MORGANTOWN — There’s an artifact at the Morgantown History Museum that never fails to pop a chuckle among visitors after it’s pointed out.
A modern-day resident of the University City discovered it in between the walls of his house during a remodeling project and promptly donated it to the museum on Kirk Street.
It’s an empty bottle from the Monongahela Rye Whiskey Co., of Pittsburgh, that dates back to at least the early 1800’s.
Which means it most likely arrived here on a flatboat, by way of the company’s namesake Monongahela River.
From the Mon’s beginnings in neighboring Fairmont and Marion County, the river bisects Morgantown and Westover during its 128-mile, northward flow into Pennsylvania.
The Mon meanders past Brownsville and Charleroi and the other burgs along its banks, before linking up with the Allegheny in Pittsburgh to become a major headwater of the mighty Ohio River.
Before coal became king in these parts, the Monongahela River ruled.
Morgantown was a river town. Same for Fairmont, and Charleroi and most definitely Pittsburgh.
That DIY-empty bottle of booze from Morgantown’s Colonial-imbibing past attests to that history.
The Mon River was commerce. It was the gateway to the West. Flatboats shipped things in and hauled things out.
Enterprising businessmen like Michael Kerns, for example, recognized the river early on.
Kerns, who is regarded as one of Morgantown’s original entrepreneurs, founded a grist mill on Deckers Creek in the 1700s — and used flatboats to ship the product to the northern and western climes where river traffic was the only traffic.
The Mon is why John Kent Folmar’s photograph is on the back of that book.
He’s sporting an ornery grin in the snap, which captured him Mile 97.8 at the river in Star City.
“Is that not the goofiest thing?” the professor emeritus asked.
No matter the self-opinion of his visage, the book to which it is attached — “Voice of the Mon,” which he compiled and wrote earlier this year — is a serious work of scholarship and history related to the region’s principal waterway.
Folmar, or “J.K.,” as he is known to his colleagues and students, is an 80-something, retired history professor from California University of Pennsylvania.
He’s also a Mon River authority.
Academia brought the Birmingham, Ala., native up the river’s path into northern Appalachia. The little college in California, Pa., was hiring, and he needed a job.
He lived close to the Mon, but never gave it much thought initially. His specialty was the Civil War and Reconstruction, not water.
The way he tells it, he and his then-lady friend were taking a leisurely drive into Greene County, Pa., along State Route 88 in Greensboro, when they “accidentally” discovered the headquarters of the Monongahela River Buffs Association.
Folmar was intrigued by the paintings of riverboats that adorned to long blinds on the windows of the former school house where the group held its meetings, so he stopped the car for a closer look.
That was in 1979, but that building and the depictions on its window blinds, to him, seemed to be timeless.
When he went in and introduced himself, it didn’t take long before he had a roomful of friends and a new research interest.
That’s what history professors do, he said, with a laugh. They research stuff.
“Before the railroads, the Mon River was the cheapest way to go,” he said. “In the 1750’s and 60’s, it was like an interstate highway.”
And never mind that marquee Mississippi River.
“The Mon between 1890 and 1900 moved more tonnage than the Panama Canal. Can you believe that?”
Publish (or perish the thought)
When the person who was editing the association’s newsletter died, Folmar took it over, well, just because.
He was the “Voice of the Mon” editor and chief writer from 1981 to 2015. The newsletter had been around two years before that.
This summer, with the help of Yohogania Press, of California, Pa., and Morgantown’s Populore Publishing Co., he rolled out the “Voices of the Mon” compilation, with a 100-page index of every newsletter of the Monongalia River Buffs association.
That’s coupled with a 70-page history of the Mon River and the association of kindred spirits who love the water penned by the professor himself.
A selection of historical photographs, plus a companion DVD, compliment the work.
Everything’s in there, Folmar said. Everything. The DVD alone contains some 1,500 searchable pages from the newsletters, Populore owner Rae Jean Sielen said.
Once he made his acquaintance with the Mon, Folmar became an aquatic evangelist of sorts.
He talked up the Mon, and the importance of river history in general, at academic conferences across the region and the country.
Lots of talking, he said.
“Ninety percent of people had never heard of the Mon.”
In the process, the professor also studied up on flatboats, keels and more — anything that floated on rivers in the early days of the Republic.
He also created whole college courses on the Mon’s life and times.
Take me to the river
A number of Folmar’s “Voice of the Mon” books are currently on sale in Morgantown, with all proceeds benefiting the Monongalia County Historical Association.
The cost is $20. For more details, you can call Populore at 304-599-3830. The address of Yohogania Press is P.O. Box 692, California, PA 15419. You can also reach Folmar by calling 724-938-7856, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sielen said she enjoyed working with Folmar on the project.
He has a sense of humor, she said, that flows into joint tributaries of serious scholarship and southern charm (even after all these years in Pennsylvania, the Alabaman is still more apt to say “y’all” over “yinz.”)
And about that sense of humor? Well, according to Cal U. lore, he once met a colleague for a social engagement while dressed in the full uniform of a Confederate officer — just because.
His love of the Monongahela River is also just because.
“My sons threw rocks in the Mon and splashed in the Mon,” he said.
“Now my grandsons are throwing rocks in the Mon and splashing in the Mon.”