Monday, August 17, 2009


by Donna GloffBold

The virgin forests that the pioneers of Western Virginia set out to tame in the late 1700s and early 1800s did not bend easily to the will of those courageous farmers. They knew the first crop they planted had to be corn, which they called Indian Corn. Their survival depended on it. Corn would grow before the soil was fine enough for European grains like wheat and oats. The corn could be planted in a field that was still a mass of roots and stones. Each year the family would grub out more of those roots and rocks in that field which was producing the corn that sustained them until, after several years, the soil in the field was fine enough to support the wheat for leavened bread and cakes or flax to produce linen or the oats the horses thrived on.

How important was corn? Of his childhood memories with his pioneer family in the 1770s in Harrison County Joseph Doddridge wrote, "The Indian meal which my father brought over the mountains was expended six weeks too soon, so for that length of time we had to live without bread. The lean venison and the breast of wild turkey we were taught to call bread. The flesh of the bear was denominated meat. This artifice did not succeed very well. After living this way for some time we became sickly, the stomach seemed always empty and tormented with a sense of hunger." (from Notes on the Settlement and Indian Ward of the Western Parts of Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1763 to 1783 by Joseph Doddridge. 1824, page 101.)

Right, above: a hummingbird in the cornfield
Left: Corn Acrylic on masonite by Theresa Jackson
Right, below: This print of a watercolor of red corn was created by Martha Ames Burgess & Virginia Wade Ames.

Part of Our Heritage
Corn is part of America's heritage, and certainly a part of West Virginia's heritage. Eward C. Smith, in his A History of Lewis County, West Virginia, included the following. "In the fall there were corn huskings which were always occasions of great gaiety. Neighbors came for miles around, particularly young men and women. Preparations had previously been made for the husking by pulling off all the ears of corn from the stalks and hauling them to the appointed place where they were piled in a long row. Husking usually began just after dark by the light of a full moon and the huskers managed to make the job last until nearly morning. Sometimes a contest was arranged in which two good huskers chose sides and divided the pile in half. Then followed a good natured race to see which side could finish first. The work was likely to be interrupted whenever a young man found a red ear, because immemorial custom of the frontier gave him the right to kiss the prettiest girl present." (-pg 121-122)

Corn is certainly woven into the fabric of life on Oil Creek.
~ Many grandchildren remember as Tricia Strader does that there were always beans and cornbread on her grandmother's table.

~ David Parmer reported, "Clarence McCauley’s daughter Sawahana recalls that her father liked to talk about the work on the farm during his boyhood. He was particularly fond of reminiscing about a corn field planted by his father in which it would take a whole day to hoe just one row of corn. Shawn McCauley, Clarence’s youngest son and present owner of the McCauley farm, recalls the corn hoeing a little differently. Shawn estimates that the corn field stretched about 1400 feet from the scale house to the head of a hollow. Shawn who himself hoed a few rows of corn growing up on the McCauley farm recalls that it took one-half day to hoe a row of corn one way and another half day to hoe a second row back. So, in either case, whether one row or two rows of corn were hoed in a day, blisters and tired backs prevailed by the end of the day."
~Homer Heater told us:
. . . That wonderful corn bread. Fresh out of the pan and crumbled into a glass of sweet milk or butter milk, it was out of this world. My mouth waters even now thinking about it. We did not have 'light' bread (made from wheat); it was always corn bread or corn pone as some called it."

Homer Heater also remembers hoeing corn on McCauley Run.
"I grew up on Riffle Run and spent a lot of time on McCauley Run. I remember as a little boy hoeing corn on the Taggart farm. (Taggarts were grandparents of Clarence McCauley, mentioned above.) I was so hungry I thought I would surely die, so my father sent me to [Clarence McCauley's grandmother] Mrs. Taggart's house to ask for a sandwich. It was wonderful."
~ Grandson John Allman tells of the summer when railroad telegrapher, fisherman and violin player Gav Allman took on a project of unnatural proportions. A corn kernel found its way to a place where corn was not intended to grow. It germinated, sprouted, and grew and grew and grew, on the east side of Bill Conrad's store.

Left: On the east side of Conrad's (Brown's, Burgett's) store, looking west with the depot on the left, An 18 foot corn stalk grown by Gaver Allman. Look closely to see 6 foot 8 inch tall Pate Conrad standing beside the stalk.
Right: United Brethren Preacher Emory Keller with an armload of corn.

~ A sad tale told by David Parmer was set against the every-day backdrop of hoeing corn. Mary Atkinson and her parents Sherd and Fanny (Riffle) Atkinson "were on the hill, perhaps 300 or 400 feet behind and above the Atkinson home, hoeing corn in the corn field. It was a hot day. Mary told her mother that she was going to take a break and sit under a large chestnut tree at the edge of the corn field. Fannie and Sherd Atkinson continued to hoe their rows of corn but shortly were startled by a shotgun blast. Turning, Fannie saw Earl Marsh [who had courted Mary] running down the hill toward the road at the bottom of the hill and saw her daughter Mary, bloodied and lifeless under the chestnut tree."

~ Uncle Zeke often mentioned his neighbors' corn growing in his newspaper column. For example,
July 11, 1916 Lost, somewhere in the weeds, Charley McCord’s cornfield.
June 13, 1929 “It is claimed that while Jack Sam was plowing corn in our town one day last week, Bud Hamilton’s dogs bayed him thinking he was a groundhog.”

Uncle Zeke also penned the following ode to miller Wade Mick and the Orlando mill which ground the corn into meal for the neighbors' tables or chopped it for fodder for the hogs and cows:

Wade Mick’s Mill
By Uncle Zeke

Wade Mick has a good grist mill,
Its equal can’t be found
In grinding out your daily meal
He hustles things around.
From morn ‘till night, the wheel turns ‘round
And then from night ‘till morn.
And every time that wheel turns ‘round
It grinds a grain of corn.
Now Wade’s a pretty jolly soul,
And jokes he likes to crack.
He takes your grist to pay the toll
And sometimes takes the sack.
When Wade gets up with the early bird,
And nothing in his way
I do believe upon my word,
He can grind a peck a day.

And when the judgement day comes ‘round,
And Gabriel blows his horn
I think that Wade Mick will be found,
A grinding of the corn.

1 comment:

  1. You did not say much about that wonderful corn bread. Fresh out of the pan and crumbled into a glass of sweet milk or butter milk, it was out of this world. My mouth waters even now thinking about it. We did not have "light" bread (made from wheat); it was always corn bread or corn pone as some called it.