“Around these bigger cities and all, it just ain’t the same. Ain’t the same atmosphere. It’s pretty much a known fact, Southern people, on a whole, are a lot more outgoing and friendly for some reason.”
Jerry Wimmer, Retired; Abingdon, Virginia:
“I was born in Jewell Valley, Virginia in the coalfields, Jewell Valley in the coalfields. There were five of us kids, and we grew up in a coal camp. Love and the hard work went in to making a family. It was rough, but we had it better than a lot. My dad was a hard worker. He was a coal miner. He had coal trucks, he had a garage and service station, and he was just a worker. We all could have gone to college. I didn’t go, but my two sisters did. I chose not to, but I could have. It wouldn’t have been a great financial burden.
As kids, we were always in the river, or in the creek, or on the railroad, hoboing the train. We played in the mountains, and made grapevine swings. Seems like there was never a dull moment. Of course Mom never did know where we were. We were always gone. We’d come in after dark after being in the river all day. We went up and down the river waiting for our pants to dry, but we weren’t wouldn’t fooling her.
I pretty much stayed with my grandparents on my Dad’s side. They had a farm on Compton Mountain, on West Virginia/Virginia border in Buchanan County, on Compton Mountain. He owned about a hundred and twenty-some acres. When I was young, my Dad went to electrician school in Chicago for two years. Some of my other cousins and stayed there during the winter when he was in school, to help feed the cattle, sheep, and hogs. In the summertime, we were up there anyway helping put up hay, raking it with a horse and sled. If someone hadn’t been back in that day, they just can’t hardly see doing that, but that’s something you just don’t forget. That’s amazing.
There were a big, old plum and apple tree halfway between the house and the barn, and they had a rail fence down through there. In hot weather, that’s where they shoed horses, or did any repairs on the harness. I remember [grandpa] shoeing this one horse, and her name was Maude. He got the rear shoes on pretty good, and he was shoeing the other one. We were setting up on the rail fence watching him, my cousin, Raymond, and me. He’d get the leg up, get the foot up between his legs to hold it so he could trim it and put the shoe on it. Just as he’d start to hammer it, she’d jerk that foot down and he’d mash his finger, and he done that three or four times. He didn’t cotton to that too much. He hauled off and hit that horse right in the side with the hammer. Then, he turned around and threw that hammer just as far as he could throw it, which was straight downhill to the next fence, a hundred yards away. He said a few obscene words, and then kept on. We were laughing at him pretty much, of course we were standing out of arm’s reach. Then he says, ‘Jerry, go get that hammer.’ (Laughs) Yeah. That’s something you really remember. He was a hard one.
Seemed like Raymond and me stayed there more than any of them. We’d play tricks on each other, and we’d play hide and seek. It was my time to hide, and Raymond would come look for me after he counted to a hundred. I go and hide up in the hayloft. Well, it was daylight and you could see through the cracks in the barn. I could hear some commotion down at the chicken house, or around the tack room, and I thought, ‘He’s looking for me.’ I stayed quiet as a mouse, and in a little bit, I was dying to use the bathroom. Just then I could see through those cracks movement down underneath coming toward me. [I knew it was] Raymond and I thought, when he gets there, I’m going to play a trick on Raymond and pee on him. About the time I cut loose, it was Grandpa! I peed all over his left side, all over him. (Laughs) First thing he did, he hollered, ‘Raaaay-mond!’ I didn’t say a thing. He hadn’t seen Raymond. I hadn’t seen him either, but I thought that was Raymond. (Laughs) Right out down the back of the barn I went, down through the manger, round behind the chicken house, and hid out. About that time, Raymond I could see Raymond through a crack there. He came around the barn and Grandpa grabbed him. Boy, he set in on him. He had his belt off by then, and he set in on old Raymond, and he didn’t have a clue. He was getting the thrashing of his life, and I still didn’t say nothing. Old Raymond didn’t have a clue.
There was an old house down below there and I went down there and laid out till dark. Grandpa would go to bed at dark. He’d go in and eat, take a bath and whatever, and he’d get in the bed. I came in after dark when I knew he’d be in bed. Grandma had already kindly heard a little bit from Raymond, you know, about what went on. He’d done said that he didn’t have nothing to do with it, of course. I sneaked off to bed. Grandpa never did mention that to me. He’d done got it out of his system, I reckon, from whipping Raymond. But he gave me every dirty chore for the next two weeks, when I was around. I cleaned out the chicken house, or the hog pen, or something. But poor old Raymond, I tell you he got the blunt end of that one.
