Filmmakers capturing oral history of Cass

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Husband and wife team, J.T. Arbogast and Kimberly Dilts, have always had a strong connection to Cass. Arbogast’s grandmother, Odessa “Dess” Kane, lived in Cass. Her struggle with Alzheimer’s was the center of the pair’s film, Angel’s Perch, which was shot on location in and around Cass.

Following the success of the film, Arbogast and Dilts returned to their home in Los Angeles, California, but remained close to their Cass “family,” and spent time at Kane’s home.

Last summer, they decided it was time to work on a new project revolving around Cass and/or Pocahontas County and chose to put down the cameras and work on a podcast featuring interviews with past and present Cass residents.

“So many stories are passed down from generation-to-generation, and it’s not just stories – it’s music, it’s culture, it’s sort of a defining characteristic of living in Appalachia,” Arbogast said. “I had this idea in my head, which started to formulate what we are calling an Appalachian Storytelling Podcast.”

Arbogast likened the podcast format to that of This American Life meets Prairie Home Companion, with the history of an area accompanied by the music from that time, played by local musicians.

“It’s capturing people’s stories that would help to paint a portrait of life – certainly in West Virginia – but sort of Appalachia as a whole,” he said.

The idea began to sprout and, when Arbogast met with Cass Scenic Railroad State Park Superintendent Benny McCune and Assistant Superintendent Marshall Markley, it branched out to include the option of using the podcast as a walking audio tour of Cass.

When visitors come to Cass and walk through the town, they will have the option of downloading an app, which will allow them to hear the stories of the people, from the people who lived there in its heyday, and as it quieted down.

While it might be easier for Arbogast to record himself or if McCune or another volunteer told the stories, Arbogast believes it is important to have the stories come directly from the people.

“You certainly get more attached to a place when you hear first-hand from people what that experience was,” Arbogast said. “I think there’s an emotional attachment to that. In some ways, it’s a natural extension of what we tried to do with Angel’s Perch from a fictional standpoint, which was to celebrate this place that we love. there’s no place like Cass anywhere – certainly not from our perspective. It’s such an incredibly special place that has so much history and it’s so unique in it’s existence.”

When Arbogast was in the planning phase for the project, he contacted Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau information specialist Tammy Shoemaker, who is an expert on Cass and its people.

“She’s such an incredible resource,” he said. “She’s working with me on it because when I thought about doing this, I thought, ‘well I have to have Tammy as a partner on this because one – she loves the place as much as I do and two – she’s incredibly tied into the history of it. She lives it every day. You’d be hard pressed to find somebody better to talk to about Cass when you get there.”

Shoemaker has close relationships with many of the families who lived in Cass and return each year to visit and for family reunions. That gave Arbogast a great starting point for interviews.

Arbogast attended the annual Cass Homecoming celebration this summer and interviewed many of the people in attendance – and realized just how large the project could be.

“People love to talk, which is great,” he said. “It was a great kick-off for us, because when people come in for Homecoming, there’s an energy about the whole event. People are there to reminisce. People are there to see old friends. Some people sat down for an hour, and it’s great, but you ultimately know you’re talking to them for an hour and you’re like, ‘there’s so much here, how am I going to choose?’”

When it comes time to edit and create episodes for the podcast, Arbogast envisions a three-segment episode which will begin with stories about a specific topic or time period or one individual’s life story, followed by a music segment and ending with a current event which will take place in Cass.

While working on the podcast, Arbogast and Dilts have also been active members on the Pocahontas County Bicentennial Committee which led them to expand their oral history project to the rest of the county.

“In the scheme of the podcast for the Bicentennial, it would likely be around the calendar of events that are going to be occurring during that year,” Arbogast said. “I’m not interested in being the voice of it, but I can transition things and stay out of the way, and let the stories breathe and tell themselves.”

The pair will return to Cass in October and work on the project through December.

“What’s interesting for me is, as a storyteller, I’m excited about hearing other people’s stories,” Arbogast said. “This isn’t a situation where we’re looking to monetize this in any crazy way. It’s not like we’re looking to make money off of these stories or anything like that. Our goal really – we love it. It’s home for us, and I think that – in the same way we did Angel’s Perch – we were looking to shine a light on the rich culture and beauty that exists in the area.

“This is another way for us to do that.”

If you have a story you would like to share, you may send it online to

more recommended stories