Memoirs of Ira I. Boggs
My Childhood Years
I was born on a three-hundred-acre farm near Wallback, West Virginia—about fifty yards from the Clay County line. Dad and Mother both worked there, and that is where they met and married. My paternal grandparents, Henry Clay Boggs and Sarah Elizabeth (Geary) Boggs, owned the farm. My maternal grandparents, Cornelius Estep and Ona (Turner) Estep, lived in the same community—on some of the land owned by Grandfather Boggs. My grandfather Estep farmed and worked in the timber and lumber business. My maternal grandparents were active church members; and Granddad helped another neighbor, Frederick McGlothrin, hold revivals.
My older brothers, Alvah, Guy and Ray, were born in a hued log house with a puncheon floor -- just across the creek from the Wallback Post Office. A puncheon floor was made of split logs with the split side up. It was hued level with a foot ax (an ax shaped like a mattock). Right before I was born, the family moved into an unpainted plain lumber “Jenny Lind” house on the same farm and about a half a mile down Sandy Creek. I was the baby when we left there and moved to Looneyville in the same County (Roane).
Sandy Creek is about thirty miles long. It heads near Clay and Ivydale
and empties into Elk River at Clendenin. Elk River is noted as one of the
most meandering rivers in the world. It is so crooked that the distance by
river from Clendenin to Ivydale is about sixty miles or more. At Jacks Bend
(near Procious), you can ride a five-coach train and see most of the front end
of the train from the passenger car. There are many such curves on Elk River.
Two other examples are “Horseshoe Curve” (a bend on the railroad above
Clay, across the river from where the river meets Route 4) and the “World’s
End” (a large form of cliff a few miles north of Clay).
In those days, children, women and everybody worked with a hoe, an ax, or other tool ‑‑ or a horse and plow or an ox and plow. I’ve heard Granddad Estep say he would rather have Mother drop corn than any man who ever worked for him. There were mechanical hand planters in those days, but they were expensive and some people didn’t have them. Few families grew more than fifteen or twenty acres of corn, ten acres of hay, twelve acres of pasture land, and a few acres of wheat or oats ‑‑ just enough to produce food for the family and a cow or two and a team of horses or oxen. We had our wheat and some of our corn pressed and ground into flour or meal. The nearest mill was in Newton, a small village about four miles from our home, at the three forks of Big Sandy Creek.
The first thing I remember clearly was when my brother Cecil was born. I was three years old. They named him Roy Cecil. Dad wanted to call him Roy, and Mother and we children all wanted to call him Cecil. Dad called him “Roy” until he was ten or twelve years old. By the rest of us calling him “Cecil”, Dad finally gave in; but, in a way, I think he was right. A person should be called by his first name. When they go away from home, people will recognize them by that.
Uncle Owen Boggs, one of Dad’s brothers, stayed at home with the family much of his life. He was young and mischievous, and he entertained us a lot. Dad, Uncle Owen, and Jack Huchenson, our nearest neighbor, often sat before a big broad chimney fire and played dominoes and checkers.
Most people used wood to cook and to heat their homes. Some people burned coal, but nobody in our area had gas. (There were very few gas wells in the state at that time). Our wood burning fireplace was about five feet long by four feet deep. Dad would carry in a chunk of wood ‑‑ about as big as he could get on his shoulder ‑‑ and bed it on the floor at the back of the fireplace. We had an iron rack on each side of the fireplace to hold the wood up so air could get to it. Dad would bring in another large stick of wood ‑‑ We called it the fore stick ‑‑ and put it in front, next to a big flat rock (the hearth). To boost the flames, he usually put some smaller sticks of split wood between the fore stick and the backlog. It made a whooping big fire that warmed the whole house.
We had one big bedroom next to the sitting room and another bedroom next to the dining room. In those days, the parents usually had a bed in the corner of the sitting room. For the baby, there was a cradle that was usually homemade (from boards or small timbers); and it rested on runner boards (rockers) that were beveled on each end. Mother sat and breast‑fed us while knitting stockings, sweaters and other clothing. She knitted our mittens from yarn that she spun from sheep wool. Sometimes, while knitting with her hands, she rocked the cradle with her foot and sang to us until we fell asleep.
I watched attentively as Mother and Grandmother made yarn by pulling big fleeces of nice white wool that they got from Dads and Granddad’s sheep. They sat for hours while making yarn and knitting clothes with it. They dyed it different colors and left some of it natural with contrasting shades of color for the toe and heel of socks or the tops and bottoms of mittens. Those homemade items were very warm and comfortable, and they would wear for a year or more. To make diapers, sheets and pillowcases, Mother bought goods, such as white linen, from the local store. (Children usually wore diapers until they were at least three years old.) Sometimes she splurged to buy calico for her clothes and for the children’s dresses.
Boys wore dresses until they were about old enough to start their schooling. I remember when Alvah and Guy wore dresses and when they got their first pants. Mother made their jeans out of denim. (Jeans were warm enough for winter, and they lasted a long time.) She made their top shirts with cotton and their underclothing from gingham and other lighter material. She lined their denim jackets with linen or calico. At that time, there weren’t so many different kinds of cloth to choose from. Poor people used calico, gingham or shamra. Wool and silk were too expensive for most uses. Children didn’t wear belts. Mother put buttons on the waists of our snug fitting shirts and cut matching buttonholes in the pants to hold them up.
We were very proud of the new clothes that Mother made for us, and we took great care to keep them clean so we could wear them longer. Mother usually made our hats and caps, too; and she knitted toboggans (with a long top and a tail that hung over our back) for children and women. Everybody wore hats in those days. It wasn’t natural for anyone to go to church without a hat.
Men wore galoshes (suspenders) to hold their pants up. I remember when the first belts came into style. Uncle Milton had been away working on a timber job, and he came back with a belt. He wore his shirt bloused down over his belt so you couldn’t see it. This was in style for some time before they started wearing shirts neatly slipped down in pants; then you could see the belt, which was made of leather, platted cord or other heavy material.
Children wore shoes only during the winter, and young men often went barefooted to church or other gatherings. Dad usually bought our shoes from the nearest store, but he sometimes had them made from cowhide at our local shoe shop. We usually wore broad‑toed shoes that we called brogans. They were strong, and some would wear all winter. To get them to wear that long, we usually had to half sole them. Shoes were too expensive for poor people, and most children did without them. In winter, we stayed indoors most of the time until we were old enough to go to school.
Granddad Estep owned the blacksmith shop where he built wagons and sleds. He cut blocks from specially cured logs that he kept on hand. For the axles and frames, he chose gum trees because they wouldn’t split. He made shafts from tougher wood such as hickory. For large wagons pulled by two horses, he made a single shaft (or tongue). On smaller wagons (for one horse), he fastened a tough piece of wood on the inside of each wheel. Each block held a wooden shaft that he left long enough to reach the hames (a part of the harness that is cushioned by a soft collar to protect the horse’s shoulder from bruises and frictional injury) on each side of the horse. The shafts, when attached to the hames by iron rings, served as handles to guide the wagon and they were fashioned so that the horse could hold back on the wagon when going down grade. Most wagons had wooden wheels with a strong iron rim around the outside of each wheel. The wheel was coupled to an inner rim, which fitted the axle. Spokes of wood coupled the outer rim to the inner rim.
Each end of the spoke was cut to a small round shape that fitted slots in the rims. The outer rim was very thick and strong and it would roll along for years. The spokes would finally decay. Granddad Estep was a first‑rate blacksmith. I’ve seen him repair wagon wheels by making spokes and fitting them into the wheels. He could also repair worn out iron rims. I often pumped the bellows to push air through the coal fire to make it bright for heating the metal. I watched Granddad pound the metal out thin and weld it. He pounded it fairly thin until it was about ready to weld. Then, he put it back to reheat it to a white‑hot with sparks flying from it. Before he pounded the metal again, Granddad put a small amount of some kind of chemical on it (I think it was saltpeter ‑‑ but maybe it was borax) to keep it from flaking. He would round it off and then put it together and pound it so smooth that you couldn’t see a seam in it. Then he would reheat it to a red‑hot appearance. He held it over a rain barrel until it cooled to just the right temperature, which he could determine by the color changes. Then he dipped it into the water to temper the metal to the right hardness. He wanted it to be a little bit flexible with some spring in it and not so hard that it would be brittle. Those wheels and axles were strong enough to carry several thousand pounds.
Granddad used his wagon and his team of horses to haul corn from the fields. He’d put a high body on the wagon, one that would hold twenty to fifty bushels of corn ears. He had to drive the team over rocks, stumps and steep places to pick up his corn. He went over such rough places that his wagon could easily turn over and spill the corn.
We didn’t have car wrecks, but we did have dangerous trials and tribulations in those days. Sometimes a wagon would push a horse so hard that the horse would run away. Some horses were naturally wild and stubborn. They could tear a wagon to pieces while crippling the horse or the driver. They sometimes caused the load to turn over on the driver and kill him. Sometimes a horse would run away and cripple or kill a neighbor (or a member of the family). The mowing machine was also dangerous. A team would run into an insect nest and get stung, and a spooked horse would run away with the mowing machine, hay rake, wagon, or buggy. Even riding a horse could be dangerous. A rider could get raked off by a branch on a tree (or thrown off otherwise).
When the ground was wet and soft, Granddad used a sturdy sled to haul his corn. It held as much as the wagon ‑‑ and he could take it over rougher ground. He made his sled of tough, white oak. He put 4 x 4 blocks between the upper and lower runner sills. Then he bored a hole endwise through each of the blocks and put a strong bolt through each of them and fasten them tight to keep the sled compact and strong. The tongue on his sled was as tough as the one on the wagon. He’d put a horse on each side of the tongue and raise it up to the horse’s shoulders while he hooked “the breast chain” to the harness. On a steep grade, the horses could hold back on the chains and support a very heavy load. When a sled was nearly worn out, Granddad made new runners for it. He would cut a small white oak or hickory tree and split it in half. He bent and shaped the wood by fastening one end to a tree or a building and putting weights on the other end. He burned and seasoned the wood to make tough and long lasting runners.
Children didn’t have as many toys to choose from as they do these days. When we could find proper material we made our own. We used Mothers thread spools to build toy carts and wagons, and we made roads over a clay bank on the edge of our yard to run them over. We also molded dishes and other trinkets out of tough red clay.
What mischievous thing children will do for amusement! Granddad Boggs kept sheep in a field near our house, and they were a menace for us. One big buck would butt us when we came near him. We hated him so much that we stacked a pile of rocks on the opposite side of the fence to throw at the buck. We’d get rocks as big as we could lift to the top of the six or eight rail fence ‑‑ about six‑foot high. The sheep would back away from the fence; and, when we dropped a big rock, he would run against the stone and butt it. We finally got into trouble for bloodying his head. Granddad noticed it, and Dad stopped us from having our revenge on the mean old buck sheep.
We had to go daily into the field to hunt the cows and bring them in for milking. When the cows were near the sheep, Dad would go get them. One day, Dad wasn’t at home when it came time to bring in the cows. When we went to get them, the big buck ran after us. All of us except Guy escaped over the fence. Guy laid down, flat on his belly. The buck came up to him, but it didn’t hurt him. (Dad had taught us to lie down, and he couldn’t butt us.) One of us climbed back over the fence and called the buck. When the animal was distracted, Guy nearly flew for the fence.
As spring approached, we noticed the birds coming from the South and building their homes. We got to know nearly every species by the shape and color of their eggs and their nests. A pair of bluebirds drilled into an old dead tree snag near the house to clear a hole in it big enough for their nest. Bluebirds have bright blue feathers with rust‑colored breast and throat, and they are easy to recognize for their cheerful songs. (There were lots of bluebirds in those days. Now, you will hardly ever see one of them from year to year.) They built their nest a few inches down into the heart of the stump so their little birds wouldn’t fall out. They laid big blue eggs. Sometimes, we climbed trees to see into nests. Some birds would fly at us and flap their wings to scare us away. We were careful not to molest the little creatures or their nests in any way. Dad and Mother always told us not to touch the beautiful blue eggs or the babies. That might cause the parents to leave, and the eggs wouldn’t hatch or the little birds would die. They also told us not to blow our breath on the eggs because that would cause the ants to eat them.
We often found a partridge nest hidden on the ground in clumps of grass or weeds. The little ones would crawl under leaves and hide where we could never find them. The mother bird would start running, or fluttering along, just fast enough to keep us from catching it. That would distract us from the baby birds. Then, when she got us out of danger to her babies, she would rise and fly back to the nest.
It was another sign of spring when the frogs and toads began to squawk and holler. We followed their sounds to find them and bring some of them to the small pond in a little creek that ran near our house. We had quite a batch of toads and frogs. Sometimes we noticed a little toad climbing on the big mother toad’s back. Another toad would try to take a ride. It would grip the mother toads back with its front paws and kick the other frog end over end, as if to say, “This is my ride.” We had names for some of the champion fighters.
When we heard a toad holler at a distance, we went on a hunt for him. We made croaking noises like his, and he would answer us until we could find him. Sometimes he would be hiding under a log or rock, and we would gravel him out. One day one of us was graveling after one and got hold of a snake. That spooked us for awhile. We went home and told Mother of our ventures and fun. Mother didn’t want us to play with the dirty things; she told us that the toads would make warts come on our hands. Once I caught a pretty green tree frog and took it to the house to show Mother. It wet on my hands, and I rubbed my face and got the water into my eyes. It smarted so badly that I thought I had gone blind. Mother fixed some thick cream and washed my eyes, and they finally quit hurting.
One day, Mother sent me to bring in the cows. (She wouldn’t send me so far that she could not see them, or hear the bells. They were usually in a pasture field of fifteen or twenty acres, and one or two cows wore a bell so we could find them by following their sounds.) Walking along a cow path, I came upon a big black snake. I got a rock and mauled it. A little further along the cow path, I found another one and mauled it. As I came back with the cows, I picked‑up the snakes by their tails and dragged them back with me. I wanted to show my kill; but they were not dead -- just wounded. When Mother saw me with the snakes, it scared her pink. I was only about five or six years old, and they might have wrapped around me and killed me.
Another time, when I was about the same age, Mother and I were picking greens in the cow pasture. Mother said, “I hear a locust.” (It was probably a seventeen‑year locust, a cicada. They are large, shaped like a horse fly, and they make a lot of noise.) I didn’t know what that was, and I don’t suppose I asked Mother. I formed an opinion that it was an animal like a little horse colt.
