Where’s My Cow? A Bit of History

I can’t imagine a time when life was centered on what happened on the farm, but that’s just a sign of the times we’re living in. We have gotten too far removed from farm life and no longer appreciate the work previous generations did to stay alive and prosper. There was a time when EVERYTHING depended on the farm, it’s crops, it’s animals, and it’s workhands.

For instance, in perusing some of the newspaper clippings from past times, I came across one that involved a member of my family. Frederic Akard was the son of a German immigrant who came to America, supposedly having been kidnapped, and landed in the Lancaster County area of Pennsylvania, where the young Jacob Eckhart/Akard met and married his life’s love, Susanna Margaretha Latture. They eventually traveled down the valley of Virginia with the Latture familiy to the corner of what is now Sullivan County in Northeast Tennessee to an area near Scott County, Virginia that still has the family names on the roads. There Frederic meandered around and caught the eye of a young girl across the Holston River, whom he married, Peggy Cleek. And thus began a part of my family that settled in Scott County, Virginia before there even was a Scott County, VA.

In fact, land records show that Frederic bought land from a man named George Wilcox in 1807, a deed recorded in Washington County, VA at Abingdon says so. Scott County was formed about a decade later, and this portion of Washington County (south of Clinch Mountain) was located in the new county. Here’s a transcript of that portion of the deed:

Deed book 5, page 330, Washington County, Virginia (Abingdon)

“This indenture made the 20th day of [?] and in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seven, between George Wilcox of the County of Washington and Commonwealth of Virginia of the one part, and Frederick Akard of the same county and state of the other part. Witnesseth that for and in consideration of the sum of three hundred dollars in hand paid to the said George Wilcox by him the said Frederick Akard the receipt whereof is herby fully acknowledged, the said George Wilcox hath given granted bargained and sold and by these presents do give grant bargain and sell unto the said Frederick Akard his hears and afsigns a certain tract of land lying and being in the County of Washington and State aforesaid, formerly surveyed and granted to Andrew McClelin by the state of North Carolina, containing one hundred acres, lying on the south side of the North fork of Holstein River, Beginning at a white oak tree on the side of a knob, thus winding west thirty poles . . .”

I love the way they made the first “S” of a double “ss” word look like an “f” back in those days. It makes reading difficult. But did you notice something? The land was formerly surveyed in a grant given to Andrew McLelin by the state of North Carolina! This land was actually in Virginia but North Carolina claimed it. Apparently, several parcels along the border between North Carolina (now Tennessee, whose statehood dates to 1796) and Virginia were “squabbled” over, and some called the area the “Squabble State” until the line was settled and the deeds were fixed. I love this stuff.

Anyway, an ad was taken out in a paper that looks like this:

From “THE POLITICAL PROSPECT” Abingdon, VA, 24 April 1813

Don’t you love it? Mathias Cleek was an in-law to Frederic Akard. The Cleek family lived on the Gate City side (would have been known as Estillville in those days) of the North Fork of the Holston River, along what we now call Wadlow Gap Road, real close to the river bridge. A stone chimney, or the remains of one, stands where the house used to be. John Anderson was high sheriff of Scott County and owner of the Block House Fort used by Daniel Boone and other early pioneers who traveled through the area, which was not far from Wadlow Gap Road up East Carter’s Valley. A replica has been erected over at the state park at Natural Tunnel in the county. I haven’t determined who William Skillern would have been, but he has “an estray cow” somewhere, who would be much older than 5 years now. If anyone sees it, would you return it so Cleek, Bounds and Akard can finish buying it? Bounds is a name I’ve seen a couple times in relation to the Cleek/Akard people. He was an early resident, that’s about all I know. The cow wandered off, or was she stolen? Was she a source of the family’s future calving enterprise? A milker? Why did they desire her so much? How much was $8 worth in 1813? Were there THAT many readers of the “Political Prospect” in what we now know as Scott County in that time?

I get excited whenever I find any mention of my relatives in old documents. This one sheds a little light on every day life. I can’t imagine what is was like then, but I do see a glimpse herein.

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A More Comprehensive History of Weber City, Virginia

My home town is one I never lived in, named after a place that never existed, named after a fictional character from an early radio show that would not be airable in today’s world.

Weber City, Virginia, is a small community that collected around the south end of the majestic Moccasin Gap, a natural divide in the Clinch Mountain that divides and anchors Scott County. The gap in the mountain has been a natural occurance that has long intrigued people on the way to other places. The mountains of the Appalachian region have seemed insurmountable and have made travel difficult. Yet this natural gap is wide enough that people could pass through it with ease, including native Americans, longhunters, and pioneer settlers.

The first name of the community was Moccasin Gap (spelled variously as Moquesin, Mockasin, and other variants). Post offices with that name existed before Scott County was ever formed (as early as 1813 Moqueson Gap PO existed, and even though spelling got standardized, the PO continued there until about 1910 when it was merged with Gate City). Big Moccasin Creek flows along the northwest side of Clinch Mountain, with headwaters in Russell County, and flows through the gap just east of Gate City on its way to the north fork of the Holston River. It joins Little Moccasin at Gate City before it goes through the gap. Addington, Tennis, and others rely on the story that early explorers noticed what they believed were Indian tracks near the creek (apparently from feet clad in Moccasins), thusly it was named “Moccasin Creek.”

Clinch Mountain overlooks Moccasin Gap on the northwestern end of Weber City, Virginia, near the confluence of US Highway 23 and US Highway 58/421. The gap has been a favorite way through Clinch Mountain since the days of the Cherokee and Shawnee.

Other early post offices that surrounded today’s Weber City include Block House, which was located up East Carter’s Valley, about a mile east of Wadlow Gap Road, on the north side of the road. Block House was a pioneer era fort house built by Scott County’s first High Sheriff, a man known as Col. John Anderson, who had fought in the battles known as the American Revolution. Anderson was a friend of another Revolutionary era veteran by the name of Peter Morison, after whom Morrison City and Morrison Chapel Church were named. Both men are buried beside their families in the Morrison Chapel Cemetery just barely over the state line in Tennessee. The official list of Post Offices shows Block House being a post office in 1849-1859.

Another community near Block House was known as Holston Bridge. It was the community near the river on Wadlow Gap Road, where an early bridge was built to span the river for travelers on their way to Gate City from Tennessee. Holston Bridge was in operation as a Post Office from 1858 til about 1907.

Replica of the John Anderson Blockhouse rebuilt at Natural Tunnel State Park. Original stood in East Carter’s Valley about a mile east of Wadlow Gap Road.

Perhaps the most vital community near Weber City was the one known as Holston Springs, which was on the Weber City side of the north fork of the Holston River just off today’s Yuma Road, across from the regional Sewerage Treatment plant. Here was a convergence of several healing springs, and the area was once known as “Sulphur Springs” in pioneer days. Land sold there as early as 1790 indicates Andrew McHenry had already built a home there. McHenry erected a three-story hotel there by 1809 and by 1816 the name “Holston Springs” had already been given to the area. (Terry Winingar, in “Scott County, Virginia, and It’s People: 1814-1998, Vol. II” page 46). This means that before Scott County was formed (which happened in 1814), the Holston Springs had been developed and people were traveling to the area to enjoy the waters and their effects on their health and well being. McHenry served as Scott County’s attorney general from 1815-1828. His son John served as county clerk for nine years, being given permission in 1817 to have his office at Holston Springs. The McHenry family sold the property in 1837 to John M Preston of Abingdon who improved the property. Preston sold it to John Gaines of Sullivan County, TN in 1846. Gaines had owned Exchange Place at the foot of Chestnut Ridge in what is now Kingsport. Jonathan Draper, an early Methodist preacher in Gate City (then called Estillville) and county leader, bought the property in 1860. Confederate troops encamped there for a couple months in 1863. Before the war a large frame building had been erected on the site and used for a Women’s college. Henry S. K. Morrison, Commissioner, was the owner of the property in 1871. About 1884-86 Rufus Ayers acquired the springs. Ayers remodeled the main building, a 24 room hotel, into his private dwelling, adding porches and other architectural features matching the fashions of the time. The building burned in 1914. The Holston Springs post office operated there from 1843 til 1896. Then the mail was served from the post office at Yuma.

From Harper’s Monthly, November 1857
Holston Springs after Rufus Ayers turned it into his home. You can see the gables are similar from the Harper’s drawing to this picture.

The above is from the Charleston, SC Daily Courier, 25 January 1810.it is written prior to Scott County being formed, when the springs were in Washington County, Virginia.

As nearby Kingsport, TN began to become industrialized in the early 1900s, the surrounding areas felt the effects of that boom. Land became available and homes were being built by the early 1930s. Early residents were beginning to refer to the area south of Moccasin Gap as “Midway,” but there was already a community of that name on the other side of Gate City, so it was dropped. A man by the name of Frank M. Parker, Sr., was looking for the name when he was listening to a popular radio show called “Amos ‘n Andy.” This show, which by today’s standards would be dismissed as racist, depicted the struggles of a couple of black men as they tried to deal with issues of their time. One of the characters of that show was a self-made millionaire by the name of Roland Weber. A scheme of his was a development that he called “Weber City.” As Frank Parker listened to the show, he asked his wife, “Whey can’t we have a Weber City since they seem to be having such a whiz of a time with theirs?” Mr. Parker put a sign up in his business establishment at the intersection of US 23 and US 58/412 that declared “Welcome to Weber City.” When Weber City was incorporated in 1954 they adopted the name, and the rest is history.

Amos ‘n Andy radio show map of the “Weber City” development being planned by character Roland Weber, a self-made millionaire on that show.

Weber City today has expanded from Moccasin Gap down highway 23 south to the state line (officially the town stops at the River Bridge) and a little west on Yuma Road, and east to the ridge across Moccasin Creek traversed by Wadlow Gap Road. It is composed of about 600 residences, 80 businesses on 368 acres, and has a little less than 1500 residents. At one time Weber City was home to several tobacco warehouses, where Scott County’s largest cash crop was brought to and sold before the great Burley Tobacco buy-out program that ended that practice.

Weber City boasts an elementary school, which was started as an extension of Gate City’s Shoemaker School in 1953-54 when classes were held in First Baptist Church. The school building was completed in 1954-55 on a 14 acre site that was bounded on one end by the Moccasin Creek, on another end by the tobacco warehouses. An eight room addition was added 1971-72 which included a school gym and a well-supplied library. The end of the spring semester in 1977 saw students from Clinchport bused to First Baptist in Weber City for the remainder of that school year. The flood in April was devastating for that community, so the county utilized resources of the community to help out with the need. Students from Weber City go to Gate City for middle through high school. Weber City’s mascot was “Packers.” Though at one time we were “Spiders.” I had a satchel that had that printed on it. I think it was a mistake, but I’ve always thought of myself as a “Spider” from Weber City.

A unique irony is that in 1898 a Reverend John Weber was assigned to a Methodist congregation just up highway 58 from Moccasin Gap, on the way to Hiltons. The community there was known by the name “Nottingham” but the name of the church was first called “Weber’s Chapel Methodist Church” to honor this pastor. What perhaps no one knows is that Rev. John L. Weber transferred out of Holston Conference of the Methodist Church in 1902 to become president of Kentucky Wesleyan College in the Kentucky Conference. His name was not related to Weber City, but he might be the only person with that last name who ever lived in the county for a time before Weber City was named.

Pastor of Nottingham Methodist Church at the time of its founding in 1898. Rev Weber transferred to Kentucky in 1902.

The southern end of Weber City was an older community that grew up around the family lands of the Wilhelm family. This family had a home that faced the river near where the highway 23 bridges are, on the Weber City side, land that was later owned by the Bray family, and has now become a business industrial development. Some of the older members of the Wilhelm family told me that their people ran a post office there. Early maps, pre-Weber City, show the community as “Wilhelm.” I’ve seen post cards of the old steel bridge that predated the modern bridges and the address was “River Bridge.” So those names may also pre-date Weber City.

Holston View Methodist Church started in this building just off Yuma Road across from Holston View cemetery. They relocated in a tan brick building in the 1960s across the highway behind the Clonce place.

But today’s town is a bedroom community of greater Kingsport with the school, several churches, a perpetual care cemetery, nursing facilities and several businesses. People pass through Weber City from points north to Tennessee, utilizing Highways 23 and Wadlow Gap Road, as well as US 58/421 known as the Gate City/Bristol Highway.

Annexation is not an easy process in Virginia, but Weber City could use the tax dollars from the businesses that line the highway from the state line to the river. I hope one day that will happen. In the meantime, pay attention to the town of Weber City next time you pass through. It has a long history.

Here’s a link to another piece of the history of Weber City: https://drbrop.wordpress.com/2016/02/06/history-of-a-part-of-weber-city-virginia/

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The Kerrs of Roxburghe

A few years ago I was given a family tree for the Scott side of the family that traced my heritage back to a family that was listed on the “Douglas Register,” a prominent list in Virginia. Only trouble was, it wasn’t right. It seems they had assumed a person with a common name was our ancestor when in fact another one was, from another state (North Carolina). And they weren’t that prominent, which seemed a lot more likely as our family isn’t that prominent today either.

So up the tree I began searching, and soon I found out that the mistaken identity was in relation to an ancestor named Jesse Scott. The real Jesse I descend from was from Surry County, North Carolina, on the western slope of Pilot Mountain, just a little below Mt. Airy, in full view of the Blue Ridge. Jesse had married a woman named Sarah Kerr. I didn’t think much about that because I didn’t know any Kerrs. I had run into some people by that name, but not many. There was even a drug store chain in North Carolina named Kerr Drugs.

I found that Jesse and Sarah had married in Surry County and soon found their way to the Clinch River Valley of Scott County, Virginia. It isn’t clear what happened to her, but she gave birth to a handful of young’ns and then she disappears from history. Jesse remarried in 1839 to a widow by the name of Polly Singleton, whose maiden name was McKnight. Their merged family created a new family. Jesse left two sons in Scott County, near Speers Ferry, and moved with Polly and her children to Harlan County, Ky, where they raised a new family.

Records in Surry County, NC exist of the marriage between Jesse Scott and Sarah Kerr. She was the daughter of Absalom T Kerr and Sarah Martin. Absalom Kerr was the son of Alexander Kerr and Rebecca Gourley. Alexander was son of John Kerr and Elizabeth Henderson. These families lived mostly in North Carolina, but originated in Virginia.

The immigrant ancestor, and the first one to live in Virginia, was a man by name of Alexander Kerr, son of Archibald Kerr, who was Laird of Graden at the time of Alexander’s birth. Come to find out Alexander was involved in a plot to assist in the restoration of the Stuart Pretender to the throne of England in 1715. His punishment, which was substituted for hanging, was to leave Scotland for Virginia. He came on the ship “Elizabeth and Ann” with 111 other Jacobite prisoners, and landed on my birthday (January 14) in 1716. Here he was treated with a little deference because his grandmother was a relative to Governor Alexander Spotswood (who enslaved my German ancestor Conrad Amburgey). He was able to set up a Jewelry and Silversmith shop in old Colonial Williamsburg, and bought a house right across from the Capitol building (now known as the Palmer House, and restored in the 1950s to how it might have looked originally). He is said to have partnered with a Randolph in opening up the Carolinas for settlement.

Alexander Kerr’s House in Williamsburg, VA, also called the Palmer House, fronting Duke of Gloucester Street.

What is so wild is that Alexander’s daddy was considered a leader of his people in Roxburghe. The Kerrs had a long history of involvement in the Scottish borderlands near the English border. And a really interesting ironic fact is that they were neighbors there of the Scotts. They were known to have had a long feud with their neighbors resulting in a death of the Scott Clan chief by Kerr family members.

The ancestral home of the Kerrs is Ferniehirst Castle. Here the Kerrs supported their King and held off trouble with the oft-invading English. They were known to go by a motto: “Sero sed serio (Late but in earnest)”. Archibald Kerr died in his 30s, leaving his three sons to be raised by their mother. One of the sons, Henry Kerr, was involved in a later Jacobite rebellion and died in 1751.

Ferniehirst Castle, in Scotland, home of the Kerrs.

My association with this family is thin. Sarah Kerr is my great-great-great-great grandmother. So the Kerrs of Roxburghe are pretty far back in the tree. But their story is fascinating. And their association with the Scotts is too.

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Remembering the Schoolhouse(s) Known as “Bell Ridge” in the Morrison City area of North Kingsport, Tennessee

There are three main places where children form their identity (or at least they used to): 1. Their home, 2. Their church, and 3. Their school.

Bell Ridge Elementary was a school built to serve people of the northwest corner of Sullivan County, Tennessee, north of Kingsport in the environs of Morrison City. The last building with this name still exists and is property of State Line Baptist Church which runs a Christian School therein. But it has been closed as a county school for several years.

There was a history of the school compiled back in the 1960s. It was compiled by Mrs. Bert Mays. Here’s what it says:

“History of Bell Ridge Schools

“According to Mr. Thomas Galloway and Mr. Emory Larkin, the first school ever known in the vicinity of Bell Ridge was a log building located in the hollow below the sharp curve about 200 yards from the fork of Bell Ridge Road on the road going to Lynn Garden. The school was appropriately named ‘Quagmire’ because of the boggy ground on which it stood. This building was a former dwelling house and was abandoned and torn down before the first Bell Ridge school was built.

“The first Bell Ridge, so named, because of the large bell hanging in the tower on the building, and the ridge on which it stood, was built in 1888. It was a boxed and stripped one room building about 30 ft. by 40 ft. in size. The building was plastered inside, but according to Mr. Larkin, long before the building burned, all the plaster along the walls within the reach of the students was broken away and used for the same purpose that the boys and girls of today use the modern spit ball.

“The seats were made of logs about seven feet long with planks nailed to the backs for desks. The five or six students on each seat moving about made writing on slates almost impossible.

“Water was carried in a bucket from the spring near the road of the house now owned by Mr. Henry Hood, then the Bill Harrison, and later the Harry Price property. All students shared a common drinking dipper.

“The school term was three or three and one half months long, beginning in August and closing in December.

“Students came to Bell Ridge from what is now Parker’s Chapel, West View, Bear Town, Lynn Garden, Tranbarger Hollow, and Cloud’s Ford. Fifty to sixty students would enroll but because there was no compulsory school law and the long walking distance, the average attendance was very low.

“The first teacher on record was Miss Molly Gott, a relative of the Gott families still living in the community. She taught the terms 1889-1893. Miss Gott, Mr. William Kerney and Mr. Baldwin all received $20.00 per month but by 1896 when Mr. Mack Horton came from Hancock County, he informed the school board that with his education he felt he should receive $30.00 per month. He got the raise. The other teachers had to pay $10 per month for board but Mr. Horton boarded for free among his students, going from home to home each night. He really struck it rich.

“Miss Annie Mitchell, a familiar name in the Sullivan County Schoools taught the school in 1899.

“Mr. Larkin told of starting to school at the age of six and finishing his education in the middle of the fourth grade several years later, while Mr. Galloway started to school at the age of six years and quit at the age of twenty-two. He went through the eighth grade three times. He went to Secondary School at Old Kingsport, but found the walk too long, so after three days, he quit.

“The teachers seldom taught more than one year at the same school. From 1892 through 1904 Bell Ridge had ten teachers, with Miss Molly Gott, Mr. Mack Horton, and Miss Nettie Gott teaching two years each.

“On November 1, 1905, during a high wind, sparks blew on to the board roof and ignited the Bell Ridge School and it burned to the ground. The teacher, Mr. Edgar Galloway and the students, one of which was Mr. Tom Galloway, were able to carry all the seats and other furniture outside and save them. Mr. Harrison allowed used of an old log house near the spring to be used for the school the rest of the term.

“In 1906, work was started on the new building on the site now owned by Mr. Gilliam. The building was on the back of the lot. The first school taught in this building was a subscription school, because of the lack of County funds. This school was taught by Miss Bessie Perry, who later became Mrs. Herbert W. Ketron Sr., mother of Mr. H. W. Ketron, Jr. and Buck Ketron. She taught two years and was followed by Mr. T. Mack Ketron, Mr. H. W. Ketron, taught in the year 1910.

“In 1915, Miss Carrie Parker, the present Mrs. Albert McKenzie was the teacher. Mr. T. M. Galloway taught the school in 1919 due to a shortage of teachers the school did not start until January, and lasted five months. That year 59 pupils enrolled, some have children and grand children now attending the present Bell Ridge School.

“This one room building was torn away in 1923 and the material was used to build the house where Mr. and Mrs. Kelly Larkin now live.

“The three room building erected in 1923 was built on the same site as the old one but on the front of the lot. The first teachers to teach in this building were Miss Cleo Hodges and Miss Ora Frazier.

“It was in this building on Friday, September 8, 1933, with the help of one of our present teachers, Miss Myrtle Foust that the Bell Ridge P. T. A. was organized. The principal at this time was Mr. Perry Keys. The first president of Bell Ridge P. T. A. Was Mrs. E. B. Marshall; the first Vice President was Mrs. J. E. Gott; the first Treasurer was Mrs. J. P. Larkin, and Miss Foust was the first Historian.

“This three room building was use until October 1937 when the first four rooms of the present building was built.

“Teachers from 1892-1919

Miss Molly Gott 1891-1894

William Kerney 1895

N. M. Baldwin 1895

Mack Horton 1897-1898

Charlie Shipp 1899

Sam Jones 1900

Byrd Harkleroad 1901

James Lambreth 1902

Nettie Gott 1903-1904

Edgar Galloway 1905

Bessie Perry 1906-1907

T. Mack Ketron 1908

George Dolen 1909

Herbert W. Ketron 1910

T. Mack Ketron 1911-1912

Lillian Henderson 1914

Grace Watkins 1915

Carrie Parker 1916

Lucy Hickam 1917

no school 1918

T. M. Galloway 1919

“All this information was secured by Mrs. Bert Mays”

Then in hand-written notes at the bottom of the page are these notes:

“1938-1951 Carl Chase, principal

1951-1972 Otis T. Stair

1973-1983 Charlotte W. McKay

5 additions–last one was Cafeteria/gym–2 class rooms, 4 restrooms, 1963”

Bell Ridge School at the time it was closed, Charlotte McKay photographer

The three room school

A map of Morrison City created by Tom Galloway, who is a source of the material in Mrs. Mays’ narrative. There are several locations shown of Bell Ridge School. The Holston River would be on the west side of this map, but got cut off.

Teacher, Mrs Mary K Minton, 1947-48

First row: Betty Jean Gott, Betty Carr, Nellie Bradley, Allen Clonce, Peggy Ann Feugerson, Dallas Darnell, Jr Stapleton, Niel Shipley, Hezekiah Kindle

2nd Row: Eleanor Johnson, Kelsie Price, Jeanette Reed, Charles Hugh Gilliam, Charles Vaughn, Sammy Jones, Glen ?, Eugene Tower?, Jack Collins

3rd Row: Carl Duncan, Wesley Smith, Wayne Mitchel, Alice Gott, Ulavene Derrick, Margie Rainey, Jo Ann Clonce, P. C. McCoy, Lloyd Parker,

Teacher: Miss Artie Dean

Front Row: Hezekiah Kindle, Benny, Norma Jean McMurray, Artis Parris, Nellie Bradley, Dallis Darnell, Margaret Lane, Betty Jean Gott,

2nd Row: Peggy Feugerson, Junior Stapleton, Charles Hugh Gilliam, Janie Hobbs, Allen Clonce, Jeanette Reed, Kelsie Price, Neil Shipley,

3rd Row: Betty Carr, Margie Rainey, Wayne Mitchell, Jack Collins, Florence Ketron, Marlyn Munsey, Eleanor Johnson,

4th Row: Miss Jones, Wesley Smith, Frank Rainey, J. L. Dalton, Alice Gott, Jo Ann Gott

Front row: Ronald Smith, Omer Henry, Edwin Smith, Neal Shipley, Margaret Jayne, Bobby Barret, Norman Hensley, Wayne Jennings, Betty Joe Fletcher, Eula Dean Kindle

2nd Row: Kitty Hicks, Helen Galloway, Barbara Ferguson, Norene Richard, Joyce Dingus, Shirley Russell, Patsy Carter, Cleo Collins, Delores Davidson, Billy Jack Steward, James Davidson,

3rd Row: O. D. Dalton, Lucille McClain, Frankie Owens, Nancy Shoun, Barbara Ann Collins, Virginia Jones, Patty Richards, Gwynn Mullins

4th Row: Lanny Fletcher, Garland Burton, Charles Collins, Marvin Larkin, Evelyn Collins, Douglas Dingus

Teacher Avery Carroll, Mar. 1947, 7th Grade

1st Row: Eula Dean Patrick, Imogene Price, Wanda Lane, Edith Patrick, Otis Reed, Patsy Carr, Barbara Gibson,

2nd Row: Houston Peters, Mary F. Clonce, Betty Jo Fletcher, Irene Reed, Katherine Carter, Wayne Jennings, Jimmie Click, Earl White,

3rd Row: Dolores Davidson, Norman Hensley, Donald Flanary, Edwin Smith, Benny Collins, Glen Munsey, Virginia Jones, Maxine McMurray, Beuford Salyer

4th Row: Donald Little, Dorothy Derrick, Calvin Caldwell, Claude ?, Carolyn?, Bobby Morelock, Glen Larkin, Patricia ?

Teacher Mrs. Dana Spencer

Margaret Jayne, Betty Jo Fletcher, Edwin Smith, Don Flanary, Johnny Neeley, Eula Dean Kindle, Maxine McMurray, Imogene Price, Louise Minor, Edith Patrick, Be ny Collins, 2nd row: Wayne Jennings, Houston Peters, Mary Brooks, Lawrence Flanary, Irene Rock, Virginia Jones, Jimmy Click, Don Little, Glen Larkin, Lyndon Collin,

3rd Row: Dolores Stapleton, Norman Hensley, Cleo Collins, Norma Richard, Calvin Caldwell, Garland Rogers, Bobby Morelock, Mary ?, Mable Fugate, Dorothy Derrick

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A Song of Unity from Long Ago

A man was enjoying the freedom found in the wilderness of the young nation of America. He was living any way he wanted to, not having a moral compass, but doing what he wanted, when he wanted, regardless of any harm brought on anyone else. But soon he fell under the convicting power of the Holy Ghost. He was off in Kentucky having a good time when he heard of his own mother’s death. He came under terrifying guilt and grief. He refused to keep a fast that President Adams had requested of the nation on May 9, 1797. This also caused him to come under conviction and a measure of mental anguish. He was a teacher at the time and left his classroom in fear of having his pupils see him weep under such a powerful sense of doom and damnation. This man of letters later happened upon a Methodist circuit riding preacher who tried to give him advice. John Adam Granade then burned his playing cards, cut off the ruffles of his shirt with a pen knife, and cut off his hair (of which he was very proud). He began attending Methodist Class Meetings and sought the leader’s counsel and prayers. He was so distressed as to give up his teaching responsibilities. He wrote of this season of anguish:

“When hills and mountains all are fled,

Where will you hide your guilty head?

