The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Life In A Mining Camp

By Margaret G. Murray © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

I was born and raised (or reared) in a hollow at the tip end of Southwest Virginia. In this hollow were two mining camps Arno and Derby, Virginia. It was in Derby that my birth certificate states that I was born. But in reality this is only part true.

It is true that all our mail came to the Derby Post Office. And it was here that Momma went each day to buy groceries at the company store. But we did not live in either Derby or Arno.

Our house was located in a place called Saw Mill Camp. This was a double row of houses across the creek and right below the railroad tracks that ran along the mountainside. Saw Mill was between Derby and Arno and unlike these two camps the houses here were single family dwellings.

The people who lived in or visited Saw Mill had a choice of three ways in which to get to it. At the upper end was a foot bridge that everyone used to cross over into Derby. And about midway of the camp was a concrete bridge where the cars went across. Years ago before the bridge was ever thought of, the cars went through a shallow place in the creek at the lower end. Even after the bridge was built some of the people would still bring their cars through the creek as a shortcut.

Over in Saw Mill, the two rows of houses were separated by a dirt road which ran the entire length of the camp. On rainy days and in the winter time especially the road was a mass of deep ruts causing many a vehicle to become stuck. The mud came clear up over the axles.

There is one thing that stands out in my memories of Saw Mill Camp more than all the rest. And that is that everyone knew what was happening in the lives of all the people in the camp. Suppose for instance that someone died. The news would spread throughout the camp in a matter of minutes. And almost before you could turn around your neighbors were walking in the door, their arms filled to overflowing with food and at the same time offering to help in any way they could. For three days, sometimes more, the family where the death had occurred, were never left alone. Someone was always there by their side whether it be day or night.

All the houses consisted of either three of four rooms except for maybe one or two at the upper end of the camp. The house where I was born had three rooms; a kitchen and two bedrooms. The front bedroom served as a combination bed and living room. This was the only room in the house with a linoleum rug on the floor. The other two had plain wooden floors worn smooth from years of scrubbing and being walked on.

At the windows hung dark green shades that refused to let in a speck of light once they were pulled down. Over the shades Momma had lace curtains which had been starched stiff and stretched on frames to dry.

In our kitchen we had a breakfast set at one end of the room and a coal cook stove at the other. Along one wall set a large wooden cabinet. And beside it was the ice box. Over near the door, which led into the back yard, set the water table. On this was kept a bucket of water and a dipper to drink from. Beside the water table set a longer wooden table. It was here that Momma would stand and wash dishes or make biscuits. Over this table was a window where Momma always kept a watchful eye on me.

I can still remember how nice and cozy our kitchen was in the winter time, thanks to that old cook stove. But as soon as summer arrived I knew Momma dreaded the days when she would have to keep a fire all day in order to cook a pot of soup beans or some fresh greens she had picked from the hillside behind the house.

Our kitchen cabinet was one that I would enjoy having today. It had a door and three drawers in the bottom half. Inside the compartment with the door, was a big dishpan which was used for making biscuits. There was also a wooden rolling pin and several small pots and pans. On the left hand side were the drawers. In the top drawer was the silverware. The second drawer was mostly used for odds and ends. A large deep metal drawer at the bottom was used for storing the corn meal.

The top half of the cabinet was attached by screws and sat down on a flat metal surface. On the left side was a tall door and behind this door was the flour bin. At the bottom of the bin was a sifter with a handle. Whenever the bin needed refilling it could be pulled forward to allow easy access for pouring in the flour. At the top on the right side of the cabinet was a set of double doors. It was here that the dishes were kept. Underneath these doors was a space with a roll type door that could be pulled down. This is where the other necessities for preparing a meal were stored.

The most important item in our kitchen, other than the stove, was the ice box. Two or three times a week the ice man would bring us a fifty or seventy-five pound block of ice. The seventy-five pound block was usually bought near the weekend.

Besides the cook stove, our other source of heat was a grate in the living room. In the winter time in order to get the fire to going good. Dad would set a large piece of tin upon the grate and this would cause it to draw better and faster. This was called a blower.

Out in the back yard stood the pump near the side of the house. If someone came by wanting a cool drink of water, there was a gourd hanging on a nearby nail. At the far corner of the yard was the outhouse. Momma also had a clothesline stretched the entire length of the yard.

As with the other houses there was not a single blade of grass to be seen anywhere in our yard. The reason being that the yard was always filled with children since no one was allowed to play in the road.

With the train making two or three trips a day to the head of the hollow where the mines were located, washday was always a problem for Momma. She would get the clothes pinned to the line at about the time the old steam engine was making its way up the hollow. There would be ashes and soot coming from the giant smoke stack, making it necessary at times to rewash a whole line of clothes. Momma's white laundry always came off the line looking a little dingy.

Another part of camp life was the peddlers that came by each summer with their home grown fruits and vegetables, eggs and sometimes molasses. Momma would buy a case of eggs at a time. I can still remember the fun I had at canning tine. There were always so many good things to smell and eat.

Each day Momma would go to Derby to the payroll office which was located above the company store and draw out a dollar or two in script. Then she would come back downstairs to the store and purchase the things she would need to prepare supper that evening and breakfast the next morning.

And so went the routine of living a mining camp life. It was like a world unto itself. There was seldom a need to visit the nearby towns of Appalachia or Big Stone Gap. For me it held a sense of security that I long for even today.