Did You See My Girls on the Radio?

Posted by Dave Tabler | January 2, 2017

Listen to the mill whistle. It’s Wheeling Steel. On the dawn of a new year, this is the Wheeling Steel family broadcast from the headquarter city of the Wheeling Steel Corporation, Wheeling, West Virginia, with music by the….

On January 2, 1938, It’s Wheeling Steel, a live radio program from the Capitol Theater in Wheeling, WV premiered coast-to-coast on the Mutual Network. The show was broadcast nationwide until 1944 every Sunday afternoon on WWVA and NBC’s Blue Network. It featured Wheeling Steel employees and their families as part of a popular musical program that later became the template for The Lawrence Welk Show.

…We welcome thousands of our families. We extend also a hearty welcome to you other friends of Wheeling Steel, our customers and your families. For your enjoyment, It’s Wheeling Steel

There was nothing on the airwaves quite like it.

Headliner appearances on these programs are made by members of Wheeling Steel families or men and women right out of the mills, the factories, or the offices of the corporation. These are not acclaimed radio performers. Many in the course of these broadcasts will face the microphone for the first time. Others can claim a limited experience. In every case, their sincere efforts are to please their vast radio audience. (music and singing) The stars at night are big and bright…

Among the amateur stars of the It’s Wheeling Steel radio show were the “Steel Sisters,” a trio of high school girls; the “Singing Millmen”; and Sara Rehm, “the singing stenographer.”

The show was the brainchild of John Grimes, Wheeling Steel’s director of advertising. Grimes had first proposed the idea in 1931, but company executives were skeptical. Then, Wheeling, like other blue collar towns in the 1930s, was divided by labor troubles. Soon after Wheeling Steel signed a union contract with steelworkers in 1937, the company gave Grimes the go-ahead. A radio show could plug company products, and perhaps rekindle the feeling that Wheeling Steel was one big family.

“They got the idea of the family broadcast and it wasn’t very hard to do because Wheeling has always been a very musical city. Every little night club in town had a band and practically everybody in Wheeling either worked for Wheeling Steel or had a father or a mother or uncle or aunt working for Wheeling Steel.” —Earl Summers

Open auditions drew hundreds of hopeful stars. Included were a millworker’s three teenage daughters: Janet, Margaret June, and Betty Jane Evans.

“My parents were very musical. My mother played the piano; my father sang. Everybody in the family sang. We used to have a saying at our house: ‘And the night shall be filled with music and the cares that infest the day shall fold their tents like the Arabs and silently slip away.’ That was our family philosophy. Don’t worry when you go to bed tonight because that’s already over with and you can’t do anything about it. Just look forward to tomorrow. And we did that.” —B. J. Evans Gee

Partial transcript from the 1995 film
“West Virginia- A Film History,” a six hour documentary production of WV History Film Project and WNPB TV; online at


8 Responses

  • Ed says:

    Is Wheeling Steel still around?

  • Dave Tabler says:

    No. According to Wikipedia; “In December 1968, Pittsburgh Steel Company was merged into Wheeling Steel Corporation to form the Wheeling-Pitt. As of January 1, 2009, Wheeling-Pitt is part of Severstal, a Russian steel manufacturing conglomerate.”

  • Ed says:

    Are any of the acts from the original show still able to perform?

    Also wondering where one might find recordings of some of the shows.

    Thanks for your time and interest.

  • Ed says:

    Also wondering if you have details on other regular performers on the show such as comedians, etc.

  • Dave Tabler says:

    Don’t know the answer to the first; but on the 2nd the first place I always look is http://www.archive.org, which has an astonishly enormous variety of public domain works, including recordings, available. Also, try the sound recordings division of the Library of Congress, at this link: http://bit.ly/xlT5P

  • ed sofsky says:

    Hello Dave,
    Wondering where in Appalachia you are located?

    Best wishes,


  • Dave Tabler says:

    These days I live in Dover, DE; about as non-mountainous as you can get! My dad’s family goes back about 6 generations in Martinsburg, WV, so that’s my connection to the region.

  • ed sofsky says:

    I’m in the Wheeling area…but originally from NYC. A musician friend of mine is trying to interest me in doing a monthly Prairie Home Companion type show in a local theater. I had heard of “It’s Wheeling Steel” before but was reminded of it when I came upon your site. Fascinating concept wasn’t it.

