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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Family Cemetery And Burial Practices In Appalachia

The Family Cemetery
The family cemetery in Appalachia has played an important role in social life, local history, and culture since Daniel Boone led the earliest settlers through the Cumberland Gap.  The early settlers were coming into a country in which there were no roads, no white or European presence, and no prior history by their own kind of people.  It was a rugged and dangerous environment.  In a very short time, accidents, child birth, Indian warfare, and disease began to take their toll.  Customs and sanitary norms of the time required that the dead be buried immediately.  A certain percentage of those deaths took place even before the settlers were near an area where they intended to stay long term.  In those cases, the dead were simply buried in the next available bit of ground where it was soft enough to dig. Many of those trail side graves have been lost for centuries. At times of Indian warfare, it was also not unknown for the settlers to make attempts to conceal the graves of their dead.  They generally would have done this for two reasons: 1) to conceal losses of able bodied fighters from the enemy; and, 2) due to generally unfounded fears of desecration of the graves.  But after settlers had found the piece of land they intended to call home, they buried their dead on their own land.  A small piece of land would be chosen at the time the need first arose.  The first grave would be dug and that spot would be designated the family cemetery for the Browns, or White's, or Hicks'. These first and most eventual graveyards in Appalachia were usually located on a piece of high ground, often with a good view of the surrounding area.  It was often a favorite spot of the head of the household. There was also a common belief that on resurrection morning the dead in Christ would arise with the first rays of the morning sun.  The higher elevations usually got morning sunshine earlier than low lying ground.  It was also common for graves to be placed with the face of the dead toward the sunrise.


Photo of A Family Graveyard

 My maternal grandfather, Woots Hicks, chose the site for one of the graveyards my relatives are buried in when a great-grandchild died of SIDS.  It was a high spot in his cow pasture overlooking the home and garden.  It was also a spot he often stopped to rest when he was working in the fields.  In time, a fence might be added.  Some form of marker was generally made for the graves in the early cemeteries, usually a local sandstone with rude carving.  Sometimes, the marker was a piece of wood with equally rude carving or wood burning with a hot poker.  And, with a certainty, more graves would be added to the location.  Even in the last few years, I have known of families who designated a piece of land near the house in Eastern Kentucky or Southern West Virginia as a graveyard.  I know of one near a small church in Western North Carolina.  I have seen them in Kentucky, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  One of my favorites in West Virginia is the Hatfield Cemetery in Logan County which contains the graves of Devil Anse Hatfield and most of the other members of the family from the days of the Hatfied-McCoy feud. 

Woots Hicks Cemetery Photo By Roger D. Hicks


Decoration was not common on graves for many years after settlement began.  The earliest form of decoration was usually some form of flowering tree or plant. Red buds and dogwoods were common.  I have found mention in two different writers work of asparagus being used to mark and decorate graves.  Both Cratis Williams and Verna Mae Slone mention the use of what they say the locals called "spar grass" to decorate graves. I have never found asparagus on a cemetery.  But I have helped a cousin plant some on one which is located on a farm he owns in Lawrence County Kentucky since I learned of the practice.  Cratis Williams was writing primarily about Lawrence County.  Slone was writing about Knott County. The best book about Appalachian burial customs is "Death And Dying In Central Appalachia" by James K. Crissman.  He covers burial practices from settlement to modern times. He does an especially good job of documenting changes in trends and practices over time.  "Coal Camp Kids: Coming Up Hard And Making It" by Barbara Ford Ritch has a large chapter on burial practices with many good photos of graves, caskets, graveyards, and corpses. It is an oral history about the coal camps near where I was born around Wayland, Kentucky. The book has excellent recording of first person oral history and a fine collection of photos on many subjects which make up for what it lacks in expository writing. 

 The current practice of placing multitudinous plastic flowers on graves came about after the end of WW II.  It began initially with handmade flowers using wire and crepe paper.  My sister and I made some once to put on the grave of an elderly alcoholic neighbor who died without family in a house fire.  But today it is common to see relatives of the deceased spend large sums of money, which they often cannot afford, to put extravagant displays on graves.  They often seem to feel that the flowers at Memorial Day proves their continued love and devotion for the dead.  I was raised to believe and still practice the belief that a far more fitting memorial for the dead is the effort to live an exemplary and admirable life of which the deceased could be proud.  I also know of a few occasions in modern times where families have turned graves into veritable shrines to the deceased.  I recently observed a case where a family spent more than fifty thousand dollars for marble and a building to cover the grave of a young person killed in a car wreck.  I have also seen one other incident in which a mother spent extravagantly to decorate and memorialize the grave of a son who committed suicide.  In both cases, the expenditure appears to be a manifestation of the inability to fully process grief upon the early death of a cherished child. 

 At some point, shortly after the original settlement, the use of grave houses became common.  A grave house is a simple wooden or stone roof placed over the grave to protect it from the elements and, in those earliest times, wild animals which might attempt to dig out the unembalmed body.  Grave houses are uncommon today.  I know of one site in Johnson County Kentucky right beside US 23 not far from the Lawrence County line where a grave house still exists. A modern variation of the grave house is the use of a large slab of granite or marble to cover the entire grave.  These are usually heavily engraved. It is also becoming more common today for grave markers to be decorated with laser generated images of the deceased.  The most memorable use of a marble grave cover I have ever seen was in a small cemetery in West Central Georgia not far from Holy Trinity, Alabama.  It was the grave of a young boy who had died in a car wreck and was very extravagantly carved prior to the days of laser images. It also fits my earlier statement about such practices often being a response to the early death of a cherished child.  One cemetery near where I grew up in Knott County Kentucky has, perhaps, its earliest grave simply outlined with hand cut sandstones about eight inches square and two or three feet long marking the entire outline of the grave.  No one I know in that community knows who the occupant of the grave is.  But that grave has been protected for the entire time it has been there and a cemetery with more than a hundred graves has sprung up around it.  That particular cemetery is more a community cemetery than a family location.  In fact, members of a dozen or more unrelated families, including a few of my own relatives, are buried in that cemetery.

Appalachian Grave House Photographer Unknown



That cemetery also, for many years had a covered but open sided shelter with a pulpit and seating for church services which usually occur on Memorial Day or, as it colloquially known, Decoration Day. At times in good weather, funerals might have been held in such a "stand" as they were known.  The Old Regular Baptist Church, The Primitive Baptist Church, and a few other regional denominations still adhere to the practice of Memorial Meetings.  This practice is an outgrowth of the circuit rider tradition which followed the early settlers. They are often accompanied by dinner on the grounds or in the home of a nearby member of a family represented in the cemetery.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, settlements were widely dispersed, communities were small at best, and ministers were few and far between.  It was common at that time for burials to take place as soon as possible with whomever was nearby in attendance.  Someone would say a few words, deliver a prayer, a song or two might be sung, and if anyone present was literate, a few Bible verses would be read.  Then at the next visit of the circuit riding preacher, a formal service would be held for anyone who had died and been buried since his last visit.  This circuit riding practice is also tied to the once monthly Saturday and Sunday meetings of the Old Regular Baptists and a few other denominations. 

The family cemetery is less common today but, as I noted earlier, new ones still periodically spring up.  At times, they come to negatively effect the price of land when it becomes necessary for a family to sell.  I also know of at least one case in Menifee County Kentucky where new land owners have made attempts to keep relatives of people buried in a family cemetery from visiting the graves.  But, in general, most new land owners have the common decency to act more mature and allow free passage to and from cemeteries.  Usually, graveyards are excepted out of deeds along with a right of way to the site.  I have also known of one recent case in Pike County Kentucky in which an old casket believed to be from the early twentieth century was found by a land owner dumped by party or parties unknown on his property.  The embalmed body of a woman was in the casket according to press reports.  Apparently, the casket had been removed from land by a landowner or mining company and dumped on the land of the man who discovered it. His land was described in press reports as a likely dumping site because of its proximity to a paved road and lack of close neighbors.  I have never seen a report that the deceased woman or the individuals who violated her original grave site and abused her corpse were ever identified or the site of her original grave ever found.  It is likely that a relatively new land owner simply decided they no longer wanted a grave on their land.  This is a rare occurrence anywhere in Appalachia although there have been numerous documented incidents in which strip mining enterprises simply bulldozed over existing and generally unused graveyards.  

