Memories of Ira Irvin Boggs
My First Job
Uncle Filmore Belcher (Aunt Lidia’s husband) moved to a log and stave job in Braxton County, at Gross, on Steercreek, where he supervised a timber cutting crew and kept their crosscut saws sharp. He needed a water boy to carry drinking water for his crew, and he wrote a letter to Dad to see if one of us boys could come and work for him. I felt that it would be a good start for me. I was fifteen years old; but I had never been away from home much longer than overnight; and I had never worked on public works. Dad decided to let me go there.
The job site was about twenty five miles from where we lived, and it was seven miles from our house to the railroad (at Ivydale). There, I could take a tram to Frametown; and, from there, I would have to walk five miles to Uncle Filmore’s place. I decided to walk all of the way. I went through the hills to Uncle Burn Boggs’ place on Big Otter (at the post office). That was about halfway to Gross. I stayed there overnight; and, the next morning, my cousin Andrew Boggs walked with me as far as Hallburg and got me lined out on the way to Gross. I walked to Serbia, a little village down on Steercreek, below Rosedale, within six miles of Gross. There, I inquired about the best way to go through the forest to my destination. Someone directed me to the walking paths over the hills, and I finished the trip without much trouble.
I arrived at Uncle Filmore’s at about three o’clock on Sunday afternoon; and, after a short discussion with them, I decided to board with Uncle Filmore. I started my new job the next morning, Monday. When I first appeared on the job, Uncle Filmore had just filed a saw. He handed one end of the saw to me and said, “Let’s try cutting one, Ira.” We started sawing at the same time the other two men started cutting their block. Uncle Filmore and I cut our block first. Uncle Filmore looked at them and smiled. They were astonished that a boy as young as I was could work that fast, but I had used a crosscut saw ever since I was large enough to carry one. Ray and I could cut several big blocks of wood, for fuel, about as fast as grown men could. Uncle Filmore gave me a gallon jug and asked me to carry water to his men. I soon got acquainted with the crew. They realized that I hadn’t been away from home much, and they would kid me a lot and I kidded them back. They told me big yarns (or embellished stories) while I listened attentively and pretended to believe them.
I liked everybody on the job, and I enjoyed working with all of them. They would take care that I didn’t get hurt, and they taught me how to avoid danger. I had to watch closely to keep blocks from rolling over me. When I heard a block coming down the hill at me, I would jump behind a big tree. Sometimes it would jump clear over my head as it passed me. A fast rolling block could knock down a small tree or start a big stone to rolling. Cutting timber, or being around where trees are falling, is very dangerous. I had cut timber before I went to Steercreek, and the crew soon realized that I could take care of myself. I worked ten hours per day at $1.15 per day. That was much more than the 50 cents per day I had been earning on the farm, but I had to pay for my board and room. I paid fifty cents per day at Uncle Filmore’s. I worked six days per week; but, most of the time, I paid board for seven days. I didn’t always stay there for Sunday dinner. I would tell Aunt Lidia when I didn’t expect to be there, and she wouldn’t charge me for the meal. Uncle Filmore and family were very good to me. I had known them all of my life, and being with his family was almost like being at home.
The weather was hot and dry throughout the summer. At times, I had to go almost a mile to get a jug of water; and, by the time I could get around to all of them, the crew would drink about all of the gallon. Sometimes, after I had got around to all of the men and given them a drink, I had some water left in my jug. I would set it in the shade, behind a big tree (or a big stump) where it wouldn’t get broken by a falling tree or a stave block, so that I could keep busy (by rolling stave blocks) until they needed more water. The boss would fire you if you didn’t turn out a good day’s work, and there weren’t many workers that didn’t mind losing their job. I have seen men fired, but Uncle Filmore was a good man to work for. He wouldn’t discharge a man if he would work and do the right thing (not raise trouble among the crew).
Uncle Filmore gave me a pick and showed me how to stick it into a block to turn it around or to pull it from behind a tree, rock, or stump, or out of a sinkhole. The stave blocks were four and a half to five foot long and they would run from about eight inches up in diameter. (I helped cut a few trees that were six feet across the stump.) We cut a notch by first sawing a foot or eighteen inches into one side of the tree and then taking an ax and chipping it down to the stump. If the tree stood up straight, we didn’t need to cut a big notch. If it leaned straight down the hill, we would aim it around the hill to keep it from falling too soon and splitting. After cutting our notch, we’d start sawing on the opposite side of the tree, just an inch or two higher. We cut until it was nearly ready to fall, or within one or two inches of the first notch. Sometimes we sawed on the lower side of the tree first. We would stop there while we cut the heart, or center of the tree, as we swung around the tree.
If the tree was very large, we would cut a break notch (just about the size of our ax) on the upper side of the notch (within about two inches of the main notch). We’d sink the ax as far as it would reach. That would hold the tree until we cut nearly through the heart. That way, the tree would break evenly. It wouldn’t split and ruin a log. If a man split many trees, he would lose his job or be transferred to an easier task such as rolling stave blocks or driving a mule or horse for pulling the blocks down the dreens. When the tree started breaking, we would jerk the saw through it as fast as we could. We tried to cut all the way through it. That would keep it from splitting or pulling splinters from the heart of the tree. When we heard the tree popping and saw it starting to fall, we would holler out big and loud, “T I M B E R F A LLING.” (There could have been someone near enough to get hurt.) I can hear big Bill Loushe squalling out in his loud, rough voice. If the tree didn’t fall just right, he made a big fuss about it.
Bill was about six feet two inches tall and weighed about two hundred twenty five pounds, and he made a strong impression when he wasn’t happy with a job. If a tree fell into or across a dreen (ravine, or gulch), he often shouted out some cussing words about it no matter what caused it to fall that way. Sometimes a big tree would fall against another tree and break it down, and anyone as far as a hundred yards down the hill could be in danger. There was also a lot of danger for the men cutting the tree. You had to be careful to have a good footing and jump back quickly out of the way of the falling tree. You had to look up the tree as it fell because it might fall against another tree and bend it to the ground. As that tree flew back up, it would drag a limb or branch off the falling tree and flip the tree limb or bush toward you. I once saw Uncle Filmore come within an inch of getting killed. He was sitting above a tree when it fell. It broke off a seventy five pound limb and threw it just a few inches over his head. He had on a broad rimmed hat, and he just forgot to look up. It hit the ground behind him with a force that would have smashed him if it had hit him.
I went to Steercreek in July and took my first leave in October. Prior to that, I had never been away from home more than four or five days. This time after three months I was pretty homesick. Uncle Filmore and family and I went to Frametown and caught a train to Ivydale. From there, we walked seven miles to Wallback. I sure was glad to be home again. The next morning, I said to Uncle Filmore, “Get your old mountain rifle, and we will go hunting. I’ll beat you at killing squirrels.” Uncle Filmore said, “I don’t know if I have any bullets made for my mountain rifle, I have some lead and a ladle to melt it in. I’ll hunt it and get my bullet molds and make me some bullets and fill my powder horn with some of that smoky powder, and I’ll kill more squirrels than you might think of.” He molded some bullets and put some powder in his gun and took his ramrod and tamped the powder in it and put a bullet in it. Then he got a firing cap and put it on his firing pin and said, “Let’s go.” We went to a hickory and chestnut grove where there were usually lots of squirrels. It was a fine day to hunt. The leaves were damp enough that we could walk through the woods without making much noise by crunching them as long as we were careful to not step on sticks and make them pop by breaking them. If he could find one sitting still long enough for him to get a bead sight on it, Uncle Filmore could kill a squirrel a hundred yards away. He got one about every time that old mountain rifle cracked.
With my shotgun, I couldn’t kill a squirrel more than sixty or seventy yards away, but I could kill one that was moving pretty fast. I had about 100 pellets or shot in a shell, and it would scatter about eighteen inches to two feet and kill a squirrel within that target area. If I didn’t kill the squirrel with the first shot, I could soon get a shell in my gun and shoot again. Before Uncle Filmore shot another round, he would have to take the lid (or top) off of his powder horn, pour the powder in his gun, take out his ramrod and tamp the powder. After putting a bullet in his gun and putting a cap on the firing pin, he had to put his ramrod back in its holder. Then he had to pull his hammer back and cock the gun before it was ready for firing. We decided we had better separate when we got to the forest. I went on up to the top of the hill to some big hickory trees, and Uncle Filmore went on around the hill to where there were some chestnut trees.
Uncle Filmore said, “Now, we will have to be careful and not shoot one another, and be sure we see where we are shooting.” “Yes,” I said, “If I come down the hill in front of you, I’LL whistle. A squirrel will think its a bird.” I went on up the hill and in about fifteen minutes I heard that old mountain rifle crack big and loud. I said, “He’s beat me killing one as he doesn’t often miss getting his squirrel.” I slipped on up the hill and heard some nuts falling out of a big, tall hickory tree. I looked right at the top of the tree and saw a squirrel sitting on a limb, gnawing on a hickory nut. I pulled my gun to my shoulder and pulled the hammer back. I aimed the gun and pulled the trigger. The gun went “BANG!” and the squirrel dropped about halfway down the tree. It caught on a limb and ran toward the trunk of the tree. He was on the other side of the tree and out of sight before I could get another shell in my gun. I slipped on around above the tree and sat still for a few minutes. I picked up a little stone and tossed it on the other side of the tree. The squirrel slipped around to where I could see it. I shot it again, and it fell about halfway down the tree and caught on a limb. I got another shell in my gun before it could hide behind the tree again. It moved slowly because it was hurt. I shot again, and it fell to the ground dead. I picked up my squirrel and put it in my hunting bag. (When I got home and skinned that squirrel, it must have had twenty five shots just under the skin. That tree was so tall that the first two shots didn’t hit it with much power.) I went on around the ridge and shot another one on the ground. I heard Uncle Filmore shoot again; so I decided to join him. On my way, I saw another squirrel. It ran out onto a limb of a big chestnut tree and was taking the nut out of a big burr when I shot it. I scared another squirrel around the tree. Uncle Filmore was watching this tree, too, and his gun cracked when the squirrel ran around the tree from me. “Well,” I said, “You have three, and I have three, and its getting late. Maybe we had better go home.” “Yes,” Uncle Filmore said, “You have three, but you shot five times, and I only shot three times to get my three.” I said, “You are the best shot and have the best gun, too.”
