Thomas Cunningham and Sarah Wyatt

by Muriel Wiley, 1988 (Great-Granddaughter of Thomas and Sarah Cunningham)


Thomas and Sarah CunninghamFive generations saw many changes in Wetzel County. During the Civil War Tom Cunningham (1836-1920) and his wife, Sarah (1837-1905) lived in a one-room log cabin about six miles up Piney. She was a Wyatt (pronounced "Waits" in those days). His mother lived with them for a time, but nothing is known of her, except that she is buried near Middlebourne. Although the distance was only twenty miles, we think Sarah never saw the Ohio River. Tom saw it often — he walked!

To this union three children survived: "Cindy", Mary Elizabeth (later known as "Aunt Betty" or ("Aunt Molly") and James McClellan (Mac) named for a Civil War general.

All that follows is what I remember of what Grandma Wiley told me of what she remembered, so it isn't necessarily absolutely accurate in every detail.

Thomas bought about 500 acres of land during the late 1800's. This was about the time gas and oil were discovered in Wetzel County. He farmed for a living.

CIVIL WAR: (As Grandma Told me.)

Thomas Cunningham did not fight in the Civil War. In those days it was legal and acceptable to hire someone to go in your place, and he did, not from lack of courage, but because of his family. There were little children either born or on the way, his wife Sarah was frail, and for some reason could not return to her parents. The government in those days seems to have furnished no help for families, so Tom sold everything he could (including possibly a horse and cow) to raise the necessary $500.00 to hire a replacement. Grandma W. said they had a real hard time; but Tom saw the young replacement after the war, and he had survived O.K.

Tom seems to have been a happy, friendly soul, who often co-signed notes for people, and then got left to pay the obligation. His possessions seem to have been in land rather than money. After his children were grown, but still at home, he had a new house built down on the bottom, somewhat back from the creek, but still on the level. The house was built by a Tommy Henderson, I believe. One night when Tom C. couldn't sleep at the original home he got up, went down to the partially-built new home, aroused the carpenter who was staying there, and they laughed and talked the night away. After the house was finished they held a dance as a "housewarming".

Aunt Cindy (Lucinda Belle 1861 - 1931) lived alone there for many years. There were two hugh pine trees in the front yard. There was a big dinner bell mounted in the yard to call workers in from the fields or to call neighbors for help in case of emergency. (No telephone) When a mad dog came by Aunt Cindy rang the bell. The dog later went down to Uncle Mac's and bit Aunt Mary when she tried to shoo him away from the chickens. She came over to Pine Grove and stayed with Grandma W. (Aunt Betty) and took a series of anti-rabies shots. As I remember hearing, there were 21 shots in those days (around 1927) in the series, given in the abdomen and quite painful!

Once when Grandpa Tom went back on the hill to the original home he went into an old hog house, and before he knew it, he was alive with fleas! Being a resourceful man, he removed his trouser, put them on the end of a long pole, put the pole over his shoulder, and proceeded down the hill, praying he would not meet any travelers! There was a very large rock on the bank back of the new house, so when Tom got down there, and being a modest man, as well as resourceful, he got behind the rock and yelled for Mac to bring him another pair of trousers. The story does not mention under-pants nor what became of the fleas!


Thomas Cunningham did not learn to write his name until after he married and his wife taught him. He still preferred to "make his mark" (an X) when necessary to sign legal papers. It doesn't seem to have been lack of intelligence - just lack of opportunity. His children walked to school from up on the hill to a school somewhere down on the creek. There seems to have been no bridge and in regular weather they crossed on rocks. Once when the creek was up and logs were running they started to cross by jumping from log to log. When they got part way across they heard their father yell from up on the point. After they had left for school he realized their probable danger and came for them.

Years later a friend of theirs told how she used to cross the creek using two kitchen chairs - stand on one and lift the other ahead of them.

