Such a large crowd gathered at the Pocahontas County Opera House Friday night for the “Hills and Hollers” performance that volunteers had to hurry to put out more chairs just minutes before the evening of story and song was to begin.
It may have been April Fool’s Day, but there was no foolin’ when it came to celebrating Pocahontas County’s Bicentennial with excerpts from The Pocahontas Times, books by David McCullough, W.E. “Tweard” Blackhurst and G.D. McNeill and letters from Col. J. Howe Peyton and Virginia Clark Burner.
Peppered among the stories were old-time songs, performed by Mike and Mary Sue Burns and Jay Lockman.
The evening began where the last Bicentennial event left off – the first court in the county seat of Huntersville. Bob Sheets shared an excerpt from a letter written by Col. J. Howe Peyton, in which he described the small town, unable to hide his distaste for the two cabins in which he had to work and reside while in town for court.
Peyton did, however, have to admit that while he was unimpressed with the town, he was in awe of the beauty of Pocahontas County.
“It is a pretty country,” Sheets read. “A country of diversified and beautiful scenery in which there is a wealth of verdure and variety which keeps the attention alive and the outward eye delighted.”
Following Sheets was J.T. Arbogast, who portrayed Irish immigrant and Section Boss Mike Lenan. With the hint of an Irish lilt, Arbogast shared Lenan’s tale of working in Cass to build the train tracks.
“My job it was to build the track and to this son of old Erin they gave a hundred clackin’ ‘Eyetalians’ to do the work,” Arbogast said. “Scarcely a dozen of them divils could speak a word of English. Interpreters it took to tell them what to do and at times I grew tired of my orders bein’ twice given.
“Good workers they were, though, and when a hundred picks and shovels hit the grade the dirt flew. And that’s what it was, my boy, picks and shovels. None o’ your bulldozers or steam shovels on that job but every pound of dirt that moved was lifted by a good hand shovel. With them same picks and shovels the sons of Italy made for themselves a new place in a new land.”
Kim Dilts and Mike Holstine read selections from The Pocahontas Times about some of the many small towns in Pocahontas County.
They shared notes of interest from Cass, Marlinton, Hillsboro, Dunmore, Huntersville, Edray, Olive, Durbin and Stony Bottom.
These included the following:
“The Sunday ballgame was attended by quite a crowd, and if attending Sunday ballgames is a sin, Cass is noted for sinners. ‘He that is guilty of a part is guilty of the whole.’ ‘He that is filthy let him be filthy still.’”
“The town of Marlinton is to be congratulated that for the first time in the history of the town it was not put in a state of disorder on Halloween.”
“Without stopping to think, few of us realize what a progressive community the town of Hillsboro is becoming. She has long been known to fame through the reflected glory of the Little Levels of Pocahontas County, the garden spot of the State, but by reason of the fine public spirit and hospitality of her people, and her churches and school, the town is fast coming to the front.”
“Dunmore. Withrow McClintic showed us a sample of his peaches that is hard to beat anywhere. Mr. McClintic has 65 acres in fruit trees, which he cultivates and sprays, and has fine fruit. He has peach trees five years old that bring him $10.00 each this dry season. This county is adapted to fruit if the people will cultivate it. Something must take the place of the timber when it is all gone out. One man in the Hill country sells two and three hundred dollars’ worth of blackberries every year and they are not cultivated either.”
“The day for the wedding has been set. And the court asked if any one knew any reason why Huntersville and Edray should not be married to each other, to speak up or forever hold his peace. Then a gentleman stood up and said the only reason that he knew of was that the bride and groom both objected to getting married and that all the relations on both sides opposed it, so in view of the circumstances the wedding was postponed until March 27, at which time no doubt the whole matter will be killed and we will muddle along as before…”
“Olive. We will give you a few jottings to let you know that we have not frozen to death, although the weather has been quite cold for the past ten days and is getting no better fast… The dance at Elmer McComb’s was a nice social affair until some of the boys got too much boot jack liquor and got noisy, but no battle was fought.”
“Durbin. We are proud to know that our town can be represented by a millionaire in Florida land, having a good time while we hump up round a stove with coal in it costing $7.50 a ton, and a pair of 25 cent mittens on, we say when we read J.W.D.’s letter that we wish we could be where he is.”
“A few weeks ago the community of Stony Bottom was comparatively unknown to fame. Today, it is as famous as Auburn, the loveliest village of the plain. Some gifted citizen of Stony Bottom was inspired to write to The Pocahontas Times, recounting the blessings of that community, and ignoring any possible defects, if it had any.
