Monday, November 16, 2009

The Fretwells

by David Parmer

Alma Fretwell
Her many friends and family filled the Mount Zion Methodist Church of Orlando. Her six pall bearers, all dressed in black, and remarkable because they were all women, sat solemnly in a pew as Reverend Richmond spoke of her suffering and asked divine blessings upon her husband John E. Fretwell and her four young children, Stacia Mae, Margie Lou, John Richard and William Alonzo. Alma Gay (Gaston) Fretwell passed away on April 12th, 1937 at the young age of 39 years, after a long and painful illness. Under the direction of Mike Moran, Orlando’s gentleman undertaker, the pall bearers, Mrs. Vada Henline, Mrs. Maysell Bennett, Miss Hattie Alkire, Mrs. Margaret Posey, Mrs. Pearl Edgell and Mrs. Marie Barnett, carried the plain, simple casket to the waiting funeral coach for the solemn journey to the Orlando Cemetery where she would join her young daughter, Laura Rose, who died four years before, and her first born, Virginia, who died in 1922. Requiescant in pace.
Left: Click on this obituary to enlarge it.
Right: Alma (Gaston) Fretwell.

John E. Fretwell, Lumberjack
John E. Fretwell, husband of Alma (Gaston) Fretwell, was born in 1882 at Valley Head in Randolph County to Richard A. and Cynthia (Marple) Fretwell. Reared in timber country, John was engaged in the vocation of timbering for most of his life. When he was a young man, West Virginia was still covered with vast tracts of virgin timber and saw mills were busy converting huge logs into dimension lumber for shipment to urban areas throughout the eastern United States. For a young man who relished the sound of axes and crosscut saws echoing throughout the steep hills, West Virginia was the place to be. However, early in his manhood and seeking adventure, John followed his brother Alonzo to the Canadian wilds of British Columbia which was also enjoying bountiful harvests of virgin timber. Lumberjacking in Canada was little different than in West Virginia and John was sure there was enough timber in British Columbia to last his lifetime. Unfortunately, John ran afoul of the law as the result of a fight. Not waiting for the turning wheel of justice to stop on his marker, he bid adieu to the land of the maple leaf and the Canadian Mounties and returned to the U.S. In 1920, the census has John living in a rooming house in the 7th Ward of Akron, Ohio, but by the following year he was taking a bride in West Virginia.
Left: Map showing West Virginia, Akron and British Columbia.
Right, upper: John Fretwell
Right: a scene from British Columbia

A Restaurateur Gets Married
How John Fretwell came to don the chef’s hat is unknown, but the earliest report of John operating a restaurant in Orlando is the year 1921. When John and Alma married in November 1921 in Burnsville, his occupation was listed as “restaurant business.” At the time of his marriage, John had reached the age of 36. Alma was 23. John and Alma took up residence in a four room house in the Orlando bottom adjacent to the two story building which housed the Odd Fellows Lodge, the Lloyd Skinner barber shop and the Lee Skinner general store. John operated his eatery, known as the “Home Restaurant,” in the Rachel Kidd building, located across from the northern side of the Orlando junction depot. The Kidd building was partitioned in half with the eastern end utilized as the restaurant and the western end operated as a store by Bill Foster and later by Bill Conrad. To accommodate train passengers, John sold packed lunches for twenty five cents as well as ice cream and soft drinks. In April 1926, John sold the restaurant to O. C. Thompson, but re-purchased it in August 1927. He continued to operate the restaurant until 1929 when Bill Conrad, the building’s owner, decided to demolish the building and rebuild a larger one, exclusively to be used as a general store.

John Returns to the Woods
The lure of the timbering industry drew John back to the lumber camps when he lost the lease of his Orlando restaurant. By 1936 John was working for the Cherry River Lumber Company in Webster Springs. By that time he was in his fifties and past his prime as a hewer of trees, which is a young man’s job. John’s son William reports that his father took care of the horses which were used to skid logs from the mountain slopes. According to his young neighbor, Dale Barnett, John also worked as a “lobby hog” in the lumber camps. A job usually filled by older employees, a “lobby hog” worked around the lumber camp doing odd jobs such as bringing in fire wood, building fires, sweeping, and anything else that needed to be done to accommodate the operation of a lumberjack camp.

