Alva Grimmett, Appalachia, Barnabus, Blair Mountain, Bruno, Buffalo Creek, Cabin Creek, Campbell's Creek, carpenter, Charleston, Christian, coal, Democratic Party, deputy sheriff, Don Chafin, drum runner, Ed Goodman, Emmett Scaggs, George McClintock, Great Depression, Hatfield Bottom, Henderson Grimmett, history, Joe Hatfield, John Chafin, Kanawha County, Kistler, Landsville, Logan County, Mallory, Mallory Coal Company, Matilda Hatfield, McKinley Grimmett, moonshining, Nancy Grimmett, prosecuting attorney, Republican Party, Sand Lick, sheriff, Superintendent of Schools, Tennis Hatfield, Thomas Hatfield, United Mine Workers of America, West Virginia, Wild Goose Saloon
McKinley Grimmett was born on November 30, 1896 to Henderson and Nancy (Hatfield) Grimmett at Sand Lick, Logan County, WV. On May 14, 1916, Mr. Grimmett married a Ms. Plymale, who soon died, in Logan County. One child named Alva died on June 21, 1919 of whooping cough, aged fourteen months. His World War I draft registration card dated September 12, 1918 identifies him as having blue eyes and light-colored hair. He was employed by Mallory Coal Company at Mallory, WV. On November 13, 1919, he married Matilda “Tilda” Hatfield, daughter of Thomas Hatfield, in Logan County. He identified himself as a farmer in both of his marriage records. During the 1920s, he served as a deputy under Sheriff Tennis Hatfield.
The following interview of Mr. Grimmett was conducted at his home on July 17, 1984. In this part of the interview, he recalls his occupations. Coal, Don Chafin, Tennis Hatfield, unionization, and the Great Depression are featured.
Did you ever go to work in the mines?
Oh yeah. I’ve been… That’s what I done over here for 44 years and two months, in and around the mines.
Who hired you?
Yeah, a fellow by the name of Frazier down here at Logan. Superintendent. Not at Logan. Landsville. I stayed there four years, pretty nigh of five years. Then I quit down there and I come to Christian and I stayed up here. A fellow by the name of Harry Venebale hired me over here, the superintendent. And I stayed with him 34 years. Wouldn’t let nobody else hold a lever but me. Drum runner. I’d run as high as 35 railroad cars a day off of that hill. I’ve done it many a day.
Did you do other jobs?
Oh yeah. Days the mines didn’t work I was the carpenter boss. That is, I was overseer over ‘em all. After the union come in, why I wouldn’t take it as a boss. They just run me as a leader, you know. At that time, I’d either have to go in as a boss or get off the union, you know. And I knowed the union was the best for me and I stayed with the union.
Did you have any role in organizing the union?
Oh yeah. I had a big… They wouldn’t let us organize on their property. We had to go across an island over there in the river and have our meeting to organize.
Is it true that local men had the union organized and were waiting for Washington to allow it?
Yeah, that’s about right. We got it. No, they come from Cabin Creek and Kanawha County and Campbell’s Creek over there and tried to organize us. Don Chafin was the high sheriff. He got so much ton per coal and everything. And we couldn’t do a thing because he had every child, woman, and everything else on his side to block us every way. They come to Blair Mountain and had fights. Killed several people, too. Both sides. But I never was in it. I was running a drum and they never did ask me to go. But they paid ‘em. They did go from over there. And went from around here, too. To fight against them, you know. And there was several of them got killed up Dingess Run there. I’ve been at the place where one fellow, sink hole he was in. There was four of them got killed: deputy sheriffs. George Gore and a fellow by the name of Mitchem. I don’t know the other two. I’ve forgot ‘em now. George Gore and Mitchem. But I know where they was at and everything there.
Can you describe Don Chafin?
I’m not too familiar with him now. But he controlled Logan County all the time. Whatever he said, why they had to do or they’d get around you and beat you to death or something like that, throw you in the river, tie your hands behind you – stuff like that.
Were you a Chafin deputy?
I worked for Tennis Hatfield and Joe.
How did Tennis hire you?
Well, Emmett Scaggs run against him. And the County Court was Democratic and they give it all to Emmett. Tennis carried it up to the high court and he won it. About that time, that’s when it was, 1922 I believe it was, last part of 1922, well Emmett, he was a well-educated fellow, he had been the superintendent of schools and everything, he turns around and registers and turned to be a Republican, well then they appointed him prosecuting attorney. You understand? Give him a job. Now the Democrats didn’t do that—Tennis and all of them did. It made a full change around whenever Tennis was elected. The County Court had been Democratic all the time and it turned over, changed hands, and make a Republican County Court. Just like they’ve got now, it’s all Democratic. And a Republican couldn’t get nothing. I’ve seen John Chafin and Hi beat an Italian man. He had two ducks carrying them. Had to wade the river. They fired him over there at Christian. Had to ride horses that day and time. Didn’t have no cars. And they jumped off their horses after they overtook him and they beat him until he couldn’t walk. My dad had a store down at the mouth of the creek and he went and got him and got him up to the store and his ducks got loose. And Mother got the ducks and she raised all kinds of ducks from ‘em. But I haven’t seen that man from that day to this. He’s dead now. But they liked to beat him to death. Now Henry Allen was another one. They barred him from the union. He was a big organizer when it first started. And he got to playing crooked work and they put him out of the union. And he’d done something or other to the party. And they beat him around there at Kistler so hard – the creek was up. Buffalo was a big creek any way. They throwed him up there at Ben Gall’s store in the creek and he washed down there at Kistler and lodged up behind the middle pier at the railroad track. Some men run in and helped him out. I forget who it was. I didn’t see that go off but that’s what happened. Well, he come up here, Henry did, to where I was walking and wanted me to get him a job. Well, I told him I would talk to the boss. A fellow by the name of George Kore. George Kore give him a job working for Tony Lumber Company, helping build houses, you know. He worked about three days and why George fired him and wouldn’t have nothing more to do with him. Henry’s dead now. That’s the last I knowed of him.
