HUR HERALD'S BEAR FORK TALES - The Dark And Scary Woods, Hidden Gold

(09/07/2015)

THE DARK AND SCARY WOODS, TALES AND SECRETS

By Bob Weaver 2000

There are several thousand acres in the back woods of Calhoun, Gilmer and Braxton County, a section of forest mysteriously recalled with tales told, now essentially uninhabited.

Jonathan M. Bennett, one of Lewis county's most historical figures and his heirs purchased thousands of acres of land in the central WV region, much of it from deliquient tax sales.

Lewis County was still a part of Virginia when Jonathan Bennett became a deputy sheriff in 1836 at age 22.

“He actually started to accumulate the great wealth his family had because he was able to learn about properties in the county being declared tax delinquent,” historian Bill Adler said.

Bennett bought the properties at auction, and his family eventually owned tens of thousands of acres in Central West Virginia with much of the property having deposits of oil, gas and timber.

The Bear Fork lands, in three counties, according to most reports, was 25,000-35,000 acres.

The Bear Fork county is a mostly undeveloped, except for extraction, pieces of land in this part of West Virginia, and many folks like it that way, including the Bear Fork Hunting Club.

The land was leased many times for extracting gas, oil and time, and was sold a number of years ago to a timber company.

Most of the families that lived in the Bear Fork woods were "squatters."

An original "road" was carved through the wilderness in the 1820's by William Parsons of Mason County who was charged with "cutting a good bridle road."

His efforts ended at the mouth of Steer Creek in the Bear Fork region in the hopes of attracting settlers from the Mon Valley region.

By 1850 the path had grown over when the new Gilmer, Ripley and Ohio Turnpike began construction. It called for a road not less than fifteen nor more than twenty feet wide, and nowhere to exceed a grade of four degrees.

Samuel Lewis Hays of Gilmer, father of noteworthy Calhounian Peregrine Hays, was the principal supervisor of construction.

He had no instruments for the surveying or the making of grades, and when the road was upgraded many years later, only one change was made. The roadway generally ran through Letherbark, Arnoldsburg, Sand Ridge, and Bear Fork to the mouth of Steer Creek and by 1858 at least 56 miles of the road had been completed and "was under toll."

Tolls were made on each five mile section - for one horse, mule or jennet (when not hooked to a vehicle), the toll was three cents. Twenty cattle could be moved for ten cents and one wagon (if tires be less than five inches in width) and for each animal drawing it, three cents. Narrow wheels got charged more because they rutted the roadway more severely.

Heavy traffic on the road during the Civil War caused great damage and it did not recover until the 1870's.

For well over a hundred years, the Bear Fork Hunting Club, in it's various incarnations, has had a presence, bringing hunters and trappers to the woods, sometimes for week-long campouts.

The wildlife, which once included elk and mountain lions, is still thriving with about every species known to Appalachian hunters.

A few families started coming to the area in the early 1800s through the 20th century and built their houses, farmed their patches and spent their lifetime. Few owned their property, exercising their squatters rights, with some second and third generations that still clinged to the deep woods.

Backwoods explorer, Dalton Brady, a descendant of the Calhoun Reips, said he found the sites of several houses, usually identified by their cellar holes.

Bear Fork Hunting Club Early 1900’s
(Photo Courtesy of Calhoun Historical Society)

There is a lot of strange history in those deep woods. Tales have circulated for years about the $2000 in gold coins hidden in Bear Fork, which has even been posted on www.LostTreasures.com as a treasure trove site.

Then there is the story about a lost Civil War payroll, to be recalled in this series.

The Bennett Lands, an area once covering about 35,000 acres, have been timbered, coal mined, with lots of oil and gas extraction, even into the 21st century.

Brady says he and others have located at least ten coal mines, including one he explored that went back into the mountain at least 100'. "The water got so deep, I had to come out," he said. "We drained some water from the mine and expect to give it another try," he said.

There are some fascinating names for the hollows and streams, like Twin Hollow, Copperhead, Standingstone, Point Lookout Run, Sugar Camp, Groves Hollow (for the Groves family who once resided there), Plum Tree, Fern Run, Bee Run, Wild Cat, Hooppoles Run, Trace Fork, Riffle's Run, and many more.

Then there is Fetty's cave, which is really a large overhand, used by area residents for shelter, picnics, camping and parties.

One of the fascinating features of the area is discovering sections of a road bed for a narrow gage railroad, built in the early 1900s by Standard Oil. The railroad, built from Gassaway to Shock, and then in the backwoods, used to haul timber from the area to make barrel staves.

It is difficult to imagine the laborious work that went into laying miles of track, building bridges and trestles, mostly accomplished by immigrant workers and a farmers hired for the area.

The railroad extended into Calhoun County, down the right fork of Crummis Creek and down Frozen, even a short distance up Nicut.

