CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia got its 150th birthday party started Thursday with a bell-ringing ceremony, festivals, speeches, concerts — and lots of cake.
On the state Capitol steps, hundreds of people watched as a bell rang 35 times to honor West Virginia's entrance as the 35th state on June 20, 1863.
"This is not just an important day in our state history," Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said. "It's a great day in American history."
The state Culture Center also was bustling with activity as visitors listened to folk music, bought West Virginia Forever birthday stamps that debuted Thursday and attended the Charleston Light Opera Guild's free performance of the Broadway musical "Civil War."
Part of the festivities included the chance to eat cake — an 8-foot replica of the state Capitol that will serve 15,000 people at the Culture Center by the time the festivities wrap up this weekend.
Young Reagan Wilson and her brother, Luke, sported blue lips courtesy of flavored ice bought from one of dozens of food vendors as they tagged along with their mom, Caroline Wilson of Omaha, Neb., and grandmother, Joyce Baker of Charleston. The kids got their photo taken with Tomblin.
"We've enjoyed going to the Capitol and introducing my kids to a piece of West Virginia history," Caroline Wilson said.
The event happened to be the final stop for 25 teachers on a history tour that also took them to Jamestown and Williamsburg, Va.; battlefields in Gettysburg, Pa., and Antietam, Md.; and parts of New England. The American Heart tour — which stands for History Education through Activities, Research and Technology — was possible through a federal grant to West Virginia Wesleyan College.
"I spent all my life in West Virginia. It was important that I be here," said Becky Barth, a third-grade teacher at Borman Elementary in Middlebourne, Tyler County. "It's not going to happen in our lifetime again."
Donna Ferguson teaches world history to ninth-graders at Weir High School, but she had to squeeze in some state history, too.
"Because West Virginia has such a unique history, along with the Civil War and how we were born out of the Civil War, I just think it's an exciting time for our state," she said. "Just to be a part of it and to take that back to the classroom."
Sesquicentennial celebrations were held statewide.
In Harpers Ferry, a special naturalization ceremony was held Thursday for 20 people on the banks of the Shenandoah River. The newest U.S. citizens come from 16 countries.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy spoke in Charleston during the state's 100th birthday celebration. His nephew, Mark Kennedy Shriver, recalled that visit Thursday in Wheeling. Shriver recounted how his uncle had quipped during the rainy centennial that "the sun doesn't always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do."
"The people of West Virginia are always full of sunshine and I felt that in our time here," Shriver told the huge crowd at the Heritage Port park along the Ohio River.
Shriver spoke amid a concert on a nearly cloudless summer evening that also featured state natives Kathy Mattea, Johnny Staats and Landau Eugene Murphy Jr., and the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra.
With the Legislature in Wheeling for its monthly study meetings, Thursday's events there kicked off at noon with a bell-ringing and a salute from replica cannons outside West Virginia Independence Hall. Delegates from the counties that would form West Virginia met there from 1861 through 1863 to help shape the new state.
With plenty of re-enactors on hand in civilian and Union military uniforms, the sesquicentennial drew crowds both to Independence Hall and to the state's first Capitol building down the street.
Barbour County residents Marvin and Pauline Bolton decided to celebrate their 49th wedding anniversary Thursday by taking in the 150th birthday events, including an Independence Hall concert by the 23-piece Wildcat Regiment Band. The Indiana-based ensemble uses era uniforms, instruments and compositions, and the day's selections included a polka first played to mark the opening of Wheeling's once-famed suspension bridge in 1849.
"I found more going on here in Wheeling than I did anywhere else, so we came," said Marvin Bolton, who arrived with his wife on Tuesday with plans to stay through the week.
The West Virginia Sesquicentennial Commission spent about $130,000 for its celebration plans, and $200,000 in grants were doled out for community celebrations statewide.
"Someday, 50 years from now, someone who's younger ... will be standing where I'm standing now and they're going to say, 'I remember when West Virginia turned 150, and wow, what a party we threw,'" Tomblin said. "I hope every West Virginian takes the opportunity to be part of these festivities."
Associated Press Writer Lawrence Messina in Wheeling, W. Va., contributed to this report.