Historical Society remembers Buckeye poet laureate
The old Buckeye School is a bookstore now, an appropriate use for a building where children learned to read and write. Row upon row of dusty books fill the cloakrooms and classrooms where kids hung their coats and whispered secrets to each other. A rusty pot-bellied stove – used to heat the school and cook pots of soup for lunch – sits in a back room. One former classroom remains much as it was when children filled its seats, with blackboards, curled up wall maps and a row of seats with inkwell holders.
Grown-ups filled the classroom on Sunday afternoon to remember a teacher who taught at Buckeye School – the late Louise McNeill, poet laureate of West Virginia. The Pocahontas County Historical Society held its annual meeting at the Buckeye Bend Bookstore on Sunday afternoon. Elizabeth Spangler, of Lewisburg, gave a talk on the life and career of Louise McNeill. The guest of honor was Annabell McNeill, sister-in-law of the late poet laureate. Society member and local poet Helena Gondry, of Droop Mountain, organized the event.
“Louise’s family became important to me because of the poem she wrote on the Battle of Droop Mountain,” said Gondry. “It spoke to me because I walk those trails everyday and it means something to me to be a part of history in this community. The poem she wrote, Droop Mountain, is hanging where it should be, on the screen door at the back of the museum at Droop. It’s wonderful that we’re keeping her voice alive in all kinds of places.”
McNeill was born on January 9, 1911, on a Buckeye farm where her family has lived for nine generations. “Until I was sixteen years old, until the roads came, the farm was about all I knew: our green meadows and hilly pastures, our storied old men, the great rolling seasons of moon and sunlight, our limestone cliffs and trickling springs,” McNeill wrote in her memoir, The Milkweed Ladies.
Her father, G. D. McNeill, was a Navy veteran and writer who published a collection of short stories about the forests of Pocahontas County.
McNeill wrote her first poem at age 16 on a friend’s typewriter and vowed “to be a poet and write poems forever.” She began teaching in Pocahontas County after she graduated high school in 1927.
In 1936, she received a bachelor’s degree in English from Concord College. According to Spangler, McNeill took an elective poetry class at Concord and received a grade of D. She earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University in Ohio in 1938, and won a scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont, where she studied under poet Robert Frost in the summer of 1938.
She accompanied her husband, Robert Pease, to South Carolina, where they taught at a prestigious boarding school, before returning to West Virginia in 1948. McNeill taught English at WVU from 1948 to 1953 and earned a doctorate in history at WVU in 1959. She continued teaching at Potomac State College from 1959 to1962; Concord College from 1962 to1967; and Fairmont State College from 1969 to1973, before retiring in 1973.
Governor Jay Rockefeller named McNeill West Virginia’s poet laureate in 1979. A combined board of the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail named her West Virginian of the Year in 1985. WVU inducted McNeill into its Academy of Distinguished Alumni in 1989, and awarded her an honorary Doctorate in the Humanities the same year.
McNeill died on June 18, 1993.
Local historian Bill McNeel reported that the Buckeye School was built sometime between 1910 and 1920 and replaced the earlier Rush Run School, which was built around 1880. The Buckeye School closed in 1960. McNeel said he found newspaper references to McNeill teaching in Pocahontas County at Pleasant Hill School from 1931-1932; Buckeye School from 1934 to 1938; and Marlinton Graded School from 1938-1939.
Historical Society meetings are held in a variety of locations and feature presentations on Pocahontas County and West Virginia history. For information on joining, call Bill McNeel at 304-799-4369.