Category Archives: Ritchie CountyWV-1970s

Back to the land with no electric

The Footbridge-A fictional story of a West Virginia flood.

The Footbridge

By Wendy lee Maddox

It was hard to keep her feet from slipping on the slimy, green algae oozing across the log footbridge. Rough ridges, from when it was hewed flat with an adze on the top side, were the only grip. If it had been store bought lumber, all planed and sanded, she would have never got across it. Below, the muddy creek roiled and slid its way down stream, surging forward and breathing a pulse of water along the top edge of the banks. Chunks of red clay plopped into the water every now and then, carving off the edges and expanding the width of the creek. It had been raining for 17 days straight now. Every single day it rained. Sometimes hard, sometimes just sprinkling. All the time grey. It was like living inside a cloud, or maybe like being a salamander, breathing air through your skin pores right from the water. Water seeped through her rain jacket, straggled her hair into messy tendrils, and ran off the tip of her nose. It was a cold rain, colder than it should be in the middle of May. They almost had a frost the other night, probably would have if the sky had ever cleared off. The garden was a soggy, muddy mess and her peas had rotted in the ground. The potatoes had somehow managed to grow enough tops before the rain started, so they hadn’t turned to mush. She had not been able to get anything else planted out yet, but she had a bunch of starts in a sunny window, waiting.

As she carefully stepped her way across her footbridge, holding tightly onto the single, rusted hand rail, she thought back to the grand old swinging bridge that sat here before and the Big Flood that finally took it out. She had loved that bridge. It was so much better built. She and her brothers and papaw had made it out of old suspension cables and parts collected from the long abandoned oil well that used to sit right behind the house. That well had petered out and been capped and newer, deeper ones had since taken its place, with gasoline engines and new fangled pumping jacks that came on a skid, already put together. They still only produced just enough oil for a small check each month. Barely enough to live on. And now she even had to pay to have the wells pumped instead of the gas being free, like it always was.

She remembered when she and her brothers had helped dismantle the original drill tower, like a giant erector set, sorting all the pieces and pulling the steel guy wires down to the creek like giant snakes. The boys had harnessed Beet and Tucker, the work horses, and hauled some oak logs down from the woods to split into boards for the bridge decking. They dug extra deep holes to hold up the pair of metal posts on either side of the creek, and hauled barrows and barrows of rocks to tamp down into the holes. It was hard work and took most of one fall to finish. It was the last time she can ever remember being allowed to work alongside her brothers, or her grandpa. He had driven them hard to finish that bridge before winter set in. He believed in doing things right and they built it tall and strong so that it would hold up over time. That bridge ended up being the last thing they ever built together. It wasn’t long after that she reached that age where she was only supposed to do more ladylike sorts of chores.

As it was she had to do most of the cooking and cleaning anyway. Her mother had died with her last baby and all her sisters would soon be married off. Her father didn’t want her to even meet any boys saying,

“You need to stay home where you belong, taking care of your brothers and the house. There is no need for you to go to school just so you can get ideas about leaving here. That’s what happened to your sisters.”

She hated that she never got to go to town or to the little school right down the road anymore. The only time she got away was once a year for the county fair, surrounded by her brothers and her father at all times.

Helping to build the new bridge had been a high point of her life. It was nice to get to do something besides housework, with all the cooking and gardening it took to feed her brothers and father and Pap. Most of the bridge work was too heavy for her but she helped pick rocks out of the newly plowed soil every winter and she could help by throwing them down the holes to support the uprights. When they had finally gotten the end pipes set in position and tamped the rocks in tight, it was time to string the metal suspension cables across the creek. Her brothers took turns monkeying up the twenty foot poles to push the heavy cables through the holes drilled up near the tops. Sweat ran down their backs as they gave the final effort to get the heavy cable lifted up and in. Once the end was pulled through and reached the ground again it took two work horses to pull it out to the anchors the boys had drilled into the bedrock, well back of the bridge.

