My Maternal Grandfather
Luther L Holley

Honsell Douglas Thompson, March 1989

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Without the help of my (late) Aunt Clara, I could never have written this account of my late Grandfather’s life. Her recall was excellent. She and I spent many hours together, remembering and reconstructing the past. Like archaeologists, we uncovered many forgotten memories of our lives together..

I enjoy writing about things that are important to me and I write this primarily for our family. so that future generations may share some insight into Grandpa’s life (and the lives of others) and that they may taste a little of the flavor of life as it was in the mid-late forties. I am reluctant to let it all go.

Also on these pages I touch on other lives as well. Each one unique and equally interesting. I feel it is important to record the lives of those who have gone before us. Those who protected us, listened to us when we were troubled, and guided us with their knowledge and presence. Perhaps if we remember them today, someone will remember us when our time comes.

Luther L Holley or "Toots" as he was affectionately called by Grandma, was born in 1884. I'm not sure where he was born but they were very poor, and Grandpa said many times that his mother would use a soup bone many times until all the flavor was gone.

Luther added the “L” in his name himself. He said it stood for Louis, but as far as anyone knows, he had no middle name. He had to quit school after the third or fourth grade to help support his family. He was large for his age and this helped him get a job on the N & W Rail Road when he was only thirteen. He worked long wearisome hours shoveling coal into the hungry fire box of a locomotive. In order to stay awake and to keep from falling into the fire, he used a rope to tie himself in an upright position.

Later, age unknown, he left St Paul, and moved to Huntington, Wva. One day he and another man were riding horseback across the river near Chesapeake, Ohio. Along a dusty dirt road walked a pretty fourteen year old girl named Flossie.. She and her girlfriend were strolling barefoot when she saw the handsome young horseman approach. She turned to her friend and said; “that man right there is going to be my husband....”

Anxious to meet this handsome stranger, she stopped him and asked him the time. As he rode away, he glanced over his shoulder and smiled at her. Grandma’s friend laughed at her for such brazen foolishness. But her boldness paid off, for within two weeks, Luther returned to commence a serious, long term alliance. After a short courtship, she and Grandpa were married on Tuesday, the twenty ninth of May, 1906.A marriage which was to last fifty eight years.

The newlyweds lived for awhile there in Chesapeake with Grandma’s parents. Luther didn’t like this arrangement and wanted them to have their own home. Grandma’s Sister Jane who was ten years older, had left home already. Flossie's dad didn’t want his last daughter to leave so he promised her the old home place if she and Luther would only make their home there. But Grandpa was anxious to return to St. Paul, Va. And would have no part of staying any longer.

After packing their meager possessions they left Chesapeake a few months later in 1907. When they arrived in St Paul, Grandma discovered this small coal town was much different than what she had expected. For example, due to the scarcity of preachers, there were few married couples for her to socialize with. She said the people were so “far behind” the rest of the world she felt as if she was living in a foreign country, But she made the best of things and slowly accepted her new home. She was by nature a social person and soon became an active part of the community.

She became pregnant in February of 1909 and they looked forward to Christmas. Then on October 29th, a girl, was born to them. However, their joy was short lived because the infant died seven weeks later. The cause of death was given as “Bold Hives”. They were devastated, but soon began rebuilding their lives. Flossie submersed herself in social activities, and Luther his work. As time passed, their lives returned to normal.

In about two years she discovered she was again expecting. Then on the fifteenth of March, 1911 their only son, Marvin was born. They were very pleased with this healthy new addition to their family. He was a happy child with red, naturally curly hair, And as we shall see later, he shared his father’s penchant for story telling.

The next addition to their family was Clara, who was born two years and four months later on the third of July, 1913. They continued to live in St Paul and Clara remembers 1917 when she was four years old and her father became disabled with an ulcer on his leg. He was laid up for nearly 18 months and could not work. The future looked bleak, and many times they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from. But their neighbors and friends helped them out and some people secretly put groceries on their front porch at night. After he regained his health, he often walked many miles in search of a job that would pay fifty cents a day. This was before the depression and jobs were few and far between. In spite of this, Clara remembers they never went hungry.

