, who strive each day to make your visit a memorable one.

Other Park News

In a previous dispatch, we talked about the restoration and upgrades being made to many of the cabins. It was mentioned that the money for this project comes from the sale of government bonds and Watoga State Park was the recipient of this windfall.

Work on the cabins has been going on for about two years now, resulting in new decks, remodeled kitchens and bathrooms, and new furniture.

I have been stopping in from time to time to observe the progress, taking photographs and talking with the many skilled workers involved.

One thing became instantly clear to me; this influx of money for the cabins not only benefits the visitors to the park but, for the most part, those dollars are staying right here in Pocahontas County.

As much of the building material as possible is purchased locally. Additionally, the project is also bringing work to local contractors like Stuart Horner of JB Builders and David Smith of Marlinton-based Dream Builders. They, in turn, hire labor so the overall benefits extend well outside the park.

Stuart Horner, JB Builders and David Smith, Dream Builders

Pine Run Cabin Renovations

A recent visit to a couple of the cabins in the Pine Run Cabin Area, found employees refinishing the chestnut floors. It was a great opportunity to see side by side cabins in different stages of removal of the old floor finish.

Keeping in mind that these particular cabins were built over 80 years ago, to get to the original wood surface required sanding through many layers of polyurethane or varnish. How many? No one really knows but it looked to me like the workers were going through a lot of sandpaper.

Arthur showed me a cabin in which the finishing was completed. There was yellow tape across the door like you would see at a crime scene. We only peeked through the open door but the finished floor was dazzling.

Interior of rehabbed cabin on Pine Run, Watoga State Park

Imagine all of the park visitors who strode those floors for over eight decades. Also, imagine what it cost to rent that cabin back in 1937? It turns out that it was $30 per week for a six-person cabin.

It may sound inexpensive, but keep in mind that in 1937, during the Great Depression, the average annual wage was only $1780. The cost of a gallon of gasoline was 10 cents and a loaf of bread was 9 cents.

The average annual wage in the U.S. today is approximately $48,672 and the rate for that same six-person cabin today is $953 per week.

A quick calculation reveals that in 1937 it required 1.6% of your annual wages to rent a cabin at Watoga for you and your family and friends for a week. Today renting that same cabin accounts for 1.9% of your annual wages, not that much difference. So in truth, you are paying just about the same today as you would have in 1937.

Watoga State Park has only raised the cost of renting its cabins attendant with rising salaries throughout the years. It is still a good bargain to rent a cabin and enjoy all of the other amenities and activities found within the park and around Pocahontas County.

From the mountain trails of Watoga,

Growing Up at Watoga — Fishing for Wild Rainbow Trout

A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives
A West Virginia angler displays a wild rainbow trout caught with a fly rod on November 8, 2018 at Whites Run, a tributary of Seneca Creek, Pendleton County, WV | 📸: @mountainstatenatives

How did West Virginia Become Known as “Wild and Wonderful”?

Have you ever gone fishing for wild rainbow trout? Do you have a “Wild and Wonderful’ rainbow trout fishin’ story to share? Well, I have. And here is my fishing story.

From a pet deer to a black bear, those carefree days in the late 1960s for Ronnie and I were “Wild and Wonderful” action-filled adventures while Growing Up at Watoga State Park. In reality, my mom, my brother and I used those words before then-Gov. Arch A. Moore, Jr. did so at a 1969 speech at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs.

In 1975, the phrase “Wild and Wonderful West Virginia” became part of West Virginia’s welcome signs, marketing materials and license plates, and stayed put until 1991. After a 16-year absence, that slogan was instituted once again in 2007 after it beat out the popular taglines “Almost Heaven” and “The Mountain State.”

Back to 1969, when sometimes mom would refer to Ronnie and me as “wild!” Neither of us knew that “Wild and Wonderful” would become synonymous with our home state. At the same time, we were too occupied with “Wild and Wonderful” activities enveloping us at Watoga State Park and Calvin Price State Forest near Marlinton to pay much attention to such words. With this in mind, here’s one of my “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishing adventures.

