Staying Busy in a Harsh Appalachian Winter

Several years ago I became quite tired of my sewing hobby.  In Appalachia that is getting “burnt out.”  Through the years I have occupied myself with many hobbies from the old ways.  These hobbies once meant survival, and I have cultivated and enjoyed many pastimes that once meant survival for my ancestors.  There will just not be enough years to get it all accomplished!   I will never try to walk in another’s shoes, but have difficulty understanding a person being bored.   My Dad always stressed to “learn all you can ’cause ya never know when you’ll need  it.”  Many of the old ways are healthy, and they provide needed exercise for the body, mind, and spirit.  Learning to build a good fire was one of my favorite accomplishments.

I tried Kraut making, and research showed this to be an amazing food.  If one is interested in probiotics for health reasons, there is no better source than sauerkraut made in a crock.  You cannot  save yourself all the trouble by purchasing sauerkraut at your local grocer, as most is made with vinegar or the probiotic is killed by heat in the processing.  Sauerkraut must undergo a fermentation process just as wine or yogurt.  To be safe, it must also have the correct brine solution to prevent botulism.  Also if the brine is too salty it will pickle instead of ferment.  Meanwhile, in Appalachia, most believe in the signs, so get out your Almanac.  There are many sources for making sauerkraut on the web.

Also, I make a really old time chow chow which is wonderful with beans of any type.  While growing up, I fondly remember this chow chow with navy beans.  The recipe is so old, you cannot find it on the web.  It is, in fact, finely chopped cucumbers, cabbage, and green peppers placed in a clean pillow case.  The special sauerkraut brine with chlorine-free water is poured into the crock, and the chow  chow  placed down in the brine.  It is then covered with a clean plate with a scrubbed rock placed on top to keep submerged.  Cover with a dry clean pillow case, where it is allowed to ferment for about 21 days.  A good sauerkraut recipe can be found on the web, and you just substitute your mix for the cabbage.  Chow chow was  made by my mother, and before her my grandmother.  In the nearby county of McDowell, they make a similar mix and it is called “Mixed pickles.”  They chop the vegetables coarsely.  All the recipes I have ever seen for chow chow are sweet; very much like relish.  This chow chow is more like Kraut, but the taste is very unique.  The crock part of the crock pot make a nice crock for brining.

Recently, I have become interested in sewing again.  I have started off by making small lap/nap quilts for kids or older adults.   They are just the right size to cover legs for warmth, or great for the toddlers at Daycare to use for nap time.  Another project is rag purses or make up totes.  These are a work in progress, and I hope to improve them for flexibility.

Nap-Lap rag quiltLap/Nap Quilt made from my Dad’s old work shirts.  It has label “Vintage from Paw Paw’s closet”

pocketbook by fireplaceRag purse made from old shirts and scraps.

snow covered road and porchSnow covered porch.

When I look out and see this, I am so thankful I am retired.  I get busy with new recipes,  bring canned food out of the basement for home made soup.  And, yes I start sewing, and I enjoy all the other projects.

I will never leave West Virginia willingly, as it is my home and I have a spiritual kinship with this lovely state.  From the mountains to the valleys and the winding rivers claim my heart.  My rose colored glasses cannot fathom why West Virginia was voted the worst state.  Oh well, we’ll keep its beauty a secret lest it become  cluttered and overcome by crime.  Many folks feel the same about this beautiful state.  You either love it with all your being or you hate it!

There is really only one time I wish I did not love West Virginia… time when there is a longing that all the sunshine in the world cannot heal.   I remember the little blond wild child that could not be tamed!  When I pass the Fairview Street sign, and I have a deep unrelenting sadness.   I know I cannot go back, and I can never turn down that street to pick up my little girl.  I cannot leave money under the mat on week ends for my girl any more.  West Virginia is full of seniors without their loved ones…we are sometimes lonely, but we are also a tough lot…we know how to survive…..

cutest picMy girl

All the strength and force of man comes from his faith in things unseen. He who believes is strong; he who doubts is weak. Strong convictions precede great actions.
by James Freeman Clarke

Categories: Appalachian life | 2 Comments

Memories of a Burke Mountain Home

The Lewis Reason Steele family  is remembered as mostly a hard working and honest family.  There never seemed to be any of the wild “kicking up the heels” that seemed to plague other families of the time.  The mountain home on Burke Mountain and fading memories of the  beloved Lewis Reason Steele family must be documented before the last memory is forever lost through the passing of time. Most of the family passed on while still  young, and the old home place has been covered over and obliterated by mountain top mining. All landmarks are gone, and the once beautiful wildflower covered peaks and valleys have been replaced by a boring mine reclamation.  So very sad to not be able to go back and visit the old home place!  I am not aware of any pictures remaining of the  old farmhouse that once housed this large family.   It seems fate has made a supreme effort to hide the fact that the Lewis Reason Steele family from Burke Mountain ever existed.  But, there are the descendants  with numerous cousins all over the United States; a mountaintop  cemetery still nestles serenely on the mountaintop.  Mitchem Ridge Cemetery holds many family members, and the pictures of Almeda  Mitchem Steele and Lewis Reason Steele are embedded in their tombstones.  I was born after they died, but would forevermore have a curiosity about the grandparents I never knew.  May God rest their souls!  Meanwhile, time  marches on toward that great day when death will be no more and there will be no more parting.    The Mitchem Cemetery  holds the graves of many of the family along with numerous relatives and ancestors.  Otherwise, it seems I might have dreamed of these folks!

One time, many years ago it was almost as if I had a premonition.  Sometime during the quiet midday I was overcome by the song, “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”  It seemed that God was letting me experience something before it happened, and I had a fleeting glimpse into a future without my beloved aunts and uncles.  In my mind’s eye I could picture all the family gathered around in a big circle, and this startlingly vivid picture  caused a sinking feeling to overpower me.  Deep within my heart I knew this circle would be broken, and there was absolutely nothing that could make time stand still for me.  I wanted to call them all and tell them I dearly loved these precious Aunts  and Uncles. Following one of the many funerals Uncle Carson once looked over at Dad and said “There’s not many of us ole Steele boys left.”  My Dad, being very aware that all brothers were gone except him and Uncle Carson,  chose to let a deep quiet settle in the room.  Some of them were very stoic and  straight laced –the product of a strict  upbringing! I saw into their hearts well, and remembered all their little touches of affection shown to me as a child.  I, myself, sometimes maintain a slight aloofness, and  feel very strongly this is a Steele trait embedded in my genes.  They all died much too young!  It seemed they were young and full of life one day, and then just gone way too soon.

