When you get into your head to go sparking, go over the mountain

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 26, 2016

Appalachian writer James Still (1906-2001) moved to Kentucky after he was grown, and stayed, finally living in Hindman but keeping his original cabin, located between the waters of Wolfpen Creek and Dead Mare Branch, on Little Carr Creek, where he wrote most of his books, poems, and articles.

For 40 years Still gathered sayings from the local people, which he almost did not allow to be published— he said it is hard to show in writings “changing inflections on one syllable to give [a sentence] two radically different endings.”

Finally he did allow them to be published. His comments from the preface may give us some idea why:

“The first notebook entry was recorded some forty five years ago. Most of the participants are dead. Save for their gravestones, this is the only record for some that they lived and laughed and wept and had opinions like the rest of us. I have long tried to speak for them. Here they are speaking for themselves.”

“I don’t want or expect Appalachian speech to be like any other. It has its own individuality, its own syntax. To be unlettered is not necessarily to be unintelligent. It’s a rare day when I’m out and about that I fail to hear something linguistically interesting.”

The Wolfpen Notebooks by James StillThere are 23 Wolfpen notebooks, 6×4 inches wire hinged.

“I can’t name the exact year I started jotting down things they said in notebooks. I did it only for my own eyes. You might say they were written to inform stories and poems to come, yet I never thumbed through looking for an idea or a quotation. The purpose of the notebooks was to cover every facet of life in my community as well as all of the county and the counties adjoining.

“The period covered is roughly 1931 to 1965. The setting-down, I mean. I did come to believe they might in future be of interest to folklorists and social historians.”

From “The Wolfpen Notebooks,” by James Still—

“I want everybody to stop calling me ‘Little Old Nasty Thing.'” Judy Gibson (age 4)

“These shoes I’m wearing were so tight when I first bought them I had to wear them a while before I could put them on.” Willie Stewart

“If you see some pore little underly children, give to’em, do for’em.” Martha Burns

“I paid Huck Francis a dime to see his picture show. Huh. It wasn’t nothing but shadows on the wall.” Uncle George Childers

“My Daddy, when he died, I couldn’t hardly give him up. We used to hunt together and fish together and work in the fields together. My brothers, they went to school and became doctors and teachers and made something of themselves. I didn’t know what an education was. Now my brothers are shut up in schoolhouses and offices while I’m out here in the sun where I want to be.” Okla Thornsberry

“Yeah, bless your soul, sure as Sunday morning. I’m scared to death of dying. We all dread that stinking death.” Frank Hicks

“Do you remember the little Bosley girl in last year’s first grade? Had long yellow hair, never smiled. Well, she died last summer. She started bleeding and nobody could stop it. There was no funeral and no casket. They just wrapped her in a quilt and buried her.” Edith Orick

“Death is not a strange thing amongst the people.” Preacher ‘Tater Bill’ Smith

“Some years back when I was the nurse at the Knott County Health Office I accompanied Dr. John Wes Duke in his visits to schools and assisted him in inoculating students against typhoid fever. I recall one school up in the head of a long hollow where he said everybody was akin to everybody else. When we had finished he spoke to them, ‘Children, I have something to talk to you about. All of you look like a bunch of dried apples. Your stock is running out. Now here is my advice. When you grow up, and get into your head to go sparking, don’t go up the creek, and don’t go down the creek, go over the mountain.'” Sylvia Auxier

sources: www.kentuckystewarts.com/RowanCounty/JamesStillAppalachianwriterdies.htm
The Wolfpen Notebooks: A Record of Appalachian Life, by James Still, University Press of Kentucky, 1991

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The Devil provided Stingy Jack with a coal

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 25, 2016

If you have ever tramped around the woods after dark, you may have noticed an erie glowing substance on the forest floor. This is the light from luminescent fungi—foxfire. One of the most common fungi responsible for foxfire is Clitocybe illudens, also known as the Jack ‘o Lantern mushroom. Makes complete sense that it would be named that: it’s orange, it glows in the dark. But did you ever stop to wonder where the phrase “Jack ‘o Lantern” came from?

Clitocybe illudensThere’s an old Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” Stingy Jack was a drunken brawler who found great enjoyment from playing tricks on anyone who crossed his path. Jack also had the great misfortune of running into the Devil more than once.

