Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Devil's Apron Strings

There never was a shortage on rocks on the Burns property, and in that we were truly “blessed”.

On the Burns Mom & Dad's house.

Grandmaw Mary used to always tell us that the devil broke his apron strings when he walked over Burns property. She’d tell about a great fight between God and the devil. In the days when the world was young, God & the devil each lived in separate caves high up on the North Mountain Rocks, and as in every telling of the epic battle between good and evil, they got into a great rock fight. The devil would throw rocks at God and God would in turn throw rocks at the devil. According to the legend, when gathering more rocks for an impending battle, the devil broke his apron strings while carrying a giant load of rocks over the Burns property. Just as the devil broke his apron strings and lost his rocks, God attacked and defeated the devil, forever driving him from Germany Valley. I’ve often wondered if this story has deeper meaning, perhaps it has its roots in the early settlement of Germany Valley, back when the Native Americans who knew of the valley referred to it as “the valley of the demons”.

The North Mountain Rocks that tower over the Burns property.

The rocks probably came from the North Mountain rock cliffs that tower over Burns property. Over the eons of time, rocks flaked off and rolled down the mountain onto the property. As soil formed, it just covered the rocks and so on. Regardless of how they got there, I know we’d pick rocks for hours, and no matter how many were picked, there'd always be more.

In our futile attempts to pick all the rocks from our garden, we quickly realized that we’d just have to settle for having the larger rocks being picked out of the garden if we ever hoped to get anything planted. There were huge rock piles all around the garden, proving that past generations had struggled with this very thing.
A view of the North Fork rocks from Germany Valley.

The most notable rock pile in the garden was the one with a huge lilac bush growing out of it. Family lore maintained that during Civil War days, the Yankee army had camped in our garden. When hearing about the approaching Confederate homeguard, a strongbox full of gold that was to be used to pay the soldiers was buried under that rock pile. I remember during the late 1980’s when dozer work was being done on one end of that rock pile, many family members gathered around and cast an ever-watchful eye on the activities. To date, this strongbox has never been found and the family legend lives on.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's in a Name?

Today I will keep my blog post very brief, I have a funeral to attend..well, tonight is the wake and tomorrow is the funeral. My wife's uncle Ray passed away on this past Sunday. He was a good man and lived a good life. Uncle Ray was a quintessential business man, in fact, when my wife Shirley and I were married, he congratulated us on our "new venture". He will be missed by everyone he leaves behind. Tonight we will travel down to Wyoming County to attend the services.

A hectic next couple of days is expected. So, what about the title of this post. What do I mean by "What's in a Name?" Well, this morning I received a comment by none other than that maven of Appalachian Living, Granny Sue, who suggested I post about my name. You see, Granny Sue treated me to lunch last Friday, it was good to see the good Granny and to catch up a might (and she gave me two pints of jam!!!). We talked of chickens, coffee mugs and stray know, the makings of a typical Appalachian conversation. Anyway, Granny Sue introduced me to a friend as "Matt", I corrected her and said "Matthew...please don't let my mother hear you call me Matt". Granny Sue's inquisitive nature kicked into overdrive and I saw that sparkle in her eye, so I had to fill her in on the details.

Now I know, "Matt" is short for Matthew, but all my life (so far) I have been called Matthew, so much so that Matt sounds foreign to me. I remember when I was a kid in school, teachers would call me Matt. I was instructed not to answer them if they called me that name and of course, that earned them a visit from my fightin' mad mother who "sooner" informed them that "my son has a name, a good Bible name, not something that you wipe your feet on". (I'm sure some teachers wanted to say to Mom "Yeah lady, he has a name alright..little SOB", but you don't give lip to an irate mother wielding a ballbat). You have no idea how many times I have been present to hear that tirade over my name. Mom's tirade used to embarrass me, but I've grown to like my name, Matthew does sound unique in a world full of "Matt's", so I'm glad mom stood up for my Matthew-ness. Of course, I've also grown to like my middle name, "Henry" but that is a whole post in and of itself.

So, more about that in future posts. I really like hearing from readers of this blog, so drop me a line sometime, either by leaving a comment on a post or by emailing me privately at

If you like certain stories, let me know, chances are I have a whole sack full just like them. Remember, this blog is still in its infancy, so let me know what works and what doesn't, right now I just post whatever comes to mind on any given day. Hope you all enjoy it.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Grandmaw's Lilac Bush

My great-grandmaw Mary was always a special person to me, and besides my parents, was probably the person who most influenced my life.

Yes, Grandmaw Mary was a remarkable woman. I remember stopping by her house when I was a little boy, she seemed to always have something good to eat and just the right amount of encouragement for a young boy. I remember she made the best sausage links in the whole world, I don't know what she did to them but I do believe I’d give my eyeteeth just to have a taste of one of them now. My grandmaw Mary would often tell me stories of her childhood and the things she did when she was my age.

My great-grandmaw Mary (Kile) Burns

My grandmaw Mary was also a healer of sorts, if you came to her with an illness or “war wound” as she called them, she could usually patch you up in no time flat. If you had poison ivy, she’d tell you to go hunt her up a big piece of milkweed, which she would administer with the best of care. If you had a burn that hurt, she would say a Bible verse over it to take the fire out of it. Also, if you had a really bad cut, she could stop the blood by saying a Bible verse over it too. She knew all the plants on the mountain and what cured what. Like I said, she was an amazing person.

