Clyde Beal: Woman’s country home well worth the trip

January 27, 2019
Courtesy of Clyde Beal Josephine Hightower is an 88 year-old West Virginia native born in a small frame home owned by the Dingess Land Coal Company in Sunbeam, WV.

When Josephine Hightower said she lived in the country, she wasn’t fooling around. The drive meanders out through the back roads beyond the bright lights of Milton and follows a mixture of suffering back roads long overdue for some serious attention. She lives out where country hospitality is second to none, and the best security alarm is a well-fed, overgrown dog. When I knocked on her door, I was told to come on in ’cause the door’s never locked. It became an interview setting the table for a morning full of great stories with tasty homemade cinnamon rolls and a bottomless coffee pot.

Hightower was born 88 years ago in a small frame home owned by the Dingess Land Coal Co. in Sunbeam, West Virginia. Along with her four brothers and six sisters, the family discovered unity in a four-room company-owned home.

“My father worked for years with the WPA, building roads, where he made $4.80 a day,” said Hightower. “About every 90 days he would come home with free commodities of pinto beans, sugar, cornmeal and flour. He made better wages later working as a carpenter for the mining company.”

Growing up in a family of this size stressed individual responsibility. Milking cows, feeding pigs, bringing in coal and firewood, even doing the laundry was an adventure that involved hand carried buckets of water and homemade soap.

“My mother made her own soap,” said Hightower. “She would put pork fat and lye in water and cook it until it boiled down to round balls, then put pieces of it in the wash. It smelled so bad that those who could afford it added perfume to the rinse water. We used a washboard for years, scrubbing clothes that turned my knuckles red. When Dad finally came home with an electric washing machine, my sisters and I were happier than Mom was.”

Hightower also said that all the stories you hear about the Sears Catalog being used a page at a time in the outhouse were true. She also has vivid memories of learning to sew on her mother’s treadle sewing machine where she made blouses, skirts and dresses from feed sacks. They also had the world’s “largest” garden that was maintained with one garden tiller and a lot of back-breaking labor hoeing weeds. It was nothing for them to fill 400 jars of vegetables when harvest time came. Then Hightower began talking about a subject called leather britches that city folks like me have never heard of.

“We called them leather britches,” she said. “They’re nothing but half runner beans strung up to dry until ready to eat. Then they are cooked in plain water with a big ol’ hunk of salt pork with some seasoning, and they never last long.”

The home of her youth was heated with a coal-burning potbelly stove in the living room. Her parents’ room had the luxury of a fireplace; but the kitchen was equipped with a touch of modern technology.

“Our kitchen stove had a hot water tank,” said Hightower. “Even though we had to carry water from a community hand pump, that hot water tank was a blessing when it came to washing dishes and bathing. My sisters and I used a number two washtub placed in our bedroom for bathing. My brothers used a larger, oblong-shaped tub. The kitchen stove wasn’t anything special except for that hot water tank and the best-ever chicken and dumplings that Mom prepared on it.”

The family didn’t attend church on a regular basis because of the distance. Her dad didn’t drive but he owned a 1930 Ford that he would get his brother to drive him when he needed transportation. When the leaves started falling, it was time for slaughtering hogs, and it involved the entire family.

“For Christmas, Dad would take an ax along with us kids to the woods looking for that perfect tree,” said Hightower. “We’d cut strips of colored paper and glue rings together and hang around the tree with strings of popcorn. We’d also take the largest winter sock we had to hang up, hoping it would get completely filled. Usually we found some fruit and hard candy stuffed inside. I got a Shirley Temple doll one year, to this day I have no idea what happened to it. On those occasions that Mom and Dad would go to Logan for the evening, us kids would roll back the rug, dial in the radio to ‘Saturday Night Jamboree’ and dance up a storm.”

Hightower attended Sunbeam Elementary, located about a half-mile down the road, but their mother didn’t want them walking along the highway.

“Because Mom knew there wasn’t a train running during the times we were going to and from school, she wanted us to walk the train tracks,” said Hightower. “So, for six years I carried a peanut butter jelly biscuit along the railroad tracks to school.”

The kids rode a school bus to Logan Junior High, the school where she was paddled for sliding down the banister from the second floor and nearly knocking the teacher down at the bottom of the stairs. Ms. Viola Hively was the teacher with the wooden paddle who she never forgot.

“I dropped out of school after the ninth grade to help out at home,” said Hightower. “I went to work at G.C. Murphy’s 5 and 10 store in Logan, stayed there until 1948 when I married my school sweetheart. I was 18; Bill was 19 and working in the coal mines. When he asked Dad if he could marry me, my father told him, ‘If you can treat her right and take care of her’ then he would allow it. And that’s what Bill did until he died of cancer in 1992.”

Nowadays this gracious lady with a zillion kids, great-grandkids and great-great-grandkids manages to stay busy with quilting, crochet, doctor visits and word puzzles. She says she came from a time long gone, when you wanted something and couldn’t afford it you made do without it - a policy she still follows today. She also hasn’t snuggled up to the idea of a home computer and a cell phone; according to Hightower, even the home phone isn’t worth the high price she pays. But the early-morning trip was worth every bone-jarring minute.

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email archie350@frontier.com.