Tuesday, March 07, 2006

W. E. Blackhurst, On Logging Pocahontas County

W.E. Blackhurst, a Pocahontas County native, devoted much of his life to documenting local history and observing local natural history. He was an English and Latin teacher at Greenbank High School for over 30 years, and he was active in the movement to create the Cass Scenic Railroad. He belongs on my Literary Pocahontas Page, and this is my first attempt at writing about him. This excerpt from the Preface for the posthumously published Afterglow: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems gives a quick rundown of his work:

Warren Blackhurst....wrote of the first great cuttings of the virgin forests, and in Riders of the Flood he told of the formations of the great rafts of logs, from the time they left the stump until they and their riders completed their journey of nearly a hundred miles down the Greenbrier River to the lumber mill at Ronceverte. In Mixed Harvest he told of the first timber surveys, the beginning of the sawmill town and the coming of the railroad which would supplant the river as a means of taking the lumber to market. He also told of the people who were there, and those who were drawn to the industry. Sawdust in Your Eyes depicts the social life of a lumber town when the twentieth century was young, and no one could tell it better; while Of Men and a Mighty Mountain weaves the biographies of the men who made the wheels of the lumber industry turn--from the head of the Company to the mill hand, and how the work of each contributed to the finished product. And through each book there runs a thread of romance, skillfully woven into stories of a great industry. Then there was the railroad, built just for logging, which was the forerunner of the Cass Scenic Railroad.

While there is much to learn about Pocahontas County here, I really wish Mr. Blackhurst had skipped that "thread of romance, skillfully woven into stories of a great industry." In fictionalizing his stories, he fell into some of the unfortunate habits of mid-twentieth centry popular novelists. The attempt at dialect, whether of Irish, Italians, blacks, or hillbillies, is poorly done and offensive. The characterization of the workers as simple and childlike makes my skin crawl. If you can wade through this stuff, which he doubtless included to make the stories more palatable to the "reading public," you can learn a lot about Pocahontas County, and about how logging changed the Appalachians.

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