Mar 3, 2023
I have a 10-inch cast iron skillet that belonged to my great-grandmother, Edith Pearl Isaminger Wimmer, my mother’s father’s mother. She was born in Black Rock, Arkansas in 1896, the sixth of eight children of Solomon and Amanda. It is the perfect skillet for baking cornbread and searing pork chops before roasting them low and slow. The kind of skillet that caramelizes a pineapple upside down cake as it was meant to be done. The kind of skillet that’s so well-seasoned I’m certain it’s blacker than when it was forged, as if it’s grown a skin of liquid coal. The kind you wipe out with a damp cloth and then with oil. I don’t know how Edith came to have it. Based on the marks and its provenance, it’s likely early 20th century, perhaps older. Perhaps the skillet belonged to her mother, Amanda, who gave it to Edith when she left home. Or perhaps she bought it for herself at Wm. Moore’s dry goods or Schwab’s on Beale, after she’d set up housekeeping in Memphis, as Mrs. Joe M. Wimmer, in 1917.
After Edith, who everyone called Mom, died in 1981, the skillet moved to her daughter-in-law, my grandmother’s house. And then after I married in 1991, my grandmother gave it to me. I brought it here, to my newly built cabin on the Old Pike Road, just a couple days after kindergarten let out, June 2000. Shoe-spooned into the back of an SUV with provisions I’d spent months planning: oil lamps and kerosene, flashlights and batteries, paper plates and plastic cups, wooden spoons, knives of all sorts, Earl Core’s Spring Wildflowers of West Virginia, rain gear, boots, hats and gloves, two sauce pans, a Dutch oven, Mom’s skillet, and my five-year-old son. That first summer, the roof was on and the gas stove was in, but little that was truly modern had yet been added to the house. We toted water and endeavored not to require electricity. The first piece of furniture purchased was an Amish dining table made of oak. A place to eat, yes, but also to play Gin Rummy and Hearts. To draw pictures of the day’s adventures and examine carefully the natural treasures we brought home from the forest and meadow. Bone tired explorers, we happily slept on the floor.
When I first drove up the Old Pike in 1989, the last of the surviving homes from what, a hundred years prior was a thriving community, had recently been burned to the ground. A local man on a bender and with an axe to grind used fire instead, torching most of the remaining structures along the Pike, between Travelers Repose, at the intersection of US Highway 250 and WV Route 92, and Camp Allegheny Battlefield, eight miles up the mountain. Houses that had been occupied by families in the 1940s, before the last school closed and sons went off to World War II, houses that had been rented to caretakers or back-to-the-landers or enjoyed as summer homes and hunt camps in the decades since, were gone. What had existed as tangible proof of lives lived, in many cases lives interconnected back to the Civil War, if not much further, had disappeared. If one didn’t care to consider the question of what happened here anywhere along this road, one could look around and easily conclude not much, because by 1989, other than Camp Allegheny Battlefield itself, so little evidence remains. Erasure of the physical proof of place is such a powerful act because history rendered out of sight is most often rendered out of memory.
But not for me. Somehow the very absence of proof of their existence drew me toward the people who preceded me here. They’re not my relatives. But they are my family. I trace their names through birth, marriage and death certificates, census rolls and military records, land deeds and wills. If I look closely enough, matching dates and locations with historical events and local happenings, I can discern the plot—the details of each story I can imagine. And because I can imagine their stories, I do.
I brought Mom’s iron skillet to my home on the Old Pike because this was the right place for it. Even in 2000, a decade before I chose to live here full time, when I was basically a tourist, even then, I understood that thoughtful choices had to be made regarding material objects. What do you need? Was the question I asked myself, and which had to be interrogated and answered that first summer and before every subsequent trip. To my credit, I knew enough to know, even then, that living here would be living up-close with contingencies. I had to plan for what I could see and what I couldn’t, for what a city girl like me could imagine and also for what was beyond my ken. I fancied myself developing the discipline of a quartermaster and the prescience of a fortune teller. Such wisdom doesn’t come fast or easy; for some reason, I knew this, too.
The more practical needs an object could fulfill, the higher it rose on my list. An iron skillet was a vessel in which I could cook just about anything over a gas stove in the house or a fire pit outside, in the oven or snugged into banked coals. The fact that this skillet was my great-grandmother’s skillet is both irrelevant and essential to its presence here. When I hold the handle of this skillet, I happen to feel Mom’s hands, which I remember as large and unaccountably soft and often moving a crochet hook. And through her hands I imagine the other women’s hands who held a similar skillet right here on this land I now inhabit. Black Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee and Pocahontas County, West Virginia intertwined through the different sameness of women’s lives: the never-ending need to get yet another meal on the table.
