Stories Told

A place where it means something to be a Grey

Handley is a tiny West Virginia town 20 miles south of Charleston on the Kanawha River. It served the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad back in the day. Cars full of coal still constantly pass through town.

This is where my family is from. My great grandmother Grey owned a tavern next to the rail yard office. My great grandmother Legg owned the town’s general store; my father was born in the apartment above it. Everybody in town owed money to my two great grandmothers, who therefore owned the town. My father, being from the town’s two most prominent families, might as well have been royalty.

You probably never could have called Handley a well-to-do place even when the rail yard was still operating. Today, there’s not much left. The tavern and the general store are long gone; no real commerce takes place here anymore. It is a place where people quietly live out their lives. But Handley remains the one place in the world where it means something to be a Grey.

In the 1950s some of the family left the hills to seek work in South Bend, Indiana. My dad, as a boy, was among them. He met my mother there and so there he stayed and made his life. All I ever knew of Handley was the occasional story Dad would tell, and from them I learned that the West Virginia Greys were one ornery and rowdy bunch. I was never quite sure if I could believe Dad’s stories, because he was seldom ornery and never rowdy. When Dad settled down with my mother, he truly settled down!

Dad’s 71 now. Several years ago became the oldest living Grey, which gave him pause and caused him to reconnect with his family. He’s organized several family reunions since then. We met in South Bend every few years at first, but the West Virginia contingent kept enticing us to come visit them. Last summer, Dad and I and my brother and my sons all drove to Handley to visit – and 50 people showed up to meet us. It was such a good time that we planned a reunion this summer in Handley. It was the weekend before last, and it was as much fun this year as our visit was last. Relatives I had only ever heard of welcomed me as if I had always been known and long been missed.

Two things happened in Handley that made Dad’s stories seem a lot more real.

First, at the reunion I watched from across the room as my youngest son walked over to where cans of soda were set out for everyone. He picked up one of the cans, shook it vigorously, and put it back for some poor sap to find later. I made a beeline for him and led him outside, where I read him the riot act. When I got back inside, three elder men took me to serious task for not letting my boy have his fun! Clearly, orneriness is still prized among the West Virginia Greys.

Later, I led that same son up the hill to visit the four-room school building my father attended as a boy. As we neared the school, now abandoned and dilapidated, a fellow out tending his yard called out to me: “Are you a Grey?” I think I favor my mother’s family, so I called back, “Do I look like one?” “You do!” he exclaimed, and asked, “Whose boy are you?” So I explained my heritage back to my grandfather, after whom I’m named but whom everybody knew as Wilson. The fellow remembered old Wilson and, quite satisfied I belonged wandering around his town, waved and turned back to his yard.

I once wrote a personal story about joy that includes a photo of my dad and I when I was a boy. I hope you’ll read it.

Stories Told

Mom Grey on my mind

Everyone in the family called her Mom. She was my father’s father’s mother, my great grandmother, and her time overlapped mine by a handful of years. Filet-O-Fish sandwiches will always make me think of her.

She was born in the West Virginia hills at a time when indoor plumbing wasn’t yet widely available. She is said to have been determined, ornery even. Her pluck served her well; she owned half the small town in which my father was born, including the local tavern. My father slept in a room above the tavern; Mom Grey did most of the work raising him.

Much of the family moved to South Bend in the 1950s looking for manufacturing and construction work. (Good thing, or my father would never have met my mother.) Mom Grey moved north at some point too, and by the time I came along she had a house on a narrow street near downtown. We visited most Sunday afternoons and I loved to go. She always had Hershey bars in the refrigerator just for my brother and me. We’d sit on her wooden front porch, which stretched across the front of the house, and play with a box of empty aerosol cans she inexplicably kept in a cardboard box. Or we’d get the rag off the kitchen sink and try to rub the age spots off her legs, which I can’t imagine now why she tolerated!

She had a very old TV, and behind this panel right at kid height were about a million knobs. I was obsessively drawn to knobs and buttons, and so when nobody was looking I’d pull off the panel and twist them. This almost certainly caused her to utter choice words when she settled in that night to watch Gunsmoke.

My brother and I were fascinated with a conch shell she used to prop open a door. The first time one of us reached for it, Dad quickly intervened as it had been strictly off limits to him as a boy. But Mom Grey would have none of it. “You let those boys play with that shell!” Dad stood down. When the family matriarch spoke, everyone fell into line.

Whenever our stay slipped into the dinner hour Dad would drive over to McDonald’s to buy us all Filet-O-Fish sandwiches, since Mom Grey enjoyed them. It was a testament to Dad’s devotion to his grandmother, for Dad was tight with his money and his wallet would not open so easily for anyone else.

Filet-O-Fish Sundays lasted only so many years, though, as Mom Grey passed on when I was six.

McDonald’s is next door to the hotel where my church has been meeting, and more Sundays than not I hit the drive through after service. Every Filet-O-Fish I’ve eaten has brought back these pleasant memories of Mom Grey.

If you’re wondering about the patch over my eye in the photo above, here’s the story behind it.

