Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Erl-King

This is one of my very favorite poems. I can just imagine my German ancestors living in fear of the Erl-king. What better way to celebrate All Hallows Eve than with the German folktale/song/poem, The Erl-King?

Der Elrkonig (The Erl-king)
by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Who's riding so late through th' endless wild?
The father 't is with his infant child;
He thinks the boy 's well off in his arm,
He grasps him tightly, he keeps him warm.

My son, say why are you hiding your face ?
Oh father, the Erlking 's coming apace,
The Erlking 's here with his train and crown!
My son, the fog moves up and down.

Be good, my child, come, go with me!
I know nice games, will play them with thee,
And flowers thou 'It find near by where I live,
pretty dress my mother will give.

Dear father, oh father, and do you not hear
What th' Erlking whispers so close to my ear?
Be quiet, do be quiet, my son,
Through leaves the wind is rustling anon.

Do come, my darling, oh come with me!
Good care my daughters will take of thee,
My daughters will dance about thee in a ring,
Will rock thee to sleep and will prettily sing.

Dear father, oh father, and do you not see
The Erlking's daughters so near to me?
My son, my son, no one 's in our way,
The willows are looking unusually gray.

I love thee, thy beauty I covet and choose,
Be willing, my darling, or force I shall use!
Dear father, oh father, he seizes my arm!
The Erlking, father, has done me harm.

The father shudders, he darts through the wild;
With agony fill him the groans of his child.
He reached his farm with fear and dread;
The infant son in his arms was dead.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


It all began on that night so long ago. It was hot when it happened, it was sometime way down in the summertime. I remember it was about the time the crickets start to hollerin’ but before the nights start to get chilly. I remember that I was wide awake that first night because it was too hot to sleep. Me and brother slept upstairs in the little bedroom, and it was there that I first seen it. I was lookin’ out the window upon the moonlit night and watched as it casted shadows over the trees whenever a cloud happened to pass by. It was then that it happened, I see them start to crawling. It was snakes, lot of ‘em, and they kept crawling and writhing all around the sill and even tried to get traction up on the glass. Then a giant yellow snake appeared in amongst all the rest of them and it was clear to me that he was the snake king. I took to hollerin’ for Maw and Paw and soon enough they come runnin’ to find out what was the matter. By that time, brother had run over to the top of the steps as if that in some way would speed up Maw and Paw. When they finally got to me, I told them what I seen, Maw just grabbed me up in her arms and started bawlin’ and mumblin’ out loud about how I was marked. Her baby was marked. That night and every night after that I kept seeing them snakes and they kept comin’ back to the window night after night.

Maw did what she could to keep them snakes away from the window, she put little pots of mint out on the window sill, and she would hang dried snake root inside of the window from the curtain rod. I think she knew that what she was doing was going to be of no use since they were spirit snakes, but she done it anyway. Every morning when we’d get up, those little pots of mint would be knocked out onto the ground below the windowsill, and the pots busted. The snake root would be all dried up and shriveled, and would be as black as coal. After a few nights of this, Maw talked to Granny about it because that was the only person she trusted with this information. If people were to find out that I was marked, I would have a hard row to hoe.

Granny said it sounded to her like I was witched, and that we should see Bromie, the old woman that lived way up on the mountain. It was rumored that she was marked as a child and that she was forced to live up on the mountain, out and away from everybody else, because people was afraid of her and thought her to be evil. Granny told us to go right away because she’d always heard that spirit snakes would keep coming night after night until eventually they got inside and then I would be in real danger. Granny took out a handkerchief and put all manner of stuff in it and tied it up, and said to give it to Bromie when we went to see her.

We left that day about noon and it took about an hour to climb up the ridge to Bromie’s little house. As was expected of callers, Maw started calling out Bromie’s name long before we got to her house so as to let her know we was coming. By the time we got to the clearing that led to Bromie’s front door, she was sitting there waiting on us.

Maw made the appropriate niceties to Bromie and gave her the tied up handkerchief that Granny had prepared for her. Maw explained to Bromie how she thought I was marked and how the snakes was coming to me every night. Bromie, with her eyes slightly squinted, looked at me and then back at maw and said, “Nothin’ much to worry about, as long as they ain’t a yeller one in amongst them.” I blurted out, “there is a yellow one, he’s their king.” Upon hearing this, Bromie looked a bit shocked and muttered, “They must be at it again…”

Trying to be polite about it, as quickly as she could, Maw asked if there was anything that she could do to help me. Bromie explained, “Snakes come to youngin’s a lot, especially in the heat of the summer. They sense a pure heart and if there’s one thing snakes don’t like, it’s that. But that yeller one is what bothers me. That is the boy’s soul snake. They say that everybody has a soul snake out there, but it’s seldom that the soul snake finds its match. When it does it means one of two things, either the soul snake will keep on trying to get to its match until the match dies or the match will be marked as a snake witch.”

I remember being scared to death at what Bromie told us. Maw was too, but she was also smart. She asked Bromie was there anything that could be done to stop it. “Sure is,” Bromie said, “but it ain’t an easy thing to do. You need a snake witch to stop that yeller snake.”

“Ain’t you a snake witch, Bromie?” I piped up.

Blood drained from Maw’s face when I said that, she was just sure that I had offended Bromie by calling her a snake witch.

“I was marked years ago. Young man, I’ll help you because you are pure of heart and I know you mean well. I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy. Besides, I reckon I owe your Granny a great debt for all that she has helped me with over the years. I reckon I would have starved to death long ago if it hadn’t been for her leaving me jars of food and sacks of dried apples and such out in the woods where I could find them.”

“I didn’t know Granny knew you,” I said.

“Nobody knows it. Your Granny does things for me that nobody knows, for if they did, your Granny would be an outcast, too.”

“She’s a good woman, that’s for sure,” Mama said, “I know what people say about you and I knew you lived up here but I never did think about it. I always reckoned you lived up her because you wanted to.”

“I live up her because this is the only place I can live. I can’t live anywhere that would make my life an easy one, for that is when the snakes would return,” Bromie explained.

“What causes this sort of thing. Why are the snakes bothering us my boy?” Mama asked.