I remember when grandmaw got up in years, she went to spend the winter with her daughter in Baltimore. Grandmaw never did like Baltimore but knew it was probably for the best, winters on the mountain were hard. But first thing every spring, everyone would gather at the old homeplace when grandmaw came back to the mountain. Grandmaw’s only stipulation to her children when they talked her into leaving for the winter was that she had to be back in time to see her lilacs bloom. You see, Grandmaw Mary loved her lilacs, she had a large lilac bush that had grown on the property ever since her and granddaddy Don built the house in the mid 1940’s.

Grandmaw Mary's Lilac Bush

She once told me that she was a lot like that lilac bush, she might not be in the best spot in the world, but every year she saw the spring of the year as a fresh new start…a time for new beginnings. She said the lilac was a special thing and its smell was the sweetest of any blossom, and that it thrived even in the harshest of conditions. I do believe Grandmaw Mary was the happiest when her lilac bush was blooming, she made frequent trips every day to the bush to smell the fragrant blossoms and to taste them. I remember how grandmaw showed me how to taste the sweet nectar of a lilac blossom, it was ever so subtle…even the essence of the lilac was better than honey.

Can you taste the nectar of Grandmaw's lilac bush?

In the early Spring of 1988, the family decided to have some dozer work done in order to put in a bathroom. However, to do this, Grandmaw’s lilac bush would have to go. Since there were other lilac bushes on the property, nobody thought to get a slip of it to start it somewhere else, so the bulldozer shoved the bush over the hill and covered it with rocks and dirt. Everyone was sad to see it go, but we needed a bathroom. A few weeks after the dozer work, word came from Baltimore that grandmaw had fallen on an icy sidewalk and had broken her hip, she would not be returning to the mountain that year. As with many elderly people, a broken hip was essentially a death sentence for grandmaw, she lingered for nearly another year before she passed away, but she never got to return to her home on the mountain. I remember at her funeral, as we went to the graveyard where grandmaw was laid to rest, out from her grave a lilac bush was blooming.

Two years after the dozer work and a year after grandmaw’s passing, I noticed a green sprout of something growing up out of the rocks and debris that was shoved out of the way in order to put in the septic system…it was a lilac bush…Grandmaw’s lilac bush! I was overjoyed to see that it was still alive. I told mom and dad what I had found and they too were happy and said I could move it to the center of our front yard if I could get a sprout of it. I did and transplanted Grandmaw’s lilac bush to a spot in our front yard, where it remains to this day.

Even today in the springtime, I love to visit mom and dad when the lilacs are blooming so I can smell the fragrant blossoms of grandmaw’s lilac bush and taste the lilac nectar. I swear sometimes I can feel Grandmaw standing right there beside me.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Man cannot live on bread alone

With all the kids to feed, Mom made homemade bread every other day when we were growing up on the farm. She baked in the morning so she wouldn't have to be in the hot kitchen during the heat of the day. We didn't have air conditioning in those days (of course, mom and dad still don't).

Above: Some of John's first loaves of bread. Mom showed him how to make it.

I remember one time she made five of the prettiest loaves of bread that you’d ever hope to see, and set them on the table to cool. Well, let’s suffice it to say that I loved the insides of the bread and I just had to get some of it. Being the mischievous child that I was, snuck around when nobody was looking and discreetly tore the heel off of one of the loaves, hollowed out the loaf with my hand and ate the deliciously warm bread inside. I was like a junkie, I couldn’t help myself and before long I had hollowed out every one of the five loaves.

Of course then, just to compound my mischief, I replaced the torn-out crust ends of the bread to where you couldn’t tell what I had done and went about my business for the rest of the day.

Later, when suppertime rolled around, and everyone was gettin' ready to put on the feedbag, someone started to cut the bread. Well, the hollow hardened crusts just crumbled under the knife, loaf after loaf. Mom immediately knew who the culprit was and yelled “Matthew!!” I just grinned and said “Y’all woulda liked that bread, it was soo good.”

Above: Hot Rolls that John made from Mom's bread recipe. Not bad for a 1st try.

I didn’t get in trouble because like I have mentioned in earlier posts, I was the pet pig, and it was after all, just bread. But for some reason, I do remember being watched more closely after that on bread baking day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Malodorous Memory

Having grown up in Pendleton County, WV, in the 1980’s, I am perhaps among the last generation of Appalachians’ ever to remember the outhouse of yore in something other than a vision of times past. My family arrived on the mountain where I grew up in the early 1700’s and most of them are still there. In many ways, the world has passed us by several times over and in other ways we are very thankful that it has.
The Burns family outhouse, originally obtained from the old Hopewell School this outhouse served my family for many years until we got an indoor toilet. We then moved the outhouse to its current location at my great-grandmaw's house.

During a recent discussion with a group of Appalachian enthusiasts, nostalgia for the outhouse ran rampant. Speaking for hours on the noble privy and needed efforts to preserve the humble structure, it was obvious that most of these folks had never thought of the outhouse on any terms other than aesthetics. I felt otherwise. My family lacked running water until the spring of 1988, and I was perhaps the only person in this discussion who truly remembers the outhouse for its practical purpose. As such, I hold an entirely different perspective on the topic.

I vividly recall as a child answering the call of nature in the middle of many blistery nights and returning back indoors with both sets of my cheeks rosy red. I don’t ever remember anyone "relaxing" in the family privy during the winter months. There certainly wasn’t anyone who took time to read the local classified ads during his or her morning constitutional. I’m sure these wintry trips to the privy were the basis for the old adage “blue-ass cold”. The summer months were not much better due to the inevitable swarms of biting insects and flies that inhabited the privy. An occasional snake was not unusual. This was the everyday reality of life with a privy. I believe with every fiber of my being that this was the rule, not the exception.

