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A short story by Etta Belle Walker

The Story Teller Of The Valley--Samuel Kercheval

Title:     The Story Teller Of The Valley--Samuel Kercheval
Author: Etta Belle Walker [More Titles by Walker]


Samuel Kercheval as a boy saw many of the pioneer men and women who had cut their homes out of the wilderness. He never tired hearing of how they had left Germany, and later had come down from Pennsylvania into the Valley. He himself could remember many of the "Newcomers" who were themselves pioneers. He loved the stories of the forts, the Indian raids and the customs of the Germans and Scotch-Irish. He later began to write down many of these stories and after he was older he rode up and down the Valley gathering more and more stories and reading wills and old records. Nothing was of too little value for him to record, even accounts of the freaks of nature, like a six-legged calf, snakes and other animals.

When Kercheval's friends insisted that he write a book about the Valley, he objected until they told him how much the children of the country would enjoy stories of their grandparents. His own children (there had been fourteen of them in all), like all children, loved stories. Now he began to get his notes in shape and about one hundred years after the first settlers came into the Valley, Samuel Kercheval's History of the Valley of Virginia was ready for the publishers.

This was so popular that all the first edition was soon exhausted. How pleased he was with the demands for more of them! However, he died before the second edition came out. He lived at the time of his death in 1845 at "Harmony Hall" near Strasburg. This had at one time been a fort. During an Indian raid, we are told, sixteen families sought shelter within its old stone walls. They lived together so peaceably that they gave it the name of "Harmony Hall."

It is from Kercheval that we get the first pictures of the Valley. He writes that it was long beautiful prairie, with tall rich grasses, five and six feet tall, with fringes of sturdy timbers following its swiftly running streams. He describes the kinds of soils and tells which is rich and which is poor. For instance he says where one finds slate he may rest assured the soil will not produce very good crops. On the other hand, where one finds limestone the soil will produce fine products, grains and fruits.

Metal was found in some of the hillsides and mountains. An Englishman named Powell found silver ore on the mountain which bears his name. He smeltered the silver and from it made coins. This was breaking the laws, of course, and soon officers were attempting to arrest him. Powell fled to his mountain where he had a small fort hidden, and for years eluded them. After many years men found his little shop where he smeltered the ore and Kercheval himself saw the crude crucible in which the ore was refined and the iron utensils also.

Kercheval tells that many of the farmers found it difficult to plough their lands and to make crops because of the innumerable small and large stones which they found everywhere. At last they decided to get rid of them and built many of the stone walls which one sees up and down the mountain sides, along winding roads and enclosing picturesque homes. He says the soil is so rich that seeds do not need to be planted very deep, as they will germinate if there is only enough soil to cover them.

There were great sugar-maple trees too and he tells of those "sugar hills" in which there are four or five hundred acres of trees. They even look like sugar loaves from a distance and today on Paddy's Mountain you may still see some of them. You may already have guessed that the name Paddy was in honor of the owner Patrick Blake, an Irishman who built in the gap which is named for him.

Kercheval lists carefully all the various healing springs and gives the properties of each. He even gives the names of many persons who were benefitted by drinking from or bathing in them.

Let us pause here and read about these pioneers, how they built their houses, how they dressed, and something of their superstitions, manners and customs.

The first settlers built plain sturdy houses made mostly from rough hewn logs. Some of these were covered with split clapboards, having weight poles to keep them in place. Many of them had no floors except the earth itself. If made of wood, they used rough logs, split in two and roughly smoothed with a broad ax. However, as they improved the lands and their families grew, some larger houses were built of stone, which the men and boys brought in from the fields.

The married men generally shaved their heads and they wore wigs or linen caps. When the Revolutionary War broke out this custom was stopped for they could no longer buy wigs from Europe and none were made in this country. There was little linen, so they could not get enough for other needs and they could do without caps.