Do you remember the names of any early union organizers?
I never did meet ‘em. I tell you they kept me busy all the time as a repair man and drum runner, and days that the mines didn’t run I had to do repair work on the houses and tipples and stuff. Them organizers was, one of ‘em was a fellow by the name of Hall. I’ve seen him but I forget his first name. He had an office over there in Charleston. He was president of the union then. Don Chafin went over there and aimed to tell him what to do and he shot Don. It put Don in the hospital for a long time. After he got out there, Don Chafin and Tennis Hatfield had been in to the Wild Goose business selling bootlegging moonshine whisky up at Hatfield Bottom [in Barnabus]. And they fell out. And Tennis, he goes before the federal grand jury. I forget who the judge was. I knowed him. [George McClintock] And Tennis indicted him and sent him to the pen for four years. But they never did do nothing to Hall for shooting him over there in the miners’ office. But he never did go back in it anymore.
You remember when the mines began to mechanize?
Oh, yeah. I was in there then. I worked up til ’62.
How did the mines change?
Well, they loaded by the car that day and time when they first started. Then they got conveyors in. And they cut the coal and they throwed it on them conveyors by hand. And they built belt-lines from here all across the river, just as far as you wanted to, you know. Had different offsets in it and different motors pulling the belt line. And it come out into a big tipple and dumped into a tipple and then I took it from that. I run it 2100 feet down the incline over there on two monitors on three rails. Now you figure that out. Ten tons to each monitor Now they come up there to the middle way place and they put four rails, you understand? And then one monitor passed the other one at that middle place. All the time. They had a big drum. The drum was twelve foot in diameter and fourteen foot long that way. Built out of gum. Six by six gum. Rope was inch and a quarter.
Was there much bitterness among people when mechanization started?
Oh, no. They was all for it. They was everything was settled. Whatever the union said, they had to do at that time. It was all loaded by the ton by the car. There wasn’t no weighing or nothing like that ‘til they got the union. Then they had to put scales in, you know, and weigh these cars of coal and they had to pay so much a ton. Why, there was people over there at Christian – I never will forget it. Ed Goodman was his name. He’d be broke every week. He’d never load over four or five cars. Just 35 cents a car and a car would hold about four tons, five. And they was starving him to death. He’d come in there on paydays and I’d come in. I was always the last man getting off the hill. He was wanting on dollar scrip. He’d come over and whisper to me and tell me they wouldn’t let him have a one dollar scrip. And I’d vouch for him. Sometimes I’d pull my pay envelope out—they put your money in a pay envelope, you know—and I’ve pull out my pay envelope and give him a dollar and that would do him until Monday. He had a big family. They all weren’t home at that time. He managed. And then when the union come in, they had to treat him the way they did the rest of them.
Did you maintain steady work during the Great Depression?
Yeah. I’ve always had work. I get awful good Social Security. I study all the time – they worked me too much. I actually couldn’t stand it hardly. They’d work me Sunday and every other day. But now I never got no big money at that time. I started off at four dollars a day and I ended up with two hundred and fifty dollars a month. I stayed on that way for 19 years. They wouldn’t give me a raise. I asked ‘em for more money. Miners got a raise, you know. They said no, he couldn’t give it. Was going broke. I said well if you won’t give it I’ll be leaving you first of the month. And he didn’t think I would. Day before I was supposed to quit I sent my toolbox off the hill and everything. They had a man-car there that they rode backwards and forwards that people rode up and down the hill in. That night the man said if I would stay he would split the difference with me. Give me half. Give me twenty-five dollars. I said no I won’t do it. I’ve made you a fortune here. So he wouldn’t come up to fifty dollars and I wouldn’t come off it. Next day they had a wreck. A fella was running… I was sitting here. And they wasn’t no timber around there and I could see the monitors from here. And he wrecked and I never seen such dust in all of my life. And I got in my car and went over there. And they tore one up so bad they had to buy a new one. A monitor. That cost ‘em some money, too.
NOTE: Some names may be transcribed incorrectly.
Albert Stone, Annie Elizabeth Hill, Appalachia, Big Creek, Billy Adkins, Boone County, Brandon Kirk, California, Carlos Clark, Chapmanville High School, Church of Christ, Civilian Conservation Corps, Ed Haley, education, Edward W. Hill, Ellis Fork, fiddler, fiddling, Frank Hill, genealogy, Great Depression, guitar, Hell Among the Heffers, history, Huntington, Johnny Hager, Lloyd Ellis, Logan, Logan County, Madison, Melvin White, North Fork, Pope Dial, Pure Oil Company, Seymour Ellis, Six Mile Creek, square dances, Stone School, tobacco, Vernon Mullins, Walter Fowler, West Virginia, Whitman Creek
On June 2, 2004, Billy Adkins and I visited Frank Hill. Mr. Hill, a retired farmer, bus driver, and store keeper, made his home on Ellis Fork of North Fork of Big Creek in Boone County, West Virginia. Born in 1923, he was the son of Edward W. and Annie Elizabeth (Stollings) Hill. Billy and I were interested in hearing about Mr. Hill’s Fowler ancestry and anything he wanted to share about his own life. We greatly enjoyed our visit. What follows is a partial transcript of our interview:
I was born April 22, 1923 up the Ellis Fork Road. When I was born there, we had a four-room Jenny Lind house. It was an old-timer: double fireplace that burned coal and wood, you know. My mother had eleven children and I was the last one. When she saw me, she give up.