I would like to share what I have learned from experience, research, and oral history. Grandpa, Lewis Steele, was a strict disciplinarian.  He had a clock/watch shop in Northfork, West Virginia where he worked all week.  He walked five miles home on week ends to the large farm on Burke Mountain.  There were 12 children who were taught to work from sun up to sun down except on Sundays.  They were all sent to the country school which went  through the eighth grade.  This did not limit them, however, as my Dad had more common wisdom than anyone I ever knew.  He would tackle any job, and did a lot of  math in his head.  They grew up in what was a very large and nice farmhouse for the time.  My memory easily travels back to the entrance in the kitchen.  There was a water pail with dipper over next to a door that entered into the dining room.  A very large dining room table dominated the entire room; a recollection is  this table covered with a bounty of food for every meal.  Aunt Minnie Steele Brooks did the cooking, and was she ever a cook!  No electricity and no indoor plumbing, but the house seemed quite the mansion to me.  We kids loved to bang on a big pump organ located in the living room.   Surprisingly enough, we were permitted to bang to our heart’s content without fear of reprisal from Aunt Minnie.  Inside the home had an unusual painting design, and we were told a man from New York was contracted to do the unusual painting.  Upstairs consisted of large sparsely furnished bedrooms with all beds covered with snow white sheets.     When walking down  the curved lane  one’s eyes were immediately drawn to two long front porches with one upstairs and one downstairs.  We children were never permitted to play on the upper porch. There was the old  pump out in the yard where water was pumped  from a mountain well.  The musty smell of the cellar is forever imprinted in my mind.  I have fond memories of me trailing behind Aunt Minnie as she went down to pick out cans of fruit and vegetables for the evening meal.   That same memory floods back anytime  my nostrils are assailed with a strong musty odor from an old basement or shed.

Beyond the yard was an apple tree with  yellow apples with the sweetest  taste.  Mom called them early apples.  As a small child I recall eating those apples all day long,  There was a long lane leading  down to the house where you passed a barn…there were always  a cow and some chickens.  I have seen a chicken go from prancing in the barnyard to chicken ‘n dumplings in less time than it takes some eat-in restaurants to bring your meal.   Worn hard rocks jutted out of the lane making for cautious walking.  Mom remembers when Aunt Minnie always went to get the cows after dark, and Mom finally told Aunt Minnie she would have to go alone if she went after dark. Aunt Minnie liked to take an evening nap in a straight backed chair. I recall seeing an old photo one time with children all over the place at the house, but I’m not sure which family member had it in their possession.  That is a good lesson to share pictures and write names on the back, as one never knows when they can be lost in a fire or tossed by offspring not aware of their value.

As one wound around the crooked mountain road there were beautiful meadows of wild flowers on the left.  Many times after a heavy rain the road would be so rutted it was barely passable.  My Dad’s old Mercury would jerk and lurch in the ruts as we made our way around the mountain.  Finally, the old home place would come in sight, and we would jump out of the car and bound into the kitchen.  We knew a feast of country food would be waiting, but we kids also knew very well to “mind our manners.”

Steele family copyRight side back row:  Lewis Reason Steele, Almeda Mitchem Steele, children..Ida, Elbert, Ward, Minnie, Kelly.  Lower row from right Carson, Clarence, Lonnie, Ed, Tarvin.  Front row Sherman J. Steele, Katherine Steele Sizemore.  Note: new info shows Sherman listed as John S. Steele on 1930 census, and he had trouble in WWII getting birth certificate corrected. 1929
The Steele family.  All are gone now, with their work on this earth done.  This was a very hard-working honest family, and they  lived their lives in the way they should.  This family got through the depression without realizing they even had a depression.   Hard work on the farm assured everybody would always have plenty to eat.  The excess of vegetables, butter, milk, and eggs were hauled off in a wagon to sell in the towns or Keystone and Northfork.
grampa-steele-n-elbert copyGrampa Lewis and Uncle Elbert in the Watch/Clock store in Northfork, West Virginia.  Grampa stayed in the shop all week and went home on week ends.  Grandma Almeda had to stay on the mountain with child rearing and managing the farm.
mitchem ridge cemetery1 mitchem ridge cemetery 2Mitchem Ridge Cemetery atop Burke Mountain.

An early memory is heading to the “dinner on the ground” in the back of Uncle Ward’s big ole red truck.  He had a truckload of  kids bouncing around in the back trying to keep their footing while he maneuvered the truck over the dusty rutted road.  There is nothing in the world better than an old-fashioned “dinner on the ground.”  Nothing can fill your spirit and touch your soul like the ole timey hymns sang on the mountaintops in  Acappella.   Singing has the purest sound in the remote mountains.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!  There was always  church meeting with country preachin’  which seemed to follow the Regular Baptist teachings. The preaching was usually done by a very energetic “Big Ed.”  I peered over the benches one time to see a little woman with a huge goiter on her neck.  West Virginia, not being near the ocean, had little access to seafood which furnished adequate amounts of iodine.  Goiters were quite common to see in the 1940s.  The sale of iodized salt protected Appalachians from this once common malady.  I did not realize at the time, but the lady was probably related to me.

Before all the mountain top mining we could walk down the dirt road, and the first graves passed were those of my Grandparents.  I can still see those small oval framed pictures on their tombstones, and I am very aware that these and all the Burke Mountain memories will always be a part of me. Back then the old schoolhouse still stood, but the sounds of children playing had long been quieted.  The old schoolhouse was left forgotten to brave the elements without the Winter fires to warm.  It no longer stood  when the mountaintop mining began…

Revelations 21:4  And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.

