50 Years Ago
Week of April 19, 1973
Pendleton County Man
Is Rail Splitter
By R. Daniel Simmons
The leathery old Mountaineer rolled a ten-foot length of hardwood log off the pile and stopped to examine one end briefly. A series of small cracks radiated out from the center of the sawn end. Even as he made his inspection, one hand was moving toward a thick iron wedge on the ground as the other grasped a heavy maul.
“This’n will split easy,” he said over his shoulder to me.
With the deft motions of long practice, he set the wedge in the largest of the cracks with a couple of taps of the maul and straightened up.
“Stand back,” he told me. “Don’t want to hit you.”
I moved away a few steps. Even as I did, the old man was lifting and swinging the maul with a surprising strength and grace. As the blow landed, the wedge half disappeared into the log and there was a brief tearing sound. A four-foot crack had opened up along the top of the log. Shuffling backward half-crouched, he tapped another wedge—which had somehow appeared in his hand as if by magic—at the end of the crack opening up along the log.
The old Mountaineer was in the process of splitting rails, a skill that goes back to the days when the Appalachian Mountains were the frontier of Colonial America. It is a fast disappearing skill, now that wood has become a more precious resource, but some of the old rail fences our great-grandfathers built still zigzag across the hills.
Straightening from his crouch the old man glanced around at me and swung the heavy maul again. The tearing sound was repeated and the crack sped further down the log.
“One more grab ought to do it,” he said as he backed down the log and set the third wedge. Again the maul was lifted and brought down. There was a sharp crack and the log rolled apart in halves.
“Wish all of them split that easy,” he said, rolling one of the halves over so that it was flat side down. Going back to the end, he started the splitting process all over again. Within a surprising few minutes the log had been split into quarters or “rails.”
The old Mountaineer was Russel Calhoun, 72, who lives by Rt. 33 on Bland Hills—named after the first settlers at the rim of Germany Valley—and he has worked in the woods since he was 15 years old. In Pendleton County, he is known as “Russ” and he was born and grew up in Dry Run, about six miles from Cherry Grove.
“A chestnut fence will last a 100 years,” Russ says, “and a spruce one will last just as long.” He ought to know after splitting uncounted thousands of rails for them in his lifetime.
In early days, the rail fence was used to keep animals penned up or to keep them out of the crop fields. In those days, timber was a raw material in ample supply. Wire for fencing was not.
One of the common early types of rail fence was known as the worm or snake fence.It was built of split rails or saplings placed in zigzag sections with the ends of the rails of one section intersecting alternately with the ends of the next section. A pair of strong stakes driven into the ground on each side of the intersection kept the fence rigidly upright.
This type, also known as the Virginia rail fence, was an improvement over the earlier barricades made of brush or dead wood from trees.
Another form of the snake fence is the “grasshopper” or “stake-and-rider,” where long stakes are arranged to cross at about six rails high and the riderrail is placed in the crotch thus formed.
There was another form of rail fences, which didn’t take as much wood, in which rectangular holes were cut through the posts, and rails were tapered at the end to fit into the holes.
The earliest fence Russ can recall making is what he calls the “sweed” fence, which he said was popular around 1914. Here is how he described its construction:
“The sweed fence was built across hillsides. You made it by driving two stakes and then laying one rail; driving in two more stakes and laying another rail…when you finished it the devil and all his angels couldn’t cross that fence. Only the old residenters would know what it was.”
In early America, a fence had to be “horse high, bull strong and pig tight.” That meant a horse couldn’t jump it, a bull knock it down, or a pig crawl through. When a fence met those specifications, it was a good one. Russ has built many.
The language of the rail splitter is as ancient as his craft. The wedges frequently are called “grabs” or “gluts.” Mauls come in a variety of shapes and names.
- The “beetle” maul is a cross-section of a log banded on the ends to keep it from splitting and bored across the diameter to receive a handle. The length of the handle varies according to the preference of the user.
- The “burl maul” can be either a heavy iron collar with a long handle, or a cross section of log bored lenghtways to receive a handle.
- When a rail splitter says “wedge,” he usually is talking about the iron one. If he says “grab” or “glut,” he means a wedge made out of dogwood or oak.
There is another tool of the rail splitter—called the “grab skipper.” It is a short length of hand forged iron links with right angled hooks at each end. It is used to free the wedges when they bind in a log instead of splitting it. Or, as the rail splitter describes it: “A grab skipper is used to skip grabs which are driven in the log with a grab maul to split the rail. By this method, the grab skipper is what skips the grabs out of the log.”
Sure it does.
Old Glasses Being
Collected by Lions Club
As the month of April approaches its close, so does the local campaign for “New Eyes For The Needy” which is headquartered at Short Hills, N. J.
This is the county-wide appeal sponsored by the Franklin Lions Club for discarded eye glasses which are to be distributed to needy persons in every state in this country and many countries of the free world by this voluntary organization.
60 Years Ago
Week of April 25, 1963
100 YEARS AGO
By LON K. SAVAGE
Editor’s Note—The following is one of a series of articles on the Civil War. Each weekly installment covers events which occurred exactly 100 years ago.