“Because they can. You see, somebody long ago witched this whole mountain, and everybody who lived on it and everyone who would ever live on it. At any given time there has to be a marked snake witch that lives on it. There can only be one snake witch at a time, but there is always going to be one that lives here on this mountain,” Bromied added.

Mama asked, “But you said that you were a snake witch, and since you already live here, then why are they bothering my boy?”

“I reckon we both know the answer to that,” Bromie said softly. With her eyes cast down and the gray strands of hair poking out of her old worn-out sun bonnet, “The good book says we don’t know the hour nor the day, but I reckon I’ll come closer to that than most. To be honest, I welcome the death angel even though I wouldn’t wish this life on anyone else.”

Bromie added, “Here’s what we’ll do, you’re going to have to leave the boy with me tonight, you can stay here to if you’d like, but you can’t interrupt anything or say anything once the sun goes down. Now I mean that, you don’t know the things I know so I’m only going to tell you once that if you stay, you can’t do or say anything once that sun goes down until the sun comes up tomorrow morning.”

“I understand,” Mama affirmed, “but I would like to stay with the boy. I’m going to have to go down and tell everybody where I’ll be staying tonight so they won’t worry, but I’ll be back long before dark.”

“Just leave the boy with me,” Bromie stated, “we have work to do anyway.”

I was scared to be left there with Bromie, but I trusted her. She knew my Granny and that meant a lot in my book. We watched as Maw made her way down the path on the ridge, and when she was out of earshot, Bromie turned to me and said, “Young Gentleman, what you say we get to work.”

From an old pasteboard box up on a shelf, Bromie took out a little black book. “This here is the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. It has everything we need to stop these snakes. Now, I’m going to have to make you sleep in a burlap sack but we need to keep it covered with a quilt at all times. I know it is going to get powerful hot under there, but that is what we need to do. I promise I won’t hurt you and I’ll do my best to see that those snakes don’t either.”

It seemed like a short time when Maw came walking back up the ridge. I reckon it seemed so short to me because me and Bromie had been making plans for that night. She read the books over me, and did some chants, and she tied some roots onto a piece of twine and told me to hang it around my neck. She told me to take off my shoes so I’d be more comfortable, and she took them from me as I pulled them off my feet. It wasn’t long after Maw got back that we ate a bite of supper and waited on darkness to arrive.

That night it was dark. Real dark. There was no moon at all, and there was no breeze to speak of neither. It was stifling. Bromie said, “Yep, they ain’t going to make it easy on us.”

Bromie told Maw to settle in somewhere in the room and to stay put, and remember what she had told her earlier.

Bromie put me in the sack, only my shoulders and head were out of it, and she covered that with a big, heavy quilt. “What keeps out cold will keep out heat,” she said as she prepared me for bed. “Try and get some sleep if you can. It’d be better if you didn’t know what was going to happen anyway.”

I was tired from walking so far that day, and the heat just took it out of me. As uncomfortable as I was, it wasn’t long before I was fast asleep. Maw stayed awake and heard Bromie praying over me, and watched as she opened all of the windows and the door and welcomed in all spirits that was seeking me. Maw said she seen it with her own eyes, it wasn’t long after Bromie started calling up the spirits that a giant yellow snake poked it head in the door from out in the darkness. It looked around and slithered in and toward the bed where I lay.

Making slow, deliberate movements, Bromie made her way toward the open door and she quietly shut it, and one by one, she closed the windows. Then she picked up a large clay pot and loudly started chanting in a tongue Maw had never heard. When she started that chanting, Maw said that ol’ snake just froze in its path and turned and looked at Bromie. She kept right on singing and slowing lowering the pot down to the snake. Just then, the snake reared up on its tail and swayed back and forth. Bromie paid it no mind and kept on with her chanting. The snake began to coil and strike out at the darkness, but Bromie continued her chanting. Then, the snake turned toward the bed where I lay and started coming closer and closer. Bromie kept right on singing, though now a little louder and with more feeling. Maw said she could tell things was getting very tense. Maw said that snake laid its head right down on the foot of that bed but then turned back toward Bromie and that clay jar. Then in one fluid movement, it made a great lunge at Bromie. Just as quickly, Bromie threw up the open jar in front of her and the snake went right into it. Bromie quickly put a lid on it, and with seemingly otherworldly skill, she grabbed up a bundle of herbs of some sort and lit them and threw them into the pot, and then she sat down on top of it.

After a few minutes, and much thrashing about inside of the clay jar, Bromie turned to Maw and said, “I believe that will do it. You can speak now.”

Without saying a word, Maw just lay there, and remained silent. Bromie repeated herself but Maw again ignored her.

Morning came in a few hours and the light of day brought with it some remarkable sights. Bromie was sitting on the front stoop when Maw walked outside. “I reckon you seen things last night that you never hoped you would.”

“Yes,” Maw said matter of factly. “I don’t reckon there is much any of us can say about that.”

“I’m glad you remembered what I had told you. You see, when that soul snake went in that pot and I threw the burning brand in on him, part of that spirit went into me. That is why I am marked,” Bromie continued, “all snakes great and small, spirit or living, can share my body. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is what it is. If you had of answered me or made any movements, that spirit probably would have attacked you, and there wouldn’t have been anything I could have done.”

“Can you tell me why that snake went for you instead of the boy on the bed, since it was the boy it was seeking?” Maw asked.

“Well you see, while you were gone, I had the boy take his shoes off and give them to me. I put the shoes down in the clay pot. I knew that soul snake would get the scent of the boy from those shoes. Of course,” Bromie added, “the boy still had his scent on himself, that is why I gave him a charm to hang around his neck that kills scent, and I had him sleep in a burlap sack that I had gathered chamomile in last month so the burlap also hid some of his scent. The quilt on top is the one I use to lay out my drying herbs in the sun. I never use it so it wouldn’t have people scent on it. That helped cover up his scent even more, and it would have protected him had the soul snake tried to attack him.”

She continued, “I reckon you heard that singing that I done. It is part of being a snake witch. What I done was use those words to put that soul snake into a trance. One it was in the clay jar, I threw in the cleaning herbs which ridded this world of that spirit. You’re boy will not be bothered by snakes again. I just want you to know that what I done wasn’t evil, what I done is straight out of the good book, from the Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses. Most people just don’t know where to look for those books. I don’t want you thinking that I was witching the boy.”

