Finding Home Away from Home in Wheeling

I remember the moment I began thinking seriously about moving to Wheeling. It was two years ago.

My husband, Bart, and I were on our annual summer trip to visit his mother who has lived in the same house in the Woodsdale area since 1965.  Bart grew up in that house, attended Linsly, then ventured out west for college and graduate school. We met as doctoral students in History at the University of California, Irvine and settled afterward in Long Beach, where we taught history classes at California State University. 

The three of us were trimming back the pachysandra that had overtaken the wooded hill behind the house. It was a gorgeous June day, not too humid, and we were cool in shade of the trees. Five years earlier, before he passed away, Bart’s father would have been out there with us too. Maybe he was.

I was crouched down, focused on the task at hand. I’d been visiting Wheeling for over 10 years and in every season except Spring. My first trip was in September 2008. Bart knew I loved old architecture, so he took me on a walking tour of downtown and North Wheeling. It reminded me in many ways of my own hometown of Stockton, California, a Gold Rush-era port city on the San Joaquin River: stately Victorian homes, imposing, turn-of-the-century civic buildings, and an industrial, salt-of-the-earth vibe.

Over the years I accumulated many beautiful memories in Wheeling: walking the trails at Oglebay; watching Bart model his skating skills at the Wheeling Park ice rink; catching up with Bart’s childhood friends over beers at the Alpha; shopping for antiques at Centre Market; ordering takeout at Coleman’s (three fish sandwiches, bread separate, a pint of coleslaw, JoJos). But mostly I remembered this house and the moments spent with Bart’s parents: long meals and talks at the kitchen table, fires on cold and rainy evenings, classic movies in the small room (the living room was for visiting), and little home projects that kept the house on the hill in meticulous condition.

A photo of us from my first trip to the area in 2008, taken in Ohiopyle State Park. 

Kneeling in the pachysandra that day in 2019, two things occurred to me: first, I appreciated more than ever how much that house meant to Bart. It was his childhood home and a labor of love for the whole family, but especially his father. I had never forged such a strong connection to a house, having lived in a number of places throughout my childhood, but I understood it. When my mother died in 2012, I drove to the house we lived in when I was born and just sat there for a while. Houses hold memories, memories hold feelings. I knew it would mean a great deal to Bart to help his mom live in and maintain that house as long as possible.

The second thing I realized that day was the powerful pull I now felt to Wheeling, personally. We had lived in Long Beach for six years, Southern California for much longer, and we loved many things about it. As I’ve told everyone since we moved, we didn’t leave because we were unhappy – we left because our life was moving in a different direction. I wanted the full, four-season experience, trees, and hiking opportunities outside my front door. I wanted to own my own home and to create memories there the way Bart had in this place. Mostly, I wanted to be a part of a smaller community – more service-oriented, more connected to family, less anonymous. 

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Me and our dog, Riley, during a Christmas visit in 2018.

Prior to 2008, my only encounter with West Virginia had come during a high school choir tour. Passing through Poca, WV on my sixteenth birthday, we were treated to a performance by the far superior Poca High School show choir and then went out to play mini-golf and ride go-karts. The only other thing I recall about that day is exchanging some snarky remarks with my best friend, Sarah, about the indignity of having to spend one’s sixteenth birthday in a small town in West Virginia. I think about that exchange a lot, especially how ignorant it seems in retrospect, and how appreciative I am life brought me back to the Mountain State.

We moved to Wheeling in August 2020 and signed on our house the next day. Life here during the pandemic, as everywhere, has been cloistered and a little lonely. For now, I still teach classes remotely in California. Yet even during the past year we’ve found community. One neighbor, a retired coal miner, has taken us under his wing, loaning us yard tools, ferrying us to Lowe’s in his pickup truck, and acquainting us to the neighborhood he grew up in. I still get a little choked up thinking about all the times he plowed our driveway last winter before we could reach for our snow shovels.

Our new, snowy backyard in December 2020.

We explored our new/old city while trying our best to stay safe. Carrying over our “take-out Thursday” tradition to Wheeling, we sampled a new local restaurant every week. Before long we became regulars at Wheeling Brewing, which in addition to great beer, has some of the best vegan and vegetarian options in town. On Valentine’s Day, we treated ourselves to a delicious meal and Gershwin courtesy of the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra’s Soundbites series. At the first sign of Spring, we were out on the Wheeling Heritage trail and in Oglebay, Dysart Woods, and Raccoon Creek State Park, marveling at how green everything is compared to drought-stricken California.

It’s been nearly a year now since we moved. On a recent trip back home, an old friend asked what had surprised me most about moving. After thinking about it for a moment, I answered honestly that I was surprised that the transition hadn’t been harder. Especially now that things are opening up, I can see the life I envisioned two years ago starting to take shape. We visit my mother-in-law every Saturday, helping her with home projects and bringing her the leftover bounty from our Grow Ohio Valley CSA box. Bart works with dogs rather than college students now and I have some job interviews lined up with local schools. Events like Wheeling’s Juneteenth celebration are not only teaching me more about local history, but also showing me the dynamism of Wheeling as it is today. I’m happy we chose to make our home here.

Angela Hawk is a historian and higher education professional living in Wheeling with her husband Bart, a Wheeling native. Originally from Stockton, California, she holds a Ph.D. in U.S. History and specializes in the history of mental illness and psychiatry. She currently serves as Director of Assessment at West Virginia Northern Community College and loves exploring the history and culture of her new home.