The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Some Mines Contain More Than Ore

By Raymond N. Montgomery © 1992

Issue: May, 1992

Being a native of Carroll County, Virginia, it is natural that occasionally I will revisit the scenes of my childhood and visit among the many relatives. Now by many I mean just that; my uncle Floyd Shockley fathered 18 children. My uncle Wise Shockley fathered another 18. If you total this up you will find the sum of 36 first cousins, and since my grandfather John Manoah Shockley was the father of 12 children, the remaining 10 also fathered a numerous progeny. I estimate another 60. All this rings up a total of 96 first cousins!

My mother Virginia C. Shockley Montgomery, was the next to the youngest of grandfather Manoah's family. When I knew him he was 75 years of age with a snow white beard and hair. He was a Civil War Veteran on the side of the Confederacy. The northern victory left him with a plantation of 2008 acres and no slaves. To be absolutely correct, he did have one black man who remained with him until his death some 12 years later.

As you know, if one has many close relatives about the same age, he is naturally attracted to a few, more so than the many. So, my boon companions were cousin Pansy Staples, Arlie Shockley, Ohlen Shockley and Guy Shockley. Except for Pansy, all are still alive.

One time when I was visiting the above enumerated tribe, I had just graduated from college and in the month of June, I found myself in Carroll. Now I had since a child been fascinated with an area west of Hillsville known as the Poplar Camp Mountains, over which I watched many a gorgeous sunset. I had heard vague rumors of a great meadow in the lap of these iron ore mountains, a kind of fairy land or Shangri La. I determined to hike into this area and see for myself the topography and to inspect two abandoned mines said to be there.

Now my cousin had an old Ford roadster and he agreed to drive me to the entrance of the area. This cousin was Ohlen Shockley. On that morning I asked Aunt Rhoda Shockley to fix a bit of lunch for me and I soon stood at the entrance of the valley and Ohlen went on to visit a pretty Worrell girl he was interested in.

There was at that time, I believe, two farms in this valley. One was deserted and the other showed little evidence of cultivation, however I knew one of the families, the Sutfins. Joe Sutfin was a relative of my father, George Montgomery. I stopped by and passed the time of day with Uncle Joe, whose favorite pastime seemed to be sitting in a rocking chair and chewing apple flavored Brown Mule plug tobacco and spitting through a large knothole in the porch floor, which he seldom missed. He greeted me with "Wal hi thar, stranger. Come up and set a spell." I replied, "Uncle Joe, I am no stranger, I am George Montgomery's son, Raymond." His reply was, "Well I'll be hornswaggled efn you all ain't, last time I seed you, you were kneehigh to a duck."

After a lengthy recounting of the recent history of the family, I questioned Uncle Joe about the Poplar Camp Mountain area. The only diversion was an ancient hound dog lying nearby, who upon my approach opened one eye, snapped at a fly and went back to sleep. Uncle Joe told me that there had been really two iron mines in the valley but they had been closed for many a year and that his father had worked in "them thar mines" when a young man.

He further informed me that back yonder a man by the name of Colonel James Stacy had owned them around the time of the Revolutionary War and over a period of time removed from the pits many tons of iron ore and had set up the so called forge or smelter to melt the ore into pig iron. He had built a rough settlement of shanties to house the miners who removed and smelted the ore in a grove of poplar trees; hence the name, Poplar Camp. Around that time the U.S. Geological Survey was busy surveying the state and in time mapped that area. It was then known as Crabapple Valley due to a grove of crabapple trees along a small stream; however, this area was renamed on the current maps as Poplar Camp Mountains.

This group of low mountains, mostly covered with grass, held within their embrace many tons of iron ore and as railroad building was booming, Colonel Stacy, being a man of means, had a local prospector make digs into the rock formation. It was found that the rocky ore was indeed iron and it seemed richer in two areas. So a mine entrance was made in two places, and the essay report showed that the first dig had the higher content of iron. After removing the top soil the miners soon came to a ledge of unquestionable iron ore. Since dynamite had not been invented the only explosive was black powder. Now the nearest place where mining equipment was available was Roanoke on the Norfolk and Western Railroad. So Colonel Stacy ordered his blasting powder, light weight iron rails and mine carts from Roanoke and in the process of time and much bullwhacking of ox teams, he had what he needed to remove iron ore.

Knowing that it required charcoal in a blast furnace to melt the ore he had a second crew of woodsmen busy cutting timber and stockpiling it by the furnace. Since gasoline engines had not yet been invented, how to force enough air into his furnace to produce 2000°F temperature, was achieved by a series of large manual bellows. These bellows were used to fan the fires in the furnaces after the wood had been reduced to charcoal. To obtain charcoal he stacked the wood in a compact pile, covered it with dirt and burned it in the absence of much oxygen.