“The story of Stony Bottom is the story of human life. It is all in a state of mind. There is no community that is not a haven of peace and happiness, if the people have the faculty of thanking the Lord for their blessings, and of bearing their trials with fortitude.”
Ruth Taylor read the preface from the book “The Last Forest” by G.D. McNeill.
In the preface, McNeill’s daughter, Louise McNeill, shared memories of growing up in Pocahontas County.
“Once, fifteen million acres of virgin forest stretched from the top of the Allegheny range to the Ohio River shore; and, when I was a child, G.D.’s and Uncle Dock’s part of it ran for sixty unbroken miles beyond our Pinnacle Mountain: a quarter million acres of hardwood forest. For over a hundred years, our menfolks and all the other Swago hunters walked it as though it belonged to them…”
Sheets returned to the podium and shared the musings of The Pocahontas Times editor Andrew Price on the Centennial celebration which was to take place in 1921.
“Talking about old times, reminds us that 1921, just about here, is the centennial year for Pocahontas County, and for one, we are willing to take it calmly. Unless somebody can think of something better than a celebration where there is nothing but weary speakers with endless tongues, we had better job along as usual…
“The more we learn about the sterling worth of the founds of this county, the more we are impressed with the greatness of their work, and the more we honor and revere them. Will anyone say that about the men who have charge of this county today, when one hundred more years have passed? They will not. They will jump over this period and glorify the men of 1821.”
Prohibition was the next subject of the evening and Arbogast was joined by Rachel Fanning to share tales of illegal liquor from The Pocahontas Times archives.
“Everybody is looking forward with a great deal of interest to see the first man drunk in town. It used to be common enough, but that has all changed in the last six weeks. The first man who celebrates will have no little notoriety thrust upon him. We never saw such a change in a short time before.”
“‘Setting Hen’ is what they call an intoxicating drink made by fermenting cracked corn, molasses and other things by some people up the railroad who are being distressed by the stringent prohibition laws. It is about as potent as Jersey Lightning, Forty-Rod or Valley Tan.”
“Tony Sagatone and James Mantesso, two Italians, of Cass, were tried on the charge of being liquor dealers under the new law. The officers searched their store and found 104 pints of mean whiskey. This they claimed was for their personal use, but judging from the sediment in the bottles and the sentiment of the jurors, this could not have been the case, as they were convicted and received heavy jail sentences.”
Dilts, taking on the persona of Bess, the daughter of W.E. “Tweard” Blackhurst, shared the tale of the Blackhurt family’s move to Cass – a move she was not pleased with at all.
“It was all my father’s fault that we came here. He always said he wanted to work some place where he could have elbow room. Goodness knows the rest of the family didn’t want to come. Mother tried her best to change his mind but Dad was determined.
“Heaven knows I didn’t want to come. I just knew I’d just simply die here. I’d heard all about log towns, and I was sure something terrible would happen to all of us. Like Mother said to Dad, ‘Suppose Bess should marry one of those terrible loggers,’ and I positively shuddered at the very thought. I’d rather die. I just knew I would. Why, would you believe it, I’d heard that they ate raw meat and drank just simply gallons of whiskey. I knew I’d be just simply terrified if I ever met one of them.”
But meet them, she did, when they arrived on the train in Cass, the boardwalk at the Depot was littered with “nice looking boys” who immediately caught Bess’ attention. One in particular was a logger, whom she later married.
As Virginia Clark Burner, Fanning read a letter written to her son, Allen, sharing the story of a harrowing night when an Italian Boss entered their home at midnight and sat at the kitchen with his pocket book on his lap and a revolver in his hand.
In closing, Burner wrote her son a postscript, warning him to remain a good boy.
“You must write plain when you write to me. I made your letter read, ‘I ate ice cream and drank wine, and kissed the girls.’ Surely, my boy would not act like that, and the fault is in the way I read the letter. Now be a good boy and write plainly and very soon…”
Arbogast and Dilts returned to the podium to share a collection of “Bits and Bobs” – clippings of interest – from The Pocahontas Times.
“We want to nail a campaign lie right here. The report is going around that the registrars of a certain precinct have been camped on Williams River in an effort to register the wild man on Black Mountain. There is not a word of truth in it. There is no wild man in the Black Forest. It has been positively identified as an ape.