Grandma Wiley thought school probably "took up" about 8:00 a.m.. The family had no clock. Their father told them they could start to school "when the rooster crowed". One time when the moon was full the kids sneaked out and removed the boards from over the chicken shed, moonlight streamed in, fooled the old rooster so he crowed, and the kids started for school! After that Tom went to New Martinsville and bought a clock (which Muriel now has). He told the kids when the clock struck six they could start to school! I don't know if they had a lantern. They could hear wildcats fighting in dens over the hill, but they didn't seem to fear. They stopped at their grandmothers down on the creek to get warm and then went on with older children.

Grandma Wiley thought they had three months of school, December, January, and February where children weren't needed to work on the farm. Sometimes in summer a traveling teacher might come through. If individual parents would pay him he would hold a "subscription school" for a short time. He was never too popular with children in summer.

Grandma Wiley said young folks would sometimes stay in school until they were age twenty or older just to be with other young folks.

Water was carried from a spring or well and all children drank from a common dipper in the water pail.

There was not even an outside toilet sometimes. They simply went to the woods - girls right, boys left! If someone went out during class time he was to leave a book on the bench by the door as a sign that no one else was to leave.

In school spelling seemed to be an important subject which children also studied at home. They spelled and pronounced by syllables. They were wonderful spellers, but seemed to ignore word meanings. For instance, they spelled "balcony", pronouncing it "bal-kone," and in their log cabin home having no idea what it was. They did "sums" on their slates, but pencils and paper were saved only for writing class. Once Tom brought one pencil from New Martinsville, cut it in two, and gave Aunt Cindy and Grandma Wiley each half. They were beautiful writers, shaping each letter carefully.

Lunch was a piece of meat in a cold biscuit in a lard pail Grandma Wiley said she hadn't seen an orange until she was married and someone gave Dad (Bert Wiley) one. She said if the family got a pound of rice somewhere it was put back and kept to serve if company came. Such foods would be brought by boat up the Ohio River, I suppose. She hadn't seen a Christmas tree trimmed until her son married and his wife fixed one for their baby daughter (Ada).

If a late flood or drought destroyed crops there was no Red Cross, Salvation Army, Welfare, or any kind of help, except sharing of relatives or friends who were more fortunate.

Tom C. used to tell his children a tale (not quite true) that such a disaster and famine occurred when he was a boy. He said if he asked for food his mother picked him up by one ear, held him up to the sun, and if she couldn't see sunlight through him she told him he wasn't hungry and sent him on his way. At least it didn't stunt his sense of humor!

Tom Cunningham made their shoes. They had no boots, raincoats, or umbrellas. Their mother knitted heavy wool stockings. For gloves their mother knitted "half-hands" which seem to have been literally gloves which covered hands, but left fingers out. She "carded" wool into yarn and spun and wove cloth for heavy clothes sewed by hand. There were no sewing machines for years later. Then they were accepted slowly for women were proud of their tiny stitches in clothes and beautiful quilts, and could not believe any machine could do as well. They colored yarn with different barks and herbs. (Unfortunately I have forgotten what they were.) When Sarah got up from the Spinning Wheel Aunt Cindy and Grandma Wiley use to fuss as to who got to run the wheel. Then Tom bought a second wheel and the novelty quickly wore off for the girls.

For a mattress, beds had "straw ticks" renewed with fresh straw or corn husks after the harvest. On top of this was a thick feather-tick stuffed with carefully saved and dried feathers from the family fowls. On cold nights the family slept snugly with feather tick on top of them!

For laundry before they moved the family took clothes down in the bottom by the creek, built a fire, and heated water in a big iron pot. Then they scrubbed and rinsed the clothes and spread them over bushes or a rail fence since there was no clothes line or pins.


There seems to have been no church building in the community. When a traveling preacher came through people of the community met at someone's home. Grandma Wiley said the family might hoe corn in the forenoon, if it was a weekday, then wash, tie on a clean apron and go to church. They often carried their shoes until they were near the house, then put them on. She said it wasn't customary to bath at all, except at birth or death or swimming in the summer, but everyone smelled the same and no one minded! (No TV ads to make them aware.)

