Women, booze, dice and cards

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 22, 2016

It began as a coal and railroad center at the turn of the 20th century in an area fabulously wealthy in natural resources. The only way in and out of the town of five hundred hardy souls was via the railroad as there were no roads in those days. Women, booze, dice and cards were brought in fresh every day, while unlucky losers of arguments over the same were quietly disposed of in the New River.

poker player

Thurmond WV is often termed the Dodge City of the East, thanks in large part to the 100-room Dunglen Hotel, whose bar never closed. Thomas G. McKell built the town when his wife left him 12,500 acres of coal fields. After a ten mile branch was built to connect the town to the railway line in the 1890’s, the Dunglen was erected in 1901.

Although originally envisioned to be a hard working, religious community, Thurmond will always hold a place in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for the Dunglen Hotel’s fourteen year continuous poker run. In one well-remembered poker game a New River operator lost his coal mine.

“When my grandfather went up there to see about this hotel job,” said George Carper, of Cincinnati, Ohio (whose grandfather, George Flauts, was the barber at the Dunglen Hotel), “he went up to see what the job would be like, and he stepped off the train and he said he almost stepped on a dead body. And it was the body of a union organizer.”

Two old sayings survive that describe the town colorfully: No Sunday west of Clifton Forge and no God west of Hinton and The only difference between Hell and Thurmond is that a river runs through Thurmond.

Dunglen Hotel Thurmond WVThe Dunglen’s period of brightness was clouded by the World War I, and after the war a slow decline set in; the auto and its attendant shift of emphasis from the railroad to the highway took more and more business away from Thurmond. Businesses moved away – many of them to Mt. Hope and Oak Hill – and coal mines around Thurmond closed as they were worked out. Gradually even the town began to fold up. The hotel itself burned to the ground on July 23, 1930 and was never rebuilt.

Between 1931 and 1938 the National Bank of Thurmond, the Armour Meat Company, the New River Banking and Trust Company, and the C&P telephone district offices left the town. The last major industry left in Thurmond was the railroad, and even it ceased to be a factor in 1940, when the C&O switched to diesel engines and there was no longer a need to stop at Thurmond for water and coal. Soon afterwards the Thurmond depot closed.

sources: www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/businessandindustry/dunglen01.html
Melody Bragg, Thurmond and Ghost Towns of the New River Gorge, Glen Jean, GEM Publications, 1995

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Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 21, 2016

July 22 will mark the 93rd anniversary of Nick Grindstaff’s demise. His gravestone reads: “Lived alone, suffered alone, died alone,” but in the 1870’s he was one of Johnson County, TN’s most colorful residents.

Grindstaff was born on December 26, 1851. By the time he was three years old both his mother, Mary Heaton Grindstaff, and his father, Isaac Grindstaff, had died. Nick and his three orphaned siblings lived with relatives until Nick was 21 years old, at which time the parents’ farm was divided equally among the children. Nick built a house on his portion and began to farm the land. After five years of farming Nick sold his farm and decided to go west.

He was an adventurer, and like so many young men of that era, smelled his fortune in California gold. While there he met, fell in love with, and married a young woman. The woman died.

Nick and his dog Panter. From "Nick, The Hermit: A True Story Written in Poetic Form of Nick Grindstaff, Johnson County, Tennessee -  'The South's Most Famous Hermit,' " by Asa Shoun, R.B. Wilson, D.M. Laws.

Nick and his dog Panter. From “Nick, The Hermit: A True Story Written in Poetic Form of Nick Grindstaff, Johnson County, Tennessee – ‘The South’s Most Famous Hermit,’ ” by Asa Shoun, R.B. Wilson, D.M. Laws.


On his way back to Johnson County, legend says Grindstaff was coaxed into the rear of a saloon by a “lovely lady,” whose partner in crime robbed him of his fortune. In another version of this story, he was not robbed, but drank all his money away when his wife out west died; when he became destitute he moved back to Johnson County. In either case, he returned to Tennessee and bought land on top of Iron Mountain, were he lived for 40 years as a hermit with only his dog Panter, a steer and a pet rattlesnake (said to have been killed by a man named Sam Lowe) for company.