O! Wretched man, where will you rove,

You’ve slighted a Redeemer’s love?

Black horror seized my guilty heart,

Thro every vein I felt the smart;

I fell and almost lost my breath

And thought I soon should sink in death.”

To make a long story short, Granade found the powerful saving grace of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and changed his focus from the world we see to the world to come. Here’s his own description of that event:

“That very moment heaven, that I ever thought was forever sealed against me, opened. The glory of the Lord, as a rushing, mighty wind, descended from heaven and filled my whole being. I began to whisper these words: ‘Adoration to God and the Lamb.’ And as I repeated these words, the power increased, the heavens, the earth, and every thing in a moment put on a new aspect. I could keep silence no longer, but cried out, ‘Glory to God! Glory and adoration to God and the Lamb forever!’ Thus streams of glory divine poured in upon me and I went all over the encampment, until midnight, praising Him who had brought me such deliverance.” (Told in Richard A Humphrey’s compilation of the History and Hymns of John Adam Granade, 1991)

Referring to himself as the second Lazarus, Granade’s conversion was a remarkable one. He was described as “the Wild Man” due to his joy and exhortations. His time as a circuit riding preacher was just a few short years, and he located, or retired, to a home in western Tennessee, and died shortly thereafter. But he wrote songs of praise.

One of those songs is of particular interest in the present moment of the life of the United Methodist Church, and as Granade was a Methodist, I leave it hear for your pondering:

[set to the tune “Nettleton” 87.87 D, aka “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”]

“Good Shepherd”

John Adam Granade, 1802

1. Let Thy kingdom, blessed Savior,

Come and bid our jarrings cease;

Come, oh Come! And reign forever,

God of love and Prince of Peace!

Visit now poor bleeding Zion!

Hear Thy people mourn and weep!

Day and night, Thy lambs are crying;

Come, Good Shepherd, feed Thy sheep!

2. Some for Paul, some for Apollos,

Some for Cephas; none agree;

Jesus let us hear thee call us;

Help us Lord to follow Thee;

Then we’ll rush thro what encumbers

Over every hindrance leap,

Undismayed by force of numbers;

Come, Good Shepherd, feed thy sheep!

3. Lord in us there is no merit;

We’ve been sinners from our youth;

Guide us, Lord, by Thy Good Spirit,

Which shall teach us all the truth;

On thy gospel word we’ll venture,

Till in death’s cold arms we sleep;

Love our Lord, and Christ, our Savior;

Oh, Good Shepherd, feed thy sheep!

4. Come, good Lord, with courage arm us!

Persecution rages here;

Nothing, Lord, we know can harm us,

While our Shepherd, Christ, is near:

Glory! Glory be to Jesus!

At his name our spirits leap;

He both comforts us and frees us:

The Good Shepherd feeds His sheep.

5. Hear the Prince of our salvation

Saying “Fear not, little flock;

I myself am your foundation;

Ye are built upon this Rock:

Shun the paths of vice and folly:

Scale the mount, altho’ ‘tis steep;

Look to me, and be ye holy!

I delight to feed my sheep!”

6. Christ alone, whose merit saves us

Taught by Him we’ll own His name;

Sweetest of all names is Jesus;

How it doth our souls enflame!

Glory! Glory! Glory! Glory!

Give him glory, He will keep:

He will clear your way before kyou:

The Good Shepherd feeds His sheep.

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Beautiful Hills of Home

It’s a song about Ralph and Carter Stanley, the iconic Bluegrass men from the Clinch Mountains of Virginia (well, actually Sandy Ridge over in Dickenson County, but I’m not going to fuss about that right now). Hearing Ralph, the second, sing this is a gift to the bluegrass world. I can still see his dad, Dr. Ralph Stanley, at the Hills of Home Festival a few years back, shaking hands with people in the humble, southwest Virginia style of an Appalachian Mountain Man. He was very personable and genuine. I’ll never forget the experience of being at his funeral at that sacred spot near his home, which he called the “Hills of Home” park. Larry Sparks, Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, and Vince Gill, among others, participated. This song pulls a sense of homesickness out of anybody who isn’t in those beautiful hills, but was born and raised there. Here’s the words:

Beautiful Hills of Home

Billy and Joan Wise

In the deep rolling hills of old Virginia

Is where Dad and Uncle Carter lie.

Well they’re gone but they’ll never be forgotten

And their Clinch Mountain music will never die.

I can still hear them singing about their mother;

And “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?”

Now they’re resting on that peaceful mountain

In those beautiful hills of home!

For twenty some years they sang together.

Then Dad had to do it on his own.

But now God has put them back together

In those beautiful hills of home.

(Recorded by Ralph Stanley II)

The song is available on iTunes.

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When Your Family Tree Becomes All Hung Up

There are several places up my family tree where I’m completely stuck when it comes to figuring out the preceding generation. Some of these places will continue to be dead ends since documents just don’t exist. Others are possible to find out about as new records present themselves and continued searching may bear fruit in the future. But sometimes you have to just admit, your ancestors really didn’t want you knowing everything you’d like to know about them. And maybe there’s good reason for that. My grandfather used to warn me not to go looking too far up the tree. “You might find something you don’t want to know.”

Like for instance, I’ve been searching for years for the origin of the paternal roots of one particular ancestor. Her name was Lucinda A. Brickey. She hails from Scott County, Virginia. Records exist showing her as being 1 year old in 1850, the first year children are listed with adults in the census record. She is living in the household of Elijah and Jane Brickey (who are 46 and 48 years of age, respectively). The others in the household are Sarah E., age 20, and Polly J., age 17. At first glance, it appears Elijah and Jane had a baby pretty late in life, but that isn’t the case. Lucinda belongs to Sarah E., their daughter, who is still living at home. Where’s the daddy? This is where I’ve been stuck.

Lucinda married William B. Greear, from Scott County, VA. She had a good life, lived in Kentucky several decades, and returned to Virginia where she died in 1933 in Norton. She was buried in the Greear Cemetery in Wood, in Scott County, Virginia, on top of a hill overlooking the Clinch River. Here’s her burial stone:

Now, to the questions of her origin. Sarah E. Brickey seems to be related to the household of Elijah and Jane Brickey, probably a daughter. No marriage exists between her and anyone prior to her marriage to a man named Rufus Sluss in 1851, the year after that census when she was living at home with her daughter in her parents’ home. She was 21 when she married Mr Sluss. He was born in 1811, making him around 40 years of age at the time of his marriage (which was his second marriage, having married Mary Burton in 1830). Often widowers would take younger wives, especially if the first wife died and they were left with children to raise. In fact if you had children from a prior relationship, and you were female, oftentimes the children from the first marriage would be adopted out to family members, like grandparents. This is what happened with Sarah. Lucinda, her daughter from a previous relationship, was raised by her grandparents, Sarah’s parents, after 1851 when Sarah married Rufus.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. I’ve searched for information on Sarah and any possibility of a prior marriage. It just doesn’t show up anywhere. At least not until I saw Lucinda’s death certificate. On it a father is listed. The name is Elijah Jessee. Now two things are possible. Elijah could have been someone who met and fathered a child with Sarah, and then died or moved on or something. I can’t find him in early census records. If he was in the area before 1850 he would have been a son to someone with a surname “Jessee” and would not have appeared on his own. He isn’t present in 1850 near the Brickey household, so one is led to believe he either died or relocated prior to that census.

The second possibility, and one that is a little harder to stomach, is that Sarah had a child with her own father as the child’s father. In other words, as the result of incest. Elijah Brickey was sometimes listed as Elijah Jesse Brickey. Lucinda has a son with William B. Greear who is Elijah Jesse Greear. Is she honoring a grandfather? Or is she recognizing her own father? Or both?

Here’s Lucinda’s death certificate:

As you can see, legal documents are good, but they also present more questions sometimes. This is the closest thing I have to a proof of paternity for Lucinda, but it still doesn’t answer everything. The certificate was filled out by a physician who got the information from the person listed as the “informant.” That is W. B. Greear, Lucinda’s husband. His knowledge of her paternity would have been taken from her during her life and he would have been recalling it. Memory could have mixed things up, or it could be 100 percent accurate. Which is which is anybody’s guess.

The bad thing about AncestyDNA is that even though it could answer some questions, the further back you go in generations, the further you get away from strong DNA evidence, so even that is a partial answer, and not reliable.

So we are left to guess, and wonder and contemplate who fathered great great grandmother Lucinda Brickey Greear in 1849. And we will probably never know the truth.

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“Excuse Me, May I Look Inside Your Biscuit?”

First, let me admit, I come from a pretty crazy family. Awesome, but crazy people.

I saw Uncle Bob not long ago and he reminded me of this story I’ve heard my dad tell multiple times through the years. Since it’s Kentucky Derby weekend, it’s a good time to bring it up.

Daddy was raised over around Norton, Virginia. Not in Norton proper, but up a holler to the west of town, at the end of a row of little homes, and across from a barn with a pretty good sized horse lot. He was born near the end of the Great Depression, so the family was struggling to get on their feet after that enormous event, and they continued to struggle. Just to put it mildly, money wasn’t something that had currency in this family. (Pun intended).

So, Daddy was sitting on the front porch of their house, when he was nine or ten years old, looking out over the horse lot in front of the barn across the road. As he stared off in that distance, he couldn’t help notice something shining in the field. Being a Wise County, Virginia young’un he wasn’t about to let this pass by without giving it a good investigation. After all, shiny isn’t something you expect coming from a field, especially one in front of a barn. So off he went.

When he got over there, he found the object of this shine was coming from nothing anymore important than your garden variety “horse biscuit.” Now. Do I need to explain that? Some of you aren’t from around here, so let me just say, a “horse biscuit” doesn’t belong on your table. It isn’t a Southern mountain delicacy. It’s the stuff that comes out of a horse’s back end, and while it can be used for fertilizer, it isn’t anything you want to be near most of the time.

But this day was different.

What was causing the gleam from the before-noted equine source? Apparently this horse had a rich appetite, for lo and behold, this meadow biscuit contained several shiny coins, including a quarter, and probably a dime or some nickels. All which, when obtained so freely from so readily available a source, caused dollar signs to appear in the eyes of the beholder, and my Daddy, in this young state of his, spent the rest of the day going from horse biscuit to horse biscuit throughout the neighbor’s field, inspecting each one in the event that another might have even more of this metal treasure contained within.

My Uncle said in his retelling “We spent the rest of the day looking for coins in that field.” Aha! It wasn’t just Daddy. At least one of his brothers was busy with him looking for that money.

So, this weekend, while you’re sipping your mint juleps and watching the horses run around the oval, don’t forget, there’s treasure found in odd places. Well, that’s not advice, just a statement.

Mammaw, pass the applebutter. My biscuit is dry.

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Labor Day: Celebration of Working People

As flags go up around the town where I’m living in 2018 in Georgia, I can’t help but reflect on the people who raised me and the work ethic they exhibited. Labor Day is a good excuse to celebrate them.

I tell folks I was a “Kingsport Press Strike Baby,” although my mom objects to that. The Press (one of four major industrial forces in the economy of Kingsport, Tennessee) was where many of the men in my family worked by the middle of the twentieth century. It was known to be the largest hard-back book manufacturing facility in the country. My grandfather, Rob Smith, went to work for “The Press” (in Kingsport you always put “the” in front of the one-word name of the place you worked: “the Eastman” “the Mead”, “the Press.”). He started about 1929. He worked himself up to running a whole bookbinding machine by himself. He told me how it worked, and used to keep me quiet on the back pew of the church by slowly and meticulously showing me the mechanics behind how a book was bound, using hymnals in our pew racks as examples.

By 1963, the labor union of which he was a part (the Pressman’s Union or “Allied Press Unions”) went on strike. Pappaw (as he was known to me), had to live up to his commitment to be part of the group that had fought for decent wages and better working conditions. He joined the strike and walked the picket line. Several uncles, as well as my own dad walked out as well. His brother, Uncle Clyde also joined the strike. Pappaw’s son, my Uncle Wes later moved to New Jersey to find work in a factory there. Uncle Bud, another son, got a motor route to carry the Kingsport paper to subscribers in the area. Daddy (married to pappaw’s daughter) left and started selling vacuum cleaners, first for Kirby, and later at Sears Roebuck, & Co. In case you’re paying attention, the strike happened in April, and I was born the following January. You do the math.

When I think back to my memories of growing up in the aftermath of the strike, I remember my Pappaw working hard at whatever he could find to do. He would start the day feeding whatever cattle might be in the barnyard. He would milk Old Bessie, our Jersey cow, who was gentle as could be. Then he’d come back to the house, wash up, and eat breakfast that Mammaw made in the kitchen of Granddaddy Ketron’s house. They had moved there shortly after Grandmother died to help Granddaddy with cooking, cleaning, and farming. Mammaw was also a hard worker, getting up as soon as the sun was up, stirring up breakfast, planning the meals for the day and week, and processing the fresh milk brought in each morning and afternoon, then canning the garden produce and cleaning the house and keeping her activities at church on schedule, where she was also the financial secretary, in charge of counting and depositing offerings and attending meetings once in a while.

Pappaw’s dreams were dashed with the strike. He owned land over near Bell Ridge, in “Morrison City,” as it was called, a neighborhood in Carter’s Valley, just north of Kingsport. He dreamed of building a house on that land, which was atop a hill with nice views overlooking the valley and the north fork of the Holston River, just a bit south of where Possum Creek flows into it. The strike also meant the end of his planned retirement. As the company negotiated with the union, they eventually folded and a new company was formed, and old obligations went up like smoke into thin air.

So his days were mostly filled with hauling cattle to market for neighbors who needed him, doctoring those same cattle with what knowledge he had (which was a good bit for a fellow who only stayed in school through 8th grade). And in spring and fall, he would go throughout Morrison City plowing and disking gardens for people, many of whom insisted on having gardens, because they had all come from family farms to this neighborhood. His little red Massey Ferguson, and the little white ford tractors were busy during those times, with him driving all over the valley providing this much needed service. Then in hay time he would return to the fields around Granddaddy’s house and put up acres and acres of hay. Usually that meant a couple or more trips to Rogersville to buy parts to keep the mowing machine, hay rake, and baler all in good repair. He still found time to put out a huge garden, enough to feed several families, and to work the tobacco patch, which payed for the taxes on the place, and sometimes helped with a modest Christmas.

He was able to do all this, and to provide for his and Mammaw’s needs because he had learned to conserve resources because he had raised momma and her three brothers all during the Great Depression. He talked often of the scarcity of money and the fear they’d run out of food and other needed items during that time. This is when he became committed to the life of hard work with which he had been raised. He scrimped and saved and worked and labored with his own hands and kept doing his job at the press in those depression years. He told me more than once that even though money was tight, the family never did without. He seemed proud of that.

Oh, and he also put tar-paper in the cattle racks of the big truck and drove over into the coal fields around St. Charles and hauled coal back to several people who burned it as their main source of heat. He made several runs until efforts were made to convert old furnaces into oil heat or heat pumps. I still remember going to his parents’ house in Bell Ridge area (or more specifically, McKenzie Holler), and watching the coal burn in the shallow fireplace of the log house where they lived. I was never warmer than when sitting in front of Grandmother Smith’s coal fire.

We were fortunate to have tractors and equipment on our farm. Our neighbors back at the Bluff were the Collings family, who still farmed with a team of horses. Wesley Collings mowed hay off very steep hills, hills which made a natural bowl shape on his farm, and stacked the hay in the bottom of the bowl by hand, until I was ten or twelve years of age.

I worshiped every step Pappaw took. I was his constant companion, and I learned a lot from him. I can still see him washing his hands in the sink that was on the back porch. He would fix the faucet to where it would make this distinct sound as the water ran out, “shsh, shsh, shsh,” and slowly he would soap up his hands and arms, rinse them off, and grab the towel that was always on the nail between the windows and dry off real good. He would also clean the tobacco out of his teeth, getting ready to eat.

Often times he would grab an old jar saved for this purpose and fill it with water and ice and seal it good, and carry it off with him to whatever job he was going to do that day. Many times I’ve been happy to drink after him out of that old jar when we were hot and thirsty.

He worried about my generation and those that were coming afterwards, because we weren’t raised to work quite like he was. We didn’t value what we had and take care of it like he did. And seemed to want things quickly, when he knew the value of saving and earning and buying carefully, with cash, not credit. He often told me of building the house I grew up in, the first house he actually owned, which was built on a small lot across the creek from Granddaddy’s house. He told me with great pride, that he had given the builders the last dollar as the last nail was being driven into it. This, the result of his working hard at “the Press” to provide for his little family. After he and mammaw moved to Granddaddy’s house, he rented this house out to his son, Wes, and his new bride, Thelma. Later mom and dad rented it after Wes and Thelma moved to New Jersey. That’s where I was raised until 7th grade, when we built a house on the back pasture.

His generation worked. They worked hard, and they built this great country. We could learn a lot from them. I’m thankful for them on this Labor Day.

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The Woman Who Stabbed Her Brother and Packed It Off On Her Husband

Papaw Scott tried to warn me. He said, “if you keep poking around up the family tree, you might find something you don’t want to know.” Which, can I be honest? It just made me poke around all the more.

And a few years ago I became acquainted with a story I had never heard. One that was filled with intrigue, sibling rivalry, and even a murder. Want to hear it?

The year was 1883. The place was the greater Fairview area in Scott County, Virginia. It was a time when people made a living farming the land. A relative by the name of William A. Scott (who is a first cousin, about four times removed), was growing corn on some land he had rented from some neighbors. The land was not easy to get to without crossing his sister’s place, so he had determined that as he harvested his corn he would haul it across the field belonging to his sister Amanda C. Scott Robinette, wife of Connolly Fields Robinett. Mr Robinett was about 19 years of age at the time, and Mr. Scott was about 35. The two families had been arguing. The Robinett family did not want Scott crossing their land and had threatened him within an inch of his life if he did. But being the older brother, and feeling somehow entitled to cross this field, Scott set out to do it in defiance of his sister’s family’s expressed wishes.

In the morning as Scott set out to gather his corn, with Robinett’s brother working for him that day, he noticed Connolly Robinett going up the road to the store, so he took that as a sign he could go on across, lowered the fence rails and headed towards the corn field. This raised the ire of his sister Amanda, who spotting him doing this deed, sent her little boy after his pa. By the time Robinett got back, Scott had changed plans and gone to another part of the Robinett land to cross to his field. This incensed his sister and her husband. Mr Robinett immediately meets Scott and begins a fight. Mrs Scott soon joins the melee and hits her brother on the head with a sharp edged rock. The two men continue fighting. All of a sudden, Scott claims he’s been stabbed. The fight ends and Scott sits on a nearby log where he soon afterwards dies of a wound to his heart.

Ira Robinett, a neighbor, comes to the scene and finds a pair of scissors on the ground, picks them up and places them on the fence, not thinking that this could be the murder weapon. After the excitement dies down, Connolly Robinett owns up to stabbing Scott. He is indicted by the grand jury for the murder in the January term of the court in 1884. He gets bailed out of jail and leaves the state. Later he is declared a fugitive from justice. Under this allegation, another decree is issued dissolving the marriage of Amanda Robinett from her husband, in 1888. She married Harry Daugherty one month after the divorce decree is ordered.

This would be a simple story except for one fact. Connolly Robinett isn’t the murderer. Amanda C. Scott later shoots the wife of one of her lovers and gets sent to prison. Depositions are taken by several of the neighbors at the time of the murder. They explain the known violent threats that were being made toward Scott by his sister before the day of his death. It is concluded that Connolly Robinett did not carry a knife, as he was known to lose them, so he didn’t carry one. The scissors would have come from the hands of Mrs Robinett who had been doing her housework inside the house. She killed her brother in anger.

Connolly Robinett was known to use aliases. He was also known as Connolly Fields. And when he moved to Missouri, it is thought he lived under the name Henry Roller for a while. He became prosperous out west. His ex wife served time in prison for shooting the wife of her lover, and upon her release died a short time later of consumption and was never arraigned for the murder of her brother. But in 1909 Connolly Robinett, aka Connolly Fields was restored by order of the governor of the commonwealth of Virginia, the Honorable J. Hoge Taylor.

In his memoirs, my Great Grandfather, James P. Scott made reference to his ancestor, Margaret Ingram Speer. He said of her Ingram lineage “where there’s a drop of Ingram blood, there’s a streak of hell-fire.” I never knew what that meant until I read of the restless behavior of Uncle John Scott’s children, Amanda and William. And it explains behavior in some of the rest of us as well. At least partly.

Source: Scott County, Virginia Chancery Court Records; compilations of materials from Ancestry.com

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Places I’ve Lived: North Tazewell, Virginia

After my wife and I married in 1992, we worked to build up the churches where I was at that time, Belfast and Midway UMC near Cedar Bluff, Virginia.  Around the end of 1993 I began to sense that it was time to move on.  Nearing the finish of my first run as pastor of a charge, I began looking forward to the chance to start fresh somewhere else.  And I looked forward to going into the next appointment as a couple with my wife in tow.IMG_0485

So we started praying and I tried to prepare my young bride for the possibility of a move anywhere within the boundaries of Holston Conference (which is composed of UM churches in Southwest Virginia, from Radford west to KY, and east Tennessee (as far west as Oak Ridge and Dayton), and as far south as the northwest corner of Georgia.  That information brought her absolutely no comfort, but she maintained that she would go wherever I was appointed.

Then we were told our projected appointment was going to be in Tazewell District, in the town of North Tazewell.  My wife and her prayers put us within a 12 mile drive from her mom and dad in Bandy, Virginia.  We had struck gold.

North Tazewell, Virginia is a town that developed along the railroad when the N&W was built through the Clinchfield region.  Because the town of Tazewell was built on a hill, and the railroad could do better by staying closer to the Clinch River, the depot and other buildings were built north of the county seat.  The town of North Tazewell was soon incorporated as a separate community.  Tazewell had first been called “Jeffersonville” and then Tazewell Court House.  Developers decided to try to develop a “resort” community between the old court house town and the new North Tazewell area.  That planned development placed several homes on the hills between the community.  It also led to building a street car system that would haul passengers from the train depot in North Tazewell all the way up to Main Street in the court house district of Tazewell.  In-between Tazewell and North Tazewell the community was named “Car-line” after that street car.  Others called it “Shake-Rag.”IMG_0483 2

The North Tazewell Church was established in the 1860s in an area just north of the depot town, up Whitley Branch, on a hill now covered by a subdivision named “Goose Creek Estates.”  It was referred to as “Gravel Hill” in those days.  A little white, wood-frame building was erected there to serve the needs of people in the area.

After the train depot was built in the 1880s, the church decided to move to town and tore their building down piece-by-piece.  They rebuilt it right beside the train tracks, near where Repass Barber Shop is today (with the sign that says “We need your head in our business).  But due to the noisy situation of trains shifting at the water tank near the church’s new site, they found the location unsatisfactory.  About this time the Lutherans, who had built their church of brick on a large lot on the north side of Riverside Drive, decided to abandon that location to move to a lot across from Tazewell Presbyterian Church in the county seat.  That left their beautiful brick sanctuary up for sale.  The Methodists decided to buy it.  And they made it their new home.

The church grew to be a strong little church, supported by families who were related to a local grocery store chain.  One family took responsibility for renovating the sanctuary in the 1940s, making it look very much like an little English Chapel, with built-in pulpit and kneeling rail, and exposed wooden rafters.  They did this for the wedding of one of their daughters.IMG_0484

By the time I got there, most of the grocery store employees were retired and it wouldn’t be long before that chain discontinued operating.  In fact the church as a whole was composed of several senior members (people in their 70s, 80s and 90s).  Just one or two younger families were there, and they struggled to keep Sunday School going for their kids.

While I was there the congregation had a rebirth.  About the second year into my time as pastor, people started showing up.  The congregation swelled from 30 some in attendance to over 80 some Sundays.  People who had stopped coming returned.  New people came, and soon there was a buzz in that church as ministry began happening and God began doing a work among us.

We ran out of room.  Two things happened to help with that.  A lady who owned property behind the church decided to sell, but she told everyone she would never sell to “those Methodists.”  So one of the families in the church bought the property and sold it to the church.  That gave us room to expand some parking, and think about using the property for new ministry.

Across the street from the church was the old Town Hall.  North Tazewell had been a separate town until the late 1960s or early 1970s when the cost of keeping the town up just became too much and they decided to merge with the town of Tazewell.  The grocery store chain decided to take the town hall and use it for a produce warehouse for a few years, but by the time I came there it had been pretty much abandoned.  We kept looking at it and wandering what it would be like to own that.

After much discussion, I called an agent of Acme Grocers and just asked what it would cost to rent, lease, or buy that property.  The man was very interested in my questions, and told me to let him check around and get back to me.  I figured that would be the last I’d hear from him.  But I was wrong.  A couple weeks later he called me and said:  “Brad, we have decided to give your church that building.”

The next few weeks were exciting as the congregation dreamed how they could use it.  They decided to open a thrift store.  It is still running.  It is called “Lilies of the Fields,” referring to Jesus stating in the sermon on the mount:  “Consider the lilies of the fields . . . ”

It was at North Tazewell that I finally got to meet my famous actor-cousin, George C. Scott.  My dad’s second cousin, (my second cousin, once removed), he was in Tazewell County to make what was his final movie, a made-for-tv movie that was named “Country Justice.”  I met the people who were setting up places to film, as they were inquiring about churches, and wanted to look inside North Tazewell Church as a possible film site.  They decided not to use it, but they invited me to come to the film set one day and meet George.  I went on a day when snow was piled up about 8-10 inches.  They told me he didn’t like to meet people and he never liked to get out of character while he was filming, but that he had agreed to give me 5 minutes.  I said, “That’s plenty for me.”  Soon I was shaking hands with the man who turned down an Academy Award for “Patton.”  I have had a better time talking to some of his close family than I had talking to him, but at least I can say I met him.  I wonder if he ever told anyone he met me?4176-2

Tammie and I left North Tazewell after five years.  We had loved the congregation and they had loved us back.  We shed many tears and hugged many necks as we left.


