-a voice grumping in the wilderness © 2010
The icy blasts rushed up the treeless hill with the unabated vigor of a run-away freight train. Snowflakes weren’t just falling; they were beating against the windows of the Federal Revival farmhouse like a billion tiny white flies seeking shelter from the howling wind. The sun hadn’t shown its smiling warmth all day and the freezing wind sought entrance into the home through every warped clapboard, every open keyhole, and every cold-shrunken door and window sash. Inside, four fireplaces roared and crackled with yellow flames, and the huge cast-iron cook stove in the kitchen at the back of the house glowed slightly red at the two back lids and the lower part of the stovepipe. Hardly any light came in through the windows, so those inside finally tacked old quilts over the doors and windows on the windward side of the house and lit the gaslights. It wasn’t a fit day outside for man nor beast and only moderately better inside. Still, the excitement of those inside kept them warm.
Seventy-six year old Hank Day was spending his time carrying firewood into the house to feed the voracious appetites of the fireplaces and the cook stove. He was also trying to stock enough wood inside the house to last through a night that could be colder yet. Gustavia (Gussie)—15, Corrine—11, and Bertha—8, were all at home due to the bitter wind and the drifting snow and were trying their best to practice their school lessons. Still, they spent more time pacing the floor and listening for sounds from their parent’s bedroom than they did studying. Flossie was the baby at three years of age, but even she knew that something special was going on and was a source of endless questions for her aunt, Marie DeVeau, who was watching the girls.
Marie was doing a little cooking, boiling water, fixing endless pots of coffee and tea and trying to keep the girls occupied as best she could. The latter was no easy task when they heard the occasional moan or groan come from the direction of the bedroom where their mother, Iva, lay on the bed that she usually shared with her husband, Cump Day. Cump wasn’t there, but he was aboard the train going from Charleville to Hunterstown where he received a wire that his fifth child was only a few hours away.
In the room with Iva was a half-sister, a cousin and the neighbor-lady who was the official midwife. It was late in January of 1925 and no one had even considered calling a doctor; most folks didn’t back then.
Cump made it into town on the 4:15 from Hunterstown, which arrived 45 minutes late from having waited an hour for a crew to get a windblown tree off the tracks. Only by having the fireman over-stoke the engine with coal did the engineer make up fifteen minutes of the lost time. A neighbor waited for Cump at the station with a Model-T on which he’d improvised tire chains by wrapping the tires with the trace chains from a pair of horse harnesses. There was enough snow on the brick streets of Newport that the chains got no wear from the pavement, yet they allowed the two travelers to move through the snow as fast as a good horse with a sleigh. At six o’clock, Cump stomped the snow off his boots, entered the rear hall door of his home and knocked on his own bedroom door before entering.
Iva was in pain, but conversant, so Cump gave her a kiss, chatted with her a moment and then went to the kitchen to greet his girls. Between hugs, kisses and worried questions he managed to drink enough coffee to return feeling to his fingers and toes. He then started pacing the floor with an enthusiasm known only to those who’ve experienced the situation. At 6:48, a long scream-like groan from Iva was followed by the healthy shriek of a tiny person very upset with all the commotion he’d just been forced to endure. Cump was told that he had his first son, and a few minutes later, the midwife allowed him to come in and see his wife and the newest member of the family. William T. Day, Jr. had entered this life on a day that he would never remember, but a day that the rest of the family would never forget.
Iva was 37 and Cump was 45 when “Junior” was born, so it was probably for the best that he turned out to be their last child. With four older sisters, two doting parents, an equally doting Aunt Marie and a proud Grandpa Hank in the home, young Junior never lacked for attention. The first picture of him, taken the following spring, shows the proud parents in what is obviously a studio. Cump is standing, Iva is seated and Junior sits on her lap wearing one of the dress-like smocks that were already long out of style with everyone except some country folks and very conservative people of wealth. Junior appears happy, yet thoughtful—perhaps because of his outfit. Already, he was being called “John” rather than “Junior,” due to the fact that little Flossie had given him a name which was easier for her to pronounce.
The next we hear about John is that he was the one to find his Grandpa Hank after his heart attack. It was a warm August morning during John’s second year. Cump was working and the family had gone to the Daley farmhouse (Which they owned) down by the pike to do some chores. Hank was milking the cows and the girls were picking vegetables while the women were preparing canning jars in which to store the harvest. John, bored with watching the preparations, decided to walk the 75 yards out to the barn and watch his grandpa milk for a while. Cows were becoming what would turn out to be a life-long love for him.