The men's coats were mostly made with broad backs and straight short skirts. These had huge pockets with flaps. The waistcoats had skirts nearly down to the knees and pockets also. Their breeches were so short they hardly reached to their knees, and they were fastened with a tight band. Their stockings were drawn up under the knee-hand and tied with a red or blue garter below the knee so it could be seen. Their shoes were made of coarse leather, with straps and they were fastened with buckles of brass for every day--maybe with silver for Sundays and holidays. The men's hats were either of wool or fur with a round crown three or four inches in height and with a very broad brim. The shirt collar was only a narrow band and over it was worn a white linen stock drawn together at the ends and fastened with a broad metal buckle.

The women wore a short gown and petticoat of plain materials and a calico cap. Their hair was combed back from the forehead and made into a plain knot at the nape of the neck.

The women and girls worked in the fields and wore no shoes except in the winter. They worked from dawn 'til dark, for they milked, churned, made cheese, washed and ironed for the family, cooked, spun and wove, knitted stockings and quilted in their leisure moments. Kercheval tells us how they made apple butter and sourkrout. Of the latter he wrote:

"Sourkrout is made of the best of cabbage. A box about three feet in length and six or seven inches wide, with a sharp blade fixed across the bottom, something on the principle of the jack plane, is used for cutting the cabbage. The head being separated from the stalk and stripped of its outer leaves is placed in this box and run back and forth. The cabbage thus cut up is placed in a barrel, a little salt is sprinkled on from time to time, then pressed down very closely and covered at the open head. In the course of three or four weeks it acquires a sourish taste and to persons accustomed to the use of it is a very agreeable food. It is said the use of it within the last few years on boards of ship has proved it to be the best preventive known for scurvy. The use of it is becoming pretty general among all classes in the Valley."

Kercheval even tells us what the pioneers did for medicine. When he was a boy he saw a man brought into the fort on horseback, who had been bitten by a rattlesnake. One of the men dragged the snake, fastened to a forked stick, behind the victim. The body of the snake was cut into small pieces, split and laid on the wounded flesh. This, they claimed, would draw out the poison of the bite. When this was done, the snake was burned to ashes. During this process, others gathered chestnut leaves and boiled them in a pot. Wide pieces of chestnut bark were applied to the man's wound and the chestnut-leaf mixture poured over some of the boiled leaves which had been made into a poultice. This was kept up during the first day and if not improved, the treatment was continued the next.

Others suggested using boiled plantain, cooked in milk, which was given to the patient. Walnut fern was another remedy for snakebite. The braver patient submitted to cupping, sucking the wound or having someone cut out the flesh around the bite.

Gunshot wounds were treated with slippery-elm bark, flax seed poultices or by scraping the wound itself and cauterizing it.

The people suffering from rheumatism were rubbed with oil made from rattlesnakes, bears, geese, wolves or any wild animal. This was put on a flannel rag and bound to the parts affected.

There were all kinds of syrups made from herbs such as spike nard and elecampane for coughs and tuberculosis. The Germans used songs or incantations for the cure of burns, nose-bleed and toothache. For one afflicted with erysipelas the blood of a black cat was given. Hence there were few cats which had not lost parts of their ears or tails.

The sports of the boys in those early days were mostly those which developed their physical bodies. The boys were given a gun almost as soon as they were strong enough to carry one. They learned to make their own bows and to sharpen their own arrows and many of them could shoot as straight as the Indians who still roamed the hills.

Throwing the tomahawk was another favorite sport. This axe-like weapon with its handle will make so many turns in a given distance. With a little practice a boy soon learned to throw his tomahawk and strike a tree as he walked through the forest.

When a boy was twelve, he had his own small rifle and pouch and was made a member of the fort. He was given a certain port hole through which he took careful aim. He was often allowed to go with older men on hunting trips if he had proved himself worthy to be "among men."

Dancing as we know it was unknown, but few ever enjoyed anything more than those boys and girls did dancing their jigs and reels. Their music was simple and singing was something both old and young enjoyed to the fullest. Story-telling was an art then, and year by year, old, old tales grew longer and longer and Jack the hero, always conquered all the giants.

