Time and Custom Stand Still in the Hills and Hollers of West Virginia

Times Staff Writer

Sylvia O'Brion, 76, sat beside an oil lamp and wood-burning stove in her clapboard cabin on the sub-zero night, strumming her banjo and singing: "This is my home where the bobcats holler and the wild deer roam."

She has lived in the primitive dwelling without running water or electricity on the slopes of Dead Fall Mountain her entire life. She shuns modern conveniences. She lives alone in one of the isolated pockets beyond the power lines in West Virginia.

The hardy, fiercely independent old mountain woman has never had a radio or TV. She chops wood to cook her food and heat her home. She uses an outhouse year 'round, even in the dead of winter. Her nearest neighbors are on the other side of the mountain a mile and a half away by footpath.

"I never been sick. Never been in a doctor's office. Never took a dose of medicine," she said.

"Oh, I could move and git indoor plumbin' and electricity if I wanted. But I'm set in my ways. I like the old-time way of livin'. I'm afraid of electricity. I don't understand it." Her banjo is made from a 1935 Buick transmission.

West Virginia is America's Mountain State. The entire state is Appalachian Mountains. Wave after wave of mountains. Like a sea. Most of the state's nearly 2 million people live in narrow mountain valleys called hollers.

Get out of the cities and towns in West Virginia into the remote hills and hollers where the roads dead-end and it's a step back in time.

Here live descendants of pioneer families who came from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the 17th and 18th centuries. More people in the mountains of West Virginia have ties to the traditions, speech and way of life of early America than anywhere else in the nation.

Scattered through the hills and hollers are a few stubborn mountaineers such as Sylvia O'Brion, who hang onto the past by choice.

"The people of many West Virginia rural areas have been so isolated from the mainstream of American life for generations because of the mountains that Chaucerian and Elizabethan forms of speech are still in everyday use," explained Wylene (Gini) Dial, 62, associate professor at the University of West Virginia's Appalachian Center.

"Outsiders think their speech is strange, even downright uncultured. That is because they don't realize what they are hearing is antique English of the days of the first Queen Elizabeth, the speech the highest educated used at that time."

Dial has been collecting words, phrases and sayings of the hill people of her state for 30 years. She has published a dictionary and written numerous articles on the subject.

"Whar, thar and dar are Scotch pronunciations brought here when the hollers were first settled. Blinked milk, an expression in common use today, for example, is a term for sour milk and goes back to the 1600s when people believed in witches and the power of the evil eye."

Need for a Translator

For outsiders, listening to the hill people of West Virginia often requires an interpreter. Reckon we better git on into the house, it's right airish out. Translated it means: It's cold outside. Let's go into the house.

"It is only as recently as 20 years with the incursion of radio, television and roads that the colorful language in the back country hollers has begun to level out," Dial noted. "I hope West Virginians never lose the color of their language. They are the best talkers God ever put on earth. I'd hate to see all of America become like a herd of sheep, all sounding like TV announcers."

The massive road-building projects throughout the state in the 1960s and early 1970s have reduced the isolation and afford easy access now to most rural areas. Until the roads were finally pushed through, many in the state never ventured out of their remote villages.

Giant mushroom-like satellite TV dishes--like the one outside Dulcie Nicholson's two-story white 1875 farmhouse near a tiny town called Pickle Street--are sprinkled throughout the hills and hollers of West Virginia.

"I got that thing two years ago. Bought it for a thousand dollars," said Nicholson, an 88-year-old widow, who has four cows and grows "tabaccer." "Got it from a man comin' door to door. He sold it to me, set it up, and it's been a-workin' right smart ever since. Had a TV afore but never got me a picture. Now, on my honor, I git the world right cheer (here)."

West Virginia is soup beans, corn pone, biscuits and country gravy, plain American fare.

It's Friday nights in Boulder, population 17 families, tucked in a backwoods mountain valley. Friday nights at the Boulder Mercantile is an 81-year-old tradition ever since the tongue-in-groove frame store was erected in 1904.

Villagers gather around the potbellied stove in the country store each Friday night to play the card game Rook and "to pass the news."

Womenfolk bring "covered dishes" for a potluck.

"None of us knows what the others will bring," said Patricia George, owner of the store with her husband, Hertsel. "One night we ended up with all pies. That's the fun of it."