After he’d been gone an unusually long time, Iva called for him. When he didn’t come and Hank didn’t respond either, Iva went to the barn looking for the boy. When she arrived, Hank lay on the floor of the stall and John stood where he’d stopped with his little wagon, staring in confusion at his grandpa’s lifeless body. Iva’s scream attracted a neighbor couple who were going by with a horse and wagon who then tolled the bell at the Methodist church and drove to town to inform the undertaker that he had some more business.
The next mention of the boy was about two years later when the family moved from their home on the hill to the Daley house down by the pike. It was a slightly smaller house, but had running water from a spring on the hillside, plus, several years earlier, Cump had built a large outbuilding which served as a milk-house downstairs, a small country store at ground level and had a large bedroom in the upstairs for Hank. John was four years old at the time and knew the path through the pasture field between the two houses. Several times he escaped the clutches of his sisters, dove under the board fence around the lawn and took off up the trail to his former home on the hill. Eventually, though, after his sisters hauled him back over the hill a few times, he accepted the new place as home.
Cump and Iva’s son grew up a typical depression-era farm boy, helping on the farm, fishing in Waddington Creek and going squirrel and rabbit hunting with his father when he got the chance. The summer of his twelfth year, his dad worked away in the oil fields most of the time and left him to do as much of the farm work as he could. There were hired hands and out-of-work relatives living on the farm as well, but John made it his project to mow the whole place with their strawberry-roan gelding, Duke, and the old one-horse mower. Nearly seventy-five acres of pasture and meadow got trimmed by the four foot cutter bar of the old McCormick mowing machine that summer.
John accomplished another feat that summer, also—one that will never be repeated in this day and age. Money wasn’t an easy commodity to come by in 1937, especially for a kid who lived in the country. Still, John found a way to get something he truly longed for—a straight-shooting .22 rifle. Riding his bicycle, he canvassed the nearby countryside to find how many folks would like to subscribe to Grit Magazine©, a publication geared mostly to folks living in the country or in small towns. It was printed on newspaper stock back then and was the only magazine to which many folks could afford to subscribe. How long it took, and whether he earned points toward the rifle or gave up commission money to trade for it no one living knows. However, before hunting season of 1937, the mailman delivered to the farmhouse door a Mossberg Model 37 Target Rifle, a bolt-action with a tubular magazine under the barrel, both a leaf sight and receiver sight, plus sling swivels and a sling.
With that rifle he added quite a bit of squirrel and rabbit to the diet of the Day family, a welcome event during those lean years. In high school, he took the rifle to school on the bus and competed on the rifle team. He was called “John” at school the same as he was at home and one fawning female admirer addressed her poetic entry in his yearbook to “Big John, the rifle guy.”
Like many young men of the era, John also loved baseball. He wasn’t the fastest at running bases or in the outfield, despite being six feet tall and only weighing 135 pounds. However, he was a good at batting and was at his absolute best in the outfield, slinging blazing baseballs wherever they were needed to put out an opponent. He was pleased to letter in the sport his senior year.
On December 7, 1941, when the Japs paid a surprise visit to Pearl Harbor, John was about three months into his sophomore year at Newport High School. In order to serve his country while still in high school, he volunteered as an Air Raid Warden for the lower end of the Waddington Valley. When the sirens blew for night drills, his job was to climb to the top of the hill and look for any form of light. Anyone who didn’t extinguish or cover their lights to make them unnoticeable was to be warned if the warden knew who they were, or the failure to cover the light reported if the warden didn’t know the party involved or the exact location.
Even tiny rural communities instituted such precautionary measures, but Newport could have been a legitimate bombing target since it was rail hub, a manufacturing area and at the junction of several highways. The idea was not to give the enemy a clear target or any indications of where particular targets might be located. Room-darkening blinds were big sellers during the war years, not just to keep sunlight out, but to keep room lights in, be they electric, gas, kerosene or candle.
When drafted into the Army after graduation, his years of shooting the .22 allowed him to quickly earn his sharpshooter medal. He saw enough of war in the Pacific to see the irony and the waste of human life it entailed, but unlike some GIs, he never let it turn into hatred of the enemy. Once, while walking a newly secured beach in the Philippines, he came upon a place where dead Japanese had been piled like cordwood, awaiting the crews that would give them a mass burial. As he stood there in the heat, with flies and maggots already crawling on the corpses, the thought that repeatedly ran through his mind was that every dead soldier was some mother’s son.