Grave digging and burial practices have changed over the last half century. I was actually grown before I ever knew of anyone being paid to dig a grave and I was nearly that old before I knew of anyone paying for a burial site.  I was nearly forty before anyone in my family was ever cremated.  Up until about the 1980's in most of Appalachia it was the rule that friends and neighbors dug graves.  I remember one old man who lived not far from us who always farmed and logged and never held "a public job".  When anyone within walking distance of his house died, he would appear the next morning at the home carrying his tools and volunteer to  help dig the grave.  It was his chosen form of community service and he was dedicated to it until he was too frail to carry his tools.  I feel safe to say that he alone helped dig several hundred graves in his lifetime.  He was also a perfectionist about grave digging and felt all four walls of the grave should be smooth, level, and unblemished.  He, and most of the people I grew up around, felt that digging the grave was the last act of respect you could show the dead and they deserved to get the best. I have seen him actually use clay or mud to fill in a small hole in the side of a grave where a stone came out and left an imperfection.  When my half-brother, Curtis  Hicks, was buried several years ago in Kendallville, Indiana, I thought of that old man at my brother's grave site.  The grave, in a public commercial cemetery, had been dug with a backhoe and one side had fallen in leaving, perhaps, the worst looking grave I have ever seen.

 It was common for several men and boys to dig graves in Appalachia taking turns and working for brief spells.  The family of the dead would supply drinking water, soft drinks, and lunch.  That was all anyone expected or got for digging a grave.  At the time of the actual burial, friends and family members would fill in the grave after the casket was lowered into the ground.  I was also nearly grown before I saw funeral home staff allowed to fill in a grave.  Today, almost no one digs or fills in a grave for a friend or a family member except in rare occasions where a family cannot afford the charge for grave digging.  During my childhood, it was still common for many people to be buried in simple pine coffins without a burial vault.  Such graves were dug in a unique manner due to the fact that the cheap wooden coffins were prone to collapse quickly after burial leaving a grave with a sunken surface of several inches to as much as two feet at times.  Such graves were dug wider in the top half and more narrow at the bottom.  An earthen vault was constructed in this manner which had edges that were offset from the upper opening by about four to six inches on all four sides.  After the casket was lowered into the grave, precut rough oak lumber of exactly the width of the grave was laid over the casket on the offset to protect the casket and decrease the propensity for sinking.  It was also common for most cemeteries of any size to have a pile of unused dirt just outside the fence for use in sunken graves. 

It was not uncommon for children in Appalachia to play on cemeteries; and, in those days, vandalism was not common as it is today.  Once several of us were playing hide and seek on a local cemetery after dark and there was one grave which was sunken to a considerable depth.  As we went to hide, I happened to be looking directly at another boy who was slipping along behind tombstones looking for a hiding place.  Suddenly he dropped totally and instantaneously out of sight.  He had stepped into the sunken grave without seeing it.  The tombstone was between me and him so I had no idea what had happened. He and I both screamed and he clawed his way out of the grave and took off running toward the gate.  However, he never even opened the gate.  He jumped the fence and kept on running straight home.  None of us who were chasing him and yelling could get him to stop.  The game of hide and seek was broken up and, so far as I know, he never again went on a cemetery after dark. 

Many of the old family cemeteries in Appalachia have fallen into disrepair and are rarely mowed these days except just prior to Memorial Day.  Often family farms have been sold off or fallen into neglect after ownership has been split between dozens of heirs without division of the whole.  Also, with the construction of flood control lakes such as Dewey Lake in Kentucky, Blue Stone in West Virginia and dozens of others in Appalachia, many of the old cemetery sites were flooded.  But federal policy required that all graves due to be flooded were to be moved at government expense.  Every flood control lake built has a government funded cemetery somewhere just outside the area of flooding.  Contactors and crews would be hired to move the cemeteries and graves from a dozen or more might be put in one large public location.  Graves from the same cemetery were usually put in close proximity and names of the original cemeteries are sometimes on stone markers near their particular graves.  These cemeteries usually are operated on an ongoing basis by a board of directors and have added space for continued sales of plots.

Today, family cemeteries are growing less common and some day may well cease to exist except as unused plots with a few old graves.  But their place in the history of Appalachia has been important and every effort needs to be made to respect and protect them.  A few people and agencies from state to state have done work recently to locate the cemeteries and use to GPS technology to document them.  In a few cases, individual marked graves are also documented. 

Addendum March 28, 2017
Recently, I did a Google search of myself as I frequently do, and as I believe everyone should do, to keep track of my publications and citations of my writing and also to become aware of any potential misuse of my online presence.  I found that this blog post has been quoted and appropriately cited in a masters dissertation by Marjorie Fey Farris in pursuit of a masters degree in history at Eastern Kentucky University which was completed and published online in 2015.  The title of the dissertation is "The Persistence of Place in Appalachia: The Phenomena of Post-Death Migration, 1930-1970".  The dissertation addresses the practice of Urban Appalachians of returning deceased family members to the region for burial in Appalachian ground.  I had discussed this phenomena superficially in this post and other writings about Appalachian burial practices but had never seen it discussed at length before.  It is an interesting practice, still common today throughout Appalachia, and unlikely to cease in the immediately foreseeable future.  If you are interested in Appalachian burial customs, the dissertation is worth the time to read.  I recommend it.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Country Store And Travelling Salesmen

 The Country Store

When my parents brought me home from the hospital in 1951, they carried me through the front door of their country store on Steele's Creek near Wayland in Floyd County Kentucky.  I had been born at the old Lackey Hospital in Knott County.  That building still exists but has, for many years, been a personal care home for the chronically mentally ill and is now known as Golden Years Rest Home.  The first 20 years of my life were spent in a country store named for my father and known as B. L. Hicks, General Merchandise. The first  six years of my life we lived and operated the store on Steele's Creek not far from Wayland, Kentucky.  In 1957, my parents built a new store and house on Right Beaver at Dema, Kentucky, in Knott County.  This was about three or four miles up Beaver above Wayland. At the time, my aunt and uncle  Corbett and Ellen Terry were also operating a store, which they rented, on Beaver Creek about a mile below the Knott County line.  My parents and my aunt and uncle were always close and a plan was made to simultaneously move them into our store on Steele's Creek on the same day we moved out.  They continued to operate that store for several years until they eventually went out of business. They actually used the same truck and man to move both stores.  We would  haul a load from our store on Steele's Creek to our new store on Beaver Creek.  On the way back, they would haul a load from Corbett and Ellen's store on Beaver Creek to the store on Steele's Creek. 

 For the next fourteen years we operated the store on Beaver Creek. By the time I could see over the counter and count change, I was working, or perhaps I only thought I was working, at least some of the time in the store.  By the time I was 12 or 14, if my parents needed to go to Martin, Prestonsburg, or Hindman to conduct business, I could generally be left alone in the store for a few hours at a time.  As I grew older and began to travel around, I would also, from time to time, be in other country stores.  I still go in them today when I can find one that is actually a real country store.  Based on all this history, I tend to believe I am an expert on country stores.