I’ve been in outhouses of all sizes (one-holers, two-holers and even a three-holer at one point), and they were all pretty much the same regardless of the care given to them. Some were in worse condition than others to be sure, especially the ones that weren’t kept clean and the older ones that brought more fear than relief. My grandparents’ outhouse was so old that the floor gave under my weight when I was still quite young. It would have probably been safer for an adult to slip out into the nearby bushes. My parents outhouse was kept immaculately clean and hydrated lime was put in the hole on a weekly basis to keep down the stench and to prevent it from filling up. Even with the constant cleaning it was still far from pleasant by today’s standards.
The old grainhouse sits beside the current home of the family outhouse. You can kind of make out the outhouse in the middle right hand side of this photo.

This brings me to another recollection sure to spark the memories of anyone who has ever used an outhouse…splinters!! How many times have I imposed upon family members to pull a splinter out of my backside? I can just imagine today’s youth asking a loved one to do that.

Perhaps the one thing that I do miss is all the newspaper and magazine articles that lined the walls of the outhouse, some new and some that were beacons of times long past. It is remarkable the things I still retain today that I learned from reading the outhouse walls.

Lucky for me, by the time I was born my family had already discovered the miracle of toilet paper so I never had to deal with the uncomfortable cob or the obligatory Sears catalog. I guess I “missed out" on any memories dealing with that aspect, although I don’t believe such memories would be fond for anyone who honestly remembers them.
A photo of me, my brother and my Aunt Patsy, taken about 1979.
My wife is always telling people that I am the “oldest” young person that she knows, and my childhood in the 1980’s is more akin to her mother’s childhood from the 1940’s. She finds it odd that a person my age in this day and time can still remember when they first got electricity, a telephone, running water and an indoor toilet. While I miss many things about growing up on the mountain, such as the farm itself, the livestock and all the family close-by, I certainly don’t miss the old outhouse. It is but a dim, malodorous memory in the faded recesses of my mind.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tales of the Panther

On the farm there were always tales of the panther. You’d hear its screams in the late evening and night, but we learned to live with it.

The above photo appears courtesy of:

One time Mom and Granddad said they seen the panther leaping through one of the meadows, and they said it was coal black. They said they were in the truck when they saw it, and when they stopped the truck it would stop, and when they would move a little bit, it would move a little. Other people who had seen it said the panther was brown like a paper poke. I’m thinking there was probably more than one of them.

Below is a photo of the farm, where they saw the panther leaping through the field.

The panther could make itself sound like any animal in the woods, it could also scream like a woman in pain, whimper like a baby or slap its tail and make a sound like somebody stacking lumber.

It seemed that panther sightings and the frequency of hearing its mournful screams seemed to increase when a baby was around. My Great-Granny always said that a panther was drawn to a baby’s crying. She told of how when she was little and her family lived at Fiddlers Green, one time when her brother Vern was a baby they saw the big paw of a cat reaching through the logs towards the baby’s crib and it was trying to snatch uncle Vern out of his crib. Granny said that her daddy took off after it with a garden hoe and would no doubt have killed it too if he got ahold of it, but that the panther got away. Granny’s daddy was a very strong man, people still tell stories of my great-great-granddaddy Alfred and how he stopped a charging bull by hitting it in the head with his fist and knocking it out.

Below is a photo of Fiddlers Green, the house my great granny grew up in.

Now that I think of the panther, I remember another story that involved Rob Bennett. This happened when Rob was walking down the lane one night at about 10 O'clock, he was returning home from visiting neighbors. He said that right about where the old cemetery is, he started hearing the loose rocks in the road scuffling around and a light growling noise a few yards behind him. He said he turned around but didn’t see anything because it was a pitch-black night. He said he then started walking again and heard the sound again, and again when he turned back to look, he seen nothing. He said he knew then and there that he was being followed by the panther. He said he just started walking toward home and started singing and waving his arms to make himself look bigger than he really was, he knew better than to run because even as a child, you are taught not to run when being followed by a panther. The old saying went, “When you walk, he walks; when you run, he runs”. Rob said when he got near his house he hollered out to his brother who lived with him to come out with the lantern. He did and Rob walked on into the house but the panther stayed at the edge of the ring of light put off by the lantern. Rob then said that when they looked out at the side window into the yard, there sat the panther a-lookin’ in at them through the window. Rob didn’t have nothing but an old smooth-bore shotgun that would probably have pissed off the old panther more than anything if they tried to shoot it, so they went upstairs and locked the stairs door in case the panther was to break in on them by coming through the window. Such tales as this were pretty common on the mountain.

Every so often on the farm we’d find the carcass of a cow or a sheep that had been an obvious victim of the panther. We all just made sure we didn’t go out of a night unless we had to, although we now know that what is out there in the night is also out there in the daytime.

Above: The Burns Brood

Of course, looking back now I’d pity the panther who tried to take on a Burns kid, we were all twice as mean, three times as wiry and had ten times the grit of any ole panther. It would have been a sorry day for the old panther.

Monday, July 21, 2008

How I got thisaway!

Growing up in the wild mountains of West Virginia posed many interesting opportunities for a precocious boy such as myself. I was the youngest of the passel of kids, and of course I was lovingly referred to as “the pet pig.”