Returning home, he resumed working with his father on the farm, but also delved into the new business his dad had started in his absence—operating a sawmill. For whatever reason, his father soon promoted him to sawyer and demoted himself to off-bearer. About the same time, a new girl at church named Eve Larson caught John’s eye and a year-and-a-half later, they were married. In another year, they moved into the old farmhouse on the hill that John had kept returning to as a four-year-old.
John’s dad had bought 180 acres of mostly virgin timber that sat astride Tick Ridge during the 30’s, and when they moved the mill from the farm on the Old St. Ambrose Pike to the ridge property in 1948, they did quite well at their trade. Everything on the 80 acre side that would make passable lumber was sawn. The high grade boards were sold to a couple lumber companies in Marysburg, Ohio; the lower grade boards were sold at the mill for fences, barns and livestock pens. The poor quality tree trunks and the limbs were made into firewood, most of which was sold to customers in Newport.
John and a young neighbor named Ed Crowder were in such good physical condition that they would fall a full-sized oak tree with their crosscut saw and then not stop for a break until all the logs were sawed to length and all the larger limbs were sawn into fire wood. John and Ed would often saw and hand-split three face-cords of 24 inch wood (1&1/2 standard cords) and deliver it by noon. After dinner (that’s lunch today), they’d get another load ready and then deliver it after supper. Weather permitting, they’d sometimes do that for days on end.
Their wood splitter was a worn-out double-bitted axe, not the heavy wedge-shaped mauls of today. A flick of the wrist at the right millisecond caused the sticks of firewood to fly apart as if blasted by dynamite. It was a trick that few people mastered back then and even fewer know today. Sledge and wedges were used only on stubborn pieces. Despite their “primitive” methods, John and Ed made good money, but they earned every penny.
Proof of John’s earnings was evident from the facts that he bought a new 2 ½ ton truck in 1950, a Ford “Golden Jubilee” tractor in 1953, a Ferguson “40” in 1957, built a new barn in 1961 (the old one was leaning toward Fisher’s) and bought another new truck in 1965. Folks that aren’t self-employed probably won’t understand, though, why he never bought a new automobile as long as he lived, but purchased used vehicles instead. Practical people don’t mind spending money for things that make money. It’s more difficult, however, to justify spending hard-earned funds for pleasure or to “keep up with the Joneses.”
John and Eve were sociable sorts and were members of the Mount Zion Methodist Church and The Grange, plus Eve was involved in the Farm Women’s Club, a rural off-shoot of the Methodist Church. Also, John served as a member on the Stone County Fair Board. In 1949, they had a daughter, Agnes Francine, and in 1955 they had a son that they named “William Theodore Day, III.”
One anecdote concerning one of John’s rare displays of quiet temper deals with when he gave his son’s name to the nurse filling out the papers at the hospital. The nurse quickly asked, “Oh, is your middle name Theodore?” To that, John explained that he had no middle name, only an initial. The nurse proceeded to tell him that he couldn’t call the boy “the third,” since the middle name didn’t follow through. In reply, John raised one eye-brow, gave the nurse a look that could have chiseled granite and said, “He’s MY son, I’ll name him what I want.”
Strangely enough, when the hospital sent the birth record to the court house a month later, the Roman numeral had somehow disappeared from the boy’s name. The main thing that Eve remembers from that visit to the hospital was the kiss she got from John after he was told that he had a son. She says that she’s never gotten a kiss quite like that one either before or after.
There are people to whom family, heritage and ancestral property means little. John was not one of those. His family, both immediate and distant, meant the world to him. The heritage to which he was heir wasn’t one of wealth or fame, but a name for being hard working and honest. Nor was the property his family owned extensive; before he and his dad bought the Tick Ridge property, the family owned only 150 acres on Waddington and 60 acres a few miles away on Hogshead Run, just off the new state route to Wheelersburg. However, John could tell you where his grandfather once raised strawberries, blackberries or pole beans on the place. He could also tell you where his dad used to set up the cider press in the orchard and which individual trees had the sweetest apples. He also knew when a certain section of woodland had last been field instead of forest and where the last native chestnut tree stood on the farm before it was killed by the blight that wiped out the nation’s most useful tree.
