Friday, March 05, 2010

Homer Dick

by David Parmer

His real name was William Homer Skinner but he was known throughout the Orlando area simply as “Homer Dick.” There were other Homer Skinners in the history of Orlando, but there was only one “Homer Dick.”

Right William Homer Skinner

Draper Skinner
Homer Dick was born in 1882, the son of Draper John Skinner and Mary (Heater) Skinner. Draper John was the fourth child of Alexander Skinner and Phebe (Conrad) Skinner. Some records reflect that Draper John’s name was at times written as John Draper Skinner. The correct arrangement of his first two names may forever remain a mystery. The 1860 census has “John D. Skinner” and his wife Mary living on Oil Creek. The 1870 census has “Draper Skinner” and his wife Mary living on Oil Creek with their two children, Melinda, aged three, and Marsha, aged eleven months. Melinda was the daughter of Draper’s first wife, Margaret Ocheltree who apparently died in childbirth. The child “Marsha” also was known as “Martha.” She was followed in birth by Samantha, born 1873, Hattie W., born 1876, John C., born 1878, Nancy Idena, born 1880, and William Homer, or “Homer Dick,” the last child, who was born in 1883.

Mary (Heater) Skinner, mother of Homer Dick, died in 1885 of heart disease, when Homer Dick, her youngest child, was less than two years old. She was but 41 years of age. Draper also died while his younger children were still yet to come of age. Although the exact date of Draper’s death cannot be determined it is believed to be around 1892. As was custom during the time, family stepped in to provide a roof over the heads of the Skinner orphans. Samantha (Draper’s daughter by his first marriage to Margaret Ocheltree), it is believed, lived with their Uncle Calvin Skinner; Hettie moved to the home of her cousin, Mary Ann (Skinner) Riffle and her husband John Scott Riffle; Nancy Idena and Homer Dick found a home with their cousin, Joseph Skinner and his wife Effie (Riffle) Skinner. It is unknown where Homer Dick’s older brother John C. found home. Martha Adeline, the oldest of Draper’s children by Mary Heater had married W. C. Mick of Gilmer County in 1887, but died of consumption in 1893.

Two Tries at Marriage
Homer Dick twice experimented with marriage. His first marriage came in 1905 when he married Lee, the daughter of John Jeffries and Margaret Jeffries, who lived on Oil Creek in the neighborhood of Kemper. That marriage lasted about the time of the moon’s revolution around the Earth. After this failed attempt at wearing the halter, Homer Dick gave up the married life for bachelorhood.

Those old enough to remember Homer Dick recall that he never seemed to have any fixed home. Working primarily as a farm laborer in his later years, he generally lived with whomever he was working for at the time, room and board, perhaps, being a part of his wages.

In 1930, when Homer was around 47 (although he gave his age as 44 to the County Clerk), he once again stepped into matrimonial waters with Hettie Riffle, daughter of the late Marion J. and Cora (Reynolds) Riffle of Posey Run. Hettie was 24 years of age. Whether it was love which brought about Homer Dick’s new-found affinity to the wedded life after twenty-five years of bachelorhood or the desire to have another place to hang his hat, we’ll never know. Homer was living in the household of his mother-in-law, Cora Riffle when the 1930 census was taken. After a short whirl, Homer Dick’s second attempt at marriage “didn’t take” and he again found himself to be on bachelor’s row.

Life as a Railroad Cook
In his later years, Homer Dick looked forward to going to the post office to pick up his pension check from the B& O Railroad. Socializing while waiting for the mail was a favorite pastime in Orlando. It wasn’t much of a pension but it did reflect Homer Dick’s years as a culinary chef on the railroad work cars. Tom Pumphrey, a friend of Homer Dick’s, said he could make “good beans and potatoes, and, of course, cornbread,” just the meal which would be appreciated by hard-working railroad trackmen.