My mother and father had but two children, my brother and myself, but our family grew by leaps and bounds following the unfortunate and untimely death of my paternal Grandmother, Virginia "Bunny" (Thompson) Burns. She died of a massive heart attack at the age of 42, leaving behind five children under 18 and a few others that were still at home. I have but one real memory of my Grandmaw Henry (called that because my Granddad’s middle name was Henry) and that was of Christmas 1980 (I was three at the time) when she was feeding me candy out of a green depression-style glass candy dish. Of course, everyone in the family has told me of interactions with her, and they eventually became a memory of mine through stories as well, but the Christmas candy is the only real memory I have of her.

Below is a photo of my Grandmaw Henry with my cousin Emily.

With the added mouths to feed compounded with the single income of my father, some might think that we did without and that our opportunities were diminished, but the way I see it, just the opposite happened, it gave us character and the wherewithal to face any obstacle that came at us. Perhaps we are among a select few children of the 1980’s Appalachians that still know the old ways of living. We grew up knowing how to butcher hogs, grow a garden, home can food, carry water from the spring as well as how to deal with using the outhouse.

Below is a photo of us kids about 1980. I'm the little boy in the green.

Some might say that we were impoverished, but we didn’t see it that way at all and in many ways we had it better then than we do now. We never went hungry, mom and dad always made sure we had plenty to eat which was no small feat considering the number of mouths they had to feed. When we had a little money, we all ate really good. I never remember having to do without anything, and even frivolous items that I saw in various stores, if I told mom and dad I wanted them, I usually got them, if not then and there, then soon thereafter as soon as they saved up the money. We were not lazy either, we worked a lot. Seldom was the time that I remember when someone in the “Burns Clan” wasn’t doing something to make a little money, whether it be chopping wood, selling fence stakes, raising hogs to butcher & sell, cleaning up old brass items to sell for extra cash, even collecting scrap metal to sell to the salvage yards.

Another photo of the Burns brood, taken about 1979.

Stories abound in my family and it is my intention to share a few of them with you on this blog, mind you these are my recollections, someone else in my family may have different memories than me, but these stories detail the way I remember growing up.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Can you lasso a chicken? I can.

Another summertime memory is the excitement we experienced when the first settin’ hen came him with her brood of chicks. We called them “biddies”, and of course, the hen was a “biddie hen”. Seeing the little puffs of feathers cheeping around and picking at the ground was a thing of wonderment for us. Us kids knew not to get too close because the biddie hen was very protective and would “flop the shit out of you” as we’d been told by those who had experienced that in the past.

Below is a photo of Granny Sue's chicken coop. The one we had was much like this. We let our chickens out of a day to free-range. If you haven't checked out Granny Sue's blog, you need to.

I always loved the way the chickens would give themselves dust baths, they’d kick up dirt all around until all you could see was a veritable dust cloud. We had lots of fun with the chickens and that reminds me of an incident where I tried to lasso a chicken.

As I remember it, when I was about 7 years old, my granddad had made me a lasso out of a piece of clothesline. Of course, it was much to flimsy to actually lasso something and when you threw it, it kinda just wadded up into a huge mound a couple of feet from where you stood. Being the precocious child that I was, I had come up with a brilliant idea and thought to myself, "why not make some money off of this idea". I said to my granddad, “I bet I can lasso a chicken”, he replied “Naw, you caint neither, not with that lasso you caint.” I then retorted, “I’ll bet you two dollar that I can”. I’m sure he just wanted to see me being mischievous so he said, “Okay then, but you better not hurt my hens”.

Well, with my dreams of the hot sausages I was sure to buy with my soon to be acquired fortune, I set my plan into action. I wasn’t going to try to throw the lasso over the chicken, I planned on spreading the lasso out on the ground. I made a loop about 2 feet around, and spread a handful of dried corn in it and hollered “Here chick-chick-chick…here chick-chick-chick” just as we always done when we were calling the chicken to come and eat. However, this time none of the chickens came runnin’…so I just decided to bide my time and wait it out, there was no way I was gonna give up on my two dollars, so I waited and waited and waited some more. After what seemed to me like an eternity, a lone old hen came pecking around, and eventually worked her way ever closer to my lasso loop. I don’t know how I managed to keep my excitement under control, but somehow I did. Finally, she stepped in my trap, I waited just a while longer to let her get both legs into the loop and then I gave a strong tug on my end of the lasso. The hen jumped but by then it was too late, I had her lassoed by one foot.

I started hollering for everyone to come look what I had caught, and I was jumping in the air in jubilation. My mom came out first, undoubtedly wondering what I had got myself into this time, and saw that I had caught a chicken. I said to her “See, I lassoed her, see? See?” When my granddad came to look I told him. “I told you I could lasso a chicken, now where’s my two dollars?” He then tried to get out of the bet by saying, “You didn’t lasso that chicken, you baited her into a trap”. My mom told him, “Now, you give the boy his two dollars, he spent all day doing this”.

As soon as I got my two dollars, I looked at granddad and said, “Now take me to the store”, which he did. Looking back on it, he probably had in mind to go to the store anyway and knew I wouldn’t give up until I had caught something and called it a chicken. I recall that I got a whole lot more than two dollars worth of stuff, I got a jar of hot sausages, a pack of crackers, a bag of potato chips and a pop. I handed my two dollars to granddad and told him to pay for the rest. He did, and I gathered up my bounty and headed for the truck. My granddad laughing at me the whole time, saying to the folks who sat in the store, “That boy is gonna break me up”.
Below is a photo of me when I was about the age of the great chicken lassoing.

