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A Trip to the Old South

Richard Slattery

Here I was going down a gravel road at a brisk speed of 35 mph I was just back from boy scout camp two weeks ago and now I was in the front seat of a model T Ford heading to Lynchburg Va. My mother was behind me with the luggage and a neighbor gentleman was driving. As things turned out my father had to stay home and work for the depression had just begun and this neighbor was going to visit relatives in southern Virginia, was going through Lynchburg and volunteered to take us along.

The object of this trip was to visit my mother's old girl friend that she hadn't seen since before we moved from Ohio to Washington D.C. 7years ago I really didn't know much of anything about where we were going except that my mother's friend lived on a farm and the directions we had were to go to the railroad station in Lynchburg and get on the "Doodlebug" (a local name for a 2 coach diesel train that ran west along the James River to the Blue Ridge Mountains. and beyond. Just reading the directions made the trip sound more interesting The next step in the journey was to get off the doodlebug. at Holcomb Rock station and walk back down the track about 1/4 mile and look for a row boat tide up to the river bank opposite the log house plainly in sight about 1/4 mile toward the west mountain. The reason for the complicated directions was due to the fact that there wasn't any bridge anywhere in sight and there was no road on the west side of the river that even came close to our destination. For me this was all fun. I had just learned how to row a boat at Boy Scout camp on the Chesapeake Bay and was anxious to try out my new skills.

Richard Slattery on Holcomb Rock (1931)
The Tinsleys at the log house had already spotted us and were on their way down to the river bank to meet us and help carry our bags up to the house. Once there I was thrilled to see the log house up close and to learn that it had been built in the late 1700's with additions later and was equally amazed to meet "uncle” Jeff and learn that he had been a slave during the Civil War and had belonged to the people who had owned this property we were on plus a large manor house a short distance up the hill.

"Uncle Jeff"

All that was left of the big house in 1931 was a large mound covered with trees and weeds. It had been burned to the ground by the Union troops back in 18'65. One portion was left, however, and that was the detached kitchen which is now the home of "Uncle" Jeff. who was, in1931, 85 years old and doubtless had seen many previous land owners come and go both from here and from the log house and from what I heard has spent his whole life here and now for most of it free to go wherever he wished but instead preferred to stay here where he did light work around the small farm and was cared for by the present occupants. “Uncle" Jeff seem to take a liking to me and when I told him I would like to go fishing he said that he could make me a special bait called "red dog" that was sure to catch me some fish. he disappeared for a while and when he returned he had a number of dough like round balls about the size of a large marble and said "Put one of these on your hook and here is some line and a sinker and it won't be long before you are sure to catch a fish. He even made me a stringer to carry back my catch. I was only down at the river a short time it seemed until I had several carp and was so excited that I ran all the way up to the house carrying my fish to show "uncle” Jeff and the others my catch. Jeff cleaned them and we had them for dinner.

I hope that Jeff got some to eat in his den (a room beside the kitchen where the firewood is kept). This brings up a whole new subject that cain't be ignored and that is the custom, particularly in the south of the 1930's and that was segregation. When you find yourself eating in the front room while your friend is eating, even the same meal, in the back room where the firewood is stored, that is segregation. At that time I felt something was wrong but strangely felt something comfortable with it. And "Uncle" Jeff was no less a friend and would not have come to the front room with us even if invited. It is a strange relationship and hard to understand but in 1931that was the way it was.

The second day I was visiting the Tinsleys which were composed of Mr. and Mrs. and two sons, Jack and Bill both older than I and neither living at home. This day I planned to do a bit of exploring for last night was quite different from home. First there was no electricity and we were to sleep upstairs. There were some rather steep stairs to a fairly good sized loft which we reached with one hand carrying a lighted candle. We found our beds and had a good night's sleep. I don't recall if anyone else slept upstairs or not. While lying in bed, still awake I recalled seeing a kitchen sink with running water and a modern bath room which was quite normal. With no electricity and no modern plumbing, where did the water come from and where did the water pressure come from? I must check this out in the morning. After devouring some home-made biscuits and eggs I was ready to ask some questions and start exploring. First I was told that the water came from a spring near the base of the mountain and was piped down a rather steep incline for about 200 yards to the house giving it all the pressure it needed. What happened to it after that, I didn't ask. While outside I noticed a large hog in a pen just outside the back door and at feeding time once I happened to see Mrs. Tinsley throw it a pan of dishwater in its trough.