There was witchcraft in the Valley too, and when a crow or calf died or was sick, the owner often thought a witch had shot it with a hair ball or with some kind of curse. When a man lost his cunning in his once good aim, he was sure some one had put a "spell" on him. Some actually believed men were changed into horses and after being bridled, they were ridden all over the countryside. Many men thought this was why their bones ached and they felt too tired to work their farms.

The men who did strange things were spoken of as wizards. Some called them witch-masters, and these claimed they could stop the mischievous work of the witches and cure baffling diseases.

When a child was born with a frail body, or developed rickets, it was often thought to be caused by the spells of someone unfriendly to the family.

If one would get rid of the witch in his neighborhood a picture of the supposed witch was drawn on a board or on a stump and shot at with a bullet which contained a bit of silver. This bullet, if it struck the picture, was thought to put a spell on the witch.

We may smile at the thought of those superstitions, but few of us, if we are honest, will not admit that we have one pet superstition just as foolish as those referred to above.

Kercheval tells us how difficult it often was for the farmer to retain all of his crops. There were so many animals, like the squirrels and raccoons, which liked their grains. Storms would come and huge trees would fall on their fences, letting their horses and cattle get into the fields.

He makes us realize how difficult it was to procure the necessities of life. Where, for instance did they get the mills with which to grind their grains, where the instruments with which to make their farming implements and their household cooking utensils? Who were their weavers, their shoemakers, tailors, tanners and wagon makers? Of course there were none, for each farmer and his family had to rely on what they could do with their own hands or what they could trade to some neighbor in return for something done for him.

The first mills or hominy blocks were made of wood. A block of wood about three feet long was burned at one end, wide at the mouth and narrow at the bottom, so that when the pestle hit the corn it was thrown up and as it fell down to the bottom it was mashed. Gradually, each grain of corn was ground to a like size. When the corn was soft, as it was in the Fall, this grinding made a fine meal for mush or "journey cake" as they called this form of bread. However, this was slow work later on when corn got hard.

The farmer also used a different kind of mill. He used a sweep made of springy wood, thirty feet or more long. This pole was supported by two forks, placed about a third of its length from its butt end where it was securely fastened to some firm object. To this was attached a large mortise, a piece of sapling five or six inches in diameter and eight or more long. The lower end was shaped like a pestle and a pin of wood was put through it at a proper height so two people could work the sweep at once.

Kercheval says he remembers the one which he helped work in his own home. It was made of a sugar-tree sapling and was kept almost in constant use either by his own family or by the neighbors who came to use it. He says these sweeps were used to make gunpowder from the saltpetre caves which the settlers soon found.

The women often used a grater for the corn when it was very soft. This was made of a piece of tin, a few holes punched in on one side and then nailed to a block of wood and the corn scraped against it. This produced a form of corn-meal but was a very tedious method. Another kind was a mill made of two circular stones. The one on the bottom was called the bed stone and the upper one the runner. These were placed in a hoop with a spout for discharging the meal. A staff was let into the hole in the upper surface of the runner near the outer edge and its upper end through a hole in a board fastened to a joist above. The grain was put into the runner by hand. This type of mill, is one of the earliest ever known by man.

Then every man tanned his own leather. The tan-vat was a huge tub which was sunk into the ground. A quantity of bark was quickly gotten each spring when the farmer cleared his land. This was first dried then brought in and on rainy days, the bark was stripped, shaved and pounded on a block of wood with an ax or mallet. Ashes were used in place of lime for taking off the hair from the skins of animals. They did not have fish-oil, so the settlers substituted bear's grease, or lard made from boiling the fat of these animals. This oil was used to make the leather soft and pliable. The leather was often very coarse, but it was tough and wore well. They made their blacking or polish for their shoes by mixing soot with lard. Not every man could make shoes, but everyone could make shoepacks, an article similar to the moccasin.