I remember a lot of talk about the Spanish American War. We lost almost three thousand soldiers in that War. I was only three years old. Dad wanted to go, but he had five children at that time. The war was in the south, and the soldiers from the north were not used to the southern climate. Many of them came down with yellow fever, and it seemed that almost everyone that took it died. (Yellow fever is somewhat like malaria fever. Our boys in the Pacific had that in World War II.) If the doctors had known as much about the disease as they do now, we wouldn’t have lost many soldiers. I remember the talk of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba. He became quite a hero to the American people.
In 1899, while we lived at Looneyville, there was a terrible cyclone (what we would now call a tornado). I was only four years old, but I was old enough to know that my life was in very great danger. It’s the first real scare that I remember, and I’ve never had another reason to be as scared as I was in that storm. I remember it as if it were yesterday. The clouds were so black and heavy that it was almost dark at about four p.m., and the air was full of leaves and brush. We heard the roar for several minutes before it came, and we realized it was going to be a bad storm. Dad, Uncle Cleave, Uncle Claire, Uncle Owen and Uncle Martin were putting up a stack of hay. They hurried to finish the job and then ran for the dwelling. The haystack was torn to pieces, and the hay almost blew away. We lived in a big hewed log house. Some logs were twenty or twenty four inches in diameter, hued to about eight or ten inches thick. The house rocked until we thought it would go to pieces any minute. If the house had been built of lighter material it would have been blown apart. Afterwards, I was always scared when the elements looked dark before a storm.
I don’t know how many times it touched ground, but the main part of the storm swept through a strip about twenty‑five miles long. It also passed through King Shoals Creek where Granddad Estep lived. Uncle Bob, Uncle Elmer Estep, Benny Belcher and others were in the woods, cutting timber and hauling logs. They tied their horses to some trees and ran under a rock cliff. They anticipated that their horses would be dead when they emerged; but ‑‑ just an incident ‑‑ they found them covered with brush and not hurt enough to mention. At the head of King Shoals Creek, the cyclone twisted and wrung off three to five feet thick hickory trees as you would a switch. Acres of the timber were stripped clean. Huge hickory and white oak trees, four or five feet through, were wrung off of the stump as if they were six inches through.
Uncle Elmer’s family lived about fifteen miles from us on the ridge between Upper King and King Shoals Creek His was a log house about like the one we lived in at Looneyville, and the cyclone tore the house to pieces. When he got home, there was a big log laying on Aunt Emmy. It broke her leg and left her crippled for life. (I don’t know whether or not they had any children then.)
A day or two after the storm, I walked with Mother to the post office. The timber men were cutting logs from big trees ‑‑ three to five feet thick ‑‑ that had fallen across the highways. Some of them were twice as high as I was, and I couldn’t see over them. They cut the logs thirty feet long and hued them square with chopping axes. Then they dressed them, with big wide axes that they called broad axes, to make square timbers to build ships. They had to use a yoke of big oxen to haul one log. They hauled the logs about three miles down Poca River. This was so near the head of Poca River that it was too small to float them. They left the logs there until a flood came and floated them into the Kanawha River, and to below Nitro. They later took them to a ship building dock.
A man at Newton was carried away by the strong wind. He grabbed a small bush and held onto it. He was whipped around on the ground until he was worn out. A baby was blown away; and they found it clear over a mountain almost unharmed and still in its cradle. In the spring of 1903, when we moved to near the head of King Shoals, there were acres of devastated forest land without a whole tree.
When we went to church, or to visit someone, or just on an outing for a merry time, we would take a large sleigh, or sled, bedded with hay or straw and some blankets. Traveling in a sleigh or buggy with a good strong galloping horse, we could make twenty to forty miles in a good days drive. Our family was very devoted to the church. I must have been about four years old when I remember going to the Flatfork Missionary Baptist Church with Mother. I can still see the minister, Preacher Cal Burns. He was a medium sized man, but slender. He preached for an hour or longer, and I got so restless that I was glad when we started home. I remember the neighbors ‑‑ Bowens, Looneys, Hutchinsons, Drawdies, Smiths, Vineyards and others. The preacher came home with us one day, and I can still see him talking and reading his Bible.
We children were very fond of our pets. One was a big cur dog named Ponto. He was about the size of a Collie, but black with a white ring around his neck. Dad and some neighbors were building a private road up to our dwelling and the farm. They put off some blasts of powder. (Dynamite wasn’t used so much those days.) They set off the blast before they noticed that our dog had run into the area. Ponto didn’t get hurt badly, but he was always gun shy after that. When it thundered, he would come in the house and crawl under the bed.
Ponto was a good watchdog. When a hawk came near the chickens, he would run and bark at its shadow. That scared the hawk away. Ponto wasn’t a mean dog, but he did bark at strangers. One time a neighbor came by and the man ran from him when he barked. That is the only person I ever knew the dog to bite. Dad told the man that the dog would not have bit him if he had not run, but Ponto became disobedient and Dad gave him to Uncle Owen. We didn’t have another dog for several years.
We had a big red Hereford cow that we kept for a long time. We called her Molly ‑‑ after Molly Bryan (William Jennings Bryan’s wife). After she got old, Dad sold her; and we cried when they took her away. We didn’t think Dad should sell her to be killed for beef.
One cold February morning, Dad brought a little lamb in from the herd of sheep. Either the Lamb’s mother had died or she gave birth to three lambs and couldn’t take care of them all. We fixed a bottle and raised it on cows’ milk until it was old enough to live on pasture with the flock. We didn’t want to see it go. A lamb makes a nice pet.
We had a sorrel colt, named “Maude”, with a white tail and white mane. Near our dwelling, there was an old well that was covered over with rails and timber. Maude was picking around the well and fell into it. Dad got her by the leg and coaxed her to be quiet. Mother ran several hundred yards and got a neighbor, Jack Hutchinson, to help get Maude out of the well. They got her out, and she wasn’t hurt. Maude ran off the hill; and, for ages, she never got near that well again. She was a draft horse (Perchian stock), and she grew to weigh about twelve hundred pounds.
Maude was a fast horse, especially with a plow. She was mean and hard to control at times, but we could plow more ground in a day with her than with mostly any other horse. Maude was always afraid of a hole, or even the appearance of one. Sometimes she would have to cross a hollow in plowing and would break through into a waterspout. She would get so scared that she would shy around the hole and break down the corn. At times, she jumped clear across the drain. We would have to completely loosen our grip on the plow and just hold the lines to keep her from running away. I’ve been jerked and drug while holding onto the lines, but I never got seriously hurt that way.
Ole Maude had a pretty sorrel colt with a white mane and white tail. When it was born, we just couldn’t stay away from that pretty long‑legged colt. Dad kept telling us that Ole Maude liked her colt, too, and that we had better not go too close to her or she might think we would hurt it or take it away from her; but my brother, Ray, ventured to the colt and put his hands on it. Maude was eating her dinner, but she saw Ray and jumped at him and left her teeth marks on his chest. After that, Dad didn’t have to tell us to keep away from Ole Maude and the colt. We ventured back when the colt was a month or so old; but Maude was gentle by that time; and so was the colt. It made a strong horse. We named him Fox, and we kept him for about four or five years before we sold him to a neighbor whom we trusted to take good care of him. Ole Maude had another mare colt that we called Dinkey. It was a pretty black horse, not quite as large as Fox. We sold it at about three years old. We children didn’t like to see the colts go, but Dad would tell us he would get us some pretty new clothes. We kept Maude until she died, when she was 17 years old.
In the fall of 1901 ‑‑ the year I became six years old ‑‑ I started to school at the Red Knob School, a one‑room schoolhouse. I walked about a mile through a farm where there was usually a herd of two to three hundred beef cattle. We had to watch out for mean animals. Sometimes, to dodge around them, we had to climb over fences that were eight and ten rails high and go through woodlands. I went to school with the Drawdies, Bowens, Asques, the Parks and the Stones. My girl friend was an Asque girl who went my way as we left school. Fred Stone was another of my favorite companions. He’d give me his knife to whittle with. Sometimes he’d carry me on his back, and sometimes he’d shoot marbles with me.
During recess, we played games such as roundtown ball. We made our own balls staring with an old sock, such as the ones that Mother made of sheep wool, with the heels or toes worn out. We could ravel them out, starting from the end of the string of yarn. When we wanted a ball that was hard enough to hurt when you hit a player, to shut him out of a game or to keep him from scoring, we wrapped the yarn around a walnut. He would play close, to keep from getting hurt with that hard ball. If we wanted a ball that would bounce, a rubber heel from a shoe was better for the core. Our bats were carved from good solid wood (white ash was a favorite source) that was properly cured.
We chose our players for each side. One of the two captains would take a bat and pitch it in the air. The other captain would catch it near the middle. The first captain would put his hand over the second ones hand and they would take turns moving over the top hand until they reached the end of the bat. The one that had only enough room at the end of the handle to hold it when the other let loose would have the first choice and get the best player. If he couldn’t hold the bat for a few seconds, the other captain would have first choice.
We were allowed three tries to hit the ball fair ‑‑ between the right and left bases. It was a “fair ball” if someone didn’t catch it. If you nicked a ball and the catcher caught it, you were out. If you were running from base to base and the opposite player hit you with the ball, you changed sides. But if the fellow that got hit could get the ball and hit that player back before he could get on a base, then he was on the scoring side. When you hit a player with the ball, you would yell, “Corner up.” That meant for everyone to get his or her foot on a base. If you got on first base, you were free to bat. Usually there was only the catcher and the backstop player to knock the ball away so the other players could get home. Those players that cornered up didn’t score when they got to home plate. To score, we had to hit the ball and run all bases. Sometimes we had an umpire. When we didn’t have one, the captain would sometimes settle a disputed call according to who had the most witnesses. At other times, the argument would get so hot that they would fight. If the teacher saw it, someone would get a whipping. Sometimes a gossip would tell the teacher, just to see that happen.
In those days, the teacher often used a rod to whip us. For the smaller children, he used a paddle. I was always so afraid of getting a whipping that I behaved very well; so I escaped such punishment. I felt it would be very embarrassing, and I dreaded what Dad had in store for me when I got home. I don’t remember of any of the family getting a whipping, but my teacher sometimes pecked me on the head for whispering over my seat. He had a rule that if he caught you whispering three times over your seat, or if you failed on your lessons three times, he would give you a whipping. Sometimes he would make you get your book and stand on the floor facing the other pupils, or make you put on a dunce cap and stand in the corner. Parents seldom complained if their children did come home with stripes from a hard whipping.
In the spring of 1903, we moved into a little two‑room house at King Shoal Creek in Kanawha County; and we lived there for about six years. We used the attic of the house as bedrooms for us children, and we got along very well. The first year, we hardly raised enough grain for our cornbread and for two cows and several chickens. Other than our large garden, we had only about four acres of ground to farm. Dad was working on a lumber job, and we did very well with what we had. The next spring, we cleaned up an old field, adding about four more acres. We tended it in corn, Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes; and we raised enough cane to make fifty or seventy‑five gallons of sorghum. We also raised some hogs.
There was a food famine that year, and it was pretty bad. We could buy food, but most of it was so spoiled that we could hardly eat it. A few times, we bought oatmeal and other cereals that were so musty we had to feed them to the chickens. Other food was also bad. This was in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, and that helped a lot. We lived in the head of King Shoals Creek, about two and a half miles from the nearest grocery store; and we had to take anything we could get for food. By the time that law became effective, we had a good crop and plenty of feed for our hogs, chickens, and cows; and we had old Maude to plow with, to haul our corn to the crib and to bring in wood for fuel.
We would get up about six a.m., eat our breakfast, and go to the field. Mother always got up at five a.m. She had to build a fire in the cooking stove and get it hot in time to cook us a good warm breakfast. We went to the field at about 6:30, stayed until noon and then came home for dinner. We’d rest for one hour and then go back to the field to work until six p.m. We boys helped get the ground ready for the plow by cutting corn stalks out of the way, and then we cut all the sprouts missed by the plow. We usually planted four or five bushels of potatoes in March or early April. We had all of the rest of the ground clean and tilled by the middle of April, when we planted corn. When the corn was high enough to support the vines, we planted half runner beans ‑‑ one or two beans in a hill, row after row ‑‑ in some of it. Dad wouldn’t plant too many vines on a stock of corn because that would break down the corn and it wouldn’t yield a good crop. We usually grew just enough beans for our own needs. We kept working in the cornfields until we had hoed all of our corn twice. By the time we finished our second round through the field, the blades of the corn made enough shade to keep down the weeds.
We usually got some rest between the time we got our corn laid by and before it was ready to cut, but picking our beans kept us busy part of that time. We’d gather several bushels of green beans and string them for canning and we dried several bushels in the hull. They were very good both ways. We’d sometimes string them on thread and hang them against the wall, or on boards, to dry. The last time we went over the field, we picked all of the beans. By then, some were dry, some were green, and some were yellow. We sorted them into three piles. We hulled the yellow beans and strung the green ones. They could then be mixed for cooking or canning. The dry beans could be shelled and stored in cloth bags.
To shell the dry beans, we piled them in the sunshine to dry until they started popping open and falling out of the hull. Then we put them on a sheet that was spread out on the floor and beat them with sticks until they were all thrashed out. Then we shuffled the hulls to separate them from the beans. We threw the hulls aside and gathered the beans up in baskets and pails and kept them dry until there was enough wind to blow the chaff from the beans. Then, we took the beans outdoors and poured them from a pail while holding it as high as we could. The wind carried the chaff away and the beans fell into a tub or onto a sheet. We poured them into a sack and stored them away for our winter food. We would have a bushel or so of each different kind of shell beans. Most were a little striped bean that we called the “ground squirrel bean.” Some were ôsoup beansö, and there was another variety that we called the “October bean.” They were all good. We also pickled a twelve or fifteen gallon crock of string beans and a barrel of roasting ears. Mother also canned some corn and beans.
We grew enough corn to feed our horse, cows, dogs and chickens and to fatten two or three head of hogs for our meat in the autumn. We sometimes butchered one or two more in the spring. We’d get four or five new pigs by April. We usually raised them from a brood sow. A young sow didn’t usually have good success with her first litter. We usually kept a sow for three or four years. Sometimes she would raise two litters of pigs per year. One spring, our sow had eleven pigs. We fed them well and butchered them in the fall and through the winter.
