Blacky Walker/Chris Balas Interview
Chris: My name is Chris Balas and I am interviewing Blacky Walker at his home on April 4th, 2002.
Chris: In your earlier interview you mentioned that your father was a miller and that you lived above a mill, right?
Chris: Tell me how the mill worked.
Blackie: The mill was run by water power. They had a dam built and had it run by turbines. It wasn’t a water wheel, it was a turbine. Water come out of the dam into the turbine, the turbine turned and the gears started working and the belts got up into the mill, then the machine started running that you put your wheat and corn in. They was a saw mill there, it was run by turbine too.
Chris: Um, when would farmers bring their crops to the mill?
Blacky: They’d bring them every fall, after they gathered their wheat and corn. They’d have it ground into flour and cornmeal and feed for the pigs, chickens. They was two uh mill rocks there that ground corn and uh two machines that ground flour.
Chris: And how did they pay?
Blacky: Um my daddy got uh a portion of every sack, whether it was a bushel or whatever. Uh he got a measurement out of it and uh he uh would save his, of course he would ground it for our flour and mill, but, and what he had left he would sell it to get his money out of it.
Chris: What was your dad’s job like?
Blacky: Well it was, he run his mill uh mostly at night cause it was cooler and uh he always said the more ya run the mill the better it would make uh mill and flour so he would usually work all night and sleep a while and we uh had a garden and kept cows and pigs that he uh looked after then. Course he had honeybees and my mom raised turkeys
Chris: What creek was it on?
Blacky: It was on Walkers Creek, what they Crackersneck. Bout uh I’d say it’s about 8 miles east of Bland.
Chris: When were the busiest times at the mill?
Blacky: Busiest time probably in the fall when uh the harbor saw come in and uh he would grind through the winter. Course they would always bring ya know flour and mill or wheat and flour in the spring too, what they didn’t grind in the winter, they would bring it in and he would grind it through the summer.
Chris: Were there times that the mill was not used very much?
Blacky: Uh very seldom. About the only time he would shut it down was to clean it and he done most of that while it was operating.
Chris: Can you describe the living quarters?
Blacky: Well we had a two story house uh it was an old house which is burnt down now but it was two story. We had a kitchen built off to the side of it and uh it had fire places in it and heat was wood of course back then.
Chris: What was it like being a child around the mill?
Blacky: Oh it was fun. We had uh uh we used to stay in the mill and watch him grind and course we had the creek there and the dam that we could play in, swim and that’s where I learned to swim at. And fish, we had plenty of fish to eat and uh well all of us, girls and boys, we stayed in the water during the summer time. In the winter time it was sleigh riding and skating on ice.
Chris: Oh really!!
Chris: Did you ever have to help around the mill?
Blacky: No I was really too young. Uh I used to go and watch, watch them grind at night and uh course I was about eight years old, seven or eight and uh I would watch him at night until I got sleepy and couldn’t stay awake. He would take me and lay me down on some flour sacks or something and summer time and I would sleep there, cause it was always warm on them sacks after the wheat was ground, corn, it was warm.
Chris: So do you know what a typical day would be like for him to work at the mill, like what time did he get up and start working.
Blacky: I don’t remember but he was a early riser. He would get out pretty early and go on and work around the house and go check the mill out. See he had to sharpen the saw to saw lumber, he had to sharpen the mill rocks to grind the corn and everything. He had to clean them and adjust them and everything. He done all that. And uh he would start grinding, whenever he had work to do, he would grind.
Chris: He was busy!
Chris: Could you tell me where you remember mills being located in Bland County?
Blacky: Run that by me again.
Chris: Do you remember where the mills in Bland County were located?
Blacky: Uh yes. They was um a mill at Mechanicsburg, that was owned by a Mustard. Uh it burnt down and uh my dad run it until it burned and then he moved down here at Crackersneck. And there was a mill down below Bland here on Walkers Creek. Uh I can’t think of who owned it off hand. I believe it was owned by Rudders last. It was just a small dam, run it. It was more of a hammer mill I think that was uh rock mill. Gris mill we call it.
Chris: Why do you think farmers stopped using these mills?
Blacky: Well they got outdated, you had bigger mills, factory type mills that ran a lot.
Chris: You mentioned to me earlier that farmers used to pin their corn, why did they do this and exactly what did you do?
Blacky: Corn used to be, it it had suckers on it. It would be sprouts that come out just like comes out an apple tree or anything. They would pull them off cause usually it don’t have corn on it, it just takes food away from the main stalk. And they thinned that to get better graded corn.