She walked with the team, encouraging them not to give up when it got difficult, keeping them at a steady pace. After the horses had stretched them as far as they could, and all four cables were bolted to their anchors, it was obvious they were still hanging too loose.

Papaw thought it over some and came up with the idea of tautening the cables by using a big wheel for better leverage. So the next chore involved moving the big, old wooden band wheel from up in the pump shack to down by the bridge cables. It was a twelve foot diameter wheel that had rocked the walking beam up and down, by way of a wide canvas belt turned by a one cylinder, natural gas engine. Papaw rigged it up with a ratchet gear so they could tighten the cables well above the water, out of reach of most floods. It took two, hundred foot cables on top and two down at floor level.

“Young’uns, I believe we could play a fiddle tune on those cables now. That’ll do her.”

They spent the next little while attaching a series of shorter wires for side braces and laying deck planks evenly across. She got to help weave the ropes through the wood ends and around the lower cables. Her brother Tom almost made her fall in more than once by jumping up and down on the cables while she was suspended out there in the middle with nothing much to hold on to.

“Just you wait till I get finished with these boards before you go riling things up, Tom. Then you can get it swinging and bucking without me on it. That is, if you want me to cook you any supper tonight.”
When the footbridge was finally done that fall it was the best built one anyone had ever seen. It spanned such a long ways across that you could get a nice rhythm going when you walked just right, timing your footsteps with the gentle rise and fall. That was her favorite part. If you got into stepping right you could have it heaving up and down pretty good after awhile and it was like dancing on a ship at sea. Her father hated it when she got it going like that, but she loved it more than anything. She couldn’t hardly cross it without getting a good surging swing going along the way. Father would tack on extra chores anytime he saw her do it but her granddad always said he built it to last and it could handle the stress.

“Leave her be, son. It’s just a bit of fun. That bridge can take it. We built her right. ”
That old bridge had held just fine for forty years. Sure, every few years they would have to replace a few of the deck boards with fresh ones, from the saw mill over the ridge, but the rest of it was almost indestructible. Being out in the weather was rough on the wood, even if it was oak. Chestnut would have lasted a lot longer, but since the Chestnut Blight came through, all the Chestnut trees had died and were long gone. Chestnut wood was hard to come by these days and too precious to waste on outside floorboards. You either saved it for furniture building or stored it away in the barn as a savings account for later. There would never again be Chestnuts growing to full size in the forest.

When the Big Flood of Fifty, the worst flood to ever hit here, came along, it rained so hard for so long that the creek grew into a raging monster. The water spread out, rising over top of both the first and second natural flood banks, across the bottomlands, covering the ground from one hill to the other, all along its length. Waves splashed wherever it ran up against trees, or sheds, or fences until the water worked away at whatever was in its’ path long enough to wear it clear away. It ripped fences and trees out and piled them up into huge dams, backing the creek up until it was as deep as a house and then would suddenly break loose and send off all the piled up debris downstream with such force that entire barns toppled into the water. Cows got stranded on little bits of high ground and then were washed away, bellowing, just their heads bobbing up every now and again, until they vanished.

The muddy water came all the way up to the top of the risen ground where our house stood and was lapping at the porch for three days before it finally stopped raining and the creek started to slowly recede. Silt and mud and trees and bits of buildings was left everywhere. Some places got leveled out and improved with rich new soil. Some spots had so many trees and trash piled up it would take years to clean up.

Our haystacks floated down stream and came to rest on the Overbridge’s farm down the road, still upright and dry. Grandpa always made sure we made good tight stacks, but even he was surprised they had floated so well. All the cross fences were gone. Those sturdy, steel pipe bridge supports caught all kinds of trash and trees floating down the creek and finally toppled over, the cables of the footbridge acting like a big seine net, scooping up all kinds of flotsam, wedging into a dam, digging and swirling out a deep pond on the upstream side. The only place to cross the creek for a long time after that was a long ways downstream.
Her family lost one old beef cow to the flood, but the Jersey milkers were safe in the upper barn. All the chickens and pigs had moved uphill into the woods for the duration and they eventually herded them back down. Their two story, wood sided, yellow farm house was placed just high enough to escape the waters.

