Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Grasshoppers and Pine Resin

One of my favorite things to do when I was in college was to pass on our family stories to my little cousins. Since I grew up with their parents they were more like nieces and nephews to me, so I felt it my obligation to spoil them.

I used to tell them (and still do) stories about how life used to be. Over the years, we have them convinced that my mother is an old woman nearing 100 years of age, when in fact she is but in her early 50’s. When we are all around her, my brother and I tell them that she ain’t been the same since that time she fell off of the train bridge. I can see in their eyes that they are picturing her falling off a train bridge back in the early 1900’s!! They just look at my mom with pity in their eyes, and say “Poor ole thing” and try to do things for her since she is so old. As a matter of fact, years ago my brother and I even gave our mother a new name to go along with her newly created elderly personality…Maude. All of the children just love Maude because she is like a kind old grandmother to them all, and they truly believe she holds the wisdom of the ages. The thing the kids don’t realize about Maude is that if she doesn’t know it, she will make it up!

Dad and "Maude".

I remember a few years ago, my little cousins were out “exploring” the Burns property. While it may have been a new experience for them, this was the very same land that my brother and I had explored a generation before, and our Dad before us, and his daddy before him, probably on back to when my family first settled here in the 1700’s. Well, during their great exploration, the kids came upon an old “fort” that my brother and I had built about decade earlier; we had made it out of tree limbs and carried rocks in for a floor and everything. By our standards, we had it lookin’ good. We even had an old cast iron stove up there that was a cast off from our house. The kids thought they had come upon El Dorado or something, because when they ran home to tell about it, their eyes were wide with excitement and they were rattling away like a bell clapper to a goose’s ass. After they described the place, I told them, “Yeah, I know where that is. Maude, did you hear that, they found my old house.” Their eyes immediately lit up and asked me how was it my house. I went on the tell them that when I was about 15 years old, I wanted some privacy so I built me a little lean-to up on the mountain and stayed there for about 2 years. Since they were kids, they didn’t put together that two years on the mountain in a lean-to would have been torture, or that I would have still been a teenager.

They were putty in my hands, so I elaborated on my story. I told them that the old stove up there was what I used for heat and to cook on. I remembered there were some empty cans up there from where my brother and I used to pack our lunch for our all day excursions, so I told them that the cans were from the food I ate. One of them questioningly asked me, “But there weren’t enough cans for you to have ate up there all winter”. I retorted, “No, there sure wasn’t was there, if you go up to the old pine tree, you will see that it is oozing sap in several places, that’s where I tapped it for pine resin. When I ran out of food, I lived on grasshoppers and pine resin!” I further explained to them that grasshoppers and pine resin really sticks to your ribs, and that grasshoppers are easy to dry and store all winter long. Well, they were eating this story all up, and insisted I go up to the old fort with them, so they could ask me questions about it. I went with them, and they tried their best to trip me up in a lie, but one by one I could see each of them start to believe me. I showed them the old pine tree with the resin running down the sides of it. Each one of them had to sample the pine resin, and they all said it tasted terrible and asked me how I could eat such stuff. I told them, “You’d be surprised what you’ll eat when you get hungry, and besides, you develop a taste for it.” I couldn’t, however, manage to get them to sample a grasshopper!

My little cousins Mernie and Bub.

I had an answer for everything they could think to ask. For example, there was an old stone box that my brother had built out of flat rocks, and when they found it they asked me what that was for, I said that I had kept live rattlesnakes in it so I’d have fresh meat in the winter months, and that once it got cold, the snakes were real sluggish so you didn’t have to worry about them crawling away. To further add to my fabricated tale, I exclaimed astonishment when I looked over at some nearby huckleberry bushes that were growing, “Wow, look at those bushes, they really have grown since I lived here.” I told them I transplanted those pushes from further up on the mountain so I’d have huckleberries to pick.

My little cousins Mernie and Clyde.

Then, one of the kids found some wild turkey feathers in the leaves that were windblown up against the walls of the stick fort. They didn’t realize that’s where me and Jason had cleaned off the leaf litter, and that wild turkeys would come in there to eat the acorns that had fallen on the bare ground. They undoubtedly would have left some feathers here and there. But, you can see where I’m going with this, I told them that those must be the feathers from that turkey that I had killed with my throwing stick! They asked me what a throwing stick was, and I said it is a smooth stick that could be thrown with so much force that it could kill a bird or even rabbits and such. Of course, they wanted me to show them and they went and found me a smooth stick. I made a big show of it, telling them they had to hold the stick at just the right angle and throw it with just enough force…and they would have to take into account the direction the wind was blowing that day. With great showmanship, I then drew back my arm and threw the throwing stick, and it went flying awkwardly through the air until it cumbersomely hit a large rock. Just as it hit the rock, a rabbit dodged out from behind it. I exclaimed, “Well, I almost got us a rabbit for supper, that darn rock got in the way.” They really thought I was something then, they hadn’t even seen that rabbit sitting there, and since I apparently had, that was all the proof they needed to believe in my extensive wilderness survival skills!

When we got home, my cousin Brittany asked Maude why she had let me live up there for so long when I had a home right here that had real food in it, and to this Maude replied, “Well, it was a different time then and boys had to learn how to survive in those days!”

And people wonder why the kids are so spoiled!!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


When I was growing up, I was considered by my family to be the pet pig. This was because I was the baby of the bunch, and for 12 years I remained that. During this time, I was doted on and given free reign of the place, and I got by with a lot more than I probably should have.

Me at age 2. Those pants prove I was at the height of fashion.

I’m pretty sure that I was my granddaddy’s favorite grandchild, and I could get anything out of him or do anything and it’d be just fine. He was so proud of me, he’d tell people, “That boy can drive hen shit to gunpowder.” That’s how good I was.

Now this isn’t to say that the other kids, including my brother who is only 18 months older than I am, were slighted in any way, I’m just saying that I got by with more than my fair share because of my pet pig status. I remember one time when we lived on the farm, I got a BB gun for my birthday. I was out playing in the side yard and my brother was in the upstairs window, making faces at me. He apparently thought he would be safe from my vengeance, but I proved him wrong, I shot at him through the window. He dodged to the side, and I waited…he poked his head back in front of the window to see if I was still outside, and when he did, I shot again. Another windowpane bit the dust. This continued until I had shot every window out of that upstairs bedroom. As soon as I’d shot out the last one, Jason hollered out, “Mom…Matthew’s outside shooting out the upstairs windows.” Mom then came outside and investigated the situation and took my BB gun away, and told me I was going to have to pay for those windows, and she was taking by $2 allowance to do so. It wasn’t but maybe a half hour later, and after a talk with my granddad, that I got back my BB gun. He also gave me $2 and told me not to shoot out anymore windows...and not to tell Mom!