I went to the Stone School, a one-room school just up Ellis Fork. My wife’s grandpa, Albert Stone, gave them land to build this school. It wasn’t a big lot – it might have been 300 feet square. We played ball there in the creek. We didn’t have much dry ground. Well, I went through the 8th grade around there. Arithmetic was my best subject. I had good handwriting, too. I thought I could go into the 9th at Chapmanville but they wouldn’t let me. They said I hadn’t took this test you were supposed to take as you left the 8th grade.
I walked a mile and six-tenths to school. We’d had bad teachers. They couldn’t get no control over the students. Dad got this old fellow from Madison and he said, “Now, I’ll give you ten dollars extra on the month.” I think the board paid fifty dollars a month. Back then, young men and women went to school. Twenty, twenty-five years old. They were so mean the teachers couldn’t hardly handle them. I had an older brother that was one of them. A teacher whipped a younger brother he had one day and he said, “Old man, wait till I catch you out. I’ll give you a good one.” And he meant it, too.
Little Johnny Hager was a fiddle player. He was a little man, never was married. And he never had a home. All he had was a little suitcase with a few clothes in it. He’d stay with people maybe a month or two and the way he paid his keep was he whittled out lids or fed their pigs and stuff like that. He’d stay there a month or two till he felt he’d wore out his welcome then he’d go to another house. He was a well-liked little guy. Us boys, we followed him wherever he went cause he could sure play that fiddle. He played one tune called “Hell Among the Heffers”.
We had a hard time in this world. You couldn’t buy a job then. I had a brother-in-law that worked for the Pure Oil Company in Logan that was the only man that had a public job in this whole hollow. People grew tobacco to pay their taxes and bills they had accumulated. It was terrible. I remember my daddy had a little barrel of little potatoes when spring come and this old fellow lived above us, he was a musician. His name was Carlos Clark. He’d come out of the coalfields in Logan and he lost his home. His wife was a cousin of mine. He was trying to teach me to play the guitar. I’d go there and she’d lead the singing and he’d pick the guitar and I’d try to play second. He give me eleven lessons for that barrel of potatoes.
We had two or three around here that went to work in the CCC camps. Lloyd Ellis from Whitman’s Creek was one of them and Seymour Ellis was another one from Six Mile. In his last days, that was all he wanted to talk about. They went plumb into California in the CC camps. Then war broke out and they just switched them camps over to the Army. The Army operated those camps anyhow. That’s why they was so successful. They had control over boys to teach them how to do things.
We got just as wild as any of them. Ed Haley used to come over here and play. The Barker family had a full band. Now, they could make the rafters roar. There was an old lady lived in here married to Walter Fowler who called the dances and there wasn’t a one of us really knowed how to dance but we put on a show anyhow. They had them in people’s homes. No drinking allowed but there was always a few that did. They always had a lot of good cakes.
It was mostly Church of Christ around here. The main preacher up here in these parts was Pope Dial from Huntington. I’ll tell you another one that came in here that followed him sort of was Melvin White. Vernon Mullins followed up years later when he preached in here. I remember the first sermon he ever preached was around here in the one-room Stone School. He established a lot of different churches in the country but that was the first one. He’d talk about how he started here, preached his first sermon. Every funeral he conducted on this creek, he’d tell that story.
Alabama, Arnoldsburg, Ashland, Bill Day, Brandon Kirk, Buttermilk Mountain, Calhoun County, Catlettsburg, Cincinnati, Doc White, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, England, fiddlers, fiddling, George Hayes, Grand Ole Opry, Great Depression, Harvey Hicks, history, Jean Thomas, Jilson Setters, John Hartford, Kentucky, Laury Hicks, Minnie Hicks, Mona Haley, music, Nashville, Nora Martin, Rogersville, Rosie Day, Sweet Florena, Ugee Postalwait, West Virginia, writing
I asked Ugee if Laury ever listened to the Grand Ole Opry and she said, “Yes. He got to hear it the year before he died. He got a radio. Let’s see, what is his name? George Hayes. We had Hayeses that lived down at Arnoldsburg. And he brought Dad up a little radio when Dad was down sick.”
Now, did Ed Haley ever hear the Grand Ole Opry?
“Oh, yes. He heard it down in Kentucky.”
Did he like it?
“No. He went to Cincinnati one time. They was a gonna make records — him and Ella — but they wanted to pick out the one for him to play. Nobody done him that a way. So he said, ‘I’ll pick my own.’ He went to Nashville once. I don’t know as he went to the Grand Ole Opry but he went to Nashville. Somebody drove him, took him down. But when he found out what they done, he didn’t have no use for that.”
Ugee made it clear that she had missed out on most of Ed’s wild times. She knew nothing about his running around with people like Doc White or chasing women. She did say he was bad about telling “dirty jokes.”
“Many a time he’s told me, ‘All right, Ugee. You better get in the kitchen. I’m gonna tell a dirty joke.’ And he’d tell some kind and you could hear the crowd out there just a dying over it. Ella’d say, ‘Mmm, I’ll go to the kitchen, too.'”
I asked Ugee about Ed’s drinking and she told the story again about her brother Harvey giving him drinks to play “Sweet Florena”. She sang some of it for me:
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florena.
