Stringtown, West Virginia: A Brief History of a Pre-World War II Rural Community
Read Barbara Vineyard’s account of A Child in Stringtown.
And see Ross W. Dye’s Foreword to this History.
A Brief History of a Pre-World War II Rural Community
In the words of Ross Winton Dye, born January 9, 1925, in Stringtown, West Virginia, son of Romeo Napoleon Dye and Olive Evelina Elliott, grandson of John Morgan Dye and Florinda Farnsworth Smith.
The community in which we lived was typical of the areas in West Virginia where oil was found. Before the oil fields were developed, it was dependent entirely upon farming. Originally, the Hammack, West Virginia, post office was located across the swinging bridge from Grandpa Dye’s house. By it was a flour mill which was owned by a Mr. Shambling. Although the post office was Hammack, the community came to be known as Shambling’s Mill. Later, the name became Stringtown for the way the houses were strung out along the Pocatalico and its little tributaries during the oil boom.
The first well was drilled at Stringtown on the Seabolt place in 1908 by Ohio Fuel. The South Penn Oil Company drilled on the land owned by Grandpa and Grandma, with the first well coming in sometime in 1909. A Mr. Krummitt was the first superintendent Ohio Fuel sent to our community, and John Varner held the same position for South Penn. South Penn built a house for Mr. Varner on the hill above Grandpa’s house and around to the east so that looking east from the house one looked down and about due east to where the house stood which Jonathan Smith built earlier. It was in the house on the hill that I was born, but before the year was out we moved into the house which Jonathan Smith built and afterwards was known as the Lamb place.
(An old oil derrick, still standing today on our farm in Stringtown.)
Most of the oil field development was done before I was born. Grandma and Grandpa soon found themselves with more money than they ever had before. Their first royalty check was $1800. The royalty income continued to be substantial until about the time of Grandpa’s death. However, it is still coming to the heirs. Today, many of the old wells are being pumped the same as they were when I was a boy. As a child, I heard the stories of how teams of six horses could hardly pull the equipment through the mud that became axle-deep on the wagons in the winter and spring. My life began when the oil field was at about its zenith so far as production was concerned. Most of the drillers were gone, but many workmen were there to run the oil field. The mud was still as deep, and the shadow of the boom was still in evidence.
There were two general stores in the community, and for a long time one of them was run by Uncle Lote (Lothrop). Later, one of the stores closed, and Uncle Lote sold his. Then my father opened a store, which was operated a few years after his death. It was somewhat of an adventure when I got to stay with the person who worked at the store. During the boom, there was a boarding house for the men who worked in the oil fields, and there was also a notorious house in which Nellie Francisco, the wife of one of the workers, lived. She had several girlfriends living with her and they were often in the company of various men. Nellie was a blond woman of unusually attractive features and she had as one of her paramours one of the oil company superintendents. Earl Vineyard, husband of Oshial Dye, and two of his cousins followed he and Nellie to an apple orchard on the Hammack place, a farm about a mile downstream from Grandpa’s house. The stories about Nellie were confirmed before the eyes of those boys! Lucy McGraw was a woman of similar reputation, but she lacked the physical charm of Nellie so she was sometimes unable to compete.
There were hundreds of people living in a community which a few years before was only an abode of farmers. People came from many places, and a little town came into being. Boardwalks were built for the convenience of the people who lived in houses which covered the meadows and fields in the bottoms and hills of the area.
(This dirt road in Stringtown was once lined with wooden sidewalks and cottages to house oil field and gasoline plant workers.)
By the time I can remember, the apex of the activity had passed, but the gasoline plant, the wells, the pipelines, and other matters required many employees. The gasoline plant herein mentioned was built in 1920. For many years, Happy Clark was superintendent of the plant. When I think of him, I always remember how he liked to fish. He could catch more fish than anybody else.
(The road to the gasoline plant, as it appears today.)
By now, the few people still working in the oil fields live on paved roads, and the descendants of the old farmers have abandoned the land. So today Stringtown is a ghost town without ghosts except as seen by those who remember it as it was.
(The crumbling remains of the gasoline plant, now hidden in wild woods.)
The farms have gone back to nature, and the place is rapidly disappearing as a habitation of man. But the familiar sound of the wells pumping is still heard, though possibly that will not remain many more years. Urbanization and the changes brought by World War II were the death knell of farming as a means of livelihood in the hills. The school where Mom taught and which I attended is now closed, and the church has long been vacant.
(The overgrown foundation of the community church at Stringtown, in the meadow on our farm.)
