West Virginia's Favorite Hillbilly Newspaper
By Ted Anthony
Ted Anthony, a wire service reporter based in Philadelphia,once lived in West Virginia and enjoyed it.
T he tiny mountain village of Richwood, West Virginia, is famous for two products: ramps and Jim Comstock. In season, both can be pungent.
Ramps are mountain onions, foul-smelling vegetables celebrated each year at a harvest festival. Comstock is a quick-witted iconoclast who built, ran and still has a hand in the West Virginia Hillbilly, a weekly he launched 37 years ago. Its motto: "A newspaper for people who can't read, edited by an editor who can't write."
If West Virginia is, as some say, one big county, then Comstock, 83, is its local historian. For more than five decades, he has served up tales of the state's hills and hollows to readers in 40 states and six countries. Once, when the Saturday Review lauded the Hillbilly as "sophisticated reading," Comstock demanded a retraction. Another time, inspired by a newspaper's attempt to perfume its ink, he scented the Hillbilly with ramp juice and drew a rebuke from the post office.
"We are," he says, "the only newspaper in the country under orders not to smell bad. Imagine doing that to a newspaper."
Comstock retired last year for the third time and sold the Hillbilly to Sandy McCauley, an Ohio newspaper editor and publisher who fled the daily deadline grind. He promised Comstock free rein, so the retired editor still helps with pasteup and editorial decisions. And he still writes his nostalgic column, "The Comstock Load."
A former schoolteacher, Comstock founded the Hillbilly in 1957 as "a paper for all West Virginia." Today, the Hillbilly remains a Mountain State sampler, with sections on state history, columns by bureaucrats, mouth-watering recipes and even a poetry section called "Old Likker in a New Jug."
Comstock has also found time to write a half dozen books, fund the reprinting of dozens of others and compile the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia, a set of 51 slim volumes with hand-lettered bindings. It has become the definitive, if somewhat rustic, state history reference.
The editor seems most at home, however, covering the mountains and their people – legislators, coal miners, educators, housewives and just plain folks. And just because he sometimes pokes fun at his fellow West Virginians doesn't mean he takes it lightly when others do.
"There's no use trying to out-cute a hillbilly boy," he once wrote, "as the traveling salesman found out when he stopped a boy over at Crupperneck and said, 'Hey, kid, how far is it a mile or so up the creek?'
" 'Oh,' said the kid, 'I reckon it's about five times as long as a fool. So just lay down and start measuring.' "