I wandered about the farm to the weather beaten barn and there saw a white horse that I was told was 25 years old. I was also told I could ride him but not too fast. I thought that might be fun so I climbed on. No saddle of course and we slowly toured the farm. There was about 20 acres plowed up next to the river and some open ground along the lower side of the mountain. Ever alert for archeological items, I saw several chips but nothing worth getting off the horse for. What did seem worth trying was my hand at plowing. There was a single blade plow at the end of the field and I road up there, dismounted and somehow got the plow hooked up to the horse and grabbed the two plow handles and said "giddy-up" and the horse dragging the plough nearly yanked me off my feet and I had to run after the horse to finally stop him. So much for the two of them and my brief search for Indian relics

The funny thing about this was that a full grooved stone axe was right here in the house being used as a doorstop. When questioned I was told it had been found on the premises and once they found out that I was an archeology buff they said I could have it. (Now in 2008 and living in Iowa I am looking for a museum to pass it on.)

There are a few untold incidents yet to be mentioned about this fascinating area. One of the photos is of Holcomb Rock which I had taken from ground level and the photo with the author on it was the result of my curiosity about a man named" Holcomb" who, it was said, was being chased by Indians along a trail atop the crest of the mountain and when Holcomb came to the abrupt end of the mountain and the trail, James river many feet below ,it was stop and let the Indians have him or climb out on the projecting rock and make the leap and hope to land in the river. Ever since the famous rock has been named after him but it was never told if Holcomb ever survived the leap.

Full-Grooved Hand Axe

The little town nearby also was named in honor of "Holcomb" and a photo taken from the rock shows a small trail of smoke rising from the center of business in the town. That was from the smelting of chromium ore, a light, sparkling pile of rock like substance whose origin was Africa. The fact that coal trains run through here on their way to and from West Virginia probably explains it.

Speaking of coal trains, they were something to see when they were pulled by one of the largest steam engines ever built. While at the log house I would run to the front porch whenever I would hear a loud boom like a big firecracker gone off. I then knew that one of those huge coal trains was rounding the mountain on the other side of the river and that "boom!" was to warn all that were near the tract that a coal train was coming around the mountain. It was exciting to me for from the front porch of the log house I could grab a chair and count the cars one of those big engines were pulling. When empty I would count 100 most often. If interested, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. has one of those huge steam engines on display for all to see even today in 2008.

Another item of special interest, in this closely net area in both time and space, occurred a number of years later on another visit to the Tinsley’s. This time there was a gravel road right to the log house and Jack was there to show us around. One other manor house in the same neighborhood was fortunate enough not to have been burned during "The War Between the States” as the southerners like to call it. It was amazing that it was still standing and as proof that it survived the Civil War. Upon entering this manor house we immediately noticed the ceilings of several rooms had multiple brown spots at random staining their ceilings. Jack explained to me that during the invasion of Virginia during the Civil War the occupants of this manor house took all their stored smoked hams from their smoke houses and "hid" them in the attic and each ham dripped a little, leaving its mark to remain for 150 years and more yet to come. Seeing this made it all seem like yesterday.

Still being there with Jack he asked me if I would be willing to help him locate the survey markers on a 400 acre tract of land he had recently purchased. I agreed and we spent the next day hiking in that forested 400 acres that I believed had once belonged to the owners of the burned Manor house. Believe me I slept good that night.

This story is dedicated to my son, Robert Gates Slattery (1950-2003) who first suggested that I write up my encounter with a still living ex-slave. -R.S.

Richard "Gates" Slattery at the
Winslow site in 2003.