John Smith looked inland from Jamestown and saw an aggreeable land; a land where man could prosper. His imaginings gave shape to the place.
The reverse would soon be true. The country would mold Smith's life and the lives of his fellow colonists. Before the winter of 1609-10, the population of this, the first permanent English settlement in North America was 500 people. By spring, only 60 had survived famine and the weather.
The survivors didn't spend these early years reaping the earth's bounty. They learned how to grow corn from the Indians, ate it and hoped not to die.
The story that follows delves into the idea that place shapes experience, even in this comfortable century. Each of its parts explores a different corner of the diverse landscape surrounding Washington - Smith's tableau, a few hundred years later.
The story begins with mountains and some people who live there. On ensuing weeks there will be piedmont, coastal plain, an island and this city.
The road leads straight and west out of Winchester, Va. Soon it reaches the West Virginia border, and then the mountains.
Confused into switchbacks, the road weaves up the ridges, searching for the next respite of valley. North Mountain, Timber Ridge, South Branch, Mill Creek, Patterson Creek Mountain; the ridges march in rank across the land and end on the west in a final rise to the Allegheny Front.
The Front, a topographic boundary, has, over time, also demarcated human experience.West of it, onward about 100 miles to the Ohio River, stretches the Appalachian Plateau. Gentler, more traversible than the land to the east, it was once part of an inland sea. Generations of vegetation lived and died there. The Appalachian Plateau is now an ocean of bituminous coal.
There isn't much coal east of the Front. Much of it eroded after these mountains were built - built, it is thought, by the continents.
Around 200 million years ago, Europe and North America, adrift on the ocean, collided. Europe bulldozed marine sediments, 30,000 feet thick in places, up onto the American mainland. The continents receded - a few centimeters a year - and detail was left to weather. Wind and water preyed on the weaker sedimentary rocks, such as shale and limestone. Valleys resulted. Sandstone, more durable, formed the ridgelines.
But the bounty of these mountains is not mineral. It is the timber that mantles them.
If Luther Goldizen had been born 20 miles farther west he might well have become a coal miner. As it was, he was born at the foot of the Allegheny Front in northeastern West Virginia. Water, carving hollows from the mountain's flank, here gives the land a face and gives Goldizen's unincorporated birthplace a name: Jordan Run.
In 1931 Goldizen turned 18 and began looking around for a way to earn a living. He availed himself of what was at hand, setting up a sawmill in a hollow back behind his house. A stream flowed nearby. He needed it; his saw ran on steam.
Goldizen was in business on his own. The land gave him a product and paid his crew, which usually numbered about a dozen men, between a dollar and a dollar-and-a-half a day. It was not a bad wage. In the early '30s, Goldizen recalls, "Shoes cost a dollar-ninety-eight; flour was 39 cents a poke." A poke? "Twenty-five pounds." His wife cooked for the crew, washed their clothes, and fed the horses which pulled the felled logs to the saw. She cooked between a high wood stove and a low tarpaper roof. In winter she stayed warm; in summer she sweltered. "No, I didn't like it." Her tone is just short of steely.
Small jobs and big timber kept Goldizen going through the early years of the Depression. He cut wood for housing, ties for the railroad and beams for mines. "Back then you could buy [timber] rights just about anywhere. They're sawing stuff today that we wouldn't even look at. We'd build a camp in a hollow where the timber was and then move on when we sawed it."
Much of the wood that Goldizen was cutting represented the last of the primeval forest in West Virginia. What remains is a rich, diverse, John Smith kind of place. Close to 100 species of trees grow in this forest. Untouched by the ax, some trees here once reached 200 feet in height, eight feet in diameter, 400 years in age. But settlers and speculators of the latter part of the 18th century looked past the trees, eyeing the bottomlands for farming.
It was not until the middle of the 19th century, with the nation able to glimpse past the rudimentary task of survival, that West Virginia's timber came to be valued. Then things changed fast. Mountain scenery became hardwood floors, railroad ties, and roof beams - and made a few men rich.