Jack’s first encounter with the Devil happened at a local Irish pub within the village. Obviously Stingy Jack was called “Stingy Jack” for a reason, and he wasn’t about to change now in the face of the devil. Jack convinced the Devil to transform into a sixpence piece so that Jack could use him to pay for their drinks. In exchange for this transaction, the Devil would receive Jack’s soul. Little did the Devil know, Jack still had a few tricks up his sleeve.

After changing into the sixpence piece, Jack quickly tossed the Devil into his pocket next to a silver cross – thus preventing the Devil from returning to his original form. Jack then bargained with the Devil to keep his soul for 10 more years – in return for the Devil’s freedom. The Devil reluctantly agrees and Jack frees him. 10 years pass and Jack crosses paths with the Devil a second time. With the Devil ready to claim his soul, Jack made a last request: “I’ll go, but before I do – will you retrieve an apple from that tree for me? I’m awfully hungry!”

The Devil began to climb the tree, and while the Devil was climbing to the top of the tree, Jack carved a large cross into the back of the tree. Again, the Devil had been tricked and could not get down.

Jack; being quite pleased with himself; bargained yet again with the Devil – this time for the promise that the Devil would never, ever try to take his soul again. With no way out of the tree, the Devil agreed.

Years pass and Jack finally passes away. Unfortunately for Jack, all of his evil trickery and horrible deeds – God did not allow Jack into Heaven. The Devil, still bitter at Jack and his bag of tricks, kept his word and did not claim his soul. Jack was unable to get into Heaven, and unable to get into Hell.

“Wherever shall I go?” Jack asked the Devil, confused and afraid.

“Back to where you came from!” The Devil growled angrily at Jack and sent him on his way back to earth.

Jack’s journey back was very dark, and he begged for the Devil to lend him a light to help him lead the way. The Devil provided Stingy jack with a coal from the fires of Hell – which Jack then placed into a turnip he had in his pocket. The carved out turnip lead the way back to earth. Since then; Jack appears every Halloween, doomed to roam the earth in search of eternal rest – leading the way with his turnip lamp.

The Irish people began to refer to the ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and soon: “Jack O’Lantern.”

carved turnip HalloweenTraditionally on All Hallows Eve, many Irishmen make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them near doors and windows to scare away the body-snatching spirits.

Pumpkins weren’t actually used until the Irish immigrants brought the tradition of Jack-o-Lanterns with them to America – only to discover that pumpkins were easier to carve than their traditional turnips and potatoes. The traditional Jack-o-Lantern was a turnip!


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You won’t let her rest in peace, fussing about her all the time

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 24, 2016

Ellen Fridley was a central figure in the economic and cultural flowering of Big Ridge, VA during the 1910s and 1920s. An entrepreneur, she ran the Big Ridge Supply Company, lodged in a small building near her home, where mountain residents could buy gum, tobacco, groceries, clothes, kerosene, and other items. She often accepted butter, chickens, eggs, and home produce in barter, which her husband later peddled in White Sulphur Springs.

Her economic ties with a larger world of commerce were complemented by a literate and intellectual curiosity. She read newspapers, ordered books through the mail, and apprised herself of events of the day. Like her sister-in-law Lelia Belle, Ellen had “modernist” leanings; she believed that scientific and cultural innovations elsewhere could benefit her family and her community, and should be embraced.

Hezekiah Fridley, Ellen’s husband, was in the same respects almost the opposite of his wife. Illiterate, with a resentful suspicion of book learning, Hezekiah was also deeply superstitious. When their last child, Ruth, was born with a severe but surgically correctable cleft palate, the stage was set for a protracted battle between these headstrong individuals and their different points of view.

Ellen resolved that her daughter would not go through life with her speech and physical appearance impaired by a condition she knew could be improved. Hezekiah, skeptical that any human being could or should correct what God and nature had ordained, steadfastly refused to permit an operation. Aunt Ellen prevailed. I don’t know how, but I suspect that her independent sources of income had something to do with her ability to carry on with her own plans.

When Ruth was one year old, she and her mother boarded the train together in White Sulphur, bound on the C&O line for Huntington, West Virginia. Through her contacts with physicians, Ellen had located a surgeon trained to carry out the operation on Ruth’s cleft palate. Uncle Hez railed against her decision and predicted dire outcomes from the surgery. Ellen ignored him, although his wrathful predictions increased her own anxiety about the operation and its consequences for Ruth’s health.

