‘[Papaw] would plant his garden, what he called, ‘in the signs.’ It had to be at a certain time when you plant it, if not it would rot. If you cut your meat up in the wrong sign and you put it in a pan to fry it, it would curl up. It would just roll up because it was cut in the wrong sign. He knew all those things and those things he taught me.”
Terry Morgan, Reenactor/Gospel Singer; Princetown, West Virginia
“To grow up in West Virginia was to grow up in a simple life. I’m the oldest of five children [and] I remember as a little boy, we got one pair of shoes and you didn’t get those until the fall. They had to last you all through the winter and if they didn’t, then you went barefooted. I remember walking to school in a foot of snow. Now in this day and time, they can even call for snow and they cancel school. School started at eight o’clock and you got out at four o’clock. You got one lunch break and one recess and that pretty much was the highlight of it. School got out in the first of June, and you went back on the fifteenth of September.
When I was a little boy and my Dad didn’t have a job and we didn’t have food really to eat, we would go in the woods. We had a dog called a ground-hog dog. An old hound, all he was. And he’d run a ground hog, politically it’s a woodchuck, and we’d run him in the ground in a hole and we’d dig a hole deep enough to bury a human in and dig him out of his den and take him home and skin him out. That was your food. I don’t know that I ever ate a possum in my life, but I do know I’ve eaten a lot of raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and chicken. You didn’t get a lot of beef because nobody could afford a beef. Hog meat was something that you got a whole lot of. It was cured bacon, cut right off of the fat belly.
I was raised on beans and taters. You got brown beans for supper about every day. That was a staple meal. I remember they had a program, ADC I think it was, you could go and they’d give you canned meat and they’d give you blocks of cheese and all that. Each family would get so much rations for that. I remember going and getting the cheese. Everybody loved the cheese. We thought we were in Heaven. If you had a block of cheese, and a can of canned pork, why you was in Heaven! (Laughs) There weren’t McDonald’s [or] fast food restaurants. The only soft drink we ever got was maybe once a month or so. More or less, you got lemonade or you drank water, or some kind of herbal tea that Mamaw would make up.
We would dig coal out of a coal bank from behind the house. We would cut timber. We’d cut wood in the summer and let it season then go back and cut it up and split it and make firewood. Everybody had chores; everybody had something you had to do. If there was one bad link, the whole chain broke. That’s the way we lived.
I spent every summer at my Grandpa’s farm, and the things that he taught me are priceless. He had two rules, his and his. If you didn’t work you didn’t eat. I remember one instance, I was nine years old maybe at the very oldest, and he came in one morning and wanted me to go plant peas. He tried to get me up and I wouldn’t get up. He said, ‘C’mon boy, we got peas to plant,’ and he pulled my toe and I wouldn’t get up. Finally, he just left and locked the door and went on out. I got up and he was still out in the field.
That evening, my Mamaw cooked a big pork roast with potatoes and everything in the pot with it. She rang the supper bell. The kitchen was in a separate room, not even attached to the house, it was called the dining room. We went into the dining room and washed our hands and sat down at the table to eat. My grandpa was not a very Christian man, but he believed in bowing his head and giving silence for a few moments.
We were sitting there and he done his thing about the silence. He adjusted his napkin, put it over his knees and he looked up at me and said, ‘Son, how many peas did you plant this morning?’ I just looked at him, and he said, ‘C’mon boy, just talk to me. Cat got your tongue? How many peas did you plant?’ I said, ‘I didn’t plant none Papaw.’ He said, ‘Well son, why don’t you just go back on into the parlor and me and Mother will be in there shortly.’ My Mamaw said, ‘Now, Daddy!’ and he said, ‘Mother!’ and he pointed his finger at her and she become silent. He said, ‘Go on in the parlor.’ I went into the parlor, and I went without supper.
