The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

New Preacher In Town - Part 3 of 12

By Ernest Markwood Pritchard © 1986
Edited By Emily P. Cary

Issue: July, 1986

My speech problems were still very evident by the time I was six years of age. I was unable to call my sister Helen by her name, so I called her Anna, which scarcely sounded like Helen. Wishing me to speak her name properly, Helen began drilling me on the correct pronunciation, stressing both syllables to deeply impress me with the proper sounds.

After many long drills, her endeavors met with some success; at least the neighbors were duly impressed by the shrill voice of a small boy calling, "Hell in, Hell in, Hell in!"

We had been at my Grandmother Nestor's home for about a month when my father arrived from Illinois saying that he expected our household goods to reach West Virginia "most any time now."

And so, we departed for our new home in Winfred, a little coal mining town in southern West Virginia, a few miles from Charleston, the state capital, and four miles from the Great Kanawha River. I clearly remember that it was near dusk when we alighted from the train. We crossed the river in a skiff to Winfred Junction, one of Father's new charges, where we stayed all night with one of his new "members." The next day, we proceeded to Winfred and learned to our dismay that our household goods had not yet arrived.

The Barker family came to our rescue, insisting that we stay with them during our "wait." Cheerfully, my father reminded us that in one of his favorite books by Charles Dickens "Barkis was willin'," but my mother could not conceive of the Barkers being "willing" to accommodate us for the month that we were compelled to be their guests until our furniture finally arrived.

"Compelled" is the proper word, for at that time pastors of such small charges had to depend upon volunteers from their membership for many such favors because their small incomes were so inadequate. No other family stepped forward to take us in, and so the Barkers were so to speak left holding our bags, or "valises," as they were then called.

Although our family should have become somewhat used to such situations by that time, my mother was especially sensitive and embarrassed by our of necessity prolonged stay. Father, however, both because of his naturally friendly nature and his vast font of interesting experiences, could make himself at home in any household. His jokes and congenial conversation made the Barkers feel more at ease than Mother did. In fact, I believe that they were rather proud to be hosts to the family of such a companionable, learned and reverend gentleman.

Nevertheless, it was with great joy to all of us that we finally were able to move our long delayed furniture into our new home. It was a two family house; the other occupants were Dr. Ray, the coal company physician, and his family. Our house was red brick, a building material reserved only for Winfred Coal Company officials. The miners themselves lived some distance away in white washed houses which made up a section known as "White Town." Even at the age of five years, I began to regard a red house as superior to a white one.

The Rays, who had a son two years older than I, proved to be excellent neighbors. I remember our spending a Fourth of July evening as their guests, shooting fire crackers, Roman candles, sky rockets, and other fireworks in a private celebration. Even though the Roman candles were the only type of pyrotechnics my family allowed me to handle, I enjoyed myself immensely.

For Christmas, the Coal Company sent presents to each child of families occupying their houses. How excitedly we un-wrapped our gifts that first year! My presents were a soldier's cap and belt, and a pop gun that looked like a real rifle. Mildred received a doll, and Helen received a mouth organ   to her great disappointment. She thought it was because they mistook her for a boy since people sometimes called her "Willie," a nickname for her middle family name, Willis. Even though Enoch thought he was getting beyond childhood, he also received a nice gift, for which he was very thankful.

A short distance behind our home was a creek where Enoch, who was then about fourteen, often took me to look for duck eggs. No one knew whose ducks laid them, so any eggs found in the creek were considered the property of the finder. Those duck eggs certainly did taste good! I have never tasted any since then, so I don't know whether duck eggs make an unusually delectable meal, or if it was the thrill of the discovered booty that improved the taste.

In "Red Town," we were near the Coal Company Store, and all of us children liked to go there and see the displays of every household utensil imaginable, as well as groceries of every description, dry goods, toys, and candy. We liked to watch the miners and their children doing their Saturday night shopping and making the event a genuine social gathering at the same time.

All of the miners learned to know Father, and many would save up any new joke they had heard in order to spring it on him unexpectedly, hoping to take him so much by surprise that he wouldn't be able to better their own prepared witticism. By laughing together, the coal miners, company officials, and Father learned to know each other better an important phase (as I now see it) in the preparation for more serious cooperation within the community.

One of the world's shortest trains passed our house each day on its way from Winfred Junction. Although it was short coming from that direction, it was even shorter as it made the return trip to the Great Kanawha River. That phenomenon can be better understood when I explain that a locomotive pulled one passenger car up grade to Winfred, and then a brakeman, on the front of the car, made the down grade trip "engineless" back to the Junction.

I have no idea why the locomotive failed to return with its car. I almost believe as I did as a five year old boy that the brakeman simply wanted to keep proving to himself that he could still do it alone.

After about a year in "Red Town," my father suddenly announced that we were moving to "White Town." He assured us children that we would like it there, for it was filled with youngsters with whom we could play. This sounded wonderful to me. When there was a move to make, we learned to recite a recurring phrase, "It isn't ours to question why just gives us a chance to say good bye."

I presume that a new company official coveted our house, having no doubt been promised a Red one. Fortunately Mother was a good sport on a "move." She had moved so often that she probably would have become bored remaining too long in any one place. Besides, she believed that God had a hand in every such change. After all, when she married a preacher, she had automatically accepted a changeable life along with her marriage vows.

There were no trucks in those days, and on the particular occasion of our "White Town" move, no horses were available either, but one of Father's members did have a dandy road wagon. With three or four men holding the wagon tongue, four or five at each side of the wagon, and rest pushing from behind, our household goods were soon in our new White House which, like the Red one, was of the double variety (a miner's family living in the other side).

Unlike the Red House, the White House was rather small. We children loved it though, as we loved every house when we first moved into it. We always quickly explored every nook and corner of our new home. This time, Helen found a crack by the nailed up door separating us from our neighbors, and she was interestedly observing every move in the adjoining room when she was startled by the mother on the other side calling to her, "Why don't you come over so you can see better?"

We children actually did like "White Town." There were lots of other children to play with, as Father had promised, so we never lacked for games and excitement. At first, I was astounded to see men with black faces coming home from the mines, but after following some of them to their back yards, where they first washed their hands and faces in a wash basin set outside for that purpose, I saw them rapidly transformed into familiar neighbors and faithful members of Father's church.

It was at "White Town" that we owned the pet squirrel that lived in a cylindrical cage in the form of a little house with an attached porch, in which it whirled around madly at regular intervals. This pet was one of many gifts which Father received from members of his churches, although uses for a number of them could not be so readily found.

It was also at "White Town" that Mother underwent a surgical operation for some chronic trouble which I did not understand. Three doctors of that community, among them our old neighbor, Dr. Ray, were engaged as the surgeons. The operation took place in our home. One of the Barkers girls and another girl from my father's congregation acted as combination nurses and maids. They all helped out principally as a neighborly accommodation, charging very little for their services.

The house next to us was temporarily vacant at that time, so Father moved some of our beds over there for the duration of Mother's "hospitalization." We children did not realize the seriousness of the occasion, and we made somewhat of a picnic out of the proceedings. We felt that we were simply "camping out" for a while. When I think of it now, I wonder how Mother recovered so quickly without the strict sanitation of a modern hospital and with small town doctors performing the operation, instead of special surgeons. But my parents' faith always made up for what they lacked in other ways.