Floydiana is a serial book, not a blog. Chapter by chapter it explores life in Floyd, a town and county in Southern Virginia. The area’s mixture of people is as unlikely as its scenery is “Look at That!”
Floydiana does not refer to a place–unlike Michiana, a seven-county region of southwest Michigan and northern Indiana. And unlike Floydada, a place in Texas. Instead it is a collection–like Shakespeariana, which is an accumulation of items by and about the playwright. It is pronounced Floydee-Anna rather than Floy-Diana. It records events, people, words, animals, places, scenes, and ways that characterize the improbable Land of Floyd County, Virginia.
It does not (as a friend pretended to think) capture the adventures of Indiana Jones in this part of the Blue Ridge Plateau, although the author does wear a hat to protect his generous scalp. Another friend mis-remembered the title as Floydorama but therefore caught the idea. Floydlandia? No such debt to Sibelius. Nor does this enterprise have anything to do with Floy Diane, who grew up in the Low Country of South Carolina. And it has no connection with Floydioli, a hand-made vegetarian stuffed pasta that uses local and organic ingredients. The book probably reflects the author’s earlier inclination to write about local South Carolina, where he directed the Horry County Oral History Project (please see hcohp.net). But more immediately Floydiana grows out of a column that the author wrote for The Floyd Press, and it salvages a few of those pieces. You are reading an electronic book like the author’s Angel in Goggles (please see tab), yet it has no predetermined length or conclusion, and in fact no ending in sight. [Floydiana will conclude on or by December 21, 2014, so the author can go on to other projects.]
The author will probably correct, augment, re-order, or otherwise play with the manuscript. Unlike a blog, Floydiana progresses not by brief chronological entries but instead chapter by chapter in an order and pace determined by the author. The writing, moreover, is partly communal.
Like the wagons that hauled grain to its now-defunct watermills, Floyd County offers an axle-busting load of grist to a writer. The place is a fascinating mixture of the congenial, beautiful, diverse, disturbing, and (on the roads) even dangerous. Located on the Blue Ridge Plateau in the southwest part of the state, it points its northeastern corner toward Roanoke, or “Ro’noke.” (Map of Virginia counties.)
The Blue Ridge Parkway pretty much defines its ragged northeast-to-southwest border. The county has 15,000-16,000 residents and one proper town of about 450 people, also called Floyd, which boasts the county’s single traffic light at the nexus of Rts. 8 and 221. Its tricolor progression can be perceived in winter from the deck of the Wells retirement house, a log dwelling that is technically a lodge in square footage but that we call “the Cabin” in rustic indulgence.
Although most of the residents are white, the county is a mixture of Appalachian-stock families, folks of hippy heritage that goes back to the 1970s, other residents who are countercultural to one degree or another, artisans, people who moved here for the landscape and atmosphere, and some who returned after pursuing opportunity or serving Uncle Sam.
As for employment, many citizens now commute to larger towns instead of working on the farm, at the factory, or at the mill. (Not to forget the still. For a study of moonshining in adjacent Franklin county, see Charles D. Thompson Jr., Spirits of Just Men, Univ. of Illinois Pr, 2011). Also as more than partial compensation for the loss of former jobs, many work via the Internet—for example a veterinarian from Kentucky who fabricates and sells horse-rescue harnesses.
How did one tourist learn about the area? “I Googled ‘pottery and bed & breakfasts.’”
Now about your septuagenarian author. Almost four decades ago he wrote a column for a South Carolina newspaper that became the nucleus for a book, Along the Waccamaw: A Yankee Discovers a Home by the River (Algonquin 1990). He was raised as a white Midwestern suburbanite Christian Republican, but of all these defining features has retained only the complexion. Before retiring to Virginia he lived in Wyoming and Connecticut as well as other Southern states: Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, and South Carolina, this last where he and Marjory spent most of their careers near the ocean.
He has also literally traveled around the world, with a friend. Word has it that he uses a performance-enhancing drug grown in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, perhaps on his own acreage.
He gratefully recognizes two predecessors. Ms. Morgan Cain Grim wrote “Familiar Faces,” a series on Floydians home-grown and transplanted. She recorded more than sixty interviews, each with a photograph, before graduating from Floyd High School in 2005. Mr. Fred First wrote “The Road Less Traveled,” which ran biweekly from 2004 until 2011.
This column fervently appreciated the county’s natural resources and, backed by abundant research, cast a chilly eye on threats to the health of Mother Earth. Fred has written two books on the area, Slow Road Home and What We Hold in Our Hands, takes ace photographs, and keeps a well-read blog.
For this project Randall is heavily and happily indebted to his wife and friends, especially Fred First with his technical expertise (also vital to Angel in Goggles). The author dedicates Floydiana to his late brother, Greg Wells, who introduced Randall and Marjory to Floyd County. Although they are here without him, without him they would not be here.
Original version printed serially in 2008 by The Floyd Press and The Mountain-Ear (Nederland, CO).
