You’d have that feeling then of being way far back

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 12, 2017

From 1935-1943, President Franklin Roosevelt looked to the U.S. Farm Security Administration, under the direction of Roy Stryker, to photograph people in need across the country in order to help sell his New Deal programs to the public.

Ben Shahn was one of the first photographers Styker hired. Shahn worked for a part of the project called Special Skills, and also helped create posters and other graphic arts.

“It was a really tough time,” remembered Shahn years later, “and when this thing came along and this idea that I must wander around the country a bit for three months. . . I just nearly jumped out of my skin with joy. And not only that, they were going to give me a salary too! I just couldn’t believe it.”

In October 1935 Shahn and his wife Bernarda started out on the first trip in a Model A Ford. Heading for West Virginia, he took photographs in Monongalia County before arriving in Logan County. The couple spent a Sunday and Monday in Omar and also visited Freeze Fork before moving on through Williamson to Kentucky and Tennessee, and then into the deep South.

“I did a series of photographs on a Saturday afternoon in a small town in Tennessee, I believe, of a medicine man. He had a little dummy, ventriloquist dummy, and he had a Negro to help him and so on. It was Saturday. I don’t think there were ten cars in the square, they were all mule drawn carts that had come there. This was 1935; it was incredible you see. The same was true of a lot of areas we covered. You’d have that feeling then of being way far back; but tragically enough, just about a month ago we took a train from Washington to Cincinnati. As I went throughout West Virginia, it hadn’t changed. It just made me sick to see the same darn thing.

Tennessee Medicine Show by Ben Shahn
“The other thing that startled me; when I was down in the mine country, I think it was Kentucky, there was some local strike taking place and I thought I want to cover that. It was being picketed and I thought, ‘Now how do you get into a conversation with a union picket? You offer him a union made cigarette.’ So I bought a pack of Raleighs and I offered him a cigarette and he says, ‘No, I don’t smoke that awful stuff.’ In stronger language than that. He says, ‘Here, I’ve been in the union for thirty years and I won’t smoke that,’ and he offered me a non-union cigarette. This to me is startling you know.

“As was the fact that John L. Lewis, who was a kind of a God of theirs at that time, and you didn’t dare say a word against him…if you had a copy of The Nation with you, I think they’d run you out of town. There was this incomprehensible conflict there you know.

“I got into homes. I stayed with some families. I knew how to do that pretty well, and got to know them, and we still remember their names.”


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Ghostlore – collected by Ruth Ann Musick

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 11, 2017

The following article is excerpted from ‘Traditions’ magazine, Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, Fairmont, WV. It is reposted here with permission.

The image of a group of friends swapping ghost stories around a campfire late at night is one that is very familiar to Appalachia and an integral part of Appalachian folklore and literary history. Nearly everyone has had his or her experience of ghost stories filled with spooky sounds, horrid murders, and ventures into the unknown, and to celebrate this magical facet of folk literature, we at the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center have chosen a selection of Appalachian ghost stories that Dr. Ruth Ann Musick collected during her years teaching.

In these stories, ghosts fill and color the folk landscape of Appalachia, making trouble and causing disturbances for people from all walks of life. In “The Family That Disappeared,” a ghostly mist haunts a family, while a group of lumberjacks experience the fright of their lives in “Ike the Lumberjack.” A young couple find themselves living in a haunted house in “A Night of Horror,” and in “The Ghost of the Golden Cup,” an antique dealer finds that he has gotten himself into more than he had bargained for. The uncanny and the macabre fill these authentic Appalachian ghost tales, breathing life into the stories of the undead.

Throughout all of these stories, our Appalachian heritage shows through, reminding us of the stories that have been passed down through our families for years. These tales hearken back to our childhoods when we listened to the ghostly stories of times gone by. While they are chilling and sometimes disturbing, they are also nostalgic, instilling within us not only a sense of history and heritage, but also one of the magical whim and mystery of childhood.

