Growing up in Pocahontas County where there is a state park around nearly every corner, it’s easy to fall under the spell of nature and all it has to offer.
For Huntersville native Sam Parker, nature was a clear draw when it was time to choose a career, he just didn’t realize that draw would lead him to state parks.
“Natural resources was definitely a draw – something to teach kids and adults about the environment,” he said. “I graduated from Pocahontas County High School, and I was thinking of doing meteorology or something like that. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Parker earned a degree from Bluefield State College and worked as a health inspector in McDowell County for several years before he joined the state park system with a job at Panther State Forest, the most southern state forest in West Virginia.
He later transferred to Twin Falls Resort State Park in Mullens, where he was the naturalist, and three months ago, he returned to Pocahontas County to be superintendent at Droop Mountain Battlefield, Beartown and Greenbrier River Trail state parks.
“For me, our state park system is very diverse – from the resort parks all the way down to our day use areas,” Parker said. “Like here [Droop]. This is just an amazing place. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met people from all over the world. We have an eclectic mix of visitors.”
Going from being the naturalist at one state park to being the superintendent of three was a little scary for Parker, but he has had great support from fellow park employees who have had his back during this transition period.
“It was definitely pretty scary,” he said. “It’s pretty daunting stuff, but I have a great mentor with Jody Spencer and Josh Feather [superintendent and assistant superintendent at Watoga State Park]. All those guys and gals at Watoga are like family, so anytime I need anything, they’re there to help me.
“I thought Droop was going to be the toughest one because of so much going on and so many people, but now I realize it’s the Greenbrier River Trail, it’s a vast expanse,” he continued. “The maintenance part of it is the hardest part – keeping up with trees falling down and stuff like that.”
When Parker took the position, he hit the ground running, literally, with his first event as superintendent – the first annual Greenbrier River Trail Marathon on October 7.
“There was a really great turnout,” he said. “I think a hundred forty, a hundred fifty people were in it. That came right after I started. That was really cool.”
Following the marathon were two re-enactments at the battlefield, which Parker said was an interesting experience for him seeing how much the visitors and re-enactors enjoyed the park.
“We had quite a lot of people,” he said. “There was one guy, I think it was his first time being in West Virginia. He was just tickled to death. It was rainy and messy, and they slept in little pup tents, but he was tickled to death. He was from England, or somewhere in the UK. They even wrote a letter afterwards about how happy they were with everything.”
Experiencing the events at his parks reinforces for Parker that he made the right decision. While he enjoyed his time at Panther and Twin Falls, there weren’t as many events as there are at Droop and on the trail.
“Panther – other than group camps in the summertime, there’s not really too much interpretation and talking to people,” he said. “Twin Falls – there’s a lot of naturalists things – that’s what I was down there – talking about the outdoors and ecology. Up here, I get to do both the natural history and the Civil War history, as well, which is pretty amazing.”
An outdoors buff, he is – a history buff, well…
“The Civil War history, I will admit, I didn’t know a lot,” he said. “Even though I grew up around here and my ancestors – they fought on both sides of things. I have great employees – Carl Barb and Jessica Blake. They have helped me a lot with the history. Especially Carl. He was here for nine years and learned a lot from Mike [Smith], and anytime I need help, they help me out tremendously.”
Smith, who was superintendent at Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park for more than 30 years, left big shoes to fill, but Parker said he is up for the challenge, and knows that Smith will be available, if needed.
“I always talk to people about how much he did for the park,” Parker said. “He was amazing – over thirty years of service to this park. He brought a lot here. It’s just amazing.”
As for his plans for the parks, Parker said there are some maintenance issues he hopes to address in the next few years and a few program ideas he hopes to implement.
“I want to try to do more interpretation things, try to get more events on the park,” he said. “Also, maintenance-wise, we want to fix up some stuff. Eventually, all the buildings out here are going to be re-sided with wood siding. It has to go under the historical designation. We have to go through the process since these are Civil Conservation Corps buildings.”
Parker also plans to update the interpretive signs with the help of historian Terry Hackney, who designed and installed the new signs on the Highland Scenic Highway.
Beartown and the trail are also showing their age, and Parker said he hopes to see some improvements, including new signs, in those areas, as well.
“Beartown is going pretty well,” he said. “It’s getting a little bit older, unfortunately, like everything else. It’s doing good for the most part, but the signs, we’re going to have to replace those. They’re looking pretty dated. The Greenbrier River Trail – most of the bridges are starting to get a little bit dated. Some of the wood is starting to age.”
Despite their age, the parks are still a big draw for visitors.
“People don’t realize the number of visitors we get,” Parker said. “Even if it’s a small number, it’s an eclectic mix. November, I think we only had forty or fifty people in the museum and there was one person from New Zealand and then another person from somewhere in Central America.”
A lot of people happen upon the parks during a visit through the county while some make trips specifically to see Droop or to enjoy the trail.
Parker admits that he is usually a rather quiet person, but when it comes to the parks, he can spend hours talking about the attractions in the area and the history of the parks themselves.
“With the park [Droop], it’s such a small park that you can talk about a bunch of stuff,” he said. “If I get going with people, I can talk for about three hours and it’s under three hundred acres. You think it’s a small park, but it’s still pretty large once you start talking about the history. Like the cave back there, I think that’s so cool. It’s past the Briery Knob Overlook. This time of year, especially if there’s a little bit of wind blowing, it’s blowing out a bunch of steam and it’s super- hot in there. It’s so cool that we have that for the kids and people to talk about the geology and talk about how blessed we are to be here.”
Droop Mountain Battlefield State Park is open year-round, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on upcoming events, call 304-799-4087 or visit wvstateparks.com/park/droop-mountain-battlefield-state-park/
Beartown State Park is open all year except during the winter and the Greenbrier River Trail is open year-round, and accessible from multiple points along its 77.1 miles.