A place is a comparison. Its identity can be appreciated only by reference. “Bland County,” declared one native, “is Floyd without the stoplight.” Like him, anybody who moves to this geographical-cultural area known as “Floyd” will bring a geographical overlay of memory. The author, for example, regards the corner at The Stoplight as the town’s noisy industrial area—much like the two railroads that divided the genteel Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
In Nederland, Colorado, you won’t hear a train whistle, although I am writing in a Colorado & Southern coach built in 1906 and hauled up from Boulder. Now a coffee shop in 2008, it is Lego’d to a caboose full of ski merchandise and to Buffalo Bill’s circus car, another import. A few segments of narrow-gauge rails do exist here and there in town, but they hold rusty mine-carts that have been detached from their original concatenation and turned into floral planters.
When Marjory and I arrived here to visit our daughter, we immediately felt a kinship between “Ned,” as it’s often called, and Floyd, our retirement home in Virginia. In fact we keep calling Nederland “Floyd.” Both towns mark the junction of two highways. Although Ned has about 1400 inhabitants—three times as many as Floyd—it has no stoplight but instead a roundabout shared by five roads. more »
A region, country, satrap, province, county or town is never a single place but a collection of them.
To all this variety of locales add the multiplicity of people. The tall, bearded nun, the bejeweled Cleopatra of a CPA–no, I should leave aside costumed folks at the Halloween Dance, Pine Tavern Pavilion. But there are many unpredictable, paradoxical, and diverse personages in Floyd County. Examples?
One woman clerks at a “dollar” store, speaks with a Long Island accent, and lives in Hillsville. At the other “dollar” on the opposite side of town, one woman parked a truck displaying a sticker “I am the Gun Lobby.” A little bumptious, she wore cowgirl boots, jeans, and a shirt that didn’t mind moving up and down a little at the bare midriff. Another wore a net-like cap, a print dress, gray stockings, sensible shoes and spectacles, and the expression “I am invisible.” At Floyd Pharmacy one customer reported that the child accompanying her had woken up before dawn to buy a tractor with Daddy; another told the clerk, in a New York accent, that she still owned property in Brooklyn.
One resident works for two weeks a month in Alaska. And the retiree who raises goats–how much help does he get from that M.D. degree? One resident displays large signs in his yard on behalf of conservative political candidates (and plays a loud conservative radio station), but he comes from Minnesota and drives a Prius. A fairly cosmopolitan Came-Here might have a country background. Ralph Roe, for example, worked as an engineer in California but grew up on a farm in New York:
We had about forty cows, one bull, two horses, one dog, and fourteen cats. They all had names except for the chickens and pigs. Mabel might get three scoops of grain, whereas Bertha would only deserve two. The grain looked and tasted like granola and had some drops of molasses in it (like honey in a granola bar). Of course, being vegetarians, their main courses were dried hay and whole cornstalks chopped up, which included the ears. (For a photograph of the lad in the early 1940s, please see “Footsteps in Floyd 6.”)
A literally graphic example: the two people in Portrait of Floyd (see “Downtown Floyd at its Best”) whose photographs were displayed most prominently are most dissimilar. Both live in the Check area, but the bearded Arthur Conner (pictured opposite, 2012, by permission) crossed the Himalayas twice in the military, and he seems as authentic and complex as the bass fiddle grasped by the hands that fashioned it. In her portrait (not shown), River Roberts, almost eighty years younger, seems to be resting momentarily like a sprite who has been running around in many-laced high-tops. Contributing to the modest ethnic variety, a number of hard-working people maintain a low profile and keep their nacionalidad to themselves.
As for the county’s ethos, residents show a lot of kindness. When I asked someone to give an example, she thought for several moments. “Gannon,” she replied. “People regularly give him rides.” (This fellow took one-too-many rides in high school and walks with no cooperation from one leg.) As everywhere, however, there are conflicts, grudges, ex-es. A few people give “neighbor” a bad name–for example by operating heavy equipment at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. Politically there is dyspepsia: for instance, at a TEDx conference sponsored by Blue Mountain School, a speaker mentioned an elected official and brought a loud, collective groan from one pocket of the audience.
In Floyd County, residents vary greatly as to what they eat. At one extreme, people demand organic foods such as raw pepital, local beets, calendula flower, Medjool dates, and Nori sesame seeds, as well as sometimes-exotic grub like Sharwood’s Indian poppodums. (Non-edibles might include Waleda Sea Buckthorn body lotion and even Total Kidney Cleanse.) The white-breaders, by contrast, may keep a garden like the health-foodie, but at the grocery store they follow the recipe of the sociology textbook: whole milk, lots of meat, fatty and salty snacks, soda pop, not to forget cookies. One rotund person wheeled out a shopping cart crammed with about sixty bottles of soda pop. One parent bought a bottle of Pepsi the same size as her young daughter’s belly. For one customer in line, a balanced diet was Schlitz & cigs. White bread includes a fried bologna and Velveeta biscuit at Hardees.