Camera Reviews

Canon Canonet QL17 G-III

It’s not hard to find a Canon Canonet QL17 G-III – Canon made 1.2 million of them between 1972 and 1982, and I swear half of them are available on eBay at any given time. But try finding a working one for under $100! I was incredibly fortunate to stumble upon one for just $30. It wasn’t flawless but it worked well enough.

Canonet QL 17 GIII

According to the code stamped inside, my QL17 G-III was made in 1977. It’s dented in one corner and the rangefinder glass has a small crack in it, so this one’s clearly seen a bit of rough usage.

Canonet QL 17 GIII

Every part of this camera’s long name means something:

  • QL stands for Quick Loading, a clever system that made loading film fast and foolproof (though I must be a sufficiently talented fool, because I managed to goober it up; more on that later)
  • 17 refers to the six-element 40 mm f/1.7 lens, highly praised for its “Leica-like” sharpness and ability to focus as close as 2.6 feet
  • G means “grade up” and recognizes quality improvements over an earlier Canonet QL17
  • III represents the third (and final) generation of Canonets; see them all at Canon’s online museum

The QL17 G-III overflows with goodies. Its very quiet leaf shutter fires from 1/4 to 1/500 second (though mine seems to stick at the slowest speeds). If you plug Canon’s Canolite D flash into its hot shoe, it syncs at all shutter speeds. Its viewfinder compensates for parallax. It has a self timer. And, most enjoyably, when you set the aperture dial to A and choose a shutter speed, it selects the aperture for you – shutter-priority autoexposure. Its CdS light meter is designed to use the banned PX625 mercury battery, but a size 625 Wein cell zinc-air battery will do, despite the slight voltage difference. To see if the battery has any juice left, press the red button next to the viewfinder. If the blue dot lights, the battery’s good to go.

By the way, if you like 35mm rangefinder cameras also see my review of the Canonet 28 (here), the Yashica Electro 35 GSN (here), the Minolta Hi-Matic 7 (here), the Olympus XA (here), and the Konica Auto S2 (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

I itched mightily to shoot a roll of film with my Canonet and see what kind of results I could get from the highly regarded lens. So I stopped at a nearby camera store for a size 625 Wein cell (for $8, gack), dropped in a roll of Fujicolor 200, and went shooting.

I was shooting happily away when I noticed that the counter said 29 – on a 24-exposure roll. I hadn’t stuck the film’s leader into the quick-loading mechanism far enough, the film failed to wind, and I had exposed the leader 29 times. After I reloaded, I snapped this shot.

Hoch lebe Deutschland!

The rumors are true: this is a nice little camera. The winding lever worked easily and quickly. Inside the viewfinder, the yellow rangefinder spot was bright and easy to see. To focus, you move the focus ring until the yellow rangefinder image lines up with the viewfinder image. I especially liked how the focus ring has a little tab that falls right between your left index and middle finger as you shoot; it made focusing almost effortless. I found myself focusing without even realizing I was doing it, as if the camera was part of me.


Sadly, the light seals had deteriorated and were leaking light. It’s a common affliction with any old camera that uses foam seals, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. I love this portrait of my dog, Gracie, and am sad that the red streaks mar it.

St. Joseph River bridge, South Bend

My only quibble with the Canonet is its shutter button, which has more travel than I expect. On my first roll I was constantly pressing down to no result. I kept having to reposition my finger at a steeper angle and press again.

James Monroe School

I loaded some Fujifilm Neopan 100 Acros on a trip to my hometown of South Bend, where I photographed my old elementary school. By this time I was getting the hang of the shutter button.

Monon Bridge

The Monon bridge in Broad Ripple, Indianapolis, is a frequent subject. The lens and Acros liked this bridge fine.


The Canonet did a nice job capturing the details on T-Max 100 of this scene in a little West Virginia town.


I finished the T-Max near home, where it kept on delivering the detail and sharpness. The Canonet’s lens really is a peach.

Lilly Lake, Eagle Creek Park *EXPLORED*

I finally sent the Canonet off for an overhaul and to have its light seals replaced. It came back working very well. I pushed a couple rolls of Agfa Vista 200 through it and got some real gems, like this lakeside scene.

At Coxhall Gardens

By this time, however, I’d owned the Canonet for many years and had shifted my collection toward 35mm SLRs. The Canonet was still a lovely little camera, but I could see that it was never going to be in the rotation among my regular shooters.

Lit balls

So I took it on one last photowalk in Downtown Indianapolis, and then sold it on.

The Claddagh

If you’d like to see more from this camera, check out my Canonet QL17 G-III gallery.

It’s crazy that I own so many great cameras that the QL17 G-III didn’t make the cut. Please don’t take this as a negative review. If this Canonet could be my only camera, I’d get on with making beautiful images with it forever. It’s just lovely, and if you ever find one at a good price you should snap it up.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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Road Trips

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge on the National (Old Trails) Road

I’d only ever zipped through Wheeling on I-70 before. The tunnel was always fun to drive through, but every time I emerged from it there was the old suspension bridge stretching across the river. I always swore that next time I’d get off the interstate and drive it.