Now you can see why everyone always did call me the “pet pig” because I was the baby of the bunch and got pretty much what I wanted from everyone.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Be it ever so humble!

When Jason started to school we still lived up Johnson Holler at Earls and his Kindergarten year he rode across the mountain to catch the bus in Monkeytown, where it would take him to Circleville School. So Mom and Dad came up with the idea to move closer to the school since I would be starting the next year and so Dad would be closer to work.

Sometime between Jason’s kindergarten year and mine we moved to John Mallows farm in the Harman Hills. I don’t recall anything about the move but I do recall that we had to really clean the house before we could move in. It seems that someone let some sheep into the house and they used it for a barn for some time prior to us moving in. I recall Dad, Granddad, and my uncle using scoop shovels to scrape sheepshit out of the house, while Mom and my Aunts operated a bucket brigade full of water and spic-and-span. I remember that the crap on the floors was at least 8 inches deep, a normal person would have give it up for a lost cause and moved on, but just show a Burns an impossible thing and tell him he can't do it...and see how fast it gets done!!

After a few days of hard work and even more cleaning, we got to move in to a huge old farmhouse situated on 570 or so acres of farmland. I think everyone who stayed at John’s (as we called the place) just loved it. We got to live there rent free as long as Dad helped out with some farmwork, a non-issue really since Dad was always out doing something on the farm anyway. There was only one major drawback to John’s…it was ¾ of a mile off of a backroad. In the wintertime, you had to walk in and out. It was a real ordeal to get us kids to walk out to catch the bus in the dead of winter. Dad went to work at the same time so he would walk with us, and sit in the car with us until the bus came.
The old farmhouse has seen better days, this is a current photo of the old place.

I remember one Christmas we all decided to go have Christmas at Dad’s older sister Barb’s house in Virginia. It was blue-assed cold when we walked out to the car carrying presents. On the way the wind whipped some of them out of our hands and blowed them into a nearby holler. Later the next summer Jason and I were still finding some of our Christmas presents in that holler. Most of the time we would spend Christmas in Monkeytown at the homeplace up on the hill where my Granddad lived.

Seasons came and went while we grew up on the farm, looking back we only lived there but a couple of years, but it seems much longer to me now, we loved living on the farm. We had a huge garden on the farm, of course we needed a big garden to grow enough food for all the kids mom and dad were raising. I remember helping in the garden, I’m sure I was more in the way than anything but helping nonetheless.
While working in the garden, mom would inevitably find a toad or at least she’d pretend to find a toad and chase us kids with it. We’d all run and hide wherever we could find a place to hide and get away from her. You'd have thought it was man eating toad the way we carried on about it. I remember a bunch of us locked ourselves in the attic one time to get away from her. There was a big ball-hornets nest up there and hornets were flying all around our heads, but it was still a much-preferred location over the garden with mom and her toad. I’m sure she thought it was big fun but even to this day I am scared to death of frogs and toads.
Below is a photo of the farmhouse today, complete with the ball hornets nest!
Stay tuned for more of the continued exploits of Matthew growing up.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Life at "Earl's"

Some of my earliest childhood memories took place in an old ramshackle farmhouse that we referred to as “Earl’s”, named after the man who owned the house, Earl Huffman. The house was located up Johnson Holler on Friends Run. I don’t remember any of the other places we lived before that, so my earliest memories take place at Earl’s.

Below is a photo of my brother Jason and I playing dress-up in mom's nightgowns!

I remember Mom setting up a table and chair on the back porch of Earls and feeding us breakfast in the sun. Me and my brother would eat our cereal at this table nearly every morning that the sun was shining. Mom always made sure we had neat little bowls to eat out of, a fact that isn’t lost on either of us all these years later. She and Dad always made sure we had the perfect childhood, probably stemming from the fact that Mom didn’t have one herself as she was placed in foster care at an early age.

Below is a photo of Jason and I at the breakfast table that I mention in the above story. We'd have breakfast here nearly every morning.

A sad memory I recall from Earls was we had a little brown puppy, whose name has been forgotten through the years. He was a playful little puppy and Jason and I loved him. One wintry evening Dad went out to get wood for the stove and the puppy followed him out, and when Dad’s arms where full of wood and when he started back inside, the puppy got under his feet and Dad unknowing stepped on him. Dad was then and is now a big man and of course the little puppy didn’t stand a chance. We all heard a yelp and that was that. I think it hurt Dad more than anything to know that he had accidentally killed our puppy. Of course, the next day we had a puppy funeral.

Yet another memory of Earls is that of the Chipmunk. We were walking around with mom one day and found a chipmunk that was “charmed” by our cat Sylvester. The chipmunk was in a daze and I’m sure ready to be lunch for Sylvester. Mom picked up the chipmunk and held it for a few minutes until it came out of the charming and then it bit her on the thumb. Of course, while mom was yelping in pain, Jason and I were laughing since we thought that was funny.

It was at Earls that I’m sure I got my love of the land and planting. One day while “looking” some Pinto beans for supper, Mom gave me some of the broken beans and told me to go plant them. I’m sure she was just thinking of something to get me out from underfoot, but I took her advice and went out to the garden, punch a hole in the ground with my finger and planted a bean in every finger hole. Lo and behold a few weeks later we noticed that my beans were growing. I don’t remember ever picking those beans, perhaps we moved before they were ripe but I do remember that they grew.

