Pioneering in Old Pokey

By Billy Hill
Ice Break-up and Log Drive

It was about 1897 or ’98 that the writer went to stay with “Uncle George and Aunt Lou” Clendenen, who acted as my foster parents. There were only three families living directly on the river where the town of Seebert (named for Uncle George’s ancestors) now stands: Uncle George’s home and those of William Clendenen and Aunt Sally Clendenen up at the mouth of Stamping Creek. I had never seen a river, much less an ice break-up previous to that time.

My first spring there, Uncle George had stashed away a huge pile of dry wood on the river bank, anticipating a night break-up, which was when it did happen.

Torrential rains for days had swollen the river to ice-bursting capacity, and when it came, Uncle George awakened me and we went to the river bank where he built up a huge fire. It was pouring the rain down, with about the worst electrical storm I have ever seen. It was the biggest and most spectacular and scary show I had ever seen.  Cakes of ice more than a foot thick and large enough to build a small house on, were “walking” on edge in this crashing, grinding, maelstrom, grinding trees and everything in their path into pulpwood. My greatest concern was that this awful thing would surely kill every horney chub in the river and thus finish my fishing for all time.

It didn’t.

After the ice was cleared out of the river and the days of rain that followed, the loggers all the way from Ronceverte started trekking up river to hire out for the log drive which they knew would follow. You could see them slogging through the pouring rain by ones and twos. In about two days, if the river stayed at flood tide you could see the first peeled hemlock logs (cut and peeled the previous spring) highballing down the river. By the second day the river was floating pretty full of logs, and as the logs increased in number, one knew that the “Arks” (the floating lumber camps) were getting closer. That was my second big thrill, and I lost no time boarding the big cookhouse as soon as it was tied up at the old catrock in Seebert. The cookhouse served four big (and I do mean big) meals a day. There were three “Arks,” cookhouse, stable and blacksmith combined, and lobby bunk house. They always tied up at Seebert over night. There was a long slough across the river where stray logs had to be hauled back into the river, and an island in the middle of the river where a big log jam always piled up. There was a crew of jam breakers along, who did nothing else. I have watched them working down under a pile of logs twenty or twenty-five feet above them, picking an inch or two at a time, the key log or logs that held all that huge pile of logs. When the jam let go, with a thundering roar, you never expected the poor devils to come out alive, but when the smoke cleared each one of them was riding a single log to the bunkhouse, where they stayed until another jam showed up.

Huge horses were used to haul the logs from the slough back into the river, and these horses were transported in large boats to and from the stable.

Yours truly is probably the only living “goof” who ever stowed away on a river “Ark.”

I practically lived on the cookhouse, while it was tied up there, and begged them to take me along, and when they refused I stowed away on it one time.

It so happened that the flood tide was running out and the river was receding and we hadn’t gone far until the Ark ran on to a large rock that was wedged about the middle of the building. Well, you talk about excitement, the puncheon floor, made for hewn logs bulged up and let some water in and threatened to break completely through. The Ark teetered and swung there and the men assigned to “sail” the thing were frantic. I came out of hiding to see the excitement and they all but skinned me alive.

One, Letcher Simms, who lived near Seebert, took me in tow and, if it had broken up, would have swum out with me – I hope. All this was worth the licking I got when I got home.

Historical Sketches of Pocahontas County – 1901
By William T. Price

BIOGRAPHIC
MICHAEL CLEEK

The ancestor of the Cleek relationship in Pocahontas County was Michael Cleek, who was one of the earlier pioneers to occupy the attractive portion of the Knapps Creek valley adjacent to Driscol, and came from Bath County. His wife was Margaret Henderson Crawford, whose father was from Lancaster, Pa., and lived in Bath County, near Windy Cove.

Michael Cleek opened the lands comprised in the Peter L. Cleek, William H. Cleek, and Benjamin F. Fleshman properties – the persons just named being his grandchildren. With the exception of two or three very small clearings, it was a primitive, densely unbroken forest of white pine and sugar maple.

He built a log cabin on the site of the new stable, and some years subsequently reared a dwelling of hewn timber, now the old stable at Peter L. Cleek’s.

The late John Cleek, father of Peter and William, and who was the oldest of the family, could just remember when his parents settled here. They came out by way of Little Back Creek, crossing the Alleghany Mountain opposite Harper’s. His mother carried him in her lap, on horseback, all the way from Windy Cove.

Michael Cleek’s family consisted of three sons, John, William and Jacob; and three daughters, Elizabeth, Barbara and Violet…

Barbara and Violet died in early childhood of the “cold plague,” and their brother, Jacob, died of the same disease, aged eighteen years.

William Cleek never married, and spent most of his life with his brother John…

John, the eldest son of William Cleek’s pioneer home married Phoebe Ann Lightner, a daughter of Peter Lightner…

Peter L. Cleek married Effie May Amiss. The pleasant home occupied by them is near the original site, across the valley from the public road, and near the foot hills of the Alleghany. Formerly the main road passed by the old Cleek homestead, crossing and re-crossing the valley for the convenience of the residents. Thus the traveler would cover a good many miles in making but little progress in direct distance, as matters were in former times.