The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Teamster and The Bees

By John W. Stoneberger © 1988

Issue: January-February, 1988

I have always loved horses, and thought they were beautiful, useful, intelligent animals. I have also observed the men who handle horses or mules who have amazed me at the things a good teamster can do with a well trained team.

There is much to know to be a good teamster. A man must know what a team can do, also how to train them to perfection for the difficult task, by soft gentle signals, or sharp, stern commands.

Sewell Collier was a farmer all his life, and retired in a comfortable home in Charlottesville, Virginia. I would sit on his porch and listen as he would review the past. He once said, "I have owned some nice vehicles in my life, but never have I driven anything that ever gave me as grand a feeling as getting on my wagon seat and knowing I was in command of my well matched team of horses, eager to respond with all their efforts to the slightest touch of the reins, or a soft command."

Uncle Dick Stoneberger lived near Massanutten Mountain in the Shenandoah Valley, in a place called Roberts Hollow.

He, along with others, worked horses and hauled much wood from the area. To get out of the Hollow one had to travel several miles in the shape of a U. There was one other way to get out, up an extra steep mountain about 200 yards to a main road. This road did not zigzag, or rattlesnake like most steep mountain roads do, but may have come into use as an old log road which went straight up the mountain.

There was a hazard on this steep road. A smooth limestone rock about 10' wide lay the full width of the road.

Uncle Dick is the only teamster I have ever known who could take a four horse team, and pull a full cord of green wood up this stiff incline over the smooth rock.

Other teamsters were afraid to do this, knowing a well shod horse can't pull on a slick rock for falling, and you can cause a horse to slip and fall and break a leg.

To see Uncle Dick pull this mountain and demonstrate the skill of a teamster and the power of his horses was amazing. He would pull the first 100 yards, stop and chock the wagon, let the horses catch their breath maybe 30' from the rock. Then in a sharp rash command he would call on the full team to do their stuff. With as much speed as the team could gain to hit the rock, he would pull in the leaders with his reins, and call for the wheel horses to strain. The leaders would walk cautiously over the slick rock as the wheel horses pulled with all their might. Then the leaders could see where they could get their front feet on dirt they would sort of rear up and come down hard with their front shoes pulling with their front feet to help move the load. As soon as all four of the leaders feet were on the dirt the teamster would call the sharp command for the leaders to bear the load as the wheel horses walked over the rock. Then all four of the horses would move the load.

A teamster's skill was demonstrated at pulling this steep mountain in 7 or 8 minutes that would take an hour or so to go around.

Uncle Dick pulled his horses harder than any teamster I ever saw, yet I never knew of him to injure a horse.

John Scot Roach was a teamster in the Blue Ridge Mountains over 50 years; and he said, "(The Bee) was the most dreaded thing the teamster could ever face during the months of summer," and he told this story:

Jerry, one of his most congenial children, learned to love work and responsibility at a tender age. After he was a well developed young man and considered one of the area's best teamsters this happened.

He had a four mule team and was hauling a load of bark up a mountain. As he came near the top of a ridge he called the team to halt, so they could catch their wind and let their breathing slow down.

The mules had stopped over a yellow jacket's nest on the road. The sound of the mules feet had caused the bees to stir a counsel of war, and they began to sting the mules in the most sensitive places!

As the team suddenly frightened into a stampede, it appeared their idea was to run into the woods to escape rather than stay on the road. As the leaders would try to go left, then right, the wagon wheel ran behind a hickory tree 3 or 4" at the stump and stalled the team.

As the leaders began to violently kick the wheel horses, Jerry decided to secure the reigns and take a sharp teamsters ax and chop several deep cuts in the hickory to weaken the tree, then get back on the wagon and let the team pull and finish breaking the tree, then control the runaway team a safe distance from the bees!

Before he could get back on the wagon, the team broke the wagon loose, and ran away without a driver! He followed for a mile or more and to his dismay, he found the exhausted team standing, and one of the leaders had got tangled in the harness, in flight, and fell and was dragged to death under the wagon.

This was the saddest moment a Lewis Mountain teamster ever experienced.

Author's Foot Note: I can imagine seeing the Captain of the Hive speaking to his soldiers on behalf of the Queen Bee after the battle saying, "We are the Yellow Jackets and we are organized. Lewis Mountain is a land of milk and honey, and we with authority will rule this domain!"

"Our report of battle today was victorious; all who fought underneath did a good job, a special recognition to those who attacked the eyes and ears of the leader mules."

"We would like to report one 1,200 lb. mule was blinded in her run, fell in her harness and was dragged to death."

"We Bee's have suffered no losses, and stand strong in our full number and weight of one ounce and 2 grams for our full nest."

"Now hear this! All who took part in battle today feel free to take the rest of the day off. Wet your feet in the cool, clear water of Devil's Ditch Stream, fly to the Crest of Bear Fence Rock and enjoy the scenery of the world, or lay in the sweet smelling laurel blossoms and rest, but everyone be ready to report for duty at sunrise, because tomorrow is another day."

Thank you all for a job well done, your Captain of the Bee Hive. That is all the orders for the day."