“Bromie,” Maw said, “I want you to know that I will forever be indebted to you for what you have done. I don’t think you are evil and I want you to know that you are welcome to visit our home any time that you want. You will always find a plate set at our table for you.”

“Oh no, you mustn’t do that, people will shun you as they have me,” Bromie pleaded.
“I reckon I can invite to my home whoever I want to” Maw replied. “Besides, Granny must set a great store by you to have helped you out all the years as you said she has done, so you must be a good person. I reckon between me and Granny, we can set the old gossipmongers to packing should they ever utter a bad word about you in our presence.”

“I’ll not hear anyone speak ill of you in my presence.” Maw added, “You’ll find that I am loyal to those that are loyal to me and mine, and what I seen you do last night was far above and beyond what I have ever seen anyone do for us. So if you ever find yourself down on our property and see something you want, why you just take a share of it and all will be well. That way, you can still live the way you must and we will be able to begin to repay you for all that you have done for us.”

Bromie just said, “I’d appreciate it. I reckon now that I have done what I done, the snakes will rethink their plans about replacing me with somebody younger. I suspect they’ll come around and aggravate me for some time to come but nothing I ain’t used to. I’ve been marked now, oh, going on 70 years. That’s why I reckon I done what I done. I couldn’t bear the thought of that youngin’ in there having to live like I’ve had to live all these years. Like I said before, I wouldn’t wish this life on my worst enemy.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jack Learns a Lesson

With apologies to the "real" Jack Tales of Appalachia...

Jack Learns a Lesson in Honesty
by Matthew Burns

Did you ever hear the one about Jack getting a lesson in honesty? No. Well then, it’s about time you hear it then don’t you think? You see, one time, I always heard it was up around Helvetia or thereabouts, there was a boy named Jack. Well, Jack wasn’t quite a boy but he still wasn’t no man either, he was at that age when he was caught somewhere in between the two. Jack was the oldest boy of the family, some would say the man of the house since his Daddy got kilt in a log jam back a few years before. As you might imagine, the family was pretty poor, as the old saying went, “they didn’t have a pot to go in, nor a window to through it out of.” The family still had a few acres of rocky ground, poor land though it was, almost too poor to even raise a fuss.

Well one day, Jack’s mama looked into the gaunt faces of her children and knew she had but one option. She was going to have to sell the family cow. She loved that cow, having raised it up from a calf, but them was better times in better days, and even though the family would be at a loss for milk, there just wasn’t no way around it. They needed flour and meal and salt and sugar and maybe even a little coffee if they were to get through the coming winter. So it was with a heavy heart and a troubled mind that she gave Jack instructions to take the cow down into a nearby town and try to get as much out of it as he could, and she give him a list of foodstuffs to buy while he was in town. She told Jack not to take less than fifteen dollars for the cow, for if he couldn’t fetch that price he might as well bring it back home and they would keep it and make due the best they could.

Well, ol’ Jack was about a sharp as a box sled, though he fancied himself an intelligent person. He reckoned he could fetch a big price for the cow if he could figure out a way to talk the cow up to prospective buyers. He studied on this as he began the long journey down to town.

On the way, he stopped in the creek at the foot of the mountain, and while holding the halter on the ol’ cow, he clenched handfuls of white sand off the bottom of the clear stream and scrubbed that cow down from head to hoof. He then fashioned a comb out of a hickory limb and combed the cow, freeing her hair of briers, sticks and mud. Jack stepped back to admire his handiwork and reckoned that it would at least double the value of the cow. Jack was stepping mighty high as he led the cow on down the path toward town.

They weren’t long on the path until they came upon a pine grove. Jack was happy to see it for the path under the pine grove was shaded and cool, and it had been a long trek off of the mountain. Jack noticed that several of the pine trees had great balls of sap welled up on their bark. He touched one of them as he passed, and found it to be very sticky. He rubbed his fingers together to free his hands of the sap, but the more he rubbed his hands, the more he spread the sap around. Soon though, the path came upon another creek and Jack was able to scrub the sticky sap from his hands.

After the few minutes it took for the cow to drink its fill, they were again on their way, and quickly passed out from under the shade of the pine patch. As he walked out into the bright sun, Jack gasped as he saw his hands and forearms where the sap had been, they were literally shining in the sunlight. So using his vast intellect, Jack quickly came upon another idea, he would mix some of the runny sap with water and he would rub the cow down with the mixture to make her extra shiny and appealing. She’d be the best looking cow in town after he shined her up. After much deliberate trouble, Jack soon had the cow shined and spiffied up, never had he saw a cow look so good as the old family milk cow.

It was nearing mid-afternoon when Jack led the clean, curried and shining cow into town. He was walking with his head heisted high like he was leading a fine stallion. He began announcing as he passed townspeople, “Cow for sale. Make me an offer. Ain’t she a beauty. Fattened on mountain pastures. She’s a fine milker. There ain’t another cow like this in all of town. Make me an offer.”

Jack saw a few men loading their wagon by one of the stores in town. He slowly passed them, making sure to give them his sales pitch. One of the men there asked him, “How old is that cow?” To which Jack answered, “Not a day over three years, sir. As you can see, she still has her youthful shine about her.” The man, as it turned out, was the store keeper in town and though not fooled by Jacks spit-and-polish antics, told Jack he could see that the cow had been well cared for, and since he was in the market for a good cow, offered Jack twenty dollars in cash or thirty dollars in credit at his store.

Jack looked quite indignant at the offer, “Sir, surely you can’t expect me to part with this fine animal for that paltry sum. Surely this cow is worth much more than you offer.” The storekeeper merely replied, “That’s what I can do on her,” to which Jack responded, “Then I shall bid you good day, sir.”

As Jack made another round through town, he remembered his mother had told him to take no less than Fifteen dollars for the cow, but he reckoned with all the improvements he had made to the cow, she was worth at least Fifty Dollars. And by the way the townspeople were looking at his fine cow, he was sure that his mother would agree.

It wasn’t too much longer that Jack came upon a man and wife, coming out of an attorney’s office. Jack started announcing his sales pitch again as he passed, “Cow for sale. Make me an offer. Ain’t she a beauty. Fattened on mountain pastures. She’s a fine milker. There ain’t another cow like this in all of town. Make me an offer.” Finally, the well-dressed man said to him, “Hold up there son, that’s a mighty fine looking animal that you are leading. I heard you say that she is for sale. How much, might I ask, would it take for me to take her off your hands?”

