‘A Force to be
Many decades ago, a sitting governor was in love with Watoga State Park. One of the cabins at Bucks Run is still called the Governor’s Cabin because this governor thought of it as his “home away from home.” And, indeed, he visited frequently.
On one particular visit, the governor had assembled a group of park officials for a breakfast meeting at the still pined for Watoga Restaurant. He and his entourage arrived early, and the head cook, one Etta Foster Washington, aka Miss Eddie, was busy readying her kitchen for the event.
The all-male coterie assembled themselves in the cozy and rustic dining room, awaiting their breakfast. At such an early hour, the ensuing robust conversation of the men brought on an intense desire for a caffeinated beverage.
The highest-ranking man in the room, West Virginia’s governor, strode straight into the kitchen and, without so much as a word to the staff, grasped an entire pot of coffee, fully intent on returning to the dining room with it.
At this point in the story, I can well imagine that all eyes of the kitchen staff shifted from the Governor directly to Miss Eddie in anticipation of her inevitable, but as yet unknown, response.
It was a serious breach of protocol on the governor’s part to not offer the merest nod of acknowledgment to the chef de cuisine of the Watoga Restaurant. It was well known that Miss Eddie, despite the rank of those in the dining room, was the Captain of the kitchen.
She would not tolerate such disrespect of etiquette, not even by the governor of West Virginia. The governor never entirely made it out of the kitchen with the coffee pot. Instead, he was chased out of the kitchen by Miss Eddie wielding a flyswatter that she was fully prepared to use.
Like all of the other men, the governor waited until the kitchen was up and running correctly. Then, and only then was the coffee served to the men, followed by the delight of dining on the heavenly food prepared by Miss Eddie.
When it comes to culinary skills, running a kitchen, and being universally loved by her fellow Pocahontas Countians, few can hold a candle to Miss Eddie.
Although Miss Eddie did cook for others – generally wealthy families – she is remembered best as a cook par excellence at church dinners. Her name is inextricably linked to the Watoga Restaurant, where she had worked on and off for many decades.
But Miss Eddie was much more than just a superb cook. Her influence extended to many park employees and others, black and white, well beyond the park.
Communicating with as many people as I have over the last year about Miss Eddie, a picture of a loving and wonderfully strong woman has emerged. She was also an admirably purposeful character, as Ruth Taylor recently pointed out, saying, “She was a force to be reckoned with.”
People who knew Miss Eddie readily consented to share with me their memories and anecdotes about her. Several of them could barely contain themselves in their praise and gratitude for just having known Miss Eddie.
Most of them strongly emphasized Miss Eddie’s qualities beyond the kitchen, calling her a mentor, teacher and confidante. They spoke in terms of endearment about her compassion, her sagacity, and not the least of great personality traits – a marvelous sense of humor.
Jerry Dale spent much of his formative years living and working at Watoga. His father, Richard Dale, was park superintendent from 1966 through 1975.
Jerry, a psychology and criminal justice instructor at Marshall and former Pocahontas County Sheriff, remembers Miss Eddie well.
“She called me Honeycomb’ and was always asking me, ‘Honeycomb, are you hungry?’ Jerry said. “She always fed me something good, but at that age, I did harbor a slight fear of her when in the kitchen. After all, it was well-known that it was her kitchen and her rules.”
Charlotte McKeever Emswiler was also a child of Watoga and remembered that Miss Eddie “made a mean lemon pie and was always laughing.
“My father, the park superintendent from 1945 through 1948, was always kidding Miss Eddie, saying that my mother could only make lettuce sandwiches. So Miss Eddie made him a lemon pie every couple weeks.”
Clearly, Kermit McKeever had a good thing going. If one mentions Miss Eddie in these parts, the words lemon pie will shortly arise in the ensuing conversation. And vice versa.
Letha Angell had the contract on the Watoga Restaurant for several years in the 1970s. Her son, Chuck, was just a boy then, but he remembers that Miss Eddie made him his own little pies.
Chuck said that Miss Eddie would read him stories when he went to bed. He described a salient memory of her from when he was ten years old: “She always wore a dress and a white apron. I have lots of great and loving memories of that fine lady.”
Author’s Note: Chuck Angell’s memory of Miss Eddie always wearing an apron is consistent with the fact that she has an apron on in every photograph that I have seen of her to date. Even in group photographs having nothing to do with a kitchen.
Birdie Jenell Kline worked for Letha Angell at the restaurant and, like many of the young employees, lived in the dormitory above the restaurant. Jenell, just 16 years old at the time, adored Miss Eddie and thought of her as a mentor.
“She would teach me so much,” Jenell said. “Once a patron asked for iced coffee, and I had no idea how to make it. Miss Eddie stopped what she was doing to kindly instruct me on making iced coffee, which pleased the diner. She was the most wonderful person to work for, and she told the funniest stories.”
Miss Eddie was known to instruct young women to be wary of men, saying that some of them “are just no good.” She shared a story with Jenell that demonstrates that sentiment in a quite humorous fashion.
It seems there was a short period in Miss Eddie’s marriage to Stepto Washington when he was slipping out of the house after dinner and not coming back until late in the evening. Stepto’s return on these evenings was what could be called “stealthily re-entering the house.”
After this unusual behavior persisted for a few weeks, Miss Eddie decided to give Stepto a taste of his own medicine.
One evening after Stepto had gone, Miss Eddie got, as she told Jenell, “all gussied up,” putting on her best dress, makeup, lipstick and perfume. She didn’t go far, though, just into the bushes next to the house. There, she waited in hiding until Stepto returned and entered the house, making the least noise possible.
She waited outside long enough to give Stepto reason for worry. She said nothing to him when she finally came in and, without further ado, went to bed.
There were no words between the two of them; the message was quite clear. Stepto’s nightly prowls, whatever they involved, came to an immediate and lasting halt.
Among Miss Eddie’s many qualities, we must add wisdom.
What you have just read is a simple “by way of introduction” essay about a black woman who lived most of her life in the dark Jim Crow years. Miss Eddie reached out beyond the challenges laid at her feet by some segments of society.
She became a much loved and respected citizen by both blacks and whites here in our lovely county. In truth, Miss Eddie’s life cannot be summed up in a single article.
Therefore, in the next issue of the Watoga Trail Report, we will examine the life of this extraordinary woman in even greater detail. Miss Eddie touched and improved the lives of so many others in ways that are still recounted when folks gather together and reminisce.