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WEST VIRGINIA RAMBLES
I HAD followed up the south branch of the Potomac to a region where the narrow valley was hemmed in by mountain ranges. Woodland predominated on the steeps, and the green forest billows often heaved skyward in uninterrupted succession. But many of the milder, nearer heights had been shorn of their natural tree growth, and formal peach orchards had been started. These orchards occupied the topmost slopes and summits and made such mountains look as if they had been scalped. As seen from the valley the peach trees appeared very diminutive, even when full-grown, and you might fancy you were looking at a potato patch. The slopes on which the trees grew were often surprisingly precipitous. Any grade that would hold soil was practical, and it seemed quite possible in places to stand on the uphill side of the trees and pick fruit from their highest branches.
Here and there the valley was invaded by a big hill that the road was obliged to climb directly over, and on the crests of these hills the highway in some instances crept along the verge of a bluff with the river directly below. Then I could overlook the irregular valley in either direction and see the patchwork of farmlands where the corn and wheat and grass crops were growing, and where the sleek cattle were grazing in the generous pastures.
It was early in June, and the farmers were harvesting their first crop of alfalfa. “That air alfalfa is fine stuff,” one man said to me. “We get three and four crops a year.”
He was in his barnyard, which adjoined the road with the barn and a medley of sheds. That was a usual arrangement of the farm premises. They presented their most unsavory aspect to the passer on the highway, and the house was in the background pleasantly environed in foliage. Several of the farm household were giving a horse an antidote for the distemper. They had a little bellows smoke-making apparatus, and used portions of a big hornet’s nest for fuel. The smoke was blown up the nostrils of the horse, who submitted more amiably than one would expect, though with evident disgust. She was a very pretty, light-footed creature, and the farmer said: “She’s a saddler from way back — never was hooked up, never has had a harness on. If you’ll look over that-a-way you’ll see a horse in the pasture. He’s a driving horse and ain’t any good to ride. He trots so solid you can’t hardly sit on him. It’s seldom a horse is good for harness and saddle both.”
Horseback riding was a common mode of locomotion throughout the region. So it is in all parts of the rural South, probably because of the scattered population and poor roads. The road I was travelling dipped into a hollow just beyond the barnyard where I had stopped, and the strewing of stones in this hollow showed that a torrent of considerable size coursed down it after heavy rains. My farm acquaintance said that occasionally the stream swelled to such proportions that it could not be forded, and he called my attention to the “watering-gates” in the fence on either side. These gates were sections of fencing made fast at the top so that the rising water would swing them upward, and they would not dam back the water, catch rubbish, or be carried away. When the water receded they would fall back to their original position.
As I was about to start to go on, the farmer said, “What is your name, if I may ask?”
I told him, and he remarked: “I’m a Pancake. Funny name, ain’t it? We’re all Pancakes along this valley for ten miles or more. Over the mountain to the west they’re all Parkers for about the same distance.”
“How can I get over there?” I inquired.
“The best way from where you are at now,” he said, “is to keep on along the road to the next big pasture. You go across that and the cornfield beyond, and in the farthest corner of the cornfield you’ll find a path that will take you through the trees on the river bank to a footbridge. Right on the other side of the river is a road that goes over the mountain.”
A log house on the mountain
I decided to visit the land of the Parkers and was presently crossing the pasture and cornfield, avoiding as well as I could the muddy spots and the tangles along the fences where poison ivy lurked. When I reached the river the bridge proved to be a suspension affair made of wires with a slatted footway. It served chiefly to give the farmer owner access to such of his fields as were on the opposite side of the stream from his residence. Beneath my footsteps the bridge teetered and wobbled and creaked rather alarmingly, and I was thankful when the passage had been safely made. On the bank was a lonely farmhouse and a small store. A man was just coming out of the door of the latter with a plug of tobacco he had bought, and I asked him for directions. After he had got a quid in his mouth and spit once or twice he pointed to a gate and told me to go through that.