“Why sir, I can see that you have a good eye when it comes to livestock,” Jack said, “there’s not another cow such as this in all of the county. What would you offer for such a one of a kind animal?”

“Well young man, my wife and I are new in town. We hail from Old Virginia, and I haven’t seen a cow shine so since I left my home in Chesterfield County. I don’t know the going rate for cows in these parts, but I will make you an offer of Fifty Dollars and a fine meal in exchange for that cow.”

Pausing while he pondered this offer, Jack reckoned he’d better not take the first offer the man gave him, he reckoned he had heard a hundred times from countless people to never take the first offer someone makes you for anything. With this in mind, Jack politely said, “Sir, it is true that your offer is above what cows generally cost in this county, but surely you would agree that this isn’t just an ordinary cow. You said yourself that she shines like a low country cow. I’m afraid I just can’t let her go for a mere Fifty Dollars.”

“I understand your hesitation, young man,” said the man, but as I said, my wife and I are new in town. I have just opened up a law firm here, and I don’t feel comfortable investing more than that into a milk cow at this time. I’m sorry we couldn’t do business.”

“Well, thank you for your time, sir,” Jack responded, “have a good day, but I must bid you goodbye since I must find a buyer for this fine beast before nightfall.”

Jack made a few more rounds in town, but by that time it was beginning to get late in the afternoon and the town was starting to clear out. Though disappointed, Jack wasn’t too very concerned, after all he had already gotten two offers for the cow, and it was only the first day. He reckoned if worse came to worse, he could always come back tomorrow to make a deal. He reckoned after the storekeeper and the attorney slept on it, and had the idea of owning this fine animal fermenting in their minds, they’d gladly meet his price. It was clear after a few more minutes, it’d be best f he made his way back out to the creek that he had crossed over on the path into town earlier in the day so the cow could graze and drink her fill at the creek. After arriving at the creek, Jack began looking for a good place to make camp, and he settled on a quiet spot just off the main path, under a big pine tree with grass and a small stream nearby. He quickly make a crude camp, pulling dry grass for him a bed and building a small campfire to keep away any roving night critters and biting insects. As the evening gave way to night, Jack waited until the cow bedded down for the night before feasting on cornbread and sweet milk, which he had freshly milked a few minutes earlier. After he ate, he began to thinking again of his cow. He reckoned tomorrow he wouldn’t take a penny less than One Hundred Dollars for her, fine animal that she was.

The next morning, Jack was awakened by the gentle sounds of the cow grazing nearby. He looked over at her, and was shocked by what he saw. The dampness of the night had caused all of that pine resin he had rubbed her down with the previous day to form little balls and it was all matted and caked in her hair. He then noticed that her whole one side was coated with pine needles where she had bedded down under the pine tree. All of a sudden, anger washed over him and he started screaming at the cow, calling it stupid, and telling it how it was a worthless animal that didn’t have sense God gave a goose. He swarped for a good ten minutes at the beast who calmly continued to graze on the green grass.

After he calmed down, Jack knew the only thing he could do was try to clean the cow in the stream. He soon found the task to be nigh on to impossible. You see, the dried and matted pine resin just repelled the water, and the cow wouldn’t allow him to try and brush the hardened beads of it out of her hair. He did manage, however, to get most of the pine needles out of the mess.

The thoughts of all that lost money weighed heavy on his mind as he made his way back into town. This time, rather than parading through the streets trying to make a sale, Jack decided to approach the attorney to see if the Fifty Dollar offer that had made the day before was still good. As he walked into the office, the attorney quickly recognized him and bade him a good morning. He half-jokingly asked Jack, “So young man, are you here to settle up on a land deal that you have made with all the money you surely derived from the sale of that fine cow.”

“No sir,” replied Jack, “I came to see if your offer of Fifty dollars still stands.”

The attorney looked upon Jack, quite puzzled, “But young man, what has changed between yesterday and today? Surely the cow didn’t lose value overnight. Perhaps we should take a look at the beast to see if there is a problem.” Jack assured him that it was the same cow that he looked at yesterday, but told him they had spent the night camped out by yonder creek, so she might not look as fresh as she did yesterday, but indeed it was still the same animal. The attorney said he’d like to take another look if he was to pay fifty dollars for a milk cow. Jack reluctantly took him to the cow, which had been tied out back of the office.

“What is this!” exclaimed the attorney.

“Why it is my fine cow that you looked at yesterday,” Jack calmly replied.

“But what is this…” the attorney inquired, touching the gummy substance that was matted in the cow’s hair.

“Nothing more than some pine resin,” said Jack. “She bedded down under a pine tree last night and it must have dripped down on her as she slept.”

“But her shine, it is gone. What happened to your beautiful cow’s sheen?”

Jack didn’t have an answer, but the attorney quickly figured it out. “Young man,” he said, “it appears that you have tried to take me for a fool. This cow has no shine to her coat, it appears you were trying to make her appear more vigorous than she really is. Furthermore, it appears you are trying to take advantage of a stranger to this land. I’m sorry young man, but I will not be doing business with you, and I can only offer you some advice, never come to me asking me a favor for I will not be so kind at our next meeting. Good day to you.”

Jack was dumfounded. He still felt he had done nothing wrong, he was merely trying to make the cow look her best so she could fetch a better price. He thought the attorney was just overreacting so he decided to call upon the storekeeper to set about making a deal.

Jack made his way to the back of the store, and tied the cow in an out of the way area. He entered the store, whereupon he was immediately greeted by the storekeeper, “Good morning young man, did you ever pawn that played out milk cow off onto anybody?”

Incredulously, Jack responded, “What do you mean, sir, my cow is a vision of vim and vigor.”

“Young man, I’ve seen every trick in the book come through here, although I must admit, yesterday was the first time I have ever seen someone fool enough to rub pine resin into the coat of a milk cow. My guess is you never sold the cow yesterday and this morning you found all that resin balled up in little pellets? Am I close?”

“Well sir…,” Jack stammered, until deciding to come clean, “Yes sir, but I didn’t mean no harm by it, I was just trying to fetch a good price for our cow because mama told me to try and get as much out of it as I could.”