Below is a photo of Jason and I playing with our sticker books, this was taken about the time I learned my numbers and colors.

At Earl’s I also remember learning my colors and numbers out of the Sears Catalog. My brother who is 18 months older than me, was preparing for grade school, and he knew his colors, numbers and could read. I remember not wanting to be left out so I told mom that I wanted to learn them as well. She set me down on the couch with the catalog and showed me different colors and numbers, and then she gave me some crayons and told me to draw a green “1” on the wall. I did. Then a Red “2” and I did that as well. That is how I learned my colors and numbers, it was fun to learn when you got to write on the walls, a fact that I’m sure wasn’t lost on my mother. And all it cost her was a little paint.

Earl’s was up a holler than was full of rattlesnakes, you had to be careful when you got out to open the gate as there was, more often than not, a rattler laying around the gatepost. Mom and Dad would never allow us out of the mowed yard without them because of the snake problem. I don’t remember ever personally dealing with a snake while at Earls, but I do recall Dad and Aunt Tam killing them on pretty much a daily basis, but then again I was only 4 years old.

Below is a photo of Jason and I playing with our new "horses" at Earl's.

It was at Earls that I also got my cracked foot. I got a wagon somewhere, God only knows where… it could’ve been Rio Mall or the Dump, or perhaps a yardsale, but let’s suffice it to say that I got a wagon and was playing with it in the yard. I would ride in it and Aunt Tam would pull me around. I got the bright idea to roll down the hill into the road one day in my wagon. It was not a steep hill, but a hill nonetheless. Unfortunately for me, directly in my path was my Grandad’s truck. I knew I was going to hit the truck so I started flailing my arms and legs. I hit squarely into his truck rim, and unfortunately for me, my leg was between my wagon and the rim. I squalled and Aunt Tam came and got me and took me to the house. I remember someone jokingly saying “Well, we’ll just have to cut it off.” And they got out their pocketknife. I’m sure they thought I was putting on but it liked to scared me to death. Upon closer inspection, my grandad pronounced my leg broken, so off I went to the hospital. Sure enough my leg was cracked. Oddly enough, to date that was the one and only broken bone that I have ever had. That could lead into another story… the exploits of me in my cast, but I’ll save that one for another day.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Murdered I Say

The above is the tombstone of my 3-great-Uncle George Bible Bennett. He was actually my uncle two different ways since two of his sisters (Sarah & Hannah) were my grandmothers. He was also married to my 3-great aunt, Hannah Cassel, on another side. Oddly enough, Hannah was the sister to my 3-great grandfather, Cullom Cassel, and also to my 3-great grandmother, Elizabeth (Cassel) Nelson. In Pendleton County you will find that all of the older families will have multiple connections.

The interesting story about George Bible Bennett (1831-1864), is that his tombstone reads:

"Here lies GBB
Killed by the Swamps
Murdered I Say"

Now...I'll bet you are wondering why the use of the word murder? You see, my uncle George was killed by the Yankee's during the War, and in Pendleton County, one of the prominent Yankee units were called the "Swamp Dragons". They were known to raid, pillage and steal from any families who supported the Confederacy. Being a member of the Swamp Dragons also gave an excuse for many men to avenge alleged wrongs done to their families in years past. To me, the Swamps were nothing more than a vigilante group that was authorized by the Yankee government.

Many families in Pendleton had strong Confederate sympathies, and the Bennett family had more than most. In fact, George's first cousin, Joseph McCally Bennett was the Auditor for the State of Virginia during the War and appears on Confederate Virginia money. Below you will see a $5 note that bears his photo and signature.

Regardless of the circumstances, uncle George was killed in 1864 by the Yankee Swamp Dragons. He didn't take up arms against them, he was merely eating at his father's house when they approached. Knowing there would be trouble, he jumped out of the kitchen window and tried to run through the field to get away. The Yankee captain spotted him and chased him down on horseback, and according to family stories, wounded him by shooting him in the leg. While George was down the Yankee captain rode up to him, got off of his horse and shot George in the head with his pistol. Of course, the family was outraged over the murder of one of their own, and my grandfather Elijah Bennett (George's father) said that he was going to make a tombstone that would forever let everyone know about the dirt and cowardice of the Yankee army! To that end, I don't know if the tombstone inscription carries the same meaning today as it did in the years following the War, but certainly remains eye-catching and makes the reader want to know more about the events that transpired and led to the death of his George. Maybe Grandpaw Elijah did accomplish his goal.

Another version of the killing of George Bible Bennett is recounted in the book, "Twixt the North and South" by H.M. Calhoun. An excerpt of the story:

"...a portion of Boggs' company of home guards and perhaps a portion of Snyder's company, including Captain Snyder, himself, raided the home of Elijah Bennett in the Bland Hills....George Bennett jumped out of a window and ran. He had gotten several hundred yards away from the house and would have succeeded in making his escape but ran into another squad of the home guards. They fired upon him and wounded him. He threw up his hands and surrendered. Captain Snyder afterward told persons that he tried to prevent the cruel mutilation of Bennett that followed but was unable to do so.
Elijah Bennett, the aged father of George Bennett, procured a large mountain stone and cut the following inscription in crude letters thereon: "Here lies George Bible Bennett. Killed by the Swamp Dragons. Murdered I say."
This stone he placed at the head of his son's grave where it remains to this day."
You can begin see how the events that happened nearly 150 years ago continue to be kept alive through storytelling in rural area's. I know my life has been enriched by the closeness I feel with my ancestors who came before me. To me they are more than names and dates, and that is the way it should be.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Old House in the Woods

Last weekend, while in for the 4th of July, a few of the family went berry picking in an area we called the flats. To tell you how flat it is, you have to walk down into this place, and back up out of this place, it is far from flat, but when compared to the surrounding hillsides, it is the flattest part of the land.

