Craig County On My Mind

I reckoned I would die that night, sleeping in the back of a pickup truck parked alongside Barbours Creek in Craig County. The only question in my mind was how I would perish. There were three options: Freezing, by fire or gas fumes. I was definitely in prayer mode and focused on the apostle Paul who said in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” I wondered if Paul (who dealt with many adversities) had ever slept in the back of a pickup in sub-freezing weather? Then I made a mental note to ask him since I would be in his presence soon.

creek.jpgYou folks are wondering right now: What is Ted talking about? That’s a reasonable question and I will answer it. Tina and I had left Greensboro on a Friday morning heading north and I had Craig County on my mind. What about Catawba you may ask, as in Echoes from Catawba? Well, we are going through Catawba to visit adjacent Craig where I have many good memories. To me, Craig and Catawba have always been interchangeable due to kinship, location and having so much in common. Also, at the recent book signing of my first book, I had several folks from Craig who purchased books and at the same time asking if I wrote any about Craig County? I thought why not since the similarities were many. Thus, as we were traveling up Route 220 north, I reached into the inside pocket of the back of my mind to flush out some decade’s old Craig memories. And those memories came pouring forth like the water that was hurrying down Barbours Creek that cold November final day of deer hunting season.

A Hunting We Will Go

It all started with planning to hunt on that final Saturday of the season. I was a freshman at Virginia Tech at the time and we had Saturday classes. Choosing to play hooky that day to get some venison for the freezer, I accepted Jim Camper’s invite to go to Barbours Creek to hunt. I had hunted that area before and had always seen deer. Jim wanted to go down the night before and said we could spend the night near where we would hunt. I assumed he had found a cabin where we could stay. I did not ask questions about the sleeping arrangements. I should have asked questions about the sleeping arrangements because when we arrived at the hunting sight, he pulled off the road and parked the truck. Quickly, I found out about the sleeping arrangements. He pulled a tarp out of the truck bed and pulled it over the pickup truck frames, tying everything down. I looked inside and there were two sleeping bags on a thin mattress that smelled of mold. Also, inside the bed was a kerosene lamp. Jim said the kerosene lamp would be at the foot near the tailgate and we would sleep with our heads up behind the cab. We would sleep in the sleeping bag with our hunting clothes on but removing our boots. I chose to keep my boots on. Darkness fell quickly, and we settled down as temperatures would drop into the low twenties. I got settled in by sleeping on my back staring up at the tarp.

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Jim and Ted

It was apparent that it was going to be a wintry night, but that was not the main concern. The lamp at the foot of the truck bed was brightly burning, making me wonder what if something caught fire or would the fumes put us to sleep forever. Freezing to death seemed the most likely outcome as the clock started ticking down the minutes as I shivered while trying to sleep. How I survived that night I do not know. Probably the longest night of my life.

Finally, it was time to get up and the moving around outside the truck warmed me up a bit. Into the woods we went and took up separate places to spend the day waiting for that special moment.  All day I stayed on that same ground munching on a candy bar from time to time. I was hunting with my granddaddy Carroll’s 12-gauge pump shotgun that my daddy had hunted with before he got TB and had to go to the Catawba Sanatorium. About an hour before dark, I started getting thoughts that this would be a failed hunt being as I had not seen anything resembling a deer. Then out of nowhere, this buck bounded up over a bank coming face to face with me about fifty feet away. The deer stood motionless as I raised the gun and fired. Down went the deer and my day was a success. Jim and I gutted the deer and took it out of the woods to the truck. A day to remember but a night to forget.

The Swimming Hole

We did not have our own swimming hole growing up in Catawba because Catawba Creek was too narrow and too straight to ever have a place where the water would be deep. Straight down the hill at the end of the parking lot at The Homeplace Restaurant, there was a slight bend in Catawba Creek that had a 4-foot bank on one side. You could sit in the water and that was about all you could do. So, I discovered that where the water left the bend, we could build a dam. We then got rocks and logs and placed them across the narrow most section of the creek. We succeeded in getting the water to rise in the bend area to a level of 3-4 feet. It was a success——for about five minutes at which time the water pressure of a deeper pool would burst through the dam and our swimming hole was gone. Being young and hard-headed we rebuilt the dam time after time with the same result. Catawba did not have a swimming hole! But the good news was that Craig County had numerous places that had traditional swimming holes. Problem solved.