During Alma’s extended illness, and because of the seriousness of her condition, John was frequently called home from the forests of Webster County. The primitive state of the practice of medicine in rural West Virginia did not bode well for Alma and her family, and she slowly slipped into the clutches of death.

After the death of his wife, John, without immediate family in the area, entrusted his children out to friends in the Orlando area. This was a common practice during the days before the cradle-to-the-grave social programs of the present time. Although dividing the family is not a desirable arrangement by present day standards, in the 1930’s it was the only practical alternative since John’s employment was in a lumber camp in Webster County. Stacie, the oldest daughter, was twelve years of age at the time of her mother’s death and William, the youngest, was but three. The Smith family, consisting of two bachelor brothers, Gene and John, and their niece Miss Hattie Alkire of Meadow Run, took in the oldest boy, Jack, and later the Bill Barnett family and the John Wooddell family of Orlando also provided care for Jack. Bill, the youngest Fretwell child, lived for some time with his Aunt Georgia Skinner and her husband Burt. It is also believed that in addition to providing care for the oldest boy Jack, the Smith family also looked after the youngest son, William. Margie Lou, the second oldest girl of the family, now living at Crestview Manor in Jane Lew, states that as the Fretwell children became older they began to take care of themselves and their father came home to Orlando on weekends to mediate any disputes that would arise between the siblings during the week.
Left: Stacie Fretwell.

According to Dale Barnett, John Fretwell is remembered as a strong believer in the politics of the Republican Party. He is also remembered as being well read in the affairs of the day and often voiced disdain for the failed social programs of FDR in the 1930’s.
A Recollection of the Burning of Claud Mick’s Barn
Margie (Fretwell) Goldsmith, the youngest daughter of John and Alma Fretwell, now resides in Crestview Manor at Jane Lew. Prior to entering the nursing home, Margie lived in Weston and from time to time would visit the Colonial Restaurant on Main Street in Weston which was operated by Pat (Morrison) Reckart, a native of Orlando. Pat and Margie would frequently reminisce about their early years in Orlando. During the 1940’s the Fretwell family lived in the house located beside St. Michael’s Catholic Church which later was the home of Pat Morrison. The Fretwells lived in this house when Claud Mick’s barn burned in the winter of 1940-1941. Margie advised Pat that she could still hear the wretched cries of the horses which perished in the blaze and that for a long time thereafter she had nightmares of the gruesome pleas of the horses for release. Margie would bury her head in her pillow to escape the terrible dream.

Too old to serve in the military during World War II, John is believed to have served his country by working in the Goodrich Company in Akron which manufactured tires for the war effort. According to his son Bill, John Fretwell’s first employment with Goodrich resulted in a lay-off and when he sought re-employment later he was disqualified because of near blindness in one eye. Because of his youth at the time, Bill is not certain of the years that his father worked for Goodrich but is of the impression that his father worked at Goodrich during the 1930’s. However, that does not seem to jibe with the death date of Alma in 1937 at which time John was working in Webster County for Cherry River Lumber, and the fact that the Fretwell children were in attendance at Orlando School until at least 1942. To this writer, it seems more probable that John was hired at Goodrich during World War II despite the fact that he was over 60 years of age because of manpower shortage during the war years.
Left: From a 1942 advertisement
Right: John Fretwell

Return to West Virginia
Over the past century many sons and daughters of West Virginia migrated for purposes of employment to Ohio or some other industrial state. Many of those migrants felt a strong draw of the mountains and returned to the home of their youth. An aging John returned to West Virginia from Akron and took up residence in Weston but his final resting place was Orlando. He died in 1973 and was laid to rest in the Orlando Cemetery beside his long departed wife and children.
Gravestones for John Fretwell 1882-1973, Alma (Gaston) Fretwell 1897-1937, Arcinia B. Fretwell, stillborn 1922, Laura Rose, 1932-1933.

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