Railroad artifacts can still be found along the old bed.

june_18_ 001 Sam Lawson and his family are buried in the remote Lawson Cemetery at the head of Spruce Fork of Frozen Run

RECOLLECTIONS OF SAMUEL LAWSON

Samuel Lawson recalled his life at age 83 in 1934, writing his recollection just before his death. Lawson spent much of his in life in the backwoods.

He was the son of a cattle buyer, Joseph Lawson. Lawson is the one who told he was made to carry a bag of money to a secret hiding place, which has never been found.

Sam Lawson 1850-1935
(Photo Courtesy of Ann Parks Newell)

Here is his account:

My native county is Calhoun. I was born near where the Cedar Creek bridge at Cedarville now is in the year 1850. The old apple tree that stood in the yard of my birth still stands there bearing her fruit.

My father was drowned when I was two months old and when I was a year old, we moved to Calhoun County. I have lived here ever since, except for a short time before the Civil War when my new stepfather, Ned Parsons, moved us back to Gilmer.

I remember well when the war broke out in 1861. It seemed to be the ambition of everyone to kill and destroy.

My first recollection of the war was a gang of soldiers burning our house to the ground. While the house was burning they went into the field and shot my stepfather through the head.

After the two dastardly deeds were done, they calmly rode away with the horse my stepfather had been using while plowing.

We always thought the reason we were treated so cruelly was because I had two outlaw uncles who helped to rob a rich Dutchman over in Gilmer County. His name was Michael Gerwig.

My uncles stole money from him, burying it near our house on the edge of Gilmer County. So far as I know, that money has not been found yet.

Both these uncles were killed later while serving in the Confederate Army, but we were innocent relations and suffered much for their crime.

Soon after this event we moved back to Calhoun County to a little shack on Barnes Run near the mouth of Hoop Hole. My mother worked among the neighborhood women to help support her little family of four children.

She was handy with wool, and spun and wove for nearly everyone in the vicinity. In spite of all this, we lived lots of the time on parched corn, our food stores all being burned when the house was fired.

I remember once we didn't have so much corn and we became so hungry that I started out to find something to eat. I met a man with some nice yellow corn and asked him for an ear. How pleased I was when he gave me a half bushel, and what a feast we had when I returned home.

It was March and we were all out of food again. I had no shoes, but I told my sister to get me up early so that I could try and get something for mother and the children to eat. There was a light skiff of snow on the ground, but I walked four miles to the home of Mr. Bailey.

He lived where Guy Fleming now lives. He told me he would take my brothers and sisters something to eat, which he did the next morning. Soon after this, Bailey had to give up his rented farm and move to Arnoldsburg. He took me along.

The government appointed John Haymaker postmaster at Arnoldsburg about the close of the war. Haymaker sold out two mail routes which Mr. Bailey bought. One route was from Arnoldsburg to the mouth of Dog Creek below Newton and the other from Arnoldsburg to what is now Walton in Roane County. I carried the mail on both routes for a while as 'twas not a daily route on either.

There were very poor roads, almost no houses, and lots of the time wild animals stared at me from behind trees and rocks as I rode along. I was not afraid because I was used to this way of living.

I carried the mail about one year. Becoming tired of it, I decided wanted to become a hunter. Old Bill Carpenter who lives on Bear Fork of Steer Creek had the name of being the best hunter in the county, so I went to him for my lessons, and soon learned to bring down the deer at full speed and to out cunning the sly fox.

One day my favorite buddy and I were hunting deer along a stream of water when I looked across the stream and saw three deer coming down for water. I made a sign to my companion and we both cocked our guns and shot at the same time, bringing down two of the deer.

The third made a dive for me across the stream for we had killed his mate. Just before he reached us I shot again and he fell dead. We carried two of them home that evening and hung the other one in a tree for safe keeping. I and the old man went back and carried it in.

I remember going up on Nicut with my wife one hot day the summer after we were married to watch a lick near the old Bob Hall farm, where Dewey Hall now lives. Someone had built a blind near this lick.

A blind was constructed of brush, bark, and logs piled up to hide behind so the deer couldn't see you as you waited. I sat down behind a big stump to watch and just then a fine deer came in sight at the lick.

I heard a scratching noise inside the stump by which I was sitting and I jumped away. A big rattlesnake came crawling out. I shot him first, reloading to kill the deer, which I killed too. You can see that there were many dangers connected with hunting in those days that you don't have now.

I remember another time I was in danger too, and didn't know it. My wife and I were coming in with a deer we had skinned on Laurel of Bear Fork.

We heard a noise behind us, and thinking it was the mate of a deer I was carrying, I began bleating, hoping to coax it near home so I could kill it also. Near where John Lawson's new home is now being built, my wife who was behind, began screaming and begging for me to hurry faster.

PIC photoachives John and Sam lawson/caption

As I was doing my best, I let her scream. Suddenly we heard a terrific noise and looking around at what was suppose to be a deer, there was a panther. For some reason unknown to us, the panther lad leaped into a tree and was hanging about 15 feet above the ground.

I wanted to try and kill it but my wife forced me to go on home. I took the dogs back and tried to track it down, but they would not follow the scent.