“So you’re mama put you up to doing it?”

“No sir. Mama don’t know nothing about what I did. That is all on me. She just meant for me to not get taken advantage of.”

“But it was alright for you to take advantage of others,” questioned the storekeeper.

“I didn’t mean nothing by it, I swear I didn’t.”

“Young man, I knew that you were trying to put one over on some unsuspecting victim yesterday when you turned down my offer of twenty dollars cash or thirty dollars in goods. Around here that is a fortune to get for a cow. I offered you that amount because I admired your initiative. I just never knew how greedy you were until you declined my offer,” the storekeeper chided him.

“I’m awful sorry about that, sir. I do apologize.” Having taken enough of this tongue-lashing, Jack decided it was best if he just left, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I guess I’d better be heading back home.”

“Hold up, young man,” interrupted the storekeeper, “Did you come in here to try and sell me the cow, again.”

“I did, sir, and again, I apologize, but I can tell you are no longer interested in buying the cow.”

“Then let that be a lesson to you. Twice you tried to take advantage of me, and twice I forgave you.” The storekeeper continued, “Now young man, if you are through trying to take advantage of me, then I really am interested in buying that cow.”

“Really, sir,” Jack questioned, “For the thirty dollars in goods?”

“No boy, that was yesterday’s price. Let’s go have a look at the cow and we’ll try and settle upon a fair price.” As they were walking out to see the cow, the storekeeper asked Jack how many siblings he had.

“Four,” answered Jack, “but I’m the oldest.”

“Let’s see then. Five youngins and selling the family milk cow. Things must be pretty hard for your family,” the storekeeper commented.

“Yes sir, they have been since my paw died. Mama didn’t want to sell our cow but we need other things worse, I reckon,” Jack confessed.

“That’s mighty noble of her. I’ll tell you what, I’m not going to buy your cow, but I would like to accompany you back home to meet your mother.”

Jack didn’t know what to say except, “it’s a far piece, it’ll take the better part of the day.”

“Well then young man, just let me tell my assistant and we will be on our way.”

That evening when Jack arrived back home with the cow in hand, his mama looked very forlorn and defeated about his returning without any foodstuffs. He was only beginning to tell her about his trip when she saw the strange man coming through the yard gate.

“Jack, who is that?” his mama asked.

“Mama, this is the storekeeper for in town. He said he wanted to talk to you about something. He wouldn’t tell me even though I told him I was the man of the house.”

“Ma’am,” The storekeeper formally greeted her. “Might I have a word with you,” she nodded to the affirmative and invited him in to share the meager meal she had prepared for Jack.

Jack was just sure the storekeeper was going to tell mama about what he had done, and he knew she would be so ashamed of him and she’d probably wear him out with a cornstalk. It seemed like hours before the storekeeper came out of the house, when they did all Jack heard was the storekeeper telling his mother to send Jack down to the store tomorrow.

Jack also heard his mother tell the storekeeper that he was welcome to stay the night, but the storekeeper declined, saying he’d best on his way before more daylight was lost.

After the storekeeper left, Jack asked his mother what they had been talking about, and what was meant by the storekeeper telling her t send him to the store tomorrow.

“Well Jack. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers. That kind man just offered to buy all the butter, cheese and eggs we can supply him with, and he is offering us good prices for them, too. He said he knows how hard it must be for us, because his mama brought him up without a Daddy and he remembers how they went without food many a day. He’s offered to give us an advance that will cover our corn and salt and whatever else we need, and he said as long as we treat him fairly, he will treat us fairly.”

She didn’t mention anything about his deceitful plans in trying to sell the cow. Jack reckoned it was his punishment that he had to carry the guilt around inside of him. When he thought of it, he had to excuse himself for a few moments by saying he’d better go check on the cow. He didn’t know what to think about the opportunity that had just presented itself to his family, all Jack knew was he had certainly learned a valuable lesson over the past two days.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

West Virginia: Land of Tomatoes?

It's getting to be that time of year again. Time to be getting your tomato plants out into your garden. It seems that everyone I know has a few varieties that they swear by and plant year after year. Many people prefer to buy their plants every year from local greenhouses, since that is often the most convenient way for them to do it, however, many "tomato purists" prefer to grow their own plants from seed, especially if they have their own tomato secrets.

The flavor of a tomato will vary greatly based on variety and soil. So if you grow an Old German tomato in Cabell County, WV, it will likely taste somewhat different than one grown in Pendleton County, WV. Not better or worse, just different.

With all of the recent interest and popularity of heirloom tomatoes, I thought I'd do a little research on West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes. I was aware of a few varieties of West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes before starting this research, after all, my family has long sworn by the merits of West Virginia Centennial tomatoes because of their resistance to blight, and for flavor, nothing can even begin to come close to the Old German. Regardless of the variety you choose for your garden, remember, heirloom varieties are usually more flavorful and unique than hybrid varieties commonly found in greenhouses of the region.

I recall that my granddad always grew Early Girl tomatoes (a hybrid) because they ripened the earliest in the season, but he would always back up his Early Girl's with a more flavorful variety, usually Old German's. It was always sight (and sometimes a smell) to behold when visiting his house in the late summer heat. Nobody I knew had air conditioning then, so we would all gather on the front porch. Incidentally, this was also the location where Granddad would store all of his ripe tomatoes. He had a huge shelf at the end of the porch, right beside of the porch swing, where he would place nearly ripened tomatoes. In the late afternoon, the yellow jackets would be attracted to the sweet smell of the ripe tomatoes, and it seems we were always swatting them away. Nobody ever did anything about removing the tomatoes from the front porch, so I suppose dealing with the yellow jackets was all part of the experience of tomato time at granddad's house.

