By John W. Stoneberger © 1992
Issue: July-August-September, 1992
William B. Stoneberger was born March 16, 1892. He was one of the eight children of Hiram and Lola Stoneberger of Elkton, Virginia.
Hiram was ridding a horse with a small rifle in his boot. The stock was down and the barrel up when it went off causing his death. A few years later Lola died leaving eight orphaned children.
There were no Stoneberger relatives to help and I assume no welfare department in Rockingham County in the early 1900s. It wasn't until 1912 that Harrisonburg had a hospital.
The only choice the children had was to band together and make out the best they could. The oldest girl would be mother as the older boys would try to find ways to earn a bit of money to help her make a living.
The old Stoneberger home was on a high plateau near Greenwood. There was a 360 degree view with the Blue Ridge Mountains in front of their house and the Massanuttun behind the house.
The old house had rocksfor a foundation. The boards ran vertical and had strips nailed over the cracks. The doors were handmade. It had a wooden shingle roof with a brick chimney. It was about four rooms and a loft. The roof seemed extra steep with narrow windows. it appeared to have been built with good lumber, but it had never seen any paint. Weather from many a storm caused much signs of wear yet there was a look of some strength and durability even after the weather had bleached and turned it to a deep gray.
On the high plateau was a beautiful view of the valley and mountains in fair weather, but in winter, the Northwest wind sweptacross that open range with a bone chilling coldness. There were about two acres of land with different kinds of fruit trees and lots of cherries. A large garden was in front of the home and a deep never-failing hand dug well for water. Big walnut trees stood around the well.
Near the well in the garden was a small building built over a cellar in the ground. Meat was kept here if they had any, and potatoes, onions and home canned food was stored in the cellar to keep from freezing.
Uncle Mike Roach, a man of good judgment, said, "The area of my dad's old place was the poorest looking country I ever saw."
In spite of everything that was against them, the children felt wherever there was a will there was a way. They learned at an early age it was "root little pig or lose your tater." It seemed the loss of parents drew them closer together. Food, clothes and heat were precious; trying to find ways to help was a joy. They found to be clannish, to work and pray and stick together, they could make it.
With the help of the old estate, the garden and well, these orphaned children managed to feed, clothe and educate themselves at the old Humes Run School.
Brother Bill and I found one of my dad's old rabbit box traps years later. It was made from cedar lumber. His initials were carved in the well worn wood. We thought, "Dad put many a delicious rabbit with brown gravy on the table to be enjoyed with this old box when he was a boy about our age!"
The older boys would ride freight trains to apple pickings to make money. My dad was three or four years old and he heard them talking and said, "When I grow up to be a man I want to bum a freight train." Someone heard him and said, "You want to be a bum so we will just start calling you bum now." And he was known by that nickname from then on. All my life women have hugged my neck and men shook my hand, smiling and said, "It is so nice to meet Bum's boy." The orphaned children had no parents to teach them religious ways, but they had chapel in school and had purposed good in their hearts and knew right from wrong.
My dad once cut himself in the calf of the leg with a sharp wood ax and came home bleeding terrible and said, "Josie, sew my leg up." She knew he would bleed to death before he could ride a horse three miles to town to see a doctor. She got a needle and thread and said, "I can't do it but you can." She said when he put the last stitch in he fell back on the bed and almost passed out! I asked Mama about the story and she said, "Yes, it is true. The stitches were still in his leg when we got married and he had sewed it up with black thread."
In November and February they cut land cress from the wheat fields. Early spring they searched for water cress, polk greens, dandelion, plantain and mushrooms. They picked wild strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, wild plums, chinquapins, walnuts, hazel nuts and hickory nuts. Wild game like rabbits and squirrels were enjoyed as were once in a while, a raccoon, muskrat, quail, trout, turtle other fish and groundhog. Everything was cherished and relished. I thought Stoneberger cooks were the best on earth, along with their jams and jellies - especially quince.