The next morning, he came in and he said, ‘All right son, you going to plant peas this morning?’ And we got up and planted peas. Someone said well, that was cruel. But it was not cruel. It taught me respect for my elders. It taught me that you’re going to work if you’re going to eat. That was his philosophy. You don’t set your feet at my table unless you worked to get here.
I remember we’d go to the store once a month. He’d go and buy a sack of flour, sack of corn meal and a bag of sugar. If there was any [money] left, he would buy me a soda pop, which cost about nine cents at that time. That was the big treat. But when we’d get home he’d say, ‘Now son, them raspberries have got to be picked tomorrow they’re going to get over-ripe. I want you to pick ‘em.’ I would get out there and take two little water buckets, and I’d pick berries all day long.
He would take them and sell them for about a dollar a gallon, and I’d say, ‘Papaw, I picked the berries and you get the money!’ He said, ‘Son, my money feeds you. You don’t need no money as long as I’ve got money. We don’t waste money around here. Money’s hard to come by.’ He grew most of his food. If he didn’t grow it, you didn’t eat it. There was no such thing as going out and buying boxed cereal or things like that.
He was a retired coalminer; his father was a coal miner before him and his father was actually a Civil War veteran out of Logan County, and joined the war when he was sixteen years of age, and fought until the war’s end.
He was so in tune with nature. He could take a woman that was having a child, he would take and put his hands on her stomach and he would touch her in different places, just like he was going to tickle you. What he was doing was he was turning that child in the womb because the baby was breech. He was turning that baby in the womb so it could be born because if he didn’t the baby would’ve died. His mother showed him how. He was the only male midwife that I’ve ever known in my life.
He would know the certain time to cut hogs. He would know the certain time to kill a beef, if he had a beef. He would know by the signs how to do it. He would plant his garden, what he called, ‘in the signs.’ It had to be at a certain time when you plant it, if not it would rot. If you cut your meat up in the wrong sign and you put it in a pan to fry it, it would curl up. It would just roll up because it was cut in the wrong sign. He knew all those things and those things he taught me. He taught me how to prune trees and how to prune grapes. He showed me how to graft an apple from one variety into another tree. You split it and then take a wedge of wood and drive it in and put that new sprout in, like a Golden Delicious into a Red Delicious. He actually had one apple tree that when it would bloom and the apples would come on, they’d be four or five different varieties on one tree.
[When it was time to plant corn], we would go down to the river and catch buckets full of minnows. Big ol’ creek shoves he called them. We’d bring them up and set them in a bucket and let them spoil and begin to swell up. Then, we’d plant the corn and we’d put two of those big ol’ creek minnows in with the corn. We always planted two seeds of corn and three seed of white beans, which was what they call half-runner beans. His beans grew up on his corn. That became the fertilizer. He just had a hand in nature and he knew exactly how to plant and he knew exactly when the harvest time was going to come.
He was a simple man, had no education. Could not read and write. Never had a driver’s license in his life. Made moonshine white liquor. I know the art. I’ve never done it, but I do know how. I know how to set up the still, to do the coil and run the coil through the cooling tank, how to take the middleman out of it, how to proof it and water it down and take it from a hundred and eighty proof down to a hundred and twenty proof or eighty proof.
He’d run it through three times in order to take all [what] he called, the poison out of it. We had to cut a certain wood to keep the fire going. That wood was nothing but mountain laurel because it didn’t give off any smoke. He told a story one time, I don’t know how true it was. He said one time the revenuers pulled up in the yard in their car and two men got out and looked at his eldest son, and said, ‘young man, where’s your Pa?’ The son said ‘Pa ain’t here.’ They said ‘Well, son we’ll give you five dollars if you’ll take us and show us where your Pa is.’ He said, ‘Well, give me your five dollars.’ The revenuers said they’d give it to him when they got back. He said, ‘Naw, if I take you down there where Pa’s makin’ liquor, y’all ain’t coming back!’ (Laughs)
He used to talk about how they got word that the revenuers were coming. He knew they were coming through a friend that was a Constable, back when West Virginia had Constables. He’d call him and tell him. Papaw went down and told his buddies the back tax boys was coming. That’s what they called them. He’d say we got to break the still down. So they took the coils and stuff off of the still and moved everything out. They were in there that same morning about seven o’clock, in there where their still site was. The ATF, what we would call them now, came out of the woods with their guns out and everything else and said, ‘Federal Agents! Everybody don’t move!’ They came up and they didn’t find any moonshine liquor, they found two big kettles full of cabbage. They started making kraut instead of white liquor.