It was a week after the rain stopped that we were finally able to take our shoes off and find a place to cross the creek and make it down the road, which had washed out in numerous places. Deep gouges showed where mud had slipped down off the hills, taking all the trees and throwing them across the road.
One mudslide came right through the back wall of the Gaskin’s house and filled their kitchen with mud, ruining everything in there. They were all asleep in their beds at the other end of the house when it happened and they were OK. Nobody had any footbridges left and the shallow crossings for the pickups and tractors all had to be re-dug.
That was all such a long time ago, even though she remembers it like yesterday. Nothing was ever the same afterwards. Some folks just up and left when they lost everything. The ones that stayed chiseled away at the clean up for years. Nobody trusted the creek to stay put anymore.

So now, with her brothers and sisters all grown and gone, and her mother and father and grandpa long dead, all she had was this pitiful single log for a footbridge and a life time of memories. She didn’t really need a big fancy bridge anymore but she missed the time they all had when they built it. She missed her brothers, Deal, who went off to war and came back so changed, and Tom, who never made it back at all. She missed her sisters, who had all moved far away and never made the trip back to visit anymore. She missed her Papaw who stood up for her when her dad wouldn’t. She missed the way the neighbors used to help each other out without expecting anything in return.
Why was she feeling so wrought up over things that had happened so far in the past? What would her papaw say if he saw her acting like this?
“Now girl. Get your britches pulled up and your boots on. Time to get a move on and live for today. There’s work to be done still. Who else is going to do it if not you? Walk yourself across that foot log and go see your neighbors. See if they need anything. Stop worrying about what isn’t even there anymore. You’ve got good health and you’re getting around alright. Go help those that need it.”
Besides, this rain, wasn’t anything like the rain had been back in 1950. People had telephones now and could call each for help when they needed it. She had neighbors that would drive her into town if she asked. Things weren’t so bad. She was just an old lady wishing for things to be different when really, things were better now. She must remember that.

Bucket Baths

When you don’t have running water or an automatic water heater you make do with what you have. You can take a perfectly good bath using only three gallons of water, even without a bath tub.

Summer  Time Baths

When I first lived without running water, back in the early 1970’s in West Virginia, I had to go down to the creek and fetch all our washing water in buckets. I learned pretty quick that it was easier to haul two at a time than just one because then I could walk without being lopsided. It is a good way to build up arm muscles. It is also a good way to learn how to conserve all the water you can, if for no other reason than saving yourself some hard work.

In the summer, taking baths in the creek was no problem. We used Dr Bronners Peppermint Soap, which is fairly benign, but we still hauled a bucket of water out onto the bank to rinse most of the soap off, so it would not go directly into the creek. Cool creek water and peppermint soap is refreshing on a hot summer day.

Even after we had a pitcher pump and a well around the back, we still had to pump it by hand and haul it inside. Plus, you always had to remember to keep enough water saved back to prime the pump.


Doing laundry and diapers by hand was the most challenging water job. That required hauling lots of water- 6 gallons for wash and 6 for the rinse. I had to heat water for the diapers and they got done separate from the main wash. Every thing else got washed cold. I had these great aluminum wash tubs out near the clothesline (with drain plugs!) and I used an old time wash board to scrub really dirty denims and such. To conserve water, I washed all the lightly soiled stuff, like sheets and shirts, first, then did the socks and saved the denims for last.

