The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Man Of The Mountains

By J. E. Hatcher © 1987

Issue: June, 1987

Benjamin D. Hatcher, was born July 12, 1854; the son of James and Lucy Hubbard-Hatcher. There were six children born in this family, Benjamin was the oldest that survived; three died of Diphtheria, two the same day, July 22, 1861, one died July 14, 1862.

The father, James Hatcher, died in 1865 with pneumonia. He seemed to have a disease of the lungs. He was excluded from the draft into the Confederate Army. Since Benjamin, Ben as he was called, was the oldest one to survive, he started working at any task people would give him. Very young he went to school only five days. He grew up during reconstruction after the Civil War. By working for many different people he had many talents. His mother was a member of a Primitive Baptist Church.

Ben was a very devout Christian at a very early age. His father had made his home in a double log house, two large rooms separated by a flagstone walk between. This mountain farm was located on the east side of Jacks Creek about a mile from the Woolwine, Virginia Post Office. Ben and his mother raised sheep and flax from which they made wool and linen wearing apparel. Lucy spun and wove the cloth then cut and made the garments.

As Ben grew older he bought a few acres of land between his home and Woolwine. There was an old log house and a few apple trees. He still worked helping his mother and family to survive. Those days times were tough, working from sun to sun sometimes for fifteen, twenty-five to fifty cents a day. A lot of this work consisted of splitting rails and building fences. In those days cows and hogs were not fenced in, they were fenced out, and each family had a brand on their animals when they could be caught.

Ben learned to carve and work with wood. Working as a carpenter, a stone mason, building houses, and stone chimneys, Ben worked and paid for the acres he had bought about this time. Jonas Goode bought a farm about a mile down Jacks Creek; moving his family from over on the Franklin and Henry County line between Martinsville and Roanoke. In this family there was a young girl about seven years old. As she grew older, being country neighbors, Ben and Xonie Goode became acquainted. Xonie was a hard working country girl; learning all the skills of farm life. Her father hired workers for the farm tending tobacco and corn. He himself was a blacksmith. The workers were mostly black families and he sent Xonie out with them to supervise and see that the work was done. And she did not shun the work they were sent out to do. She grew up fast and strong and could do as much work as most men working with the crude tools used in those days.

She and Ben fell in love and were soon married. She was fifteen and he was thirty. They moved into the log home he had bought. They lived at this place a few years then bought about thirty acres farther up Jacks Creek containing some flat creek bottoms which crossed the mouth of Snell Hollow, which the Collins lady described so vividly in the Mountain Laurel.

They bought a three room frame house which had two stone chimneys and moved in. At this place four children were born from 1890 to 1901. What farm work was done was with oxen plowing, hauling wood and other farm work.

They walked to church about three miles to which they belonged and attended regularly. The church was named Jacks Creek and was founded in 1813. Ben was ordained a deacon in 1892.

The farm had a lot of chestnut and black walnut growing on it. Xonie would gather the walnuts and chestnuts in the fall and would sell the chestnuts at the nearest store and store the walnuts and crack out the kernels at night and in her spare time, which she would sell at the store. There was nothing wasted that could be sold.

Returning this narrative back to their marriage; Ben's mother wove the cloth from hand spun wool, cut and sewed the suit Ben was married in.

Xonie was skilled in weaving also. She had eight wool and cotton bedspreads she had woven before she was married, the writer owns one of those spreads now 103 years later, she gave each child two spreads each. Ben, as the years went by, worked and made lots of different things. One thing he did on bad days was to cut and make wood dough trays which he would dig out of a poplar block with an adz which had a curved blade which was suited for this work. He would trim and polish the dough trays which were about 22 inches long and about 6 inches deep and about twelve inches wide. These trays were found in most homes in those days. The women used them to stir up biscuit dough in. He would sell a tray for a dollar each. He also made repairs to farm wagons, also made coffins for neighbors who died in the neighborhood. These coffins were made from black walnut lumber which was dressed and polished. He never charged anything for the labor only the price of the material from which they were made. Usually about ten dollars and a half.

I would like to describe the process of making lye soap which was ninety percent of the soap used in this age around our house. First a block was cut from a hollow log about twenty inches in diameter and four feet long. This was stood up on a base high enough so a vessel could be set underneath. One edge of this log was filled with wood ashes which was taken out of the fire place. Ashes from burning oak wood was preferred. Water was poured into the top of this log on the ashes which the water would filter through. The ashes dripping out in the vessel at the bottom would be colored light brown. This was continued until the liquid was strong to the taste by touching a drop to the tongue. This liquid or lye as it was called would be boiled until you could dip a wing feather in the lye and there would be nothing left of the feather but the quill.