It was an all-day trip, and Ellen entertained her restless daughter with stories, games, and the extraordinary sights of the New River gorge through which they traveled. They spent their last night together away from home, boarding with strangers in Huntington.

Ruth died on the operating table the next day. The doctors speculated later that her tiny body housed a weak heart that could not withstand the operation. Ellen Fridley returned to Big Ridge alone, riding all day on the train with her daughter in a coffin in the baggage car.

Enraged with a grief that was compounded by self-righteousness, for months Uncle Hez upbraided Aunt Ellen for her foolish and fatal decision. Ellen first tried argument, then silence and avoidance, but he kept on. Submerged by her own grief and guilt, and well aware of his stubbornness, Ellen knew she must find a way to stop his tirades.

Uncle Hez’s greatest weakness was his superstitious nature. One night, many months after Ruth’s death, when he had fallen asleep, Aunt Ellen quietly brought a small lantern and set it on the floor next to their bed. After settling herself back under the covers, she reached over and turned up the wick. Shadows flickered through the rafters as she dangled her hand around the chimney. Presently Uncle Hez awoke.

“Ellen! Ellen, wake up!” She feigned sleep. “Ellen, wake up, there’s a haint [ghost]!”

“Hez, what are you shaking me for?,” she asked drowsily. “I don’t see no haint.”

“Ellen, it’s there! Yonder in the corner!”

Ellen moved her long fingers and the ghost danced. “Hez, get on back to sleep. You’re seeing things.” Ellen slowly turned down the lantern, and the house darkened. Hez grumbled and tossed, then fell into a fitful sleep.

The next day, unnerved by the ghost and irritable from his restless sleep, Uncle Hez continued to rail against Aunt Ellen for sending Ruth to her grave. That night, Ellen once again set the lantern next to their bed. When the light began to flicker in the same corner, Hez woke up.

“Ellen! Ellen!”

“Oh, Hez,” she said sleepily. “Let me rest.”

“Open your eyes, Ellen! It’s over yonder!”

Ellen peered around the room, then turned to Hez. “I don’t see no haint, Hez. I reckon that means it’s come for you.” She soon turned down the lantern, but her words had reinforced what Uncle Hez already feared. He lay in watchful terror most of the night.

By the third night, Uncle Hez was so frightened of the nocturnal visitations that he could scarcely fall asleep. It was the wee hours of morning before his snoring finally persuaded Aunt Ellen that he slept. She turned up the wick.

“It’s the haint! Wake up, Ellen, it’s back!”

Ellen feigned sleep. He poked her with his elbow and shouted in her ear: “Wake up!”

“Oh, Hez, can’t nobody sleep with you having all these haints.”

“It’s there! Over yonder in the corner! Same place for three nights!”

Aunt Ellen finally delivered her punch line: “Well, Hez, if it is a haint, it must be Ruth’s. You won’t let her rest in peace, fussing about her all the time.”

Uncle Hez was silent. Aunt Ellen made the ghost dance just a few more times for effect, then she lowered the wick.

Ever after that night, Uncle Hez was afraid to speak of Ruth at all. The ghostly visits ceased, and the lantern stayed on the shelf. As for Ruth, Uncle Hez and Aunt Ellen separately offered up their silent prayers for her peaceful slumber beneath the sheltering trees of Big Ridge.

From “Beyond the Mountains”: The Paradox of Women’s Place in Appalachian History,” by Barbara Ellen Smith, NWSA Journal Volume 11, Number 3 (Autumn 1999)

3 Responses

  • Austin Sgro says:

    Hello ,I was wonder how to get a hold of this book?Hezekiah and Ellen is my great great grandparents.My dad is always interesting in finding his past so am I.We only have family tree’s for Fridley and partial of Smith’s can you give me more info on Barbara Smith I know she would of been one of Ellen’s siblings daughter.Thank you very much you can contacted me at my email which is my name at Gmail or relpy on here as i will be checking back

  • kevin keith says:

    are you steven sgros son?

