Imagine John Denver on the radio: "Almost heaven," he sings, "Kanawha ..."
Doesn't sound right, does it? How about, "Almost heaven, Allegheny?"
Everyone knows the song is about West Virginia -- I've even heard it played at an outdoor market in Malaysia. But not until I visited Wheeling, W.Va., did I know that the name once chosen for the nation's 35th state was Kanawha, and that other nominees included Allegheny, Augusta and New Virginia.
This is typical. Wheeling regularly provokes the reaction, "I didn't know that."
Consider the Bloch Bros. tobacco factory on the gritty south end of town, its walls painted with a big "Chew Mail Pouch" sign. This is where all that chewing tobacco -- originally just the loose leavings from cigar cutters -- and all those painted barns came from.
There's that pre-Civil-War-era suspension bridge, a spider web of steel cables, at one time the longest of its kind. There are the six Louis Comfort Tiffany windows in St. Matthew's Episcopal Church on Chapline Street.
And there's that name, "Wheeling," which, in fact, has nothing to do with wheels.
Wheeling lies on West Virginia's western border, near the base of its northern panhandle, the little spike that insinuates itself between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Its population is 31,000, down 30,000 from its peak in 1930. Although its downtown business district is quiet today, the city lies at the intersection of what once were the region's principal commercial avenues: the Ohio River, the National Road (Route 40) and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.
Given these transportation options, as well as the local availability of coal and gas for furnaces, it perhaps was inevitable that Wheeling would become a center, not only of steelmaking but also, because it had the right kind of sand, of glass production.
At one time, the city was home to the nation's largest glass manufacturers, who advanced the craft artistically with creative molding and coloring methods, and scientifically through modifications of centuries-old formulas. Although Wheeling's legendary "glass houses" are gone now, their reign is memorialized at the Oglebay Institute Glass Museum.
Wheeling's glass story starts not long after the birth of the United States. Inside the museum's display cases my wife and I saw early, utilitarian examples of the glassmaker's craft: pickle jars from the 19th century and commemorative whiskey flasks honoring George Washington and Ben Franklin.
With the arrival in 1818 of the National Road came increased demand for Wheeling glass, including "flint glass" -- lead crystal. Prominently displayed is one of the largest pieces of lead crystal ever made, an 1844 Sweeney punch bowl (which actually looks more like a vase) almost five feet high and weighing 225 pounds. It probably never actually held punch, but it did stand in a cemetery for 74 years as the tombstone for the glass company's owner, Michael Sweeney.
The museum exhibits are interesting for their displays of craftsmanship, and also to see what people of earlier centuries considered indispensable or fashionable. Molded glass "log cabins" commemorated the American centennial, and two styles of Victorian dishes were designed specifically to hold celery, a vegetable once deemed exotic.
We also saw examples of various decorative glass techniques: "peachblow," where a rich plum color slowly shades into a creamy yellow; early 20th-century "carnival glass," which has a shimmering rainbow finish; and something called "goofus," with painted doodads in glass, reminiscent of a Jell-O mold salad.
We walked the few yards from the Oglebay Glass Museum to the Oglebay Mansion Museum, both located in Wheeling's Oglebay Park.
"Oglebay" is a name frequently encountered in Wheeling. Col. Earl W. Oglebay was a major benefactor of the city. He made his money in Cleveland in the iron ore shipping business, but retired at age 51 to become a gentleman farmer at the Wadding-ton farm near Wheeling.
According to his will, at his death in 1926, the farm passed to the city. Its 1,650 acres now hold not only the museums, but a zoo, lakes, gardens, greenhouses and a 200-room lodge. There are also two golf courses, designed by Arnold Palmer and Robert Trent Jones.
Oglebay's mansion, originally a farmhouse that the colonel expanded, now serves as sort of a painless, illustrated history lesson. The rooms and their furnishings demonstrate the functioning of early 20th-century daily life -- at least among the rich -- but these are accompanied by exhibits showing the area's earlier days, even back when there was no "West" in front of "Virginia."