Suspension bridge

As part of the tour of Wheeling Ryan Stanton of The Bell Rang blog [now defunct] so graciously gave us, we first went to the waterfront to take in the bridge in profile. There we could see the bridge make its connection to Wheeling Island. The panorama below (thanks, Autostitch!) shows the bridge’s west end and the buildings along the shore. Here it is in its original size.

Wheeling Island

The National Road was extended into Ohio starting in 1825, but for many years the only way across the Ohio River was by ferry. The need for a bridge was recognized as early as 1816, anticipating the road’s extension.

Suspension bridge

When you need to span a large gap, suspension bridges are just the way to go, and so two leading suspension-bridge designers were invited to submit designs. Many delays prevented the bridge from being built until 1849, but at its completion it was the longest suspension bridge in the world, 1,010 feet between its towers.

Suspension bridge

The Wheeling Suspension Bridge is only the 109th longest suspension bridge in the world today, but it is the oldest suspension bridge in the United States that still carries cars. Actually, as the bridge was designed to handle horse-and-buggy loads, trucks and buses are kept off it, the speed limit is low, and cars are told to stay back 50 feet from each other. The steel-grate deck they drive on dates to 1956, but most of the cables are original.

Suspension bridge

In 1921, nine years after the National Old Trails Road took over most of the National Road’s route and seven years before Madonnas of the Trail began appearing on the road courtesty of the Daughters of the American Revolution, those Daughters also placed this plaque on the bridge. The bridge then spent many years carrying US 40’s traffic. But after I-70 was built and US 40 was routed onto it, West Virginia has quietly maintained the bridge as part of its state highway network, although it is not currently part of a signed route.

We lingered at the bridge in the chilly air that morning. My boys even walked out along the sidewalk halfway over the Ohio River – yes, the old bridge carries pedestrians, too! But we wanted to see the National Road across Ohio, and to squeeze it in that day we’d have to move along. I finally kept my promise to myself as we drove over the bridge, its steel grate deck causing the car to rumble. We found US 40 on Wheeling Island and headed off into Ohio.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Road Trips

A tour of Wheeling, West Virginia, on the National Road

It made good sense to stop in Wheeling overnight as we made our way home on the National Road. It’s just shy of 300 miles from Baltimore to Wheeling, and a bit more than 300 miles from Wheeling to Indianapolis, and that’s about as close to smack-dab-in-the-middle as it gets.

It also made excellent sense to contact Ryan Stanton, of The Bell Rang blog, since he often writes about Wheeling history and architecture (and frequently comments here). [Since I wrote this post, his blog went dark, so no link.] I’ve had great fun meeting bloggers with interests similar to mine when I’m on the road. He was not only glad to meet up, but offered a tour of Wheeling’s sights.

Ryan brought his dad along as we toured downtown and the famous suspension bridge over the Ohio River. I’ll write about the suspension bridge in my next post. There’s enough in downtown Wheeling to crowd it out of this post!

One of Ryan’s favorite subjects is Henry Schmulbach, a brewer key to Wheeling’s growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He built this 13-story building, which was completed in 1907, to be his headquarters. It remains Wheeling’s tallest building. It’s so tall that I couldn’t get back far enough for my camera’s lens to capture the whole building. I took several photos and merged them in Photoshop.

Schmulbach building

Ryan also writes about this building, the National Bank of West Virginia, and its unusual entrance. This is another multi-photo image merged in Photoshop.

National Bank of West Virginia, Wheeling

Sadly, all in Wheeling is not quite as well cared for as these two great buildings. Many of Wheeling’s downtown buildings have fallen into disrepair. This poor building was the worst I saw – it had recently burned.


Before I could get too depressed about Wheeling’s state of decay, we came upon this great theater, its neon sign lit in defiance of the morning sun.

Victoria Theater

Wheeling’s best days may currently be behind it, but its downtown has plenty of potential. Here’s hoping that better days are still ahead.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

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Road Trips

Madonnas of the Trail on the National Old Trails Road

In the 1910s, before the US highway system, a coast-to-coast road was formed to link Baltimore (or New York, some maps say) to San Francisco. Named the National Old Trails Road, it made its way across 12 states. Some of it was new construction, but most of it followed existing roads, including the National Road west from Cumberland, Maryland. In 1928 and 1929, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed one Madonna of the Trail statue along the National Old Trails Road in each of its 12 states. The statues commemorate pioneer women who made the difficult journey west. Along the National Road, the easternmost statue is in Pennsylvania, just east of Beallsville.

Madonna of the Trail

Since each statue is the same, you might think that after you’ve seen one Madonna, you’ve seen them all. I had previously seen the one in Vandalia, Illinois, at the National Road’s very end.

Madonna of the Trail

The next morning I would see the one in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Wheeling Madonna of the Trail

But there’s just something compelling about these old ladies. We had planned to see the ones in Springfield, Ohio and Richmond, Indiana as well on this trip, but fate conspired against us, and we were sorely disappointed.

I’ve driven the National Road from its beginning in Baltimore, MD to its end in Vandaila, IL. To read everything I’ve ever written about it, click here.

To get Down the Road in your inbox or reader six days a week, click here to subscribe!
To get my newsletter with previews of what I’m working on, click here to subscribe!