As we headed out of Big Ugly, we dropped Eunice and Doska off at their homes and said our “thank yous” and “goodbyes.” Billy suggested leaving the creek by a different route than Green Shoal, so we could see the grave of Ed’s great-great-grandfather, Money Makin’ Sol Mullins. That sounded good to me, I said. Plus, it was such a beautiful day; the extra drive with our windows down would be a nice way to take in all the fresh air and scenery.
We drove out of Big Ugly on a paved road and then over a mountain that dumped us at a gravel road on the Ellis Fork of the North Fork of Big Creek in Boone County. Sol’s grave was a few feet from the road in a weed patch. His headstone read, “SOLOMON MULLINS, FEB 23, 1782 NC – AUG 28, 1858, A GENIUS IN HIS OWN TIME.” Quite an epitaph for a counterfeiter. On the back of the headstone were the names of his sons: Peter (Ed’s ancestor) of Harts Creek, Alexander of Kentucky, Eli of Kentucky and Spencer of Harts. The footstone mentioned his military service and provided conflicting dates from what was given on his headstone: “SOLOMON MULLINS, 16 KY MILITIA, WAR OF 1812, FEB 20, 1782 – AUG 25, 1858.”
His wife’s headstone listed the names of their daughters: Matilda, Jenny, Margaret, and Dicie (Hollena Brumfield’s grandmother).
Back at Billy’s, we pulled out the Fry family history and looked up information on Lewis “Jupiter” Fry (1843-1924), the fiddler Mayme referenced as her father’s favorite.
“Known as Jupiter because he was interested in astronomy, he owned a telescope and predicted the weather to his family and associates,” the history read. “He also owned a typewriter and typed his own contracts. He never hired a lawyer when he was hauled into court, but represented himself and pleaded his own case. Once when he was involved in a feud over his land, he shot a man. The victim survived and Jupiter was not sentenced. He was a tall, thin man who was well-known for his fiery temper. Lewis owned and operated a grocery store at Gill of Lincoln County for many years. He also operated a push boat, running it from Gill to Guyandotte to buy groceries.”
Jupiter’s younger brother Anderson “Durg” Fry (1849-c.1938) was also a fiddler. He married a first cousin, Drusilla Lucas, and lived at Durg Frye Hollow on the Laurel Fork of Big Ugly. Drusilla was a sister to Boney Lucas and a first cousin to George Fry.
“Durg, of average height, was truly a mountaineer, a great hunter who practically stayed in the woods: coon hunting, trapping, hunting ginseng and catching ground hogs,” according to the Fry history. “He sold lots of animal furs, butchered cattle and hogs for others, and also made molasses. He smoked a pipe and chewed tobacco. He had a dog he called ‘Rat,’ and told others that when he died he hoped the Lord gave him back Rat and 1,000 acres for hunting ground. Durg loved to tell stories and relate stories of the past.”
Mayme Ferrell had told us nothing about Leander Fry (1856-c.1896), who seems to have been the best of the family fiddlers. The Fry history simply said that he “could play the violin well,” while the Lambert Collection had mentioned him as “a great fiddler” who “used to come down [the Guyan River to Guyandotte] from Lincoln on timber to play the fiddle.” Billy said his father used to play a tune called “The Ballad of Lee Fry”. Leander’s biography was vague: so far as we could tell, he never married nor had any children.
Big Ugly Creek, Bill Duty, Charley Brumfield, Clarence Lambert, Clinton Ferrell, Doska Adkins, Eunice Ferrell, fiddlers, fiddling, Fulton Ferrell, history, Jeff Duty, Jim Lucas, Mayme Ferrell, Milt Ferrell, Rector, writing
At Broad Branch, we found that Bill Duty’s old one-story log house was completely gone. We wanted to go to the family cemetery just across the creek and up the hill but didn’t because it was overran with giant weeds.
We were all just kinda hanging out there, crammed in the car, when Doska said, “Milt Ferrell could play a fiddle. He was a first cousin to my daddy.”
Wait a minute — another fiddler? I’d spent quite a bit of time trying to track down the names of the old fiddlers around Harts. All of a sudden, they were falling from the woodwork.
Milt Ferrell — a man related to the Dutys and with the first name of Ed’s father. I said, “Now who was he?”
“Mayme’s daddy,” Eunice said, as if that helped. “Mayme lives down there.”
“She’s bad off,” Doska added. “One of her lungs has collapsed.”