Pale skin was considered a sign of beauty, much as a good tan is today. In the summer their mother would say, "Now girls don't forget to wear your bonnets." Their dresses always had long sleeves and they may even have worn gloves. Dresses came to the ankles. They often went barefooted, but no nice girl showed above the ankle.


In the home there was the Family Bible. (I'm not sure what became of it.) In later years there was an almanac and a county paper, "The Wetzel something", which Grandma said they pronounced "The Wetzel _______." At one time when the children went to church they could each get a book to take home to read. (I don't know the childrens' ages or where the books came from.) She said after dinner they would take their books down in the orchard and read, then change books.

Once Tom, probably confused by the Bible Verse, "To whom much had been given will much be required", told the children that somewhere in the Bible it said "To whom not much has been given not much will be required." The children searched diligently, but never found it. They did however, develop a background of Bible information. Grandma Wiley and Uncle Mac used to have long discussions on religion.

She spoke little of death. It seems when someone died neighbors came in to wash and dress the body, put them on a "cooling board", while others built a wooden casket or rough box. Neighbors sat up all night in a meeting called a "Wake". At first there seems to have been no embalming. Burial was soon, services sometime later when a minister was available. In later years a mortician came to the house. What training, if any, he had, I do not know. Since there were no phones news of a death might not reach distant relatives till long after the fact. There were many superstitions concerning death with strange happens, sounds, and unexplained events.

One ghost story was explained years later when Grandma Wiley was quite old. She and another old lady (Adeline Bland, Kenneth Kirkland's grandmother) were discussing a "happening". It seems G.Grandpa Tom Cunningham had been calling on Sarah Wyatt who lived some long distance away up the North (South?) Fork. Walking home very late, tired and hungry, he stopped near the Johnny Martin home (later Sammy Haught) on Piney to sit on the wall and eat an apple. Suddenly out of the darkness and seeming to come out of the ground directly under him came a screeching squealing noise like hogs fighting. Jerking upright, startled, he decided he must have been dozing off and had a bad dream. When the terrible noise came again he wasted no time in wondering and fairly flew up the road. That afternoon the family on up the creek had bought a black and white cow who became homesick, got loose and started down the road to home at Martins. As Tom flew up the road he was sure some creature was after him. As he came toward a bend in the road he felt sure that this was where the "Spook" would catch him. Looking over his shoulder he sped on. In the nick of time he turned forward and found himself face to face and almost under the hoofs of the white faced cow! In a flash Tom did a quick somersault and reached the ridge of the nearest hill. There he saw the cow going calmly down the road towards home.

That explained the "ghost" but what of the terrible noise? It was never explained until later when as an old man Tom had died and his daughter Mary E. and her old friend were discussing the mystery. Finally Adeline said, "Well Molly they are all dead and gone so it's alright to tell it now. That noise was Uncle Johnny. He didn't like people taking his apples, so when he awoke and saw Tom sitting out there on the wall he decided to give him a scare, so he slipped along the weeds back of the wall until he was right under Tom. So some seventy years later that mystery was solved!

Another one was never completely explained: Once the family at the Sammy Haught farm came home and found some articles missing including the hired man's jacket. After a time Tom went with one of the family's members to see an old woman who was said to be able to "see things" with cards. She cut the cards and told them something had been stolen, not money but worth money, it was hidden in a building and the guilty person would eventually confess. Sure enough sometime later someone got the hired man drunk and he confessed, leading them to where the articles were hidden in an old barn. He had hidden his own coat to keep suspicion away from himself.


All families depended heavily on home remedies, and herbs known as "yarbs", roots and barks for teas and poultices. Unfortunately I have forgotten what they were. They didn't seem to realize that diseases were contagious. If anyone was sick in the community neighbors came in to bring food and sit up with the patient. Nothing was known of sterilizing food or boiling water or dishes. Grandma Wiley thought at one time Aunt Cindy had diphtheria followed by typhoid fever and was sick and weak for a long long time. Tom had an instrument he used to bleed people. They held a broomstick tightly above their head and little knives pierced the veins of their elbow. The instrument was probably merely wiped "clean" and one wonders how people escaped infection or bleeding to death.

