Folklorists search for old masters in West Virginia

Johnboat building, witch-doctoring among languishing skills

January 06, 2002|By Francis X. Clines | Francis X. Clines,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ELKINS, W.Va. - Roaming the switchback tableaux of West Virginia, from teeming flea markets to still-life cemeteries, Gerry Milnes, a folklorist steeped in Appalachian discovery, traverses a paradox:

Modern highways let him journey among the secrets of the mountain hollows far faster in the 27th year of his serendipitous mission. But so, too, do the roads speed the young generation away from their roots, endangering the chance to carry on the old, unwritten craft of johnboat building down in Gauley Bridge, for example, or the art of backwoods witch-doctoring still practiced hereabouts beyond the interstate.

`12 active witches'

"There's a 94-year-old witch doctor I've found who lives right up in that hollow," Milnes announces, speeding past an inviting dark turn of hexes and incantations on his way to a cemetery. "She's one of 12 active witches I've found in the central part of the state alone." He is a happy wanderer who knows that his work will never be done as time piles upon time here firmer than mine slag.

Milnes, 55, is the folk art coordinator for the Augusta Heritage Center, a resource here at Davis & Elkins College that is becoming an Appalachian mecca for folk art specialists who gather for workshops.

"I've got to get Tom Cole an apprentice," Milnes resolves in a message to himself. He worries that no one is learning firsthand from Cole, a fifth-generation - and potentially last-generation - builder of johnboats, a wooden river flatboat for which there are no written plans.

"Tom has it all in his head, even the wooden oarlocks," Milnes says. "He works out the precise angles to cut and fit just by looking at the wood before him."

It is the heritage center's apprenticeship program, in which old masters of mountain arts are matched up for months of close study with talented neophytes, that comforts Milnes. He is a self-taught folklorist who branched out from his own love of fiddling to tap the masters of a world of other arts - from hoedown dancing to headstone carving.

"It's the people in the hollows who make this happen," Milnes says of the Augusta program, which has trained more than 100 apprentices. Fifteen still work, living near masters like Jimmy Dowdle, who arrived to work timber as an outsider from the Great Smoky Mountains 70 years ago and transplanted his unusual banjo style, a combination of up-picking and brush-stroking.

In frequent field trips, the folklorist wanders by ear as much as by eye. He tracked down Charlie Wise after hearing of a man in Hampshire County who obsessively built 7-foot birdhouses encrusted with stone.

Along the back roads, Milnes takes careful note of how fast the latest terms are artfully adjusted to the patois of the hollows. "Alzheimer's" becomes "old-timer's" and "cardiogram" comes out "heartigram."

Checking flea markets

In searching the state, Milnes finds that the many new miles of highways are a way to fast-forward to scores of rural flea markets that have sprung up in recent years.

"That's where I find out what's happening," Milnes emphasizes. "You can find some old guy selling horse collars and hear the real stories. If you want to get to earth, go to the flea markets and you find the present and the past."

Lately, Milnes, who documents folk arts on film and in books, has been deskbound, writing grant requests.

The Augusta center has a staff of seven directed by Margo Blevin. Its $875,000 budget is financed largely by master workshops for visitors, including Dulcimer Week in the spring and Fiddlers Reunion in the fall.

Support also comes from the college, the National Endowment for the Arts and the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

"People still make rural headstones," Milnes gently notes as he takes a break from the grant writing and turns to the comfort of the past. He wanders the headstones of Israel Church, a handsome slant of old and new hilltop graves, a serene accounting of departed people.

The folklorist savors a "tree stump" headstone, perfectly named. It is one of the homemade markers crafted a century ago to mourn unionized lumberjacks, known as woodsmen of the world, whose story Milnes is still searching out.

"I'm always checking out the landscape, always chipping away at it," Milnes says, looking about him as if the past of Appalachia were ever closer.

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