A Story of Accommodation: “I stayed right where I was”

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

“There’s not a hotel now, not an eating place.”

After the 1890s, the stepped­-up demands of a rapidly ex­panding, industrial culture af­fected even previously isolated, rural sections of America, creating profound tensions between old ways of doing things and the agents of change. There were problems with older habits and values not associated with the demands of modern industry, a cash economy and the new machine culture. Some of the “Old-Timers” shed their older ways to conform to new opportunities and new imperatives. Others fell victim or resisted. Still others challenged the new social system through a variety of collective associations. Most, however, sought to extend and adapt older pat­terns of work and life to the demands of a newly evolving society.

Greene County, located in the ex­treme southwestern corner of Pennsyl­vania, is an excellent place to study the problems of adaptation since its development was retarded and change came late to the area. It was not until the twentieth century, for example, that local commerce was really drawn into and affected by the Pittsburgh industrial economy. In the early twentieth century, Greene raised more sheep than any other county in Penn­sylvania, a dubious distinction since it could claim that honor only after the wool industry had already declined significantly. Main arteries of transpor­tation ignored the county; the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad skirted the region to the south; the National Road, present-day U.S. Route 40, bypassed the area to the north. Full-scale mining arrived only after the industry had been well developed in Fayette Coun­ty across the Monongahela River and in West Virginia across the Mason­-Dixon line. The great coal wars look place elsewhere.

But in the second decade of this century, modern economic intrusions appeared in the county in the form of oil and gas production. New occupa­tional opportunities and economic arrangements forced local citizens to make choices between traditional and modern ways of making a living. For­tunately, the problems faced and decisions made by a generation ma­turing after 1910 are not lost. They can be captured through the use of innovative historical techniques such as oral history which allow us to probe the personal aspects of modern social change in a Pennsylvania rural region.

The following sketch of the changes caused by “modernization” in the Wind Ridge area of northwestern Greene County, is based upon an in­terview with one subject – “Harry” – which the staff or the Greene County Library System’s Oral History Project conducted in the summer of 1977. Materials were also drawn from an interview with “H.E.”, a contempor­ary of Harry’s.

 

Recollections

Harry’s father’s father’s family came from England before the American Revolution and eventually settled in western Pennsylvania. His father’s mother’s family came from Scotland and settled in Waynesburg. Harry was born in 1891 on a farm. located in the northwestern Greene County town­ship of Richhill, which had been in his father’s family for two previous generations.

The area was extremely isolated. agrarian and underdeveloped. There was. for example. only enough popula­tion to support one flour mill, a coun­try store and a blacksmith shop in each of the three small towns nearest Harry’s family – Bristoria, Jacktown (Wind Ridge), and Graysville. So re­moved was the area that, in the early 1900s. farmers had to build their own telephone system. stringing lines from house to house toward a switchboard in Jacktown.

Harry’s early recollections reflect the extreme isolation and self-suffi­ciency of the farm families nearest him.

Farmers worked hard. They didn’t have lots of money. but they had lots of food to eat. [For] most of them the milk cows and the poultry kept the table – [for] the things they bought (sugar and coffee) but they raised most of their food. They had their own meat because we butchered our own hogs, and most had their own flour.

All relied on peddlers through whom a barter system of exchange provided items not produced on the farm. H.E. recalls:

The women would churn the cream and at that time you sold butter. There would be a huck­ster along this road about every week and he’d buy that butter, or you could take it to the store and sell it. You’d take a dozen eggs to the store [and return with] a pound or sugar or cof­fee. Then you’d have lambs and the wool, you see, to sell [to the itinerant wool buyers]. They’d come to you – they’d know when the sheep was shorn; they’d come around to buy your wool.

Education and schooling were not necessities in such an economy and the size of the student population de­pended on the season. “We went to school in the bad weather,” explained H.E.

I’d have to stay at home in the fall of the year to plow: in the spring, why I’d have to stay home a couple of months to help plow for corn and oats. Always in the winter time that [one room schoolhouse] was just chock full. When the weather got nice in the spring a lot of them didn’t come.

Although Harry stayed on the farm after finishing school, he relates how he hauled some pipe in the Bristoria field for some oil/gas companies:

I worked a little on a casing gang (they put in casings in the well) now and then. I wasn’t a regular on the gang but if they’d be all too busy and needed some extras some times they’d call us farmer boys. We got more than a dollar a day.

A little later (in the teens), Harry moved away from farming altogether and really entered the cash economy. When he approached his future father­-in-law about marriage, he was offered the opportunity to buy into a general store in Jacktown. Harry moved further in to the habits of the cash economy a year later when his first son was born. For all this Harry needed money and was forced to borrow. Fortunately, Harry did well enough to keep up the payments and the banker told him that if he needed anything more, just to ask. As Harry put it, “I’d made [regular] payments on the money he’d lent me and I paid the interest and I made every payment promptly. He wasn’t afraid of me any longer.”

The store nourished because of the intrusion of a cash economy into the dynamics of the local area.

This little town had people in it that wasn’t farmers. They had tool dressers, driller, and con­tractors he re and these fellows worked 12 hours a day. They didn’t have much Lime to work a garden. With going and coming to work that meant 14 and 16 hours.