Oncest I bought your clothes, sweet Florene
Oncest I bought your clothes but now I ain’t got no dough
And I have to travel on, sweet Florene.
After finishing that verse, Ugee said, “That’s part of the song. And Ella didn’t like to hear that song. I think it reminded her of some of his old girlfriends or something. And she didn’t like for him to play ‘Buttermilk Mountain’, either. He’d throw back his head and laugh. She’d say, ‘Don’t play that thing. I don’t want to hear that thing.’ But she’d second it. She’d draw her eyes close together.”
Brandon asked Ugee about her aunt Rosie Hicks, who was Laury’s sister and a close friend to the Haley family. She said Aunt Rosie was working in Ed’s home in Catlettsburg when she met Blind Bill Day (her sixth husband) during the early years of the Depression. It was a rocky marriage, according to Rosie’s only child, Nora (Davis) Martin.
“I was gonna tell you about him hitting Aunt Rosie,” Ugee said. “He came through the house and Aunt Rosie was upstairs quilting and all at once — Nora said she was in the kitchen cooking — and she heard the awfulest noise a coming down the stairs and said, ‘Mommy had old Bill Day by the leg and was bringing him bumpety-bump down the stairs, dragging him. Got him in the kitchen. He just walked up and hit her with that left hand right in the mouth. She just jerked his britches off of him and started to sit his bare hind-end on the cook stove — and it red hot.’ And Nora said, ‘Oh, Mommy, don’t do that. You’ll kill him.’ She said, ‘That’s what I’m a trying to do.’ And she grabbed her mother and him both and jerked them away from there.”
Ugee was more complimentary of Day’s colleague, Jean Thomas.
“I’ve got cards from her and letters and pictures,” she said. “I’ve been to her house — stayed all night with her. She was nice. She was too good to Bill Day. She spent money on him and give him the name of Jilson Setters. Sent him to England and he played for the queen over there.”
Brandon wondered if Bill Day was a very good fiddler.
“Well, I’m gonna tell ya, I stayed all night with Aunt Rosie and Bill Day one time,” Ugee said. “They lived on 45th Street in Ashland, Kentucky. My brother took me and my mom down there and he hadn’t seen Aunt Rosie for a long time. She’d married again and she lived down there in Ashland, Kentucky. And we aimed to see Ed and Ella, but they was in Cincinnati playing music. That’s who we went to see. So Harvey, he filled hisself up with beer. That’s the first time I ever seen a quart bottle of beer. Anyway, we went up there to hear Uncle Bill play. Harvey laid down on the bed like he was sick. He wasn’t sick: he wanted me just to listen to that fellow play that fiddle. He knowed I’d get sick of it. And he played that song about the Shanghai rooster. I never got so tired in my life of hearing anything as I did that. He only played three pieces. Harvey laid there, he’d say, ‘Play that again. I love it.’ And I had to sit there and listen to it, ’cause I didn’t want to embarrass him by getting up and walking out. I walked over to Harvey and I said, ‘You’re not sick and you’re not tired, so you get up.’ Said, ‘Ugee, I’ve got an awful headache. I drove all the way down here.’ I said, ‘That bottle that you drank give you the headache, so you get up and you listen to your Uncle Bill.’ He went to the toilet. I said, ‘I’m telling you right now — you’re gonna listen to Uncle Bill if I have to listen to him.’ Harvey said, ‘I’m not listening to him no longer. I’ve heard all I want to hear of Uncle Bill.’ I got Harvey up and then I run and jumped in the bed and I covered my head up with a pillow. But we stayed all night and Aunt Rosie went home with us. She told him she’s a going up to Nora’s, but she went to Calhoun with us in the car, and I reckon while she’s gone old Bill tore up the house. I don’t think they lived together very long after that ’cause it wasn’t very long till she come back home. It was home there at my dad’s.”
Brandon asked if Day ever played with Ed in Calhoun County and Ugee said, “Oh, no. If he had, Dad woulda kicked him out.”
Okay, I thought: so Laury had no tolerance for lesser fiddlers. What about Ed?
“Ed Haley, if somebody was playing a piece of music and they wasn’t hitting it right, he’d stick his hands in his pockets and say, ‘Goddamn, goddamn,'” Ugee said. “Dad’d say, ‘Boy, ain’t he good?’ Ed would cuss a blue streak. Then after the man was gone, whoever it was, Dad and Ed would go to mocking him. Dad and Ed Haley was like brothers. They loved each other. Ella and Mom, too. Jack was the baby the first time I seen Ed after he was married. They was expecting Lawrence, so they named him after my dad. Then when she had Mona, why instead of calling her Minnie, she named her after Mom.”
Ashland, Atlanta, Big Ugly Creek, Birdie, blind, Boatin' Up Sandy, Catlettsburg, Chapmanville, Charleston, Cincinnati, civil war, Clark Kessinger, Coalton, Crawley Creek, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, fiddlers, fiddling, Girl With the Blue Dress On, Godby Branch School, Grantsville, Grayson, Great Depression, Green Shoal, Harts School, history, Hugh Dingess School, John Hartford, Kentucky, Lawrence Haley, Logan, Margaret Arms, Mona Haley, music, Orange Blossom Special, Pat Haley, Ralph Haley, Slim Clere, Sweet Georgia Brown, Tennessee Waggoner, The Old Lady Carried the Jug Around the Hill, Wewanta, writing
We hadn’t played long until Slim was telling me more about his background.