All these physical and social variations are complicated by the passage of time. As Heraclitus said about a river: Nobody ever steps into the same one twice, for neither the river nor the person is the same. A song asks, “Who will watch the home place?” (As performed by the acoustic quartet Windfall, it barely avoids sounding waltzy-schmaltzy.) The answer for many derelict farmhouses in Floyd County is “raccoons.” More positively, El Tenador, a roller skating rink on Rt. 221 that operated into at least 1980 was reincarnated as Phoenix Hardwoods. (“We had a big Halloween skating party there,” said Barbara Triplett; “I remember two years in a row dressing up and renting roller skates.”) In the Floyd Press an estate sale lists obsolete items to be auctioned off such as a horse-drawn wagon-frame, milk cans, and an apple-butter kettle & stirrer–not much there to repurpose. But after forty years, a former Christmas-tree farm declines into a motley woods and then becomes slated for restoration–a culling process powered by horses in a return to an ancient, salutary technique.
Ancient is relative. In Floyd County all Caucasians and people of African descent are Came Heres–when viewed against the background of Native Americans, who seem to have begun sojourning or living in the area thousands of years ago. For an overview of the equally sketchy and fascinating evidence, see “Floyd County and Native Americans,” Chapter 25 of Jean Thomas Schaeffer’s Raised on Songs and Stories: A Memoir of Place in the Blue Ridge (Floyd, VA: Harvestwood, 2014).
If a writer tries to impose too much order on all the lavishly heterogeneous, inconsistent, and sometimes mysterious details of a place, the groceries will start to fall out of the bag or rip it. How daunting to sense the whole from the parts! An ancient fable tells of three blind Hindus that tried to identify an animal. The first sat on a stool, clasped a heavy sac on the creature’s belly, and squeezed its several downward-protuberances; the second moved his hand over its long, rigid beak; the third petted its shaggy—wait a minute, something’s wrong here. Ah, maybe these guys were Chinese. Anyway, it is futile to apprehend a place from any one perspective. And yet, in pursuit of the Bald Truth, your author takes the dare.
In about 1847 a thirteen-year old arrived in Jacksonville, Virginia—later named Floyd. No family stories explain how he traveled there, how long the journey took, who might have accompanied him, or how he felt about his lost past and unknown future.
Born in Bedford, Virginia, to the wife of a country doctor. James Lucas Tompkins was eventually joined by twelve more siblings. Too many eggs for one carton, so the oldest was sent to live with his mother’s brother, Dr. Tazewell Headen, and his wife. The couple had no children–youngsters at that time were part of the labor force–so James worked at their mercantile store. He also attended Oxford Academy in town and later worked at other stores in the area.
Later he became interested in the Clerk of Court office at the Courthouse. He read law with an older lawyer, Harry Lane, and passed the bar to become a lawyer in 1857. Except for the war years, he practiced for half a century. He married Abigail Howard, who was born in Jacksonville.
When the War between the States began in 1861, he joined Company B of the 42nd Regiment, Virginia Volunteers. It was made up mostly of young men in town, a few of the surnames being Howard, Tice, and Conner. James started out as Third Lieutenant and was promoted to Captain. He survived the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, during which catastrophe his son William Daniel Tompkins was born in Floyd. 1864 Capt. Lucas was one of the 32,000 casualties on both sides at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse. In this multi-day fight near Fredericksburg, Virginia, the Northern troops were led by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On April 9, 1865, Lucas surrendered his regiment at Appomattox. “He was judge advocate of Gordon’s Division,” as noted by Judge Archer A. Phlegar, “tribute to his skill as a lawyer and fidelity as a soldier.”
The son of William Daniel would marry Sally Kinkannon Green. in 1941, they became the grandparents of James L. Tompkins–whom Randall A. Wells interviewed in 2014. Jim graduated from Hillsville High School in 1960, then from the Univ. of Tennessee Law School in 1967. He was admitted to the practice of law in 1968. In 1980 he was installed Judge of the District Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court for he 27th District of Virginia. In 2002 he moved to Floyd County after marrying Meredith Simmons, and in 2005 he retired. The interview took place at1499 Old Furnace Rd. SW.
Jim reported that the war consumed his great-grandfather for four years, but not permanently–unlike four of his brothers and his fellow soldiers, as well as Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lane. John Dillon, for example, was killed at the Battle of Mine Run, Virginia. He was a physician whose father built a lot of houses in Floyd. Meredith’s older son was named after this kinsman.
After the war, people called the veteran “Captain” Tompkins. He never charged a fee from a Confederate widow. “It was always a delight to him,” wrote Phlegar, to aid an ex-Confederate soldier or the widow of one….”
Below is a photograph of the Tompkins family, date unknown.
Jim remembers his unmarried aunts, Mary Stuart and Kate. One of them took many of the early photographs in the area, probably as an outlet for her intelligence. As for the house, located at what is now 173 Weddle St., when it was remodeled by William and Joanne Bell, they discovered that the central structure was log.
Both Jim’s great-grandfather and one of his sons served as Commonwealth’s Attorneys. Most of the other sons went to surrounding towns to practice law; one became doctor for the Norfolk & Western Railroad and lived in Coburn, VA, a mining area. William D., Jim’s grandfather, moved to Hillsville.