Appearances suggested that the road did not lead anywhere except to some woodlot, but I went through the heavy gate past a group of mildly curious cows and on up the steep hill and through another gate into the woods. The road, with many a twist and turn, followed up a ravine that partially cleft the mountain barrier. At one place another road parted from it, and there, just aside from the wheel tracks, stood a little white schoolhouse. Roundabout rose the green-walled forest, and the woodland birds sang, and a light breeze whispered in the upper foliage of the trees, but I could hear no human sound nor see the least indication that any habitations were near. The door was locked, and the building vacant, for it was vacation time. I looked in at a window and observed the rude, unpainted box desks. Conspicuous on the walls hung two mottoes — “Never be Idle” and “God Sees Me.”
I resumed my upward climb and at last reached the summit of the mountain where I found fencing and another ponderous gate. Soon there began to be clearings and farmhouses at intervals along the slender descending highway. I stopped at one of these dwellings. It was of logs and was typically Southern, with whitewashed walls, a porch extending across the front, and a great chimney built up against one end. The adjacent road was hemmed in by zigzag rail fences, but there was no gate or barway to give entrance to the yard, and every one came and went over a low place where two or three of the top rails had been taken off. A request for a drink of water served as an introduction, and then I sat down on the porch, and the family gathered there to visit with me. Through the open house-door I could see a fireplace filled with laurel, and a ceiling of whitewashed floor boards and supporting crosspieces that was so low the farmer had to stoop as he walked through the room. He had to stoop still more to come out of the door.
“The best time to see this country,” he said, “is when the peaches are ripe. They raise some of the nicest peaches here you ever laid your eyes on. We’ve got a small orchard on this place — about a thousand trees. That’s only a garden patch compared with the hundreds of acres some have. It’ll give you a notion of the scale they work on here when I tell you that this spring I saw seven four-horse wagon loads of trees goin’ to a single orchard to be planted. There’s a lot of work in the business, but most of the year five men can take care of a hundred-acre orchard, but thirty or forty men are needed to pick and pack the fruit. Peaches run four months or more here. I’ve seen lots of ‘em ripe by the Fourth of July, and we can keep the last ones up to Christmas by wrapping ‘em. One thing I don’t like is that we have to pick ‘em before they’re good and ripe in order to get ‘em to market. You could n’t handle ‘em to ship ‘em on the railroad if you let ‘em get ripe. It looks curious to see the orchards all up on the mountains. The land in the valleys is just as good for ‘em, but the tree would run too much risk of freezing. The cold settles in the hollows. You go through a low place on a cool, still night, and the frost will pinch your nose, but you’ll feel the air grow warmer as soon as you strike a rising grade.”
“If you’d come along this morning,” the housewife said, “I could have shown you a wild turkey. It was a young one that Will caught right in the middle of the field where he was ploughing potatoes. He heard the old bird call tereckly in the woods close by, and it must have had a nest there. Will brought the small one home, but the poor little thing was so scarey it could n’t eat. If you took it up in your hands it would blow like a snake, and jus’ as soon as you let it go it would creep around wild-like and get into some hole. Toward noon it died, and the boys buried it. Turkeys are pretty delicate things, I tell you — even the tame ones. If a little wild turkey grows up with our tame flock it gets very wild in the fall, and when it eats it’ll never give mo’ than three or four picks without putting up its head and lookin’ in every direction.”
“I killed a wild turkey last Thanksgiving Day,” Will said, “and I got another the day before Christmas. They’re darker than tame turkeys and their feathers don’t have quite the same markings. They can make a good strong flight, but it ain’t easy for ‘em to rise out of the hollers. They need to start on an elevation. The large males weigh anywhere from twelve to twenty-five pounds. We used to could ship them to the cities and get a fancy price, but that’s against the law now.
“I take my gun along when I’m goin’ out to chop in the woods or when I go of a morning to shuck corn in a field surrounded by heavy timber. The turkeys come into the cornfield to eat. I go quiet, and they’re hungry and so don’t notice me as quick as usual. Sometimes I scatter a trail of corn and hide in the brush by a rail fence. That gives a feller a chance to get mo’ than one. I’ve seen as high as forty in a single drove. Since the game laws have been made strict they’re gettin’ mo’ plenty. They stay in the mountain all winter, and feed in the grainfields, and at the cornstacks, and they eat sumac seeds and dogwood berries and wild grapes. We often hear them gobbling in the spring. Once in a while a man will take one of the wing bones and go out in the woods near some high place, and put the bone in his mouth and imitate the gobbling. That’ll bring the turkeys near enough for him to get a shot.”