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It was customary practice to go down to Craig on Sunday afternoon in the summertime to swim in the usually chilly waters of Craigs Creek. The Blue Hole was one option although it was deep and dangerous, especially when you were alone or even with just two or three. I had always heard that one side of the pool was bottomless. It was scary, and I do not remember many trips there. The most popular spot was an accessible area that had a rope tied up high in a tree that was right on the bank. You could swing out over the water and drop into the water which we would do time after time. The opposite side of that area had shallow water where the older boys who had cars could drive into the creek to wash their vehicles. That worked very well in this all-purpose swimming hole. It was a popular place to go and stop at Roe Abbotts store afterward for a treat.

Roe Abbotts first store
Abbotts Store (picture from Sammy Abbott)

I will never forget the most memorable swimming area in Craig as it was where I would learn to swim. To know how to swim was a must in the mountains because there were creeks everywhere and going into them to swim, or in many cases to bathe, was a safety measure. At an early age, I was afraid of the water, but Mama was determined that I would learn to swim and get over the fear. That was good, and later I was very thankful as I turned out to be a strong swimmer. But the process of getting there was not a smooth one.

It was a typical Sunday afternoon and we were at a good spot to swim and picnic on the creek bank. We had been there for a while and Mama had coaxed me to come into the water. I would try to be brave, but I would cut and run out of the water at the last moment. Mama did not have a lot of patience and what little she had was wearing thin. Some of the older boys and girls were playing in the creek splashing each other and having a big time. I was standing about three or four feet from the bank’s edge having a big time watching them.  I remember to this day that before I knew what was happening, I was lifted up and sent flying through the air, landing in deep water going under on impact and flailing away as I came up. One of the older boys grabbed me and got me into an area where I could stand up with my head out of the water. It seemed that the fear had left me and from that day on I would quickly learn to swim. That was kind of the way it was done in the Valley. You learned by whatever means it took and the end always seemed to justify the means.

Cow Pasture Baseball

Growing up in Appalachia there was not much time for sports, and when there was time, there was no money for equipment. I guess the two sports that existed in the thirties, forties and fifties would be basketball for both men and women, baseball for men and softball for women. But baseball seemed to be the most popular with men starting out playing as young boys and playing into their forties or beyond, after that, the menfolk turned to pitching horseshoes. All things considered, baseball was big, especially in Craig County. Baseball was America’s favorite pastime back then and remains so today. There were skillful players who were just country boys without coaching or instruction but with loads of raw talent. Back in the early to mid-1900s, the biggest difference was equipment. Some had the money to buy decent equipment but most improvised. It was amazing how much mileage we got out of one baseball. Even after it was soiled and scratched we continued to use it. At some point in time the cover would come off and the inner part would unravel. The naked baseball would be taped with black tape and we would use it for our batting practice.

During a game, we started with one new ball. When it was fouled off into the brush, the game stopped while players and fans looked for the ball. The game resumed until the ball went into the brush again. The gloves that were used were small, raggedy and contained little padding. Although store-bought bats were used, some bats were made on wood lathes and heavy to swing. Home plate was made of a board and sometimes painted white. The bases consisted of a burlap feed sack with sawdust in them. Most of the time the bases were way too big, and players would trip over them. The bases stayed on the field all the time, and I can remember at the Catawba field, finding fish worms under them to use for fishing. It was always wet under those bases.

The ball field we played on at Craig was flat, it also served as a cow pasture. The field had a chicken-wire backstop and a smooth infield. However, we had to shovel cow piles off the infield before the game. The outfield was just pasture land with broom sage grass, cedar seedlings, black snakes, ticks and chiggers. Other than that, playing outfield was no problem. Sometimes the cows would wander too close and we had to run them away. We would clean our shoes off when we came into bat each inning. Regardless of the circumstances, we played each Sunday afternoon weather permitting.