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Places I’ve Lived: Paint Lick, VA

Back in 1989 I was appointed to the  Belfast-Midway Charge in the Tazewell District of the Holston Conference.  My first appointment out of seminary, it was my first charge as a pastor, and I was given the reigns of two rural, small membership congregations which were yoked together to be able to support a full-time pastor.  As I’ve already blogged about Belfast, I wanted to take a moment to tell about Midway.  IMG_0362

A road was built in ancient days that connected the communities of Tazewell (also known as “Jeffersonville” and later “Tazewell Court House,” before being simplified to “Tazewell”) and Lebanon, county seat towns of their respective counties.  It was a portion of the old Fincastle Turnpike that ran from that town north of Roanoke, Virginia, in Botetourt County all the way to the Cumberland Gap in Kentucky.  Many families traveled this route on their way to points west, but locals used the road to travel to the main towns in their areas.  About halfway between the two county seat towns existed a little community that got called “Midway,” for obvious reasons.  But Midway wasn’t the only name of the community.

Towering above Midway like a sentinel that could be seen for miles around was a beautiful mountain peak that ran along the west of Thompson Valley, known as Paint Lick.  It was so named because in a previous age Native Americans had found a substance located near the Little River that could be used to make paint.  So they used it to adorn their skin, their tools, their homes, etc.  But they also used it to dress the rocks along the mountain.

In 1989 I took a hike with some church members from Belfast up to the Indian Paintings on Paint Lick.  Some years before a troop of Boy Scouts had taken it upon themselves to paint outlines around the paintings so people could identify them as they continued to fade into obscurity.  The paintings are on private land, so there was no one to tell them not to, at least not in a government regulation sort of way.  They were sincerely trying to preserve them.

I’ve been told that paintings exist in more than one place on the mountain, but there is one particular “lick” or outcropping of rocks where a large number of the paintings are concentrated.  It is not really that hard to get to.  But our guide that day decided to take us straight up the side of the mountain.  We were climbing steep mountain side, sometimes having difficulty just taking a step.  Soon he decided he had taken us the wrong way.  We came out at a logging road.  We went up the logging road, which, though steep, was very much more manageable to travel.  Soon we were at the paintings.

The paintings can be described as characters or figures that denote things from nature.  A sun-like orb, a two-headed eagle or other type of bird, another crow-like bird, and a man.  There are others that are hard to figure out.

A woman, Gladys Steele, used to write a column for the newspaper about folks in “Paint Lick.”  Gladys lived in an old farm house, a rather large home, atop a hill not far from the Midway Church.  The home had been an important one in a previous age, and at one time served as the post office.

A school once set beside the church, and was called Midway School.  It was one room, and was used as a school until at least the 1940s.

The church was established around 1855.  It was said that Midway was established as the result of Preacher Bob Sheffey praying away a moonshine still.  Apparently the church was established in its place.  Don’t know about the verity of that, but it was a legend still being told when I was sent there.  A William Blankenship gave the land.  That was before the community of Cedar Bluff had formed, or Richlands, or most any other community around.  Midway was an old community.

The church had been hit by a wind storm some time in the 1920s or so.  The congregation decided to build it back smaller.  As a result, it is still rather small.  But the church was a great place for me to learn.  The majestic oaks that surrounded it were an inspiration.  They reminded me of the faith that came before us.  They always made me feel so small in their presence.

A couple in the Midway Church used to play piano and violin together.  Jim and Ruth Steele lived a stone’s throw below the church.  Jim had the original deed to the church.  They often played “One Day at a Time.”  It was so nice to hear in our worship time.  When I left the church I was given as my going away present a beautiful autoharp which I still have.  I think of Midway every time I play it.

A lady who is still living in that community would make homemade cake with caramel icing.  It was my absolute favorite.  She told me that whenever I wanted one to call her and she’d have it ready by the time I got there.



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Places I’ve Lived: Belfast, Virginia

The itineracy of the United Methodist Church requires us to go and live in places where the churches are located to which we are appointed by the bishop of our annual conference.  My first itineracy was to a place that was served by the Cedar Bluff, Virginia post office, but the community had its own name:  Belfast.   A friend of mine recently traveled to Ireland.  I told him he could stay right here in Southwest Virginia and within about two hours travel to both Belfast and Dublin.  These communities were named after their counterparts in the green island.

I came to Belfast in 1989.  It was much as it is today, except the main road, US Highway 19, was only two lanes.  Land had been purchased for the right of way to expand the highway, but work on constructing new lanes would become a project towards the end of my time there five years later.

Belfast starts about where the Tazewell County/Russell County line is, and goes south to spot where a long decline leads to the neighboring community of Rosedale.  It lies between the Clinch Mountain to the east, and the House and Barn Mountain to the west.  It is a beautiful green valley watered by a strong stream that comes out of Clinch Mountain.  The community was once centered on what is now a back road, where there was once a mill.  The advent of 911 service brought on the need to name roads, and one of the roads is called “Belfast Mills Road” to honor this old community.  The mill was placed along this creek and used the water therein to power the milling work.

A lot of Scots-Irish descendents people the hills and hollers around Belfast.  An old family named “Duff” settled on one tract that now faces the northbound land of US 19 in a beautiful bottom.  Upon discovering this tract, they felt so at home (they had immigrated from Ireland) that they called the place “Belfast,” after the Ulster capitol.  The name stuck and people found it a great identity.

A Ferguson family member once told me that there was a slave auction block located a little south of the old mill on the road that parallels the Clinch mountain range.  At one time the agricultural efforts of the people of Belfast was focused on raising wheat and other crops.  They produced quite a bit of wheat and were recognized for the quality of the crop.  In the green hills surrounding the tillable lands they pastured cows, sheep and horses.  They have been known to raise some fine beef cattle on these beautiful hills.

Across from the Belfast Elementary School lies a hill that is said to have been the site where a campmeeting was held for many years.  This campmeeting was organized by Methodist preachers and led to the organization of a permanent congregation or two in the area.  At one time the Belfast Circuit of the Methodist Church had about nine churches on it, serviced by one circuit riding preacher.  The Belfast Church was established in the 1880s, others not long afterwards.  Harmony Chapel, Bradshaw, Barrett’s Chapel (across Clifton Farm), Clifton, and a couple congregations in nearby Tazewell County made up the bulk of the churches on the circuit (including Midway at Paintlick, and Green’s Chapel).  Sometimes these church houses doubled as schools in the days of subscription schools.  Community members would pool their funds and hire a teacher to teach their kids.


Belfast United Methodist Church as it appears today, constructed in the 1970s after a fire destroyed the old wood frame building that had served the community from the 1800s.

Eventually a school was built across from the Belfast Church, and a parsonage was also erected nearby, all funded by the locally famous “Governor” Stuart.  The parsonage was built in the second decade of the 1900s, about 1912 if I remember correctly.  Later as the county took over the schools a new building was built further down the road.  At the time I was living in Belfast, the first three or four grades were taught at Belfast, and then students traveled to Elk Garden School to get the rest of their elementary education before traveling to Lebanon for Middle and High School.

One of the interesting tales I encountered while serving Belfast was that of the Taylor family.  In the 1920s and 1930s the famous Carter family (AP, Sarah, and Mother Maybelle) were recording music that became the origin of country music.  A. P. Carter is said to have found his way to Belfast where the Eva and Alma Taylor family sang “My Old Clinch Mountain Home” to him.  According to local tradition, A. P. Carter then recorded the song and never gave the Taylors credit for it.  Some of the song as given to me by the Taylors goes like this:

Far away upon a hill

On a sunny mountain side  

Many years ago we parted,

My little Ruth and I,

From my sunny mountain home.  

She clung to me and trembled,

When I told her we must part,

She said “Don’t go, my darling,

You know it will break my heart,

When we two are far apart.”  

Carry me back to old Virginia,

Back to my Clinch Mountain home.  

Carry me back to old Virginia,

back to my old mountain home.

The Taylors were still a little upset about A. P.’s actions in the 1980s.

The Belfast community used to sponsor a country music concert on the hills around “Bob’s Barbeque and Country Store” in the decade before I got there.  They had quit by the time I came, but pictures were posted inside Bob’s store.  He used to serve lamb BBQ sandwiches that were so good you had to have another.  One day I was in there getting one when a nice lady named Elaine Keen asked me if I’d like to meet somebody.  She had in mind a single young lady she knew, and as I was a single young man, I was actively looking (in fact my mother had called the man I replaced and asked if there were any “Loose”–I think she meant “unspoken for” women in the area–you can imagine how that went over and how fast it spread!).  I later met and eventually married Tammie Beavers, who moved with me after we married into the historic parsonage at Belfast.

Belfast was the place where I met Walter and Amanda Cox.  These two lovely people were in their 90s when they passed away.  I visited their little humble log home several times and got to know and love them.  When they died, they each had instructed their family that they wanted to be treated the way people were traditionally treated in the mountains of Russell County.  That is, they wanted to be “laid out” at the church two nights, and have their funeral on the third day.  This was a mountain tradition I was not familiar with, but it was a beautiful way to observe their passing as stories were told and people connected as they visited the family and honored the Coxes.

Belfast was also where my dog showed up.  There used to be a trash collection area at the bottom of the hill where the Belfast road met Highway 19.  It kind of attracted stray animals.  One day I noticed a german shepherd in the neighborhood.  She eventually took up residence on my porch and during thunderstorms at the basement steps.  I eased around until I could feed and pet her.  She eventually adopted me.  I was preaching the first Sunday of October on “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”  I said something like “we need to look for Lazarus in our world and reach out in mercy to him.”  After church, my lay leader, David Hankins, a living legend, said  “Preacher, there’s Lazarus!” He was pointing to my newfound friend, the German Shepherd.  And her name was Lazarus from that day forward.

I got to scale the utmost heights of House and Barn Mountain while I was there.  It was a beautiful place to view the surrounding countryside.  The back roads around Belfast take you to a different age and beauty that is stark but deeply moving.  I’m really thankful to have been able to meet this place and sojourn among its peope.

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What Do You Do with a DNA Test?

Some genealogists I have contacted over the years have begged me to succumb to the request to do a DNA test.  I resisted for a long time.  I’m still not entirely sure I believe the supposed science involved.  For a long time I felt there just wasn’t enough of a world-wide gene database to make the test worthwhile if the science was indeed good.  A cousin of mine took the test and was gravely disappointed in the results, as it told her she wasn’t nearly as related to Native Americans as she wanted to be.

But the test recently had a sale and being an adventurous person (which isn’t the impression I give very much, but I AM adventurous at times.  I even like to have fun, regardless of what you think), I fell for it and spent around $70 bucks to make it happen.  Here’s what took place.  The payment gets processed, you receive an email confirmation, and soon there is a little kit at your door.  You open the kit, which looks like an Apple product, with its sleek design and careful instructions.  You take out a vial and spit it in, close the lid and a little bit of blue liquid spills from a reservoir in the lid into your saliva sample, apparently to preserve it for the trip to the lab.

Once you send in your sample in the packaging provided you get another email telling you it arrived, and finally you get one with your “results.”  Of course its exciting to get that last email.  You go online, and if you are a member of Ancestry.com, you can connect your results with your online family tree (if you’ve made one).  If not, you will still get some interesting reports.

The first one is an “Ethnicity Report.”  What this report does is circle some areas of a world map that shows you where the majority of your genetic ancestry seems to hail from. In other words, it ranks areas of the world with your results so you can tell what your genetic ethnicity seems mostly to be.

In my report, I found that I am 73 percent British (which includes England, Scotland, and Wales).  I was entertained with the notion that the average Briton today shares genetics with only 61 percent of the ancestral peoples of Great Britain, making me MORE British than the average Brit.  With a purely Appalachian mountain accent, that is one funny discovery.

My next largest ethnic mix is from Scandinavia, in the 12 percent range.  I learned as I read about this result that this is because several invaders from Scandinavia intermixed with natives from Great Britain over time.  This is probably related to the Scottish roots of my family origins.

The rest of my main ethnic report is traced to Western Europe, which includes France, Germany, and Switzerland.  This makes much sense as I have a number of ancestral lines that hail from a region that is shared by France and Germany.  I’m just glad they learned English, because I can’t imagine how poorly we Appalachians would slaughter the German or French languages.

There is a small percentage in the ethnicity report that talks about “Trace Regions.”  This is other areas that seem indicated by the genetic markers.  My report of these includes Italy/Greece, Finland/Northwest Russia, Iberian Peninsula, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus Region. Added together it composes only 10 percent of my ethnicity but it lines up with some things we know about a couple of my lines.  Located in the subsets of these ethnicities is the possibility of European Jewish and even Native American heritage (although only a slight bit of one percent).  Could this be the background to the Melungeon ancestry that some of my lines seem to come from?  Perhaps.  I’ll have to dig some more into this.  The result is definitely inconclusive.

Another byproduct of this test is that Ancestry.com will match your results with the results of others who have taken the test.  Then you are given a list to go through and explore.  My closest connections were people who are connected in the “third cousin” relationship.  Some of these happen to be folks with whom I’ve corresponded and shared information already.  Others are new to me and some individuals seem to have no connection at all, as we share no surnames in our family trees.  So again, I’m skeptical of results.  There are connections, but there are unanswered questions as well.

At the end of the test results is a strong plea to get other family members to take the test, including siblings.  They explain that male and female siblings may show different traits in their DNA and those would link up differently even though they share the same ancestry.  I guess any company needs a good profitable business plan, but this seems a little pushy when I really wasn’t sold on the whole thing to begin with.  I bet 70 bucks on it and got something out of it, but I’m not sure I would recommend it to anyone else.  I think you really have to reflect on whether this is for you.

I have an indication of native American ancestry in one part of my family which is accompanied by a strong word-of-mouth story that has been passed down and even documented in era-contemporary historical writing.  I’m concerned to know why that didn’t show up the way I expected it to.  Is it hidden in that “Trace Region” report?  Is it fiction?

The ethnic regions are writ large in the report, so it is difficult to narrow the results down to anything resembling localities, family groups, clans, or tribes.  In that, it isn’t too unlike a Zodiac reading.  “You’re from this corner of the earth, and over here and over here, and in case we’re wrong, there are traces of this place,” the report seems to say.  I heard a woman from Kentucky report to me that her results showed ethnicity from Japan and eastern Asia, which puzzled her since she was a multi-generational Appalachian.  Who knows, maybe her mother had a thing for the guy at the Chinese Buffet?

My bottom line take-away point is this:  You can spend the money (Ancestry’s product usually costs in a range of 70-100 dollars).  You’ll learn some things.  But you could live a long life in peace and prosperity without doing it.  After all, we all come from the same ancestors, don’t we?

If you want to try it, Ancestry’s site is found here

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A Trip to Old Salem

Moravians are a small denomination of Christians from the pietistic tradition who began as a protestant group in and around Bohemia and Moravia in Europe (specifically in modern day Czech Republic).  Founded around 1457, they, of course, were met with persecution in their early days, and found a friend a couple centuries later in Count Nicholas Zinzendorf who gave them refuge at a settlement called “Herrnhut.”  With his backing and support, the church took seriously the call to spread the gospel and many Moravians migrated to North America, some settling in the Wachovia settlement in North Carolina around Winston Salem.  The old Salem community exists today (Salem is a biblical word that means “Shalom” or roughly, “Peace”).

This summer I had the opportunity to visit the Old Salem community at Winston Salem.  It is a remarkable district where a women’s college is rooted and where the old buildings of the Salem community still stand as windows to an earlier time.

Central in the Old Salem settlement is the Home Moravian Church, a beautifully preserved building that still houses the headquarters of the southern province of the denomination in the US.  Worshipers gather there and participate in such beautiful rites as the Love Feast, which influenced Methodist founder and teacher John Wesley a couple centuries ago.  The Christmas services feature a beautiful hymn that is often sung by children called “Morning Star.”  It is an anthem to the star that shone, announcing Jesus’ birth, and beckons worshipers to shine the light of Christ into the dark world.

Nearby, in a quiet part of the Old Salem community lies “God’s Acre,” the cemetery of the Moravians.  Here are buried many of the members of the church through the decades since the Wachovia settlement took place.  Gravestones look very similar to one another, regulated by the community’s preferences.  As death is the great equalizer of us all, no one’s stone stands out more prominently than anyone else’s.  All lie on the ground with the words pointed up to the sky.

In walking through this beautifully kept cemetery, where men are buried with men and women with women, I discovered the gravesite of one of my ancestors, Martin Cloud.  I don’t think Martin was a Moravian originally, but by the time of his death in 1880, he apparently had become connected with the group, as he was shown in the census as residing with his daughter in Forsyth County, NC, somewhere in or about Winston Salem.  He is the father of my aunt Jennie Cloud who married Peter L Wimmer.  They were the couple whose discovery of gold in California led to the great Gold Rush of 1849.  But rest assured, none of us inherited any of it.

I give you pictures of the cemetery and scenes around Old Salem.

Here’s a sample video from the organ in the church:

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You Can’t Fake Authenticity: The Call for Real Christian Faith

People seem hungry today for authenticity.

I personally get worn out when I’m around folks who are projecting contrived versions of themselves.  This is a difficulty plaguing American Christianity in our time.   Some have posited that it is the reason churches are declining across the Bible Belt and elsewhere in the US.  We have projected a false notion of what it means to be faithful, and that version of Christianity just isn’t resonating now.

The greatest example I can give is that for the past few decades, especially in the venue of TV evangelism, a version of Christianity that has been known as “Prosperity Gospel” has been much ballyhooed.  Even preachers’ names, like “Creflo Dollar” make this theological bent seem a little too focused on the material.  The Jim Bakker fiasco of the 1980s (who was caught practicing a complex ponzi scheme in regards to his Christian theme park near Charlotte, NC, and subsequently imprisoned for breaking federal law), and many more versions of his story that have surfaced with different preachers and different ministries, have chipped away at the trustworthiness of those who take to the pulpit in our churches across the land.

Add to that the radical liberal agenda of those preachers who almost remove the entirety of Biblical faith in order to forward social agendas (scrapping the centrality of the cross and the sacrificial atonement in order to construct alternative theories based on Marxist social ideals) and you have our present situation where preachers are about at the level of car salesmen on the scale of trustworthiness.  Lately I’ve seen several attacks on social media against megachurch pastor Joel Osteen, whose smooth style and lack of deep Biblical teaching have drawn crowds to his church, but whose salary has been the source of criticism.  This is but one symptom of the desire for authenticity that is noticeable in our day.

But that isn’t all.  People want to meet real Christians in church (or in daily life for that matter).  The image of Christianity is a little suspect it seems.  If you want to close down conversation and relationship, it seems like the best way to do that is tell someone you’re a Christian.  It isn’t popular or desirable right now in our culture.  We are told that millennials are the most skeptical generation that has appeared in quite some time.  As they are coming of age, they are loudly questioning the authenticity of those who claim to be heralds of Christ.  Those who have stayed in the church have made known their displeasure with the way some of us hide behind a facade of faith when the rest of our lives project a different image.  Ask someone under 30, and test my claims.

In Methodist practices, from the earliest time, our founder, John Wesley, ordained in the Anglican Church, pulled small groups of believers together to create authentic Christian community, in settings where they were expected to get real with one another, holding one another accountable for their walk with God.  The practice of the Methodist class meeting has largely fallen by the wayside in most Methodist churches, substituted with Sunday School classes where a lecturer brings information and everyone smiles and nods and goes home without sharing anything personal (for the most part).  Many nondenominational churches have risen up in recent years who practice a version of the small group Wesley modeled in his Methodist movement.  They are better at practicing the Methodist way of being Christian than Methodists are anymore.

But to practice this kind of discipleship requires that we are authentic.  This is a difficulty in most of our congregations, because people don’t want to reveal too much of their lives and hearts to their fellow congregants.  It would ruin the image they have tried to build of themselves and their reputation in the community if they get too real.  Yet that is what is required if we are to encounter the living God.  We have to be real.  Growth and change won’t occur until we are.  That’s the genius of the system Wesley created.  It brought to the surface in each heart the need to be authentic and honest about who we are, how well we’re following Jesus and how much we’re struggling with the demands of the gospel.

People are longing for the kind of authenticity that was practiced by previous generations.  In an age that has come up short in practicing any constructive morality, in other words, at a time when everyone is simply doing what is right in their own eyes (even though their actions just underscore the sin in their lives, and repeat that pattern over and over), we need authentic Christians to appear on the scene, folks who know that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection means more than a slick formula for personal success or wealth.  It means that our lives will be reformed, and our sinfulness will be transformed and our character will be shaped by the cross.

We need to gather with other Christians and share the answer to the question:  “How is it with your soul?”  In the give and take of answering that question (and others such as “Are you obeying the prompting of the Holy Spirit?” and “How have you practiced the means of grace this week?”) there is the seed of transformation.  We grow as we become real.  Dropping the facade of our fake selves before the reality of authentic Christian community, our hearts change and we begin to bear fruit in the world for the kingdom of God.

Let’s get real.

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Can We All Just Get Along?  A Consideration of Race and Human Relations from an Appalchian Perspective

I was once accused by a supervisor of “having a thing for black people.” Apparently, in his mind, that was a sin, and I was guilty since I was attending seminary at Duke and thought his racist remarks were out of order, and was bold enough to tell him so. Shameful how honest we mountain people can be sometimes, ain’t it.

Racism is a subject that is running at high volume through our culture again. In spite of the efforts of many good hearted people to unify the races, to mitigate our differences, to cajole those who cling to symbols of division that threaten, and in spite of a recent cultural trend toward celebrating heterogeneous unions and blending of DNA across ethnic lines, there still seems to be a strong undercurrent of racial resentment and even hatred that has leaked out from the polite containers of human hearts and minds.

In the midst of one of our loudest election campaigns in recent history, one that follows the two terms of our nation’s first noticeably racially diverse President, we have heard a lot of noise about race. Both major political parties have included diverse voices on their convention stages. Neither has found a way to sustain the controversies or appease the supporters of the “black lives matter” movement nor that of its detractors.

And so I found it enticing that this summer a meeting was planned for folks interested in studying issues related to the “Melungeons” in southern Appalachia. It was held on the campus of the Mountain Empire Community College at Big Stone Gap, Virginia. I was able to attend the preliminary meeting, and enjoyed it immensely.

For those of you who don’t know, “Melungeon” refers to an historic group of people found living in the region where Virginia and Tennessee meet. This group are thought to descend from an admixture of races, possibly three, (thusly known as “tri-racial isolates”). They were sometimes described in official records as FPC (“free persons of color”) or “mulatto” denoting of mixed racial ancestry. Much has been published on this subject in recent years, although it still brings up a host of emotionally driven responses from persons thought to descend from these folks.

Darlene Wilson, who was once known as the “Web-spinning Granny” was a featured speaker. She told that though many had tried, no one to date has established a biological definition of who or what makes someone a “melungeon.” She gave a brief history of the Melungeon website she once kept, which she put into someone else’s care, and watched it disappear with all the valuable information she had obtained. Her reasoning was that people were still afraid, apparently, to be lumped into this category since the tri-racial nature of this group could possibly include black Americans. She recounted a particular time when the Melungeon Union meetings were focused on DNA evidence as a way to definitively determine the origins of these mysterious people. The results were disappointingly non-determinative. This means that there isn’t just one story, one origin. Instead, the existence of mixed ethnicities and mixed origins means that the people of the area even today can trace their origin to people from a variety of places with a diversity of backgrounds, who maintained piecemeal practices from a variety of cultural influences that shaped their descendants and the region as a whole. It means too that our myth of where we came from is just that, a myth. We probably have a lot more diversity up the genetic “woodpile” than many of us know or have been told.

Part of the problem is that in for a good part of the twentieth century the commonwealth of Virginia was served by an official who was in charge of the state’s vital statistics office who was a rampant racist. This official (whose name I refuse to use because I feel he should not be so honored) was a consultant for Hitler’s Nazis. And yet he was funded by American tax dollars. This man didn’t want anyone with even a hint of anything but purely white blood (and I thought blood was red!) to be considered a full citizen of the state. This policy caused much of the racial and ethnic identity of previous generations to become hidden simply because to talk about it could threaten your voting rights, your citizenship, perhaps even your life. Many went to their graves with concealed identities rather than entrust the truth to their progeny whose lives could be altered if facts fell into the wrong hands.

Today there is a resurgence of interest in ancestral origins. DNA tests are widely available and give some answers to questions people have about their background, even if a good deal of it is inconclusive. What is being found is that human beings have a lot more in common with one another than not. This means when one group is crying out for recognition of injustice and perceived hurt, we all need to listen. We are closer kin than we might have once thought. It means, too that we need to discount the “otherness” of people we consider different. Appalachia has long been known by scholars who have studied it as “a strange land, a peculiar people” (as in Shapiro). Perhaps the strangeness is inherent in us all, the peculiarities more common than we know or are willing to allow.

Perhaps one day we can celebrate the diversity that exists throughout the human race even as we embrace our commonality. Perhaps.

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Life After 50

I read the other day that only a couple generations ago, it was not unusual for lifespans to go just a little past 60.  That makes the subject of this post all the more interesting.

My family does interesting things after age 50.

I was in seminary when my mother turned 50.  She was living in Garden Creek, Virginia, a pastor’s wife for a couple of United Methodist Churches there in Buchanan County.  I found out that she took a brave step and enrolled at Southwest Virginia Community College to begin work towards a degree.  She moved soon afterwards to Fries, Virginia, along the New River in Grayson County, and finished her schooling at Wytheville Community College.  She graduated with an associates degree.  Her children were extremely proud of her for making this brave step.  She had given up on school when she married our dad and found herself raising us three kids.  First as a military wife, while my dad was in the US Air Force at Rantoul, Illinois (Chanute AFB), where my yankee sisters were born, then back to Scott County, Virginia where I came along a little later, she made her life as a mother and homemaker.  Those are not to be scoffed at as jobs either, mind you, but we were glad to cheer her on when she began to “set her foot down” to finish an education.  She was able to make good grades, too.  She was a studious learner.  Later that degree helped her get hired as a legal secretary, in which capacity she worked until her retirement a few years ago.

Not to be outdone, my mother’s inspiring adventure at age 50 compelled my oldest sister to also start learning in the more mature years of life.  Having raised her two sons, part of the time as a pastor’s wife in Harlan, KY, and later back at Kingsport, she entered a nursing program at ETSU, where she finished upon her 50th year, and took honors.  She now works as an RN for the Wellmont system in Kingsport.