Me, my Granddad and my Uncle Tom in 1986. Notice my beaver pose!

I remember how I used to stay overnight with my granddad and we’d go riding around in his huge red International station wagon named “Belvedere”. Belvedere had a front seat, a back seat and an enormous back end that usually was filled with kids and chainsaws. I know those two don’t mix, but I remember always hating to have to find a seat where you wasn’t up against a chainsaw chain.

This is exactly was Belvedere looked like on she was fire engine red! Photo from

One time, when I was about 5 years old, just me and my granddad was coming back from the store in Belvedere (by now you’ve probably realized I never missed a trip to the store) and I only knew my numbers up to 100. Belvedere registered up to 120 miles per hour, and I wanted my granddad to sink the needle in the straight stretch going out Germany Valley. However, I didn’t tell my granddad to “Go a hundred and twenty”, instead I said what I knew “Go Twelve-O, granddaddy, go twelve-O”!! Well, Belvedere might have registered 120 mph, but it certainly couldn’t go that fast, looking back I doubt that it could have went 120 mph if it was falling straight down a well. Granddad used to have a saying about how much power Belvedere had, he would say “It couldn’t pull a sick woman off of a shitpot”. I believe that says all you ever need to know about Belvedere!! Let’s suffice it to say that it never did go “Twelve-O”.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Times Past

This is one of my favorite photographs of all time. It is of haymaking time in Nelson Gap in Pendleton County, WV. This photo was taken about 1910. The men in this photograph are (left to right) Will Wimer, Martin Vandevander, Roy Lambert and John Lambert.

Will Wimer was the 1st cousin to my 2-great grandmother Sidney (Wimer) Teter. Martin Vandevander was the first cousin of my 3-great grandmother Ruhama (Nelson) Nelson. The Roy Lambert & John Lambert in this photo are first cousins to two of my other grandparents, Cullom Cassel and Elizabeth (Cassel) Nelson. Cullom and Elizabeth were siblings. Cullom Cassel married Mary Jane Nelson, daughter of the aforementioned Ruhama (Nelson) Nelson. Elizabeth Cassel married Esau Nelson, who was the 2nd cousin of Martin Vandevander and of the aforementioned Ruhama Nelson, so you can see, all of these folks are my people. You can also see what I mean when I say I'm related to everyone in Pendleton County.

To me this photo captures a simpler time, I’ve often wondered about many different things in this photo, for example, what were the names of the horses? Whatever happened to the old hay rake? Does it rest in some lonesome holler up Nelson Gap? What were these men were thinking about? Were they annoyed by having to stop to pose for the photograph, or delighted that someone was taking an interest in their livelihood?

I remember back when I was a kid, one time my granddad, two of my uncles and my mother went into the fence stake business. They cut locust logs for the stakes up in Nelson Gap, where these men farmed decades before. My brother and I went along and explored the farm there. The old man who owned the farm was friends with my granddad and was happy to get rid of the locust from his fields. I remember that while we were in Nelson Gap, my uncle Wood got cut by a chainsaw and refused to go to the doctor. He was bleeding pretty bad and we needed something to stop the blood. The only thing my mom could think of that was handy was a Kotex that she had in her purse. She slapped that pad on Uncle Wood’s arm, and it sopped the blood right up and eventually stopped the bleeding. We then went home for that day, and Uncle Wood was still refusing to go to the doctor for a tetanus shot and stitches, but he did let mom sew him up with a needle and thread. He said it got pretty sore, but he did put sheep dip on it (that we used when we banded lambs on the farm) and miraculously it didn’t get infected. I remember the next day Uncle Wood was back at work but was put on light duty…loading locust poles into the truck.
As I recall, we sold 2,000 fence stakes out of the locust that we cut in Nelson Gap, and got $2.50 each for them. The money was split equally between the 4 workers. We ate good there for awhile, but eventually other people found out about the money to be made in the fence stake business, and soon underbid us so the Burns fence stake business went defunct.
Though most of the now vacant farms are still in family owned, their owners have moved away for new opportunities. I wonder what these men in the photo would think if they could know what their progeny would do with the land they worked so hard to build up? These men were part of the land and the land were part of these men, how humbling and rewarding that must have been to see the fruits of your labor be borne in every season. I know that time changes everything, but somehow I wonder if our lives are worth all that we have lost in this great transition?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mudhole Mischief

One of my favorite pastimes as a young child was washing my hair in mudholes. It seemed like every time I would get a chance and would see a mudhole, it was like a siren was beckoning me to come and partake. I don’t know what it was but it was certainly a pleasure that I just could not deny myself.

Inviting mudholes?

One time when we lived at Earl’s up Johnson Holler, mom had just dressed me up for a doctor’s appointment and we were getting ready to leave. Mom had forgot something in the kitchen so walked back inside to get it and left me standing in the doorway and told me to wait on her. Well wouldn’t you know it, down in the middle of the road I spied a huge mudhole. Of course, I immediately took off down the hill towards the mudhole, mom later told of how she saw me going but I was tearing off that hill like greased lighting and that I was in the mudhole before she even cleared the front door! She said I ran right into the middle of it and sat down, and splashed handfuls of water up on my head and that I was filthy. Mom said it made her a little mad to see me in the mudhole, considering she would have to haul water up the hill from the creek, heat the water on the stove, and then bathe me all over again. But, the anger passed when she remembered that I was just a little boy, and after all, boys will be boys.

Me and Jason at the fish hatchery. I was this age in this story.

Though aggravated, mom soon saw the humor in it and she just walked down to me in the driveway mudhole, and said “What are you doing?” To this I looked up at her innocently and said “Mud-hooooel” and dowsed my head down in the muddy water. Mom said I was a heckuva looking thing when I pulled my newly “washed” head up out of the mudhole and the rivulets of thick brown mud ran down my cheeks. She later told that my hair was matted fast to my head and that I was grinning from ear to ear.

Dad, Mom, Jason and I in the doorway of Earl's.

She said there was nothing else she could do but just give me another bath so she grabbed the water bucket and headed to the creek to get more water to bathe me in. As I recall, we still made it to the doctor’s appointment on time, since Mom always left hours early since she knew how Jason and I were to get into mischief. As with this time, we usually didn’t disappoint her in her planning!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Grandmother's Quilt

Many fragments compose this masterpiece
Stitched with the heartstrings that skip a generation
Recognized by all who can see the intricacies
Of a far-sighted mind.

Here is a piece of Arbutus’ communion gown,
attached to a remnant of Uncle Virgil’s wedding suit
hinted with the lipstick of Aunt Rachel.
A green linen square revives Willard, another uncle
Killed in Vietnam though kept alive within his mother’s heart.