We went out of the forest into a wheat field. I said, “This wheat is getting ripe. There ought to be some quail here.” I put a bird shot shell in my gun so I would be ready for them. I hadn’t gone more than a hundred yards when a bevy of about twenty quail flew up. I put my gun to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. They had just gotten into the air and were still close enough together that, when I shot, four of them fell to the ground. Uncle Filmore didn’t shoot. He had only one bullet in his rifle; and, if he had shot one with it, the large bullet behind a powerful charge would have torn the bird in two. “Well,” I said, “I’ve got you beat, after all. I have three squirrels and four quails if I did shoot six times. I have one extra game. I have seven for six shots.” But Uncle Filmore was almost a sure shot when he pulled that old mountain rifle to his shoulder. I had seen him shoot a squirrel at a hundred yards and hit it in the head. We had left Steercreek on Saturday, and we started back from Wallback the next Wednesday.
To start our return trip, we had to walk about seven miles to Ivydale, where we could catch the morning train to Frametown. I said, “Maybe Cornelius can go with us to Ivydale so Aunt Lidia can ride Ole Maude. Cornelius can then bring Ole Maude back home.” Cornelius caught Ole Maude, put the sidesaddle on her and led her up to the stepping block. Aunt Lidia stepped upon it and got into the saddle. She rode the horse to Ivydale, and to where we caught the morning train at 10:30 a.m. We arrived at Frametown at 12 noon; and, from there, we walked across the hill to Steercreek and then on to Gross, which was about four miles. We got there at about two p.m. The next morning, we got up at about five o’clock and started for the forest to cut stave blocks. We went to work at seven a.m. and rested for an hour at noon. Then we worked until six o’clock (ten hours per day). I carried water to the men in Uncle Filmore’s crew. When I wasn’t busy carrying water, I got a pickax and rolled stave blocks. I liked to start a big stave block over the hill and watch it roll. Sometimes the blocks would roll beside a tree and wedge between the tree and a steep hill; other times, it would wedge between two trees. Sometimes one would roll into a root hole behind an uprooted tree, and it took some lifting and pulling to get it out. When someone hollered “WATER BOY,” I took my jug around and gave everybody a good drink of cool water.
At the end of my first summer at Steercreek, Ray and Alvah came there to work during the winter. Ray worked in the forest, and Alvah worked on the railroad as a road repairman. In the winter, I didn’t have to carry much water because there was plenty of water handy. I rolled stave blocks and sometimes helped another man on the saw to cut a few blocks from a log. The next spring, I worked some on a stave mill. I washed stave blocks to get the mud off of them so it wouldn’t dull the saw, and I would do mostly anything I noticed that needed to be done. I took the waste strips that were culled from the staves and loaded them on a wheelbarrow and wheeled them to the steam boiler for fuel. I learned how to sort staves and cut (or trim) the edges of them smooth, and to catch staves as they fell from the saw. I was working at that task one day when the superintendent came by. He said, “That’s right, Boggs. Learn all you can about this work. I’m leaving.” (I guess that he thought I might learn enough to get his job someday.)
Once in a while, I landed a stave in the wrong place. This gave the fellow opposite me an excuse to give me a little trouble. He was afraid that I might take his job later on; so if I didn’t land one just right, he would throw the stave back at me. I got hit once or twice, and I saw that he aimed to hit me. I never said a word. I picked up a strong strip of wood and hit the end of it on the ground to see that it was sound enough that it wouldn’t break over his head too easily if I hit him with it. I laid it within my reach. He saw that he had hurt me and that I was angry about it. So he took care not to hit me again.
Gross was a new village that had just sprung up in a year or so, and there wasn’t much going on there for amusement. We worked six days per week. There was a church and a store across the hill at the post office (Belmont Post Office). We would go there on Saturday evenings and to church on Sunday mornings. We organized a baseball team and played ball on Sunday evenings and we had some interesting games. Sometimes there were arguments and fights over calls of the rules. Onetime, a Fitswater boy about my size was playing opposite from me on the other team. He was a little high strung and thought he was important. (His Dad was boss at the stave mill where I worked.) He got smart with me and called me a bad name. Then he came at me to give me a whipping. He tackled me, but I got free. We hit a few licks, and he clenched me. I tripped him and was able to land on top of him. He started scratching me in the face. I got hold of his arms and held on to them; then I came down on his throat with my elbow. That choked him. He saw that I could handle him. (I had worked hard and was strong. He didn’t work.) He said, “Let me up, and I will kill you.” He was really angry. I didn’t try to hurt him much; but, when I did finally let him up, he grabbed a big rock and was going to hit me with it. An older man grabbed him, and that ended the fight. The next day at work, right in the presence of my boss (this boy’s Dad), a man asked me what scratched my face. I said, “A wildcat.” The boss knew about the fight, and he just laughed about it.
We had parties where the boys and girls played games together, and we enjoyed ourselves quite a bit. Onetime, there was to be a party at the boarding house or hotel. My friend (Evert Vaughn), a man that boarded with me said, “Let’s go to the party.” He knew what was going on, but I didn’t. He didn’t tell me that they were having a round dance. I went with him, but when I saw it was a dance I didn’t go in. I didn’t want Mother or Aunt Lidia to know that I had been to a dance, but Uncle Filmore learned about it. I think he knew before I went to the event that it was going to include dancing, but he didn’t tell me. Mother never did find out that I had gone to a dancing party.
A great uncle (Uncle Pate Boggs), whom I had never met, had a farm on Sugar Creek (near Belmont). I stopped at his house for just a little while. He was getting old then. My great Grandfather (James Anderson Boggs) once owned about three thousand acres of land near there. He was the original owner of all the land where the city of Gassaway now stands. Just after the Civil War, when the railroad was built up Elk River to Gassaway, he talked about going into the general merchandise business. There was quite a bit of timbering (and some mining) going on there, and Grandfather Boggs thought he could make a go of it. My great uncle, Mart Boggs (brother to Henry Clay Boggs), told his father (James Anderson Boggs) that he would not advise anyone go into that business because he would be obliged to let some people buy on credit. (Uncle Mart had a college education, and he was one of the most intelligent businessmen in the county.) Grandfather did not follow Uncle Mart’s advice. He ran the store for a few years; and, as Uncle Mart predicted, he did finally go broke.
Because of his failure in that business, my great grandfather (James Anderson Boggs) didn’t have the money to pay the taxes on all of his land, and he was going to lose it. His son, “Uncle Mart,” decided he could take over the land and pay the taxes by cutting the timber and selling it. So Uncle Mart went into the timber business and became wealthy through saving this land and the virgin timber. He later moved to Clay County, where he owned one of the best farms in the county and raised some of the finest Hereford cattle in the state. He made a lot of money and became one of the wealthiest men in Clay County. I understand that Uncle Mart was quite a sport at times. He was a pretty good poker player, and I hear that he liked his whiskey pretty well.
Uncle Mart had a son whom he was sending to college to be a doctor. (That son, Andrew Boggs, later opened an office on Summers Street in Charleston, and before that he had a hospital at Gassaway.) Uncle Mart wanted my dad (James Curtis Boggs) to go to college with Andrew. (Dad was about the same age as Andrew.) Uncle Mart told Dad that he would pay his expenses and help him through college if he would go. Dad wouldn’t venture. (Dad said he didn’t want to be a doctor as they become dope phenes; but I think that Granddad Boggs, and all of Uncle Mart’s other brothers, had hard feelings toward Uncle Mart because of his taking over all of the land.) I think that his people envied him a lot and were just plain jealous of him. I met Uncle Mart only once. I was at his home on Otter Creek a few years before he died. Uncle Mart told me a lot about his business and just how he came to acquire all of the land. I feel that it is very likely that the rest of the family just didn’t take any interest in helping him save it. Yet, they resented Uncle Mart for getting it.
My great Uncle Ike Boggs lived at Wallback where he had a big farm adjoining Granddad Boggs’ place, and he kept it until he died. He raised cattle and he hired several people to help him make hay. He was a good worker. I’ve heard my Uncle Filmore tell about working for him. Uncle Ike would bring the crew in and have dinner with them and then get right up from the table and go back to work. Uncle Filmore said Uncle Ike would say, “I have rheumatism; and when I sit down, I get so stiff I can hardly move. I’m going back to work. You men have your rest.” I got acquainted with another brother of Uncle Mart and Grandfather Boggs, Uncle Johnce Boggs. (I met him at his son’s home at Dundon, just across the river from Clay town.) All of them were small men about five feet, six inches tall. I worked at Gross until winter.
