Kermit "Mac" McKeever (1910-1995) received the Pugsley Medal in 1966. He was chief of the West Virginia Division of Parks and Recreation from 1948-1977. Born in Droop, West Virginia, McKeever was one of 13 children. From 1917 until 1925, he attended grade school at Locust Creek. In 1925, he went to Frankfurt High School, where he was vice-president of his senior class. His father had a large farm in Greenbrier County, West Virginia, where he worked until he entered college. From 1929-1930, McKeever attended Gleaville State College, majoring in elementary education. He taught in Greenbrier County for one year before attending West Virginia University, graduating in 1936 with a degree in biological sciences. He acquired a job with the US Department of Agriculture as a district extension agent. His first assignment was in Greenbrier County, but he was subsequently transferred to Hardy County.
The Hardy County sheriff lived across the road from McKeever, and he was active in supporting the successful candidacy of Matthew Neely for the US Senate. Senator Neely was later elected governor of West Virginia from 1940-1944. The sheriff was instnunental in arranging for McKeever to meet the governor, and in his subsequent appointment as superintendent of Lost River State Park in Hardy County. In 1944, McKeever was transferred to Watoga State Park in Pocahontas County. At that time, the park system was one of the responsibilities of the Conservation Commission which changed its name to the Department of Natural Resources in 1961 when the division of state parks became one of five operating divisions of the department.
In 1948, McKeever was promoted to chief of the division of state parks and recreation, in which capacity he served for 29 years. The West Virginia State Park System he helped build is an enduring monument to his life's work. For 14 of his 29 years of tenure, he served in the dual capacity of acting director (during an illness of the director), assistant director or as deputy director of the Conservation Commission.
Many improvements and additions were made to the West Virginia Park System during the 29 years McKeever served as its chief. Among them: the system grew from 14 to 34 parks, which represents a new state park approximately every 16 months of his tenure; an additional 100 vacation cabins were built; nine lodges in state parks were constructed, allowing park vacations to be available throughout the year; the first major winter sports sled runs and ski slopes in the state were developed; golf courses were created; the first campgrounds in the system were built; activity programs were offered, which included a strong naturalist program; and improvements and additions in practically all phases were made. One of his successors as chief of state parks observed:
He had incredible vision and foresight and was completely dedicated to preserving the state's natural resources. To be able to survive in the political climate -- and West Virginia is known for its rough and tumble political battles -- for that long was remarkable. He was a man of tremendous vision and constancy of purpose. He blended that with political skills, which gave West Virginia the long-term stability of one park chief.
During the first four years of his appointment, the sitting governor had relatively little interest in state parks. However, this changed with the election of Governor William Marland in1952, who pledged if elected to expand the state park system. Prior to his inauguration, Marland planned the first revenue bonding authority. McKeever had found a governor with whom he could work; a person who shared his desire to see the parks system grow. Shortly after his election, the Revenue Bond Act of 1953 was passed, granting authority to sell bonds as a means of financing improvements and additions to the park system, making West Virginia one of the first states to acquire and develop major state park facilities by this method. The investment in amenities was so successful that the bonds were redeemed without obligating the state's taxpayers. However, this did mean that no revenues were available to offset general operation and maintenance expenses so these became a greater obligation on the state's general fund.
This new method of funding enabled the park system to expand not only in number of parks but in services rendered. The concept of park development changed drastically as the first major lodges were built, and camping became a major park program. In 1954-55, revenue bonds totaling $4.4 million were sold. Under this program, the lodges at Blackwater Falls and Cacapon were built at an approximate cost of $750,000 each. Eighty-nine new vacation cabins were built at Watoga, Tygart Lake, Cacapon, Bluestone, Blackwater Falls, and Lost River, together with numerous other improvements such as roads, bridges, utilities, etc. Other facilities that benefited in the 1950s from the bonding authority were lodges at Tygart Lake and North Bend, and a bathhouse at Tomlinson Run. With these new developments, the state park system was on its way to becoming a major factor in the emerging travel industry of the state.
Some other programs and events that came in the 1950s included: organized recreation programs in many of the vacation parks, the construction of the Grandview Amphitheatre, cooperation with the department of corrections in the establishment of a camp for delinquent youths at Blackwater Falls, and construction of a youth camp at Tomlinson Run. In 1956, the legislature transferred the operations of the Point Pleasant Battlefield Monument, the Rumsey Memorial Monument, and the Morgan Monument to the Conservation Commission to be administered by the state parks division.