Fall Bucket Baths

In the fall, when it started getting colder outside we hauled the water in the big blue granite ware cooking pot and heated it up on the stove. That took almost 30 minutes on the gas stove or a little longer on the wood stove, unless it was cranking hot.

bath bucket
Bath Bucket on Stove

We would carry the bucket outside to the porch, and squatting on the stone step and using a small saucepan, pour a little over our heads, lather in the shampoo, and then do a partial rinse onto the ground. After that, we did a whole rinse with our head over the bucket so we could re use the water for a body wash. Standing up we’d pour some nice hot water over ourselves, soap up, pour some more to rinse off and then- for the best part- dump the whole rest of the bucket over our heads. The sudden rush of hot water felt so good at the end.  Even better than a real shower. We had to wait for dark for this kind of bucket bath because our porch was visible from the road.

Kids did not have that problem and they could entertain themselves for a good while in their little tub.

Tub for the Little Ones
Tub for the Little Ones

Winter Time Baths

When winter set in, our baths had to come inside where there was heat from the stove. Our living quarters consisted of one room that measured 16 by 24 feet and we had a lot of stuff in there. A double bed, a single bed, a crib, a couch, treadle sewing machine, wood cook stove, gas cook stove, kitchen sink cabinet, and a table. It was kind of crowded. We didn’t have a drain system for the sink, just a bucket underneath that we had to empty by hand. No bathtub. So we improvised, using a wrought iron coffee table that had a removable glass top.

Coffee Table Bath Tub
Coffee Table Bath Tub

We would start heating the blue enamel bucket on the stove, take the glass top and set it aside, and then drape a shower curtain all around the edges, held up with clothespins-the two piece wooden kind with the spring clamp. When the bucket was the right temperature we’d set it down inside the table and then climb in with it.

You had to hunker down and be careful not to splash water out the sides of it but it actually worked really well and also caught most of the cold drafts.

I remember one really cold, snowy day, some friends arrived unexpectedly while I was taking my bath in the table. The door was only about 6 feet from me and I hollered,

“Quick! Come in and shut the door. ”

They were standing there with their mouths open,

“What are you doing? Are you inside a table? Taking a bath?!”

“Sorry. Didn’t know you were coming. Give me a second to finish up here.”

They walked over to the other end of the room by the stove to warm up while I toweled off and got dressed.

“Well, now we know how you guys take a bath in this place. Wasn’t really wondering, but I have to say, I  never would have thought of climbing inside a coffee table. How do you empty the tub?”

“Watch this. It’s easy.”

I proceeded to remove the clothespins and gather up all the edges of the shower curtain, gave it a slight twist,  hung it over my shoulder and headed out the door.

Five seconds later, I hung the curtain on the wash line out on the porch and I was back inside. All cleaned up.

“Wow. That is such a good idea. Course it would be even easier if you brought your cast iron tub in and ran a drain line.”

“Right. Where would we put it?”

For the six years we lived in Ritchie County, we did our bucket baths according to the seasons, although every once in a while we would take a real shower at a friend’s house. When we first started out, we even went to the little motel in town a couple of times and paid them three dollars to use their shower.  But that was cheating.

I have since lived in other places, in Nelson County Virginia, where we had to haul water and do bucket baths. Wells and septic systems are seriously expensive to install and it took us a while to be able to afford it. Outhouses and bucket baths worked just fine. for quite a few years. When I finally managed to get electricity, running water and a water heater I felt like I was coming up in the world.

These days, I still appreciate the hot running water that magically comes out of the tap when ever I turn it on. I will never take it for granted. It is good to know however, that we can live without it if we need to.

-wendy lee, writing at Edgewise woods gardens and critters





Goats and Crawdads

Goats do not like to get their feet wet. They don’t like dirty water. They don’t like their barn messy. Considering that, you would think they would do a better job of being neat and clean, wouldn’t you? But no. They drop nanny berries into their water bucket, spill their grain in the dirt, and climb all over the clean hay. When it rains they huddle in their little barn and look down their Roman noses at the terrible wetness out there and refuse to come out. If you drag them out for milking they pussy foot around, dancing on their tip toes (er,hooves, I know) in an attempt to keep their dainty feet dry. It is pretty comical to watch.

