The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Henry Harris - Coal Miner and Horse Trader

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012

Issue: April, 1984

henry harris50th Wedding Anniversary photograph of Mae and Henry Harris.In a previous story, we were jokingly told that the land below Lovers Leap Mountain in Patrick County, Virginia is so steep that a man once fell out of his cornfield. Another person added more to this by saying that it was true - Around the turn of the century, William Trent had a cornfield on ground that was very steep. This land was planted by walking along with a pointed stick and boring the hole, dropping in the corn, and then covering it by pushing the dirt back with a booted foot.

The corn was left in the field until it was completely dry and then stored for livestock feed and to be ground into cornmeal. The day William Trent chose to pull his corn was in cold, late autumn and the ground was covered in ice. This day was chosen for a reason. With the ground covered with a hard layer of ice, the ears of corn could be pulled and then thrown down hill and they would slide all the way to the barnyard, saving the hard task of carrying them down. Unfortunately, William Trent slipped on the ice before finishing the task and ended sliding down the icy mountainside, breaking his leg in what must have been a complex fracture.

Henry Harris of Stuart, Virginia wrote to us that it was his grandfather, William Trent, who fell out of his cornfield and broke his leg. I called Henry about it and went by for a visit. I ended up staying five hours, as one story after another poured out. I could sit and listen to his stories all day, and he has plenty of them.

Henry has a beautiful photograph of his grandfather Trent and himself as a boy of six or seven, leaning on his grandfather’s knee. The old man has a long white beard and hair. His grandfather's crutch is in the photograph beside him.

Henry said his first memory of his grandfather Trent was when he was around the age in the photograph. He said, “Mother, Father and I were walking to see Grandfather. Mother and Father were picking up chestnuts as they went. I had a stick, riding straddle of it (pretending it was a horse). I got up ahead of them and run up on an old man. He asked me where I was going and I said to see my Grandfather Trent. The old man (who I found out later was Grandfather Trent) said, ‘What for?’ I told him I was going to trade horses with him. I heard he had a fine black horse. The old man said, ‘Now how do you suppose you’re going to do that?’ I said, ‘Of course he’ll have to pay me boot’.”

The last memory Henry has of his grandfather was, sadly, not much later. His grandfather was dying. All of the family was called to the house and one family member at a time would file in and talk with him, then leave. Henry said they wouldn’t let him go in so he waited till the door opened and scooted in before they could stop him. His grandfather told Henry, “I’m going to leave you.” Henry begged his grandfather not to leave, but his grandfather said he had to. His grandfather gave Henry some advice that Henry has tried to live by all his life. Grandfather Trent said, “I think you’ll make a good trader. I’ll give you this advice and if you follow it, you should do well. Never lie to anyone. You don’t always have to tell everything you know, but if someone asks you something, answer them honest.” Henry says at times he’s gotten the reputation of being wild but he’s always tried to be honest.

Henry filled in the story about his grandfather’s fall out of his corn field. He said his grandfather was taken to the hospital (probably in Mount Airy, North Carolina, a forty mile trip in horse and buggy days) where they decided they would have to amputate. Henry said back in those days, around the turn of the century, there was nothing for sedation but liquor and a hand saw to do the work. The doctors cut his grandfather’s leg off at the knee. His grandfather raised up on the operating table and told them that he didn’t want that thing flopping around, to go ahead and cut it off at his hip. They did. I don’t see how he took it.

Henry Harris has crammed a lot of living into his 87 years. He’s known happiness and sorrow, success and dire tragedy. He has been a person that whatever happened, went on, and in doing so, completely rebuilt his life more than once.

When Henry was a boy, he had the physical handicap of one eye that turned in. He found it very hard to study and the other children picked on him so he went to school little. He says he never was one to take anything off anyone, so when the other kids picked at him, he fought. He said, “By the time I was 12, there wasn’t a grown man who would take me on.” By the time Henry was twelve, he was already carrying a man’s responsibilities for his own upkeep.

When Henry was 13, he went by train to West Virginia to earn a living in the coal mines. As he was getting off the train, one of the men standing there said, “Who do you think you are?” Henry said he just swung his fist around and knocked the man down. Another man standing there said, “He’s a damn wildcat, that’s what he is!” They called Henry “Wildcat” from then on. When he went to the supervisor of the mine to ask for a job, the man said, “I don’t hire children. Who are you?” Henry told him he could do a man’s job and he was “Wildcat”. The man said he did have a job for him and Henry started watching the “trap door” to the mine.