Jim, noting that his great-grandfather didn’t have a reputation for being a churchman, recounted a family story:
A preacher conveyed all his property to his wife to avoid his debts. My grandfather and great-grandfather brought a suit against them to get his property subjected to his debts. They held a deposition for several hours, then stopped to eat lunch. The preacher came up and asked, “Mr Tompkins, how is it with you and your religion?’” “Reverend, it’s much like your property, it’s all in my wife’ s name.”
Captain Tompkins died in his 70s in 1907. Judge Archer A. Phlegar wrote an encomium on his military, professional, and personal qualities. He praised Tompkins’ “zeal, honor, honesty, and success”—including both the volume and variety of his business—along with his intelligence, modesty, even his memory. The obituary in the Floyd Press also describes what must have been one of Floyd County’s most admirable citizens.
As a farm boy, James arrived here almost like a refugee; as a young man he departed for fields watered by blood in Virginia and Pennsylvania; as a lawyer he regularly traveled to Patrick, Carroll, Montgomery, and Franklin Counties. This this lone “Came Here” fathered one boy who was a “Stayed Here” and four who became “Left Heres”—all esteemed sons of Floyd County.
Below is a letter that Capt. Lucas wrote to his father about the Battle of Gettysburg. He wrote it on July 9, 1863, from a camp near Hagerstown, Maryland. (It was transcribed from handwriting by Mildred Tompkins, Jim’s mother, and most paragraph breaks were furnished by R. Wells, 2014.) According to the eulogy written by Judge Archer A. Phlegar, Tompkins was mustered into service June 11, 1861, by Gen. Jubal A. Early. He served in the Northwest Virginia campaign under Gen. Robert E. Lee, and afterwards in the division and corps commanded by Generals Stonewall Jackson, Edward Johnson, John B. Gordon, R.S. Ewell and others in the Valley and Eastern Virginia. In The Battle of Gettysburg, despite a stupendous effort detailed in part below, Gen. Robert E. Lee failed in his second attempt to invade the North. Over 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, or listed as missing.
A brief note hurriedly and badly written in the rain yesterday, if it ever reaches you it will give you the information that through God’s Mercy and kindness I came out of the Gettysburg fight unhurt, and I I am not interrupted I will give you now a hasty sketch of where I have been and what I saw since I last wrote you from Chambersburg Penn. About 25th of June since which time I have had no opportunity of writing or sending letters if I had written. Possibly the papers have all ready given you more information of the campaign than I know, and if so you must excuse me.
Our Div. left Chambersburg the day after I wrote and went on to Carlisle, Penn. 32 miles distant from Chambersburg and 221 miles from Harrisburg. Jenkins Cavalry was in front and ran out the enemy and Rhodes Div. which reached the place by another road took possession of the town and the U.S. Regular army barracks there and Jenkins pushed on towards Harrisburg but how how far I do not know. [Jubal] Early’s Div. took a different road at Sharpsburg Md. Went on by Boonesboro Md., Gettysburg, Penn. And as far as York Penn. Near the Susquehannah River on Harrisburg and Baltimore R.R. In meantime A.P. Hill’s Corps and [Gen James] Longstreet’s Corps crossed the river and moved on after our Div. until they reached Chambersburg and then moved on towards Gettysburg going on direct toward Baltimore. In the meantime Hooker or Mead’s army moved rapidly and and got near Gettysburg and Rhodes moved from Carlisle to York and joined Early and together they moved back upon Gettysburg. Our Div. moved back to near Chambersburg and moved on to Gettysburg passing Longstreet’s Corp.
On first day of July Early, Rhodes, and A.P. Hill encountered the enemy some five miles north of Gettysburg and a battle opened and lasted nearly all day, resulting in the enemy being driven back upon and through the town our men capturing some seven or eight thousand prisoners, the entire battlefield, their dead, hospitals, arms upon the field, the town, etc. Our Div. and Longstreet’s Corps, which is [Gen. George Edward] Pickett’s, [John Bell] Hood’s and [Nathaniel] McLane’s Div. got up just at dark and were placed in position. On the morning of the 2nd the enemy were in position upon rugged hills or rather mountains just back of the town strongly fortified, and soon in the day Early, who occupied the town and who had fought so well and successfully tried the first hill immediately back of the town and after a long and hard fight took the hill from a superior force who did not move their artillery, but owing to this hill being commanded by other hills, he had to leave it.
Soon Pickett tried another hill farther to the right and after having his Div. cut all to smash had just the same success that Early had and had to abandon the hill. Late in the evening Johnson’s Div., who occupied our extreme left, moved up 24 pieces of artillery and opened on the hills on the left, and after an hour of the hardest artillery fighting I eve saw our forces had to be withdrawn with the loss of many men, horses and several cannon damaged and very quick the 2nd 3rd and 4th Brigades of our Div. was formed into a battle line to storm the heights, leaving the first, or Stonewall’s Brigade, to protect our flank. We formed and on we went and for about ½ or ¾ mile or a mile the same artillery that caused ours to leave the field volleyed and thundered at us, but on we went, our colors flying, men with their heads erect, arms carried properly in as handsome a line as I ever saw upon drill morning with a steady step. Our skirmishers [those in minor fights] in front encountering and driving the enemy’s skirmishers.
