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.
“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.
“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)