My other sister, upon getting her five kids all grown up, began her long-anticipated career.  The first to be educated in our family at Emory & Henry and Scarritt Colleges, she was equipped to be a church musician, and finally took to the choir loft and a Christian School as an instructor around the time she entered the 5th decade of life.  She still teaches, plays an organ, leads a praise band, and directs singers in services at a Lutheran church in Hampton, Virginia.

Being the only boy in the family, my 50th birthday took me a different direction.  I graduated with my doctorate from Memphis Theological Seminary the year before I turned 40, and kept preaching in churches to which I was appointed.  But my health was deteriorating.  Stresses of church leadership and poor self care had led me to a place where I was battling extremely high blood pressure by my 50th birthday.  I was back up to a weight that was not healthy, having waged a lifelong battle in that area, seeing limited success getting it back off.  On December 19th of that year I entered a CrossFit box in Bluefield, Virginia, where I began a journey toward health.  I’m now 52 and have dropped 90 pounds, 10 inches in my waist size, and discontinued all blood pressure and cholesterol medication.  I feel a great deal better and have energy I couldn’t have imagined before.  The CrossFit community have lifted my spirits as well.  My coach, Terry, and the group who work out with me at 5:45 am each weekday are constant inspirations.  I even ran a 5K this past April for the very first time in my life.  I came in around 36 minutes, which isn’t bad for a starter.  I’ve even enjoyed dropping in on gyms in other towns when I’ve had to travel.  The camaraderie is enticing, and I learn something each time I drop in.


Me, finishing my first 5k, April 10, 2016

All which is to say, even though people give us grief at those birthdays that end in “0” we can embrace new things and begin to live the next part of lives with gusto.  Don’t be scared of a number.  Dream big, and move forward.  And AARP does give good discounts!

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What a Wonderful World It Would Be . . .

Click Here to read a story on a Unity March at Emory & Henry College

I’m thankful for the student body at my Alma Mater, Emory & Henry College, for coming together to witness to the ideal that we should practice unity amidst the diversity of people in our world.  We need that witness.wXHCoZui

Racism and other “isms” have been around a long time.  It will take quite a while to eliminate them.  In fact, I wonder if we ever will.  After all, we live in the era of post-fall-from-grace humanity.  The “Adam and Eve after the Serpent’s Temptation” era.  This means, try as we might, (and try we’d better, by the way), we will never completely eliminate any sinful part of the human condition so long as we live in this sinful and broken world.  Yet, what a wonderful world it would be if we could make just a little more progress, at least.

This month marks the 32nd year since I preached my first sermon.  I was invited to preach it in a very small membership church, whose membership was composed of African American United Methodists.  There were 8 on the roll, I believe, at that time.  The sermon wasn’t much, after all, it was my first attempt.  But I was pleased that some 24 people came out to witness it.  Among them were friends from the college (I was a sophomore that year), and members of the church choir I was working with at the time from nearby Grace Presbyterian Church.  The encouragement I received that day will never be forgotten.  The black community in Glade Spring, Virginia is very close-knit, and filled with love and grace.

One of the members of that community was the custodian of Emory & Henry’s Memorial Chapel, where I often went to seek solace from the rigors of academia.  I would sit with him while he polished the brassware on the altar.  Dan Hounshell was a member of the Mt Carmel United Holy Church of Glade Spring.  He was filled with stories and it didn’t take much to get him started telling them.  We shared plenty during those years.  I remember his advice to me after graduating seminary:  “I’ve always said,” he started in his wisened style, “whenever you get more than eight or ten people together, you’ll have problems.”

A member of our Grace Choir, Mrs Virginia Lockhart, was another vital teacher of mine.  She broke the racial divide in that small Presbyterian Church when a friend invited her to sing in the choir, along with her granddaughters.  A fight ensued in the choir over her presence therein.  Things were said like “They have their own church.”  My buddy Scott and I stood up for her and said “If she goes, we go.”  They relented.  Although it wasn’t a piece of cake after that, we had a good alto section!  Virginia and I corresponded while I was a student in seminary at Duke.  I was enrolled in “Black Church Studies,” which was a requirement for all seminarians there at the time.  I told her I was ashamed of the way we white people had treated black folks, as I had been reading about it.  She was quick to agree, but also to point out, “Don’t you believe that there aren’t also some black folks who have done evil things too.”  I thought that comment helped me a lot in understanding that human nature is broken regardless of the context.

I spent some time in seminary with Will Campbell, the great Civil Rights preacher from Tennessee.  His works, “Brother to a Dragonfly,” and “40 Acres and a Goat” were pivotal in my understanding the work of those who have fought for justice during this era of social upheaval.  Campbell loved to get under folks’ skin.  For it’s beneath the skin that we all look the same.  He was the model after whom Doug Marlette, the cartoonist, drew Reverend Will B. Dunn.

There are many things to say about the racial divide.  We have a long way toward fixing that in America.  I cringe every time I think about how racially divided the church is.  I’ve had opportunities to worship where white, black and other ethnicities are present.  It seems so much fuller, and more faithfully driven when we’re together.  But the church is not the only segregated segment of our world.  There are others.

I have tried to befriend people who are different from me.  It isn’t always easy.  People who have been hurt by others who look like you don’t always want to try to trust another.  But that’s the only way we will move forward in this land.

Then I’m reminded as I do genealogy, that at least part of my family are referenced in documents that list people who were enslaved because of their skin color as property.  I am convicted of the sinfulness of my ancestors when I read those lists.

I hope the students at Emory & Henry continue to march for unity.  I hope many others will join them.  Hopefully I can be part of a similar effort here where I live.  Because I want to believe that if we work hard enough, we can eliminate the hate and ugliness that so often besets our prideful human life.  I hope we can follow the way of our Savior whose act of self-giving was central to how we are to come together.

Until we get there, let’s keep dreaming.

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You Can Get Your “Shout” Back

First, let me just add, I’m not a Pentecostal, but I do occasionally find myself in the position of shouting in worship.  The Holy Spirit has a way of doing that to you.  Sometimes you shed a tear, sometimes you feel a warm wave of the luminous Presence of God running through you, and sometimes you can’t hold back the shout.  Lately it has been a rare event that I’ve shouted.

It reminds me of that April when the snow began falling in great big, ole “Granny’s plucking her goose” sized snow-flakes.  I saw the snow coming, heard the forecasts about “significant accumulation” and waited.  And as it came down I paced and got nervous.  I saw the power lines and the tree limbs weighted down with the white stuff, and I wondered how this was going to end.  I woke up the next morning to the sound of “Pop!” “Fizzle!” and “Tweet!”  I popped up and started unplugging things.  My TV was making funny noises, the refrigerator was growling in an odd way, and the lights were not turning on.  A piece of the line that serviced our little parsonage had snapped.  We retained all 220 power but everything on 110 was off or severely limited.  We lost the microwave, the refrigerator, that TV and a whole big ball of nerve.  At least three feet of snow had accumulated.

It wasn’t so difficult finding a way to preserve our refrigerator food.  Some milk, cheese, sandwich meat and canned drinks were all we had, and we simply dug a hole in the snow bank and buried our goods in hope we could preserve their freshness for a few days.  The most entertaining thing was watching my dog, Lazarus, try to move through the yard.  She pitifully looked toward the house several times like “Man, aren’t you going to dig me out?”  So I finally got my shovel and shoveled her a path, from our back door to the gate in the fence near my neighbors.  They had called to check on us.  They still had power so they invited us to come to them for our meals.  Since we had heat, we stayed home most of the time, but fellowshipped with them at least twice a day.

I called the power company.  I always got recordings, but I kept trying.  Once I got an operator in Ohio or somewhere who assured me that the men were on the lines making repairs.  That was my hope for the nine days it took to get our power restored.  Each day I lost a little more sanity, and worried myself to death longing to get back to normal.  I wanted it for my dog, my wife, and if they were ok, then for me.

When the truck finally arrived to check out our line, the snow had begun to melt.  The food supply was just about gone from the snow bank.  We found out we were the only house in Tazewell without power.  It was the fault of a large tree near the corner of the garage, which found itself weakened by age and the weight of the snow.  We had branches trimmed and couldn’t wait to get power restored.  I can remember when it came back, we rejoiced with “joy unspeakable.”  And we had to restore our refrigerator, and find a new microwave, and change several light bulbs.  It probably took until well into May to get back to normal.  But we talked about that April snow for years.  We also learned to appreciate good neighbors, and vowed to be better neighbors ourselves in the future.

Along life’s way, there are times when things come along that darken our days, dampen our joy, and bring us pain and grief.  No matter how hard we try to avoid these things, they come along.  Sometimes the collective pain of life can cause us to withdraw from the source of life, to retreat into a corner where we try to preserve what we still have until the storm passes.  In so doing, we lose our perspective, and we sometimes lose our joy.

There are so many things in our world today that threaten our sense of safety and security.  These things are beyond our collective control.  From Sept 11, 2001 to now there has been a steady departure from faith and joy in our land.  People have become harder, and churches have become emptier.  At the very time we should be drawing closer to God, we’ve pushed God away and chosen destructive habits and desires, perhaps in an attempt to cover our pain.

I was traveling through Claypool Hill, Virginia, the other day.  I like to tune into a religious radio station there sometimes.  I did so and heard a group of people trying to have church at the station.  They shared prayer requests, and then one of them sang a song.  This song is one I’ve been blessed by in the past.  As they sang it, in spite of the lackluster voices, and the fact they were having trouble staying in tune, I felt the Holy Spirit in the words they were sharing.  Before I knew it I was shouting.  I don’t mean just hollering, I was shouting praise to God.  I drove a little further and still had to shout a while.  This happened three more times that day.  I couldn’t stop.  I know if its fake you can turn it on and off at will.  If it’s real, though, it just comes when it comes, and stays for the time the Spirit says it will stay.  I can’t tell you how joyful it feels to get your shout back.

It wasn’t that long ago I lost a granddaughter.  Before that was a stream of well-loved relatives, and a little unborn daughter we miscarried.  That and the spiritual malaise in which so many of us are living had taken its toll on me.  But this day, this wonderfully random day, I found myself rising above the pain of life.  I found the joy of the Lord residing in my soul once again.  I couldn’t say “Thank you, Lord” enough.  The snow of my soul’s winter began to give way to the first buds of a renewed spring.  Jesus said that if you trusted in him, he would give you “life-giving water.”  That gift is ours for the asking.

I hope in this season of spring, as the weather breaks, and the birds return, and the landscape greens up again, that you will find your “shout.”  And I hope you’ll rejoice with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.

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History of a Part of Weber City, Virginia

There’s dirt moving down at the river in my home community of Weber City, Virginia.  Today’s paper (Saturday, February 6, 2016) talks about an industrial development on the old Bray farm.  I thought I might should enlighten folks about the “Bray” place.

There was a time that Weber City didn’t exist.  But there was a community there with a post office that had a different name.  The community grew up along a route that connected Estillville (now “Gate City”) with the Tennessee communities surrounding Kingsport.  This wagon road crossed the river at a ford just a few hundred feet west of the present bridge across the North Fork of the Holston River on today’s US Highway 23.

The south side of the river was property belonging to the Akard family (of whom I descend), and the north side of the river contained land owned by the Wilhelm family.  The Wilhelm family operated a post office and the community was called, on early maps, “Wilhelm.”  The Wilhelm cemetery sets on a hillside fronting the northbound lane of US Highway 23, across from Roberts’ Tires & Recapping Center, with a concrete retaining wall along the western edge of the grave yard.  Ancient graves are in this little cemetery belonging to several members of this family.

A quick run-down of their history goes something like this:

A man named George Wilhelm and his wife Rebecca came to Sullivan County, Tennessee from Maryland between the time of his birth in 1790 and the birth of their son Charles in 1814.  Charles Wilhelm was born 24 January, 1814 at Sullivan County, TN.  By 1836 Charles was living in Scott County, Virginia, at the site of the “Bray” farm, and married a woman by the name of Adeline Davidson that year, when he was 22 years old.  This couple had at least 9 children, including six girls and three boys.  One of the boys was Joseph Herren Wilhelm, b. 1846, d. 1936.  Joseph married Mary Catherine Grimm in 1868, after he returned from the Civil War.  Together this family had at least three known children, William, Robert C., and Richmond C.  William married a Godsey, and Robert C married Lydia Kinser.  Robert and Lydia raised eleven children, three boys and 8 girls.

Sometime around the 1880s the Wilhelms built a house on the farm at the river.  It looked like this:

Home of the Wilhelmina family. House was replaced by the Bray house at a later time.

Home of the Wilhelm family. House was replaced by the Bray house at a later time.

The picture was supplied to me in the late 1970s by John Robert Wilhelm, known as “Bob,” who was a brother to Joe Wilhelm who lived at the intersection of the Yuma Road and the old Yuma Road in a log house that was built in the 1930s, and later in the brick house that still stands nearby.  Joe is the little boy in the front of this picture with the cap on.

There was an interesting relationship between the Wilhelm family and the Rogers family.   The Rogers family was a black family who lived with the Wilhelms prior to the Emancipation Proclamation.  The 1870 census shows the Charles Wilhelm family neighbors to Harrison Rogers (with Edith, Houston, Elizabeth, Frances, James, and Elmira).  It is known that this 1870 census is the first census to list black residents, and it is likely these were former slaves.  The Rogers family eventually  moved to Gate City, but they were instrumental in helping the Wilhelm farm survive during Reconstruction.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, because there is no documentation to back it up, but there is a slave cemetery on the Bray farm, located between the house and the big old barn. There was a garage at the end of the driveway, and near it were some evergreen trees.  At one time this was the site of the cemetery, with field stones marking graves.  Bob Wilhelm told me and my grandfather that the family that bought the place from his family removed those gravestones several years ago and there was no visible sign of the graves.  There were probably several folks buried there.

A steel bridge was erected over the Holston River in front of the Wilhelm farm in the early part of the 20th century.  At one time the post office for the area was known as “River Bridge.”  Later the service station at intersection with Highway 23 and Wadlow Gap Road was built and the fans of the Amos and Andy show stuck “Weber City” in the window, and as we know, the residents of the young community embraced that name for the area from the river to Moccasin Gap.

 North fork of the Holston

The Bray farm during the 1977 flood.

It is my hope that the new industrial park will bring jobs and livelihood to our little community along the river, but let’s not forget there were people here before us.  I hope Weber City will prosper.

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Three Kings in Memphis

imageSeveral years ago I traveled to the big city of Memphis to embark on an educational journey.  Wanting to obtain a doctor of ministry, I had looked at different schools in different places, and pondered a variety of programs.  I finally settled on a seminary in Memphis.  I’m sure it had something to do with Graceland.

Memphis is a big place, and there are lots of “king-sized” features there.  The urban environs sprawl out for blocks in every direction, bounded by a freeway that goes around the city, but cannot contain it.  Churches are huge.  There is even the Bellevue Baptist Church that takes up enough acreage to feed a small country.  And there is a patchwork of human diversity there:  racial, socio-economic, multi-national, political, and so forth.

I tried to see the sights there.  I found myself drawn to the stories people would tell about Elvis.  The King of Rock and Roll chose to live in Memphis in the height of his fame and glory.  He is supposedly buried there on the grounds of Graceland.  This man whose name still draws swoons from the female crowd was quite the entertainer.  He sold many records in his lifetime, from a recording studio right there in the heart of Midtown Memphis, and broke new ground in the middle of the 20th century like no one has ever done.

My trip to his home was complete with a visit to the souvenir shop across the way.  There a homeless man entered the shop while I was there, causing other patrons to get nervous.  The shop keeper politely directed him back outside, and missed nary a beat ringing up the next sale.  I have to admit, it was a welcome distraction from all the Elvis “memorabilia” for sale that was made in China.

A second King there was over on Beale Street.  In the town where the Blues were born, B. B. King was quite the performer.  I had listened intently to an old album of his from the 60s in my earliest days as a bachelor in the hills of Virginia.  “I Want to Get Married, But No Woman Will Be My Bride,” was one of my favorites.  Thankfully, I finally found one who wanted to and we were.  I respected King’s musical innovations.  He knew how to make ole Lucille sing (that was his guitar).  The Blues still speaks as a musical genre, even though there aren’t many singing this style anymore.

But perhaps the largest King whose memory lingers over the city is one named Martin.  I mean, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King didn’t choose to live in Memphis.  He was merely passing through, pausing long enough to spend some time in an incarnational way with some advocates of Civil Rights when his life ended on the balcony of a Memphis motel.  King’s work resonated with many within the city.  Just not the ones who held power.

I was a child when this event occurred.  I don’t remember it vividly, but I do remember it in the way I remember other events of the day.  The news came on, a bulletin or update was read (in those days people read the news, that’s all it was), and if our family wanted to discuss it, they would.  If not, we would go on with our lives.  I remember a small discussion around the issue of King’s death.  I’m not sure what was said, but somehow I marked this event as a significant one, and was oddly shaped by it although I was part of a white, middle class family growing up in the Appalachian region.

There was only one person of color in my school, a bi-racial girl who lived across the highway from where I was raised, near a night club.  We treated her as though she was one of us, mostly.  I’m not sure how she would tell that tale, but we didn’t make a big deal over the difference in her appearance.  It wouldn’t be until 8th grade when our school’s population would merge with 8th graders from three other distinct schools that we would meet more African American students.  And in High School we would have exposure to teachers who were black.

Those were the days before “Black History Month” and a national holiday devoted to the memory of Dr. King.  The legacy he left is one that proves that someone willing to speak up for justice can engender change in a whole nation, simply by articulating a dream.  Even though he died defending his vision, and even though vestiges of the way things used to be still pop up in embarrassing ways from time to time, he spoke the truth to a powerful system, and today opportunities are better for people of all stripes.  We live in a time that is still shaped by his work.  Although not everyone has embraced a vision of racial reconciliation, there are many ways that progress has been made.

In one of my excursions through the city during my education at Memphis Theological Seminary, I arranged to visit the Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ, home of the late pastor and Bishop G. E. Patterson, a dynamic voice of the pulpit in Memphis’ inner city.  His mega-church structure was built on the edge of a public housing area, one which his church helped to rehabilitate.  The experience of going to church there was one of the high points of my life.  I was in church over three hours and had no idea how much time had passed.  From the music to the preaching to the fellowship among the gathered souls in that place, it was authentic worship.  The Church of God in Christ is one of the larger denominations in America, and it is the church over which Bishop Patterson presided at that time.  It was good to experience the exuberance of praise among a mostly black crowd, one in which I felt I stood out and felt conspicuous, not something I had felt many times in my life.  The hospitality there is what I remember most.  Everyone was welcome, and no one would be turned away.  That’s how church should be.  Everywhere.

I thought of these three kings of the city, and how much they had influenced the world, and how much their influence began in the church.  Memphis Theological Seminary now holds a collection of the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  In that same library is my completed doctoral project, not far from King’s works.  While my project will probably never have much impact, I can be thankful that I was able to sojourn for a while in a place where kings have reigned.  And I can hope and pray for a day when content of character will be more decisive in how we interact with one another.

Come, blessed day.  Amen.

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The Appalachian Region Has Died. Long Live Appalachia!

  “Little birdie, little birdie.
   Come and sing me your song
   Got a short time to stay here
   And a long time to be gone”

(Listen to a version of this song by the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=80if-yp-tdc)


Detail of a folk painting that once adorned a home in Scott County, Virginia, depicting the tree of life.

Appalachia is a region that is both loved and hated by America.  It is loved for its natural beauty, crafts, stories and songs.  Yet it is the subject of ridicule for its poverty, lack of coherence with modernity and abundant superstitions and apparent backwardness.  The oft-quoted saying is that it is a “strange place, peculiar people (as in Henry Shapiro).”  Yet it serves in a larger way as the cultural attic of America, a place to keep memories and honor the past.

But the Appalachian region has fallen upon hard times of late.  As the older generation has passed away, many of the old ways have fallen into the ash heap of history.  Economic forces and political policy are robbing the region of its long-counted-upon treasure (coal), and forcing the young to choose between leaving the area for opportunities elsewhere or falling into the despair of addiction to prescription pain killers (referred to as “hillbilly heroin”) or worse.  Hopelessness is gaining a new foothold in the hearts of the people of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, southwestern Virginia and east Tennessee.

Near where I live lies one of the poorest counties in the United States.  McDowell County, West Virginia was once a bastion of coal development.  At one time it was a powerful producer of the “black gold.”  But by the 1950s things changed and the population quickly dwindled, homes were abandoned and communities began a long decaying process.  This has been captured masterfully in Elaine McMillion’s interactive documentary “Hollow.”  (Which you can find at this link:  http://hollowdocumentary.com/).  In spite of decades of despair, hope is not vanquished.  There are trickles of renewal beginning to take place, but the hope of coal mining returning in a big way is pretty much missing on anyone’s dashboard of life.

Public policy over the last seven years from the federal level has added to the demise of an already languishing industry.  Coal mining was not attracting new workers as young people were unsure about working for an industry they perceived had taken so much from their forebears in terms of health and well-being.  A job fair about a decade ago drew very little interest from the young for jobs in the mining industry.  President Obama’s efforts to clean up the planet have made fossil fuels almost anathema.

We are living in a time of population loss not only in McDowell County, but throughout the Appalachian region.  Very small pockets of the population are growing, but the vast majority are in a tailspin.  The school-aged children demographic is diminishing.  Young people, if they get to go on to higher education, will find other places to live and work, where job prospects are much brighter.  There are few major metropolitan areas in the region, and the prospects for major employers entering the area to revive the flailing economy are bleak at best.

So, many Appalachian people are finding their way into a renewed “Appalachian Diaspora.”  Scattered into far-flung areas of the country, and the world at large, they are facing choices.  Either they can try to fit into new communities, or choose to keep the elements of home and mountain culture as best they can within new contexts.

These are the exact choices that were made when European immigrants first found their way to the shores of this continent.  They brought with them their trades, their knowledge base of stories, their faith, their music, and their familial ties.  As they wandered into the sea of mountains, they established their homes as places to be free to live as they wanted.  Here they preserved portions of their older European culture as they passed down songs and stories from previous generations.  They adapted to their new surroundings by learning from native Americans, often adopting native cultural elements like farming and use of herbs, and sometimes marrying into native families.

This isn’t the first diaspora for Appalachians.  There have been times other generations found themselves needing to relocate to support their families.  They often made their ways to industrial centers in Ohio, Michigan, and other areas.  Stories abound of hardship and discrimination that was encountered in that first diaspora.  Today families are traveling south and west.  Hardship is still possible.  Mountain accents are distinctive.  Dialect can even be lost as one finds the reception of it not very friendly in population centers.  The loss of cultural memory will be complete in a generation or two away from the region.  In the mean while, the best of Appalachian culture is celebrated through departments at some of the regional colleges, and in museums that remain scattered through the region.

For those who remain in the region, life is not very hopeful right now.  Their despair is a very present issue for which no easy solution seems available.  Someone recently told me “we are raising a generation of feral children.”  This pattern seems to be set to continue for an unknown period.  Somehow, some within the Appalachian region have lost the independence and self-reliance of previous generations, and have become susceptible to the “entitlement mentality” that grows from dependence upon the welfare system, with utter reliance upon substance abuse and a life lived with no desire for betterment.

The psalmist wrote:  “I lift mine eyes unto the hills.  From whence cometh my help?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth”  (Psalm 121:1).  I truly believe that there is a source of grace that will bring hope once again out of the despair of Appalachia.  God has not abandoned us.  In fact, I think it is possible that there are already new things being born here that will bear fruit in the future.  There is a strength in mountain people that persists throughout the storms of life.  May it ever be so.

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The Life and Legacy of H. R. W. Hill


HRW Hill

H. R. W. Hill, from “Lives of American Merchants”

Henry Rufus Willie (more commonly referred to as “H. R. W.” or “Harry”) Hill, a native of Halifax, North Carolina, found his way with his family to the edge of the frontier in the early 1800s, to a new home in Williamson County, Tennessee, at the town of Franklin.  The “Willie” in his name is a reference to a Halifax politician by the name of Willie Jones (pronounced “Wiley”) after whom the town of Jonesborough, Tennessee was named.  Hill was reportedly about 12 or 13 when the move occurred, occasioned by the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent remarriage to a man who had interests out west.  Hill is said to have walked the whole way, with a rifle across his shoulder, hunting small game for food on the way to feed the family.

In the new territory, at the edge of Indian lands, Hill forged a new life for himself.  He met and married a young lady from the McAlister family, Margaret McAlister, whose father owned a store, and who invited Hill to join in his business, a role for which he seemed naturally gifted.

He soon began to travel as a young man, on business interests, throughout the region from Alabama to east Tennessee and Kentucky.  In these travels, he became a fast friend of Methodist bishop William McKendree, a fiery preacher and missional leader who was the first native-born bishop of the Methodists in the United States.  According to Bishop Robert Paine, Hill was converted under McKendree’s powerful preaching at Franklin, Tennessee, during an unusual time of revival.  Hill’s conversion was described as “powerful,” which is a word that was used to describe someone who made a sharp change in character as the result of their adoption of faith.  The year was about 1817.

In J. B. McFerrin’s History of Methodism in Tennessee, we find the following:

“One of the early members of the church in Franklin was Harry Hill.  When a young man he embraced religion and united with the Methodists, and became a very zealous and useful member.  He had formerly lived in Jonesboro, where he was the instrument of much good.  Mr. Hill was a prince in liberality, and when a young man was gifted in prayer and song, and exerted a salutary influence in the community, especially on the young people.  He was a successful merchant, a gentleman of fine presence and agreeable manners.  He afterward removed to Nashville, where he long resided and acquired not only a large fortune, but a wide reputation as a man of great sagacity and superior business qualifications.  He contributed largely of his means in support of the institutions of Christianity, and was noted for his noble and generous acts toward those who were in need of help.  His house was the home of the ministers of Christ, where his brethren always met a most cordial reception.  Bishop McKendree had a spacious and well-furnished apartment in his mansion, where, in old age, he spent much of his time, enjoying, without abatement, the warmest and most tender sympathies and affectionate regards of the whole family.  He was the special friend of Bishop Soule, and complimented him with a handsome country residence after the Bishop removed to Nashville.  He gave to the cause of missions, a short time before his death, several lots of land in Louisville, Kentucky, which proved to be valuable.  Indeed his gifts and various acts of generosity were munificent.  His wife, Margaret McAlister, was a modest, meek, devout Christian, an ornament to her sex, and a blessing to the Church.  Mr. Hill removed from Nashville to New Orleans, buried his wife, and finally yielded up his spirit to the God who gave it.  His latter years were full of business and full of cares, but it is hoped he made a safe retreat and joined his family in the land where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.”

