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"West Virginia:Hooray!"
Growing Up in Wheeling

By James Bernardin

James Bernardin poses with his father, Thomas Bernardin , and dog, Trixie, ca. 1933.

I don’t live in West Virginia anymore. I guess you could call me a Michigander. I’ve enjoyed a successful career, creating ads for Chevrolet and others for 40 years. I live on 71 hilly acres—hills we would’ve called “bumps” back when I was growing up in the Elm Grove section of Wheeling.

My mother, Leota, was born near Rosbys Rock, Marshall County, in 1900. My dad was a butcher and worked for the A&P Tea Company for many years—first on Market Street in downtown Wheeling and then in Elm Grove. They were married in 1928 and lived in an apartment across from the state penitentiary in Moundsville while my dad worked in Wheeling. I was born in Glen Dale in 1929, and then we moved to the Triadelphia section of Wheeling. Most of my memories begin from the time we moved to Cracraft Avenue in Elm Grove.

It was the time of the Great Depression, and most folks were struggling to make a living. One time, a man came to our door selling eggs and asked for something to eat. My mother offered to cook some of his eggs for him, but he said he had to sell them to make money. Instead, she gave him a sandwich. We always had plenty to eat because of my dad’s association with the A&P.

We took car rides into the country for recreation. You could fill your gas tank for less than a dollar, and a service station attendant always pumped the gas, cleaned your windshield, checked the oil, and thanked you for stopping in.    

I had a dog named Trixie and a rabbit named Peggy. They got along fine. Peggy liked to nibble on things in the backyard and got chased by the neighbor’s dog. On occasion, my mother took me shopping in downtown Wheeling. I always looked forward to the streetcar ride. Being a trolley, it couldn’t climb Wheeling Hill, so it turned left near Ziegler’s Meat Packing Company and followed Big Wheeling Creek into the center of town.

Life was carefree and wonderful. Our basement had a dirt floor, where I dug to my heart’s content. A peach tree provided an ample harvest for my mom’s homemade preserves.

One day, my mom grabbed me by the hand and said the house was on fire. A big brown area on the chimney above the stove was growing larger and blacker. A fire truck arrived in time to extinguish the flames and save the house.

We soon moved into a rented house in Elm Grove. It was on Maple Lane, known locally as “Six Foot Alley” because that was its width. We hadn’t been there long when my mom developed a mastoid condition and had to be hospitalized. My dad’s mother drove from Dearborn, Michigan, in her Model A Ford to be with me while Dad worked. She wasn’t much like my mom and didn’t cook like her either. One evening, she fixed me a big bowl of sauerkraut and meat. I said I didn’t like it and wanted something else. She told me I could eat what was served or not eat at all. After giving the matter some thought, I tried it. I’ve loved kraut ever since.

On my first day of first grade, my mom walked me to Kruger Street School. I’ll never forget the sound of the big bell. It would ring twice. The first time, you’d still have plenty of time to get there, but with the second ring, you’d better hurry. Kruger Street School is where I met Lee Kelvington, who still lives in Wheeling. I try to see him every year and stay in touch through e-mail. Early friendships last a lifetime.

Around fourth or fifth grade, we moved again—this time to 36 East Cross Street. The house was eventually obliterated for a freeway entrance. In front of the Kahle Building was a large field where I learned to play football. A bit farther down was another field where we had victory gardens during World War II. Just off Key Avenue near the National Road was the Community House, where I learned to build model airplanes from balsa wood, glue, and paper.

Earning money was something everybody, young or old, held important. Cutting grass, hunting berries to sell, or taking beer bottles back to a bar for two cents each allowed me to buy Batman and Superman comic books now and then. I had one big source of income. When my folks would order a dump truck load of coal from the local mine, I’d shovel it into our coal bin for 50 cents.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, our neighbor, Harold Bone, took his son Kenny and me to see the model train setup at the B&O Station in downtown Wheeling. That’s where I heard the announcement over a loud speaker about the attack on Pearl Harbor. None of us had any idea what World War II would cost our country or how it would change our lives.

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