Articles & Stories

Rachel Bates Tells Of Growing

Up In Letcher Co. In 1920s-30s

Good Memories Made On Millstone Creek

Editor's Note: The following memories were written by Rachel Virginia Bates Berry of Letcher County, Kentucky. She began writing her memories in the 1990s. Unfortunately, she passed away before she finished. She was a contributing writer to the Mountain Eagle, her by-line being Corbin. Her family was one of the founding families of Letcher County. A historical marker was placed at Ermine in honor of her great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Archelous Craft, who was an early settler of Letcher County. 

By Rachel Virginia Bates Berry - 1990s      

I was born May 23, 1918, to Maryland and Mattie E. Craft Bates of Letcher County, Kentucky. I was the sixth child in a family of eight children. My siblings were Enoch, Arden, Polly Ann, Lizzie, Jesse, Columbus, Joseph Howard, and Daniel Webster. I can only remember a few sketches before I was five.
Once a man came to the house to take a family picture. It must have been in early April or May. Mother and Dad didn't get in the picture for Mother was pregnant with Daniel. Cousin Opal Bentley was there playing with me and was mad because Mom and Dad wouldn't let her get in the picture. That night we children were sent to Aunt Sabrinia Bentley's, and Daniel Webster was born. I remember coming back home the next morning and standing on the old round-top trunk and looking over Mother to see the baby.
We lived in a little hollow called Little Tom Biggs, off the right fork of Millstone Creek, so named by the big mineral companies. When the companies came to the mountains in the late 1800s or early 1900s and bought up all mineral rights for 50¢ an acre, each little hollow was named for identification by the company. I think Mother said my grandfather got about $500 for the mineral rights on his property.

Rachel Bates with her little cousin, Viola Bentley, at Millstone Creek, Letcher County, Kentucky, in the 1920s.

Rachel Virginia Bates Berry in 2001.