“I had an adventure the other day,” the housewife said. “Will had borrowed a lantern of a neighbor when he was out one dark evening, and I was going along a woodroad taking the lantern home. I was thinkin’ of snakes. The children’s grandmother has always warned ‘em to carry a knife to defend themselves with if a snake tried to wrap around ‘em, and she’d tell ‘em an awful story about a woman that was crushed to death by a snake. I decided that if a snake coiled round me I’d take a rock and use it to cut off the snake’s head.
“Jus’ then something dashed up into my sunbonnet with a great flutter and tried to pick my face. Until I could get my eyes clear I thought it was a snake, and I struck at it with the lantern. It did n’t fight me very long, and as soon as it quit I saw it was a pheasant, or what you people up North call a partridge. Right beside the road were as many as fifteen of its young ones, but they all scattered and hid under leaves, and in a few moments I could n’t see a one of ‘em. The old bird ran away with its feathers all standing out as if it was some furry animal, and it was cryin’ so pitiful I was sorry for it. ‘You need n’t be afraid, little bird,’ I said. ‘I won’t hurt you;’ and I went on about my business.”
“Grandma and Aunt Jane won’t either of ‘em travel up this holler alone,” the man said. “They’re afraid of snakes, bears, mountain lions, and I don’t know what. So they always go in pairs.”
“Well, they do say there are wildcats around here,” his wife remarked.
“Yes,” Will agreed, “there’s some few, but not many. Our next neighbor up above told me that the first day this season when he took his cattle through the gap to the mountain pasture they were frightened and ran up into the woods, and he heard a wildcat scream. It’s a shrill, unpleasant sound that makes a feller feel bad when he’s out in a lonely place.”
On a shed in the yard was a coonskin stretched drying. “The boys and I got that coon one night last week,” Will said. “We’d been to the creek giggin’, and was comin’ home along a run — that’s the name we give to a small stream what you can step or jump over — when the dog got after a coon. They had n’t run far before the coon went up a sycamore tree, and I climbed up after it. The tree was full of seed fuzz, and when I got to shaking it back and forth I could only cough and sneeze. But I dislodged the coon, and by the time I climbed down, the dog had killed it. I’m goin’ to take the hide to the tannery and have it made into gloves.”
The company on the piazza included a young woman relative of the family whose home was in town. “I went giggin’ with ‘em that night,” she said. “Will had on these here gum shoes to keep from slippin’, but the boys was barefoot. The water was cold, and yet Will went out cle’r up to his middle. The gig was a pole with a four-barbed prong on the end. We had a lantern, and we had a great big wire basket full of blazing pieces of fat pine. The basket was fastened to a pole that Will held out in front of him in his left hand with the help of a strap from his shoulder, and he would gig with his right hand. The fire made such a bright light he could see the fish a-layin’ restin’ right at the bottom of the crick. I took the fish off the gig, and I was jus’ crazy to gig a snake I found, but they would n’t let me run the gig into it, for fear it was poison and the gig might afterward poison the fish so we would n’t dare eat ‘em. We got sunfish and bass and suckers — thirty-four in all — and the largest ones weighed as much as two pounds. Besides, we gigged three eels and ten frogs. You know frog legs are quite a delicacy. They certainly were fine. Yes, and we ate our coon, too. You betcher we did. I’m a great lover of wild meat. Why, I like ground hog. You first boil ‘em till they’re tender, then roll ‘em in flour and fry ‘em in butter, and they’re as nice meat as you could ask.”
“Not for the one that cooks ‘em,” the housewife said. “They’re the fattest things I’ve ever seen, and when you get the smell of ‘em while they’re cooking that’s all you want. One whiff is enough for me.”
“You must have cooked an old one,” the other woman retorted, “and naturally that was strong and didn’t eat very good.”
“We have cold winters here in the mountains,” the farmer observed. “But I knowed a man whose home was within two miles of here who told me he never wore shoes till he was ten years old. He’d run out barefoot in the snow, and yet he was always hearty and lived to a ripe old age. He was a regular old-time man. It was his way to be very stingy and close, and he got to be worth right smart of money, for he never spent any foolishly. He was in a constant worry about the affairs of other people, and when a young couple married and their families thought they was makin’ a fine match he’d shake his head and say, ‘Time’ll tell.’ If the marriage was among the poor mountain people he’d say, ‘I wonder where they’ll squat at.’