I just had to see this Mayme Ferrell, although I didn’t want to impose on her if she was in poor health.
Doska and Eunice said she would love the company…and she just lived down the road.
On the way to Mayme’s someone mentioned that she lived at the old Rector Post Office, a settlement from earlier in the century. We soon turned over a little bridge and pulled up to the only structure left in “Rector proper”: Mayme’s incredible two-story log cabin. It was ancient and leaning, with an old cemetery just behind it on the hill. The whole scene was like something from a dream.
We got out of the car and walked up to a small back porch where Eunice pecked at the screen door and hollered, “Mayme? It’s Eunice.”
In no time at all, Mayme Ferrell was peeking back out at us. She was frail, half-blind and hooked to a breathing machine — and very surprised to see us all on her porch with fiddles, cameras, and notebooks.
Mayme invited us on inside where we sat down in the living room and started talking like old friends. She was well acquainted with Eunice and Doska and knew a lot about Billy and Brandon’s families. It was clear after a few minutes of interchange that her life had went beyond school teaching — she was an educated woman of the modern world, who’d spent twelve years in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She got me to play her a few tunes and the next thing I knew she was singing lyrics that she remembered from her childhood, like “Nigger looky here and nigger looky yander. The old gray goose is flirting with the gander.” Or things like: “I had a piece of pie and I had a piece of puddin’. I give it all away for to sleep with Sally Goodin.” Or this: “Old Aunt Sal, if you don’t care I’ll leave my liquor jug sitting right here. If it ain’t here when I come back we’ll raise hell in the Cumberland Gap.”
Eunice remembered “Cluck old hen, cluck and sing. Ain’t laid an egg since way last spring.” Doska said her father Jeff Duty used to play the tune.
I said to Mayme, “So your father was a fiddler? Tell me about him.”
She was immediately nostalgic.
“Daddy was named for a poet, but I don’t think his parents knew it,” she said. “John Milton Ferrell. He was a great guy. He was a wonderful person. My daddy’s people were just easy going. Most of them were musicians. My daddy, he would lead the songs in church. He was a board member for three terms and the last term he was the president of the board. They would meet over at Harts and those Brumfields — I’ll tell you what — most people were afraid to go through there. Charley Brumfield shot his daddy and killed him. His daddy was beating his mother and he made him leave, so I understand, and then when he came back — I guess he was drunk…”
Mayme looked at Brandon and said, “Those Brumfields were rough then, son. Good people. If they liked you they liked you, and if they didn’t you better leave them alone. They were ambitious people. They just got to feuding among themselves, but it wore out after a while. But my daddy was a good friend to all of them. Charley Brumfield would’ve done anything for daddy. They’d get in a poker game after they had their meeting and they’d all drink. Well daddy would come home with a pocket full of money. One time he came home drunk and he couldn’t hang his hat up. Of course, the older children laughed and I cried, but he sang, ‘Hey hey rushin’ the rabbit. Into the brush and then you’ll habit.’ Didn’t say ‘have it.’ I don’t know what they were getting in that brush. He was a very, very humble person and he was witty.”
Milt Ferrell, Mayme said, played the fiddle around election time, at weddings, at schools or on Friday at all-night dances.
“We’d have barn-raisings,” she said. “After they got the roof over the barn and put the second floor in — the floor where you put your fodder and hay — they’d have a barn dancing. They’d dance all night.”
Milt played with the fiddle under his chin, as did Jeff Duty.
Mayme cried when I played one of her father’s tunes, “Over the Waves”.
She said her father’s older brothers Clinton Ferrell and Fulton Ferrell were also fiddlers. Clint was the smoothest fiddler in the family but would only occasionally pick up Milt’s fiddle and play “Mississippi Sawyer”. Their cousin Jim Lucas was also good.
“Uncle Jim was an excellent fiddler,” she said. “He didn’t jiggle. A real smooth player.”
She didn’t recall any banjos or mandolins on Big Ugly in the old days, although her brother-in-law Clarence Lambert was a great guitarist (“as good as Chet Atkins”) who played Hawaiian music and tunes like “Guitar Rag”.