Still, Harry did not forget the needs of the local farmers managing on a sub­sistence economy.

I drove a huckster wagon out of here one day a week. I sold the folks merchandise and bought their butter and eggs and chick­ens. I slopped at every farm­house and I brought stuff to the Bristoria store … I was out there days.

Harry was not unusual in giving up the farmer’s life. The industrial world of oil and gas had come to Greene County, and the cash economy it brought made the family farm a less desirable way of life. Indeed, having stayed in his native area and continu­ing to farm until he married, Harry may have retained more of the life of his father than many of his contem­poraries.

H.E. explained:

You take many of these old farmers and they’d stay right to it. Their sons would go out, however, and get different jobs. Well, you know back in those times life was pretty hard, dollars was scarce and everybody had to give a helping hand.

Harry tells a similar story, referring to the homestead skills associated with the family farm. He relates:

When I was a boy the men around 25 years old and older nearly all knew how to do those things. But when the oil field come and U1e gas field come, so many of the men went to work for the gas and oil companies. When they got done drilling here, some of them followed them clear into Oklahoma – a couple of them went to [Louisiana].

When asked what he thought the reason for that was, Harry replied, “The wages – the money.”

He saw other evidences of the encroachment of the cash economy and the disappearance of the farm in his business.

For years we bought poultry and stuff, but the poultry business finally went out. Then, later years we were selling dressed poultry ourselves. Then the country butter went out but we handled some eggs – not many. But we bought some eggs to sell, but we still had to buy ship­ped-in eggs.

It wasn’t only the oil and gas boom though that brought change to the life style in northwestern Greene County. The arrival of new technology also played its part. The automobile, in particular, had a great influence. Harry speaks extensively about the effect of the car on his life and com­munity:

They were selling gasoline and lamp oil in the store when we bought it and they were both in containers in the ware room. The lamp oil thing held 50 some gal­lons and the gasoline thing held 50 some gallons. Most of the gas­oline was sold for a little gaso­line motor or something. If some­body came and wanted gasoline or kerosene you went down to the ware room and you prepared it out with a hand pump and you filled their can. Then the cars began to come and Mr. King and I put in a tank – we buried it outside. I think it held 220 gal­lons – and it had a pump in it that looks like the pump they pump oil with now; and you used a can again – to pump it out into a can and then put it in. Then later they came out with one with a hose on it. Then later than that they came out with another pump they called a spray pump and it had a glass top and you could see – you’d pump up a gallon or two gallons and then you’d let it run out. It was a better tank – much better. It wasn’t too long after that tank that the electric began to come.

Harry also saw the influence of cars in the demise of the hotels in Wind Ridge.

When we first came in the store the salesmen rode horses and buggy, and when the roads were bad some of them came on horse­back. A lot of those fellows had to have some place to eat dinner, and a lot of them would stay out over night.

These salesmen would stay there, and if a man came in through here, say they’d be drilling these wells around here, some of them fellows would board at a hotel. I remember one or two where Mrs. Brewer ran a hotel over here. She had one or two fellows particularly living there. One was an old bachelor, never married­ – there were things like that that happened.

If a fellow came out from John S. Naylor’s in Wheeling, he would come up there to our store and maybe he’d come in the afternoon and wouldn’t leave till the next day sometime. He would show us everything he had because we wouldn’t see him – we saw him about twice a year. He sold us the spring goods and the fall goods. And there was another salesman come out of Pittsburgh. We had more than that two dry-goods salesmen. But the dry goods salesman came about twice a year, the rubber footwear salesman once a year and the shoe salesman – they got around about twice a year.

So there was a need for hotels and dining rooms, and they did quite a business. But today, the nearest hotel is in Waynesburg and the nearest restaurant about 15 miles away in Prosperity. Harry complained:

There’s lots of times a man kinda likes to take his wife out to din­ner. Well, them horse and buggy days and even in the days the cars first came they didn’t [have to] go so far away as they go now. There’s not a hotel now, not an eating place!

 

Conclusion

With the influx of money from the gas and oil fields nearby and the lifting of isolation as a result of the develop­ment of the automobile, the old ways of life in northwestern Greene County were inexorably altered. There were other signs that the old ways of life were changing: the disappearance of the hired girl in farm households; the departure of sons for opportunities in gas and oil fields elsewhere; the decline and eventual demise of the old hotels; and the declining emphasis placed on cooperative work efforts on the farms.

What surprised us in these inter­views with Harry and others like him was how little resistance the local population displayed toward these pro­found economic and social changes. Probing further beneath the surface should unearth reasons for the local assent to change: the systems of power in the local community (e.g. banker-farmer), property relations, religious institutions, etc .. inattention to which drastically colors local attitudes and discourages people from developing opinions. In other times and places, these same transitions have provoked conflict and caused clashes in values not easily resolved.

 

Howard Boksenbaum is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Pitts­burgh: This article was written from material compiled as part of an oral history project which the author developed while serving as Director of Program Develop­ment at the Bowlby Public Library in Waynesburg, Greene County.

 

Carl Oblinger is on Associate Historian at the PHMC and serves as coordinator of oral history projects.