Osborne’s Store and Blair Mountain
[This was submitted to Goldenseal Magazine but rejected because of the Blair Mountain content.]
Osborne’s store was our favorite place when, in 1975, we moved from Charleston to Griffithsville. Harnesses, shotguns, tools, plows, bulk nails, seeds, groceries, clothes, pins, needles, fresh-sliced cheese, lunchmeat, and items too numerous to list, were all available at Osborne’s. Tobacco farmers charged their purchases for a whole year until they sold their crops.
It was common to go into Osborne’s and savor a half-hour buying four or five items. Tuck and Mabel Roberts, Marita Thornton, Louise Janes, Jeanette Saul, and Mrs. Dragoo, took orders and retrieved each item one at a time. They patiently wrote the orders in a little bill book and gave us a copy.
We could get just about anything we needed at Osborne’s, plus enjoy good company. People seemed warm and happy there, talking and remembering and laughing. While we were waited on, other people came in, and we traded stories, joked, and sympathized. We discussed the weather, county politics, who was related to whom, who was getting married, who was sick, who had died, and when the funeral would be.
Osborne’s was where I heard the story of Sherd Bird’s comment in a discussion with fellow farmers. They were all bemoaning the plague of multi-floral rose. That rose bush was an extension agent’s plan to provide food for birds. But like tobacco farmer, Floyd Rice, said, it was multi-floral and that had to mean multiple seeds. The birds ate the rosehips and pooped the seeds all over the place. That government rose took over pasture fields, making them useless for grazing. After all the farmers had their say, eighty-year old Sherd concluded with, “Well, boys, I’m going to die and leave it.”
One day we were in Osborne’s enjoying the ambiance when a lady we knew came in and bought their entire stock of grape Kool-Aid. She told us that she was going to send it to her church’s missionaries to use to represent the blood of Jesus in communion. Another day, a man started telling me, with a strange look in his eyes, all about 666, the mark of the beast.
Someone broke into Osborne’s; first they stole a neighbor’s acetylene and oxygen tanks, and, crawled in under Osborne’s floor dragging the tanks behind them They connected stolen hoses and a torch to the tanks, burned a hole in the store’s heavily oiled wooden floor and climbed in. They easily could have set the building on fire. They must have reconnoitered carefully to come up in a part of the floor with nothing standing on it. They mainly stole cigarettes, which couldn’t have been worth the risk of being caught or the time they put into the job. I figured they did it just to see if they could.
Osborne’s Store no longer exists. A troubled boy burned it to the ground. But the spirit and soul of the store had disappeared years earlier. The new world order of progress, in the form of convenience stores, franchised grocery stores, and huge discount stores, made it near impossible to turn a profit with an old-fashioned country store, and Osborne’s was old-fashioned.
The Osborne home, not far from the store, was one of the two attributes that made Griffithsville different from other stretches of Route A row of large, beautiful, silver maples lined the road that ran beside where the Osborne family once lived. With tennis courts, just behind the row of trees, the Osborne home was a sign of old wealth. The maple trees were majestic and took a long time getting that way.
Suddenly one day, they were gone. I was stunned to see the naked stretch of roadside that used to be so comforting. These old friends had been killed. That stretch of Route 3 through Griffithsville was not so special anymore.
One of my students at Duval High School remembered that “In the past the school Photographer would take all the seniors down there and have them pose in front of those trees for their senior portraits (my older siblings all have them), but by the time my turn came (class of ’90), the trees were gone. I still think of them on the rare occasion that I drive by there.”
Huey Elwood Hager, my grandfather-in-law, came over to Griffithsville in 1925 from Hewitt’s Creek in Boone County. He drove a team of horses that pulled a wagon of corn to be ground at the mill. He slept, for the one night of the trip, under the wagon with his dogs. Huey went to Osborne’s and bought a pretty, cobalt-blue, sugar bowl, for his wife. We had that bowl when our son Luke began his life three miles up Sugar Tree Creek from Osborne’s.
Huey Elwood Hager’s daughter, my mother-in law, was called Papeen—a grandchild’s version of Maxine. Papeen bought the best soft flannel at Osborne’s and used it to make beautiful baby quilts for all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
My wife and I interviewed Huey about the battle of Blair Mountain. In 1921 he shuttled marching union miners from Jeffrey up Hewitt creek to Blair Mountain. Huey told of arresting John Chafin and two other men. John was a brother of notorious Logan County sheriff Don Chafin. With a pistol held under his bib overalls, Huey went into a house, on the marching miner’s side of Blair Mountain, where Chafin and two deputies were eating. He gave Chafin’s group the choice of surrendering or facing three hundred miners outside. They chose to surrender. Huey took their guns and followed them outside, where, to their surprise, only three armed miners were waiting.
One of the Logan mine guards, deputized for the occasion by Don Chafin, fired a Browning automatic rifle at the union miners. Huey and other miners climbed the mountain, ambushed and killed the mine guard.
For shooting the mine guard and taking the guns from John Chafin, a Logan County grand jury indicted Huey for robbery and murder. After the battle was over, to escape the murder and robbery indictments, Huey fled “far away” to Morgantown. Although we can now do that trip in about three hours, at that time it was far away and probably not all on paved roads.
Huey got a job in a non-union mine near Morgantown and started going by his middle name of Elwood. He unionized the mine within a year. Huey and the other former union miners pieced together, from memory, the oath required to induct new United Mine Workers members.
Two African-American miners showed up one day at the mine. “They knowed me.” Huey said. “I said I never saw you fellers before. They told me I had drove them up Hewitt creek from Jeffrey to Blair Mountain, when they was down here for the fight against the scabs. Those fellers came all the way down from Pennsylvania to help us out.”
The most recent march on Blair Mountain was a re-enactment of the original miners’ march of 1921. One of the organizers was my former student at Duval High School, Chuck Keeney, great-grandson of United Mine Workers leader Frank Keeney. Chuck now has a PhD in history and is a leader in The Friends of Blair Mountain, a group dedicated to saving the historic battleground, which is threatened by mountaintop removal strip mining for coal.
My grandfather, Charlie Barker, and his brother, great uncle Kin Barker, were also in the Battle of Blair Mountain. Many years after the march, Grandpa Barker began telling me about the march with, “When they killed Sid Hatfield, that was the last straw.” That name, Sid Hatfield, stuck in my mind. Years after that I read all I could get my hands on about the Battle of Blair Mountain
Grandma said that a woman they called “Mother” came to talk to the miners—she was speaking of Mother Jones, the famous labor organizer. I asked Grandma where she thought “Mother” came from. She thought she came from Charleston.
Leading up to the march on Blair Mountain, Grandma said there was a train going up Coal River, heading for a rally at Peytona. She couldn’t see the train because it was covered with miners laying on the top and hanging on the sides.
Sid Hatfield, Bill Blizzard, Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Cesco Estep, Mother Jones and the Battle of Blair Mountain, were never mentioned in my twelve years (1942-1954) of West Virginia public school education. I first learned about the largest civilian insurrection since the Civil War, across the dinner table from Grandpa Charlie Barker, and that was re-enforced by Grandpa in-law, Huey Elwood Hager.