The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mr. Fred Clifton

By Ivalien Hylton Belcher © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

Lona and Fred Clifton.Lona and Fred Clifton.Recently I spent a Sunday afternoon with a very dear friend and a person who has had a great influence on many lives here in the Blue Ridge areas of Vesta and Meadows of Dan, Virginia.

Mr. Fred Clifton, called "Mr. Fred" by young and old, is 90 years old and a real walking history book. He is always as busy as a bee, keeps all kinds of records, and loves sharing his vast knowledge with others.

Since the death of his beloved wife Lona in 1976, Mr. Fred has tried to fill the days helping others. His penmanship is beautiful and he still writes with a steady hand. Many articles have been written and honors bestowed on this fine gentleman, yet there is much more to be said. Mr. Fred is especially quick witted. The other day someone asked him how it felt to be 90. He quipped, "I don't know, I have never been 90 before." Now let me share part of my visit with you.

As I knocked on the door, a cheerful voice called, "Come in! Come in! Well Siree, what a surprise! Come on in and have a seat. Now let's see, come on over and sit by the window. I declare I'm always so glad to see my top of the mountain friends. I'm working on this little notebook here. Well Siree, indeed this is a pleasant surprise! What have you been up to lately, Ivalien?"

"Well, Mr. Fred, I have been real busy working, writing and running around like a chicken with its head cut off. This afternoon I had a few minutes free time so I decided to stop by and ask you a few questions. You know how I always love to talk about old times. Someone was telling me there used to be a Negro School in the Meadows of Dan area. Can you tell me anything about that?"

"If one existed, I never heard of it, but I believe I can tell you how that rumor got started. When my father bought a small farm on the Smith River, adjoining the big 352 acre Samuel Lybrook farm, and moved into the Vesta area, I was barely six years old. There were no schools there, but enough children to justify having one. The fathers all got together and went to the school superintendent at Stuart, Virginia to plead for a school. I think the superintendent's name at that time was Foster. He told them if they could find a building, he would furnish a teacher. There were two log or pole bodied cabins on the road at the entrance to the Lybrook farm that Judge Lybrook had built for his black servants. Mr. Samuel Lybrook owned the property and let the people have one of the cabins for the school. By the end of the year, that little building was so crowded that the school was moved to the old Burwell slave cabin. I remember dried green beans on strings and pumpkin rings hanging on the dogwood pegs in the school. Yep, I was just a tyke, but I sure do remember that cabin school.

"Now Ivalien, I wouldn't feel right if I didn't tell you more about the old slave, Uncle Burwell Hubbard. When you get me started on this old time stuff, you would have to cut a big tree across the road to stop me. All you have to do is ask me a question about something so I can stay on the track. Uncle Burwell did not know how old he was, but I assume he had been a slave in childhood. He was a most kindly gentleman in every way. Uncle Burwell always took his hat off, put it under his arm, the minute he saw anyone coming.

"My grandfather Cockram's family thought a lot of him and would visit there often. When I was just a child, Uncle Burwell would take me up in his lap and I would get a child's thrill running my fingers through his long, white beard. Thinking of him, I can see it all just as if it were yesterday. I cherish the memory and always will. Now that's a kid for you. Listen, Ivalien, you had better get that axe and start chopping that tree to stop me."

"Not now, Mr. Fred, I'm enjoying all this too much. You are just like reading a history book. The Lybrook house is special to me because my mother and father were married there. I never heard about Uncle Burwell before. Just think, all this was in my neighborhood long ago. I wish I could have known this gentleman. People tell me there were some more fine black people in this area. What can you tell me about them?"

"Yes, George Ingram - Old Uncle Burwell was too old to stay alone, so he went, in later years to make his home at the George Ingram place, then located between the Slate Mountain Church and the old W.M. Edwards Store that burned down. George was the father of Creed-Will or Creed and Will. I never really learned which way it was. He was a very good person and talented. George was a rough rock mason and built the chimneys and foundations to the then new Sam Lybrook home, which is still standing in fairly repairable condition. The outside rough rock chimney is a piece of master craft, considering the flat type mountainside stones that were used. Oh! I forgot to tell you there's a picture of old Uncle Burwell's cabin hanging in my living room.

"Hey, speaking of old log cabins, I was over to see John Wood the other day. The old log cabin I was raised in is now John's corn crib."

"My goodness, Mr. Fred. I never knew that. Mr. John is my neighbor, but I sure didn't know his crib was your home." "Sure is so, and I have got some relatives coming before long to take pictures of it."

