I grew up in Alderson during the thirties
and forties and life seemed relatively comfortable. The owner of the
drygoods store lived just down the hill. The banker lived on the next
street. The Methodist preacher lived next door. The drugstore man and the
doctor lived between us and Main Street.
We ate the same kinds of food on the same kinds of dishes. We wore similar
clothes. We sometimes had Sunday lunch at Mrs. Ayer's restaurant and saw
our neighbors there too. The depression did not seem to have affected us
too much, other than city folk coming through trying to get back to the
family farms where there was food. Some local business men had an
understanding with the local filling station and with Mrs. Ayers to give
gasoline and/or a meal to the most desperate ones. I understand the local
townspeople helped an awful lot of people during those hard times.
Every few years the Greenbrier River flooded. Some houses washed out and
everyone collected blankets, clothes and food for the river's victims. The
Presbyterian Church was in Monroe County, The Baptist (established in the
1700s) and the Methodist were on the Greenbrier side. Each one maintained
a separateness, but we had Wednesday night prayer meetings all together
during the summer. We sat on bleachers in a walnut grove just across from
the Baptist church. Those who did not attend could still hear the hymns
echoing from the surrounding hills. We also had an ecumenical youth group,
more or less. The largest crowd was always where the cutest girls or the
football boys went any particular year.
My parents lived in a small house on the river until I was born. Fearing
that I might wander away and drown, they moved to the "Max Miller house"
up on the hill next to the Methodist parsonage. It was a three bedroom
house with a glider swing on the front porch. The kitchen had a small
alcove at the back for a washing machine and there was a typical
enamel-top kitchen table in front where we ate lunch, rolled out cookies,
made colored peppermints and other kinds of candy. There was one of the
old-style upboards with a flour bin and pull-out counter. We ate dinner in
the dining room, then did our lessons there. The living room was for
reading, playing games (Parchesi, Rook, etc.), listening to Inner Sanctum
and Jack Armstrong on the old Zenith Radio, and, in later years,
practicing scales and such on the small spinet piano. There was a framed
calendar picture of Venice over the telephone in the front corner, and
since we shared a party line with my father's business, I could seldom
talk to my friends.
My bedroom upstairs was on the down side of the hill, so the windows were
almost three stories above the ground. My father came home one day to find
that we had unhooked the screens and were leaning out the windows throwing
water bags. He immediately impressed us with the fact that if we did not
keep the screens tightly hooked, a bald-headed eagle might fly in and
pluck out our eyeballs. Not only did we hook the screens, we spent the
whole summer with the windows locked, the shades drawn and a sheet
covering our heads to escape such a terrible fate. That was the same
summer we spent one whole day stretched out in the front yard under a
blazing sun pretending to be dead, so that when the buzzards came down to
eat the bodies we could see exactly what they looked like.
My brother's bedroom was directly across the driveway from the room
occupied by two of the preacher's sons. They had an elaborate message
system of pulleys and shoe boxes, which operated for a couple of years,
and at one time even a tin can and string telephone which actually worked
up to a point.
Summers were spent in or on the river or roaming the mountains surrounding
the town. There were several "swimmin' holes," and as one's swimming
skills improved, one moved to deeper and more distant places on the river.
Anvil Rock was the most desirable goal. It was a gigantic boulder, sort of
anvil shaped, which had tumbled from the mountain into the river during
some earthquake thousands of years ago. To get there, one had to hike or
bike four or five miles along the narrow dirt/sand track almost to Fort
Spring. Then it was necessary to slide down a steep, shaley hill to the
flat rocks which formed a sort of beach. Anvil Rock towered above, some
short distance from shore. There were very tenuous toe-and-hand crevices
on the far side, where the current was strongest. Climbing the slippery
rock with wet hands and feet was always scary but once on top -- Wow! The
only way to get off was to dive or jump. I always imagined that I knew
exactly how those cliff divers in Mexico must have felt plunging hundreds
of feet into a small bay. I was never not scared going off Anvil Rock.
The mountains had places like "Indian Lookout" on the Fields' farm. The
Fields had a very deep well and it brought up the coldest, clearest spring
water I have ever tasted, especially after a long hike on a hot day!
Legend says Chief Pontiac stood up there and viewed his enemies coming
through the valley.