Snakes, Arrowheads, Fortresses, and Freckles, our Pet Deer

On that overcast spring day, Ronnie and I create names for the various cumulus cloud formations. We see dandelions too, but mostly feel them squish between our toes, as we run “wild” discovering “wonderful” treasures like snakes, arrowheads and old fortresses hidden deep within the woods past the airstrip near the state forest.

“Johnny, look at that huge trout way up there!” Ronnie exclaims. “See it?”

“Yeah, but do you see Freckles?” In this case, Freckles was our pet deer in 1968, and now a popular resident at French Creek Game Farm (later renamed the West Virginia State Wildlife Center) near Buckhannon.

Wherever Ronnie ventures this April day, I try to follow. Sometimes I am successful; other times not so much. After all, he’s my big brother, my hero, my teacher. Ronnie is 11. I am three years younger. So, one rainy evening near dusk, at the Beaver Creek Campground, we dig into the damp soil to collect about two dozen night crawlers, and then drop them in a blue, white and orange Maxwell House coffee can.

The “Wild and Wonderful” Fishin’ Pole

The next day, Ronnie asks “Hey Johnny! Wanna come with me?”

“Yeah, sure. But, what we gonna do?”

Naturally, I am excited to tag along no matter where it is or what we might do. As a matter of fact, it isn’t often that Ronnie invites me to go on one of his journeys throughout the park.

“We’re goin’ fishin’ then! C’mon, let’s go to Laurel Run.” Laurel Run is one of Ronnie’s favorite spots to journey off to by himself and leave me standing at the intersection to either Burr Valley or the park superintendent’s residence.

“Johnny, go git that ole coffee can we had last night. Those are our fishin’ worms. You’re gonna catch a big, ole trout today!” Of course, I ran full steam ahead to our secret hiding place behind the maintenance garage, close to the rustic campground.

To begin this “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout fishin’ story, Ronnie and I find two fallen branches from an oak to serve as that day’s fishing poles.

First, Ronnie finds some dirty tennis shoe strings to be our bait lines. Second, he coaxes me into snagging some safety pins from Mom’s sewing box, neatly tucked beside her Singer sewing machine. Third, some aging yellow twine becomes our fishing lines. Fourth, Ronnie ties a knot a few inches from the limb’s base and then winds the string along the four-foot branch to the end of my brand-new fishing apparatus. Finally, he secures a small pebble to the end of the string as a weight. Mom’s safety pins are our hooks.

Learning how to Reel in a “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

To begin with, Ronnie shows me how to drop my improvised fishing line into Laurel Run. I hear a subtle splash as the stone and the night crawler enter the sparkling mountain waters. We wait for our lines to sink deeper. Not only does Ronnie help me to move the pole slowly back and forth, but also he teaches me how to bring the rod closer to my body, and then to lift it out of the water.

“Ok, do it again, Johnny. Throw the line back out there in the middle of that hole. You’ll git the hang of it. I know ya will.” And I repeat this several times. After a few minutes, Ronnie asks if there’s been a bite yet.

“No, I don’t think so. How would I know?”

“Oh, you’ll know all right. When a trout that’s bigger than you pulls, you’ll be learnin’ how to swim all the way to the pool and back again!”

So, we wait. And then wait some more. I notice Ronnie looking into the nearby cluster of oak and pine trees. I look too, noticing a few deer cautiously observing us standing in one of their water sources. Naturally, I wonder if Freckles is making new friends at the game farm.

Seeing my First “Wild and Wonderful” Rainbow Trout

Then it happens. I feel a tug at last. Without delay, Ronnie calmly wades over, tells me to firmly hold my pole and to guide it toward me, and finally to lift the catch up and out of the water.

“See it, Johnny? Would ya look at that? Look, it’s beautiful and check out those colors!”

“Oh my gosh, Ronnie. I can’t believe it. I caught a fish! Look, I caught him!”

“Yeah, Johnny, you got one all right. You just caught your very first wild rainbow trout! Way to go! Would you look at that? Talk about a beaut!”

At this point, I continue to admire the “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout’s subtle blues and greens. Those hues on its slender body mesmerize me.

