|EUCLE KNOTTS PASSED IN 2011 AT 102 |
"I'm a Democrat bred, a Democrat born and I'll be a Democrat dead." Sporting his "Manchin for Governor" hat, Knotts points toward
nearby Rt. 16, a road he helped grade out some 80 years ago
Photos by Alpo
Republished From Graffiti December 2004
By Michael Lipton, Editor
If you have any preconceptions about "the elderly," Eucle Knotts will quickly turn them into misconceptions.
At 95, he is nothing short of remarkable. But he'd also be remarkable if he was 75. And it's not just that he's got all his "faculties" (OK, his eyesight isn't what it used to be...), he's sharper, quicker, wittier and has more spunk than many people half his age.
He is, in country parlance, the veritable definition of a "cat bird" - a trait he partially attributes to a bloodline that includes Don Knotts.
"I'm a relation to him," Eucle said. "His mother was from Spencer. And from watchin' him on TV, it seems like we have the same kind of a disposition about carryin' on."
I met Eucle back in 1974. I had moved to Millstone, a small burg in Calhoun County, a year or so before and, in a desperate attempt to conjure some income, started a trash collection business. With cattle racks on the bed of my 1964 Chevy pick-up, King Pin Trash Service started rounding up customers in Arnoldsburg (actually, the biggest challenge was convincing people it was worth $1 to get rid of a week's worth of trash).
We soon "expanded" to neighboring Millstone. If I remember correctly, Eucle was one of our first customers. He lived in a tidy white house across Millstone creek and he and his wife Velma generated a bag or two of garbage every other week. He made sure he got the most out of that dollar.
To put things in perspective, that was 30 years ago. I was 21 and Eucle, at 65, had just moved back to West Virginia after working at plants in Ohio for 40-some years.
Skip ahead to Oct. 2004. My band the Carpenter Ants was playing for the Democratic party's annual Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. A committee had chosen an "Outstanding Democrat" from each county and, killing time before the heavy hitters spoke, the winners walked quietly, one by one, across the stage.
Then, I heard the announcer say, "and from Calhoun County, the outstanding Democrat of the year is 95-year-old Eucle Knotts."
The name rang a long-forgotten bell. Then, a spry looking man took the stage - and danced, skipped and hopped from one side to the other. I could hardly believe it was the same Eucle Knotts.
"Well, I didn't want to walk across the stage like an old ox," he said, laughing, when I caught up with him a few weeks later.
In a rural area where everyone knows everyone else's business, tracking Eucle down proved to be surprisingly difficult. A few people said they were sure he had passed on. But persistence paid off and I found his phone number. After Velma, his wife of 72 years, died in 2003, Eucle set a trailer on his old family farm in Minnora, at the southern end of Calhoun County. Sitting at his kitchen table, I entered a warm, pleasurable time warp.
Almost immediately, he asked, "Do you nip?" "Well," I answered, "sure." Actually, I had spied a small flask on his counter when I first walked in.
"Take you a glass - or drink it right out of the bottle like I do," he said, handing me the large bottle of Evan Williams bourbon. "I take a few nips a day - I really think that's what keeps me goin'."
Of course, it could also be the cigarettes. Or the bawdy tales - a bit much for even these pages - he reels off about life in rural Calhoun.
After we caught up with one another, he offered an impromptu demonstration of his "West Virginia Shuffle," an improvised jig that was half clogging, half soft shoe - the same step he did at the J-J Dinner.
Eucle Knotts, 95, a distant relative of Don "Barney Fife"
Knotts, demonstrates his "West Virginia Shuffle"
For sure, Eucle can spin those quaint tales of the old horse-and-buggy-moonshine days with the best of them - but he's anything but a museum piece. And, with nearly a century of living behind him, he has a rare perspective on the times we're living in.
Eucle takes pride in the fact that he's been a Democrat all his life. "I'm a Democrat bred, a Democrat born and I'll be a Democrat dead," he quipped, pinching a rhyme from his 88-year-old girlfriend, Opal. In this year's heated presidential campaign, he was an active and outspoken proponent of Sen. John Kerry.
"I can't do much but I did all I could. They let the sons of bitchin' politicians talk them into all kinds of crap," he said, referring to the fact that West Virginia again went Republican.
"I don't understand it," he added. "They're cutting their own throat and they don't realize it. All we have left here is $6, $8 and $10 an hour jobs."
He's also notably perturbed that one of his sons switched parties.
