CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Don Marshall lovingly tends more than 60 acres of Malden farmland with expertise and an appreciation of his surroundings.
"It's so peaceful," Marshall said as he walked the grounds on a recent sunny day. "It's almost like being in heaven."
Marshall, 51, grew up on the J.Q. Dickinson Farm, where he is now caretaker of everything from the lawns, fences and buildings to feeding the Belted Galloway cattle roaming the picturesque land.
Former owner Mary Price Ratrie, who died in 2010 at age 95, was like a grandmother to him. The land is now owned by her three daughters, Nelle Chilton of Charleston; Mary Wick of Richmond, Va.; and Keith Straw of Philadelphia.
The area is steeped in history from the days of the bustling salt industry of the 1800s. For Marshall, the land is rich in memories.
Ratrie was born in Malden, the granddaughter of John Quincy Dickinson, founder of Kanawha Valley Bank. She lived in Florida, but returned to the valley after her mother's death and became involved in the various family enterprises. She was a lover of gardening and a supporter of education, the arts and the beautification of Charleston.
"She was like a grandmother to me and a very sweet lady," Marshall said. "I was born on this farm in 1962. We lived in a little house behind the big house. I played with Mrs. Ratrie's grandkids. She had a maid named Julia who made us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch."
He was about 7 when he moved with his family to the lower end of Malden.
"I lived there until I was married, but I was always on the farm," he said. "I was 16 when I started pulling weeds for Mrs. Ratrie. I would go to school part-time. I paid my sister to do my homework and not tell Mom. I finally got crazy, thought I was smarter than the teacher and quit. Mrs. Ratrie talked me into going back and getting my high school diploma."
When he was badly burned in an accident while burning brush, she saw that he received proper medical care.
Marshall and his wife, Lora, have one daughter, Sarah Good, 27. Sarah was a toddler when the accident occurred and Ratrie provided a home on the land for the Marshall family. At first they lived in a single wide mobile home, but Ratrie decided they would be happier in a larger one and told him to pick out a double wide. The home has white siding, neat porches and a fenced in yard.
"She put in her will that I can stay there until I'm gone," he said. "I pay utilities but no rent."
In Ratrie's later years, Marshall provided transportation to take her to meetings, doctor appointments and grocery shopping. When she became unable to do her own grocery shopping, he did it for her.
"She was my grandmother," Marshall said.
A tour of the grounds reveals manicured land, flowers and trees tucked away from the site of traffic whizzing along U.S. 60. There are buildings that once were used for selling salt and groceries and handling business. These are now for storage with one remodeled to serve as Marshall's office.
The stately three-story house is where Ratrie lived and where the family now gathers, with some staying there periodically to handle business. The original portion was just one story built in the 1800s with additions built in 1925 and thereafter. Marshall said he was young when Ratrie lost her husband, Turner Ratrie, who died at age 64.
The house is immaculate, huge and inviting with family pictures that range from historical to current. A covered swimming pool is built on one end.
"The pool room was built in the '70s," he said. "Mrs. Ratrie did laps around the pool every day until she couldn't. That was her exercise."
Outside the house, brick walkways wind through flower gardens, including her beloved roses that are carefully marked by name.
There are two rental houses on the property as well as a cottage behind the big house that is rented by a teacher.
TerraSalis Garden Center, founded by Ratrie, has operated on the Dickinson Farm since 1985.TerraSalis, run by Bill Mills, focuses mostly on residential landscaping. TerraCare, whose president is Kevin Arnold, focuses on commercial landscaping. Nelle Chilton is a partner in the business.
The family was historically involved in the salt industry and Chilton is excited that a couple of Dickinson descendants are now working to revive it and sell salt on a retail basis.
She said research is now being done to learn more about the history of the family. However, there was a celebration this summer to celebrate her family coming to the valley at least 200 years ago.
Chilton said the family has high regards for Marshall and the job he does on the farm.
"He grew up there and knows the place very well," she said. "We're lucky to have him out there. He's just a really solid guy."
While Marshall isn't familiar with some of the historical details, he knows the land like a longtime friend that has grown memories as well as a living for him.
Marshall loves that the Dickinson Farm has the rare quality of being secluded and yet just minutes from downtown Charleston.
"It's peaceful here," he said. "It's like taking care of my own farm I've been here so long."
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.com