Without a doubt, the stories that we have chosen are rife with mysterious events and spooky encounters with the beyond. They really do leave one questioning, “Could this have really happened?” Whether you are an avid ghostlore enthusiast or are a skeptic, I dearly hope that the following stories transport you, carrying you away to worlds of pure imagination and the wonder of childhood. —Ian Williams

The cover design of Traditions magazine Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, from which this article is reprinted. It features pen and ink with mixed watercolor images created by Noel W. Tenney. Various illustrations were inspired by the chosen haunting stories contained in this excerpt. Tombstone carvers, flying cats and kits, a hitchhiking lady in red, and a golden cup are the main motifs used on the cover.

The cover design of ‘Traditions’ magazine Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, from which this article is reprinted. It features pen and ink with mixed watercolor images created by Noel W. Tenney. Various illustrations were inspired by the chosen haunting stories contained in this excerpt. Tombstone carvers, flying cats and kits, a hitchhiking lady in red, and a golden cup are the main motifs used on the cover.


The Family that Disappeared

On the border between West Virginia and Virginia, a very unexpected thing occurred some years ago. A family was driving to visit some neighbors. A weird sound caused the driver to stop and investigate. As he stepped from the car, he noticed a thick fog very low to the ground. He thought nothing of this but, as he looked around, he noticed it was heading for him. He walked away from the car and left his family there just for a moment.

When he returned, the car was empty and there was no sign of footprints or of the strange fog. His family had disappeared into thin air. He got frantic and raced for his neighbor’s house. He told his story and a small group returned to the scene. Nobody was in the car as the man had said and no tracks of any kind could be found. He returned to the neighbor’s house and called the police to investigate. The policeman told this man that a similar occurrence had happened only a month or so before and still nothing had been found of the others.

This threw the man into a panic and he ran back to his car. He searched and searched but only to find nothing. Then, he heard the weird sound. When he turned, he saw the strange fog rolling toward him. This time he stood where he was and apparently the fog enveloped him. When it rolled away, he was gone and was never heard from again. The police again were called to investigate, but nothing substantial was ever found of either of these two families.

[Note: Corrections suggested by Dr. Musick.]
Collector: Rick Price
Informant: Mother
Location: Border of VA and WV
Date: January 15, 1969
Type: Supernatural, Ghostlore


The Ghost of the Golden Cup

There once was an antique dealer who bought a tarnished golden cup. He acquired this cup at an auction miles away from his home town and his shop. The cup, as it seemed to him, would bring a very good price, so he took it to his shop and polished it until it shined with great splendor. Almost everything this man had bought or sold had a slight flaw in it, but this cup had none. The perfection of this cup pushed it for a fast and high sale price. Still, the dealer couldn’t help worrying about the perfection of this cup. The cup was sold to an elderly lady who loved its simplicity and adored its beauty. This lady took the cup home and drank from it, which was a terrible mistake because the next morning, she was dead. This fact made the antique dealer really worry, so he went to the lady’s son and bought the cup again.

Illustration by Noel W. Tenney

Illustration by Noel W. Tenney

The dealer figured this would be a good way to make some money, so every once in a while he would rent this cup to people who had enemies they couldn’t stand. All of the people who drank from this cup died the next day.

The dealer figured that since the cup had served its purpose in making him rich, he would destroy it to forget its bad memories. One day, he
melted this cup and formed it into a statue of a man. Not long afterward, the statue was sold to an antique hobbyist who collected antique miniature statues. That night, after it was sold, a ghost appeared and told this dealer he would die the next day because of his improper use of this odd golden cup. The dealer didn’t believe this ghost, but in spite of his doubt, he died the next day.

[Note: Corrections suggested by Dr. Musick.]
Collector: Leonard Romino
Date: November 22, 1968
Type: Ghostlore


A Night of Horror

A young married couple had just moved into their new home. It was in a sparsely settled community and their nearest neighbor was a half mile away. The newlyweds had enough of the pioneer spirit that they did not mind the isolation. They felt they had been fortunate to find such a location, for the land was new and rich and soon they hoped to be living comfortably and secure from want. The house consisted of four rooms with a large attic which could be used for an extra room in case they had company.

