Laura Dean Bennett
For decades, during turkey, squirrel and deer season, out-of-town and out-of-state hunters have descended on Pocahontas County in droves.
A lot of people around these parts remember back in the day when their mothers and grandmothers would rush around getting beds ready for the hordes of hunters they “put up” for a week or two each fall.
Talk to anyone who remembers the Pocahontas County of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond, and they’ll tell you how they and all their neighbors “kept” hunters.
Chances are, every big old farmhouse back then was full to bursting with hunters the week before Thanksgiving.
Although the number of hunters greatly outnumbered the amount of game, that didn’t keep them from coming back year after year.
How they found their place in each home is usually a mystery – many hunters must have bumbled onto their places in someone’s home by knocking on doors or by word of mouth.
Time has dimmed memories, and it’s hard to say why many of them began to come here. But come they did. They came in hopes of bagging a squirrel or a turkey or, a highly coveted deer.
Even these days during the week before Thanksgiving, one can see vehicles parked here and there along the road, but back in the day, there were even more of them. Everywhere there was room for a vehicle, there would be a car, truck or homemade camper parked.
Some of these intrepid sportsmen would be sleeping in tents and some slept in their vehicles – and this in November, when freezing temperatures and ice and snow could make “sleeping rough” a chilling prospect.
Bear in mind, these were complete strangers carrying guns and lots of ammunition. And yet, there was never any fear that they were a threat to anyone or anything except the wildlife. There were never any real problems. The hunters were well-behaved and usually became part of the family.
W. G. Dilley remembers his grandma, Neva Wilfong, keeping a houseful of hunters every fall.
“I guess my memories from Grandma’s would have been in the 1960s,” Dilley said.
“I especially remember two brothers who came every year, Babe and Tucker. Babe had a black Corvair convertible, which, to an eight year old boy, was pretty neat. There was also a man we called ‘Uncle Ben.’
“He was this old guy, about seventy, I guess. He was a really big man – probably six foot-five, and he had a real deep voice. He always wore wool pants, a wool shirt and a wool vest. The young guys would tease him, but he’d always be the first one to make it to the top of the hill each day.”
Lots of the hunters favored Woolrich clothing in those days, and many wore the kind of wool caps with ear flaps that tied under the chin.
“It just seems like I remember those old boys wearing a lot of red plaid,” Dilley said with a smile.
“And if they forgot something or needed extra clothes, I remember they’d go downtown to Shrader’s store – that place was full of red plaid.
“These guys that stayed at Grandma’s all worked for the power company. They were all from down around Williamson, below Charles-ton. I don’t know how they found our place, but they’d come for deer season every year. They’d usually come in on a Friday or Saturday and stay for the whole week before Thanksgiving.
“They’d hunt every day, no matter how bad the weather was. Well, every day except Sunday. Nobody hunted on Sundays. And it was a rare thing when they actually got a deer.
“Lots of times, they’d leave without a deer, but you never heard them complain. They had just as good a time even if they didn’t kill anything.”
Like the other families who kept hunters, the Dilley family had nothing but good experiences with them.
“There were never any problems – no cussing, no fights and no drinking – at least not around the house and not where it caused any trouble,” Dilley added.
The hunters’ day would begin before dawn. Every morning at 5 a.m. they’d sit down to a big farm-style breakfast. There would be platters laden with dozens of eggs, bacon, ham and sausage and gravy, oatmeal, cereal, homemade biscuits and light bread, jellies, jams, coffee and juice.
The table by the front door would be piled with lunches packed in brown paper bags.
“Grandma would pack two sandwiches, an apple, a candy bar and a pop in each bag. And she might remind them to take their lunch as they left, but if they forgot it, well, they probably didn’t forget it again,” Dilley said.
“They’d tease each other about who’d get to the top of the mountain first. It was always a contest to see who could get up there ahead of the others.”
At dark, the cold and hungry hunters would come down off the mountain to a supper table groaning with the most delicious feast you could imagine.
“Supper would usually be at 6 o’clock, and it was a big meal,” Dilley remembered.
Typically, there’d be fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, jello salad, fresh rolls and for dessert – pie and cake.
The hunters would sit around the stove, clean their rifles and tell stories about the day. Sometimes the stories were more believable than others.
Bedtime would be around 8 or 9 o’clock. The hunters would head upstairs where they would be sharing double beds in all the bedrooms.
“They got to be pretty good friends with us,” Dilley said. “One time, Babe even gave me a .410 shotgun. I’ll never forget that. What young kid would?”
The next morning, come rain, wind, sleet or snow, the hunters would cheerfully head out for another day of what they called “still hunting,” sitting still – no talking – waiting and hoping to catch sight of a deer.
If they got really lucky and killed a deer, they’d butcher it out away from the house and take it home in a cooler.
Mary Lou Dilley, Neva’s daughter, would take in her mother’s “overflow” hunt-ers. The same routine applied at her house as at Wilfong’s.
Mary Lou’s daughter and W.G’s sister, Pam Sharpes, who lives in what was her grandmother’s house, remembers the days of her mother and grandmother “keeping hunters” very well.
“Hunters would come in for a week or two during deer season and it was always a busy time,” Sharpes said.