Chris: So how would pin this corn, what did they do?
Blacky: We would pin it by hand. Just go through each stock, pull any suckers on it and let the main stalk grow. It’s like eating, the more ya eat the bigger ya get. Corn is the same way.
Chris: Was this just done to the sweet corn?
Blacky: It was done to all the corn. Field corn and all. Usually they would gather up all the boys they could get to help in the fields.
Chris: How long did it take?
Blacky: Well depending on the fields, some of them had 10, 15, 20 acres of corn and you go through all that. Course now days, they spray it with weed killer and everything. You don’t have that much
Chris: Ok you said earlier or in your last interview that you enjoyed fishing, do you think there was more water in the creeks when you were a boy?
Blacky: Oh yeah, yeah a lot more. Yeah. We had plenty of water, plenty of fish back then.
Chris: Do you still fish today?
Blacky: No, I haven’t been fishing in several years because to fish in Bland County, you got to go out of the county to fish. There just not enough water to hold fish anymore.
Chris: What creeks would you fish in?
Blacky: We’d fish in Walkers Creek and of course, Wolf Creek over there, it was a good creek back then.
Chris: Oh really (laughs)!
Chris: What kind of fish would you catch and what kind of gear and bait would you use?
Blacky: We’d use worms mostly or crickets. Uh we’d catch uh bass, red eyes, white suckers, horny heads, that was a type of a sucker.
Chris: Oh really, and you ate this?
Blacky: We ate them, yeah.
Chris: What was the biggest fish you caught?
Blacky: The biggest fish I ever caught was a carpe.
Chris: Oh really, how big was it?
Blacky: It weighed about 13 or 14 pounds.
Blacky: Yeah pretty good size fish.
Chris: What was your favorite eating fish?
Blacky: Aw, probably red eye. It was good, it was a little bony but they was good fish. Course we had rock bass back then, it was something similar to a red eye too.
Chris: What is the best fishing story you can tell?
Blacky: Best fishing story...(laughs)...I was fishing one time and uh in a big deep hole of water and uh I caught a big fish. I think it was a big bass and every time I’d go to pull it out, the line was a hanging and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong and I didn’t want to lose the fish and uh I got down in the water and went under and there was an old cab of a car there and uh the fish that got in inside of the car and every time I’d go to reach in there to get him, it would roll the window up and I couldn’t get him.
Chris:(LAUGHS) That’s funny!!
Chris: Ok you said before that movies used to be shown in tents, is that correct?
Chris: That movies used to be shown in tents?
Blacky: Yeah we had uh tents that come, set up in the school, showed movies for a dime.
Chris: Was that the only place that the tents would be set up?
Blacky: Well no they had theaters in Bluefield and uh Wytheville I think they had a theater back then. Pearisburg had a drive-in.
Chris: How when they set the tents up at the school, how were the seats set up and the screen set up?
Blacky: They just had bleachers to set on and great big tents like they had camp meetings in and everything.
Chris: And ya had a big screen?
Chris: How many people would come to these functions?
Blacky: Well people that could afford ten cents. Usually uh they would be several to show up tosee a movie. Of course, they were all in black and white back then.
Chris: Do you remember a movie theater in Bland County?
Blacky: Yeah, they was one in Bland. I think a Farlow showed movies in it. Just a small screen and a black and white movie.
Chris: And how many seats were in that?
Blacky: I don’t remember. There was several. Uh mostly chairs but it was located there by where Scott’s store is or the bank, somewhere in there<
Chris: Did the Circus ever come to Bland County?
Blacky: I don’t remember no circus ever coming to Bland.
Chris: Do you remember if there were any parades around here?
Chris: No. Do you remember if uh the Chautaugua ever came to Bland County?
Chris: Tell me about the Carter Family coming to Mechanicsburg.
Blacky: Well they come probably in 1941, 1942 somewhere along in there. Uh they put on a show in the school. I don’t remember what they charged but May Belle, A.P. was there, Jean, all of them was there. Course Jean was just a little youngin then. And they charged, it might have been 10, 25 cents uh to get in to see them. They put on a good show. Course back then they didn’t have big recording studios and uh big theaters where ya go so they went to schools and put on show for whatever they could get. That’s the way they made their money back then.
Chris: Were they as popular then as now?
Blacky: Well yes, they was pretty popular.
Chris: Where did they play?