This was around 1909. Henry worked in the mines near Charleston, West Virginia for several years. On a visit home when he was about 16, he and his uncle were sitting on a road bank when two of the neighbors came walking down the road. It was 12 year old Mattie Marshall and her grandmother. He said, “I hadn’t ever seen anything as pretty as Mattie.” She had long, wavy black hair nearly down to her ankles. He said he asked her grandmother if she would give him, “that baby-doll.” He asked how old she was and told her, “Listen dear, when you’re 16, I’ll marry you.”

Henry left and went back to work in the mines in West Virginia. He came back about 6 months before Mattie was 16. He went to his cousin Maggie’s house. Maggie usually ran out to greet him but she wasn’t in sight. He went into the house and there was a chair with its back turned to the door. There was a woman sitting in it. He thought it was Maggie so he ran up, grabbed her up and kissed her. Then he found out that it wasn’t cousin Maggie but Mattie instead!

That night Ed Horton came over after supper, trying to court Mattie. Henry said he just took Mattie by the hand and led her away. He said, “We talked all night long. The day she was 16, we got married.”

Henry did some trading with Tom Boyd and got a farm at Claudville, in Patrick County. He and Mattie had two girls and one boy in the next six wonderful years. They worked hard and had a young peach orchard that was just starting to bear. Henry had cut a lot of timber and had it stacked to take to Stuart and sell. It was worth about $3,000. Those were happy, successful, loving years, then suddenly, tragedy struck.

Mattie had to be rushed to the hospital in Stuart and operated on for appendicitis. The children were rushed to relatives. Mattie was operated on at 9:00 at night and Henry stayed with her until she woke up that morning.

As Henry was leaving the hospital, a friend came up to him with a troubled look on his face. He said he hated to tell Henry, but last night there was a fire that destroyed Henry’s whole farm. It burned the house, barn, the lumber and the peach orchard - everything. All was lost.

Henry kept this from Mattie. She was soon able to come home from the hospital and Henry took her to his mother’s to recover. He warned everyone not to tell her about the farm. Two days later Mattie had to be rushed back to the hospital. They rushed someone from Richmond to operate on her again, but she didn't come out of the operation. Henry said, “She never knew about the farm.”

Henry was now the young father of three and had one thousand dollars of hospital debts. He left the two oldest children, the girls, with Mattie’s mother, and the youngest, his 18 month old son, with his mother and headed back for West Virginia. He said he told himself he would never marry again.

By this time, his cousin Maggie and her husband were living in West Virginia. Maggie’s husband was a relative of Villa Mae Costo, who was going to become Henry’s second wife in years to come. Mae says, “I heard all about Henry a long time before I met him, from Maggie. Maggie thought there wasn’t anything in this world like her cousin Henry.” When Henry first met Mae, he was sitting on the steps of Maggie’s house. Mae walked up and went in the house and Henry turned to Maggie and said, “When did angels start roaming around here?”

Henry was now working at the Libby-Owens Sheet Plant above Charleston, West Virginia and living at Kanowaha. The post office there was Owens, West Virginia.

Henry’s mother and mother-in-law wanted Henry to come back to Patrick County and marry a woman they had picked out for him. They would have even given him a piece of land to do so. Henry said he still didn’t feel that he would ever remarry. He came home and got his children and took them back with him to West Virginia, to Maggie’s house. He could see them every day now.

On one visit to see his children, Mae was there. As he got ready to leave, he picked up his daughter, Helen, and said, “You mind Mae or she’ll whip you.” Mae said, “I will not!” Henry looked at Mae and Mae looked at Henry and something happened between them. Henry said he knew right then that they would marry. Later he said Mae told him she wouldn’t have married any man if she hadn’t got Henry.

Mae and Henry have two children together and in October of 1977, they celebrated their 50th Wedding Anniversary.

Henry had some close calls with death himself. In the year of the big flu epidemic that spread across America in the first part of this century, he was staying on the second floor of the Waldo Hotel in Charleston, West Virginia. It was along the river. He said reports started coming in that people were dropping like flies from the flu across the river. “Then it hit us.” He said he could stand at his window and see wagon loads of the dead being carried to the funeral home. One of his relatives was a nurse and she told him that they would go in a house and find perhaps a whole family dead except for one child. Henry came down with it himself. He was as weak as dishwater and the only remedy they knew for the flu was quinine and liquor. He said he kept taking both and finally got over it.

Sometime after he and Mae were married, Henry took very ill. Doctors said they didn’t know exactly what was wrong with him, but he didn’t have long to live. They wanted to operate and see if they could find what was wrong. Henry was running a very high temperature and they had him packed in ice.