We killed two or three hogs in the early winter, butchered them and salted the meat with pure white salt to keep it until spring. At times we butchered some hogs in the spring and cured the meat by smoking it. We hung it over a smoldering fire with just enough heat to keep a smoke going. (If we allowed too much fire, the meat would get so hot that the grease would run out and create a high flame.) Hickory wood was good to hold fire, smoldering overnight, and we added a little sassafras wood to flavor the meat. It tasted just as good as meat cured with the chemicals that we use these days.
There wasn’t any stock law in our section of the country, and one of our neighbors had about thirty head of hogs (running where they pleased). In the early part of this century, when people bought their pigs, they either tagged them or marked their ears with notches, or a certain shaped hole, and had their mark registered at their county seat. They castrated the males while they were small. In summertime the hogs were razor thin. That’s why we called them "razorbacks." They lived on what roots, berries, herbs, and animal carcasses that they found in the woods. They were so slender or lean and hungry that they would get through your fence if they had to root under it. People had to build eight strand barbwire fences around their fields, and that wouldn’t always keep the free‑running hogs out of our grain.
They could destroy a lot of corn. We finally got a good big shepherd dog that could help some; but we couldn’t watch our crops day and night. We finally trained this dog so well that it would smell or hear those hogs for half a mile. He would throw up his head and sniff and bark and take off as fast as we could go and help him. The dog soon learned to handle those hogs. He would catch one by its hind leg and hold it. The harder the hog pulled against the dog’s teeth, the worse it hurt. The hog would give up and just sit still. We would get us a strong hickory switch and whip the hogs, but we couldn’t catch all the thirty or more of them. They kept coming back. We never killed any of them; but other people did, and we got accused of it.
In late summer when corn was plentiful, Dad often bought one or two of those razorbacks from a neighbor. He herded them home and penned them up for fattening with a diet of corn, bran mash, and slop from the kitchen. Mother preferred a diet of corn for the fattening hogs because corn‑fed hogs yielded nice, white solid lard from their fat, whereas lard from mast‑fed animals was nearly liquid and slightly colored. Also the meat was difficult to cure. Sometimes, when the mast failed, the hogs would starve to death. The next spring we could locate them by the buzzards flying over them. The dead ones were used to make soap (if we could find them before they thawed out).
To make soap, we hued out a big block of wood to form an oval shaped hopper. During the winter, we put our hardwood ashes from their fireplace into it. We kept it covered over with boards to keep it dry until time to make soap in the spring. We boiled the meat and bones in a big kettle. When it cooled, the grease came to the top. We poured water into our ash hopper and let it soak through the ashes to make a solution of lye, which we stirred into the grease. We boiled the grease and lye mixture. (It was very dangerous to be near a kettle of boiling lye and soap. Mother kept us children away from the kettle; but I have known people to get scalded so badly it would take the flesh off. People have been scalded to death making soap.) When it cooled, the soap floated to the top of our water and formed a layer about two to four inches thick. We could cut it into any size bar we wished, usually about four inches square or four by six inches. Sometimes we made enough soap that we wouldn’t need to buy any except the milder soaps we used for a bath or for the face. We could use the homemade soap for our hands.
After a few years, we finally encouraged the people to vote in a stock law to make people responsible for damage their animals did to their neighbors. When they wouldn’t pay damage, you could pen their stock and keep it until they paid for damages and for the feed you furnished for their animals. If they didn’t we could sell the animal to pay damages. After we got the stock law passed, mostly everybody acknowledged that it was a fine agreement. The ones who had fought it the most said it was a good law. They could make more money at farming. It no longer cost so much to keep up our fences, and people finally began to improve their stock and farm more systematically. In those days, we didn’t have any agricultural organizations. We finally got a county agent in each area, and they began teaching agriculture in our public schools. My family had always been in a farming section, and we encouraged the enactment of those laws.
The cattle in our neighborhood were about as scrubby and run down as the hogs. Dad bought a registered Hereford bull and started the first good beef breed in our section of the county. Dad also improved the hogs in our area. He got a registered O.I.C. male and kept it for about four years. People from all around us brought their sows to get them bred. They gave us one weanling pig from each litter to pay for the stud service. When we butchered our registered boar, it weighted nearly eight hundred pounds.
It’s late in June ‑‑ time to pick berries. In Roane County we had a clean pasture field, and it was easy to pick the berries. They were big and round. We left clumps of blackberry vines when we mowed the field by hand. After we moved to Kanawha County, we often picked berries in cutover timberland. It was steep and rough where the timber had been cut. The logs had been hauled over the ground and trash timber and log dumps were left behind. After two years growth along the creek, there would be a lot of mature vines with lots of berries. It took more time to get berries, but we could usually pick and can from thirty to seventy‑five gallons of blackberries and up to fifteen gallon of huckle‑berries (or blueberries). We always had to watch for snakes, and we saw many of them. Ray was picking berries below the road one‑day. The berries were high up, and he was standing on a banking log and reaching out to pick berries when a big black snake jumped out at his hand. That scared the stuffings out of him!
Most of us children started working in the fields and doing their little gym jobs when we were eight and nine years old. We took weekly turns at our chores. One would feed corn and roughage to the horse, and the other fed the cows. Another fed the hogs and chickens. Mother and the smaller children gathered the eggs and caught the old mother hen and little chicks to get them in their coops overnight. (There were plenty of possums, minks, foxes, weasels and wild cats to steal them when they were not in their coops.) One day, Mother heard the chickens squawking. She rushed out and saw a big wildcat carrying off one of our biggest Plymouth Rock hens. When Mother ran after it, the cat was rather slow about dropping its eight‑pound dinner; but it finally let loose and ran away. The hen wasn’t hurt much, and she ran back to her coop. We named her the “wildcat hen,” and we kept her for some few years.
One winter, wild animals caught several of our chickens. We set a string of steel traps and dead falls for a mile or so and looked over them every day or two. We tried for several years to catch the predators, but they were pretty foxy and hard to snare. Sometimes we found an opossum or a coon in one of the traps. A coon is hard to capture. If you didn’t get to him soon after he got into the steel trap, he would gnaw off his own foot to escape. His foot would be paralyzed from the pressure of the trap. You wouldn’t find anything but his foot. A rabbit would twist its leg off. We would set a box trap where we ran a rabbit into a hole. We put wire on the outer end of a box that was large enough to hold the rabbit. The other end had a lid that opened inward; we placed that end over the hole. We propped the lid up and then packed dirt around the box. When the rabbit came out, he would trip the lid and it would drop behind him and latch.
The Ole sly fox is the hardest animal to trap. You don’t dare leave a track, sign or scent. After setting traps, to avoid leaving any signs, we wouldn’t go any closer than necessary to see whether we had caught anything. The ole bobcat (or wildcat) is another sly animal; but after a few years, we finally caught one. (We hoped it was the one that caught the wildcat hen.) That day, Cornelius and Ray went to the trap. They were so excited that I heard them from a distance and ran to see what caused all of the commotion. (I can still see them!) They were afraid to get close enough to kill the cat. It would dodge a stone. The whole family went with Dad to get the cat out of the trap. It shied away as far from Dad as it could and looked over its shoulder and growled viciously. Dad hit it in the head with a stick that was about five feet long. The cat fell over, “after a little lick.” (I remember Dad commenting about how easy it was to kill; but I suspect Dad was a little scared to get so close to it and that he hit it harder than he thought.) Dad took the cat by its hind legs and carried it over his shoulder and on his back. Its head almost touched the ground. It was a huge wildcat ‑‑ as big as a shepherd dog; but it was very lean and so old that some of its teeth were broken off. Some were missing.
I never had a gun until I was about twelve. Dad wouldn’t allow us to handle a gun until about that age, and I had three older brothers to help me handle one. One of the best hunts I ever had was when I was about nine years old. One morning, Uncle Burton Cook came to hunt with us. There was about four inches of snow on the ground, and it was a splendid time to hunt. It was still snowing a little, but not enough to cover the tracks made during the night. When we rousted a rabbit, we could see his fresh tracks. In that kind of weather, a rabbit won’t often go to his hole, especially if you don’t have a fast dog to chase it. (A rabbit will go to hole easier when it’s clear and not favoring any bad weather because he knows he will have more time to fill his stomach later before the storm comes.) For this hunt, we didn’t have a dog; so, when we rousted a rabbit (if Uncle Burton didn’t get to shoot it before it got out of range), Alvah, Guy, Ray and I would start after it, each of us barking like a dog, all at the same time. We four made a lot of noise! Uncle Burton took a stand right where we rousted the rabbit, and he waited there for it to come back.
If a rabbit doesn’t want to go to hole, he will run about a quarter of a mile, then circle and course back on his tracks, trying to get you frustrated by losing his tracks. They often run along on a log and then jump as far as they can. Sometimes we almost lost his tracks while the rabbit played with us and rested. Uncle Burton knew when the rabbit was getting close to him, and he’d be ready to shoot when it came back in his direction. We would hear his gun go, “BOOM!”; and we’d say, “There’s another rabbit in our hands.”
We would go a little ways further and find another rabbit track made during the night. We would keep tracking it, sometimes for a half‑hour, until we found him. We usually sensed about where he would be. One of us would say, “There’s a good place for him ‑‑ under that log (or in that bunch of broom sage). “I’ll bet he is snuggled up in a good warm bed there.” Sometimes, we would be almost within an arm’s reach of one before he jumped out of his good warm bed, where he was sleeping to get his rest for another night out foraging for his food. Uncle Burton would follow us until we rousted him. We didn’t always get our game, but we always chased him for a long time before we gave up.
Uncle Burton nearly always shot the rabbit ‑‑ if none of us boys were in his way. Sometimes we dropped to the ground when one jumped up, and Uncle Burton could shoot over our heads. Sometimes, there was so much brush in the way that none of us could see the rabbit jump out; but we could see his fresh tracks in the snow and take out after him, barking. We made a lot of noise ‑‑ all four of us barking and howling like a gang of foxhounds. Uncle Burton took his stand on a log or stand where he could see well. We listened for his gun to crack. “There’s another rabbit,” we would say. Uncle Burton said, “When I got him, that one was standing on a log, straight‑up, on his hind feet, looking for those slow dogs.” The rabbit had his fun, too, with those slow dogs ‑‑ tricking them and watching them chase after him. But he didn’t live long! “Well, its about dinner time. We had better go eat and warm up a little.”I’m not hungry.” “I’m not cold,” some of us would say. We would rather hunt than to eat, but we went to dinner. We sat by the fire while talking about our fine hunt and about the tricks the rabbits played on us to get their rest while we were busy trying to follow their tracks.
One day, after we had all warmed up and filled our stomachs with a good mess of rabbit with some of Mothers good fried potatoes, stewed brown beans, some of our sorghum and some of Molly Bryan’s good sweet milk (the ole red cow), I said, “I know where we can find plenty of rabbits. Let’s go over in Granddad’s field where he planted his new apple orchard.” “Granddad would be glad for us to get those rabbits. They are gnawing the bark off his trees. There are lots of weeds there; so the rabbit can find a good warm nest.” (When there is a snow on the ground, a rabbit will gnaw on sprouts, eating the twigs. Young apple trees are their favorite winter forage. They even eat the bark of mature trees.) We all agreed to go over to Granddad’s house, about one mile, and Granddad got out his old double‑barreled shotgun and went with us to the orchard.
We lined out up and down the hill for about two hundred yards and started walking through the grass and weeds. Somebody yelled out, “There comes one down the hill! He’s jumping high!” Granddad said, “I’ll get him. You Ole Snoop, eating the bark off my apple trees until they may die.” “BOOM!” went one barrel of Granddad’s gun. (If that didn’t get him, Granddad could let loose with the other barrel.) “There he is, Ira, just below you in the weeds, kicking.” “Now,” said Granddad, ‘I’ll eat on you awhile. You have eaten on my apple trees and got fat.” We killed ten rabbits that day. It was one of the best hunts of my life, but I had a lot more good ventures like that. It was my favorite sport.
At the end of another week, we were looking for Uncle Burton to come over to our house to go hunting again. “There comes Uncle Burton and Mr. Levy Cook.” (Mr. Cook was Uncle Burton’s Dad.) This wasn’t a good day to hunt; there wasn’t any snow on the ground and the sun was shining. It didn’t favor falling weather, but they had a dog that was well trained for tracking rabbits in any kind of weather. (Unlike us two legged hunters, he could smell them out.) We went up on the hill and across into Twin Oaks Hollow. When we crossed the hill, we ran into a flock of pheasants. They flew up from a grove of laurel, or rhododendron. Mr. Cook shot at them but didn’t get one. He said, “I’d like to have one of them birds.” We tried to roust them again, but we couldn’t find any. They are pretty hard to kill when they are flying across your path; but when they are flying straight away from you, and if they don’t spread too fast, they are easier to kill. At times they have a little trouble getting up out of the brush, and that gives you more time to shoot. We didn’t do well that time. It wasn’t a good day for hunting. We killed two rabbits and one squirrel. Squirrels were scarce there. The timber had been cut over, and there wasn’t much mast for them. There weren’t any game laws for rabbits, and people didn’t give the squirrel law much consideration.
We lived about two and one‑half miles from the schoolhouse where we had Sunday school in the summer. The church house was about five miles away, and we didn’t have Sunday school (or go there often) during the wintertime. In those days, there weren’t enough people (who lived close enough to the church) to gather a congregation when the elements were bad. People had to walk or ride a horse. A lot of the winters were so harsh that we didn’t even get to go to school much of the time. (There was a schoolhouse in Roane County where we could have gone to school handily, but they didn’t allow us to attend it because it was out of our county, or district.) Schools started about September the first. We attended pretty regularly for two or three months; but in the winter, we had to go along a creek that was difficult to cross at times. There weren’t any bridges for about two miles.
After moving to Kanawha County, we didn’t raise sheep. There were too many dogs to kill them. We kept several chickens, and we had more eggs than we could eat. We would carry them to the store and sell them as low as 12 or 15 cents per dozen, and we sold chickens throughout the summer months. After growing our crops and selling what we could spare, Dad sometimes took a job to make enough cash to buy part of our school clothes. Money was hard to earn; and, most of the time, we saw very little of it, especially in the farming sections. But we could buy things at about one‑tenth of what it costs now.