We reached and rushed through the creek at foot of the mountain and right here we encountered the enemy’s infantry and our line opened and pressed forward and commenced climbing rocks and bluffs, fighting at every step. The whole mountain was a blaze of fire. Owing to the nature of the ground and the contracting our lines as we ascended the mountain a perfect line could not be maintained. After a long and hard fight we got to top of the hill drove every man of theirs inside of their works [fortified structures such as forts, earthen barricades, or trenches—Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.] which we did not know existed until then, and got us near as their felled timber and their artillery opened again at a murderous revenge. The third Brigade on the extreme left took the works there, but the 2nd and 4th brigade could not take the main hill and works.
It was now half after eight o’clock in night, our lines in bad order and we were ordered to fall back near the foot of the mountain which we did and where we stayed there night and the next day, and the night skirmishing with the enemy. And next day the 1st and 3rd brigade and some other troops tried the hill again but failed, and that day (the 3rd of July) heavy fighting took place on the right but with no material gain to our side and night of the 3rd our Corps were withdrawn from the left and formed farther back. And that evening our [wagon] trains with wounded commenced leaving for Virginia. No fighting of any consequence took place on 4th the enemy remaining in their works and we did not attack, and night of the 4th troops were withdrawn, and the 5th, 6th, and 7th we marched and got here which is 25 miles from Gettysburg, Ewell bringing up the rear. We were a little annoyed [harassed] the first evening in the rear, but I believe the enemy did not follow in force.
We have been here since middle of the day on 7th. I do not know whether or not Gen. Lee intends crossing the [Potomac] river. Our wounded are being sent over the river. Many of the badly wounded was left in the enemy’s hands, including Gen. [James L.] Kemper. The enemy Cavalry attacked our train and destroyed some 30 wagons and got the horses. Our Cavalry has done a fine service on this trip, passing between enemy’s army and Washington. I can give you but little account of what the Cavalry has done but you will get it all in the papers in a day or so.
Col. Robert C. Allen of Bedford was killed. John Wm Headen was wounded but not seriously. I hear our losses estimated from ten to twenty thousand. This division lost about 1500 killed, wounded and missing. A similar loss in other divisions would make the loss between fourteen and fifteen thousand.
I will write again in a day or two. I received Susie’s [his sister’s] letter the other day, and will try and write her soon.
I feel that if I could get on some clean clothes, get a meal from your table, and a seat in your office I could interest you more about the present campaign, but as this is not likely to happen this evening you must put up with this.
Original version printed in the Floyd Press, 2012 On a bright, cool autumn morning we parked in front of an old house on E. Main Street (Rt. 221). Our five-year old grandson Sidney had to explore the half-hidden driveway with its cement statue of an angel. Then he walked up the hill toward The Stoplight with two-year-old brother Julien as various extended hands rushed to catch up with them. Baby Alice watched it all as our daughter Andrea held her in a front-loaded BabyBjörn. “Exit only,” read Sidney aloud at a parking lot, surprised at his new ability.
We turned at the county’s Sole Stoplight corner, seen in this video:
Passing Farmers’ Supply Corp., 101 E. Main St., I asked the boy to look up at the foreshortened white letters, adding: “We can read those from the cabin with binoculars.” Now four of us climbed, and one rode, up the twenty-five steps and two switchbacks to Black Water Loft. (This name confused us a little, for in the Lowcountry because blackwater rivers are tea-colored infusions of biomass rather than fluxes of brown mud.) Julien was already snuggled in the lap of his father, who, visiting from Charlotte, was working there in his “Floyd office” composed of table, computer, earphones, and decaf.
Although able to name at least three of the McCutchan sisters, I confused the decaf latte with the cappuccino when I toted them to the Country Store to supplement our lunch. Over sandwiches we watched a gallery of citizens pass by the window. The boys explored the aisles and found that they needed Sky Streaks–balsa airplanes with a red propellor and blue rubber band.
:Born in 1929, Margie was able to escape the drudgery of farm work in 1946 and retired back to Floyd County in 2000. She lives near the author on the edge of Rt. 221: “I can’t wait till FloydFest is over,” she declared as vehicle after vehicle charged up the hill. Her house and former used-book store occupies a remodeled building formerly used by the Floyd Church of God. “It was fun to say ‘I recycled a church.'” In 2013 the once-sturdy farm girl is fragile and white-haired, but she still has a sparkle of both mien and mind that was no doubt appreciated by her employers. A smart dresser, politically liberal, Margie speaks quietly with a non-Appalachian Southern accent. Along with her two cats she listens to classical music on WVTF Public Radio. Her collaborator on this autobiography, Randall A. Wells, along with his wife Marjory, occasionally drive down the hill to take her a little supper (“I don’t cook”), and she sometimes bestows on them a thoughtfully-chosen volume. Margie notes that while she sent Wells to the dictionary for the word “slopping,” he sent her there for “deracinate”—a verb that is fundamental to her memoir.
