By Bob Henry Baber
Photo: Dennis McClung (L) Don McClung (R) taken in Beverage Barber Shop in Richwood, WV, 1962.
Dennis and Don Mclung with turkey. My name is Don McClung. Everything I herein recount took place the week after the Christmas of 1962 on a frigid winter’s night high up in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. But my tale, factual though it is, is actually a mere post script to a tragedy that happened 82 years before my own story took place.
How Cold Knob and Lost Flats got named, or by whom, nobody seems to know, but well-named they are, indeed. Both have challenged the endurance of many a mountaineer.
Well over a century ago one of the region’s first pioneers, William Baber, lived with his family in his mountain home about four miles from the present day town of Richwood, which had not yet even been founded.
It was November, and William wanted to get in the family’s last supplies before winter set in. Since there were as yet no railroads, he traveled with a neighbor in a two-horse wagon to the distant hamlet of Ronceverte. He took along his beloved son, James, and his loyal dog, Shep. Even in good conditions, the distance was a day’s journey, and the next day was spent securing and loading supplies. On the morning of their return trip William, James and Shep awoke to find snow falling in Ronceverte, which was two thousand feet lower in elevation than the homeplace. This, they already knew, would mean for a challenging trek home. Slowly the party traveled through the Greenbrier valley and up and over Cold Knob. By this time conditions had deteriorated into blizzard conditions with blinding snow being driven by nearly forty mile an hour northwest gusts of wind. Nonetheless, on the back side, and just a few miles from shelter and the warmth of hearth, the travelers discovered fresh bear tracks in newly crusted snow that William knew would soon be covered by drifts.
Now in those days the flesh of the bear was prized for food, and the skin could be sold for much-needed cash. William was anxious to find that bear, so he instructed his friend and James to go on home with the loaded wagon. His plan was to track the bear to its lair, mark its spot, and then walk the remaining distance to home. He’d then come back for it in better weather. But after a few hours, when he failed to return, James became alarmed. A search party was quickly organized and began the difficult task of finding William. After much searching, and deep into the night, they found the object of their search. Apparently, due to hypothermia, or perhaps a stroke, William had become bewildered and had crossed a half-frozen stream of water before he got out on the opposite side and sat down with his back up against a tree. This is where his frozen body was found. Shep was still with him and had kept the panthers from harming the body of his master. The search party could see the small and larger concentric paths he and the wild animals had beaten around William. The searchers built a bier from branches and bought the dead man through the snow and woods and back to his tear-filled home.
Strangely, it was reported that when the search party found him, one outstretched and naked hand was cupped and held upwards. It was filled with freshly fallen powder.
As for me, and mine, it all started innocently enough. My younger brother Delmas, from Rupert, came over to Richwood to go turkey hunting with another brother, Dennis. I loaned them my old ’49 Ford pickup because it already had chains on it and they were going to go out the Greenbrier Road. They planned to hunt around Manning’s Knob where the infamous Civil War spy, Nancy Hart, is buried. They should have, but I’m sure they didn’t realize just how deep the snow would prove to be.
Late in the afternoon I went down to pay my gas bill at the corner Pure Oil because they gave the Top Value Stamps I was collecting to try and get my wife a new toaster. After I returned home, I began to become more and more uneasy about the boys. I got to thinking that my truck was old and might not start. So I put chains on Dennis’ car, got my feisty little mutt, Tippy, and headed up the mountain.
I never thought to get a light-I didn’t think I would need it. I drove out Greenbrier Road. A short piece past the Mullens’ house, I found my truck parked on the side of the road near a deep snowdrift by a ravine. It was still light enough for me to see where the mailman had delivered to the Baber’s mailbox earlier in the day. Henry Baber and his wife lived on a mountaintop farm a half mile in from the mailbox. Theirs was the last house on the road until you went up and across Cold Knob and down into Trout-at least two dozen hard miles away. I quickly made the decision to walk down to see if they were at the Baber’s or if they have possibly seen them. I’d truly hoped so, because if they hadn’t, it was hard telling where they were in that vast wilderness.
When I arrived at the Babers’, Henry’s wife Tessie answered the door. She was a stout woman with a warm Christian face, white hair, and a deserving reputation for being one of the best cooks in these parts. I could smell a blackberry cobbler wafting from the back of the kitchen. It smelled simply delicious.