We grew most of our food and didn’t go to the store more often than twice a month. We had to ask a neighbor to set us across Elk River, and then we had to yell for him to set us to bring us back after we finished shopping. For some time, John Gandy had the nearest store. Then Jim Walker opened one. The first store we went to after moving to Kanawha County was about a mile further down the river at Rand Post Office, where we traded with Pat Samples. I was scared to get into a boat. Until I was about eight years old ‑‑ That’s when we moved from Roane County ‑‑ I had never seen a river. (We lived near the head of Pocatatico River, where it was just a creek about three miles long. It ran about forty miles further before it ambled into Kanawha River.)
That was also where I saw my first train. It was coming down Elk River with a few boxcars and several flat cars, carrying saw logs for a big band mill at the mouth of Porter. We could hear it far off, but it came around a bend near us before we could see it. Mother knew it would scare me; so she warned me that it would look like it was going to run over me, but that it would stay on the track. All I had to do was to stand free of the tracks; it wouldn’t come after me. On our side of Elk River there were a lot of places where one couldn’t travel with a horse or wagon, so the rails on the opposite side of the river, provided the only access to the outside. There was no other way to travel. The train also hauled coal, cattle, sheep, and chickens, all by the carload. There was a lumber mill on our side of the river at the mouth of King Shoals; so they had to haul wagonloads of lumber across Elk River by ferryboat and load the lumber onto railroad cars to ship it out. (Some winters, the river froze over with ice 18 inches thick; and, for two months or longer, they could send lumber across on horse drawn wagons.) The whole Porter bottom on that side of the river, near the train station, was full of lumber stacks awaiting shipment. There were also a few dwelling houses and a big general store and post office near the railroad.
The first time I ever rode a train was from Aper, which was then called King Shoals. That was in 1903, when Theodore Roosevelt was President. He assumed the office when William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt was McKinley’s Vice President. (The next election, William Jennings Bryan ran for President on the Democratic ticket, but he was defeated.) I remember a flat freight car carrying a load of men to hear the presidential nominees speak at Charleston. I think that Dad rode that car to hear Bryan speak. Dad was a staunch Democrat and strongly favored Bryan’s platform.
We had to work hard when we lived on King Shoals Creek ‑‑ especially during the farming season. All poor children worked daily in the summertime, while on the farm, and raised enough grain and food to live on. When I was nine or ten years old, I went to the field and worked eight or ten hours per day ‑‑ hoeing corn, making hay, picking berries, gathering fruit of apples and peaches, and helping Mother peal and can them. We dug fifty or seventy‑five bushels of Irish potatoes and eighteen or twenty bushels of sweet potatoes, picked bushels of beans off of the corn and brought in the pumpkins and gathered tomatoes for canning.
We grew an acre or more of cane (for sorghum molasses), and we sometimes made as much as one hundred gallons of sorghums. Cane begins as a very small plant, and it is very tedious to hoe. We cut the weeds clean between the hills, and very carefully scraped the dirt off of the cane plants where the horse tramped them into the ground or covered them with the plow. We had to pull the weeds away from the plants and thin the cane to four to six plants per hill. At times, during a rainy season, the weeds and sprouts grew so fast that they covered the plants so that they didn’t get sunshine. The tiny cane plants often turned yellow and almost perished before we could work out all of the weeds. We usually planted it in newly cleared land, where lots of sprouts were growing. In places, the ground was so rough and rugged that we couldn’t get a horse over it to plow properly. We had to cut all of the weeds and sprouts and loosen the soil with our hoe. On new‑ground, we used a grubbing hoe that was made in the blacksmith shop. (It was about half as heavy as a mattock and a lot stronger than the store‑bought gooseneck garden hoes that we use today.) We pounded out the cutting edge and filed it almost as sharp as an ax. That was necessary to cut the sprouts, which shot up almost overnight from live roots and stumps that were left in the ground when we cleared the land. It took several years of cultivation to kill off all of those sprouts, and new ones were always popping up from seeds that survived our fires.
About 1905, Dad leased a twelve‑acre piece of cutover forest land from Uncle George Estep, and we had to clear it in time for the next crops. We started to work on the new ground soon after we finished growing our corn. We cut a lot of the brush while the leaves were still on it, and we just let it lay where it fell. The leaves were so thick on the brush that we didn’t need to pile it to burn. We hacked about all of the brush and bad timber before winter set in. In those days, it was a much bigger job to clear land than it is with all the new machinery we now have for jobs like that. The timber had been cut about six or eight years earlier, but people didn’t cut timber that was less than eight or ten inches in diameter in those days. They also left a lot of the big trees that were crooked or hollow; and they cut only the best of the hickory, gum and beech timber. We had to dispose of big decaying trees ‑‑ three to five feet in diameter ‑‑ that were left on the ground because they weren’t fit for lumber. We cut them into logs six or eight feet long and rolled them out of their bed with cane hooks and spikes with long handles made of strong white oak or dogwood.
Schools closed about the first or middle of March the next spring, and that gave us quite a bit of time to get the ground cleared for corn. We watched for a spell of dry weather that lasted a week or so. We hacked a clear road around the field to make it safe to burn. We raked the ground clean of leaves and took all the rotten wood out of the raked area. We cut and cleared away any logs that might burn over the road, and we felled all the old dead trees that might drop pieces of fiery branches over our road. Sometimes, where their was little chance that the flames would get too high, we just raked around the trees at the edge of our cleared area to keep the fire from getting into them and burning out of control. For lighting the brush heaps, we made torches from black pine knots. They had rosin in them and they would flame for quite a while before they burned up. That helped to kindle the damper wood so that it would spread the fire to the bigger pieces, drying them out as they got hotter and hotter. (I still have a scar on my thumb where I cut it with an ax while splitting a pine knot for a torch when we were burning those twelve acres.) It was quite exciting to see the dry brush burn. It flamed as high as fifty feet where the brush heap was five or six feet high and more.
Plowing newly cleared land is very hard work. There are many stumps and, at times, tight rocks on the ground. Some rocks or stumps are covered over with trash or earth and you can’t see to guide your plow away from them, especially if you have a fast horse ‑‑ which we did. Ole Maude was frisky and fast; and, when she ran into a rock or stump, it stopped her suddenly. Sometimes, we would run into the plow handles and almost break a rib. To avoid too many sudden stops, Dad used a root cutter on the plow. He braced the strong plow stock with iron on each side to make it strong enough to hold the root cutter, which was made of a piece of tempered steel about three inches wide and about eighteen inches long. It set about two inches ahead of the plow and just an inch or two lower than the blade. It cut the roots and ripped a path for the plow to go deeper without stalling.
That spring, we were so far behind with our work that Dad just plowed two furies close together in rows about three and a half‑foot apart and we seeded it with a corn planter. When the corn had grown to about three or four inches high, he ran the plow through the balk between the cornrows, two or three times on each side of the row of corn. Where the ground was rough, the plow wouldn’t always throw enough dirt; so we had to dig around the corn to loosen the dirt and aerate the soil. Sometimes, the plow would catch a root and guide the plow into a hill of corn and tear it out of the ground. If it wasn’t too late in the season, we would replant the empty spaces left by the plow.
Crows and chipmunks also caused empty spaces in our cornrows. They would follow the rows for several hills and dig the corn out for their dinner; also, snails sometimes found the tender sprouts and ate them. We carried seed corn in our pockets to replant it. At times, after the seedlings came out of the ground, the pests would dig it out so badly that we had to take the corn planter and replant it before time to hoe the corn. We often planted about an acre of late corn. It was good for fattening hogs (if we didn’t gather it for roastenears).
As soon as we got all of our corn hoed over the last time, we started picking blackberries and huckleberries (blueberries). We also worked in our garden, gathering and canning whatever was left for the winter. We picked green beans and caned the ones that were still tender, and we dried and shelled (or threshed) the mature ones. Sometimes the neighbors picked several bushels of beans, and we would gather in the evening and have a bean stringing session. There were always some comical, jolly neighbors there. Some mischievous person would catch a friend’s head turned and pop him on the head with a bean. We kept him guessing about who did it. After we got the beans strung, we played games, told jokes, etc. We had a lot of fun.
By the time we finished harvesting our beans, we were ready to start school ‑‑ but that didn’t end our farm work. We would come home from school, get our corn cutter (It looked like a machete) and start for the field to cut corn. If the corn was good and heavy, we would take a swath of eight rows for a corn shock; if the stocks were light, we would take ten rows. One of us, usually the oldest one (Alvah or Guy) took the two middle rows, and cut them on each side of him until he had a load. He made a horse by putting the load between four hills of corn and bending the tops over and pulling them together to for a pyramid shape. Then we crunched the big end of a well‑ripened stalk and wrapped it around the tops to hold them in place. We wrapped the big end of the tie stock over the little end to hold it in place. This made a nice horse, or stand, to hold the stalks straight up. One would follow on the left and one on the right of the shock row and cut a load and carrying it to where we set it around the horse. We leaned the shock uphill, or to face the usual direction of the winds. We kept adding loads until, according to the weight or size of the corn, we got from eighty to ninety hills in a shock. We squeezed the shock together and wrapped a tie stock around it just above the ears. We tied it by lapping the ends in a kind of a half hitch. Then we’d get another tie stalk (You could let loose of your shock when you got the first stalk tied) and pull the top closer together and bind it again. That kept the wind from catching the shock. Also, it would protect the corn from water. It kept as well as if it were in our corncrib. If there were no severe storms or heavy snows to break them down, the shocks would stand for months.
Cutting corn was also hard work ‑‑ and a little disagreeable. If the stocks got too ripe and dry; and, if we didn’t wear gloves and tie a cloth around our neck to protect us some, the blades would saw our faces and hands. Early on, before our crop finished growing, I got pretty tired of hoeing corn and cutting weeds but I didn’t mind cutting corn or shucking it. When we finally finished cutting corn and shocking it, while we waited for the weather to get cool, we shucked just enough to feed our hogs to fatten them for pork and bacon. We let the rest of the corn cure enough to pile it in the crib. Farmers usually built cribs with three or four inch slats, or boards. They put them just far enough apart to keep the ears from falling through. That kept the air circulating through it so it never rotted. It lasted until we had another crop.
We weren’t often bothered much with insect pests, but sometimes a little worm, called a weevil, would eat the heart of the corn. We had more trouble with birds, such as starlings and cardinals, and animals, such as rats, squirrels and chipmunks. If pests got too bad, people would shell the corn. A mechanical sheller with a wheel about four or five feet in diameter could be used to shell a large crib of corn. You would stick the small end of the ear down through the hopper and turn the wheel, which had teeth that would rake the grain off. One man turned the wheel by a handle on the rim and another man fed the ears into the hopper. It shelled the corn about as fast as you could feed it.
We children came directly home from school to shuck our corn and haul in as much as we could before dark. We didn’t shuck corn when the fodder was too dry ‑‑ because the leaves would crumble and waste so that it wasn’t worth much as feed for our livestock. When properly cured, the fodder made good bulk feed for the cows; but it was not so good for horses. Even though we didn’t work the horse much during that season, we usually fed her some corn during the winter. We used her to haul our corn and wood and to take our corn to the mill for our bread. (We had to buy our flour because there was no roller mill suitable for making flour in our neighborhood. The nearest one was at Newton, in Roane County.)
During the week, we shelled one and one‑half bushel of corn, poured it into a nice strong white sack, long enough to balance over the saddle, and we took it to the mill on Saturday. We went about seven miles to Henry Snider’s water driven mill at Queen Shoals, about one‑half mile below Queen Shoals Bridge. It was almost a days job to get there and back. The miller kept a gallon of our corn per bushel to pay for grinding it. We called that the toll meal.
The weather didn’t always cooperate with us for our trip to the mill. Sometimes it was very cold to ride a horse so far. At other times it rained, and we would have to take something to put over our corn to keep it dry. Sometimes the corn got so wet that we had to dry it by spreading it out thinly near a fire. A few times, I’ve started to the mill and found that a hill had slid in along the narrows below Barren Creek, blocking the road so that we couldn’t get a horse over it. I would have to go back home. Maybe they wouldn’t get the slide out of the road until after the spring thaw in April.
Sometimes, we went about the same distance to a different mill, at Amy. We often had to stay there for an hour or two, waiting for our corn to be ground. The boys at the mill would look our horses over, size them up, judge them for speed and banter one another for a horse race. Ole Maude was a very fast runner, and I often won the race. Onetime, when I went to the mill in the summertime, Dad had me take Ole Maude to the blacksmith and have her shod at the Geary Blacksmith Shop. (The owner was a relative of the Geary brothers in Clendenin who are in the furniture business and are related to my Grandmother Boggs.)
The blacksmith looked at my horse’s feet and told me what size shoes to get and how many nails he would need, and then he sent me to the store, just across the road, to get them for Ole Maude. The clerk handed me the shoes, tied together, and the nails were in paper sack. I was barefooted, and I had on long legged overalls. I caught my toe in my pants leg and fell down, with the nails in my hand. I run three of them into my hand. One ran nearly clear through it. I went to the doctor there, and he dressed it and put some disinfectant medicine on it. It left scars on my hand for several years, but it didn’t give me too much trouble. I managed to get back home with my grist of meal. If we didn’t whip her along, Ole Maude would poke along on her way home; but, when she got within a mile or two of home, she would think of her dinner and her rest; and she would step up to double time without any coaxing.
Late in the autumn, before the snow and cold wind began to blow, we took Ole Maude up the hill above the house to haul logs for fuel. Ole Maude weighed about twelve hundred pounds, and she was very strong. There was a short dip in the path to our house. She would keep going pretty fast down the hill to get a good start up the bank. She could take a pretty large log up it. We rolled the logs up on skids a foot or so off of the ground and sawed through them about every three feet ‑‑ to fit in the old black cast iron stove.
That stove could throw out a lot of heat from that hickory wood. We split those blocks small enough to fit five or six pieces into the stove; and, before we went to bed, we threw in two or three big sticks and turned the damper just enough to allow some air to circulate and keep the fire smoldering. When we arose the next morning, there were usually some hot coals of fire that would flame up soon after we put more wood into the stove.
