(09/11/2018)
By Sidney Underwood

It was June 13, 1896 and my Granddad, Johnson Williams, was a young unmarried man of twenty six living on Israel’s Fork in Doddridge County. He had a married sister, my Great Aunt Nora Belle {Williams} Knight, who lived in Calhoun County near Freed in Sheridan District. Her husband, Flavius J. Knight, worked in the early oilfields as a rig builder in the leading creek area of the county.

Mr. Knight’s Mother, Alcinda {Ashburn} Knight, lived near my Grandfather’s parent’s home on Israel’s Fork and had died that day at the age of 59 after falling ill on June 3 suffering from what was called paralysis {stroke} at the time. It became evident that someone needed to deliver the news of her death to her son in Calhoun County. Since there was no rail line to Calhoun and no telephone or telegraph system in place, the news would be delivered by horseback.

My Granddad volunteered immediately for the trip and started making preparations as he and Flave had known each other since childhood. Mr. Knight having been born in 1867 and my Granddad in 1870.

Putting aside his own grief, Granddad secured a bedroll and two canteens of water to the saddle. Extra clothing and provisions for himself and his horse were placed in the saddlebags. Hoping for mild weather he thought the journey could be completed in two days although this would be his first trip to Calhoun County.

Since he did not have enough money for staying at a waystation or inn, he planned on sleeping under the stars. He had a strong horse and planned to start before daylight the next morning.

At 5:00 am the next day, the trip began. Granddad urged his horse, Buck, into a brisk canter and in an hour was passing through the covered bridge over Middle Island Creek to the village of West Union. He headed west and the first 10 miles were uneventful.

An occasional barking dog announced his approach as he passed the farmsteads and saw men going about their activities in the early morning hours.

He traveled what is now old RT# 50, but at the time was known as The Northwestern Turnpike. When he reached the beginning of the Greenwood Hill, he stopped at a creek and allowed his horse to drink. He dismounted and studied the terrain trying to decide which way to proceed.

He knew if he continued westward on the turnpike, he would be required to pay a toll at the edge of Ritchie County. From the map he had studied, he also knew that he needed to pursue a southwesterly direction. Having only a small amount of money for emergencies, he decided to take the Oxford road and started in that direction just as a large freight wagon approached from the west along the turnpike.

Eight horses wearing fancy silver studded harnesses with small ringing bells and pulling a large wheeled road wagon were moving toward him at speed. He held his horse when it became skittish at the sight and sound of the horses and the large wagon. The teamster waved to him as the thundering wagon passed by and disappeared around a bend in the road filling the air with plumes of dust.

As the clattering of hooves and the sound of bells subsided, Granddad again urged the horse onward toward Oxford. He let the horse pick its way on the narrow winding dirt road. He thought of Alcinda and the kindness she had exhibited to him as a motherless child. He thought of Flave and how the two of them were like brothers hunting and fishing and, yes, getting into trouble when they were teenagers.

He remembered them fighting over a girl in the local schoolyard one Spring evening. Upon hearing about it later, Alcinda had marched them into her house and told them she expected her menfolk to exhibit both maturity and responsibility and be respectful toward women. The memory of her lecture so long ago brought tears to his eyes because he realized now that she was the most “common sense” woman he had ever known and he knew he would miss her dearly.

It was noon when he passed through Oxford and crossed into Ritchie County. Again he stopped for the horse to drink; this time in the South Fork of the Hughes River. Granddad dismounted and pulled a ham and biscuit sandwich wrapped in a cloth napkin from his saddlebag.

He sat on the ground and ate the sandwich and drank from the canteen while the horse grazed near the water in lush grass. Finished with his meal, he pulled his pocket watch and noted the time nearing 1:00 pm, mounted the horse and resumed his journey in the direction of Pullman.

Late in the afternoon, Granddad arrived at Pullman. Both he and the horse were tiring as they had covered over 25 miles since sunup. Both canteens were now empty and he stopped long enough to refill them at a water well after getting permission from a family living at the edge of the village.

Again, the horse drank from a nearby creek.

Before leaving he asked them about the best route to Calhoun County. The man of the house said that there was a road or trail along the ridge beyond Washburn that would take him toward the village of Smithville, but the man knew nothing of the country beyond that point.

Granddad and the horse were now travelling in a south westerly direction on what was a barely passible wagon trail known as Chevaux de Frise Run. Supposedly given that name by French Fur Trappers in the 1760’s who had spent a miserable winter in the area, it was a rather desolate place with overgrown brush, downed trees and briar thickets.

It was slow going as his horse had to skirt several nearly impassable places where the trail ended and began again because fallen trees had displaced the creek or run and that made dealing with the washouts very challenging.

He kept traveling on without seeing any homesteads and could feel the emptiness of the place. For the first time in his journey, he felt uneasy and wished he had packed his old cap and ball revolver. It was just him and the sound of his horse’s hooves.

As evening approached, he became more apprehensive when he got the feeling that someone was watching him.

He stopped and dismounted to let the horse drink. He looked around and watched and listened for a time. Satisfied that he was alone, he removed some grain from the saddlebag and placed it on the ground for the horse.

He stretched his back and let out an audible groan as he was sore and stiff from riding all day and he could feel the tiredness in his bones. Remembering the map that he had packed, he pulled it from his saddlebag and studied it in the failing light.

He estimated that Washburn should be straight ahead approximately four more miles. Again, he pulled his pocket watch and noted the time approaching 8:00 pm. Although it was the month of June and the days were long, it had been overcast since daybreak and it seemed darkness was coming early.

He saw lights in the windows in the distance as he approached Washburn. When he entered the village, he saw several houses set close together and a general store that was closed.

