THE STORY TELLER
If you looked close enough, you could still
make out the writing. Faded and originally painted on the barn by
his eldest daughter, the advertising jingle was left over from his days as
a dairy farmer. "You can whip our cream but you can't beat our
milk." Grandpa Coleman, a carpenter who worked for Jess Faber,
walked in front of the barn after the pickup truck dropped him
He placed the lunch box on the kitchen counter and removed the
thermos that kept his coffee warm. I used to pretend that the silver
container was a rocket. He rolled up his sleeves, untucked his
shirttail and unbuttoned the dirty work shirt. Underneath was a sleeveless
white cotton undershirt, what we called a tank top. He cleaned his
face and hands in an old wash basin, located on a small stand just inside
the kitchen, and tossed the dirty water out the back door. His
oldest grandchild rushed out to the porch and waited in the swing.
Certainly there'd be time for a story before Grandma called us for
The "Story Teller" was born and reared up "Spicewood
Holler" in Jackson County. He wore Old Spice and coveralls, played a
Jew's harp and enjoyed a small bowl of Neapolitan ice cream before
bedtime. When it wasn't ice cream, it was "milk and bread" -- corn
bread crumbled into a bowl, covered with cold milk and eaten like Frosted
By the time I came along, the telling of the story
took a tad bit longer than it had when my mother was a child.
Emphysema forced Grandpa to alter his delivery. His
grandchildren watched a barrel chest expand with each
inhalation. He perfected a pursed-lip breathing technique, that he
used when winded. It was in through the nose and out through lips
formed as if they were blowing out candles on a birthday cake. He'd
lean forward on arms, his upper body in a tripod-like position. All
this reduced his airway resistance and allowed Grandpa to catch his breath
a little quicker.
There was no disguising Grandpa's passion for
the story, no concealing the excitement in his voice. The story
slowed when he snapped shut his silver Zippo and took a long drag of
menthol from his Salem. Maybe the pause was purposeful, for
effect. I don't know. I do know that he had a "need to tell."
It would be some years before age and genealogy infected me with a serious
case of "need to know."
My favorite story was one he always told
on the road to Boone County. My Peters grandparents lived there, up
Toney's Branch in Bloomingrose. Grandpa Coleman would always
accompany us on the trip. He knew my paternal grandparents, when
Burton and Sadie lived out on Harrison Ridge, at the head of Spicewood, up
where Jackson and Kanawha merge.
We'd always make some stops along
the way. At a drug store, we'd buy some Prince Albert pipe tobacco
for Grandpa Peters. At Harland's place, we'd grab a bucket and some
sides, so that Grandma and Grandpa Peters would not feel obliged to
cook. During all this, Grandpa Coleman was quiet up front in the
passenger seat. That would change soon. He would open up,
somewhere on Len's Creek Mountain.
The mountain, named for Leonard
Morris, is on the Kanwaha/Boone border. Mother always worried about being
on the mountain when there was ice and snow. Don't think that ever
was the case when we drove to Boone County. Leonard Morris was the son of
William Morris, Sr., who according to George W. Atkinson's "History of
Kanawha County, West Virginia ... " was the first permanent settler
in the Kanawha Valley.
It was always at the same place, a location
that is unknown to me now. At this rest stop, Grandpa Coleman would
point and tell the story. Sometimes he'd even sing.
The place we
stopped was a filling station in 1929, one owned by Frank Bowen, a man who
"had thousands of friends along the Kanawha Boone border," according to
the Charleston Gazette of 9 May 1929. The phrase used by Grandpa
Coleman to describe Mr. Bowen, was Biblical. I'd learned about the
"Good Samaritan" in Sunday School. Sometimes the adjective was
kind. Other times, he used the words caring, helpful, and giving.
Upon this lovely mountain
A filling station
Where curious men have traveled
To lend a
talk about two other men, Millard Morrison and Walter Wilmot. They were
Frank Bowen was the owner
A noble hearted
He played a good Samaritan
To help his
24, and Walter Wilmot, 31, were from New Jersey. Walter's young
bride, who was but 14 and on her honeymoon, did not take the ride.
She stayed with the car, the one Morrison and Wilmot claimed needed
gas. Bowen, who according to the Charleston Gazette, owned a "chain
of gasoline service stations and lunch stands located along the Charleston
Logan Road," was taking a deposit to the bank. He stopped and
offered the two men a lift to the nearest station.
Two men were waiting for him
his car that day
They asked him for a favor
help them on their way
Into his car he took
They asked him for a ride
Wilmot by his
the suspicious pair was apprehended by Officer A. L. Youell, the two New
Jersey men said the man huddled under an overcoat was drunk. The
coat was pulled away and revealed Bowen with a bullet hole in his head.
As they rode along in silence
dark and gloom
Morrison took his pistol
Bowen in his tomb
The men had
separate trials. Morrison's jury took five minutes to deliberate.
Wilmot's jury was out for less than an hour. The two were hung on 13
September 1929 at Moundsville. The teenaged Mrs. Violet Wilmot, who
had been a material witness in the trial, went home to Elizabeth, NJ.
They weep and mourn in sadness
loving friends so true
And to his wife and children
He had to bid
Carlyle, 19th Century philosopher and essayist, once wrote, "Histories are
as perfect as the historian is wise, and is gifted with an eye and a
soul." I'll agree with his eloquent definition. But my take on
history is a lot simpler. History is just what it says it is -- his
Dear people all take warning
meet your God
For he is coming
According to his
Give your heart to Jesus
Repent from all
And at the throne of Judgment
of life you'll win
The man who told me was a common man and he wore that as
easy as we do T-shirts and jeans. He never read the classics or any
of the latest best sellers, but I'd still consider him well read. To
stay abreast of current events, it was the Charleston Daily Mail and the
Jackson Herald, from cover-to-cover, that complemented Huntley and
Brinkley's nightly newscast. To prepare for the future, it was a
small pocket-sized, dog-eared Testament.
The "Story Teller" told
and retold the stories to keep the past fresh in our minds. Only so
much of history is written down. Only so many of our ancestors were
literate. Grandpa's stories were for those who signed with the
letter "X." They were for those who didn't leave pictures or
transcribe family information in a Bible. They were for those that
died intestate. They were for those whose records burned in the
Civil War and for those whose household information perished with the 1890
Census. All we have on some of our ancestors is the spoken word, a
hunch, some circumstantial evidence. Nothing really concrete.
Sure, the words may be embellished or even fabricated. But it's the
best we got. When the oral history stops, so it is with our culture,
our customs, our way of life. We begin to blend in, become like
everyone else. People with no distinguishing features are just not
I have read Hemingway and Twain, listened to the
lyrics of Kristofferson and Prine and greatly enjoyed the Southern
prose of Shelby Foote. But these wordsmiths do not do for me what my
unpublished Grandpa did. They didn't attend West Virginia's last
public hanging. They never downshifted on Len's Creek
Mountain. They didn't tell me about the family bootleggers or the
time Uncle Lon Huffman was shot. When I retell Grandpa's stories, I
walk again on dirt roads and behind a hay bailer. I take my first
bite of rhubarb pie. I hear the soothing "swish, swish, swish" of
Great Granny's glider. The Story Teller planted those seeds in my
garden. One of the regrets of my life is that I harvested late.
Another is that I didn't take notes.
Thanks for listening
and as the "Story Teller's" wife used to say, "Ya'll come!" If you're
lucky, Grandpa will tell a story.