by David Parmer
Lee's Early Years
According to Darrell Skinner, grandson of Lee Blake, Lee’s early education was about what you would expect of someone born in 1883 on Clover Fork. Lee was mostly educated at home but formal schooling ended after three years. For farmers toiling the soil, or lumbermen felling the huge and towering old growth timber in central West Virginia, three years of formal education seemed plenty.
As the oldest child in a family often does, Lee demonstrated early on an outstanding work ethic and an ability to get things done. Despite his lack of formal education, Lee seemed to have an innate ability to calculate and plan which would serve Lee in good stead later on in his business career.
Lee was still young when the West Virginia and Pittsburgh Railroad, the predecessor of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, began construction of its rail line down the Oil Creek valley in the early 1890s. He came to be familiar with the requirements of a railroad for supplies such as cross ties for track and timbers for bridges or trestles and auxiliary structures. When the Coal and Coke Railroad began surveying its line through the Clover Fork valley in the early 1900s, Lee was a young man with a vision to supplying the needs of the railroad, There seemed to be an endless demand for cross ties and building timbers by the railroads passing through Orlando. As well, there seemed to be an endless demand for building lumber for the houses and buildings springing up along the rail line. In addition, in the nearby town of Burnsville, several timber related businesses such as Gowing Veneering Company, Burns Lumber Company, a large planing mill, a wagon factory, and a large pole and beam plant created a large demand for saw logs. For a man of vision, willing to work hard, these historical circumstances were an opportunity.
The diagram to the right, above, demonstrates how to produce a railroad tie. In the photo to the left, a man is hewing a tie from felled lumber.
Lumbering Clover Fork
Although we are not sure when Lee Blake first engaged in the timbering business, Darrell Skinner, Lee’s grandson, advises that his mother Pearl (Blake) Skinner told him that her father was quite young when he started sawing timber on Clover Fork. When Lee first began supplying the railroads with cross ties the method of shaping the ties was by hand axe. This was hard and grueling work. Later, after the advent of more modern engines, Lee acquired a portable saw which he moved from one place to another and used to cut the ties to the conformed size. According to Dale Barnett, this portable saw blade was about 6 feet in diameter. At first, Lee used an old wood-fired steam boiler to furnish power for his mill but later adapted an old gasoline bus engine to power his mill.
In a column in October 1929, Uncle Zeke reported that Lee Blake had purchased timber on the J. B. Carder tract and moved his portable sawmill to that farm to commence cutting. After Lee finished cutting the Carder tract he moved his mill on to the W. B. Foster farm near Orlando. This was the method of Lee’s business. As soon as he was finished cutting timber on one tract, he had already purchased the timber on another tract and then moved on.
Dale Barnett recalls Lee’s older sons, Gilbert, Vayden, and Edward, helping their dad in the saw mill operations. Timbering was a hazardous occupation. Lee’s son, Gilbert was severely injured in 1930 while he and his brother Vayden were felling a 16 inch poplar tree which was being cut for pulpwood.
W. G. Blake also helped out some on the Lee’s saw mill operation, although W. G. was not that much help because of his mental limitations. W. G. Blake also helped Bee Heater at times in his well drilling business. W. G. ended his days at Weston State Hospital where reportedly he proudly served as “Captain of Dishwashing.”
To the left, above, is an example of the large sawblades that were used in lumbering
To the right is a pulpwood car being unloaded.
To the right, below, logs being transported out of Clover Fork.
In between his timber cutting jobs, the never-resting Lee built his home on Clover Fork in the 1930s from lumber salvaged from coal miner homes which Lee dismantled at Gilmer Station and trucked to Clover Fork. This home was later owned by Homer Mitchell. It has since been removed and replaced by a modern dwelling. Lee’s home was on the left side of the road going up Clover Fork. Lee’s barn and granary were across the road. Lee’s barn and granary were always rat-free. Lee’s grandson, Frank Blake, recalls his grandfather would often take gunny sacks on the hill when he was cutting timber and use the sacks for blacksnakes he would catch and release at his barn and granary. Rats are no match for blacksnakes.
The General Store
Lee also found time to operate a general store for a while on the eastern end of the Clover Fork railroad tunnel. This area of Clover Fork was early-on called “Blake” or “Slabtown”, and had a post office. It had also been a camp ground for the laborers who built the Coal and Coke Railroad line through Clover Fork.
Lee’s familiarity with construction equipment led to a few road construction contracts with the State Road Commission. Lee’s grandson David Blake recalls his grandfather speaking of working on the Oil Creek road to Burnsville which was chronically in a “hellish” way according to Uncle Zeke. David Blake, Lee’s grandson, tells us that fifty cents per day was the wage of the road laborer. This was a big wage during the Depression.
Dale Barnett, who lived on a farm adjoining Lee Blake, recalls one winter in the early 1930s that Lee cut an entire carload of railroad ties by hand axe when his portable saw was not in operation. Lee would refer to the trees used for cross ties as “tie trees”. These trees were generally oaks or other hardwoods of just the right size which involved little waste and which would satisfy the requirements of the railroad tie buyer.
While Lee was busy cutting cross ties, he often would hire others to move the ties to the Orlando depot to await shipment. In a February 1930 news column, Uncle Zeke reported that Wade Mick was hauling cross ties for Lee Blake. Lee also contracted with Roy M. “Boss” Riffle to haul pulpwood for him in late 1930 which was loaded by Lee in a boxcar and shipped from the Orlando depot siding. Cecil Skinner also contracted with Lee to skid logs off the hillside cutting area to the loading area in the bottoms. Over the years, Lee shipped many loads of pulpwood and sawn lumber from the Orlando Depot.