“I came from a line of Irish fiddlers,” he said. “My dad, his brothers, and his dad… The old man was so good on the fiddle — he was in the Civil War — my grandfather — that the soldiers all chipped in and bought him a fiddle and he didn’t have to fight. He was from Coalton on the road to Grayson out back of Ashland.”
Slim said his dad played “The Old Lady Carried the Jug Around the Hill” and “Girl With the Blue Dress On”.
Here comes the girl with the blue dress on, the blue dress on, with the blue dress on.
Everybody’s crazy about the girl with the blue dress on…
I asked him if his father played “Catlettsburg” and he said yes, although it was not the same version as what Ed played.
“My dad played it,” Slim said. “He played ‘Birdie’, ‘Tennessee Waggoner’. He got these two fingers cut when he was working at a steel mill and his fingers stayed stiff so he had to play the rest of his life with these two fingers. I don’t remember when he played with all five ’cause I was too small. He played ‘Boatin’ Up Sandy’.”
Every now and then, Slim would tell me something about Ed.
“Every Saturday Ed would go to a county courthouse someplace,” he said. “Believe it or not, he was in Grantsville one time when I was up there, sitting on the steps up there at the courthouse. I walked over, I said, ‘Ed, aren’t you out of place?’ He said, ‘You’re liable to find me anywhere.'”
I asked Slim if he ever saw Ed drunk and he said, “I don’t think I ever saw him sober. He didn’t get too high. Seemed like it give him more pep.”
I asked Slim if he remembered Sweet Georgia Brown coming to see Ed in Ashland and he said, “He was up in Ashland at one time. We called him Brownie. Well, he wasn’t around Ed too much. Ed was a close guy. He didn’t associate with a lot of people. Now, he liked me pretty well…but most fiddle players don’t like fiddle players.”
Speaking of fiddlers, Slim said he had met a lot of them during his lifetime. I wondered if he ever met any as good as Ed and he said, “Clark Kessinger was the closest. I think Clark learned from him. See when Clark made records for Brunswick — they had a studio down in Ashland — Ed wouldn’t play on it. He wouldn’t make records. Didn’t want to. He wouldn’t play over the radio. He said they wasn’t any money in that. He wanted to be somewhere somebody could throw a nickel or dime in that cup. He was very poor. He wasn’t starving to death, but — his wife was blind, too — there was no way that they could make any money. And he had a 17- or 18-year-old boy — he was a good guitar player, but he wouldn’t play with him. I don’t remember what his name was. He was ashamed of his father and mother — to get out in public. Not for any personal reasons…just the fact he could see and they couldn’t.”
Slim began talking about his own career in music, mostly his Depression-era radio work. He mentioned working with or meeting people like Bill and Charlie Monroe and Earl Scruggs and even credited himself with bringing “Orange Blossom Special” to Charleston from Atlanta in October of 1938. He kind of caught us by surprise when he spoke of having played all through the Guyandotte Valley.
“We played personal appearances up and down through there,” Slim said. “Played schools and theaters: Godby Branch School, up on Crawley Creek — one room school — and Hugh Dingess School — it was about an eight-room red brick building — Green Shoal, Wewanta. Harts School, I guess I must have played that school fifteen times. From about ’39 on up to 50-something. Everybody turned out when we played Harts. It was supposed to be the meanest place they was on the Guyan at that time. Came across Big Ugly Creek there. See, it goes from Lincoln County over into Boone. I used to broadcast down in there. I’d say, ‘All you Big Ugly girls be sure to come out and see us now.'”
I asked Slim if he played with any local musicians and he said, “No, we went in and played the show. Once in a while, we’d have amateur contests and they’d come in. Well, we’d have fiddling conventions at big high schools.”
I asked Slim if he ever saw Ed around Harts and he said, “No, not down there. Only time I ever seen Ed was around Ashland and Logan and Chapmanville. He played at the bank in Chapmanville. Chapmanville was 12 miles from Logan.”
Later that night, Brandon and I found some more family photographs in a box at Pat Haley’s. One was of Ella, while others were of Margaret Arms. Margaret was a real “mystery lady”: nobody seemed clear on her relationship to the Haley family. Lawrence Haley had remembered her as a cousin to either Ed or Ella, while Mona called her “Margaret Thomas” and said she lived in Cincinnati.
Asa Neal, banjo, Birdie, blind, C&O Railroad, Charlie Mershon, Chet Rogers, Clark Kessinger, Clayt Fry, Community Common, Devil's Dream, Dinky Coffman, Dominique Bennett, Ed Haley, Ella Haley, Elmer Lohorn, fiddle, fiddlers, fiddling, Girl I Left Behind Me, Great Depression, Harry Frye, history, Jason Lovins, John Hartford, John Lozier, John Simon, Kentucky, Kid Lewis, music, Norfolk and Western Railroad, Ohio, Portsmouth, Portsmouth Airs, Portsmouth YMCA, Ragtime Annie, Roger Cooper, Roy Rogers, Russell, West End Jubilee, writing
A little later, I met John Lozier at Portsmouth. He was a real ball of energy. It was hard to believe that he was in his late eighties. I just sat back and listened to him talk about Ed.
“The first time I ever saw Ed Haley he was sitting on the street in a little old stool of a thing — him and his wife — had a little boy with him. They always kept a little boy with them — one of the kids that would lead them here and there and yander. And I didn’t know this but a fella by the name of Charlie Mershon was there and the Mershons are all fiddlers. They live over here in Ohio somewhere. And Charlie went home and told his dad, ‘I heard a man that could out-fiddle you.’ He went over and he had to take his hat off to Ed. But Ed had long, slim fingers like a woman and he played so soft you just had to listen. He was a great fiddler.”
