Despite what the title of this post might lead you to believe, I am not writing about our vegetable garden, regardless of how well it is doing or how good I think it looks. I’ll update you on its progress in a future post. I actually have a very different subject in mind today.
I have written of the serene natural beauty of Smoke Hole many times in my website posts. Never in my life have I lived in such close proximity to a true natural wonder like Smoke Hole. The glory of Smoke Hole canyon is a sensory beauty to behold—from the peaceful sounds of nature that embrace you to the stunning mountain vistas to the delicate fragrance of wildflowers carried on a gentle spring breeze and to the thundering roar of the South Branch River as it cascades through numerous rocky gorges. There is simply no end to the scenic natural wonders you can experience traveling the length of the canyon. According to a 1940 West Virginia Writers’ Project socio-ethnic study of Smoke Hole and Its People, a visiting botanist catalogued a total of 283 distinct species of flora in his 1933 study of one 4.5-acre island (Hermit Island) in the South Branch River in the heart of the canyon. If there is any truth to what I have said many times—the real reason why West Virginia is called “Almost Heaven” is because it can’t all be Pendleton County—then Smoke Hole canyon is most certainly our Garden of Eden.
However, Smoke Hole’s legacy and heritage does not end with its physical beauty and biological diversity. The canyon was once home to a fascinating tight-knit community of self-reliant people who lived in relative isolation and left behind many interesting legends and stories of their full and colorful lives. I shared one of those captivating stories, the legend of Eagle Rocks, in Post 26, Legendary Pendleton County, of my 2019 book, Country Life at Peeper Pond Farm, and again in my 2020 fictional story, Contagion: Nature’s Revenge.
That colorful anecdote is but one of dozens of interesting and humorous legends and stories that I have read about the people whose lives made Smoke Hole a special and distinct community within the two counties, Pendleton and Grant, that it gracefully straddles. These stories are lovingly recounted in the writings of Dona Bardon Shreve, who was born and raised in Smoke Hole, and numerous sensitive newspaper accounts written by a prominent Franklin, WV attorney and judge, Harlan M. Calhoun, who owned Hermit Island and became a loyal benefactor and supporter of Smoke Hole and its people. Most recently, I have been asked by another Smoke Hole native, Shelba “Jean” Sites-Hoss, to help her compile and publish her memoires of the Smoke Hole community. I am enjoying reading her personal accounts about war heroes, the public schools, and the people of Smoke Hole as I write this post. Elements of her own writings have appeared in the Grant County Press. The writings by these three dedicated and knowledgeable authors are compelling and enlightening, as they provide a window to a community of people who lived off the land for generations until the gradual federal government acquisition of the canyon to create the Monongahela National Forest eventually extinguished it, leaving behind a few aging structural landmarks and many smoldering memories and colorful legends.
Barb and I decided to pack a lunch and revisit Smoke Hole canyon yesterday to escape the intense heat of our first 90-degree day of the season and to visit some of the more historical landmarks of the canyon’s cultural heritage that have been respectfully preserved by the authors whose works I have devoured. Of course, we visited our favored informal swimming-hole beach on the South Branch River at Big Bend Campground. We were very surprised to see how much conditions at the beach site have changed since our last visit. While the nearby modern “outhouse” has been refurbished and repaired, we found numerous fallen trees lying in our path, while the beach area itself has been altered and reshaped by recent flooding events. These natural occurrences are not uncommon in Smoke Hole, but caught us by surprise because we hadn’t realized how little time we had spent in the canyon last year.
On our way to the beach, we stopped to see the solitary stone chimney that marks the site of an old farmhouse, which I believe (if memory serves me correctly) once served as the Ketterman Post office—one of several that used to exist in the Smoke Hole community. Prior to the creation of the Big Bend and adjacent Jess Judy campgrounds, this oxbow area of the canyon was once the site of a large farming area owned and occupied by generations of Kettermans (one of dozens of local family names that lived in Smoke Hole). One of the last resident, self-reliant farmers who worked that land, “Bud” W. Ketterman, died in 1950 and was buried on the toe of the ridge that forced the river to carve out the oxbow. His final request was to be buried at that location because he wanted to see the South Branch River pass by his grave in both directions. A few of his humorous exploits are remembered in the writings I have mentioned, so I decided to visit and photograph his solitary, lonely grave. While standing before it, the only sounds I could hear were the constant sweeping whisper of the rushing river waters accompanied by the melodious chirping chorus of the birds.
