Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Holberts of Clover Fork

by David Parmer
In 1965, this writer attended an auction at an auction house in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Prior to the beginning of the sale, a box of books which was to be sold caught my eye. The box contained a 1928 high school yearbook from Parkersburg High School; a book containing a list of all the Masonic lodges in West Virginia and the members of each lodge, also from 1928; a 1939 high school yearbook of Charleston High School; a 1928 year book from West Virginia University; and miscellaneous other old books. As I leafed through the West Virginia University yearbook, I was greeted by the photo of a studious-looking young man wearing a bow tie with his home town listed as “Orlando, West Virginia.” The name “Fred Holbert” was unfamiliar to me and I didn’t connect the name with Orlando because this Burnsville boy thought Orlando was only comprised of families named Blake, Riffle, Skinner, Posey and Henline. To solve the mystery of this Holbert boy who somehow sneaked into Orlando while the Blakes, Riffles, Skinners, Poseys and Henlines weren’t looking, I carried that box of books home that evening after the auctioneer’s gavel fell, and carried it over the years to Morgantown, Pittsburgh, and finally to Hinton, West Virginia. Some forty odd years later, I have solved the Holbert riddle, and now I’m going to write a little story about the A. B. Holbert family of Clover Fork.

Right: Fred Holbert
Left: Fred Holbert's obituary and a photo of him. Click on the article to enlarge it.
More on Fred Holbert
Despite shelving the 1928 West Virginia University yearbook and forgetting it for years, the name “Fred Holbert” never left the back of my mind. I was sure that some day a reason would come forth to reactivate a desire to find an answer to the enigma. In the late 1970’s, the local dry cleaner owner advised me that she had a daughter who was attending law school at West Virginia University and was looking for a summer job as a law clerk. Thus, I met Mary Carol Holbert, a very bright and promising legal scholar, who I knew would go a long way in the legal profession. Not only did I have the privilege of employing an outstanding law clerk for the summer, but because of her family name, my latent interest in Fred Holbert was once again activated. Giving some thought as to the best way to determine the whereabouts of Fred Holbert, I settled on contacting someone who I hoped could help me out. Vada Kidd, a lifelong farm wife, widow of Frank Kidd, and news writer of the Orlando News in the Braxton Democrat, seemed to be the right person to contact. As it turned out, Mrs. Kidd knew the Holbert family quite well, and their respective farms were not far apart. Mrs. Kidd advised that Fred Holbert died young, in the late 1930’s, and that he had been a county extension agent. So, with little effort, the question of many years was answered, and again the “back burner” was the repository for further investigation of the Holbert story.

Renewed Interest
For the past couple of years, this writer has chronicled many stories about the Blakes, Riffles, Skinners, Henlines, and Poseys of the Oil Creek valley. A few weeks ago, I was reading an Orlando news column written by Jessie Bragg for the Braxton Democrat in November, 1959. Mrs. Bragg wrote,

. . . . . Allan B. Holbert, son of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Holbert, a student at
. . . . . the Columbia University graduate school of journalism, wins a $1000 scholarship.
. . . . . Allan graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1956
. . . . . and has been the managing editor of the Nebraska Education News.
. . . . . He is the grandson of the late Mr. and Mrs. A. B. Holbert of Orlando, Route 2.
A few days later as I was researching a story about Bud Hamilton, I was reading the December 28, 1934 Buzzardtown News and ran across this item by Uncle Zeke.
. . . . . Odie Hyre and Biah Holbert of near Jacksonville were in town
. . . . . Tuesday of last week and delivered a dressed hog to one of the needy.
Such a memorable act of kindness and charity during the depths of the Depression must have brightened the Christmas holiday in that Orlando home!!

I had previously concluded to write a little story about the Holbert family of Clover Fork for the Orlando web page and had been building a file of notes to use for reference. The more I read about the Holbert family, the more impressed I was about this family which placed Christian principles and a love of education as their pole stars and followed them throughout life.
. . . . .

Abia B. Holbert
and Family
Abia B. Holbert was born in Marion County in 1872, the son of A. S. and Mary (Moore) Holbert. In 1895, he married Pearlie Summers who lived but a short time after their marriage. One child, a daughter Lenna, was born of this brief marriage.

