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Home Sweet Home: Blue Jay, West Virginia

By Janetta Crawford

This photo shows a group of woodhicks cutting logs near Blue Jay around 1910. Despite the more commonly remembered term lumberjacks, most West Virginia loggers referred to themselves as woodhicks.

If you’re in Raleigh County and take Blue Jay Drive south from the town of Beaver, you’ll soon run into the little community of Blue Jay. Archaeological evidence shows that prehistoric cultures date back thousands of years in the area. Very little is known about these prehistoric people, except, based on some rock carvings discovered by archaeologists, they clearly loved birds. It’s fitting, then, that the town would one day become known as Blue Jay.

Blue Jay’s modern history dates to 1903, when a Pennsylvania lumber company noticed the quality hardwoods growing in the region. The company was started by a Mr. Billinger and Frank Hayes, who, along with the Billinger family, four drivers, 13 horses and wagons, household goods, food, tools, and sawmill equipment made the 13-day trek from Corry, Pennsylvania, to Raleigh County.

Frank’s son Theron, born in 1908, recalled his father’s pride in founding Blue Jay and how his father described the timber as “being so thick, that a person could hardly see the sun, except at noon.” On the first day the sawmill went into operation, Frank erected an American flag on the site.

The land was co-owned by P. C. Lynch, C. L. Goodwin, and P. P. Griffin. A group of hardy workers cleared trees to make room for a small circle sawmill, which was used to build a larger band mill. The band mill cut boards for the first homes and toolsheds in Blue Jay. A small number of original homes “were built out of rough lumber,” noted Theron, “and were built Jenny Lind style, which is vertical boards with other vertical boards to cover the cracks.” Four boarding houses were added to accommodate the growing number of workers. The company’s holdings also included docks, a millpond, an oil house, various logging camps, and five coal mines. From its rough beginnings in 1903 to its full development in 1921, an estimated 300 families made Blue Jay their home.

The company’s steam locomotive brought logs from the cutting areas, such as Camp Creek, and dumped the timber into the millpond. The train also transported finished lumber for sale across the United States. Ruth Payne remembers a common occurrence where workers “stack[ed] lumber to whistle at the girls who had to walk under the lumber docks to get to the store or post office.”

Eva Lykins remembered her father, Gilbert Richmond, working on the log train until he lost his hand coupling cars. After recovering, Gilbert worked inside the mill and was superintendent of the Blue Jay church. Theron could remember only a small number of accidental work deaths, and only one murder is known to have occurred in Blue Jay—in 1918, when a man shot and killed his common-law wife.

Theron did remember, however, his father suffering a serious injury on the large band saw. At this time, there were no hospitals in Raleigh County, so when Frank Hayes was hurt on the job, he had to be transported by horse and wagon to Dugout—a small unincorporated town in Raleigh County—then by train to Prince, and by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to the hospital in Hinton. Theron observed that his father “must have been very tough to survive that sort of ordeal.”

There was a doctor in Blue Jay. Dr. Cunningham practiced there from 1904 to 1936. Theron’s mother, Arminta, was a midwife. He remembers her walking at night with her lantern to people’s houses. Eva Lykins’ mother was also a midwife. “I remember that Mom would stay with the family for up to 10 days after the delivery,” said Eva, “helping the new mom and the baby.” Eva’s mother got paid $5.00 for helping in the days after delivery. Often, the midwives delivered the babies because Dr. Cummingham couldn’t get there in time. When he’d show up late, he’d invariably say, “Everything is OK.” On January 14, 1904, Blue Jay’s first baby was born and named Brook Carter (Hall).

The town had its own company store, which sold anything a person could need. Ruth Payne recalled, “It was possible to buy furniture there, toys, piece goods, clothing, jewelry (not costume either), hats, laces, ribbons, shoes, linoleum, and, of course, groceries.” She smiled as she remembered buying a bag full of candy for a penny or two. “Young girls walked all the way from Richmond District,” said Ruth, “bringing eggs to [trade] for piece goods for dresses.”

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