My wife’s late mother, Margaret Whitt Freeman, grew up in southwest Virginia not far from the Clinch Mountains, where the air is pure, the streams are clean, and the people are respectable.
Margaret grew up as one of 11 children farming off the rugged, rocky, mountainous land that was difficult, but they persevered. The Whitts raised hogs, chickens, and cattle to help feed the family.
There were eight girls and three boys, so much of the heavy farming fell to the girls of the family. The tough, proud family worked hard and although there was plenty of love, life was unforgiving, particularly during the Great Depression years when harsh poverty reigned.
Every Sunday the Whitts hooked up their horses to a wagon and trekked across the high, remote mountains to attend Little Flock Primitive Baptist Church. When the winds blew hard and the snow or rain piled up, the preachers came to the homes of the members to hold their church services.
It was during this time that Margaret met Landon Colley and Junior Davis, some of the Primitive Baptist preachers. Landon and Junior were good friends with Margaret’s brothers-in-law, Stewart Owens and Kermit Hinkle, who also became Primitive Baptist preachers.
There was another young man growing up in the region, but his path in life diverged from local Appalachian family life. That man, Dr. Ralph Stanley, would travel the world playing bluegrass music.
In February 1927 Ralph was born in McClure, Virginia, a lumber and coal-mining area at Big Spraddle just up the holler from where he moved and lived for the rest of his life in Dickenson County.
Margaret was born less than two months later just across the mountain. Although Ralph and Margaret knew each other, Ralph began touring with his brother, Carter and The Clinch Mountain Boys, and was seldom home.
Two weeks ago, my wife, Brenda, and I were watching the “American Pickers” television show when Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz pulled their van into the barnyard of an Appalachian man, Hayder Kiser. Mike and Frank had accidentally come across Hayder’s hideaway in Clinchco, Virginia filled with a treasure trove of memorabilia that had belonged to Ralph Stanley.
According to Hayder, “I lived in Mansfield, Ohio in the 1950s and worked at the Malo Brothers Junkyard, where I collected an assortment of items and stuff by sifting through the trash.” He said he collected thousands of pieces over the years.
Hayder, a soft-spoken, kind man impressed Mike and Frank with his humility and politeness. Brenda said he was typical of the men of Appalachia she had known as a child.
Hayder lived close to Ralph, and they became good friends. After Hayder opened his own garbage service, he supplied Ralph sanitation service for over 20 years.
As Ralph grew older, he couldn’t store all of his memorabilia in his home but wanted to ensure his collection was kept for the younger generation of those living in Appalachia. One Saturday morning, Ralph drove his pick-up truck over to Hayder’s home and gave him all his old tapes, banjoes, guitars, jackets, shoes, and letters.
Eager to preserve this piece of bluegrass history, Mike and Frank bought all of Ralph’s memorabilia from Hayder and donated it to the Ralph Stanley Museum in Hayder’s name.
Ralph’s music career spanned 60 years. He performed for everyone from presidents to local farmers, singing about life, death, and everything in between. His simple, old-time music is the music of the Primitive Baptist religion.
Later in life, Ralph Stanley admitted his greatest accomplishment didn’t come while performing on stage. It happened in a river in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. It was there that Ralph Stanley was baptized.
The road had a way of keeping Ralph out of church, but in the end, God had His way.
Ralph recalled tossing and turning in bed one night after a dream.
“I dreamed one night I was out walking and met a preacher. I didn’t know his name. He reached down and shook hands and gave me a cold handshake. His name was Landon Colley. He had preached at my mother’s funeral and at Carter’s funeral. That stayed with me, a vision, you know. I couldn’t sleep, it hit me so hard.”
Ralph and Margaret’s friends, preachers Landon Colley and Junior Davis, took Ralph to the mountain river, high in the lonesome pines, baptized him in the name of Jesus, and cried, “Hallelujah” when his head went under, just as Brenda’s mother was baptized many years before.
Ralph Edmund Stanley died peacefully on June 23, 2016 in the mountains of Virginia, with his family and friends by his side.
Pat Haley is former Clinton County Commissioner and former Clinton County Sheriff.