“You wanna keep it? It’s up to you.”

To say the least, I am ecstatic to catch my first fish with Ronnie’s help. Even though it isn’t a trophy-sized catch, and most likely a baby, that “Wild and Wonderful” rainbow trout lives to swim another day in the crystal-clear waters of Laurel Run. I never became an expert angler like Ronnie, but whenever I see a rainbow, the array of colors reminds me that fishing for wild rainbow trout is just one of my many colorful “Wild and Wonderful” Watoga adventures.

Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 | 📸: John Dean
Ronnie Dean trout fishing at Laurel Run, Watoga State Park, circa 1980 |📸: John Dean

Where Will Your “Wild and Wonderful” Adventure Take Place?

The West Virginia Department of Natural Resources stocks all four types of trout at Watoga Lake (rainbow, golden rainbow, brook, and brown trout) at some point throughout the year. Trout are not stocked at Laurel Run. Visit the DNR website for to decide where you will catch your next “Wild and Wonderful” trophy-sized fish.

Let’s go fishing for wild rainbow trout! It’s sure to be “Wild and Wonderful.”

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

The Watoga Park Bench Project — Your Spot, Your Words, Your Memories, Your Way!

The beginning colors of fall accent where the Gray Family selected the path leading to the dock on the lake at Watoga for their bench. Shelly (1945-2007) loved this area of the park and loved to fish. The Gray Family selected the path leading to the dock on the lake at Watoga for their bench. Shelly (1945-2007) loved this area of the park and loved to fish.
The Gray Family selected the path leading to the dock on the lake at Watoga for their bench. Shelly (1945-2007) loved this area of the park and loved to fish. | 📸: Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

Have A Seat On Your Sleek, New Park Bench!

Rising early that June morning, and breathing in the fresh mountain air, you realize it’s a great day for a nature hike or two at Watoga State Park. Thoughts of a park bench have not yet entered your mind as you begin the day’s adventures at West Virginia‘s largest state park. But, later that day, musings about park benches will take front and center stage.

Meanwhile, you complete the 2.5-mile trek known as Jesse’s Cove Trail, admiring the restored and historic Workman Cabin along the way. Oh, by the way — you see no ghosts. Moreover, feeling adventurous when you get to Ann Bailey Trail, you traverse a few more miles to the lookout tower everyone keeps telling you to visit. Finally, once there, and in need of a break, you imagine taking a respite on a park bench to admire the panoramic views of the Greenbrier Valley and Kennison Mountain framed before you like an Ansel Adams photo.

Having noticed park benches at Watoga Lake and T.M. Cheek Overlook, you ponder creating your very own park bench. Can I do a park bench too? How would that work?

After chatting with the friendly staff at Watoga’s park office, you discover that YES, you can have a park bench too! So, to that end, we’re here to help you every step of the way as we love park benches and we love projects. Undeniably, when you put the two together, you have the Watoga Park Bench Project.

What Will You See While Sitting On Your Park Bench?

The Park Bench Project is one of many worthwhile programs that we, here at the Watoga State Park Foundation, undertake each year at the state’s largest park. From building new hiking trails to restoring a pioneer-era cabin to helping you with your park bench, we make the time to answer your questions, and yes, to complete the installation of your park bench.

How does the Park Bench Project work? Where’s this bench made? How long does it take to get one installed? Where in the park can I place my bench? What’s it going to cost me? Is this bench environmentally friendly? Does my bench have to be a memorial one?

Soon, we will answer your bench questions.

Significantly, we have an expert team of knowledgeable volunteers, hard-working park employees, and dedicated Foundation members to assist you in completing your customized park bench within our 10,100 acres of lush natural beauty.

Aha, Your Park Bench — Pick A Reason, Pick A Moment, Pick A Spot.

Now, you’ve found the perfect spot for your park bench at Watoga, be it along a secluded hiking trail, near the solar-heated swimming pool, along the 11-acre lake, or at any number of other hidden gems in the park. Importantly, you know why you want to place your park bench at that exact location, and, of course, the “why” is up to you.