I asked my granddad one time, why did he pick the tomatoes when they were nearly ripe and sit them up to ripen, when he could just as easily let them ripen on the vine. Chickens, he said. Chickens will peck a ripe tomato faster than a flea will jump on a dog's back. So to protect his tomatoes, he would always pick them, and sit them on the porch shelf to complete the ripening process. Fencing the garden to keep out the chickens was unheard of, this was just how things were done. Then you had personal preferences coming into play, some of the family liked firm, tart tomatoes, so they would choose from the bounty, the newest specimens, as they were still not quite fully ripe. These tended to be firmer. Other family members preferred "mooshy 'maters", those were the quite often, over-ripened individuals that were almost ready for the slop bucket. Many days, i'd see my mother make herself a mooshy 'mater sandwich and watch the juice drip from her elbows. The tomatoes would be that juicy and ripe. When the tomatoes became over ripe, even past the "mooshy 'mater" stage, they would end up in one of the slop buckets around the corner of the house. Every morning and evening, my granddad would inspect his bounty and pick out the worst of the lot, and off they'd go to the hogs. I should also mention that the tomatoes on the porch were also home canned and put up for winter, but as anyone who grows tomatoes will know, when you are blessed with a bounty of tomatoes, they will cover you up.

No matter where you live, and whether you prefer hard, meaty tomatoes or mooshy 'maters, I urge you to consider planting a couple of varieties of West Virginia Heirloom tomatoes in your garden this year. I'll think you'll be happy you did.

Below is a list that I have compiled of West Virginia Heirloom Tomato Varieties, it is not a complete list, and if you know of others, please let me know. To obtain any of these varieties, a simple google search will locate a retailer who will be happy to hook you up, and remember, if you save a few of your West Virginia Heirloom tomato seeds after this growing season, you can plant them again next year. Who knows, perhaps someday, you will have developed an heirloom variety of your own.

West Virginia Heirloom Tomato Varieties:


Akers WV



Big Sandy



Cindy's West Virginia



Dr. Suds Capon Bridge

Germaid Red

Gallo Plum

Giant Syrian

Golden Ponderosa


Homer Fike's Yellow Oxheart

Irish Pink

Kellogg’s Breakfast (there is some dissent on whether this is actually a WV Heirloom, but we’ll claim it as one of our own).

Mortgage Lifter

Mountaineer Mystery

Mountain Princess

Old German

Paw Paw

Striped German

Tappy’s Finest



Watermelon Pink

West Virginia

West Virginia 63

West Virginia Centennial

West Virginia Penitentiary

West Virginia Straw

West Virginia Yellow

Yellow Cookie

So which West Virginia Heirloom varieties would you like to try this year? Have you tried any of them in the past? What were your experiences with them?

I'd better end this post quickly, suddlenly i'm feeling the need for a great big "mooshy 'mater" sandwich fresh from granddad's front porch.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hope in the Redbud Trees

I was looking at the blooming redbud trees up on the mountain
And eating what was left of my chocolate Easter rabbit,
When mama came running out of the kitchen door, hollering about how
There was something going on down at the mine.

Mawmaw jumped in the car, and drove us down to the mine.
She kept repeating over and over, “My baby, my baby...”
I ran after mama and mawmaw as they made their way to a crowd,
Who were gathered near the mine gates.

Some woman in a loud, white Pontiac pulled up.
Her radio was playing a Patsy Cline song.
Tears had cut through the make-up on her face.
She carried with her a picture of her husband, who was in the mine.

Some miners came around, telling how there was an explosion,
They just shook their heads, and said it was bad. Real bad.
Mama began to pray aloud, and the crowd hushed with bowed heads.
I just watched the mine and waited for Daddy to come out.

More people gathered around. Rumors ran wild.
The air was tense; strangers cried on each other’s shoulders.
Fire trucks and rescue squads arrived, some from places I’d never heard of.
But no news from the company ever came around.

The news people came with their lights and big camera’s.
They were trying to interview people for the evening news.
They were looking for answers, just like everybody else.
With melted chocolate covered hands, I waved to them.

A preacher went over to the camera people,
He asked them to leave the families alone for awhile,
On TV, he asked viewers for pray for the miners and their families.
The news people went away, out to the road, and stopped people to talk to.

Word came around that seven men were dead.
More were trapped inside. Nobody knew exactly who or how many.
Everybody waited for news and for the company to update them,
And they clung to hope as the evening slipped into night.

Some men from a rescue squad came over.
Many of them were crying, but more of them were trying not to cry.
They shared some of the names of the dead they’d seen on a list.
The names of the dead went through the crowd, repeated from every lip.

When the names reached mama, she let loose a cutting scream,
And mawmaw fell to the ground and sat there holding her head in her hands.
With forced strength, mama whispered to me, “Baby, your daddy went with Jesus.”
Through my tears, I saw the blooming redbud trees up on the mountain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Look Back at Bee Tree Creek

Samuel Paris McKinney (1822-1898)

The following story is about my wife Shirley's great-great-great grandfather. This story has been handed down for several generations, and was shared with me. Now I am sharing it with you.

Samuel Paris McKinney was born in 1822, and he lived most of his life in the rugged, wild mountains of Wyoming County, West Virginia. He received a land grant on Barker's Ridge where he made his home, but more often than not, could be found near his favorite hunting spot on Bee Tree Creek (which borders present day Wyoming and Raleigh counties). In Samuel Paris' days, there weren't many people in the Bee Tree Creek area and the hunting was excellent, perhaps even the best in the region. It was also considered so wild of an area that many men avoided it. People told tales of ferocious animals, evil spirits and even wild Indian hold-outs when speaking of the area. The tales grew even more frightening when they spoke of the great laurel thicket, a defining feature of the area. Samuel Paris liked it when he heard these stories; to him as long as people were afraid of the area it would remain wild and free of settlement. Taking advantage of the situation, he was often alone when he hunted, trapped and spent a great deal of time along Bee Tree Creek even though his official home was on Barker's Ridge, several miles away.

When Samuel Paris hunted, he carried with him a pack bag typical of men of the time. By his side was a mountain rifle and a tomahawk. His rifle was so long that many men found it nearly impossible to hold because the barrel was so long. There were newer rifles available to him, but his daddy had given him his rifle and it was a good rifle so he saw no need to "upgrade". He was known to be quite fearless in his exploits, taking chances that many deemed unnecessary but to him they were just everyday actions of living. Samuel Paris was known throughout the region as one of the first to raise hunting dogs, and his dogs were considered to be among the best bred and most well-trained in the region. Men would come from miles around to trade or buy a pup off of him, and it soon came to pass that having a good hunting dog by your side was essential to every hunting man in the area.

