Skip Navigation

Transcript of interview with Katharine Whiting, May 1, 1993, for the film "West Virginia"

Source: WV History Film Project

Katherine Whiting Interview, SOUND ROLL 107

Q: Katherine, I want you to think back to when you were a young girl on a farm in West Virginia. Tell me what were the good things about growing up on a farm?
JJGG 0031
KW: The good things were numerous. The farm was beautiful. The seasons were extremely interesting, particularly this time of year in May and April when the flowers were in bloom, wild flowers were abundant and the grass was so green. The trees would be coming in bud and then they would into bloom and then they would come into leaf. And we'd have dogwood trees. The pear tree would be in blossom, the apple tree. And there would be just a number of birds and the farm animals were more lively at that time of year. And we just enjoyed being out in the spring. In winter, we did such interesting things as ice skating. We had sleds and we enjoyed being out in the snow, and we built snowmen and the things that children like to build. And we did a lot of walking in the snow and there would be a chance to track a wild animal.
JJGG 0127
There were rabbits and there were squirrels and there were foxes and all sorts of wild animals on the farm, and I really preferred the wild animals left in their own habitat. And it would be easy to learn how to track. For instance, a rabbit is easily --

Q: There was also a lot of hard work, wasn't there?
JJGG 0161
KW: Very hard. Very hard. But it was a way of life, and we knew that in order to produce the vegetables that we needed for food, to produce the things that the animals needed so that they could provide us with food, we had to have food for them. And it was difficult, for instance, to hoe corn. Corn would be planted with a hand corn planter. My father would do this, and it would be maybe three to five grains to a hill, one for the woodchuck, one for the crow, one for the weather, and two to grow. So, you had to be sure you had enough planted at the time, and it would be two kinds of corn. There would be Regealident? which was for the animals, and then there would be a white corn, which we called "bread" corn. And then it would be necessary to take the corn to the mill at West Milford. And I often did this. And you would divide the shelled corn so that it would be able to be tied to the back of the saddle and half of it would be one side of the saddle, and half on the other in order to balance it.

Q: Let me interrupt you, Katherine. Let's cut.


Q: Katherine, you told me on the phone, I want you to tell me again about how on a farm out here, on the farm you grew up on, you very self-sufficient. Everybody had their role, everybody had their tasks, and the farm was self-contained. Tell me about that experience.
JJGG 0320
KW: Well, it was necessary for us to have our animals and to raise the crops as I mentioned for the animals and for food for ourselves. And those of us who were working with these animals and who working to help produce the food in the summer, like the vegetables and the corn, the things that the animals needed, and to be sure that the hay was taken care of properly, the meadows were mowed--these meadows can be mowed twice a year if they start about May, last of May, around the first of June--so it's necessary to be sure that everyone is trained and knows how to take care of these things. And my grandmother insisted that girls should know how to do these things because you would need sometime to be able to supervise. You might not be able to do it always, you might not want to do it always, but you needed to know how to do it in order to be self-sufficient.
JJGG 0412
And my father would be sure that he had enough food in the building, the storage building, outside storage building for his stock, livestock, for winter because when the snows came and the river was covered with ice and the roads frozen, it was difficult to get food for them from the general stores. There were general stores in the areas of West Milford and in Good Hope where one could get these things. Then later as he had a car, he would take the boat across the river, get the car, which he had in storage in someone's garage on the other side of the river, take it to the store at Good Hope. He would get the hundred pound bags of feed that he needed. He would put those in the car. He would bring those to the river.
JJGG 0494
He would put the feed from the car into the boat, return the car to the garage, walk back to the boat, get down the river in the boat, and bring it to the boat landing near the house here, within sight of this building, in sight of this house and then he would bring the horse and the sled to the river, take the hundred pound bags of feed, put it in the sled and carry it to the storage building.

Q: Now when you were -- that's a fascinating chain just to get a hundred pound of feed --
KW: Yes, he would get several packages of it.

Q: Now when you were a little girl, do you remember feeling that the world sort of stopped at the edges of your farm?
JJGG 0558
KW: Well, not quite. We were always going to church in summer. Now sometimes the weather prevented this. And if we were out in the cold weather, we would become ill, and we dressed warmly.