Hooker Opens Attack
“Fighting Joe” Hooker launched his first (and last) major fight as commander of the Army of the Potomac 100 years ago this week, and the way it went, it looked as if he had a sure fire victory in his hands. It looked that way, but as Hooker was to learn, appearances are deceiving.
His fight was against the nemesis of the Federal army, General Robert E. Lee and some 65,000 Confederates dug in around Fredericksburg, Va., behind the Rappannock River, where they had routed the Federals in December. Hooker had been a subordinate general then and had seen the mistakes; he would not make them, too, he thought.
So as April came to a close, Hooker readied his army of 130,000 men—twice the size of Lee’s—for its big battle. Hospitals were cleared of wounded. Arms were inspected. Ammunition and supplies were brought up. Horses were shod. Even the weather turned good.
On April 27, Hooker moved out. Three corps—42,000 men—moved 25 miles off to the right, crossed the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, and Lee’s suspicions apparently were not aroused. At the same time, Hooker sent two other corps under Gen. John Sedgewick down to the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, where they threw across pontoon bridges and began to cross under Confederate fire. Lee immediately resisted Sedgewick’s advance, but that was all right with Hooker; his big movement was on the right; while Lee fought Sedgewick, Hooker planned to move in on Lee’s left flank, catch him by surprise and destroy him.
Hooker’s preparations went off without a hitch. By the evening of April 30th, he had assembled his men in the woods and wilderness around a crossroads and a brick mansion called Chancellorsville, 10 miles west of Fredericksburg, and all appeared rosy. Men whistled as they worked, officers played poker on the ground. So pleased was Hooker with his achievements that he issued a statement of praise to his troops: “The operations of the last three days have determined that our enemy must either ingloriosly fly or come out from behind his defenses and give us battle on our own ground, where certain destruction awaits him.”
But it wasn’t to be so. On that same day, Lee had learned of Hooker’s movements and had begun his preparations, and now it was a matter of who would move the faster. As Hooker issued his grand statement to his troops, Lee was moving.
Lee saw the situation just as Hooker saw it: he must “either ingloriously fly or come out from behind his defenses.” That was an easy decision for Lee, and he came out from behind his defenses. Leaving 10,000 men to hold off Sedgewick, he began moving west from Fredericksburg toward Chancellorsville. His top general. “Stonewall” Jackson, kissed his wife goodbye (she had visited him with their 5-month-old daughter) and put his men in motion toward a battle that would cost him his life.
Next week: Chancellorsville—Lee’s greatest battle.
A long awaited scene is currently taking place in Smoke Hole as telephone men are busy erecting the necessary facilities to provide the area with telephone service in the form of a pay station.
Monuments to Civilization – – –
“Never in Godde’s Wourld will there be books enuf.” Thus wrote the forgotten Scots poet, Jamie Fulterton, in 1643.
Untold millions of books have been published since Jamie Fulterton died and was laid to rest in an Edinburgh cemetery. Many have disapperared into limbo, but innumerable others remain, and have their honored, useful place in the libraries of the world.
During the April 21-27 period, we are observing National Library Week. No institution can be more deserving of such an honor. For a library is, in the full sense of the word, a monument to civilization—to its tragedies and triumphs, its disasters and its victories, and above all, what men have felt and managed to put down in words of prose and poetry.
A world without books would be the emptiest of worlds. And the man or woman who does not read—and read seriously—is missing tragically and unnecessarily one of the greatest of human needs and pleasures.
70 Years Ago
Week of April 23, 1953
American Legion Post Buys Old Mill
Held Tuesday Night
The McCoy Mill, one of Pendleton County’s famous old landmarks, was purchased by Pendleton Post No. 30 of The American Legion last Tuesday. Commander Dick Newcomb said the price was $6,500. The property, which was sold by William McCoy, consists of 87 acres of land, including some timber, the old mill and a dwelling.
Located three miles south of Franklin at the intersection of the Thorn and the South Branch, the mill was built about 1845 by William McCoy, an ancestor of the recent owner. Although it is over one hundred years old, the framework of the structure is practically as sound today as when the heavy, hand-hewn timbers were first fastened together with hickory pins.
If there are any larger families than William Bey’s family of Knoxville, Tenn., he would like to hear from them. Bey, 83, a native of Morocco, and a Mohammedan by faith, is the father of 32 children.
A DEATH TRAP – – –
On April 2, a truck driven by Ernest Pitsenbarger of Doe Hill, Virginia, wrecked at the one-way bridge which crosses Smith Creek a short distance above Mack’s Cabins. Last Saturday a Maryland car wreckd at the same spot. In both cases occupants of the vehicles were fortunate to escape with their lives.
This one-way span is situated on U. S. Highway 220—a road that should be free of such death traps. Residents of this state have been taxed for years to appropriate scores of millions to build and maintain the roads. On our best state and national highways one still sees, however, these one-way bridges, curves elevated the wrong way, hairpin curves and other hazards that are killing thousands of people each year.
Instead of remedying this situation, the state is now building a superhighway from Princeton to Bluefield and spending enough money on the project to eliminate most of the road hazards in the state. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to forget superhighways and jet engine cars for a few years and make our main arteries of transportation safe—to keep our feet on the ground rather than our heads in the clouds?