One time over on Bee Tree Creek, Samuel Paris had his favorite dog with him, and it wasn't too long until the dog picked up the trail of a great bear. When the bear realized it was being trailed, it broke into a full run right into the great laurel thicket. He had trained his dogs never to go into a laurel thicket after a bear because more often than not that action was a death sentence on the dog and quite often the man, too. But this time and against all its training, his favorite dog found a low trail and went into the laurel thicket after the bear.

Since this was his favorite dog, Samuel Paris saw no other option besides to go in after the dog. If it hadn't been his favorite dog, he probably would have just made camp and hoped the dog returned out of the thicket, but he just couldn't wait and hope when it came to his favorite dog. So against his better judgement he entered the laurel thicket after the dog. He planned on just retrieving the dog and getting out as quickly as possible, and his decision was justified after he entered the thicket. The laurel grew so thick that he was forced to crawl in many places, and seldom was there an area where a man could even stand upright. He was about a hundred yards into the laurel thicket when he located the dog, but soon realized that simply retrieving it wasn't an option. You see, the great bear had the dog penned up in a corner between two vertical cliffs on Bee Tree Creek, and was slowly closing in on it.

At this point, Samuel Paris was crawling along through the thicket as quickly as he could manage, trying to get to an open area where he could raise his gun. As it was, there was no chance of getting off a shot at the bear since he was practically dragging the rifle alongside of his body. He finally made his way into Bee Tree Creek, where the flowing water offered a slight opening in the laurel. But as he raised his rifle to shoot the bear, the bear had moved in so close to the trapped dog that it was impossible to get a shot at it for fear of hitting the dog.

Quick thinking coupled with the inherent and passionate bravery of a mountain Scotsman, Samuel Paris McKinney instantly came upon a plan. Without a moment's hesitation, he pulled out the tomahawk from his belt, ran up to the bear and grabbed the great beast by the hair on the nape of its neck, quickly and deftly swung the tomahawk once and split the bear's skull wide open, killing it instantly. For years afterward, stories were recounted about how Samuel Paris McKinney had killed a bear with only a tomahawk and in the process had saved his favorite hunting dog, all without getting so much as a single scratch on him.

In the years following this account, progress inevitably took its toll upon the region, and the great laurel thicket was cut down and the area along Bee Tree Creek was settled. Later, coal mines dotted the landscape. As the area grew in population, Samuel Paris began to stay on his land high up on Barker's Ridge, and in his last days raised and sold hunting dogs to make a living. Men would come from miles around to buy his dogs and hear him regale his tales of yesteryear. The time of the rugged mountaineer had come to an end and those times were now found only in story form. And oh what great stories Samuel Paris McKinney told.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Times Up On Pinchgut

The wind come a-whippin' around the corner of the house last night about midnight with such ferocity that it brought to mind the time me and Vern Cassell was coon huntin' up on Pinchgut. Pinchgut, you ask? Well Pinchgut was a holler that was so steep that the only way to get to the head of it was to go right up the crick bed or else you'll give out. It was up on the mountain from where we lived and it was so steep that nobody could ever farm anything up in there. It was almost too rough to even hunt in, and most people avoided it like the plague.

It was almost midnight, as I recall, and was gettin' down in the fall of the year and me and Vern was out coon huntin'. We'd only been out for a few minutes when we heard the dogs and knew they was on the trail of a coon. We took up the ridge after them, figgering they'd go out toward the spring and the persimmon grove. It wasn't long after being on their trail that we seen they was headin' up into Pinchgut. We knew we was in for a time right then and there, but we also knowed that if we didn't go in after the dogs that Ol' Mag, the lead hound, would stay on the trail until she dropped dead right in her tracks. They wasn't no callin' her off the trail once she was on it, either. Well, we started up into Pinchgut, making our way through the laurel thickets and acrosst downed tree's, until we got right near the head of the holler. We stopped for a minute and listened for the dogs, and wouldn't you know it, halfway up the hillside stood Ol' Mag and the rest of the dogs baying at a big oak tree. We knew they had something treed and we knew we had to try and get up there to them, or else they'd stay there until they barked themselves hoarse or something worse.

Well, me and Vern started up the hillside, grabbing onto saplings to make our way, and having to stop ever so often to catch our breath. That hill was so steep that at one point we noticed we was climbing down the hill but still having to hang onto the saplings to keep us from falling off of it. After about an hour or so, we finally come up on Ol' Mag, and she looked at us like we'd abandoned her because it took us so long to get up there to her. But all was forgiven, all the way around, when we seen what Ol' Mag had treed a big she-coon, she must have been about 50 pounds if it was an ounce, and it had its 8 twenty pound pups with it. Vern got the monkey trembles, he was so excited at the prospect of all that coon, that he lost his balance and took to falling up and down the hillside. He caught hisself about 50 yards down. He told me that I'd better go ahead and shoot 'em down since he didn't think he could make it all the way back up to the tree. So I up and shoot, and dang if that wasn't the steepest tree I'd ever seen, 'cause my shot just went up halfway and got lost, and come peppering back down on me. I tried again and the same thing happened. Then I took to studying on the situation and figgered the easiest way to get the ol' she-coon and her pups out of the tree was to cut the tree. I reckoned I'd chop down that big oak tree and send it ball hootin' down into the holler where we'd collect the coons. I had my hatchet for just the occassion, and I soon set to work gnawing at that tree like a beaver.

About halfway through chopping it down, Vern hollered up the hill at me and asked me if I heard that. I stopped and listened and heard one of the most God-Awful sounds a-comin up the ridge, sounded like Beezlebub hisself a-comin. Then we seen it, it was a white mass of wind a-tearin' out trees and stumps and lifting up leaves and swirlin' them around like you ain't never seen. Me and Vern figgered it was one of them tornadeys like we'd heard about from out west. People had been sayin' that so many people had been going west that the tornadeys was being pushed out of that country and had nowheres else to go but to come back east. Yessiree, it was one of the tornadeys and it was snow white and it was a-bearin' down on us. When that thing got to the mouth of Pinchgut, it cut up in the holler, right along the same route that me and Vern had took earlier. Well, that Ol' tornadey soon figured out that it made a big mistake because the hillsides up in Pinchgut was too steep for it to climb so it stayed right in the crickbed. It made it up to the head of the holler and then it spotted us and took to comin' at us like a banshee on the warpath.