Categories: Appalachian life, Family | Leave a comment

Let’s Cook Some Mixed Greens and Cornbread

I love these beautiful mountains with their changing seasons.  It is  more difficult when the thermometer is showing anything below 30º, and all the trees stand bleakly against the harsh winds.  Winters can be challenging in these mountains because we often lose electricity, and the mountain roads are rough on brakes and tires.  By nature I am a  survivalist, so I welcome the challenge and enjoy the exercise of bringing in wood and shoveling snow.

Sometimes we just want to skip the challenges and just stay in a warm house, and occasionally peer out the window to view weather conditions.  It is really a special blessing to stay inside watching a deep snow pile up outside the sliding glass doors. This is a great time to bake and cook, and just count one’s blessings because there is no need to be out in the weather.  I usually cook an old-fashioned Appalachian meal.  Today,  it is going  be greens with cornbread.

I don’t care for the canned or bagged greens, but always choose the fresh greens that perish easily.  In the summer the garden is full of all types of greens, but Wintertime means finding a grocer that still carries the fresh  greens.  Obtain a variety as much as possible, and the local Kroger had Mustard and Kale greens with an organic Turnip to cut up in the mix.  You cannot imagine how great home cooked fresh greens are if you have always eaten the tasteless canned greens.  As a child I could not wait for Spring.  We would go out and pick wild greens in the mountains by the sack full.  Together with the neighbors, we would collect greens with strange names such as lamb’s quarter,  dandelion, poke  salad, and another I can never find in books on Botany called spotted john.    Those were the days, and shopping at the grocery store can never replace combing the mountains for wild greens.

Greens boil down, so plan on getting several bunches.  I bought 3 bunches which would probably make about four servings.  Start off by looking the greens for bugs or any debris.  Keep a bowl of water to dip each leaf in and remove and discard the tough stems down the middle.  After this is completed rinse them again in a sterilized sink.  Tear them apart and drop into a small pot of water.  After they come to a boil one can pour off the liquid.  To those not familiar this is called  par boiling, which serves a dual purpose by getting rid of any farm additives and preventing the greens from having a strong taste.  There is plenty of good nutrition left as evidenced by the taste. The greens are then placed in a crock pot turned on high with about 1 cup of water.  I personally break many cooking rules.  I go ahead and put in a couple pinches of salt so the greens can be getting seasoned.  Then I really break all rules, because I cook a strip of bacon and dump into the pot to begin letting the flavors mingle–totally Southern, but I cut back on the bad stuff.  The greens are cooked on high for about 1 1/2 hours then turned on low for about 5 hours.  After the greens become tender, I  reach a knife and fork down in the pot to cut greens into bite size pieces.  If you love the pot Liquor, you can add a little more water.   Black pepper for some heat is great in greens. About 30 minutes before the meal is finished add a turnip by  peeling and cutting  into approximately 1 inch squares.  Just before you remove the pot to serve add a dollop of butter and some more salt to taste.

About 30 minutes before the greens are done,  fry a small pan of cornbread in a cast iron fry pan.  Try to avoid a lot of calories, oil, and eggs, as the cornbread is delicious anyway.  A small pan of cornbread is simple with 3/4 cup self-rising Virginia’s Best cornmeal mixed with enough buttermilk to give the consistency of cake batter.  Spray Pam into the pan and heat until hot.  Pour the batter into the pan and turn burner down to medium.  You will need a good wide metal spatula as there is a real trick to turning without a mess.  Spray top of cornbread with another coat of pam.  Peep under the bread, and if it is browning well, slip the spatula under and flip.  Dump the cornbread out on a plate once it is browned well on both sides.  Word of caution–do not flip until batter has congealed enough not to splatter.  I fry most bread, as this has been handed down possibly through Native American heritage.  Occasionally biscuits are baked in the oven.

At one time this meal would have been loaded with fat back, eggs, lard, and butter.   I have tried to continue cooking the food I grew up enjoying, and love the simple fare.  But, I cut way back on all the grease, butter, and eggs.  Now it is time to sit down while the precipitation is battering the roof and enjoy some pot liquor over cornbread….oh so good.  It seems to invigorate and somehow make one just feel healthier.

z cornbreadFried cornbread about I inch thick.
corn bread and greensMustard, Kale, and Turnip greens.  Some folks like to add vinegar to the greens.

Categories: Appalachian life | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Rollin’ Stores and other Coal Camp Memories

The Rollin’ Store and Mrs. Mitchell’s Mini Farm

One of my fondest memories in the 1940s was the Rollin’ Store.  Many of you are not blessed to remember these, but with my 70 years on this earth there were many blessings.  One of the best was that big old truck we called “The Rollin’ Store”.  It would drive and park at strategic locations up the Holler of McDowell and Greenbrier.

The Coal Camp kids would gather ’round  with their coins to buy soda pop and candy.  Soda pop was a nickel, and most candy a penny or nickel.  The kids would stand there hollerin’ out their order to the driver while he handed out all the goodies from a  big covered truck.  I guess he made a good living, and it sure kept him out of the coalmines.  Anyway, we kids sure hated it when pop went up to a dime a bottle.  Oh, well, it was a larger bottle so we started sharing with siblings.

We shared the spotlight with a little lady we called Mrs. Mitchell.  Mrs. Mitchell  would stand there wearing her sack dress with apron.  Always adorning Mrs. Mitchell’s head was a homemade bonnet.  Loved that lady!  She was always first, and I guess that taught me my first lesson in respect for older adults.  She would reach down deep in that big ruffled apron and give the man her coins.  I wish I could remember better what she bought, but it was not candy and pop.  No, Mrs. Mitchell  was much too practical, and maybe too poor, to waste her money on sweets.  She had a larger yard than most, and her house had two stories.  I can still visualize her home in my mind, and do not recall a blade of grass.  Most of the time all you could see was her bonnet as she worked amongst all the tall corn and colorful tall flowers.  The home was surrounded by an old-fashioned weatherworn picket  type fence with no cracks between the boards.