Between 1870 and 1920 roughly 30 billion board feet were cut in the state. (A board foot of lumber is a piece which measures one foot by one foot by one inch.) West Virginia is about 16 million acres. Ten million acres of the state stood in virgin timber in 1870. Less than a tenth of that stood 50 years later.
But as man continued to clearcut the virgin forest his desire for what remained heightened. By the mid-1930s Luther Goldizen, a small operator, had to compete - unsuccessfully as it turned out - with men with bigger saws and more money.
This land, in its mountain fastness, guards its riches well. Getting them out over such impossing terrain takes money, something never in great supply around here.
Money coming into a poor land in search of cheap and abundant resources becomes a colonizing power. There is sufficient record of that in West Virginia. One place to find it is at the Hardy County Courthouse in Moorefield, about 20 miles east of Jordan Run.
The deed books there are broad and heavy; bound in leather, then covered again with canvas. Open the pages to the light, turn past musty paragraphs, and soon you get your hands dirty. Through the thicket of legalese, a name that emerges often is that of the Maryland and West Virginia Lumber Company, "a corporation of Baltimore, Maryland." Between 1926 and 1939 the company bought timber rights from 94 landowners in Hardy County. Wood was cheap then. The company usually paid between two and three dollars per 1,000 board feet. If the owner cut the timber and delivered it to a railhead he was paid an additional five to 10 dollars per 1,000. The company's inspector could reject any piece he didn't like. Land was cheap then. There is a deed, not unrepresentative, buying 410 acres of timber and land for $6,000.
The mountains, in sheltering their bounty, do the same for their people. Land here is a barrier, and there is distrust of those who try to pierce it. Outsiders, coming here in search of something in exchange for little, often disguise their motives so as to damp down suspicion.
The 1933 Baltimore phone book does not list a Maryland and West Virginia Lumber Company. Nor has Luther Goldizen ever heard of it. He knew the big outfit in these parts as the Natwick Lumber Company. "They came in and bought up all the big tracts. They said they had an exclusive franchise to sell to the B&O Railroad: bridge lumber, cross ties, switch ties, car bottoms."
As it turns out, Natwick and Maryland and West Virginia Lumber were effectively one and the same. Maryland and West Virginia Lumber, meanwhile, belonged to the B&O Railroad.
By 1936, crowded out of the market for good land by Natwick, Goldizen had no choice but to subcontract with them.
For the privilege of helping the B&O sell itself timber Goldizen was paid $13 a thousand board feet. In a good month he and a crew of a dozen could cut 100,000 board feet. (A mill near Moorefield, employing about 20 men, today can cut 50,000 a day.) Little remained after expenses. "We were living real close. Natwick was always trying to get you in debt; rent you equipment or give you a discount at the store. I was scared to go out on my own. If you couldn't sell to them there was no way you could operate."
Perhaps Goldizen's boldness was also blunted by the humble, close-to-the-land existence he had always known. He grew up on a farm which lacked refrigeration as most people know it. The autumn harvest of apples, cabbages and potatoes was buried below the frostline, the ground above covered with straw. As winter wore on the family retrieved the produce and ate it. Goldizen's father raised beef cattle. Each year's crop of calves, fattened through the summer and sold the next spring at 800 pounds, brought about $30 apiece. The income was enough to meet the mortgage and raise a new generation of calves.
Joseph Natwick, president of Natwick Lumber, was, on the other hand, a man of means. One year he sold a prize bull for $40,000. This tale made its way from Maryland back to West Virginia and became the stuff of myth. "I couldn't believe that a man could ever sell a bull for that kind of money," recalls Goldizen, his tone incredulous even now.
The legend was enhanced by the figure Natwick cut on his periodic visits to West Virginia.He stayed at the local hotel, having come down from Baltimore in a long, shiny car driven by a chauffeur whose name was "Bird."