Dad kept up on current events by taking a good newspaper such as The Commoner or the Charleston Gazette and a few magazines, and he read about every book he could get. He had a good number one grammar school education, and he was an excellent reader. He often sat by that hot wood stove and read to the family from the N. Y. World stories, The Indian Men of Ohio and other Scout stories, the Late World Report, “Granddad’s Old Clock Ran Down Never to Run Again”, and Robinson Cruse stories. He also told us a lot of other popular tales that I can’t recall. He knew some interesting hunting stories about bears, tigers and other wild animals. Just imagining them as he talked made them very interesting. At the end of the story, he would “Boo!” and jump at us to frighten us. At bedtime, we often pulled our shoes off and ran around the dwelling barefooted in the snow. We then came in and dried our feet before going to bed. We thought that the exercise would help us to sleep better.
During the winter, we cut enough fuel wood on Saturday to last while we went to school through the week. Sundays were the Lord’s day, and we didn’t have to work. We had hardly any place to go to church or Sunday school; so we would congregate and play with our playmates. We called one game “Fox and Geese.” We first made a large circular path in the snow about twenty to thirty feet in diameter with a smaller ring inside it. We made eight lanes across the diameter (like the spokes of a wheel). Two “Foxes” were chosen ‑‑ one for the inner circle and one for the outer circle. The others were the “Geese.” They stayed in the inner circle, and the foxes chased them through the lanes. When a fox tagged one of the geese, that one became a fox and was moved to the outer circle. The game was over when all of the geese were caught by one of the foxes (or geese turned foxes). The first ones tagged were chosen to be the foxes in the next game.
When the weather was too bad to play in the open spaces, we would often get our ax and some matches and go about a quarter mile to a rock cliff that ran around a point at the break of a steep hill. We would find some pine‑knots for kindling, and build a fire in the dry under the cliff. We sang, told stories, played games, climbed trees, hunted wood rats, played in the sand, etc. The highest place in the cliff was about sixty feet. There were some trees growing up to the ceiling from a ledge under the cliff, and there was one we could get into from above the cliff. We climbed out a limb of that tree and slid down the trunk, searching the face of the cliff for holes, bird nests, etc. We found one big cave about fifteen to twenty feet long, ten feet wide and eight feet high. We called it the “bear den.” (No doubt, bears and other wild animals had used it.)
We didn’t often play around these rock cliffs in the summer time because there was danger from rattlesnakes and copperhead snakes, but there was one occasion when we carefully ventured back to our old winter playground. As we neared the bear den, we heard a rumbling noise coming from the cave. We were very scared. Then we saw a big buzzard flapping his long wings to get away from us. We ventured nearer and nearer to the big black hole under the cliff. We heard a hissing sound; but we kept venturing nearer and nearer, until we could see something white. We finally ventured close enough to the white object to find two young buzzards blowing at us like a gander goose guarding its babies. We caught them and brought them out to daylight. They vomited the rotting food that their mother and father bird had fed them. Their odor was so strong that we had trouble washing the smell away. That, no doubt, was the way the buzzards protected themselves from hungry predators. We visited our game until they were old enough to fly. The mother vulture quit feeding them, and they shed their down and grew feathers in their wings. The buzzards returned the next year or two, raising another pair of young ones. (They say that when two are of the one sex they will kill them. If they are male and female and one dies, they kill the one that is left.)
We hunted for hawk and crow nests, and we would destroy all of them that we found. We didn’t know that some hawks are useful. As far as we knew, they were game and bird predators. Some hawks are useful for catching snakes, rats and mice; but, to us farmers, they were all enemies. They would catch our chickens, squirrels, and rabbits.
We caught baby rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, and polecats; and we tried to tame some of them. We never raised a rabbit. They would live a few days; but we couldn’t get the right kind of food to make them grow. A squirrel is a hardy animal and easy to raise. They will climb all over you, and they seem to thrive well on nuts or bread. They make a nice pet but will bite you at times. If you let them out around timber, they will finally wander away and never come back. Chipmunks are a very cute pet, but you have to keep them in a cage or they won’t stay around long. A groundhog is another interesting pet. They will stay and follow you like a dog. They hole up (hibernate) in winter. They come out about the first of February, but they won’t stay out if the weather is too cold. A polecat (skunk) is about like a cat and is very pretty. To keep one, you have to cut its stink bag off.
Some little redhead summer sparrows ventured near our house to pick up breadcrumbs. We noticed that when they were feeding on the crumbs they would let us walk almost within reach of them. We decided we might tame some of them. We lay flat on the ground and flipped crumbs. As we continued to reward them day after day, they’d keep coming closer and closer until they finally got to our hands. We would lie still and never move. Then we raised our hand a few inches at a time until one or two would fly into our hands. They’d pick a few crumbs and fly away to eat them. Finally they would sit on our hand and eat some. Then they’d fill their beaks and carry some to their young ones. The sparrows raised two litters during the summer. For three years, they came back in the spring. We knew they must be the same birds because we had to coax them for only a week or two before they would eat from our hands. It surprised people to see a bird fly from a tree and pick crumbs from our hands. I have never known of any other family training them.
Onetime, we caught a dry land tarpon (dry land turtle, or tortoise) and brought it to the dwelling to keep it. Our cat got to boxing at it and playing cat‑and‑mouse with it. Finally, the tarpon got the cat’s paw in its mouth and closed its shell on the cat’s foot. The squalling cat ran all over the house, going “bumpty, bump,” with the tarpon holding tight. We had to use a hammer and beat the tarpon to pieces before it let loose.
If you catch them while they are young, coons (raccoons) also make a nice pet. Their bushy ringed tails and the black masks across the eyes easily identify them. They are very pretty, and they will follow you like a dog. They will eat meat, bread, corn, vegetables, nuts and some weeds. Some of our neighbors kept black snakes (racers) around their barns until they could tame them. They are good to catch rats, but they will eat little chickens and hen eggs (swallowing them whole). After swallowing an egg, a racer will wrap tightly around a pole or other object to crush the shell of the egg. They can move as fast as an adult moving at a brisk pace. If cornered, one will strike repeatedly while vibrating its tail. But they are nonpoisonous. We never made friends with a snake. We killed every one we saw around our place.
I once killed a big rattlesnake within about fifty yards of our dwelling. I was plowing Ole Maude when I noticed one coiled up under a rock that jutted out about four or five feet from the hill that ran alongside of our field. I was afraid that, if I startled it, it would go further under the rock. I cut a sprout about six feet long and left a small branch near the big end of it. I sharpened the smaller branch about two or three inches from the stock of the main branch. I thought I could get with the fork of the stick behind the coiled snake. I lifted the stick and let it down behind the rattler. I jerked the stick and hooked the sharpened branch into its skin. I pulled the snake away from the rock and jumped back.
I wounded it and listened to it rattle for a few minutes, and then I killed it. It was over four feet long and two and one‑half inches across its belly. It had sixteen rattlers on it. You can hear one of his many rattlers rattling for a hundred yards or further. They are said to grow a new rattle each time they shed their skin, an average of three times a year. So, the one I killed must have been five or six years old. The rattlers are easily broken off; so they don’t always tell the age of the snake. They are more poisonous than a copperhead snake ‑‑ possibly because they are larger and inject more poison into you. The rattler and the copperhead are the only severely poisonous snakes we have in West Virginia. There is a big fly, called a “jar fly,” that looks like a locust (cicada) and makes a noise like a rattler; but if you hear a rattlesnake close‑by, you will certify it at once.
The black widow is the only poisonous spider in West Virginia. I have seen them as big as the end of an average man’s thumb. They are found mostly anywhere you will find other spiders. Your basement is a place you will often find them. The largest one I found was in my garden. It was an inch across the body. They are black with a red hourglass shaped spot on its body. The brown recluse spider is a nuisance in the South, but I don’t believe that they have spread this far north. Spiders have eight legs and a two‑part body.
We have many native birds in West Virginia. The Cardinal is a familiar one. They stay here all their life. The rooster bird is red. The hen is brown or a mouse color with a red back and some red on its tail, neck and head. They are nearly as large as a Robin. The Robin usually goes south in winter; but, if the winter is mild, they stay in West Virginia about all year. The Chickadee, Oriole, Crow, Hawks, some Sparrows (with the exception of the little Redhead Sparrow), Starlings and some Owls are native birds. The Hoot Owl hibernates in the worst of winter. If you hear one during a bad spell in the wintertime, you may say that the storm has broken. The Screech Owl is another native bird. They holler at night and make a noise that will chill your spine. If you rout one in the daytime, you can step on it or catch it because they can’t see well in the daytime. Screech Owls and Hoot Owls are good rat and mouse eaters. Hoot Owls will catch grown chickens. They grow as large as four feet from wingtip to wing tip.
Another night bird is the snipe. They will fly straight up at dusk and make a chattering noise until they land back where they started. The little wren (house wren) and big wren birds are native to West Virginia They stay near the ground, fly through dense brush heaps and over decaying logs, hunting worms. They will readily nest in man made birdhouses. The Whippoorwill is another ground bird. Some people call them “Bull Bats.” They stay here only during the warm months. About September, they sail around in flocks by the thousands before they fly south. When you hear one holler “whip‑poor‑will,” you may know the spring weather is here; but you are still liable to see some snow or frost after they come from the south.
The little Humming Birds thrive here. They are beautiful and will dart and fly so fast you can hardly see them. There are several other birds I might mention, such as a brown bird with a dotted neck and breast I call the Hess bird. They are a little smaller than the Robin. They lay their eggs in another bird’s nest to be hatched. (By the time I was nine years old, I knew, or had a name for, almost all of our native birds.)
When we lived in or near the forest, I could identify about every tree in the woods. My favorite trees in winter were evergreens such as Hemlocks and Spruce. The Hemlock grows on the bluffs near a stream, or anywhere in the valley. (The needles and the branches on it look a lot like those on the Redwood trees of California, but Hemlock trees don’t grow as tall as the Redwoods.) They are beautiful in winter when the snow is on them. I still cut the Hemlock for Christmas trees. The long needle Spruce pine grows on the hilltop and on the thin soil on the points. They are pretty ‑‑ more so when the snow is on them. The White Oak, Black Walnut and Poplar (Tulip) trees are favorite lumber trees in West Virginia. They grow very large. Some trees have been cut that have as much as four thousand board feet of lumber in them.
Some White Oak trees that were cut down cut in Fayette County in 1960 were over five feet in diameter. They were over 500 years old. (We could tell the age by counting the growth rings on the stump.) They used that lumber to make molding. It has a beautiful grain in it, and the lumber is hard and strong. The Yellow Poplar is a valuable tree to grow. It gets as large as the oak. They are a soft wood tree and are used mostly for siding.
When there was a light moon in June and when the sap was right in Birch timber, it was a great sport and pleasure to go to the woods and follow a stream until we found a birch tree to cut down (In those days there wasn’t much concern about destroying timber). Sometimes we’d chop for an hour to get it on the ground. If it fell across a hollow, we walked out on it and chopped it in two to get it on the ground where we could peel the bark off. We would have to jump off the log and out of the way when the log broke and fell. We realized the danger of it falling on us. If we made a miss‑step and slid under it, there was great danger; but we would take that chance to get some good birch sap. We cut a ring around the log about every two feet and then split the bark two ways while peeling it from the log. We scraped off the inner bark and sap with a spoon. It was as tasty and sweet as candy with a strong birch flavor. It was really delicious! We used Mothers spoons, and sometimes we got a scolding for losing them. We often took a big slab of bark to Dad and Mother. They loved it too.
The Chestnut was my favorite tree in summer and autumn. They made a good timber to squirrel hunt in because they grew nearly as large as the oak and they bore nuts that the squirrel loved more than any other timber forage. So did people. I have seen so much mast, or nuts, fall from them that you could rake them up by the handfuls where they fell and lodged against poles and where they rolled into sinkholes. Chestnut hunting was one of my favorite pleasures. I have gathered as much as three or four gallons in a day. They grew in a big burr, some as large as a man’s fist. They would have as many as four nuts in a burr. Some of the nuts grew to be one inch thick and an inch and a quarter long, or larger. They were sweeter and tasted better after they had seasoned or dried out for a month or more. You could keep them all winter, but worms would often get in them and destroy them.
Mounter (Mountain laurel) was one of the favorite plants that I encountered while going through the forest. It grows as a shrub and has shiny evergreen leaves that look like bay leaves. In the spring, its large cup‑shaped blooms make show flower clusters. Birch was my favorite spring tree. I loved the flavor of birch. I would break off a young, tender spring growth of a birch twig and either strip the bark and chew it, or just take the ends of the twig and chew it. They have a sweet, tasty flavor.
Our dog usually came along, and sometimes he would tree a groundhog. We would throw at it until someone knocked it out of the tree. Sometimes we cut the tree. The dog and groundhog would have a good fight. A dog has strength beyond imagination. They can hold on with their teeth and pull a tremendous load, but a big groundhog is strong enough to injure a dog. A small dog that knows how to deal with a groundhog can take hold of it at just the right place (just over or in front of the shoulder) to break it in two (or crush its heart) very quickly. I realized how strong they are when I once caught a nearly full‑grown groundhog in a trap and he pulled the trap into his hole. When I pulled him from the hole by his hind leg he hung on by his front legs and braced his back until I could hardly pull him out ‑‑ even if I was about as strong as a mature man.
In the same size range, a coon is about the hardest animal for a dog to handle. They are very strong and tricky and intelligent. You usually find a coon near a stream. They like fish and crayfish and will follow a stream and turn over rocks so large you would think it unreasonable for them to move. A coon will run for a deep hole of water; and, if the dog doesn’t understand fighting it, it will drown the dog. If you cut down a tree with one, a dog has to be intelligent to find it. At times, they will jump into another tree and go up it. They can jump from that one and be gone before the dog can find its traces. They will go for their den or to a hole in the ground or find a hole of water to put up a fight. Sometimes we would shoot one out of the tree by a spotlight; but we preferred to see a fight ‑‑ if we had time. Other times, if the tree was too large to cut, we would stay by it until daytime and then shoot the coon (or climb the tree and chase it out to see a fight).
Its coming spring now, and school is over at the first of March. That’s when we had a little time to play. Unless we were clearing land, we didn’t have much farm work to do until about the first or middle of April. We liked to go to a place in the forest where there wasn’t any mud. It was nicer to play in the clean leaves. We sometimes hunted a thicket of small trees, and climbed to the tops of them. We’d get them to weaving and ride them to the ground as they sprung back and forth. When we dropped from it, the tree would flip straight back.
