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Time and Custom Stand Still in the Hills and Hollers of West Virginia

CHARLES HILLINGER'S AMERICA: Intermittent reports from throughout the United States will be supplied by Charles Hillinger.

February 10, 1985|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

DEAD FALL RUN, W. Va. — Sylvia O'Brion, 76, sat beside an oil lamp and wood-burning stove in her clapboard cabin on the sub-zero night, strumming her banjo and singing: "This is my home where the bobcats holler and the wild deer roam."

She has lived in the primitive dwelling without running water or electricity on the slopes of Dead Fall Mountain her entire life. She shuns modern conveniences. She lives alone in one of the isolated pockets beyond the power lines in West Virginia.

The hardy, fiercely independent old mountain woman has never had a radio or TV. She chops wood to cook her food and heat her home. She uses an outhouse year 'round, even in the dead of winter. Her nearest neighbors are on the other side of the mountain a mile and a half away by footpath.

"I never been sick. Never been in a doctor's office. Never took a dose of medicine," she said.

"Oh, I could move and git indoor plumbin' and electricity if I wanted. But I'm set in my ways. I like the old-time way of livin'. I'm afraid of electricity. I don't understand it." Her banjo is made from a 1935 Buick transmission.

West Virginia is America's Mountain State. The entire state is Appalachian Mountains. Wave after wave of mountains. Like a sea. Most of the state's nearly 2 million people live in narrow mountain valleys called hollers.

Get out of the cities and towns in West Virginia into the remote hills and hollers where the roads dead-end and it's a step back in time.

Here live descendants of pioneer families who came from Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales in the 17th and 18th centuries. More people in the mountains of West Virginia have ties to the traditions, speech and way of life of early America than anywhere else in the nation.

Scattered through the hills and hollers are a few stubborn mountaineers such as Sylvia O'Brion, who hang onto the past by choice.

"The people of many West Virginia rural areas have been so isolated from the mainstream of American life for generations because of the mountains that Chaucerian and Elizabethan forms of speech are still in everyday use," explained Wylene (Gini) Dial, 62, associate professor at the University of West Virginia's Appalachian Center.

"Outsiders think their speech is strange, even downright uncultured. That is because they don't realize what they are hearing is antique English of the days of the first Queen Elizabeth, the speech the highest educated used at that time."

Dial has been collecting words, phrases and sayings of the hill people of her state for 30 years. She has published a dictionary and written numerous articles on the subject.

"Whar, thar and dar are Scotch pronunciations brought here when the hollers were first settled. Blinked milk, an expression in common use today, for example, is a term for sour milk and goes back to the 1600s when people believed in witches and the power of the evil eye."

Need for a Translator

For outsiders, listening to the hill people of West Virginia often requires an interpreter. Reckon we better git on into the house, it's right airish out. Translated it means: It's cold outside. Let's go into the house.

"It is only as recently as 20 years with the incursion of radio, television and roads that the colorful language in the back country hollers has begun to level out," Dial noted. "I hope West Virginians never lose the color of their language. They are the best talkers God ever put on earth. I'd hate to see all of America become like a herd of sheep, all sounding like TV announcers."

The massive road-building projects throughout the state in the 1960s and early 1970s have reduced the isolation and afford easy access now to most rural areas. Until the roads were finally pushed through, many in the state never ventured out of their remote villages.

Giant mushroom-like satellite TV dishes--like the one outside Dulcie Nicholson's two-story white 1875 farmhouse near a tiny town called Pickle Street--are sprinkled throughout the hills and hollers of West Virginia.

"I got that thing two years ago. Bought it for a thousand dollars," said Nicholson, an 88-year-old widow, who has four cows and grows "tabaccer." "Got it from a man comin' door to door. He sold it to me, set it up, and it's been a-workin' right smart ever since. Had a TV afore but never got me a picture. Now, on my honor, I git the world right cheer (here)."

West Virginia is soup beans, corn pone, biscuits and country gravy, plain American fare.

It's Friday nights in Boulder, population 17 families, tucked in a backwoods mountain valley. Friday nights at the Boulder Mercantile is an 81-year-old tradition ever since the tongue-in-groove frame store was erected in 1904.

Villagers gather around the potbellied stove in the country store each Friday night to play the card game Rook and "to pass the news."

Womenfolk bring "covered dishes" for a potluck.

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