Monday, July 17, 2006

Last of the Red Hot Autodidacts

As promised in my blog of last Saturday, here is an an example of the writings of my great grandfather Clayburn Pierson. I think it is not bad at all for a mid-19th Century runaway who never had the luxury of setting so much as a foot into a public school. Alas, today it is doubtful that one person in fifty could craft an essay this well-written, even with the seeming advantage of a high school education. It is drawn from a 1999 collection published by the Clay County (West Virginia) Landmarks Commission and Historical Society.

The name "Devil's Den"is frequently applied to places of bad repute, where robbers, thieves, gamblers and drunkards assemble and where also illegal schemes are concocted and whiskey holds high carnivals. But the den hereinafter described is fitted by nature as a safe retreat for thieves and bandits, where they live would be secure from prying eyes, and in fact its appearance would indicate that the real devil, himself, if so inclined, could repose here in safety after "wandering to and fro in the earth seeking who he might devour," and if his Satanic majesty should ever retire from official business, (which is not probable) he could not find a more safe or secluded retreat and one where he would be less annoyed by visitors of the genus homo variety. A place in which half a century ago bears, panthers, and other ferocious animals found their lairs and wolves made night hideous with their discordant howls, and now owls hoot, ravens croak and poisonous reptiles infest the place. The "Devil' s Den" is the name this place has been known by for three quarters of a century, bestowed on it by an old hunter, who pitched his camp near the mouth of "Devil's Den", 75 years ago, and very soon thereafter asserting his surroundings moved without notice to his nearest neighbors. A partial account of the reason for the name of the place, and his sudden departure therefrom will be given hereafter.

About three and one half miles south-east of Clay Court House the beautiful Elk receives a tributary from the south. This stream or creek is called Big Leatherwood, so named from the leather-barked shrub so abundant near its mouth. This creek for several miles up is a weird laity.

The hills on either side are extremely high, and coming down to the creek without being interrupted by benches or plateaus; rugged, steep and covered at the base with a dense growth of spruce, laurel and ivy. There are no bottoms. The creek itself is rough and swift, the water producing melancholy sounds as it rumbles and splashes over its rocky bed. The wilderness of the scenery and the monotonous hum of the water would not, it is believed, be conductive to the tranquillity of mind of nervous persons when camping all alone at the mouth of "Devil' s Den", a small creek putting into Big Leatherwood from the east, not far from the river.

But few persons have traveled this canyon. It is so extremely rough that it is almost impossible to penetrate the laurel and scale the rocks. The mouth of "Devil' s Den" is about two miles west of Mt. Pisga, (as the crow flies) and if there is a cave, or subterranean chamber or pit, as some suppose there is, they probably extend to and under the Mt. Pisga Chatauqua grounds. And if this supposition be true, and the caves be occupied by Belzebub or any of his trusty subjects, it may, perchance, so happen that while religious services are being performed at the Chatauqua the Devil and his imps may be holding close communion not far below, and when the "sons of God" come to "present themselves before the Lord", Satan being located in the community may come also.

Seventy-five years ago Elk River Valley from Clendennin to Groves Creek was called the "wilderness" uninhabited; wild animals roamed over the hills and along the dales, undisturbed by the sounds of civilization, save in the late autumn and early winter, when there came an occasional hunter from the settlements to the south, to kill his winter's meat. Foremost among the hunters who came to kill bears in this locality was Jehu Summers, a noted hunter from what is now Nicholas County. He pitched his camp, prepared a receptacle for his bear meat until he could pack it away after the hunting season was over. The spot selected was on a small flat near the mouth of a small creek on the bank of said Leatherwood. He remained there but a few days until he removed his camp. He said:

"I heard strange noises up the creek every night. I could not account for them. I had never hear any thing like it before in the woods--almost every noise I had ever heard, sometimes singly; then again confused. I became nervous and could not sleep. I was lying awake in my
camp, there was a large spring within two rods of me. I saw a large ball of fire rise out of the spring and go up above the trees and pass out of sight. I could not stand it any longer. I hastily left camp for home, traveling all night and through the woods and arriving at home just after daylight. That is why I call it the 'Devil's Den'. Witches or devils were there then and I believe they are there now"

This communication was made to the writer 60 years ago by the old hunter himself. At that time I did not give full credence to the story, although the old man's veracity could not be questioned, yet I was of opinion that the hunter was lonesome and became imaginative, and
mistook the sighing of the wind and the rasping of the trunks and branches of the trees for the rattling of chains and the wailing of the lost, and other sounds not peculiar to that locality.

Be that as it may, the old man has long since passed away. But in more recent years others, some of whom are now living, have visited the Den and reported that there were peculiar noises to be heard there. Some of these men are of more than ordinary intelligence. I refer to A.J. Stephenson and Abner Ramsey. After hearing their story the writer went on a tour of inspection. I entered the woods at the head of the run, which is not very rough, and passed on down into the Den and with great difficulty to its mouth. I heard no unusual sounds and came to
the conclusion that if this was the habitation of devils, the folks were either not at home or asleep, or possibly, if there were any underground rooms, they might be in a secret session there and I did not see or hear them. If there was a hole in the ground I did not find it. Further investigations may reveal it.

No comments: