(L) John, (C) Mildred, (R) Lawrence
McDonald Early 1960’s at “Big Fork Holler”

Rural Memories

John McDonald-Jessica Holley Essay: College Class 2010

Growing up in West Virginia in the location and situation I experienced can pretty much explain my slow start to learning. With both parents going to their graves prematurely and our mother not knowing how to read or write made an interesting life for a family of fifteen poor farmers.

We lived so far back in the “holler” (Big Fork Holler) that all of us children were born in the shack where we lived except for me and our two youngest brothers (born in the hospital) our father and great aunt did the first ten deliveries. The third and fourth were “twins”

(oh mom I can’t imagine) and the tenth born (the last born in the holler) weighed the most of all us children, over eleven pounds and our mother nearly bled to death and was hospitalized.

Let alone living where we did we were also in the funny sounding county of “Calhoun,” there was other more hilarious sounding areas not that far from us that topped Big Fork. “Stump Town” was pretty close and the neighboring county of Clay really has a topper of “Booger Hole.” But “Pinch Gut Hollow” (where some of our relatives still live) and “Looneyville” both in farther away counties are real gut busters when it comes to where one calls home.

Not having the basic luxuries of running water, electric, telephone, or some form of modern heating other than wood burning stoves seems so strange when looking back over all those years it definitely wasn’t heaven. For instance, water is now so easily accessible it’s like eating cake compared to how we used to have to get it.

Using “glass” gallon vinegar jugs to tote it back from the spring over the hill was a constant challenge knowing it would only last a short while. A sponge bath was about the closest we came to a bath or shower although in the summer we would swim in the nearest creek or pond which was real nice.

Another convenience we lacked was modern lighting but there was a way to get by. Oil burning lamps was our alternative when it came to producing light because utilities were nowhere near our neck of the woods. Using kerosene lamps and sometimes having to cut the lamp wicks from clothing material (denim worked best) was the normal routine for our lighting.

At Christmas we would make a garland for the tree by cutting strips of paper then we’d loop and paste the pieces together with a flour and water mixture before putting it around the tree. Gifts were all in one box, “one large box” of assorted chocolates for the whole family.

There was an upgrade in one of the places we lived it had natural gas a treasured commodity which made pretty good light when a mantle was placed over the pipe fitting burner tip. Natural gas also makes good heat and we were now fortunate enough to have gas burning stoves.

Ah, but all these years later to be able to just flip that switch for instant light and adjust the thermostat by the push of a button for comfort of heating or cooling, or to move the faucet handle a little for an endless supply of water is sometimes so easy to take for granted.

Having an indoor bathroom is another luxury I didn’t experience until the age of six (1966) when the five of us kids still with our mother (our father had passed away in 1963) was taken away and placed in three different foster homes.

Up to that point what we had was an outhouse, not much of a house to it at all it was more like a large rectangle box standing about six to seven feet high and approximately four by four feet around it was made of old saw mill slabs nailed together. It also had a hinged door then was topped with a tin or tar paper roof. The so-called “house” was then set over a six foot deep pit basically a “permanent” un-emptied port-a-john, cold in the winter hot and smelly in the summer! Ones toilet seat was a board with a rounded hole cut in the center, if you were small you had to “hang on” with at least one hand to prevent slipping in!

Being taken from your parent and siblings was a hard thing to understand as a young child but yet you did “kind of” understand because at one point near this time we wound up living in a chicken coop.

So to be taken somewhere to receive regular meals, shelter and clothing somewhat seemed to compensate for being separated. Five older brothers had already been gone by this time (four in the military) stationed at Vietnam, Dominican Republic and two in Germany. The first born (brother) had died at birth and the second born (sister) died from polio at age three. One brother a year older and I was placed in the same foster home, it was a more updated farm as for utilities but had a hundred thirty acres to tend mostly by manual labor.

Our sister was nine years old and a brother a year older than she was placed together and the youngest brother (two years old) was taken to a third foster home and he was adopted. After several years of being apart we were able to see our mother a few times before her passing in 1979, but it was well over twenty years before we children were all able to finally reunite and go through the awkwardness of catching up on all the lost years and getting to know each other.

Numerous other changes also started that summer of 1966 while in foster care. One was a major life changing event of learning to speak basic words. I remember not even being able to say my name and could only utter a few words somewhat clearly. My foster dad wanted me to be able to pronounce my name before school started in the coming weeks but every time I tried to say it only “ohn” came out, (for some reason I missed the J) so he would hold up an old three pound A. & P. peanut butter jar and say “ja, ja, jar,” then he would say “ja, ja, John, now you try it.” I don’t know how many tries it took but it finally worked. Ja, ja, jar, ja, ja, John, I got it!

It was time to start first grade in a modern school that had eight class rooms, this school was nothing like the ones I’d ever seen it was made of brick and stood three stories high, and thankfully now we had a shorter walk of only two miles each way.

One room school’s is where my older siblings had attended and I can remember occasionally walking with them up and down the dirt road called Pine Creek (four miles each way) to attend class at “Lower Pine Creek School,” (built in 1885) even though I was too young for enrollment.

Stevens (aka) Lower Pine Creek School
In the late 1990’s Calhoun County Historical Society
moved the school from Pine Creek Road to the Calhoun
County Park's Heritage Village where it underwent restoration

During the ten years at the foster home I was able to get through nine grades of school, it really helped a lot but it didn’t stop the teasing and jokes which would soon follow. After going to a second foster home in 1976 I wound up running away after six months and hitchhiked to Ohio. I had followed my brother whom I’d shared the first foster home with to the second foster home (two years later) and then to Ohio also.

It’s amazing how only four hours of travel can make such a difference in the way people talk. Many people I’d meet would often mock me (most joking) and say, what do you mean by flyers it’s flowers, just a piece up the road what does that mean? Why do you say medder it’s a meadow, it’s a creek not crick, a bag not a poke, you lived where, up in a holler you mean a hollow you hillbilly. On and on it continued including the bothersome tease of “Old McDonald had a farm, E-I-E-I-O.”

Feeling embarrassed and ashamed only seemed to penetrate if it was a more educated or a more well to do person doing the teasing otherwise it didn’t bother me much because like anything you do become accustomed to it. In fairness at sixteen I still was a kid and kids are known to sometimes tease. However, the longer I was around a different way of speaking the more I began to acquire and use it while both the accent and the teasing slowly faded away.

This all happened about the same time as the big hit “Country Roads” by John Denver was still getting enormous airplay and the first lyrics of the song begins with Almost heaven.

Mr. Denver’s song does indeed summarize a lot of truth about the majestic beauty and amazing peacefulness in the state of West Virginia but in reality the rural way of living that many of us West Virginian’s experienced may now only be distant memories, and was by no means anywhere near heaven.