When I was a boy, there was no shortage of young people of all ages for activities of many kinds. The wood were full of squirrels, the fields were well supplied with rabbits, the streams abounded in fish, and the countryside was populated with foxes, weasels, minks, skunks, opossums, raccoons, muskrats, and other animals. We never lacked for something to do.
After my father’s death, we continued to live on the Lamb place and Mom taught school at Stringtown. This provided all the cash we needed to live comfortably. We had chickens, cows, geese, ducks, guineas, turkeys, sheep, and hogs. We raised a garden and canned a cellarful of fruit and vegetables every summer. With hogs to kill every fall and all of the eggs and milk we could use, we never wanted for anything. The oil company provided free gas to one house on each farm and we lived in that house on the Lamb place. We did not ever lack warmth in the house, and for lights we had gas. Gas made better light than oil lamps and we were proud to have it.
I grew up working on the four farms which Grandma and Grandpa owned in the area. When I was six, Grandpa said it was time for me to learn to work, so he started taking me to the fields and I worked. We all learned to work, and before and after school we had chores to do. The milking had to be done twice a day, and other things required attention daily. But we had fun and really did not have to work every day for there were seasons when only the men were needed. Also, some things we were never expected to do for Grandpa kept a man working for him all of the time.
(My dad, Ross Dye, back in Stringtown at our farm in 2008, teaching me how to milk.)
Woodrow Jett worked for Grandpa for more than a dozen years until Grandpa’s death in 1945. One day at noon I waited for Woodie at the horse barn, for I knew he would leave the horses there in the stalls while he went to eat. The barn had about eight or ten stalls on one side. There was a window at the end of the barn looking in toward the door on the opposite end. I tied a bucket of water over the door and fastened a rope to the bucket, brought the rope through the loft and down to the window in the back. When Woodie stepped in the door under the bucket, I pulled the rope and soaked him. There was a wood lot behind the barn and a cliff dropped off sharply to the level of the river, so before Woodie could come around the barn, I was out of sight. I was sitting on the porch when he passed by. I always thought that was one of my best pranks.
The age of the pioneers had passed by my time, but in our remote community vestiges of its aura still were to be found. The old-timers could tell the tales of the Civil War period, and our family, with its roots going back to Colonial Virginia, kept alive the lore and traditions of the earlier days. Most of the country roads were dirt. There was no electricity except along the main highway and life partook of the spirit of the frontier.
(The upping stone, which was used to help ladies get onto their horses, sits in the meadow on our farm near the site of the old church.)
When I was a boy, I often yearned for the days of the Indian wars, the virgin forests which covered the land, and the newness of the country of which I heard.
(A sheltered pool in the Pocatalico River, called “the Indian princess bath” by Stringtown’s old-timers when my dad was growing up.)
I listened to the old people talk and shared their dreams of the past. I felt a desire to stay on the land of my forefathers, and I also began to think of the world beyond our hills and valleys. Perhaps it was the same call which brought my forebears to our little valley. Perhaps it was the realization that I was born in the twilight of an era insofar as our little corner of the world was concerned. Or maybe it was a desire to chart my own course in the changing world. But whatever the reason, I knew that life as I had inherited it was a chapter out of the past. So whatever moved me, I knew by the time I was fifteen that I had to move on with the times.
The home I knew was more than a house. It was the land, the people, the swimming hole, the hunting grounds, our Pony called Major, the molassesmaking in the fall, the popcorn on winter evenings, the Christmas holidays, sleighing in the snows, the fishing, the work, the school, stopping in to see Grandma and Grandpa going to and from school, the fodder shocks in the cornfield with ripe pumpkins on frosty mornings, the snows which closed school, the family reunions, Saturdays in town, walking barefoot in the mud, and all the adventures of growing up in a rural community with enough outside influence due to the oil fields to lend a special excitement. These are my memories, but so many changes have come now that the memories are all that remain of those days.
Ross W. Dye
December 2, 1964
Notes from Suzanne, daughter of Ross Dye
Part II, with more details about Stringtown, and Romeo and Olive Dye, coming….as soon as I can wrestle it out of my parents!
Keep up with our new Old Stringtown farm every day on the farmhouse blog. Our new farm is across the river from John Morgan Dye’s old farm and the Summerfield/Dye cemetery is across the road from us. Abraham Dye’s house still stands and is about two miles away. The old “Lamb place” is even closer and I know just where Jonathan Smith hid his horse from the soldiers….
Ross W. Dye’s Foreword to this History.
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