When I was sixteen, I had my eyes on this car. My cousin’s husband bought it, and he’d bought another car. I told him to hold on to it that I was coming up with the money. Dad hired me to work in the garage, and service station, and this, that, and another, but he had a little truck mines below it. He hired my cousin, and me but we worked outside. They were mining twenty-eight, thirty inch coal. They had tipples they dumped the coal in when they come out of the mines, and they pulled it out with three-wheeled buggies. He made his own there in the shop there at the service station, and pulled them with battery-powered motors.
They pulled out six or eight cars at a time. Each one would be right at a ton, and they loaded it by hand back in the day. I was sixteen, and of course I didn’t want any part of that, and didn’t expect to ever have to do it. But we worked outside; we’d dump the coal. They’d bring it out and we’d unhook it, and they’d go back with a load of empties, and then we’d dump them one at a time. I was going to work at 4:00 and getting off at 12:00, and I was going to school to make my dollar an hour. That was pretty good in a way, and I thought, ‘Man, I’ve worked long enough to get me a car.’ So one night, we go back inside and bring the men out in the man trailer. We’d go back in and those buggies had fourteen-inch sides on them, and just about scrubbed the top. They would drill and shoot the coal, and then all the dust would clear by day shift. We went back to this face, they call it, and I don’t know how far we were away from where they were shooting the coal, but we were laying there, and had to wait. They shot the coal while we were in there. I was about half asleep, and it was just about like you took a sledgehammer and hit the side of that car. Scared the dickens out of me. I pretty much made up my mind right then, ‘This ain’t for me, and I ain’t even loaded any coal. I ain’t even worked in the mines. I’ve just been back here.” This was my first trip, and it was my last trip. (Laughs) When I got out of there that was enough of the underground bay, and that pretty well ended my coal career.
Dad had one guy, he could load about twenty cars a day, and it was than a ton. He got paid for a ton, and he got fifty cents or a dollar a car. He was making twenty bucks a day, and that was about twice as much money as a lot of them made. Arthur Stillwell, was his name. I don’t know how he did it. It would be loaded until it was touching the top. He’d come out of there and the top of that coal was just flat on top where it had drug it off. There’s none of that goes on nowadays.
My Dad had a piece of property down at the lake, and had a restaurant and a cabin. I met my wife down there, and got married shortly thereafter. The first five years after we got married, I worked at Valleydale, a meatpacking place in Bristol, Virginia. I think the first day I worked, I had them old rubber gumboots on, no arch support, and I worked twelve hours. When I got home and finally went to bed, my wife spent the rest of the night rubbing my legs. I [had leg] cramps, and had to be back at work 6:00 the next morning. I thought, ‘Man, I’m not going to survive this,’ but I made it five years before, before I got out of it. (Laughs) But it was tough.
I quit that, and then went into the milk-hauling business. I bought a milk truck, picked up milk from the farm, and took it to the dairy. I did that for almost twenty years, and then I started worked for the Town of Abingdon, and retired from there about nine years ago. Well, I’m supposed to be retired, but I’m still working as a mechanic, truck driver; a little bit of everything.
Just about every morning, I eat at Hardee’s there in Abingdon. We got our own little group we call the ROMEO Club; Retired Old Men Eating Out. (Laughs) They’re just laid back, and they don’t need to work. You just feel right at home, just like any of them could be sitting in your kitchen. It’s just a good feeling.
I’ve been to Costa Rica a couple of times, went down there last year on a fishing trip. I’ve been to Alaska up there, and of course the mountains just amazed me. I’ve been to Florida and to the beach. But there’s nothing like the mountains. Around these bigger cities and all, it just ain’t the same. Ain’t the same atmosphere. It’s pretty much a known fact, Southern people, on a whole, are a lot more outgoing and friendly for some reason.
We go out to Illinois deer hunting every year. I’ve been going six years, and you get out there in that flat land, and the wind never seems to stop blowing.