“He was fretting as to how this one and that one would get along, and was always foreseeing difficulties. Really, those he pitied got more out of life than he did, and so it is generally. The poor are the happiest people we have. There’s lots of ‘em up in the mountains who don’t know what they’ll have to eat from one day to another, and at the same time they are enjoyin’ themselves.
“The old man I was speakin’ of used tobacker. He’d take some and chew it a while and then put it in a box to keep it for further use. He’d chew it again and again, adding a little nip of unchewed to freshen it up now and then, and he would n’t throw it away till it was white.”
“He sure got all the good out of it,” the housewife commented, “or all the bad.”
“As long as he lived he economized in just such ways as that,” the man continued; “and he left a fortune to his nephew who’s spending it jus’ as fast as the old gentleman saved it, and maybe faster. The nephew don’t chew his tobacker more’n once. His uncle was a bright old feller to talk with and a fine man to work for; and though he was close in a deal he was straight up and down in business and perfectly honest.
“He never married, but there was a lady that he courted, and three different times they set the day for the wedding, and each time he made some excuse for delaying the ceremony. All his life he was attentive to her, and he was doubly so if any one else came around with an appearance of wanting her. Well, you can’t see the heart, and I don’t know whether she suffered or not. She always thought he would remember her in his will, but he did n’t.”
“Those two boys have got to pick some strawberries,” the housewife said, indicating a couple of youngsters who were playing with the dog in the yard. “I sent them a while ago to pick four baskets that I’ve promised to a neighbor, but they did n’t fill the baskets good and full.”
I said I would go with them, and the man went along, too. We went through a gate into a pasture, and on the far side of the pasture passed through a second gate into a field, and a little farther on we climbed a high fence and were in the strawberry patch. This was on such a marvellously steep slope that the grip of the plants’ hold on the earth seemed decidedly precarious, and you could fancy that a picker in an unguarded moment might lose his balance and roll down and get a new pattern on his clothing. The man said he had to work the land with a mule, and I could readily understand that a horse would not be sure-footed enough for so steep a slant.
“I’ve got much better soil than this for berries,” the man remarked, “but on rich ground the weeds whip you out.”
He called my attention to a heap of brush just over the fence. “I killed a rattlesnake in there last year,” said he. “I was digging sprouts and disturbed him, and the first thing I knew I heard the old feller rattle, and I smelt his poison. Then I tore the brush heap to pieces, and suddenly he made a dive for me. But luckily he did n’t get me, and I killed him with my hoe. He had nine rattles and was fully six feet long. I saved the hide. Ladies like to have belts made out of a snake-hide. The skin is very thin and has to be stretched on to leather, and after that buckles can be sewed on.”
It did not take us long to gather the few berries that were needed, and then we returned as we had come. But when we got to the highway I went on down the mountain until I had left the woodland behind and was in a fertile, well-tilled valley. Toward night I stopped at a farmhouse and engaged lodging. Behind the dwelling was a broad level of luscious fields. In front was a little strip of steep pasturage and an abrupt wooded ridge. I sat down on the piazza where a ponderous elderly man was perusing a newspaper. He nodded to me and said: “The weather’s quite cool for this time of year. We had a frost last night, but it’s in the dark of the moon, and so our crops wa’n’t hurt.”
Just then a small boy came running around the corner of the house. Another boy, uttering cries of wrath, followed in hot pursuit. It seemed that the former was running away with the latter’s hat; but my companion brought the chase to a close by crying out in a voice that had a thunderous rumble in it: “Give your brother his hat. I’m goin’ to git a holt of you, sir, unless you do.”
Presently a younger man joined us. His hobby appeared to be automobiles. The highway was much frequented by them, and he commented on every one that passed — told what make it was and its faults and virtues. “The fact is, I don’t like farmin’,” he explained, “and I’ve got a little repair shop and do considerable work tinkerin’ mobubbles in it. They’re always gettin’ out of whack, you know, and their owners often only have gumption enough to start and stop ‘em and keep ‘em in the road. There’s another one passing. What a racket it makes ! — reminds me of a manure-spreader. I’ll show you my shop if you care to see it.”