Maybe it’s “just because” you want others to enjoy the stunning sunrises you experience at Ann Bailey Lookout Tower or the encapsulating view at T.M. Cheek overlook your family enjoys during your annual summer picnics. Maybe it’s for your pet who enjoys your expeditions through the natural wonders of the Brooks Memorial Arboretum as much as you do. Maybe it’s to honor someone special you shared meaningful moments with during your stay at one of Watoga’s 34 cabins or two campgrounds.

Well, you get the drift. Oh no, we mean you get your park bench, your spot, your words, your memories, your way! Undeniably, this is your park bench project, after all.

We Heard You Have Some Questions About The Watoga Park Bench Project And We Have Some Answers Too.

Earlier, we promised answers to your questions. Specifically, here’s our Top Ten FAQs:

Q: Where’s this park bench made?

A: As the Bruce Springsteen song emphatically declares: “Born in the USA!”

Q: What is the material used to manufacture the park benches?

A: Here at Watoga, we’re environmentalists. All benches are eco-friendly, constructed with 100% recycled plastic, maintenance free, attractive, and durable enough to withstand brutal Watoga winters. Additionally, your bench will be here for decades to come so that future Watogaphiles can take a seat at your spot to admire “your view.”

Q: What are the dimensions of my bench?

A: With attention to the important details: Seat Length: 48″; Seat Height: 17-1/2″; Seat Width: 14-3/4″; Total Height: 32-1/2″; Overall Area: 48″ x 26-1/8″; Weight: 87 lbs.

Don’t worry. We have room for it here at Watoga, and it has room for you and a couple of friends also.

Ten Thousand Smackaroos? No Way! Not at Watoga.

Q: How much will my park bench cost?

A: $500. Yeah, we know that’s some serious dough. Maybe look at it this way: Your bench will last a minimum of 50 years, maybe longer. That works out to $10 a year for others to chill, relax, talk or maybe not talk. That’s 83 cents a month. Unlike a park bench in New York City’s Central Park that comes in at $10,000, a Watoga park bench at 5% of that cost is a bargain. Hmm, wonder what a cup of java will cost in the Big Apple in 2070?

Q: How long does it take for my bench to arrive?

A: Once ordered, your park bench is here in about three weeks, sometimes sooner. Depending on the weather, we dig the footers, pour the concrete (where appropriate), and set your awesome park bench. To put it another way, leave the hard work to us — because we enjoy it.

You Said You Have Some More Questions, Right?

Q: Who installs my park bench?

A: Your bench is professionally installed by our park staff.

Q: Where in the park may I place my bench?

A: You pick your spot. If it is logistically feasible, we place your park bench there. Call it a win-win for you and future park visitors. What’s more, feel free to share your spot’s significance with us. To that end, we would love to write about why you chose that location. Others are more than likely interested too.

Q: Can I be there when my park bench is installed and ready to sit on?

A: Absolutely! We recommend that you attend if at all possible. Nevertheless, it’s a special occasion, not only for us at Watoga, but also for you, your friends, your family, or even your pet(s).

Q: What can my park bench plaque say?

A: That’s up to you. Be creative. Try a little humor. Most people ask close friends and family members to help with the wit and wisdom aspects. Without a doubt, we know that your plaque’s inscription will be great!

This image is displaying the Wade family's inscription on a plaque for a park bench located near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial at the Arboretum at Watoga State Park near Marlinton, West Virginia. The Wades have visited Watoga for decades. We love the inscription on the Wade's park bench and so would John Denver. | 📸: Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.
The Wade family bench is located near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial at the Arboretum. The Wades have visited Watoga for decades. We love the inscription on the Wade’s park bench and so would John Denver. | 📸: Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

Oh, Yes. We Have A Form For That.

Q: Is there a form to fill out to get started? How do I get one? What’s your contact information?

A: Great questions! Yeah, what’s more, we have forms here at the Foundation, just like the rest of the world. For instance, there are a few ways to get the necessary paperwork to you to get started.