John Whiston, the great-grandson of Abia Holbert reports that Abia came to the Clover Fork area with a saw mill to cut timber around the turn of the 20th century. Based upon a deed dated 1900 from A. S. Holbert to his son for one hundred acres of land on Clover Fork, it would appear that Abia Holbert’s father had made an earlier appearance on Clover Fork, perhaps with the saw mill referenced by Abia’s great-grandson, John Whiston. We can speculate that Abia may have been part of his father’s saw mill crew although we cannot be certain. In the 1900 federal census report for Lewis County, Abia was living as a boarder in the home of William R. Boggs on Clover Fork. Based upon the census numeration assigned to the Boggs household, it appears that Abia was living at this time in the same area where he lived for the remainder of his life. According to Nina (Smarr) Myers, the Boggs farm was “across the hill from the farm Mr. Holbert would later own.” It was presumably at this time that Abia met his future second wife who lived in the Clover Fork area on a nearby farm.

Marriage and Employment

In 1901, Abia married his second wife, Margaret Etta Cunningham, daughter of Enoch and Mary (Kiley) Cunningham, a prominent farm family of Clover Fork. The Cunningham family from which Enoch was descended was a pioneering family of the Bulltown area of Braxton County and owners of thousands of acres of fertile ground.

In addition to the saw mill work which brought Abia to the Clover Fork area, his great-grandson John Whiston tells us that Abia also worked in the oil and gas fields of central West Virginia as a teamster and that his great-grandfather reputedly could make a horse do his bidding without difficulty. After the oil and gas boom subsided, Abia reverted to husbandry of the land for his living.
Right: Mary Etta (Cunningham) Holbert
Left: Mary (Kiley) Cunningham

During this second marriage, Abia and Etta became the parents of four children, Fred Kiley, Mary Elizabeth, Della, and Robert, all of whom were born on Clover Fork.

The Holbert Children and Their Education
The Holbert children attended their first school at the upper Clover Fork School. As the children completed their elementary education with no close-by high school, Abia decided that his children would go to high school and that he would not send them away to board at another home. According to Nina (Smarr) Myers, Abia’s foster daughter, during the high school years of the first four Holbert children, the family left the farm during the school term and moved to Buckhannon where Abia worked as a carpenter while his children attended school at Buckhannon High School. After school concluded in the spring, the family would move back to Clover Fork and resume farming until the new school year started in the fall. According to Nina (Smarr) Myers, Abia Holbert was a great believer in education and would frequently visit local schools. This interest in education led to his being elected to the Lewis County Board of Education where he served as president in the late 1930’s.

Lenna, Abia’s child of his first marriage, graduated from Buckhannon High School. The next two Holbert children, Fred and Mary, also graduated from the same high school. Della, the fourth of Abia’s children, attended Buckhannon High School until her senior year when she transferred to Jane Lew High School where her oldest sister Lenna had begun teaching. Della graduated from Jane Lew High School. By the time Robert, the youngest Holbert child, reached high school age, a school had been built at nearby Walkersville. Robert rode his horse to school in Walkersville each day from the family farm. Robert was the only Holbert sibling to graduate from Walkersville High School.

After their graduation from high school, all of the Holbert children graduated from college, an exceptional achievement for a rural farm family in the early 20th century. All became teachers for at least for some part of their careers.

Nina Smarr - Foster Child
In the early decades of the 20th century, there were frequent informal arrangements regarding the care of children who had lost their parents. Countless families in the Orlando area reared children who had been orphaned or whose parents, because of economic conditions, were unable to provide adequate care for their children. Eight-year-old Nina Smarr unfortunately lost her father, William Clarence Smarr, in 1931 to a car accident. In 1935, Nina became the foster daughter of Abia and Etta Crawford, and lived at the Clover Fork farm. Nina graduated from Walkersville High School, attended and graduated from Glenville State College, and became a teacher in the Lewis County Schools. Nina, now retired, lives at Crawford, near Walkersville. This writer wishes to express his thanks to Nina, a great lover of history, for her help with this story.