Four large pines almost hid the house from view and through their branches the breezes stole, making sweet, sad music. The meager furniture left the rooms looking almost bare, but John could make a piece occasionally and Mary was already planning the weaving of a rug for the living room. And, by saving money from the sale of the crops, she hoped to have drapes for her windows. They had worked hard all afternoon and after a nourishing supper, they retired for their first night in their new home. After a time, they fell asleep.

Near midnight, they were awakened by a rending crash in the kitchen. “John, what was that?” screamed Mary, grabbing her husband in horror. “I don’t know,” whispered John, “but it sounded like falling dishes.” He was out of bed now, grasping for the lamp and matches beside the bed. Lamp in hand, he walked cautiously to the kitchen. “Nothing amiss here,” he called back to Mary who still lay in bed, frantically clutching the covers about her.

“We must just have been dreaming,” said her husband as he came back into the room. No dishes were broken and the cupboard was in its rightful place in the corner. “Strange that we should both have had the same dream,” Mary whispered, trembling. John set the lamp on the stand and turned down the wick, leaving a very small flame which cast pale ghostly shadows across the floor. He had just settled comfortably in bed when there came a sound as of water dripping—just a subdued pat-pat-pat, about a second between each drop. Neither spoke for a time—the water pail must be leaking, though it hadn’t before. “John, will you please see what it is?” asked Mary.

“I just can’t possibly sleep until I know. I seem to be a bundle of nerves since that crash.” John turned up the light and started for the kitchen. “Wait for me,” panted Mary. “I don’t want to be left alone.” The noise ceased as they stepped into the kitchen. The water pail was not leaking and there was no sign of water on the floor, but there was something which neither had noticed before—a large reddish-brown splotch on the floor near the table. It looked like paint, but both wondered why Mary hadn’t noticed it when she scrubbed the floor that day.

Glancing up at the ceiling they saw a similar stain, as if something had run through from the attic. John started up the steps and Mary followed him fearfully. They searched carefully and the light at last fell upon a dark red stain and a large smear which looked like dried blood. They discovered a path of blood leading toward the stairs. Their fear was beginning to leave them now and there remained only the desire to trace down this mysterious phenomenon. Down the stairs and into the kitchen it led them. Now, John noticed something he had not observed before.

A section of flooring had been cut out and then nailed back into place. With the aid of a mattock, he loosened the boards and underneath, in a shallow grave, he found all that remained of a human being—a well preserved skeleton. They were horrified but their fear soon left them. They went back to bed and to sleep. Early next morning, John and Mary walked to town about four miles away and reported their discovery to the constable. An investigation soon led to the discovery of the murderer and he was given a long prison term. Never afterward were the young couple disturbed by weird noises and they lived happily for many years in what had been a haunted house.

Informant: J.R. Kimble
Location: Wetzel County, WV
Type: Ghostlore

Ike the Lumberjack

This story was told to me by my grandfather who is still living in Shinnston today. The time was in the middle of March in 1922. The place was a small village called Everette. The lumberjacking crew had just arrived from another job and were “doing the town” before their next job. Their job was to clear the Everette forest. My grandfather was a member of that crew. The Everette forest was practically untouched because of the legend of “Ike.”

Ike was supposedly the ghost of an enormous lumberjack who was killed by a giant redwood tree in the Everette forest. The legend said he would come out once a month and chop down a tree in the middle of the night. Many people of the village had heard chopping in the night and the next day they had always found a giant redwood tree on the ground. Many crews had tried working the Everette forest but they were all scared off.

The next day, the crew started to work and everything went smoothly for about two weeks. One rainy night, the crew was awakened by a loud chopping and groaning noise in the forest. The men got up and ran toward the chopping sound. When they were almost there, a giant redwood fell and killed two men. The rest of the men ran back to the camp and left that night. Some said they had heard footsteps crunching away from the fallen redwood. The Everette forest remained uncut.

Collector: Robert Patterson
Informant: Grandfather
Location: Everette, WV
Date: December 5, 1966
Type: Ghostlore


Dear reader, there are many more stories beyond this excerpt to be found in the original ‘Traditions’ article! See below the photo to order a complete copy.