A thirty inch snow fell that winter, and everything shut down for two weeks. This was the coldest weather I ever experienced. The temperature dropped to 30 below zero, and it stayed below zero for over a week. The lumber company had built temporary buildings out of rough lumber and just put batting over the cracks between the boards. If you didn’t cover the cracks with heavy paper, plenty of air got in. Uncle Filmore’s house was lined inside, and we were in fairly good shape for that arctic winter. We cut plenty of wood and kept warm by keeping a big fire going in his big Burnside stove during that zero weather. I went to a neighbor’s house to help him cut wood. He didn’t have his house sealed, and they couldn’t keep warm at all. You couldn’t turn around by the stove fast enough to keep warm on both sides. When the winter broke, the snow was so deep people couldn’t work in the forest to furnish logs or stave blocks for the mill.
The superintendent, Tile Dunckle, gathered up a crew and went to the millpond and cut ice blocks to put away for the summer. There was about a half an acre of water there, and it had frozen eighteen inches thick in this zero weather. We cut those ice blocks two feet long (or 24" x 18" x 18") and hauled them on a wagon to a big building. They laid about six inches of sawdust on the floor and we put a layer of those ice blocks on it and poured sawdust over them. We stacked layers of ice blocks to the ceiling. We had several tons of ice, and it lasted until midsummer. They paid us our regular wages and sold the ice the next summer. We cut the ice with crosscut saws. We took one handle off each saw and used it as a one man handsaw. We had ice tongs to handle the ice, and we used cane hooks that were made for rolling logs to scoot the blocks over a board onto the wagon. That ice was available to us for quite a while. Otherwise, we would have done without. There wasn’t another source of ice nearer than Charleston.
That spring, I got a raise from $1.15 per day to $1.35. We had several stacks of staves ready for shipment and we had worked at that a bit when the winter was so bad we couldn’t get into the forest. We had piled four or five staves to the layer, and crisscrossed them, until the stacks were about six feet high. To load them for shipment, we lined up, facing each other, and passed five staves at a time to stack them on the railroad cars. We would load several cars, and, then the train would hook onto them and haul them to Gassaway to the Coal & Coke Railroad. They had a railroad bridge at Gassaway, but they had to reload the staves because the train we loaded was on narrow gauged tracks, and the C & C (as it was called at that time) was a standard gauged road.
One day, Big Bill Loush said to me, “Boggs, what makes you so late Eating chestnuts?” “Maybe so,” I answered, “and I have a good place to board, and this hard work makes you have a good appetite.” I was just a boy, and they all liked to joke with me. I never started to grow into a man until after I was sixteen years old. There were a lot of chestnuts that autumn and I could handily pick them up as I was going through the forest carrying water. I did eat a lot of chestnuts. They were very good. Sometimes, I would find a grove of hazelnuts, too, and put some of them in my pockets. When I went home, I’d get me a hammer and shell the nuts and eat some of those tasty kernels; and I would lay some of the nuts away to dry. They are fine and sweet when they dry out good. Aunt Lida and Gertrude, Zelma or Amy, my cousins, would make candy with them or put them on a cake. They were good either way. (People worked hard in those days, but I believe they enjoyed themselves as well or better than they do today.)
We would roll those stave blocks into the dreen, and a man would haul them out with a mule or horse to the stave mill. A mule was better, as it can go in rougher and narrower places than a horse, and they are tougher and quicker than a horse; and they don’t get hurt so easily. They are cunning and intelligent, too. My Uncle Elmer Estep had a mule that he used to pull a log truck along a tram road. Tram road tracks are mounted on crossties like they use for railroads with wooden rails instead of steel railings. They would take two 2 x 4's and put one on the other so as to hold the flange of the truck wheels up off of the ground. They made the boards out of hardwood, usually beech or gumwood, that wasn’t so good for lumber but would stand lots of wear. They would lay this kind of track up into those long, rough hollows and haul trucks loaded with several tons of logs over them. They’d pile the logs onto the truck and tie them with chains near each end of the truck bed, around and under the truck floor and over the logs. Someone would take a strong, tough stick (usually of hickory or white oak), and twist the chain until it clamped the logs tight so they wouldn’t shuffle about and fall off of the truck. A man would climb on top of the truck, or on the end, and take hold of the lever (or handle) on the brake. They would have a scotch (a wedge to block the wheels) under the wheels of the truck to keep the truck from rolling out of control. “0.K., I have the brake in control, you may kick those scotches from under the wheel; and I’ll be on my way down this steep, rough hollow.” In places, the road was elevated so steep that it took a strong man to hold the brake.
Once in a while, they’d have a runaway, turning over and throwing those logs, and tearing the truck to pieces. A man could get killed in such a wreck. He was usually in a place where he could jump free from danger, but the truck would be going so fast that the man would be lucky if he didn’t get badly hurt. Uncle Elmer used his mule to pull the truck back up the track to the head of the hollow to get the logs. I’ve heard Uncle Elmer say he had seen his mule walk on a four inch rail to stay out of a mud hole. Uncle Elmer thought so much of that mule that he had several fights over people abusing him. He would scold a man if he saw one handle it roughly, or even if he only heard him curse at it. Uncle Elmer was a small man (He was about five feet six inches and weighed only about 120 lbs.), but he was very active. It would have taken a very strong and alert man to handle him.
To haul them down the hollow, we attached a short chain on each end of the stave blocks by driving a spike through a link of it into the center of the block. We linked the blocks together in tandem to form a string of as many blocks as the mule could pull. Then we hooked our singletree to the free end of the chain on the first block and started our mule down the hollow. Once we got those blocks moving a mule could pull a long train of them. The mule soon learned how to maneuver his load, and he could do a better job handling it than a man knew about it. Where the decline of the path was very steep, the mule knew just how fast to go to keep those blocks from rolling on his heels. He kept the traces of his harness tight enough that the blocks wouldn’t catch his heels. We hauled those blocks to a bolting yard where, after they split them in quarters (from three to ten inches wide or the right size for making staves) with a steel wedge or a wooden gluton (wedge), a tram or a wagon could get to them.
Those staves were used for making barrels to hold oil, wine, or whiskey. To have anything to do with the liquor business bothered some of us; but Uncle George said, “Well, they would be made by somebody if I don’t make them. They need some of the barrels or kegs for oil, nails, spikes and other things and the Bible said to take a little wine for the stomach’s sake.” There wasn’t anything else to do to support his family; so Uncle George decided that he had no excuse for not working at this trade. Everybody liked Uncle George. They commended him, and he would say things that, in his reasoning or without reasoning, were comical. He said, “A possum got his name, didn’t he?” Uncle Robert Estep was a good neighbor, but he wasn’t so religious as Uncle George or Granddad Estep. Uncle Bob would backslide sometimes, and the church would have quite a bit of trouble getting him back without churching him (taking his name off of the church register). A lot of the churches want a large membership, and they don’t bother about taking his name off their books when a member goes back into the world. But you are no longer in God’s church when you reject God’s word.
Through December (1911) and January (1912), I didn’t get to work very steady at Steercreek because of the hard winter, and in those days we just got paid (to the half hour) for just what time we worked. (There were no unions or labor contracts.) In the spring, when the weather opened up so we could work, there was a lot to do. Sometimes, we would work ten hours and go home and have our supper; and then Tile Dunkle, the superintendent, would call us back. He would say, “I have a big order for several thousand staves, and my loading crew can’t keep my cars going. My stave yard is filling up, and my crew is so busy I can’t get those staves out. I would like for you to work two to four hours tonight.” Working long hours made a little extra money for us, but we didn’t get higher wages for overtime. We just got what hours we made, even when we did work twelve or fourteen hours per day.
I went back to Steercreek in the following spring, and I had worked there for about a month. My brother, Guy, who was working at Cresmont on a timber job, wrote me that he had a job for me at $1.50 per day. That was fifteen cents more than I was then getting, and it was considerably closer home. I decided to go back to Wallback and try that job. So, I bid everybody good bye and went home the next weekend. I went to Cresmont and started working in the forest sawing logs, cutting roads for a team, bumping knots, and trimming the branched off of logs. I wasn’t a man yet, but I tackled the job and made a go of it. Our boss, Dan Shaw, was a strict man to work for. You had to do a good days work to get by, and I wasn’t an expert with an ax. I went to work with two other men in my crew. They’d sit down and have me go on the hill and look for trees suitable for logs. The timber was scattered there. On one occasion, when I came back to report that I had found a few little logs that were just large enough to pay to get out, I learned that my boss, Dan Shaw, had fired those two men. He caught them sitting on the job. Somehow he didn’t fire me, if I did barely earn my money. I suppose he thought, “He is just a boy, and he is at least trying to do something.”
I had worked at the timber job for about a month, when their lobby boy got dooless (lax) about his job. They fired him and gave me the job. For the first week or so, I had to work pretty hard; but once I got the lobby clean, I didn’t need to work so hard to keep it that way. I had to make about twenty beds during the week. On Sunday morning, mostly everybody had gone home, and I didn’t have much to do. I had to be on the job for an hour or two Sunday, without Sunday pay. I got everything in fairly good shape on Saturday so that I didn’t need to do much on Sunday or Monday, when a lot of the men didn’t go back to camp until after they finished their day’s work. The bunks (or beds) were on each side of lobby, about two feet apart with about four feet of isle between them. After making the beds, I would sweep around them and then sweep the lobby. It was about twenty by thirty, with a big Burnside stove in the center of it. I kept wood handy for the stove, and anyone could put wood in the stove to keep a good, hot fire. We had some benches, made of rough lumber, to sit on; and everybody seemed to fare fairly well. I mopped the isles and the lobby three or four times per week, and I cleaned what few windows we had about once a month. I also had to cut wood to fuel the cook stove.