"Mr. Fred, did you ever hear about a gold mine down in Rock Castle? My great-grandparents spoke of it. They say it was shaped like a flat iron. Rock Castle is so beautiful, I know there has to be something in those mountains."

"Well now, I do believe that one must have passed me by somehow, although I don't know how. But when I was principal of Woolwine High School, sometimes when I came up to Lona's father's home for the weekend, I would get caught in a big snow by the time it was time to go back on Sunday evening. I would drive a T Model Roadster down the Rock Castle road. Lona and her sister would not risk it. They would get out and walk, no matter how deep the snow was. But I had to go that way for all the regular roads were blocked. Nope, don't believe I can help you about the gold mine."

"Oh well, I don't guess there is much we can do about it now, if it does exist. But, Mr. Fred, I know you can tell me something about the silver mine in the Dan River and Pinnacle area."

"My father hunted for the silver mine some. Once he found two gold nuggets. Father showed me the rock they came from. Now all that is under water [City of Danville Lake]. Then, I knew these two fellows that hunted for the silver mine all their lives. They found a large cave about 30 feet up from the Dan River. A huge hemlock tree was sticking in the entrance. Evidently it had floated down during a flood and probably had been there for years. It was still sound timber. It was thought that someone had lived in this cave and worked the silver mine.

"Now my great-uncle, Bart Clifton made some mighty fine squirrel rifles with beautiful inlaid designs. Uncle got some silver from this Rakes fellow and used it in his best rifles. He made a special full silver mounted for Mr. Murray Akers of Buffalo Ridge. Uncle thought the silver came from the mine. People heard about the Bart Clifton rifles and traveled through buying them. Once someone gave $18.00 for one of Uncle Bart's silver mounted rifles. Now they would be worth four or five thousand dollars. Somehow I never could get ahead of one, but I sure did try after I got out of college.

"Say, did you know that in the early days, there were about 75 Clifton's living in the Vesta and Meadows of Dan area? That's a lot of Cliftons. In later years, some had moved to West Virginia and surrounding areas to find work.

"Now let me tell you about some of the oldest buildings up here on the mountain. My old store building [formerly the Vesta Post Office, on the corner of Highway 58 and state road 610], the house back of Ben Spangler's place and Mountain View church [state road 764] are about the oldest buildings on the mountain. Mountain View Church was first called Union Church. Three different denominations built the church - Primitive Baptist, Methodist and the Brethren. They held services alternately on Sundays. Finally the Baptist and the Brethren sold out to the Methodist."

"Mr. Fred, I see here in your notebook something about a Dr. John K. Martin of Meadows of Dan back in the 1800's. Can you tell me something about him?"

"Yeah, knew him and I can give you his remedy for a speedy birth. First he loaded a goose quill with finely ground black pepper, then blew it in the mother's face causing her to sneeze, therefore, making a speedy delivery of the baby, hopefully. I had the very goose quill he used, but gave it to my niece the other day.

"Let me tell you about a fellow up here on the mountain that was a champion liar. When he told his horse to gee, it would haw, and when he went hunting, someone else had to go along to call the dogs. Once my uncle Larkin Cockram asked him why he told so many lies. He replied, "Well Larkin, I'll tell the truth a dozen times before I tell a lie."

Mr. Fred has some great philosophies of life. Two of my favorites are: Work will wait while you show a friend a rainbow. And, spread sunshine on someone else and some of it will reflect back on you. This gentleman has so much to share with others.

At the community Christmas party, Mr. Fred was the center of attention and loved every minute of it. When the band struck up an old timey tune, he patted his foot and even, sang a verse of a song. He brightened my day with a lovely Christmas card and a message written inside. It was signed, "your 1895 Model Blue Ridge Mountain Friend."

Mr. Fred always writes little messages in his cards. Over the years I have kept them all. His fine penmanship is a treasure in itself. Mr. Fred wrote my son a letter upon his graduation from high school. It has a special place in my living room. Standing in my yard is a special little bird house built by Mr. Fred's hands. It brought much happiness to my son as a small boy and now I enjoy watching the birds building nests there every spring.

Now, a beautiful state park is being developed at Lovers Leap in honor of Mr. Fred. The William Frank family donated 75 acres of scenic mountain land and two hundred thousand dollars to develop and keep it up. What a great way to honor a "Model Blue Ridge Mountaineer!" Mr. Fred was really overwhelmed by such an honor, but he is so deserving of it.

Mr. Fred, you are the greatest and I love you a lot.