My father bought the store on Steele's Creek sometime in the 1940's after his first wife, Ora Hicks, became ill and he had to leave his job in the coal mines.  He ran the store until her death and married my mother, Mellie Hicks, not long thereafter.  They continued to operate the store until a few months after my mother's death in 1970.  By that time, my father was 83 years old.  Other than his obituary which appeared in the Floyd County Times and the Minutes of The Old Regular Baptist Church, I know of only one other instance in which he is mentioned in print.  That third mention is a brief story in an oral history book, "Coal Camp Kids: Coming Up Hard And Making It", by Barbara Ford Ritch.  The comment says, in its entirety: "Ballard Hicks, Nora Jean Coontz recalled, had a grocery store at Steele's Creek.  'That is where I had to go to get feed for our horse.  He kept a case full of hard candy.  I would get two hundred pound bags of feed, and make sure the feed sacks were the same, because then Mom could make me a new skirt from the sacks.  Sometimes, I would get an orange Popsicle, and climb a big sycamore tree, eat that Popsicle, and wonder what my future would be.' "  That brief oral history account does or says many things for me.  It means that, at some time, someone other than me was positively affected by my father's country store.  It also says a few things about the way he ran his store and how most country stores in general were run in those days. 

My father obviously made an effort to leave a positive impression.  He also, like nearly every other store owner, made an effort to allow customers to have their own way with regard to the promotional items which often accompanied sales of livestock feed, flour, meal, and a few other items.  Most mothers made some effort to gain enough flour, meal, or feed sacks of their favorite patterns to complete their next planned project.  Dishes were also often given as a promotion with flour, meal, and a few other items.  Many flour and meal sacks were actually pillow cases.  A few other brands gave the dishes away, one piece at a time with their brand of flour or meal.  My parents also kept livestock after we moved to Knott County and my mother also used the brands that gave the promotional items.  I, too, wore feed sack shirts to school until I was in about the eighth grade.  I refused to do so after I entered high school and my mother stopped making the shirts for me.  However, most of the patterns on the bags were more feminine than masculine. But many males also wore shirts made from the bags.  Houses had curtains,  table clothes, dish towels, towels, wash cloths, dishes, and many other items which were either packaging just as it came from the store or packaging altered to meet a purpose in the home.   I have even heard of one or two occasions where women actually fought over the last bag of feed in a particularly popular pattern.  Most of the dishes given to customers this way were plates and cups.  Jelly was also commonly sold in drinking glasses with patterns on the glass.  You ate the jelly, threw away the lid, and had another glass for the home. Silver Dust Washing Powder for many years had either a towel, wash cloth, or dish towel in each box of their detergent depending on the size of the box.  For many men, a favorite part of the old Porter Waggoner Show on television was Dolly Parton doing the Silver Dust Commercial.  She always held the promotional towels just under her most famous assets and that part of the show was one of the most risque things in television in those days.  And, to my knowledge, Dolly never had a "wardrobe malfunction".
The country store was generally an informal community center for the geographic area in a five or ten square mile circumference.  Paved roads were uncommon although both our stores were located on a paved road. Far fewer people had cars than today. Everyone had less ready cash for gasoline even though it was cheap from the end of WW I to about the onset of the Vietnam War.  Therefore, it was common for people to walk to the closest store even if was across a ridge or two.  In a case like that, it might be closer to go to a store by foot over a ridge which might be a considerably longer distance if the roads were used.  I remember one woman, in particular, who came to our store for a few years by walking up the holler from her house, along a ridge for a mile or so, and then down the hill through our cow pasture.  She always brought her own burlap bag for her  groceries.  She would fill it up with canned goods on the bottom and anything soft on the top.  She would tie a string around the opening, shoulder the bag, and walk up the hill through the pasture into the woods and out of sight.

 It was also common for people to ride a horse or mule to the store and carry groceries home in saddle bags or in burlap bags across the animal's back.  Corn sleds on wooden runners were also often a means of transportation, especially if the customer was buying several sacks of livestock feed, seed potatoes, fertilizer, or even a full months supply of groceries.  I also knew two boys who managed to break a bull calf to ride with a bridle, and they often rode him to the store until he became more bull than beast of burden.  It wasn't uncommon also to have a few people who were making moonshine to buy sugar, cracked corn, wheat middlings, malt syrup, and yeast in large quantities.  Most of them came in some kind of truck with the ability to cover their purchases in order to avoid advertising their profession.  Most country store owners knew exactly who was moonshining in their area.  But a few would travel to an adjoining creek or even county to avoid buying from people who knew them.  But the added gas for travel sometimes dictated against this practice.  One of the largest stills ever destroyed by federal authorities in Knott County was found about 3 miles from our store on Salisbury.  Long before the still was cut we knew who ran it and its location not to mention how much sugar, corn, middlings, yeast, and malt syrup  he was using a week.  The man who owned the still was sent to prison in Arizona and eventually murdered by a fellow parolee shortly after his release. That story was actually told in one of the old pulp true crime magazines.  I have read the story but don't remember the name of the pulp magazine in which it appeared. He never made it back to Knott County alive.  When he died, there was still a charge account book in his name on the shelf in our store. 

On one occasion, my father, who often traded in livestock, sold several shoats of about fifty to seventy five pounds each to the husband of the woman who walked the ridge to the store .  Neither my father or the buyer ever drove a car.  Part of the deal was that my father "and that boy will drive the pigs to your house on Saturday morning."  That Saturday morning, we got up at the crack of daylight, fed the shoats to slow them down, and began driving them up through the cow pasture, along the ridge, and down the holler to the buyer.  When we got there, the family was up, the pig pen was ready, and the mother was cooking breakfast on a big wood burning step stove in a log house.  Not many people today can say they have driven livestock through the woods.  On at least one other occasion, my father bought cattle from someone on Salisbury and we drove them down the dirt road out of the holler, down the railroad right of way, across the creek, and down the highway a short distance to our barn.  It was not uncommon for country store operators to deal in anything of value if they had the barns, pastures, buildings, or storage space it required. 

My father also often bought from or sold livestock to Chester Layne, the area Tom's Candy Distributor.  Chester also owned the stockyards at Ivel and bought or sold livestock all along his franchise area which covered Floyd, Knott, and Pike Counties.  Today , his sons own Layne Brothers Ford in the same spot where the stockyards were for many years.  Chester bought a cow from us once that he always claimed he used as a milk cow.  He also always said he had named her Happy after former Governor Happy Chandler.  I have my doubts about parts of the story since Chester was rather loquacious and primarily bought cattle for resale.  Generally, when my father wanted a new bull, he would arrange for Chester to find him a registered Hereford and bring it to him.  He was one of the first men on Right Beaver to regularly keep a registered bull.  He made a little money on the side by allowing neighbors to breed their milk cows to his bull for five or ten dollars each.  I also have several bull stories which will show up somewhere else later. 

But Chester Layne was a fine example of a traveling salesman.  I loved to see nearly all of the salesmen show up but Chester was one of my favorites.  He and my parents were friends and he always paid attention to me, even as a small child.  Nobody had air conditioning in houses or cars in those days and I am sure that driving a panel truck two hundred miles a day in Eastern Kentucky was dry and tiring work.  Chester would often pull up in front of our store porch, jump out of the truck, say hello, go straight out the other door in the store into the living quarters, use the bathroom, wash his hands, go to the refrigerator for a glass of cold buttermilk, rinse the glass, return to the store and then ask "Well, what do you need today?"  Once when I was about ten or twelve, he offered to pay me a dollar a book to read the Bible if I finished the whole King James Version.  I don't think I even got through Genesis before I quit.  I wonder sometimes if he wasn't actually betting all along that he wouldn't need to give up the money.  It was a Sisyphean task for a young boy.  But Chester was one of several men in those days who influenced me to want to travel and be a salesman.  Chester also had a brother, Kelly Layne, who worked with or for him and sometimes made the run.  Kelly was also a lot of fun but not as much as his brother.