The company furnished me a light truck, which I used on a tram road. I would push it up the hollow, cut a load of wood, and push it back to the boarding house. I had to carry the wood to where it would be handy for the cooks. I got on the good side of the ladies running the boarding house. I saw that they got wood that would heat up that big cooking stove, and they prepared some delicious meals. One said to me, “You cut good wood much better than the other boy.” I answered, “Yes, there was a big family of boys at our home, and my mother insisted that we cut wood that would burn well.” The ladies often called me in and gave me a big piece of pie or cake, or a good sandwich. We often sat around that big wood fueled stove until bedtime playing dominos, checkers, and cards while telling stories and jokes. There was usually some comical friend in the gang that everybody would pick at, and we played jokes and tricks on each other. We had a lively time and a lot of fun, and we really enjoyed ourselves. The older ones usually went to bed by nine o’clock, and about everyone was in bed by ten or ten thirty.
Dan Shaw, the supervisor of our timber job was a roughneck and a very wicked man. (I don’t know what became of him. Most people there liked him as a boss. When he was in good humor, he could be as jolly as anyone.) He would get so angry when something didn’t suit him, or please him, that he would take what I called a “mad fit.” He could curse the wickedest oaths; you would shutter to hear him. He would call on the Almighty and wish He would strike something with lightning and tear it to pieces. He took one of those mad fits one day when there was an electric storm on, and he was in the forest near a creek. He wished God Almighty would strike something. He had hardly got the oath out of his wicked mouth and mind when lightning hit a big beech tree near enough to shock him. Lightning doesn’t often strike beech timber. Neither does it often strike on a creek. On the hills of West Virginia, lightning usually hits black oak, hickory, locust or white oak. It seldom hits softwood such as poplar, pine, Lin, or cucumber trees; and it seldom hit chestnut trees (before they died out).
Guy, my brother, worked in the woods, driving grabs into the logs so that the teamster could hook his team to the grab links and pull the logs to where they could load them onto the train with a steam powered crane. The operator of the crane was very accurate with his tongs. He could throw them for several feet and hit so close to the middle of the log that it would balance when he picked it up. He would lift the load and swing the crane around in a position to lay the log onto a freight car. He could soon load several cars. They hauled the logs to the mill, where they dumped them into a pond of water to wash the grit and dirt off of them. Before sawing the logs, someone would take a hot water pipe and hose with a strong steam pressure, and wash off all of the remaining dirt. That saved the teeth on the band saw blade. (In those days, 1911, we would do well to cut twenty thousand board feet of lumber in ten hours. Now, they can cut forty thousand board feet in eight hours.) We were logging and cutting lumber about fifteen miles up Buffalo Creek at that time. The railroad came to Dundon at Elk River.
The Buffalo Creek and Gauley R.R. connected to the Coal & Coke Railroad. It hauled the lumber to Charleston and other cities, where they dressed it and finished it for building purposes. At that time, they didn’t have a passenger train; so, when we came to the C & C Road, we would ride the lumber train. On evenings when there wasn’t a train going out, we could get on our lever car after we finished our day’s work. We could get about eight men on it, and ride it to Dundon, pumping a lever by hand. There was a gear in the middle of this flat car, and the lever bar ran up about four feet. There was a crossbar on the end of the rod, and handlebars ran each way from it to each end of the car. Four men, two on each end of the car, facing each other, would pump this handle; and we could make about twenty miles per hour. So, if we had no other way, we could go to Dundon on the lever car and get back in camp, at Cresmont, before midnight. We also used the handcars to go from the camp to the woods for the log job. (When we got too far away from the boarding house, they would move and build another camp.)
Guy had an accident and I left when he did. The lever car (that they ran to work and back) wrecked and broke his leg. There were about eight men on it. All of them were hurt to some extent, but Guy was hurt the worst. They left him at the camp for about a week, and the doctor visited him there. (The company retained a doctor; and we paid a monthly doctor fee.) The company left a man with Guy to take care of him. One morning he was suffering so badly that his caretaker knew something was pretty seriously wrong; so he called the doctor. The doctor came and examined Guy. Gangrene had set in. We had to get him to the hospital, at Charleston, at once. They unhooked the tram from the cars, and we started to Dundon, to catch the C & C train to Charleston. We were about twenty minutes late for the train; but they got word to the station operator, and he held up the train until we got there. Dad met the train at Porters Station and went with Guy. I got off there and went home with Mother. They got Guy to the hospital just in time to save his life. If that train had not waited for Guy, he would have died. The hospital doctor said that if he had been an hour later they couldn’t have saved him. They didn’t have the techniques or the medicine to take care of people as they do now.
Guy was in the hospital for several weeks and he had to visit the hospital for some time after he was released to go home. His leg was left in a bad shape. It was broken about halfway between his knee and ankle. One of his leg bones splintered so badly that pieces came out for two or three years. That leg is shorter than the other; and he has to wear a special heel on his shoe, about three inches higher than the natural heel. In those days, people didn’t carry hospital insurance; neither did the corporation carry insurance for you. The company did pay his hospital bill; but they didn’t pay his wages for the time he lost from work. Guy said that lawyers came to the hospital and begged him to sue the company; but in those days people didn’t often bring suits against their neighbor. In the spring of 1912, we moved from Wallback to Porters Creek.
Aunt Julia and Uncle Charley Foreman lived here; and one of Uncle Charley’s brothers in law, Enos Matheny, had a 60 acre farm that he wanted to sell. Dad looked at it and decided to buy it. Dad went to Looneyville to see Granddad Boggs to get the down payment for the farm. He got $250. Granddad (Henry Clay) said to Dad, “now you keep this a secret, and I won’t ask you to pay it back.” Granddad gave him the money, and Dad agreed to pay $750 for the farm. Ray was working on a planing mill at Elkhurst; and I got a timber job near there, working for William Evans and Elby Hinkle. Mother later told me that Ray and I paid for the farm and home. We provided $25 per month until it was paid for. This was the first home that Dad ever owned. Dad and Mother had a family of fourteen (born); and Dad couldn’t pay for a home while managing to take care of such a big family. He wasn’t strong and couldn’t venture to buy himself a home.
The farm had a four room house on it. It was built of rough lumber (unpainted), double walled, with matched flooring. The walls weren’t sealed, so we bought wallpaper and papered it. It looked pretty good. It had a double chimney with one fireplace in the sitting room and one in a bedroom back of the chimney. It had a large dining room and about a 10 x 10 ft kitchen. We built two more bedrooms and a cellar with a large bedroom over it. It was a good stone cellar. There was a good spring of water near the house and, for a year or two, we got our water from it. We later dug a good water well.
Evans and Hinkle had a contract for logging the steep river hill just a mile or two above Elkhurst. Mr. Evans said, “That boy can sure handle a crosscut saw for a boy.” I was seventeen years old but hadn’t got my growth. I really was just a boy. (I wasn’t completely grown until I was about nineteen.) That job didn’t last long. We commenced cutting timber out of a little dreen, where we could cut the timber and brute it into a dreen, to where the teams could get to it. (“Bruiting” is a logger man’s name for handling logs by personal skill and strength.) Much of the hill was so steep and rough that a team of horses couldn’t get over it. We cleared room to make a road for the team to brute the logs. There was a short flat area about halfway up the hill where we could let the logs pile up until we were ready to get them the rest of the way off the mountain. We would cut timber for a day or two, and then we would take time to trim the branches and knots off of the logs. It took some skill and strength to handle some of those big Red Oak logs. Using cane hooks and spikes, we would start them scooting down the mountain. Sometimes one would jam into or under a bolder so deep in the ground that we had to cut it off before we could get it started again. Sometimes one would run into a tree and glance around the hill, or hit another tree and stop. It would lay there until we could get it moving again. We would have to keep working at it until we could skid it out. Sometimes we had to cut a tree or stump to the ground before we could get the log started down the hill again.
It was a brutish job. People did hard work those days; but we didn’t get impatient about it just kept at it. We had to be careful not to skid the logs into the railroad; but sometimes one would get away from us, not going the way we wanted it to go. Once we cut a big red oak tree near the top of the hill. The hill was so steep that the tree jumped from the stump and landed about twenty feet down the hill. It fell against the opposite steep bank and rolled into the dreen. The dreen had a solid smooth rock bed in it. The tree skidded over those rocks so fast that they stripped limbs off of it, from bottom to top. It rolled clear to the foot of the hill and to the railroad before it stopped. We thought we were in serious trouble. We got off that hill almost as fast as that log did. By chance, the railroad bed had been built up about four or five feet at that spot; and the log jammed into the bank under the railroad. It didn’t do any damage to the track. We didn’t need to strip that tree! All the bark was stripped off going down that hill, limbs and all. We cut the tree into logs and hauled it along a path by the railroad track to the sawmill (while the trains weren’t running).
Spring soon came (1912), and the sap came up in the timber. A blacksmith made some sharp spudding tools for us and we used the opportunity to bark our logs while it was convenient. We would take an ax and split the bark on top of the log. The spud had about a five foot handle on it. One man would get on each side of the log. They would start prying the bark apart from the top of the log and continue to the end. During the summer, when the sap was up, skilled spudders could slip all the bark off of a log within a few minutes.
