Christmas Eve in Preston County, 1938-The Hemlock forest outside Aurora is full of laughter, and music. Through the snowy trees a cabin is aglow, with about 12 people gathered inside. This was the Youghiogheny Forest Colony.
"They all seem to have been characters, and inventive, and also determined not to be beat down by the Depression," says Viola Wentzel, whose husband Volkmar came to Youghiogheny as a runaway teenager from Germany.
"It was their way of survival. They loved it up here. And when they couldn't work at their chosen jobs in Washington, they did other things like paint or write or have a good time at Lottie's Tavern."
‘Cabin in Winter’ is a photo by artist Volkmar Wentzel who lived for a time in the Youghiogheny Forest.
Lottie's Tavern was the gathering space for the group of artists and intellectuals who came to stay on the forest property of geologist Frank Reeves and his wife Lottie. It was here that Volkmar Wentzel was encouraged to continue his photography when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt stopped by the Tavern and bought three of his postcards.
The small informal gathering existed between the years of 1935-1942 and called itself the Youghiogheny Forest Colony, named after the nearby Youghiogheny River. While the Great Depression was hitting hard in the cities, Lottie convinced her artists and intellectual friends from D.C. to come and live in the hills of West Virginia, where the price of living was much cheaper. The group pooled their resources and raised some of their own food, while still earning some money through part-time jobs. Some of the residents at Youghiogheny included WPA muralist Robert Gates, sculptor Joe Goethe and architects, Arved Kundzin, Eric Menke and Thomas Hood.
Those who stayed at Youghiogheny often gathered in Lottie's Tavern for their meals, enjoying the brief spell of that place that was a combination of good conversation, the smell of the ancient pines, and, surely, their emotional ties to an outside world that was changing rapidly. It was around this communal table, often with drink in hand, that the fluctuating crowd at the Youghiogheny Forest enjoyed a momentary escape away from the clang of what would be, and the troubles that challenged the unsteady world.
Mrs. Wentzel recalls one particular story her husband told about a Youghiogheny tradition of driving a hot goose down from D.C. on Christmas Eve. "There was a Bavarian Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue. He would order a roasted goose and red cabbage and all the trimmings that go with it, then wrap it into a feather quilt so that it would stay hot. Then they would drive, I don't know if they had speed limits then, then they would drive like crazy uphill so that the goose was still warm."
Volkmar Wentzel worked as a celebrated photographer for National Geographic for 48 years. In 2001, he and Viola helped to establish the Aurora Project, an artists' residency project near the former Youghiogheny Forest Colony. A few of the cabins from the Youghiogheny Forest Colony are still standing within a few miles of the Wentzel home. In 2006, Volkmar Wentzel passed away.
Traveling 219 is funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council. For more stories from the Traveling 219 project, please visit www.Traveling219.com.