In the latter part of 1917, the family moved to Trammel, Va., near Dante. It was there that Grandpa began to work in the mines. They lived in a coal camp with other miners and their families. The camp was like a small town, and nearly all their friends were coal miners. Clara recalls she was about five years old at the time. Much of her social life consisted of weekend dances. Her Dad, Luther was a member of the camp band and played the Trombone.

While living there in Trammel, Grandma’s older brother Frank, who had made his home in San Antonio, Texas came to Trammel for a visit. He was on leave from the military at the time Clara tells. He attended the weekly dance and cakewalk with the family. Clara remembers he was an extremely handsome man whom all the ladies adored in spite of his being married. That was the only time Clara ever saw him.

When Grandpa came home from work, he wore the traditional miners garb which consisted of a protective canvas hat and carbide lamp. Covered with coal dust and his white teeth sparkling, he paraded around the tiny kitchen with the dignity of a king, singing and acting a fool. Grandma, busy preparing the evening meal, would shoo him away in mock anger. She was used to his foolishness. Clara and Marvin would laugh at their father's silly antics.

Clara continues by telling of the new, modern company houses which were built in duplex style. These dwellings were lit with kerosene lanterns, heated with coal fed fireplaces and each had a new toilet out back. Some of these houses stand today (March 1989). Clara remembers that one of the buildings is in use today as the Senior Citizens building. It was there in Wolf Pit they met the Loyd Perrys’. They were to become fast friends.

Our Family Behind The Elkhorn High School.

In 1919 the family left Trammel and moved to Wolf Pit, Ky. It was there my Mother, Vena, was born in February of 1920.Clara was seven years old at that time. Soon the Holley family left Wolf Pit and moved to Dunleary, Ky. Their friends, the Perrys moved with them. Loyd Perry worked along side of Grandpa in the damp underground and many days the two of them loaded a coal gon of coal by themselves. This was a noteworthy feat, especially considering the work was done by hand, one shovel full at a time. Few other miners could duplicate this achievement. The two miners worked hard under the most adverse conditions but survived by telling each other jokes and stories.

As Clara describes their new home in Dunleary, her eyes sparkle with happiness. “It was such a pretty place!” she continues, “of course I only remember the good times”. The Dunleary coal camp was a new mining town, and she remembers it consisted mainly of 3 parallel rows of houses. The dirt roads which separated the houses were muddy in winter and dusty during the summer months. “We had the prettiest school”, she laments, “which sat back against the railroad”. The school building was a multi-functional structure which doubled as a community center. It was there during weekend dances that Grandpa demonstrated his considerable musical talents by playing in the local band. He sang and told jokes as well.

He and Grandma loved company, and often invited traveling salesmen to spend the night at his home. Clara remembers one such visitor and a story he told that baffles her even today. It seems two snakes met one day, and started to fight. Locked in mortal combat, they began to swallow each other. Soon the snakes disappeared, each devouring the other. Aunt Clara smiles sheepishly and says she still wonders where that last bite went....

The company store or the Commissary, was located at the end of Dunleary, Clara remembers. It was there everyone did their shopping. If a family found themselves a little short of cash before pay day, the company was happy to extend them credit in the form of “script” which was the coal company’s own currency. It was good only in the Company Store.

Life in mining camps wasn’t easy, but many strong friendships flourished there. To survive, people depended on each other. Grandma was an outgoing, friendly woman who was socially involved in many different projects. Clara tells of the times she saw her Mother take a sick family’s laundry home and wash it for them. (This was done by hand on a washboard). She cooked meals for needy folks and helped out at the schools. She was an excellent seamstress who did a lot of sewing for others also.

When the bitter winter winds blew, and snow drifted outside the small frame houses, families and friends gathered around a warm fire place playing various card games. Board games such as checkers were also popular. Another less remembered board game called "Fox and Goose” was very popular during that era. It was similar to Chinese checkers. Buttons and pieces of corn were used as board pieces.