Hill never actually lived in Jonesborough, as McFerrin suggests, but traveled there on business and according to the history of the Methodist Church in that place, he found a prayer meeting going on in the home of a Mrs. Brown.  At this meeting, Hill did some exhorting, or influencing by his personal testimony and example.  God apparently used Hill to bring about a dramatic conversion in the lives of several of the young men of the old town, including the grandson of pioneer Tennessee statesman, John Sevier.  After his time there a church was organized and added to the list of appointments in 1822.  This congregation’s influence was great enough that the second gathering of the newly-formed Holston Annual Conference was held in Jonesborough in 1825, and was a time when a significant offering for missions was collected by the women of that place, an amount equal to a year’s salary for a preacher.  Hill’s in-laws were involved in business interests in Jonesborough, so it makes sense that he traveled there.

He continued to gain wealth and standing in the Nashville area as a leading citizen.  By the 1830s he had amassed a great amount of money and was serving in several capacities for Tennessee’s improvement, such as being named a member of a board to establish an Insane Asylum in Nashville, and another to build a turnpike from Nashville to Franklin.  Later he was named as an ambassador from Tennessee to the Republic of Texas, and is said to have given funds from his own property to assist the young republic.

In addition to business activities, he remained loyal to the church.  His influence assisted the establishment of the McKendree Methodist Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Nashville, as well as a Methodist congregation in New Orleans, for which he is said to have hired the architect.  His friendship with Bishop McKendree, and his act of opening his home to the clergyman, got him named as a co-executor of the bishop’s estate upon his death, for which service he was awarded a black cane and the bishop’s silver seal (Will Book II Page 191, Sumner County, Tennessee, as transcribed by Charlotte Wilson Williams, 1998).

A financial devastation hit southern businesses in the late 1830s, prompting Hill to relocate from Nashville area to New Orleans.  He had been ruined financially, but continued with his business acumen to develop at the mouth of the Mississippi River a large cotton factorage business with his business partner James Dick.  The House of Dick and Hill was an influential New Orleans partnership that grew quite wealthy and is documented in several lawsuit records that still survive.

In New Orleans, Hill opened an art gallery with several others, which, though short-lived, shows the kind of investments in which he placed his funds.  He came to own at least four plantations and several slaves. Hill’s religious life affected how he conducted life on the plantations.

According to William Scarborough, in Masters of the Big House:  Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth Century South, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana:  Louisiana State University Press, 2003):

“Many elite slaveholders exhibited concern for the spiritual as well as the physical health of their black wards.  Some erected elaborate plantation chapels, others employed ministers to conduct services at regular intervals, and still others welcomed missionaries from the leading denominations to their estates.  Planter wives, who were frequently more devoted than their husbands, participated in the religious instruction of their slaves by holding Sunday School, offering devotions, teaching hymns, and catechizing the children.  The motives were mixed.  Obviously, a central objective was that of social control:  to encourage good behavior and to render slaves more reconciled to their station in life. (P 188-189)

“In view of their own denominational preference, it is not surprising that many elite planters sought to encourage their slaves to receive their instruction in religious doctrine within the confines of the Episcopal Church.  That denomination was clearly preferable to the more egalitarian Methodist and Baptist faiths.  Masters tolerated the former, especially after that church divided along sectional lines, but most refused to countenance any associations with the Baptists.” (P. 189)

It was documented that due to the influence of his wife, Margaret, H. R. W. Hill became committed to doing all he could “short of abolition” for his slaves.  The language used by people in Hill’s time is no longer customary or acceptable in polite conversation.  He refers to his slaves as “my negroes.”  He is said to have left orders that if his slaves were to be sold after his death, that it was his will that families be kept together insofar as was possible.

An abolitionist writer, Charles Elliott, in a piece called The Bible and Slavery:  In Which Abrahamic and Mosaic Discipline Is Considered with the Most Ancient Forms of Slavery, Etc. in 1862, published by the Methodist Episcopal Church (the northern branch at that time), and in it describes the scene of the sale of Hill’s slaves.  The scene is pathetic in tone and moral outrage.

Mr. H. R. W. Hill resided long in Nashville, Tennessee; was a zealous, active, and very liberal member of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He spared no pains or expense to have his slaves instructed and benefited by religion. As he became very wealthy, in the pursuit of commerce, several large plantations, with the slaves on them, near New Orleans, where the family resided, came into his possession. He built churches on the plantations, supported missionaries, and did everything he thought best to make them intelligent and happy. Last year—1854 [actually 1853]—he died, and left his vast estate to his son, after having been munificent during life, and at death, to benevolent objects.

After his death his negroes were all, or the greatest part of them, sold, at public sale. The following is the advertisement which appeared in the National Intelligencer, giving notice of the sale:

Will be sold at auction, at Bank’s Arcade, on Magazine street, in the city of New Orleans, at 12 o’clock, on Tuesday, January 16th, 1855, the slaves at the same hour on Thursday, January 18th, and the following days, for the account of the estate of the late H. R. W. Hill, without reserve, all that extensive and valuable sugar estate, known as the Live-Oak Plantation, etc., including two hundred and sixty choice plantation slaves, accustomed to the culture of sugar and cotton, and considered to be the best gangs in the south, and comprising all the requisite mechanics, such as sugar-makers, engineers, blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, bricklayers, choice house servants, cooks, and field hands, and are to be sold in families and singly, by a descriptive catalogue. The slaves are guaranteed in title only.”

The sales took place in New Orleans. Handbills were printed with large black letters, and the words mechanics, seamstresses, cooks, etc., stood out prominent. Advertisements and editorial notices appeared in the papers. Circulars, on fine paper, were printed, giving particulars of each one to be sold, all being duly numbered. The following is the description of the sale, given by a correspondent of the New York Tribune, February 16, 1855 :

‘On the morning of the sale I wended my way to Bank’s Arcade, determined to witness the scene. I found the Arcade to be a very large building, situated in the very center of business, and used as a hall for mass meetings of the various political parties, and it is said will accommodate five thousand people on such occasions. A large bar or counter, about one hundred feet in length, placed directly opposite the entrance, and some half a dozen tenders are constantly occupied in dealing out  poison at a dime a drink. Opposite to the bar the poor negroes were marshaled into line ; the men and boys were uniformed with short jackets made of cottonade, pants of the same material, hickory shirts, black brogans, and tarpaulin hats. The women were all clad in common calicoes, and a common handkerchief tied around the head. All the slaves were labeled, a tag or card being tied to the  breast of each, giving the name, age, and number of the negro, so as to correspond with the printed catalogue.  

‘It is impossible for me to give you a faithful description of the scene, as no pen can picture the horrors of it. One hundred and seven poor slaves were there assembled together for the last time in this world. They had for many years all had been living on Mr. Hill’s plantation, as one family. Most of them were brought up by Hill. They had always been blessed with a kind master. They were all members of one Church, which had been established among themselves. Old men and women, over seventy years of age — some of them blind — were to be separated from their children and grandchildren; husbands about to be torn from their wives ; children sold into slavery, never to know a mother’s love, or have a father’s protection and care. In a few hours the fate of all would be decided. All the slaves were crying; many of them were apparently calm in their sufferings, and had a hope that they might fall into the hands of a kind master; but others exhibited their feelings in violent outbursts of passion.

One old woman, who was put down in the catalogue as number 40, Daliah, age sixty-six years, milk-woman, etc., was in great distress, and several of the small children were clinging to her and moaning, half frightened to death, and one of her own sons, about thirty-six years of age, was receiving her farewell blessing. With her left arm clasping him to her bosom, and her right hand placed on his head, she repeated these words, ‘Bob, I shall never see you again, never, never! O, God! it will break my heart ! Your poor old mother will die!’ Other poor slaves were crowding about the poor old woman, all anxious to take leave of one who had been with them from their youth up, and to receive her blessing. She appeared to be regarded as a kind of mother to them all. I noticed among the spectators many northern men who were here on a visit, and many a sympathetic tear was shed by them. ‘

At twelve o’clock, the auctioneer mounted the stand. On either side of him were placed plans of real estate, and large posters of future sales of slaves and other property.  Behind him were two clerks seated at a table, to down the names of the purchasers. On the table he placed a bottle of brandy and a tumbler, for the use of the auctioneer, who glories in the name of Beard.  Before commencing the sale, this Mr. Beard smiled approvingly on the audience, and delivered the following address :

‘Gentlemen buyers, I am about to offer you some of the most valuable property ever put up, at auction, and on most favorable terms — a credit of one year. The slaves are very choice, and all brought up by our lamented fellow-citizen, Harry Hill.  Most of the women, you will notice, are pregnant, and of good stock. I must impress it upon your minds that these slaves are exhibited under great disadvantage, as, after being worked hard, they were hurried on board the steamer, and have had a hard time of it. They will look twenty-five cent better after being here a few days. Gentlemen buyers, before I sell this gang of negroes, I will put up 3 boys, who were sold at the last sale, but the papers of the purchasers were not satisfactory to us. It is, gentlemen, a credit to New Orleans, that, out of the large number of slaves sold on last Friday, only three of the purchasers have been rejected. It speaks well for the prosperity of our state.’

It is due, however, to Mr. Hill, to state that he made particular request that his slaves should be kept all together, if possible, and in case of their being sold, that husbands and wives should not be separated. On this account the husbands and wives were sold together.  There is at least one protest against slavery in making this arrangement.  When Bob and his wife were sold for sixteen hundred and seventy-five dollars, he was about to bid goodbye to his mother, but was hurried out of the room, just as his mother was put on the block.  The auctioneer praised her as a “good and motherly old wench — good and very useful to take care of children and milk cows.” In this way the whole Church was disposed of.

Twenty years before this scene Hill, like many of his contemporaries, was concerned with a runaway slave.  In the greater Nashville, TN area, he took out the following ad:

[From the Randolph Recorder: 16 January 1835]:

“$100 REWARD.  Ran away from the Plantation of H. R. W. HILL, two miles northwest of Covington, about the 20th October last, a negro man named STEPHEN. He is about 30 years old, 5 feet two or three inches high, remarkably black, speaks very mildly, is obedient when sober but quarrelsome and impudent when intoxicated; he is very fond of spirits. He carried off with him a black wool hat, brown jeans roundabout lined throughout with heavy domestic, brown pantaloons, and generally wore check shirts, though he had others. The above reward will be paid on his safe delivery to me, or forty dollars for his confinement in jail so that I may get him.”

Hill’s concern for order probably overshadowed the apparent regard he gave to the well-being of his labor supply.  It was through their toil that he was enriching himself, along with his cotton trade.

That he gave of his wealth to help build the civilization of the antebellum South, especially its churches and other cultural institutions typifies the morals of Hill’s time.  The value of slave labor to the plantation system and the cotton trade was high.  There is no doubt that Hill thought he was being the best leader he could be at that time in ensuring the needs of his slaves were met and that they had a religious life that would service his needs for order and contentment on the plantation.

Hill’s later life included gifts to mission for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.  The following is a report of one such instance, with reference to his gift at the latter part:

Methodist Mission

Hill was a victim of the Yellow Fever that plagued New Orleans around 1853.  His wife succumbed to it in April of that year.  He is reported to have gone to his Live Oak Plantation in the summer and ministered to a dying slave who was a dear friend of the family.  In his ministrations he is said to have contracted the fever and died in September of that same year.

Silver Cup offered on Ebay that was a gift from H. R. W. Hill to a friend

Silver Cup offered on Ebay that was a gift from H. R. W. Hill to a friend

Having been born in 1797 and dying during his 55th year on earth, Hill accomplished much, and left a legacy of generosity.  He was at the time of his death Grand Master of Masons in Louisiana, and the Masons have erected a monument claiming his remains are lying in the Masonic Cemetery in New Orleans, but it is thought his son James Dick Hill removed his remains along with those of his mother Margaret McAlister Hill to Nashville where they were placed along with his own in the James D. Hill Family Vault in City Cemetery.  In a letter published along with H. R. W. Hill’s will in the New York Times, in 1853, Hill instructs his executors John M. Bass and John Armfield that “I want my negroes well treated.  But for Abolitionism, I should have been able to do more for them.”

Riverboat named for H. R. W. Hill, which later tragically burned up, according to reports

Riverboat named for H. R. W. Hill, which later tragically burned up, according to reports

Reference:  Lives of American Merchants, Volume II, by Freeman Hunt, New York, 1858.

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A Barony in the Mountains of Southwest Virginia

If you drive through Russell County, Virginia, you will eventually find yourself maneuvering through the beautiful pastures of the Stuart Land and Cattle Company, a farming outfit that has raised some of the finest beef cattle in America, for longer than any outfit like it has existed.  The company is said to own about 16,000 acres today, but once held as much as 45,000 acres in the scenic majesty of the Clinch Mountain range.  A new book has just come out on the Stuart farms and it is a very good piece of literature about the area.  Kathy Shearer, who owns and operates the Clinch Mountain Press in Emory, Virginia, has written Working for Stuarts: Life on One of the Oldest & Largest Cattle Farms East of the Mississippi.  It details the uniqueness of the story of this great enterprise and the people who worked and resided on the large acreage of the farms.

My ministry began by being appointed to serve the churches at Belfast and Midway in the northeastern corner of Russell County, Virginia.  I didn’t know then, but the communities there were somewhat dependent upon the Stuart enterprises in the early days.  Belfast Mills grew up at the convergence of a large mountain creek and a bit of the old Fincastle Turnpike, where a milling community was formed for area farmers to use.  Later a school was built on property just across the road from the Belfast United Methodist Church, where students came from the area to learn the basics of education.  The parsonage I resided in there was built around 1912 by one of the Stuarts, who were stalwart in their support of the Methodist church in the county.

Once home to Governor Stuart, this mansion on the Elk Garden Farm of Stuart Land and Cattle Company belongs to descendants of Smiley Ratcliff.

Once home to Governor Stuart, this mansion on the Elk Garden Farm of Stuart Land and Cattle Company belongs to descendants of Smiley Ratcliff.

I interviewed several men who had served as pastor on the Belfast Circuit before me.  Rev. Gerald McFarland remembered the circuit being composed of some eight churches, including Belfast, Harmony, Bradshaw, Clifton, Barrett’s, Midway, Green’s Chapel, and Dennison.  He related that it was the practice of the day (in the 1960s) to go over to the Stuart’s “Clifton Farm” and borrow a horse from the farm manager to ride up and down the hollows there to visit the church people who belonged to the Clifton Church.  He also told a tale of preaching there and the stove pipe fell out of the ceiling, making a thick cloud of black soot rise over the congregation.

My time in the pastorate at Belfast and Midway allowed me to discover what was left of the old circuit.  The circuit had been reduced somewhat during the late 1960s and early 1970s as the farm families moved out and the crowds dwindled.  Clifton, Harmony, Green’s Chapel, Bradshaw, and Barrett’s were closed.  All but Barrett’s were eventually bought by independent groups who operated what I call “mountain” churches therein.  Barrett’s burned down, on the river road on the western end of the Clifton Farm.    I tried to either meet folks in those congregations or worship with them when I could.  I was able to get Bradshaw’s congregation to host a thanksgiving service one year where we brought Midway and Belfast to their church for the evening.  The service had to be cut short because it was snowing the whole time and folks were worried the roads would get too slick.

Farming still dominates the economy in this area, even though several of the farm families have had to find new ways to support themselves.  The old rules of living in a Stuart-owned home while keeping the place clean and providing oneself a garden spot no longer apply.

Some of my favorite times on the Belfast circuit included riding over on Clifton Farm and enjoying the bucolic scenery.  It was good to clear the mind and rejuvenate the heart.  The owners of the farms (Clifton, Rosedale, and the Loop) attended the Elk Garden congregation, which was not far from Belfast.  Their home and several nearby residences stand as regal testament to a way of life that once supported a large economy in the mountains of this corner of Virginia.

I highly recommend Kathy’s book.  It is a large project and does a wonderful job with history, telling the story of this operation and it’s effect on the county.

Reference:  For a great article on the present owner and operator of the Stuart Land and Cattle Company, see http://www.cattlenetwork.com/cattle-news/Im-a-Drover-Grace-and-tenacity–275995751.html

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How Loving and Leading Can Be a Faithful Response in Today’s Church

Daily I read posts on social media about what a terrible shape the church is in here in the US, and how poorly it is being led by its clergy.  Certainly the truth is contained within these diatribes against the excesses of “professional” leadership.  Yet I believe there is an abundance of glossing over faithfulness that is being practiced by all sorts of leaders in all sorts of places.  The church is a diverse body of people with diverse views and a variable record of effectiveness over time in different geographical locations.  Clergy leadership must assess and lead a moving target with few ready resources, vying with multiple challenges while being under fire from antagonistic members within and an unfriendly culture without.  It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t look like it will change any time soon.

Nebo ChurchWhen I was a college student at Emory & Henry, in the southwest corner of Virginia, a school founded by Methodists to prepare leaders in a variety of fields, including the church, I was intrigued by leadership models I was exposed to there.  One was Professor W. C. Mason, an ordained UMC clergy person who had become chaplain and Director of Religious Life, as well as chair of the Religion Department of the school.  Mason influenced a generation of ministers with his warm personability, his studious love of learning, and his ease of making practical suggestions for leading and serving.  His example led me to embrace a sense of calling not only to serve the church anywhere, but to focus particularly upon the needs of the churches in southwestern Virginia, a region long beset with economic challenges and characterized as part of the Appalachian Region.  These churches were living in communities long ignored by their state Capitol, as well as the ecclesiastical overseers in the center of our annual conference at Knoxville.  They had developed a sense that there was no reliable help from outside their own circles of influence, and thus they had developed a real problem with trust which exhibited itself in a fear of strangers and officials.  After all, when outsiders only seem to want your money or other resources and never seem to show up when you’re hurting, it’s easy to view the world in a less than optimistic way.  So I came to embrace Southwest Virginia as my people and the focus of my ministry.  This isn’t a popular view in the annual conference of which I am a part.  Most clergy want to serve around the larger population centers, in Knoxville, Chattanooga, or at least the TriCities of Bristol, Kingsport, or Johnson City.  But southwest Virginia is viewed as a wasteland, a place where a career cannot be made, where you go to be punished, a dumping ground for those of us who can’t be trusted to lead in places that count.  One superintendent publicly declared once that our Annual Conference should just cede the Virginia churches to the Virginia Conference, as they were more of a burden than a viable mission field.Calvary Church, Clear Fork

In the midst of this attitude and the present cultural and economic forces that are at odds with Christian values and human thriving, I have served almost thirty years (with a five year hiatus to serve in a town in Tennessee, where I constantly talked about southwest Virginia- they were glad when I left!).  I have developed a deep love for southwest Virginia.  I am so blessed to have met many exemplary people who have lived faithful lives and died faithful deaths here.  There are some wonderful, loving ways people are living their lives here as disciples of Jesus Christ.  It isn’t a vast wasteland at all.  Here people are surrounded by the beauty of creation.  Here their lives are centered upon their families and neighbors.  Neighbors truly know what it means to be a neighbor here.  Church houses are not all that modern here, but some are, and the presence of a church building inspires those who pass by.  Ministry is done here in kind.  Food is taken to hurting and grieving friends.  Wood is chopped and delivered for winter heat.  Youth and children are treated like little kings and queens.  Programs are simple and devoid of fanciful things, but kids thrive as they get loved and shown how to love others.  Things aren’t perfect here, but many families and individuals are trying to be faithful in spite of all the odds against them.

North holston umcI may not be appointed to serve many more Virginia locations, but the time I’ve spent here has shown me what faithfulness looks like.  Southwest Virginia has left its mark on my soul.  For that I’m thankful.

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When Frost Falls on the Kudzu

I was driving down the Nicklesville Road, one of my favorite back roads in Southwest Virginia, as it meanders from Gate City, in Scott County, to Dickensonville up in Russell County.  There are a few places where along this two-lane route (enumerated as State Route 72), one can view a strongly rooted patch of Kudzu vine.  The vine grows by the yard during the warm summer months.  I have sat through long meetings and escaped the moment by fantasizing how the Kudzu might actually reach across the road in those places where it grows on both sides, and in my imagination I’ve seen its tendrils reach across and meet in the middle, swallowing all the traffic that goes by for several days.  I might need medication for that, I’m not sure.

Kudzu grows and consumes the world.

Kudzu grows and consumes the world.

Some of us in the part of the country where Kudzu thrives have imagined it taking over the world.  It’s vines cover houses, barns, abandoned machinery, and all kinds of things, choking life out of trees and softening the hard lines of power poles and just about any imaginable thing that sits still long enough to be covered.  It has long been hailed as a problem plant.  Yet it continues to thrive, and grow, and spread.

But as in all of life, there is an end to the vitality of the kudzu vines.  In September this year we’ve already begun to see a few mornings with frost.  The cold temperatures begin to kill the leaves, and soon they will fall off of the vines.  After a bit the vine-covered patches will begin to look like messy hair growing over all kinds of things.  In the cold part of the year you can see what is beneath the vines, the infrastructure of the kudzu.

It’s difficult to guard the landscape of our hearts from the invasive vines of time.  Without being watchful, we find ourselves covered with things that don’t matter, things that grow to consume us, choking out the vitality of our souls.  Little by little, and day by day, we become covered with things that will destroy us.

Pray for the frost to come and descend upon the Kudzu vines of our lives.  Then we shall be able to move forward into holiness.

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Mountain Dew Time

Found on http://www.flickriver.com/photos/84669354@N00/500850097/ Taken by Cowboy Geoff, and copyright 2006.

Found on http://www.flickriver.com/photos/84669354@N00/500850097/
Taken by Cowboy Geoff, and copyright 2006.

One of the great pleasures of living where I grew up was that just down the road a little piece, within easy walking distance of my grandparents’ house and barn, was a little store we called “The Farm Store.”  Later its name was changed to “State Line Market,” but we still called it the Farm Store since that’s what people do (call things by their old names as long as they can remember to.)

Every time I spent time with Pappaw, we’d take a break around 10:00 or 10:30 am and walk down to the store and have “Mountain Dew” time.  This was back in the day soda was bottled in glass bottles and the Mountain Dew brand had a bottle with a little hill billy on it (I can use that term, since I am one), with a picture of the cork flying through the little guy’s hat.  The motto “It’ll Tickle Your Innards” was emblazoned upon the bottle.  We’d pick our dope and go find a bottle opener and stand around the cashier’s counter swapping tales as we refreshed ourselves.  The workers at that store were like an extension of the family.  They always seemed to welcome our company as we took our Mountain Dew breaks.  We’d usually come back around 3 p.m. and do it all again.

Time passed and the bottlers changed how they bottled our favorite soda, so my Pappaw talked with the delivery truck driver one day and found out he could get Mountain Dew delivered to his house in glass bottles that were smaller and not labeled for resale.  We would get a couple cases of it, and one of Pepsi for Mammaw.  We were living like kings.

Now the sugar content wasn’t good for us, and we would have done better with water, but it was the time spent with Pappaw when he took his breaks and cleaned the tobacco out of his mouth, and brought out a bottle of “Good ole Mountain Dew” to share that made my time with him really special.  Usually he’d commence talking about something, sharing a story of his work experience at the Kingsport Press, or a family history tale from a previous age.  This time was every bit as important as the time I spent in formal learning at the schoolhouse.  “Dope time,” as he called it, would usually always bring out at least one good tale.  Sometimes I had already heard the tale, but it was good to hear it a second time and listen for nuances of differences in whatever version he was telling.

I’ll never forget the time he told me that about the time I was born he had a dream that he had died and gone to heaven.  He said it was a place so beautiful he couldn’t describe it.  But he was told he had to go back, because his job on earth wasn’t over.  They didn’t tell him what his job was, but he would look at me and and take a sip of Mountain Dew, and smile.  He was truly placed in my life as a blessing.  And Mountain Dew Time was our best time of the day.

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Go Rest High on that Mountain: Reflections on a Mountain Man’s Life

My wife’s father died last Saturday.  It’s been quite a struggle for him.  As we laid him to rest beside his wife, the best chicken-leg cooker in America, I couldn’t help but reflect on his life and presence among us.

Claude Beavers was born during the height of the Appalachian Coal mining industry.  His dad was a coal miner, and he became one too.  He was raised on a hill not far from the little coal camp of Amonate, Virginia.  His early life was composed of going to school at Beech Fork School, wrestling with his cousins, and hunting and fishing all over the hills and hollers around his home place.  He finished eighth grade and began to forge his life as a young man.  He was working at a sawmill when he was 19 and married a young lady by the name of Edith Bandy.  Soon two children were born and he found work at the mines to support his young family.

A third child came along a little later (my wife), and Claude continued working to make his house a home for his little family.  They lived at this time on Sinking Waters in the Bandy Community of Tazewell County.  A year later after my wife’s birth, Claude had a tragic accident when he went to work.  A “Roof Fall” in the mines is one of the many dangers there.  He was victim of one about a month after joining the UMWA.  A man whose work ethic wasn’t very good, and who missed work many days, happened to be there when the rocks fell on Claude.  This man lifted the biggest rock and two other workers lifted the rest.  Claude survived but his back was broken and he commenced a long journey through recovery of injury.  He was paralyzed from the waist down, and was told he would never walk again.

But did I tell you this mountain man named Claude Beavers was from the Appalachian Mountains?  You see, there’s something indelibly courageous about true mountaineers.  You can tell them, but you can’t tell them much.  They’re stubborn.  And stubborn isn’t always a bad thing.  Claude was sent to Fishersville, Virginia to rehab in a facility there.  This was 1968, and the technology wasn’t as good as it is now.  After a time, he began to learn to walk with the assistance of canes and braces.

His mood wasn’t always good, but in this new life as a disabled coal miner, he refused to give up.  Since he couldn’t work at the mines any more, he made sure his family had what they needed.  He put out the prettiest gardens anyone has ever seen.  A little holler behind where they lived provided the perfect spot, and there, with assistance of those braces and canes, Claude worked and grew corn, beans, squash, cucumbers, potatoes, cabbage, salad peas, and whatever he could grow.  He shared these with other members of the family and neighbors as well.

