Growing up on Cow Creek
by Woodrow Wilson Burchett
and William H. McCann, Jr.
In the past week, we shared many of the recollections of Mr. Woodrow Wilson Burchett (March 16, 1911-April 12, 1995) in regard to the profession in which he was so proudly engaged - “lawyering.” This week, we share the recollections of Mr. Burchett's “growing-up days,” spent on Floyd County's Cow Creek.
Woodrow was the son of Dick and Amma Burchett, of Woods. Dick was a school teacher, farmer, proprietor of a country store, operator of a saw mill, and, from 1920 to 1924, a county magistrate and member of the Floyd County Fiscal Court. His wife assisted him in the running of the country store, as well as serving for many years as the local postmistress.
Their son would grow up become one of Floyd County's most respected attorneys-at-law, serving for 12 years as county attorney, eight years as a member of the Kentucky Public Service Commission, and four years as a member of the Harness Racing Commission.
The following are some of Woodrow's memories of Floyd County as a young boy growing up on his beloved Cow Creek, as told to William H. McCann, Jr., and as written down in later years by “The Sage of Cow Creek” himself.
“We had a one-room school, and we had one teacher. And the teacher was highly regarded in the community, and the schoolhouse was the center of entertainment. It was the social center. We'd have plays there...different kinds of plays. Skits and whatever, or maybe a two or three act play. My daddy loved to do black-face comedy and could sing and dance. I couldn't do either. But anyway, we'd always have a play.
“We had the Three Beech School. It was over on the next fork (from home). After I got up a little bit and before I was a teenager, I was doing a trap line. I was running a trap line every morning on my way to school. Maybe I'd catch a possum or two. Sometimes I'd catch a skunk and I'd go to school and they had the old pot-bellied stove in the middle of a one-room school, and if I'd caught a skunk, why I was delegated to one of the corners. They wouldn't let me get up close to that stove...because heat makes you smell worse.
At noon, what you took in your bucket, you ate. Two fellows up the road here that worked on the railroad...had money and could buy light bread. My mother would have to make a biscuit pone and put me a piece of country ham in between it. And these boys that could buy light bread would maybe have a piece of baloney or some kind of lunch meat. Made me with my homemade biscuit and country ham feel kind of inferior, you know. But anyway, we made it.
“We'd have big pie suppers (at school). And the people in the community would bring in their paint and their brushes and get their ladders and whatever and they'd all gather up at the schoolhouse; they'd paint it inside and out! Never cost the county or anybody else any money. And we'd have a pie supper and maybe pay for the paint, maybe buy some books for the library for the children to read, or maybe buy some school supplies.”
“I have always been a rather religious sort of fellow. I got it from my mother and my grandmother. My grandmother, she didn't overdo it, really, but she'd always get around to it...in a roundabout way and talk about it. And especially she'd talk about it to the strangers that came to her gate. She didn't let any of them get away without giving them a pretty hard dose of it. And I listened pretty carefully...and I knew that it was her relationship with the Lord that made her the kind of person that she was. And there was never a time in my life when I didn't recognize that and feel that. Now I didn't always stay that close and...do like my grandmother did. But I always knew what it did for her and I wanted to be somewhat like her.
“At the time, there was a railroad over here, and a railroad over at Williamson (West Virginia). The C&O (Chesapeake and Ohio) came up Beaver Creek, up the Big Sandy; and the N&W (Norfolk and Western) went up Williamson. Well, a hobo couldn't get from the C&O to the N&W except to walk across some country. And the shortest and most direct route was to come up Cow Creek, go up Sycamore, and into Williamson...about twenty or thirty miles. You could...walk it in a day.
“Well, hoboes had what they called monikers. That was a sign that they'd put on a gate post or a rock by the side of the road that meant ‘this is a good place to stop.' They'd put that moniker on grandma's gate...they were always stopping there.
“And granddaddy and I...we'd be cutting wood, just stacking it (out in the woodshed) and we'd hear grandma talking. And I'd say, ‘Who's she talking to?.' I knew what he'd say, I just wanted to hear him say it.
“He'd say, ‘It's Leeottie and some of her whoso's.' And ‘whosoever has done this for the least of my brethren, has done it also unto me,' is what he was talking about.
“And she'd have a couple of those hobos over there...she'd pack ‘em a lunch to go on their way with and then she'd preach a little and pray with ‘em and lecture ‘em on their morals and whatever...And if they didn't have any shoes, they'd leave there with a pair. And if they didn't have a coat, they'd leave there wearing one. And then we'd go to the house and granddaddy would say, ‘Who's been here?,' as if he didn't know.