A tiny segment included from grandmother’s apron
Worn thin by celebratory feasts and stained with blackberry juice
Berries that were grown to pay the mortgage
The tattered square somehow sparks visions
Of pancakes and dark King syrup.

This embroidered heart shows me the love
I knew so long ago from a grandmother that held me in her arms
And wept as I was taken away to foster care,
Allowed nothing but a few clothes and this quilt around my shoulders.
The product of a bitter parent dealt an unfulfilled life.

This masterpiece tells a story that will withstand time
Of love and family, of childhood.
Representing the ties that bind through generations.
I remember, grandmother remembered…she knew
I would return to her someday when I was ready.

She is gone and with her went my childhood,
I am grateful she gave me a past and a history.
My children look bewildered as I sit crying
fingering grandmother's quilt, remembering.

A Bought Lesson

There was about twelve of us kids that grew up together, and mom done all the cooking on an old cast-iron wood cookstove. Lord, was it ever hot in the house in the summertime. Remembering it now, I’d say it was even too hot for flies to come inside. I truly don't know what kept Mom and the older girls from having a heatstroke sometimes. Mom could make everything on that old wood cookstove except pudding, which she burned every time. It would be so hot in the house in the summer time a person could hardly breathe, so by necessity we left doors and windows open all night. I remember several times, Mom cooked outside over an open fire simply because it was cooler to do so.

My Grandad's house, where this story takes place.

With having all the doors and windows open all night, hoping to catch even the faintest of mountain breezes to cool down the house, you know it was only a matter of time before something got in the house…and when it happened, boy howdy was it an experience to remember. You see, one night a skunk got in the house. We heard it walking across the kitchen floor, tick…tick… tick, went its claws on the floor. For those who heard it, they just thought it was a cat, but then we smelled it. Lord Almighty and Katie-bar-the-door was it ever strong, so strong it burnt your eyes.

A cousin of the skunk in this story.

Well being the genius that he was, my Granddad got out of bed and made some noise hoping to scare the varmint away, but instead he only succeeded in getting the skunk to hole up under the kitchen cabinet. The smell was even stronger by then…so strong the smell stuck in your mouth…and something had to be done. Well, growing up he'd always heard if you shot and killed a skunk immediately it wouldn’t spray so he decided to test that old theory out. He grabbed the old 12-gauge shotgun from the bedroom, loaded it and hunkered down on the floor so as to provide a clear shot under the cabinet. After the shotgun blast, and a subsequent skunk spraying, I can vouch that the old theory is simply not true, a skunk does spray regardless!! Lord, how that house stunk, the skunk smell was so strong that the smell just hung in the air and there was even an oily film of skunk spray all over everything.

Having no indoor plumbing everyone had to take baths in the big metal washtub out in the yard, only instead of water we used tomato juice, which someone said would help…it didn't! Finally we'd heard about a newer remedy for getting skunk smell off of you...vinegar and water douche!! I know you must be laughing by now but it worked, it really did.

Of course we still had to scrub down the entire house from joist to joist several times over, boil all the clothes in scalding hot water with vinegar in it and get new furniture (there was just no way of fumigating the couch and chairs). As Grandmaw Mary always said, “A bought lesson soon ain’t forgot”, and this lesson was dearly paid for by all of us. Soon after the skunk incident, we got bottle gas and a gas cookstove, so we didnt have to leave to door open anymore due to the heat. As I recall, Granddad also invested in new window screens and screen doors for the house too!

P.S. Last year I shared this story with a cousin in Ohio, and she shared it with her son, Boy Chuck (his daddy is Mr. Chuck) who has a radio show up there. Boy Chuck loved this story so much he used it as the basis for a Mothers Day story that he told on his program. It was very well done. It was my first (and so far only) taste of fame!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Tale of a Southern Belle

I never met my great-great grandmother Rebecca, but my mother did. This may not seem remarkable but it is. You see, my grandma Rebecca was born before The War of Northern Aggression (that’s the Civil War to all you Yankee folk) and she was a bonafide southern belle. Like everyone else in that time and place, Rebecca’s family had strong southern sympathies.
Petersburg, WV, circa 1900.

Grandma Rebecca told of how when she was born in 1853, it was customary for a father to give a slave girl to each of his children to care for them and to be their mammy. My grandma Rebecca said that the slave girl done everything for them, she'd dress them, wash them, feed them and even cleaned them after using the chamber pot. When the War came, life forever changed for my grandma Rebecca, her family lost its money but they did retain the land. A few years after the War, Rebecca’s father, Aaron, was killed in a farming accident and the family was forced to sell the ancestral farm and move to town. Through it all, Rebecca said the most difficult thing about life after the War was learning to lace up and tie her own shoes, she said neither her nor her sisters knew the first thing about common everyday tasks.

After moving to town, Rebecca met and married my great-great grandfather, Jacob. While his family name was respected, he certainly didn’t come from a poor genteel family like Rebecca’s. For all of you who aren’t aware of the class difference, poor genteel is used in reference to people who were wealthy and came from good families before the War but lost their money in the War, and it was used to differentiate them from the common poor. The poor genteel were welcome in all society circles, regardless of their economic woes. After the marriage, my grandfather Jacob worked a small farm in Hardy County until the rails and the mills opened up the Potomac Highlands, and they moved to the then growing town of Petersburg, WV. Jacob then worked as a brakeman for the railroad and they lived in a row house for a few years until Jacob could afford a house on Virginia Avenue, which they lived in for the rest of their lives and where they raised their 7 children. Jacob died in the early 1900’s, and Rebecca was left a widow for the nearly 50 remaining years of her life.

Above: Building the Railroad Bridge below Petersburg, September 1910.
Above: Petersburg Railyard where Jacob worked, about 1920.

Later in her life, Rebecca shrunk up so until she was a tiny slip of a woman, and she slept in baby bed. When my mother visited her as a child, she said that Grandma Rebecca’s skin was so thin that it was almost clear and that you could see the blood right in her veins but she was very clear minded. One of the most memorable things that my mother recalls is how Rebecca took up chewing tobacco and could spit several feet and hit an old coffee can that she used as spittoon. Rebecca had a little ole housedog that was nearly as ancient as she was and she called him “Old Blue”. Her and Old Blue had some exploits, which may appear in a future post.
Virginia Avenue in Petersburg, circa 1940.