We had Nubian milk goats, the kind with the long, floppy ears. They are seriously cute, especially when they are kids. They can be a real pain when it comes to keeping them out of things, though. Like the garden. Or the fruit trees. Or the house.

Kasha on our bed
Kasha on our bed
Kasha was the flightiest, quick-stepping, udder swinging, raindrop dodging goat we had. She bleated like a stuck pig whenever she didn’t get her way. She could sail over the woven wire fence around the garden, do a little twist in mid air, and bleat like a screaming banshee at the same time. Lolipop was more sedate and a whole lot bigger and came from a commercial dairy.
Lollipop on the Milking stand
Lollipop on the Milking stand
She could knock over a grown man if she wanted to, which luckily, she never did. Lolipop once defended the herd from a Newfoundland/ Great Pyrenees, by rearing up and timing her powerful head-butt to coincide exactly with the arrival of the dogs head at the fence. The huge black dog was boring down on her at full speed. Knocked the dog senseless. It was impressive, plus it gave us time to get a rope on him before he tried again. She must have weighed over a hundred pounds and when she reared up she was as tall as I am. The poor dog didn’t know any better. Cherokee lived his first two years chained up in a yard in D.C. and had never seen a goat before. A friend of ours had found him in a “good home wanted” ad in the latest issue of “The Mother Earth News”. For some reason he thought bringing him out to our place was a good idea. The next day Cherokee broke his rope and tried to get the neighbors milk calf that was grazing on their lawn. They almost shot him for a bear. We had to ask him to leave and train him somewhere else. He eventually turned into a good dog.

The spring of 1975 was super wet in Northwest Central West Virginia. Seriously. They called it that on the radio. Ritchie County had at least a little rain every day for a month that June. The creek came up, it went down, it came up again. It overflowed the banks. Mud was everywhere. We could not work the garden and plant. There was a rice paddy right by it. The barnyard was a mucky mess and the goats were very unhappy about it. The chickens looked scraggly in soggy feathers. The water got so high that even inside the barn was getting soggy. We were digging ditches with the mattock all over the place, trying to drain the water away. The goats were huddled in the barn peering out as we worked.

Standing there in my mud boots, scraping away at a ditch, I thought I heard a bathtub draining. You know the sound. Kind of a sucking, swirling glug, glug sound. It was loud and somewhere close by. Except here was no bathtub, not even in the house. Plus, we were standing in the middle of the barnyard.

“Where in the world is that sound coming from? Can you see anything?”

We finally looked down and found a swirling water tornado-lookin-thingy about 10 feet out from the barn wall in a low spot.
“Wow. Check this out. A Crawdad has drilled us our own barnyard drain hole. How handy is that? Little West Virginia ground lobsters helping us out.”

There was a small hill of tiny, round, mud balls mounded up and water was pouring over the top into a hole about an inch or two across. The water was pouring through pretty fast, just like going down a drain.

Crawdads are the same thing as Crayfish and some people eat them, mostly further down South though. They move backwards when they swim and forwards on land, eating insects. We had come across some huge ones on our place that measured about eight inches long when we were digging the well hole. Didn’t know they could be so useful though.

Wendy lee, writing at

Want More Crawdad info?…/Crayfish-facts.docx

Tractor in the Creek

The bottom land soil was good old West Virginia red clay. The kindthat sticks to your boots when it ‘s wet and makes you get taller with every step. The stuff that you scrape off as best you can before going inside or getting in the car. The kind that swallows up pickups in ever growing mud holes. The kind that makes you wish you had remembered to lock the hubs in before you got stuck in that knee deep mud hole. The kind that swallows up the tractor you were using to pull out the VW that was already in there. The kind that makes for red stained wash and arguments about who tracked that stuff in.