Tom Cunningham died of what seemed to be pneumonia in 1920. Sarah was always frail and died earlier and suddenly of what may have been a heart attack. Uncle Mac died following an operation in the Wetzel County Hospital about 1930. Aunt Cindy died ten days later from kidney trouble I believe. Grandma Wiley (Mary Elizabeth) was devastated. She died much later of cancer at age 93.

One time Uncle Mac as an adult cut his foot badly with an axe while cutting wood. It was bleeding profusely, No one seemed to know any first aid, so someone rode horseback to Pine Grove (I don't know by what route) and got the doctor, who had to ride horseback back! (No phones or cars.)
There was a superstition that said if you said the persons name, age, and a certain Bible verse it would stop blood. Grandpa Tom told that it had happened to him. He was bleeding, a stranger came by, asked his age, turned and walked away and the bleeding stopped! My father, Bert Wiley, an intelligent man, believed it, and once told my sister Ada and I what it was. Unfortunately I have forgotten it. It was said a man could tell a woman, and a woman a man, but otherwise it wouldn't work.


Tom Cunningham liked to go into New Martinsville to see people and laugh and talk. He walked or rode horseback and sometimes people would hear him come singing down Fluharty's Run at 3:00 AM! I don't know when he got back home. He must have been a happy soul.

Grandma (Mary E.) said her mother (Sarah's) sister married a man named Eli Kavault. They seemed to have lived down near Charleston maybe. He seems to have carried the mail for a time. Then they were moving West to Minnesota, I believe. She told Sarah to take anything she wanted left in the house for they wouldn't be coming back. Sarah chose a little brown pitcher which Muriel still has. How Sarah (also called "Sally") got there or back to the original home no one knows.

At one time Aunt Cindy worked in a glass house in Moundsville, W.Va., a very long distance away in those days. I believed she probably stayed with relatives there. She later returned home, probably to care for her aged parents. At one time she is said to have planned to get married, but some tragedy prevented it. She adored both nephews, Bert Wiley and Guy Cunningham. Moundsville relatives were Jake Koozer and wife Nellie Cunningham Koozer.

Once Cindy fell and broke her wrist. Uncle Mac came to Pine Grove in a horse drawn sleigh and took Grandma Wiley and me back with him. There was snow on and they tucked me (then age 4 or 5) into the hay between them and covered me all over with a heavy comfort. It was nice and warm there, but very dark. When we arrived Uncle Mac picked me up under one arm and carried me like a sack of flour into the house. I remember him as a big man with white hair and a mustache. Although I knew Aunt Mary and Uncle Mac all my life I know little of their early life. I believe he was older than she. She told me once that she met him when she went to his parent's home to work. She grinned and said "Best job I ever had!" She said they went by horse and wagon to New Martinsville to buy chairs and a table or bed to start house keeping with. They had two children, Guy and Myrtle.

There is a Cunningham Family Cemetery on the hill. Those buried there are my great grandparents Tom and Sarah Cunningham, Uncle Mac and Aunt Mary, and Aunt Cindy. Grandma Wiley (Mary Elizabeth) is buried beside her husband Isaac Benton Wiley in the Wiley Cemetery on the hill above the right hand fork of Piney.

Grandma Wiley said the first person buried in the Cunningham Cemetery was her mother Sarah Cunningham. She said once Sarah and Tom were walking and Sarah remarked that there would be a nice place for a cemetery, quiet, isolated, and surrounded by pines.

Aunt Mary told me that while the Cunningham Family were good people, they were not especially religious. After she was married she continued to go to church alone. Uncle Mac soon joined her. He said he "just couldn't bear to see her go down that path alone." He and Grandma Wiley often discussed the Bible. When he died one of the nurses at the hospital said that the night before he died he preached one of the best sermons she had ever heard.

This is all I can remember at the present time. Perhaps more at a later date.
Muriel Wiley  (1920 - 2004)
Great-granddaughter of Tom and Sarah Cunningham


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