SIDNEY UNDERWOOD - "The Roadgrader's Coming Up The Road"

My Grandfather Williams' farm house is located in the community of Upper Nutters Fork. Today, if you travel down the back side of Rock Run Hill and approach Poverty Hill, you will see a sign indicating Johnson Williams Hollow Road on the right. If you travel up that road eight-tenths of a mile, you will see the Old Home Place where I spent the summers of my youth and countless weekends until the early 1960's.

My cousin, Kay Haught, lives in that old farmhouse today. I'm proud of the fact that she has taken good care of the place and it still looks pretty much as it did when I was a kid. When I visit with her, we often talk of the old days when we were kids on Granddad's farm. We certainly had our share of good times.

One of my memories there concerns the dirt road leading to the house. I have been told that the first road was not a road at all. Instead, it was a wagon trail through the edge of the meadows that involved traveling part way in the creek bed. That must have been the situation when Preston McClain built the house in 1877. The road had been improved somewhat when he sold the farm to Granddad Williams in 1914. Later, during state sponsored road building of the 1920's, the road evolved into what it looks like today. But, the road now is quite different from what I remember in the 1950's when I was a kid.

In 1950 when I was eight years old, my Dad purchased a Road Master single speed 26 inch bicycle for me. It was maroon and white and like other bikes of the time had a rear mounted coaster brake. With the seat set low, I could just reach the pedals and ride the thing. It was obviously too big for me. As I grew older and longer legged with the seat set higher, I could really fly down that hard packed dirt road during summer months. My cousins, Eddy and Bobby Cutright, also had bicycles and together we rode everywhere.

We often rode down to the forks of the road and would peddle up Rock Run Hill until our legs grew tired whereupon we would turn around and coast downhill then start pedaling again up Poverty Hill and turn again repeating the exercise until our legs ached. Other times we would ride down Nutters Fork to the church near Chips Run, sometimes sitting on the church steps and resting before we started home. We didn't worry about cars hitting us as there wasn't very much traffic back then. We did have to watch out for Craig McKinney, the mailman, but we knew about when to expect him.

Grant Leroy Baker was another kid who lived nearby and often rode with us. He could do amazing things on his bike. He could sit on the handle bar and ride backwards, do wheelies and other stuff. I tried to do what he did, but I always crashed and skinned my knees and knuckles. So I gave that up pretty quickly. Hank Gaskins was another good rider although he was older than us. He lived with Ehraim and Delphia Smith who owned the Edgar Davisson farm. Hank was their farm hand. He had a combination wooden basket and saddle bag mounted on the back of his bicycle. That made his bike twenty pounds heavier but he didn’t seem to mind and he could carry stuff on it. For an “Older Guy,” he was a good rider.

If we had fun bike riding on the dirt road to Granddad’s house in the summer, the same could not be said for the winter months. The road would be passable until after the Thanksgiving Holiday when its condition would deteriorate quickly due to a lack of stone and the freezing and thawing weather. Gone was the smooth surface of the summer to be replaced with deep ruts and undrained mud holes.

During the winter months when Granddad walked down to the mail box at the forks of the road, he wore galoshes and walked the meadows in preference to the muddy road. I remember hearing people call his footwear, “Four Buckle Artics” in the old days. They were made of rubber and covered your regular shoes. Specialized insulated winter footwear had not been invented yet. I think the military was first with their, “Mickey Mouse” rubber boots issued during the Korean Conflict.

I remember when we would travel to Granddad’s house during the winter months. We would make it all the way if the road surface was frozen. Dad tried to always time our visits to freezing weather. There would be places where the under carriage of Dad’s old Plymouth would drag, but that did no damage as cars sat higher in the 1950’s. But other times during milder weather, the car would get hung up in the deeper ruts necessitating our walking the rest of the way along the meadows and crossing the creek several times.

You really haven’t lived until you have to carry clothes and groceries on your back in freezing weather and attempt to jump across creeks getting your feet wet in the process. Everyone should experience that at least once. I remember it happening to me several times and my feet still ache when I think about it. Dad would curse and say that this was the last time that he was going to walk up some God forsaken hollow and he was not coming back again until spring. Mom would just look at me and wink, but she made sure that Dad didn’t see it. We would keep walking and eventually I would see the roof of Granddad’s barn in the distance and I knew we were going to make it trudging along with our stuff like pack horses.

After we arrived at the house, Dad would fire up Granddad’s tractor and he and I would go back for the car. If the road was really bad, he would have me get in the car, start it up and put it in reverse. I would wait in the car until the chain went tight and let out the clutch freeing the car from the deep ruts. When the chain went slack, I would quickly depress the clutch and stop the car. Dad would carefully turn the car around facing out of the hollow and park it there for the rest of the weekend. I asked him one time if it was alright to block the road with the Plymouth. He responded by saying that no one else would be stupid enough to drive up the hollow! I thought his response was funny, but I knew not to laugh. We would ride together back to the house on the tractor. Basically that is how I learned to drive by helping Dad get the Plymouth unstuck. It was a big deal for a ten year old kid.

Often on those weekends we did our own roadbuilding although the State Road Commission never knew about it. Usually on a Saturday morning, Dad would get the tractor and wagon and invite everyone to help load the wagon with rocks. Down the road we would go always looking to the woods above the dirt bank. When a rock was spotted, I would climb the bank and wrestle the rock around and send it tumbling down to the ditch line and one of my cousins would lift it onto the wagon. My cousin, Eddy Cutright, was the stoutest and he did most of the heavy lifting. By the time we got to Dad’s car, we had maybe twenty good size rocks on the wagon. Dad would supervise what rocks went where. Thinking about it now, I realize that those rocks just went deeper and deeper into the mud over the years. If we could excavate the road today, we might find our rocks three feet under the surface. Also, I’m sure that the road grader man plowed out some of them when he made his annual trip up the hollow each spring.

Concerning the road grader man coming up the road in his big yellow contraption, I must say it gladdened our hearts when we saw him. About the middle of May each year, we would hear that strange sound and everyone would get excited. We would run out on the porch and listen in anticipation. We could hear the machine a half mile away working its way toward us. I remember running down the road and watching from a distance. I would see a big yellow road grader pulling the ditch line and there would be a man with a shovel walking near the machine. He would watch for culverts and clean them out when the grader passed. I remember thinking that shovel man did a lot of walking during his eight hour shift.

The road grader man would turn around in Granddad’s barn yard and wave to us as he passed by. Mom always said that she was so tickled to see him that she just might run out and give him a big kiss! That road grader man would work most of an afternoon. When he was done, the road had a high crown in the middle and the ditches were clear of the accumulated limbs and leaves of the preceding winter. When the road dried out in a couple of days, it was hard packed and well drained and I could fly down it again on my bicycle.

On a personal note during the time I speak of which was the 1950’s, there was never any stone or gravel to be had for roads like ours in Doddridge County. Fast forward to the present time. Now it is a common sight for the Department of highways to bring stone to the road during the winter months. In the past forty years we probably have received over eighty truckloads of stone making the road passable year around and for that I am grateful. The only thing that makes me sad today is the fact that the ditch line, filled with limbs and leaves, is nearly as high as the road. The road grader man has forsaken us. He doesn’t do much ditch work anymore and only shows up in winter to plow deep snow. Again, I am thankful for the truckloads of stone over the years, but I miss the old days when the big yellow machine came up the road in springtime and the ditches ran clear.