To start, you can use our “Contact” link (just click here) to request information. We’ll promptly respond to your inquiry. Additionally, we can e-mail or snail mail you more information (including necessary forms). Furthermore, if you happen to be fishing at Watoga Lake, driving through the “Country Roads” at Watoga, staying at one of our two campgrounds or in one of our cabins, stop and chat with us at the park office (across from Watoga Lake).

In the event that none of those ways work for you, you may call Mac Gray, the Foundation’s Treasurer, at 304-653-4373 with any questions, comments or suggestions regarding your park bench.

What To Do Once Your Bench Is A Permanent Part Of The Watoga Landscape?

It’s your day and your park bench. Maybe make it a social event on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram? Or fly solo? In short, you decide how you want to mark this momentous occasion, and we’ll be there to take pics or videos if you so desire.

Other ideas: Read a good book on your bench. Maybe it’s a spy thriller. Maybe a double agent is sitting next to you. Sip a cappuccino on your bench. Take some selfies. Capture yourself, your friends or your pets on your bench. On this occasion, how about a picnic? After all, it’s your bench now.

Take solace that not only you, but also park visitors now have a place to rest their soles and reinvigorate their souls thanks to you. Puns intended.

It's an early fall day with the leaves just starting to change, some yellows and oranges beginning to appear. You can pick your bench at T.M. Cheek overlook as you take in the panoramic view of the Greenbrier River Valley and Kennison Mountain in the distance. The bench on the left honors Alfred G. Dean, Jr. for "A Life Dedicated To WV State Parks." Junior's final service was as a board member on the Watoga State Park Foundation. The bench on the right was donated by the Foundation. Enjoy the view. | 📸: Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.
You can pick your bench at T.M. Cheek overlook as you take in the panoramic view of the Greenbrier River Valley and Kennison Mountain. The bench on the left honors Alfred G. Dean, Jr. for “A Life Dedicated To WV State Parks.” Junior’s final service was as a board member on the Watoga State Park Foundation. The bench on the right was donated by the Foundation. Enjoy the view. We do. | 📸: Watoga State Park Foundation, Inc.

Your Ideas; Your Bench; Our Mutual Project.

Last, but not least, we’re excited to be a part of and to help you create your bench. Just tell us your dreams and ideas and we will help you bring them to fruition. Yeah, we’ve done this before. It’s a lot of fun for us too. Let’s talk.

John C. Dean is a graduate of West Virginia University, 1984, BSJ.

For 16 years, John lived at Watoga until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years.

John is in the planning stage for park benches for his father and grandfather, Alfred G. Dean, to commemorate their dedication and service to Watoga and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Moreover, a bench honoring his uncle, Alfred G. Dean, Jr., is at T.M. Cheek overlook. “Junior” was a founding member of the Foundation. He would be thrilled to have you, your friends and your pets sit on his bench and enjoy the majestic view.

You can email John at

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

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

Growing Up at Watoga State Park — The Untold Story of the Black Bear

Part One

Seeing a black bear is not always a pleasant experience.

Untold Story of the Black bear at Watoga State Park

During that magical summer in 1971, there had been endless bicycle rides to the scenic overlook at T.M. Cheek Memorial and carefree plunges into the mountain-fed waters of the Watoga State Park swimming pool.

Later that fall, I met THE black bear.

The deep red leaves on the oak trees were at their peak. My brother, Ronnie, and I learned about West Virginia’s future state animal – the secretive and shy, but intelligent black bear. It wasn’t until 1973 that the black bear became West Virginia’s designated mammal.

My dad, Vernon Dean, worked at the park. We lived near the Beaver Creek Campground. Our home was just a stone’s throw away. Dad, along with Richard Dale, park superintendent, and his teenage son, Jerry, taught Ronnie and me about this magnificent species.

We learned that black bears average between 125 and 550 pounds. They mainly eat acorns, pine nuts, fruits, berries, grasses, and other vegetation. The black bear has a lush playground in which to thrive in at Watoga State Park, nearby Calvin Price State Forest and Monongahela National Forest.

As a camper, cabin guest or resident, you may have seen a black bear during a leisurely bike ride, a hike on one of the park’s many trails or even in the backyard of your favorite cabin at Watoga.