At that point the base of his forge or furnace was loaded with wood and then charcoal, and on top of that a ton or so of ore. Then began a continuous process of manning the bellows day and night without stopping by relays of men until the molten iron ran out of the brick lined forge in puddles in small connected openings in the ground, known as "pigs" to cool.

Hence, as the first firing of the furnace began, quite a crowd gathered to watch the process. It required about 8 hours of labor at the bellows to bring the ore to the melting point so it was also a crucial point. Various ores had a slightly higher or lower melting point. It turned out that Poplar Camp iron's melting point was a bit higher. Since the Colonel had three bellows forcing air into the furnace, it required a crew of six men to keep them going. One crew rested as the other worked, and a lad of about 16, one of Tom Sallen's boys, was water boy and kept a bucket of cold spring water handy.

As evening came on the sight was spectacular, flames and showers of sparks flew 20 feet or more above the opening of the furnace. There was some betting among the crowd as to how many hours would be required to melt the ore. Some who had experience with iron furnaces predicted that it would take 5 or 6 hours, some 8 to 9. As the evening wore on the Colonel stood by the lip of the furnace anxiously watching. He estimated that it would take 9 hours to reach a "melt." He was not far off, at the end of eight and one half hours a white hot stream of molten ore ran into the "pig troft" and began to fill the "pig" depressions or pits. Pig tenders with spade like tools guided the ore further down the line; these men were known as "iron puddlers" and each pit was about 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep. When the pig, thus formed, was cold it could he picked up and removed to storage to make way for another "melt." The Colonel was delighted when the first blooming of the furnace was weighed. It netted two and a half tons.

On cloudy nights the blazing fire flying from the furnace could be seen 20 miles away as it reflected on the cloud cover. The ore had to be hauled by oxen to Galax to be shipped to finishing forges in Pulaski. There it was either shaped into railroad rails or sent to a rolling mill to make sheet iron.

The Colonel's venture proved valuable to him and he became one of the richest men in the area. He later sold his mines and forge to a company that became known as the Virginia Coal and Iron Co., which is still in existence and currently owns some 5000 acres of land in Carroll County. However, it later developed that the Poplar Camp iron was more brittle than at Betty Baker Mines so that operation was shifted to Sylvatus. In fact, had it not have been for the iron mines there, Sylvatus would never have become a town. The Norfolk and Western Railroad line was built into this location, mainly to haul iron produced there to Pulaski, and later the ore only was shipped to Pulaski where a Bessimer Blast furnace was in operation. It was closer to soft coal mines of West Virginia when it was found that coke could be made directly from soft (bituminous coal). The Betty Baker mines ceased production circa 1900.

Now back to my hike to visit the deserted mines in among the Poplar Camp Mountains. Leaving Uncle Joe I entered the valley meadow and soon located the first mine, easily identified by a huge pile of slag (molten rock from which the ore had been melted). A few strands of rusty wire strung across the entrance did little to bar my way as I squeezed into the opening which was about 8 feet high and contained a million cobwebs. These I brushed aside with my walking stick. Once a narrow railway led into the entrance but had long since had the iron rails torn up and sold as scrap iron, leaving only the decayed wooden cross ties molding into dust.

The light from the entrance was sufficient to illuminate my cobwebby way for quite a distance until I had to use my flashlight. Keeping to the main central shaft was a problem as there were branch tunnels here and there. After walking some distance and estimating that I should be somewhere near the end of the mine, I felt it was about noon and my stomach backed up my assumption. In order to conserve my flashlight, I gathered enough bits of old wooden cross ties to build a fire to illuminate the area while I ate lunch. Being somewhat fatigued, I leaned against the rocky tunnel side to rest. I went to sleep. When I awoke I was in almost darkness except that to my right, in the direction I had been walking, was a dim light. This puzzled me as I had never heard of a back entrance to the mine. Perhaps a cave-in, leaving an opening admitting daylight.

I resumed my hike into the shaft and came to a "Y" in the tunnel; which way shall I take? I decided on the shaft to the right, but soon saw my mistake as ahead it was dark. I felt it wise to follow the dim light. As I turned to retrace my steps the gleam of my flashlight fell on something white. I stooped to examine it. It was a human skeleton! Most of it still articulated (held together). I was shocked to say the least, and as I examined it I saw that one bony foot was still in an ancient shoe. One half of an ancient coat was still on the left arm and shoulder. The upper part of blue jeans was still around the grizzly pelvic zone. Apparently dogs had never found the original body to scatter it. Ants and other beetles must have shredded the flesh from the bones.

Who could it have been, and why did a human being come to its end in the recesses of an iron mine? Examining the skeleton more carefully, I found beside it the rusty remains of an old shot gun. A thought formed in my mind, a suicide? I picked up the rusty metal barrel and the brass reinforcement of the stock, long since disintegrated. I pressed the lever which released the barrel expecting it to fall apart. The barrel dropped away from the stock frame as if inviting me to reload the ancient gun. In surprise I laid my flashlight on the ground and placing my left eye to the open breech of the gun looked down the barrel. I could see the light of the flashlight clearly. No empty cartridge was in the gun! That ruled out a suicide, for if it had been, the fired shell would still be in the gun.

