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Sunday Dinner in Ritchie County

Text and photographs by Katherine Roberts

Ralph Davis family
Ralph Davis, members of his extended family, and family friends on a Sunday in 2008. Standing, from the left, are Pam (Davis) Copeland, Ralph, Danny Copeland, Gene Reed, Tammi Oliver, and John Davis, Sr. In front are Rylee and John Copeland. Photograph by Katherine Roberts.


Several years ago, I visited Ralph Davis on a Sunday afternoon in midsummer. Ralph was a widower by the time I met him in 2003, and I usually found him at home alone when I stopped by. But this time, the house was spilling over with people. Children, young adults, and middle-aged folk banged in and out of the screen door and milled around on the front porch of his house. He and I sat together in a corner of the porch, pouring over historical photographs of Ritchie County and of 19th century machinery. As the shadows lengthened and his visitors began to trickle away, he reminded each one of them to take some of his garden produce from a table near the door — a sea of red tomatoes, piles of zucchini, rows of cucumbers. I worried that I was keeping him from his guests, but Ralph assured me they’d all be back next Sunday. I soon learned that on Sundays at Ralph Davis’ place on Laurel Run in Ritchie County, there is always a full house. Ralph’s three grown children, his grandchildren, and his great grandchildren (and often their friends) gather for the entire afternoon to eat, visit, and help with upkeep of the homeplace.

This is where Ralph and his late wife, Mary Frances, lived out their 54 year marriage and raised their three children: John, Lowell, and Pam. It is also where Mary Frances grew up and where her grandfather settled in the 1880's. Ralph first came to the farm at the age of 19, in 1947. Henry Lieving, a farmer and successful blacksmith, had hired him to do some work. “I was going to stay a week doing work for him,” Ralph recalls. “And I never left.”

During that first visit, Ralph met the Lievings’ daughter, Mary Frances. The next year, the two married and established their home at the farm with the Lievings. The land had been passed down in her family from her grandfather, Jacob Lieving, a first-generation German immigrant who bought the place in 1883 and migrated to Ritchie County from Washington County, Ohio. Ralph and Mary Frances inherited the 119 acres when her parents passed away. They named it “Sunset Acres Farm.”

And it is beautiful. Ralph won’t brag on it himself, but pride of place is evident in the clean hilltop meadows, tightly mowed lawn, freshly painted outbuildings, and decorative embellishments on the front porch. Large, painted wooden yellow-and-black butterflies light permanently on the exterior walls of the house. Little wooden children in profile swing from the eaves. Here and there hang Ralph’s clocks, made from everyday objects: a gas meter, a Pennzoil Frisbee, a cast iron skillet. The atmosphere is cheerful, engaging.

The homeplace is central to family gatherings. Sunday dinner has always happened here. “All these years,” Ralph’s daughter Pam (Davis) Copeland muses, “and we never once had anything down [at my place].” She lives on Dutchman Road, just a few minutes four wheeler drive across the ridge from her homeplace.

During most of their married life, Ralph commuted every day to his job as a gauger with Pennzoil in Grantsville, and Mary Frances tended the home fires. She nurtured their three children and took care of milk cows, chickens, gardens, food preparation, cooking, sewing, and general housekeeping. “She was a powerful worker,” Ralph often says about his late wife. One of the things she worked at was bringing the family together around Sunday dinner.

I met Ralph just a year after Mary Frances had died, and the cellar beneath the house was still full of her handiwork — hundreds of glass jars full of food from the garden and the field. The family has had to weed out many of the oldest jars of food, but occasionally they still pull something from the cellar to add to their communal meal. Today it is Pam who prepares Sunday dinner, with help from her sons, Danny and John, and her partner, Gene Reed. But at one time, Pam worked side-by-side with her mother. “Mom always planned the main course,” Pam recalls. “And she always made some kind of cake or pie. She’d pack that in Dad’s lunch all week.”

Though she downplays the amount of work it takes to fix the large meal every week, Pam does rise early on Sunday mornings at her place and begins preparations for the meal in her own kitchen.

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