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Growing Up Out Proctor: The Garner Girls

By Gary Eller - | Jun 23, 2021

The Henry Garner farm was several miles out Route 89 from our place. The Garners had been prominent in that part of the Wetzel County backcountry all the way back to when it was settled around Civil War times.

The property still is in the family. Even after being divided many times, the farm is still big with some relatively flat ridge tops (rare for Wetzel County) that were used for hay and grain. Also significant was that during the late 1800s oil boom, the farm’s mineral rights were valuable and many wells were drilled on the property.

During the shale gas boom, mineral rights again are notable. Many small towns arose around our part of West Virginia to support the early boom but almost all were gone by the time I was growing up. Here and there you could still see an old oil derrick standing clinging to a hillside, such as the one in the photo below of the Garner House.

Woodie and Chi Garner ran the farm when I was young. At one point, Woodie had a full-time job at one of the industrial plants in the valley while operating the big farm.

He and Chi had four kids – all girls – who certainly had to pitch hay and do many other farm chores. Woodie obviously had his hands full with two big jobs. The two youngest girls, Dee and Nancy, attended Highland grade school and Magnolia high school with me. Dee was my age and Nancy one year older.

They were the kids about the age of Fred and me who lived closest to our place, so we spent a lot of time playing together when we were young.

Dee and Nancy were my closest childhood friends and I have many vivid memories of them. They have remained lively people and my good friends.

When I was learning to play banjo, Nancy was learning to play piano. Occasionally we would try to play duets on the piano in our living room. The din was awful, but my Mom and Dad loved it. Five decades later, Nancy would be a cowriter of one of my most requested songs – Roadkill Quisine, a song about the famous annual Roadkill Cooking Contest in Marlinton, West Virginia.

The Roadkill festival became a sensation with thousands of people attending and competitors from as far away as Australia.

The Garner farm had a pond full of bass and bluegill. The fishing was good but more memorable was that to get to the pond, you had to cross a big open field that always seemed to hold a big, aggressive bull. The danger of getting to and from the pond added to the adventure. The Garners also had a huge barn near their house that often contained lots of hay bales, stacked loosely enough that there were tunnels to play in – great fun for young kids. Between the house and barn was a spring house with two troughs, one for drinking water and one for keeping milk cool. The water also was used for epic water fights.

The Garner house was a place of mystery.

Although I was in the kitchen many times (it seemed Chi was always cooking and had something good for us to eat), I never saw any other part of the house except a rare glimpse of the dining room. Nancy told me that she and Dee also were mostly kept out of the rest of the house except for sleeping.

The girls were expected to be outside most of the time – there always was work to do on that big farm and outside was where you were expected to play.

Since Dee and Nancy’s two sisters, Ardith and Jackie, were considerably older than me, I didn’t know them nearly as well as the two younger girls. One memorable incident involved Jackie, however.

One dark Halloween night, we were sitting in our kitchen and heard a big “clang!” outside. My Dad went outside to investigate but saw nothing amiss.

The next morning, we found that the heavy metal handle on the big hand pump that drew our drinking water from a well had been sheared completely off. Later we learned that Jackie and two of her friends had been on a Halloween pranks adventure and came to soap our kitchen window on our porch next to the well pump.

Evidently some sound or movement in the house spooked Jackie as she was about to soap the window. She jumped off the porch in the darkness and hit the pump handle with her head.

She was knocked out cold but somehow her co-conspirators got her out of sight before my Dad came out to investigate.

The girls carried Jackie up the hill a quarter mile to Highland School and revived her with water from the school’s hand pump. From there, they somehow got her back to the Garner place several miles away. Undoubtedly Jackie got a concussion and the next day her head was a sight to see, but otherwise she came out okay. Jackie’s siblings to this day joke about her hard head.

And yes of course — the Eller and Garner bloodlines crossed generations ago in the past, through matriarch Rachel Garner.