I was born in a house, still standing, across the road from the present Willis Elementary School. I was the first of five daughters born to Jabe and Hattie Hylton Keith. When I was still a small child, we moved to the Cundiff farm in the Topeco Community, where we lived during the Great Depression of the Thirties. The house had no electricity. Light was from kerosene lamps. Wood stoves were used for cooking and heating. Water for drinking, cooking, laundry and bathing was carried up the hill from a spring in the woods. The toilet was down the path.
We had a Philco battery radio. Before she married, my mother bought a Victrola and some records. (She had been a teacher in one-room schools in the Burks Fork area, around the Buffalo.) When electricity came, we got a refrigerator and made strawberry ice cream with wild berries. more »
Original version printed serially in the Floyd Press, 2012-13.
“My watch starts tickin’ slower as I cross that county line” from “Floyd Time,” by Rusty May. Floyd Time, Windfall/Windfall Studios, 2010. By permission.
Traffic comes to a halt on South Locust (Rt. 8). The door of a car ahead flings open as a woman leaves it ajar to run across the street to the sidewalk by the Country Store, where she lovingly and loudly plucks a cat from someone’s arms. Nobody honks. A treasured example of what’s appreciatively called Floyd Time.
A vehicle with a flat tire sits in front of Black Water Loft. Next day, it’s still there. The first week I am indignant at this eyesore, this suggestion of the old guard’s tendency toward political and cultural inertia. Including an Old Time religion still drowsy from the Great Awakening. Our friend declared that one member of the Board of Supervisors “won’t do anything that’s not in the Bible.” A former commissioner (a native and a friend of ours), said that his epitaph should read “Died for lack of a second.” Perhaps the airless, squashed tread was even a symbol of absent inspiration—like the old priest’s flat bicycle tire in “Araby,” a story by James Joyce. Did it not also seem to represent and aggravate the town’s annual commercial hibernation?
The second week I inclined toward something like tolerance, even as a snow-patch now covered the tread. The third week I started to feel—what was it? “Randall,” I told myself, “stop and smell the Goodyears. Enjoy this culture. Nobody asked you to come here. What if everybody was like you, always Doing, exploring, afraid of wasted time, uncomfortable with stasis. You won’t even use a drive-in window but have to get out walk in. You don’t have to ‘pedal faster’ like the cross-trainer machine tells you to do when you stop for water. You are not a waitress at Cracker Barrel, so you don’t have to demonstrate ‘urgency with a purpose.’ This is Floyd Time.” more »
Original version printed in the Floyd Press, 2013
One of the pleasures of living in Floyd County can be walking through its photo-every-hundred-feet landscape.
Marge and I turned off Rt. 221 South a mile or so from town, then parked on the shoulder next to a raspberry bush, worked to close the Subaru door against downhill gravity, and started hiking. We noticed a few huffs after a winter month spent on the coast and in Florida. Reaching the crest, we gazed to the right at the February sun as it just managed to beam over the hills. The cheerful blue sky was getting serious.
Barking dogs, a breed familiar to walkers, got pulled inside by an accommodating owner. Now on the left, a pair of ears–prominent black ones making a V. A few of the animals regarded us from a pen. Mules? Donkeys? But one pair had a sort of beige spotted coat. “Llama!” exclaimed Marge. “No, alpaca,” she amended. Now as we passed the statue of an angel reading, I felt kinda sorry for it: why not put the book down and join us?! Near the end of a long slope, we drew opposite a sort of barn that framed two black rectangles, one of which in turn framed a long black nose with a white streak down the middle. “Hi, horsie.” No motion. We remembered feeding it grass over the fence in summer. more »
The seen defines the seer. Seer–O word felicitous because your author is able to apprehend the Bald Truth! And for the reader, what luck! “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).
And yet…. In truth, the people all see a different Floyd County. A farmer watching from his John Deere as it turns noise and grass to hay. A tourist descending from the Parkway on Rt. 8 and passing a sample yurt, then the ugly-rusty relic of a water tower. An employee crossing one branch or the other of the Little River to work in an adjacent county. A family drifting or paddling down the same river and encountering a party of back-to-the-birthday-suiters. A crowd of Gay Pride folks standing near The Stoplight while chatting, laughing, and holding placards while a very conservative couple walks to the car from their business across the street. A Mennonite in an ankle-length skirt shopping near a woman with tight jeans and tattooed arms. A trim child swimming in a hidden-away pond, another with a potbelly watching his friends play video games. One old-timer pulling turnips at dusk before they freeze. Another sweeping an arm of contempt at the changes in downtown Floyd and calling “All this” a “mess.” A visitor exclaiming, “You have a paradise here!” more »
“The meadow of dream has little to do with stoney reality and its harrows and reapers.”
Quotation by Samuel Pickering, Jr., from May Days © The University of Iowa Press, 1988. Used with permission.
So declares Samuel F. Pickering, Jr., on p. 3 of a volume given to me by Margie Keith, owner of a former used-book store. Although the writer was sympathizing with farmers, his observation pertained to Randall, who dreamed of eliminating rocks from a quarter-acre of Blue Ridge to make way for clover and then for bees.