The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV.

The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV.


Traditions, which is the official journal of West Virginia folklore/folklife studies, was originally started in 1950 as West Virginia Folklore with Dr. Ruth Ann Musick as its longtime editor. It was a quarterly journal and linked to the West Virginia Folklore Society, the fourth such society in America to showcase regional follkore. The name was changed in 1993 to incorporate more content related to the study of folklore, such as its scholarship, research, and educational application, along with the actual lore. Dr. Judy P. Byers and Noel W. Tenney have served as co-editors since 1993, and it is published annually. The Society with its archives and membership evolved into The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, also, in 1993.

The complete version of this article can be found in Traditions, Vol. 13, which you can order from The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV. The price for an issue of the journal is $10.00 which includes shipping plus information about becoming a Friend of the Folklife Center and its various activities.You can also contact the Center via Facebook. Special thanks go out to Dr. Judy P. Byers, Director of the Center, for her help preparing this article.

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Cousin Urbin was a Musician, a True Troubador

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 10, 2017

Cousin Urbin was a Musician, a True Troubador (abridged)

‘The Mountain Eagle,’ Whitesburg, KY, January 28, 1965

By Larry Caudill


Back in the first decade of the 20th century the grandmothers of us mountaineers were apt to believe that such frivolities as dancing, card-playing and banjo picking were erosive of character if not downright sinful—wasters of time which could better be put to useful work. So she didn’t allow such capers around her home.

Detail from William Sidney Mount (American genre painter, 1807-1868), ‘The Banjo Player’ (1856)

Detail from William Sidney Mount’s (American genre painter, 1807-1868), ‘The Banjo Player in the Barn’ (1855); collection of Detroit Institute of the Arts

My older brother Fred, who died in 1946 as Dr. F.W. Caudill of the State Board of Health, clung always to those principles, though not to extreme in practice.

Me, now—I have noticed over the decades that skill in a youth at dancing was conducive to the poise and fast reflexes that made great college athletes; that contract bridge is the finest discipline for the mathematical mind and orderly thinking of all card cames;  that few things can revive sagging spirits like a rollicking rondo or evoke the delicious agony of nostalgia like a sad sweet ballad on the old banjo.

Among the unforgettable characters of our boyhood was a kinsman, Urbin Cornett. Orphaned early, he was a true and beloved vagabond. He lived here and there among the kith & kin.

At every household he was accepted simply as just another of the young ‘uns and took his share of the work or play.

If the work became too onerous or he became otherwise unhappy, Urbin simply moved on. He traveled lightly, with little more than the shirt on his back, a pocket knife — and his beloved banjo. For he was a musician, a true troubadour.

When Urbin came to Grandpa Arch Cornett’s for a sojourn he carefully cached the banjo in the barn before going to the house.

After supper of a moonlit autumn evening Urbin was apt to saunter out to the barn and with his banjo, rest against the back of the barn and play and sing the ancient ballads which now make fortunes for professional folk-singers with guitar and dulcimer.

Urbin at other times was a master storyteller around the hearthfire, especially ghost tales. It was said that he believed in ghosts.

In the household were some eligible girls—and there were the inevitable wooers. These young men knew of Urbin’s banjo in the barn and his penchant for indulging his loneliness with lonesome songs behind the barn.

They decided one night to test out his belief in ghosts. One of them took a white sheet to the barn, hid at a corner and put the sheet over his head in the manner of the most approved ghost.

As Urbin sang the saddest climax of the tragic ballad, the youth stepped out of hiding into his view.

Urbin got one glance, sprang up and ran headlong for the house, reaching the outlying cookhouse as the nearest haven of refuge.

There sat Grandma, beside the warm kitchen stove, calmly smoking her clay pipe.

To his horror, Urbin suddenly realized that he still had his banjo in his hand.

He escaped, but it was quite a passage of time before he was again seen around Grandma Martha’s premises.

Maybe there’s a moral here: it’s all right to let yourself get carried away with your music, but don’t let it carry you into trouble.