There were no roads up Millstone Creek. We just followed the meandering of the creek. Later there was a narrow county road built around the side of the hill from Millstone up to the forks. On up about a mile, almost to Grandpa's house, the road went right back into the creek again. Grandpa's house faced the branch and the road curved right around the yard fence and up a steep sharp grade and leveled out for a bit. At the top of the grade was another short hollow called Graveyard Hollow. A family cemetery is on a point above the house and Grandpa's grist mill was in the mouth of this hollow.
In later years, when I started to school, I can remember Grandpa grinding corn into meal. I guess everyone on Millstone Creek and both forks and other places over the mountains would come to have their corn ground. The little gasoline engine would be running as we went to school, and as we came back home. I believe Dad's mill day was Friday. Later on, he bought the mill and his grinding day was Saturday. The price for grinding was a gallon of shelled corn from a bushel and a half-gallon from a half-bushel. The measure was a long wooden box divided in the middle with a piece of wood nailed across, equally holding a half-gallon on each end.
The next hollow, divided from Graveyard Hollow by a long point coming down to the road, was called Bugger Hollow. People were always saying they were seeing things around there. We young ones never liked to pass there when it was getting dark. Just past Bugger Hollow was the mile tree. It was a huge oak, four or more feet through. It was supposed to be a mile from the forks of Millstone Creek to this tree. From there out to the end of Grandpa's field, along the edge of a cliff, was a mudhole. We had to climb up on the hill between the cliff and road on a path to try and keep our shoes and feet dry in the winter. At the end of the field the road went back into the creek. There was a water gate there to keep Granny's geese and ducks from going on up the creek.
The water gate was made like a wood frame with slats nailed from top to bottom or wire fencing. The creek bed was deep and there was a big log pulled across from bank to bank. The log was cut flat on the top side and was called a foot log for us to cross the creek. It was fenced on either side underneath the log to the edge of the water. The gate was fastened to the log and swung down into the water loosely. The geese couldn't get through, and if the creek rose any, the gate would swing up with the water. We walked along that side of the creek next to Uncle Ben Crafts' farm to the mouth of our little hollow and followed the branch up to our house, which was set on a small level strip of ground that ran alongside the branch.
The L-shaped house had three rooms which were each 16'x16'. The floors were of oak boards two-and-one-half inches to three inches wide with high and low places with some cracks between them. There was a big, rock chimney five or six feet square at ground level tapering to about three feet above the peak of the roof. There was a fireplace opening on either side of the chimney in the two front rooms. The upper room was the kitchen and the lower one a bedroom with a long porch running the length of the house facing the road which was in the branch. There were two front doors. We came out of the kitchen and down the porch and into the bedroom. There was no connecting door between the two front rooms, until I was grown. There was a door opening into the back bedroom from the backyard. Our family of ten lived in this house.
The kitchen had a woodburning cookstove with a flat cooking surface with an enclosed shelf called a warming closet about 12 inches deep built above the cooking surface. The firebox was at one end and the water tank at the other and the oven between them. Here was a space two or three inches high between the top of the oven and the cooking surface. When the fire was burning well the damper could be closed at the back of the stove. The heat then went across the top of the oven down between the oven and water tank (called the reservoir) under the oven to another opening to the chimney. That way the fire heated the oven for baking and the water for dishwashing and other household uses.
Our dishes were kept in a big open shelf between the stove and back door. The pots and skillets were hung on nails driven in the walls behind the stove. There was a good-sized wooden box beside the stove for the wood. In the middle of the room was a homemade table. As the family grew larger, Dad put a 12-inch leaf on each end to make room for all of us to eat at once. Of course, all the chairs were homemade. On either side of the fireplace were offsets as deep as the chimney. One offset was enclosed and a curtain was hung over the door. In it was the wooden meal and flour barrel. The flour barrel held 60 gallons, and I believe the meal barrel was a little smaller. On two walls were shelves across the chimney and facing the door. Food that was canned in the fall was kept on one wall and on the other wall were nails where the milk buckets, strainer, and the dishpans hung. In the other offset were nails for hanging the coats and caps, and where the dirty clothes were kept until washday. There was also a small set of shelves for holding things. Blocks of wood were nailed on the wall to climb up to the attic or loft as it was called. There was a curtain that covered that whole offset.
There were two windows, one by the door on the porch and one at the side end of the house. One double-bed was by the window at the front porch. At the other window was a table that held two water buckets and the washpan. The buckets were covered in oil cloth. This left very little room in the kitchen.
The front bedroom had two double beds with an old round top trunk by Mother's and Dad's bed. Between the beds was a rocking chair. In one corner by the fireplace was a dresser and in the other corner a washstand. It matched the dresser and one of the beds. It was a small version of a dresser which had a rack built up at the back. Instead of a mirror it had a bar across it to hang a towel and a drawer and two doors at the bottom. In the back bedroom there were three double beds. Later a big flat top piano, that took up as much room as a bed, was put in the front bedroom.