Mr. Evans, with his wife and daughter, ran the camp and boarding house. There were only about six or eight men there. There was a rope swing by the camp. I met the daughter at the swing, and we swung and chatted some. She was a nice woman from a very religious family. She wasn’t so pretty, but was nice turned (had a nice disposition). I was a little bashful and didn’t try to court her; but I am afraid that, if I had, I would have gotten jealous. She was so cross eyed that I couldn’t have determined whether she was looking at me or at the other fellow.
The weather was getting hot, and the river was warm enough to go swimming. We went down the river a mile or so along the railroad. There weren’t any dwellings nearby, and there wasn’t often anyone walking along the track. One fellow stripped off his clothes and jumped in. The water was eight or ten feet deep. He went to the bottom and came up and couldn’t swim (or he didn’t get his balance to swim). He was going down the third time when another fellow, who had already stripped off his clothes, jumped in and got his arm around the sinking man and got him out before he went down again. That fellow seemed to know how to handle a drowning person. He took the victim by the hair and kept him in front until he got him to the bank. The riverbank was very steep at that spot; so all of us helped to pull them out of the river.
I stayed on that job only about two months. Something went wrong, and they shut down. There was some fine timber on that rough hillside, but it was very difficult to get it off. I don’t know if the job started up again or not. Working against that steep hill was so rough and dangerous and such hard work that I didn’t intend to stay there long in the first place. At the best, I couldn’t see much future in the lumber works. I don’t see how anyone could make any money at such a difficult job. I went home and stayed for a few days before going somewhere to hunt another job. I went to see Mr. Evans, here at Bomont, and got my pay for what he owed me.
I learned that the United Fuel Gas Company was preparing to drill some wells on Little Bluecreek; so I decided to see about a job there. I went over to King Shoals to Uncle George Estep’s, about three miles from where the gas company was working. I left Uncle George’s place early the next morning. Along the way, I met Ed Westfall; and I walked the rest of the way with him. He already had a job with United Fuel. Ed said, “Now, Ira, when we get there, you just pick up a mattock and a shovel and start working.” (Ed wanted a buddy to work with him.) We arrived at the job site just before work time. There was a pile of tools laying there. I picked up the tools and started working, and I worked like fire until about noon. The timekeeper came along and asked me my name. He wrote it on his book and went on. (I thought he would ask who hired me, but I suppose he thought the boss had told me to go to work.) I finished my day’s work, and Ed and I started for King Shoals. (Ed lived about one mile up the creek from Uncle George, on top of the hill.)
I decided to board at Uncle George’s. He said he could keep me, and I imagine he was glad to have me board with him. He was out of a job and wasn’t really able to work. He had two boys and a girl and was trying to send them to school while he was short of money. I was glad to stay there because it was about five miles from our home at Porter. I could have made it on foot to my job from home, even if we did work ten hours per day; but that wasn’t necessary. Aunt Arebell called me the next morning. She said, “Breakfast is ready, and Ed will be along in a few minutes.” I ate my breakfast while Aunt Arabell fixed me a pail of good food to take with me. Boy, could she cook! I would be mighty hungry by noon after getting up at five o’clock in the morning and walking three miles and then putting in a half day’s work; and that good food really hit the spot for me. Ed came along, and we started before daybreak.
I soon learned why Ed wanted company. There were wildcats in the three mile stretch of woodland that we walked through, and some black bears had been seen in that section of King Shoals. We went down King Shoals about a mile and then up Adkins Fork of King Shoals and then over the hill onto Little Blue Creek and followed that stream almost to Big Sandy River. That was a rough, thick forest land with big rock cliffs, rhododendron thickets and plenty of good places for wildcats and bear dens. I didn’t blame Ed for wanting a friend along. I wasn’t very brave either. While I didn’t sanction them, by any means, I wasn’t much scared of wildcats; but those bears terrified me. They didn’t often bother anybody, but they would tackle a man if they had a cub or if they were real hungry. They were ferocious if you hemmed them in for a fight. We didn’t have any gun with us, and we didn’t want any fight with a bear.
We got to our job a few minutes before work time; so we sat down to rest for a few minutes. The boss hollered, It’s seven o’clock. Work time, boys.” We went to the toolbox, where the boss handed out axes, crosscut saws, mattocks, shovels and cane hooks. I got in line and took a crosscut saw. I liked to saw logs. We started cutting a new right a way for a road up a steep hill to a gas well location. We finished cutting the roadway and started to clear about one half acre for a well site. We cut the brush and built a fire in some dry chestnut poles. We piled the brush on the fire and let it burn while we cut the timber. We trashed some trees that would have made good lumber; but, when we couldn’t get the logs out of the way pretty handily, we burned the good timber along with the bad. It would have presented a danger from fire that might burn down a derrick. My crew got the brush and trees out of the way and burned it while another crew started digging the road up that steep hill with their mattocks and shovels. It was pretty slow work; but, altogether, there were about thirty five men on that job.
Normally, after our crew cleared the brush, the other crew could dig a lot of road in ten hours; but they ran onto some big rocks; so I dropped back and joined the shooting crew. We got us some four foot drills and an eight pound hammer and started drilling holes in those solid, hard rocks. There were three of us on each drill team. Two men would take a hammer and one would turn the drill. We had to be careful not to hit the man turning the drill especially, until we got used to our hammer and learned to handle it carefully. The man who turned that drill had to hold it straight and not let it wobble or the hammer might miss the drill and hit his hand or arm. We didn’t need to grip the drill very tight. I never knew of anyone that did get hit who got a broken arm or hand, but I did know of a man almost losing an eye from a particle of steel flying from the head of the drill. (There’s danger in mostly anything you do. I have seen people that were so careless or awkward that they couldn’t risk working on a job like that one.)
We hammered away with the four foot drill until we sunk it into the stone so far that we no longer had a handle on it. To drill deeper, we had to get an eight foot drill. One man would hit the drill, and the turner would rotate it real quick while the other man was drawing for his lick. After fifteen minutes or so, the turner would holler, “Mud!” The hammer men would stop striking while the drill turner got a stick with a cloth on the end of it and swabbed the hole clean of the stone cuttings. Then he poured water in the hole and wrapped a cloth around the drill (at the base of the hole) to keep the water from splashing in our faces. When we started hammering again, to test the nerves of the drill turner, we would sing a short song - “This old hammer killed my buddy, but it won’t kill Me.” while we drilled away. Sometimes, according to the hardness of the stone, it would take three or four hours to drill one hole.
After we finished a hole, we would pour some coarse grained black powder into it. Sometimes we used from a pint to a half gallon, according to the depth of a hole. We would put a fuse in it and split each end of the fuse so it would ignite easily. The crews drilled several holes in a half day; and when the people stopped working in the area to eat or go home we would holler out big and loud, “FIRE IN A HOLE!” Everybody would take cover. They all knew what that meant. We sometimes had twenty or more charges ready to fire. Two men would start firing about the middle of the string of holes, and one would go each way with a torch or matches. They’d light the fuses and run for cover. I can hear those blasts, “BANG! BANG! BANG!.” When the elements are just right, people could hear the explosions for twenty miles or more. Sometimes we would get under a rock cliff, and sometimes we got behind a big tree. Occasionally, we stayed right out in the open and dodged those stones as they shattered all around us; but I have known of people getting hit by those flying stones. We had to be very alert.
One evening, I lit one end of a fuse right at quitting time. I was already on my way home when the rocks stopped falling; so I hurried out of their range and continued on my way. The first thing we did when we went back the next morning was to look over our blasting area. One charge had failed to go off. I suppose we didn’t get the hole dried out properly and some water had leaked into it. We cleaned out the hole, dried it thoroughly and lined it with paper; then we loaded it again and blew it into smidgens. In a few days, we got some dynamite. A stick of dynamite is more powerful than a load of powder, but it is more dangerous to handle. (The force of dynamite goes downward when it explodes, and a powder charge goes upward when it goes off.) There were two ways to shoot dynamite one way is in a hole, and the other way is without a hole. Shooting with a hole: After you got your hole ready (before you put your dynamite in it) you would first put a fuse and a blasting cap on a stick of dynamite, or you could put the cap on one end of the fuse.
A blasting cap is a little bigger than a 22 rifle cartridge, and you would slip it over the end of the fuse and put that in a stick of dynamite (or a piece of a stick). You put the stick and fuse in the middle of your load (You may use more than one stick of dynamite in one hole, but you need only one cap and fuse to ignite the whole load.). After loading the hole, you light the fuse as you would a powder shot. The cap makes a forty pound jar when it goes off. That fires the dynamite. Another way to shoot dynamite is to run a wire in your cap. You do it carefully. Don’t scratch it. It might go off and that little cap can blow your hand off, or kill you. You put the cap in the hole with the dynamite (as you did your loaded blasting holes) and attach two wires. You attach the end of one wire to a battery (or two flash light batteries) and get ready. To set off the charge, you just touch the other pole of the battery to the other wire, and the load will explode. You can rig a battery to explode several loads at the same time in one shot.
