The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 8, 2013

When life was Swell

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— In the Richmond district of Raleigh County, Swell Mountain rises 3,294 feet above the closest town.

   It’s a remote region of the county, isolated even from the small communities surrounding it. To reach it, motorists must turn on Pluto Road in Shady Spring and drive some 5 miles to a dirt road. That dirt road eventually reaches Swell Mountain.

When Bonnie Sue Bennett Pishner was growing up on the mountain in the 1950s, it was commonly called “The Swell.”

Her memories of life on the mountain are so strong that she recently penned a memoir, “Swell Mountain Memories,” of the first 12 years of her life, which she spent there.

“I was born before a television became a common piece of furniture in American households, before penicillin was widely used, before polio shots, frozen foods, sperm banks, Xerox, hula hoops, contact lenses, Frisbees and The Pill,” writes Pishner, who now lives in Beckley.

The book is filled with Pishner’s descriptions of the natural beauty of The Swell: The snow “was a thing of beauty, covering everything like a lumpy, white comforter,” while autumn on Swell and Freezeland Mountain is “magical,” she writes.

“I can’t think of any sight more breathtaking than the mountains cloaked in blazing yellows, fiery reds and burnished golds of birch, oak, hickory and maple leaves,” pens Pishner.

Pishner, who retired from the Department of Health and Human Resources after 40 years and now trains social workers for DHHR, said she decided to write the book 12 or 15 years ago to preserve her memories for her children and grandchildren.

“I wanted to preserve the memories of my ancestors so that my children and grandchildren would know what a big difference there is in the way they lived, and the way I lived, because even 50 years makes a big difference in the technology, the way we do things, the way we celebrate holidays, birthdays, the way funerals are handled,” said Pishner. “An example of that is when I was growing up, we were taught not to step on a grave.

“Now, people don’t think anything about that,” she added. “I just wanted them to know about our ancestors and how they lived.”

It was a time when Pishner’s mother, Elsie Jane Richmond Bennett, sewed her children’s clothes on a treadle sewing machine, as Pishner stood beside the machine, watching as her mom turned feedsacks into dresses.

There was no indoor plumbing, so families had outhouses.

When kids heard a car, they ran to the road to look at it.

In the book, Pishner writes about making molasses one year with her uncle, Basil Richmond.

It was a magical experience for Pishner, age 9, as she and her cousin, Linda Richardson, got to stay up well into the night to help the adults make the molasses.

The Bennetts and Richmonds stripped leaves from the cane in Basil’s field, then chopped it down.

“That night, (Basil Richmond) had a horse and had either borrowed or rented the rollers,” she explained. “The horse had to go around and turn those rollers to make molasses.

“It was attended by lots of people in the community,” she said.

Pishner had never seen molasses made until then, since it wasn’t commonly done in the isolated community of cousins and extended family members who lived on The Swell.

“All the people in the community gathered together for the experience,” she said. “Just the togetherness and the people ... it was a fun time for us to be out that late at night.”

She and Linda also got to eat some of the molasses once it was finished, she recalled.

“It was a fun time for us,” she said.

Pishner and her brother walked 5 miles round-trip each school day to the Freezeland Mountain School, a one-room schoolhouse where 15 to 20 students in first through eighth grades gathered to learn.

“The teacher would give the assignment, then he would move on to the next grade level,” she recalled. “Sometimes he would have the upper grade level help the lower grade level with their assignments.

“He managed to keep all the kids busy, and it wasn’t chaos.”

There wasn’t a “hot lunch” program at Freezeland Mountain School, of course, so Pishner and her classmates packed their lunches from home.

“It was usually a biscuit and apple butter,” she said, adding that sometimes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches would be packed, too.

Dessert was usually a “moon pie,” but sometimes Elsie Jane would make popcorn balls for her kids to take to school.

“She would pop the popcorn and have some kind of sugar mixture, greased her hands with lard, and stir that cool sugar mixture on the popcorn and form it into balls,” said Pishner.  “We loved it.”

In the fall, the biscuits had ham on them — a pay-off of hog butchering.

“It had to be cold, usually in November, when you slaughtered the hog, because the meat will spoil,” Pishner explained. “People in the community would gather together and help each other kill their hog.”

Pishner said the experience wasn’t hard for kids, but “just a common, everyday thing.”

Relatives who had come to help kill the hog didn’t leave for home empty-handed.

“Whenever you killed a hog, you would give somebody a ‘mess,’ enough for a meal for their family, for helping,” she reported.

Despite all of the wild beauty and family fun in the close-knit community, there were some dangers to living life in rural Swell Mountain.

Pishner’s mom told her of one incident that happened the summer of Pishner’s July birth.

“I was a month or two old,” Pishner said. “She had me in the living room, and she was in the kitchen, and she heard a big plop!”

In the living room, Pishner’s mom told her, a large, black snake had fallen from the rafters of the house.

“She got a .22 and shot at the snake,” Pishner said.  “The snake went out through a crack, and she saw blood.”

Pishner’s mother searched for the snake but couldn’t find it.

“She said she couldn’t rest till she knew that snake was dead,” Pishner said. “After two or three days, she found the snake.

“She’d shot it in two, and it was hanging by a skin,” she said. “I’m sure that was a horrible experience for her.”

Pishner left the mountain when she was 12, and her family moved to Harper due to changes in the Richmond district school system.

At Harper, the Bennett kids started riding a school bus to a two-story school that offered indoor plumbing and single-subject classrooms and hot lunches.

“I wouldn’t say it was traumatic,” she said. “Maybe shocking.

“I think it was for the best that my family moved, because there were more opportunities available to the whole family once we moved to Harper, but I missed Swell Mountain at first because I left all my friends, my cousins, people I’d known my whole life.”

Pishner said she visits The Swell and the cemetery on Freezeland Mountain, a nearby summit where her parents are buried.

“A whole lot has not changed,” she said. “Some of my cousins still live there.

“A whole lot hasn’t changed there, maybe a few different families there, but not a whole lot.”

The book includes old photographs of people and documents related to Pishner’s memories, too.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com