Homer Dick started working for the B & O in December 1929 as a camp car cook for the railroaders working on Walker Woods’ carpenter and bridge crew. Uncle Zeke reported that Homer Dick gave up the trapping and fur-trading business for life as a railroader. At this time there were two B & O carpenter and bridge crews. One crew, headed by Walker Woods, served the Elkins to Charleston railroad line and the other crew, headed by Ed Nixon, served the Clarksburg to Richwood line. According to June (Nixon) Henry, daughter of Ed Nixon, the carpenter and bridge crews would stay away from homes for days-on-end, especially when there were accidents, wash-outs or floods which destroyed railroad bridges and would have to be re-built. Of course, the culinary skills of Homer Dick were much appreciated by the crews which usually numbered ten to twelve men, and sometimes as many as twenty, and all of whom appreciated a home-cooked meal.

Right, above: Camp Car for Bridge and Carpenter Crew, Ed Nixon under the B&O logo,
Left: Tressle and derailed cars, location unknown.
Right below: drawings of the B&O Railroad camp cars.

Life as a camp car cook suited Homer Dick, not only for the satisfaction he gained from cooking for hungry men, but also because it gave an otherwise homeless man a place to live. Cook’s quarters were furnished in the kitchen car, providing Homer Dick a place to rest his head and a place near to his work.

As with most railroad employment at the time, work was spotty and Homer Dick frequently found that he, like most railroaders, needed another line of work to tide him over the periods of unemployment. He was a hard worker and was a noted “brush clearer.” Many local farmers looked to him to clear a hillside or a plot for a potato patch. He also found work clearing rights of way for the power company, when electricity was extended up “kerosene light only” hollows. Dale Barnett recalls Homer Dick working with the sons of Joe Riffle on a job clearing a right-of-way for a power line in the Orlando area during the early 1940’s.

Your Home is His Home
It is unknown whether Homer Dick ever had a home of his own. Perhaps his youthful experience of being an orphan and living in the homes of one or another relative led him to that manner of living.

Left: Hattie and her husband George Riffle, Center: Homer Dick,
Right: Idenna with her husband Roy Mertie "Boss" Riffle and their son Fred.

Bob Pumphrey recalls that Homer Dick would frequently stay with his family on Three Lick for long periods and his jovial company was always welcomed. At times he would stay with his sister, Idenna Riffle, her husband "Boss" and son Fred, who lived near Posey Run. At other times he would stay with another sister, Hattie Riffle, and her husband George, on Redlick.

All Life Must End
You never noticed the battered hat he wore because his elfish grin was the dominating feature of his wizened face. Until his death, Homer Dick always had a school-boyish look. Never one to wear out his welcome at any one place for very long, Homer Dick died on December 7 in 1964. As with life, he is not buried near anyone in particular, but was laid to rest between strangers in the Orlando Cemetery.
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Comment by Marcia (Heater) Conrad of Keyser, West Virginia.

"I grew up on Indian Fork, right across the hill from Orlando. For us, that was going to town, and the big town of Burnsville was a day in the city!
"Today I read with interest your article on Homer Dick Skinner. My dad always claimed Homer Dick as a cousin, and they were, although I doubt either of them knew that. I do not remember Homer Dick, but he lived with us when I was a little girl. For many years I had a teddy bear that he bought me when he lived with us. I kept it for years and my son slept and played with it until it became a shredded piece of fuzz with no eyes, a torn nose, and a missing ear.
"My dad told us stories about Homer. He (Homer) liked to listen to the Lone Ranger radio program. He once asked Daddy if the Lone Ranger was real, to which my father, ever the jokester, replied "Why, sure, Dick. I used to ride with him." At this Homer Dick was suitable impressed.
"While he lived with us, Homer Dick did the cooking, as Daddy worked and my mother was quite ill. One morning, he made biscuits and some very brown (well, burned) gravy. When Daddy didn't say anything, Homer asked if breakfast was allright. Since Daddy couldn't hurt anyone's feelings, he said, "brown's just the way I like it, Dick." Daddy ate the breakfast and all were happy."

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