The decade of the 1950s was a period of remarkable growth and change. Park philosophy was no longer directed primarily toward preservation, but toward use and development of scenic natural resources that was compatible with preservation. As an example, the plan for development of Blackwater contained the statement that it "will not only preserve an area of outstanding state significance for our people but will serve as a pilot project to awaken a dormant industry."
With the tremendous growth of the park system in number of areas, types of usage and size of budgets, it became evident that concrete guidelines were needed for their operation, maintenance, development, and usage. This thought led to the development of a ten-year master plan for the park system for the years 1958-1968.
In 1960, the state's Democratic voters picked the right candidate in the presidential primaries. It was the first southern and Protestant state to support John F. Kennedy. This support has been credited by historians with making Kennedy a credible candidate. Kennedy didn't forget the state's key role in his election. On his many visits to the state, Kennedy was made aware of the decline in its coal mining area and the need to create alternate sources of employment. He was convinced that the state's natural beauty could be the basis for a viable tourism industry. Hence, he was instrumental in arranging for a $28-million infusion of funds into the Area Redevelopment Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The main purpose of the Area Redevelopment Administration was to create jobs and give employment to the unemployed. West Virginia saw the opportunity to do this by development of its scenic natural resources, which also would boost the state's young tourist industry. Several new recreation activities in state parks had their beginning here.
Loans amounting to $18 million and $10 million in grants were secured for the park program. Three entirely new parks were developed at Pipestem, Canaan Valley, Twin Falls, and major additions and improvements were made at Haws Nest and Cass Scenic Railroad. These new parks represented a modern departure from the traditional concept of West Virginia state parks. The first major ski facility in the state was built at Canaan Valley, and it was soon followed by other privately-financed slopes. The first state park golf courses were built at Pipestem, Twin Falls, and Canaan Valley. Tramways, something that also was new in the state parks, were built at Hawks Nest and Pipestem, and the Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, a former logging railroad, which remains one of the most outstanding and unique tourist attractions in the eastern United States, became a reality.
McKeever presided over a shift in how state parks in West Virginia were conceptualized. The system had originally focused upon natural and historical parks. However, in the 1960s, the demand for recreation made it necessary to develop parks that offered a diverse array of outdoor opportunities. He recognized more was needed to ensure that scenic, scientific, and cultural resources were not sacrificed for recreational opportunities. This was done by increasing the number of areas designed to meet the emerging recreational needs, not by permitting inappropriate development on existing areas. He observed, "Importantly, our mandate does not say that all people may have all things in all parks!"
The park of which McKeever was most proud was the 4,000-acre Pipestem State Park. He carefully oversaw every step of the construction and saw that Pipestem was a park that all could enjoy whether their interest was swimming, horseback riding, golf, or hiking. It was opened on Memorial Day, 1970. In June 1991, the main lodge was officially named the McKeever Lodge, in his honor.
While the other states charged entrance fees to their parks, McKeever was insistent that West Virginia's parks should be free to the public. He said, "I have always opposed entrance fees. Our people should not have to pay to see it." He believed the parkland's beauty should be a resource to all and noted that the state park enabling legislation of 1920 stated there should be no commercialization in state parks.
One of his last contributions was coordinating the transfer of jurisdiction over the recreational use of the state forests and several of the wildlife management to the Division of Parks and Recreation. McKeever resigned as chief of the Parks and Recreation Division in 1977 to accept the position of full-time deputy director of the Department of Natural Resources. On September 1, 1978, he retired after almost 45 years in conservation work. Upon his retirement, he was accorded the status of "Distinguished West Virginian" by Governor John D. Rockefeller IV, and in 1992, West Virginia University conferred upon him a Board of Regents Degree from the School of Forestry in recognition of his extraordinary contributions.
1988. Where people and nature meet: A history of West Virginia state parks. Charleston,VA: Pictorial Histories Publishing.
Ms. Charlotte Enswiler (McKeever's daughter), and Bob Beanblossom, Division of Natural Resources, West Virginia, contributed to the development of this profile.