According to 1930 census on Ancestry, Mrs. Mitchell was born around 1879,  and West Virginia was rugged, sparsely settled country during that time.  Rutherford B. Hayes was the president. Now Mrs. Mitchell didn’t let any grass grow under her feet.  In her yard was a large garden with huge corn, and she had chickens.  There was a cow somewhere in the back, and she milked regularly and sold butter and milk.  She had a devoted fancy dressed son, Kyle, who continued to live with his Mom ’cause he didn’t want to leave her alone.  Children could sometimes be devoted that way back in the day. He had a modern  car always parked in the back alley.  Kyle seemed to be a businessman, and he seemed out of place in the Camp-he was dapper!  I recall he got married, but still never left his Mom nor shared the story with her.  I’ll never forget the adults talking about his  young bride dying in some tragic way, and Kyle continued living with his Mom.  The nice thing about the Coal Camps is you didn’t have to be politically correct in those days.  Everybody did their own thing, and sometimes it could be outright odd and outlandish!

There were two company stores, and I would run errands for neighbors for a nickel or some paid a dime.   There were no phones so, on occasion, I was given some sort of “bad news” to pass along to a neighbor as I made my way up the dusty road.  I also sold candy to earn a watch.  All of this gave me the idea that I needed to become the first child entrepreneur in the camp.  On the mantel above the fireplace was my life savings stashed in a metal dog (bet that would be worth something now).   I caught Mom and Dad running errands and decided  to start my own business.  On impulse, I emptied the little bank , and I went out to the Rollin’ Store and bought up a bunch of candy.  I hired all the Coal Camp kids to help.  Since I had spent all my funds starting my business, I was unable to make payroll.  Thus, all my young employees were paid in candy.  I was blissfully unaware of child labor laws, compensation, or sales tax.   We straggled up and down the Holler trying to sell the candy after the Rollin’ Store had already satisfied everybody’s appetite for candy; no profit involved, as we were selling candy at the same price I paid.  Not many customers and kids eating up all the profits speedily put my little enterprise out of business.  I still had to deal with the man who had unknowingly financed my little business-Dad.  It must have been too preposterous for me to get a spanking, and it sure furnished a lot of laughs around the camp. Dad would retell the story for years.  I never did get any more coins in that little metal dog bank.  Dad sometimes had a funny way of teaching us lessons.  Tough Love.

My Mom liked clean clothes , so we presented well even with all the dirt from the dusty unpaved road.  Mom and the neighbors used a lot of bleach, and I remember the Byrd children always smelled of bleach.  I can recall those clean clothes waving in the breeze, and they remained propped  in the middle with a forked pole to keep the clothesline from falling.  To this day one of my favorite things is to load down a clothesline with clean clothes-they smell so fresh and clean.  I ran into the clothesline one time with my neck, and almost knocked myself out.  We learned a lot back then: wild and free to learn most lessons the hard way.  I now fit well into the new green rage.
a young with white dress_edited-1This is picture of me in my very white dress with white socks, and every trendy child in the Coal Camp had a pair of black patent leather shoes.  I had skinny little legs, and I only knew one  child who was not skinny back then.  It is hard to gain weight on “rough grub.”

Our neighbor, Mrs. Mitchell,  looked out for all the neighbor kids, and gave advice, admonishments, and could tattle if necessary.  Thank you, Miss Mitchell, wherever you are in heaven.  I’m sure you are still looking out for all the children there.  She personally had a little bridge built to keep the kids from wading the creek.  I cannot remember if that was before or after I almost cut my toe off wading.  It could have been after my makeshift bridge overturned running a rusty nail into my lower leg.  I still remember the kids screaming bloody murder when they saw the blood I had not yet seen.  I was standing there laughing in my creek-soaked clothes until I looked down and saw the blood.  Then I commenced to join in the screaming!   My Mom heard the commotion and came running out.  She grabbed this big for her age child up and ran into the house.  Dad left the tipple at Weyburn  Coal Co. and took me to ole Doc Bennett.  And so the gentle lecture I have mentioned in a previous post.
algoma-wv-coal-mine-storeThe Algoma store where Doctor Bennett had his office on the lower right.  This is where I had my leg sewn up without anesthesia.  It is also where I stood with my Dad early one morning until the Doc got there.  I had scary speckles all over my body.  Doctor Bennett took one look at me and very abruptly said, “Chicken Pox.”  Doc Bennett was a tough ole Company Doc-tough and to the point.   I was left wondering if I would die, or would I forever be banned because I looked so ugly with all those spots.  I was not permitted to enter, and he gave my Dad some brief instructions as he jammed the key in the lock to the door.  Dr. Bennett has been long gone, but I bet the building has that same lock as the building still stands today.  I passed there not too long ago, and the building is standing.  Another memory always prevails when I see that building.  In the forties a young man with last name of Bailey was shot down by his neighbor on a railroad bridge in front.  He left a wife and small child.

Many Coal Camp memories, and most are remembered as happy times.  I wish I could go back for awhile and swing on that front porch, but God has given me the priceless memories.  I want to share!

There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colors are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.  ~Elizabeth Lawrence

Categories: Appalachian life, Coal Camp life | 2 Comments

Bloggin’ ‘Bout a Mountain Coal Camp…”The County”

I  write about  a county in West Virginia that is near and dear to my heart.  I must reminisce  about life in “the county” or sometimes called “The Patch.” Either way it is a county loved by many. I had the good fortune to live there as a child in a little mining community named McDowell in McDowell County.

But, first an explanation about the transition of a booming coal mining county into a remote area now lovingly referred to as “The County.”  There are folks from West Virginia scattered all over the United States.  Many feel a spiritual call they cannot explain–a deep reverence for the state they still call home. Most ask to be carried back and buried in the same sacred soil that captivated them in their youth.  Many obituaries show West Virginians from all over the U S, and sometimes they even reside in foreign lands.  Most show them to be transported back to their native soil to be buried in a local cemetery.