Once when I was working at the Hope Center Homeless Shelter in Lexington, Kentucky, I had a client who told me had stolen one of Chester's Tom's Peanut Trucks from a small country store on Left Beaver in Floyd County. He said he and a couple of other guys were sitting on the store porch about half drunk when the driver pulled up, stopped, put the truck in neutral with the engine running, and ran into the store.  The truck was already pointed down the creek since the driver had come over the hill from the opposite creek.  My client said he was drinking, broke, and unemployed.  So as soon as the store door slammed, he jumped off the porch into the truck and took off to a chop shop in Magoffin County and sold the truck and inventory all to the chop shop operator.  Apparently, no one on the porch admitted to knowing who he was and the state police couldn't have gotten to the scene in less than thirty minutes in those days.  He was probably close to Magoffin County before the trooper ever took the report.  I wish I had heard the story while Chester was still alive so I could have compared it to his version.  I did come to know the chop shop operator later but he also died before I ever asked him about the story. 

Another of my favorite salesmen was Harold Purkey, Jr. who drove a Kern's Bread truck out of western Virginia into Knott and Floyd Counties.  During the summers, Harold would allow me to ride with him from our store down Beaver Creek to the end of his route in Punkin Center between Wayland and Garrett.  He would drop me off at home on his way back south to Virginia.  Harold liked to talk, had a long and cumbersome route, and I am sure he liked the company.  I also picked up a lot of my desire to be a salesman from riding with Harold. 

Bill Parish drove a Chappell's Milk route out of Hazard Kentucky for many years and was popular in the area.  Before my father quit drinking, which took place about the time I was born, Bill used to bring him a case or two of beer from Hazard every week as a favor.  I am sure it was illegal and against company policy. But to my  knowledge, Bill never suffered any consequences for it.  Hazard was wet and both Knott and Floyd Counties were dry which made Hazard beer a lot cheaper than buying from the bootleggers.  I suspect Bill probably did this favor for more than one of his regular customers. 

Talmadge Vanderpool drove a Betsy Ross Bread truck out of Prestonsburg into Knott County for several years also.  Talmadge was a fine individual but he just wasn't as sociable, talkative, or funny as most of the other salesmen. 

Another who also influenced me was Bernie Whitt who sold groceries for a company in Paintsville, Kentucky. Bernie was very quiet, low key, and efficient.  He wasn't nearly as much fun as Chester but he was a good salesman. There were actually two grocery companies in Paintsville which serviced Knott County.  I remember the man who sold for the other but can't remember his name.  He died sometime in the late 1950's or early 1960's in a house fire.  As I recall, he woke up to find his gas water heater had gone out and when he struck a match the room had apparently filled with natural gas and exploded.  He once brought me a little, brown, bob tailed puppy he had found at an illegal roadside dump when he stopped to relieve himself. He was hauling the dog along in his car looking for someone to give it to because he just couldn't leave it to die at the dump.  I called the dog Tarzan but can't ever remember the salesman's name.  

Another traveling salesman, I saw a lot of and liked a lot was Jack Childers who was self employed as a meat salesman out of Prestonsburg.  Very few country stores attempted to sell fresh meat and only sold frozen meat plus some bacon and cold cuts such as bologna.  Jack came up Beaver once a week in an old refigerated utility truck much like a wholesale ice cream truck.  He was talkative, friendly, and full of information.  Jack lived not far from the site of the Floyd County School Bus Wreck and another of his customers was a couple who ran a country store and lost all their children in the wreck.  Jack brought us a great deal of information about the wreck, the search for the victims, and the lingering after effects on the survivors.  My parents seemed to have a closer link to that couple because of their shared profession and shared suppliers.  I was also the same age as many of the children on the bus.  We had other salesmen who supplied that couple and our store as well.  However, most of the others just didn't seem to invest themselves into a human relationship with those grieving parents the way Jack did. 

For me, the traveling salesmen represented a doorway to the outside world, travel, extended human contact, and people and places I had not seen.  They were an invaluable source of information for an inquisitive, talkative boy who longed to learn more about the world.  They were usually good talkers, friendly, interesting, and funny.  It was a hard job to be a traveling salesman.  But just like the men who influenced me to sell and many I sold with later, I enjoyed every day I ever spent driving or walking the hills of Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia selling a variety of items. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know several dozen other country stores in both states. Living and working in a country store was a good life.  But it was bland compared to the life of the men who jumped in a car or truck five or six days a week, spent their time in different counties or states every day, and knew hundreds or thousands of people over a wide geographic area.  They always knew the most current gossip, who had died, who got married, who bought a registered bull or a fancy coon hound, who had a baby, who got arrested, who went broke, and any other news worth hearing.  

My very first memory is of my father holding me in his arms at the window of our store on Steele's Creek in the middle of the night watching a neighbor's house burn.  I admit that is an odd first memory.  But most of my earliest memories are set in one of the two stores we ran.  Late in the evening, especially in winter, men would gather in from all around the neighborhood and tell stories in front of the old natural gas stove.  No, our stores didn't have a pot bellied stove.  I knew a few that did but not ours.  We would sometimes split the shell on chestnuts and place them on the front of the old ceramic burner stove to roast.  But the best part was listening to my father and the other older men tell stories of the times when they were young, and Knott County had no paved roads.  They talked about hunting, fishing, farming, logging, coal mining, politics, and unionism.  I learned a lot from some of those fellows too.  I learned that you always plant crops and castrate livestock by the signs. I learned that you never keep a chicken killing dog.  I learned that you never cross a picket line and nothing is lower than a scab.  I learned how Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman saved the world.  I learned that a straddle pole is nearly as low as a scab.  For the uninitiated, a straddle pole is a person who crosses party lines to vote.  I learned how to be a Yellow Dog Democrat and I have never forgotten.  I learned what a Hoover Box and Hoover Times and a Hooverville were and I learned who caused all of them.  But Hoover Boxes kept a lot of poor people alive during the depression.  They are a homemade box trap, made from chicken wire or wood, baited and set out to catch possums, ground hogs, rabbits, and coons to prevent starvation.  For those of you who don't know the song, listen to Tom T. Hall's "Don't Forget The Coffee, Billy Joe".  It never mentions a Hoover Box.  But it says an awful lot about the times and attitudes I am talking about. 

As I said early in this posting, there are very few real country stores today.  There are many who still claim to run country stores.  The old country stores sold you a bologna and cracker sandwich not a pizza or chicken wings.  The owners knew they were running a store and never tried to make it a restaurant.  They never crossed lines.  They generally never endorsed candidates in politics but allowed all candidates to leave their campaign materials on the counter and stapled to the outside walls beside every body else's.  They sold fifty pound buckets of lard, onion sets, seed potatoes, brogan shoes, Levis, horse shoes, and nails.  They let people charge a month at a time and most of the people paid.  They might from time to time let you sell a few food stamps or pay your bill with them.  It might have been illegal but it kept their neighbors afloat and that is much of what they were about.  Very few owners of country stores ever got rich.  But most died with hundreds of friends who remembered times their children would have starved without the store owner's generosity. 


Photo of A Country Store


There were several other country stores I was in on a fairly regular basis over the years.  Right above the store on Steele's Creek was a store  owned by Earl Manns.  Earl bought scrap metals which my parents and most other store owner's didn't do.  As teenagers, myself and my cousins Johnny and Jack Terry often sold a little  scrap metal to Earl when we could find it.  Right beside our store on Beaver Creek was another owned by Miles and Alta Hall.  For several years, Alta and two of her daughters also ran the Dema Post Office.  I am not directly related to Miles and Alta but one of their sons is my uncle by marriage, Edgar Hall.  One of my mother's brothers, Mabry Hicks, married Alta's sister Hazel Layne.  Another of my mother's sisters, Eva Hicks, had a son with Hazel and Alta's brother Milt Layne.  It is interesting that two families could have intermarried and intermingled so much and I am still not directly related to most of them.  Right up Beaver Creek about two miles, Silas Slone ran another small store for many years.  Silas and his wife had no children and their store died when they became too old to run it.  Silas had two unmarried sisters who also ran a store for many years on Caney Creek about four or five miles from ours. 