I asked John to tell me about playing with Ed at the Portsmouth YMCA.
“A fella by the name of Dinky Coffman was the head of the entertainment committee at the N&W over here in Portsmouth,” he said. “Well, whenever Dink Coffman would want us to have a little shindig or whatever you want to call it he would take us over in the shops at the N&W at noon. They was about seven hundred people worked over there at one time. And nickels and dimes — whatever they could get — that’s the way Ed Haley made his living. It had to be a rough life. Of course, back in the twenties you make a dollar, honey, you could wrap it ’round a corncob and be nigger rich. And the last time I played with Ed Haley was at the YMCA at the C&O Russell yards.”
I asked John how Ed looked back then and he said, “Ed was a little old short pot-bellied feller. He had an old brown hat on as well as I can remember and just an old brown coat and a pair of britches. He didn’t dress like he was going out on vaudeville stage or anything. His wife would take Braille with her and read Braille for a little extra entertainment. She played a banjo-uke — eight string, short neck — but she just played chords. Mostly me and her would play and she would second after me. One time, we went up to the Russell yards at the YMCA up there and she accompanied me on the piano. I never knew any of the kids.”
John asked to see my fiddle, so I lifted it out of the case and reached it to him. He said to his wife, “Oh, Lord. Look at this. Isn’t that done pretty? My granddad made fiddles and he used three things: a wood chisel, a pocketknife, and a piece of window glass. All he bought was the fingerboard and the apron. And he made little wood clamps and wedges. He wouldn’t let me pick up the fiddle — afraid I’d drop it and break the neck out of it. And I started playing old fiddle tunes on a harp.”
Not long after that, John pulled out his harmonica and played “Devil’s Dream”, “Portsmouth Airs”, “Birdie”, “Girl I Left Behind Me”, and “Ragtime Annie”.
I joined in every now and then, which prompted him to say things like, “You’re putting something extra in there,” or “You missed a note. See that?”
To call him feisty would be a huge understatement.
At one point, he said, “I’m trying to tell you something. You’re gonna be here all day. This is my day.”
A little later he said, “I don’t know if you know what you’re doing or not, but you’re putting a few little slip notes in there. You put more notes in that than what Ed would have put in it. You’ve been listening to Clark Kessinger records.”
John opened up a whole new facet of our conversation by mentioning Clark Kessinger, who he’d heard play one time at the West End Jubilee on Market Street in Portsmouth.
“Clark Kessinger was a hard loser in a contest,” John said. “If he lost, he’d just stomp and carry on something awful.”
Clark came to Portsmouth and played a lot because of the great number of musicians in the town during the Depression.
“I come into Portsmouth about the time that Roy Rogers left here,” John said. “Now he had a cousin that was a better guitar player than he was: Chet. He had a little neck like a turkey. And him and Dominique Bennett, Clayt Fry, Elmer Lohorn… Elmer Lohorn was the only man I ever seen that played ‘companion time’ on the guitar. It was a double time — everything he done was doubled. And Harry Frye was a fine tenor banjo player. We had one guitar player by the name of Kid Lewis — was a smart-alec — and he could play classical stuff. But they just sat around and played cards and drank moonshine and got good. Asa Neal was, I’d say, our champion fiddler around here. Asa Neal bought ever record that Clark Kessinger ever put out.”
At that moment, John Simon, a local folklorist, showed up with Roger Cooper, a Buddy Thomas protégé. I got Roger to play the fiddle while I seconded him on my banjo. John Lozier jumped in when we weren’t playing something “just right.” At some point, Jason Lovins, a local newspaper reporter, dropped in with a camera and asked a few questions. He promised to plug my interest in Ed’s life in the Community Common.
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Pat, slowly becoming the interviewer, asked Mona how far back she could remember and she said, “As far back as I can remember was Halbert Street. I can remember going out in the rain and standing out in the rain while Mom and Pop was fighting or Pop was fighting Mom — which that was probably the way it was. But it takes two to make a fight or an argument. I don’t remember whatever started it. I just remember Pop being mean to Mom, and that was on 45th Street. And the next memory I have is at Ward Hollow. 337 37th Street, that was Ward Hollow. And the next one was at 17th Street. And the next one was back up on 45th Street.”
Pat said, “When they lived on 45th Street that time had to be about ’48, ’49.”
Mona agreed: “It was, because Ralph was a baby. My Ralph.”
Pat said, “Good or bad memories are you talking about?”
Mona kind of laughed and said, “They’re all bad but there had to been some good ones.”
I said, “Bad stuff is easiest to remember. Most history and everything is told in terms of bad things instead of good things. Usually, if you go along a highway, most highway markers that you see commemorate battles and tragedies.”
Mona said, “I remember some good times with Mom. I remember seeing a lot of movies.”
Pat said, “That’s what Larry said. Said you’d see movies while they played.”
Mona said, “Yeah. I can imagine how Mom worried, too. I couldn’t sit there with her. They didn’t let us go too far away.”
Mona said she mostly traveled with Ella as a girl but remembered going with Ed to Doc Holbrook’s office where she watched him reach into her father’s mouth with something that looked like a giant spoon and take out his tonsils. Ed said, “How long do I have to do this?” and Doc answered, “It’s over…” and then they started playing music.
I said, “Did your mom and dad usually play around a movie theatre?” and Mona said, “Seems to me like it might have been a block or two away from the movies but that wasn’t very far.”