Many remnants of the teachings of my Grandma Rebecca still live on in my family. For example, you have to have clean shoes, only “trashy” people wear dirty shoes. Rebecca said that it doesn’t cost hardly anything to keep your shoes clean and clean shoes say a lot about the person wearing them. Even today, when I meet someone for the first time, one of the first things I look at is their shoes. You can really size up a person that way. Another teaching from Rebecca was anything that you write, you have to write it in black ink, you can’t use blue ink or a pencil, it shows good breeding to use black ink, I think this probably has roots in both her antebellum upbringing as well as her devout Presbyterianism. Yet another thing passed down from grandma Rebecca is the rule that you have to eat everything with a fork or spoon. There is no such thing as finger foods. You always have to have a utensil no matter what the food, and whether you use them or not. “It’s a matter of culture”, Rebecca said. I drive Shirley crazy with my quirky always-having-to-have-a-fork, I just smile and tell her, “Thank my grandmother for that.”

Petersburg, WV circa 1910

My grandma Rebecca died in 1966 at the age of 113, she died peacefully in her sleep and was the pillar of her family and community. It makes my head spin to think of all she saw and the knowledge that she must have had from living through several decades of American life.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Home By Any Other Name

I'm a Monkeytown native. You may ask what I mean by that and to this I would answer, that is the name of the place where I grew up and that I call home. Monkeytown is a quiet little community on the west side of North Fork Mountain in Pendleton County. It is not incorporated and you probably won’t find it on any map, but everyone within a 5-county radius will know where Monkeytown is.

Monkeytown has several anomalies associated with it, such as the current mailing address is actually in Riverton, which is 7 miles away. In addition, residents of Monkeytown vote in Circleville District (not in Riverton), and the local news section in the county paper is found in the Hopewell section! In the past, the area has also been referred to as the Bland Hills and the community of Box.

An artists rendering of Monkeytown, drawn by my brother, Jason.

Monkeytown was given its colorful name by my great-granddaddy Don Burns. He was standing at Virge Hinkle’s store one day and looked up the holler at all of the houses. At each house there were kids hanging out of every window. Granddad Don reportedly commented to the folks at the store, “This looks like a damn Monkeytown”. The name stuck.

My Dad (the little boy in front) and his siblings in front of Virge Hinkle's store, about 1963.

Everyone in Monkeytown is related in at least one way. The land used to all be part of the old Burns property but over the years had been split up into smaller parcels. There were two main “streets” in Monkeytown, both were really just farm roads that double as drive-ways, and they are locally known as called “Frogbone Alley” and “Monkeytown Street”. At the lower end of Monkeytown, my great-aunt Jan and her husband Kennie lived with their family. Jan was a really sweet and loving person who was always trying to feed the neighborhood children, she always had a kind word for every child who entered her home, and she was genuinely happy to see you. Even though she didn’t have much, she was always willing to share everything that she did have. Years ago, the neighborhood children made up a rhyme that went:

“Frogbone Alley, Monkeytown Street
Kennie Bennett Hotel and nothing to Eat
But gravy, mashed potatoes and Coco-wheat!”

Growing up in such a community has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage being everyone knows who you are and what you have been doing, and the disadvantage is everyone knows who you are and what you have been doing.

An old insurance policy belonging to my great-grandmaw Mary. Note the address.

At one time, there was even a stop of the county bus line that stopped in Monkeytown, but it was discontinued when residents would ride on to the next stop at Judy Gap and walk the 3 miles back up the mountain rather than have folks know they lived in Monkeytown! You see, Monkeytown used to have a reputation for being a rough and wild place to live, with the residents being very uncouth and regular mountain "hoosiers" in every sense of the word. This is still true in many cases, but certainly it is now the exception and not the rule.

It does seem, though, that many residents of Monkeytown are still very clannish in that they only talk to, and are friends with, members of their own family. This makes it very difficult for new people to fit in to this community. For example, my mother is from Hardy County and even though she has been married to my Dad for over 30 years and has lived in Monkeytown most of that time, she still is considered to be “not from around here” by many. These are my people and this is my home, so I love them the way family should...warts and all!

The Monkeytown of the past is certainly not the Monkeytown of today. There are very few people that live there now, day passes into night without event and the once busy streets (such as they were) are quiet.

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Wind

The Wind
by Matthew H. Burns (August 2008)

The Wind here is Lonesome.
It moans around the corner of this house
Searching for companionship.
It imbeds its wail upon my psyche
And brands my soul.
It carries the hopes and dreams of the past
And remembers.

The Wind here is Lonesome.
It contains illuminated visions of plenty
Though banished to darkness.
It cleanses this land in its sweet solitude
And renews the Earth.
It is part of this mountain,
And calls me Home.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Collecting Sand with Pete

When we lived on the farm, my brother Jason and I liked to go on forays to collect "sand". It was, in all actuality, just really fine clay dirt but we called it sand anyway. We gathered it from places in the washed out road where the water would pool up. When the pools dried up, “sand” was left behind. We gathered this sand from all around the farm and put it in our sandbox.
On the farm aggravating can tell from our filthy shirts that we had fun that day!
One morning, we got the notion to go collect sand before Mom was out of bed. Mind you, seldom was the time when we beat Mom out of bed but then again we did rise with the chickens. We knew it was against the rules to go outside before anyone was up but we figured if we left a note it would be all right. Well we left our note “We have went to collect sand” stuck right there on the face of the TV, and off we went to collect that sand.
Part of the farm road where we collected "sand".

We were having a good ole time, and we were accompanied by Pete, our loyal protector Border Collie. While we were collecting sand Pete ran growling and barking down into the holler near where we were gathering sand. Pete was down there in the holler, growling, barking and what sounded like fighting, the whole time we were collecting sand. By the time we had collected enough sand to return home, Mom was coming down the road looking for us. Unbeknownst to either of us, the panther had been spotted the previous evening near where we were gathering sand and Mom was concerned. She was going to tell us when we got up that morning to play near the house, but we got up before she did that day.

Since that day, we have always believed and we can’t be convinced otherwise, that Pete was down in the holler and keeping the panther away from us. As usual, he was protecting us. When Pete came home that evening, he was limping and had obviously been in a fight.

A few years later when we moved off the farm, Pete kept walking back down to the farm from up on the mountain until finally Dad just gave him to John Mallow because Pete was a farm dog, and like us, had a hard time adjusting to our new home in Monkeytown.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ol' Doan

Growing up on the farm had its advantages for a precocious child such as myself, first off, I could practically run wild all over the farm and could do whatever I wanted to do as long as I didn’t hurt myself. One of my favorite pastimes as a child was harassing one of our bulls named “Ol’ Doan”. Ol’ Doan got his name because he was purchased off of Doan Harman down at Onego, WV, but he had been on our farm for several years. Ol’ Doan was a giant of a Hereford bull, he was Red with a white face and I know he weighed at least 2,000 lbs. He was scary to look at with his massive size and the typically gnarled face of a bull. However, Ol' Doan was as gentle as could be, and I used this to my advantage!
A hereford bull, this is exactly what Ol' Doan looked like.