So I visited the shop and saw its varied tools and mechanical devices. In an adjacent shed the young man was making an automobile out of an old gasoline engine combined with parts of a sewing machine and mowing machine and other worn-out farm machines. There were ingenious contrivances also whereby the engine could be made to run a churn, a band saw, a corn sheller, and a grindstone.
“I’ve monkeyed with a little bit of everything,” the young man remarked when we returned to the piazza. “Lately I’ve been thinkin’ I’d try raising ginseng. It grows wild in the mountains. I found quite a patch of it once up in a hollow on our land, and I was intending to dig it after a while. But we had a couple of men cutting pulp wood, and they run into it and dug it up on our time. They got eighteen pounds of dry roots that they sold for something like six or seven dollars a pound. We did n’t know what they’d done till several months later. I could have shipped it myself and got twenty dollars a pound. It’s a rich lookin’ plant, as you see it in the woods, with dark green leaves. There’s nothin’ else like it. I can tell a bunch of that amongst a thousand other plants. The mountaineers trail these mountains all through and hunt wild animals and dig out ginseng. They begin digging along about May or June, and keep on up to the time that the frost bites it. What they get is all shipped to China, where the people have a superstitious idea that it is a good medicine. There’s lots of herbs growing in our mountains that are of some use, such as lady slipper and coon root and May apple — I’ve e’t a many of them apples — rattleweed, elecampane, peppermint, calamus — they make a tea out of calamus which they claim is good for the colic — sassafras, wild hyssop, and sarsaparilla — that there is a blood-cleanser.
“You’d be surprised how ignorant the mountaineers are. They say ‘fernent’ for opposite, and ‘outen’ for out, and all that sort of brogue. The children grow up just as ignorant as their parents. They have enough natural ability and are good workers, and have reasonable horse sense, but they get no schooling and are heedless and dull. I knew an old feller who had eighteen children, and he said he did n’t want none of ‘em to learn to read or write. ‘I did n’t have any education,’ he said, ‘and there ain’t a blame bit of use in it. There’s too much readin’ goin’ on, and that’s what makes so many rascals and thieves.’
“He entertained himself chiefly by chewin’ tobacker and cursin’. He’s dead now, and the devil’s keepin’ him company maybe.
“There’s an old woman of that class of people who’s livin’ on a side road not a mile away. She talks like a lion a-roarin’ and looks vicious. It would n’t take her long to tell you that you were an infernal fool, and yet she don’t know A from a haystack. Her parents were first cousins, and there was something the matter with all their five children. Every one of ‘em had a room to rent in the upper story. But this woman has a son who’s all right. He’s sharp as a tack. That fellow has always got an answer for you.”
In the pasture across the road milking had begun, and I went to watch the process from near at hand. The milkers included the household grandmother, a recently adopted orphan girl, and the hired man. Grandma spent much of her time giving directions to the orphan, who was making her first attempt. “When I was ten years old,” Grandma said to her, “I could milk as well as I can now, and you’re thirteen.”
“But this cow won’t give down her milk,” the orphan complained.
“Talk about not givin’ down her milk!” Grandma scoffed, “why, her bag is just full of it.”
Then, after some detailed advice, she said: “There, you make it rattle in the bucket now. Oh, you’re milkin’ a heap better than when you started.”
After they finished their task Grandma looked into the orphan’s small tin pail, and said: “Well, you’ve filled your bucket, anyway, and you’ve got about as much more on your clothes. They’re wringin’ wet.”
By and by we had supper, and later the young farmer and I stood and chatted in the yard, while the hired man sat on the woodpile. This hired man was deaf and dumb. “He’s got some education at an institution,” said the farmer, “and I’ve learned the sign language so I can talk with him. He’s a pretty good worker, but he wants things to go his way, and his way is a mighty poor one. I’m ‘bout the only person who can manage him. If I send him off by himself to work he’s very apt to stand and talk — that is, go through the sign motions with his hands. But I suppose he has rather a lonesome time of it. I had him go along with me to a cattle-show last week, where, among other things, they exhibited a six-legged calf. That calf interested him very much. It tuck his mind off his self. You would n’t think it, but he’s got a right smart of money saved up. He never spends a cent if he can help it, and if it was left to him, his clothes would hang in shreds before he’d buy new ones. Well, let’s go in.”
