OAK HILL — Black bears have migrated east, and some have found a home in the city.
More and more of them — of the variety carved from wood — have cropped up in city limits in recent weeks.
The ongoing bear project was borne as members of the Oak Hill Beautification Commission discussed ways the city could take advantage of an expected increase in tourists brought on by the recent formation of the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.
"The city's beautification commission wanted to do a project that would make Oak Hill unique and memorable to travelers, as well as doing something the citizens could enjoy," said commission chair Judy Lively.
Lively recalled traveling to Jackson Hole, Wy. one year and staying in a lodge that featured many carved black bears.
"I thought that was such a neat idea, but the idea of black bears in our city didn't cross my mind until a few months ago when the New River Gorge officially became the 63rd national park," said Lively. "As our beautification commission started thinking of ways to beautify the city, the black bears in Jackson Hole came to mind.
"The black bear is West Virginia's state animal and black bears can be spotted throughout West Virginia. They have been seen in our neighborhoods in Oak Hill, and on a rare occasion have been spotted in downtown. When we traveled to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone National Park, my main goal was to see a moose. Since black bears are native to our area, I wondered if travelers were looking to spot a bear.
"It would be very unlikely to spot a real bear in the city, but what if we had carved bears throughout the city? Visitors could go 'bear hunting.' The idea was to approach business owners to see if they would be interested in purchasing a bear for their businesses. But first, we had to find someone in the area who carved bears. Within days, we saw the Mason Dixon Boys on the news talking about carving bears at festivals. ... I called them to see if it would be a project that would be doable for them. They were from Raleigh County, so they were close, and they were thrilled with the idea of working with us to make the 'black bear project' a reality."
Lively said the first business owner the commission approached was Don Williams, owner of Cafe One Ten. Williams now has a new sign on top of his restaurant with black bears.
The commission also reached out to Bill Loving, president and CEO of Pendleton Community Bank, who purchased a customized bear statue for the branch bank in East End, she said. Others that have jumped on board include Jim Lively Insurance, DTE Towing and Auto Repair, and Pinnacle Chiropractic, according to Lively.
And, last week, the Mason Dixon Boys, with an assist from forestry class members at Fayette Institute of Technology, carved bears that are now in place to welcome visitors to the Oak Hill school complex on Oyler Avenue.
The plan is for the bears to remain at the entrance of the school complex "for many years to come," said Lively, Fayette County Schools' director of attendance. "The large bear is wearing a graduation cap and gown, so this isn't just any bear. This one is graduating from high school. The idea is to promote the importance of school attendance and graduating from high school."
"There has been an overwhelming interest as people have seen the bears come into Oak Hill," Lively continued. "I've received messages from many other businesses, several nonprofit organizations, and committees, as well as from individuals who are wanting to have bears carved in memory of loved ones."
As of late last week, there were close to 15 additional bears under contract, as well as other pending contracts.
According to Lively, the bears will have to be sprayed once a year with a clear coat to protect them, and they are expected to last "for many, many years."
The Mason Dixon Boys are slated to be on site carving a bear at the grand opening of The Frozen Barn, a new ice cream shop in East Oak Hill, on April 3.
If a business or individual would like to purchase a carved bear, they can call the Mason Dixon Boys at 681-422-9535.
Lively wants to make the public aware that a notion that the city is paying for all the bears is unfounded.
"Some people assume that because the city's beautification commission started the project, that the city is paying for all the bears," she said. "That simply is not true.
"There may be a committee or two wanting bears placed on city property, but business owners and individuals are paying for their own bears. And, some individuals are paying for bears that will be placed on city property in memory of loved ones."
Travis Crook, co-owner of the Mason Dixon Boys with Joe Yancey, said the company was "very blessed" to get involved with the project. "It's very good to be working this time of the year before our busy time starts," he said. No matter the project, their goal is always "to do our best work."
The busy fairs and festivals time is rapidly approaching, which keeps them busy on the road, so Crook says the goal is to finish up their work in Oak Hill in the next two months or so.
Bears cost $50 and up, depending on what the purchaser wants. "If you've got the money, we've got the time," Crook said.
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