“Come in. Come in, Don. What brings you out on a bitter night like this?”
“I’m looking for my brothers, Delmas and Dennis. They came out this way turkey hunting. You haven’t seen them, have you?”
“No, I haven’t,” she said, as a serious look of concern swept across her face, “but it’s a frightfully cold night to be out in the woods if that’s where they are.”
Tessie, who had braved many a wicked gale and seen temperatures near 40 below, knew as well as any person alive just how cruel and relentless those mountains could be.
By this time, I figured something was wrong. They should have been coming in. And there was another thing that bothered me; a freezing fog was starting to set in. That made me realize that the going was going to be rough and that I didn’t have a light to go searching with, either.
“I wish Henry could go with you, but he’s in bed, sick with a bad cold and a fever,” Tessie said, as she handed me a kerosene lantern she’d fetched from the basement. “Be careful, Don, please.”
I retraced my steps back to the truck, but just before I got there, I noticed, close by to a big sugar maple, a huge turkey track that headed down the mountain. When I looked closer, I noticed the boys’ tracks, too. They’d given chase below the north ridge of the mountain, just beneath the Baber place. I tracked them downhill to Little Laurel. The snow was drifted and deep. I still recall that the laurel leaves were already curling in and huddling as close to their stems as they could possibly get. The frost on them glistened when the light of my lamp slid over them.
“Delmas! Dennis!” I hollered repeatedly, but they didn’t respond. All I could hear was the lonely echo of my voice bouncing from mountain to mountain before it evaporated into what had now become night. My alarm grew by leaps and bounds when I realized that the boys had penetrated even deeper into the wilderness and out of earshot. I knew something was seriously wrong and I’d have to go on. However, when the flame wavered and I shook the lantern, I realized it was nearly out of fuel. Since I knew approximately where I was, I initially thought all I’d have to do was scale straight up the steep side of the mountain, as opposed to redoing the mile long loop I’d just made. But to my dismay, when I got to the top, the fog had gotten much thicker and I couldn’t even see the house. In fact, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was. So I zigzagged along the spine and picked my way along an old fence line until I could finally see the dim lights of the house. I couldn’t have been anymore than 30 yards away, if that.
Tessie became even more worried when she saw that I’d returned without the boys. “Do you think something’s happened to them, Don? I’m getting worried!” she said, as I came into the welcome heat of the home. Before I headed back out into the cold, dark night, Tessie filled the lantern and gave me two bags of leftover Christmas cookies. She also gave me some stick matches in a used medicine jar, just in case.
I proceeded to retrace my steps. When I got down to Little Laurel it was completely frozen over-or appeared to be. Carefully, I crossed the crackling ice that covered the creek and fought my way through the thickets. Despite the disorienting fog, I followed the slick bed upstream and headed towards Lost Flats and Town Rocks. I was young and in good shape from working in the mines, but already I was beginning to tire from randomly falling through the knee-deep crust and half-hollowed ice. I finally had to stop for a rest.
It was then that I realized my dog was not with me. I knew Tippy had crossed the creek with me, so I retraced my steps yet again. About halfway down the mountain there she sat, worn out from following me by jumping from track to track. So I had to pick her up-she weighed about thirty pounds-and carry her in with me. It was simply too far to take her back to the Baber’s. I proceeded on, my lantern in one hand, my dog in the other. As one arm tired, I switched to the other. I struggled to climb the hill. I was still following my brothers’ tracks when I came to the lower end of Town Rocks. The area was covered with their wanderings-so much so that I couldn’t sort out what had happened or where they’d gone. I could only surmise that they’d become lost because they were obviously doubling and, in places, even tripling back on their own paths.
I put Tippy on the ground to rest my arms and try to figure out what to do next. I had to get away from their switch-backing and try to find where they’d jumped off the rim of a rock cliff. After over an hour of tracking back and forth, I finally found where they’d jumped. I was shocked by the height! It appeared to be a fifteen-foot drop! That was way too high for me to jump, so I backed up and found a place where I could get down without leaping. Before I slid down on my butt, feet first, I thought to myself, “If I get hurt, we might all perish!” It was a thought I had to banish in order to push myself off from that rock. Thankfully, I made it okay. But to tell you the truth, I was getting more afraid since I was no longer sure which side of Lost Flats either of us was on.