His tiny house had a back bedroom for him, especially during painful days when changes in weather would cause him to ache miserably.  Other times he stayed in the Living Room watching Westerns and NASCAR, his favorite driver being No 3, Dale Earnhardt.  Here he tended the fire in the Warm Morning stove, keeping wood and coal going, and holding court whenever the rare visitor came by.  Occasionally, if he wanted to give someone a knife, which was a treasured possession to him, he would make them pay him a penny in return.  This tradition is so the knife wouldn’t cut their friendship.

I won’t say that Claude was a perfect man or even a pleasant one.  There were many days his mood was colored by his pain, and he grumped a great deal.  But he was a proud man and he tried to make the best of his situation even though it was difficult, very trying and at times seemed downright impossible.

He drove himself without assistance wherever he needed to go.  His wife never drove, so it was his job to take his wife and daughter to the Bandy Community Freewill Baptist Church and drop them off and go pick them back up again each Sunday.  He also drove to the bank, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, and up the hollers to hunt and fish.

The day I proposed to my wife, we went back to her house and asked her mother if we should tell Claude what we had decided.  She said she’d go in the back bedroom and check to see what mood he was in.  He was sitting there cleaning his shotgun, so she returned and said, “Let’s not do that right now.”  We agreed and told him at a later time, during which he pitched a fit, since it meant I would be taking away one of his best helpers.  Fortunately for him and us, we were appointed to churches nearby and stayed for six or seven years there after we married.

His latest years were tough for him.  His wife succumbed to pancreatic cancer in October, 2007.  Now he lived alone, and had to begin depending on help outside the family to keep his needs met.  He began to develop kidney failure and with it a form of dementia.  After several falls and emergency runs to the hospital, he was finally placed in a nursing facility where he spent the remaining two years and about two months of his life.

Saturday my wife and I, and her cousin were sitting with him in his room when he drew his last belabored breath in this life.   One of his last requests was for my wife to take him “up the mountain.”  When men from his family say that, they are referring to something more final than a trip up a hill.

Someone sang “Go Rest High on that Mountain” at his funeral services on Tuesday.  It was hard to hold back the tears.


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I Wish That Cow Would “Moo.”

Everyone has their preferences about death.  Sometimes we talk about it before it happens, and if we don’t, well, I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

I’ve enjoyed getting to know some different customs over the past 26 years as a pastor in the Mountains of Virginia and Tennessee (my native country).  For instance, in the coal fields around Richlands, Virginia, it is customary to keep the casket open through the whole service.  After a night of “visitation,”  mourners gather the next day for the funeral service.  There’s usually singing, followed by someone reading the obituary, followed by a scripture reading and some “preaching.”  The preaching differs depending on who’s doing the preaching, but it varies from a quiet, reflective message that weaves scriptural truth around stories of the deceased’s life, to wind-sucking warnings against dying without your “fire insurance.”  I’ll let that sink in a bit.

Then it is customary after the preaching is over to parade the crowd by the open casket.  Some will pause and look inside, others will cast their eyes in another direction and keep walking.  Others will go out a different way.  The family then goes last, spending their last moments with their loved one, sometimes breaking down into emotional torrents of sobbing and shaking.

I found that some fellowship with the funeral directors was necessary when going to the funeral home in the role of pastor.  During the visitation, I would sometimes sit in the office and talk with these folks.  They have some unique stories.

Once I was talking with Bob Bennett from Honaker Funeral Home and he was the Jerry Clower of Funeral Directors.  Great storyteller.  He told me that when he was starting out in the funeral business, he decided to apprentice with the Hurst-Scott Funeral Home in Richlands.  He said that one day they had a burial over in Buchanan County (the heart of the coal fields).  After a long funeral, the procession began to the mountain grave yard.  He said they turned off somewhere around Keen Mountain and just kept winding and winding up mountain roads.  The longer they drove, the narrower the road got.  Finally, he said, it was just two tire tracks in dirt.

ice covered road in scott co

He said that they came finally to a little mountain cemetery, surrounded by a ram-shackle fence.  The funeral home tent was standing in the grave yard, the grave digger standing nearby.  As the lead car (in which he was riding with Mr Scott of Hurst-Scott) slowly got to the fence, they stopped.  The grave digger came straight to them.  Mr Scott rolled the window down to hear what he had to say.

“Mr Scott,” the grave digger’s voice came with nervous tremor, “we’ve got a problem.”

“What’s that?” Mr Scott had been through numerous burials, he had much experience, so problems were no cause of concern to him.

“Well, . . . er, . . . an old cow’s got down in the grave, and we can’t get her out.”  The grave digger began pacing back and forth.

By this time people are getting out of their vehicles, so they know the funeral will begin soon, and there’s no turning back at this point.

Mr Scott, thinking quickly, said, “Well, take some of that green tarp up there, and pull it over the grave.  We’ll just hope that old cow doesn’t say anything during the service.”

And, Bob, told me with finality, “We had that service with the cow in the grave.”

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Thoughts on Halloween

I think it no accident that Halloween is scheduled for Autumn.

The beauty of trees showing forth their fall colors reminds us that we are headed into the long, solitary winter.  Autumn is a season wherein it isn’t hard to think about death and dying.  Crops are finished, harvest is upon us, the weather is getting cooler, and daylight is growing shorter.

In this season it is easy to draw parallels to life’s cycles and we eventually find ourselves in the “autumn of life,” headed toward our eventual death and whatever lies beyond for each of us.  Primal culture used this season to mock death with rituals that including masquerading as ghosts and goblins.  After the Christianization of Europe, the church developed All Saints Day to somewhat redeem this habit.  The celebration in the church was designed to redirect people to think about those who had died in service of the Lord, the people we consider saints, or “Hallowed ones” [Holy ones].   It was customary to begin celebrating any holy day on the evening before, as the day began conceptually at sundown of the previous day.  So “All Hallowed’s Day” was preceded by “All Hallowed’s Evening”, shortened into “Hallow E’en,” or as we now say it “Halloween.”

There are always those who assert that this is a devilish holiday, and surely there are groups who practice dark and perhaps even wicked things on Halloween, but it also a time for people of faith to practice hospitality.

I served a church in Lee County, Virginia where about 400 children would come to town (the population of the town was only 900), and “trick or treat” in our neighborhood.  My wife was always excited to meet this crowd with enough treat bags for each one.  We were impressed that each child, unprompted, would respond to our treats with a well-rehearsed “Thank you.”  One year I even invited the youth group to join us on the porch, as our house faced Main Street, and be part of the giving.

There are holidays I enjoy more than Halloween, but it has come to mark a remembrance that even as autumn pulls our thoughts toward the end of life, we have joy in knowing that the end is only a beginning for people of faith.  So, let the darkness come, and even death’s cold grip, but there is more beyond it for people of faith.  A glory greater than autumn’s leaves and harvest:  Life eternal in heaven with God.

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Remembering Kallie

Kallie in back yard

Kallie enjoying a little sunshine in the back yard.

Daddy's GirlKallie and meKallie and CorionKallie at Pburg

Kallie was born in Greene County, Tennessee, around the 3rd day of December, 2002.  She was part of a litter of four pups that lived to adulthood.  Her original family put an ad in a trading post paper and my eyes saw that ad, and soon I was driving over to the banks of the Nolichuckey River to hunt this little German Shepherd-mix dog that was to be “free to a good home.”

My eyes first fell on two little brown and black marked pups, males, that were fuzzy and had big paws, and were running around, bravely yapping at one another and my Jeep.  I was informed by the lady of the house that these were already spoken for.  So I looked around and spotted a little short-haired black and white dog.  It, too, was male.  I inquired about it, and the lady of the house sheepishly told me that this dog was becoming a favorite of her children, so they would like to keep it.  I looked in exasperation for another and saw none.  I shrugged my arms and said, “Is there any other?”  She said there was one female that was in this litter, but it was stuck up under the smoke-house, and wouldn’t come out.

About that time a large, momma German Shepherd, full-blooded, came walking past us.  She was gorgeous, and had ears standing straight on her noble head.  The lady in charge told me, “We don’t know who the daddy dog was, but these are all mixed pups.”  Her son told her he was willing to try and reach the female pup.  He crawled, wiggled, and reached but came up short.  I thought, “This was a waste of time.”  The lady saw me getting set to go home and asked me if she could bring it to me.  I told her where I lived.  I said, “That’s a long way.  I tell you what, if you catch the dog, bring it to Weber City and I’ll meet you there, that’s about half-way.”  She agreed.  I left, looking anxiously at the beautiful mother dog, and wondering if I would ever get one.

A few days later the phone call came and I was back in the Jeep, traveling this time only 45 minutes to Weber City, and met this lady at a store near my ancestral home.  The puppy was beautiful.  She seemed fearful in her first car ride, and didn’t want to meet anyone new.  I turned her on her back and laid my hand on her belly.  She wiggled, and then turned over.  I was told that was a test that if she didn’t turn over, she’d be a good dog.  But I wanted her pretty badly by now and took her into my Jeep.  She buried her head under the front seat.  I looked up and spotted a billboard above the parking lot.  It was advertising a new restaurant in Gate City, called “Kallie’s.”  I thought, “Ok, little’n.  You must be Kallie.”

The stench of fresh cow manure accompanied us all the way home.  Kallie had gotten in a fresh pile before she left her mother.  I planned on getting in the garage, shutting the door, and letting her out to see what she’d do.  That plan worked only after I pulled this dog from under the seat.  She was not sure she wanted to be there.  And she got away as I was picking her up and headed for the area under the dash board, climbing like she wanted to get to the motor.  I gently pulled and picked her up, and set her down on the garage floor.  She went right to the area halfway between the tires where I couldn’t reach her.  I kept trying until finally I got her in my arms, and held her tight.  I asked Tammie, my wife, to get me a wet towel so I could try to wipe this stinky pup down.

As I gently wiped her fuzzy coat, and held her and talked to her, she began to stop fighting and began to see that I meant her no harm.  Soon she was licking my face.  I thought about how God does this same thing with us as he washes us in the waters of baptism, holding us as we resist, and removing the stench of sin from our spirits.  Soon we find our selves looking into our Father’s face, and realize, we belong to Him and He belongs to us.

By the time we moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee, not far from Kallie’s origin, it was time to think about having her fixed so she wouldn’t have a big litter of puppies herself.  I arranged it and the Vet took her for the night.  I picked her up the next day and she seemed upset.  I took her home and let her come into the finished portion of the basement to sleep off her anesthesia and pain medicine.  I was sitting in my recliner, just reading when all at once, Kallie got up from her bed and came to my chair.  She looked up into my eyes with a longing I didn’t quite understand.  I thought about it and decided she wanted on my lap.  I lowered the recliner slowly, and she got up to me.  I pulled her up to my lap very gently and reclined the chair again.  She laid longways on me, with her head as close to my chin as she could get, and her tail between my feet.  She slept for over an hour on me like this.  I thought about the trust she was putting in me.  I felt overwhelmed and thankful.

Kallie shepherded our family.  Always looking out for anything that would be trouble, like a stray cat, or dog, and certain strangers.  She was always herding us away from what she perceived to be trouble.

She finally earned her way to the coveted spot beneath our bed as her special place to sleep through the night.  I learned to get up early and take her out.  She patiently waited for the snoring to end so she could get relief.

During our days with a foster child, who we have kept for the past eight years, Kallie would gladly join us in the car for the daily ride to school in the mornings and evenings.  She enjoyed a little leftover ice cream from our cones and eggs from our plates.

Except for those times when she got the storm jitters and had to seek cover, her courage and alertness were always on.  The last few years she began to go downhill, having trouble with her back legs, manifesting itself when she tried to go up or down steps.  She found a way to slow down, concentrate, and try a little harder.

Her arthritis led to having to have aspirin therapy each day.  She didn’t like the aspirin, but loved the cheese it was wrapped in.

I was gone nine days for vacation this year, her longest Kennel time ever.  When I picked her up, she kept putting her head up to see if I was still up in the front of the car.   It was obvious she missed being loved by us those days.

She came down with a nasty infection in one of her back legs.  I was confronted with a choice.  Either doctor her with antibiotics, and watch her continue to decline, or let her go on to her maker.  I had known this day was coming, as day after day I had seen her limp and move so gingerly, and sleep continuously, and drink loads of water.  She wanted nothing more than to be as close to me as she could.

On Friday, Sept. 5, 2014, I made the decision to let the vet put her down.  I stayed in the room and watched through a flood of tears.  The peacefulness of her body after the medicine took effect was my only consolation that day.

To be loved by a creature of God’s is one of life’s highest forms of blessing.  Dogs are certainly a form of grace.  Unconditional, loyal, and trusting.

Someone sent me a poem called “Rainbow bridge.”

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.
All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together…. 

Author unknown…

It just so happened that someone also posted a picture of the valley where Kallie rests.  The post was the day Kallie took her last breath.  Here’s the picture:

rainbow in thompson valley

Picture by WS Wolf, Tazewell County fb page

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Communion Chronicles

CommunionBlogPicI don’t know when I first took communion.  I have since learned that whenever it was, it was done improperly.  My home church didn’t always do things by the book.  And thank God for that.

My earliest memories of church involve going with my grandfather up to the front of the church.  His solemn mood made me acutely aware that this was something serious.  We went and knelt at the end of the altar rail, over on the right side.  The preacher would come around with a crystal dish filled with cracker crumbs.  I would watch my Pappaw slide one off the dish for himself, and then get another for me.  I came to learn it was an unsalted saltine-type cracker.  What was special was the way we ate it.  We waited until everyone was served, then we all ate at once.  I remember the taste of that cracker crumb to this day.  Clean.  Crispy.  Well, I don’t know that I knew this then, I mean how could I have had a concept of it, but this cracker, taken at the altar rail, kneeling on my knees beside my best buddy, my Pappaw, I think the only way to describe it was “holy.”

Well, that wasn’t all.  The pastor then came around with a larger metal tray, upon which were tiny glasses with grape juice in them.  My grandfather’s fingers reached out to pluck up a glass, and handed it to me.  I held it until he got his, and the others got theirs and then we drank.  I loved the grape juice.  It was something we never had at home.  And it was so deeply purple.  And it was a challenge to get the entire glass full because a little drop always stayed on the bottom, and all the other glasses had those drops.  I loved the taste, and the glass and the moment.

Then we returned to our seats and waited, often three months, until the next time.

I have been a big fan of communion since those early times at the altar of my home church.  I was able to talk the communion steward into giving me the leftovers, and often took home a half-bottle of grape juice in those quarterly communion celebrations.

What I found was improper about my taking communion as a child was that I wasn’t baptized.  Dr Dennis Campbell, once dean of the Divinity School at Duke, informed me in a Methodism class once that it wasn’t proper to give communion to unbaptized people.  I’m glad my church didn’t say anything.  I was supposed to be baptized but the Baptist side of the family found out just in the nick of time to abort that activity, and I had to wait until after the “age of accountability.”  But I still got to participate with my Pappaw in communion.  And that’s a good thing.

Most of my colleagues can tell tales of when they have presided at communion and people have done strange and unexpected things.  Like eating the bread before they have a chance to dip it in the chalice whenever they’ve practiced “intinction.”  That’s dipping a piece of bread in a common cup.  This style of communion became pretty prevalent in the 1980s, and continues to be used, although there are those who don’t find it savory as they imagine it will make them physically sick to share communion with someone who might have germs.  It might make them sick, but they’ll die holy, so what’s the beef?  One of my former church members referred to “inctinction” as “Dip and Drip.”  I have found at least one person will eat their bread before dipping when we do this, no matter the size of the crowd.

Once a man took the chalice out of my hand and took a big, ole swig of it, then gave it back with a grin.  I’m glad he was at the end of the line.

In our Methodist tradition we don’t drink the rest of the wine like some of our more sacramental brothers and sisters will.  But there has been a movement among worship professors in seminaries to encourage people to come up and consume what’s left over after worship has ended.  They say it enhances fellowship.  Otherwise you’re supposed to throw the bread crumbs outside and pour the juice out on the ground, so it goes back to creation.

That would be a good thing to teach.  I failed to do that apparently in one church.  My communion steward in a little mountain church not far from where I now live, seemed to always have a hard time getting the concept of a bread loaf.  She mostly brought hot dog buns.  In my early days I celebrated Holy Communion once a month, so she could be forgiven for complaining, but she was also pretty skimpy with stuff.  I found out the communion juice was a problem too.  In fact I had a hard time convincing her that she needed to use grape “juice,” not grape “drink.”  The drink was like a sugary beverage, the juice was 100 percent juice.  I was taught that Welch’s brand was best because the Welch family perfected the process that enabled grape juice to be stored for long periods without becoming wine.  That was important in the days of the Temperance and Prohibition movement, so many of our churches used that brand.

What I didn’t know was that this well-meaning lady was pouring the juice back into the bottle after communion, and sticking it the refrigerator for the next month.  Then she’d show up with those infernal buns.  Have you ever tried to be serious and holy with a hot dog bun?  Hard to do, let me tell you.  Then as we were serving communion one time, someone dipped their bread in the pretty little cup we were using and a real long string of something attached to the bread that had to be Jesus’ sinews.  It was pretty gross though, and after that I brought my own communion supplies.  All she would have had to do would have been told me.  But we didn’t need Jesus strings in the grape juice.

Legend has it that in the olden days when the “host” was reserved (the leftover bread) after they had prayed over it, it was possible for a mouse to get in it and they had long debates over whether it was really communion if a mouse ate it, especially one unbaptized.

I don’t know how that turned out, since I’m not in those more liturgical traditions, but the mass was always done in Latin.  There was one line in the mass that was accompanied by the ringing of a bell.  The priest would say “Hoc est corpus meum.”  If they said it fast enough, it sounded like “hocus-pocus.”

There’s nothing magic about bread and wine.  But there’s something deeply holy about sharing it with people you love.  And if you get the leftovers, that’s not bad either.

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The Healing of the Broken Rooster

I met Dana Reed when I moved to Jonesborough, Tennessee in 2003.  “Coach,” as they called him, since he had been a coach for more than a generation of young people in the schools of Washington County, Tennessee, was grinning the moment I met him, and there was a sparkle of grace in his eyes.

He came to the parsonage when we moved in, and was part of a group of guys who were trying to get some things done to the house so we could make it a home.  One of the things they were doing was putting in a new wood floor in the den and kitchen.  There were some leftover boards in the garage, and Coach took a few of them home with him.  Said he had something he wanted to do with them.  I told him that was fine.  I was the new guy and I wasn’t going to go against anybody, since I wanted things to go well.

In the conversation, my wife let him know some things had been broken in the move, and one of these things being a metal rooster I had collected at the previous place, he took notice and gladly took it to his “tinkering” place where he promised he’d work on getting it fixed.  I figured I might never see it again, and was willing to part with it, since it was just one among many of my collection (having received them from a group of people in the previous church who had been taking delight in making sure I got them).

I rode around the neighborhood with Coach a while one afternoon.  He wanted to tell me about different things, like the airport on 107 and the site of the old pottery which was near his homeplace.  In the seat between us was a box or two of fried pies.  He offered me one, and I refused it since I didn’t need the calories, but he just kept grinning, and soon we went through a road block where the state workers were repairing a piece of the road.  He hollered at the flag man and reached and handed him some pies, and asked him if he needed water.  I was amazed at the delight he was taking in offering this hospitality.

I came to find that Coach Reed had a ministry of taking old wheel chairs and fixing them up to give to people who needed them.  He had a place where he worked on these things and spent a lot of time there.  But getting them done wasn’t his aim as much as meeting people, telling stories, and grinning.

One day I was walking through the church before service and Coach was sitting beside a Mr Slonaker, and he was sharing his trademark grin.  So I stopped and shook hands with these men and welcomed them to the service.  Coach looked up and said, “Preacher!”  Without missing a beat he continued:  “Slonaker and I are going over to the Army-Navy Surplus Store this week to look for some blankets.”  I thought he must have some sweet ministry he was wanting to do that involved blankets.  I wanted to hear about this so I asked him what for?  That delighted him further, and his grin got bigger, then he stated: “Yeah, it’s so cold in this sanctuary with the air conditioner running we need them to stay warm!”  Still grinning at me, I could only laugh and tell him my trademark statement:  “Coach,” I said, “There’s two things I refuse to learn how to do:  1.  work the sound system, and 2. mess with the thermostat.”  But I never forgot the sheer delight he took in telling me that, dressed in his best shorts and polo shirt.

So as you can see, this special man was involved in a lot of things.  He was one of Jonesborough’s greatest storytellers, although he never took to the stage.  His stories were personal and he delighted to be in anyone’s presence.

One day I was surprised when he came to me and informed me that he was going to do the children’s sermon the next Sunday.  I hardly ever got volunteers for that, so I was relieved and interested in what he might do.  He informed me he was going to tell the story of the “Donkey Cross.”  I had never heard of that and wondered what I was in for.  On the day he was to do this he had his hand behind his back as he came to the front of the church with the kids.  He sat on the designated spot on the altar, and commenced telling the tale of the cross that appears on the back of a certain breed of donkey, and he had a book that had pictures.  The kids were highly interested in his story and he was delighting in telling it.  Then he finished his tale and prayed with the kids, after which he turned to be sure I was looking, and turned back to the congregation to announce:  “A few months ago when the preacher and his wife got here I found out one of his roosters was broken.  Now you probably don’t know that our preacher has a bunch of roosters.  Well, I fixed his broken rooster, and am going to give it back to him today, since he’s the head rooster around this place!”  His grin got bigger and he reached and handed me the rooster, now made whole by his work (or somebody’s he knew who could weld).  The congregation loved this, especially the part about the “head rooster.”

It wasn’t long after this that I found myself at a graveside, trying to say appropriate words about the life of this man who loved people so much.  Before he died he presented me with two picture frames he made from those boards he took from the parsonage.  I have one in my office today, to help me remember the hospitality of one of God’s saints.


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The Baptism of Mrs. Maggie

I moved to Russell County, Virginia in 1989.  I was fresh out of seminary and excited to be out of school and assigned to a two-point circuit in the real world.  I was relieved when I found out I was going to be assigned to a place in southwestern Virginia, as I had felt a particular calling to the area while in College.  The hills and mountains felt like home and the green pastures and clear streams fed something deep within my soul.

So I found myself getting to know my church members.  I was pretty meticulous going through the church roll and trying to find people whose membership was listed there but who had not shown up yet.  I found one of those to be an elderly woman named Maggie.  She lived in a house by the side of the main road between Claypool Hill and Lebanon.  Her house was on the side of a hill, and from her picture window in the living room she could watch the traffic go by.  That is, she could watch the traffic if she could see better.  Her eyes were deteriorating, and her vision wasn’t great.  But she enjoyed sitting in the sunlight and waiting to see if anyone was coming to see her.

It was in this context that my little VW drove up her driveway one day.  I had asked some folks in the church about her.  One of her sons had a garden in my back yard, and we had talked about her.  I think he had asked me to go see her.  I got out of the car and went through the front gate of the yard and bounded up the steps to the front porch.

After introductions, Mrs Maggie began talking.  She informed me that no pastor had ever come to see her.  And she told me some interesting stories from her life.  She had raised a house full of young’uns.  Their family had worked on farms around Belfast.  The children were put to labor as soon as they could work, helping with the crops, working hay and tobacco, and rounding up cattle.  As her children grew up they moved to places to seek work away from the farms, as the pay there wasn’t much.

One son had gone up north to work in the auto factories.  Word reached Mrs Maggie that he was sick and she was worried to death about him.  So she made plans to go see about him.  At the time her husband was working on a particular farm where they lived and she went by night to ask the farm owner if they could spare some money to let her go see about her son.  She told me the lady of the house threw a dollar out the window at her.  She took it and bought a train ticket.  With only some change left she arrived in the big city, not really knowing how she was going to find her son.

Her testimony of the kindness of strangers, people of African American heritage (not her words), was moving.  She had found more care and concern in the big city than she felt she had received in the county of her birth.

But her words weren’t bitter.  She held herself with dignity and continued telling her tales of her life to me.  After a while I had to bring the conversation to a close and offered prayer and went on my way.  But I kept coming back to Mrs Maggie’s house.  Her hospitality and need to talk kept drawing me.

One day I learned of her being in the hospital at nearby Richlands.  Her children were known for their deep love for her, and some in the community had noticed that there was a particular way they talked about her that bespoke that love.  “Preacher,” the voice on the phone said, “Mother is at the hospital.”  The way the speaker said “Mother” was noticeable.  They continued:  “And she wanted me to ask you for a special favor.”  I was glad to do whatever I could for Mrs. Maggie.

“Preacher, she’d like to be baptized.  Can you do that?”  My mind went to how to do something like that in the hospital, but I was glad to do it, so I answered in the affirmative and collected some things and headed that way.  I stopped at a store and bought some bread and grape juice too.  I was going to double up on sacramental worship if I could.

I arrived to find Mrs. Maggie accompanied by her daughter, her son-in-law, and a couple of her sons.  I visited with her for a few moments to find out how she was doing.  She didn’t think she was going to make it and wanted to make a profession of faith and be baptized.  I fixed a bowl of water and even put together my chalice with communion supplies.  I read some scripture about the goodness of God.  Then I walked her informally through our baptism ritual, hearing her answer to the examination questions.  I cupped water with my hand and sprinkled it on her head.  She teared up.  I said the words of the ritual:  “I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  Her children said, “Amen.”  I asked them to lay a hand on her as we invoked the Holy Spirit to work within her, that she might become a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.  Then we had communion.

What happened that day in the hospital was an act of inclusion.  Many times Mrs. Maggie had told me of ways she had felt excluded, and even unwelcome by some in the community, especially those who had more that she had.  That day she was included in the gracious community of faith, and surrounded by some of her own family who dearly loved her.

Mrs. Maggie lived through that hospital stay and returned home.  I remember being invited to her house for a home-cooked meal not long after that.  She worked for weeks to get that together.  At 91, and mostly blind, she couldn’t do much of it anymore, but her children helped her and she fed the preacher.  This was her way of thanking God for including her in the kingdom.  I knew when I entered her house for this meal, it wasn’t about serving my needs, it was about allowing her to show thanksgiving to God.

She was thrilled the day I came and told her that I was going to get married.  I brought my fiance to come see her and meet her.  Her son was attending my fiance’s church, and so she felt she had a special connection to her.  I spoke up and asked her, since Tammie’s grandparents had died, if she wouldn’t be willing to be Tammie’s honorary grandparent the day of our wedding.  She took that responsibility as seriously as if Tammie was her own.  And she attended our wedding.