Sometimes we would climb a tree and bend it to the top of another tree. We’d catch onto that one and let go of the first tree. We kept traveling in that way to see who could travel the furthest from one treetop to another. We also had a lot of fun swinging on grapevines. We would hunt a tree that had a grapevine in it and cut the vine close to the ground. Two or three of us would pull on the vine to see if it was strong enough to carry us. If it was strong and well anchored in the treetop, we could swing out fifteen or twenty feet or more, back and forth, over streams or ravines.
Onetime, my brother, Cornelius, just 18 months younger than I, lost his grip and slipped from a grapevine. He fell to the ground and broke his arm at the wrist. We didn’t have a doctor anywhere near our home, so we took him to Granddad Estep. Granddad examined his arm and set it back in place the best he could. He put splints on it to hold it straight (about as well as any doctor could do). We put his arm in a sling, and he kept it there until his arm grew strong again. We took many chances at getting hurt at our play ‑‑ climbing trees and rock cliffs, bending trees over to the tops of the cliffs, sliding down the trees, etc.; but we were pretty strong and accurate, and we avoided many accidents. Sometimes we chased one another through the forest and hills acting like foxes and dogs until we were exhausted, and then we would gain our reserve strength and keep going.
Occasionally, when we were exhausted from all of that running, we cleaned out a place to play, usually under a big Beech tree. Then we would gather moss and flowers to decorate our playground. Sometimes we played on rock bottom streams, floating sticks for logs and making water mills and dams. Then we’d tear the dams apart and make little floods. “It’s getting late. Let’s take Mother a nice bundle of flowers for her vase.” We would gather honeysuckle, rhododendron, ivy, laurel, dogwood, sweet Williams, blue violets, arbutus or wild iris and other spring flowers. That was one of my favorite activities in the spring. I loved flowers. Mother was getting worried about us. It was getting late; but when we took her the pretty flowers and all of us accounted for ourselves, she was happy that the day was over and we didn’t get hurt. We were all together again.
By this time, we were getting to be a big family. I often told people that we each had one sister. They would be astonished before they caught onto my trick. There was Alvah Vandal, Guy Burl, Ray Emerson, Ira Irvin, Cornelius Thomas, Roy Cecil, Dennis Burl, Ona Izora, and Scott. In 1903, there was an epidemic of an infectious diarrhea that killed children throughout the country. Scott died in July of that year. His was the first death in our family. That was a very sad thing for all of us. We buried him on Pigeon Creek in the Pigeon cemetery, where Grandfather and Grandmother Estep and some of my cousins, uncles and aunts are buried. Clarence Lee was born in 1904, and Waitman Burnard was born in 1907.
We had about seven acres of land cleared at that time. Dad helped us get the spring crop planted, and then he went away to work on a log job. There were four boys big enough to work on the farm. We could do a little work, but none of us were strong enough to plow Ole Maude. That summer, Granddad was farming, and logging some. He had hired some young men who were large enough to plow a horse. So Alvah and Guy worked a day for Granddad; and Granddad sent one of his men, Waitman or Ben Ashley ‑‑ Both were large enough to plow Ole Maude ‑‑ to help for a day to pay for Alva and Guy’s work.
We had long rows of corn; and after we hoed a round trip in the field (two rows each), we would sit down and “take a five.” We called it a five, but we usually rested fifteen minutes or longer. Sometimes we would sit and talk and tell stories while we rested. At other times we played while we relaxed from the hard work. Waitman Ashley liked to throw rocks over trees and down the hill. He could throw a rock much further than I had ever seen anyone else throw one. I suppose he was the first grown man I ever saw throw a rock. He got acquainted with my Aunt Florence Estep while he worked and boarded with my Granddad. My brothers and I would call him “Uncle Waitman,” and laugh about it. That embarrassed him.
Everybody worked six days a week and ten hours per day, but on Sunday, all of us would get together and have a good time playing ball and base. When they got behind in their work, some people worked from daylight until dark. The year we cleared the twelve‑acre field, we got behind with our fieldwork; and we were very tired before we got our crop laid by. We cleared the twelve‑acre field for five dollars per acre. Mother needed a sewing machine. There was quite a family of us to keep in clothing, and she had been going to Granddads to sew on Grandmother’s machine. Mother was very proud of her new Singer sewing machine. It cost sixty dollars. That took all we made by clearing the big twelve‑acre field, but all of us were very proud to help Mother get it. She kept it and used it many years. Those days, Mother made about all of our clothes ‑‑ except overalls. (We usually bought them ready‑made.)
The next spring, we sharecropped the twelve‑acre field that we had cleared. We grew and shucked the corn and gave one‑third of it for the use of the ground. We grew some fine big corn and beans on it the first year. It was easier than normal to tend because the ground was loose and easy to plow. The plow would root out and cover almost all of the weeds except the tree sprouts that grew on the stumps and roots. (Some of the roots were too big to plow through.)
The year after we moved to King Shoals Creek, and after we got the crop finished, Dad, Mother and the baby, Scott, went to Looneyville to visit Granddad and Grandmother and family. Alvah and I were in the peach orchard and some of the peaches were turning a little red where the sun shined on them. I though they were ripe, and I pulled one or two and ate some. They didn’t taste too bad, and I liked fruit; but they were very green. I ate only a few bites; but that evening, late, I took a headache and got very sick. I went to bed; and that was the last I remembered, until sometime the next day. I had convulsions (something like a fit). They said that one of my hands didn’t move when I thrashed about. One side seemed to be paralyzed. I thought it was from eating those green peaches with that fuzz on them, but they said that I had what they called Cholera morbus. Aunt Florence was staying with us children while Dad and Mother were visiting at Looneyville. One of my brothers walked about two and one‑half miles to the mouth of King Shoals to get a doctor. The doctor came and stayed all night with me. My eyes set, and I came so close to dying that they though they couldn’t save my life. The next day, I wasn’t able to be on my feet. Dad and Mother had ridden Ole Maude when they went to Looneyville to see Granddad, so Alvah and Guy had to walk about fifteen miles to get them. They found Mother and Dad and brought them back the next morning. My sickness ruined their vacation and visit. I wasn’t able to move around for a week or more.
After we moved to King Shoals, I didn’t get to see Granddad and Grandmother again for two years. That was a long time for me to be away from my lovely Granddad and Grandmother and my uncles and aunts, and I also missed my old neighbor friends and playmates. About 1904, Alvah and Guy were old enough to work on public works. (There wasn’t any law against children working those days.) Alvah was twelve and Guy was eleven. They went to Richwood, and stayed with Uncle Elmer Estep, where they worked in a clothespin factory for a few weeks. They made a little money, and that helped a lot in buying clothes to go to school. There were nine children in the family at that time.
A few years later, some men were cutting stave timber and hauling it from Granny’s Creek about four miles across three hills on a wagon. They split the stave blocks into 3 x 6 inches by four feet staves for making oil and whiskey barrels. Pless McCune and Charley Jarvis had the contract. They hauled them to the top of a rock cliff where we often played, at a site that I have mentioned here‑to‑for. After we got our corn hoed over, Mr. Jarvis and Mr. McCune gave us a contract throwing and pitching these staves on down the hill to King Shoals Creek. I worked for 50 cents a day. That was the first money I made by days work. There were several hundred of the staves, and we learned to handle them pretty well. We would lay them on our shoulders and give them a sling. They would go, end over end, for a long way down the hill. We worked them to the creek, and they lay there until the creek flooded enough to float them to the river where somebody had stretched a net across the mouth of the creek to catch them. That saved a lot of time and labor that would have been required to haul them 20 miles. After loading them onto a wagon and taking them across the river on a ferryboat, they shipped the staves to Charleston, where they sold them.
Alvah and Guy were almost young men at this time (1905). They were getting along pretty well in school and growing to know a lot about life. The neighborhood held a revival meeting at the schoolhouse. (Their nearest church was at Barren Creek, about five miles from our home; and it was about half that far to the schoolhouse.) They held the meetings at night because there was school during the day. The revival continued for about three weeks, and there were several conversions. Alvah and Guy went to the altar and prayed through. Alvah made such a bright testimony that the preacher told him he ought to be a minister. Everybody talked a lot about the meeting. I liked to hear them talking about people repenting of their sins, but I didn’t quite understand what it was all about or how to get saved. I was about nine or ten years old then.
When the weather was bad and we couldn’t very well go to church, we children at home and some of our neighborhood youngsters would take our songbooks and go to a shelter at an outbuilding such as the crib or barn ‑‑ and sometimes to our playhouse at the rock cliff ‑‑ to hold our own meetings. We would sing a song and then someone ‑‑ usually Alvah, Guy or my cousin Harley Belcher ‑‑ would lead the meeting. He would talk for a while and then call on someone to pray. I kept going to the meetings and began to understand more about what I needed to do to be saved. I was eleven years old and had gone to Sunday school and church as long as I could remember. Some of my brothers and cousins kept talking to me and explaining Christianity. I began to understand. I knew what death meant, and I had often thought about how awful it would be to die and never be anymore. From the time I could remember, I already knew how to pray. I knew that everybody should be good and that it was a terribly bad thing to swear and use bad words ‑‑ or to steal, or fight, or to break one of the Ten Commandments. So I began to understand about the forgiveness of our sins and what an awful thing it was to sin. My older brothers, including Ray (the older brother next to me) and my cousins were all saved. I got uneasy about my soul and being saved like the rest of them. So I got to praying that I might get saved. Alvah was my oldest brother, about four years older than I. I asked him if I would be saved if I were to die.
Alvah told me that ‑‑ unless I was “born again” – I might be lost; but I don’t think he understood. The Bible says, “Blessed is the penitent sinner, for he shall be saved.” I think that anyone that is seeking salvation and is trying to live right, according to the Bible, is saved already. But I hadn’t felt the real blessings of salvation; so I kept praying that I might be like my brothers and cousins. One day, Cornelius, Harley and I were praying in the woods near Granddad’s lumber stack. We climbed to the top of the lumber stack, and Harley suggested that we sing and have a prayer. So Harley prayed for Cornelius and me. We were praying, too. We kept praying, and I was blessed in the forgiveness of my sins. I was very happy. Cornelius prayed through, too. Then I realized what it meant to be saved from our sins. For sometime, or as long as we lived on King Shoals, we would either go to church and Sunday school or have our own prayer sessions and meetings. I would pray with a new understanding, and I enjoyed our meetings more. Alvah and Harley could pray like a minister. I was younger than three of my brothers and about the same age as my cousin Harley. They would sometimes call on me to pray. I was always a little timid, but I never refused to pray orally when they called on me. We had some really good meetings and were often blessed by the spirit of God. I realized I couldn’t think of much to say when I prayed, not as much as some of the older ones ‑‑ but what we say when we pray is not as important as the meaning and our faith in what we do pray about. I always liked to go to church and Sunday school, and I went every time I could.
Some people in our community decided to build a church near the mouth of Porters Creek. It was organized by the Methodist denomination. They named it The Bedo Church, after the elder of the Methodist congregation. The site was about a mile beyond our schoolhouse, but two miles closer than Barren Creek church. We attended meetings there for sometime. Usually in the spring of the year or in the autumn before the weather got bad (The winters were very long and cold at that time), they would have a revival. The church was on the opposite side of the river from where we lived. We would call for a boat, and some of our neighbors would row us across the river and back. Although my family was Baptists, the Methodists were glad to have us attend their church; and when spring came, we could go to our own church at Barren Creek. (Some people wouldn’t attend another denomination; but we didn’t believe that was right.) The Methodists had a good congregation, and they had some lively revivals there. We boys walked, and Mother would ride Ole Maude. The women had a special saddle to keep from straddling the horses back. The saddle had a horn, or an offset, on it. A woman could throw her leg over it and ride on one side of the horse, holding onto the saddle. We had to adjust the saddle very tight around the horse, or it might roll over the side of the horse and slide a person off. (Later on, they made a split skirt so the women could ride astraddle the horse.)
We walked seven miles (and back), to Barren Creek church when we went there. Mother would ride Ole Maude. We went over the hill from the river by Dave Smith’s farm, out the ridge and off the hill to the church ‑‑ a shorter way than following the river. We usually came back the same way as we went, and Brother Smith would often have us stop at his house and stay for dinner. We would get home before dark, but it took most of the day to travel fourteen miles the round trip. The circuit riders would start to their churches on Saturday and ride (or walk) several miles. Then they came back and went to their farms on Wednesday morning. People sometimes worked on the farms ten and twelve hours per day (especially during the long summer days) to save their crops.
In the spring of 1907, we decided to leave King Shoals and move back to Wallback, in Roane County, near where Dad and Mother had lived before and for a few years after they were married. (This was where I was born about a year before we moved to Looneyville.) We leased a farm from Mike Underwood, Mother’s first cousin. It had a bigger house, and the ground was very fertile; so we could grow lots of grain and have good pasture for our horse and cows. We were also closer to school and church, and to the post office. It was about two miles to the Baptist church and about one mile to the schoolhouse and the Methodist church, which were located on one fork of Big Sandy Creek (which empties into the river at Clendenin). There were three forks of Big Sandy within a half‑mile of our home, and there were churches and schools on each fork. We now had plenty of places to go to church, and a neighborhood of very friendly people.
The nearest route to Wallback from King Shoals was about seven miles. We moved in the spring (in March), hauling our furniture on a wagon. We still had some feed for our cattle at King Shoals; so we took only one cow to Wallback. I stayed at King Shoals with my Granddad and Uncle Burton Cook and finished feeding our feed to the cattle. While we were still there, Uncle Burton chopped his leg with an ax. He cut it pretty badly. I helped Aunt Lula with the work, feeding the farm animals and getting wood for fuel. I stayed there for about a month while the cattle consumed all of the winter feed. By that time, the grass was ready to pasture the cattle at our new home. Some of my brothers came back to help me drive the cattle to Wallback.
We fed the cattle and started early in the morning. We drove them through the hills by Grannies Creek, then over the hill to the right‑hand fork of Sandy Creek. We got home in the afternoon. We left some of our shelled corn in a big box at Granddads. We depended on this for our bread; so, about every two weeks, we had to take Ole Maude back to King Shoals and get about two bushels of the corn at a time. We put it into a big, long sack and slung the load over Ole Maude’s back; and we rode on top of it all the way back to Wallback. After several trips for our bread corn, we finally got it all home.