Leave a Reply

1 + 6 =

New Year countdown

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 30, 2016

new years eve countdown

Ringing out the old, ringing in the new. Everyone’s doing it tomorrow night. One New Year tradition in Appalachia is the New Year baby. The custom of using a baby to signify the New Year originated in ancient Greece, the baby symbolizing in this case not birth, but re-birth. The Germans added the twist of a baby with a New Year’s banner, bringing the idea with them to early America.

The traditional New Year’s meal throughout the region generally centers around black-eyed peas. They might be accompanied by rice and stewed tomatoes, or ham and cabbage, or whipped into a Hoppin’ John (or Hop’n John) stew. But wherever they turn up, they symbolize luck, friends, and money in the coming year.

Some folks in Appalachia open every door and window at the stroke of midnight to let out any residual bad luck. They make a loud ruckus banging on pots and pans, setting off fireworks and taking part in other noisy activities to chase it far away.

The Scots-Irish community often observes ‘first-footing’ on Hogmanay (Scottish word for the last day of the year) — the first person to set foot over a neighbor’s threshold on the New Year brings that household luck for the year. First footer greeters hope for a fair-haired man and that he will be carrying a lump of coal for the fire, a loaf for the table and whiskey for the man or men of the house.

source: www.wilsonsalmanac.com/book/jan1a.html

Leave a Reply

− 7 = 2

How the poinsettia got its name

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 29, 2016

His public service was legendary. In 1821, South Carolinian Joel Roberts Poinsett had founded the Academy of Fine Arts in Charleston. In 1838, when he was the Secretary of War under Martin Van Buren, he had a northeast county of Arkansas named after him by that state’s governor. At that point in his career, he’d served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as America’s first diplomatic minister to Mexico.

Joel Roberts Poinsett, Secretary of War, painted by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887)

Joel Roberts Poinsett, Secretary of War, painted by Charles Fenderich (1805-1887)

In fact, the decorative Christmas plant that takes its name from him is such a footnote to his illustrious life that it is mentioned only ONCE in the entire length of “The Life and Services of Joel R. Poinsett,” an 1888 biography.

Poinsett was an avid amateur botanist who’d built hothouses on his White House Plantation near Georgetown, SC. He first came across the plant that he would have been introduced to as cuetlaxochiti sometime after 1822, when he began his diplomatic posting to Veracruz.

The plant is native to the Taxco de Alarcón region in southern Mexico. From its bracts (the petals are actually bracts surrounding clusters of tiny yellow flowers) the Aztecs extracted a purplish dye for use in textiles and cosmetics. They used the milky white sap, today called latex, to make a fever treatment.

In 1825 Poinsett sent the first clippings of the plant back to South Carolina for study, and from there had samples sent to trusted friends.

Initially Americans called Poinsett’s new plant “painted leaf” and “Mexican fire plant.” In 1833, German botanist and director of the Berlin botanical gardens, Karl Ludwig Wilenow, assigned it the scientific name, euphorbia pulcherrima, meaning ‘very beautiful euphorbia.’

This 1833 letter from Poinsett to JB Campbell of Charleston gives a sense of how active and extensive Poinsett’s ongoing network of plant tradings was:

I wish you would make a collection of cuttings and send them up [to Poinsett’s plantation] by the John Stoney, the Schooner in our employ, which must be leaving town now. Lewis and Robertson will inform you all about where abouts and probable times of sailing.

Cuttings of all manner of Roses, Pittisporum [sic], Myrtles, Etc. Etc. Seeds of the wild orange, a peck at least. At Belevedere the Doctr. [Dr. Joseph Johnson] can give you a great variety of cuttings for all which we shall be thankful. Think nothing too common, we have literally nothing here. Even a Multiflora will be acceptable.

Lots of daily roses, cuttings will do and we will strive to make them grow. Seeds of Arbor vitae etc. etc. Cuttings of Cape Jessamine, the Japanese honey suckle, and above all a few roots of Ivy to be had at the Grove at Mr. Wagner’s who can give you other things and at Noisettes in profusion. Send lots of cuttings of the Tamarisk it grows at Judge Richard’s cottage.

(SC Historical & Geneaological Magazine, the Poinsett-Campbell Correspondence; April 1941, Vol XLII, No 2]

Among the recipients of Poinsett’s plant trading was John Bartram, Jr. of Philadelphia, whose father had established one of the first plant nurseries in America. Poinsett sent him a clipping of euphorbia pulcherrima.