  • austin sgro says:

    Yes i am his son…

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Bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd drops in a hail of 93 bullets

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 21, 2016

When asked by Federal agent Melvin Purvis about the Kansas City Massacre, he snapped, “I won’t tell you anything, you son-of-a-bitch.” Depending on whose version is more accurate, these may well have been Charles Arthur Pretty Boy Floyd’s last words. Tomorrow (October 22) is the 82nd anniversary of the shoot-out death of the career bank robber who just three months earlier had been designated “Public Enemy No. 1″ by J. Edgar Hoover.

Believed to be returning to his home in the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma after years in hiding, Floyd and his partner, Adam Richetti, had attracted the attention of local police near Wellsville, OH. A guns-blazing chase ensued, resulting in Richetti’s capture and Floyd’s escape. Agent Purvis organized a three-day manhunt, which culminated on the Ellen Conkle farm when eight lawmen ended Floyd’s life of violence.

Much of the interest in Floyd was due to a bloody rescue attempt in Kansas City in June 1933, which had resulted in the machine gun deaths of five persons, four of them police officers. Floyd, usually not shy about his exploits, denied any involvement, but without success.

Floyd went into hiding after the so-called Union Station Massacre. However, by October of the following year, he and Richetti, and two sisters whose inconvenient husbands had been eliminated by Floyd, decided to leave their hideout in Buffalo, New York, and return to Oklahoma.

The East Liverpool Historical Society website gives a dramatic blow-by-blow account of the gang’s desperate final attempts to outrun the law in Ohio:

“In mid-afternoon on Monday, October 22, he emerged from the woods near an area known as Sprucevale, eight miles southeast of his last sighting, where he approached the farmhouse of Mrs. Ellen Conkle, a widow. A disheveled Floyd explained to her that he had gotten lost while hunting and had spent the previous night wandering through the woods. He was hungry, and Mrs. Conkle prepared a meal of spareribs, potatoes, rice pudding, and pumpkin pie, which Pretty Boy consumed rapidly and termed ‘fit for a king’. He offered Mrs. Conkle a dollar for her trouble and asked to see any recent newspapers.

Ellen ConkleEllen Conkle, with the dishes used by Floyd in what turned out to be his last meal.

“Unknown to Floyd, he had been observed walking in the area by a farmer who telephoned township Constable Clyde Birch who, in turn, relayed the report to the East Liverpool City Police. Acting on the tip, one of several already received, East Liverpool Police Chief High J. McDermott rounded up Patrolmen Chester C. Smith, Glenn Montgomery, and Herman Roth and set out. Purvis and four agents followed in a second vehicle.

“Meanwhile, having concluded his review of the papers, which detailed the capture of Richetti and the ongoing manhunt, Floyd asked for Mrs. Conkle’s assistance in getting to Youngstown. She suggested that Floyd wait until her brother, Stewart Dyke, finished his work in the fields. Floyd sat in the front seat of Dyke’s Model A until his return.

“When Pretty Boy explained that he wanted transportation to Youngstown or the nearest bus line, Dyke promised to take him part of the way, and they started to pull out of the farmyard. At that crucial moment, two cars came speeding down the Sprucevale Road toward the Conkle farm. Floyd, sensing danger, ordered Dyke to pull the car behind an adjacent corncrib, and saw a pair of blue-trousered legs get out of the car. As the police and federal agents approached the corncrib, Floyd made a break for the woods, holding a Colt automatic in his right hand.

“Nine officers, variously armed with pistols, rifles, and shotguns, blazed away as Floyd zigzagged across the field. Ninety-three shots were directed at the outlaw; for once, he did not shoot back. Hit, Floyd fell to his knees, then got up and continued his race for life. A second bullet knocked him down to stay.

“Not surprisingly, the accounts of the participants differ widely. Purvis later claimed that Floyd was hit by an agent armed with a Tommy gun. Patrolman Chester Smith asserted that it was his shots with a .32-20 Winchester that had dropped Floyd and, further, that the federal agents were armed only with pistols and ‘couldn’t have hit anything at that distance with their handguns.’

Pretty Boy FloydFloyd’s body at the Sturgis Funeral Home morgue – note bullet wound in left torso.

“Floyd was alive when the lawmen came up to where he lay. The Colt was removed from his right hand, which had been paralyzed by a wound. A backup gun was found in the waistband of his trousers.

