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Growing Up Out Proctor: Grandpap Frohnapfel

By Gary Eller - | Jun 30, 2021

Other than my parents, nobody had a greater influence on my life than Grandpap Frohnapfel (1884-1963), my maternal grandfather. He was born and raised on the homestead of his parents Anthony and Barbara (Shutler) Frohnapfel about a mile from the St. Joseph’s Catholic church, with the birth name Theodore Joseph Frohnapfel. He was buried about a mile away at the church’s cemetery. Adults called him T. J. or Tater, the latter because he grew potatoes on the rich bottom land on his farm along the Ohio River a couple miles upstream of Proctor. I’ve been told he bought at least part of this farm from the Arick family when he started farming as a young man. My maternal grandmother, Anna Marie (Estep) Frohnapfel (1889-1943), died four years before I was born so I never knew her. T. J. and Anna had twelve children, of which ten lived to adulthood. My mother Virginia was the ninth.

For the first four years of my life, I lived at Grandpap’s farm in his house with my Mom and Dad. My earliest childhood memories are of that place. Brother Fred came along a year after me in 1948. Brother Chuck had lived at Grandpap’s place since he was born in 1940. Wonderful family photographs show us boys, cousins, beagles, chickens, outbuildings, etc. at Grandpap’s place. By the time I was about four (1951), Grandpap retired and sold his farm to Mobay Chemical Company, which built a huge plant on the bottomland. Mobay eventually sold the plant to Bayer Chemical Company, which in turn sold it to Covestro which operates it at the present time.

This plant and other industries in the mid and upper Ohio Valley relied heavily on the area’s rail and river transportation, hard-working local labor force, and abundant power and underground minerals such as coal and salt. Mobay and its successors made polymers and industrial chemicals based on the chlorine produced at the PPG plant a few miles further up the river.

In a subsequent chapter, I will describe Grandpap’s farmhouse. His bottom land was enriched every year or so by Ohio River floods (see prior chapter on floods). In the early years, it would have been an every-day occurrence for Grandpap to have seen and heard paddlewheel steamboats and barge tows passing by his farm, headed south towards New Orleans or north to Pittsburgh.

The Ohio has always been a busy river, even when only Native Americans were present.

Students of American history know that the upper Ohio Valley region was known in the late 1700s as “the bloody ground” because of the gruesome fighting between natives and Europeans encroaching from the east. In 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis boated right by what would become my Grandpap’s potato fields. It took Europeans on the east coast about two-hundred-fifty years to cross the Appalachian Mountains and settle western Virginia and Ohio, but only about one hundred more years to settle America from the Ohio River to the Pacific Ocean.

As Grandpap was selling his farm, my Dad was building a house four miles out Proctor, in which he and Mom lived about forty years. Grandpap’s bedroom was one of two on the main floor of our house. Fred and I had rooms upstairs, which were accessed through Grandpap’s room. Grandpap lived with us in the new house for about twelve years. He died a few weeks after I left for college in September 1963. Except for those few weeks after I left, I had always lived under the same roof as him. I have always wondered about the timing of Grandpap’s death so soon after I left home, considering how much time he spent with me when I was growing up. The next year, I bought his 1951 three-speed Chevy sedan for $50 and took it to college in Morgantown. For some reason I don’t remember, a year later I sold it for $100 and bought a 1950 Chevy for $75. I surely wish I had Grandpap’s car now.

Grandpap had limited education and rarely was more than about forty miles from where he was born. He liked his tobacco and juice from his chaw often leaked out and down his chin. Grandpap farmed with horses and his family grew all the meat, fruit, and vegetables they needed. I came to understand that he was a wise man who made a huge impact on me. He taught me how to count and play games such as cards and checkers. From Grandpap I learned to identify just about every tree in the lush West Virginia forest. When I was too young to fish alone at our pond, he was always willing to walk the steep hillside so I could fish. Grandpap would patiently sit there on his hand-made bench, silently whittling sticks while I tried to catch bluegills or frogs until I was ready to go back up the hill to our house. He never asked for anything from me but gave so much. Grandpap inspired me to be the best granddad to my four grandchildren I can be.

I wrote and recorded two songs about Grandpap that appeared on my CD of original songs Appalachian Sons about growing up out Proctor.