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The wonders of a forgotten village

Recently, I got up early and drove a total of six hours just to spend two hours back home.

Why would I put so much effort into so little time?

I said it earlier, I went back home.

I think many of you who continue to live in Lawrence County don’t appreciate the value of this special place. I didn’t appreciate it until I moved away so many years ago.

That Saturday, there was a special event in Waterloo, a little village near the Gallia County line. Wonder of Wonders Ministries, a relatively new church group, held a festival called Wonder Day.

Among other activities, they displayed memorabilia from Waterloo High School and the famed Waterloo Wonders basketball team (1934-35) and held a rededication of the Waterloo Wonders historical marker. This experience was not just enjoyable for Mom, my sister and me, it was powerful.

When Mom was growing up, Waterloo was a bustling village with an elementary and high school, three restaurants, a funeral home, two doctors, a post office and a movie theatre.

At that time, Waterloo was the place for young people to hang out.
As they passed over the covered bridge that crossed Symmes Creek, they knew adventure was ahead.

Mom still points out where buildings used to stand and shares stories of people who touched her life, like when her older brother would take her and her sister to the movies and buy sodas at the restaurant. Mom even remembers some of the high school cheers from her day.

Waterloo’s Doc Swango, Mom’s then father-in-law, often took her along on house calls. He allowed this still-teenage girl to drive his old jeep.

She always had a heavy foot and had thrills driving up the hills, into the hollows and through wildly-curved roads to get to his patients. She says when patients didn’t have money to pay him, he often accepted live chickens or homemade goods instead.

Waterloo is special for me, too. That’s where I attended elementary school and did the majority of my growing up.

At the age of 15, I was drawn to the Waterloo United Methodist (where WOW Ministries is housed now) and worshipped there until I left home at 17.

All these years later, walking into the old church was a holy moment for me. Entering the sanctuary was almost breathtaking, not because of its physical beauty or impressive furnishings. The building is much like it was 40 years ago.

I saw the same pews where the small congregation gathered. I could almost see that gentle elderly man, Emil Roach, playing his guitar and singing “Give Me Oil in My Lamp” and remember his wife, Jenny, standing to testify of the goodness of God at every meeting.

Their son, Ervin Roach, led the singing and Ann Coburn would lead the most powerful prayers ever. I stood behind the podium that Beth Coburn, Becky Herrell and I held onto as we sang hymns from our hearts.

The most significant relic, and one that is most dear to me was the altar: the same sacred, precious altar where I first knelt and shed tears as a teenager.

Waterloo has changed drastically since the early years. Some might say Waterloo is a forgotten village.

No longer does it boast the restaurants and other amenities it once had. The population has dwindled. And yet, visiting with the others who gathered that day at WOW Ministries, I felt the same spirit.

The people of Waterloo and the surrounding areas are people of pure Appalachian character. We stand on strong shoulders of our ancestors who first settled here.

We aren’t fancy people. We don’t boast of great possessions or great prestige. We don’t have that need. We are rugged, resourceful and intelligent people with determination to survive.

We care about our community. We care about our neighbors. No matter how rich or poor we might be considered, we are generous with what we have.

Even if we move hundreds of miles away for decades, we are still proud to call this place home and these people ours.

Today the people of WOW Ministries in Waterloo are igniting belief in the community.

Adults are donating their skills to build a program that will benefit the entire area. They provide a safe place for people to belong and be valued.

Many children are participating in opportunities that show their talents and share their hearts before the congregation. The community is getting to experience free Christmas and Easter programs and other events. People are beginning to see their value and know they  have a reason to keep going.

The media often focuses on the problems of Appalachia. We have struggles with unemployment, inadequate housing, food insecurity, and substance abuse, but this isn’t unique to Appalachia.

JD Vance, author of acclaimed book Hillbilly Elegy, stated he believes one of the greatest downfalls of the Appalachian culture is the loss of community churches.

Research has shown that, in order to have authentic happiness, three things are needed: the ability to enjoy the moment, being involved with a healthy community and meaningful, purposeful work.

How grateful I am to Doug Miller, pastor of WOW Ministries and the rest of their congregation for bringing this gift to the Waterloo community. Thank you, WOW, for creating a very special and treasured day for me.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at norastanger@gmail.com.