Vern braced for it, but I took to hacking at that tree like nobody's business, and just in time I hollered "TIMBER" and watched that old oak tree fall square on top of that ol' charging tornadey. Yessirree, it killed it deader that 4 O'clock, it did. Thing of it is when that tornadey got kilt, it dropped all that dirt and all those rocks that it had been haulin' inside of it, and it filled in the whole of Pinchgut, I mean to tell you that ol' tornadey quit blowing just like somebody put a warshtub over it. By the time it got done filling up Pinchgut, poor ol' Vern was standing knee deep in prime Kansas cropland.

We was so dumbfounded by this that we had nearly forgot about the ol' she-coon and her pups, but I heard a rustlin' in the leaves and there she stood, grinnin' at me like a kid at a carnival. She knew as well as I knew that after what we had been through together, there wasn't no way neither me or Vern was gonna hurt her, so I just says to her, "Ol' Mother, you'd better get. Ain't nobody here gonna harm you." I do believe that ol' she-coon was dancin' a jig as she walked with her pups out on that new plowed dirt that we got from the dead tornadey, she only stopped to pick up a giant ear of corn, courtesy of some unknown Kansas farmer.

Now you might ask, what ever happened to Ol' Mag? Well, I was saddened to see her get buried in the aftermath of the dead tornadey, but you know what, about a week later she dug her way up out of that holler, up through all that loose dirt, and took out on the trail of that ol' she-coon. I ain't seen her since, but I reckon she's still somewhere up on the mountain trailin' that ol' coon 'cause Ol' Mag never was a dog to give up the trail.

Now that was something, I ain't never seen nothin' like it since but I reckon that wind last night come close to it. Good thing I built me a nice sturdy house out of good oak, or else I'd likely have been tryin' to hang onto the side of Pinchgut holler again instead of sittin' in here by the fire in a fine house on the best farm in Pendleton County.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Winter Sets In

The slate gray abyss presses down upon
my mountain home,

It forces an uneasy feeling upon us
And causes Maw to snip at us.

“Was you born in a barn?”

“Don’t track in that mud!”

“Deed in God, ain’t you got a lick of sense?”

My wisecracking brother can’t help himself and responds:

“I don’t know, Maw, was I?”

“If they ain’t no tracks, how will it find its way back outside?”

“I reckon not, why do you keep asking?”

A glance out the kitchen window confirms
what is already known. The cold spell isn't letting up.

“I sure wish this ol’ weather would break,” Maw says,
as she returns to kneading her bread dough.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Camp Chase

Today finds me thinking about my gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Joseph Lantz, and the horrors he must have witnessed and was subjected to while in the Confederate Service. He was a Captain in the North Fork Militia,and was in active during the Battle of Riverton.

The Battle of Riverton site.

Captured near the end of the War Between the States (or as some of us were brought up hearing, "The War of Northern Aggression") my grandfather was held prisoner in Camp Chase Prison in Ohio. What pure hell this must have been for him and his companions. Camp Chase Prison was opened in May 1861 and remained open throughout the War. It was located about 4 miles from Columbus, Ohio. The prison held a large population of men from the mountains of West Virginia. For these men, their world must have been turned upside down. Not only were they prisoners, but they were prisoners in a foreign land. To these men of the rugged mountains, I’m sure Camp Chase was like a foreign country. Even today, when I am out of my mountains, I feel a great unease and get the feeling that if only I could get back into the mountains, then all would be right with the world. How these men must have gazed and wished for the mountains that they knew lay far to the East.

My gr-gr-gr-gr-grandfather, Joseph Lantz.

Growing up, I heard stories from the older folks about the living conditions at Camp Chase Prison. Of course, they had heard these stories from their elders, and theirs before them. A few former prisoners from Pendleton County described Camp Chase prison as a big mud hole. They said the water was dirty and the food was wormy. They told of how the men would sit around and tell stories of home and what they were going to go when the War was over. I recall hearing a story about how one man in Camp Chase prison had made a pet out of a big rat, and one time the rations were so scarce that a bunch of his cohorts killed the rat and made soup out of it.

One of the best Camp Chase prison recollections, to me, was recorded by the Hammons Family titled, “Camp Chase”. At the beginning of the track, Burl Hammons talks about stories that he grew up hearing about Camp Chase. He talked of how the men were mistreated at the Yankee prison and how the prisoners simply wanted to go home, so much so that it consumed them. The story continues with how the Yankee captain liked fiddle music and told his Confederate captives whichever man played him the best fiddle tune, he would set that man free. If this is a true story, can you imagine how much heart and soul went into this fiddle contest, these men would have been playing for their very lives. As the contest progressed, one man played a tune that absolutely floored the Yankee captain, because it was just that good. For all the people who like fiddle music, they know how the fiddle puts lyrics right into the tune and that the tune tells the story. Well, after the contest, the Yankee captain lived up to his word and gave the man his freedom, but before the man left the captain asked, “What was the name of that fiddle tune?” to which the man replied, “It’s a tune that I came up with, and the name of it is “Camp Chase!” I don’t know of the Hammons story is true, but I do know that I can’t listen to the tune, “Camp Chase” without hearing the suffering of the prisoners, and hearing the hopes of freedom and home that these men held so dear. I can sympathize with these men who longed for the mountains for Camp Chase would have been both a physical and mental Hell for them.

I’m sure my grandfather tried for the rest of his life to forget Camp Chase, but at least he got to return home to his beloved Germany Valley after the War. So many prisoners died at Camp Chase and are buried there.

Camp Chase Cemetery. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Here's a Youtube video of Betty Vornbrock doing a great version of "Camp Chase".

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wintertime Realization

Germany Valley, Pendleton County, WV. Photo courtesy of R. Jason Burns.

"These Dark & Dreary Days"
by Matthew Burns

These dark, dreary days of winter,
Press down upon my soul,
And leach the life from me,
Like a succubus in the night.

Once I was like a seed in the ground,
Waiting, germinating, hopeful.
But the bitter, lifeless days have surrounded me.
And cloaked me with their siphoning darkness.

The light on my path is extinguished.
I realize now with maudlin clarity,
It was these dark, dreary days of winter,
That incubated my soul.