His love for the land and for hard work didn’t cause him much trouble, other than perhaps keep him a little poorer than if he’d chosen occupations besides farming and sawmilling. His love of family, however, didn’t always allow things to work in his favor. With his sister Bertha and her husband, Delvin Byrd, living across the road, sister Corrine and her husband, Jack Jones, about a mile up the Pike, and his father-in-law, Roose Larson, on the next farm above Corrine, he was often called on to help during hay season or to bail them out of some problem they couldn’t solve. Since he rarely would take any money for helping family, and they rarely returned the help in like quantity, his own work and income sometimes suffered. Of course the family never considered the price he was paying for helping them, after all, he didn’t “have a job” like they did. Only those who have ever been self-employed can fully understand the ignorance, ego and unmitigated gall that such thinking requires.
In the summer of 1959, John and Eve planted a couple acres of cleared woodland above Workman’s Cave in Scotch pine and white pine to raise as Christmas trees. His father, 79 at the time, was upset with him for planting a crop on the property, remembering the old days of “corn rights” and squatter’s right’s. He apparently thought he would lose ownership in the property by John’s actions. He didn’t remember that it was John’s money that had paid for most of it and that John’s name was on the deed. His sisters got into the act by pooh-poohing such a “silly” idea as growing Christmas trees to sell in the first place. John, tiring of the hounding by those who should have wished him well, ended up letting the trees go unpruned and never sold a one.
In spite of increasing “family problems,” John still managed to slowly get ahead and, little by little, he remodeled part of the farmhouse they lived in. Two tiny upstairs bedrooms were combined into a single large modern-looking bedroom for Agnes. New ceilings were installed in the kitchen, dining room and living room and those rooms rewired. John even started hand-digging a basement under the old house. The home improvements eventually came to a halt, though.
Agnes had always been “different,” but she had been a “joiner” from the start—active in 4-H, church youth groups and junior high and high school orchestra. And so, when she graduated high school and wanted to get a degree in music, John and Eve mortgaged the farm and sent her to the most expensive college in the state. Unfortunately, one of her professors was an insecure pseudo-intellectual who dealt with his insecurities by bullying, badgering and belittling his students. Agnes changed majors and switched to a much larger and only slightly less expensive university the following year. She then switched majors another time or two before finally graduating seven years later.
Even though Eve had gone to work once Bill entered grade school, John and Eve hardly ever had a dime to spare from the day Agnes entered college. Still, when Bill reached college age, they offered to do for him what they’d done for his sister. Bill told them that to do so would finish bankrupting them and that if he wanted college badly enough he’d find his own way to attend. Unfortunately, Bill never wanted it that badly. Worse by far was the fact that Agnes only used her education for about five years until she married a Pentecostal preacher and gave up gainful employment. Agnes’ college loans were finally paid off eighteen years later, two years after John’s death.
The one bright spot in John’s financial life after Agnes’ college had begun was his Christmas trees—not the ones he’d planted and abandoned on Tick Ridge, but the ones he started planting on his part of the Day farm in 1967, the same year Agnes had started college. Each year, he planted a few hundred more, and five years into the experiment, he sold his first few trees. The proceeds weren’t excessive, but the money made Christmas a little easier that year.
Sales increased each year and slowly began to replace the fading revenue from raising his beloved Polled Hereford cattle. One winter day at dusk, John watched as his cattle wadded in prime hilltop-grown clover and swallowed it without seeming to even chew. He remarked to Bill that he enjoyed the sight so much that he could watch them eat for hours and never get bored. Asked by Bill which he would choose if he had to make a choice between farming and forestry, John told him farming would be the clear choice. When the question was returned to him, Bill chose the opposite.
A Christmas tree customer once asked John if it bothered him to cut down his pretty pines after several years of tending them. His reply was that the area then devoted to pines had earlier been the poorest, least productive land on the place and that the pines provided fall and winter color where only dead weeds once stood during those seasons. Besides, he planted a new seedling back by every stump.
Another time, a lumber customer asked if it ever concerned him to cut the huge oaks that made up the most valuable part of his sawmilling business. He said that indeed, there was a twinge of regret, much like what he felt when taking a faithful cow that was past her prime to the slaughterhouse or the auction. But, the human race required certain things to live, and for most, that included meat; for nearly everyone, it included lumber in some form. He explained how he considered wood far more beautiful to look at than brick, concrete, steel, glass or plastic. It seemed logical to him that the reason was that God made wood; man made the other materials.
He then spoke of area barns which would show their rugged strength long after he was gone, the classic furniture that had been built from his lumber that might still be appreciated decades or even centuries from that day and of the church up the road where believers knelt to pray beneath strong oaken rafters from the local forest that he’d sawn on his mill. He mentioned that his lumber was found in some of the best homes in Newport, and in yachts that plied the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. “Had those trees never been cut,” he said, “they would have eventually fallen over as rotten or wind-thrown trees in the forest and slowly turned to dirt without anyone ever seeing the beauty hidden beneath their bark.”