After John Blake of Orlando gave up his grist milling business in the 1930s, Lee bought John’s equipment and old grist mill and set it up across the road from Lee’s home. Lee milled grain on Saturdays or any other day he had customers and when he wasn’t working in the woods. Dale Barnett recalls that this grist mill was powered by an old “hit and miss” gasoline engine.
Aside from the naturally dangerous occupation of being a timber man, Lee also found it risky to drive his truck on the muddy, rutted roads in the area. One day in 1933 coming back from Burnsville, Lee’s truck slipped over the hill near E. L. Posey’s on the Oil Creek Road at a narrow place and turned belly up in Oil Creek. Luckily, Lee’s injuries were not so bad.
The "School Bus"
Before the schools began providing bus transportation for rural students from the Orlando area to Burnsville High School, Lee took one set of wheels off his 1930s model dual-wheeled Chevrolet truck, rigged up a canvas top over the bed of the truck, and hauled school kids from Orlando to Burnsville. Lee was determined that his younger children would receive more education than he, or his older children had received, in order that their lives would be easier than that of a woodsman.
Lee’s youngest son Delis attended Orlando Grade School. Delis was one of the Orlando kids who rode to Burnsville High School in Lee’s canvass-topped Chevrolet truck. Delis graduated from Burnsville High School in 1938, attended Glenville State College and before World War II taught school at the Red Lick School, just up the road from his home place. Delis served in World War II as a naval officer and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Helen (Frame) Jeffries, a classmate of Delis at Orlando School, remembers Delis as a “really nice, polite boy.” Lee’s daughter Phyllis graduated from Burnsville High School in 1944 and lived a successful life in the Washington , D. C. area.
High School photos of Dellis and Phyllis are above. To the right is "Ensign Dellis Blake with his sisters Phyllis and Mae."
While Lee was laboring in the woods, he often thought about the effects that intermarriage among families was having on the children of those marriages. Although European royalty saw little harm from the marriage of cousins, Lee was outspoken against it. Lee would often inquire of his relatives who they had married, and who their parents were, and would jot those notes down on the backs of envelopes or other scrap paper. After he retired from his labors in the woods, Lee, who was essentially illiterate with little education, bought a portable typewriter, and with one finger with a rubber thimble, typed a history of the Blake and Riffle families who had done much intermarrying over the years. According to David Blake, Lee’s grandson, although there were some errors in this monograph, it nonetheless was fairly accurate in depicting marriages and the progeny resulting, with certain birth defects noted. Lee advocated strongly against the prevailing habit of close cousins marrying which was simply filling up beds at Weston State Hospital.
The Blake-Riffle Reunion
Another worthy accomplishment of Lee Blake during lifetime was the annual Blake-Riffle Reunion which Lee originated around 1933 or 1934. Lee’s grandson, David Blake of Weston, wrote an article in the Lewis County pictorial about this annual reunion which during its peak years lasted an entire weekend. The reunion when first held was located at the Clover Fork Methodist Church , near Pres Bragg’s former home on upper Clover Fork. Lee would use his one-fingered typing technique to send out hundreds of letters inviting Blakes, Riffles, and other friends to this reunion. Politicians from Gilmer, Braxton and Lewis Counties would come to mingle, backslap, shake hands and hopefully get a vote or two. Dale Barnett recalls speaking with Raymond Abbot of Parkersburg who attended the reunion in the early years and expressed amazement that his vehicle made it in and out of the muddy, rutted Clover Fork road in one piece. The reunion which is held the first Sunday of August, has declined in recent years somewhat in attendance and has been held lately at the home of the late Pearl Blake Skinner, daughter of Lee Blake, at her home on Clover Fork.
Above, right. five little girls, Bonnie Brown, Pearl Fleming (back middle), Canna Fleming (front middle) Margaret Bragg (back daughter of Preston Bragg), Blenda Brown (front), are all dressed up and ready for the 1949 Blake & Riffle Reunion. See the Jan '07 entry The Blake & Riffle Reunion.
When his days as a timber man came to an end, Lee, crippled from his arduous labors of a lifetime moving heavy logs and lumber, moved to Weston. For a brief time prior to World War II and before his crippled condition worsened, Lee and his son Gilbert went to Baltimore and worked in the shipyards as welders. As his physical condition declined, Lee returned to Weston. Never one to rest, and despite being in a wheel chair, Lee opened a used furniture store on Main Street in Weston. Lee was also working on his Blake-Riffle genealogy monograph at this time and helping with the Blake-Riffle reunion. He had an inquiring mind until the end of his days. Lee’s grandson, Frank Blake, recalls that his grandfather urged him to bring his used college textbooks to him so he could glean a little book-learning from them in his waning years.
Lee always had a great interest in history. During his lifetime, Lee had acquired a large collection of photographs and old glass negatives of family and of the Orlando area. Seeking to preserve this important photographic history for posterity, Lee donated this valuable collection to West Virginia University with the idea that later generations could view the images of days gone by. Ironically, for some inexplicable reason, West Virginia University either sold or gave this significant collection to the University of Wisconsin, where for all practicable purposes it is outside the reach of local scholars for research.
Lee passed away quietly in Weston in 1957 and was laid to rest in the Blake family cemetery on Clover Fork.
Comment 1. Dale Barnett
Dale Barnett recollects that Lee Blake did some blacksmithing work on Clover Fork. He also built sleds which were useful in hauling logs off the hills which had been cut. Sleds had to be repaired frequently or rebuilt because of the heavy loads they hauled and the rough terrain they covered. Dale also recalls that Lee Blake was cutting a patch of timber on Posey Run and was using a steam boiler to power the saw. The steam boiler apparently developed too much pressure and exploded with a large bang.