The backyard was a square of hard packed earth, the size of the rooms of the house. We had to keep this section of the yard swept clean. In the evenings we could sit out there and enjoy the cool air. Across the yard and up the little grade was the well, which provided water for the house. The well was 21 feet deep and about three feet wide. The well was round inside and was laid up or walled with smooth rocks. It had a square box over it with 2x4 studs on the sides and one nailed across the top where a pulley was fastened. A chain was threaded over the pulley and a bucket was attached to the chain. Here we drew water. 
We had a little strip of land where we had beehives. This ran about the length of the house. There was an orchard below the house with about a dozen apple trees. Next was the barn lot with about ten apple trees on the side next to the hollow or branch and a garden on the upside along the slope of the hill. The log barn was at the end of this area and Dad's blacksmith shop was close by under the apple trees. The road then went around the barn, crossed the hollow, and down the other side for a little way and into the creek again. On the other side of the driveway and barn was the main garden running alongside the branch to the end of the level area.
Our day-to-day living was pretty drab, with everyone staying busy with chores. Dad kept a team of mules and a wagon. He hauled and did blacksmith work fixing wagon wheels and anything else he could. 
He was a sawyer and sometimes got jobs when someone was having a boundary of timber cut. Mother, along with us kids, kept things going at home. She raised the gardens and corn crops. We kept two cows. One would be giving milk, and one would be producing a calf. We had a lot of chickens that only laid eggs in the summer months. We had no chicken house. They roosted in an apple tree, and in winter they didn't produce, because they just got enough feed to survive.
We always had hogs for meat. Occasionally Dad would get a sheep and butcher it. It was a change from pork all the time. Dad, if he had time, and the boys would plow all the ground on the hillsides that was to be planted in the spring. One year they would plant one field and then would switch to another the next year so as not to wear out the soil too soon. We never used fertilizer. Manure from the barns was used on the gardens in the spring. The fields had levels or steps, which we called flats. In these areas we planted beans in each hill of corn.
Our days began at 5:00 a.m. when mother would get up, fire up the old woodburning stove, and cook a big breakfast of biscuits, salt bacon, gravy, fried apples, and oatmeal. We had the usual butter, jelly, and apple butter. If Dad had a job somewhere, Mom packed him a lunch, and he was off. He or the boys would be up and feed the mules earlier, so they would be ready to go when he was finished with breakfast. We would all be up, dressed, eaten, have the dishes washed, the kitchen cleaned, and the floor swept by 6:00 a.m. If it was during the school term, we'd have our lunch packed and leave for school by 7:30 a.m. Our lunch would be sandwiches made from biscuits left from breakfast with jelly in some and bacon in some. Sometimes we'd have an ear of boiled corn or a jar of apples or whatever Mother had fixed for us in our lunch pails. Our pails were tin lard buckets. If the weather was cold, we'd have the bucket full of milk and cornbread. We walked to school and back each day in all kinds of weather. Our winters were quite severe. We had lots of heavy snow, and it was one-and-one-quarter mile each way. We thought nothing of it. When we got to school the teacher would ring the bell. The students in the larger room formed one line and those in the lower grades formed the other line. We all marched inside for morning worship. Someone would read from the Bible, and we'd all sing and proceed with lessons.
Spelling was the first order of the day. We had been assigned a half page of words to learn, and we had to know them all. Our next class was reading and the next was arithmetic. In the meantime the teacher was doing the other grades' lessons. Generally our teacher in the upper grades was a man. He'd go from the first spelling lesson and assign one for the next day. We had to know our lessons for he had so much to go through. We did our homework while he did the other lessons. We would go through our spelling and reading lessons and were dismissed for a 15-minute morning recess. When we were called back, we studied arithmetic, and we had longer lessons as arithmetic was harder. We were then dismissed for an hour for lunch. When we were called back inside we had English, health, language, and on alternate days geography and history. Sometimes we had an afternoon recess and sometime not.
Back home, where our chores awaited, the older boys sawed and chopped the wood. My two younger brothers and I carried it in and piled it behind the stove for the next day's cooking. We drew water from the well, filled the reservoir on the stove for dishwashing, and filled the buckets for cooking the evening meal and for the night. We were always in bed by 8:30 or 9:00 p.m.
We started school in July and would go for a month, then we were dismissed for the most of August. During this time the children helped the family harvest the fodder crop. We'd pull the leaves or blades off the stalks of corn from the ear of corn to the ground. We'd push the bundle of blades between the cornstalks to dry or cure for a week. Then Mother and Dad would take the blades and tie them in bundles. We children would pick up the bundles, four in each hand, and carry them off the mountain to the barn. After we got all the bundles of fodder in the barn, we started to cut the tops off the stalks and clean the ears of corn. Then the stalks were tied in to bundles to dry. By the end of August, we had all the fodder in the barn and the beans picked and taken care of. We then started back to school. On Saturdays we'd dig the Irish potatoes and pick apples, and get them ready for holing up for winter. That job went to Dad and the older boys. They would dig a big hole on the grade in one garden, line it with dry hay, then fill it with several bushels of potatoes. They would do the same for the apples. They'd lay hay over the top, then a layer of boards, and put huge mounds of dirt on top so the potatoes and apples would stay dry and keep through the winter, until we used them.
