By Stephen Smoot
For 88 years and counting, Pendleton County has hosted one of the great traditional events in the state, the Alt-Kimble Reunion. Through the Great Depression, a World War, the COVID pandemic, and social media’s erosion of face to face gathering, this reunion has persevered.
Anyone with even the most tenuous of connections with the Alt or Kimble family (likely almost everyone in the region) is welcome to participate. This year, with perfect August temperatures and a clear cobalt sky, hundreds of attendees enjoyed a day of food, fun, and family heritage.
Gerald Sites, a relative of the Kimble family, born and raised in Smoke Hole, and eventually serving as a vice president of Grant County Bank, was both host and master of ceremonies for the event. Sites describes the importance of both tradition and family, saying that “You always want to learn more about your heritage, your family.” Sites goes on to explain that young people may not often appreciate learning about their roots, but “As you get older, family heritage means more to you.”
He then said proudly, “This reunion has been going 88 years strong!”
Each year opens with a service in the Old Judy Church. Sites stated that “One of the best things (at the reunion) is this little church service.”
This year, the reunion invited Kris Poland and her husband, Steve, from Believers’ Victory Center to lead worship. After leading the group in hymn singing, Kris Poland delivered a powerful and spirited sermon focusing on the need to love family while they are with us and also to remember the role of Christ as Son of God.
Kris Poland added that one of the blessings of the reunion service is that it provides an opportunity for people of different communities to worship together. “The Body of Christ is important,” she explains and adds that people from different churches “can gather together and get an opportunity to hear the gospel.”
The Old Judy Church itself serves as the structural heart of the reunion. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was built in 1837, survived the Civil War and the ravages of time, was rebuilt in 1936, and saw the roof restored in 1973. The church retains its nearly two-century-old walls, constructed of the ancient virgin timber that used to cover the state.
After church comes the famous potluck lunch. More than 50 dishes at two different stations, almost all homemade, provided ample and delicious food for attendees. As they enjoyed their lunch, local country and gospel group Raw Country entertained the crowd with traditional favorites.
With food options, the reunion strives to give back. For the past two years, the Upper Tract Producers 4-H Club has run the reunion’s concession stand, offering cold drinks, ice cream, and other refreshments to go alongside the free potluck lunch.
As Amy Rexrode, club leader explains, “this is a great fundraiser for us.” Money that is raised supports programs such as Christmas present donations to Pendleton Manor residents, club speakers, crafts, supplies, and other needs.
Apart from faith, rousing music, and delicious food, the other great tradition of the Alt-Kimble Reunion revolves around politics. Prominent politicos from the past and present have enjoyed a day at the reunion. Notable figures through the years included Cecil Underwood (in both of his terms,) Jay Rockefeller, Earl Ray Tomblin, Alex Mooney, Joe Manchin, and others.
The most memorable visits, however, came from US Senator Robert C. Byrd. As Sites remembers, during the bicentennial 1976 reunion, Senator Byrd had to mount a buggy drawn by two horses and driven by Ari Yokum. The buggy took him up to the red wooden stage where he addressed an astounding crowd of over 3,500.
This year, State Senator Bill Hamilton served as the main political speaker. Senator Hamilton explained that “I’m not related biologically, but I am family as a West Virginian.” He expressed dismay with partisan political problems moving from DC to Charleston.
Speakers also included William Waddy of Petersburg High School. He earned the state prize in reciting the creed of the Future Farmers of America, which he performed for the reunion. He will soon compete for the national prize.
The day concluded with door prizes, including a child’s bike.
The most important theme of the day lay in family. With attendees coming from states as far away as Arkansas, many caught up with kin not seen in years while also seeing family they never met. Many happily traced their family histories back while poring over photographs and albums of reunions in years gone by.
Remembrances of genealogy were punctuated by stories of “growing up in the good ol’ days.”
No reunion could take place without the generosity of the Judy family who owns the land. Sites says that, “We’re very appreciative of the Judy family to let us continue to use it for our family reunion.”
While hundreds did attend, Sites and others hope to see even more enjoying the reunion in years to come, especially young people. For those seeking more information, the reunion also hosts a Facebook page with more memories and information.