After going just a short distance, I found a body-print in the snow and guessed one of them was hurt. A little further on, I found some spots of frozen blood on pure white snow. It sent a shudder right through me. Then I heard a shotgun blast. It was very close. Unfortunately, because a mining injury had left me deaf in one ear, I couldn’t place where the shot had come from. I hollered again, but heard nothing. “Perhaps that was their last shell,” I thought. I knew then that the only way I’d find them was to continue to follow their tracks, but it was frustrating and confusing since they kept going in what appeared to be random loops.
The snow was becoming even more dangerously crusted and icy as the fog glazed across it and instantly froze. In fact, as I descended, I had to carefully slide from tree to tree, and catch myself in order to keep from falling. Finally, I recognized a little stream of water as Elk Lick Run and realized I was now on the South Fork of the Cherry River–a whole different watershed! When those boys had gone off Town Rocks, they’d gone off the wrong side. Before long, I found another body-print in the snow, beside which I found a partially burned coat! It was a bizarre and frightening symbol; something that I couldn’t readily decipher. I was so cold and frightened that for a stunned second it crossed my mind that hypothermia could be setting in on me–that I might even be hallucinating. Just as quickly, though, I regained my senses and realized it was where they’d desperately tried to start a fire on top of the snow. However, with ice on the limbs a half inch thick, it didn’t surprise me that they hadn’t had any luck. It also wasn’t lost on me that in the process they’d lost much needed clothing.
I stopped to take stock. I didn’t know what to think, but I knew that Elk Lick Road had two hairpin turns. I picked one-there were tracks on both-and was holding the lantern in such a way so I could see to walk in their tracks. Suddenly, I stepped on an arm extended from the side of their tracks and heard a grunt! I immediately got down on my knees. It was Dennis!
“What’s wrong, buddy?”
“I’ve hurt my back so bad I can’t walk,” he replied in a painful whisper.
“He was here with me awhile ago.” His voice trailed off forlornly. I stood up and held the lantern aloft.
“Delmas! Where are you?” Then I saw him. He was twenty-five feet above us on an old log road, walking in circles to keep warm. I asked him to come to me. Haltingly, he did so. He could barely talk and was scared to death. I was stunned when I realized that he only seemed to be half-sure who I was. I brought the two together. I showed him how to rub Dennis’ shoulders to keep him warm and told him to keep walking in order to keep his own circulation going.
I told them, “I’m going to look for some wood. I think I know where there is a big pine patch at the head of the holler, fairly close to where we are. Whatever you do, don’t move!”
I knew it was my only chance of finding something dry enough to start a fire-a fire I feared we needed in order to survive. So I left Tippy with them, and went about a quarter of a mile to gather wood. I had a difficult time breaking the limbs down from the ice-covered pine trees, but eventually I gathered enough dry wood to make an attempt. I took two of the sticks I’d gathered to pry out the snow and get down to the ground. Then I took my gas bill receipt, the Top Value Stamps that I was saving to buy my wife a present, a bit of pine kindling, and sprinkled kerosene over it all.
I was thankful Mrs. Baber had given me some matches, because I didn’t smoke and my brothers had used up all of theirs. Repeatedly I tried to get a fire going, watching fretfully as my matches dwindled down to just a few, and then, just two. With each failure I felt my heart pumped in my ears and the choke of dire panic begin to surround my chest. On the second to last match a brief flame emerged and sputtered out, but left a trace of continuing smoke in its wake. I blew and blew on that smoking kindling until I was dizzy and near sick. Finally, I saw a small flame emerge and directly heard the crackling of burning wood.
Still, by the time I returned, the boys looked worse than ever: ashen, blue and obviously frozen to the core. I could tell they were fading, although I repeatedly assured them otherwise-as much for myself, as for them. Delmas and I helped Dennis to the fireside. After a difficult time, we finally arrived. They wanted to climb into the fire in the worst way. In fact, when we got there they practically lay on top of it, and I had to pull them back to keep them from catching what clothes they had left on fire! Then I took off my coat and laid it on the ground for Dennis. I put Tippy beside him to help keep him warm. I made a place for Delmas on the other side. Miraculously, the growing light from the fire revealed still more sheltered wood nearby that seemed as if the Good Lord had put it there himself.