I examined the skeleton gingerly. Wouldn't you? On the ground below where the pants pocket would have hung I found a few corroded coins and key ring holding several keys. Finding nothing more in the pockets I turned the flashlight to a green corrosion around the forefinger of the right hand and touched it. Under the green dust was a signet ring. I removed it and in brushing it on my pants I found an ancient signet ring. Upon close examination I saw two initials clearly, R.M. I almost dropped it in surprise! They were my initials but not from my hand! My hand shook! Perhaps here lies the solution of a mystery.

My mind raced back to a story I had heard as a child; that years ago an Uncle of my father, Richard Montgomery, had gone hunting one day and had never returned! Could this be the remains of my lost uncle?

I was in a quandary. What shall I do? Hook the key ring and remains of the gun and decided to leave them at the "Y" in the mine shaft as I wanted to find where the light ahead was coming from. As I continued my exploration the light grew brighter. Finally I came to the end of the shaft which was on top of a ledge of rock high above the valley floor. I was amazed! The mine shaft pierced through that part of the mountain! Far below a winding stream threaded its way into the distance. I saw no evidence of human habitation. A pathway led from where I stood down into the valley. I looked upward as a flock of highly colored birds flew across my line of sight. As the birds flew out of sight I noticed that a very brilliant rainbow spanned the sky, but I saw no clouds behind the rainbow; as usually rainbows are formed in raindrops falling from high clouds. Looking toward the far horizon on the slope of a further mountain I saw a very large animal disappear into a grove of remarkably tall trees. I was tempted to investigate but my wrist watch warned me that I must be back at the road at 5:00 pm to meet Ohlen. So... I went back, collected by knapsack with its grisly contents and hastened on to find the Sheriff, my cousin Van Shockley, to report to him this amazing adventure and to give him the rusted gun, the key ring and signet ring. He too was astonished at my report as he also knew of the disappearance of Richard Montgomery.

Later I went back with him to the mine and guided his group to the skeleton. The Sheriff took with him to the mine a long narrow box to hold the skeleton intact and very carefully the bones were lifted and laid in the box to transport to Hillsville. The oldest son of Richard identified the gun, the ring and the keys as belonging to his father who had disappeared when he was only 12 years old. The relatives decided to have the skeleton placed in an appropriate casket with the gun beside him, the half of his coat and the one shoe on one foot.

Meanwhile, the news media grabbed the story and it went nationwide. The relatives decided to use the nearby Mabry Cemetery to lay the bones to rest. Although World War II was raging a crowd gathered for the unusual burial. Since the burial was so rare, it was decided to put a glass cover on the casket so that the skeleton could be viewed. The service was held at 10:00 am and the crowd that gathered was a bigger surprise than the finding of the remains. It was estimated that 1400 people attended and one by one walked past the casket to look at the remains. The Pastor suggested that the family place a box at the foot of the casket with a simple sign reading, "If you sympathize with us donate an offering to help us bury Richard Montgomery."

When the excitement finally died down, I wanted to go back to the mine and get back into the mysterious Valley of the Rainbow; however that is another story.

Sometime later I visited my cousin Van and his wife, Nannie. Van remarked, "Ray, you certainly did old Uncle Joe a big favor in finding the skeleton in the old mine. He has put up a neat sign outside his house reading "GUIDE TO SKELETON MINE." He also went to Mount Airy to a second hand store where he purchased a used U.S. Forestry Ranger uniform, also a shiny souvenir badge to replace the U.S. Forestry Chevron, and he looks every bit an official guide. Also I heard he adds some interesting descriptions you did not put in your account of the findings." I asked, "What has he added?"

"He located some sheep bones and wrote to a biological supply house for a human skull to replace the bones that I had removed, so as to make it a bit scary. I heard that those who live in the area reported hearing ghostly moaning sounds coming from the mine. I decided to investigate one day. I bypassed Uncle Joe and went into the cave and I heard a very real mournful sound coming from the mine shaft, rising and falling in loudness as the wind currents increased in velocity. After some searching I found the source. You won't believe what it is, or maybe you will. I found one half of the way back Uncle Joe had done a clever thing. He had secured a 5 gallon jug and placed it in one side of the mine shaft and disguised it with a pile of rocks. He had somewhere found a large metal funnel such as gas station service men use to catch the oil when changing it. This he fastened in place so that the small end of the funnel was exactly positioned at the opening of the jug. He had constructed, technically, a wind organ. You see, the funnel caught the wind and directed it across the jug opening. The wind created an undulating sound. I'll admit it was weird. I left it as it was and have not spread my findings. If it improves Joe's income, let it wail! And Joe's family had been showing signs of prosperity."

"Ray, you should go and listen to it on a windy day and hear it moan!"