Q: Let me ask it in a different way, if you don't mind me. Did you have a sense that the land around you, that the land sort of contained your farm, contained your family?
KW: We were isolated; we felt that we were isolated?

Q: Yes.
JJGG 0608
KW: Not necessarily. We had wonderful neighbors all the way around, on all sides. I just never did feel isolated. In fact, I liked the privacy. I still do. I don't like crowds of people, and I avoid them. It was difficult for me to get adjusted to going to meetings in groups because I preferred to be isolated. And my father was an introvert. He liked to stay home and write and read and do things like this. And of course sometimes he would feel lonely, and then of course he was active in his lodge and he was active in his church when he was able to go. And we did all of those things. But there were times when the weather would isolate us, and then we would stay home and we'd sing songs. We didn't have a piano, but my mother played guitar. We did a lot of singing. All of us could sing. We did the things we liked to do at the farm, and we weren't working, taking care of the needs of animals.
JJGG 0694
Livestock are difficult to care for and when you have chickens, geese, ducks, guineas, you have calves to take care of, cattle, cows, and you have horses, you need to know how to take care of all of these animals. Now, I don't like to take care of animals really. I would much prefer to read and to do some of the things, and to write, and to do some of those things. But, then we had to know how to do cooking. And we needed to know how to take care of preparing the animal to be cooked. Now, butchering a pig --

Q: Let me interrupt you again. I want to get back to this --
KW: Isolation?

Q: No, not isolation, this sense of that you said privacy. Is the land in West Virginia, is it the kind of land that lends itself to privacy?
JJGG 0773
KW: This farm is, and I get annoyed every time that anybody comes here with a gun to shoot any kind of an animal. I have this place posted.

Q: What I mean is: the mountains, the ridges, the hollers, the land, did you feel that the land protected you --
KW: Yes, yes I do.

Q: Tell me about that feeling of the land protecting you.
JJGG 0807
KW: Yes, I feel that the land protects you. And I feel that these mountains are a protective measure because when I moved into a place where the land was level, it seemed endless, and there was a sense of insecurity in a situation like that. We felt secure with these hills and with these mountains, and we felt they protected us from storms. We felt they would protect us from all kinds of things. And yet there were tornadoes in this area. A tornado did some very bad damage at West Milford.

Q: Tell me some more things that the land protected you from?
JJGG 0870
KW: Well, the land protected us from intrusion by people that we would not really want to have come. We were aware that there people who would take advantage, maybe and would rob us perhaps if they had an opportunity. But we knew all of the local people, and we knew who we could depend upon, and we knew that those people would come to help us if we just even so much as mentioned that there was someone ill or if we needed something, there would be some neighbor who was wonderful, who would come immediately to our rescue.

Q: Now, is it your understanding that that sense of helping out and community was the same for your grandmother and grandfather's people?
KW: Indeed it was, yes and even more so. But then the transportation even then was worse, more difficult for them, than it was for me. They went to church many of them --

Q: Could you say my grandmother and grandfather went to church -- instead of they?
JJGG 0976
KW: Thank you. My grandfather and grandmother went to church. They would walk to the old Bethel Church, which is just across the river from this farm, to that church up on the hill.


Q: Katherine, tell me why reading and writing and education were so important -- .... tech difficulties....


Q: Katherine, tell me why reading and writing and education, getting an education, were so important in your family when you were a child?
JJGG 1040
KW: Because we were expected to get an education. My grandmother was as educated as she was able to be in that period of history. And my grandfather and my great grandfather had excellent hand writing, and they learned that in these one-room schools in West Virginia. My grandmother was a school teacher, teaching a subscription school at the age of sixteen in Wirt County. She rode horseback through the wilderness with some of the relatives to get there. And she did this, and she felt that her children and her grandchildren should have the best education that was possible for them to get. And my father, my uncle, both attended college, Broaddus College, my uncle attended. And he attended one of the other colleges here, my father attended West Virginia University when it was a very small school. He attended Salem College. He attended Fairmont State Norman,?? it was called then. Aunt Helen was supposed to become a music teacher and that's what she became. She taught music. That was my father's sister.