There are, however, many young who want to leave the image of the corncob pipe smoking Granny behind. Society has demanded a certain respect for minorities, and it is no longer politically correct to tell jokes that belittle any minority.  Fortunately, this has left very few cultures one can safely belittle or shame.  Everybody is familiar with the image of the gun-totin’ hillbilly with a corncob pipe and one tooth, and they are fair game for everyone.  Many people not familiar with the state show open surprise to meet many West Virginians who seem to have more than the average IQ.  More importantly, is the warmth and friendliness shown by these mountain folk.   This state that built America with hard working coal miners digging coal out to heat and keep the lights on in America.  Back-breaking hard and dangerous work fueled America.  Let us not forget the Italian rock masons who built wall after wall in McDowell county.  These walls still stand in defiance holding up banks and surrounding old homes.  Many cultures in McDowell where once they came from far and wide to work the coalfields.

There are so many great traditions, lost communities, and churches in West Virginia that it might take several lifetimes to describe them all.  I reflect on “Dinners on the ground”. old-time tent revivals, baptizing, and cultural customs.  For this article I will focus on life in a Coal Camp in southern West Virginia. My memories are nothing like the author Jeannette Walls, and I could never see this great county in a bad light.  I, fortunately, had great hard-working parents, and my best memories are the time spent  in the county of McDowell.  The community still exists, but is by no means the booming community it once was.  My life and times in the community of McDowell in McDowell County West Virginia.

I have felt for many years that West Virginia was the state of lonely seniors.  Detroit is a city that once drew our young much like the “Gold rush.”  Now Detroit is suffering the same fate as our beautiful state once did. We West Virginians are a tough hardy people who learned to survive this insult to the state’s economy.  Will there be enough strong-willed people in Detroit to keep the home fires burning to await the return of its prodigal children?  I think so!  I  take this opportunity to write about the harshness of life that somehow created a beautiful people called West Virginians. Most people learned to create jobs out of nothing while others depended on the government to help until they could do better. I would ask that all write down and safely store these old memories.  We have already wasted a generation where we looked ahead and never asked questions.

I remember the little schoolhouse on the hill in McDowell.  It had three classrooms.  At that time the teachers were Miss Gent, Mrs. Larry, and Jodi Boston, the principal.  There were old books in bookcases in each room, and I loved to read them.  One time Mrs. Boston had to chase me outside  for recess, as I was totally engrossed in a book–third grade.  We played all up in the woods behind the schoolhouse, and I can remember all the kids picking up beech nuts.  Learning at that school was so easy.  Mrs. Larry would read a chapter a day from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.  We would eagerly await the story reading much like one waits for their favorite television show nowadays.

In first and second grade each child  made their own pottery from clay Mrs. Gent removed from the hillside.  We fashioned our pottery and colored with water colors.  We would eagerly examine our pottery each day during the drying process.  Most children made ashtrays because back in those wonderful days as most grownups in West Virginia smoked. When the day finally arrived to take our masterpiece home, we would trek up the road to present it to some lucky recipient.  One year, for whatever reason, I gave mine to the Coal Camp overseer, Mr. Draper.

We sure had some mishaps in that holler!  I recall the entire Coal Camp combing the hillsides and creek for my sister, Kay.  We finally found her piled up asleep under a pile of freshly dried laundry.  Oh yes, and the time Mr. Draper was on a roof only to look over and see my toddler sister climbing up there to help.  They would throw shovels of greasy white stuff on the roads to keep the dust settled, whereas my baby sis would head out to eat it.  I almost cut my toe off in the little creek; all creeks and mountains were our playground.  We survived and were all the better for it.  Folks didn’t hover over their children back then, and kids learned speedily what to avoid and what to embrace.

I fondly remember many of the African American families.  One family had a candy store in their living room, and I would take all my extra coins to buy candy.  There was a lovely lady who wore a trench coat and carried an umbrella, and as she would walk up the road we would eagerly join her. She was so very interesting and wise.  To this day I remember her telling us to enjoy our youth as we would be grownups some day.  Then there was the old man we referred to as “Old Sack Joe.”  We would often see him trudge slowly up the dusty road with an ole sack thrown ‘cross his shoulder.  We children were afraid and would threaten each other with  “Ole Sack Joe gonna get you and put you in that sack.”  In later years I learned that he helped with pig slaughter, and would carry his share home in a sack.  Wherever you are in heaven ,”Old Sack Joe”,  I wish we could go back and show you the respect you deserved.  You were a gentle soul!  The communities were segregated back then, but there was a lot of back and forth with all working side by side in the coal mine.

“When we are children we seldom think of the future.  This innocence leaves
us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can.  The day we fret about the future
is the day we leave our childhood behind.”       -Patrick Rothfuss-
to be continued………

Categories: Appalachian life, Coal Camp life | 2 Comments

Veterans Gave Their All…Billy Bishop and Edgar Petrey

I can think of no better time to remember our brave heroes.  I see on the news where Federal veteran memorials are blocked, and our veterans are being wheeled in wheelchairs.  Blockades are being torn down so they can have access to an open-air memorial.  I don’t care what your political affiliation is–this is just wrong!  I thought the U.S. had come past all the shameful parts of our history such as slavery and “The Trail of Tears.”  Political leaders will come and go, but our war dead made a forever sacrifice, and the war survivors should have 24/7 access to these memorials.  For some of those veterans, this may be the last trip they are able to make anywhere.

WW11 was a terrible war, and there were so very many brave men who fought and died so we could have freedom.  I would like to take this opportunity to put a couple of faces out there–gone too soon.  I heard much through the years about two young men.  They were Billy Bishop and Edgar Petrey.  Billy Bishop was from Wyoming county, and he is still mentioned with reverence by extended family and friends after all these years.  My Aunt Bea was engaged to him, and she spent some heartbroken days after he died. I know very little about Edgar except he was my Dad’s best friend from Kentucky, and he left a grieving mother behind.  Edgar’s mother was in contact with my Dad and wrote letters.  Edgar never married or went on to have a life–He was killed in action overseas.

Billy bishopA picture of Billy Bishop who was engaged to my Aunt Bea.  His remains are still overseas, but he has a marker in a family cemetery.

Edgar Petry and DadEdgar Petrey on the right with my Dad, Sherman Steele, on the left.  Edgar died in March of 1945 in the service of his country.

edgarpetrywithotherEdgar with another friend.