Shooting without a hole: The second way to use dynamite is called an adobe shot. (You use it to break a rock that’s too large to move otherwise.) You mix you some mud with water and make it thick enough that it won’t run. You lay your dynamite on top of the rock and plaster it with the mud; then lay a heavy, flat rock or two on it. You can fire it with a cap and fuse (or wire and battery) just as you would any other load. Four or five sticks of dynamite (with an adobe shot) will blow a very large rock into many pieces. The downward explosion of the dynamite tears up the rock underneath it. One day I said, “Ed, it doesn’t look very favorable for work today, but maybe we had as well start. If it starts raining, we can come back. Those clouds look pretty heavy, but I don’t hear any thunder or see any lightning flashing. I hate to see that hole in my time sheet. I would like to get a straight month. This job won’t last long at the best, I judge about two or three months.” It rained some, but we finished our day. We drilled several holes that day, and that completed the shooting on that road.
Each day, we got out of bed at five o’clock and left home base at about 5:30 a.m. We reported for work at 7 a. m., worked five hours and then ate our dinner (lunch). That good solid grub potatoes, beans, meat, fruit and usually a piece of cream or fruit pie, or a piece of cake was really satisfying. This was hard work. We got hungry enough to eat a full meal. (I paid 50 cents per day for that good food. They grew almost all of their food on the farm; so they didn’t buy much just sugar, salt and a few foods that didn’t cost much.) We rested an hour at noon and went back to work at one o’clock. We continued working until six p.m. We worked pretty hard; but the company paid us $2 per day; and that was the best wages in the area, except digging coal I would never work in the coalmines. “Well, Ed, we’ll pry out a few of those big rocks. Maybe we won’t have to shoot them. That shot, yesterday, tore that stone apart, in good shape for us to handle. There’s no rush for this job; so I don’t suppose they will ask us to work Sunday. I’ll welcome a day of rest. We work ten hours a day and six days per week, and it is a pleasure to see a day of rest come around.”
Sunday morning, I got up at about eight o’clock. I ate my breakfast, and sat around a few minutes. Charles and Bessie, my cousins, and I got out and passed a baseball back and forth. We batted it some and lively entertained ourselves. We had a jolly good time that day. My Granddad and Grandmother and my cousin, Harley Belcher lived just a few hundred yards above Uncle George. (Granddad and Grandmother raised Harley. Aunt Nana died when he was born.) Also, Aunt Florence was still living at home, and I got to see her. We hadn’t met often during the seven years since my family had left King Shoals Creek; so we had a nice visit when we did get together. She was about four years older than I, but she didn’t get married until she was about twenty five. Uncle Robert Estep lived a few hundred yards further up the creek; and, while I was in the neighborhood, I went to see him and Aunt Allie (and my cousins Harry, Oral, Carl, Forest and Opal). Harley went with me, and Charles and Bessie came up later. Harley was about my age, and my other cousins were from five years down younger than I. We had a good time playing ball. Aunt Florence played too; so we all passed the day happily together once more.
I went back down to their house and had supper with Aunt Florence, Harley, Granddad and Grandmother. Granddad got his Bible and read some. Then we talked about the Civil War. He knew that I liked to hear him talk about that. He was only sixteen when the South came and got him. He told me about some of his exciting adventures and about the battles of Fredericksburg. He wasn’t in the Army very long before it was over (when they surrendered to General Grant). Granddad said he was scheduled to go to a prison camp after the surrender; but he didn’t have to go. He had a brother in law on the Union side who was a colonel. The officer heard about Granddad’s retention and influenced his command to release Granddad. Being the only boy in his family, Granddad was needed at home; and he would have starved if he had to go to prison for any length of time. Everybody was short of food, and a growing young man needs more than mature men. I said, “Granddad, you sure were lucky to have such a high ranking soldier to help you to keep you from suffering like some of those other prisoners did.” Yet, I don’t think any of them stayed in prison very long after the war ended. All the able men needed to get to work and rebuild to farm and grow some food to get ready for winter.
When Ed and I went back to work on Monday morning, we finished the road to that drilling site; and we were told that we would be moving on down Blue Creek, about a mile further away from Uncle George’s place. I went back and told Aunt Arebell that we were moving further away and that it would be too far to walk. I would have to hunt a place closer to my job. I thanked her for helping me and paid her what I still owed for my board and room. Some of the men on the new location were boarding with an Adkins family near where we were working, and they told me they thought I could stay there. When I stopped and inquired about board and room, they first said that they had about all they could take care of. Then Mr. Adkins asked me my name, and I told him. He asked, “Are you Curt Boggs’ son?” I said, “Yes.” “Well, I know your dad.” He said, “We’re not very well fixed to keep you; but if you can put up with our service, we’ll do the best we can for you.” I said, “I’m not very hard to please; and, no doubt, we’ll get along fine.” They showed me my room, and I washed and got ready for supper. They soon called us all to the table. There were six of us boarding there. They served a very good meal, but the food wasn’t fixed as well as that which Aunt Arebell cooked.
We started cutting a right of way for a road to the next well sight. It was near the top of a hill. We had about a half mile of right of way to cut and a lot of digging to do. We expected that it would take about a month to dig this road and get the location ready for a rig. We began digging and ran onto some more big rocks. My buddies that I been with on other sites and I got our drills and hammers and went to work. We drilled one or two holes ten feet deep. That stone was so hard that it took us half of a day to drill one hole. “Well,” I asked, “Did you ever notice some of those big rock cliffs where they drilled for the C & O Railroad, up Elk River. Some of those holes were twenty feet deep. You can still see the imprint of one side of the drill where they made those cuts in the rocks along the railroad. They did that with hand held drills, just like we are doing it. I know some of the men who helped build that road. When we moved to Kanawha County in 1903, it was complete only as far as Ivydale. They extended it on to Gassaway during the next year or so.”
The job at Blue Creek was finished in about two months. Then, I went home, and Ray got me a job at Elkhurst where he was working. That paid $1.75 per day for ten hours. I worked there for a few months at the planing mill. It was not the kind of hard work that I was used to. It was an inside job, and it was straight time. I began the job by loading lumber on a truck for kiln drying. We started with green lumber, freshly sawed from the logs. We unloaded it from a railroad car and moved it to smaller cars, which we pushed into a kiln dryer. There were two tracks in the building and steam lines ran on each side and under the cars. That kept the temperature at about 130 degrees. We would push one carload in and another out, as they dried. We kept the lumber in the oven dryer for about five days, and then it was ready to be planed. We unloaded it up out of a pit onto trucks that were on the floor where they had their planing machines. Erve Simons and I worked together for quite a while. We would take turnabout, handing it up out of the pit. The lumber was so hot, for some time after it was out of the drying bin, that we couldn’t handle it.
Each evening, we would shove some trucks out and let them set overnight to cool. We needed help for pushing those trucks to where we could unload them, and the men working on the plaining floor were supposed to help. They didn’t like to quit their work to push those trucks, and we had so much trouble that we had to go hunt the boss to get help. One day, we called on help; and those men just got so stubborn, or independent, about helping us that they wouldn’t come. I said, “Erve, I’m tired of having to hunt the boss every time we need help. Let’s just sit down until the boss gets here.” We sat there for about an hour. I said, “Erve, I see the boss coming. Just pretend you don’t see him.” The boss said, “What’s the matter boys? We’ve got to have that lumber up here or shut the mill down.” Erve and I told him that we couldn’t get any help and that we were tired of having to hunt the boss every time we needed help. He said to the foreman, “You get down there when they need you and help move that truck.” We worked for about a week without have any more trouble about help. Then, one morning, they wouldn’t help us when we called. I became a bit angry. I said, “If we can’t get you to help us, I know who can.” I found the boss before they had to shut the planers down. The boss was angry. He said, “If you men can’t cooperate here with this job, I’ll have to get men who can.” We never had any more trouble getting help to move those trucks. Later, Erve said, “I had to laugh at how you spoke to those contrary men.”
After I had worked at the kiln dryers for about three months, the boss needed a man to help in the storing rooms where they held the lumber for shipping. He said, “Boggs, you come with me. I have a better job for you. You help Ray with this dressed lumber. He will show you what to do.” I helped push the trucks of lumber away from the machines after it was dressed and shaped into flooring, siding and other building material. We loaded it off of the truck into the storing bins. Later, we loaded it onto trucks for shipping. From the trucks, we would load it onto railroad cars to ship to Charleston. From there, it was sometimes shipped to cities in Ohio, N. Y., Penn, and other states. We had a big planing mill. It could handle several thousand feet of lumber per day. They made everything for dwellings and other buildings. They made all sizes and kinds of moldings for houses, picture frames and about everything that’s made of lumber; some furniture, too. They also had a demolition mill that made handles for tools. This mill operated until about 1920, when, for some reason, it was shut down. Our work (at Elkhurst) got slack; and they laid off a lot of men, including me.
I came home and stayed a few days; then I decided to go back to the gas fields. A big oil boom was going on at Big Bluecreek. (That became one of the most valuable fields in this country.) It started near the mouth of Bluecreek. They drilled wells that made some of those poor farmers millionaires overnight. The farmers got 1/8 of the oil, without touching the work. Their land was leased under those terms. I went to work at Coca, about eight miles up Bluecreek. Alvah and I worked for the Sun Oil Company. We cut right a ways and made roads (as I had done before). James Ross was our boss, and we boarded with Millard Ross. (We knew them from Wallback, where we had formerly lived.) Millard had three girls and two boys at home. The two boys worked with Alvah and me. We had a good time with our old friends from Wallback.