There was a corn mill at Wallback; so we didn’t have to go as far to the mill as we did at King Shoals. We got our corn meal ground there, but we had to go to Newton to get our wheat rolled into flour. Newton was about four miles down Sandy to another of the three forks of Big Sandy. Big Sandy spreads out over quite a territory in Roane, Kanawha and Clay counties. It heads at Ivydale, about 45 miles from where it empties into Elk River at Clendenin. Like most rivers or creeks in this mountain state, Sandy winds through the hills. It drains one of the principal farming sections of West Virginia. The pretty, rolling, bluegrass hills are beautiful ‑‑ especially around Newton and Wallback. There are some valuable oil and gas wells throughout the Sandy Creek area, but there has been very little coal mining in that vicinity.
Alvah and Guy were young men at that time. They worked on lumbering jobs and sometimes on neighboring farms. They also helped with the busy part of the farming at home. Alvah, Guy, Ray and I were grown enough to do a lot of work. In those days, poor people’s children didn’t get time from their chores to attend school. But people got along better without an education than they can now. If a person was a good manager of his time and was able to work, there wasn’t any reason that he couldn’t make a good living. If a person could read and write and figure a little, it was considered an average education ‑‑ equivalent to fifth or sixth grade. Eight grades were as good as, or better than, a high school education is today ‑‑ but not quite so broad.
Mother always wanted a Jersey cow, but Dad preferred Hereford cattle. We could get more money for a beef type calf. The stock (cattle and hogs) that we sold provided about all the cash income that we had in those days. We didn’t raise sheep. Dad said it didn’t pay out. People’s dogs killed too many of them, and that caused a lot of trouble between neighbors. There wasn’t any law against shooting a sheep‑killing dog, but Dad always avoided trouble with any neighbor.
Mother finally got her Jersey cow. Uncle Smith Boggs had a nice looking yellow Jersey heifer, and Aunt Ann told Mother that the mother cow was a very good butter producer; so Mother encouraged Dad to buy the heifer. We didn’t have the money to pay for it; but Uncle Smith needed some ground cleared to grow corn, and Dad agreed to clear the brush from four acres of ground. We just hacked it down and cut the logs short enough to pile up and burn them. There was such an abundance of choice timber that, just to get them out of the way, people would often cut and burn big trees that could saw out a thousand feet of lumber. Sometimes we piled them in a rough dreen and left them to rot and fill the holes in the land to make it smooth and easier to work over and cultivate.
Dad, Ray and I got our ax, crosscut saw and mattocks and went to work. Dad was a good ax‑man and he did most of the chopping. After Dad notched them in the right direction, Ray and I sawed the trees down and cut them into short logs. We cut the brush into sections small enough to handle and piled it into large heaps to burn. Uncle Smith lived about five miles from our dwelling. We would leave home on Sunday or Wednesday and walk more than three hills through the forest to stay with Uncle Smith and family until the last of the week. We came back home to spend our Sundays with our family and returned to our job for the rest of the week.
It took the three of us (Dad, Ray and I) about six weeks to get the ground cleared. The logs were too large for Uncle Smith to pile up to burn; so his neighbors joined in and helped him. That was the custom those days. The neighbors would get together and decide when to have a “log‑rolling‑day.” Some would bring a team of strong horses, and some had cane‑hooks to roll the logs together. There were usually fifteen or twenty men to move the large logs, and the boys picked up the small timbers and brush.
It took a lot of additional work to get a piece of land ready for the plow. When they got everything all piled up in shape to burn, we waited for a dry day to set fire to the brush heaps; and, after they burned out, we had to pick up the parts that didn’t burn on the first try and pile them onto the log heaps. After we got all of the ground cleared of the leafy brush, we set fire to the remaining logs and branches. It sometimes took a week or more for those big green logs to burn. After they burned in two, we moved the logs and rolled them together in a new spot, with the biggest logs on the ground and the smaller ones on top of them. We burned them again; and, after that fire burned out, we picked up the remaining pieces (or chunks) of wood and chucked them onto new heaps. We repeated this process several times before all of the wood was burned clean, leaving only the ashes.
We always moved the logs onto other ground as soon as they were about half burned. If we weren’t careful, we could have such big heaps that the heat from the fire would scorch the ground so badly that we couldn’t grow corn where we burned the logs. That didn’t only save the ground. If we pulled the piles of logs and brush and chunks of wood onto stumps, we could burn them out of the way of the plow; and we could grow two or three hills of corn where the stump would have been. If the ground wasn’t scorched too much, we could grow the best corn in the burned spots. There, the corn grew the biggest and tallest stocks and produced the largest ears. Spreading the burns helped the soil and also made it easier for us to cultivate the crops. The ashes from the timbers contained fertilizer that provided nutrients for growing grain, and the fire destroyed the wild seeds and killed the stumps. There weren’t so many weeds and sprouts to smother our plants; and, when there weren’t so many of them in our way, it didn’t take so long to cultivate the field.
We had to work pretty hard to get the job done on schedule so that Uncle Smith could get the ground cleaned‑up and ready to plant corn on it in the spring; but we finally got to take our pretty yellow heifer home. We were very proud of our calf, and it became a very gentle pet. We would take it by the neck and lead it around with a child on its back. It seemed to delight in our rubbing it and playing with it. About a year after we bought it, it bore a calf. By its being so gentle, we expected it to be easy to milk; but we soon learned a different story. When we tried to milk it, it kicked and ran until Dad was about ready to sell it. Finally, he put a halter on her head and tied her to a stall, and he tied a rope on her legs so she couldn’t kick. She still tried to kick and turn the pail over and spill the milk, but we kept coaxing her to stand still. She eventually understood that it wasn’t going to hurt; so she became a good gentle cow.
When we moved to Wallback, there wasn’t enough cleared ground on Mike Underwood’s farm for us to grow our crops. The spring we moved there, we went to work on about four acres. We didn’t have time to clear more than that and get it in corn. To grow big corn, we had to get it planted by May 15. We could have planted 100‑day corn, but 120‑day corn is bigger and has much more grain per ear. (There’s a 90‑day corn we could plant about June 15, but it doesn’t grow very large and doesn’t make much grain per ear.)
About July 4th, after we got our field‑corn 1aid‑by (or finished cultivating), we planted some sweet corn. It was a variety that wouldn’t get ripe before frost, but it would get mature enough to eat. We found a fertile piece of land and clear it and pile the brush off of it. We didn’t have time to let it dry to burn; so we piled the brush all around the edges of the fertile piece of ground. We just took Ole Maude and furried the ground with a sharp root cutter plow and planted it. If the ground is about right (damp or just wet enough that it won’t hurt it to stir the soil), corn will sprout and be peeping out of the soil in about four days.
The quails and chipmunks would be pretty hungry for some of our good sweet corn; so we had to watch it pretty close and see that they didn’t dig it up. In about four days, I went back to see how it was coming along. I found a little round hole dug in the row where we had planted the corn, and I could see that it had been freshly dug. That’s the work of a chipmunk. Quails don’t dig a little round hole; they scratch it out. “I’ll get you this evening or early in the morning.” I was about twelve years old now, and I had learned to handle a gun fairly well. I went to the store and bought me some shotgun shells with bird shot (about number six shot). There are more small shot in a number six shell than a number four or five. It will scatter more when you shoot it, and you are more apt to hit your target.
I got up early and got out there at about daybreak. The chipmunks and quails knew that the early bird gets the worm; but I was an early riser, too. They are very cunning and they watch for you while they are stealing your corn. That was a great sport for me to kill those chipmunks and the quails that were digging out the corn that I had planted. I wanted to eat it, myself, instead of letting them have it.
I slipped around behind the trees and bushes. When I heard a chipmunk chirp, I said, “I’ll get you, you little stripped thief!” They are brown and hard to spot. You don’t often see them except when they run. I pulled the shotgun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger on him. He rolled end over end. I didn’t stir, as I didn’t want to be seen. I stood there quite a few minutes. Then I heard a bird chirping “Bob‑Bob‑White.” I knew that was a quail. They are cunning and very difficult to slip up on to get close enough to shoot them. I thought he was coming after my good sweet corn. So I just kept really quiet. I could hear him calling for his mate. It kept coming nearer until I spied it scratching out some seed corn. He didn’t get more than one hill before I got him with the birdshot. I picked up my chipmunk and my quail and got back home in time for breakfast. I asked Mother to put some water in the teakettle and heat it so I could scald my bird and skin the chipmunk. The quail has about the best foul meat you can find; but few people know that a chipmunk is good to eat. They have the sweetest meat that I have tasted. I could eat a half‑dozen of them.
People grew wheat and other small grain crops; and there was enough waste left on the ground that small game could live on it for some time after we cut our harvest. Late in the autumn after they had hatched their eggs ‑‑ two litters of them ‑‑ there would be numerous flocks of quail. It was a great sport to hunt them (and chipmunks), especially when they were stealing my corn.
I watched the corn patch pretty closely. After the fowls and chipmunks got through with it, there was still enough corn left to grow a good crop of roastenears. It was too late to replant it; so if the quails and chipmunks had got my corn, we wouldn’t have had any good, sweet ears of corn to roast, pickle or can. After it grows for two weeks or so, the fowls and chipmunks won’t dig the corn up. (The grain is dissolved to feed the growing shoot, and it disappears.) As soon as the seedlings were high enough to cultivate, we took Ole Maude and run two or three furriers between the rows with the plow. We hoed the corn and cut all of the weeds. The weather was very hot at that time of the year and there was plenty of moisture; so the plants grew very fast. They didn’t need very much time to mature.
Well, its now July 20 ‑‑ turnip day. Mother hunted for the old birthday almanac to see what the signs were and if it was a good time to plant. “Well, anyway, Mother, I’m going to plant some turnips today. I don’t plant turnips in the signs ‑‑ I plant them in the ground.” “Ha! Ha!” I didn’t believe so much in that old almanac. We had already dug up the ground ‑‑ just deep enough for the plants to take root. It was in good shape for planting, and the prospects were good for rain within a day or two. Dad usually sowed the turnips, and he was a good judge of how to regulate the seed by mixing it with sand or ashes. He would go to the store and buy about a half‑pint of turnip seed and mix it with a gallon or so of sand or ashes. Ashes were better. They are more fertile than creek sand, and the insects wouldn’t eat the seed with lye (potash) coating it. Dad got his sand (or ashes) and put the seed in it. He stirred it well to work the seed evenly into the mix. He started sowing it, and I followed him with an armload of stalks, watching the seed fall on the loose soil. I set the stalks so that Dad could see how far the seed was sown. We went back and forth over the field until it was all covered with the seed mix.
We used two kinds of turnip seed. If the ground had been tended and the soil was loose, we planted globe turnip seeds. Very often, the ground was too steep and rough to cultivate with Ole Maude, and we just dug it up with hand tools. If the ground was just recently cleared and hadn’t been plowed, we planted a flat turnip ‑‑ one that would grow on top of the ground. (With just a little room, the root would grow deep enough into the soil to bring up enough nutrients and water to grow a big turnip). It was shaped like a saucer and would get as big as a breakfast plate. I have seen them grow to six inches in diameter and bigger. The globe turnip was oval shaped, and it was usually heavier than the flat turnip. Some of them would weigh four pounds or more. Boy! Those turnips were good when they were about half grown. When we were walking through the turnip patch, we’d pull one up, brush the dirt off of it and peel it. We sliced it, or scraped it with our jacket knife or just peeled one end of the turnip and scraped it with our knife or a teaspoon. When I was hungry or tired, I could eat a whole turnip while going through the turnip patch after looking over our corn and beans and other vegetable and grain crops.
After he got his turnip seed into the ground, Dad sewed some blue‑grass seed on top of it. The grass would sprout and take root well enough to stand the winter freeze. That made good pasture for the cattle and sheep. There would also be a few little turnips left for them to eat. The next spring, those turnip tops would sprout up nice and tender, and Mother would pick them and cook a big pot of fresh greens to eat. They were tender and sweet and very good. She also used them in a salad.
Sometimes, when coming back from a squirrel hunt or from cutting corn shocks, I’d say, “Let’s get some of those roastenears and some of those tomatoes.” Mother sliced those big, yellow tomatoes and I husked that sweet corn and silked it. It will cook in about fifteen minutes. “Boy, I’m hungry from that hunt!” Mother usually had a big dish of green beans, seasoned well and cooked good and tender, and some boiled or mashed potatoes. After filling my stomach, I’D say, “Well, since we have eaten our dinner and taken a good rest, we had better skin and dress those squirrels so Mother can put them in some salt water and soak the blood out of them. We will have them for dinner tomorrow.” Mother would cook them well done and tender, in gravy, or fry them after cooking some. They were delicious fresh meat. I could eat a whole squirrel. “Well, its getting late in the autumn, and we had better get our beans picked off of that corn and get it ready to cut. There’s going to be some frost soon.”
The first time I went squirrel hunting or rabbit hunting, I started up the hill to a patch of timber where I had seen some squirrels. I wasn’t more than two hundred yards from our house when two rabbits jumped up and started up the hill. I whistled like a hawk. One stopped. I shot it. The other one ran on a few yards before it stopped. I shot it, too. Those were the first rabbits I ever killed. I called for my brother, Cecil, to come and get the rabbits. I wanted to go on to the hickory grove and see if I could get a squirrel. I went on up the hill and around the ridge through the cornfield to where I’D been observing some squirrels. I slipped into the forest and listened. I heard some nuts fall from a big hickory tree. I kept going, quietly, until I was almost under the tree. Then I kept still for a few minutes. A squirrel saw me, and he started barking, “Squack! Squack! Squack!”
I got nervous. (I took the buck‑a‑roos, as we called it.) My knees trembled. It was a little exciting to shoot my first squirrel. I hesitated too much; and, when I cut down on him, I missed because he was running. When the gun popped, it scared the squirrel and it ran back up the tree. I walked around above the tree and got behind some brush. I kept quiet for about a half‑hour, until the squirrel thought I had gone. It ran out a branch of the tree and started cutting more nuts. I could see flickers of it through the leaves. I shot at its shadow where the leaves moved. The squirrel jumped (or fell) from the tree. It was crippled so that it couldn’t climb back up the tree. It started running down the hill. I thought I could catch it and save using another shell, as I didn’t have money to buy more. I ran it down the hill, and it darted around some trees. I kept up with it and finally got a stick. I knocked it out and grabbed it. It wasn’t dead – it bit right through my finger. I slung it loose, and it started running and tumbling down the steep hill, over rocks and logs. I fell down and skinned patches of hide off my legs and arms; but I finally caught my squirrel. It wasn’t able to bite me again. Before I got back up the hill to where I left my gun, another squirrel jumped out of a tree and ran away. I could have shot it, too ‑‑ if I had taken my gun with me. It was getting late. The sun had gone down, and I knew Mother would be worried if I didn’t get home before dark.