These men were very young, but not too young to know their mission.  They gave up their young lives for our freedom.  That freedom includes the right to pay homage to fallen comrades without political cluelessness.

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Caregiving 101…Don’t Worry About your Dirty Car

One may wonder why I think I am enough of an expert to call this post “Caregiver 101.”  With 12 years experience, I think this may be equivalent to PHD in caregiving.  My education started many years ago when both parents were able to communicate and had just started to have aging problems.  At that time I was self-serving, and I mostly only did chores and errands for them that made me feel good.  I kept myself aloof from the problems and made feeble attempts to help with grocery shopping and visits to the hospital.

There are vivid memories I will share.  I can never erase the memory of picking up groceries for my Dad and dropping them off.  He urged me to stay longer than my 15 minute allotment of time, I will never forget my response of,  “I have to go wash my car for work tomorrow, Dad.”  I pulled out from the long country lane with my Dad standing on the porch watching me out of sight.  This memory is emblazoned in my mind!  I never saw him standing there again, and I never again worried about a dirty car.  I still don’t speak much about any part of that period of time.

Thus began my life of caregiving my Mother.  This has been a rocky road, but chock full of blessings everywhere I look.  As a workaholic, I mostly concentrated on work and giving my Grandchild the best life possible.  I hired sitters, and I wanted my Mother to spend her days in home setting.  I knew from years in the medical field that any option would be better than those long days in extended care facilities: generic meals and few personal belongings.  I knew if they lost a patient there was another waiting  to grab that bed.   On the other hand, this was my Mother and I only had one to lose.  I decided to give it my best shot.

I would advise anyone to think long and hard about this type of decision.  There is never a satisfactory outcome, and your only reward may be seeing years of your parent retaining their individuality.  When roles get reversed parents don’t “cotton” to the idea.  And, no matter how mature you are feeling, you will never be totally grown up enough to face the tasks ahead.

My Mother loved junk, so she was able to dwell happily midst her clutter for many years.  She fired two sitters in one day, and insulted the young man who mowed my grass.  She once sent my uncle to my work to see why I wasn’t home yet.  That did not have a good outcome!  I made many trips to ER with her where she was sent back home.  On the flip side, she loved her coffee and still does, and she will go on for several minutes telling me how good the coffee is.  I mix it somewhat like a cappuccino, and she has enjoyed this for years. Most meals are cooked, and I have learned some truly delicious soup recipes.

I have come so far from the person who left her job in tears in December of 2010.  I had to retire and stay home with Mom, as I could not find dependable help.  And, they say there is an unemployment problem.  I resented this at first, and I wondered why I had chosen a path of being so totally and completely tied down.  I realized I, and only I, had chosen this caregiving life; nobody else had chosen a role which starts off with a feeling of martyrdom.  I was the most obvious one to do this as I actually didn’t have a life. My life had always centered a great deal around my job.  The tears would come on very rare occasion after that, but basically I was learning to be a stronger and more tolerant person. The long road I had chosen would last much longer and be much harder than I had ever anticipated.  But, the rewards would be so many at times that I could almost feel God’s mighty hand guiding me softly through the process.

A blessing has been the God-sent friendships I now have  I realize this is mostly because I now take time for friends.  A great blessing is I now  have an opportunity to baby-sit my young grandchild.   So very much has been learned about the blessings from the earth with canning and gardening.  I’m attempting a blog!  I urge anyone with whatever their faith to use this valuable resource for guidance.  I personally believe in the Christian faith with the Lord Jesus as my personal savior. Yep, my own personal savior.  I feel his guidance through this process.

Matthew 25:21
“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

I now look back on my decision in retrospect, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to assist my Mother through a life stage.  It has given me much insight on how I wish to spend that final stage of life myself.  Meanwhile I must wrap this up as I have too many projects, canning jars, and tomatoes scattered all over the kitchen.  I am also working on laundry that seems not to end.  I will, however, not worry about washing my car!
lola old fashionedPretty Miss Lola B.  I want to remember the Mother who was so busy…She canned 500 cans a year and still took time to hit every yard sale and flea market within 30 miles.
lolasherm00812My parents when they were courting.

Categories: Caregiving | 1 Comment

The Call of the Mountains..Sagas from Hickory Ridge-Pinnacle Creek

“Old men will dream dreams and young men will see visions.”  So why now this dream and why this vision?  My Appalachian upbringing taught me first and foremost that everything happens for a reason.  I cannot determine if this comes from the old-time Baptist preaching, or if this is just the matter of fact way most mountain folks see life.  It is ingrained and will forever be as much a part of me as the vastness of my West Virginia mountains.   So, with pen in hand, I will attempt to tell the story of Hickory Ridge and how it helped me find my roots.  My ancestors became personal and real, and I discovered the joy of being part of an extended family…the Lesters, Lanes, Greens, Bishops, Sizemores, Whitts, and Belchers.
gwolffMariah Elizabeth Wolfe Lester.  This prized photo can be found in many photo albums, family trees, and message boards in southern West Virginia.  Numerous descendants search for further info on the German lady known to many as “Granny Wolfe.”

Recently there was a  coming together of folks for the sole purpose of restoring Hickory Ridge Cemetery. The land for Hickory Ridge had been set aside by Powell Lusk.  There was also a need to memorialize great grandparents whose earthly remains may have been carelessly covered by a slate heap.  Mountain folks have always had a deep respect for their departed loved ones, and for over 100 years cemeteries in Wyoming County WV were tended by descendants and friends of descendants.  These final resting places have so many loved ones resting there; these departed still have stories for us to discover. Hickory Ridge is an old cemetery, and contains so many extended family members. As far as anyone can tell the first buried was Abner H. Lester III , born 3-30-1885, died 10-18-1888.  This child died of measles. As far as we can tell the first buried on Hickory Ridge.  If I can preserve a thread of the history of my people, I have fulfilled a mighty purpose.  There has recently been a lot of dedication and hard work, and it will continue with these hardworking “baby boomers” who have in time replaced the “old timers.”

“Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
–Thomas Edison

There was a tremendous outcry when the beloved Hickory Ridge Cemetery seemed to show signs of vandalism or careless treatment. What?  Somebody in those Wyoming County mountains disrespected the departed?  I will not dwell on this problem further as the outcome became so positive.  Dwaine Goodwin was able to look into the matter and became a mediator between Tankersly and the irate families. Dwaine has a deep love for all that is his history, and he has been a wonderful overseer for cemetery preservation. Right before my eyes I watched a very bad situation become positive.  Larry Green became a man with a mission; he would leave no stone unturned in his quest to preserve the cemetery and memorialize his ancestors. Daisy Green Criss has been a wonderful inspiration to all with her hard work and dedication. Immediate plans were made to save our cemetery from further damage, and a supreme effort was made to restore it to pristine condition. We must also thank Silas Lane.  When everybody was totally caught up in the world’s rat race, Silas was busy tending the cemetery and was a willing and dedicated worker. We thank you, Silas!   All this has inspired me to write the story I had always kept number 1 on my bucket list.

In and around Bud Mountain, Herndon, Pinnacle Creek, most people are related, and boast to being 1st, 2nd, or 3rd cousins to almost everyone else. This seems to have done no harm, and has actually handed down the genes of self-reliance and common sense.  There is a special bond amongst all these intertwined families that they cannot quite put their finger on.  In fact, when families lost family members to other states due to high unemployment, these family members always missed the West Virginia hills. Many longed for the day they could move back home. Recently extended family members from far and wide have started working together to preserve the memories and a cemetery so important to all.

Pinnacle Creek has become a part of the Hatfield and McCoy Trail, but to many who dwelled there it will always be the place John Denver spoke about in his song.  ” I hear her voice In the mornin’ hour she calls me, The radio
reminds me of my home far away.”  To those who made the mass exit in the sixties and seventies, their longing for home has almost become like a pilgrimage.  They must return home to refresh and awaken their spirit; to feel once again the soft wind on their face and the mountain soil ‘neath their feet.  How can Pinnacle Creek feel so distant when it is nearby to many.  It’s the memories that have become distant, as Pinnacle is there waiting for all its prodigal sons and daughters to return.  The ATV riders cannot imagine how they ride in the very footsteps left by our ancestors, and how the beauty of these mountains and valleys is forever in the memories of those who once dwelled there.
.  A born and raised West Virginian put it better than most when he said.
“Two beautiful things about WV that cannot be recorded…..the distance and stillness!”—Larry Green

hickoryridgeThe Hickory Ridge Cemetery after cleanup.

Elmer combscemeteryCompliments of Larry Green-Photo of an old neglected cemetery on Pinnacle creek near the old Elmer Combs home place.  Perhaps no living relatives to tend it, and possibly descendants are not aware of its existence.

Abner Hulen Lester Jr. and Mariah Wolfe Lester are not buried at Hickory Ridge, but many of their descendants were buried there later.  It is thought that their graves may have been covered in slate at one time.  With mountain pride and respect their descendants later made plans to erect a memorial on the site that is known as Hickory Ridge Cemetery.  Mountain men and women revere and respect their departed loved ones, and in the mountains most deaths are accepted as a part of our maker’s plan.  Due to the mountainous terrain many cemeteries are located in areas that are not easily accessible.  My entire childhood social world consisted of going to the wakes and funerals of anyone with whom my parents were acquainted.

Mariah Elizabeth Wolfe Lester’s ancestors were from Germany.  She was child of Elkanah Wolfe and Frances Beckelheimer Wolfe.  Elkanah can be traced in the recorded history of the Moravian church.  Mariah was called “Granny Wolfe” down through the years, and many descendants still refer to her in this way.

To put Abner Hulen Lester Jr. in perspective, he was born the year John Quincy Adams became president.  Mariah came into the world the year Andrew Jackson won the presidency against Henry Clay.  Abraham Lincoln was yet to seek the presidency and the Civil War was yet to be fought.  These good people saw much History and many hard times.  The country was still relatively young.  Many Native Americans still roamed, and the government forced mass relocation beginning in 1831.  Fortunately for Abner’s descendants, his parents seemed to be cunning enough to avoid this forced relocation.  By remaining behind Abner Hulen Lester  Sr. may have caused his descendants to lose out on the funds distributed by the government to those who could prove Native American ancestry. Many of the Lester descendants boast of Cherokee ancestry.  Nickitie Cherokee and explorer Gabriel Arthur are ancestors still being researched.  There are books and plays in the making for them. These are stories for another day, however, and as my mountain upbringing taught…everything happens for a reason. The families remained in a beautiful wilderness that would later be named West Virginia.

Categories: Appalachian life, Uncategorized | 3 Comments


She was such a beautiful lady!  She was never to grow old-Forever young she would remain the youthful Aunt Bea.  Even though she was gone from this life, Bea was always kept as an intricate part of the family.  Small with dark hair: I remember the darkest eyes I have ever seen. Her hairstyle was always very neat.  In my thoughts and memory she will always walk upon the sandy road of pinnacle, and will be a fixture where once the corn crib turned over daily.  She will have a special place tucked in my heart, and though I rarely mention her anymore, I am still very aware that she was and is a forever part of me. I remember her affectionately, as she always treated all the children as if they were her own.  I vaguely remember that she did not  care for strong discipline of children.  She was protective of her nieces.
My Mom and beautiful AuntsBack row L to R Verna Green, Verla Green. Front row L to R Tena Beatrice Green (Aunt Bea), Lola B. Green (my Mom)

Bea came into the world January 27, 1925 as Tena Beatrice Green.   She was the fifth of 12 children born to Pierson and Ida Lester Green.  She seemed to have some interests that set her apart.  She liked pictures, and her camera was used to record many precious memories.  There are many pictures of this pretty lady-especially nice are the ones she shares with her other pretty sisters.
Auntie Bea 001bea[1]Beatrice with a nephew in her healthier days
bea.jpg[1]It has always amazed me how well dressed the girls in that big family were.  Aunt Bea was always dressed spiffy.  Grandma was an excellent seamstress and used to copy their clothes from the catalogues.  She designed, made the patterns, and hand-made beautiful suits and dresses.