God’s grace is an act of inclusion.  There isn’t anyone beyond the scope of God’s love.  Mrs. Maggie illustrated that to me.  And she lived the rest of her days a full recipient of God’s grace.  thumb_COLOURBOX7161097

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Bluefield: A Wedding of Two Communities

This winter I spent some time in the Craft Memorial Library over at Bluefield, West Virginia.  I found there microfilmed copies of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph from the late 1800s to the middle of the 1900s.  Interesting stories.

Of course the first community to be founded was the little town of Graham, on the Virginia side.  It was named after a Philadelphia entrepreneur, a man by the name of Thomas Graham, whose family had been involved in international merchandising before the Civil War, and afterwards Graham was highly interested in developing natural resources in the US and abroad.  He met up with some others who had decided to build a railroad into the Flattop Mountain region to mine coal from the area’s rich seams.  His ability to get the capital from northern investors to make this happen caused the locals to honor him with the naming of the town in 1883.  This lasted for just a little over 40 years.

The city of Bluefield developed just a little to the east, and across the state line.  It’s name comes from natural features.  Some say it reflects the presence of a wildflower called Chicory, which has an azure blue flower.  Others think it has some relation to the Bluestone River and its limestone rock which flows through the area.  The town of Bluefield came to be by 1889.  Newspaper accounts say the land prices in the Virginia town of Graham had skyrocketed once word got out the railroad was coming.  Higginbotham’s Summit, in the West Virginia side had the space for rail yards, and the land was much cheaper there, so the railroad made the switch to the West Virginia land, and developed a strong presence there, drawing businesses and residents.

By the 1920s the two communities were receiving some unprecedented growth.  The coalfields were bringing in the money and the railroad was serving as a hub for passengers, freight, and coal.  The area was booming.

Baptists in the Commonwealth of Virginia wanted to establish a college in the region of southwestern Virginia.  They were courted by business and community leaders from Bluefield and Graham.  This effort was successful and the Bluefield College was established in 1922, a building was built and students welcomed to campus in the fall of 1923.  In December of that year the paper published a column in which a conversation was reported to have been engaged in at a local Graham business during which a debate ensued about changing the name of the Virginia town of Graham to Bluefield, honoring the college they hosted on Virginia land, and bowing to the powerful presence of the much larger community of Bluefield, West Virginia.

The conversation consumed the town and the newspaper for months.  Legislation was offered in the General Assembly allowing for a special town election to decide the question.  A long list of supporters of the name change was published in the Graham Daily News section of the Daily Telegraph, noting many of the leading families of the community were in favor of this change.  The election came and went and Graham was renamed Bluefield.

In July of 1924, about a month after the town election, a mock “Wedding” was staged at the state line, with governors of each state being present, and a couple took the vows of matrimony, representing a marriage of the two communities.  Of course they kept their own governmental oversight, but the spirit of the community became one that day.

The schools kept the name Graham, as did some of the churches and businesses.  A letter was published from a descendant of Thomas Graham, saying the family was in favor of the name change but that they thought the community should work hard to diversify their industrial base so the community would prosper into the future.

The newspaper editor suggested building a monument to Thomas Graham’s influence upon the community.  Nothing was done about this suggestion.  Graham had died in 1891 on a trip to Mexico where he was inspecting some copper mines.  His sons ran the Graham Land and Improvement Company in the town for several years, but neither became permanent residents.

This Friday and Saturday the two Bluefields will celebrate 90 years as two communities with the same name.  Its a good time to celebrate, even though the demise of the coal industry has brought the West Virginia community to a position of only being a shadow of its former self.  The old town of Graham, now Bluefield, Virginia, has kept a steady population all these years.

From MarkerHistory.com

From MarkerHistory.com

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The State of Franklin: Freedom’s Frontier

I was born within the environs of what historians call the “Lost State of Franklin.”  This fleeting governmental boundary was composed of lands lying to the west of present day North Carolina, in the valleys of the great western waters (the Holston, Nolichucky, Watauga, French Broad, Clinch, Powell, and Tennessee Rivers).  The settlements of European-descended Americans had been attempted since the 1740s, with many trading posts established to interact with the Cherokee and other native people, and a lot of activity by “Long Hunters” who collected animal skins for the growing demand in the old country.  After decades of interaction with natives, these early settlers purchased lands and established residency along the very fertile river bottoms and hollows of the area.

It was in the Watauga Settlement in 1772 that early settlers drew up an agreement to live under their own rules and self-government, making themselves one of the first groups to taste independence in the Colonial days.  After the Revolution got started (in the year 1780), these same families, joined by later comers, hearing of the war and fearful of what it was doing to their liberty, joined together at Sycamore Shoals near modern day Elizabethton, Tennessee, and with the Reverend Samuel Doak, a Presbyterian preacher, as their spiritual leader, and armed with flintlock rifles and fighting skills gained by interaction with the natives, marched to King’s Mountain near the North Carolina/South Carolina border, west of Charlotte, and gave the British such a routing that only a few days afterward Lord Cornwallis threw in the towel at Yorktown and a truce was called to the war, giving legitimacy to the effort for Independence of our great nation.

The State of Franklin was soon given birth as a way for these back-country soldiers to continue their effort to govern their own destiny.  From 1784 to 1788 it was in existence, with its first capital at Jonesborough, and subsequent governmental operations at Greeneville.  The major motivating factor for this new state was a sense of disregard coming from the governor and legislature of North Carolina, which first had claimed this region.  A King’s Mountain soldier and settler of the Nolichucky area, John Sevier, quickly rose to leadership and helped shape this new statehood effort.  So far the United States had no rules on the books for how new states could be formed.  Soon the objections of North Carolina were heard in Washington, and the State of Franklin ceased to exist, though love of freedom had been born in the hearts of the westerners.

As a compromise, Congress finally established a “Territory.” The area then became the “Territory South of the Ohio River.”  A provisional government was established at Rocky Mount, near present-day Piney Flats (between Bristol and Johnson City, off US 11-E).  Governor William Blount ruled this territory until Tennessee was carved out as a separate state, with governmental operations at the new settlement of Nashville, in 1796.  The old Franklinite John Sevier became the first Governor of Tennessee.

When people of Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, and other areas in the region act stubborn and refuse to cooperate with outsiders, we’re just being true to our nature.  We are Franklinites still, lovers of freedom, and we’re only doing what the scripture says in Galatians 5:  “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” (King James Bible).

On this July 4th, let us remember how hard-fought our freedom has been.  Each generation must fight the battle for themselves.  I choose to embody the independence of my mountain forebears.


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A Trip to the Smokies

Vacations were not something we enjoyed a lot in my youth.  Getting my Dad to take us all somewhere was a challenge.  But once in a while we got to go.

The first time I ever went to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, I was perhaps six or seven.  The trip only takes a little over 90 minutes from the homeplace now, but in those days it seemed longer.  In fact it seemed like we drove for days.

I was told to look for bears, which I now realize was an attempt to keep me quiet.

There are no bears along Interstate 81.  And I’m pretty sure I was told that even before we got to the interstate.

Daddy liked to smoke, and so we children (me sitting in the middle, flanked by my older, meaner sisters, one on each side), sat in the back and got the full force of second-hand smoke, more than likely leading to all our health disorders today.  Add to that his constant expelling of gastro-intestinal fumes, and we were glad to have windows we could let down a little.

This was in the days before Pigeon Forge became the tourist mecca it is today.  Gatlinburg was the main event, and it wasn’t far from scenic drives through mountain scenery.  I don’t remember a lot about this trip, but I know we stayed in a small motel in Gatlinburg.  I’m not sure I slept any, because conditions were tight, and I think I slept on a foldaway bed.

But I was getting used to the place when our family took a notion to drive over into Cherokee, NC.  The drive was gorgeous, although the traffic was heavy this summer, lots of tourists gawking at the trees, and moving quite slowly on the narrow road that connected the communities.

When we got to Cherokee, I loved it.  It was a quiet little town complete with a roadside Teepee that was manned by a dark-skinned man wearing a large feather headdress.  I just knew he had to be a real, live Indian.  I later found out he was a “tourist trap” as my dad called him.  His western style was not authentic to the Cherokee at all.

A little restaurant sat near a trout stream in Cherokee.  We finally stopped to eat, and my dad chose this spot.  I was starved.  This was in the day when a waitress would bring you a glass of water with the menu.  I devoured it while I tried to read the big menu.  One item was something about Rainbow Trout.  I thought that sounded good, so I ordered it.

When the trout came, I was famished.  The server set a big old white plate in front of me.  Upon this plate was a fish that filled the plate.  It was the biggest fish I had ever seen.  And the first thing I noticed was it was staring back at me.  This fish had EYES.  I had never eaten a fish like this, and I wasn’t sure I could.  It had scales on one side and looked like they had just grabbed it out of the creek and put it on my plate.  I said, to the delight of everyone at my table:  “I wanted a fresh fish, but not THIS fresh!”  Everybody laughed, and I picked at my fish, but couldn’t finish it.  My dad reached over and forked it to his plate and ate almost all of what I had left.  I ate a few french fries and that was that.

The only souvenir I remember purchasing on this trip was a little paper weight made of rocks.

One of the reasons we go away on vacation is to make us cherish home all the more.  I think my favorite part of our trip was coming home.  After a few days looking at the Smokies I was plenty glad to see the old Clinch Mountain of home.  And I had a new appreciation for our frozen fish sticks which I always ate with ketchup.  Home is a good place to come back to.


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“Benge! What Are You Doing?”

The Commonwealth of Virginia has almost completely excised all references to the murderous actions of early bands of Indian tribes against settlers (who were probably breaking treaties to settle in what was thought to be Indian lands or hunting grounds).  Once historic markers in many of our southwest counties talked about “Indian Outrages” and “Murderous Savages”.  Those have been removed.

But some still share the stories of the raids, the kidnappings, scalpings, and killings that beset our pioneer families.  Being kin to the Indians as well as the pioneers leaves one more than a little conflicted.

So, I bring you one of the stories.  An Indian (or Native American if you must), by the name of Benge, also known as Bench, and reportedly a “half-breed” (which historians report in a fashion that makes it sound like his genetics were the source of evil), with roots in the Cherokee nation, but who had traveled and taken upon himself the lifestyle of the Shawnee, became a leader in raids that happened in the area we know today as Wise, Lee, and Scott Counties, Virginia.  He is reported to have stolen slaves and resold them, kidnapped children and women, scalped and killed men, and otherwise caused the wreaking of havoc in the lives of pioneers.

In 1794, anger had arisen to a fever pitch in effort to stop these raids and related activities.  A group of pioneers organized and fought against Benge.  They cornered him somewhere in Wise County, and historians differ on the exact location, some say it was near Appalachia, others say it was near Dorchester.  But a gap exists on Powell Mountain above Norton, that has come to be called “Benge’s Gap.”  It is thought this is where the fight broke out.  A gunshot rang out, Benge died, and peace reined again in the hollows and hills.


I just returned from a family reunion where my Uncle Bob told me, with a straight face, that his family grew up beneath the place referred to as Benge’s Rock.  A rock outcropping exists at the top of the hill above this hollow where Grandma Miles lived.  Legend has it that this was Benge’s Rock.

The story goes, as my Uncle detailed it for me, that this is the rock where Benge was hiding when they were shooting at him.  When the fatal shot rang out, Benge fell off the rock and where his body hit the ground, it is thought they buried his body there, beneath the rock.

He said when he was a little boy, his uncles used to tell him that you could go up near Benge’s Rock today and holler:  “Benge!  What are you doing?”  And if you hollered this long enough, you could hear Benge say “Nothing!”

A slow, broad smile would break out on Uncle Bob’s face after he told this.  “They got that on me several times.”  “Of course a dead Indian says nothing.”



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Gone to Conference

“Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”–Hebrews 10: 25, (King James Bible)

I am not sure who first thought up Annual Conference, but it has been integral to the organization and culture of Methodists for a couple hundred years now.  While it used to take place in the fall, it was moved some time ago to summer, and has remained there, so that the preacher’s children don’t have to change schools in the middle of the year.

That wouldn’t even be a consideration in the Catholic church.

Every year hundreds of Methodists gather at some assembly place in the regional conferences across the country and around the world.  All clergy who are credentialed through their conference are made to report there, as well as representatives from each local church and lay leaders from each district within the conference, enough to make up an equal representation of lay and clergy.  And I should be using the name United Methodist, but I’m quite a bit old fashioned in that regard.

The first person in my family to attend a session of annual conference was my great, great grandfather, William Perry.  He had come home from the Civil War, a broken and defeated confederate soldier (19th Tennessee Infantry), with a bullet wound in his hat.  He married a lady who had gotten religion in 1857 during a revival that started the church.  After he got back from the war, they began a life together and started raising a family.  Their oldest son who lived (their first child died within the first year of life), became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and so Granddaddy Perry got actively involved in district and conference meetings, representing his church and priding himself in having contributed to the pastoral work.  His brother, Uncle Cliff, represented the northern Methodist group, and went to their district and conference events.  Uncle Cliff and Granddaddy Perry went to the same church.

Did you see that last sentence?  A southern Methodist, and confederate veteran went to church with a northern Methodist and Union Army veteran.  Side by side.  They sat in the same pew.

Maybe I should back up a little.  See, East Tennessee (which should be its own state, since it differs so much in politics from the rest of Tennessee), was fraught with divided loyalties during the “Great Upheaval.”  Tennesseans aren’t real good at conformity, and although it was popular at the time to support confederate ideas, many Tennesseans sided with the north, especially East Tennesseans.  So in the Perry family, Uncle Cliff went to war with the union.  Grandpa went to war with the confederates.  After the war they both came home (thank God) and when they married up, their wives were cousins to each other.

They lived near each other, and the church in the community was their family church.  It was the only church in the area.  Because there were two Holston Conferences from 1865 to 1939, (one north and one south), this congregation decided to be a “union” church.  That doesn’t mean they supported the union, it means they were “united” as a congregation of two entities, the ME Church and the ME Church, South.  They swapped preachers each week, one week a northern conference preacher would preach, the next week a southern conference preacher would preach.  Joint rolls were kept of the congregation.  Sunday School literature was swapped each year.  And so they lived and worshiped and related to one another as the years went by, and slowly, but surely, the two entities finally merged (along with the Methodist Protestants), and became the Methodist Church.

Since that time, there’s only been one Holston Conference.  And we’ve met in places across the region, from Radford, Virginia to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  In the 1960s, and again in the 1970s, we started meeting at Lake Junaluska, in North Carolina.  This is a large resort-like assembly ground owned by the Southeastern Jurisdiction of what is now the United Methodist Church.

Every second week of June we meet for three or four days and sing the songs of faith, listen to sermons and Bible teaching, hear reports from various committees in the annual conference, take communion, memorialize the dead preachers and spouses, enact any business that needs to be acted upon, and hear where the bishop is going to send the preachers this year.

It’s a full few days.  And it’s like a big family reunion as we see one another and relive old times, and welcome new preachers (with ordination and licensing services), and much good will is present.

I first attended Annual Conference the summer after my dad took his life.  My preacher that year seemed interested in pointing me towards the ministry.  It must have worked.  I was impressed with the large number of people present and the great preaching.  And I loved to hear Bishop Finger speak in his eloquent way with his lingering “s” at the end of his wordsssssssssss.

Every year when the Day lilies start blooming, you know its time to go to Conference.  John Wesley called these meetings a “means of grace.”  I think he was on to something.daylilies

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The Model City

I grew up next to Kingsport, Tennessee.  Kingsport has had several lives, the most recent being a period of industrialization, growth, expansion, and relative decline.  This period was much touted at the beginning as the town became known through the moniker “The Model City.”

This period of development was marked with a group of visionary leaders who worked in tandem with industrial interests to bring several compatible industries to the river banks of the Holston River, and decided they should work with a city planner to draw up plans for a city that could grow to 100,000 residents.  They hired John Nolan, who had planned several other communities across the nation, and Nolan’s plan for Kingsport was laid out, and the community grew.  Thus, “The Model City” was born.

A few days ago one of Kingsport’s post-modern leaders opined that “if you work in Kingsport, you should live in Kingsport.”  This is probably not the first time some frustrated leader has said as much, but it is the opposite of the concept that gave the city success.

Kingsport grew up in an era when most of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia in the Holston Valley at least, was agrarian.  Small farms dotted the hilly land, and most residents were providing well for themselves with hard work, growing food and managing small herds of cattle, sheep, and horses.  As the big town began to take shape, some of the sons and daughters of farm families found that the lure of cash was too strong, and they left the farm to go work in the city.  The success of Kingsport as a community came from the willingness of these workers to go work a shift at the Eastman, Meade, or Press, and go back home to their garden spots and milk cows at night.

Today’s problem is different because people’s lives have changed.  Much of the farm habits of previous generations have been abandoned for the commodity-driven consumerist and materialist culture that is modern America.  People depend now on food being brought in from far away, some from third-world and developing nations, and worked by migrant farmers, while they shop for it in the comfort of air-conditioned grocery aisles in big-box stores, and then drive home to their two and three car garages and 2,500-3,500 square feet homes.  The habits of the present generation will not be sustained as fuel resources run out, but we’re told we won’t have to worry about that for a little while longer.  Thus, people in Johnson City now work in Kingsport, and people in Kingsport work in Johnson City, or Bristol, or even Greeneville, or the coal fields of Wise County, or elsewhere around the region where they can make the money they need to sustain their lifestyles.

While the city leader’s statement about living and working in the same community makes sense, it isn’t what folks are going to do.  They invest in homes in the community where they choose to live.  They seek work related to the financial needs they have to sustain their lifestyles, and some may drive over an hour away for work.  Gone are the days when a community like Kingsport can be its own closed economy.

The history of the success of the Tri-Cities region has always depended upon regional cooperation.  We are at our best when we work together.  It doesn’t happen often, because folks who lead one community do not usually get votes from people who live somewhere else.  The political process is what is broken.  But no one is going to invest in living somewhere if they don’t have a desire to live there.

While there are many signs of new life in the Model City, it has definitely experienced decline as a community.  Housing has deteriorated throughout the area, and landlords haven’t been very helpful in changing that.  Expansion of the city’s treasury through annexation has not proven to be the right solution either.  While many of the city’s past workers have moved just beyond the borders of the city, in places like Colonial Heights and Church Hill, there is a new trend of people moving all the way to other cities like Johnson City.  This has left a perception that all that remains is a population of entitlement-dependent folks who cannot pay for the city’s very expensive programs and amenities.

The solution isn’t to gripe about how folks choose to live.  Instead, the city should work to redevelop decaying neighborhoods, as they did recently in the Eastman Road redevelopments from Stone Drive to Fort Henry Drive.  Encouraging redevelopment in older neighborhoods will bring new life to the Model City.  Younger people, folks who haven’t reached the top of their careers yet, will move back if some of these areas are renewed, not only in business development, but in rehabbing housing.

Then another important area of attention the city needs to come to terms with is the whole area of drug abuse.  Many folks have missed the economic life of the city and have fallen into patterns of drug use and related criminal problems and deterioration of family life.  The city needs to give some attention to this and develop effective programs aimed at helping people find ways to break the cycle of addiction and related poverty.  If this isn’t addressed, it doesn’t matter what happens with jobs, folks won’t even drive in there due to the crime that will continue to grow.

The best thing the city has done in the past forty years is develop the downtown higher education center, where area colleges have come to teach classes.  Someone suggested the city should give two years of education to any city resident who graduates high school.  I laud that idea, but it should be combined with some civic duty, since, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”  Students in the downtown center should have to return to the city some form of community service that addresses the needs of the community.  Many new ideas flow from the brains of the young.  Let them loose to form some new ideas and generate some new energy into the life of the Model City.

I was born in Kingsport, but lived in the area between that town and Weber City, Virginia. As was typical of folks around the area, my family shopped, used doctors, dentists, and other professionals, and my dad worked in the city.  We lived outside the limits because that is where my family’s farm was.  We had been there since 1807, in fact.  So it was hard to leave it.  But, Kingsport is still important to me, and I hope the city will find ways to address the problems while continuing to aim high with cultural, educational, and developmental projects.  In so doing, and with the hard work of redeveloping this great city, it can once again earn the title “Model City.”

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My parents married on May 17 at the pretty little Morrison Chapel in the iconic year of 1957.

In those days the newspaper carried long, flowery narratives of these events, describing the bridesmaids’ dresses and the bride’s dress, and the music, and the flowers, etc.  Marrying was a big event in those days and it was very public and well-attended.

But there was a time when marrying was a little different in these hills.

My grandparents, who were married on Dec 10, 1930, chose to be married at home.  My Mammaw had a family ceremony in the living room of the old house where she was born.  Pappaw used to tell about it, saying that during the prayer the preacher prayed, he was looking for an open window in the room, hoping he could jump out and run away.  But, the windows must have been closed because they were happily married for around 66 years, until he died.

Mammaw & Pappaw in their "courtin'" days

Mammaw & Pappaw in their “courtin'” days

He told me once that a grandparent of his, Noah B Galloway, rode on horseback to a log house that stood where Kingsport Laundry used to be on Sullivan Street, in the old “Lovedale” community, and “stole” his bride out of a window of the house, and rode off and got married.  I always wondered what it would have been like to have taken a horse ride like that!

My dad’s parents “ran off” to Kentucky to get married.  Mammaw Scott never talked much about her wedding.  It must have been something.  But apparently that was the way folks married in her day, you went across the mountain from Wise and got married in Letcher County, or if you were in Letcher County, you popped across the mountain and got married in Wise.  When I was in Lee County, Virginia, I was told about a preacher who spent all day most every day of the week at the court house waiting for couples to show up that he could “hitch.”

I was serving the Belfast-Midway circuit of the United Methodist Church when I found my bride, Tammie, who was a member of a little Freewill Baptist Church in Bandy, Virginia.  Upon the announcement of our intention to marry, the churches got really excited.  I was told they were going to practice the “chivary.”  This is an ancient Appalachian response to marrying where the family and friends come to the house sometime after the newly married couple are “official” and they take pots and pans and beat them to make noise, and probably hoot and holler a lot, and then they “capture” the bride and carry her around in a big ole bushel barrel, and “capture” the groom and he gets ridden on a rail.  They had me pretty convinced this was going to happen, but alas, we escaped the “chivary.”

When I first came to Belfast to live, the parsonage was a two-story white farmhouse-style home built on a plot of land directly across the road from the church.  It was built about 1912, by Henry C. Stuart, as part of a little settlement near the first schoolhouse in the community.  The house had its signs of age, but it made a decent place to hang your hat at night, and at least it had a good front porch with a porch swing.

I had been living there a while when I got a knock on the door.  I answered the door to find a man, pacing and nervous.  I was afraid something was really wrong.  He stuttered, “Ppppreacher?”  I answered, “I’m the preacher, yes.”  “Ccccan you-you-you, uh, uh, mmmmarry us?”  I was a little concerned at his nervous state, but I smiled and welcomed him in for a minute.  He explained that his fiance and he needed to get married.  They were both strangers.  They had the appropriate legal documents.  I walked them across the road to the church and tried to settle him down while I filled out the license.  I asked them about their relationship, how they planned to live, and make a living.  He answered satisfactorily to all my questions.  I stopped him from talking and looked directly at the young lady, and asked her was this her desire, and she gave an appropriate and lovey-dovey answer, so I knew there was a pretty good chance this was going to happen with or without my signature.  So we had a wedding right there in my little office.  They repeated the words I gave them, and after saying all the ritual, I pronounced them married.

Then the young man, who was wearing blue-jeans and a pullover shirt, reached into the pockets of his jeans and began pulling out dollar bills, one-by-one, and wadded.  As he gave them to me, I straightened each one out and smoothed them back out, and kept receiving them from him until there was perhaps 16 or 17 of them.  I was so taken with this young couple and their pitiful-looking state, and this act of “paying the preacher” just seemed so difficult.  I couldn’t keep it, so after he gave me the last dollar he wanted to give, and after I said something about “how much is she worth?” and we laughed a little, nervously, I handed the dollars back in a bunch and said, “I want to make an investment in this marriage.  You take your bride out to eat.”  He seemed at once surprised and pleased.  They left and I took the license down to Lebanon to the court house for filing.

When I moved to North Tazewell, Va., I found that there was a huge tradition there of people coming down out of West Virginia to get married.  I asked questions about this because I was getting slammed with couples wanting to get married.  The pastor at the Main Street Church got most of the requests, but on his day off, which was Thursday, I would almost always have somebody wanting to get hitched.  The couples explained to me that there was a waiting period in the state of West Virginia, and in Tazewell County, Virginia, you could come get a license, find a preacher (usually they came to Methodists because we were full-time, so we were home), and get back home before supper.  I usually performed about sixty or seventy a year like this.  The pastor at Main Street said he did about 300.

Of all these couples, I managed to talk one of them to come to the church.  They made a good family and they took my advice to raise their children in the church.  They already had some kids from past marriages.

I found that a small percentage of these couples were getting married multiple times.  When I would see on the license that this was the sixth or seventh marriage, my lecture would get more serious.  Then one day one of them informed me that they were getting married to one another all those times.  I said, “What?”  He told me, “We found out that we could get more money from welfare if she wasn’t married, so we divorced.  Then we got to feeling bad about it and wanted to get married again.  When we needed more money she had to divorce me again.”  Do you think I told them a few things about the meaning of the vows and “til death do us part?”  You bet I did.

About the time I left North Tazewell, West Virginia took out the waiting period and this habit of traveling to Virginia has now dried pretty well up.  In the mean while, I’ve made a decision to only marry people I know.  And I’ve decided that marriage counseling has some pretty good effects on helping couples make this step with open eyes and good intentions.



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Cars & Trucks

I still own my very first truck.

I can’t drive it.  Never did.  It is a little match-box-sized toy truck that looked a lot like my Pappaw’s old green Chevy which he drove everywhere about the time I was born.  This little toy had been passed down several times before it came to me.  It has a flat tire.  One of the four tires got melted on something, so it has a tendency to make a strong “Thump” when you try to roll it.

photo (7)

There was a day when this little truck was just one part of a vast domain of match-box vehicles that covered the living room floor when I was busy playing.  I had a big box of them.  Some were sporty, some more traditional-looking, and some were just bits and pieces of their former selves, survivors of the rough play of visiting cousins who never put them back like they found them.

I remember days when I could set up a whole highway system in the floor of our house.  Orange tracks complete with “loop-the-loops” were the focus of my childhood imagination, from the living room chair to the dining room door.  When the weather got warm enough we could be outside with just a pair of shorts on, I’d take my cars and go dig in the dirt in the sunshine, all the while studying the movement of big trucks and bulldozers across the road from the house.