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The Great Pandemic of 1918, part 2

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 9, 2017


1918 Spanish flu victimsKENTUCKY: On October 6, the Kentucky State Board of Health announced the closing of “all places of amusement, schools, churches and other places of assembly.”

Because they were almost certainly simply overwhelmed with combating the disease, Kentucky officials did not even report influenza cases to the U.S. Public Health Service until late October. Likewise in Alabama: it is impossible to know for sure exactly how many Alabamans were affected by the flu, since regular reports to the U.S. Public Health Service were never made.

At that point, KY state officials reported more than 5,000 cases of the flu. Over the next three weeks, they reported over 8,000 more.

In Pike County, KY, a miner named Teamus Bartley called the epidemic “The saddest lookin’ time then that ever you saw in your life.”

He and his brother worked at a coal mine when his brother’s entire family came down with the disease. Teamus visited his brother every night, and reported on what he saw:

“…every, nearly every porch, every porch that I’d look at had–would have a casket box a sittin’ on it. And men a diggin’ graves just as hard as they could and the mines had to shut down there wasn’t a nary a man, there wasn’t a, there wasn’t a mine arunnin’ a lump of coal or runnin’ no work. Stayed that away for about six weeks.”

Teamus later said that each night, he saw four or five miners and family members die in the camps.

VIRGINIA: John Brinkley, a sharecropper in Max Meadows, VA, believed that “a little fresh air could be fatal.” So he sealed his family in his living room around a fire in a wood stove. For seven days the family remained in the room with the fire. On the eighth day, the house caught fire and the Brinkleys were forced to evacuate. By mid-October, Virginia had seen more than 200,000 cases of influenza. By the end of the year, more than 15,000 Virginians would die.

WEST VIRGINIA: Charleston saw its first cases of influenza on September 28th when 7 cases occurred. Over the next five weeks, there were more than 2,300 cases, and more than 200 deaths.

More cases followed, but they were not recorded. Around the middle of November, Charleston authorities stopped reporting to the U.S. Public Health Service. It’s likely that they were simply too overwhelmed.

In Martinsburg, WV, so many people were either sick themselves or were caring for people suffering that a local committee estimated that only two out of every ten people were able to attend to their normal duties.

Gravediggers could not keep up with the demands for their services in Martinsburg. For several weeks, gravediggers maintained a backlog of at least two-dozen graves, which needed to be dug each day.

Burials themselves were quick. Funerals were banned, as were all other public meetings, churches were closed and theaters were shut.

The local Martinsburg newspaper published a list of “Some Don’ts that Should be Followed: Don’t Worry, Stop Talking about it, Stop Thinking about it, Avoid People who have it.”

Such Don’ts were hard to do. For instance, a James Horvatt was brought to trial before the Martinsburg-area county court on September 27, 1918 for allegedly forging a $40 check. Horvatt had contracted the flu while in jail waiting his trial, and was very ill from the disease when he appeared in court.

The disease spread among those who were in the courtroom with him that day. Three lawyers who engaged in proceedings contracted influenza and died within three days after Horvatt’s trial was concluded. Three others, the judge, the county clerk and the assistant prosecuting attorney in the Horvatt case, all contracted the disease and came close to death. So did their immediate families.

It was said that nearly every family lost someone. One family that experienced such a loss was that of an infant who would grow up to become one of the Nation’s longest-serving Senators. The mother of Senator Robert Byrd was actually a North Carolinian. She died of influenza when he was just one year old, and an aunt and uncle from West Virginia took him in.

MARYLAND: By September 28th, more than 1,700 cases were reported across the state. In Cumberland, 41% of the population became ill. City officials converted buildings on the city’s main street into emergency hospitals but there were only three nurses to staff these hospitals. Officials asked the Maryland Board of Health for additional nurses but the nurses never appeared.

OHIO: The state outlawed spitting. Influenza was not confined to the cities. Rural communities across the state also experienced high rates of influenza as well as significant numbers of deaths from influenza or pneumonia. By the last week of October, Ohio reported 125,000 cases of the Spanish flu. That week, more than 1,500 Ohioans died.

