United by a passion for Hank Williams’ music, a small-town mayor, a retired judge and an avid collector of Williams memorabilia have teamed up to establish a museum at the site where Williams’ lifeless body was discovered on the morning of Jan. 1, 1953.
The principals are Barbara Hickman, mayor of Oak Hill, W.Va., the town in which Williams was found dead; Herbert Pauley, a former magistrate from Charleston, W.Va., now retired to Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and Maryam Sherif, a collector originally from New Jersey but recently transplanted to Oak Hill along with her Williams artifacts.
Pauley, who led an effort in the early 1990s to erect a Williams memorial in Oak Hill, has volunteered to oversee fundraising for the proposed museum. The West Virginia state legislature has also earmarked $30,000 in “seed money” to get the project started.
As told and re-told in books and documentaries, Williams was on his way from Montgomery, Ala., to a New Year’s Day show in Canton, Ohio, when he died in the backseat of his powder-blue Cadillac convertible. His driver, college student Charles Carr, sensed something was wrong with Williams soon after they crossed the West Virginia border. He rushed to the town of Oak Hill, where he stopped at a Pure Oil service station to confirm his suspicion. It is this same service station the planners intend to turn into the museum.
“We have people all the time stopping by here wanting to see where it was that they found Hank Williams dead,” Hickman tells CMT.com. “I have a draft of the lease [for the property], and I’m waiting for the city council to get through asking all their questions. Hopefully, I can get this done within the next couple of weeks. After that, we’ll form a [fundraising] foundation. … The building has to be renovated. It’s been sitting there for years, and it’s deteriorated.” She adds that the property has space for expansion.
“If we can get by on $100,000 for renovating that building, we’re going to be lucky,” Hickman says. “I’d like to have an architect come in, and I know one, and then have someone go in and give us an estimate of what they think it would take. We have to put in a handicapped-accessible bathroom because of the grant money I’m going to apply for. I would love to have it all done by next fall . I’ve been in city government 27 years, and my term is up next year. I’m hoping to have it finished by that time, so I won’t have to run [for office] anymore.”
Oddly enough, it was Hickman’s husband, the late Elmer Hickman, then a disc jockey at Oak Hill radio station WOAY, who made the first public announcement of Williams’ death. “After he signed the station on that morning,” she recalls, “he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have some sad news.’ That’s how he started it, and then he told about it.”
Sherif, who never saw Williams perform live but who has been collecting material about him for more than 50 years, says her treasures include one of his shirts from 1948, his hand-tooled leather wallet with his name on one side and the figure of a guitar on the other, a scarf he wore “circa 1950-51” monogrammed with the letter “H” and a dried rose from his grave in 1953.
“I feel that our museum will compare with anything they’ve got in Montgomery or Georgiana [Alabama],” says Sherif, who relocated to Oak Hill in June. “I hope I live long enough to see this take place.” [Williams, an Alabama native, resided in Georgiana and Montgomery before achieving stardom in Nashville.]
Another book on Williams’ life and early death, Paul Hemphill’s Lovesick Blues from Viking Press, will be out in September.