This might be weird. Or not. But probably. And I want to apologize for taking so long to get this story posted, but I wanted to do it justice. It was (weirdly) important.
When I read the Mammy Jane book, I knew she had lived in the next county over, but it was only when I actually checked a map that I realized her house was a mere 15-20 miles away from my farm.
That enticing proximity led me to forget everything I’ve learned about West Virginia in the past five years, such as that 15-20 miles translates into approximately 1500-2000 miles since there is no straight path to anywhere here unless you are a crow. And so, all common sense tossed behind me, I set out upon my adventure, an intrepid explorer, full of bravado in the face of twisting, unmarked, switchback dirt roads and overlapping hills that send you to New York and back trying to get around them. I was going to find Mammy Jane’s house!
And do what once I got there, I had no clue.
I was sure it would only take a couple of hours, max, to go there and back, and I bamboozled 52 into coming along as my driver.
We set off across the river ford, in the opposite direction from town, and promptly came upon one of Skip’s cows in the road.
Dear readers, if there aren’t livestock in the road in the story, you aren’t reading a story about West Virginia. Skip is the farmer who came over here to sex Glory Bee for me, remember him? Skip owns the house my dad grew up in and much of my great-grandfather’s old farm across the river. Skip was just a bit further up the road by his sawmill. I rolled down my window and said, “Skip, your cow is in the road back there.”
Skip said, “They’re all in the road.”
Turns out someone stole Skip’s fence. Seriously. Someone stole his entire fence along the road. He put up a new fence and they stole it again. If a fence is not a weird thing to steal, I don’t know what is. They caught the guy after the second time, by the way, but Skip hasn’t put up the fence again yet because, you know, he’s a bit miffed.
So his cows are wandering more than usual. Skip said he wasn’t worried about it. They come home at feeding time.
We continued on, following the road that follows the river. The “hard road” in this direction is a dirt road. The river is narrow and shallow and looks like a creek.
About two miles from our farm, it passes by my great-great-grandfather’s house. I’ve stopped and talked to the guy who lives there now a few times, but I’ve never been inside the house.
I wondered if my ancestors knew the Mammy Jane family, but back then, 15 miles was a long way. Especially in West Virginia. And I was about to find out how far 15 miles still is.
Eventually we found hard road again as we came out at the Looneyville post office, one of the world’s tiniest post offices.
From there, we were, supposedly, maybe another 12 miles to Mammy Jane’s house. If we were crows.
The closest familiar location to Mammy Jane’s house, to me, is Newton, West Virginia. It didn’t take us long to get to Newton, and we were, in fact, still in Roane County. Mammy Jane’s house is in Calhoun County, but just barely over the county line. There’s not much in Newton. We stopped at the little store to ask questions.
Nobody’d heard of Mammy Jane, but they did know the road we were looking for. Or they said they did. “Dan” said he used to work for the State Road and he provided directions. He should know! He worked for the State Road!
It’s pretty country out there, but we didn’t find the right road.
We stopped eventually and asked a guy by the side of the road if we would find the road we were looking for if we kept going the way we were going. He told us if we kept going that way, the road would get so bad it would tear off the bottom of my Explorer. We returned to the store in Newton to wring Dan’s neck.
Unfortunately, Dan was gone, but we found someone else who said they knew how to get there and they even got out a map! We set off again. By this time, we’d already been driving around for about three hours. (And let me add here that we had, of course, looked at a map online before setting out. When it comes to dirt roads in WV, maps aren’t a lot of help, and in fact the map at the store still didn’t show the road itself, but it was a little better than the map I’d found online in providing some markers. We were dealing with unmarked roads that twist amidst other rural roads.)
We ended up on another dirt road eventually and stopped to talk to a man at a farm with some beautiful Percherons. I would have taken a picture of them but I was in a hurry after he said he knew where Mammy Jane’s house was and that we were nearly there! And sure enough, we went about another mile and there was the house.
I recognized it right away from the photo I’d seen online (here).
View out the back from Mammy Jane’s house, looking toward the holler.
I was there! I’d found it! What to do now? 52 suggested that since I was running around taking pictures outside the house, it might be a good idea to knock on the door and introduce myself before somebody started shooting.