In 1971, bears were not as common as they are today. If you chat with residents of Marlinton, Hillsboro, Seebert or Huntersville, you may hear a vivid tale or two about their encounters with a black bear.

Here’s mine:

“Come here, I wanna show you boys sumthin’,” Dad said. “Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.”

“What is it, Dad?” I asked.

“You’ll know soon enough. Just come with me. Hurry up, Ronnie and Johnny!”

Quickly leaving the babbling brook next to our home, Ronnie and I ran excitedly toward the park’s maintenance garage, just below the rustic campground.

“See it, Johnny?”

“No, Dad, what is it?”

“I see it, Dad,” Ronnie said, “and would you look at that? Wow! Oh my gosh!”

“Look at what, Ronnie? What is it?”

“You don’t see it, Johnny? Really?”

“No, not yet. What is it? Where?”

“Come closer, Johnny,” Dad instructed. “And you’ll see.”

I did move closer. Much closer. Amazed, shocked and stunned, I didn’t dare move an inch.

WHAT just happened?

Please email me at with your creative finale. Any social media contacts may post on my Facebook page. I will share selected endings in a future blog. Part Two will be the never-before-published story of THE black bear at Watoga State Park.

John C. Dean is a graduate of West Virginia University, 1984, BSJ.

Writer of The Untold Story of the Black Bear bio pic
John C. Dean embracing the captivating view at T.M. Cheek Memorial overlook, Watoga State Park, October 2012. Photo by Jennifer Pierson.

John lived at Watoga State Park for 16 years until his father, Vernon, retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at

Growing Up at Watoga State Park – Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles

The following is one of my many memorable experience growing up at Watoga State Park:

“Ronnie, Johnny, Vicki,” Dad yelled. “Come with me. I have somethin’ to show ya.”

Of course, we followed. Thus began the story of Mom’s Bandannas for Freckles while I grew up at Watoga.

“Look what I have,” Dad said wryly, pointing to a weathered cardboard box, our eyes shining with excitement, not sure what we were looking at in the bed of the green Chevy park truck.

“Let me pet it,” I said, trying to squeeze between Ronnie and Vicki. We instinctively reached in, simultaneously touching the baby doe.

“What happened, Dad?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Tell us.”

“Well, I had just gone into the park office and a call came in that the deer’s Mom had been killed on a street in town.”

“Can we keep it?” Ronnie wanted to know. “Can we?”

“Yeah, Dad, can we? Pretty please?” I pleaded. Vicki kept petting the spotted fawn as if it were her dog, her blonde hair glistening in the late summer sunlight, her eyes a brilliant blue.

“Of course you kids can. But, we have to find a place to put him ’cause Vadie won’t let ya keep him in the house.”

Devada, or Vadie as she was known by most, did not even weigh 90 pounds soaking wet. Mom’s short jet black hair accented her expressive brown eyes. Her small facial features gave her a serious look most of the time, but when she smiled or laughed, she became the beauty that Vern had met from Lobelia, about 10 miles from the park. Mom and Dad were married March 7, 1937.

Most of the time, Mom’s biggest concerns were to make sure the gardens at Ma’s and Pap’s nearby farm produced enough food to make it through the sometimes brutal winters and that we had school clothes to wear come fall.

Dad’s salt and pepper hair complimented his black plastic-framed glasses that seemed to always slip down his suntanned nose. His friends called him Vern or Vernon.

When it was time to name the fawn, my sister, Della, chose to honor Robert F. Kennedy and his beloved English springer spaniel, Freckles. Bobby, the former U.S. Attorney General, U.S. senator from New York and President John F. Kennedy’s brother, was Della’s teenage heartthrob. It was late summer 1967, less than a year before RFK would be assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 by Sirhan Sirhan.

Growing up at Watoga State Park, Freckles lived in the park’s barracks, a long, brown-sided fortress, about 50 yards or so from our home, nestled along a pine-tree laden lane bordered by a small mountain stream. Freckles’ new home was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

My grandfather, Aldred G. (“Pap”) Dean, was a part of Watoga’s infancy, assisting in the construction of stone retaining walls along the Island Lick cabin area, and near the Fred E. Brooks Memorial Arboretum, as well as other construction projects throughout the park.

