The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

My Uncle Volney’s Valley

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1984

Issue: March, 1984

Sometimes when the summer moon is hanging like a big silver dishpan above the solemn Old Hurricane Hill, it pulls me from my slumber and sets my feet upon the pathways of my youth. It is then that I may meander up the Old Mayberry Road, turning at the rock church, crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway and climbing until I find myself among the scattered shadows at the Haunted Crossroads. There I listen for the ghosts that used to be, and hearing nothing but the screeching of an owl, I continue my journey down the sharp hill into my Uncle Volney’s Valley.

I approach the modest cottage, standing on the banks of Maple Swamp Creek, as noiselessly as possible, beguiled into believing that, somehow, I might catch the faint sounds of lingering laughter or the dying notes of a banjo, fiddle and guitar. But like the ghosts at the cross roads, those sounds seem to come no more. But then the soft melancholy strains of the summer breeze sighing through the large pine trees beside the road causes me, for awhile, to believe that the canary-yellow cottage is still standing like it did 50 years ago with my aunt and uncle and my seven cousins inside merely sleeping until daybreak.

My Uncle Volney Reynolds, like my mother Edna, sister Bertie and brothers Len and Jim were all born in a log cabin just 300 yards from the colorful spot he selected for the home to bring his young bride, Alma Scott. The small, fertile valley, embraced by steep timbered hills and watered by Maple Swamp Creek rushing to join Round Meadow before tumbling into the River Dan, was indeed an exclusive place to rear a family.

However the Reynolds clan soon became as dedicated to hospitality as it did to its fields, gardens and meadows. Visitors were always welcomed. And a party, dance or frolic might be launched with a dropping of a handkerchief, the tuning of a violin or the patting of a foot. There was usually inside or outside entertainment - sometimes both - depending on the weather, size of the crowd and the spirit of the occasion.

One of my Uncle Vol’s primary concerns with rural electrification was having his croquet courts illuminated so the games could continue far into the night. And when he no longer made his full time home there, the public was still invited to use those courts and he continued to pay the electric bill.

There are still those in the Heart of the Blue Ridge who will remember my Uncle Vol as a handsome, slender man standing about 5’11” without his shoes; dark wavy hair turning gray, twinkling blue-gray eyes and a neatly cropped mustache that added a dash of distinction to his bearing. Like most of his contemporaries, he had scraped hard for a limited public education. But he was an avid reader. Most of what he read, he retained, and he would converse with people from all walks of life. He often did. He didn’t hesitate to express an opinion - usually a constructive one, and when he expired in September of 1962 my father told me that during his numerous conversations with his brother-in-law, he had never heard him speak ill of any person.

During his younger years he had rejected a promising career in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania post office and rushed back to his wife Alma, lovingly called “Bunch”, and his growing family. He offered no apologies for preferring to raise his children away from city life. None was needed. He knew what he wanted, and was able to achieve most of it during his four score and five years on this earth. He was the reigning champion of the local shooting matches and his superior eyesight enabled him to locate many bee trees until he owned dozens of the finest stands in the county. The only time his eyesight was ever known to let him down was the time he put a rifle ball into his apple butter kettle, mistaking it for a night prowler, Mama teased him and Uncle Vol laughed more than she did.

But back to the bees; they never seemed to like my Uncle Vol. Furthermore, an asthmatic condition dictated that he shun close contact. So my diminutive and pretty Aunt Bunch would once or twice each year, don her overalls, big gloves and veil, and with her smoker, reap the big bowls and buckets of golden honey that brought neighbors from miles and miles to make purchases. She was seldom, if ever, stung; a tribute, perhaps to her sunny disposition and gentle ways; my, how that Aunt Bunch was loved by her many relatives children and other friends. Some of her many skills ran to rooting ornamental shrubs, roses and growing other flowers. Her flower beds would stop travelers to inquire about her techniques and to obtain seed and “starts”. Each June would bring a dazzling profusion of blossoms that framed their yellow cottage like a picture post card. Her vegetable gardens and grape arbors were among the best in Patrick County. But it was her famed and exceptional cooking and the family’s hospitality that usually brought daily visitors to their big kitchen and dining table.

Musical, almost every member of the family could play one or more instruments. And those who didn’t play, sang with gusto. It was not uncommon to hear Uncle Vol’s fiddle and daughter Maggie’s autoharp, with Aunt Bunch singing a ballad, as you came within earshot of the house. Son Wayne - no longer a spring chicken - can still flatfoot while playing a guitar and never miss a note. His brother Glenn is a mover and a shaker in musical circles from Galax to the Grand Ole Opry. He plays a mandolin with the best.

When inclement weather or darkness curtailed outside entertainment, the party would continue inside. There were Ouiga boards, checkers, Rook, Old Maid, and Setback. Then to top it off, some of Aunt Bunch’s exciting stories. While her corn pones slowly and aromatically baked in the Dutch ovens, banked with coals on the hearth, she could weave a magic spell that could take you to the corners of the earth, usually bringing you back to the Haunted Crossroads where you knew you shouldn’t be after sunset. When the enchantment carried you past your allotted time for departure and the sun had gone to rest, a phone call would usually get you permission to stay the night. Somehow our mothers understood. However, once when teen-aged Preston Yeatts scoffed at the darkness, and started home, his younger brother pleaded, “Please stop him Mr. Vol. The durn fool just don’t know what he’s gitting into out there.”

During the depths of the Big Depression, there came a pair of itinerant miners, down on their luck, to Uncle Vol’s door. After sampling supper and bed and breakfast, they decided that the valley was a promising site for underground gold. Uncle Vol just allowed them to dig away, knowing all the while that their copper needles, shovels and pans would get them little more than exercise and free bed and board. So they dug and dug. As their holes grew larger, Mayberry school children came daily to stare in awe at them and to marvel at the Reynolds’ friends’ “good luck.” It became a regular stop for me as I pressed my plow horse to and from early high school at Meadows of Dan. Sometimes I would arrive with a passenger in front and one behind the saddle. Old Charlie didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps he was too caught up in the excitement. After about two weeks of digging, the men filled the holes, sighted the sun and took off for surer gold. Uncle Vol didn’t seem at all disappointed.

Well it seems like it was only yesterday. I guess it’s some comfort to realize that some of his children and grandchildren still own the pretty valley that was once the fun and games center of Mayberry. Small boy’s abandoned caps and jackets no longer dot the green lawns, and the excited voices of romping children are only rarely heard. Still my friend, the breeze that calls to me through the pines seems to be trying to tell me not to lament and to remember that Scottish fantasy, “Brigadoon” where the isolated 18th century village comes alive each hundred years. Then for one week the people laugh and sing and love as if life had never ceased. I hear the music, “It’s Almost Like Being In Love”. And then I retrace my steps to my tousled bed where sleep is waiting to welcome me…