"It sure beats settin' and watchin' TV," insisted lifelong coal miner Cecil Anderson, 76.

Shelves at Boulder Mercantile are jammed with canned goods, dry cereals, household items, chicken feed, sheep dip, hog worm powder . . . boxes of home remedies left over from bygone days like "Save-the-Baby," a medicinal tonic for croup, coughs and congestion gathering dust in the country store.

Widow Bonnie Collins, 68, travels the state spinning yarns before PTAs, women's clubs, church socials, service clubs and colleges. Storytellers are a West Virginia tradition going back to the mid-1700s, to the time of Timmy Corn, the tallest tall-tale teller of them all.

"My stories all have a grain of truth. They're about kinfolk and neighbors. I also keep alive the old tales handed down by my daddy, my granddaddy and several granddaddies before them, all right fine storytellers," said Collins, known far and wide as "Mountain Mama." She is 5-foot-2 and tips the scale at more than 200. "The reason I'm so fat," she explained, "is they pay me in meals and ballpoint pens."

Collins, like Sylvia O'Brion, lives in a log cabin in an isolated holler but she has all the modern conveniences. "I don't wash clothes on a board like I used ta," she said, laughing. Her stories are about people living in the hills today and those who lived there in the past, stories about mountaineers like Charlie Spurgeon, the local undertaker.

"Charlie Spurgeon is the only man I can truthfully say is after my body," Collins said. "If I can bring some happiness to everyone I see, then I will not have lived in vain when Charlie comes for me."

She lives in a tiny hamlet called Ashley, "up yonder" from the only place in America, maybe the world, where someone actually made a mountain out of a molehill.

In 1949, the 30 families living in Mole Hill, W. Va., changed the name of the post office and the town from Mole Hill to Mountain.

West Virginia is sprinkled with quaint hamlets with equally quaint names, such as Looneyville in Roane County, population 500. "This is the only Looneyville in the United States. Go ahead and laugh. Strangers to these parts always do," Ruth Vineyard, 68, Looneyville postmaster the last 16 years, said with a chuckle.

"We got our name in the mid-1700s when a Looney family from the British Isle of Man settled here. Today there are Looneys all over West Virginia, descendants of those first settlers. Some have fun with the name. One man ships all his Christmas cards up here every year to send out to his old World War II Army buddies just to get the Looneyville postmark."

Hamlets With Quaint Names

There are scores of West Virginia hamlets with quaint names such as these: Bergoo, Big Isaac, Cucumber, Cyclone, Czar, Droop, Duck, Ida May, Left Hand, Mud, Myrtle, Pie, Pinch, Quick, Tad, Three Churches, Tornado, Twilight, War. The derivation of each is fascinating. Left Hand, for example, got its name because it is located on the left-hand side of Left Hand Creek.

Until last March 31, there was Romance in West Virginia. Not any more. At least not a Romance, W. Va., post office. It vanished after more than a century. Postmaster Belva Lanham, 70, quit after 30 years. Her eyesight failed her. No one else wanted to be postmaster, so the government closed the post office. The post office and Belva and Russell Lanhams' tin-roofed hog farm wash house was the only public structure in the sparsely populated Jackson County holler on a clay road leading to a dozen farms.

Odd, W. Va., got its name in the early 1800s because the residents thought it was such an odd place it ought to be called Odd. Texie Letha Baldwin, 77, and her sister, Thelma Cole, 71, have lived up Tommy Run ( run in West Virginia means creek) in Odd, all their lives. Their home is "hard fast against" Johnny Sneed Mountain, named after their great-great-great-grandfather, who settled in Odd in the late 1700s.

Thelma taught school at the Odd Elementary School across from the Odd cemetery for years as well as at the Long Wanted School in the next holler, a school so named because the people waited so long to get it.

"Here we live in the isolated hollers and old-fashioned homes like my log cabin," said Bonnie Collins. "People think we're a bunch of hillbillies, all ignorant and uneducated. But that's not true. There isn't a holler in the state out of reach of a school bus today. I'm proud to be a West Virginian."