It was almost dark before I finally found my gun and started home. When I got near, I heard Mother holler for me. I answered her and went on in with my game. “Well,” Mother said, “You had a pretty good hunt ‑‑ for the first time.” When I had been home for a few minutes, I became aware that my cousin Harley Belcher had come from King Shoals and brought Granddad’s big double‑barreled shotgun to hunt with me; but he had arrived too late to accompany me on my first hunt.
We went up to Aunt Liddy’s, nearby, to see our cousins. They were all girls ‑‑ two were a little older than I was and two were about my age. They were just like sisters to me. (I had only one sister at that time, and she was small.) We played games for a while, and then the girls and Uncle Filmore, Aunt Lidia, Dad, Mother, Guy and Alvah got the old hymn song books and started singing some of those old hymns. Guy sang soprano. Mother and Aunt Ledia sang alto. The girls ‑‑ Gertrude, Amy and Zelma – sang alto and soprano. Alva and Dad sang tenor, and Harley sang base. They didn’t quit singing until eleven o’clock. They really could make music! I did love to hear those sweet melodies.
I could follow a tune somewhat; but I was bashful and, for some few years, I just didn’t try to join the others in singing. When there was enough noise that I thought I couldn’t be heard, I finally started picking up courage to try. I would get back in another room, or in the back of the church, and sing softly. When he discovered that I was singing, Dad said, “You have a good base voice.” He advised me to sing base. I would take the courage to try for a while, and I finally learned that I could sing some. There were enough voices in our family for a choir. Alvah would sing base or tenor. Dad usually sang tenor; Guy, soprano; Mother, alto. Ona was also beginning to sing at this time. She sang alto or soprano. Cornelius and Cecil could sing base, tenor or soprano. We would get our hymnbooks and sing and sing, sometimes until we got hoarse and have to quit. Ray wouldn’t make much effort to sing, but he could have done well if had tried.
Harley and I got out early the next morning and started up Taterhole Mountain to squirrel hunt. We went far up the hill and around through a hickory grove. I had my ivory Johnson shotgun, single barrel. Harley had Granddad’s big double barrel shotgun. Granddad called it “Ole Boker.” We were both hardly young men, and there were lots of squirrels those days, but neither of us knew much about hunting. (Harley had never hunted much either.) When we finally got to some of those big tall hickory trees, Harley spotted a squirrel. It ran around a tree, and he followed it to the other side. I stood still. The squirrel ran back around the tree to me. Each time Harley went after a squirrel, I shot it out of the tree. I killed four and Harley killed one. Harley was discouraged by not getting as many squirrels as I did. After we got home, I told him why he wasn’t getting the squirrels. Then I told him the next time he went hunting with anyone to let that person run the squirrel around the tree to him. We skinned our squirrels and ate supper.
After supper, we went to Uncle Filmore’s with Dad and Mother. Several of us boys were there, and we had a big time. Uncle Filmore gathered up the songbooks; and he said, “Well, you youngsters have had a good time, and now we will all join together and sing.” Someone picked up a book and started humming some of our choice tunes. We lined the chairs and selected places for the soprano, alto, tenor and base. We chose some favorite songs and started singing. (Those ladies could really sing, too.) We sang for an hour or more and then rested for a few minutes while we ate some apples or sandwiches. Everyone gathered back into their seats and started singing again. We sang until eleven o’clock before breaking up and going home.
The next morning, we went to Sunday school at the Baptist church below Wallback. Then we came home for dinner. In the afternoon, we went to the White Pilgrim Schoolhouse to singing and preaching. In the evening, there was singing on Summer’s Fork of Sandy, or the “Middle Fork,” as we sometimes called it. (We lived within a mile of the two schoolhouses where the services were held and about a mile and a half of the Baptist church.) So everybody decided to go to the singing. There was always a big crowd and we had lively and interesting services at these events. We really, really enjoyed the meetings.
We lived on Mike Underwood’s farm for about six years. Before we left Wallback, we cleared mostly all the tillable land on his sixty acres. The spring of 1910, we tended about twenty acres of corn. Ray and I were the only ones there to plow, and Ray fell and broke his arm. That left all of those twenty acres for me to plow, but I was hardy and strong ‑‑ at fifteen years of age. (Alvah and Guy worked on lumber jobs during the winter ‑‑ until about March, April or May. After we got the corn planted and it was ready to cultivate, they came home and helped us farm through the summer.)
On about April 1, I got Ole Maude and my tools lined up and started plowing. I continued until May and planted some of the field to start it growing while I finished the preparing the rest of the ground for the balance of the twenty acres. Cornelius could plant some while I furried the rows. Ole Maude went fast through those long rows, and Cornelius couldn’t plant it as fast as I could furry it. I would prepare several rows and then stop to help him plant for a while. We had a hand planter that held about three pints of seed. We walked along the furrow with the planter, taking two short steps (or one long step) and then jabbing the planter into the ground, opening it while it was still in the ground. When we pulled the planter up, it left three or so kernels of corn; and the dirt would fall back and cover them.
Sometimes, the kernels didn’t get covered up good with dirt (and some would jolt out of the planter box), leaving it exposed where the chipmunks or birds could get it. A crow could learn the planter track and follow the row and scratch the corn out and eat it before it sprouted out of the ground. If the fowl or the chipmunks took up very much of it, we would go over it again with our planter; and when we started to hoe the corn, we would have some seed in our pockets and replant it again as we hoed. The second time we weeded the corn, the new seedlings would be grown enough that we could hoe them at the same time that we tilled the larger plants.
All of us worked hard in the new ground. It was hard to plow through the roots, stumps and rocks. We got Uncle Filmore to help us plow some of the field, and we paid him back by helping him hoe his corn. Our cousins, Uncle Filmore’s girls, would get their hoes and hoe about as much corn as any of us. (In those days, the women also helped with the farm work, when there weren’t enough men.) It was very ordinary to see women working on a farm. One of my neighbor’s women was once mowing hay with a team of horses when they ran into a hornet’s nest. The hornets stung the horses, and the horses ran away with her and crippled her for life.
I worked some for my Uncle Joseph Boggs. He had only one boy, who was about my age; and they did quite a bit of farming. I hoed corn ten hours per day and he paid me 50 cents per day. (In that time, people paid boys 50 cents and men 75 cents per day.) We were glad to get the work and make a little money. Sometimes people had more hay than they could gather and stack without help, and they usually paid a few cents more for making hay.
Some people (there at Wallback) farmed on a grand scale. Crough Tatman owned about three hundred acres. (His was the farm that my Granddad Boggs owned before he and Dad moved to Looneyville.) He hired out quite a bit of work, such as making hay, and cutting the brush, sprouts and weeds that would have smothered out the grass. My brothers and I took a contract cleaning two years of growth off about fifty acres of pastureland on that farm. Some of the brush was higher than our heads; other parts of the field had very little filth on it. Alvah, Guy, Ray, Cornelius and I worked on that project for about six weeks. We got $20 for the job. That was a lot of money when you worked for fifty cents or less per day.
One Saturday evening, after we finished the job, we went to Mr. Tallman’s farm where they were playing baseball. In front of some of those ballplayers, he pulled a twenty‑dollar bill out his pocketbook and handed it to Ray as he commended us for the good job we had done. They looked at us like we were rich! Mr. Tallman usually kept about three hundred head of fine Hereford and polled Angus cattle. He pastured the cattle on the hill land and grew corn and hay on the bottomland. He rotated his hay and corn year by year. He would cut fifty or seventy‑five haystacks, and he took the hay to his bottomland to feed his cattle during the winter months. They left waste and manure where they were fed, and that kept his ground fertile. Mr. Tallman could grow big corn on the fertile bottomland. He usually grew corn on it for two years and then sowed it in timothy and clover grass (for hay) for two years or more. People didn’t use commercial fertilizers in those days.
Mr. Tallman had a special big horse to ride over his farm. (He weighed a little over 300lbs, and it took a very strong animal to carry such a huge man.) In June, he built a six‑strand barbwire fence on his line next to Mike Underwood’s farm. He had left several small trees to tack his fence to, instead of posts. He stretched his wire and drove his staples into one of the trees. By evening, the leaves wilted; and the next day the tree was dying. There’s a day or two in June, when, if you stick an ax in a big tree it will be dead the next day. Not many know when that day is in June. Mr. Tallman lived in the house where my Grandfather Boggs lived before he moved his family to Looneyville. His was one of the best farms in Sandy Creek Valley.
About 1909, the Baptist built a church on Ralph Tallman’s farm. He provided about an acre of land on top of a point by the Pleasant Hill Cemetery. They built a nice country church, which is still being used in 1976. Mr. Tallman oversaw the building of the church. He said, “I’m going to get some sixty penny nails to put in the foundation. I haven’t forgotten the cyclone that went through here in 1899.”
Everybody gathered in and helped build the church and we all chipped in to pay for the building material. The project was finished it in about four months. They announced a time to dedicate the church, and a large crowd of people came from far and near to attends the service. There were many people in attendance that hadn’t met for several years. Granddad and Grandmother Boggs and Granddad and Grandmother Estep were among those who hadn’t seen one another for several years. (They lived about fifteen miles apart.) I believe Rev. Herbert Smith preached the dedication and sermon. Everybody made great preparations for such gatherings in those days, and we all had a joyful time meeting old friends. I had gotten away from either of my grandparents and my Aunt Florence, who was only about four years older than me, whom I used to play with and loved to be with. (Several years later, she died with tuberculosis of the lungs after staying in Pine‑crest Hospital at Beckley. Her husband, Foltee, lived until about 1964. They had two sons that live near St. Albans ‑‑ Ralph and Eugene Hill.)
My Grandmother Boggs was almost blind. She would take me to the garden with her when I was just a young child and have me pick ripe tomatoes for her. She said, “I can’t see if they are red.” She talked to me all day long while she went about her work. One day, Ray and I were at her home while Mother had to be away. Grandmother was washing clothes, and Ray and I were playing in a tub of water. Grandmother told us not to play in the water ‑‑ that we would get our clothes wet. We were small and forgot that we shouldn’t play in the water. When we start playing in it again, Grandmother picked up a stick and whipped us with it. We cried. It didn’t pain us any; but, through embarrassment, it hurt us very much that Grandmother had to whip us. I loved my Grandparents, and I thought they didn’t love me anymore. Our older brothers and our uncles teased us and said we didn’t have any nerve, crying over being whipped with a straw.
Granddad Boggs was a small man, while Granddad Estep was a large man. Granddad Boggs was jolly, even though he had asthma and was feeble before he was old. He walked with a cane when he was fifty. My Granddad Estep was jolly, too. He would take me on his lap and tell me stories and have me saying words like rhinoceros and hippopotamus. Then he would laugh. Grandmother Estep was very kind, and she would hunt pretties for us to play with.
Granddad Estep was a good wood‑craftsman. He could make mostly anything for the farm and the home ‑‑ such as chairs and other furniture, plow stalks, and tool handles. He was also a good blacksmith. He made tools such as hoes, shovels, sharp plows, and root cutters; and he could shoe horses and repair wagons. He worked until he was very old. He took glaucoma and was almost blind for several years before he died, at age 85. (Grandmother Estep died in 1918, during the World War I, while I was in France. She was about 68. Granddad and Grandmother Boggs also died at about 68.)
We finally got our big field of corn hoed out. We grew a lot of good corn on the twenty acres in 1910. I wasn’t very large and didn’t grow much until I was 16 or 17 years old. I weighed about 112 lbs. at age 15; but I was strong and could do about as much hard work as the average man.
A new church sprung up here in about 1910 ‑‑ the Advent Church. Their theme included a short hell. Your soul would be cast away, and you just wouldn’t be any more. There was a big stir about this doctrine of a short hell (or no hell at all) ‑‑ that you just disappeared forever. You didn’t often hear one of those preachers deliver a sermon when he didn’t mention his short hell. Very few people believed in that doctrine, and a lot of people wouldn’t attend their meetings at all.
There was an interesting moral about it. They were holding a revival in a schoolhouse here at Porter. Some people attended just to be amused. The preacher asked everybody who wanted to go to heaven to stand up. There was one man in attendance that was ignorant about salvation, and he didn’t stand up. The preacher noticed him and walked back to the rear of the church. He said, “Sir, don’t you want to go to heaven?” “Huntuh, Huntuh, West Virginia is good enough for me.” That’s a true story! The mischievous people would encourage this fellow to make a political speech. They’d put him on a stump or box and get him started. He would get so involved in his subject that his speech went on and on. He could say some interesting things, but they would have trouble getting him to stop speaking. (It doesn’t necessarily take all kinds of people to make a world, but we do have all kinds of people in this world.)
There were also places for the Devil’s works – as there is mostly anywhere. There was a place on Rush Fork on Otter Creek that was just about as bad as in some of the cities. Dad and Mother saw that one of us children got mixed with the gang that went there. They gathered there to have their round dances ‑‑ bringing moonshine, and having some tearing down, rough times. They would dance and fight and drink. There was always a bully in each neighborhood; but people fought with their fists in those days, and you never heard of a murder in years.
Most of the men were very strong. People did hard labor and were tough and hardy. They worked either on the farm or on timber and lumber works, and that’s all manual labor ‑‑ chopping and sawing timber with a six or seven foot crosscut saw; rolling big saw logs with a cane hook or spikes and turning with a team or two of horses. I have seen logs six feet in diameter and maybe twenty feet long. It would take several teams of horses or yoke of cattle to handle that kind of a log. People worked hard ten hours per day, and they didn’t consider it as burdensome as we would today. There weren’t any power saws to cut timber until about 1950, when there were a few here and there.
Ina Fay (b. May 11, 1909) and Victor Clyde (b. Sept 26, 1910) were born while we lived at Wallback. Ina was drowned in Sandy Creek when she was about 18 month old and was buried in the Big pigeon Cemetery by the side of our little brother Scott. That was a very sad time for our family.