Coca was a lively place. That was a wealthy oil field, and there was always a lot of money in circulation. We could go to parties, or somewhere interesting, almost every night. At that time, open saloons were legal in West Virginia; but there weren’t any bars in our area that served hard liquor. However, there was plenty of bootleg whiskey. I had never drunk any intoxicating drinks; but some of the boys got some cider, and we all had a drink of it. I didn’t know it had fermented enough to intoxicate anyone, but some of the boys got pretty intoxicated. I got enough to feel it, and I quit at that stage. We also got us a deck of cards. This was my first game of cards. We didn’t gamble for money; we picked up beechnuts and used them for money. The next day, we didn’t feel much like working and we didn’t get much accomplished. We were too busy otherwise!
Somehow, Dad found out that we had been playing cards. He called our attention to it when we went home. He said he was worried because we were liable to be arrested. In those days, the law was pretty strict on gambling. We always stayed hidden, in the brush, to play any kind of card game. We worked on a site up Laurel Creek where they were drilling some very productive oil wells. They produced a very fine grade of oil, about the most valuable oil found anywhere. A poor and ignorant family lived there in a shack that looked like it would fall apart anytime, but they did own their land. The Oil Company drilled some good producing wells on it. I later heard that some slick, shyster lawyer wrote up a contract that was supposed to be for a lease on part of their land; but, somehow, he tricked them into signing over all of the land. That happened to a lot of poor, ignorant people.
One Sunday, we took a notion that we would go to a revival meeting at Odessa over the hill about six or seven miles. Some of the boys had some whiskey, and they were already a little lit up. They sat at the back of the church. Some of them got to talking and making a little extra noise. Lee Young came back and said, “I think I heard some of you boys using some profane language.” (Lee Young is Carl, Clarence, and John Young’s father.) We all went outside. Some of the boys who were drinking wanted to go back inside to drag Lee Young out and give him a whipping. The ones that weren’t drunk encouraged them to leave and get on their way back to Coca. We labored on the Laurel Creek site until we got that road finished across the hill to Hackberry Creek where a flowing well came in with such a gusher that it spurted oil for a hundred yards. It created a mist of oil and gas that was dangerous to be near.
One of the major stockholders was present when the well came in so strong. He was so excited that he pulled a big cigar out of his pocket to celebrate. He was reaching for a match when one of the well workers noticed him just in time to knock the match out of the man’s hand (without taking time to call his attention to it). If he had struck that match, it would have set a fire one hundred yards in diameter. It would have burned us all to death. That well was gushing oil with so much force that it caused the flow lines to vibrate so hard that it looked like they would blow apart. A four inch line carried the black gold into a holding tank. That kept the pumps busy, moving it to big storage tanks. It was only one of several hundred wells within the few miles surrounding us at that time (1912).
That weekend we took a notion to go to Charleston. I was 17 years old and Alvah was 21, but neither of us had ever been there. Most of the gang with us was from Roane, Clay or Kanawha Counties, and only one or two of them had ever been in the Capitol City. We walked to the mouth of Bluecreek and caught the evening train into the big city. We got off the train where the B & O station is now located and walked from there over to the main part of Charleston. Most of the streets were paved with brick, but some were dirt. There were very few automobiles there, and there wasn’t a concrete sidewalk or street anywhere in the city at that time. We stayed at a hotel on Kanawha St., which is now Kanawha Blvd. There were a few nice commercial buildings on Kanawha St. then, but mostly farmhouses lined each side of the street. At that time, there were big farms where most of Charleston is now settled solid.
We went into a barbershop on Virginia and Summers Street to get our hair cut. At age 17, I was the youngest of the gang, and this was the first time that I and most of the others was ever in a barbershop. The others got their hair cut and walked out, saying they would wait outside until I was through. They waited quite a while! After the barber cut my hair, he asked me if I wanted a massage, then everything else he could think of. I would ask a few questions about it and then give in to whatever he asked. I must have been in the chair for an hour and a half. My buddies knew what I was accepting from that barber and they were just letting me take it all. A haircut was 25 cents, and I thought he was accommodating me with all of this extra doting of my hair. I finally got out of the chair and asked him what I owed him, and he answered, “Two dollars, Sir.” When I went outside and rejoined my gang, they were all laughing at me. I said, “A day’s work for a haircut!”
We started walking on down the street, and I saw a well dressed man coming toward us. I said, “Boys, why are you walking so slow. If we are going to stay over night, it’s time we were finding a room.” I lined out right straight toward this big sport, and Phil Ross was right behind me. I got almost face to face with the well dressed dude; then, I quickly stepped aside. Phil ran head on into him! The fellow looked at Phil like he was going to sock him a hard blow; and then we all mustered up to him. He walked on. That was my turn to laugh. I said to Phil, “Can’t you see such a big man as that one is. You’ll get us all put in the brig. We had better get to our room before we are arrested. Come on; let’s get out of here.” “No, leave that saloon alone. Don’t you know when you have enough of that stuff?” “I’ve just had only three or four drinks of whiskey and beer.” “Yes, but it doesn’t take much beer and whiskey mixed to make you sot drunk.” “Come on with me. Don’t you see that policeman watching us?” “Come on! I’m the younger of us. You ought to be looking after me You are the oldest. If you are going to drink anymore, get it and take it home with you.” “Let’s get out of here!”
We got us two rooms at the Washington Hotel. I got all of the whiskey and hid it, and I told the gang that they had drunk it. Some of them were so drunk that they didn’t know but what they had. The next morning, I set the whiskey where they could see it. “I thought we drunk all of that bottle.” I answered, “You were so drunk you couldn’t see a bottle.” “Well, it’s a good thing we have a little to sober up on.” “Yes,” I said, “I imagine you’re about broke, as freely as you spent your money. I haven’t got much either. I didn’t drink with you, but I got a haircut two dollars for a haircut.” “Well”, Phil said, “you were in there long enough to get four haircuts.” “Well, I guess I got the whole works. I’ll know that barbershop if I ever come into town for another haircut. I won’t forget that!”
We left the hotel at about ten o’clock the next morning and caught the train to Bluecreek station. We walked the rest of the way to Coca. Some of the gang looked pretty taggy, and I’m sure they didn’t feel any better than they looked I’ll assure you of that from drinking that whiskey and beer. Those drinks don’t mix well. “Well, this is Monday Blue Monday do you think you can do a day’s work today?” “I don’t feel too good myself. I’m going to try to earn my money today, but I don’t know what kind of a job I’ll do at it.” We got to work at seven o’clock and started back at digging a road to a location. The boss said, “Boggs, This looks like a pretty rough place here. We may have some shooting to do today.”
I was assigned to work with a man who wasn’t much interested in his job, and we had a bad section to dig. One would dig while the other shoveled the dirt. We had some stumps to dig out, and we got behind with our section. Alvah said to me, “The boss is going to can you if you don’t do better. He has been complaining about you getting behind with your section.ö I said, “I’ll get me another buddy and not work with this fellow. He wants to stand and roll too many cigarettes.” (I think that the boss knew who was slacking on the job because a few days before that, someone had reported to me that he heard the boss say, “That little fellow, Boggs, digs more dirt than any man on the job.”) I was only seventeen, but I could do as much work as the next man could. We finished our day and went back to the boarding house. There was a gas well drilled so near our boarding house that it was dangerous. Before they plugged it, it blew out at such a strong pressure that they took three days to get it under control. I felt lucky when we finished that job without a major disaster.
Dad kept urging us to go back to school, and he said that we should help one another through the eighth grade. (In those days, that was about equal to today’s high school education.) Howard White and Howard’s brother, Webb, were teaching then, and they both encouraged us to complete our free school or grammar school, as it was called then. Alvah had quit school at the fifth grade, and Guy was in the fourth grade when they started back in 1912. Ray and I worked through that year to finish paying for our home. I was eighteen years old when I went back to school in September of 1914. Ray continued working at the planing mill job at Elkhurst, and he helped the family while we went to school that year. He didn’t make up his mind to go back until the next school year. I started at a poor third grade. I had been in that grade when I quit school, but I was out for nine years. I could read and write and spell poorly, and I knew a little in figures or arithmetic. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide some, but very little.
As a man, it was pretty embarrassing to go to school with little children who knew more than I did; but I was mature enough to know how much a person needed an education. My teacher, Webb White, put me with the eighth graders. Webb knew how embarrassing it would be for me to be in a class with the little children. The eighth grade books had a few third, fourth and up problems in them, and he assigned me the easier ones. Alvah, Guy and I stayed with it, even if it was embarrassing. We knew we wouldn’t be embarrassed all of our life. We had one room schools in those days, and sometimes there were thirty or forty pupils in one school. So, at times, our schools were pretty crowded.
During the noon hour, we would choose our players and have a big time playing ball. We had such interesting games that we hardly took time to eat. We would choose our players by the old method. Choose two of the best players and have them stand opposite one another. Someone throws up a bat and one of the captains grabs it near themiddle with one hand. The opposing player clasps one hand above that of the first, and they take turns placing one hand over that of the other person’s. The last hand that can hold it gets the first choice for his team. (We played by baseball rules in those days, but some of the rules were different in 1914 from what they are now.) Some of the players were so interested in the game that they would try to change the rules, or pretend they were different, in order to win a game. Our leader was one who couldn’t take a loss. He was good winner, but a poor loser. We had some exciting times, but we often got into such harsh arguments that some players would quit for the day. In the winter when the weather was too bad for us to play outside, some of us played checkers or dominoes. Sometimes, we would talk and argue on some interesting subject such as politics or other current events. We learned from each other, about the rules, the laws and so on.
