Discovering Huntington, West Virginia
Itineraries in this Ohio River city and the mountainous Tri-State area focus on fine arts and Appalachian culture
As every good tour planner knows, blending individual options and attractions into a cohesive theme makes a winning tour. The process begins with location.
Huntington, West Virginia sits on the banks of the Ohio River and is part of the Tri-State area encompassing Ashland, Kentucky and Ironton, Ohio. I-64 travels through Huntington. Half of the U.S. population is within a six-hour drive. Tri-State Airport has service from US Airways/American and Allegiant.
An Art, Etc. tour theme makes a good choice, and the Huntington Museum of Art is the ideal place to begin. The museum has the largest and most significant art collection between Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Richmond. Tours led by trained docents cover all areas of the museum, including the Herman Dean Firearms, Touma Near Eastern, British Portraits and Silver (currently closed) and Glass galleries. Five temporary galleries rotate the museum’s collections and host special exhibits. Nestled on 52 acres, the museum is also home to the C. Fred Edwards Conservatory of tropical plants and orchids.
Historically, glass manufacturing has been an important economic engine in West Virginia. Our Art, Etc. theme continues at the Blenko Glass Company. Family-owned and operated since 1893, Blenko has been located in nearby Milton since 1921. Carrying on the tradition of hand-blown glassware, it produces functional glassware and art glass. Blenko’s visitors center, with museum displays, is located just minutes off I-64 at Exit 28. Tours of this real, working factory are available.
The Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center in downtown Huntington is a piece of art in itself. Originally opened in May 1928 as the Keith-Albee Theatre, it exemplified the grandeur of the 1920s. Chandeliers, balconies, intricate craftsmanship and fireplaces in the men’s and ladies’ restrooms graced the historic structure. A Wurlitzer organ accompanied live vaudeville performances and later motion pictures. As large multi-cinema locations began to emerge, the theater’s existence was in jeopardy, but it was saved and went on to be listed in 1986 on the National Register of Historic Places. Having dodged the wrecking ball, the grand lady was divided into three theaters. A fourth was added where retail space had once been and it became the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center.
Today, the Marshall Artist Series brings a regular schedule of top concerts and Broadway shows to the center. Discounted rates are available for groups of 20 or more. An evening at the Keith-Albee should be a part of every Huntington Art, Etc. itinerary.
The History Made, Heritage Preserved theme is a natural for the area. Heritage Farm Museum & Village is a group favorite affording visitors an opportunity to step back and spend some time in yesteryear. Heritage Farm became West Virginia’s first Smithsonian affiliate in March 2015. Sixteen buildings and five museums with more than 25,000 square feet of artifacts share the story of Appalachian life, including the hardships and the culture it created. Guided tours of the Museum of Progress, Museum of Transportation and the Country Store Museum are Monday through Saturday. It’s fascinating to see the inventions that changed the quality of life for rural West Virginians and, in fact, all of us. Good country meals are available for Heritage Farm guests.
The legendary Hatfield-McCoy Feud also adds flavor to the area. Actual feud sites to visit include the Hog Trial Cabin, Paw Paw Patch, Site of the McCoy Massacre, Aunt Betty’s House and Devil Anse Hatfield’s Gravesite. A Stolen Pig Dinner at Chief Logan State Park with entertainment should be a part of every itinerary, and a moonshine tasting with Hatfield McCoy Distillery is another must. Lodging at the park is available.
You’ll want to stay at Chief Logan State Park because a visit to the Hatfield McCoy Mountains is only complete with a look at the area’s coal mining history. The state produces 15 percent of the nation’s fossil fuel energy. A visit to the Coal House, home to the Tug Valley Chamber of Commerce in Williamson, is a good start to the story. Although never a house, it was built from 65 tons of bituminous coal quarried in blocks and dressed as stone. The Depot Museum in nearby Matewan shares the history of coal mining and the tragic story of the Matewan Massacre.
You can round out your itinerary with shopping at the Huntington Mall in nearby Barboursville. There are more than 150 stores, restaurants and services. A visit to the Museum of Radio & Technology, with the largest collection of antique radios in the eastern United States, fits nicely into any itinerary. The J. Taylor Auto Collection displays elegant examples of automobile technology and design, and it’s free to all visitors.
New River Train excursions are perfect any time of year. The ride shows off the beauty and grandeur of the New River Gorge. If you want to experience fall color, make reservations well in advance. Regardless of the season, traversing the former Chesapeake & Ohio mainline from Huntington to Hinton is continuous scenic eye-candy. Huntington has a dozen flag hotels and others that welcome groups. Group dining choices are numerous. A stop at Hillbilly Hotdogs (as seen on The Tonight Show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and the Travel Channel) for a hot dog is a must.
By the way, if you happen to find out the real reason for the Hatfield-McCoy feud, let me know.