He said he wasn’t happy thinking about an operation and he called for the doctor that had brought Mae into the world. The doctor said, “I can give you a pill and it can either cure you or kill you.” Henry said, “Give me the pill.” When the doctor wasn’t looking, Henry washed it down with a good hard drink. He said he started getting better immediately, but to this day doesn’t know what was in that pill. The illness left him very weak. He and Mae came back to Patrick County to live. Mae said she had to ask the neighbor women how to plant and tend a garden. She had never done anything like that before and Henry wasn’t able.

Henry says, “I think a woman was meant to be loved and petted, not worked like a horse.” He and Mae had an agreement that he would build her a house and put in it anything she wanted and she would take care of the inside work and he would take care of the outside work. It must have been a pretty good pact, because it's lasted 57 years, so far.

In the early years when Henry was working in the coal mines, he once got a piece of coal behind his eye. He was carried to the hospital to have it surgically removed. Henry took off his shirt, hid his gun under it and lay down on the operating table. The doctor told Henry he would have to lie perfectly still for the operation. Henry told the doctor he would lie still but if the doctor blinded him, he was going to kill him. In the course of the operation (20 minutes), Henry stayed perfectly still. The doctor not only got the piece of coal, but straightened Henry’s eye that pulled in. With the operation over, and everyone relaxed, the doctor laughed and told Henry, “Just how did you plan on killing me anyhow?” Henry just reached down and lifted his shirt. The doctor turned white and started shaking. “If I had known about that, I couldn’t have done the operation!”

When the coal mine at Charleston, West Virginia shut down, Henry and his brother headed north for a mine in Pennsylvania. When they got there, it was a situation more than they wanted to handle. The coal mining workers had been on strike for more than six years and feelings ran hard. The company officials wanted Henry and his brother to be guards and laid out two 45’s and plenty of bullets. They wanted Henry and his brother to shoot anyone caught on the mine property. Henry and his brother refused. They had to sneak away in the night to get away from that mine. They came home to Virginia.

Henry did his first horse trading when he was 10 years old. He was working for a man for $8.00 a month plus room and board. He took his $8.00 and bought two steer calves. These he swapped for a horse. He said he was always a loner, never a hand at taking on partners. He says that at times he’s worked so hard that it would be a week at a time before he would get to take off his shoes.

Then Henry’s son, George was born. Henry said, “me and my son have been partners since the day he was born. What’s mine is his and his is mine.” Once when George was a small boy, Henry and Mae were share cropping Tump Spangler’s bottom land. Henry came in from the fields about noon and lay down in the grass. George came up and wanted Henry to play. Henry told George to let him rest, that he was tired. George told his father, “When I’m big and you're little I’ll work and play with you.” Mae has said that George has come pretty close to keeping that promise. “He’s always stuck beside his father and looked after us these last few years.”

Henry has had some wild experiences in his lifetime. When he was a boy, his family lived near the Lybrook place at Meadows of Dan, Virginia. One day several people were sitting on the fence around one of the Lybrook pastures and a big, mean, prize bull walked up. Henry was dared to ride him. Henry just jumped off the fence on the bull’s back. He said the bull ran down through the woods with him hanging to its back and back up to the fence. The bull stopped short and threw Henry clear through that fence. Henry said, I hit the top and took out two rails.”

Another time Henry was milking. He felt something hit on the back of his neck but kept on milking. A big copperhead snake slithered over his right shoulder and down his arm. Henry stayed calm and just kept milking. That snake slithered down his arm, across his lap and leg, and crawled away.

Henry’s best horse trading story occurred when he was still a boy. He was going past Will Handy’s house when Mrs. Zinnie Handy stuck her head out and called to him. It seemed the Handy’s horse, a fine one, had jumped the fence and was in the cornfield. Mrs. Zinnie asked Henry if he would get the horse back into the pasture. Henry took off for the cornfield. As he was leading the horse back, Will Handy walked up. He wanted to know what Henry was doing. Henry told him he was bringing this horse over for Mr. Will to see, that it would make a good matched pair with his horse. Mr. Will walked all around the around the horse, looking it over. He agreed that it was a good looking horse but thought it was a little bigger than his horse. He had just about decided to take the horse when Mrs. Zinnie walked up and said, “Will, don’t you know your own horse? Henry’s pulling your leg.”

From coal mining to farming, Henry Harris has sampled a little of all life has to offer. Henry’s own words are, “I didn’t ever believe in getting mistreated or mistreating anyone. I always said what I thought and didn’t take anything off anybody.” In Henry’s life there may have been good times and bad, but Henry Harris has truly had it all!