“I can remember Nettie Deputy coming over to help my mother. She’d be there every morning to help get breakfast on the table, pack lunches and clean up after the men left for the day. And she’d help get supper ready, too.
“My brothers would be in the living room listening to the hunters’ stories while I would be in the kitchen helping my mom with the dishes.”
“The men who came were always well-mannered, respectful and grateful for the hospitality.”
Sometime during the 60s, a few of the ladies who kept hunters began to discuss the possibility of raising their daily rates. After some discussion, it was decided to raise the price from $2 a day to a whopping $4 a day.
No complaints about the increase were heard. Apparently, the hunters all knew how good they had it and were just thankful to be enjoying the hospitality of the families of Pocahontas County.
These hunters would often become family friends. They’d come back every year and over the years, they’d bring their neighbors, their sons and their grandsons.
“We got to know these guys pretty well over the years and some of their families still come back to visit us now,” Minnie Fay McLaughlin Taylor reports.
Her mother and father, Roy and Madeline “Tootsie” McLaughlin, started keeping hunters back in the 1940s.
“My mom and dad were the best people,” Taylor said. “They wouldn’t turn anybody away. I don’t know how they all knew to come here, but our house was always full during hunting season. One time we had 28 in the house!
“Our hunters all came from down around Milton or Barboursville. They’d come for squirrel, turkey, deer and even bear hunting.
“I think the first ones came in a camper and asked if they could camp up the holler behind the house.
“It was a big time for us. It was exciting when the hunters came. They’d tell stories about their lives back home and us kids would sit up and listen to them talk. And it was fun when they’d pull tricks on each other.
“One time there was this young guy who came for turkey hunting. Well, it was his first time hunting turkey and he really didn’t even know what a wild turkey looked like. The boys all told him that the turkeys would have a red head.
“Everyone had a real big laugh when here comes this guy carrying a pileated woodpecker. He thought it was a turkey!
“One of our regulars was named Leroy Neal. He was my ‘go to guy.’ I remember one year I really wanted a hula hoop. I told Leroy and he said, ‘here’s my hat. You take that around the room and tell ‘em what you want the money for and see if everybody won’t cough up a little change. You’ll soon have enough for your hula hoop.’
“When the hunters were in, our house was a full as it could be. The guys would sleep at least two to a bed, with usually at least two beds in each room. We had five bedrooms – one of which was extra large, and we could put extra men in there.
“Mom had one hard and fast rule: ‘No drinking.’
“Now the ones from the rail yards always had a “little toddy” at night. But it was never out in the open. After cleaning their guns and spinnin’ their yarns, they’d push their chairs back and head on up to their rooms and have a little nip before bed.
“There was never any trouble from any of them. Except one year, one bunch got to drinking a little, I think, and they got a little out if hand. Mom had to ask them not to come back,” Minnie remembers.
“But the rest of them were always on their best behavior. They came back to hunt every year. And some of them came to visit other times of the year, too. They brought their families, and we’ve stayed in touch with them all these years.
“Hack Adkins was another of our regular hunters who became a good friend of the family. He came back with his family and that family is still close with us to this day.
“Two dollars a day doesn’t sound like much, but that money made a big difference to us. Mom used that cash to fix up the house – buy things we couldn’t have afforded if it wasn’t for the hunters. I think she finally raised her price to maybe $12 a day sometime in the 70s, and the guys were happy to pay it.
“There was always just the best and the most food you ever saw when mom was feeding the hunters. Sometimes she even picked their turkeys for ‘em and if they asked her to, she’d cook up their squirrels, too.”
“I guess Mom could afford to feed those men as well as she did because we always had plenty of canned vegetables and meat put up. Like everyone else, we lived on what we could raise or butcher at home or whatever game we could kill.
“One time the coach from Marmet and his buddies were here. They had come in absolutely frozen one evening. It had been wet and icy all day and their clothes were literally frozen stiff. They took them off and stood ‘em up behind the stove in their room to dry. Well, during supper, all of a sudden we smell something burning. It was those clothes! They’d dried out and fallen over on the stove! Thank goodness they didn’t catch the whole house on fire!”
Rene White remembers her mother-in-law, Edna White, keeping hunters at her house in Minnehaha Springs.
“I remember there were three fellows from Gauley Bridge,” White said. “I can’t remember where they all came from, but there’d usually be seven or eight.
“They’d usually come on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. We’d have a big noon meal all ready and in the oven staying warm while we’d go to church. They’d only stay a few days – usually they left by Wednesday.”
“We’d serve their meals in the dining room where there was a little stove. It was a busy time, having them there but we enjoyed it. They were all such nice guys. They became family friends.”
I reckon that the hunters who found such warmth and hospitality in the homes of Pocahontas County came back each year as much for the good food and friendship as they did for the hunting.
But times change. Nowadays it seems most of our hunters are driving their own fancy campers or have bought their own little “camps” here. Just a few still come to stay in people’s homes – just the very lucky ones who have family or friends here.
I’ve always said that the best cooks in the country and the most hospitable people in the world are right here in Pocahontas County. A lot of fortunate hunters and their families can attest to that.
Their memories of us and our memories of them are another part of what makes fall in Pocahontas County so unique. It’s what has made hunting season here a beloved tradition that for many, has more to do with hospitality than hunting.