I knocked on the back porch door. A little bitty teeny tiny woman came to the door. I told her my name and explained what I was doing and she waved her hand at me and walked off. She came back putting a hearing aid in her ear and I started over. I said, “Are you Irene?” Because I knew that Irene was Mammy Jane’s granddaughter and that she owned the house now. She said she was, then she took some cornbread out of the oven. The back porch door opened into the kitchen.
We chatted for a few minutes at the door about Jane and the book. I thanked her for letting me take pictures of the house and said I had a cow waiting at home for me, so I’d better go.
She said, “Why don’t you come in?”
Sheesh, I’ve never gotten this far at my great-great-grandfather’s house.
I felt kinda guilty for showing up there like that, though, so I just stood right inside the door. The kitchen, by the way, was not the original kitchen, she explained. The kitchen had been a separate building. The current kitchen is a remodel when the kitchen was moved inside at some later point. (It wasn’t all that modern, though. It was moved inside sometime while Jane was still alive.) We chatted for probably another 30 minutes about Jane. I never stepped a foot away from just inside the door. Eventually, I told her again that I had a cow waiting at home for me, so I’d better go. By this time, it was getting dark.
She said, “Don’t you want to see the rest of the house?”
WELL, YES! So I finally stepped away from just inside the door and she took me through the entire house, room by room, telling me about each one. I only took a few pictures inside the house, and I didn’t take any pictures of Irene. She was concerned the house wasn’t picked up well enough, and she was in her robe, so I restrained myself with my camera. What surprised me the most about the house was how much smaller it felt inside than it appeared outside. The house is just two rooms deep, except for the large parlor on one side of the front that takes up the entire side of the house. The “master’s” room is at the front of the house on the other side and behind it the room that is now used as a kitchen. There is a narrow hall in the middle of the front that opens out onto the columned portico and has a staircase. (At the back of this hall, a modern bathroom was carved into the house in recent times.) Upstairs, there are three large rooms that were all used as bedrooms. The middle room opens onto the other two rooms. Jane had 14 children and many other people who often stayed and even lived at her house. In those days, they put as many beds as they could fit into every room and no one had a bed to themselves.
The original staircase in the front hall.
The transom over the front door.
Inside one of the upstairs bedrooms. (Check out the awesome floors.)
Framed sketch of Tom and Jane that hangs in their bedroom.
The floor of the house is solid and even, which is impressive for a house that is over 100 years old. No slanted floors for Jane–the foundation stones, carved from the hillside right on their farm, were laid all the way across the bottom of the house. The house is also in impressive condition with all the original woodwork in the moldings, original staircase, original windows, original floors. An interesting tidbit Irene told me about the floors was that Jane would never let a drop of water on the floors. No floor scrubbing. They were swept, but that’s it. “Jane never had a nice house before,” Irene said. “She was afraid of ruining the wood floors.” As Jane got older, there were always some of her grown children and grandchildren living with her at different times. Irene said one time some of them deliberately spilled half a bucket of “pig slop” that was always being saved up in the kitchen (by then, the “new” kitchen had been put in the house), forcing Jane to let them scrub the kitchen floor. Jane, who was not fooled by their supposed accident, was so mad at them, she made them scrub every floor in the house if they wanted to scrub floors that bad! Now that sounds like the strong-willed Jane from the book.
About the Jane in the book…… I already had an idea from some things I had discovered in searching about Jane on the internet that not everything in the book was accurate. It is, of course, a fictionalized account of Jane’s life, so that’s to be expected, but I had found some dates were wrong, too (which seemed strange to me as those would be easy enough to get right). Irene shared with me a number of fabrications and inaccuracies in the book. As for the fabrications, she said her sister (Sibyl Jarvis Pischke, who is now deceased) made up some of the more dramatic stories about Jane in order to make the book more exciting. As for the inaccuracies, she said her sister didn’t do her research very well and she didn’t spend that much time with her grandmother. Irene lived with Jane toward the end of her life and was at the foot of her bed when she died. Irene was then 20 years old, and in the time she spent living with Jane, she learned a lot about Jane’s life straight from the source and has continued since then to research her family.
If you don’t want to know the truth about Jane and the book, stop reading this post right now. (Spoiler alert.)
