The book I’m talking about today for Patti Abbot’s Forgotten Books project is rather personal to my family. Copies have been circulating for years until most have read it. I own one, my mother two.The title is THE MAN WHO MOVED A MOUNTAIN by Richard C. Davids and it’s a biography of a man named Bob Childress and the changes he wrought in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia after he became a preacher. More than a biography, it’s a portrait of the mountain folks’ life in the early twentieth century, a lot of detail, a wonderful story of a hardy people.
It was first published in 1970 and is still in print today. Amazon has new copies, as well as used, for sale.
What makes it personal is that my grandfather, though a little younger, lived in the same area and grew into a young man there. The building of the Blue Ridge Parkway split the family farm in half, it was sold and everyone scattered to begin new lives elsewhere. There’s a family cemetery up there where the oldest headstone we’ve found still legible is during the Civil War. There’s an even older, small cemetery we’re trying to locate now. We’ve been told it’s considerably overgrown. The oldest member of our grandfather’s line we’ve traced is buried there(b. 1768, d. 1851). Great-Grandmother’s line we’ve tentatively traced all the way back to Scotland.
After the farm was sold, “Papa” came down into North Carolina where he met my Grandmother and they started their branch of the family tree. Four generations, forty-seven people, the last two generations still adding.
Back to Bob Childress.
Buffalo Mountain was extremely isolated. Bordered by streams, at times after big storms, they were unfordable. Moonshine was the sole enterprise, there being plenty of apples and corn, water, wood for the fires, sugar the only thing needed to be bought.
It was a hard life for Bob Childress growing up, no different, really, from any other family, a hard scrabble existence. His parents were heavy drinkers and his first memory was of being drunk at three.
Until I read this book, I’d always believed the East was civilized. But on Buffalo Mountain, even well into the twentieth century, every man went armed and disputes were settled with guns. Murder was not uncommon. And Washington, D.C. was only two hundred twenty miles away. It was every bit as wild as anything in the old west.
Shortly after his birth in January, 1890, Childress’ older brother, all of fourteen, faced down two deputies, with a pistol, that were taking away his mother in handcuffs for “acting peculiarly.” He forced them to let her go and took her home.
Another incident mentioned was a man was being tried for assaulting a deputy. Twenty members of his clan rode in armed and killed the judge, the prosecutor, the sheriff, shot three members of the jury and two bystanders, then rode off into the hills with the rescued defendant.
Childress had some education, at his brother’s insistence, as a woman, a sort of missionary, came up from Guilford College and taught anyone who wanted to learn. That lasted until he was fourteen, when she married and left. At about the same time, his brother married and left the family home.
That’s when Bob Childress’ hell-raising started.
For the next six years, he hung out around stills , drank and played cards, fought with rocks. At fifteen, he bought his first gun.
Now he was a man!
He had his jaw broke in a fight. He was knocked unconscious with a liquor bottle waking up hours later, bloody and alone, abandoned by both friends and family. He was shot in the shoulder and leg in separate incidents. His twentieth year was spent rarely sober.
Then one morning he woke up miles from home in front of a church, with no idea how he got there. He heard singing and went inside. A revival was happening. At the end of the service, he went forward and was saved. That night, he slept without drink and the next morning he left his pistol alone. He returned every night and knew a peace he hadn’t felt all his life.
The drinking slowed, he married, had two children, blacksmithed, served two years as a deputy(where the chief crime was U.M.A.S, the unlawful manufacture of ardent spirits).He lost his wife during a flu epidemic. A group from a Primitive Baptist church asked him to be their preacher. With his booming voice, he was destined to be a voice of God. They were even willing to overlook the fact that he could read and write.
Primitive Baptists believed education was a sin and that Sunday school and night meetings were the work of the Devil. What wasn’t a sin was moonshine and settling disputes with a gun.
He married again.
The rest of the book details the efforts of a thirty year old man with four children(eventually to swell to eight) to complete his education in order to be a trained minister(he’d only completed eighth grade), his battles to overcome a prejudice toward education, break the stranglehold moonshine had on people, the mistrust folks had of anyone who wasn’t family, and get bridges built across the big streams to relieve the mountain’s isolation(the moonshiners didn’t want them because it gave the “revenoors” easy access). He was responsible for getting a sawmill started to bring a new industry to the mountain and a number of beautiful rock churches built, many which still stand today.
One quote I really liked was a woman referring to Childress. “The Preacher made books seem like a big box of candy just waitin’ to be tasted.”
The book is full of many things I’m familiar with. To this day, my Mother says sallet instead of salad when referring to greens of any type. My Grandfather had a small grocery store open 6-to-6 six days a week. He came home to a hot lunch every day. Always beside his plate was a bowl for his cornbread and buttermilk, a staple mentioned in the book.
My Uncle and I have discussed the book and laughingly wondered about something. “Papa” never talked much about his early years that I remember. We just wondered passingly if he ever did any of the things mentioned. He was a highly moral man. Who knows?
It’s a wonderful book full of photographs from the era and I think anyone would enjoy a look at life in those long ago days.
P.S. One town mentioned near Buffalo Mountain back then was Mayberry, about forty miles north of Mount Airy, N.C. As Andy Griffith was born and raised in Mount Airy, it doesn’t take much of a stretch to figure where he got the name of his little town on the show.