Wise County, Virginia, historian Charles A. Johnson grew up on his parent’s farm in Lee County, VA, reading adventure books about Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Gulliver’s Travels and others. While still a boy he yearned to venture on a trip to visit his brother who was a schoolteacher in Letcher County, Ky.
The Johnsons counted on each family member to do daily tasks on the farm but during the winter of 1879 Charles’ constant pleas finally brought an affirmative reply from his folks. Though he was only thirteen or fourteen years old at the time, he was big and more mature for his age.
“I’m going to Kentucky and I’m going all by myself,” he proudly told his schoolmates. “You’d better not go or you’ll get frozen like an icicle, or even worse, get et by a bear,” Petey Crigger answered.
Charles gave little thought to the cold or to bears, panthers and such or even to the difficulty of the trip. He had only been to Pennington Gap and was thrilled to be setting out for Kentucky on his own. He felt it was high time he’d seen more than he had seen in his young life.
His folks felt he could make it to Day’s store on the Kentucky side of Black Mountain in a single day. From there he could easily arrive at his destination the following day. His father discussed the route with Charles several times and had him repeat it back to make sure he knew the route he would take.
“Well, he knows the way and he’s big enough and strong enough,” his father told his mother. “If he’ll leave early he should be able to get to Day’s Store.”
Charles arose before dawn the following morning and after a quick breakfast left his father’s home at the upper end of Lee County near the old Franklin Academy. He was bound for Day’s Store, next to the Cumberland River on the yon side of Big Black Mountain There he would spend the night before venturing on to his brother’s home in Letcher County, Kentucky. Later in life he would say it may have been too much for a youngster of thirteen or fourteen years to consider but to a boy seeking adventure it was a thrill.
Most of the trip was through rugged mountainous country but even the valleys had their streams he would have to negotiate. Young Johnson was buoyed by excitement and enthusiasm however and it kept him moving throughout the morning and into the afternoon when he arrived at Gilley’s Store in Big Stone Gap.
The store fascinated him. He’d only been in a few Lee County stores before and it made him feel sort of grown up to enter Gilley’s Store on his own. Charles treated himself to some brown sugar out of a barrel and soon thereafter he resumed his travel.
“After stopping at Elkaneh Gilley’s store in Big Stone Gap I kept on my journey up through the breaks of Little Stone Mountain, beside the roaring waters of the Powell River,” Johnson reminisced.
A light rain began as he walked along Powell River and through the breaks of Little Stone Mountain. There were times when Charles opted to climb segments of the mountain when the alternative was to cross rain swollen streams. Johnson later wrote in A Narrative History of Wise County (Virginia) saying he eventually came upon a roaring creek that he couldn’t avoid.
Soon it changed to a general downpour but Charles’ resolve wasn’t dampened. The excitement of his travels and a mental image of the successful completion of his travels helped ease his steps.
“After reaching the mouth of Callahan Creek (Appalachia) I headed up over Black Mountain,” he wrote about crossing the stream. “I was already drenched from the falling rain. The swiftness of the water frightened me. After fording the stream and reaching the bank on the other side I could hear and feel the cold water sloshing in my shoes. I finally had to stop and pour it out.”
Charles knew he must continue moving and kept climbing knowing it would soon be getting dark. His timetable called for him to reach the headwaters of the Cumberland River and Day’s Store on the other side of the mountain before nightfall.
Weariness and self-doubt set in as it began getting dark. It became evident to Charles that he wouldn’t be able to find Day’s store in the dark and he began to worry. A loud growl of a black bear, panther or some other beast, the lad wasn’t sure which, caused him to pick up his pace and before long he was atop Black Mountain. As he moved along the mountaintop he was startled to come upon an old man who was returning to his home from a visit in Kentucky.
“It must still be six miles to Day’s Store,” the old man said. “Night’s setting in and it’d be hard to find even for someone who knows these parts. I’ll tell ya’ lad, there’s a family that lives about a mile ahead on top of the mountain. They might take you in for the night. It’s old man Dan Richmond’s place.”