Blacky: They, we had a stage in the school house. They played on stage and course they played on a radio station down in Bristol for several years. Called “Home and Fun Times” if I remember right.
Chris: So that was a popular radio station?
Blacky: Yeah. Uh Tennessee Ernie played on it uh different groups.
Chris: Did many people go to see the Carter Family play?
Blacky: Yes, they was a lot go.
Chris: Do you remember some of the songs they played?
Blacky: Not off hand, I can’t. Uh course “Wildwood Flowers” was one of the favorite songs that the Carter Family played. It was a real good song. Course they played different songs and sung.
Chris: Do you remember any other groups playing in Bland County?
Blacky: I don’t remember any other groups uh they was, they was one group that come and I don’t remember the name of the group but there was a man, they called him a armless musician, he didn’t have no arms, he played a steel-electric guitar with his toes. His name was Ray Morris and he was at Mechanicsburg one time but I don’t remember the group he was with. Course there was Sunshine Sue, she had a group, and uh she played there too. I remember them coming. In later years, she played over a radio station in Richmond I believe.
Chris: Oh, wow!
Chris: What were the dances like that they would have?
Blacky: Well they had square dances mostly. Course they always had cake walks and fund-raisers and just all around good shows.
Chris: So you used to go to these a lot?
Blacky: Oh yeah, yeah. If we couldn’t, if the youngins couldn’t get in, they would stand at the window and listen. Peep in the window and watch.
Chris: Did the churches approve of dancing?
Blacky: Oh yeah, yeah. It was always on a Saturday night or Friday night and uh it was just all around good time. People would gather about like they do at the country fair. Get together and listen and have fun!
Chris: That’s neat. We need more of those times.
Chris: You mentioned earlier that people would stop in Mechanicsburg to rest while driving their cattle to Pulaski, right?
Blacky: Yes that was a, they call it a wagon stop back then. They would be taking their stock to Pulaski which was a railhead and they would drive it across the mountain to the markets or whatever.
Chris: Where would they spend the night?
Blacky: There was a hotel there in Mechanisburg. They stayed in it. Course a lot of them just camped out in their wagons or whatever.
Chris: How would they go over the mountain?
Blacky: They went across the into Pulaski on their wagons and horses. They was a dirt road. Just a narrow, wagon road that they drove across.
Chris: Do you remember farmers driving turkeys through Mechanisburg?
Blacky: No, I can’t remember that far back.
Chris: If you went to town to go shopping where would you go?
Blacky: I’d probably go to Wytheville. I think Wytheville is a good little town to shop in.
Chris: Did you remember the railroad that went through Rocky Gap and Bastian?
Blacky: Oh yeah, yeah. It went through there. We used to live at Bastian. It ran right through our water from where we lived. Where the state line is now, it went right by there.
Chris: Oh really. Did you ever ride it?
Chris: What were your earliest memories as a child?
Blacky: Oh my earliest memories as a child would be at the old mill, going to school. I was um moved there when we, I was six months old when we moved to the mill. Course we lived there and I started school and I remember crossing the old swinging bridge going to school, playing in the creek, hanging around the mill, fishing.
Chris: What kind of pranks would boys play on Halloween?
Blacky: Well in later years after we growed up, people would put soap on people’s car windows or house windows, turned their lights off, whatever, take their gates off the hinges.
Chris: Did you, did you do those activities?
Blacky: Well I took part in some of them, not all of it.
Chris: Well that’s good.
Chris: Is there anything else you would like to share about growing up in Bland County?
Blacky: Well I think growing up in Bland County was uh back then, it was better, it was peaceful and really I think there was more people that lived in Bland County back in the 20's and 30's what does, what lives now. But uh it was quiet, it was peaceful uh ya know the neighbors was all friendly and visit one another which they don’t now uh when you went somewhere you had to walk, you usually visit on Sunday’s after church and just get together talk.
Chris: Did most families in Bland County then, did they, was it most families went to church Sunday morning?
Blacky: Yeah, they made us all go to Church and go home or have a picnic at the church.
Chris: Or a family dinner?
Blacky: Yeah a family dinner and just visit and lay around, sit around, talk. Course the youngins was all out playing. The grown-ups were sitting on the porch talking or whatever.
Chris: Well I think that’s it unless you have anything else to add.
Blacky: I reckon not, I am gonna show ya a picture of what the old mill looks like now.
Chris: Oh, ok that would be great.
Blacky: Thank you.