Whenever Ol' Doan was around, I would harass him by throwing rocks at him, and would allow all the cows to get to the water tank except for Ol' Doan. I wouldn’t even let Ol' Doan walk up the road by our house, I made him walk down into the holler and up around the hillside to get to the other side of the farm. I don’t know why I did this, I guess I was a cattle bully, and I guess because I could.

Also, whenever the cows were in heat, Ol' Doan would get into calling out to them like a bull does, “Mooooo,moooo,moo,moo,mo” in a series of quick “moo’s” that were drawn out at the beginning and ended with a growl-like “mmmmm”. Well, I quickly caught on that Ol' Doan didn’t like competition, he dominated our other two bulls on the farm, Blackie and Ernie. They were solid black in color and were much smaller than Ol' Doan, though not as friendly. This isn’t to say Blackie and Ernie were mean though, we wouldn’t allow mean stock to stay on our farm. Anyway, I caught on that if I mocked Ol' Doan when he was calling to the cows, it really ticked him off, he would get really mad, stomp his feet and run up and down the hillsides looking for the other bull who was challenging him. I didn’t think Ol' Doan ever figured out that it was me that was tomenting him, until one day he got me back.
Remnants of the old chickenhouse and the farmhouse.
Ol' Doan must have seen me enter the old chickenhouse, which was across the creek from our house and into a little meadow on the opposite hill. I was probably in the chickenhouse looking for eggs or somehow torturing the chickens, I don’t exactly remember what led me to the chickenhouse that afternoon. Usually I always went over there with someone since there was always someone who’d tag along with you wherever you went on the farm, but that day I went alone. As I recollect, as soon as I went in the chickenhouse, I saw Ol’ Doan running off the hill toward me. I didn’t think anything of it, I just figured I'd have a chance to throw a rock at him or hit him with a stick or something. But this time, Ol’ Doan didn’t appear to be cowardly around me, he poked his head into the chickenhouse door and bellowed at me, I threw a handful of corn at him and he backed out of the chickenhouse, but instead of leaving, he laid down against the door and blocked my exit from the chickenhouse.
A close-up of the old chickenhouse.
I hollered for help but nobody came to check on me, I went out into the chicken coop and hollered over to the house, and still nobody came to see about me. I know I stood there for a half hour, whenever I’d try to get the door open, Ol’ Doan would just look at me and softly moo. After I saw that the big lummox wasn’t going to move, I went back out to the coop and hollered again over the house, and Mom heard me but didn’t know where I was hollering from. Later she said they wondered if I had fallen into a cave or a sinkhole that permeated the property because they could hear me but it was a really faint call for help. Mom got a few others to look for me and they looked over at the chickenhouse and seen Ol’ Doan laying there but didn’t think anything of it. When I saw them look over toward me, I let out the squall of all squalls and jumped up and down and waved my hands, finally they spotted me and the whole lot of them burst out laughing. They had seen that Ol’ Doan had finally paid me back for all the mischief I had inflicted upon him. When they came over to the chickenhouse to rescue me, Ol’ Doan just got up and walked off like he didn’t know what going on, but after that I remember being a little more respectful of Ol’ Doan.

Fall Crickets

Another sign of the times, today while talking to my mother on the telephone, she told me that “the fall crickets are hollerin’.” Grandmaw Mary always said if you counted six weeks from the time you first heard the fall crickets, you would have the exact time of the first frost. By this count, the first frost on the mountain will be September 24, 2008.
A Fall Cricket

Mom always forecasts the first frost by this method and is usually right give or take a few days and never more than a week.

So, it looks like an early fall is on its way, typically we don’t see a frost on the mountain until about the 2nd week of October. The first frost was always a big deal when we were growing up on the mountain, for one, it signaled the end of the growing season and heralded the start of hunting season. The first frost would kill the warbles on the squirrels and groundhogs, so they’d be good to eat. Also, it would make the nut tree’s shed their bounty. God, I love hickory nuts!

With the blast of chilled air that accompanies the first frost, realization that winter is right around the corner gave the impetus for many people to get out and get in their wood for the winter. My granddaddy Don always got his winters wood in about this time of year, he said that way the wood would heat you twice, once while cutting it and again when you burned it. I remember when we used to cut wood when I was a kid, Dad always said we needed 17 pick-up truck loads of wood to see us through until Spring. He was usually right too. Dad would cut the tree’s, me and Jason would load the wood on the truck and Mom would supervise the whole operation (and tell Dad when it was time to take a break, based on how tired me and Jason was…Dad could work a mule to death). When we were kids, one of our chores was to get the wood in every evening that we would bunr that night, and for this we got an allowance of $1 a week! This was big money to us then!
Later, when I was a teenager, I got the job of splitting wood, I liked and still like to split wood. There’s just something about it that is very satisfying. I loved the way you could line up the way the wood would split and the beautiful grain of the wood that was exposed when you split it. I don’t know how good I was at splitting wood though, I was given the nickname of “Lightning” whenever I would split wood because, it seemed, I could never strike the same spot twice!!
Jason and I, about the age we were when we first helped with the wood. Taken at Murphy's photo booth in Elkins, WV.

I should mention that as we got older, my brother Jason got out of the wood helping business by feigning allergies to wood. I still don’t know for sure if he was putting on to get out of work or if he was actually afflicted with wood allergies. I always seemed to me that he used the allergy excuse to get out of a lot of tasks that he didn’t like! I didn’t mind though, he was usually in the way anyway (I’m sure he’ll love that when he reads this!)
Anyway, just thought I’d give you all fair warning, the fall crickets are a-hollerin’ and the first frost of the year is hereby forecast for September 24! Get your summertime canned up and put in the cellar and get your wood laid up because winter is just around the corner!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Of Snakes and Sang

Every year about the middle of August, we'd make a trip up on the mountain to dig ginseng or "sang" as we called it. Sanging was a way for us to get some extra money to buy school clothes. When we lived on the farm we’d go on the mountain there to search, and sometimes we’d find huge sang roots with many fine hair roots on them. It was these big roots that brought in the money when you sold them. On our sanging outings, we’d make a day of it, and we’d usually pack a lunch to take with us when we headed up on the mountain.

Wild Ginseng, or Sang as we called it.

After digging the Sang, we were always careful to plant the ripe berries back in the same soil that we dug the ginseng from, that way, there’d me more sang that’d grow there in the future. After we’d dig the sang, we’d dry it by hanging it up in the kitchen pantry and after a few weeks, it'd be dry so we’d take it to sell to Paul Champ down at Petersburg. It usually brought about $200 a pound, but it took a lot of dried sang to make a pound.