When school was closed for the year, some of us worked on public works while the others ran the farm. (At that time, the school term lasted only six months. So we had six months to work while not in school, and all of us worked on Saturdays and holidays during the school year.) Alvah and Guy got jobs on timber and lumber works while school was out; and my younger brothers, Cornelius, Cecil and Dennis, worked with me on the farm during the spring and summer of 1915. We added four to five acres to our grain farm each year until we had all of the best land cleared. We cleared the hillside land and tended it in corn, but we found it didn’t pay to plow such steep land. It was so soft and sandy that it wouldn’t pack like clay land does; and the heavy stock, such as cattle, horses or hogs, trampled the soft soil so that it didn’t hold grass well. Almost all of the soil on our former farm, at Wallback, was clay. It packed well and would hold up well to the cattle, etc.; but clay soil washed away worse than the sandy soil, making gullies where the cattle made trails around hillsides. I did most of the plowing and Cornelius, Cecil and Dennis hoed the corn.
One day, I was plowing with Old Maude on a pretty rough and steep hillside. It was very hot that day; and Old Maude was very fast, especially on rough ground. I got too hot, but I didn’t notice it until after I stopped. (Old Maude went so fast that the air kept me cool while I was going.) The heat made me so sick that it affected me for most of the summer. Cornelius relieved me once in a while during the week and Alvah and Guy helped with the plowing on Saturdays. They were going to a summer school that year, to Howard White. This was their second year. As soon as they finished the eighth grade, they intended to teach public school. By going to school for six to eight weeks during the summer, they would be able to get number two certificates to teach.
I worked in the corn field until about the first or middle of July. After we laid by the corn, I found a job with the United Fuel Gas Company, here about Porters Creek, where I could board at home for the next six to eight weeks before school started up again. I worked with a crew that recased gas wells. We followed behind a well cleaning out crew. They blow a hard, sharp grade of sand (almost like glass) into the well with several thousand pounds of pressure. That opens up the pours, and the oil or gas is as free to flow about as freely as it did when the well was first drilled. We pulled the casing and rerun it to keep out the salt water that was leaking into it and hindering the flow of gas. I worked out about $80 before school started, and that helped me buy some new clothes and school supplies for my second year. It wasn’t so hard or embarrassing to start back this time because I had got lined out the first year and at least learned just how ignorant I was.
In the autumn, while the weather was nice, we would walk two or three miles each way, after school, to attend an old time shouting revival meeting. Some of the revivals lasted for three weeks or more. People didn’t have anywhere else to go. There weren’t any automobiles or hard roads then, and the young people liked to go to church to meet their friends; and by the second or third week, most of them would be taking an interest in the meeting. There was a lot of interest in the Lord in those days. I finished my second year in school and tended a crop and cleared some ground.
One day, I came within an inch of my life (as we sometimes say). It happened on a Saturday when Alvah and Guy were not in school. About six of us (Alvah, Guy, Ray, Cornelius, Cecil and I) were rolling logs up in heaps to burn them out of the way. There was an old chestnut log that had lain there so long that we had to dig in the earth to get it sawed in two with our crosscut saw. We finally got it cut into several short logs. It was about three feet in diameter and was hard to handle. I got upon the middle log with my cane hook. I pulled down hill on it with all of my weight. The log finally came out of its bed and started rolling downhill. I jumped off; and, somehow, I didn’t get out of the way of the rolling log as quickly as I should have. The hill was pretty steep there and the log picked up speed pretty fast. It bumped my heels for several steps. I finally gained enough speed to get out of its path. My brothers were so shook up that they didn’t say a word. If they had said anything, it might have distracted me enough that I wouldn’t have gotten out of the way. I wasn’t scared until it was all over with. If I had caught my pants leg over a snag on the ground (or if a snag on the log had hooked in my pants), it would have thrown me to the ground under the log and that log weighted nearly a ton! The log incident happened when I was eighteen years old. That wasn’t the first time that I had such a narrow escape. I had nearly died in convulsions when I was eight years old and it was not the last time I came so near death; but I am still here at 76 years of age. We worked hard from near twilight to dusk and turned out a big day’s work.
The new ground that we cleared that year produced some of the finest corn in the community. By March or April 1915, we had a few more acres of new ground ready for corn. After I finished the second year of school, and after we got the corn crop laid by, I had a little time to work off the farm. I went to Cabin Creek and helped build one of the first (if not the first) big power plants in the state. The plant, built by The Virginia Power Company, is still operating.
That was the year the saloons were voted out of West Virginia (The nearest one was at Cabin Creek). The day before the saloons closed, people got their suitcases and lined out for several yards at the saloons. They bought their last legal whiskey in the state until 1934 when it was became legal to buy it in a state run whiskey store (package store). You had to have a ticket to buy it, and they couldn’t sell more than a quart at a time to each person. The nearest saloon to reopen under the new law was at Catlettsburg, Kentucky. People would go there and buy what they were allowed to bring across the state line. When the county was dry, there was a lot of bootlegging going on. A lot of people just couldn’t do without their whiskey. So they campaigned for several years for its return. They claimed it was being made illegally and sold to people under age, and that problem was handled worse than when we had saloons. Another argument was that we were losing a lot of tax money from the sale of intoxicating drinks.
I went back to school again in September 1915, and I worked hard at my studies and made fairly good grades. During that winter, when we weren’t in school, we continued to clear land for farming. After the corn was laid by, that year, Alvah and I and Carl Samples went to Winona, Fayette County, to work until school started again. We worked at building a narrow gauged railroad on a timber job.
We boarded with a coal miner at Winona. He took us into a coal mine there, and we went about a quarter of a mile into it. This was the first time I was ever in a coal mine. It was a big seam of coal, and we could stand up straight and walk in it. I decided I didn’t want to work in a coal mine. At that time, they didn’t have very good safety procedures, and it looked too dangerous for me. Most of the mines had poor working conditions, and there were frequent slate falls that killed or crippled the miners. At most of the mines, they pulled the loaded trucks out with mules. Later, electric motors were installed in the mines to pull the coal trucks. I worked there at Winona until school time.
On my return trip, I rode a hack (or closed in buggy) that carried passengers about five miles to the railroad. (There weren’t any automobiles there then.) The hack had three rows of seats in it, and it could carry about nine or ten passengers. After returning home, I started back to school in September for my third and last term. Webb White was still our teacher. As usual, we worked on our farm work in our spare time, while not in school, starting each day as soon as we would get home from school.
We had a fairly good crop of corn that year, about twelve acres of it and some oats to feed our cows and chickens. We would cut corn and pick beans, dig potatoes, and gather in the truck crops from the garden and field and prepare them for winter. We had to string and can beans, fruit and vegetables until we had our cellar full.
Alvah and Guy had finished free school the year before and had attended a teachers’ school that summer to qualify for teaching. They earned number two certificates. They taught free school this term and made a little money, $30 per month. They taught for six months and went to a teachers’ school the next summer. (They continued until they had number one certificates that paid $35 to $45 per month in Clay County.) They had to ride a train from Procious to Clay and back home to attend teachers’ school. They got a discount fare for school travels, and they were able to make a little money while learning and teaching; but it was slow progress toward making good wages. They also took high school classes while teaching; and, after some few years, they finished high school.
After Alvah taught (in one room schools) for a few years, the political leaders got him to register for the nomination for County Superintendent of Schools. He was nominated on the Democrat ticket and ran against one of his old teachers, who ran on the Republican ticket. Alva was elected for a four year term. He was a good talker and a good school manager, and he continued to work for the schools for the rest of his life. Guy taught until 1917. Ray didn’t go back to school until a year after I started, and he only went for two years.
In 1916, Woodrow Wilson ran against Judge Hughes of New York for the office of President of the United States. After the election, news came that Hughes had won the office. He had carried New York by a landslide, and they thought that pushed him over. That night, the Republicans got together to celebrate. They collected some powder and other material and put off some shots to commemorate their victory. (About 75 per cent of our schoolmates were Republicans.) They had a happy time celebrating their election. News came the next morning that Wilson had carried California and that he was elected President (instead of Hughes).
My brothers and I (and some few other families) were staunch Democrats. When it came our time to celebrate, some of the Republicans had changed their politics. We had a bigger crowd than we expected and did we sound off! We got us plenty of good coarse powder and some two inch steel gas pipe. We cut off about 3 ft. of pipe and tamped about one third of one end with clay dirt, good and solid. Then we put about a quart of powder into the pipe, with a good long fuse in it, and tightly packed the rest of the pipe with clay. We placed this pipe bomb in the forks of a tree, about head high. We struck a match and lit it and then ran and got behind some trees. When the shot exploded, it roared so loud that people a half mile away said it sounded like it was right in their yards (especially the Republicans that had put off the shots the night before). They were going to have someone arrested for exploding shots in their door. We few Democrats didn’t hear anymore about politics for some time.
Woodrow Wilson made a fine president and served two terms. He was an educator from New Jersey, but he was born in Lexington, Virginia. He formed a labor cabinet in his administration and appointed a Secretary of Labor. This was one of the first labor movements by our government.
School closed as usual in March 1917. I had worked hard at my education while still doing farm work. Starting from the third grade and going three six month terms, and by studying some between terms (when I had time to study), I had completed six grades in three years; and they let me take the test for a grade school diploma. In those days, you had to make a grade average of 70 per cent to pass the test. That qualified one to attend high school. I made an average of 85.5 on my eighth grade diploma test.