That building near then-Cabin 19 housed equipment, lumber and tools, but we made room for Freckles’ quarters.

Before Freckles could walk, Mom warmed baby bottles of milk, and we would take Freckles his daily nourishment. Freckles became accustomed to drinking from the glass bottle, nipple intact. Mom would sometimes walk with us to check on Freckles. She made sure to hold onto my youngest sister’s delicate hand.

Freckles being fed with a baby bottle by Vicki (note their matching attire) at Watoga State Park, circa, 1967. Looking on: Vernon and Vada Dean, and Mickey Nicora (Mary Lee’s husband). Photographer unknown, but my educated guess is that it is my sister, Mary. This photo was taken with a Polaroid camera and Mickey and Mary always took lots of family pics during their visits back to Watoga from Ohio.

Freckles became the Dean family’s center of attention in the weeks before he could walk. He was our “baby,” and we checked on him several times a day to make sure he had enough to eat and that his box was free of droppings. All hide-and-seek games ceased when we needed a “Freckles” break.

Even when Freckles was asleep, Ronnie, Vicki and I would go to see him. That deer fascinated us — his big brown eyes, the white spots strategically placed on his tan coat, and the black hooves on his feet, to mention a few.

Freckles’ new backyard encompassed 35,000 acres, but he was only safe on the 10,100 acres that encompassed Watoga State Park. A sprawling state forest, aptly named for a local newspaper publisher and national conservationist, Calvin Price, bordered the state’s largest park. It was accessible to deer hunters and not far from our park residence. So, Mom knew the time may come when her children may have to deal with the untold tragedy of Freckles becoming dinner for a hungry family.

The day when Freckles was able to walk, we led him to the back door of the house closest to Beaver Creek Campground. We knew Mom would hear our chatter outside the open kitchen window. Mom’s African violets adorned the weathered sill that picture-perfect fall day with yellow, blue, purple and pink blooms.

“Mom, Mom, Mom,” we chanted in excited unison, knowing she would come outside immediately to make sure we had not been hurt.

“Watch this, Mom,” Ronnie said. Ronnie started walking toward Mom to show her how Freckles would follow us anywhere we wanted. We had become the fawn’s best friends. Such was life growing up at Watoga State Park.

Mom watched for a couple of minutes.

“Wait here. I’ll be right back,” Mom said.

We waited impatiently, fidgeting in anticipation, not knowing what Mom was doing or when she would reappear. Freckles stood nearby, trying out his new legs a step here and a step there, but always staying within a few feet of us.

“Look what I have,” Mom said softly, immediately redirecting our attention away from Freckles.

Mom’s small left hand closed tightly around something blue. We were unable to see what remained inside. Her fingers bore signs of using a hoe in Pap’s many gardens on the 211-acre farm that bordered the state park. Years of scrubbing clothes on a Columbus-made Dubl Handi washboard didn’t help either. Mom’s tiny digits opened to reveal the blue material, white dots scattered throughout. I did not know what it was, but knew that it had a meaning and purpose.

As Mom exposed more of the square cloth, she reached toward Freckles’ neck and touched his pale tan coat ever so gently. Freckles didn’t move. Mom, dressed in a high-collared solid white dress, reached around the fawn’s neck. When Freckles turned back around, he proudly sported an almost-new navy blue and white bandanna, so perfectly tied around his newborn neck.

“Now,” Mom continued, “Freckles will be safe. Everyone will know Freckles is your deer because of this bandanna. I think I have a red one like this somewhere in the house and we’ll change it every week.”

Mom made sure that Freckles always wore his bandanna and that we retrieved the week’s worn one so that it could be washed. The bandanna stayed tied around Freckles’ neck so others would know he was tame while we were growing up at Watoga State Park.

Throughout that fall, winter and the next spring, we would call Freckles’ name and he would come running to us, just like a puppy dog, letting us pet or hug him warmly. I even gave Freckles a kiss a few times. We could whistle for him and he’d come striding out of the nearby strand of trees to shower us with attention. Campers and cabin guests would stop to see Freckles, often taking photos of him with their children. I think they were amazed by Freckles.