Yes, I remember there were no houses on Frozen, Bear Run, or Left Hand where Peter Schoolcraft lives, one where Bill Nicholas now lives and two on Bear Run. The roads were mere paths and neighbors were scarce.

I have only gone to school one-half day in my life. I got a whipping that day for throwing the drinking cup away. Mother never let me go back. Becky Ann Conrad was the teacher that whipped me. I just picked up what little I know about reading and writing where I could, a little at a time.

SOLOMON COTTRELL TALE

Solomon Cottrell was born on the West Fork River in 1834, son of Thomas Jr. and Mary Ann (Parsons) Cottrell.

Solomon was a wit and story teller and for several years, he made the rounds of horse trader's reunions and county fairs carrying a board and a fiddle.

When conditions seemed right, Solomon would play the fiddle and dance on his board and then pass the hat.

Typical of Solomon's stories is one that he told about his arrival in Bear Fork. Solomon related that his father and he had gone wild turkey hunting when he was just a small boy. They found a flock of turkeys roosting on a low tree limb and since his father had a single shot, muzzle loading gun, they decided that Solomon should climb the tree and grab two of the largest turkeys.

Solomon said, "So I clumb up the tree, soft and quiet and grabbed two big gobblers by the legs.""I was too small to hold them down and they started to fly away with me. They flew for a long time and I could barely hold on, but they finally landed me here in Bear Fork.

And the last word I heard poor ol' Paw say was, "Hold tight Solomon," The 1860 census of Gilmer County, Virginia (WV) lists Solomon living Solomon was in the household of "Mary Nutter, Spinster." Mary Nutter was a daughter of Humphrey Moses and Mary Ann (Schoolcraft) Nutter.

Solomon married Sarah Carpenter, who was born in 1845, and they lived in Bear Fork section of Calhoun County for many years. Solomon said that he and Sarah married and moved to Bear Fork to raise babies and punkins and that they had a good crop of both every year.

COL. C. S. DEWEESE RECALLS

About the year of 1812, Isaac Arnold made application and received the location with himself as overseer for a road from the mouth of the Left Hand Fork of Steer Creek down through by where Stumptown is, up Bear Fork and on to Arnoldsburg, now Calhoun County.

Arnold warned all the available citizens of both the Steer Creek and West Fork who worked whole weeks at a time, and it be- ing a wilderness country from Steer Creek through to Arnolds burg, necessitating those who worked on the road to camp of nights.

BRADFORD W. DAVIS: BEAR FORK NATIVE AMERICANS

On the Right fork of Steer Creek at the edge of Bear Fork, four or five miles from the mouth, on the Fetty Farm, is a group of three or four Indian Mounds.

They are similar in shape, the typical circular base and round top, and range in size from about fifteen to sixty feet in diameter. They are believed to be the tombs of some of the first inhabitants of Gilmer County, the Mound Builders. If mounds are thought of in this way, these make one of the most important points of historic interest in the county.

One of the mounds which was opened in 1938, about forty feet across, and five or six feet high. Rocks were set on edge around this circle. After the dirt and rocks were removed, in the center were found large, flat sandstones making a level base about ten feet across and twelve to fourteen feet long.

It was unusual that these stones should be sand rock since there was no more of this kind of stone near there. On these stones were pieces of charcoal and some small pieces of bones as the evidence that the bodies had been burned.

On each side of the sandstone base were three holes about two feet deep which would indicate that supports had been set around this base. These may have formed a crude building or covering for the bodies.

Another mound about a mile up Steer Creek on the Blackshire Farm similar to the others was opened. In it was found evidence that two large men lay side by side. An Indian Pipe and some arrow heads were found in the mound.

EARLY SQUATTER RECOLLECTIONS BY SAMUEL LAWSON

Sarah Smarr, a daughter of Benjamin and Anna (Norman) Smarr, was born in VA about 1832 and married Henry Greenleaves about 1852.

Sam Lawson later recounted how a gang of Civil War soldiers burned the Greenleaves house, went into the field where Ned Parsons was plowing, shot Greenleaves through the head and rode away with his horse.

Sarah Greenleaves then moved her family into Bear Fork, on Hoopole (below Trace), Sam Lawson recalled. "She worked among the neighbor women to support her little family of four children.

"She was handy with wool, and spun and wove for nearly everyone in the vicinity," said Lawson.

In 1880, Sarah (age 48) was a domestic servant in the home of Robert and Jamima Nichols, who lived in the head of Bear Run, near Orma, Calhoun County.

After Robert Nicholas' wife Jamima "Myma" (Schoolcraft) died, Sarah married Nicholas on January 9, 1890.

Sarah (age 65) theb married Andrew J. Jackson Cottrell (age 66) on March 14, 1897, in Calhoun county. Sarah later moved to Shock, in Gilmer county and lived her remaining years with her son, James Franklin "Jim" Nicholas.

Sarah is buried beside Jim, in the Simmons Cemetery near the Brady farm, on the head of Tanner's Fork of of Steer Creek.


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