Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Homemade Fun

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By Phil James

How to build an airplane: one nail keg, two discarded wheels, a splintered plank and a broken fence paling. This puddle jumper was engineered and assembled by the fearless Fisk brothers of Blackwell’s Hollow. (Photo courtesy of John Fisk) Additional images accompany the print version of this article.
How to build an airplane: one nail keg, two discarded wheels, a splintered plank and a broken fence paling. This puddle jumper was engineered and assembled by the fearless Fisk brothers of Blackwell’s Hollow. (Photo courtesy of John Fisk) Additional images accompany the print version of this article.

Homemade clothes. Homemade food. Homemade music. Homemade fun! What wonderfully cozy, quaint terms.

However, homemade means hand made and handmade takes time—and hands. Lots of hands. Time was, before “modern times,” country life was all about work. Everyone in a household was required to help keep that home functioning. Children worked as their size and strength allowed. School attendance fell off during planting and harvesting seasons. Work was relentless, and even the family dog might be harnessed to a cart to help the smaller children forage for light kindling.

But, even as the Holy Scriptures command that work be done in six days, allowing the body and mind some rest on the seventh, there were also seasons and holidays that allowed some respite. Three former residents of lower Sugar Hollow in western Albemarle County shared personal recollections from some of those breathers taken during the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.

“What did we do for entertainment?” gracious, good-natured Emory Wyant (1911–2001), who grew up in a 12-member family, repeated this writer’s question. “Well, I’ll tell you. It wasn’t a whole lot. We worked all the time. Might go swimming. We’d cut our own fishing poles to go fishing. When we had the time. The rest of the time we pulled weeds in the garden.”

Bettie Via Gochenour (1882–1957) grew up in Sugar Hollow, not leaving until her marriage in 1899. Her memoir is filled with rich remembrances of pleasant as well as difficult times.

“[Brother] John and I were great on sliding down the hill when it snowed,” she wrote, “and we wore our shoes skating on the ice when the river would freeze over. We didn’t know anything about skates. I’ve been so sore and stiff from skating that I could hardly get down to put my shoes on the next morning, but that didn’t stop us. We would go right back again.

“Up the mountains from there lived Uncle Wash Via and Aunt Susan. I have walked up through the woods and pasture fields many times to go see them, sometimes to spend the night. I would sleep upstairs in a big feather bed that was so high that I could hardly crawl in it. Aunt Susan would say, ‘Wash will take you home on one of the beasts.’ I would enjoy riding down the mountains, too. The mountains were so steep we would have to zigzag to keep from tumbling over the horse’s head. Oh, those were happy days, with not a care in the world. We didn’t hear about all the horrible things that were going on outside of our little world.”

Malcolm “Junior” Cook never passes up an opportunity to reminisce on his youthful adventures “up in The Hollow.”

“Uncle Bennie Blackwell had a Schwinn bicycle with the carrier on the back,” Junior recalled. “I used to ride back there and Uncle Bennie would pedal us up through Sugar Hollow. We would start hand fishing in the Moorman’s River all the way back down to the ford where you crossed to go up to where Grandma Ora Blackwell lived.

“One day as we were feeling under a big flat rock, Uncle Bennie said, ‘Now don’t let him get out on that side.’ I felt something bump against my hand once in awhile. Uncle Bennie said, ‘I can’t get him to move to where I can get a good hold on him, so give me that safety pin in your britches so I can stick him to get him to move.’

“It worked. He lifted from under that rock with a chokehold on a huge water moccasin. I took off up the middle of the river. Uncle Bennie always laughed when he told it, and said I walked on water. He may have been close to the truth.

“I can honestly say we didn’t know then that there was a word called “bored.” One of our fun things we did [was] with Grandma’s Cat Head biscuits after they got too hard to eat. Grandma had three dogs: old Traveler was a big blue tick; Buster was a shepherd mixed breed; the other one was a Walker hound, but I can’t recall his name. Anyhow, we would stand on the porch and sail those biscuits, something like a Frisbee, one at a time, to those three dogs who would be waiting just below the porch—to see which one would make the catch before the biscuit hit the ground. It seldom hit the ground because those dogs knew that if it did, they were going to have to fight for it.

“We had lots of recreation in those mountains. We would walk down and play in the river until we got hungry. Then, halfway back to the house, we would stop at the little spring coming out from a big round rock. There was birch growing beside the rock and we would always break off some—to eat the tender bark. The taste of birch in your mouth seemed to make that spring water taste extra special. After eating, we would sometimes walk back to the river and play until suppertime. I never measured it, but was told it’s almost a mile from the house to the river.

“Some days we would choose to play on the surrounding ridges. One of our sports was to find a small tree three or four inches in diameter, climb it, and when near the top, let our weight bend it over and lower us gently to the ground. Sometimes we would underestimate the size and strength of the tree, and it would leave us hanging with a long drop to the ground. Sometimes a few scrapes and bruises, but nothing serious. The amazing thing was we only got a new pair of shoes once a year, so in all of those adventures in the mountains, we went barefoot.

“We were almost completely shut out from the world. No electricity, no phones. But a lot of Sunday afternoons, some of the older aunts and uncles or kin would come to visit. We would be on the front porch watching and listening for an automobile coming up the road to Grandma’s. And trying to guess who it was before they came in sight by the sound of the motor. And trying to see who it was that had to get out to open the gate, way down past the hill leading up to Grandma’s house. So you see, we had drama in those days.

“Did I mention, we didn’t know about bored?”

1 COMMENT

  1. Good story Phil. I remember on several times when Grandad Mac (Lacy) would take us hand fishing. That is a tough way to put food on the table, for sure.

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