Kercheval's father was a master weaver as well as a fine shoe maker. He made all the shoes worn by his family and would not let anyone else make his thread, as he thought no woman could spin it as well as he could. He made all the woodenware called set work. He hand-carved some of them, making grooves in which he fitted hoops to hold the staves in place. During the days when every man had to serve in some military service, the elder Kercheval was not strong enough to fight. The men brought all their firearms to him and he repaired them. He could straighten a crooked gun barrel with ease and file off any broken edges.

Kercheval's father had been to school for only six weeks, yet he read, worked hard problems in mathematics and wrote letters, not only for himself, but for many of his friends. He drew up bonds, deeds of conveyance and wrote other articles for them. He taught his boy to use his hands, for Samuel tells that as a boy, he wove garters, belts and shot pouches. He, too, could make looms. He traded well, for he says he would swap a belt for a man's labor for a day, or give one to a man for making a hundred fence rails.

An amusing custom developed among the German settlers regarding their weddings. Young men and women, termed "waiters," were selected to help officiate at a wedding. The groomsmen were proud to wear highly embroidered white aprons on such an occasion, for it was symbolic of protection to the bride. Each waiter tried to keep the bride from having her slippers stolen from her feet during the festivities. If she did sustain the loss the young man had to pay for it with a bottle of wine, since the bride's dancing depended upon its recovery.

Characterized by their strong religious beliefs it was only natural for the Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to build their churches as they built their little homes. Opequon Church south of Winchester is thought by many to be the oldest church in the Valley. Not so with the Germans. They did not attempt to build separate houses of worship for a generation or more after coming to the new section but they did hold regular services in the homes of the settlers and waited until a better time to erect churches.

There was an interesting custom among the Scotch-Irish at their weddings, too. It was called "running for the bottle." Usually the bride and groom went to the parson's home for the marriage ceremony, attended by their friends on horseback. At the conclusion of the ritual the young men took to their horses and dashed for the bride's father's house. The man on the fleetest horse was given a bottle of wine from which the returning bride and groom first drank and then it was passed on to others. In most instances the mad rush to the home was made in spite of numerous trees and small brush which were cut down to serve as obstacles in their paths.

At Winchester these two distinct nationalities got along fairly well together. An example of their friendly relations is to be seen in their "War of the Guelphs and Ghibellines." The Dutch on St. Patrick's Day would parade through the village streets with effigies of St. Patrick wearing a necklace of Irish potatoes and his wife carrying an apron full of them.

And then on the day of St. Michael, the patron of the Dutch, the Irish retaliated by holding aloft an effigy of the saint decorated with a necklace of sourkrout.

As was to be expected these frolics occasionally went to the extreme and ended before the judge in the log cabin courthouse.

It was hard for those early settlers to get such articles as salt, iron, steel and casting. There were no stores where they could purchase sugar, tea and hundreds of other necessities of today. Pelts, furs or skins were their only money before they had time to raise horses and cattle. In the Fall of the year, after all crops were harvested, every settler's family formed an association with some of their neighbors for starting a caravan.

This consisted of two packhorses. A bell and collar was put on each horse, as were a pair of hobbles made from hickory withes. Bags were packed on the back of the saddles in which to bring back two bushels of alum salt, each bushel weighing eighty-four pounds. Each horse carried two bags on the return journey. This was not such a heavy load for a horse but one must remember the animal also had to carry its own food. Somewhere along the narrow trail, some of this grain was hidden until the return journey. Large pouches or bags were also carried in which were loaves of home-baked bread or "Journey Cake," a mixture of Indian meal and water baked on an iron skillet and boiled ham and cheese.

The men traded first in Baltimore, Hagerstown and Cumberland. They also took along a cow and a calf, which was what they paid for one bushel of the much needed salt. While the salt was being weighed, no one was allowed to walk on the floor.

[The end]
Etta Belle Walker's short story: Story Teller Of The Valley--Samuel Kercheval