When the goldenrod lay down in the fall, up in the top field nearest the Pike, there’s a jumble of metal that seems risen from the ashes, more visible than at any other time of the year. Bed springs. Andirons. A galvanized tub with a bottom transformed into jagged-edged fringe. We certainly could have wrapped chains around these things and pulled them out at any point over the past 20 years, but we haven’t. We’ve mowed around it as the pile has continued its inevitable return to the earth, each item something hauled up here likely because it was deemed essential. Hauled in a 1936 Ford, perhaps, or maybe decades before in a horse-drawn wagon. To get rid of this pile has always seemed to me a sort of sacrilege, though to be honest I’ve not much spoken about it. In a place where so little evidence remains, even—or perhaps most especially—that which is largely anonymous or unattributable to any particular individual acquires a sanctity that goes without saying. I can’t imagine discarding a gravestone simply because it holds no engraving. Knowing who the bones belonged to isn’t required to honor the life they contained.
And so it is—at least for me—with rusted plow parts, slivers of patent medicine bottles, dainty teacup handles, the crumpled remains of bright blue and white enamelware, the poles from a long-gone barn, a huge pile of stones at one end of a field, a crumbling Ford fender, the remnants of a cattle chute, and the pile of tangled metal in the upper field nearest the road. The tiny bits I’ve brought inside, preserved behind glass or in grout. A couple links of chain and a horseshoe sit on a bookshelf. Crockery leans against the porch wall. The rest remains wherever on this land it was last left, as if in a museum of the raptured. I’m drawn to these places where the once essential became, at some point in time, no longer needed. A burden dropped by choice or circumstance. Standing in their presence, I find it impossible not to confront the fact that, at some point in time, the same will be true for everything I consider essential, all that I need, including myself.
Far as I can tell, from 1939 to the late 1940s, Bertha Weese Moyers and her two sons and daughter, were caretakers of this farm for the Simmons family, who had owned the land since 1897, when it was purchased by Amanda Varner Simmons from the heirs of Harmon Moyers. Ultimately, the land passed to William Berlin Simmons, Mandy’s eldest son, and by 1963 to his three daughters. The land changed hands twice more before it came to me, perhaps the first person since Bertie to live on this land full time. Not long after all three kids were married—daughter Edna married last in 1946—Bertie left the mountain and the seven-room, stick-built house that had never entirely been hers. A house that was hot in the summer, though there was always a breeze, and bitter cold in the winter, a cold like you couldn’t believe, according to Edna. But, of course, I may be the one living woman who doesn’t need to take her word for it to know Edna’s account of the weather is true.
Bertie, a Grant County mother nearly ten years widowed, followed a family connection—and perhaps desperation—to caretaking a Pocahontas County ridgetop cattle farm. Living rent free stretched her $30 monthly pension, as did a big garden and sales of dairy products and dyewood in town. Still, it’s hard to fathom how she paid for kerosene and shoes. What things did she decide to carry from her home in Grant County to a new life on this mountain? When her son-in-law drove her off for the final time, what remnants of herself did she leave behind? I don’t know.
But this I do: On a date uncertain, sometime after Bertie left this mountain in the late 1940’s and before I drove up the Pike in 1989, the seven-room house, home to Simmonses and Moyerses, disappeared. You can’t miss a thing you never knew existed, but you can feel deeply for something erased. For me, who never saw it, the house exists as a whitewashed, clapboard chimera, a make-believe black-and-white photo of a thing I’ve never seen while I know for certain it was there, right up there, in that field. You know this odd yet familiar sensation: the feeling that something that happened before you could remember it is in fact your authentic recollection, the near certainty that you were there, not because you were, but because you’ve heard the story told so many times that it’s not possible to believe otherwise. In the case of this two-story house, the only difference is that it’s a largely imagined story I’ve told myself.
By 1943, Edna’s brothers had enlisted in the Army, leaving her and her mother alone. Bertie would have been 41 and Edna 13, an age when there wasn’t much around the farm she couldn’t do. Harnessing their young horse, Prince, and driving him on the sled or the rake, stacking and hauling hay shocks, milking, churning butter, hoeing the corn and potatoes, chopping wood. Helping her mother keep the King Heater in the front room and the cook stove in the kitchen roaring all winter long. I can imagine Edna lying in bed, listening to wind rattle the windows, feeling it push against the western side of the house with the force of a giant’s bellows and the sound of a full-throttle jet engine. I can see the snow piled up on the inside of her window sills. I can smell Bertie’s buttermilk biscuits cooked in a cast iron skillet before the sun is up.