Farmview Farm
A life-long farmer, Abia farmed over two hundred fifty acres on the very upper reaches of Clover Fork. The farm included the route of the old turnpike which was the principal route of north-south travel in central West Virginia for nearly a hundred years. The Holbert farm was formed by a merger of other lands acquired by Abia and Etta from his father, A. S. Holbert (113 acres), her father, Enoch Cunningham (85 acres), J. D. Hyre (5 acres) and Jacob Bragg (74 acres). As part of the “Farming for Better Living” program, participating farmers were required to choose a name for their farms. Because the Holbert farm was situated at a high elevation, it provided a view of several miles in all directions which encompassed many adjoining farms. Consequently, their farm was called “Farmview Farm.”

According to Nina (Smarr) Myers, Abia’s cash crops primarily were turkeys, beef, eggs, and cream. The cream was taken to the railroad stop at Chapman, and later to Walkersville for shipment, and was marketed in Fairmont. The eggs were generally marketed in nearby Walkersville. Nina recalls the task of washing each egg before it was placed in the carton to be delivered to the retailer. Since the turkeys and beefs were sold as cash commodities, neither customarily appeared on the Holbert dinner table. Nina recalls however that there was always plenty of chicken and pork at dinner time. She also recalls the daunting boredom of plucking the feathers of all the poultry which was either slaughtered for immediate use, for canning or for sale. To pass the time, Nina recalls that she and her foster mother Etta Holbert would recite poetry while they worked.

Recalling Abia’s Christmas gift of a dressed hog to a needy Orlando family referenced above, I inquired if Mr. Holbert made a practice of such largesse. Although unaware of that particular act of charity, Nina was aware that her foster father would frequently deliver sacks of flour or meal to families in need in the area.

Nina described her foster father as a “man of few words, except when it came to praying.” A pious and religious man, Abia was a trustee of the Mt. Hope Methodist Church. When called upon in church to give a prayer, Abia usually made a “lasting” impression, especially when judged by the length of the prayer. Nina also recalls on one occasion when she was working outside, she heard strange ghost-like sounds. Tracking the source of the sounds, she discovered that Abia was praying in the half-filled silo. The sound of the prayer was amplified by the silo and resonated throughout the area.

The Farmhouse of Farmview Farm
The farmhouse of Farmview Farm is an elegant, well proportioned two story frame dwelling now owned by John Whiston, a great-grandson of Abia Holbert. The original Holbert farmhouse was located across the road and up a hollow from the present home. John Whiston states that around 1910 Abia sent logs from the farm by rail, probably to Burnsville, where they were milled into lumber, returned by rail to Chapman, and then transported to the building site. According to Nina Myers, after the lumber was milled it was seasoned on the farm before use. Fred Holbert, Abia’s grandson, of Lincoln, Nebraska, recalls that family legend maintains that his grandfather acted as the primary contractor and worked with two or three carpenters in the construction of the house. The original slate roof on the home was replaced around 1982. Some of the same oak wainscoting found in the home is also found in the Mt. Hope Methodist Church which was built on a third of an acre donated by Abia and was likely milled at the same time as the wood work in the home.

Today, eighty acres of the original acreage and the farmhouse of Farmview Farm remain in Holbert family ownership. The remainder of the original acreage is now owned by the Hardrock Land Company which is an entity comprised of Mack Worrell, Mike Ross and Ike Morris, present day oil and gas barons of central West Virginia.

Education Pays

In a group photo taken in the 1930’s at Farmview Farm of the Holbert and Cunningham families of Clover Fork, seventeen of the family members shown became teachers. That generation and the following generations include members who became college professors, doctors, lawyers, a National Public Radio correspondent, journalists, and other successful business people or highly placed public servants. The public and private achievements of this family are too broad to give individual mention in this narrative. Suffice it to say, Abia and Etta Holbert of Clover Fork had a vision that to succeed in life, the first step must be taken in the classroom. Clearly, that vision was rewarded.

Left: an article writen by Fred Holbert. To enlarge it, click on the article.

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