Where do you want to fly?
Filmmaker John W. Miller was working as a global affairs reporter for the Wall Street Journal when he discovered the West Virginia town of Moundsville.
Covering the coal industry, Miller became fascinated with how a town built on coal mining and steel would recover after the factories closed and its residents found themselves out of work.
The reporter-turned-filmmaker decided a documentary was the best way to showcase Moundsville, a town about 11 miles outside Wheeling, W.Va.
“I worked for the Wall Street Journal for 13 years, and I got tired of it,” the 41-year-old Miller said. “… After the (2016 presidential) election, I quit the Journal. I was looking for something more meaningful, and Moundsville fascinated me.”
Miller, along with his co-director, David Bernabo, will bring their documentary, “Moundsville,” to Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. The 75-minute film will be shown at 7 p.m. on March 14, in the school’s Laughlin Auditorium in the Coad Science Building. Admission is free.
A 1999 graduate of the Mount, the school is excited to welcome Miller back.
“Well, John is a Mount Saint Mary’s graduate, and I’m also a Mount graduate, and we were both editors of the student union newspaper,” said Ed Egan, now a professor in the school’s pre-law program. “It’s like a homecoming. We’re delighted that John and his co-director will both be here.”
Miller, who grew up in Europe, said he’s always been fascinated by small-town America.
“I would drive around a lot as a reporter, and I would see all these small towns,” he said. “All the towns had the same type of structure. Shopping on the outskirts, pawn shops … It was clear better days were behind them.”
He saw much the same in Moundsville.
Located on the Ohio River, Moundsville was once home to steel mills, chemical plants, coal mining and the Marx Toys plant, the makers of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots and Big Wheel tricycles.
One of the country’s largest toy factories, Marx closed its doors in 1980.
A Walmart Supercenter has moved in as several mom-and-pop stores closed.
“There are thousands of towns like Moundsville, and like Hagerstown,” Miller said.
Once home to about 15,000 residents, the number of people living in Moundsville has dropped to around 9,000, according to the 2010 census.
Miller’s documentary tells Moundsville’s story through the eyes of its residents, like Gary Rider, the town historian, Fred Wilkerson Jr., a glassmaker, and Steve Hummel, the owner of Archives of the Afterlife.
But winning the trust of residents didn’t happen over night.
“We came back over and over again, and we built a trust,” he said. “We went back a bunch of times, just poking around and getting to know the people.”
Moundsville is also portrayed as a town recovering.
Tourists now come to see the 2,200-year-old prehistoric Grave Creek Mound that the town is named after, and the now-closed West Virginia Penitentiary, which once housed some of the most notorious inmates in the country.
The one subject not addressed — President Donald Trump.
Miller said they decided against talking politics.
“When you engage people on the best of themselves, you get more wisdom and insight,” he said.
Now a freelance writer, Miller said he’s busy getting the film out to more audiences.
It’s already debuted in New York, Pittsburgh and at Moundsville’s historic Strand Theatre.
“I’m really busy getting it into more places throughout the United States,” he said.