On July 21, 1923 Baxter McEwen went by to check on Nick. He found him dead on the bunk in his hut. His faithful dog had been keeping watch over his master’s dead body for the previous three or four days. The dog had to be tied before men could carry out Nick’s body. Nick was buried, with 200 in attendance, on the mountain peak where he had lived. The house was eventually dismantled for the wood and tin, but the imprint is still on the ground surrounding the gravesite.

Photo by Tim "Mountain Squid" Stewart

Photo by Tim “Mountain Squid” Stewart


Two years later locals erected a chimney-shaped monument made out of mountain granite, which even included some of Nick’s pots and pans in the construction. The citizen who kept the general store down in Shady Valley, Tennessee, where Grindstaff would buy his meal and bacon twice a year, wrote the words. Somebody had to. Nick Grindstaff was a special man, with a story no one ever quite knew.

Today the Appalachian Trail passes by the area. The Appalachian Trail Conference maintains the monument that marks Nick’s burial site.


sources: http://www.mce.k12tn.net/johnson/legends/nick.htm


“Nick, The Hermit: A True Story Written in Poetic Form of Nick Grindstaff, Johnson County, Tennessee – ‘The South’s Most Famous Hermit,’ ” by Asas Shoun, R.B. Wilson, D.M. Laws, 1939, 26 pp., cited at Bob Cox’s Yesteryear site (http://www.bcyesteryear.com/node/671)

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Worm Fiddlers are Making Good in Valley Area

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 20, 2016

The Florence [AL] Times Daily
Jul 23, 1937

Hartselle, July 27— Get out your “Stradivarius” and come to the Tennessee Valley and join the worm fiddlers.

A new industry has sprung up in the Joe Wheeler Lake area where numerous followers of Izaak Walton spend their time fishing in the fisherman’s paradise created by the TVA. The new business is “worm fiddling” and the North Alabama worm fiddlers eagerly watch for the worm market quotation each morning.

A few days ago worms were selling for as high as $12 per gallon but so many people have entered the highly profitable business and flooded the market that the price has dropped to $4.

Worm grunting, worm charming, worm fiddling

Worm grunting, worm charming, or worm fiddling.

E.J. Giers, of Valhermosa Springs, one of Morgan county’s best worm fiddlers, explains the fiddling business this way: You take a smooth, seasoned stick about two feet long and drive it into the ground under a beech tree or in some moist, rich place. Then you take a small flat stone and rub it back and forth across the top of the stick. This causes the ground to vibrate and the worms will rush to the top of the ground. All you have to do is pick them up.

When you think you have exhausted the supply of worms, move your stick to another spot and start fiddling again. A gallon of worms per hour is considered a good harvest. Some fiddlers use two sticks and stretch a wire between, then rub the stone across the wire.

The modern Neros are divided in their opinion as to why the worms come out of the ground. Some believe the vibration gives the worms an electric shock and some claim that the worms think the noise is thunder and come out as they naturally do when it rains.

Each day new fiddlers appear on the streets of Tennessee Valley towns with buckets of worms to sell. Frequently crowds gather to hear the fiddlers tell their modes of fiddling and lively arguments ensue as to the best and most prolific methods.

Some successful fiddlers declare there are different species of fiddle worms and that they require various types of fiddling and that you can’t fool the worms. A man in the worm business must be an accomplished fiddler.

A minister living near Hartselle, who is a master fiddler, points out that worm fiddling is an ancient custom and is even mentioned in the Bible.

Whatever the past has been and whatever the future of the fiddle worm industry, may be it has certainly solved the unemployment situation in the Tennessee Valley for the time being.

One Response

  • Thanks for the post. Some friends and I actually tried this back when we were kids. It took a while but it did work. I think we called “grunting” for worms.

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Defendant is amused at the plaintiff’s charges that he was not in love with her

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 19, 2016

From the divorce case between Walter E. McDaniels and Anna C. McDaniels, Knox County [TN] Fourth Circuit Court, filed July 1926

HIM: “Plaintiff met defendant in Philadelphia while stationed there and defendant became seemingly, and very sincerely in love or infatuated with plaintiff. Shortly after meeting defendant at Philadelphia, he was transferred to Norfolk, VA, his home station, and defendant, without the knowledge of plaintiff, followed him to Norfolk.