Q: Now you were home taught?
JJGG 1143
KW: I was home taught because of the weather, because of the roads, which were unpaved, mud, two and one half miles of mud in the winter to West Milford, two and a half miles of mud to Good Hope to church, and we were home taught. My brother then could go with me then when we had two children going to school, and this was difficult. My father taught me so that I could enter fourth grade with my class. And I was thinking how difficult it was for him to hitch our horse, Fred, to the buggy, and take us to school, two and a half miles to West Milford.

Q: Now stop for just a second.


Q: State that a little bit over again, Katherine. Tell me how your father home taught you and prepared you for fourth grade?
JJGG 1222
KW: My father had the books bought for me, the books that we would need to go to school. And he wanted me to attend a consolidated school. Our school at West Milford was consolidated, and in those days these were districts, union district, was where the school was located. We live in Grant district, this is Grant district in Harrison County, and the one room schools were in this area. The Duck Creek one room school; the Contrel Hill one room school, but the distances were about the same. And the Good Hope school which was about the same distance was in Union district, but he preferred that we go to the consolidated school in West Milford, and I shall be forever grateful to the Board of Education of Grant district for paying our tuition to permit us to go the West Milford School.

Q: Tell me what you told me already on the phone about how your father would take you by horseback to school and come and pick you up again.
JJGG 1317
KW: Right. My father would hitch Fred to the buggy, and he would take us the two and a half miles to West Milford to school and he would return with the horse and buggy. That would be a five mile round trip in the morning. Then at 4 o'clock he would come for us with the horse and buggy and that would be another five miles round trip, and that was ten miles a day for my father and that poor horse and that buggy. And we learned to do this. Then, later we were able to ride and take care of the horse ourselves. But we had cousins who were driving cars, and a motorcycle with a side car, and they would take us in the weather, when the weather was favorable in the fall. But then when the weather became inclement, it was necessary for us to stay at home and be taught by our father again. So, this was the way we lived for a year or two.
JJGG 1406
Now, remember that there were no paved roads on this side, from West Milford as far as where Water Smith is now located. Those were all unpaved, and the road was muddy and we would ride with other children who lived in the neighborhood and they would ride horses there. But the children at West Milford were a bit jealous of us with the horse, and Fred was a wonderful animal. You would have enjoyed him. He was white; he was small; he was a utility horse. He could be used for pulling a sled, he could be used to pull a plow for grading of a corn patch or he could be used to pull a cultivator for cultivating corn. And you had to be a little careful with him because he needed to have a muzzle over his face because he loved the tops of the new corn. So, we had to be just a little bit careful with him, but he would take care of us.
JJGG 1497
And when he would ride he would keep one ear toward us, and he would keep the other ear forward, particularly if a storm were coming. And coming through the woods here near the house, he would listen for what was coming ahead. And if a storm was coming, he would hurry; and then he would have breathing problems, and then he'd have to stop and rest a bit. But he was also very careful that he would listen to what we said to him. We would talk to him and with that one ear, he would listen to us very carefully and get us home safely.

Q: It seems like a lot of your memories are about weather; about rain and what rain produces, which is mud, and about how the weather affected how you lived.
JJGG 1565
KW: It did, indeed. And we were dependent upon good weather in order to plant crops; we were dependent good weather to get where we needed to go because even if we'd dress warmly and grandmother would make mittens for our hands to keep us warm, would knit them. And we would have knitted toboggans she would make for us to wear on our heads, and mother would make the warmest kind of clothing and we would do re-cycling as we call it now. In those days, we called them hand-to-hand-me downs or leftovers, but she would take a old coat, an old woolen coat that someone had discarded and she would make that into an overcoat for my brother. And I would have clothing which was made over and they were warm and comfortable. And we felt comfortable, but when you sit on a horse and ride for two and a half hours, with the rain pouring, and your clothing would become wet, and then you would sit in the classroom, and they would dry out until about 4 o'clock and you're ready to go back home.
JJGG 1661
So you hope by that time the rain was over. And one time I remember we got so wet and our neighbor who was riding with us that day, and another with her, we stopped where she had her horse kept in a stable on this side of the river. And we had our horse in the stable on this side of the river also because the boys were jealous and would throw rocks at him and hoping they, he would cause us to have an accident, maybe be thrown off the bridge. We don't know this. But we had to keep our horse on this side of the river in a stable owned by a cousin. So, this lady who had this neighbor's horse and who was taking care of that for her said "You children are too cold and wet to go to school today; you're going to stay here. I will find you some warm clothing and I will get your clothing dry so that you can go home when I get them dry, but you can't go to school with this clothing." And so that's what she did. So we stayed there.