As Tina and I rode along heading down the gap towards New Castle I had covered some memories. But New Castle was coming up fast and we were looking forward to getting over to the Old Brick Hotel and the Craig County Historical Society. That would be a real highlight of our trip.

New Castle

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Old Brick Hotel

We pulled into the parking area at the Old Brick Hotel at one o’clock to meet with Diane Givens. Diane, whom we would soon find out is a dedicated steward of the history of Craig County and its people and places. The Craig County Historical Society (CCHS) is an organization that has been active for many years preserving the culture and buildings of this mountain county’s great history. My interest was to find out what the CCHS was involved with and tour the Genealogy Library and the Old Brick Hotel/Museum as well.

One question I have been asked before “why we should be concerned with old buildings and go to a lot of expense and effort to restore/preserve them?” Many people state that the old days are gone, and we live in a post-modern world. There are many reasons why we need to preserve our heritage. Preservation of buildings is important because it provides a sense of identity and continuity of our towns, cities, and nation, in a fast-moving world for the benefit of present and future generations. The culture and heritage of the generation that preceded us reflect who we are today through the values, beliefs, and aspirations that they forged. We need to remember those things so that we can pass them on to the future generations. Old buildings and landmarks remind us of our locality’s culture. Once they are gone, they can not be replaced, and we have lost more than bricks and mortar. I am writing Echoes from Catawba for the sole purpose of preserving and maintaining the values, beliefs, and culture that our forefathers of Appalachia (Catawba/Craig) gave to us.

The Genealogy Library of the CCHS is in a recently built room off of Main Street and it is a gold mine of information regarding people and places throughout Craig’s vast history. It is a place where one can go to and utilize the results of a dedicated effort to assist folks in researching families. Shelves are loaded with books and documents for those doing research regarding Craig County. The Genealogy Library is attached to the historical area of the Old Hotel and Museum. Cabins and the Jeffersonian Architecture Courthouse built in 1852 when the county was founded are located nearby.  It is very impressive.

From the Genealogy Library, we walked into history.  Maybe over 170 years ago! 

We walked out of the Genealogy Library through a hallway right into the Old Brick Hotel. The actual date of the construction of the hotel is not known because during the Civil War the Union General David Hunter’s army passed through and destroyed the county’s early court records. Evidence gathered through resident’s testimonies have served to establish a date of the 1840s as the time the first stage of the hotel was constructed. Examination of the building’s construction shows three stages of building. Records show the hotel would end up in the Looney family who would sell the hotel to the CCHS in1983 for $21,000. The intent of the CCHS was to restore the hotel for a museum, meeting place and office with a library of history/genealogy books and records, craft shop and other uses for public benefit and enjoyment. From what I saw the CCHS has met that intent and more.

The first floor of the hotel holds the Genealogy Library, the former Star Saloon and Inn Room (once the hotel office).  The rooms on the first-floor are filled with paintings, photos, memorabilia of all sorts, wartime uniforms, maps, pottery, baseball items, and many, many more interesting things that would keep you spellbound gazing at them. My favorite first-floor room was the dining room and working kitchen. Restoration efforts have resulted in an oval oak table from the boardroom of the original First National Bank. Antique quilts & dishes along with other objects of interest all combine to give the room a look of elegance. Dinners are held here for special occasions. Many items have been donated by local folks.

The second floor consisted of hallways adorned with a WWII Honor Roll, antique desk, wall phone, and a unique church bench. As usual, these and other items were donated.

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The Display Room caught my eye with vintage instruments, lace, inkwells, and writing instruments and an 1880’s painting of Zulu Farrier.  Four front porch rooms portrayed different themes.  A “Man’s Room” containing a barber chair, “sick chair,” photos, signs, and a history of the CCC Camp # 1368 in Barbours Creek. Also included were old tools.  Other rooms had portraits, an old phonograph, a typewriter, plus old toys and handmade toys dating back to the 1930s and 1940s.  An interesting bedroom furnished with belongings and photographs of Marshall and Virginia Lipes Reynolds along with Marshall’s desk, chair, and clothing.  Another room contained antiques, including a flax wheel, doll chest, and a vintage guitar.