While on our sang trips, mom would always take a sack of onions with us, in case one of us would get snake bit. She said that a cut onion placed on a snakebite would draw out the poison and would give us enough time to get to the hospital. Nobody ever got snake bit on our trips, but God knows there where plenty of timber rattlers in the rocks where we dug the sang. Seldom was the time when granddad wouldn’t kill at least one rattler when we were out.

A Timber Rattler

This reminds me of how one time we took a man named Akie to look for rattlesnakes. Akie was a neighbor of my Aunt Pat & a friend of my granddads. Akie caught Timber Rattlers for a living and sold them to the Washington Zoo. They’d give him $100 for each Timber Rattler he could catch for them. Akie had been bitten by rattlesnakes so many times in his life that he was apparently immune to their venom, so he had no fear of them. When Akie would spot a rattler, he'd chase it down and pick it up with his bare hands. He didn't care if it bit him or not, he said that getting snakebit to him felt just like a chicken pecking you on the hand. He'd proudly show you all of the snakebites that he had on his hands and arms, which were numerous. I remember we took him to a giant rockslide right under the North Mountain rocks near where we sanged, and he caught 15 rattlers in one afternoon including one gigantic yellow rattler. These rattlers were huge too, some were bigger around than his arm and were well over 10 feet long. Akie put each snake in an old feedsack and carried them on his back down to where the truck was parked, he put the sack in a big wooden box that he used to transport the rattlesnakes. Nobody had to tell us kids to stay away from the snakes either, like most kids raised in the country, we gave snakes and skunks a wide berth.

Akie couldn't drive so my granddad took him home, and of course, I had to tag along since we were passing a store in Circleville (and I never passed up a chance to go to the store). When we got to Akie’s house, he took us to see his snakes, he had huge homemade cages all over his back yard which butted up against a cliff of rocks. The air stunk so of snakes it nearly made me and my granddad sick. Akie told us he had several hundred snakes there and that the zoo people were supposed to be coming soon to buy them off of him. Later, we heard that Akie got enough money from selling the snakes that he bought himself a trailer and a piece of land down off the mountain, where he continues to live to this day. I remember the law put a stop to Akie’s business a few years later when they informed Akie that it was against the law to capture and sell timber rattlers. Akie still catches snakes for local people for belts and such, but nothing like he used to in years past.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Flinging Apples and Shooting Goldenrod

In late summer, we all got excited when the little green apples would start getting a little size to them. Some kids would eat the little sour apples, but we never did. We were always warned that eating green apples would give us the "green apple runs" so we avoided eating them. The reason we got excited over green apples was the anticipation of apple flinging. Us kids would get a small but sturdy sapling about 3 feet long and an inch around and sharpen one end of it. We would then stick a little green apple on the sharpened end, bring the stick over your shoulder, fling the apple and watch that little sucker fly away into the distance. I recall we were only allowed to use certain apple tree's for flinging, those tree's being the one's that had scabby or wormy apples. The Red Delicious tree on the turn and Granny's apple tree were off limits to us.

You’d be surprised just how far you can fling an apple this way, some of them would sail several hundred feet. Eventually, everyone would join in and we’d have a huge apple war with each person finding a team and attacking each other. These apples would sting you pretty bad if they hit you so you learned real fast to take cover. It was a very fun way to pass the humid summer evenings on the mountain.

Another game we played was bows and arrows. We’d craft a crude bow out of a hickory sapling and a piece of bailing twine. We’d use goldenrod weeds for arrow by stripping off the leaves from the stalk. We’d shoot these arrows at different things, and later on when we got bicycles, we’d make a gauntlet of sorts, where one person would ride their bicycles through a group of people with bows, the object was for the bow shooters to shoot into the spokes of your bicycle and wreck you, but usually that never happened, usually the bicycle wheel would throw the goldenrod back out.

We weren’t allowed to use real wood for our arrows because when Dad was little, he was playing bows and arrows with the kids his age and he accidentally shot my Uncle Fudgy in the eye with a stick arrow, it nearly put his eye out and even to this day, Fudgy has a slight squint in his one eye. That didn’t affect is much since Goldenrod was more plentiful and worked just fine for us anyway.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Maple Hill Farm

My very favorite book as a child was “Our Animal Friends at Maple Hill Farm”. I know I read it a thousand times. I didn’t own a copy of it when I first fell in love with the story so I checked it out of the library over and over. I read it to everyone that I could hold captive long enough to read it to. I just loved this book.

My Favorite Book

My favorite characters in this book was Max the Cat, Pearl the Pig and the pages at the end of the book that were devoted to former animals of Maple Hill Farm.

I remember I checked this book out of the public library so many times that the name card was filled up on both sides with only my name. The librarian suggested that I ask Mom buy me the book since I loved it so much. When I got home that evening I tried and tried to talk Mom into getting me that book. What I didn’t know at the time was Mom and Dad had been trying to find me the book for quite a while and had went all the way to Harrisonburg, VA to order it from a bookstore. The book was on back order and would take a few weeks for them to get it. Talk about excited, I was one happy boy when Mom and Dad gave me my very own copy of “Our Animals Friends at Maple Hill Farm” for my 7th birthday. It quickly became my most cherished possession.

My school picture when I was 7 or 8 years old.

I had hopes and dreams of owning a farm exactly like Maple Hill Farm one day. In fact, when I was young when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always told them, “I'm gonna be a farmer”. One time, my grandmaw Mary heard me say that and she said, “Oh honey, you can’t be a farmer when you grow up, only rich men can be farmers these days, my Daddy was a farmer and we was a poor man all of his life. You've gotta be born into money to be able to do something like that these days, a poor boy like you ain't got a chance. Why don’t you go on to school and get an education and use your brain to make your living?”

Following the saged advice of my sainted grandmother, I put my dreams of being a farmer on the back burner and went on to college. But even to this day, in the forefront of my mind is the desire to buy a piece of land so I can be a farmer, no matter where I am in life or what I am doing, I find myself longing to till the soil and to make new life sprout from the sweet ground. I may be a poor man all of my life, but I truly think that is my key to a fulfilled life.

By the way, I still have the copy of "Our Animals Friends at Maple Hill Farm" that Mom and Dad bought me all those years ago, complete with my old notes and drawings on the page margins. I still read it every few months and I even corner Shirley some nights at bedtime to read her my favorite book. What can I say, it is a riveting read!! Some things just never grow old.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

George & Phoebe Jane

Tales of George and Phoebe Jane abound in my family. Their handed-down stories continue to cast a long shadow of honor and pride on multiple generations of their family. I’ve been thinking about them for the past few days so I’d thought I’d share some of their stories with you.