Grandpaw's family lived in Dunlearey for about two years, then moved on to 5th street in nearby Elkhorn City, then known as “Praise”. They lived there in their new home for an unspecified length of time, when disaster struck. This must have been around 1921 or 1922. My mother, Vena, was two or three years old at the time when Grandpa mortgaged their home and invested the money with a man named *****. Together they bought a house near Camden Park in Huntington, W Va. Somehow the man sold the house and disappeared with the money. Grandpa was ruined financially. They lived in a couple of rental houses until he was eventally able to buy his old home back.

Luther and Flossie always enjoyed visitors and Clara remembers they often had company. Nearly every Sunday they invited Mellie Hackney and her family to share Sunday dinner with them. Mellie lived across the street and had been a widow since 1923. It was difficult for her to make ends meet. However, there was always plenty to eat at the Holley house, thanks to a cow, numerous chickens and a garden which grew a profusion of vegetables during the summer months. Grandma also canned a lot.

My mother and Mrs Hackney’s daughter were good friends. They were a mischievous pair. Once when the family and friends had gathered for a Sunday dinner of chicken and dumplings, with all the trimmings, my Mother and her friend demonstrated how mischievous a couple of young girls could be. For desert that day, Grandma had baked an angle food cake. Mother and her friend had found it earlier that day, and had carefully removed some of the inside of it, leaving it looking much like a deflated balloon. Clara says after a little anger, Grandma and everybody had a good laugh over it.

In later years after Grandpa’s retirement he would walk about a mile to the Post Office each day. There he and his friends would socialize, sitting in front of the Post Office under a tree. Sitting there waiting for the “mail to run”, they would trade stories, gossip and knives. They sat on an old bench and wicker chairs, weathered and worn smooth after years of use. The tree had no grass growing under it. Grass just couldn’t survive the daily deluge of tobacco juice and the constant shuffling of feet. Dirt was eroded from the roots of this tree, giving them the appearance of crooked, arthritic fingers, gripping the earth.

Just a few doors down the street from the Post Office was Doctor Deskins’ office. Doc Deskins was a small tobacco chewing man who looked at you with eyes teeming with wisdom and knowledge. Aunt Clara says his eyes seemed to look directly into your soul. He was known as much for his off color jokes as for his medical expertise. Those jokes embarrassed some and entertained others. They were told any time regardless of who happened to be within ear shot. After a joke, he would slap you across the back and laugh at his crude buffoonery.

Although I was never a patient of his, I do remember visiting his waiting room. It was a small room with worn wicker chairs which lined the walls. In a nearby corner sat a spittoon. The walls and floor around it were splattered with amber. I remember the scene in my mind so vividly. If you were sick, you’d go see Doctor Tilden Deskins. He was a good doctor and a highly respected member of this tiny mountain community.

In addition to being the only Doctor in Praise, he doubled as the company doctor for the coal camp community at Dunleary. He routinely visited there and Aunt Clara said that many women in the camp would line up outside his make shift office competing for a few moments of Doc Deskins’ time. Each one would require a hand full of pills for some real or imagined ailment. And at 50 cents a head, his fees were reasonable and he was somebody new to talk to.

I can remember Grandpa as a very kind man. A man who was at peace with himself and the world. I seldom saw him angry. All us children loved him dearly because he was such a good listener and shared his time with us so unselfishly. As I mentioned earlier, he was a master story teller. Children from around the neighborhood would come by and sit on his knee on the front porch swing. He always told them of Momma bear and Pappa bear and the many baby bears which played happily on a mountain side less than half mile away. Of course, few adults had ever actually seen these imaginary animals but Grandpa described them so graphically that any child could easily see them. “"There!", he’d say scarcely above a whisper, "climbing up that tree. . . You see that little fellow chasing his brother don’t you?" "Oh yes", the child would answer enthusiastically. "I see his mother too!" Grandpa would patiently continue until the child would tire of his game.