My story began with an exhortation. Jane Cundiff urged readers of the Floyd Press (April 11, 2013) to mow less grass, and instead plant clover and wildflowers to help feed bees and butterflies, insects that seem threatened on several fronts. Half a year earlier I had saved one honeybee (Apis mellifera) in Paris by plucking its scrambling bottom out of an expresso cup with a spoon, so why not make a wholesale rescue?
The Wellses agreed to an environmental compromise. Marge would once again plant wildflowers in the uninviting soil of one hillside of weeds, blackberry bushes, and volunteer trees. Across Annie Lane to the west I would plant clover in bare clay spots that spread erratically over a semi-grassy field. Our friend Bill Conk—of accent Brooklyn, Buddhist of outlook—had scraped it flat with tractor and blade. Yet only partly level because it slopes to both north and west toward the invisible curving Highway 221. In local fashion, Bill accepted a small amount of money but all the hemlock from our dismantled deck, planks that he would repurpose as a shed. Afterward we had planted the area in grass—a “monoculture” to Jane–in order to make a rough yard for grandchildren and to accentuate a clearing between house and up-growing forest. more »
by Laurel Brooke
FloydFest is a world-renowned socio-musical extravaganza held at the end of July on what was once pasture-land. Long hillsides near the Blue Ridge Parkway bear permanent structures for bands and dancers, and the edges of the midway sprout annual tents and booths. July 25-28, 2013, saw the twelfth installment of this “roots and progressive” music festival, which attracted more people than Floyd County has residents. It also brought rain on one or two days, and only ark was one of the many shuttle-buses. Among the vendors was Laurel Brooke, sixteen years old. How many FloydFesters would realize that someone making their barbecue sandwich plays the violin in the Roanoke Symphony Youth Orchestra? As a home-schooler, she was tutored by Randall, who commissioned this story as an assignment. more »
Why do Americans rank so low as to longevity compared to other industrialized countries? The National Institute of Health found that one reason was our dependence on cars—which in turn helps to create neighborhoods that discourage walking. (AARP Bulletin, March 2013). It can be a challenge to find walkable places in Floyd County neighborhoods, where houses tend to be situated off narrow, busy roads, but residents can sometimes find them. One retired couple has done so. Sarah generously presents a colorful first-hand report on the four-mile walk that she and Peter have enjoyed for six years. Passing through a scenic area, it starts at the junction of Moles Road and Thistle Hill Road in the vicinity of Daddy Rabbit’s Campground. The road is paved but has challenging hills.
We walk early in the morning. Weather does not usually deter us. There is not much traffic and we are a familiar sight to most who travel it. We are always greeted with a wave or a honk, and sometimes there may be a brief chat by the road. more »
On June 21, the icy peaks of the Southern Alps jut from New Zealand as the sun hangs on to the northern horizon by its fingernails. But at the same time, rays flood the Blue Ridge Mountains in the United States. This phenomenon is best appreciated in a group, for it blends celestial mysticism with a touch of–well, think of cows eating fermented apples.
In 2013 a ceremony was held on the abundant acreage of Fred and Ann First. You get there from The Stoplight by taking Highway 221 north, then turning left at King’s Store–monarchical of name but historical of inventory–then some miles later by making a dogleg at a business named Clyde S. Angle, vacant as well. Then you go down a hill so long that it would wear the tires off a Boxcar Derby racer. Finally you scrutinize the oncoming curve before darting left down to a narrow bridge. It might carry you onto a gravel road–made of dirt, holes, and curves, maybe puddles or snow-patches, all decorated by downed branches–that probably keeps you from tumbling into Goose Creek as it passes an occasional abandoned house, various tucked-away homesteads, and an antique fire engine. When your hopes flag, and you definition of “close friends” threatens to become geographical, you are halfway to the First farmhouse which, even after being rebuilt, hints of the previous dwellers more »
We came home from a party at dusk, which in late May seemed unhurried, even reluctant to disappear over the western horizon. Climbing out of the passenger’s seat, I decided to work off some alco-calories by raking up more stones from the field to be sown with clover for bees. Having donned work clothes and boots, I grabbed the handles of the wheelbarrow, which carried the familiar rake, shovel, and rubber basket, and turned it around toward the front of the carport. Above and behind the Subaru–was that a shape? It resolved into something elongated and animated—like the snout of a horse. Was it not bobbing along with several other horse-heads, mainly dark-colored, one of the animals a brown and white paint? This phantasmagoria shuffled and breathed. The beasts made a side-view tableau as if having migrated from the stampeded in the Roper shirt I had bought at the Floyd Country Store. Already a bit dizzy, I feared that I was hallucinating and skeptically remembered a wine called “La Linda.” To make things worse—was that fourth creature an amalgamation of long-haired bison, black sheep, and mastiff? more »
by Becky Pomponio
Davy Crockett claimed to have killed more than one hundred black bears (Ursus americanus) in one year. While Crockett’s boast can not be confirmed, he was not alone in his determination to conquer these majestic animals. By 1900, the population of black bears which only live in North America, had fallen from an estimated two million to 200,000, because of hunting and habitat destruction. In the area now designated as Shenandoah National Park, bears nearly disappeared. Fortunately, for the diversity of our ecosystem, black bear populations persisted west of the Allegheny Mountains, and those that migrated eastward may have been the great-great-grandparents of our Floyd County bears. Hunting restrictions have helped a lot. The North American black bear population now numbers about 900,000. Many of these bears are in Alaska and Canada. About 6000 of them live in Virginia and I’ve personally met one or two on our land. more »
Betty “Sunny” McAtic Bernardine: Back to the Land, 1930-42 in Illinois
In the 1970s, a wave of people moved to Floyd County in search of a simpler, natural, and often communal life. They followed the wagon-tracks of the original European settlers, who came for for land, however hilly and remote. Since acreage was cheaper than in the Christiansburg area, these immigrants rolled and clopped southward, somehow crossing the New River. This back-to-the land movement was anticipated during the Great Depression by one of Floyd County’s retirees, Betty McAtic Bernardine, born in 1926.