A few days later, Brandon and I left the festival and headed toward Charleston and on to Harts via Corridor G and Boone County. We reached Harts around three in the morning and parked the bus at the local Fas Chek near a fire station and bridge. Brandon’s uncle Ron Lucas, the manager of the store, had given us permission to park there. The next morning, Billy Adkins met us at the bus and we decided to see Doska Adkins, a woman of advanced age and granddaughter of Bill Duty. Maybe Doska would know about Milt Haley living with her grandfather, who had settled on nearby Big Ugly Creek.
In no time at all, Brandon, Billy and I were charging over Green Shoal Mountain talking genealogy and well on our way to Big Ugly country.
About twenty minutes later, we turned off of the main road into Fawn Hollow and began climbing a rocky driveway toward Doska’s house. We soon spotted Doska cutting brush out near her yard. She was a small-framed woman crowned with a tuft of white hair, having every bit the appearance of “the helpless old widow” — barring the machete in her hand, of course. I could tell right away that things were about to get interesting.
We followed Doska into her home, stepping quickly past a barking dog tied up on her porch. Inside, on the living room wall we spotted a mass of more than forty bushy squirrel tales hanging together in a pattern, which she said were her hunting trophies for the season. Sensing our interest in such things, she showed us a stuffed squirrel that she herself had killed, stuffed and mounted onto a small log. Before we could really ask her anything about Milt Haley, she told us all about how to pickle squirrels for later eating, then opened a desk drawer full of snake rattlers…more trophies.
It took us a few minutes to sit down and actually focus on the reason for our visit. When I told Doska about my interest in Ed’s life, she said he used to stay with her father, Jeff Duty. It didn’t take him long to get familiar with a place, she said, and he couldn’t be fooled with paper money.
“How often would he come there to stay?” I asked.
She said, “Well, I don’t know how often. If I was around, I was real little. I don’t remember him but I’ve heard Daddy talk about him.”
Brandon asked Doska, “Did your dad and Ed play music together?” and she said, “Yeah.”
We wondered what songs Jeff Duty played.
“They was one he played on the fiddle that I thought was real pretty,” Doska said. “I think he called that the ’11th of January’ and he’d play a while and then he’d pick a piece in it. Yeah, man he used to sit on the porch of an evening down yonder where I was raised and play for us.”
Brandon asked, “Was your dad considered the best fiddler up around this part?”
Doska said, “He was pretty good and he could play a banjo, too.”
I asked if her grandfather Bill Duty ever talked about Milt Haley and she said, “No, all of my grandparents was dead before I was born. See, I was born in 1917 and I never seen nary one of my grandparents. Mommy used to have a picture of my grandpaw but I don’t know what happened to it.”
Billy asked her, “Was Ed Haley any relation to you at all?”
“No, he’d just come through here — I don’t know why — and he liked to stay at my daddy’s,” she answered. “Didn’t matter who come through this country. If they’d ask to stay all night somewhere they’d say, ‘You can go to old man Duty’s and stay all night.’”
Of course, knowing what we knew about Milt and the Dutys it seemed likely that Ed came around Jeff for reasons more than his hospitality. As Bill Duty’s son and a fiddler, he would’ve been an excellent source on Milt — the father Ed never really knew.
Doska said her grandfather Duty’s home was no longer standing on Broad Branch but I wanted to see the site anyway. (It was, after all, very possibly the place where Milt settled with the Duty family in the early 1880s.) We asked Doska to accompany us but she said she looked awful; she had been cutting brush all day, she said, and wasn’t dressed to go anywhere. After a while, though, we persuaded her to go with us.
On the way to Broad Branch, Billy suggested that we stop and see 89-year-old Eunice Ferrell. Eunice had settled on the creek years ago and married a son of the Tom Ferrell mentioned in “The Lincoln County Crew”. She was a very friendly Mormon, slumped over with age. I told her I was interested in “Blind Ed Haley,” an old fiddler from Harts Creek, and she said she didn’t know about him. Her father-in-law had been a fiddler, though. She knew something about Tom’s trouble with the Butchers.
“They said they was in a card game and this man was trying to run the horse over him,” she said. “And he killed him but he got out of it.”
We told Eunice that we were going to see the old Duty place on Broad Branch if she wanted to go and she was all for it. We helped her into the car and took off.
Along the way, I stopped the car so Doska could point out her father’s home — the place where Ed used to stay. Brandon said some “hippie-types” from a big city had moved into the place several years ago.
“Michael Tierney lives there now,” Eunice said. “He’s a lawyer. Catholic man. He’s a good neighbor.”
We were having a blast.
“I’m glad I come,” Eunice said.