I can only think of four genuine, or nearly genuine country stores left in the entire nation today.  I have added the link to Hog Island Cottages And Country Store in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan not far from Mackinac Bridge.  They have a website, a liquor license, and rental cabins which all says they aren't a real country store.  But they sell smoked fish and a few years ago when I was there their coolers, shelves, and display cases were about the same models as the ones my parents were using in the 1950's.  It is well worth visiting if you are ever in the Upper Peninsula.  They also sold me the first pastie I ever ate.  A pastie is a fried meat, rutabaga, carrot, and potato pie which the Welsh iron ore miners used to carry into the mines in the area.  They are awesome, rib sticking food, and where else can you buy food which contains rutabagas.  Near Cannel City, Kentucky, on Highway 191 at the Junction of Highway 1000, is the Caney Valley Grocery run by Roger Finch.  It also sells pizza and chicken wings and has a tanning bed which says it isn't a real country store.  But it is located in an old two story store building that is nearly a hundred years old with some display cases and shelves close to that era.  Roger is also in the antique business and the store is filled with hundreds of items, in addition to the groceries, which go all the way back to the days of the  genuine, early country stores. Plus, Roger Finch, his family, and their employees are all so friendly that they compensate for the drawbacks.  It is well worth visiting.  The third store I want to mention, I don't even know for sure if it's still operating.  But the last time I drove from Whitesburg to Harlan over Cumberland Mountain there was a store in operation there which had been in a family for three generations, had all the original shelves and display cases, didn't sell pizza or chicken wings, and smelled and felt and looked like it was about 1955.  If it's still there let me know and go buy something to help keep it open.
The fourth country store I know of is the Family Market #2 on US23 between Ulysses and Louisa in Lawrence County Kentucky.  It is owned by Bob and Dianne Castle who also own a couple of others in Lawrence, Martin, and Johnson Counties.  They run a deli which makes the best bologna sandwich in Kentucky.  As of 2013, you can buy a loaded bologna and cheese sandwich there for about $2.00 which is a phenomenal price for a couple of slices of bologna, bread, cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, and mayonnaise.  I stop there nearly every time I visit my cousin in Lawrence County and recently and auctioneer friend of mine from Huntington told me he also stops there for a bologna sandwich when he is on the road in Eastern Kentucky.  The Castles also sell a few antiques and a lot of the older, more rural, and less common items that aren't found at Seven Eleven.  It is also well worth a stop if you find yourself on US23 in Lawrence County Kentucky.  Now go out and find your own favorite country store and send me a message about it. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jim Ferrell, Appalachian Hero

When I made the decision to write on this blog about Appalachian Heroes, I made a sizable list of men and women who had done admirable work in the area to write about.  I also began to think about several people I have known who deserved recognition for their lives but have generally had none.  One of the first to make that list was James G. "Jim" Ferrell of Chapmanville, West Virginia.  Jim was well known in the Logan County area for many years. Jim was born March 15, 1924, in Chapmanville, West Virginia, and died in Logan, West Virginia, on February 15, 2004.  He lived the great majority of his life in or around Chapmanville except for a few years when he moved to Cleveland Ohio to find work after going out of business in a store he had owned for many years.  Jim later returned to Logan County and worked for the state of West Virginia until he retired as a wage bond enforcement officer for the West Virginia Department of Labor.  A major portion of that job involved enforcing state laws regarding the posting of wage bonds by coal companies intended to prevent them from going out of business without miners being paid.  Jim took his job seriously and worked diligently to assure that the requirements were met so that miners and their families never had to face unemployment without being paid for their work.  It was common for "punch mines", small contractors operating in risky leases owned by large companies, to go out of business overnight and leave crews unpaid much like circumstances had been many years before union activity and public protests caused the laws to be changed.  Due to his diligence,   Jim often bore the brunt of the anger of shady coal operators and, I believe, of the political appointees in Charleston who ran the Department of Labor. 

Jim Ferrell was the best friend I ever had.  Rarely does a day go by that I don't think of something he said or something I learned from him.  My father, Ballard Hicks, who also ran a country store in Floyd and Knott Counties in Kentucky, died when I was 20 years old.  I met Jim many years later when I was about 33 and knew him until his death.  In many ways, Jim was a second father to me.  He was one of the kindest, most considerate, caring, and giving human beings I have ever known.  He was also one of the funniest and loved to tell stories.  Many of his stories were based on self deprecating humor and his history of heavy drinking before he achieved long term sobriety which continued nearly thirty years to the day of his death. I wish I could remember every story I have ever heard from him.  Hopefully, I can fit a few of his favorites into this piece.  Jim was an amazing man who loved and cared about many things.  The most important things in Jim's life were sobriety ( he was a recovered alcoholic) and his wife Phyllis.  After that came his family, friends, the Democratic party, Irish culture and history, community service, golf, bowling, bocce ball, and story telling. 

Jim was a member of a relatively large Irish Catholic family and always said his mother had believed "there are only two kinds of people: the Irish and those who wish they were Irish."  Jim's mother was a school teacher in the Logan County school system and nearly every one of her children graduated from college.  Many of her grandchildren are doctors, lawyers, engineers, or teachers.  Jim was born a twin along with his brother Pete.  At some time during childhood, Jim lost an eye to an injury and was one eyed most of his life.  This was generally not a problem except when World War II came along.  Both Jim and Pete were attending West Virginia University when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Pete, who was in engineering school, immediately joined the military.  Jim, who was a pre-law student,  also volunteered and was rejected due to the eye.  He kept volunteering through different branches until he got to the Army. He said at the Army physical the eye exams were being performed in a hallway with the recruits standing in line in a perpendicular hall.  He always said that he managed to sneak and peek around the corner and memorize the first several lines of the eye chart.  He passed the test and was inducted.  He made it through basic training and was sent to advanced individual training as a head gunner in an artillery unit.  After finishing this training, he was sent to a pre-deployment physical and as he put it "the doctor was an old officer and he caught me about my bad eye."  Jim said the doctor reached for a form to sign to muster him out due to disability.  Jim began to beg and said, "Doc, I may be blind in that eye.  But I'm the best gunner in this unit and my twin brother is over there fighting and I want to go too."  Jim said the doctor hesitated a few moments and said "Son, if you want to go that bad, I'll let you", and tore up the form.  Jim was then sent to the island hopping campaign in the South Pacific where the US fought the Japanese over the ocean island by island until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  He would rarely eat canned corn and always said that during that military campaign he had been under constant artillery fire for forty days.  During that time, hot meals weren't possible and he said he had bribed a company cook to give him an institutional size can of corn each day because he liked corn and would eat it cold. But after forty days, he said he didn't eat corn again for several years and only rarely ate it for the rest of his life. 

Another story about Jim Ferrell and food which I will never forget involves pizza. Jim loved pizza and we often went to Pizza Hut in Stollings, W. V., on Saturday nights.  Jim would order his pizza and then begin to complain about "all the money these people make off of a little bread dough and tomato sauce".  Nearly every time I eat pizza I remember that habit.  He also had a strange quirk in his face which he said was due to a botched facial surgery in the past.  He claimed that the surgeon had damaged some facial nerves and as a result, when he was eating something he enjoyed, he would sweat along one side of his face in the same way most people salivate.  He would eat with one hand and wipe sweat with the other.  It was always easy to know when he was enjoying his food. 