"He bought and sold a couple of houses, made some money and started thinking he was a big shot," he said. "So, he turned Republican. People get a couple of dollars in their hands and they go crazy."
Eucle, the oldest of nine children, got hooked on politics in true West Virginia fashion. When he was a teenager, he helped county politicians buy votes.
"My dad was into politics," he said. "And the night before the election, they'd come up here around midnight with a pocket full of money.
"In those days, we went right up to the polls - just about inside," he added. "Many people you could buy with whiskey - but some you had to give money.
"They would bid on them - a Republican would offer you $5, then the Democrat would offer $10. If the people were smart, they'd take the money and vote for whoever they wanted - but a lot of them didn't know any better."
In a time when many (including myself) have a bleak outlook for our society, I was curious as to how a near-centenarian views the current state of the world.
"Well, it's better in a way," he said. "You can get in a car and get on back to Charleston. Used to be, there were hardly any roads around here and you could only travel in the summer.
"As far as killin' and robbin' and cruelty... I guess it's worse. But we had a lot of that back in the mountains," he added. "And, back then, you could kill someone and hide them and they never could find 'em."
The worst problem we face?
"Cancer, cancer, cancer," he said without hesitating. "People are dyin' around here all the time. I'm a thinkin' it's our food chain, water or air. I think the water's gonna be a problem down the road - I was watching a show on Public Television and even the oceans are gettin' contaminated."
Today, Eucle's front porch looks out on a beautifully maintained pasture - part of the family farm which originally included some 1,200 acres - and winding Route 16.
When he was in the eighth grade - back in 1922 - Eucle quit school and hired on with a contractor who was grading out Route 16 which, in those days, was little more than a wagon road. He used part of his earnings to buy his first car, a 1923 Model T Roadster. He also earned money trapping skunks and possums with "dead falls," a primitive but apparently effective trap.
"We'd tie some rabbit meat around a stick and rig up a big flat rock," he said. "When they went for the bait, the rock would come down and crush them." Ouch.
In those days, another common source of income was moonshine.
"I cut my teeth on moonshine," he said with a sly grin. "The JP around here had a still up on the hill. He learned us boys how to do it. We'd make a little whiskey and sell a little homebrew to make a dollar or two.
"Over on Rush Run, they were all bootleggers up there in those days," he added. "I was just a kid and this was pretty wild country back then. There were some killin's up there but the law was afraid to go up there. There were gun battles - it was like the Hatfield & McCoys."
Eucle still has a taste for good 'shine and can tell you, step-by-step, how to make it right.
His secret for making good whiskey? "Put a couple gallons in a charred keg and put it in the trunk of your car for a couple of weeks," he said. "It's a good as drinking chocolate milk."
Hoping for a more substantial - and legal - income, Eucle followed the lead of thousands of other West Virginians and moved to Ohio. He landed a job at PPG in Barberton, OH. But, like most West Virginians, he couldn't quite cut the cord.
"I'd work a while, get some money and then come back to the hills," he said. During one of his stays back home he met Velma Vannoy. His sister Opal went to high school in Grantsville and often brought friends home to stay with for the weekend.
The two married in 1931, just in time for the Great Depression.
"When we got married, I didn't have a dime," Eucle recalled. "Dad said we could clean up the old chicken coop up and set up housekeepin' there. We had a cow and a few hogs and toughed it out for a few years."
Again, lured by the steady work, the couple moved to Ohio where he worked at plants, including Goodyear's Akron facility until it was time to retire.
"Velma didn't want to move back," he said. "But I had that hillbilly in me and I wanted to come back to the hills."
"I guess I'm just an old hillbilly," he said. "My dad and mother were still livin' so me and my brother took over raisin' cattle on the farm and puttin' up hay."
Eucle has few regrets in his life, but not finishing school ranks as one of them.
"I wish I went to school and got an education. In hindsight, I could have been a millionaire," he said. "There were two farms I could have bought in Ohio, now they've turned them into big shopping centers. Velma talked me out of it - I didn't know how I'd pay for them. It's a true story!"
But, at 95, Eucle doesn't waste much time worrying about money he never made.
"Some rich people have miserable lives. Money don't always make you happy. You can buy whores and whiskey, a fine car and all that s--t... a nice place to live. But you can't buy happiness."
"You know, there's nothing better than to go down the road and pick berries, and meet up with some hillbillies, get half high and shoot the bull."