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West Virginia, born in war, marks 150th birthday

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - West Virginia, born in the turmoil of the Civil War and now a growing energy hub, marks its 150th birthday on Thursday with statewide bell-ringing, a giant cake and beard-growing contests.

The four-day festival commemorates when Union sympathizers in western Virginia, opposed to their state's support for the slave-owning Confederacy, voted in Wheeling on June 20, 1863, to form their own state.

To celebrate the Mountain State's anniversary at the Capitol, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is cutting a birthday cake that measures 8 feet long and more than 3 feet (1 meter) high.

Tomblin addressed the legislature in Wheeling to signal the start of festivities for the state of 1.9 million people. He will officiate from the Capitol over a statewide bell-ringing celebration.

West Virginia, the 35th state admitted to the Union, has planned more than 140 events to mark the sesquicentennial. They include concerts, fireworks, beard-growing contests, free steamboat rides, exhibitions, Civil War re-enactments and a baseball game using period rules and equipment.

West Virginia has a long history of poverty, and median household income in 2008 was 49th among the 50 states. But a surge in energy production has helped put joblessness at 6.2 percent, below the national average.

(Reporting by Geno Lawrenzi; Writing by Ian Simpson; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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