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The First Miss West Virginia

By Jane Mattaliano

There was an air of excitement in the little town of Philippi on that sultry August morning in 1923. As throngs of townspeople hurried toward the train depot adjacent to the covered bridge, they passed storefronts draped with colorful bunting and plastered with welcome signs. Some paused at midpoint along Main Street to view the window display of photos and gifts at the W. O. Davis Drug Store, while across the brick street, girls and women admired a special exhibit of gowns, slippers, and jewelry in the Grim Company's windows.

Neva Jackson, Miss West Virginia 1923
Neva "Toby" Jackson, Miss West Virginia 1923. Official portrait by Shea; Gravely-Moore, Charleston

At nearby Grim Hall, workers positioned tables, chairs, and floral arrangements for that evening's reception. As the train pulled into the station, citizens strained for a glimpse of the beautiful young passenger stepping to the platform amid cheers and applause. Miss West Virginia of 1923, Miss Neva "Toby" Jackson, had returned to her hometown.

The popular eighteen-year-old beauty had just completed three exciting days at the State Beauty Pageant in Fairmont, during which she won the honor of representing West Virginia at the National Beauty Tournament at Atlantic City, New Jersey, on September 5, 6, and 7.

Initially reluctant to enter the contest, the striking brunette, a college student and employee of the Philippi Republican newspaper, was urged by her friends and coworkers to represent Philippi in the state competition. Her main concern was that, in order to enter, she would miss the county institute sessions necessary to fulfill a teaching contract she had signed for the coming school term. Now she returned triumphant from the state beauty tournament, and would soon compete for the coveted title of "Miss America."

West Virginia had not had a beauty competition previously. Although the first national contest to select a Miss America was held in 1921 in an effort to keep tourists in Atlantic City after Labor Day, participation in the early pageants was sparse, with only eight entrants the first year. But by 1923, the Fairmont West Virginian decided to sponsor a state competition to coincide with the annual meeting of the State Bankers Association.

The contest, which took place at the new Fairmont Theater on Tuesday, August 21, 1923, attracted the largest crowd the theater had seen since its opening the previous spring. More than 1,700 tickets were sold, including several hundred for standing room. Many were turned away. Elaborate preparations for the event were handled by theater manager H.C. Gordon.

Ten contestants participated, and five prominent bankers attending the 30th annual convention of the West Virginia State Bankers Association served as judges.

You can read the rest of this article in the Summer 1998 issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.