At Thanksgiving it was hog killing time. We always killed three or four hogs. Neighbors came in to help and always took home a mess of fresh meat. When it was time for butchering, everyone helped and took home a fresh mess of meat. It was neighbor helping neighbor. If there were sickness or some other disaster and a farmer got behind with his crops, then neighbors would gather and hoe the crops or gather them if it was time.
Everyone in the family had daily chores, and the chores were switched around so everyone learned everything. We didn't have much playtime. If company (grown-ups) came we were told to go play. We were glad to go, for we didn't want to stay and hear what the grown-ups talked about. We took to the hills where we climbed trees and swung on wild grape vines. The playtime was on a Saturday or Sunday. We never had to work on Sunday. We only brought in wood and water for cooking and did only the chores that were necessary. We surely were glad for a little free time.
The church was nearby, and we attended once a month, when it was held in our neighborhood. The next weekend it was in the next neighborhood, and so on. Since we had no mode of transportation, except for mules, we never went to the other meetings. Mother and Dad would go, but we children stayed home. When it was our meeting time, which was the first Saturday and Sunday of each month, we really pitched in to get ready. On Fridays we cleaned the whole house, cooked, and baked, getting ready for a crowd. We always had lots of company. On Saturday we'd have several come to eat dinner and leave, and we'd have four or five stay the night. On Sunday we'd have a lot more for dinner. Everyone rode mules or horses. Some would come from Beaver Creek in Knott County, about 20 miles distant. They always stayed overnight. Lots of them were kin to my dad.
We never had rugs on the rough wooden floors, but they were always scrubbed clean and swept every day. We never had mattresses. We had what we called straw ticks. These were slips, the size of the bed, made of heavy material called ticking and filled with fresh hay each year. Since our house was so cold with just the one fireplace in each room and with cracks between the flooring, we had big featherbeds and lots of heavy quilts. In April it was a big chore to get all these quilts washed. With no washing machine, we'd fill big galvanized tubs with warm water and put the quilts in to soak. We young ones, Daniel, Howard, and I, would get to take off our shoes, get in the tubs, and start tromping or stomping the quilts to release the dirt. Then mother and one of my sisters, Polly Ann or Lizzie, would take an end of the quilt and twist it to wring out as much water as possible and start the process over again until the water was clear. Then the quilts were hung on the line or a fence to dry. Of course, this process was done in the orchard under the apple trees alongside the branch where the water was easy to get to. At that time it was a pure running stream.
The summer months were busy times with the gardens and the canning and preserving of the food stuff for the winter. We canned pickles, pickle relish and beets, kraut, beans, jelly, apples, and apple butter. We would peel and slice the apples at night, and get them ready for the next day's cooking. Mother had a brass kettle which held about one-and-one-half bushels of apples. She had a paddle to stir with made of a board about two feet long, with one end bored full of auger holes. It had a long handle nailed to one end with braces on either side. The paddle was pushed back and forward through the apples were cooked tender. As the paddle was pushed to and fro the apples were forced through the holes in the paddle. This motion took out all the lumps and made a smooth butter. Sugar and spices were added in the last half of the cooking. The fire had to be maintained at a certain level all through the cooking time. Then the apple butter had to be put in jars and sealed. This process was an all day job.
Mother had this big cast iron wash boiler. We would gather big white ears of corn from the field, all about the same size. We would clean the corn and place it in the wash boiler, put water over the corn, and build a fire under the boiler. When the corn was done, we'd drain it and put it out to cool. Next we would place it in layers in a 60-gallon barrel. We'd cook enough corn to fill the barrel leaving about a foot of head space. Mom would put in non-iodized salt and enough water to fill the barrel, and cover the corn. She would put small clean boards on the corn and put something heavy on the boards to weigh them down to keep the corn under water. Then she would tie a clean cloth over the top to keep out the flies, gnats, and other insects. I don't know how long it took to ferment, but it sure was good when it was ready. We'd reach in the barrel, take out an ear, rinse it off, and gnaw it off the cob or cut it off to fry.
We would peel and slice apples and put them in a half-bushel basket with a handle. In a wooden barrel we'd put sulfur in a flat dish in the bottom of the barrel, then light it and get it going. Then Mom would hang the basket of apples on a stick and lay it across the top of the barrel, then fold a quilt and tie it tight over the top of the barrel and let the fumes penetrate the apples. She would have to soak the apples in water overnight before she cooked them. She would do a tub of pickled beans, too. When ready for cooking we'd take the amount of beans or corn she needed out of the brine and rinse them in clear water. She would cut the corn from the cob and fry each in a pan of bacon grease. The pumpkins and cushaws were rolled under the beds until we used them or until they froze and were thrown out.