As I took my lantern in hand and headed back across Lost Flats to the Baber farm and help, I could only pray that it was enough to sustain them. In my heart, I felt that if I didn’t get back to them before the fire burned out, they’d surely freeze to death.
My first attempt to get across resulted in my making a huge circle right back to where they lay! I had no idea I was doing so, of course, until, to my disbelief, I saw their fire emerge eerily from the fog. I noted that their stock of wood had dwindled by well over half as they’d greedily fed the fire, but it was too late to look for more. Quickly, I hid the lantern behind my back so they wouldn’t see it and be discouraged by the fact that I, too, had become disoriented and lost.
I struck out again with the last energy I had. By this time the dampness had cut thru my Mackinaw shirt and to my very core. I don’t have to tell you, do I, that I was calling up to heaven and saying over and over, “You’re going to have to help me, Lord, if I’m going to make it!” While I was praying, I stumbled onto the old railroad grade at Little Laurel and knew, as the birds flew, I was very close to the Baber farm. But because of the fog I couldn’t take a chance on cutting straight up to it. So, although I was nearly too tired to lift my feet, I had to take the long way around and retrace the steps I’d taken almost eight hours earlier. Exhausted step after exhausted step I fell through the crusted surface and had to pull my feet up through the thickly crusted top again and again.
When I finally got to the Baber farm, Tessie was still awake. She’d never gone to bed. I think it was around three in the morning. She greeted me with steaming coffee, fried bacon, eggs, biscuits, and gravy. Wasting no time, I called my friend John Waselchalk and explained the crisis. He readily agreed to come with his big Dodge Power Wagon and said he’d call Perry Price to come with him to help in the rescue.
“Don, I would have called somebody, but since I didn’t have any idea where you were, I feared sending even more out into the back country,” she said fretfully. As best I could, I assured her she’d made the right decision.
I was so cold-or so much in a state of shock-that I couldn’t eat from the violent shaking of my hands; and it seemed the warmer I got, the worse I shook. It was as if the fear and cold that previously hadn’t totally penetrated me had caught up as I thawed out and had now gained access to my very innards. Soon, another group summoned by Tessie arrived at the farm and we all joined forces and started out for Manning’s Knob. The search party included Arden and Bob Bayless, and two other men whose names I no longer recall, but gratefully herein thank. The snow was so deep we had to stop every so often to knock the tops off the drifts. Just before we got to where the boys were, we spun out and a sharp rock gouged the side out of a tire. While some of the party put on a spare, the rest of us went on ahead and got the boys and my dog. When we got back, we put Dennis in the front seat, right next to the heater, and headed back out over the rough trail we’d just blazed.
When we finally got back to Richwood, it was six thirty in the morning, and the sun was coming up. My dad, Oather McClung, and my brother-in-law, Bill Pittsenbarger, were waiting at the house to see what the outcome of this harrowing night would be. I noticed some of the eyes were pretty wet and red in that room, too, as heartfelt hugs, greetings, and thanks were exchanged all around. To be honest, I had all I could do to hold back my own humble tears of gratitude.
Believe it or not, the next year I went hunting in the same area with Dennis. Not very far from where I’d stepped on his arm that cold and wicked night, Dennis shot a twenty-one pound turkey. I’ve often wondered if it weren’t that very same trouble-maker! I’m betting it was.
When I recollect on this close brush with tragedy, I can only thank the Good Lord for guiding me across Lost Flats and back to the Baber farm, where I could call for help. Of course, all lives have their traumas. In 1954, I was in a bad rock fall in the mines and was pinned for four hours before I was rescued. It was a bad experience. I’ve had others. But nothing in my lifetime stands out more than that very cold, late December night in 1962, when my brothers and I nearly lost our lives to the deep Appalachian wilderness.
Once in awhile, I think of the old patriarch, William Baber who froze to death long before I was born. I surmise that he would have been proud to know that some of his progeny had helped save three young men from coming to that same awful ending to which he’d come back in 1880.
And I’d like to say one more thing to Mrs. Baber (if she can hear me up there in heaven): A few Thanksgivings after their ordeal, my brothers said to me that those slightly stale cookies you sent for them to eat were the best Christmas presents they’d ever gotten, and that nothing-not slow-cooked green beans, mashed potatoes with butter, homemade stuffing, or even wild turkey smothered in gravy-has ever tasted as good before or since!