My personal memories are eating pig’s feet she and my Mom cooked-they were good, but don’t think I’ll try them again.   I recall my Cracker-jacks not having a toy, and without hesitation my Aunt Bea calmed my disappointment by handing me her toy.  There is a vague recollection of Aunt Bea and Mom getting this new-fangled kit to color my Easter eggs.  The results were horrible, and the eggs came out a horrid brown color with spots all over that looked very much like bird droppings.   I dared not complain as children in those days very much accepted life as it came without the luxury of having their way. We loaded up on Easter Sunday to go hide my hideous eggs on Pinnacle at a large building that may have been the community store.  At one time Pinnacle Creek had a thriving lumber industry, numerous houses, and this large multi-purpose building.  I was so young that it went virtually unnoticed when I clamored up to a window to observe where the pretty eggs were to be  hidden.  Hoping against hope that I would not return home with those shameful eggs, I hunted with precision and awareness.  I was so thrilled to find pink and green and beautiful blue eggs for my basket.  Adults were surprised that a child so young could do so well.  I rode home proudly in Dad’s Mercury with my colored eggs clutched tightly; no compassion at all for the children who may be wondering what ugly creature laid the eggs they found.  They may still be laying somewhere in that pasture-I cannot imagine a child actually recognizing it as an Easter egg.  They won’t have long to go before they become a 100-year-old delicacy for the Chinese.

Aunt Bea was very pretty and had suitors.  She became engaged to Billy Bishop from Bud mountain.  Life was good, as they seemed to be right for each other.  This was during WWll, and Billy had to go fight for his country.  The happiness was short lived as Billy was killed in action.  Lola (my Mom) still remembers Bea crying into the night.
Billy bishopBilly Bishop died in WWll, and most say he was not brought home.  He has a tombstone marker in his memory.  The tombstone marker is at Lusk Cemetery in Wyoming County. We sure want to take this opportunity to thank you, Billy, and you are one of the reasons I cannot stand the constitution of the U.S. degraded.  You were a happy country boy with every reason to live, but you died on a battlefield on foreign soil all those many years ago.  You affected many, and my Aunt Bea was very sad when you left.

Bea became plagued by illness with vague diagnosis.  I recall a very small frail Aunt Bea lying on a big feather mattress in the back bedroom at Pinnacle Creek.  I took all the pennies I could salvage, and walked into her bedroom.  Nobody had explained, but I knew the situation was grim-I wanted so badly to help her.  I stood at the foot of the bed and let her know I had some pennies for her to spend.  She said, “I can’t go anywhere to spend money.”  She had been to Johns Hopkins, but nothing seemed to help her condition.  That was the last time I ever saw my Aunt Bea…She was buried in the Green Family Cemetery.

She had also dated a Preacher Day, but he seemed aware that her illness was a big drawback.  He told her the Lord told him not to marry her.  She was baptized in pinnacle Creek, and followed the Lord’s teaching. She died at the young age of 25 on November 13. 1950.  For whatever reason I was not taken to the funeral, and I remember sitting in 2nd grade class with tears streaming down my face.  My beloved Aunt Bea was gone, and I could not understand all about death.  I just knew I would never see her again.  I cannot get to the cemetery now, but I leave notes online at Find A Grave.  That is my way of expressing love for an Aunt who died many years ago.  I rarely ponder if life is fair.  But, when I think of Beatrice Green and Billy Bishop, I know life can be terribly unfair!  We love you, Aunt Bea.

Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his  saints.

Categories: Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Mountain Men and Moonshine..Hard Times

There are many old stories that would be lost forever if not recorded.  Such is the case of McKinley Green.  I often heard his story growing up, and  it was always told with much sadness.  I would like to tell this story as my Mother related it to me.

In the early years Wyoming county West Virginia was mostly logging and coal mining country.  Also, many made ‘home brew”, as there were very few ways to eke out a living in these mountains.  When one offers criticism of this practice, it would be wise to stop and try to picture this rugged mountain terrain and the limitations placed upon its inhabitants.  Many unfortunate folks were known to do almost anything to feed their family.  My Mom tells of one relative who went out daily to hunt wild greens.

Shoes were sometimes only worn in the worst of Winter.  There were few job opportunities, and the natural instinct for survival caused many  to resort to practice of cobbling together a rustic moonshine still.   Many backwoods young men were hunted down like animals, and they were placed in jail.  Some met a worse fate, and they were killed just because of the means they chose for survival.  Such is the case of my great-uncle, McKinley Green.  I always felt a strong need to tell his story because his life was snuffed out at such an early age and in such a tragic manner.

McKinley Green had a mission for his young family.  He had a young family with a small son.  No prospect for a job!  He was caught at a moonshine still in Wyoming county. According to the newspaper article at the time four officers surrounded McKinley-The raiding party consisted of T. Rush Effler, W.A. Reinhart, George McKinney, and Paris Belcher.  As the story goes One man spotted an officer and warned the other.  Both men ran, but Effler being below McKinley fired upward and delivered the fatal steel jacket ball from a 38 special into McKinley’s side with the ball  ranging upward. When McKinley ran Rush Effler shot him in the back.  He was hunted down by a pack of revenuers.  He was taken to the home of his brother, Pierson.  Lola Green remembers being afraid and grabbing sister Bea’s hand.  Together they scurried under the kitchen table where they observed the goings on.  Lola remembers her Mother, Ida, sobbing and asking, “What kind of person shoots a man in the back?”  Later McKinley was taken to a hospital in Mullens where he died.  One reason Lola remembers it so well was because it was also her and Bea’s birthday of January  27.

Later Effler was tried and convicted of this senseless crime.  However , it did not change the fact that a small boy was left without his Dad, and a young woman left a widow. I wrote a poem several years ago about my great Uncle McKinley.  Sometimes I feel that sometimes people call out from the grave to be heard!  I heard no story about how Arvella Lane Green  managed to raise her son.  Everybody only hears how the revenuers were romanticized, but little is said about mountain men who were just trying to survive.  Those were Hard Times!

MckinleyMcKinley Green on the right.

I will share more on my next post!

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