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.