A year after entering the Dean home and our hearts forever, Freckles found a permanent and safe playground where he lived “happily ever after” at the French Creek Game Farm near Buchannon, West Virginia.

All these years later, Mom is now Freckles’ caretaker in Heaven. Here’s to Mom, Freckles and many multicolored bandannas!

Vernon and Devada “Vadie” Dean, Beaver Creek, circa 1989, John C. Dean.

John C. Dean lived at Watoga for 16 years until his dad, Vernon C., retired after 43 years of service with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. He can be reached at

Watoga Update November 4, 2019

Current Happenings in and around Watoga State Park via Watoga Update November 4, 2019

The Riverside Campground sits empty now, the gate was closed last week for the 2019 camping season. Riverside will reopen as it does every spring, on April 1, 2020. It is now a winter sanctuary for dog-walkers and beavers that can be seen cruising the shores along the campground.

The Beaver Creek Campground will stay open until December 8, primarily to accommodate deer hunters. It will reopen the Friday before Memorial Day weekend 2020.

Ten of the Classic cabins will remain open throughout the winter months for the hardier Watoga visitors. Cabins remaining open are 3,8,9,14,15,16,18,19,28, and 33.

Volunteerism at work in Watoga
For the 15th year in a row, the members of the DC Taekwondo group came up to Watoga State Park for training purposes. (It’s top secret and I cannot tell you. Remember, they are from D.C.)

They always spend a day doing volunteer work in the park. When asked why they provide this wonderful service, their leader, Brian Wright, said: “We enjoy our visits so much that we want to give back to the park.”

This year they played the role of Sherpas and carried on their backs pieces of one of two benches to go into the Arboretum. The first bench donated by the Wade Family was assembled by the group at the trailhead and the other, donated by the Watoga Crossing Homeowner’s Association, went into the farther recesses of the park on Honey Bee Trail.

These are the first benches to be built in the Arboretum since the Civilian Conservation Corps hand-built 17 chestnut and stone benches in the 1930s.

David Elliott, acting as the base camp manager, did a splendid job of organizing this effort. He outfitted six external frame packs, spreading the disassembled park bench into near-equal weights, and attached them to the packs.

A huge thanks to the seven members of the Washington D.C. Taekwondo Group, David Elliott, and last but not least, Freia, the amazing pack dog who toted the water for the crew up the mountain.

Pi R Squared?, No, Pie Are Round
At least the ones made at the Hillsboro Library yesterday when 22 students showed up to learn the art of pie-making from Emily Sullivan. I do not use the word “art” loosely; cooking can be an art that takes years and a certain skill set to master and Emily possesses those traits in addition to being an engaging instructor.

Emily Sullivan  Art of Pie Making workshop at Hillsboro Library community room.

Under her tutelage, we all made personal size apple pies that we walked away with after class. It was a ‘start from scratch’ course beginning with the most difficult task of making the pie dough. In my humble opinion the crust makes the pie, we learned all of Emily’s secrets yesterday, on pie crusts that is!

Fun was had by all and we started right away planning our next cooking class at the Hillsboro Library. Generally, there is no charge for the class so that’s a big plus. And classes are open to the general public including guests at Watoga State Park.

Stay tuned for information about future cooking classes at the Hillsboro Library.

Dirt Bean To Move One Block Over

Those visitors to our local state parks, including the Greenbrier River Trail, should note that the Dirt Bean has closed its doors at the 812 3rd Avenue location and will reopen in the new location on 2nd Avenue almost directly behind the old location.

The following photo of the owner, Kristy Lanier, was taken just hours before closing the door for the last time at this location. The new store will have the same great coffee, foods and drinks and should be open in the second week of November, if

Kristy Lanier, proprietor of Dirtbean Cafe & Bike Shop Marlinton, WV

Well, that’s it for this edition of the Watoga Update. Watoga State Park is open 365 days a year and there is always something to do in the largest and best state park in the mountain state of West Virginia.

Ken Springer