This is a fragment of information gleaned from a day's traipsing around Moorefield. Memories of timber's heyday here are spare. Natwick Lumber pulled out in 1956 after their mill burned. They didn't rebuild but instead moved 40 miles west to Buckhannon. By 1956 the supply around Moorefield was wearing thin. That had also been the case around Gore, Va., 40 miles to the east, when a Natwick mill burned there in 1928. They didn't rebuilt there either; they relocated in Moorefield.
In the decades since - decades of declining railroads and ascending multinationals - Natwick has become something divested of, something dissolved. The name is a vague index to a former time. Moorefield now advertises itself as "the poultry capital of West Virginia." Chicken houses lie scattered across the valley along the South Branch of the Potomac, and a big processing plant anchors the town's economy. The present owner of the plant arrived here one night in 1958 and spent the night in his car. The choice was between a motel room and food for the baby. Now he is planning a $1 million improvement of the plant. Local money; some local control.
But reminders of Moorefield's past - a less autonomous time - hang on here.
It is early March, the far side of winter. The back streets of Moorefield lie dusty and gouged. On one of them stands a listing boarding house, once belonging to Natwick. Tractor tires, bedsprings, dead furniture fill the porch. This place had housed entire families. Now it stands vacant.
Across the street lives French Chonnard, alone, save for his mongrel dog which won't let strangers pass unbarked at. He is 73 and has one eye; the other was lost to a splinter of wood thrown off by an unguarded saw 30 years ago at the Natwick mill.
Losing the eye was only the beginning of his troubles. After the accident the company offered him his choice of jobs in the mill. He chose working the wood belt and chose wrong. One day a piece of wood got stuck on the conveyor, and a veritable logjam grew behind it. Suddenly it all sprang free, clouting Chonnard in the back, "tearing it all to hell." He is now disabled.
Of Natwick, he says: "They were a real cheap outfit, never paid you enough. When I started I was making 30 cents an hour. I never made more'n a dollar-five [an hour]. They didn't cover the saws. Every other fella you meet has something wrong with him 'cuz of working there."
About the fire, he says, "The mill wore out." He named a man who was in the company. "A lot of people said they saw him running from the place before the fire. He was no good."
Bitterness may claim Chonnard, but it is hard to tell how intensely. He is subdued now, like the land around him. In his youth, standing well over six-feet tall, he must have been a powerful man. Now he is gaunt, stooped, and half-sighted. Few teeth remain in his head; one is gold and jagged.
At 66, Luther Goldizen - lucid blue eyes, arms as taut as ax handles - has the look of a survivor. He pried himself free of Natwick after the war. With his son, Lee Allen, then coming of age, he went out after the timber that remained and the timber that was growing back.
But nowadays he resigns himself to a new generation of outsiders. They also come in search of land; not to farm or cut, but as balm for overexposure to concrete. "There are a lot of city people comin" in here buyin" these second homes," says Goldizen. "Lawyers from Washington and places like that. I can see why they want to get out of the city, but everyone locks their gates now. You don't know your neighbors anymore."
Life has left him something of an outsider too. Three years ago Goldizen had an illness which effectively ended his days as a logger. Now he raises some beef cattle and does odd jobs around with his bulldozer. "I'm not satisfied that I'm out of it. I'd like to go again with Lee Allen into the woods."
Could we go into the mountains to one of the hollows where he had once cut timber? I wondered. "Sure," he said, "that'd be good."
The pickup churned in low gear up the steep, muddy road. The snows of winter, now bleeding off Patterson Creek Mountain, came the other way and cut into the land. Higher up, the road levelled out and passed through a meadow of sheep; newborn lambs at their mothers' flanks.
The land belonged to a friend of Goldizen's. He wasn't around, but his son Chet Wetherholz was. We stopped at the house. It seemed that if you were going out on a man's land you always invited him to come along.
