Remembrance, Reflection, and Honor
Rowlesburg, Preston County, population 615, seems an unlikely location for a museum dedicated to the veterans of World War II. Equally unlikely is the ownership of this not-for-profit venture — Jef Verswyvel and Maggie DeWeirdt, a Belgian couple who moved to the Cheat River community in April 1999, just two months after Jef made his initial visit to the state.
Despite the unlikelihood of a Belgium couple locating a World War II museum in a town more commonly associated with German immigrants and the Civil War, Jef says they and their museum are exactly where they need to be. Kathleen Wolfe, chairwoman of the Rowlesburg Revitalization Committee (RRC), agrees.
“It’s the perfect marriage,” Wolfe says of the partnership between the Greatest Generation Museum and the RRC, which owns the building that houses Jef and Maggie’s collection of World War II uniforms and artifacts from all militaries engaged in the conflict.
The former Rowlesburg High School, built in 1910, was a casualty of the 1985 flood. Imre and Janet Szilagyi purchased the building from the school board and operated a whitewater rafting business in the building for a couple of decades. They donated the building to the committee in 2008, helping the group to move forward with its ambitious plan to revitalize the community.
“The school was part of a dream,” says Doris Rooks, who chairs the building subcommittee. “The town has struggled since the 1985 flood, but the mayor and council have made great strides.”
The old high school was renamed the Janet and Imre Szilagyi Center for Visual and Performing Arts. The center hosts an annual River City Festival of the Arts over Memorial Day Weekend and West Virginia’s Chestnut Festival in October.
Additionally, the Greater Downtown Rowlesburg organization spruced up the business district with flowers and trees, and RRC built a Main Street garden with a memory walk, gazebo, and town clock.
Still, the RRC needed an anchor that would bring visitors into the community and building year round. They found it in the Belgian newcomers who had purchased one of the town’s Victorian homes.
Jef, a professional model maker, came to Miami, Florida, from Belgium in April 1995. He and a business partner saw the United States as a stronger market for their specialty, customized accessories for model builders.
The company did well, but after four years in Miami, Jef and Maggie wished for a safer, friendlier, and slower-paced community in a cooler climate. “He wanted the four seasons,” Maggie says. Jef’s partner recalled meeting a West Virginia resident during a field trip to an army base. He put Jef in touch with the contact, who invited Jef to come visit his hometown, Rowlesburg.
“I liked it, and we stayed,” says Jef, who relocated in April 1999. His wife says the culture shock was major, as was the realization they had bought a house 10 yards from the spot on the railroad tracks where the freight trains blow their whistles day and night.
“The first night we moved in it was, My God! The noise! The whistles blowing! People told us that after a while we’d get used to it. The first night we hit the roof, but now, we miss it when we sleep somewhere there aren’t trains,” she says.
Jef says it took them about two days to adjust to the culture. The transition was made incredibly easy by townspeople, who welcomed the foreigners with open arms.
“From day one, we felt at home,” Maggie says. “I never felt like an outsider. We have made family here.”
Jef set up his manufacturing business in Rowlesburg, making resin parts for serious modelers who want more detail in their projects’ accessories than what a kit model offers — a steering wheel for a specific model of vehicle, or a pilot outfitted with the specific garb and equipment of a particular air force.
The business prospered and soon captured the interest of a Texas firm, which made Jef an offer to buy his company and give him a job there, as well. He accepted the offer, although it meant periodic flights to Texas. It’s an inconvenience Jef is willing to live with, however, as part of remaining in Rowlesburg.
Maggie became involved in a community beautification project that offered flowers at cost for residents to plant in their yards. She also joined the RRC’s efforts, and serves as liaison for Rowlesburg and the RRC to the state’s On Trac program.
Jef found Rowlesburg conducive to his longstanding interest in history.
You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.