Charles, cold from the sleet and cold wind blowing on his wet body, picked up his pace with the chance of being in a warm, dry place. Travel was a little easier as he moved along the top of Black Mountain and after awhile Charles could hear someone ahead chopping wood. Soon he saw the mountain man and noticed that he had a dark-complexion, gray hair and white beard.
“Mister, I’se heading to Letcher over in Kentucky to visit my brother,” Charles began as the elderly man peered at him. “Iffen I can stay the night I’d be most beholden to you. I’d help you get wood in.”
“Young man, we’se colored folk living hyeh but if you want to stay we’ll treat you as best we can,” the man answered kindly. “We don’t have much but you’re welcome to what we have. We don’t see many folks up here on the mountain. Up here it’s jes’ us and the Lord.”
“Thank you,” Charles answered. “I do want to stay. Thank you so much! I do want to stay.”
Mr. Richmond’s kindness when young Johnson needed help so badly left him in what he called “a splendid mood.” He was led into a room that “was aglow and filled with warmth.” He alternately sat and stood in front of the fire to dry out. After several minutes he was surprised when he was told that supper was ready. He was so pleased he had a warm, cozy, featherbed with snow-white bed sheets, pillowcases and plenty of top cover. Then he learned he was invited to sup with his hosts. He had given no thought to getting to eat so he felt very blessed.
“Sliced country ham with brown gravy, fried eggs, yellow-tinted smokehouse butter, hot steaming coffee, sweet milk with a quarter-inch rim of rich cream and good ground-flour biscuits seasoned with homemade lard, was the fare presented on white, unspotted linen,” Charles recalled, saying he was so hungry at the time he could hardly control himself. “I was both relieved and surprised, feeling really good over having such a wonderful meal. The Richmonds had a family practice of reading a Bible scripture lesson each night before retiring. Mr. Richmond read a scripture lesson and then the family sang two or three hymns.
“The melodies were sweeter than any I had ever heard before,” Charles Johnson wrote later in life. “The old man (Dan Richmond) followed with an emotional prayer. After another song we began eating. There in a humble mountain home, kneeling at a family altar, was a black family whose souls had been washed in the blood of the Lamb and were white as snow. I was touched by the goodness of God as I had been touched by Mr. Richmond and his family.”
Young Charles Johnson was up early for the family worship and breakfast as he still had much traveling to do.
“I thanked them for their hospitality and offered to pay them but they would accept nothing. I bade them a warm goodbye and left to resume my travel. As I plodded down the mountainside, after leaving the Richmonds, I couldn’t help thinking how blessed I was to come upon one of God’s wonderful creations.”
He marveled at God’s great wisdom, love, goodness and mercy. Through the blood of His crucified son, one may be black without but be made white within as were Dean Richmond and his family on Black Mountain.
Charles arrived at his brother’s house and had a nice visit before returning, uneventfully, to his father’s home in Lee County, Virginia. It would be a chapter in his life he would never forget. He thought about it often and it was an inspiration to him in writing A Narrative History of Wise County (Virginia).
Old man Dan Richmond was a slave of Gen. Jonathan Richmond, a descendent of one of southwest Virginia’s prominent families. Gen. Richmond leased the property atop Black Mountain to Dan Richmond who later purchased 200 acres there through his hard works. Copyright 2018 Jadon Gibson
Editor’s note’s; Jadon Gibson is a widely read Appalachian writer from Harrogate, TN. His writings are both historical and nostalgic in nature and can be read regularly at Bereaonline.com. Don’t miss a single posting!
A Voice for God – A Voice for Good
Throughout history many societies have offered sacrifices in hopes of good crops, good weather or sundry other reasons. These offerings are often livestock and at times, even children. But God had a plan for the world!
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil: my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Amen.
I am so pleased that I’ve moved still closer to the Lord. He has been so good to me. This Christmas season is an excellent time to talk with our children, siblings and friends about Jesus. Merry Christmas!