“Plaintiff was not in love with defendant, to the extent of considering a marriage with defendant, as defendant was of a foreign nativity to wit; an Italian, but she was so persistent in her intercessions to induce plaintiff to marry her, that plaintiff in a moment of weakness, he consummated the contract and married her, though sincerely and truthfully plaintiff was not in love with defendant, but after he had married her he determined to treat her right and perhaps would learn to love her, and brought her home to Knoxville, TN and after plaintiff brought her home to his mother’s home where he had always lived with his mother, sisters and bros.

“Soon after he brought her home, she began to exhibit that defiant spirit, as dictatorial as old man Musselino himself; she became a demon and devil incarnate, and without any just excuse or case, she made the life of not only the plaintiff, but all the family a hell on earth and kept the entire family in a constant uproar all the time, and never spoke a kind word all the time, and she became so violent, that she assaulted plaintiff every time he came into the home.

“Defendant believed in ruling by brute force, and demonstrated her belief by often assaulting plaintiff, without any just excuse or case. Plaintiff has had to leave home on various occasions in order to prevent defendant from doing him great bodily harm, threatening to kill him and has chased him on the streets when she would fly into a fit of anger, and he believes that she would have killed him if he had not gotten away from her.

“On more occasions than one, she threatened to poison him, and on one occasion she threw a knife at him, and stuck the knife in his leg. And said she intended to kill him, and said that if she did not get to poison him she would stab him through the heart, when he was asleep.

“Plaintiff knew that she meant to kill him or do him some great bodily harm, and was forced to leave home, her conduct was so cruel and inhuman toward him, that it is not safe to long cohabit with her and be under her dominion and control. Plaintiff was forced to again enlist in the US Navy to protect himself.

“She shows plainly that she is an Italian, is possessed of a wicked and malignant heart and that she is fatally bent on mischief, and is unforgiving like most of foreigners.”

troubled coupleHER: “It is true that she and the plaintiff were married in North Carolina in December 1924, and that they came to Knoxville to live in February 1925, at which time the defendant came to the home of the plaintiff’s parents where she lived until conditions became intolerable there.

“At the time she came to the home of her Mother-in-law she had been in Norfolk, VA and at that time the plaintiff transferred from land duty to sea duty as a sailor in the Navy and went to sea, leaving the defendant in destitute circumstances and taking the last money from here that she had, and left this defendant absolutely penniless.

“This defendant’s Mother-in-law, who is Mrs. Estella McDaniel of Knoxville, sent this defendant the sum of twenty dollars to come to her home in Knoxville and out of this sum, the defendant paid her room rent and board bill in Norfolk and came to Knoxville on the balance. It is true that the plaintiff and this defendant met in Philadelphia, the plaintiff then being a sailor in the US Navy.

“This defendant is amused at the plaintiff’s charges that he was not in love with her and that she was in love or infatuated with him and made violent love to him and inveigled or induced him in a moment of weakness to marry her. These charges are absolutely false and untrue.

“As a matter of fact, this defendant at that time was but an eighteen year old girl, and the plaintiff was a man six years older than herself and as he says in his bill, a man schooled in the ways of the world, having sailed the seven seas and well able to take care of himself, being a man of average intelligence.

“These charges in his bill are a reflection upon himself rather than upon this defendant, but the defendant deems it proper to state the facts because said charges as well as all other charges in his bill are wicked and untrue. Walter E. McDaniels took the initiative in this courtship, and was a most persistent and effective lover, and proposed marriage and urged the same for a long time before this defendant consented thereto.

“She did go to Norfolk VA after he had transferred to that point from Philadelphia, but went at his insistence and request and at his expense, he coming from Norfolk to Philadelphia to get her, and took her back to Norfolk with him.

“Plaintiff says he was never in love with this defendant; if that is true he married her under the grossest misrepresentation because she was in love with him at that time, her affections having been won by his persistent favors and attentions and promises, and the only consideration of this marriage was that of what she deemed an honorable love.”

Source: Volunteer Voices/Digital Library Center/University of Tennessee/Knox County Archives/ Knox County Fourth Circuit Court/http://idserver.utk.edu/?id=200700000001595/

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We thought a switch was good for everything but the toothache — part 2

Posted by Dave Tabler | July 18, 2016

So everything went along pretty calm, until Thursday of the third week. It clouded up to rain; the thunder cracked and the lightning flashed. Afternoon recess came and we were going strictly on schedule: afternoon recess at two-thirty. I heard those wagons coming up the road and I saw these big girls: one of them was Mr. Taylor’s girl and the other one was named Annie. And they giggled at each other, and shook their skirts and yonder they went through the woods to those wagon drivers.