The third floor continued with theme-oriented hallways and a half dozen rooms. One can enjoy a self-guided tour, although we enjoyed a bonus with Diane interpreting for us.

The Little Cabin That Could and the Community That Would. – The Holstein Cabin

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The Holstein Cabin

“The Little Engine That Could” is an American fairytale that came out in 1930. The story is used to teach the value of optimism and hard work. I cannot think of a better analogy to describe the journey of the Holstein Cabin.

This historic cabin was built in the early 1800s located on Craig’s Creek about a mile from New Castle. The cabin was the residence of the Henry Holstein family. Henry Sr. was a farmer and a road surveyor during the 1780s. His son Henry, Jr., was a minister and signed many early marriage certificates. Through the years other families would occupy the cabin.

In 1990 the cabin was dismantled and donated by the owner to Roanoke’s Explore Park. It would remain stored at the Explore site due to lack of funding to restore it for viewing. Explore Park opted to return the cabin to Craig County in 2017 subject to certain conditions. It would have to be reconstructed and made available to the public for educational purposes.

The Craig County Historical Society accepted the offer and the challenge of bringing the cabin home to stay. The new home for the “Prodigal Cabin” would be next to the Old Brick Hotel. Master builder Roger Davis would be in charge of restoration, overseeing the entire project. As of December 2018, Roger was busy cutting and shaping stone, and the cabin should be completed in 2019 and ready for viewing. The cabin inside will be furnished with Craig artifacts to reflect what life was like on the western Virginia frontier. Costs of restoration have exceeding first estimates. For anyone, not just local folks, wanting to see this exceptional building become a reality would be making a meaningful investment through a monetary contribution.

Keffer Cabin/Log House

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Inside the Keffer Cabin

Another interesting site to visit is the Keffer Log House located on Market Street in New Castle. This would be the first of the three cabins built on the grounds around the Old Brick Hotel.   This cabin belonged to Hillary Jackson Keffer and wife, Elizabeth Mills Keffer. It was moved from Happy Hollow on Sinking Creek in March 1999 and rebuilt by Roger Davis of Montana, Master Cabin Builder, and Robert Echols (1913-2013) of Happy Hollow. Mr. Echols lived next door to the Keffers when he was young. The Craig County Historical Society sponsored the rebuild and restoration and held a dedication ceremony on October 10, 1999.

Hawkins-Brizendine Cabin

The restored Hawkins-Brizendine Cabin, on Court Street, just behind the Old Brick Hotel.jpg
Hawkins-Brizendine Cabin

The Hawkins-Brizendine Cabin was built in 2000 of logs from the funeral home given by Buddy Boitnott and from the Hawkins homeplace on Route 614 given by Ashby & Flo Eakin. Volunteer workers on this one-story cabin included Bob Echols, Edwin and Curtis Abbott, Wes Carper, George Field, David and Shakey Boitnotte, and Lewis DeQuino, as well as useful advice and equipment from many others. It is next door to the Old Brick Hotel.

For an interesting trip back in time, visiting the Old Brick Hotel and cabins is a must see.  Find more information about Craig County and the Old Brick Hotel here: http://visitcraigcountyva.com/

Click here for the Craig County photo album

Enjoy articles like this? Then you would love Echoes From Catawba Volume 1, Growing Up In Catawba Valley, Appalachia.   Click here to order Echoes From Catawba Volume 1  hardcover, collector’s edition: $27.99, includes shipping.  Also available on Amazon. Paperback: $18.99 and Kindle: $5.99

Also available at the Salem Museum Book Store in Salem, Virginia and The Emporium on Main Street in New Castle, Virginia.

2 thoughts on “Craig County On My Mind

  1. Just ordered your book from Amazon .I look forward to reading it . Kathy Freis Gross ( 1,2 grade teacher at Catawba from 1972-1980)

    1. Thanks for ordering a copy of Echoes From Catawba! I’m sure you will especially enjoy the writings about Catawba School. In fact, in the back of the book, all of the past teachers are listed. Thanks for leaving a comment Kathy.

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