While walking down an old country road with huge oak tree's and berry briers that surrounded to road on both sides, we decided to go on down where the old house used to stand. As we walked among the ancient oaks, I marvelled at their size and beauty, and wondered how they had survived getting timbered back in the early 1900's when much of Pendleton County was cut over. You can't tell it from the below photo, but these tree's are so large that it'd take at least a half-dozen men to reach around them.

After going through what appeared to be an old forest remnant, the woods opened up into meadows interspersed with a few trees. On one side you had a dark and foreboding looking cedar grove, and the other is wide open fields. In between these two extreme's sits what is left of an old house.

This old house used to have the most beautiful old-timey rose bushes around it, there were pink ones, red ones, yellow ones and white ones. They smelled so good when they were all blooming. I remember that we used to make a trip down to this old house every year when the roses were blooming.

There used to be a hand pump on the porch of this old house when I was little, and we'd all pump it until water flowed from the earth, it was a sight to see for us. We lived further up on the mountain and the water table was down too far for us to use hand pumps where we lived. Part of the old pump is still there today although it doesn't work anymore.

Over the door of this little cottage hangs an open end up horseshoe, reputed to ward off evil spirits, and since it hangs open end up, prosperity would collect at this house. These superstitions are remnants of our German heritage brought over by our ancestors who settled Germany Valley in the early 1700's. We still have many of the old customs, but we've lost even more. It makes me sad to think of how culturally disadvantaged my children will be not to hear these stories and see the things that I've seen in my lifetime. I'll try my best to tell them what I know but I've forgotten alot of it. Then on the heels of these melancholic thoughts is the realization that my parents and grandparents must have felt the same way as I do now when they thought of these very things. Life is definately a circle, I just wish now that I had realized that earlier in life and really listened to my granny and granddaddy when they told me stuff. Live and learn they always said, and a bought lesson ain't soon forgot.

Out from the little cottage is what I take to be the old shed, probably it housed the chickens and such. It is in a bad state of disrepair now but still would be the envy of any modern country garden. The wildflowers grow around it now as they must have 100 years ago. That's makes me think of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, which among other things says,

"To everything there is a season,
a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time to be born and a time to die;"

That put's in all in perspective doesn't it?
Below is the old shed that I was talking about.

It was good to be out in nature again and to see places that I hadn't seen in a few years. It was good to reminisce about times past and to spend a few precious moments with my family. It was good to be home!
I look forward to the time when I can do that again.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Searching for my Ancestors

On Friday, July 4, 2008, a friend of mine that I met online and I met for the first time and went looking at old cemeteries in the Bland Hills. My friend, Glenn, is from Virginia and is a walking encyclopedia of family history knowledge. He and I are related several different ways way back when but this day we were just looking at connecting families. Accompanying us were my dad and my brother, who helped located graves in the overgrown cemetery. The first cemetery we went to was known as the John Warner Cemetery, it is the resting spot of several of my relatives and two sets of great-so many-grandparents. The cemetery is on a hill in a lovely location that overlooks Germany Valley.

In this cemetery, you will find the stone of my 5-great-grandfather Joseph Bennett. It is remarkable that his stone is still standing, he died in 1810. Near his grave is that of his son, and my 4-great-grandfather, Elijah Bennett. His stone is still standing as well, he died in 1871. It is sad that their wives didn't have stones, even though they are surely buried beside of these men. Elijah Bennett is my grandfather two different ways, his daughter Sarah "Sally" Bennett married George W. Burns and they were my 3 great-grandparents; and also Elijah's daughter Hannah Bennett, married John Bennett and they are my 3-great-grandparents on another side. Their daughter Phoebe Jane Bennett married George Cunningham. Phoebe and George's daughter Jennie Cunningham married Charley Burns, the son of the aforementioned George and Sally (Bennett) Burns.

Below is the headstone of Joseph Bennett.

Below is the headstone of Joseph's son, Elijah Bennett.

After visiting this cemetery, we then went to the Bennett #51 cemetery further back in the Bland Hills on Dolly Ridge. There we found the headstone of my 3-great-grandfather George W. Cunningham. He was married to Phoebe Jane Bennett (see story above). Anyway, George also went by the last name of Sponaugle. His mother was a Sponaugle and his daddy was a Cunningham. In early records the family is listed as Sponaugle but later records has them as Cunningham. It came as a surprise to me to find George's headstone as "George W. Sponaugle". No wonder people are so hard to place when researching your family tree.

After we left the Bennett #23 cemetery, we went to the Burns family cemetery above Monkeytown. Since this was my family cemetery, I had been there hundreds of times, and knew most everyone buried therein, either personally or by family stories. But, by then it was raining really hard so Glenn didn't get too much information documented, but I did get to show him where the cemetery was located and we planned a trip for the near future. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Berry Picking

In the summers of my childhood, my whole family would all get together and go berry picking, usually for raspberries and blackberries. We’d usually go up on North Mountain to pick raspberries or back in “Brown Bear Lodge” to pick blackberries. We’d usually pick gallons at a time and we would can most of them but we’d also save enough fresh berries to make pies and cobblers. I also recall that fresh raspberries and milk with sugar was a favorite.