Papaw was my hero. My grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee, and her mother before her. They were my life. I never thought that I’d ever lose them. I said, my Papaw will live to be a hundred and fifty years old. He never took medicine in his life. He thought that castor oil was the ultimate cure for anything. Take a tablespoon of castor oil when you get up, and one when you go to bed. He said it would kill the worms, take care of the flu and the pneumonia, and you’d sleep good.
In my family there were a lot of superstitions. At a funeral, they would cover all the mirrors in the house. They would take all the pictures on the walls and turn them over. The simple reason was because they believed the spirit of the dead would enter into a picture of someone still living and that person would die. Or the spirit of the dead could see it’s reflection in a mirror and it couldn’t pass on into the next world.
They believed that you didn’t do certain things on certain days. If you swore, you better pray before you went to church. Baptism, you had to be baptized as a child. When they’re gone, [that culture] goes with them, and it’s gone forever. The mountain people, they call them simple people. They call them the backwoods people. Hillbillies. They’re the cream of the crop of a generation that’s long past and long been gone. We’ll never see it again. Now their children have left that culture into the world of technology and computers and phones and all this. It’s replacing it and it’s vastly disappearing.
I taught myself how to trap. I taught myself all the skills to survive in the wild. I’ve always told my wife, if I go hunting and I don’t go home don’t you think I’m lost. I’ve learned how to do landmarks; I could actually live off the land. I know the roots to eat, the berries you can eat, and the herbal medicines. I’ve dug wild ginseng practically all my life, since I was about ten or eleven years old. I’ve stayed in the woods all my life.
I sing professional gospel music. I’ve had several songs in the top one hundred in the nation, all the way up to number twelve in the different charts. I travel with my wife now throughout seventeen states, and we do three-week tours at a time. When I’m not there, I’m on a reenactment field somewhere. I teach living history in our camps. I’m a historian on the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. If you can name the battle, I can tell you who the opposing forces were and the commanding officers and the outcomes of the battles almost to the body count.
The way our economy’s going, I think this region will be a ghost town [in twenty years]. It looks very grim because in this region, there are no jobs here. People have to survive. They’re looking for a better life for their children. My Dad, he had to leave. He was gone for weeks on end. He went to Michigan and joined the auto industry and would work up there two or three weeks and then come home for a week and go back and send money home. I say in twenty years from now, unless something happens to boom the economy, West Virginia will be a skeleton of what it used to be.
Little towns like Mullins, West Virginia used to be the highlight of every weekend, to go to the movie, to go and eat. Now it’s a ghost town. There’s nothing there. The little town of Matoaca used to be a thriving little coal town. It was the focal point of Mercer County, and now it’s a ghost town. The entire town, back in the spring, nearly burnt to the ground. Five buildings caught fire and the whole town practically burned to the ground, and all the history went with it. You can see that all over down Route 52. You can see the coal barons’ mansions still standing on the side of the hill, just skeletons of what they were. That was where millionaires lived. But that’s over now; there’s nothing left.
It’s like going out west and going into one of the old western towns. You can see the ghosts of the past in your mind and wonder what it would’ve been like to walk these streets then. We got the same thing. What would it have been like to walk these streets, go down through Welch fifty years ago or forty years ago or thirty years ago when it was a booming town? And look at it now. There’s nothing left. It’s all gone.”