By John Blankenship
Each year thousands of tourists descend on the Mountain State for the whitewater rafting, the rock climbing in New River Gorge, the recreational attractions on area lakes and rivers and the magnificent scenery.
However, away from the tourists and crowds, tucked away in forgotten rural landscapes are a proud people hanging onto vanishing lifestyles and livelihoods.
They continue in ways of life that are disappearing. Each new generation redefines life from the one that came before, and their histories and words seem to evoke a sense of melancholy, like the opening lines of a Faulkner novel.
Rather, they are woven into the fabric of new histories being recorded through words and photographs.
According to Evangeline Stover of Shady Spring, it’s possible to use oral history accounts and documentary photography to appreciate rural testaments and the individuals whose background is rooted in the past.
“Many people may have forgotten the veiled history along the banks of meandering rivers and streams, but not rural folks who know the mountainous thoroughfares and the secrets hidden in the hills and hollows,” explained Stover, who has won several awards, plaques and ribbons at the State Fair of West Virginia for her crafts, photos, poems — all related to her rural Appalachian heritage.
The woman spends much of her time interviewing, photographing and conversing with men and women who have spent their lives in the hills of southern West Virginia.
“On front porches of mountaineers, folks tell stories and explain how things used to be. It was the ‘good old days,’” Stover said of her cultural approach to documenting rural voices.
“The moonshine industry was always a big business in these parts. It was about the only way a man could feed and clothe his family. That was the only way people survived during the Great Depression. There were people who were bootleggers all their lives. They made it (moonshine) right here in the hills. I’ve heard tell that if you look close enough in some of these backwoods and country towns, you can still find bootleg liquor.”
Photographs combined with oral histories help the public learn more about these people, their stories and the events that made the rural community a significant part of our past, Stover said.
“It also helps promote a better understanding between city and rural residents,” she explained. “Combining still photographs with memories and recollections of people can result in a body of work both artistic and historic and celebrates the lives of people in one unique, compelling project. This is a powerful tool for bringing history alive.”
And while the oral histories provide the historical content, the photography not only increases the historical and archival elements, but adds emotional interest as well.
Stover believes that without the oral accounts and documentary photography, “the personal perspectives on the historical events may be lost.”
Therefore, she added, “it is vital we document and record the history and importance of subjects and their relationship to the community before it is too late and the opportunity is lost forever.”
Stover, one of 10 children, tells her humble story about growing up poor but proud in rural Raleigh County during the 1950s and early 1960s:
“Nearly every weekend my dad drove the family to New, West Virginia, which at the time was called Abraham and later given the name of New again. We were going to the cabin in the woods.
“Stretched out across the mountaintop were acres of land that have been passed down through four generations beginning with my great-great-grandmother in the late 1800s.
“Homesteads came and went and then years later, my folks built a one-room cabin they called ‘the shanty’ in the early 1940s. It was hewn out of logs hauled out of the mountains by a team of mules and cut into rough lumber. Many homes were built from logs on this mountain, cut and milled locally, including my folks’ home place.
“Dad called it ‘the Heart of the Hills,’ for he was born and raised in these mountains. His mother was a mail carrier for quite some time in her youth. Grandma rode horseback sidesaddle, faithfully delivering mail to families, crossing trails and creeks to reach her destination, until one day she broke several ribs when she was thrown off a horse. This ended her mail carrying career.
“We often stopped along the way to picnic at Pinch Creek where we’d swing from grapevines into the cool waters, in spite of the crawdads we loathed. The further we traveled the twisted curves around the winding hills, up and down, the narrower the road became and the queasier I became.
“After about 18 miles of this, we came upon a rough, one-lane dirt road that led into the holler. The road ran past a little white church where crowds of people gathered for an entire day while the preacher read from the ‘Good Book’ as he stood in the grassy meadow. He preached that we must allow our hearts to bloom in Heaven’s garden of life through the ‘Rose of Sharon,’ speaking of Christ; and said that the day would come again when God would be revered again and His grace and mercy at Calvary’s Hill cannot be stilled. Everyone shouted ‘AMEN.’
“As I listened to the sermon I could envision a time of floor-length dresses and button-up shoes made to last. Garments were pressed with a cast-iron heated on the stove and children were referred to as a lad or lass. Days of an old violin, charmingly sweet echoed courtship tunes such as ‘Down by the Old Mill Stream.’
“Wagon wheels, fashioned by wheelwrights, were not used as yard ornaments. They had a necessary practical use.
“Remnants of hog troughs and old corn cribs and chicken coops, meanwhile, can still be seen as reminders of the past.
“When we arrived at the cabin, Dad parked the three-quarter-ton truck and we all carried supplies up the steep path. It wasn’t unusual to attend a molasses boil as the community joined in to prepare the newly cut cane.
“Molasses could be eaten year-round but was especially tasty on a piece of cornbread. Cornbread also went well with buttermilk or a bowl of soup beans accompanied with creasy greens or ramps cooked in a little bacon grease. Dad always raided the tomato patch so we could have fried green tomatoes, but Mom accused animals of getting in the patch.
“I remember Mom and Dad taking the beans we’d dried at harvest time, putting them in a worn pillow case and thrashing them onto a sheet. The sheet was then tossed in the air to allow the chaff to be carried away.
“The shanty was hardly big enough to lodge our entire family, but we made it work — a one-room building, much smaller than the one-room schoolhouse my dad attended in the Richmond District in his youth. Water was carried by the older children from a spring. Grandma’s full-size iron bedstead with a feather tick, which poked you any way you turned during the night, took care of your sleeping needs, along with a rollaway bed.
“There was an antique wood stove which kept us cozy, along with an oil lamp that burned throughout the night. A rustic kerosene lantern hung outside on a nail for those who had to go out during the night.
“There was no electricity or phones or computers, nor running water and no reason to complain as we savored every moment. Dad insisted that we all, girls included, learn to shoot a gun, so lessons were given every day. A few small trees were bent over and tied down so we kids could pretend we were riding horses.
“In the distance were the remains of Dad’s actual birthplace, the ‘Belle House,’ with an old cellar that had given way to the earth throughout time yielded milk bottles that I still use.
“Visiting the cemetery near our cabin was always a priority; we went to put flowers on my brother’s grave. Paul Dennis was my parents’ firstborn son who died when he was 3 days old. Nine years later on his birthday, I was born — their first daughter.
“Since my mother had been in a terrible accident, the doctors thought I would not live. A pressure cooker exploded and mom was badly injured. She was in intensive care at the hospital for many days and the family was called in to say their goodbyes.
“Many people, including preachers, prayed for my mother and their prayers were answered. She healed amazingly well without a single scar and I am here to testify that God is still a miracle worker.”