By the end of December 1918, the worst was over.


One Response

  • martha Fink says:

    This information explains what happened to my grandfather. There was no paper trail after Sept. 1918. He was a miner in Sylvia WV. My mother went to Mooseheart, Ill.

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The Great Pandemic of 1918, part 1

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 6, 2017

Across America in the fall of 1918 the Spanish influenza-and the fear of it-was everywhere. The flu’s name came from the early affliction and large mortalities in Spain where it allegedly killed 8 million in May that year. No one knows exactly how many people died during the 1918-1919 global influenza pandemic, but estimates place 675,000 Americans among the dead: more than died during World War I!

Many physicians succumbed to the flu themselves. Shortages of essential personnel of all types often compounded the crisis even further. A lack of sanitation workers in cities allowed sewage to accumulate in the streets, raising concerns about other diseases. Emergency hospitals could not be opened to accommodate the growing numbers of patients because they could not be staffed.

Most patients were isolated in their homes and treated there, if they could get medical attention at all. Gauze masks started sprouting on faces everywhere, though wearing masks does little to prevent the spread of influenza. Those sickened were often left to fend for themselves—neighbors refused to come to the aid of neighbors for fear that they too would be struck.

public wearing gauze masks during 1918 Spanish Flu pandemicALABAMA: It first appeared in late September 1918 in Florence, in the northwest corner of the state. Just three weeks later, over 25,000 cases of influenza in the state had been reported to the U.S. Public Health Service. Following a common practice in many communities, Alabama doctors often wrapped the wheels of their horse drawn carts with cotton so people would not become alarmed when they heard the cart leaving during the night. During the last two weeks of October, more than 37,000 cases of the flu erupted in Alabama. People around the state died by the hundreds.

GEORGIA: It probably arrived during the first week of October 1918, and then spread like a wildfire throughout the state. In just three weeks, from October 19th to November 9th, there were more than 20,000 cases and more than 500 deaths. State officials filed their first report on October 19. On that date, they claimed that the state had 6,304 cases with 68 deaths. The real number of cases and deaths was probably much higher. The next week saw an increase in the number of cases: 9,637 cases and 308 deaths were reported. The following week, the week ending November 2nd, saw a tapering off of the epidemic with only 4,287 cases and 138 deaths being reported.

SOUTH CAROLINA: By early October, the disease had spread into the upper reaches of the state. Eucapine, Vick’s VapoRub, and other patent medicines became popular and were touted as cures. South Carolina’s governor even permitted the use of then-illegal alcohol because doctors were advocating its use as a remedy and nothing else seemed to be working. Alcohol didn’t work either. Home remedies were widespread. Onion plasters, the eating of raw onions, and even drinking hot lemonade to induce perspiration were recommended. None of these treatments were effective.

TENNESSEE: On October 15th, there were 27 deaths in Knoxville. Dr. E.L. Bishop, of Tennessee’s State Board of Health, offered his advice by condemning “promiscuous kissing …especially that of the nonessential variety.” He said, “[a] kiss of infection…may truly be the kiss of death.” On October 27th, “conditions were better in mining camps generally and…reports from rural communities in a few counties indicated that the disease is not yet prevalent at these points.” In the last two weeks of October, when the pandemic was at its peak, nearly 11,000 Tennesseans were struck. More than 650 fell. Writing in a medical journal, one Tennessee physician summed up the situation in saying “The man who dug his neighbor’s grave today might head the funeral procession next week. No telling who would be next.”

NORTH CAROLINA: Dr. W.S. Rankin of North Carolina’s State Board of Health refused to approve the use of rum in emergency hospitals due to lack of evidence that it was effective against influenza. Instead the Board called for treatments of “sunshine and open air.” Calomel, a purgative (and insecticide), was also prescribed. By the time the pandemic passed, at least 13,000 North Carolinians had perished. The state’s many mill towns suffered tremendous losses from the pandemic. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and poverty all served to exacerbate the number of cases and deaths in these regions.

to be continued…


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