One of Jim's favorite stories to tell on himself involved food and drinking in the days long before he achieved sobriety. It was also during the time before Jim and Phyllis were married.  He owned a store in Chapmanville and lived in an apartment over the store.  He said that he was drunk in the store one day and decided that he wanted to have some canned chili.  Jim never knew how to boil water.  But he said he got a can of chili off the store shelf, closed the store, and staggered up the stairs to his apartment.  He said he had no idea how to cook the chili and placed the unopened can in a sauce pan full of water on the stove and proceeded to pass out on the couch.  Shortly thereafter, the can exploded when the pan boiled dry.  Jim said chili with beans was all over the kitchen walls and ceiling.  He said he just turned the burner off, put the remains of the can in the garbage, and went on about his business.   Jim said the next day he was sitting in the store and heard his regular cleaning woman going up the stairs to the apartment.  Just a minute or two later, he heard her slam the apartment door and come running down the stairs.  She came running into the store and said, "Jim, I have cleaned up everything in the world behind you, but there is no way I am going to clean crap off the ceiling. How in the world did you get crap on the ceiling? "  Somehow he managed to convince her that the ceiling only contained chili and she stayed on the job. 

Another of Jim's favorite stories to tell on himself involved both his drinking and the fact that he was one of the first people in West Virginia to own a Volkswagen.  Jim nearly always drove Volkswagens right up to the last car he owned which was a GM product he had bought for Phyllis because she refused to drive or ride in his Volkswagens.  Jim always said he had been on a major drunk once in Chapmanville  and went into what must have been a serious and extended blackout.  He said the last thing he remembered was drinking in Chapmanville and the next thing he remembered was coming out of a blackout and hearing Spanish all around him.  He was in Juarez Mexico and actually still had the Volkswagen within sight.  He said he immediately wondered what was going on at his store so he went to a pay phone and called collect to the store.  The highly dependable woman who worked for him took the call and naturally asked "Jim, where are you?"  Apparently, she could also hear the Spanish in the background.  Jim said he told her "Just decided to take a little trip.  You just take care of things and I'll be home in a few days."  He said that he had no idea how he got to Juarez but that the trip back to Chapmanville was the worst few days in his life driving across the desert Southwest in a Volkswagen with no heat or air conditioning. 

During the early years that I knew Jim, I was a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman for Electrolux in Logan.  I worked all over several counties and often met people who would know Jim.  Once I ran into one of his old friends who said, "I've got something I need to show you".  He went into the house and brought out an old campaign poster of Jim running for magistrate and the photo showed Jim riding a mule.  The friend said, "I always called my mule Mr. Democrat and when Jim started running I told him he ought to put out posters showing him riding my mule with the slogan "Vote for Jim Ferrell, Mr. Democrat's friend" and that's what he did."  The man said the photo was actually shot on Stratton street near the court house during a meet and greet for candidates.  He and Jim actually loaded the mule in a truck and hauled him from Chapmanville to Logan and Jim rode him around town meeting and greeting the voters. 

Jim lost that election by a wide margin because Logan County practiced what is known as "slate politics".  A local political power would put together a complete ticket for every race on the ballot and each candidate would generally be required to pay the head rat a lump sum in order to be on the slate.  Then paid voter haulers and vote buyers would haul people to the polls.  They would pay the voter before they went in and hand them a slate, much like a bookmark, with the names of the selected candidates.  Jim always said a distant relative of his was running the slate that year and asked him $40,000 to put him on the slate for a job that payed about $10,000 a year. Jim didn't have the money, wasn't put on the slate, and lost the race. I doubt if he would have paid the money if he had it.  Jim would always become angry any time that man's name was mentioned and said that his mother, when she was a teacher, "had walked way up to the head of a holler and talked him into going to school when he was about 12 years old and hadn't been to school a day in his life. If it hadn't been for my mother, he couldn't even read and write."  He never got over that slight.  But, at a time when I was looking for a job, Jim still took me to that man's house to try to get me a politically connected job.  It didn't work.  But, to Jim's satisfaction, the man was eventually convicted of voter fraud after years in power. 

Jim and I also knew another Logan County politician who was eventually convicted of a similar political corruption charge who also claimed to be a sober alcoholic.  He would often be seen in public under the influence of pills and, to my knowledge, died after serving time in Federal Prison without ever being sober.  This man's dishonesty about sobriety always made Jim very angry and he never cared for the man.  Jim never made any attempt to hide the fact that he had been an alcoholic and had no respect for anyone else who lied about their own substance abuse or sobriety. Another of our close friends, was convicted of a bribery charge but was always sober to our knowledge.  Jim never shunned that man because he was a sober alcoholic who made a mistake.  In fact, the three of us spent several days traveling back and forth to another part of the state when someone else close to Jim was on trial.  Jim Ferrell would always go out of his way to help family and friends.  I have also seen him, at times, helping total strangers who appeared to be honestly in need. I have seen him contribute money to charity at times when he needed it more than some of the people who benefitted from it.  He was a lifetime member of the Kiwanis Club and also showed up anywhere anyone asked him to go to help a good cause. 

Jim was a member of the Catholic church and regularly attended mass with Phyllis.  However, I believe he was really a lapsed Catholic and actually didn't like to attend church.  But because he loved Phyllis, he always went to mass with her.  He was also active in church activities and fund raising.  Jim also served several years as a member of the board of directors of the Chapmanville Library.  Due primarily to Jim's intercession on their behalf, the local AA group was allowed to meet in the library for many years.  Jim loved to do work which he felt could help alcoholics and addicts. 

During his younger years, Jim owned two stores in Chapmanville as well as holding a taxi franchise.  When Jim lost his business and left for Cleveland to work, he sold the store to a woman who had worked for him for many years and left the taxi business in the hands of a man who was apparently bootlegging with the taxi franchise in Jim's name.  A friend called him in Cleveland and told him he needed to get rid of the franchise before he took the blame for the bootlegging.  Jim cancelled the franchise.  The story he told about going out of business and going to Cleveland was always the same and Jim never varnished the truth.  He said that in the early days of the food stamp program he would allow customers who received food stamps to charge at the store and pay him in food stamps when they received them.  He also often sold unapproved items for food stamps.  This was a common practice for small store owners at that time and I have known several, including my own parents, besides Jim who were caught in the practice.  Jim said that on the first of the month he would leave the people who worked for him to run the front of the store.  He would take the credit accounts and go to a dry goods table in the back of the store where he sat and collected off the customers who came in with their food stamps.  One month on the first, Jim said he noticed a stranger in the store but kept doing business. He said, "I had my books and several thousand dollars in food stamps stacked on that dry goods table."  The man watched for a few minutes and came back to the table.  He flashed a badge and introduced himself as a USDA agent.  Jim said the man said, "I guess you know I've got you."  Jim always said that he told the man, "All I have in the world is on that table.  I promise you if you walk out of here you can come back next month and somebody else will own this store."  Jim said the man paused to think for a few moments and finally said "OK", and walked out of the store.  Jim sold the business and went to Cleveland.  In a genuine incident of irony, just a few weeks later Jim had a job as an eligibility worker at the food stamp office in Cleveland where he worked until he retired to come home to Chapmanville. 

During that time in Cleveland, Jim met and eventually married Phyllis.  He always said that she wouldn't marry him until he achieved some long term sobriety.  It is my belief that support from Phyllis made it possible for Jim to become and stay sober.  Although they were both middle aged by the time they married, they were genuinely in love until their deaths.  Neither of them had been married before and they had no children. Phyllis worked as a legal secretary and they had a loyal group of friends in Logan County who loved them both.  They were active in the church, local charities, the Kiwanis Club, the Chapmanville Country Club, and several other worthwhile activities.  When he wasn't working or performing charitable work, Jim loved to play golf, bocce ball, and bowling. He was never a good athlete and his blind eye made matters worse.  But not long before he became unable to golf, Jim managed to get his first hole in one on a short par three at Chapmanville. 