Q: Now when you were a child you did chores on the farm by hand, the same way really that chores that were done in the 1880's or 1890's. Tell me about that.
JJGG 1773
KW: That's true. We hoed corn. Now we could take the, my father could take the horse and cultivator through the corn patch if he planted it so that it could be what we called "check rows". I was mentioning planting corn with the hand planter. He would make a furrow through the field and then make another furrow beside it and he would make furrows all the way across, going in that direction. Then he would come back and go the other way on the field and make furrows coming the other way, so that where those furrows met, there was a little point where he could plant the corn and that way he could cultivate it both ways.

Q: Could you just kind of list of me all the types of things that as a family you used to do by hand?
JJGG 1846
KW: We hoed corn; we planted potatoes, and the potatoes must be planted with the cut side down. You must have at least two or three eyes to each potato piece.

Q: Could you just sort of tell me all the things, without telling me details. Give me a survey.
JJGG 1879
KW: All right. We did potatoes and we dug the potatoes in the fall and then sometimes we buried them. But before we planted sweet potatoes we had a hotbed out here on the side.

Q: Excuse me Katherine. Could you tell me all the main chores on the farm, the main things that you kept cattle, that you planted corn, that you planted a garden, vegetables, you tended berries, tell me all those things what you did.
JJGG 1925
KW: We had these chickens and poultry; we had to take care of those; they had to be fed and the eggs had to be picked, gathered each, periodically during the day. And if you had a hen on the nest you better be careful she might bite you. And the turkeys had to be fed and they had to be fed and put back before they got ready to go to roost at night. The cattle often were wandering all over the hill. This hill was cleared at that point, and there were pasture tracks on top of it. And so we would have to ride to get the animals, the cattle down so they could be milked. And the cattle had to be milked, the cows had to be milked and the milk taken care of. And it had to be

Q: We're out of film, I'm sorry. Good.


Q: Katherine, did the Civil War affect your family?
JJHA 0017
KW: The Civil War was one of the most impressive things that happened to the family, and my grandmother's family members were on the side of the South. Her brother was in the Confederate army; he joined his cousins who lived near and they were off to the War. My grandfather and grandmother were not married until after the war was over, but grandmother and grandfather attended the same church and the same one-room school, but he went with the Federal army and was driving wagon train across the mountains by Elkins, Beverly, Huttonsville, Rich Mountain, and over in that area and then later was in the war of the Potomac. He became very, very ill and was in this tent hospital on the Mall?? in Washington, DC and was discharged from that hospital in 1865. But they were not married until after the war was over.

Q: Tell me what you were starting to tell, ??? we still think the Civil War?
JJHA 0116
KW: My family members still think Civil War because we grew up with it. We were influenced greatly by my grandparents. My father was influenced by his parents, and I was in my twenties when my grandmother passed way, because -- so I had an opportunity to be with her a great deal and hear these things told. My aunt who was a music teacher played Civil War songs. But she played the northern songs, and the -- she felt that she was of the northern army. And my father felt that he was also a sympathizer of the North, but grandmother, being a staunch Confederate sympathizer, had a point of view which was extremely different, but it was her way of thinking so we were all influenced by it and still think of those different points of reason and they have influenced all of us. And I am glad that I was able to be with grandmother and hear her point of view because I lived in the south, south of West Virginia, we're still below the Mason-Dixon Line here in West Virginia, but even south of this, I knew the feelings of those folk who were hurt by the most by this war.