St. Albans poet Muriel Miller Dressler says: "I don't apologize to anyone for my background or heritage. When I hit the mountains I breathe a little sigh, and say: 'Thank you, Lord! I'm home.' "

There is, indeed, something special about the mountain people of West Virginia, their old-fashioned ways, their manner of speech, their music, down-home cooking. It is a rich culture going back to the very beginnings of this nation, in this funny-shaped state, the only state with two panhandles. West Virginia's silhouette looks like a horny toad.

In the new $14-million West Virginia Cultural Center on the state capital grounds at Charleston, historian Ken Sullivan edits a unique publication, Goldenseal, West Virginia Traditional Life, a quarterly published the past 10 years by the State Department of Culture and History. A subscription costs $10 a year. It has a circulation of 25,000.

Goldenseal captures much of the flavor of the mountaineers of West Virginia, publishing stories covering the life of ordinary West Virginians today and of those in the living memory of people. The current issue, for example, has a story about hog-killing day at Aunt Dorie's; another about Moatsville midwife Opal Freeman, who delivered hundreds of babies in the hills and hollers; a feature about the 50th anniversary of Arthurdale, W. Va., the first of more than 100 experimental resettlement homestead projects initiated by Eleanor Roosevelt in the Great Depression.

The West Virginia Cultural Center is a focal point and repository of the state's rich cultural resources. On display are quilts, woodwork, arts and crafts by West Virginia artisans created in the style and manner of the past.

Folk festivals are held throughout the year at the Cultural Center, drawing on the talents of the fiddlers, storytellers, clog dancers, dulcimer players, old-time songsters and others from the far reaches of the mountains of West Virginia.

It attracts the likes of Basil Blake, 71, Brag Run dulcimer maker, who favors eating groundhog much more than chicken. For the past half-century, Blake has handcrafted more than 800 of the ancient musical instruments called dulcimers brought to this nation by the first English settlers. The three-stringed wooden instrument is plucked with a quill while held in the lap of a player. Blake, who now lives in Cedarville, sells his musical instruments for $125 each.

At the same time Goldenseal came into existence, John H. Randolph, a professor at Salem College in Salem, W. Va., launched the private school's mountain heritage arts department, offering a four-year B.A. degree centering on 18th-Century West Virginia trades and skills.

Students come to Salem College from all over the nation to live and study in 20 original log cabins dating back as early as 1790, all from the surrounding countryside and lived in until Randolph, 47, moved them to the college campus 10 years ago.

"Here we are in the middle of a culture that needed to be dealt with and nobody was doing anything about it," said Randolph. "This is a lost-age preservation concept."

College students learn 18th-Century spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, woodworking, fireplace cooking in iron pots, quilting, trapping, pioneer medicine. Knowledge in these folkways are highly valuable for students planning to work in outdoor museums. Salem College graduates are historical interpreters at Williamsburg and Jamestown and in other national and state parks across the nation. Standing job offers await all graduates of the highly successful program.

Jim Comstock, 73, founder-publisher of the statewide weekly, West Virginia Hillbilly until he sold the colorful sheet four years ago, is a West Virginia original. (When the Saturday Review called his paper sophisticated, Comstock demanded a retraction.)

Comstock, of Richwood, W. Va., is dedicated to the preservation of the rich cultural qualities of the Mountain State.

When the Legislature passed a law requiring high schools to teach a course on West Virginia but did not implement it, Comstock took it upon himself to be "the great implementer." Early last year, he visited and presented the county superintendent of schools in each of the state's 55 counties with a 106-book library on the state's history as source material for the mandated course.

Be Sent a Check

"All I asked was if the books were found to be of value I be sent a check for what the mini-libraries cost me," Comstock explained. All but five counties have sent him a check so far.

Comstock launched the 24-page weekly New West Virginia Review last September for supplemental reading for students enrolled in the West Virginia course, a publication filled with stories and information about the state.

He spent 20 years in his spare time preparing a 51-volume Encyclopedia of West Virginia, published in 1976. In Comstock's words, it is "crammed with everything anyone would ever want to know about the Mountain State, the entire cast of characters from Morgan Morgan, the first permanent settler, through the Bicentennial Year, what brought them here in the beginning and why they have stayed the way they have so long.

"Who we are and why we are that way," said Comstock, "is best described by our state's motto-- montani semper liberi --mountaineers are always free."

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