The Prospector

by Mike Peters

As a kid, the name conjured up thoughts of California's gold rush, Sutter's Mill, "Forty Niners" pulling pack horses and burros, Humphrey Bogart in the "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."  There must be gold in them hills!

Goldtown is a small community located in southern Jackson County, not far from Kanawha, on "Old Route 21." It has its own exit off of Interstate 77.  Traveling south, it is the exit right after the Kenna interchange.  I always wondered how it got the name.

I asked my mother and grandparents why it was called Goldtown.  They didn't know.

Adrian Gwin went searching for the answer when he interviewed my great grandfather, Rudy S. "Rude" Coleman, as part of his "Roving the Valley" series.  The column appeared in the 29 July 1963 issue of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Mr. Gwin described Goldtown as "a few scattered houses and a store beside the road."  I'd call it the kind of place you might miss if you weren't looking for it.  Some local folk informed Mr. Gwin that "Rude" Coleman, over on Spicewood, "is probably the oldest around here who might know."

"I used to know the yarn about the name Goldtown, but I can't just recollect it for the life of me," 82-year-old "Rude" told the reporter.

"Yeah, I lived in Goldtown for long years," he continued.  "And my brother Joe, he was the blacksmith there for years. He was the one who knew the tale."

Great Grandpa "Rude" didn't know the answer either and Mr. Gwin couldn't interrogate Uncle Joseph Washington Coleman, since Joe had died on 6 September 1958.

Some 26 years after Adrian Gwin's column, Jonathan Jones, staff writer for the Jackson Herald, wrote an article that ran on 11 December 1999 in the Jackson Independent.  In it, Jones queried 89-year-old Goldtown resident, Sheldon "Bill" Miller, re the origin of the Goldtown name.

Bill, ironically, was the son-in-law of Joe Coleman. He married Joe's daughter Lahoma.  Lahoma's brother, Brownie, ran the "store beside the road," a major part of the Goldtown landscape, as defined by Adrian Gwin in 1963.

Bill grew up on Dog Fork and was told the story by his father, Richmond Miller.  Bill told the interviewer about a man who "purchased anything that was made of gold, such as bracelets, necklaces, watches, rings or earrings.  From there, he took the purchased goods back into the hills of southern Jackson County.  Under the shelter of a small rock, the foreigner used illegal smelting equipment to melt and mold the gold down into U.S. $10 pieces -- counterfeited with then-amazing precision."

The small rock to which Bill made reference is located in the area of Jackson County that came to be known as Goldtown.

Finally!  Someone knew the answer!  Bill's grandson and journalist, Jonathan Jones, knew right where to go, knew that Bill was the logical person to ask.  Like others in the area, he knew that Bill was the expert when it came to matters of genealogy and local history.

I found that out, time and time again, when I started my genealogical research in Jackson and Kanawha Counties.

When I wanted to know the ancestry of my gg grandfather Elijah Coleman and determine which of his parents was Native American, I was told, "Go ask Bill."

When I wanted to know more about Willie Graves, the African American gentleman who came from the South and lived in the home of my great grandparents, it was suggested that I go ask Bill.

When I wanted to know more than the facts surrounding the death of "Lon" Huffman, the kind of stuff that wouldn't be included in the newspapers, one of my family members said, "Go ask Bill."

When I wanted to know more about the ancestry of my gg grandmother Lucinda Miller and confirm our connection to David Miller Sr., I cut someone off in mid-sentence. "I know!  I know!  Go ask Bill."

Last summer, I finally got around to meeting Bill.

I stepped out of the car, across a threshold of time and onto the property of my gg grandfather, Elijah Coleman.

"Elijah first lived at Kenna and later moved to Goldtown and bought part of the Conrad Fisher farm on which he (Elijah) was raised," Bill wrote to me in September of 2000.  "And now I own and live on that part of the farm where Elijah lived and raised his family.

"I tore the old house down and built a new one."

As I walked toward that house, I looked across the field to the left and saw the workshop where Elijah forged and shaped iron with a hammer and anvil.  It was the place where he made, repaired and fit horseshoes.  It was where he taught my gg Uncle Joseph Washington Coleman to be a blacksmith and where Joe taught his nephew, Obert Coleman.  Obe was my grandfather.

"The old blacksmith shop that Elijah had is still standing," Bill wrote to researcher Diana Blake a few years back.  "I saw Brownie over there the other day trying to prop it up to keep it from falling down.  It's been moved three times but it still looks the same as it did when I first saw it years and years ago."

Bill answered the door using a walker and invited us in.  The 91-year-old was recovering from a broken hip.  We talked about family and looked at old pictures.  One picture was placed prominently on the mantel, in the middle.  It was a picture of Bill and his beloved wife Lahoma probably taken sometime in the 1930s.

Bill talked about a lady, his wife's first cousin, who wanted to date him when he was quite the eligible bachelor.  He decided against the interlude.  A short time later, he started dating his future wife.  Knowing both ladies, we said he made the right choice.  He took the picture down from the mantle, paused a moment, shed a quick tear and nodded in agreement.

Bill was getting tired and it was near supper time when we got up to go.   Before we left, he played an old bluegrass standard on his banjo:

"Going up Cripple Creek going in a run
  Going up Cripple Creek to have some fun
  Going up Cripple Creek going in a whirl
  Going up Cripple Creek to see my girl"
I read Bill's obit online at the Jackson Herald site.  He died on 19 March 2002 at his Goldtown home.  According to the obit, Bill was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Sissonville High School and attended Morris Harvey College on a full scholarship.

Also according to the obit, Bill "was an accomplished bluegrass and gospel musician, having sung and played for countless radio programs and cultural events.   Throughout his lifetime, he taught many students the fine art of banjo, guitar, violin, bass, and harmonica."

The miner panned area courthouses for years with much success.  His back room  was full of genealogical nuggets -- papers, family charts and Bibles.  His mind was loaded with dates and places of begats, marriages and deaths.  His stories were packed with folklore and legend.  He was truly an amazing man.

About his children he commented, "They are not interested in genealogy like I am."

That means that a mother lode of historical information will dry up.  The prospector, story teller and banjo picker is now part of the history he so craved, the history he was so generous enough to share.  It's now up to the rest of us to stake our claims for future generations.  We can't ask Bill anymore.

Thanks for listening and as my Grandma Coleman used to say, "Ya'll come!"


Mike Peters

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