John believed in the wise use of our resources and was quick to learn and apply conservation measures wherever he could, but he was disgusted by the strict preservationists that were beginning to appear who wanted to waste some of the things he considered gifts to mankind from God Almighty.
Cattle prices continued to erode for a few years while the price of barbed-wire went through the roof. Finally there came a day when the bulk of the fencing on the farm needed to be totally rebuilt. John juggled figures every way he could, but each time the numbers showed that the fence would be worth more than the cattle it surrounded. It was a sad day for John when he sold his cattle, but he consoled himself with the promise that he would start up his herd again when the economy got into better balance.
Eve had gotten a job at one of the local banks about the time that John sold his cattle, and the story began to circulate in the family that his wife was the main breadwinner. The relatives who spread the rumor had apparently never seen the paltry paycheck that most bank employees bring home or they would have been embarrassed at the lies they told. Nor did they have any way to know that John still made two to three times what Eve earned at the bank. Still, the rumors hurt when they finally landed on John’s ears, especially considering who was spreading them. In spite of those rumors, John continued to help the very people who lied about him.
Outside of his family, John continued to garner some respect. A friendly smile always appeared when he met either an old friend or a stranger and he always knew some amusing joke or story to tell. He was well known for helping anyone in need, he was active in various farm and forestry groups, he participated in behind-the scenes politics, and his presence in the community as “the Christmas tree man” made him popular with a whole new generation in the valley. There’s an old saying that children and dogs are good judges of character; both liked John. His tree business was prospering and he and Eve were finally beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel of debt they’d entered years earlier.
About that time his sister, Gussie, grew near death with cancer. All his life, John had been told that he would inherit the rest of the farm for taking care of his folks and his Aunt Marie in their old age. He and Bertha traveled to Washington, D.C. to see her and while they were there, Gussie wrote her will to include Bertha as half heir to the remainder of the farm. With the stroke of a pen, all those promises were turned to lies. Gussie’s excuse was that Bertha had more money to take care of the old house they’d grown up in, and Bertha promised whole-heartedly to take very good care of it.
Gussie died two days later and two years after that, Bertha kicked her elderly Aunt Marie out of the old farmhouse and “took care of it” with a bulldozer, a can of gasoline and a match. John’s Aunt Marie moved in with him and Eve, and Bertha divided the inherited property so that John’s “half” of the estate was landlocked property to the rear of his own land while her “half” was a nearly equal amount of property, but with all the road frontage. Gussie had appointed her as executrix of the estate and it would have taken a lawsuit to have fought the unfair division, so John accepted the division with little comment, even though he received only about a third of the value.
About that time, John’s recent “back pains” were discovered to have been unrecognized heart attacks. John trusted his doctor, but steadfastly refused his advice to see a heart specialist. For almost a year, his doctor refused to allow him to return to sawmilling and kept him on a strict diet to lose the too many pounds that had accumulated from years of eating delicious country cooking.
The day finally came when the doctor okayed his return to sawmilling and he spent an easy day puttering around the mill sawing some small logs and doing a little edging. It was like Christmas for him to once again hear the whine of the mill saw and enjoy the acrid smell of oak sawdust. He went to bed rejuvenated more than tired.
The next day was Sunday, and he and Eve went with Bill and his wife to the southern end of the state to pick up Bill’s stepson from church camp. John’s previous day of sawing had left him a bit tired, so he napped a bit on the way down. Once there, everyone noticed that his eyes were continually drawn to the towering poplar trees in the camp. Growing there in the valley between two mountains, the poplars had spent their lives reaching heavenward for life-giving sunlight and had grown tall and straight with hardly any limbs for most of their height. The family teased him about his calculating all the beautiful lumber those trees held beneath their bark and he laughed along with them.
They had hardly pulled out the gate to leave the camp when they realized that something was wrong with John. Rushing back to the camp, they gave him CPR with the camp nurse’s supervision, but before the ambulance ever made it from the distant village they realized their efforts were in vain. There, beneath those tall, beautiful poplar trees and amongst the green West Virginia mountains that he loved so much, John breathed his last.
The doctor would tell you that a lifetime of bacon and eggs for breakfast and meat and potatoes for lunch were to blame for John’s early death at age 59. However, all his ancestors ate the same way, and most lived to be quite old. Perhaps it’s only bitterness speaking, but Eve blames it on getting his heart broken by his family once too often. Copyright 2008