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Hard Work and Music

Fiddler Elmer Rich

Text and photographs by Mark Crabtree

Emer Rich with his fiddle
Fiddler Elmer Rich at his Westover home in 2001. Photograph by Mark Crabtree.


“A person will never amount to anything toting a fiddle around under their arm,” Eunice Rich told her teenaged son Elmer in the 1930's. While Eunice wasn’t often wrong, she might have missed the mark with that particular comment.

Since that time, Monongalia County fiddler Elmer Rich has done pretty well for himself. In 1936, Eleanor Roosevelt pinned a red ribbon on his shirt following a fiddle contest. Dozens more ribbons followed over the next 70 plus years and continue to accumulate at his Westover home, hung from lampshades and draped over trophies around his house. Perhaps his mother’s warning did have an impact on young Elmer after all; despite his fiddling successes, he always kept his music as a sideline.

Elmer was born on December 15, 1919, and grew up in an environment of hard work. His parents had a farm near their old family homeplace at present-day Booth, about five miles southwest of Morgantown. His grandparents had sold their land to the River Seam Coal Company, keeping only the house and a small lot. Elmer’s parents’ home was just up the hill, above the coal mining community.

Elmer’s father, Harry Rich, worked in the mines at River Seam for a time when they first opened, driving a mule pulling loaded cars of coal. He had earlier been a hand on the riverboat Swan, a steamer working the Monongahela River. He kept a small farm, but mostly made his living in the mines, Elmer says.

Elmer’s mother, Eunice, ran the community’s telephone switchboard out of their home. Eunice was described by one of her children as “five foot of dynamite.” Elmer’s sister, Mary Toothman, remembers her mother connecting calls for the mine boss. Eunice didn’t always approve of the comments she heard in the process and was known to tell the mine boss that she was going to pull the plug on him if he continued to talk like that.

Music was a regular part of life in the Rich household. Elmer was the fourth of six children, and all played at least one instrument. According to Mary, “We had a big oak library table that Uncle Sanford and Uncle Arthur built, and it was always covered with instruments — banjo, fiddle, mandolin. I remember Daddy had an old taterbug mandolin. He was a good mandolin player.”

By the time he turned 14, Elmer was playing the mandolin and guitar with his family at dances.

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