I built up a pretty good head of steam after I pitched one inning for the ball team; I went and rang the bell. No girls appeared. The other children: “Miz Graham, didn’t we have our fifteen minutes play period?”

I said, “No, we’re going to have eight minutes of it the next pretty day. We have to get our lessons over with now, because it looks like it’s going to rain and get the river up and wash away all of the footlogs. We have to hurry and get home before it rains. We have to have spelling.”

So I marched the little children in and I had Fourth Grade spelling and we corrected the papers. No girls appeared. Fifth Grade spelling; no girls appeared. Then it was time for Seventh Grade, and they were Seventh Grade spellers, because I didn’t have any Sixth Grade. Here they came in, just a struttin’ and a giggling, and a shaking their skirts and a laughing and twisting.

I said, “Where have you girls been?”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.”

I said, “Look a here, didn’t I tell you not to leave this schoolground without permission?”

“Huh, I go where I please, when I please, and Pappy don’t allow no schoolteachers to scold me.”

Boy, believe you me, they’d just as well have lit that chip on my shoulder right then. I grabbed one of those dogwood switches and I went for her and I cut her shirtwaist on the bias. I don’t know how I did it; but the switch did it. I was putting every bit of pep I had…now if those two girls had double-teamed on me they could have probably pitched me out of there. Maybe, I don’t know. But, I whipped that girl.

one-room NC school house, 1903Rural One-Room School, P. R. Young and pupils, Transylvania County, NC, 1903, right half of photo.

I just kept saying, “Sit down, sit down, sit down,” like a needle in a broken record of a phonograph, “sit down, sit down.” When I wore out one switch, the little children began running under the benches and trying to hide, because pieces of that switch were flying all over that room.

I reached for another dogwood switch, and boy, she sat down. I sat down, too. I waited until I could get my voice absolutely calm before I opened my mouth, because at St. Catherine’s we had been taught, besides carrying a book on your head without dropping it, because you walked properly, that if you controlled your voice, you controlled the situation. That you could not control the situation and you should not speak until your voice was absolutely its normal self.

So I sat there about four or five minutes and got calm again. I said, “Now look a here, I told you girls not to go through the woods to meet those wagon drivers, and I’m going to stay up here these five months, and you’re going to obey me, and everybody else is, that comes to this school, and when you don’t, I’m going to give you a whipping, and you’d just as well know it.”

I said, “Annie, come up here.”

“You ain’t a going to whip me like you done her!”

Annie came at me like a piledriver, sideways. She was going to knock me off my feet. I just very gracefully stepped aside and let her just about take the whole end out of that building, because she landed against it with every bit of power she had. All of the power that she had intended for me. She was a great, big, tall albino girl; one of the few albinos that I’ve taught: absolutely white hair, white skin, almost white eyes.

She flew at me like she was going to skin me. I just grabbed her and began to whip her and I repeated the same thing: “Sit down, sit down, sit down,” because all teachers had been taught to treat them alike, and I said the same thing. Well, I didn’t hit her but five licks until she sat down, and that gave me the right to quit.

I said, “All right. Now I want you girls to get ready to write your spelling, but remember that I’m boss here for five months.”

So I gave out spelling, and when I dismissed that school every child cleared out every article that he’d owned that was in that building. Everything went home.

Finally, one little third grader that had charge of the home-made baseball and the home-made ball bat (that was all that we could afford then in the line of athletic equipment) was standing there knocking the ground with that ball bat. “Miss Graham,” he said, “you know how to shoot. Now, I know you do. I done heard about it. Go over yonder to Mr. Kelly’s where you board and get your gun. Champ Taylor will be down here directly and he’ll want to cut you up with that old hawkbill knife of his, and the thing to do is to kill him.”

Story continues here (go to p. 48)

Daintry Allison
(b. 1896 in Old Fort, NC)
Interviewed July 24, 1975
Southern Highlands Research Center
Louis D. Silveri Oral History Collection,
D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections,
University of North Carolina at Asheville

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