I never golfed in my life and had no real interest in it.  But once Jim asked me to join him on the practice tee at Chapmanville "and we'll hit a bucket of balls.  When you can hit one a little piece, we'll go out and play nine holes."  I agreed and we took the clubs and balls to the practice tee.  I hacked and beat and chopped for a while and never hit a ball 30 yards.  Jim finally just reached in his pocket and handed me his Volkswagen keys and said, "Come back in about 2 hours and go to the clubhouse.  Order anything you want and sign my name to the ticket."  That's what I did and Jim never asked me to go golfing again. 

But, for several years, Jim, myself, and three other friends had a bowling team in a Thursday night men's handicap league at Chapmanville.  We were never good.  Sometimes, we weren't even ordinary.  Most seasons, we finished at the top of the bottom half of the league.  But we had a lot of fun and provided some entertainment for the better bowlers.  Jim also began to play bocce ball at Chief Logan Park very late in his life with a group of elderly men, mostly Italian Americans.  He came to love the game.  In the last several years of his life, his vision became so bad he was nearly legally blind.  But, he never gave up any of the three sports.  He loved the games themselves, the physical activity, and, most of all, the socialization they provided. 

Jim Ferrell was a fallible, funny, generous, loving human being.  After he became sober, he worked every day of his life to be the best human being he could be and to make the world a better place.  He always tried to know about important causes in the world and to do what he could to improve any situation he encountered.  Jim spent his life giving away much of what he earned.  It made him happy and gave him a sense of self worth.  Jim Ferrell was one of the finest human beings I have ever known.  Jim Ferrell was an Appalachian Hero.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Salisbury Elementary--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

Salisbury Elementary--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

I was lucky enough to attend Salisbury Elementary School at Dema, Kentucky.  Salisbury was a traditional two room school in the Knott County Kentucky school system.  I spent my entire seven year elementary school career there.  I was double promoted from first grade to third grade resulting in the seven years of education rather than the usual eight years.  Double promotion was relatively common in that time for students who performed significantly above their peers.  I was not the only student double promoted in that school during those years from 1957 to 1964.  Based on my marked lack of success in college a few years later, I am not in favor of double promotion.  It was my experience, and I believe also the experience of other such students, that the resultant college admission at age sixteen came at a time when social maturity was significantly behind the level needed to succeed in a college setting.  However, I have to say that my overall experience at Salisbury was positive and I have many fond memories of the place and people I knew there. 

 I was born in Knott County at the old Lackey Hospital although my parents lived at the time, July 1951, on Steele's Creek in Floyd County.  Wayland, KY,  sits at the mouth of Steele's Creek.  My parents ran a small country store about a mile up Steele's Creek for several years.  They also owned a piece of land on Right Beaver Creek in Knott County at Dema about a mile below the mouth of Salisbury Branch where the school was located.  In early 1957, they built a new store on that piece of land and we moved there shortly before school began in the fall of 1957.  This prevented me from having begun my education in one county and completing it in another.  I entered grade school that year without even knowing the alphabet.  I learned quickly, appreciated education in general, and had a teacher, Rita Mae Moore, who was competent in early education.  She was my teacher for three years from first grade to fourth grade.  My teacher for the remaining four years of elementary school was Emily Martin.  She was also well skilled in teaching and lived at the time in the home of her parents between my home and the school.  I actually walked past her home on the way to and from school each day. 

Students walked to and from school in those days, rain or shine.  There were very few days off school because of inclement weather due to the fact that most students actually lived within walking distance of their schools.  However, all that changed before I was out of elementary school when the Floyd County School Bus Wreck killed more than 25 students and a bus driver during a flood.  Even today, most school systems in Eastern Kentucky take a very conservative approach to scheduling school during bad weather.  I had about a half mile to walk along Kentucky Route 7 and then crossed Beaver Creek on a swinging bridge, walked about a half mile up the C & O Railroad tracks, then a short distance up Salisbury Branch to the school.  The building was a two room sandstone structure which sat slightly up the side of the hill in the edge of a large bottom.  There were no houses close to the school.  We had a coal and wood burning pot bellied stove in each room, two outdoor toilets on the upper side of the building, one for boys and one for girls.  The hand pump and well were located on the lower, down stream side of the building.  Amazingly, no one ever contracted a serious disease because the toilets were about 50 to 75 feet uphill and upstream from the well. An older boy, usually an eighth grader, was paid ten cents a day in winter to come in early, build the fires, collect kindling, and pump drinking water.  The drinking water in each room sat on a wooden table in a galvanized bucket with a galvanized dipper.  The only real nod to health and hygiene was the requirement that each student bring a drinking cup or glass at the beginning of the school year and drink only from your own glass or cup. 



Swinging Bridge Like The One On My Way To School This one was in Old Mill Park, West Liberty, KY, and was lost in the March 2, 2012, tornado.

Naturally there was no lunch room and there were no prepared lunches.  Each student usually brought a lunch from home.  But  a few were able to run home quickly during lunch, eat, and return to school for the afternoon.  There was a play ground of sorts which was bare earth except for an occasional few blades of grass.  The ground was usually littered with small pebbles which caused frequent falls during running games.  I still have a small scar over one eye due to a fall during a rapid run around the corner of the building which ended with me landing on my head.  However, injuries were uncommon and I do not recall that anyone was ever seriously injured at school. We frequently played marbles, hop scotch, and baseball with a rubber ball and no gloves.  There was also a basketball goal and sometimes we had a ball.  Sometimes we didn't.  During recess and the lunch hour, boys in the "Big Room" from fifth to eighth grade could go anywhere we wanted so long as we were back in school on time.  The girls were restricted to a small area around the school.  This blatantly sexist method was used to prevent any inappropriate actions between the sexes.  During the lunch hour, it was common for the boys to hit the hills hiking, running, playing tag, and looking for evidence of moonshine stills.  During the school year, most moonshiners wouldn't set up within a mile of the school.  But we could still sometimes find evidence of stills which had been established in spring and dismantled before school began.  We also played a game called "Riding Out" young poplars.  We climbed the young, slim, flexible trees to heights around 20 to 30 feet until they began to lean from the weight.  We rode them to the ground or until they intersected with another tree so we could move from tree to tree.  Sometimes on a downhill ride, we might be able to go several hundred feet before we ran out of flexible timber.  On only one occasion was anyone ever hurt doing this when a young tree broke near the top and allowed the rider to fall nearly twenty feet.  We carried him back to school where he regained his breath and limped on home somewhat sore.  We also would sometimes find honey bee swarms or yellow jacket nests and take chances harassing them.  Once, a student got too close while throwing rocks at a yellow jacket nest and was swarmed by the angry bees.  He ran, rolled, and bounced several hundred yards down the hill out of  the woods and into a hole of water in the creek which was deep enough to allow him to roll under the water until the yellow jackets gave up and left.  On another occasion, we caught a black snake about 5 feet long and held its mouth open and poured it full of water in order to see what would happen when we agitated it into striking.  The snake became a water hose for a brief time.  Today, I don't believe that most of us would participate in this kind of cruelty to animals. 

Another time, several of the older boys found a pair of dogs in the act of reproduction.  Due to the anatomical idiosyncracys of dogs, they could not get away.  The boys grabbed the connected dogs and carried them to the top of the stone steps which led into the front of the school.  Naturally, both teachers were quite upset.  But I don't recall any particular punishment other than the same boys being required to remove the dogs from sight of the school and the smaller students. However, I will note for the record that, since most of our parents owned livestock, very few of us were ignorant about animal reproduction. 