“Verna Cutlip, of Droop Mountain, brought us the freshest, greenest bunch of holly we saw this Christmas. He got it from a large holly tree on the land of Wallace Beard, on Droop. This is the only tree of its kind in the county, so far as we know. Just occasionally is a berry seen on it, however.
Holstine, taking on the persona of Clyde Galford, Shay Engineer, recalled the life of a train engineer, who raised through the ranks on the railroad in Cass.
“I suppose you could almost call me the last of the Shay engineers,” he said. “Scattered around over the nation there’s bound to be a few more, but just the other day, I read where the only other steamline in this state shut down…
“I started on the logging roads more than forty years ago. I wasn’t an engineer. I was a gandy dancer. Now building and keeping up track may be the bottom job on the railroad but you can take it from me, you can learn a lot there. When I’m sitting up there in that cab, I’m glad I learned a lot about track beforehand. I was a brakeman, conductor and fireman for many years, too. That all helps now. The more you know about the other jobs, the better you can handle your own.”
Even with all his experience on the rails, there was one time, just once, that he was beat by the most unassuming of foes.
“I remember getting licked once,” he said. “You won’t believe this but I was stalled once and had to call for another engine and double head in. The thing that stalled me wasn’t snow or ice or landslides. It was caterpillars. They were not big ones either, just thousands of those little fellows about an inch long.
“They were moving everywhere but the place they liked best was the smooth surface of the rails. There were so many that the wheels got slick and started slipping. I put the sand to the rails and kept going but the caterpillars kept coming. I ran clear out of sand and that was the finish. The wheels got so greased up that I couldn’t pull my load. It took two engines and a new supply of sand before we got that load in.
“If there’d been an elephant on the tracks I could have butted him off, but them greasy little worms just stumped me.”
Arbogast, Fanning and Taylor shared excerpts from The Pocahontas Times concerning World War I.
“Beginning at noon Friday the Presbyterian church bell will ring for one minute calling the citizens of the town to unite prayer. Each day thereafter as the bell rings, each and every one is asked to offer a prayer for the safety of our boys, for victory upon our arms, for peace, justice and righteousness in the land, for guidance to those in authority, and for protection of our homes and loved ones. The prayer will require but a minute of your time, and may be uttered in silence as you go about your work, in your shops, at your desk, on the street or in your home. Let us make this the vital minute of our daily life until victory is won.
“Signed, on behalf of the Town Council, W.L. Dearing, Mayor, The Methodist Church W.D. Keene, Pastor, The Presbyterian Church, J.M. Walker, Pastor.”
A letter to the editor sent by a subscriber from Washington, D.C., implored the editor fill the newspaper’s pages with tales of interest from the county and discontinue writing word for word about the war. The editor replied with the following.
“No, gentle reader, the old editor is not in a rut. It is the war which puts the country newspaper in the hole and piles on mountains of work. This extra is largely mechanical, and the head of a country paper who was not brought up to make a hand as a printer is just naturally out of luck in these troublous times. It is only just now and then that a body can bob up for air and write a piece.
“This is newspaper week, and a good time to make confession that long ago I realized I did not know what was best to print, and what to leave out, and that I probably would never learn. However, people are patient and long suffering, and right now they are putting up with my weakness for soldiers’ letters to double the postage bill.
“I like to write and there is much to be written up in the years which may be yet ahead for me. It makes one feel fine to have appreciative mention made of one’s efforts, but it is also humbling to be brought to a realization that the less I write, the faster the circulation grows.
“The business in hand now is to hold the line. As soon as this cruel war is over, I hope to be able to catch up with my hunting, fishing and rambling in the woods and thus, incidentally, pick up bigger and better field notes, that the children cry for.”
In closing, Sheets reflected on those who settled the county and those who have followed since.
“I think we should consider those that brought us here and what might possibly be our future and who might find and discover our time capsules that mark our Bicentennial celebration,” he said. “Our county has been marked and made by those groups that have migrated to our mountains and valleys in search of wealth and health. Native Americans came for the game and fish. Our colonial ancestors came for the land. Loggers came for the trees. Railroaders came for the logs. Then the scientists came for the sky. And the skiers came for the snow. Some just came for The Quite Zone. And COVID drove others here to be alone.
“Here tonight we celebrate our past and do so with pride and passion,” he concluded. “Let the next fifty or hundred years be marked with all the sound and fury of the shadows we have cast.”
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