A friend of mine works for Smith Brothers Harley-Davidson in Johnson City, Tennessee, and he works with a guy who moved from Nebraska, out there where it’s real flat cornfields. He said he moved to the country, down to Johnson City, just for that reason. He was used to the flat land, but he said the wind, there is no place to hide out there. There’s hardly even a fencerow where we hunt. It’s just so open and there’s no shade. I like to visit out there, but I can’t wait to get back home. Yeah.
By the time we get to Nashville, I start looking for the mountains. Seems like you been gone a month, but you ain’t been gone but a week, you know? That’s the feeling you get. I cleaned a fencerow out across the road from where I live out at the lake. It belongs to my neighbor, and I asked him if it was all right for me to do it because they’re getting pretty old and not able to do it, and they don’t have cattle over there. It was grown up enough that I couldn’t see the mountain, and when I went out my living room, I was losing part of the mountain. [Since I cleared it] it’s just like living there for the first time, in a way, because I can see more of the mountain. I’ve got to look at the mountain. I’ve got to see that mountain.
I was raised a hillbilly, or Appalachian American or however you want to call it. But you know, it’s a good thing. I don’t see any way of putting somebody down because they’re a hillbilly. It’s all about having a good day and treating people right. (Laughs)
[Media stereotypes] will kind of get to you. [They make it look like we are] too dumb to even make a decent wage, or don’t have enough ‘get up and go’ to provide for your family. I make more money right now, for instance, than I ever made when I was trying to work, before I was supposed to retire. I work for myself now, and I want to! As long as I’m able, I’m still out trucking and digging ditches. I got a little ditch digging business. The greatest time I ever had is right now. I go when I want to, come back when I want to, but I still want to work.
My hardest time was when I lost my Mom and Dad, of course, but we all know it’s coming. Dad was eighty-six, eleven months, and two weeks. He’d been eighty-seven in two weeks. His birthday is the 28th of May, and he died on the 15th. He’s got a little farm just up above me, and him and me farmed tobacco together. I’d stop after work every day and come by to check on him after Mom died. He’d always tell them he was really the CEO of the ROMEO Club. He would tell those guys he worked with that if he could pick his way to go, that he would want to go behind that rototiller or on that tractor. He was a good Christian guy, and no doubt he prayed about it a lot. He died on that tractor. It makes it easier if you and me could be as lucky. You know what I’m saying? I mean you know, to kind of really pick the way. We know we’re going, right?
He loved to garden, my dad did, and he loved to raise tobacco. But we had that government buyout, and we quit. We raised a pretty good bunch of tobacco, just him and me mostly, and I would work another job, but he was retired and he loved to work that tobacco. He couldn’t work it, a lot of manual labor, but the tractor, he was all for it. He always wanted a little farm when he retired. He didn’t want to quit that tobacco, and I told him I had enough. I couldn’t do it. I kind of hated it after I did it, because he liked that. He didn’t make a lot of money on it, but it gave him something to do and he just liked to look out the window and see that tobacco growing.
Other than getting married it would have to be, the happiest times were when my kids were born. You think it’s when the first kid’s born. Then you love it. Well, that was great, but the second one wasn’t any different feeling. By the time I had four of them, it was still a great feeling. That has to be on top of the list.
I have always been interested in history. I didn’t do very well in school. I didn’t try very hard. It was my fault, but I was already interested in history, and that’s something I did better in school than anything else. It wasn’t world history; it was American history. Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett were always my heroes back in the day; also Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I’d stay in the river and make rafts.
When I moved to Abingdon, other friends of mine were in to the re-enactment of The Overmountain Men, and I got into that. Even before that, though, I got into muzzle loading, and the Black Powder Shoot at Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell. We got into shooting, and then they had deer season, so that gets you involved into the early, traditional, black powder. That led to rendezvous, and I’ve been doing that for ten years. We’ve done the Eastern for several years, and now we go do the Southeastern in Yadkinville, North Carolina.
What we’re doing pretty much now is living history. Yesterday, we had five or six hundred kids here, and that’s what it is to me; just giving those kids something to smile about. I demonstrate black powder, the gun and shoot, and of course, ninety-nine percent of them, they’re in for a big noise and they love it. You got to get them in and show them the safety part of it, and just keep them off the cell phone and video games a little bit. Yeah, it’s the kids.”