Wetherholz came blinking out into the daylight. He had been asleep, having gotten in late the night before from hauling logs up in Maryland. The greeting was perfunctory; the two men quickly fell into conversation.
We got into the pickup, and Goldizen jammed it into four-wheel drive. The truck grabbed at the soft ground, fishtailed once or twice, then headed to where the pasture funneled into the hollow. There meltwater, moving down the steep grade, had rutted the old logging road. The truck slowed.
Wetherholz eyed the stream next to the road. "I'd like to see it run like that through summer." He had recently measured the distance from the stream to his house, trying to figure out if it was worth diverting.
"I haven't been up here since deer season," said the older man.
"That's good gravel, that there chert," said Wetherholz, pointing to some rock cropping out from the flank of the hollow. The truck kept on, and the two men stayed alert to what the place could give them. Despite years of heavy use, the land keeps offering more.
An overhanging branch wounded by a recent ice storm whacked the windshield. "Shoulda brought an ax," said the younger man.
"I did," Goldizen said.
He needed it a little further up where a tree bent over the road. He got out and in a few swings had notched and felled the tree. Wetherholz and I watched. We got back into the truck and continued on about another hundred yards to where the road gave out. Goldizen turned off the engine, and this time when Wetherholz got out he nearly stepped on a fresh turkey track.
We stood around in silence for a while. The wind came down through the maze of verticals which was the forest yet to bloom. Goldizen's gaze got lost in them. He looked to be getting his bearings. He had cut timber "all through these mountains." Over time, hollows probably came to look alike.
His eyes rose to consider the ridgeline. "This was all virgin then." His gaze shifted back to the floor of the hollow. "There," he pointed to a half-buried stack of beams. "That's called a huss; you set your saw up on that."
"There's an old [lime] kiln around here someplace," said Wetherholz. Nearby lay a corroded pail, the tip to the iceberg of the old lumber camp's garbage heap. Goldizen recalled that he had run into a pair of rattlesnakes here one summer day. That jogged the other man's memory about an encounter with two of "them copper snakes" coiled under some logs on an October morning. He picked up the pile and dropped it twice as fast upon experiencing the decidedly unwoody feel of cold snakeskin. His dog came over, grabbed each snake, and snapped its neck with a jerk.
This is Stanley Kauffman's hollow. The stone foundations to his cabin are slick with moss, the timbers evaporated by time. Was he a logger? No, not really, is the musing reply. A little bit of everything - mainly a moonshiner. "Good way to make money around here." A smile. "Sometimes the only way."
This is the hollow where Goldizen showed another man how to treat his horses. "That team was as slick as a ribbon, but they wouldn't pull a pound for that man. I went up to 'em real quiet, hitched 'em up to the logs and off they went. If you beat those horses they wouldn't go nowhere."
And this is the hollow where Dan Nesserat shot himself just about 30 years ago.
We stayed a while longer, the hollow spawning a few more memories. The next hollow over, and the one beyond that, doubtless held their own separate stories.
Then we headed back down. When we got out of the trees the mountains lay before us; distant, silent and blue. Below in the pasture gamboled the lambs, fresh to the world. CAPTION: Picture 1, Within is a country that may have the prerogative over the most pleasant places known; for large and pleasant navigable rivers, heaven and earth never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation...Here are mountains, hills, plains, valleys, rivers, brooks, all running most pleasantly into a fair bay, compassed but for the mouth with fruitful and delightsome land. John Smith, The General Historie of Virginia Picture 2, If woodcutter Luther Goldizen had been born in the mountains 20 miles further to the west he might well have become a coal miner. by Bill Snead Picture 3, Late, warm sunlight bathes the sawmill down the road from Luther Goldizen's house in Lahmansville, W. Va. Goldizen sold the mill recently after illness ended his days as a logger. Picture 4, Above, seedlings take root in a hillside, another sign of timber's legacy here. Picture 5, Blacktop on green: Ribbon of West Virginia two-lane bends with the curve of the land and heads up a hill to where earth meets sky.