Q: When you went away and -- let me ask you another question first. This life that you describe of living on a farm, which was fairly similar between you, your mother, and your grandmother, when did it start to change? And what changed it? What did it become?
JJHA 0286
KW: I think the 4-H Club program here in West Virginia has been a very great influence, and I am grateful for those experiences. And the fact that we were exposed to maybe an improved way of, in the home economics division of course, an improved way of doing things, a little different way of doing things, but whatever we were working with, with the folks from the Extension Service of the University at Morgantown.

Q: What I'm getting at is a little different than that, Katherine. Did the building of roads, or the growth of the towns around here, did that change the way of life for all of you?
JJHA 0353
KW: Indeed the roads were some of the most important improvements. When the WPA built the road from West Milford to Duck Creek, this was a great help. And then later the road was paved through here. Not paved, we had a rock surface, this mile from here to the Duck Creek was a hazard and when it got so bad in winter that it was unsafe for the horse to travel in the mud, we walked. And had to cross fourteen fences to get to school. And some of those were nine rails high to take care of the cattle and those neighbors were wonderful to keep their cattle in bounds. But it was difficult to do this. But the road building was so extremely important and allowed us then to be able to go where we needed to go more easily. And that was important. Then when I first began to be employed, my first job was at Jackson's Mill the night I graduated from high school. I worked in the dining room that summer to earn money to go to college. Then I was offered a position with a minister in the community who was a --

Q: Let me interrupt you. Just a little too detailed for us, I'm sorry. I want now to return to the beginning of what our conversation and I want you to tell me, did you ever when you were living away from West Virginia, did you ever have a picture in your mind of what West Virginia represented to you? What it smelled like? What it felt like? What it looked like in your mind?
JJHA 0523
KW: What is important? West Virginia was always in my mind. So I wanted to get back, you know, and came back as often as I could. But I was -- when my schooling was completed, the six weeks of New York, I was able to get a job --

Q: I want you to tell me about that picture that was in your mind? Can you recall it? Describe it to me.
JJHA 0563
KW: The picture of West Virginia? Yes, it was just the same as it was when I lived here and I would be able to come even in bad weather and be able to get home with no problem.

Q: What was it that you were missing? Tell us.
JJHA 0593
KW: Missing the family first. Family was extremely important. And then of course the location. The house, and all these things that you're --

Q: What about emotionally? Was there a sense of belonging?
KW: Oh yes. Yes.

Q: Tell me about that sense of belonging.
JJHA 0622
KW: That's extremely important. I think in our society now, the reason that we have so many social problems is because these children have no feeling of belonging to anything. I think this is one of the sad things that our wars have done so much damage to the family. And I think this has caused families to disintegrate. Another thing that has been difficult, the Depression back when I was young, caused family problems and both members of the family had to work and there could be no mother to stay home and take care of children. We have gotten into a situation now where both parents must work and it's so sad. And yet I wonder really if we would be just a little bit more thoughtful and not spend our leisure time in the malls and not spend so much time watching television and do a little bit more educational thing from a standpoint of actual hands-on education, as related to farms and to farm life.
JJHA 0738
And to know how to manage on a budget that was very, very limited with every member of the family participating in whatever had to be done, whatever work and whatever kinds of chores had to be done, we might be all better as a result of it. And our society might be stronger. And we might not have all these problems of crime and all these problems that we are facing now. And we live a world which is entirely different at this point. It was different when I was living, than it was when my grandmother was living at the time of the Civil War, and I think that the transportation has both benefited us greatly, but it has also caused us some irreparable harm.

Q: Do you think West Virginia has been a better place than average for family?
JJHA 0811
KW: I should think that everyone feels that. I think that people who have strong home ties here when they retire, if it's possible for them to do so, they'll come back. And sometimes the climate in other places is helpful to people, but a great many of them who like to return to the area.

Q: Do you have an attachment to West Virginia?
KW: Oh, yes.

Q: Tell me about it.
JJHA 0853
KW: Well, having lived in other places, I feel that I must get back here.