The George & Phoebe Jane (Bennett) Cunningham Family in 1877.

My Grandpaw George was born on the 15th of November 1843 and he was the son of Daniel Cunningham and Sidney Sponaugle. Daniel and Sidney weren’t married until later in life even though they lived together. George went by the last name of Sponaugle most of his life although you can find him listed on various historical records as both Cunningham and Sponaugle. The odd thing about his surname is all of his children and his wife went by Cunningham but apparently George didn’t, his tombstone has Sponaugle on it. His family remembers him as Cunningham.

Pendleton County Timber Cutters. Left to Right: Unknown, George Sponaugle Cunningham, Dewitt Bland, Bob Cunningham.

My Grandpaw George was a timber man. He cut timber all over in Pendleton, Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker Counties in WV. Stories maintain that men would cut the virgin timber in the wintertime while standing on snowdrifts, and in the summer they’d go back over and get another 6 foot log off of the stump. George’s time as a timber man was a little before the great timber rush where the forests in those counties were completely denuded.

Phoebe Jane Cunningham & Alpha Burns, Easter 1911

My Grandmaw Phoebe Jane was a very strong-willed and outspoken woman. During the War (note the Civil War is still called “The War” in Pendleton County), a regiment of Yankee’s traveled up the Dolly Path on their way to Franklin following the Battle of Riverton. They stopped at Phoebe Jane’s house and asked if they could water their horses. Phoebe Jane told the Yankee captain “I’ll see any of you damn Yankees in Hell before I give you even a drop of water from my spring, why don’t you go steal from some other poor family because you done stole everything from here thatyou’re going to get”. The Yankee captain must have realized he’d have a fight on his hands because he ordered to regiment to move to a water hole located further up the mountain. Later Phoebe Jane said she would have shot the Yankee’s where they sat and she that had made up her mind that they weren’t going to take any more food out of the mouths of her family. Like many residents of Pendleton County, George and Phoebe Jane were strong Confederates.

My Grandmother, Phoebe Jane (Bennett) Cunningham holding my gr-granddaddy Don Burns, abt 1900.

An interesting fact about George and Phoebe Jane, they were not racist like many southern sympathizers are depicted. In fact, one of George and Phoebe Jane’s best friends was a black man named Solomon Mills (locally known as Black Saul). Black Saul was a blacksmith and a shoemaker in Circleville and after the War he became a valuable member of local society. As Black Saul got up in years, he had no family to care for him so he moved in with George and Phoebe Jane. I found it odd that Black Saul left a Last Will and Testament, and it was witnessed by Mrs. Phoebe Jane Sponaugle. He left most of his “estate” to Phoebe Jane for caring for him in his old age. His estate, such as it was, consisted of a feather tick and his cobbling tools. My brother, Jason, now owns Black Saul’s shoemaking tools, they were handed down through the family along with the story.

Black Saul was laid to rest in the Bennett Cemetery beside of George and Phoebe Jane and he is listed in the cemetery register as “Saul Mille”. It took quite a bit of digging to find anything about him in historical records, like I said I was quite surprised to find a Will for Solomon Mills. Without it I never would have connected that Black Saul, Saul Mille and Solomon Mills were one and the same man.

The Bennett/Cunningham Cemetery where George, Phoebe Jane and Black Saul are buried.

Phoebe Jane passed away in April 1923 at the age of 80. She was cared for in her old age by her son-in-law and daughter, Charlie and Jennie (Cunningham) Burns. Charlie was also Phoebe Jane’s first cousin (their mother’s were sisters). After Phoebe Jane’s death, Charlie and Jennie left Pendleton County and moved out to some Burns property in Red Creek in Tucker County. Charlie and Jennie’s only son was my granddaddy Don. Granddaddy Don stayed on part of the old Burns homeplace on North Mountain where my family remains to this day. Our roots run deep in that land of rocks and clay, it is part of us and we of it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Travelling in Style

My last post where I mentioned riding in the back of my granddads truck got me to thinking just how much we rode around like that. People all off the mountain between our house and Riverton would talk about how they could hear us coming long before they saw the truck. I guess having a dozen kids singing and hollering at the top of their lungs really does carry down those mountain hollers!

Not only did we go to the flea market in Bartow in the back of the truck, we went all over like that. I remember we used to go all the way over to Virginia when we visited our Aunt Barb. On those long trips, the smaller kids had to sit up next to the truck cab, and the older ones further back, we'd still sing, and swarp and holler the whole way there. We seemed to always have a mattress to ride on so it was a relatively comfortable ride. I used to love to go to Virginia, because in those days that was the only place you could find Nibble with Gibble Bar-B-Q potato chips, which were my favorite ("Gibbles" are fried in Lard, the way Mother Nature indended, and are de-lish). During the trip to Virginia that I am referring to, I remember that my Uncle Tom rode on the tailgate and dangled his feet onto the road, and by the time we got to the top of Shenandoah Mountain, which is where the state line is located, Tom had completely wore off the soles of his shoes!
Shenandoah Mountain looking toward Brandywine/Sugar Grove.

Another time, I remember we all loaded up in the back of the truck and went to visit my great-grandmaw Eva (Lawrence) Thompson. Grandmaw Eve (pronounced Ev), as we called her, was my dad’s mother’s mother. As usual, Grandmaw Eve heard us coming before she seen us, and by the time we got there she was standing out in the drive-way. As soon as we pulled in she said in her typically boisterous voice, “Well I’ll be if it ain’t the Burns Family, Diet Pepsi or Pepsi Cola!” She didn’t even wonder if we would want a pop to drink, I guess she knew kids well enough to just cut to the chase.

My Great-Grandparents, Opie & Eva Lena (Lawrence) Thompson

I can’t believe now that the law ever allowed kids to ride around in the back of a pick-up truck like that. We may have been lucky, but none of us ever got hurt from riding around like that and we all have lots of good memories from those days. I can't help but remember the independence I felt riding on an old mattress in the back of an old truck and leaning against a 100 lb. sack of cracked corn!! That's the stuff memories are made of! It seems like it was a better time and place then, and a world that I’d like to live in now, but as they say, “You caint go home again”.

The Flea Market

My Grandad's House

Nearly every Sunday when I was a kid, we’d all have breakfast at my granddads house. We’d have homemade bread and gravy. Granddad would make the gravy, and he liked it really white. It was good gravy but different to us because we usually had browned gravy with our meals. Someone would always get a tomato to eat with their gravy, and usually someone would go out to the henhouse and get some eggs to fry up as well.