Then this was ready to add any kind of fat chitterlings which had been cleaned and other fatty scraps from the hogs when they were cut up. This mixture was boiled in a cast iron wash pot until it would turn to soap. When a shirt was washed with this lye soap, it would do away with a ring around the collar. Making soap required skill, you had to know when to add fat and when to add lye until this mixture was perfectly balanced into soap.

It seemed that Ben Hatcher was never content to stay at one place too long. A friend of his, Ben Brammer persuaded him to come to Salem, Virginia about 1908 to look at some land. The nearest railroad was sixteen miles away and by rail it was about one hundred miles to Salem, so he decided to walk across the mountain through Floyd, which took about two days, spending the night with a farm family in Floyd.

He and his friend looked at several places around Salem, at this time Roanoke was beginning to bloom, so he thought the place was too costly. And he was getting homesick. He left Salem one morning, walked all day and all night arriving at home the next morning never stopping to eat or sleep.

About this time a land company was cutting up some forest land across the mountain near Claudville. Having a cousin living near, he walked across the mountain which was about sixteen miles. He found a boundary of land mostly in a valley between Mayo Mountain and Jobs Knob. He bought 108 acres of this land, none cleared. The big timber had been cut, leaving laps and stumps. A complete wilderness infested with copperheads and timber rattlers.

He set to work clearing land, a spot large enough to build a house. By going to a nearby sawmill, he bought enough green oak framing to start building. Using wild oak one inch thick, the walls and floors were made. Next there had to be a roof which was put on with lath and boards. The boards were riven from blocks cut out of large oak logs about 30 inches long. The boards lapped and were nailed on so they would shed the rain, but when the snow blowed, it would blow between the boards. The house was built a story and a half high, so there was a floor and beds up stairs. When a bad winter storm would come, sometimes the snow would be all over the floor and beds upstairs. The snow would have to be swept up and carried out in a tub to keep it from melting and dripping through.

I will try to explain why I am writing this. I am the youngest son of Benjamin and Xonie Hatcher. I am now eighty-six. My life was as rough as Abraham Lincoln's; taught to split rails, use an ax and crosscut saw; kept warm by a stone fireplace, burning one side and freezing the other. Using water carried from a nearby spring in a bucket which on cold nights would freeze ice in the bucket inside the room.

Xonie worked as a midwife for forty years, trying to help her neighbor women. In those days it was ten miles to the nearest doctor. She was present when dozens of infants first breathed the first breath of life and saw the light of day. I wish she had kept a record of the numbers.

When we moved into this wilderness valley, it was known as the Deer Play Place on the road that ran from the Hollow to Stuart. The church they had left was about sixteen mile away. Since my father was a deacon, they felt an obligation to attend the services once a month. At that time we owned oxen and the only way to travel was to walk except on an oxen wagon, so we chose to walk. My father, mother and me would get up, get dressed and start at the break of day, walk up the mountain following the nearest paths along the mountain, go about half way down the old winding Star road, leave the road about half way down he mountain and follow each path through the country until we reached the church which took about five hours of steady walking. We usually spent the night with some of our past neighbors and go to church again on Sunday. After the meeting was over, we would get dinner with a friend and start back over the mountain arriving back home about dark. After about two years Dobyns Church was organized which was only about two miles away.

Ben was accepted as a deacon when he presented his letter of Dismission from Jacks Creek Church. He remained a deacon until his death in 1940.

Ben Hatcher was given a contract to build a one room school building which was named the Powell School.

The valley was being settled by several new families. The little school was soon filled up by having as many as fifty students on the roll. The "first" teacher sent was a Miss Alpha Rorrer from Vesta, Virginia. "Second" teacher was a sister, Ollie Rorrer. "Third" teacher was a Miss Hattie Newman from near Green Hill between Stuart and Vesta. "Fourth" a Miss Essie Eubank from Crew, Virginia. "Fifth", Miss Dilla Burge who grew up in the community. "Sixth", Millard Smart from Vesta, Virginia. "Seventh", Hannah Shelor from Meadows of Dan, Virginia. "Tenth" a Miss Viola Fulcher from Green Hill, Virginia. "Eleventh", Miss Mary Arrington from Claudville, Virginia. From this time on I lost count.