We also stopped along our journey to visit and photograph the historic St. George’s Methodist Church, built in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the first log church in Smoke Hole. Prior to the construction of this church building, the earliest settlers worshipped outdoors under a tree near the preacher’s home. Several other small churches were built in Smoke Hole but eventually closed as the congregations diminished and the old families left the community behind. The church sits next to and slightly above the old Shreve’s Store, which once housed the Smoke Hole Post Office and was operated for many years by Dona Bardon Shreve’s relatives. The store and church were focal points of the old community where residents gathered to exchange news and information and the community’s pressing issues were debated and resolved—at least until the next gathering. The community was also home to several small one-room schoolhouses that taught local children through the eighth grade. The writings of both Dona Shreve and Jean Hoss preserve many stories about those schools and the students who attended them.
From what I have learned about the community and its people, homestead farming was the primary means of survival for the residents of Smoke Hole. People lived and farmed in relative isolation from the outside world on the lands their ancestors worked for generations. They typically raised gardens and fields of corn, buckwheat and hay as well as a variety of other domestic livestock, including cows, horses, hogs, sheep, and chickens. They also freely hunted wild deer, bear, turkeys, coons, and squirrels to supplement their protein diet and collected wild herbs and berries. Although the community was known for moonshining, the legendary accounts that survive today of that enterprise were grossly exaggerated, which probably helped to keep the community as isolated from outside influence as it was. While life was hard and challenging for them, most families were able to raise large, close families and carve satisfying lives for themselves out of the wilderness.
Many names from these prominent old families linger on throughout our immediate area, including Ketterman, Kimble, Sites, Alt, Shreve, Full, Vanmeter, and Self. Although they were eventually pushed out of Smoke Hole canyon to make way for the national forest, many of them resettled on the east side of Cave Mountain in the communities of Brushy Run and Upper Tract. Our Peeper Pond Farm sits on a portion of a former Shreve farm connected directly to former residents of Smoke Hole, which is why the subdivision was formally named Smoke Hole Estates.
Smoke Hole canyon was also home to several small business enterprises, including a few general stores, a sawmill operation complete with a store and bunkhouses that was built in Dry Hollow and operated by the Alt family, and some small water-powered mills along the South Branch River. Actually, the historic economy of the Smoke Hole Community is not very different from the North Charlestown, NH farming community in which I was raised. It, too, had a number of small water-powered mills along the Little Sugar River that had virtually disappeared from the landscape before I was born, a small country store, a post office, and a few institutional buildings, including a Grange Hall, a two-room stone schoolhouse, and a lone Methodist Church. Aside from numerous small family farms that raised cows and horses, the principal commercial business enterprise in my home village was the St. Pierre gravel pit.
One important distinction between the two rural communities and their respective evolutionary paths is that many of the earliest families that founded North Charlestown had either moved away or had “married-out” and different families had moved in to take their places. This transition can be seen in the gravestones that populate the Hope Hill Cemetery in my childhood home, where I had noticed during my youth that the names on the markers and monuments in the oldest part of the cemetery could not be found repeated in the newer section that was being filled during my lifetime. Although many new residents can be found in the Smoke Hole community today, most of them are either seasonal residents or descendants of the original families who never sold off their ancestral homeland farms.
The colorful social fabric of this idyllic traditional, self-reliant community has melted away from the landscape, and is preserved only by the sensitive writings and fleeting memories of those who lived it and appreciated it. Now that I have seen how my own childhood community has evolved over time and struggled to find the locations of homes that have been reclaimed by mature trees and dense puckerbrush, I can relate to the deep sense of loss that Dona Shreve and Jean Hoss feel when they return to their original homes. The change that accompanies the natural passage of time is not always kind to our fondest memories. At least I can view the beauty and serenity of Smoke Hole as a commemorative memorial garden to the former people whose lives and traditions created the vibrant, lively and colorful self-reliant community captured in the writings of its native children. That redeeming thought crossed my mind as we toured Smoke Hole canyon yesterday and explains why I decided to title this post, “Our Garden of Eden.”