Last summer I moved into an old Craftsman-style house on Brushy Run in Onego, West Virginia. It had been abandoned for over 11 years before I moved in but through the haze of cobwebs and drifts of dead leaves covering the floors, countertops, kitchen sink, and bathtub, I could see potential buried within. Really. Buried.
One of the upstairs bedrooms housed piles of old books on the floor. Among these old volumes were old court ledgers; at one time, this old home had served as a courthouse for this side of North Mountain. In the late 1800’s and most of the 1900’s, it was much easier for residents in the area to come here for civil hearings instead of traipsing across North Mountain to Franklin. Nowadays, it’s a beautiful drive but a hundred years ago with horse and buggy – or just horse – the trip would’ve been a major undertaking.
I knew last summer that I needed to get these old ledgers to the Registrar’s Office in Franklin, but I couldn’t tote those enormous books by myself. And those ledgers just weren’t my top priority – there was a lot of work that needed to be done just to get the lower level in livable condition. But today I enlisted the help of a young friend, 13-year-old Jerrel, our pastor’s son. He hefted those tomes like he was carrying a pile of paperbacks, carried them downstairs, and piled them on a purple plastic toboggan. That tobogan – a $2.00 auction find – has made life much easier when hauling heavy objects from the house, across 150 feet of meadow, then across a footbridge to the road where the van is parked. (The West Virginia Flood of 1985 had washed away the single-lane bridge that was once used to cross Brushy Run to get to this house – those flood waters also swept away two residents of this street and about 47 buildings.)
Once I arrived at the Pendleton County Courthouse, I headed directly to the Registrar’s Office and told the woman there that I’d brought the old ledgers – I’d spoken with her before about bringing them in. She asked a young man who was there checking old surveying records if he would be so kind as to carry in the books for me. He obliged, and ended up making two trips – one for the ledgers and one for a box full of court-related paperwork.
I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate those ancient ledgers until today. For the last year, I’d been unable to carry them downstairs where I could open them on a table and the upstairs is not exactly a clean spot where you’d want to spent any amount of time. I’m in the process of tackling the rooms up there this summer – when I tell you that it’s been over a decade since a vacuum has touched the floors up there, you’ll have some idea of the second floor’s ambiance. Or lack thereof.
So I took the time while I was at the Registrar’s Office to explore the ledgers. I was able to check out the dates, read some of the entries, and take pictures. This was like an archeological dig, only without all the dirt and sweat!
The oldest ledger dated from August 1884. The front cover of this volume contains a series of handwritten entries in pencil and ink that created a “paper trail” regarding one ongoing complaint. Apparently a farmer had “borrowed” a neighbor’s bull to, um, impregnate his cows.
If there was ever an argument for including cursive handwriting in schools, reading primary source documents is it! This page dates from 1885.
The cursive in the entry below is just beautiful! Look at the embellishment of the “F” in “Felony” and the loops of the upper case “H” and “Y”.
I love the elegance of the old cursive script – the flourishes of the last letter in some words, the way a dollar sign was formed and the short but elegant underlining of the change in an amount of money.
It was a bit unsettling to find that so many of the pages in these ledgers regard the failure to pay debts.
Many of the family names written in these ledgers are still common in Pendleton County – Dolly, Harper, Kisamore, Raines, Sites, Teter, Vance.
These two small early ledgers were generic – glorified composition notebooks. The “newer” ledgers (if one can consider 1900 “new”) were printed specifically for Pendleton County civil proceedings. Compare the photo below to the one after it.
This entry surprised me because of the large sum of bond money involved – in 1910, $1000 was a good chunk of change!
Apparently, ginseng was as popular to harvest – and just as lucrative – back in 1901 as it is today. Over one hundred years ago, mountain folks guarded their ‘seng with the same tenacity as they do in 2017. In the entry below, Mr. Watts has been accused of “stealing, carrying away 6 lbs. of genseng [sic]…” The value of the stolen ginseng is listed as $42.00 – $7.00 a pound.
That got me wondering about the current market value of West Virginia ginseng. The West Virginia Department of Commerce has an interesting article about this year’s ginseng harvest, which starts September 1. Last year, according to the WV Department of Commerce, ginseng sold for an average of $410.00 per pound. That was an AVERAGE price!
Now, before you all get ready to scour the forest for ginseng this fall, the article reminds potential “sengers” that it takes about 300 roots to make one pound. And those little plants seem to flourish on the most inhospitable slopes of these mountains – slopes on which goats would be far more comfortable than people. Digging ramps is easy compared to digging ‘seng.
The article states that “…Robin Black, who has worked with the Division of Forestry’s (DOF) ginseng program for more than 20 years [is] not worried about ginseng digging ever ceasing…”
“Ginseng digging is a time-honored tradition, usually passed down from generation to generation. I don’t believe it will ever fade away,” Black said. “In fact, in many areas of West Virginia, digging ginseng provides a second or third income for many families especially during tough economic times. Ginseng digging is a great way for families to get out into the forest together, learn about the importance of sustaining a native species and make some extra money.” Robin Black, WV Division of Forestry
No wonder Mr. Watts was taken to court! Six pounds of ginseng at 300 roots per pound equals 1800 roots of ginseng – that is a lot of digging, a lot of work!
Another frequent misdemeanor recorded in the old ledgers was “unlawful fishing”.
The unlawful fishing complaint recorded below was heard by J. F. Raines. It was a Raines who built the home I’m currently living in.
“Mouth of Seneca” – written in the entry below – was the old name for the area now known as Seneca Rocks.
This afternoon, I may have spent 45 minutes at the most looking through these court documents, but in just a short time, I feel I learned quite a bit about the history of the area I live in. It’s definitely whet my appetite for further research!
“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents in this [Civil War] as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”