The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Visits with Aunt Sally

By Mary A. Summerline © 1990

Issue: May, 1990

Some of my favorite childhood memories are those associated with my visits with Aunt Sally Spinks.

Aunt Sally was married to my mother's brother, Uncle Harry Spinks. When their children were small, an operation to remove a brain tumor had left Aunt Sally blind.

They had three sons, Harry Jr., Basil, Bernard, all of whom were older than I. A daughter had died at an early age.

Aunt Sally had frequently been a guest in our home, sometimes for just a daytime visit; other times for several days. We were accustomed to leading her from room to room, and tried to make her as comfortable as possible.

My first recollection of visiting at her home was on a trip that my family took about 1940. The lumber company that my uncle worked for was having a picnic and employees were allowed to invite their families and friends to attend.

The picnic was held in the town of Nallen, West Virginia, about 55 miles from my home. Nallen consisted of about a hundred or so houses, unpainted outside walls, front and back porches, perched on the sides of the mountains that rose from the valley cut by the Meadow River. The town store was the main source for supplying groceries, clothing, and tools, and it also housed the post office. One other store, Bud Odell's Place, also sold groceries and gasoline.

After the picnic, which consisted of sandwiches and enormous quantities of ice cream, cake and soft drinks, Uncle Harry took our family on a tour of the lumber mill, which was shut down for the day. He pointed out the huge band saws, the carriage, the feed dog, and various mechanisms that would cut into lumber the logs that were waiting in the mill pond. He informed us that part of the mill's machinery had been sold to Japan. He also took us for a short ride on the hand-pushed rail cars that were used to haul the lumber across the docks to its temporary home in the lumber yard.

Later that day we walked to Uncle Harry and Aunt Sally's home for a short visit; it was adjacent to the main railroad track.

I made subsequent visits to Aunt Sally's in later years, sometimes alone, sometimes with my brother, Johnny, who is four years older than I. We usually went the latter part of May, after school was out. We would ride the Greyhound bus to Rainelly, and then ride the train to Nallen. The rhododendrons and laurels were spectacular at that time of year.

On one occasion I rode in an automobile form Lewisburg, my home town, to Aunt Sally's with Mr. and Mrs. Nallen. (His parents owned the lumber mill.) We traveled at night after he got off from work, and got to Nallen about eleven p.m. Mr. Nallen got a flashlight and escorted me down the railroad track to Aunt Sally's.

The next morning, before I got out of bed, my cousins showed me an eel they had just caught in the river. They cooked it for breakfast and it tasted good - almost like fish.

Aunt Sally had little difficulty getting around in her own home. They had electric lights, but she cooked on a wood stove, and water was obtained by the use of a hand operated pump. An outdoor toilet above the house was accessible by use of a ramp and wooden hand rails.

I was told she had a maid to help with housekeeping and child-rearing when she first lost her sight, but when I visited her she only had help with the laundry. She managed to keep the house neat with help from other family members. I once saw her mend a shirt after I had threaded the needle for her. She had a pump organ that was powered by foot pedals which she played occasionally, and I tried playing a few times. It was a bit more difficult than the piano I was accustomed to playing.

When Johnny and I visited, we often wandered around the town while Aunt Sally took an afternoon nap. We would follow the railroad track up to the company store, or cross the lumber yard to Bud Odell's Place. Sometimes we would pause at the old stone bridge that crossed the river and practice dropping pebbles on the leaves floating in the stream below. Sometimes we would walk across a swinging bridge to an island in the middle of the river.

Aunt Sally didn't allow card playing in her house, so Johnny borrowed a Chinese checker board from a neighbor, and we would spend hours on the front porch playing checkers and watching trains go by.

On one occasion Uncle Harry made arrangements for Johnny and me to visit the mill while it was operating. We climbed up the long ramp beside the huge chain that pulled the logs up to the cutting area. We sat on a bench while we watched the logs being stripped of their bark, and then sawed into lumber by the band saws.

One of the most memorable events occurred one night when we attended a wiener roast sponsored by the local church. It took place on top of the mountain, high above where Aunt Sally lived. Aunt Sally and I, and some of her other family members, had ridden up there with some neighbors. It was an enjoyable affair, roasting wieners and marshmallows over an open fire, singing songs, etc. When it was over, around midnight, people were getting into their cars to return home. Apparently all the drivers thought Aunt Sally was with someone else, because she and I were left stranded. It was too dark for me to see where to go, and of course Aunt Sally couldn't see either. She decided if we could go down the mountainside to the railroad track we could find our way home.

We started down the mountain, holding onto each other, trying not to slip and fall. We managed to get caught in a blackberry thicket, and spent several minutes trying to free ourselves. We finally found the railroad track, and were soon home. We were okay except for numerous scratches and insect bites. That was the last time we went picnicking together.

Uncle Harry and Aunt Sally have both been dead for several years now. On a recent trip to West Virginia my husband, Leon and I drove through the little town of Nallen. It is hardly recognizable as a town. Only a few houses remain. The lumber yard is gone, the planning mill is only a shell and we found only a few metal pieces of the saw mill. The company store no longer exists, and Bud Odell's Place is in ruins. The old stone bridge is crumbling away, reminiscent of an ancient Roman ruin. The island is still there in the river, but somehow it looks smaller than it did when I was a child.

Only the little church beside the railroad track looks the same. It brought back many fond memories of my visits with Aunt Sally.