We were hauling sawmill lumber up to the house site way up on top

Start of the House on the Hill
Start of the House on the Hill

of the hill and had to cross the creek to get to the road up. The crossing angled down into the creek going a little downstream and then climbed back out of the creek angling back up stream. This makes sense when you think about the wear and tear of creek water on the road bed. It makes for a little less silt build up in the tracks.
So, we’d been making a lot of trips but the rain had been holding back and the creek staying low. The banks were about 5 feet high and the creek probably less than a foot deep where we crossed. It was getting a little slick on the far side where the creek water carried up with the tractor tires, but not too bad. There were only a few more loads to go.

Then it started to rain. I don’t know where it came from, but the clouds moved in, blotted out the sun and it was coming down. Hard. We couldn’t see weather coming in that far, with all the hills so close by, and hadn’t been listening to any radio. It took us almost an hour to load the trailer and get it cinched down tight for the steep climb up the hill. We really wanted to get all the lumber up to the house site now , and not have to wait for the ground to dry out again, so when we finally got the trailer loaded back up with the last of it, we started across the bottom and down into the creek. It had been raining hard the whole time we were loading and the creek was starting to rise just a little.

Bunnells Run is a long creek and drains a huge area and comes through the town of Pennsboro first. There are a lot of roofs, parking lots and paved streets in town that send all the rainwater straight into the creek. It moves fast with nothing to slow it down. This creek rises fast. It depends on the sort of rain you get, and how ready the earth is to absorb it, just how fast. The ground was not taking it in. It was all running off. As the tractor got down into the creek the water came up to the rear axle and the trailer started to slip sideways off the gravel bed at the crossing. We kept it moving though and managed to pull it out the other side. I rode on the side fender up to the top of the hill and we dropped the trailer and headed back down as quick as we could on the narrow steep grade.

When we got back to the crossing, the water was even higher, but at least we weren’t pulling the trailer anymore. We headed down into it and realized too late just how deep it was, and how fast it was moving. The water came over the air intake and stalled the motor out. We could not get it started again. We climbed out over the front of the tractor and jumped off on the other bank and went to get the pickup and a chain to pull it out. No go. The truck wouldn’t start. We stole the battery from the VW bug and tried again. The water was rising and really muddy with red clay, looking like mashed bean and bacon soup. I ran and got the wooden pry poles from the shed and Eck climbed down into the water and started prying from the back of the tractor while I tried to pull with the truck, but we couldn’t get any traction on the wet slope.

The neighbors heard us down in there shouting and three teenage boys came running out to help. They jumped right down into the muddy water and started pushing on the back wheels. I hooked up the pony with his log pulling harness to see if we could do any good with that. Daniel was pulling and all four guys were in the water with pry poles and pushing. It was scary. The water was almost up to their armpits and I was afraid they would get washed away but they just kept on sticking those poles under, prying up and the tractor slowly started to move. The pony was pulling, the four guys were pushing from behind and hollering, and the wheels slowly started to turn. Another brother finally showed up with his huge four wheel drive truck that had a winch on it and he hooked up and started reeling it in. The red mud tried to hold it back but we won in the end. Whew.

Bunnells Run in Flood
Bunnells Run in Flood

Everybody climbed out, covered in muddy water and looking like drowned rats. They pulled the tractor to higher ground and our friends headed off home, sopping wet, covered in red mud and freezing cold. You can’t get better neighbors than that. They totally saved our tractor. We will have to work hard to repay them.
The rain kept on coming down for another three days. The creek continued to rise and went from being about eight feet wide and a foot deep to being two hundred feet wide and about eight feet deep. It covered the entire bottom. Nobody could drive in or out for over a week, but most folks had foot bridges that they could get to when the water started coming down a little. All the crossings had to be dug out and reworked before anybody could use them though. We were grateful that no one was hurt and the tractor was not ruined.

The flood waters never came over the furthest creek bank, the second flood bank further back. According to the neighbors, the only time it has done that was in the flood of fifty, something I hope to never see. It got houses that time. This time it just got hay land, and almost, our tractor. We learned a little bit more about respecting the creek and what good neighbors we had.

-Wendy lee, October 24, 2015 writing at,