I asked what kind of places Ed usually looked for when he first came into a town and she said, “Pop always looked for a courthouse square or a YMCA — something where they’d be a lot of people around. He played at the Catlettsburg Stock Yard a lot, him and Mom.”
We made small talk for a few minutes — the kind that often signals the end of a conversation — when Pat said to Mona, “What do you remember about your childhood other than those bad memories?”
“I remember Mom playing with me and me getting a wash pan and washing her face and her hands and her arms,” Mona said. “Just with Mom, you know. Lawrence and I would take turns doing dishes and cooking for Mom and Pop. I remember playing cowboys and Indians with the boys and they didn’t like me playing with them.”
Mona was apparently quite the tomboy when she was a young girl.
Pat said, “I told John about how harsh they were with you about keeping your dress down and sitting property.”
Mona said, “Yeah, they were. They was rough on me. There wasn’t any ‘Come here, let me have you,’ or no love. Always ‘You do this’ or ‘You do that.'”
Pat said she figured Lawrence had been right in on all that and Mona said, “Why, I’d a whipped Lawrence. You remember Mom sent Lawrence to get me one time — I don’t know where I was – and he said, ‘I can’t.’ She said, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘She can whip me.'”
Pat said, “I’ve heard Mom tell that story. And he used to tattle on you.”
Mona said, “Yeah, he did. But I don’t know if I tattled on him or not. I don’t remember.”
A little later, when they were teenagers, Lawrence was so overprotective of Mona that he cut one of her boyfriends with a knife trying to run him away from the house. Ed was also hard on her boyfriends; he called one of them a “raggedy-ass-son-of-a-bitch.”
Mona told me about her memories of Ed in his later years.
“He retired from playing…period. I remember one time on 45th Street. I came over from South Point, where I lived, and I tried to get Pop to play some for me and Mom said, ‘He’ll never play no more. He’s quit.’ It was a long time after the divorce.”
I asked her if Ed had his beard at that time and she said, “Yes. I used to shave him with a straight razor under his beard. Trim it. He shaved hisself most of the time, but once in a while I’d shave him.”
She said Pop seldom took baths.
“He said it was a waste of water. He was like that guy that said too much bathing will weaken you.”
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Curly suggested that we visit Wilson Reeves, a local record collector, for more information about Ed. Wilson was glad to talk to us. He remembered seeing Ed and his family play on the streets of Ashland during World War II.
“This was in the early forties,” Wilson said. “I came up here to take training at the old Ashland Vocational School. I lived on Carter about 17th. There was a house there where I had a room upstairs. And every evening I’d cross over from Carter over to Winchester, go down Winchester, and on down to a little restaurant — what they call a ‘hole in the wall.’ Greasy food, but it was cheap. And she [meaning Ella] would be sitting in a chair there by the Presbyterian Church close to 16th Street. Most of the time she’d be playing the mandolin. Sometimes, I’d see her with the accordion. The little girl would stand on her side — I believe the 16th Street side — and she’d be holding the tin cup. I didn’t notice whether people put money in it or not.”
Where was Ed?
“Well, I don’t remember too much about them,” Wilson said. “I was twenty years old and other things to think about and on my way. Mr. Haley, I don’t remember whether he was sitting down or what. I’ve seen him over at the old Alphon Theater. He would sit right there. Best as I remember about him, he was by hisself. And there was times — and this is very vague in my memory — that I saw them get off the bus. They’d drag a chair out with them. Just a straight-backed chair, I believe. After the war was over, I went back to Fleming County for a while. Sometime in 1947 I came back up here, but I don’t recall ever seeing them any more.”
Wilson said he was never really acquainted with Ed or his family and was never at his home.
“Course I was in the house,” Curly said. “Poorly furnished. The family was rich in being family but very poor as far as living conditions. You might say if it was possible at that time, they would have been on food stamps.”
Curly was speaking of Ed’s home at Ward Hollow. I asked Wilson for some paper so I could sketch it out based on Curly’s memories. We started out with the living room.
“Just a square room,” Curly said. “No rug. A pine floor and a fireplace and a mantle and a little side table and his rocking chair and an old cane-backed straight chair. There was another doorway here that went into the next bedroom back. It was just an open door really. It was a shotgun house. I was never in their kitchen. They had about four rooms. But this was in a big building that there was a lot of apartments in — several apartments in this building — and Ed and his family lived downstairs in the first apartment as you went up the hollow. Big old community house — all wood — weather-boarded house. In my time, it mighta been sixty, seventy years old. They had a name for that building but it won’t come to me.”
When I’d finished my sketch of Ed’s home at Ward Hollow, I said to Curly, “Now what about his home at Horse Branch?”
“It was about a four room house — and one floor — and set up about six foot off a the ground because the creek run down through there and if they hadn’t a built it up on these sticks that it set on they woulda got flooded out every time it rained,” he said. “And you had to go up a long pair of steps to get up on their porch. Handrails down each side of the steps. Porch all the way across the front. I’d say the porch was six feet deep. I was never inside. In fact, the front room is as far as I was in the other house.”
Curly said he used to play music with Ed on the porch. Ed always sat to the right of everyone, probably so he wouldn’t have to worry about pulling his bow into them.
Wilson said Ed played with David Miller, a blind musician sometimes called “The Blind Soldier.” Miller (1893-1959) was originally from Ohio but settled at 124 Guyan Street in Huntington just prior to the First World War. He played on WSAZ, a Huntington station, with The Guyandotte Mockingbirds in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He also made it as far up the Guyan Valley as Logan where he hosted at least one fiddling contest.
