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Ginseng
Digging for Treasure in Brooke County

By Ben Copenhaver

Ginsing
Ben Copenhaver with ginseng in Brooke County. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

I was born in the little village of Colliers, located in Brooke County, in the middle of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. The village lies in a big hollow along Harmon Creek, which flows west from the Pennsylvania line and empties into the Ohio River. Also running through the small village is a four-track railroad.

Colliers was the best place a young boy could grow up. The school was within walking distance, and the stores provided just about everything a family could need. Surrounding Colliers were the hills and hollows where, during my younger years, I would wander with my boyhood friends and sometimes would go off on my own to hunt and trap. Back then, ginseng was not a part of my life. In fact, it wasn’t until the ripe old age of 50 that I was introduced to the beautiful, majestic ginseng.

My close friend Tom McPeek and I were relaxing at his house one August day, when Tom started talking about his grandfather and how he would raise money for his family by digging and selling ginseng and yellowroot — the old-timers’ name for goldenseal. [See “In Search of the Wild Goldenseal,” by Marion Harless; Fall 1999.] He piqued my interest, and we decided to hunt for the seng the next day.

I picked up Tom and some friends, and we headed up to Boy Scout Hollow to try our luck. We hunted our way to the top of the left-hand side of the hollow, all the while searching for a plant that I had never seen before. As we neared the head of the hollow, I came to an outcropping of rock. I looked down beside the rock and saw a plant. I hollered to Tom to come verify what I had found. He did, and it was at that moment I had found my first ginseng. It was a pretty plant with what Tom called three “prongs” growing from the main stalk. Growing out from the middle of the main stalk was another stem, and on this stem was a pod of bright red berries. Tom immediately told me to pick the berries and plant them nearby. He said that this was the law, and the penalties for breaking the law for digging seng outside of season was a fine and/or stiff jail time. Who would have thought, just for a plant? At that time, ginseng season opened on the 15th of August and closed in November.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.