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Deluge of tourists could result in Hatfield cemetery visitor center

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By DAVID SIBRAY

For The State Journal

SARAH ANN — Officials say they're trying to determine how to manage development near the grave of Anderson "Devil Anse" Hatfield, which became a tourist attraction since a mini-series resurrected the feud in many American's minds.

Though development at the site had been proposed through the years, the Hatfield Cemetery was untended and unready for the deluge of visitors following the three-part mini-series that aired on the History Channel earlier this month. Logan County maintenance and emergency-management workers have since scrambled to clear brush and provide transportation assistance as a matter of public safety.

More than 14 million viewers watched the "Hatfields & McCoys" mini-series, which recounted the events of the feud between the Hatfield family of West Virginia and the McCoy family of Kentucky. Now many of those viewers are coming to the Appalachian mountains to see history for themselves.

As crews mowed grass and cleared rocks from paths on a recent weekday, scores of visitors from as far away as New York and southern Florida climbed the steep hill to visit Devil Anse's grave. Some of those visitors said they were disappointed in the lack of provisions, but officials countered that the cemetery is privately owned.

Anton and Dedra Kaplan, of Lucedale, Miss., were two of many out-of-state visitors who said they were caught off-guard by the lack of facilities, though they said they were thrilled to visit the area.

"We couldn't find anyone who could tell us how to get here until we came to an inn over in Kentucky," Dedra Kaplan said.

"We were surprised that there was hardly any parking, and there weren't any signs to tell us how to get here. We saw plenty of signs for the Hatfield-McCoy Trails, but that's not what we came here for."

Visitors, however, may now find what they're looking for, according to Raamie Barker, senior adviser to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Barker was one of several officials who came to witness the crowds, and he said the governor's office is assessing the possibility of creating a visitor center. 

"The governor feels this is a very important project, and if there's a strong amount of public support, we're ready to look into the creation of a permanent historical park here," Barker said.

An information center with adequate parking, restroom facilities, and a means of providing wheelchair access to the cemetery would seem ideal, Barker said.

Local officials and proponents of state history have been discussing the concept for a long time. Coordinating the development of the site, however, has been difficult, considering the varied interests of so many people, including cemetery trustees, local landowners and state taxpayers.

Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan, a former member of the Logan County Commission, said during a phone interview that he has long wanted to see the locale improved and hopes the new notoriety will convince those with a stake in the development of its importance.

"I'm hoping that once they see how historic this site is, they'll be convinced of the value of improving it," Kirkendoll said, adding that a maintenance agreement established between the cemetery owners and the county might provide a workable solution in part.

Eugene Spurlock, Logan County maintenance supervisor, said he recently went to the site with a crew to clear brush and small trees, which he said had grown surprisingly fast in the decade since they had last visited the site.

Spurlock said he understood that the cemetery trustees had agreed to manage maintenance some years ago, but the deluge of visitors mounting the hill to the burial ground required the county to lend their assistance for safety's sake.

Visitors have also been parking alongside the narrow, two-lane W.Va. Route 44 at the cemetery entrance, slowing traffic and raising safety concerns, and at least one local entrepreneur had been selling refreshments at the site, Spurlock said.

Residents living down the road from the cemetery said they are concerned with the possibilities of vagrancy and vandalism and traffic problems. They said they would like to see developers take steps to assure public safety near the site.

Vagrants have toppled to statue of Devil Anse before, according to Lucy Thomas, whose property adjoins the cemetery road, and traffic between the curves above and below the cemetery has been a worry.

However, Thomas said she's enthused about the potential for development and wishes that her late friend Shirley Jean Hatfield, who operated a gift shop near the site, had lived to see the tourists flocking to the cemetery.

"The cemetery was so important to her. She would have loved to have witnessed what's happening here," Thomas said.

Thomas said that she and Hatfield had both hoped to see increased tourism come to the region but found the lack of lodging a concern.

"In fact, I was listening to a local radio program this morning, and that seemed to be one of the primary concerns — lack of lodging," she said.

Barker, however, said he felt sure that lodging accommodations would open in the area if resources such as the Hatfield Cemetery and the nearby Hatfield-McCoy Trails system are further developed.

In fact, the burgeoning system of more than 600 miles of regional all-terrain-vehicle trails managed by Hatfield-McCoy Trails could provide a reasonable development option, Barker said

"It's possible that a link to the Hatfield-McCoy Trails could provide some of the resources we'd need at the site," Barker said.

John Fekete, deputy executive director of the trail system, said the trail system had been planning a connector trail through the area and that routing a branch near the cemetery was an option.

"We'd been looking at building a connector between our Rockhouse and Buffalo Mountain trail systems, and that would bring us within about two miles of the cemetery, " Fekete said. "It's definitely conceivable that we could bring a branch of the trail near the cemetery."

Fekete said traffic on the agency's trails is booming, partly because of a warm spring and the addition of a trail system in Mercer County, but also because of the renown gained from the television series.

"We typically get about 25,000 visits weekly at our trails website," Fekete said. "This last week that's jumped to more than 100,000."

Interest in the feud and the Civil War-era history of the region has continued to grow in recent years, according to Frankie Esposito, chairwoman of the Chief Logan State Park Foundation.

The state park recently acquired the remnants of the Valentine Hatfield cabin, the home of Devil Anse's uncle, which was built in 1858. It has plans to restore the cabin.