The winters were harsh. The water we brought in for the cooking would have ice frozen over the top of the buckets by morning. We heated the rooms with coal taken from a small mine (or we called it a coal bank) on the property and that was a big chore for Dad and the older boys to get it out and down to the house. We would have a big fire and take ashes from beneath the grates and cover the fire to smother and hold the fire (or embers) through the night. The house would get pretty cold. One winter we had a 26-inch snow, and Dad and the boys got on the roof to shovel it off so it wouldn't break in the roof.
Our whole neighborhood was made up of cousins. On Sundays during the winter, we'd gather and sled ride in the snow. We didn't have sleighs, but the boys would make rough sleds, and we'd go way up on the hill and slide down into the orchard. In the summer we'd meet on Sunday afternoons, choose sides, and play softball. In late evening we'd play what we called anty-over. We would choose sides, take a softball, and toss or throw it over the house roof to the team on the other side.
Most of the road was in the creek and when we'd go to school in the summer, we'd leave the schoolhouse, cross the bridge, walk up through what we called the bottom (a flat piece of land) to Aunt Siller's (mother's sister) property line and go into the creek. We'd wade on up to a sandbar (half-a-mile), go out of the water across this spit of land and back in the water until we got to Grandpa's house where we left the creek, and walked across his field and on home. About halfway across the field (several acres level) there was a swamp by the side of the creek where Grandma's geese stayed. There was one big white gander that chased us. We had to step lively past him. On the other side of the creek from the swamp was a big chestnut tree in the bend of the creek with a big hole of water, which was our swimming hole. We went to school through July and were out during August (to help gather crops and do canning). In September we had good times at school. We studied hard and played hard. Sometimes we had contests with other schools in spelling, arithmetic, and basketball. Most of those contests were with Upper Millstone School. There were three schools on Millstone Creek, Upper, Middle and Lower. The one at Millstone Camp was for the coal company. Sometimes, we children would put money in a pot and the teacher would take the money and buy bags of marshmallows. On a Friday afternoon, the teacher would take us on a field trip. We'd walk down the road about half-a-mile to Broad Branch then to the top of the mountain. We could see the row of camp houses and get a glimpse of the pony barn and tipple and head house.
At Christmastime we'd have a program. We'd sing, tell a story, recite a poem or whatever the teacher could get us children to do. One year I was chosen as Mary. I felt so proud. I sat by the cradle which held the baby Jesus (a doll). I didn't have any lines to recite, as I remember, but I felt so important. We all got a small bag with an orange, a few pieces of candy, and a few nuts. Of course, we had the gifts from under the tree. Our tree was a large one some of the boys cut from the hills and set up on the stage. It was trimmed with all handmade items. In November each child's name was written on a strip of paper and put in a bucket or basket. We would march around and draw out one name. No one was to bring a gift that cost more than a quarter. One year our teacher took the name, age, and sex of each child and sent them to the then Caney Creek College (now Alice Lloyd College) and the college packaged a small gift for each child. I got a string of pink wax beads. The college soon discontinued that practice; too many small schools were sending in for gifts.
South East Coal Company was mining in our area. They had a big operation at Seco and Millstone. They bored through the mountain on one side of our little hillside farm. They built a trestle across the hollow and hauled coal across and through the mountain to Seco to the tipple where it was dumped into railroad cars ready for shipping away. In good times they worked five days a week and in slow times they worked two or three days a week.
There were rows and rows of camp houses. The No. 2 hollow was over the mountain from our house. The farm line was along the top of the ridge, and company property was on the other side. The houses along the river bottom and all on the level ground remaining were five rooms; three upstairs and two downstairs. The company had its own school building and company store. One large building held the post office, theater, and recreation room (pool hall, etc.) on the ground floor. The hospital was on the top floor. B. F. Wright (he was related to most mountain people) was head doctor and the young interns were recruited from other places to practice there. It was a thriving place. Sometimes in the spring mother would fix things for us children to carry over the mountain and peddle out to regular customers. We'd have stalks of rhubarb, green onions, butter, and a couple dozen of eggs. We were paid in scrip which was paper at that time, and we'd go on to the company store and get whatever mother had written on the list. There was always a little left for us to have a bit of candy.
Men living on our creek who worked in the mines would come by our house about 5:00 a.m. and go up to the trestle to wait for the Monday trip. A motor with a string of empty cars (empty of coal) took the men to work and back. Each man was given a stack of tags (metal disks) with numbers engraved and a hole punched in them. Each man had their own number and when they loaded a car they hung the tag on the end of the car, and were paid for each car they had loaded that day.

This article is submitted by Rachel's daughter, Mattie L. Berry Childers, 475 Taylor Circle, London, Kentucky; [email protected], shares this article with our readers.