The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Legacy Of Memories - Mr. Matt Burnett

By Bob Heafner © 1987

Issue: March, 1987

Mr. Matt Burnett: February 1, 1904 - February 3, 1987. This, our 4th anniversary issue, is dedicated to the memory of a wonderful old mountain gentleman, Mr. Matt Burnett. Photo by Bob Heafner.Mr. Matt Burnett: February 1, 1904 - February 3, 1987. This, our 4th anniversary issue, is dedicated to the memory of a wonderful old mountain gentleman, Mr. Matt Burnett. Photo by Bob Heafner.

This is our 4th anniversary issue. It is dedicated to Mr. Matt Burnett of Meadows of Dan, Virginia who passed away as we were preparing this issue for the presses. Mr. Matt's memories of Meadows of Dan during the first quarter of this century were featured in the very first issue of The Mountain Laurel.

Concord Primitive Baptist Church.Concord Primitive Baptist Church.It was February of 1983 when we both happened to be at Parkway Car Care Center on US 58 in Meadows of Dan. He was as usual carrying one of the walking canes which he had hand fashioned out of an oddly shaped sapling he had found in the woods or someone had found and brought to him. He stood looking out the window across US 58 toward The Craft House and shared his memories of Meadows of Dan. That conversation became "page 2" of the first issue of The Mountain Laurel.

He was noted for the walking canes, toys and tricks he fashioned from wood scraps or walnut hulls and everyone enjoyed seeing Mr. Matt as he made his daily rounds of the businesses in the community.

It seemed he always had a "curiosity" of some sort to show you such as the time we met on the street and he handed me a hazel nut and said, "Guess where that came from?" It was big for a hazel nut and since they're not that plentiful in these parts I guessed they came from the bushes along the Blue Ridge Parkway near Mayberry. I was wrong. He explained how he'd taken them from the craw of a wild turkey his grandson had recently killed. "Wouldn't have thought a turkey could've swallowed something that big would you?" he asked.

Mr. Matt Burnette, the face of an era. Photo by Bob HeafnerMr. Matt Burnett, the face of an era. Photo by Bob HeafnerOnce, on a walk across the Meadows of Dan Baptist Church Cemetery he introduced me to the people beneath the headstones. As we stopped in front of one grave he pointed with his cane and said, "That there was the first gal I's ever sweet on." From there he went on to explain that she and several other children in her family had all died within a one year period from diphtheria. That brought home the hardships and suffering of the people of these mountains to me in a way a history book never could. On our walk across the cemetery he opened a doorway to yesterday by detailing bits and pieces of the lives represented now by cold granite markers.

From Mr. Matt I learned about the shot that put a perfectly round hole in the top of the Langhorne family monument and of the slaves who are buried on what is now National Park Service Land adjoining the church cemetery. Before the Parkway was built Mr. Matt owned the property where they are buried and during the time he owned it he maintained the graves. When the Parkway was built the headstones were removed and never replaced.

He got his start auctioneering at the age of eleven when he auctioned off the logs that were cut clearing the site for the Concord Primitive Baptist Church. His auctioneering skills were called on often over the years by folks in the community and because of his unique mountain style, tapes of him performing an auction are on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., along with some of his hand crafted toys.

I once asked him what was his favorite toy as a child and he recalled that a man once gave him a piece of old inner tube rubber and he made slingshots out of it. He told how he had carried it home and how his mother wrapped it in paper and put it in an old trunk so sun light couldn't get to it because in those days the rubber wasn't stable and would deteriorate if exposed to the sun's rays. "For the longest time," he recalled, he'd go to that trunk and take out that piece of old inner tube and cut off just enough for a new slingshot and then carefully wrap the remainder back up and store it away.

Mr. Matt delighted in a funny story and saw the humor even if he was the subject of it. During his courtship of Mrs. Burnette he would tie his horse to an apple tree in her front yard on each of his visits. The horse would paw the ground beneath the tree while he waited on Mr. Matt. Mrs. Burnett's father on one occasion asked him to tie his horse somewhere else because he was such a regular visitor that the hole where the horse had pawed was getting so deep that Mrs. Burnett's father was afraid the apple tree roots would be weakened and the tree might fall over.

In my forty years of life I can't recall ever seeing a man love a woman more than Mr. Matt loved his wife, Ella. Their marriage spanned over half a century but any time he mentioned "my gal" there was a look of love in the old man's eyes. Within the last few years I've listened as he talked of his "gal" and seen his eyes become moist and his voice crack from sheer emotion. If ever there was love, he felt it for Mrs. Burnett.

This summer as the breezes blow softly across the Parkway and through the community of Meadows of Dan more then one face will turn toward the cemetery late in the morning and think of the old friend with his cane who won't be stopping by with a story or a curiosity to share anymore except in memory. As Connie Nester at Parkway Fashion Outlet said, "We're all better off for having known him." What more can anyone aspire to achieve than such a sentiment from those that know us. Mr. Matt was an asset to his community, a friend to his neighbors and a tribute to the qualities that made his generation so special.

EDITORS NOTE: Coy Lee Yeatts, of Mayberry recalls seeing Mr. Matt going by his house to court Ella Smith, Mr. Matt's bride to be. The following are some of Coy Lee's memories of Mr. Matt...

I can remember when he came by on horseback on his way to see Ella Smith, his bride to be. I was three years old. He would stop at Grandpa's and Aunt Della would play the piano and Matt and several others would join in the singing.

Then came the depression years and the building of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I can still see Matt holding on to his shovel handle and stopping for just a few seconds to tell a joke or a tale. Then a few years went by and he became custodian of the Meadows of Dan School. His interest in each small and growing child was something many will always remember. Every once in a while I would meet up with Matt and we would reminisce about those school days.

Still later Matt came one day to ask if I would haul his horse to Danville. He had sold it to a man down there. He always had a horse till then.

Matt was good at auctioneering. I know from experience because I bought a pie one night at a box supper in a little valley school for $45.00 to keep my future brother in law from getting it.

During the last several years Matt became quite a sling shot maker. We sold many of them for him at Mayberry Trading Post.

Matt was a good man and I will miss him very much for we shared many of the same paths and joys.