On the Shenandoah River on the Henry Carrier farm is an old fishing place called "the sand bank." The river here flows against a huge rock cliff about 85 feet high and bends left. Melvin McCoy said, "I have seen the Stoneberger boys dive off of that rock into the deep hole of water many a time." It would almost take my breath to think about a dive like that! They were venturous young men with a fourth or fifth grade education. About four of them became construction foreman.
My dad worked for Dravo from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. He drilled tunnels through many mountains and sunk shafts deep into the earth. He returned home from a job where he made big money and bought a huge steam engine and saw mill that he put on Lewis Mountain. He met and married a beautiful girl there, Elizabeth B. Roach. They bought 65 acres near his old home and built a new five room house. He told Monroe Dovell, "I need to go back to the construction job one more time for some big money. Then I want to settle down at home and raise a family."
June 15, 1924, at Detroit, Michigan (where Dravo was sinking a salt mine shaft) the shift inspector went down first for inspection and didn't come back! Next Bum, the foreman went down and didn't come back! Mr. Gott, the superintendent put the big bucket on, took two men with him, and only one of them came back unconscious in the bucket! Chlorine gas was coming out of a crack in the wall like blue smoke. It would knock them unconscious and they would fall into three feet of water and drown. Four miners died at this time.
As a small boy, my Dad had a determination to go somewhere in life even if he had to bum a freight train. He climbed some of the tallest rocks in the Shenandoah Valley and dived into one of the deepest holes of water in the Shenandoah River. With a fourth grade education, he worked as foreman for the world's largest construction company and made top money. He bought his own steam engine and saw mill and moved it some twenty miles to Lewis Mountain. When he got to the mountain area, fifty or a hundred people followed on foot or horse each day to watch the machine puff and work. He married, bought 65 acres and built a new five room house. On June 15, 1924, he lost his life.
He is buried at the old Saint Peters Church Cemetery at Humes Run. A beautiful marble tombstone marks his grave. On top of the stone is a book like an open Bible and the inscription says, "God moves in a mysterious way."
Although my dad died a month before I was born, his life has been an inspiration to me. He was strong, venturous and had courage to pursue his dream. He owned a Henderson motorcycle. He owned a horse and loved to race with Jack Goad. He only lived 32 years, but his pleasure of life and accomplishments were good. I grew up in the home he left us and part of my daily prayer is, "Thank you Lord for all my dad gave me."
Inspiration, courage, faith, valor, ambition and moderation with some restraint are some of the many things he left me, plus the old home place where we made our living during the Great Depression years. Here we enjoyed the fresh mint and flower scented air in summer as whippoorwills sat on the porch railings and called at night.
We also enjoyed many restful nights as rain hammered the tin roof into a restful rhythm to sleep by. The spring water seemed to taste sweeter and better than any place on earth and the old wood heater didn't feel too bad on a cold night in a comfortable chair as I read, "The Call of The Wild" by Jack London.
To watch the cows graze the hills and meadows, watch the chickens under the apple trees, to see the new born pigs follow their mother in spring and watch the fruit trees blossom as the bees made honey and birds build their nest was part of country life. To sit under the huge wild cherry tree over our spring on a pleasant summer day and scrape the skin off of new potatoes (about the size of small eggs or marbles) knowing that Mama would be soon preparing dinner and those potatoes would come out of that cast iron skillet a golden brown where they had been fried in butter, and would be served with new peas and June apples and homemade cottage cheese...
What else could a country boy ask for? Unless it would be to go into the thick pines to search for those tall slim cedar fishing poles.
On Father's Day we offer a special praise to you, Lord and say thank you for Dad.
One day my dad laid down on the bed and put his head in the bend of his arm. Mama said, "Bumbsie, are you all right? It's not like you to lie down in daytime." He said, "Yes, I am all right. I am preparing myself for a better world..."
This is the main purpose in my life - To be a loving, kindhearted mountaineer; to do all the good I can in this world and prepare myself for a better place.