To pick the blackberries we’d go back in Brown Bear Lodge where the blackberry briers would grow up over the road, and we’d just stay in the truck bed and pick berries which was a lot easier to do that go traipsing through the underbrush. We didn’t pick as many blackberries as we did raspberries because we didn’t like them as well…we thought they tasted like ink. We’d usually make pies and jelly out of the blackberries. Very few of them were eaten fresh.

One time when we was up on the mountain picking raspberries and mountain berries, we were picking on one side of a huge berry patch and heard something on the other side of the berry patch making noise and thrashing the brush. We wondered what it was but didn’t think too much of it until we heard the snorts and grunts getting closer and then we saw a pretty good sized black bear eating the berries as well. After that it didn’t take us too long to get out of there.

In late July we’d also go up on Spruce Knob or out in Dolly Sods and pick huckleberries, we’d use a picker for those and it wasn’t such a big deal to us as picking our favorite, wild black raspberries.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


Probably what best defines summer for me is the 4th of July get-togethers we used to have when I was a kid. Everyone would make it a priority to be at home during this time, and we all gathered at my granddads house up on the hill. There would always be plenty of food to eat and we’d have huge watermelons and Popsicles, which was always my favorite.

We’d also always have some form of fireworks that we illegally purchased somewhere in Virginia; the younger kids got blacksnakes, smoke bombs, sparklers and jumping jacks, the older kids would get firecrackers and bottle rockets. The adults would get fountains and other sparkly “big” fireworks that’d shoot up in the air. Another favorite thing to do was for the adults to jump over lit fountains and holler "candlestick" as you past over it. If you escaped with no burns, then you won! Not the safest game in the world, and probably why most fireworks are illegal in West Virginia.

I remember one year us kids were setting off fireworks and the clothesline was hanging full of clothes and a jumping jack “jumped” up in a pants leg and caught them on fire, now that was an exciting event getting to put the fire out. We weren’t allowed to play around the clothesline after that.

One of our favorite uses for fireworks was when us kids would sneak up and strategically place the smoke bombs where they would annoy the most people, you know, somewhere where the smoke would just billow around everyone… that was part of the fun...stalking and plotting to annoy!

As we all got older we progressed into bottle rockets and firecrackers, where we’d blow anthills apart and stick the lit firecrackers in glass pop bottles. Also, we’d have bottle rocket fights where we’d shoot the bottle rockets at each other. Nobody ever got hurt except for minor burns around your fingers from lighting the fireworks...but that was all part of the experience.

As I get ready to go home to celebrate Independence Day this year, I’ll keep the memories of past celebrations vivid in my mind, and I’ll try to remember the innocence and good old fashioned fun from years ago.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Summertime Swimming Hole

Summertime has always been a magical time for me, and has always been my favorite season. I like the heat and everything about the season. As the old song says “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.”

My reasons for loving summer are many, but all of them have roots in my childhood. I remember on the last day of school, it was always tradition in my family to go swimming in the river. In my earlier childhood, the whole gang of us loaded into the back of granddads truck and went to the swimming hole behind Teddy Bland’s place below Riverton.

After what seemed like an eternity where granddad stopped and talked to Teddy and let him know that we’d be down at the river, we finally made our way past Teddy's turkey houses, through the hayfields and on back to the river. I remember my granddad would always sing a little ditty that went "I'm goin' swimmin' with bow-legged women" to annoy us, but mostly we ignored his singing because we were so excited to get to the swimming hole.

Mind you this was in early June in the Potomac Highlands and the water wasn't exactly warm, although it certainly didn't matter to us, we'd have gone swimming even if ice chunks had been floating down the river. I remember my aunts and my brother would always ease into the water amid loud exclamations of "ooosh, that's cold", while me and a few of the others would just run right into the river and hit it all at once. Eventually we'd all be in the water and having a great time.

We had games that we’d invented for when we were swimming, like the old “warsh machine” as we called it, to do this you’d get in water about up to your chest and by linking your hands together and making a quick side by side motion, a great foam arose from the water, to us it looked exactly like the water in the old tub of the wringer washer that mom used.

Inevitably, someone would bring soap and shampoo and the older kids would wash their hair and wash up in the river, we didn’t have running water at home (unless you count running to the spring to get it) so it was easier to do this than to haul water up the hill from the spring to wash in. I remember for as far as you could see down the river, there’d be a long trail of soapsuds floating on top of the water.

As we’d eventually wear ourselves out from all the swimming, we’d get out of the water and dry off with towels we had brought with us, some of the girls would lay out on the rocks the dry off in the sun. We’d usually change into dry clothes, that way we could hold up the wet clothes from the truck bed or hang them out of the car window, and let the wind dry them on the way home.

I’m sure we looked like a bunch of gypsies with our wet clothes flapping in the breeze but we didn’t care, we had the whole summer ahead of us.


In deciding on creating a blog, I had several idea's come to mind. I want a place to document the stories, wisdom and lifestyles of my people who come from the mountains of West Virginia. Hopefully, my grand idea's can come to fruition and that this blog can live up to my expectations. You can expect me to talk about my family, my ancestors, and pretty much any events that happen to cross in my path of daily life.

If you have suggestions for this blog, please let me know, i'm always open for suggestions and constructive criticism.