“Saturday night, September 17th at 8 p.m., sharp at the court house, Logan, W.Va., David Miller, an old time recording artist, will open a real old time Fiddlers Contest, awarding three big cash prizes to contestants and one prize to best old time flat-foot dancer,” according a September 1927 article in the Logan Banner. “It is expected that this will be the season’s big meeting of old timers and lovers of old time music. See Miller at Grimes’ Music Shop Saturday afternoon.”
According to one source, Miller lost his radio job around 1933 after threatening to throw his manager through a window. Wilson heard that Ed taught Miller the tune “Rose Connelly”, as well as Red Foley’s “Old Shep”.
Aside from the Blind Soldier, there were several other well-known musicians working in Huntington during the Depression. In the mid-thirties, Riley Puckett and Bert Layne (two of the famous Skillet Lickers) spent a few months there, while Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas (a friend to Natchee the Indian), and Arthur Smith were featured acts during the World War II era.
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Curly said he lost contact with Ed Haley in the mid-thirties (other than seeing him on a street corner or at court days).
“When I got about fourteen, fifteen years old, I went to playing around with younger musicians and I left Catlettsburg and I come down to Ashland,” he said. “I started playing bars at fifteen.”
Curly told me all about how he “rediscovered” Ed toward the end of the decade.
Along about 1937, we were working WCMI and Mother and I was talking one day and I asked her, I said, “Well Mother, do you know anything about Ed Haley or the Haley family or where they’re at? I haven’t heard from them in years.” And my mother told me, said, “Why, they live right up there at Ward Hollow.” I said, “Well, I didn’t know that.” See, what I used to do, I’d get lonesome to hear him. And I knew him and he knew my voice and he knew my mother and my father and all my brothers and sisters and I’d get lonesome to play with him. And I’d get a pint of “moon” — bought it from old Maude Johnson down there at 29th Street — and walk all the way to Ward Hollow. The front door was never locked. And when I’d open the door — I’d know where he was gonna be, in that rocking chair — I’d say, “Uncle Ed?” “Well Curly, come in.” And I’d go in — wouldn’t even carry a guitar or nothing — and I’d go in and I’d sit down. He’d go get the straight chair when he played, but he would be sitting in there. A little old fireplace. I’d say, “How are you, Uncle Ed?” “Well, I don’t feel so good today. I’m not as pure as I should be.” And I’d say, “Well, do you think maybe a little hooter…?” And he’d say, “Well, uh, yes.” Talked loud then. I’d say, “Well, I brought one along.” Moonshine. I’d go out and get it and come in and give it to him and he’d hit it.
We’d sit there and talk a little more — about this and that and the weather and so forth and so on — and I’d say, “You better getcha another little drink there, Ed. Maybe if you got a cold it’ll help you.” He’d hit it again and he’d sit there and all at once he’d say, “Say, did I ever play ‘Blackberry Blossom’ for ya?” And while he was saying this, he was getting up… He knew exactly where his fiddle was on the mantle, he knowed where the bow was on the mantle, and he never touched a thing that was on that mantle — just them two things. I never saw him finger for the fiddle: he always picked it up by the neck and got the bow with his right hand. And then he’d throw that fiddle under there — the chin was holding it — and he never even had a chin-rest — then he’d sit down and he’d say, “Well, you brought your old box along, didn’t ya?” I’d say, “Yeah, it’s out there in the car.” I think it was a D-18 Martin. Sixty-five bucks. Go get the guitar, come in, sit down, tune up with him. And that’s another thing about that man. I often wondered how he kept the fiddle at 440 tuning. I know he didn’t use a pitch pipe.
Curly said it was during that time that Ed met Bernice “Sweet Georgia” Brown, who he called “Brownie.” He elaborated: “Brownie’s father owned a business here, which was in the making of tombstones, right down on Winchester Avenue, and his mother was from Cartersville, Georgia. And he was a tremendous old-time… The old English fiddle tunes and a lot of that stuff — the hornpipes. He was just marvelous on them. He would’ve loved to have played jazz fiddle, but he didn’t have it. Because he was from Georgia, Big Foot said, ‘I’ll teach you how to play ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’, so from then on that was his name. We had him and Big Foot playing twin fiddles. During the time that he was here, I wanted him to hear Ed Haley. Neither one of us had a car at that time, but we were in walking distance of Ward Hollow, which was just up the road from me about eight, nine blocks. We’d walk up there and take a little hooter along and finally get him started. Well, Georgia wouldn’t pull a bow in front of Ed Haley, but he would watch him awful close. Every move — even the way he tuned the fiddle with his chin and his knee mostly. He was an amazing man.”
I asked Curly if Ed played “Sweet Georgia Brown” and he said, “Never. I don’t think he woulda even rosined his bow to play a thing like that.”
Thinking back about that time in his life caused Curly to talk about his personal memories of Ed.
“I had a lot of experiences with that old man. I loved the old man. Really loved him. He was a swell old man. He was a dear friend. So timid. He was easy to be around and knew a joke as quick as he heard it. He wasn’t boastful or pushy — just a very little timid man that would sit in the corner for hours. He let everything out with the fiddle. He turned everything loose that was inside and he done it with the instrument. I think his first love really was his music.”
I asked Curly if Ed got along with other fiddlers like Clayton McMichen and he said, “I don’t think he woulda even talked to him. When Clayton mouthed off like he did — and was all mouth — I just think Ed would have set back and not taken any part in anything. Brassy and forward — Clayton was awful bad for that. I didn’t care for Clayton McMichen myself other than I appreciated the group he had together, The Georgia Wildcats.”