He led the way to the parlor where he lit a lamp and handed me a piece of sheet music to look at. “It’s something I composed,” he said. “There was a small charge for getting it published, but it’s priced at fifty cents, and the publishers sent me two hundred copies. Perhaps you’d like to hear a little music.”
He produced a guitar and tuned it, put around his neck a wire so bent as to hold a “mouth-harp” before his face, and then played me various tunes grave and gay, meanwhile thumping the time with his foot. He wore his grimy working clothes, and retained on his head a misshapen old straw hat. The music brought the children into the room, and the gentle, sedate little orphan girl seated herself bolt upright in a chair and listened with fascinated attention. But now and then she cast anxious glances at the boys and cautioned them with mild ineffectiveness to be quiet. They had lain down on the sofa and snugged up together giggling and squirming.
At length their father turned on them and exclaimed:
“Say! I wish you kids would behave yourselves. I’ll put you upstairs in the dark if you don’t.”
His threat did not quell the riot, and soon he again addressed them, saying; “Look here, Sam and John, you stop that noise!”
He strode across the room and bestowed a resounding spank on each. Sam, after suffering this indignity, left the room, and we had peace until he returned. Then a gradually increasing disturbance once more aroused the paternal wrath. “Young man,” said the musician, “you’ve commenced them shines again. Now cut ‘em right square out.
“Most everybody around here likes music,” he remarked to me. “Generally the boys learn to play the fiddle, and the girls take lessons on the organ or piano.”
He paused a moment as if hearkening for some expected sound. “My wife has driven over to the village,” he said, “and I must n’t forget to kind o’ keep a listen out for her team to come in the yard.”
Then he rose and substituted a fiddle for his guitar, and remained standing which he regaled me with a few tunes. “I don’t make it go as good as I ought to,” he apologized. “The weather is so chilly tonight my fingers are dumb, as the feller said. I don’t hardly ever fool with the fiddle any more. Here’s my cornet. On Sunday evenings I often play it to the children. The trouble is that I start right in after supper, and I ain’t got the space then to work my bellers.”
Returning from the post office
He gave me a few sample melodies on the cornet, and then took up a whistle that belonged to the boys and showed how it could be made to sound like a fife or like a flute. As a final climax to his musical exhibition he played the mouth-harp with his nose.
“Here’s a newspaper, if you’d care to read it,” he said at length, handing me a copy that he picked up from the table. “The papers are full of politics now, and most of the men around spend a lot of time gabbin’ and gassin’ over the rights and wrongs of things. They don’t know what they’re talkin’ about, and I’m tired of the whole dog-gone business. My daddy’s a democrat, but I vote for any man I please. Did you ever see this book?”
He brought one from a meagre collection of pretentious subscription books and cheap novels that occupied two or three shelves of a cabinet. It was an anti-negro volume that proved by various Bible texts that the colored people are by nature allied to the beasts and therefore should be the white man’s servants. He was telling me how invincible the argument of the book was when we heard wheels in the yard. His wife had arrived, and he went to take care of the horse. Afterward he piloted me to my room, a small apartment in which there were two beds. One of the beds was occupied by the hired man, who snored with stentorian vigor, and it was quite a while before I could accustom myself to that sort of a lullaby and fall asleep.
The hired man got up at daylight and went forth to start work. When I rose an hour or two later and went outdoors the western side of the valley was illumined by the clear summer sunshine, but the eastern side, where the house stood, was still in the chill shadow of the wooded ridge. The chickens were peeping hungrily, the turkeys were picking about the yard looking for stray morsels, and the dogs were curled up near the back door.
We presently had breakfast, and after that work began in earnest, and I once more betook myself to the highway.
NOTES. — The state is notable for its very great resources in coal, oil, and gas. Wheeling, the largest city, is an important trading and manufacturing center. On the borders of the city, at the crest of Fulton Hill, is what is known as McCulloch’s Leap. McCulloch was a celebrated Indian fighter, who here escaped pursuing savages by going over the precipice, a hundred and fifty feet high. Pittsburg, sixty-two miles distant, is connected with Wheeling by a hilly, winding dirt road that is fairly good most of the way.
The most important motor route in the southern part of the state passes through Charleston, the capital. To the east it passes over the mountains to Virginia Hot Springs and to the west it goes to Ohio.
For more about West Virginia see “Highways and Byways of the South.”