The Scott side of the family were tinkerers with mechanical things.  My Dad’s father was a mechanic much of his working life.  He loved to take things apart and put them back together.  I have fond memories of my daddy working out in the garage, his head stuck under the hood of some vehicle, changing his own oil, tinkering, and “adjusting” things.

Daddy had a large set of tools, most of them Craftsman, from Sears, where he worked.  Ratchets, and wrenches, and screwdrivers and just about everything you needed to keep things in working order.  He kept our oldsmobile and his big yellow dodge which he had bought from the State Highway Department, in good working order.

My little truck still holds a place of honor on one of my shelves.  It is a reminder of simpler days.  matchbox

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Of May-apples and Sweet-heart Leaf

As the hills start to green up around the old home place, we’d often walk the pasture fence.  It wasn’t a lot of fun, as you had to go through briar patches and rocky places, but the job had to be done because we were a-fixing to turn the cows back from the meadow to the pasture.  We had to get them off the meadow so the hay could grow.

We’d stretch barbed-wire and nail steeples over it into locust fence posts.  Some of these posts were ancient.  Sometimes it was hard to find a place to drive the steeples.   If we could get the tractor and wagon near the fence, we would take some new posts and a coil of new wire with us and some post-hole diggers and a tamping pole, and put in brand-new posts.  I’d get off the school bus and find the tractor and go to work.  We’d always pull nettle clumps and mullein plants to keep them from taking over the pasture.  Sometimes we’d work a little bit on the pasture road too.

But there was a place on the back river-bluff, the westernmost part of the pasture, furthest from the house.  This place was among tall trees, poplars and white and red oaks, and a few hemlocks.  The ground beneath these trees was covered in rich soil.  Often the herd would use this area as a place to lounge during sunny days, using the shade as their cover and air-conditioner.  We came across them often on our pasture walks, finding them lounging around, chewing their cud.

Among the trees in May there would be a plant that grew, which I was told was called a “May-apple.”  This little plant comes up early in Spring, near the end of the frost time, around the 10th of May.  They’d bear a little white flower under a large roof-like leaf, and later a fruit would form on their stems.  They grew about 15 to twenty inches high, and then went away before too long.

Another plant that grew up on the bluff was one that Pappaw called “Sweet-heart leaf.”  This plant had the sweetest smell you ever smelled.  It reminded me of the aroma of Juicy Fruit gum, a little, though it was somewhat different.  It only grew in the spring, then it disappeared.  It’s dark, green and white speckled leaves were a prize souvenir on our walks, and they were heart-shaped, hence the name.  I don’t have a clue what this plant is supposed to be called, but that’s what we called it.  By the time we would get back to the house, it would have lost its aroma due to over-wallowing it in my hand and pockets.

The beautiful thing about these plants are that they became signs that spring was pretty much here, and soon would follow summer.  Then we’d spend some time down at the creek when it was time to salt the cattle.  But that’s another story.


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“Getting Our Ears Lowered”

Usually on Saturday, but sometimes on other days, especially in the Summer, we would load up in the vehicle (usually that yellow-ish green ’57 Chevy, but sometimes in the old green truck), and drive over to Weber City to “get our ears lowered.” I was ever the eager traveler, and went without even asking where we were headed (if you’ll pardon the unintended pun).

I even think I remember my very first trip.  It was to “Terry’s Barber Shop” in the corner of a building that has become part of Smith & Rhoten Furniture now.  It was always a place of conversation.  The barbers would remain quiet unless their customers were too quiet, then they would ask a question to get them started.  Each customer was the center of the barber’s attention while they were on that big, ole chair, and once they were through, they’d smack it a few times with a broom, shake the hair out of the cloth they put over their lap, and take a broom to sweep up a little hair from the floor.  Then they’d say “Next,” and do it all over again.

As a young’un, I just played in the waiting chairs, reading old magazines, or, really just looking at the pictures, while the grown-ups talked.  I’d get engrossed in whatever I was doing, and usually when Pappaw got done with his hair cut, the barber would hand me a little sucker with a stick that made a loop back into the sucker.  I loved those things.

But one day when I was expecting a sucker I was asked, “You ready to get your ears lowered?”  I wasn’t sure what was meant by that.  I am sure I thought, “I didn’t know you could put your ears lower.”  But, being a little dab adventurous, and trusting fully my Pappaw, I walked up to the chair, where the barber lifted me up to a board that sat on the arms of the big, ole chair.  I got that big, old piece of cloth tied around my neck, and some tissue paper around the back of my neck, and he turned on those clippers.

I think I gave way to the emotions of a three or four year old.  I cried.  I didn’t like the sound of the clippers coming close to me.  Didn’t know what it was going to do.  After all, didn’t they say something about lowering my ears?  The barber used some scissors and clipped a little here and there, and tried talking cheerfully to me.  I sat there a while getting used to that, and him, and he tried those clippers again.  This time, being coached by Pappaw to be a big man, I braved my way through it and got my whole head trimmed.

Then, once the brush came out, and my loose hairs were all brushed away, the neck cloth came undone, the tissue was taken away, and somebody helped me down out of that chair.  Then I got my sucker and forgot all about crying.

After that, I never offered to cry again, and went with regularity whenever Pappaw asked if I wanted to get my ears lowered.  Mr. Terry, a Mr. Lawson, and a Gillenwaters man were part of that shop.  Later the Gillenwater fellow talked his brother into opening a shop across from the old Cas Walker’s.  Mr. Lawson was a part time barber there.  We frequented this shop for several years.  I remember when they put up a painting of the rapture.  It was a full color oil on canvas of people flying up from houses, fields, cars, and even out of air planes, to the open arms of Jesus in the heavens.  I studied that painting for years.  I always wondered why Jesus was never pictured with a good hair cut.  Believe me, that was the topic of discussion more than once in the 1970s.

I have lived in several places over the years, and have found that discovering the barber shop is one of my favorite things.  They’re almost all alike.  Different personalities, but they all serve as places where ideas are exchanged, news is digested, and hair gets shortened.  A good barber has to learn how you like your hair.  They ask and try to remember each time you come back.  When it begins to feel like home, and I am reminded of those trips when I was a small boy, I know I’m in the right place.  And my ears do LOOK lower!

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Medicine in Appalachia

There’s something about the way we mountain people view health.  I think we value our health, but we have odd feelings about medicine.

For instance, one of the most widely practiced ways of getting people well in these hills and hollows is to use plants and herbs.  Some of the cures came from Indian (the Native American kind) ways.  It’s been suggested that many of our people intermarried with and otherwise learned from the Native population when they moved into the mountains.  After all, these people had been here for centuries, and they knew what worked.  So there were many Indian practices that were adopted by the first wave of settlers, especially the Long Hunters and their families.

One such practice was making “bitters,” a kind of herbal tea made from numerous herbs found in the Spring of the year, and combined into a drink that was designed to, let’s just say, give your body a “Spring cleaning.”  I purchased a bag of bitters at Mt. Rogers, Virginia during the “Whitetop Mountain Maple Sugar Festival” one year.  I took it home and cooked it, and drank it, and, let’s just say, it worked.  It had a list of what was in it, but I don’t even remember any of it.  I just know it tasted like drinking hay bales.

Doing some genealogy, I discovered that my great-great Granddad Scott was a sort of self-proclaimed doctor.  He had a doctor’s bag and used to go around “treating” people with medicine in his vials.  His wife, my great-great Grandmother, was a mid-wife, and helped deliver a host of young-uns.  This was in the days before many physicians that were well-trained and professional had moved into the area.  Granddad’s other job was postmaster for a little community called “Kimbo” in Wise County, Virginia.  As far as any of us know, he was self-educated.

In our hills, in the county of Lee County, in the southwest corner of Virginia, a Methodist Preacher was living in a little house near the Natural Bridge, west of Jonesville, when his wife gave birth to a little boy.  The little boy was interested in his dad’s later job as traveling physician.  This little boy grew up into manhood and studied medicine, and as he did he developed a new way of doing medicine called “osteopathy.”  Andrew Taylor Still is known today as the “Father of Osteopathic Medicine.”  He had moved on to Missouri before he fully developed this method, but his origins are right here in the mountains.

When I began in ministry in a two-point circuit along the border of Russell and Tazewell Counties in Southwest Virginia, I found that medicine was still something people believed they needed, but they didn’t fully trust doctors.  One family in particular in the church had the habit of taking each other’s medicine.  I think one would get medicine, decide they didn’t want it and offer it to other members of the family who thought it might help with some ailment.  After all, it was supposed to be good for SOMETHING, so why not try it.

One member of that family was pretty messed up from different medicine she had taken over the years.  She was checked into the little hospital at Richlands for a time of coming off some of her meds when the pastor who served immediately before I got there was on call.  He went by to see her, and reported she was lying still on the bed.  She motioned for him to come closer.  He got a little closer, she motioned to come closer, he moved closer.  She motioned again, he came closer.  She hadn’t said a word.  He got right over her bed, and then, he reported to me, she reached up with both arms and grabbed a-hold of him, and held on with a strength he did not expect her to have.  He said he had to wiggle hard to get out of her grasp.  He was convinced, as was I when I got to know her, that she didn’t know what she was doing.  The medicine had caused it.

The area was served (and still is in large part) by doctors from foreign nations who had come over here to get medical training, and decided to stay.  Appalachians will give you a chance, so they usually do, but they don’t like being unable to understand what the doctor is saying, and the broken English is a huge problem in communicating, so most of them just sit quietly, expecting the doctor to know what’s wrong without them saying much.  “I don’t understand anything the Dr. says!” is an oft-heard statement.

I was sitting in a waiting room at the Washington Square clinic on the west side of Richlands when I overheard this conversation:

“Well, how are you doing?”

“I’m all right, just having a few little problems, or I wouldn’t be here.”

“Yeah, honey, I know what you mean.”

“I’ve always said, ‘Don’t ever start going to the Doctor.’  You ever start you’ll never stop!”

In recent years, the Appalachian area has become beset with a scourge of pain-killer abuse.  High-powered pain pills like oxycontin and others, have been abused with regularity.  Counties like Lee County, have been in the news with the highest rate of death from these drugs.  Medicine doesn’t always help us.  Physicians have been guilty of over-prescribing medicine, and pushing pills.  The problem is nowhere near over.

A philosophical fatalism pervades the thinking of people in this region.  There’s nothing they feel they can do to improve their lives so they live with poor health, drug abuse, and poor nutrition.  And the high cost of medicine and medical care is one piece of that thinking.  People feel there’s no just no use.  You either have health or you don’t.  And if you do, you probably won’t have it long.

I pray one day the human spirit will rise again in this population.  As some of our population get trained in medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, and other areas, and if they’ll practice among the communities in this region, the mindsets could change, and health could improve.

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Check out “Hollow” from Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Great work on an Appalachian community

Check out “Hollow” from Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Great work on an Appalachian community

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A Summer at Temperance Hall

The last summer I attended seminary, I was placed by the field education office to serve as a student associate with a pastor on the “Rocky Mount Parish.”  Said parish no longer exists as such, but it was a circuit of three United Methodist Churches in the environs surrounding Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  They were Marvin’s Chapel, McKendree, and Temperance Hall.

I stayed that summer in the community around Temperance Hall, near Elm City.  I was blessed to reside with a family of sweet people who were filled with joy and very helpful.  The lady of the house made a strawberry cake that I still wish I could taste, the memory was indelibly marked on my taste buds.  And the man of the house made home-made North Carolina style barbeque that was out of this world.  I can still hear him comment on it:  “MMMMM, it’s good!”

There was a man in that church named Jack Proctor, who sat near the pulpit in the little choir loft.  This man was a Christian through and through, and I could just get a glimpse of him while preaching and be encouraged to keep going.  He was a blessing and a preaching scotch all at once.  He heard me say I was interested in learning to play my mandolin which I had purchased just before going there.  He invited me to his house and we made a regular time of plucking on mandolins, him sharing chords with me and technique, and lots of stories about the old songs and mandolin players of days gone by.  I was in hog heaven.

We discussed subtle differences in the music of Bill Monroe, the late great Bluegrass pioneer, and Dr. Ralph Stanley, the old time banjo picker and Old Regular Baptist intoner of ancient sacred tunes.  We discussed the Carter family from my own home county, and several others.  I learned to pick and pluck and strum and trill.  I developed hard callouses on my fingers, and I learned how to restring the e-strings which my mandolin loved to break.

Sometimes we talked church.  I learned such wisdom from this man.  He was a deeply dedicated Christian.  His central focus was the way the Bible helps us learn about the one in whom we have put our trust.  He had a strong holiness strain to his personal theology, and lived a Rule of Life that was based on that theological outlook.  He didn’t like a lot of fuss and fancy, just the straight Word of God, and the songs of Zion.  I only had the summer to get to know him, but we became fast friends and brothers in the Lord.  YTBann67

The Temperance Movement began in the early half of the 19th century in the British Isles and was transported to the United States and other places by mid-century.  It was this movement, which later morphed into the Prohibition movement, that led to the 18th amendment to the US Constitution, banning the production and sale of spirituous liquors.  This law didn’t last long as economic and criminal forces turned the tide.  By the 1980s when I was in the Rocky Mount Parish, Temperance Hall was just a place name.   The actual building was long gone.

In the mountains of Southwest Virginia, there had been a preacher named Robert Sheffey, about whom I’ve blogged at this site.  He was known as a man of prayer, and one of the focal points he always prayed about was mountaineers’ moonshine stills.  He often prayed that the Lord would remove the still and let a church be built on the site.  Many churches claim that as their own origin.  It would be interesting to do a study on which ones claimed that distinction.  But it was a major focus of the times in the late 1800s, and as coal communities were formed and railroads brought in new influences even as they trucked out the coal, saloons and other “evils” came in.  Sheffey’s praying and preaching and personal influence soon gained the upper hand and these things were driven out for a few decades.

I ended my summer in Temperance Hall with a strong sermon from a text in Ephesians that talks about how we should treat one another.  The Temperance Hall congregation received it as a Word from the Lord.  The other churches, not so much.  Perhaps the legacy of the Temperance Movement is a respect for the theology of holiness and the idea that God would transform us if we would but cooperate.  I will always hold that little church in my heart.  Good folks with good understanding.

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A Sojourn Among Pine Trees: My Time at Duke

Nine generations of the family lived in the lap of mountains.  Like doting grandparents they watched over us, protected us from whatever was beyond and taught us lessons in silence. The sounds of our stories and songs echoed from the hollows and reverberated from the rocks and rills.  We were at home there.

On a certain August day in 1986 I loaded up my little Mazda GLC hatchback (fire engine red) and my grandparents loaded up their vehicle and we drove in tandem all the way from the home of my people to the gothic wilderness that was Duke University.  This expansive and highly ornate campus would be the focus of the next three years of my life. The tall, straight pines that surrounded the campus hid the lack of mountains.  But when you got away from the pines, the sky was so big it was hard to swallow.  The mountains that once held it at a safe distance were gone.  It felt strange and foreign.duke

The city of Durham, North Carolina was going through a transition from a tobacco town to a new economy built on research, medicine, and technology.  But in the afternoons the cigarette plants downtown would emit an aroma of processed tobacco that hung over the campus.  It was a welcome smell for me as it reminded me of home.  The tobacco field was the source of revenue for our farm, providing tax money to keep the property and paying bills and buying needed things so the operation could continue.  As a Divinity School student I was set up to receive money from the Duke Endowment, funded by the Duke family’s cigarette industry.  I had been raised on a tobacco farm and so it seemed just that I should receive a benefit from the hundreds of pounds of tobacco we had sold to companies like theirs over the years.  I contemplated those things when I stood in the majestic environs of Duke Chapel, a gothic structure on the center of the campus, erected according to the Duke family’s instructions, to be central focus of West Campus, its towering presence creating the point around which the cruciform campus was constructed.

In that chapel there was a smaller side chapel where the Duke family members were interred in large marble tombs.  Their likenesses were carved in the marble that lay atop the graves.  I couldn’t help but think about the end result of all the cigarettes they had made and made money from.  “It is appointed once for a man to die,” the scripture prodded my brain, “and afterwards the judgment.”

In the woods between the chapel and the student center I would trampse across a worn out dirt path that allowed me to cut straight from my parking spot to the Div School.  I noticed a fellow there almost every day walking on a path that intersected mine, and he was very tall.  He spoke every day.  I was watching the Blue Devils play basketball before I noticed that the tall stranger who met me every day on the way to class was Alaa Abdelnaby.  This Egyptian player went on to play in the NBA for a few years.  I wondered how homesick he was as he traversed the dirt path to class.  I found that path the most comfortable place on campus because it was real.

I took a class that first semester after I arrived which proved to me I was getting “too big for my raisin’.”  I enrolled in Moody Smith’s Greek Exegesis of the Gospel of John.  I had seemed to develop a knack for Greek at Emory & Henry, so I thought I could breeze through this thing.  The first day in class it became obvious I had made a miscalculation.  We were a mixed crew.  Most of the students were Ph. D. candidates.  One fellow was a freshman from the university’s Trinity College.  I was the only Master of Divinity student.  We were expected to translate on sight whatever verse Dr Smith asked us to translate.  His vocabulary was the best I had ever sat under.  It was like listening to the Oxford English Dictionary as he spoke, using intentional words and phrases to describe the meaning of the Greek New Testament.  His study of the gospel of John was extensive as well.  It was not unlike opening a commentary and hearing it read itself.  Somehow, in spite of my feeling like a minnow out of the creek, I finished that class.  I didn’t try another like it.

By my senior year in the M. Div. program, I had become so homesick I purchased a mandolin and listened intently to Doyle Lawson cassette tapes, and learned to pluck a little on that thing.  I got with some other students who had Appalachian backgrounds and we put together an impromptu quartet.  One played the guitar and the other two sang.  We signed up for the day before Ash Wednesday to sing in chapel.  We entered the place, excited about our chosen song, an old southern gospel, shaped-note, singing convention piece called “A Beautiful Life.”  We realized we might have made a mistake when we found out the preacher for the day was Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, the British Methodist theologian whose primary contribution to the literature of theology was a work called Doxology which focused on knowing God through the regimented practices of the highest of high church worship.  Boy, was he going to be surprised.  We got up in front of the alb-robed divine, and adjusted our instruments, looked really hard at each other, and began plucking our strings.  Immediately the temperature of the place warmed up.  I had learned a few runs and my buddy on the guitar had a great skill on that instrument.  We introduced the song musically and then began singing.

Each day I’ll do a golden deed,
By helping those who are in need,
My life on earth is but a span,
And so I’ll do the best I can,
The best I can.


Life’s evening sun is sinking low,
A few more days and I must go
To meet the deeds that I have done,
Where there will be no setting sun.

To be a child of God each day,
My light must shine along the way;
I’ll sing His praise while ages roll
And strive to help some troubled soul,
Some troubled soul.


The only life that will endure,
Is one that’s kind and good and pure;
And so for God I’ll take my stand,
Each day I’ll lend a helping hand,
A helping hand.


I’ll help someone in time of need,
And journey on with rapid speed;
I’ll help the sick and poor and weak,
And words of kindness to them speak,
Kind words I’ll speak.


While going down life’s weary road,
I’ll try to lift some traveler’s load;
I’ll try to turn the night to day,
Make flowers bloom along the way,
The lonely way.


William Golden’s song was ringing through the Divinity School chapel.  The pipe organ was silent that moment but the strings of our instruments were sounding forth.  Perhaps the fact that it was something really different or the fact it was almost mid terms, I’m not sure, but the student body were getting into it, even clapping along.  I glanced over at my worship professor, a woman who ended up in northern Illinois somewhere.  She looked extremely uncomfortable.  I thought, “All right, sister, just hang on it’ll be over in a minute.”  I was amazed by her self restraint when she had the opportunity to say something later in our refreshment time, but refrained.  We had touched home that hour and that was all that mattered.

Missing the mountains, I would sometimes drive north of Durham, go through the little towns of Oxford and Roxboro and find my way up across the Virginia state line until I crossed Highway 58 around South Boston.  Just seeing the landscape of Virginia encouraged me.  I’d go to the Hardees in South Boston, buy a Richmond Times-Dispatch (whose editor Alf Goodykoontz had attended Emory & Henry many years before), and drive back to the big city wilderness.

I prayed that I wouldn’t die in that flat, foreign place, devoid of mountains.  I listened to bluegrass and dreamed of home.  Soon I would be returning.  But that’s another post.

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“Here, I Raise Mine Ebenezer”: Sojourning Among the Saints in Glade Spring, VA

I was at Emory & Henry College for most of the first term before a job notice caught my attention.  It was asking for someone to serve as a music leader and accompanist in a little Presbyterian Church in Glade Spring, Virginia.  Being without a vehicle, I talked a buddy of mine into co-applying.  I would play the instruments and he could direct the choir.  We’d ride together in his truck, the “Stump-Jumper.”  We proposed this to the church’s selection committee and they thought about it and agreed.  Soon we found ourselves driving to Glade Spring every Sunday and Wednesday to lead this little church’s music program.

Grace Presbyterian Church, Glade Spring, Virginia

Grace Presbyterian Church, Glade Spring, Virginia

The major benefactor in the church who was more or less guaranteeing our salaries ($30 a week each), was a physician who was trying to build this church up.  So he invited a lady who had two granddaughters into the choir.  The fact that she and her grandchildren were African-American did not phase him, but the choir members initially had some concerns about that, saying things like “they have their own church,” and “we like things as they were.”  With some insistence on our parts that they should be a little more generous, they accepted this lady and her grandchildren and we had a strong alto section.

As we got to know this lady, we were invited to singings that the black community in Glade Spring were sponsoring.  Several churches were involved, sometimes tiny congregations, but they worked together with utmost ease.  Plum Creek Baptist, Mt. Calvary United Holy Church, a church or two from Marion and Chilhowie, and another baptist church in Glade.  But the church that interested me most was Ebenezer.  It was located on the hill right behind Grace Presbyterian, where we were working, and was the home church of the three new members of our choir.

Singings in these churches often gave each group an opportunity to sing an “A” and “B” selection (two songs), and more than often, the members of the different churches helped each other out, and sang in lots of the groups.  We were always included, and I’d play for my buddy Scott to sing, or we’d bring our little choir over once in a while.  Maybe a preacher or two would get up and bring “greetings” or even preach.  I remember Brother Jasper Burrell, E. H. Cole, Rev. Timmons, and others.  Sometimes people who had gone off to other places would return to praise the Lord among the people of Glade.

Ebenezer had a history like many churches of its kind in the area.  After Emmancipation churches segregated.   The freedom offered to former slaves gave them freedom to form their own congregations, and denominations were created, and missionary societies helped them form churches all over the south.  So in the 1870s many congregations were formed, affiliated with either all-black denominations or the Methodist Episcopal Church, which was the “northern” branch of Methodism at that time.  These congregations had feeble strength in terms of capital, but managed to build adequate structures for worship.

Ebenezer’s building was a simple wooden structure, heated at one time with wood stoves, and lined with bead board on the interior walls.  It had two entrance doors, as many churches of that era had, ostensibly so females could go in one and males in the other, though it is unclear if they were used in this manner.  A large, free-standing pulpit was set on a little low platform in the center of the front of the church, and a large upright piano with an old antique stool was on one side, a couple very simple pews lined the back of the platform, and a little rail gave a place to support your upper body when kneeling in prayer.

Otherwise the church’s hand-made pews filled the rest of the house.  Electric lights were added at some point and the windows were built with translucent glass, I’m thinking it was a light shade of purple, although my memory is failing me a bit.

But, O, what sound would rise when the people gathered and started singing.  Those plainly dressed walls and bare wood floors were perfect to grant the acoustics to live singing.  Full-throated voices, and hand-clapping, sometimes rhythmic foot-stomping, would rock that house.

In my student days, Ebenezer had about 8 members on roll.  It was affiliated with a little African American church in Abingdon, Virginia, sharing a pastor with them, and helping each other in special services.

Ebenezer Church in Glade Spring, Virginia

Ebenezer Church in Glade Spring, Virginia

On the Sunday closest to April 11, 1984, I preached my very first sermon in the little Ebenezer Church.  The congregation swelled to 21 that day.  I finished preaching in about five minutes.  My 8 pages of hand-written notes, single spaced, and on legal sized paper, front and back, just failed to go far.  The congregation’s encouragement should have been enough to keep me going, but I choked.  I’ve been making up for it ever since.

In 1972 the United Methodist Church integrated, and congregations like Ebenezer became part of what were once white-only conferences.  Their members and leaders were invited to participate fully in the life of the denomination.

It was in Ebenezer I first heard the song:

“The Lord is blessing me

Right now!   Oh, right now!

The Lord is blessing me

Right now!  Oh, right now!

He woke me up this morning

And started me on my way!

The Lord is blessing me

Right  now!  Oh right now!”

May the Lord bless his Ebenezer, and may the people of that congregation “keep on keeping on.”

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“The Storms are on the Ocean” as a Metaphor for Homesickness

The iconic Carter Family of Country Music origins (A. P., Sarah, and “Mother” Maybelle) were known for their classic songs. “The Storms are on the Ocean” is one of them. I have been dabbling in autoharp playing for a while and as I sang this one, homesickness flew all through me. I miss my Virginia Mountains of home. The Clinch Mountain was easily viewed from the front porch of my boyhood home, and it ran all the way up the Poor Valley to the site where the Carters were from, just 10 or so miles from my home. I’ve lived in several places, and for some reason I get the feelings of homesickness from time to time when I’ve not been able to touch home and see my beautiful mountains.

The song is the story of two lovers parting when one of them has to go to war (the “Storms” on the ocean). They promise to be true to each other, but the one left behind questions who will take care of her when the soldier is gone away. In the chorus the promise is made “This world will lose it’s motion, love, if I prove false to thee.” The last verse about the “mournful dove” mourning for “his own true love, like I have mourned for mine” gives a clue that the soldier never returned, having died in battle.

I think this song is a metaphor for all of us who have left home and gone in the wider world to fight the storms on life’s oceans. The promise to be true is a promise to remain loyal to home and hearth and heritage. At least for me it is. But, alas, as Thomas Wolfe has suggested, “we can’t go home again.” And if we could, we would find it a very different home than the one we left, making the mourning even more acute.

It isn’t the best version, but it’s my version. I share it for you to contemplate your own sense of home.

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