“When Purvis asked the criminal if he was Pretty Boy Floyd, he received the curt response, ‘I’m Floyd’. He then asked the police, ‘Where’s Etti?’ — presumably a reference to his captured associate. The three Liverpool patrolmen carried him to the shelter of a large apple tree where Public Enemy No. 1 died.”

source: www.eastliverpoolhistoricalsociety.org/pbfloyd1.htm

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He removed his eyeglasses and lit the pipe by focusing light through the glasses

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 20, 2016

When he was only five or six years old, James Brennan delivered a pail of water to a farm worker on the grounds of what today is Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The worker took a drink, pulled out a pipe, removed his eyeglasses and lit the pipe by focusing light through the glasses.

Brennan remembers being profoundly impressed by that feat.

Long before the ORNL took up residence on Chestnut Ridge, the land was home to James Brennan. Brennan’s family lived on the property before the government seized it in 1942. His father’s old barn stood where the main office complex at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source is now.

“Dad had a rolling store, a wagon he pulled with a team of gray mules,” he says. “There were no stores around. He sold the basic goods—sugar, coffee and salt.”

mule team at Chestnut Ridge TN

The Brennan family’s rolling store was drawn by a team of mules, similar to this scene in the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s historical collection.

Brennan’s father bought the Chestnut Ridge farm in 1915 (Brennan has the original land grant for 100 acres near Chestnut Ridge that the state of Tennessee issued to Thomas Hagler on July 12, 1831. )

The elder Brennan was able to pay off the farm loan in just 10 years. “Dad liked the Chestnut Ridge tract mainly because as a farmer he knew the value of water,” says James, “and the land was unusually endowed with three springs.”

“It was productive farm land. We had three tenant families and a sawmill that provided work for a lot of people.”

The Brennans raised cattle and crops, marketing their produce in nearby towns.

Brennan visited ORNL in August 2007 at the age of 89, and could still recognize many sites, although the changes over 60 years were sometimes drastic.

His directions to the visitor’s center mentioned the Conference Center pond. He remembered that pond as a small stream where he used to come for a drink after services at New Bethel Baptist Church.

James Brennan was born in Bear Creek Valley in 1918. One of Brennan’s favorite memories of life there is when his father got his 1922 Model T Ford truck stuck on a muddy road. James’ father gave his mother, who had never driven a car, a crash course in driving while he pulled it out of the mud with a team of mules.

She successfully drove to a field near their house but didn’t know how to stop.

 Brennan remembers standing on the porch with his brother watching his father run around trying to instruct his mother on how to stop the car while keeping a team of mules under control. James doesn’t remember the conclusion exactly, but somehow his father got the truck stopped.

In December 1941 the Brennans moved to a 64-acre farm near Scarbrough to get electricity but still owned the property on Chestnut Ridge. James enlisted in the Army almost immediately after Pearl Harbor.

He says his parents planned to keep the Chestnut Ridge place in the family for the rest of their lives, but by fall 1942 events beyond their control dictated otherwise. The Manhattan Project uprooted the family a second time, and they finished moving out of Chestnut Ridge near Christmas that year.

James had already left for the war effort.

“I don’t know how my father was able to get rid of what he had in such a short time,” he says of the move.

During World War II, Brennan worked in telephone communications, laying and maintaining telephone wires. He served in the Pacific Theater early in the war—including Guadalcanal and Bougainville—and later in Europe, including the latter part of the Battle of the Bulge and a memorable trip to Paris.

“The French government gave us $17. I still don’t understand the reason why exactly, but we accepted the $17 anyway. That’s what we went to Paris on,” Brennan says.

He remembers the beautiful buildings he saw, but his strongest memory is of the Parisian subway system. He and his Army buddies got on the subway not altogether realizing that the stops would be announced in French, that none of them understood French and that they could not see where they were going.

When he returned from the war, Brennan worked at the water treatment plant at
Y-12 for a few years. He later did contract work at several sites on the Oak Ridge reservation, including the High Flux Isotope Reactor.

When that long-ago farm laborer from Brennan’s childhood focused photons to light his pipe, perhaps he foreshadowed how Oak Ridge National Laboratory would focus protons onto a target to produce neutrons. The ORNL’s processes are much more complicated, but the wonder both produce is the same.

“Long before SNS, memories of farm life pleasant for Chestnut Ridge resident,” by Charlie Smith, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Reporter, Number 93, October 2007
online at www.ornl.gov/info/reporter/no93/oct-07_dw.htm

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