Tom had six children when he married Jane, not five, as portrayed in the book. (A seventh child died shortly after birth, at the same time his first wife died.) Tom and Jane married in 1867. (I had actually found this out myself in records online.) The Civil War was already over. The entire storyline in the book about Tom going off to war after they married is inaccurate. Tom was, as the book says, shot in the jaw, and he spit out several teeth and the bullet and went on. He wore a beard ever after that to hide the scar and hole in his jaw. Jane, indeed, began supporting herself as a hired girl by the time she was nine years old, and met and married Tom Jarvis while working as a hired girl on a farm near his own. But she didn’t buy all the farms, build the barn, and start building the house all by herself as depicted in the book. Tom was there. The war was over.
The order of the births of their own children is also inaccurate, probably due to lack of research on Sibyl’s part. Calvin was not their first child, and while he did die of diphtheria, he was only a few years old, not an older child as told in the book. It’s true that Jane cared for him herself, secluding the illness from the rest of the family, and no one else in the house came down with it (including Jane).
Jane was never raped. The entire “barn kitten” incident in which she was assaulted by soldiers and later tricked them into coming back, got them drunk, whipped them, and stole their horses never happened. Sibyl made it up. Jane did carry a blacksnake whip, though, and wasn’t afraid to use it.
Newt actually married “Annie of the flowers” (in the book, they don’t marry) but divorced her after two years because she “wasn’t right in the head” and he raised their child together with his second wife. This is one inaccuracy in the book that is not Sibyl’s doing. Annie’s child grew up believing she was illegitimate. Newt’s marriage to Annie–and divorce–was kept a secret, even within the family. Irene discovered the truth when she found Newt’s divorce papers, which Jane had kept hidden in the house.
Tom wasn’t moved to a bed in the wash house in the days before he died. He died in the house, in the master’s bedroom. Irene has no idea why Sibyl depicted his death differently.
Spencer’s wife, Jeannett, was no “witch” as depicted in the book. Jeannett was Sibyl’s and Irene’s mother, and Irene said there was some upset in the family over the way their mother was portrayed. The incident with the peddler in which a peddler mysteriously disappears after Jeannett gives him the evil eye and they later find–and hide–a box of money he left behind is a fabrication. There was a peddler who died after visiting the house, but he was hit by a train. There was a box of money, but it was with him when he died. A true story about Jane and Jeannett, according to Irene, is the story where Jane rode horseback over the hill to Jeannett’s house before she married Spencer. Jane called Jeannett outside and told her that the team and buggy her son had been using to court her didn’t belong to him, so if she was marrying him for his money, she’d better think twice because he didn’t own a thing. Then she rode back home. That Jane, she was a stinker.
Of course, I didn’t get to go over every story in the book with Irene, but these were some of the highlights we discussed. Irene said what was true in the book was Jane’s character and how she worked. She never learned to read or write, but she conducted business with an iron hand and ran her home with a backbone of steel. She knew how to do anything, could make everything, worked like a dog, and managed money. She was an extraordinarily strong woman in her time. But that, Irene said, just wasn’t dramatic enough for Sibyl.
I think Jane was pretty impressive just how she was. Sibyl made up quite a few stories in the book, but what the book does do–and why it’s so engaging–is bring one of those amazing pioneer women from the past to life. Sibyl made Jane real, even when she made her up, so I can’t fault her too much. For me, it was equally satisfying to find out the truth. And I think that’s why I was so driven to go in search of Jane. I knew the book was fiction. What I was looking for was the truth.
And then finally I said to Irene, I have to go, my cow is going to be mad. By then, it was way past dark and considering it had taken us 5 billion hours to trek the 15-20 miles there, I still had another 5 billion hours to get home. Irene offered me a piece of cornbread. I said, no, really, I have to go. I thanked her for her time and she invited me to come back. Irene is 90, by the way.
So, who knows, maybe one day when the weather is nicer for dirt roads and I have 10 billion hours to spare, I’ll go back and bring Irene some fresh eggs and a pie.
And ask her if she has Mammy Jane’s nut cake recipe.
P.S. Thanks again to Jennifer Sue Elkins, who sent me the book. You can find the book here as well as at other sellers. It’s worth the read–fabrications and inaccuracies and all.