In 1930 she and her family moved from Chicago to a hamlet west of the city for an economic reason: to grow their own food. Almost seventy years later she settled atop a ridge on Cannady School Rd. where she privately and passionately maintained a dog shelter for the Floyd County Humane Society.
It is ironic that Sunny’s childhood venture from city to country began with her mother’s escape from rural Giles County in far southwestern Virginia. Huldah Salome Medley was born in Kire, “Up Stony Creek.” Sunny’s grandfather ran a lumber camp and made a little moonshine. Her mother used to cook for the camp at about seventeen. Her older sister was nineteen or twenty and married; when the couple was about to move to Kansas, Huldah decided she’d go with them, unbeknownst to her parents. So she ran away from home. She went down to the train station, where somebody saw her. “Oh, I’m just seeing off my sister”–she made an excuse. In Kansas, Huldah got a job in a hotel but it was too much like housework. Then she saw an ad for telephone operator in Chicago and traveled there in 1917. Although that was the job for young women, the employers were very strict with their girls, who had to be in by a certain time, pronounce everything just so. “The minute she saw those wide streets….” Soon afterward, about 1922, she married William Reynold McAtic, who was trying to escape from the coal mines in northeastern Ohio. Sunny’s memoir: more »
Despite and because of its rural and mountainous character, Floyd County offers a mixed backpack to walkers, runners, and hikers.
“Every piece of property around here is owned,” declared Beth Cherrix:
“So if you take a step in either direction you’re on somebody else’s property. If you run, you trespass. So you have to find somebody else’s property that’s runnable. You may have what seems a perfectly good road but a lot of times they’re too curvy, so I’m afraid I’ll be hit. Usually you have to go into town and use the sidewalks, or go on a back road that has little traffic, or go on trails [usually along the Blue Ridge Parkway]. They’re nice, but you have to have transportation. For some people that’s kind of hard to do, depending also on where they live.” more »
Whoever builds a two-story dwelling on a Floyd County ridge can expect to shelter mammals from the order Chiroptera, Greek for “hand-wing.”
Someone explained to us that bats need a high place from which to take off so they can fall a bit while getting enough lift. Over our bedroom came a scuffling that unnerved us, as did the one-at-a-time forays at dusk. We felt like guests in a Bat & Breakfast. So even though the animals consume insect pests—and indeed, we had never seen a mosquito–we hired exterminators to ameliorate the situation. Workers attached a slack net to a crevice under a window; when the bats crawled down, they couldn’t return—like the proverbial umbrella that can go up the chimney down but not down the chimney up. The company also tested the batbugs that lay near our bathroom window, mainly dead but a few dying. This species ignores people but plague bats–one of nature’s ironies, insects preying on insect-gobblers. more »
One paradox of Floyd County: however isolated and bucolic, it feels the strong influence of a large university, Virginia Tech. The school’s main concession to Appalachia is a wild turkey, the basis of its maroon and orange mascot, the “hokie.” Located in Blacksburg, in the next county north, it has 31,000 students—twice the number of Floyd County residents. With its 8 colleges, 65 bachelor’s degree programs, 125 buildings, 2600 acres, and an airport, it exerts even more of an influence than Radford University in Radford, home of almost 10,000 students.
Impacts of the large research institution are multiple. A number of Floydians commute to the school for employment, or perhaps to businesses started by the Tech-connected. Others retired from teaching or otherwise working there and moved to Floyd County, sometimes to start businesses. Many studied at Tech, for example Morgan Cain Grim, mentioned in the introduction to Floydiana. Some couples even met there—for example, Chris Prokosch (from Connecticut) and Shannon Green (from Louisiana), who studied architecture and now live in their self-designed house on Little River. Lydeana Martin earned both her graduate degrees from Tech; as the county’s Community and Economic Development Director, she affirms that both students and faculty “have helped businesses and non-profits as well as public entities.” The economic life of this area quickens when visitors, especially football fans, sojourn in the county, or when students drive down for the Friday Night Jamboree–perhaps to win the From Farthest Away cap and wear it back in China or Australia. more »