Split Rock was a bit further up the mountain. It was a huge chunk which
had split away from the mountain side and the split went nearly down to
river level. The people who owned it had put a bridge across the split and
built a small one room cabin out on the split. The cabin was a
construction masterpiece. There was one big room with a loft across one
end for sleeping quarters. Dishes were stored in the stair risers, the
dining table and benches were hinged and folded up against the wall when
not in use. There was a big stone fireplace, a tiny kitchen, an incredible
view over the valley on three sides and down the scary, dark ravine on the
fourth side. The bridge across the split was up a short hill which the
owners had made into a lovely rock garden with nearly all the species of
wildflowers native to West Virginia. Unfortunately, it was vandalized so
many times that the cabin interior was destroyed. The disheartened owners
quit coming and the gardens were quickly overgrown and engulfed.
Keeney's Knob was the mountain to the west and it had a fire tower on it.
It was farther afield and we didn't venture up that way until we were
The old golf course was an enchanted land in itself. We flew kites there
in the spring. Once when the wind was strong enough to almost lift a small
boy off his feet, my brother seriously asked my Dad, "Wouldn't Jesus be
surprised to see me coming up to heaven not dead?"
We always had at least one chinquapin hunt in the fall on the old golf
course. The hill on the lower side was covered with broomsage. We built a
two-level camouflaged fort, excavating a large square from the hillside,
laying scavenged boards across the hole for a sort of floor with trap
door, and tying bundles of broomsage together to make walls and roof. It
really could not be detected unless one was right on top of it. However,
big, ugly ground spiders soon made the basement level most undesirable.
Crossing the golf course was the most direct way to Mr. Knapp's farm, down
the hill and over the log foot bridge across Muddy Creek. He had Maple
Sugar and Syrup and Mrs. Knapp made the best hot biscuits in the county on
cold, snowy Sundays.
We found crawfish and thunder eggs in Muddy Creek. Thunder eggs are a type
of Geode sometimes with lovely quartz crystals encased in a roundish rock
that looks sort of like lizard skin on the outside. We found teaberries
and wild blackberries on Muddy Creek Mountain. The easiest-to-find fossils
were behind the Chevrolet garage at the foot of Flat Top Mountain. Mrs.
Lobban had the best Halloween treats. Old Mrs. Andrews would chase us out
of her cherry trees but she always kept marshmallows in an old icebox on
the back porch. Mrs. Johnson, across the street, had a never ending supply
of homemade cookies and she also had an aerial croquet set.
Once we learned to jump cracks and curbs, we could roller skate all the
way from the "Max Miller House" down past the Gwinns, the Baptist Spring,
Dr. Smith's house and the feed store, all the way to the bridge. If some
skated and some rode the wagon, we could take turns pulling each other
back up the hill.
Old Mrs. Mays lived up the hill at the beginning of the path leading to
Black Diamond. She cooked apple butter in a huge black iron kettle hanging
over a fire pit in her back yard. She also made soap but I assume she used
a different kettle! She knew more different kinds of greens to pick for
cooking than anyone I've ever met. One could often see her stooped figure
crossing the fields rain or shine, looking for greens to go with her
Throughout that limestone terrain, there were also lots of caves to visit.
Some were small, one-room affairs, others had many caverns, underground
streams, albino lizards, stalactites and stalagmites, quartz deposits, and
a myriad of other wonderful things. (Sometimes older boys used the nearby
caves as refuge from the truant officer.) There was a diamond mine out
along the Blue Sulphur Road! If one got permission from the farmer, there
was nothing more fun than scrabbling the dirt hillside after a rain and
finding huge, clear, sparkling quartz crystals -- at least two and
sometimes five or ten carats worth.
Winters were for ice skating, again on the river, or sledding on the high
school hill. These were activities whole families and all ages engaged in.
Someone made a bonfire and there were always old tires to throw on it. The
"big 'uns" watched out for the "little 'uns" and as the little 'uns got
bigger there were always littler 'uns.
However, no matter how idyllic life was, we could not escape some chores.
A penny a row for weeding garden rows longer than a football field seems
like slave labor in retrospect. Making beds and dusting chair rungs was
something one simply had to do with no recompense. My brother and I used
to argue about who dusted mother's and dad's room on Saturday morning.
There was a radio there and "Let's Pretend" broadcast a wonderful story
When we moved to a larger house, my father got a cow to milk and chickens
to feed in order to "build our characters." My father already had a very
strong character, because, as soon as we went off to college, the cow and