After everyone had eaten their fill, we’d typically load up in the back of granddads truck, the older kids would throw an old mattress in it so the ride would be soft and we'd head off for the flea market in Bartow out in Pocahontas County. We’d always stop and pick up Grandmaw Mary and take her with us, she just loved to go to the flea market, where as she put it she “liked to look through others people’s junk”. Grandmaw would also get to see her sister-in-law, Ruby and her husband George Cromer, who sold handmade knives at the flea market.
The Burns Brood

On the way, we’d stop at Bob Bland’s above Circleville where everyone would get a pop and an ice cream. You’d be surprised at how fast an ice cream will melt when you are riding in the back of a pick-up truck in the middle of a West Virginia summer. About half-way up Elk Mountain, the ice cream would be gone and we’d start singing songs to pass the time, songs like “D-E-L-T-O-N…Delton, Delton, Delton” after the guy who blew his house up in Bennett Gap by sticking electric wires in a gallon jug of gasoline and flipping on the breaker, or so the story went. We’d also chant a tune about “Old Granny Grunt” and how she sat on a stump and commanded an audience of bulldogs who barked at her genitalia. Of course, no trip was complete without singing that classic ode about diarrhea, “you’re walking down the hall and you hear something fall, diarrhea, uh, diarrhea”. There were only a few set lines to that song, and the real joy of it was in making up new verses to go along with the cadence.
Pretty soon, we’d get to the flea market and spend a couple of hours there. After we’d made our purchases or complained about the lack of selection that week, we’d pick up Granny who’d always be at George & Ruby’s table, and go out to the Dairy King that was just down the road from the flea market. We’d usually get an ice cream or a hamburger and fries, whichever we wanted. The Dairy King only had a walk-up window to order at, and picnic tables out to the side to eat at.
My brother Jason, my uncle Tom and me.
I remember one time, Grandmaw Mary ordered a hamburger with mustard, paid for it and then stepped to the side so other people could place their order. Everyone else that ordered and gotten their food, and were eating, after about 20 minutes, the girl came to the window and looked at Grandmaw and asked, “May I help you?”. Granny retorted, “Yes, you can, you can give me my hamburger with mustard! Did you have to kill the cow to get it?” They had completely forgotten about grandmaw’s order. Even at her elderly age, Grandmaw commanded their attention really fast and it wasn’t long before they gave her the infamous hamburger with mustard AND her money back.

After that trip every time we went to the Dairy King, Grandmaw would always ask Mom, “Do you think if I cut a fit on ‘em again that they’ll give me another free hamburger?”

Monday, August 4, 2008

Coon Branch

Today, I’m going to post a story from my wife Shirley’s family. Her family were the first settlers of Wyoming County in southern West Virginia so all of her people are from down that way. The story I’m going to share with you is about her father whose name was Neely, her uncle and a cousin back in the 1960’s when they left southern WV in search of work.

Left to right: Neely, his older brother Charles and their cousin Kennis, photo taken in Coon Branch abt 1945.

Neely was looked up to by his cohorts as a fellow who knew his way around the world. He was a little older than most of them and he had been in the Korean War so he knew his way around outside of southern WV. Aside from Neely, none of his close friends had ever lived anywhere besides Coon Branch.

Neely around the time of the infamous job search. Photo taken in Coon Branch.

In the 1960’s, times were really hard and work could not be found anywhere so Neely suggested to some men that they go to other states to look for work. They did. First, they started in Virginia but everywhere they went, nobody would hire them because they were from West Virginia. They then went on down through the Carolinas where they received the same treatment. This was a problem for many men of that time since West Virginians had the reputation for working just long enough to earn enough money to return back home. Everywhere Neely and his two kinfolk went, they always heard the same response, “we don’t need anyone right now” or “we just hired someone for this position” when the employers found out where they were from.

Home for Christmas. Neely in Coon Branch in the 1960's

Neely caught on really fast to this ploy and told his two kinfolk, “the next job we interview for, when they ask us where we are from tell them we are from anyplace except West Virginia”. The men felt really good about this plan and sure enough the next day they found a place in Florida that needed three able bodied men for immediate openings. In the interview, which was conducted at the same time for all three men, the boss eventually got to the inevitable question, “So, where are you boys from?”

Before Neely could answer with the white lie, his cousin who was fresh out of the holler piped up and responded, “Coon Branch”.

At this point in the story, years later Neely would recount, “Needless to say, we didn’t get the job. I should have told them to say we were from any other STATE than West Virginia.”

Soon thereafter, the three men gave up and came back home and Neely went on alone to find work in Chicago. He did very well for himself there until the mines opened back up and he was able to come back home to Coon Branch, where he lived out the rest of his days.

Neely and oldest son, Ricky, on the streets of Chicago.

Neely’s life in Chicago in detailed in the book, Appalachian Odyssey: Historical Perspectives on the Great Outmigration edited by Phillip J. Obermiller.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Old Fon

Germany Valley view from Rt. 33 North Mountain. My family were the original settlers of Germany Valley.

You will probably recollect me talking about the North Mountain Rocks in a recent post. This got me to thinkin’ of another story concerning the Rocks, and it involves a creature known as the goat man My Grandmaw Mary told us tales of the goat man who was said to live up on rock cliffs, she said the goat man would lure children up to the rocks by humming a song of enchantment. When the children got up to the steepest cliffs, the goat man would shove them off. Grandmaw said he had the lower body of a goat but walked upright like a man and he had curly horns on his head. He was certainly a creature not to be trifled with. His name was Old Fon.

A view of North Moutain Rocks, looks like prime Fon habitat.

Grandmaw Mary said when she was a girl that she had heard the music made by the goat man, she said it sounded real pretty. She immediately recognized from tales she had heard what it was and from whom it was coming from so she said she put her hands over her ears and ran home. Grandmaw Mary said her mother called all the kids into the house and wouldn’t let them outside for the rest of the day. Grandmaw said that the family dog, which wasn’t afraid of anything, laid outside the front door and whined, so whatever was out there, the old dog was afraid of.

Another view of North Mountain Rocks, home of Old Fon!

Grandmaw Mary said that once you were under the spell of the goat man, the only way to get away from him was to call him by his name and tell him to his face, “Leave me alone, Old Fon.” Upon hearing that, the goat man would run screaming into a cave in the cliffs and leave you alone.

I now know that many of the tales and legends of my childhood are of German origin and were brought this country by my ancestors. My brother, who is a buff for supernatural beings and spirits, told me that the Old Fon that Grandmaw told us about as kids is actually a fairly well known mythological creature that is known as “Faun” or "Pan".

Old Fon lives here.

Such tales made for lively times growing up on the mountain, nothing is more fun for a child than to know that a little danger & magic exists in your world.