 On another occasion, during a trip to the woods in early spring, we found a copper head which had come out during a warm snap and been overcome by the cold a few hours later.  We carried the stiff snake into the school on a coal shovel and laid it near the warm stove.  When it became warm enough to move, we would scoop it up and carry it back out into the cold to become stiff and slow again.  This might not be a safe way to learn herpetology, and it would never be allowed in a school today; but it worked for us and no one except the copperhead came out the worse for wear.  Another cold weather game was to entice a young student to place their mouth on the cold pump handle until it froze to the metal.  I have since seen a version of this trick in a movie and laughed to remember my childhood. 

We also had an annual event to rescue lost pencils which had fallen through the cracks in the floor to the enclosed dirt underneath.  A section of floor could be removed and two or three older boys would crawl under the floor gathering up pencils.  When they were done, the floor was replaced and the pencils divided between the students.  By todays standards, many of our daily activities would be considered wanton endangerment and no school system would allow it.  But we never had serious injuries, learned many practical applications of our play, and grew up to be more resilient than most students in modern schools which have been sanitized, made nearly risk free, and lost much of the genuine fun we experienced.  We also had a regular Friday afternoon event of alternating spelling contests and adding contests.  We learned to do math in our heads far faster than most students can do it today on calculators.  We got our exercise running and walking to and from school.  People in the neighborhood watched us come and go to make sure we were safe.  We learned a great deal.  Nearly all of us grew up healthy, hard working, and intelligent.  For all its shortcomings, the education we received was better in many ways than todays methods. 

Another activity which I fondly remember, but would not want to see take place in schools today was the monthly visit of "The Bible Women".  Two female missionaries connected to Camp Nathaniel, which still exists today, lived on Right Beaver just below the mouth of Sly Branch in a house they rented from a local couple.  They made a circuit of the schools in the county visiting one or two each day.  They were known as Miss Eva and Miss Heibert.  Miss Heibert's first name was Alma.  Miss Eva had a Scandinavian last name which I forgot long ago and none of us could pronounce correctly.  So she was known by her first name only.  Miss Heibert played accordion and led us in gospel songs. Miss Eva always used a felt board and cut outs to tell a Bible story.  They also gave away gifts to students who remembered and repeated Bible verses with larger gifts for ever growing collections of Bible verses committed to memory. No matter how bad the weather or road conditions, they always appeared on time for their visits.  If necessary, they would each carry their equipment, including the cumbersome accordion, from the paved road about a half mile to and from the school.  They also had a small lending library of religious childrens books in their home and during the summer students who lived within walking distance could go there to borrow books.  I have fond memories of these two dedicated women and their work.  However, I learned long ago that the US Constitution is also sacred and separation of church and state is, and should always be, inviolable.  There is no place for religion in the public schools. 

Another of my frequently remembered days at school there involved chewing tobacco.  Nearly all of the male students usually smoked or chewed, and sometimes both by the fourth or fifth grade.  I was no exception.  One day, at lunch time, another boy and I hit the woods.  I had a lunch of two fried egg sandwiches followed by a chew of tobacco.  Then we began hiking up the narrow, rocky hollow behind the school.  It must have been spring because there was water in the branch and moss and slime on the rocks.  Just as I was about to spit, I slipped on a slick rock, went head over hills on my back, and swallowed the entire chew of tobacco.  I actually thought I was going to be able to overcome it for a while.  We returned to school on time and as class began I realized I was becoming sicker as time progressed.  I finally had to excuse myself to the toilet.  I will never forget the sight of that chew of tobacco and two fried egg sandwiches through the toilet hole.  I never chewed again for at least four or five years. 

For a few years, some special program sent a music teacher to each of the rural schools in the county once a month.  This person primarily taught us folk songs from a little green and white song book.  I remember learning "Barbara Allen", "Froggie Went A Courting", and "The Cabbage Head Song". There was also another song whose title I have forgotten about a young man getting married to a woman who was "twice six, twice seven, twice twenty and eleven...but she is a young thing and cannot leave her mother."   Any of these special programs, whether it was music or "The Bible Women", gave us half a day outside our ordinary routine and we loved it. 

The list of things Salisbury Elementary did not have includes running water, electric heat, a lunch program, a school nurse, indoor bathrooms, or lengthy lists of rules intended to protect students from themselves.  The list of things Salisbury Elementary had included a sense of community, teachers and parents who actually knew each other, corporal punishment and parents who didn't question its administration, freedom to learn experientially, and an idyllic setting.  I believe the things it had far overcomes the things it did not have.  And in that time period most rural schools in America were very similar with the very same strengths and weaknesses.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Gallery of Appalachian Heroes

As I find more time to work on this blog, I intend to post a collection of articles about several, perhaps a few dozen, heroes from Appalachia.  Some of them will be people I have known. Some will only be people I wish I had known.  They will include union organizers, artists, musicians, college professors, writers, poets, coal miners, one or two preachers, at least one Supreme Court Justice, and one Indian Chief.  The people in this gallery will be a group of individuals who have accomplished things which have made the world a  better place.  Some will have written books.  Some will have produced works of art.  Some will have put their lives on the line in support of their beliefs.  One part of me wants to list some of the group in this article today.  Another part of me wants to keep you in suspense.  I have decided to post the list, or at least the beginnings of the list.  This group will include several writers and poets: Don West, Albert Stewart, Verna Mae Slone, Loyal Jones, Cratis Williams, Bill Blizzard, Bob Snyder.  One other poet who was not Appalachian but lived and worked in Appalachia for many years will probably also be discussed at length but not included in the gallery of heroes due to his having been born outside the region: William Howard Cohen.  I will also include some articles about those miners and textile workers who gave their lives  in the union struggle in Appalachia. I have already written a small piece about the Battle of Blair Mountain.  But I would like to do something larger for all those people who died in order to gain union representation, fair wages, holidays, and vacations for the workers who live today and benefit from their blood, sweat, and tears without ever knowing, acknowledging, or appreciating the tremendous sacrifices these men and women made.  I cannot say that I really knew Florence and Sam Reese but I did have the pleasure of meeting them and attending a seminar they were involved in once.  For the uninitiated, Florence Reese wrote "Which Side Are You On?", one of the greatest union songs ever written.  I will also write about Cherokee Chief Charles Renatus Hicks, one of the most literate men in America in the 18th century.  Many of my relatives believe we are decended from Chief Charles.  I have never been able to find sufficient proof to make that statement.  But I do know that I would love to be able to prove it.  Chief Charles read and wrote  both Cherokee and English and served as an interpreter for the tribe at many of the most famous treaty conferences.  He also owned one of the largest private libraries in America at a time when most Native Americans were illiterate.  I am on the fence about writing about Sgt. Alvin York, WW I solider and hero.  His military record is generally what brings him mention.  I am more interested in his work to improve education in East Tennessee after he returned from the war.  I have already mentioned at least a dozen men and women who worked to make America a better place. I can't wait to find out who the next dozen will be who pop into my head.  Aha, Jock Yablonski, what gallery of Appalachian heroes could be complete without mention of his name and how he paid the ultimate sacrifice in the UMWA.  There are also all the men and women, boys and girls who died in disasters in Appalachia.  I have always been interested in the way Appalachian people work within our cultural value system to rebound from death, destruction, and disaster.  I would like to write some posts about the events leading up to, during, and after disasters such as the coal mine explosions, the Buffalo Creek Flood, the Floyd County School Bus Wreck, the Silver Bridge Collapse, the Marshall University Airplane Crash, and several more catastrophic events in our history as a region. 
Don West, Poet, Preacher, Teacher, Social Activist
Sgt. Alvin C. York, War Hero
Verna Mae Slone, Writer
William Blizzard, Sr., Union Activist, Blattle of Blair Mountain
Historic Marker For William Blizzard, Sr.
Major General Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager, Pilot & Military Leader


Albert Stewart, Poet