Ahead, he saw a larger building with horses tied outside that appeared to be a tavern, inn or possibly a waystation for the stage line. Sorely tempted to stop for the night and spend what little money he had, he nevertheless decided to press on until he found a place to camp.

After passing through Washburn, Granddad and the horse began the curving long hard climb uphill toward the ridge road the man had described that would take him to the settlement that was Smithville. It was completely dark and Granddad saw the lights of a farmhouse on a low ridge to the west.

Thinking he would be safe camping near the house, he urged the tired horse up the path toward the residence. Stopping at the yard gate, he called to the house. In a few moments a man and woman appeared on the porch.

Granddad sat astride his tired horse and waited as the man lit a lantern and approached. In the next few minutes, Granddad explained to him that he needed a place to camp for the night would pay for him and his horse to sleep in the barn.

He also explained the reason for his trip and where he had started from. The man thought a moment and then stated that he didn’t want any money from the stranger and he was welcome to spend the night. The man started toward the barn with the lantern and told Granddad to follow him.

Granddad dismounted and led his horse a short distance into the barn. With the saddle, halter and bedroll removed, the horse fed and secured for the night, Grandad thanked the man for his kindness and started preparing his bedroll. The man told Granddad there was no need for that and to come to the house where he would be given something to eat and allowed to sleep in the house.

Walking to the house together, Granddad was handed a towel and pointed toward a pitcher pump on the porch where he could wash his face and hands with strong homemade lye soap. After finishing that chore, he was shown into the house to a kitchen where the man’s wife was boiling fresh coffee.

She said all she had to offer him was cornbread and milk as the supper table scraps had already been given to the hogs. Granddad responded by saying that cornbread and milk sounded good to him. Again, he thanked them for their generosity. After he had eaten, he and the man sat in the living room and talked for a time.

Granddad was informed that he needed to make an early start the next morning if he wanted to make the Calhoun County line by evening. Soon, he was shown to his room and saw a pitcher of warm water with a large wash basin and fresh towels.

After stripping off his dusty horse smelling clothes, he allowed himself a satisfying bath before putting on a night shirt and blowing out the lamp. As he sank into the feather bed, he realized how lucky he was to be safe and secure in a strange place so far from home. Instantly, he fell into a deep sleep.

It seemed that he had slept only a short time when he heard a tapping on the door. Lighting the lamp and looking at his pocket watch on the night stand, he was surprised that it was 5:00am already. Acknowledging that he was awake, he heard from the man that breakfast was on the table. And what a breakfast it was.

He ate ham and eggs and fresh biscuits and molasses washed down with plenty of strong black coffee. Granddad complemented the woman for preparing such a fine meal. She responded by saying that she had packed several items for him to eat on his journey including a generous slice of dried apple pie.

Beyond the yard gate, Granddad mounted his horse and looked over his shoulder, paused and waved, seeing the man and woman on the porch watching him as he began the climb toward the ridge. Thankful for the good June weather, he watched the sun rise.

Refreshed after a good night’s sleep, he made good time letting the horse move along at a brisk pace. Somewhere near the community of Mahone, he met his first traveler. The man identified himself as an evangelist enroute to a revival meeting at Hazelgreen. Stopping in the road, they talked for a short time and the preacher offered up a prayer for Alcinda. The next horseman encountered was a postman headed for Washburn. He apparently was serious about his delivery schedule as he gave Granddad a curt nod and kept his horse moving forward.

Granddad entered the village of Smithville in the afternoon. Resting under a shade tree near Leatherbark Creek, he helped himself to the lunch that had been packed for him. With the horse secured, he entered a nearby general store. He purchased a few items, then asked the proprietor for directions to Calhoun County and specifically to Freed.

He was informed that he should follow Leatherbark Creek south a short distance and watch for the road to the Ritchie County line that traveled up a narrow valley. He was further instructed to turn up Cole Run which would be on his right after traveling about five miles. He was told that trail would cross one or two ridges and that would put him in the vicinity of Freed. The proprietor said there were several families living on Cole Run and they could give him more specific directions.

As Granddad and the horse traveled the narrow valley road toward the county line, He suddenly realized that the news he was about to deliver would have a devastating effect on his sister and brother-in-law.

What had seemed like the right thing to do yesterday morning now had him doubting that he was man enough to finish it. He thought of turning back. Why had he been so eager to volunteer for this when he was really bringing only heartache and tears to the family? Then he had a moment of clarity: Would someone rather receive such news from a stranger or a family member?

Granddad urged the horse onward and soon was travelling up Cole Run {Coal Fork} which he hoped would be the final leg of the journey. An hour later he had crossed two ridges following the trail. He stopped near a small cabin and was informed that he was only a mile from Freed. Turning onto Leading Creek, he went a short distance and saw the small house with the new wooden shingle roof and knew he was at the correct home.

Granddad saw his sister, Nora, returning from the garden. Dismounting, he saw the look of surprise on her face when she recognized him. Quietly, he told her of Alcinda’s death. Nora informed him that Flave had just gotten home from work and was inside washing up for supper. Together, they approached the house in the fading sunlight.

Post Script: This story was told to me by my Grandfather many years ago. When traveling on RT#16 with my family in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, he never failed to point out the house where that generous family allowed him into their home that night so long ago.

Since my Granddad died in 1964 at the age of 94 and my great Uncle Flave died in 1967 at the age of 100, I am sure I could have written volumes if I had been a better listener as both were good storytellers.

It was my Great Uncle Flave who first told me the story of the Betts Ghost house below Cabot Station when I was a small child.

I had no way of knowing at that time that I would someday live near that house. Flave and Nora moved back to Doddridge County sometime before 1900; however, some of their children were born in Calhoun County.


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