You Never Know What You’ll Find in an Old House!

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.

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These are the old court ledgers found upstairs in a bedroom of the old house I moved into last summer.  That bottom volume is about 24″ tall and 16″ wide and exceedingly heavy!  One of the smaller two ledgers on top held the oldest entries – its first document was dated 1884.

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.)

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This label is in the front cover of one of the large ledgers – there is nothing quite like antique graphics!

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.

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This box is full of loose court documents – the envelope in the lower right corner contains receipts and is labeled, “Sites vs. Hoffman”.

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.

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If there was ever an argument for including cursive handwriting in schools, reading primary source documents is it!  This page dates from 1885.

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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”.

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Who would have ever considered “felony” to be a potential source of beauty?

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.

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It was a bit unsettling to find that so many of the pages in these ledgers regard the failure to pay debts.

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“Never a lender nor a borrower be…”  (Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

 

Many of the family names written in these ledgers are still common in Pendleton County – Dolly, Harper, Kisamore, Raines, Sites, Teter, Vance.

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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.

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This entry surprised me because of the large sum of bond money involved – in 1910, $1000 was a good chunk of change!

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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“Mouth of Seneca” – written in the entry below – was the old name for the area now known as Seneca Rocks.

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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.”
Abraham Lincoln

 

 

 

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This Old Corn Knife

I have an affinity for old tools.  FarmerHoney calls them “rusty junk” but to me, they’re treasures!

Perhaps the oddest old tool in my little collection is a knife that was once used to cut corn stalks.  The blade is about 14 inches long (looks quite lethal from a distance) and the handle is not original.  I think the handle is my favorite part of this knife.  It was crudely (perhaps rapidly) carved from a piece of wood, slit to insert the base of the knife, and then wrapped with wire to secure it.  I’m sure it was much more secure when it was first made than it is now!

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I find it intriguing to think about the man who made this knife.  Obviously a thrifty soul, he most likely made it out of necessity.  Had his old knife handle broken while he was working in the corn field?  Did he hasten to find a suitable branch and carve it into a handle so he could get on with the day’s work?  I wonder if he put this together during the Great Depression, when even spending pennies for a new knife handle would have been considered frivolous.  Look how worn the blade is – it would take many corn stalks over many years to wear the metal down so much.  I wonder how many acres of corn he had and how long it took before his back was aching, bent over the corn stalks, cutting with that knife?  Did he gather the corn stalks up in sheaves?  Did he use the corn to feed livestock and, if so, what sort of animals did he keep?  I imagine he had to have a pig.

Since colonial times, pigs have been staples of farm life.  First, they could eat anything – in addition to foraging for their own food, they would consume table scraps that might otherwise go to waste.  Pigs even eat other animals – they’ll eat a nest of rabbits if they dig one up.  During the building of the Erie Canal, work was stopped along one section near Lockport when immigrant workers discovered LOTS of rattlesnakes living in the rock the canal would later go through.  This was long before anti venom, so I don’t blame the Irish for stopping work until the snakes were cleared.   I don’t know who had the idea of bringing in pigs to deal with the rattlers, but it was a magnificent one!  Pigs ate the rattlesnakes and work on the canal returned to normal.

Pigs were also used in trade.  A pig was a bit like having money in the bank for settlers.  Maybe my Depression-era farmer was able to get what he needed for his family this way. I wonder what a pig was worth in trade?  How many bushels of apples?

I guess this is why I just love my old tools, my “rusty junk”.  It’s not just the object itself that I find fascinating.  It’s the history, the stories, behind each item.  And, as you can tell from my musings here, one question, one thought, leads to another!

History is not some dry topic we once read about in school.  Heaven help those who’ve had to memorize meaningless dates ad infinitum!  History is so much more!  Give a child (or an adult who thinks history is boring) an implement used in the past and challenge him to tell how it was made, what it was used for.  Ask him what sort of person might have used the tool.  During what time period?  What does he think the person might have worn, or had for breakfast on a typical day?  Now, history becomes personal. Now, we can relate to other people in other times.

And now, history becomes endlessly fascinating.