History Afloat

Exhibit explores river commerce

Morgantown Dominion Post
2 December 2012
By Jim Bissett

IF YOU’RE A carpenter or craftsman who would be interested in helping build a re-creation of a Colonial flatboat, call 304-319-1800 or email morganownmuseum@yahoo.com.

Tim Terman has a polite request of you the next time you’re walking, running or pedaling along one of Morgantown’s rail-trails.

Provided that you’re also watching out for others sharing the same space as you, Terman would like you to turn your head in the direction of the Monongahela River for a bit ... just so you can take it in.

He wants you to remember the river’s role in Morgantown’s history and development.

“The Mon was everything to us,” Terman said on a mellow Friday afternoon at the Morgantown History Museum, where he serves on the board of directors. “It was our gateway to the West.”

The “West,” as in the Ohio and Mississippi rivers: Two aquatic arteries that Terman, who now handles public relations and communications for WVU’s College of Business & Economics, chugged up and down for 11 years as a deckhand for a barge company before college and a degree.

An enterprising guy in the 1700s, Terman said, could get a real flow going just by dipping in an oar. Guys like Michael Kerns, whom Terman refers to as Morgantown’s original entrepreneur.

Kerns operated a gristmill on Deckers Creek and also made flatboats to transport his goods to those western climes where river traffic was the only traffic.

Morgantown’s history as a river town in Colonial times is the subject of a new exhibit, “Flatboats: Morgantown’s First Entrepreneurial Venture,” the museum is debuting Dec. 15. The idea is to showcase flatboat design and Kerns’ contributions to his hometown.

The exhibit will be open from 7-9 p.m. that evening at the museum on Kirk Street.

Pamela Ball, the museum’s director, said the exhibit will float a lot of history, with a mix of archival photographs, excerpts from river guidebooks of the day, and recordings of period “river” tunes performed by Pete Seeger and a host of other folk performers.

Refreshments and other live music will also be offered up, she said.

Morgantown then, Ball said, was just as much a frontier town as it was a river town. The two designations meshed, she said, because they had to — for the sake of survival.

“The river is why people stayed here,” she said. “Building boats to sell their goods downriver was an expression of their selfreliance and confidence.”

Historically speaking, the museum wants to return the favor.

The museum also wants to build a permanent, nonfloating flatboat model similar to those that Kerns used to hammer together, using period tools and kindred carpenters and artisans — in costume — who also like building history with their hands.

“It’s heritage tourism,” Ball said.

“And people can see what it was really like,” Terman said of the model that will be at the Wharf District, which bumps the banks of the Mon. “We want people walking on the trail to stop and say, ‘What is that?’ while people are building it.”

Michael Mackert, a researcher at the museum, has a favorite piece related to the upcoming exhibit. He gets a chuckle every time he sees it.

It’s an empty bottle from the Monongahela Rye Whiskey Co., of Pittsburgh, that he says dates back at least to the 1800s, meaning it could have only gotten here on a boat, by way of its namesake river.

“The person who donated it found it when he was remodeling his house,” Mackert said. “It was in between the walls.”