During the summer and early fall, Grandpa spent his spare time on this swing. He was hard of hearing and wore a hearing aid hidden in the thick black frames of his specially made glasses. When “Tootsie” (as he called Grandma) would fuss at him, he would just turn the thing off. I remember him sitting on the porch swing, his right arm draped across the back of the swing and his right leg resting across the seat. He would sit motionless as he rested, deep in thought. I remember Mrs Hackney passing by many times, saying “Hello Mr Holley”. Grandpa would always reply “morning Mrs Hackney”. Mrs Hackney recently passed away at nearly a hundred years old.

One of Grandpa’s favorite stories was about a cow which became trapped in a pit left open for the weekend by a construction crew. It was uncovered and a cow came strolling by late one night. She fell in the hole and tried unsuccessfully to escape. Soon, milk began to flow from her. As the milk level rose in the pit, she thrashed about even more frantically. This churned the milk into butter. As the butter solidified in the cool morning air, the tired scared cow was finally able to climb out.

Marvin shared his father’s penchant for story telling. One day he and his Uncle Will (Luther’s Brother) were walking from Dunleary to Elkhorn on the rail road tracks, a distance of about two miles. They passed an abandoned mine nearly hidden behind a thicket of trees. “You know somethin’ Uncle Will?” the young seven year old asked, stone faced and serious. “Not too long ago me and Dad was walking by here and heard voices coming from that mine over there. They was cryin’ and pleading for help. . .”

After a moment or two of waiting for Marvin to finish his story, Uncle Will was becoming anxious. When he could stand it no longer, he asked, “well Marvin, WHAT DID YOU DO?” Marvin replied casually,”oh nothin’. We had our good Sunday clothes on you see. We didn’t want to get dirty”.

One of the strongest memories of my Grandfather is when he and I hiked to the Pool Point tunnel, a distance of perhaps 2 miles. We walked past the East End of Elkhorn, (Praise) and followed the rail road toward the Breaks, Virginia. Soon we arrived at the huge smoke blackened tunnel. It had been blasted through solid rock and a stiff breeze was blowing through it. I was uneasy as we hurriedly made our way through the cool darkness. I constantly looked over my shoulder, afraid a train might come thundering through. I was relieved when we came out into the light of day once more. There I saw the bridge which spanned the deep gorge. Grandpa led me out on this narrow bridge and beyond my feet through the cross ties, I saw the raging river far below.

The railroad follows the white water river which hurries through the canyons of The Breaks, Va. There are many tunnels along this route. Grandpa told of people coming from miles around to see this engineering feat. He told of one old man who made the trip on his mule and when he rode through the tunnel he stopped at it’s end looking down at the river. Across the abyss, another tunnel was visible. Grandpa said the old man wondered aloud just how fast this train would have to be traveling before it could make the jump to the other tunnel...

My Sister Holley and I spent many happy days of our childhood there in Elkhorn City. Our Mother and (her sister) Aunt Clara would take us swimming at the old swimming hole in Elkhorn Creek behind the Elkhorn City High School. I still visit there occasionally and if I listen carefully, I can hear the splashing of water and the excited laughter of happy children. The swimming hole seemed much larger then. On a hot summer's day, it was the center of social activities.

I recall the burr haircuts I got at Johnny’s Barber Shop on Main Street and the time ‘ole Paddle Foot took us up in the projection room of the Elkhorn Theater. He showed us the huge projectors which allowed us to see Hopalong Cassady, Roy Rogers and the rest of our heros on the big screen.

In the fall of the years, trees always seemed a little more colorful around Elkhorn, especially up in the Breaks Park. I remember how fog would hide the mountain tops and hollows on a wet, rainy day and how the dank odor of rotten vegetation would drift through the forest. It is still there today.

Of course, a lot of water has passed under that old Pool Point Bridge since then. Grandma and Grandpa are both gone now. Doctor Deskins office has disappeared along with his era and the tree that stood in front of the old post office on main street that I remember so well isn't there anymore. But time marches on and none of us are immortal. I guess I am just sentimental, because I refuse to let some things be forgotten. A little of the past still lives, if only in my mind. Sometimes when I’m in Elkhorn, I drive slowly past Grandpa Holley’s old home place on 5th street to see if maybe I could catch a glimpse of one of those bears. . . . .

Doug Thompson

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