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Down memory lane with the Whangers

A view of Durbin when it was a booming town with a busy train depot for the C&O and Western Maryland railroads. Photo courtesy of Julian Whanger
A view of Durbin when it was a booming town with a busy train depot for the C&O and Western Maryland railroads. Photo courtesy of Julian Whanger

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Dusting off old photo albums and digging through boxes of newspaper clippings brings a rush of memories to mind. For Julian and Marilyn Whanger, those memories take them back to the good old days in Durbin.

The Whangers may be permanent residents of Virginia now, but they still return to Durbin to Julian’s childhood home – the place of his birth – where they keep their cherished memories of loved ones and good times as children.

Julian’s family moved to Durbin in 1924 when his father, Elbert, began working for the C&O and Western Maryland railroads.

“Everybody called him E.C.,” Julian said. “He started out with the railroad years and years before as a telegrapher and he came to Durbin in 1924 and started working at the railroad station as a telegrapher. The fellow he worked with was named Chris Beard and Chris was the agent then. I think he either died or retired, and my dad was promoted to agent. He was down here at Durbin from 1924 to 1972, almost 50 years.”

The household included E.C, Julian and brothers, Elbert Jr. and David, their mother, Willa, and her father.
Willa raised three boys, took care of her father and taught at the grade school in Durbin.

“She got her education up at Shepherd College and then after Granddad died, she went back over to D&E,” Julian said.

“She would go to school – drive across the mountain to Elkins to go to finish up her classes – come back here and feed her family,” Marilyn said. “She was one of those that everything just flowed and she knew exactly what to do. That was an amazing woman.”

Some of Julian’s childhood was spent at the Durbin depot, watching his dad work and seeing the freight trains come in loaded with all kinds of supplies for the town.

“For some reason there was a side track up here as you cross the road to go to the back road – there used to be a great big water tank there where the steam engines would load up, and there was a spare track up there,” Julian said. “They put a bunch of old cars there and just left them.

“It went on for years and years, and Dad went up there to investigate it and it was full of cherry wood – the whole thing,” he continued. “He got with the people and they said ‘you do what you want to with it, we’re not going to do anything with the stuff.’ He took it down to Virginia and had some furniture made for us. We still have the dining room table and six chairs – solid cherry.”

Ironically, the furniture store, Cardinal Furniture, is located just 15 miles from where the Whangers currently reside in Virginia.

The railroad was an integral part of both Julian’s and Marilyn’s lives.

Marilyn Davis grew up on Cheat Mountain in Randolph County, but attended school in Durbin and Green Bank. Every summer, she would hop on the train and travel to her Grandma’s house in Bowden.

“In the summertime, as soon as school was out, the next day, Dad put me on the train and I would go to Grandma Phares,” Marilyn said. “I would stay there for the summer, and I would come back the day before school started.
“Riding the train, I learned one thing,” she continued. “You do not ride in a train with the window up because the windows bounce and it could just chop your arm off. Everyone that worked on the train, they all knew who I was. They all knew my dad, so I was taken care of. Nobody was going to bother me.”

In the summers when Marilyn didn’t visit her grandma, she was treated to visits from some interesting characters.

“In the summertime, my mom made potato soup every day and she made bread every day,” Marilyn said. “The convicts from Huttonsville – evidently they all told where to go to get food when they came across the mountain. They’d break out of prison and they would come across the mountain in the woods. They would come to our house all summer long.

“When they finished, they would always say, ‘I’m going to cut you some wood,’” she continued. “The wood was always out there on the back porch. Mom would say, ‘no, I’m okay – just appreciate you stopping.’”

While it is considered a crime, Marilyn said her mother didn’t think twice about feeding the escapees.

“My mother, she would have served them if it was the last drop and last piece of bread,” Marilyn said. “She would have never turned them down. We had them all the time. You fed them. You could not say no. You didn’t know if they were in there for killing somebody. Back then, people helped people.”

Although it was a trek for Marilyn, Durbin was the place to be at that time and both Juilan and Marilyn have fond memories of the businesses they visited in town.

“You had the company store, you had Mrs. Rexrode’s clothing and shoe place, you had Kane’s store,” Marilyn said. “You had groceries from two stores, plus Jim Wilson, he had material and other staples. The big thing back then was bread and bologna. I remember stopping several times a week to get bread and bologna for our sandwiches at lunch time.”

The town also had restaurants, hotels and bars for entertainment.

“They had the Moose [Lodge] and on Friday night and Saturday night, they had dances for the teenagers – that’s where we would go for fun,” Marilyn said. “On Friday and Saturday night, you didn’t have a place on Main Street to park. You got there early enough in order to get a good parking place.”

“It was bumper to bumper cars,” Julian added.

The couple met after Julian graduated high school, while Marilyn was still at Green Bank High School. They began dating and Julian would drive back and forth from Richmond, Virginia, where he had a job, to visit Marilyn.

There were several winters when travel was next to impossible, but somehow, Julian managed to make it to Cheat Mountain.

“It would just be like walls of snow on both sides of the road, one lane traffic,” Julian said. “If you met a car, somebody would have to back up until you got a place where you could pass. The snow would be up sometimes to probably fourteen, fifteen feet tall.”

It was on wintery roads that Marilyn took her driving test – a harrowing and slick day.

“State Trooper Higby gave me my test,” Marilyn said. “Snow was piled up and the roads were slippery. I had to drive up over the hill and I had never driven out there except in good weather. I went coming down over the hill and he said, ‘now don’t you slam on the brakes, you just take it easy coming down here.’ I was scared to death I was going to hit some building with the vehicle.”

As the couple looks back on their lives in Durbin, they remember the fun and simpler times, when everyone you met was neighborly and the town was a hub for import and export.

“There was a lot going on,” Julian said. “It was a different kind of world than it is now. Everybody got along. Your parents didn’t have to worry about if you were out at ten at night. It was a different environment all together.”

The Whangers married in 1960 and will celebrate their 55th anniversary on Christmas Day, 2015. They have a son, Michael, daughter-in-law, Patty, and one grandson, Brenton.

While they now spend most of their time in Virginia, the Whangers will always call Durbin home.

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