“‘She'd say, ‘I had some friends of mine came in here.'
“‘Yeah, I guess they were.'
“‘Well, now let me tell you something. You fed ‘em.'
“‘Yeah, I fed ‘em. I packed ‘em a lunch to take with ‘em to go...they're going over to Williamson to get on an N&W.'
“‘Well now, don't you, in all fairness, think that they ought to come over here and help us split some wood, just to pay for their meal?'
“‘No. Now, Flem, you know that guests in our house don't work...no.'
“‘Well, I guess so.' And then he'd wink at me, you know. I thought that was funny.
“We're Baptists. But when I was growing up, we couldn't get anywhere to church. And there was a little Methodist church right down the road here...we went to it. And we supported it. And it was the community church.
“Sunday School and church were pretty much the only activities on Sunday. The Methodist preacher down here was what they called a ‘circuit riding' preacher. He only came here one Sunday out of the month, and he went to other churches on the other Sundays. That's the way the Methodists did it...On the other Sundays, we'd have Sunday School. Sometimes we'd have somebody that would preach or sometimes we'd have a Bible discussion.
“We'd have revivals. Night revival meetings. We'd like to go to night meetings ‘cause we'd get to walk home with the girls. Church, we called it ‘Meetin',' was the big event or gathering for the community. Most all families attended when we had services.
“I can remember it was usual and customary for Uncle Henry to dismiss the congregation. He always prayed for ‘those on beds of affliction, for the sinners, soldiers on foreign battlefields fighting for our freedom' and for rain, if we needed it. And he always closed, ‘Dear Lord, help me to control my temper better in the future than I have in the past.'”
“We didn't have much opportunity to socialize with girls. Apple peelings, bean stringings or that sort of thing was about our only chance. Maybe we'd have a dance, a country dance...but we didn't have a lot of social life with the girls. You couldn't get far...you could only go as far as you could walk or ride a horse. And you're talking about eight or ten miles. If they didn't live within that distance, then we were out of luck.”
“Books were hard to come by in those days. People didn't have books...We got ‘Tom Sawyer' and ‘Huck Finn' here. My daddy picked ‘em up somewhere. And I think every boy on this creek read them books and so we'd act like ‘em. And we talked like ‘em and everything else for years around here.
“My cousin Jeff Burchett lived on the old homeplace, and he and I were about the same age, he's a year older. We grew up together. We were just about inseparable. And I know that one time he got his leg broke. Back in those days, you didn't have a cast and all that stuff to put on the leg; you'd get a piece of egg crate and some bandage and wrap it and fix it. And then you had to lay in the bed thirty days or something, and I went over and stayed with him.
“He and I were marble experts. We played marbles and got pretty good. At least we thought so. And we'd play here every night. Had a big flat place outside as slick as the floor, and we'd play on that and people would come here to play with us and he and I always were together on the same team.
“We played a game that we called ‘Buy-In.' You put a marble in each corner of a big square ring and one in the middle and then you could shoot a fellow. If you hit him, why you killed him and he had to give you one man (marble) to buy in with...till your opponents didn't have any, then you'd won the game. Right complicated thing, but Jeff and I were pretty good.
“And then there was a fellow named Neuman. Bill Neuman was a shoe salesman, Newberry Shoe Company, and he claimed he knew some boys from Beaver that could beat us...So Bill Neuman...he brought these boys with ‘im to beat me and Jeff, which they couldn't do. We played all night. It was pretty close, you know, about like U.K. and Duke. But we finally ended up winning.
“Then Neuman thought that probably his boys'd do better if they were on neutral ground. So, anyway, we used to have big Fourth of July celebrations in Prestonsburg, you know. And somebody'd speak about the Constitution and wave the flag and eat watermelons, climb the greasy pole and all that kind of stuff. And they set up a big marble game for me and Jeff and the Neumans. We played all day down here. We beat ‘em that day, too; more convincingly. Had a big crowd, you know.
“Well, I'd never seen a movie, but I remember this very well. We were coming across the old bridge you walked across down there in Prestonsburg, and they had a movie (theater) there at the end of the bridge...We got on the bridge and we could see through the window and I could see the pictures on the wall. That's the first movie I ever saw. I was probably in the eighth grade. But I don't think I ever went to a real picture show and saw movies from start to finish and paid admission until probably I went to Pikeville to high school in about 1923.”
William H. McCann, Jr. is an oral historian from Lexington. He teaches writing at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, in Lexington.
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