Bartram in turn gave the plant to another friend, Robert Buist, also a Pennsylvania nurseryman. Buist is thought to be the first person to have sold the plant under its new botanical name.

But the ‘poinsettia’ wasn’t being called that, yet.

Back in Mexico, Poinsett’s collection of the euphorbia pulcherrima was not at all atypical during his time there: he traveled widely throughout that country looking for interesting specimens, and ended up bringing home samples of the red and yellow mimosa, the Mexican rose, and the Confederate rose—a hibiscus that turns from white to pink in a day. While in Mexico he learned how to propagate olive trees, of which he sent samples back to SC.

Poinsett’s botanical transplantings operated in both directions: he is credited with introducing thе American Elm іntο Mexico.

“There are plenty of trees [here in Mexico]; poplar, ash, and elm; and one flourishing specimen of the latter species, which we see from the windows in front of the house, was brought here by Mr. Poinsett,” says one Frances Calderon De La Barca, whose letters from Mexico were published in ‘Life In Mexico,’ by William Hickling Prescott in 1843.
poinsetta chromolithograph

In 1836 a Special Diplomatic Mission from Spain had arrived in Washington, DC headed by Don Angel Calderon de la Barca, husband of Frances.

William Hickling Prescott was at the time at work on his ‘History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella,’ which was of great interest to De la Barca.

The Spanish diplomatic couple soon established literary relations with Prescott by way of Joel Poinsett, a mutual friend. De la Barca, Spain’s first diplomat to independent Mexico, knew Poinsett through diplomatic circles; Prescott had cultivated Poinsett as a resource for Mexican contacts with historical knowledge. (Poinsett would go on to provide Prescott the names of Lucas Alaman, Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza, and a Count Cortina for Prescott’s 1843 ‘History of the Conquest of Mexico.’)

De la Barca asked Prescott, a horticulturist as well as a historian, if he might be able to come up with a more pleasing, non-scientific name for euphorbia pulcherrima, as it was becoming more popular with the public. Perhaps a catchier name was needed for plant sellers? Or perhaps this search for a new name simply reflected the 19th century convention of naming things after their ‘discoverers’?

Whatever the case, a name based on their respected friend Poinsett, who introduced the plant to North American audiences, seemed only natural.

There’s just one open question about the final name.

The now-famous plant was not the only thing named after Joel Poinsett. Poinsett Bridge, a stone-arch bridge in Greenville County, was built in 1820 as part of the main highway leading from Charleston to North Carolina; in 1924 the Poinsett Hotel arose in downtown Greenville, SC.

So why wasn’t the lovely red plant named ‘the poinsett’?

William Prescott’s Ties with Mexico, by C. Harvey Gardiner, ‘Journal of Inter-American Studies,’ Vol 1, No. 1 (Jan 1959)



2 Responses

  • Steve Grund says:

    The reason it is called poinsettia rather than poinsett can be traced to Robert Buist, the nurseryman you mention in the article. Whether or not he ever sold the species under the name Euphorbia pulcherima, he apparently used the name Euphorbia poinsettiana on the specimen he sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinbourgh. Poinsettiana was his way of Latinizing Poinsett in the style of scientific names, as an adjective (translation: Poinsett’s euphorb). Robert Graham at Edinborough saw Buist’s plant and thought it was distinct enough to be in a genus separate from Euphorbia, and named it Poinsettia (Latinizing the name as a noun, as is done for a genus), following Buist (Graham made Buist’s E. poinsettiana a validly published name by the rules of botanical nomenclature), after Poinsett, for first bringing the species “into cultivation and into general notice among botanists”.

    Botanists have recently reverted to treating this species as a Euphorbia, but it could go back to Poinsettia (and some might still place it in that genus). The English name “Poinsettia” is, however, unaffected by the ficklenesses of botanists, but the Latinization of Poinsett so it could be used as a scientific name is how the plant came to be known as poinsettia rather than “poinsett”.

    The original document by Graham describing the new genus Poinsettia can be viewed at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/2502281#page/435/mode/1up

Leave a Reply

+ 1 = 3

They’s heaps o folks here still believe on Old Christmas

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 28, 2016


They’s heaps o’ folks here still believe
On Christmas – that’s Old Christmas – Eve,

The elders bloom upon the ground,
And critters low and kneel around

In every stall, though none I know
Has seen them kneel, or heard them low,

Unless, maybe, ‘t was Judith Daughn
And she’s been dead these years agone.

But, as a girl, I ‘member well
How, sitting at her loom, she’d tell
Of a strange thing that once befell,

When she lived here upon this creek
With Jason. I’ve heard old folks speak

Of their log-house, when it was new.
All kinds of colored lilies grew,

On bushes, to the very door;
And Jason laid a puncheon floor,

And framed a table and a bed
For Judith. They had just been wed,

When they came here from mouth o’Ball.
Judith, you see, she was a Hall,

And all her folks was mighty sore
When she took up with Jason; for

They long had been a row between
The Daughns and Halls. The Daughns was mean.

Jim Daughn, he killed Dalt Hall, and then
Dalt’s brother got one of their men.

And so, for years, the fighting went,
With every sort o’ devilment,

Till Jason saw Judith one fall day.

poem continues HERE…

from ‘Old Christmas and other Kentucky Tales in Verse, by William Aspenwall Bradley, Boston & New York, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917

I have tried to invest each story, as I have told it, with as much as possible of the peculiar color and atmosphere of mountain life, and to make it a means of interpreting the spirit of that life to the country at large, which has need of what the mountaineer—still intact in all his vital and spiritual energy—has to offer it.

William Aspenwall Bradley

Christmas+in+Appalachia appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

Leave a Reply

7 − = 5

We air now aiming to give a dumb show for to pleasure the Little Teacher

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 27, 2016

I thought no more of old time play acting in the mountain country till on Christmas Eve in 1930 some of the men and boys at Gander [KY] presented for me an old mummers’ play. Later two of the men gave me a fairly complete text for the play.

…All of the contributors were old people, and the play presented at Christmas time in 1930 was almost as new for the young people who belonged to the community as it was for me. Thirty or more years had passed since its last performance, and the play will not be presented again by this community because the two men who knew the text are both dead.

–Marie Campbell
Journal of American Folklore, Jan-Mar 1938

Mummer’s plays in Appalachia are direct descendants of the British custom of Christmas masking, or “mumming,” which can be traced to the English court as early as the reign of Edward III. Mummers (Merriam Webster’s— “one who goes merrymaking in disguise during festivals”) probably got the name from the German word ‘Vermummung,’ or disguise. The actors should be disguised, goes the thinking, for the magic of light overcoming darkness to be effective.

mummer drawingLong before radio or TV, mummer’s plays were put on by local people who walked from house to house and recited a play out loud. Mumming’s origin in European folk-custom seems to have been the coming of a band of worshippers clad in beasts’ heads and skins to bring good luck to a house. The most direct English survival is found in the village mummers who still call themselves “guisers” or “geese-dancers” and claim the right to enter every house. Sometimes they merely dance, sing, and feast, but commonly they perform a rude drama.

That rude drama is a ritual drama, probably of Saxon origin, where, in its simplest form, three characters act out the drama. The plays typically revolved around death and rebirth, like the seasons. Two heroes – usually including St. George (as Prince or King George) – enact a battle in which one is killed, then a doctor resurrects the fallen hero. Other stock characters include a Devil, a Dragon, and a Princess.

The mummer’s play that Marie Campbell witnessed in Gander KY in 1930 included a Presenter, Father Christmas, Dame Dorothy, Old Bet, The Bessie, Little Devil Doubt, Pickle Herring, and Doctor Good.

Campbell’s transcription of the play begins:

{After a huge bonfire has been made to give heat and light}


We air now aiming to give a dumb show
for to pleasure the Little Teacher
for not going off to the level country
to keep Christmas with her kin.
Hit ain’t noways perfect the way we act out this here dumb show,
but hit ain’t been acted out amongst our settlement
for uppards of twenty or thirty year, maybe more.
I reckon folks all knows hit air bad luck
to talk with the dumb show folks or guess who they air.
Now then we aim to start.

Read the full text of the play here.

Sources: www.folkplay.info/Texts/93–kycm.htm

Journal+of+American+Folklore mummers Gander+KY Marie+Campbell appalachia appalachian+history appalachian+mountains+history

One Response

Leave a Reply

5 − = 3

↑ Back to top

This collection is copyright ©2006-2017 by Dave Tabler. All visuals are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17—United States Code—Section 107) and remain the property of copyright owners. Site Design by Amaru Interactive