Gravehopping Tales - Part 2

by Gregory J Winters
July 2007

 

As noted in the previous story, there are many instances when the dedicated 'hopper' has to rely on help from the locals in order to catch the prize.  Sometimes, however, the interaction with the locals turns out to be as rewarding as the original objective, or in the case of this story, even more so.

On the radar screen for this trip was the Strosnider family cemetery.  As is the usual case with tiny family cemeteries, they were once a part of the family's farm which is rarely in the possession of the descendants.  This means that the current property owners have to be tracked down and permission procured to access the premises.  However, unlike most of the common property and church cemeteries, many of these family plots are located well off the beaten path and additional assistance is needed just to locate them.

Starting into this search, I had believed that I possessed a good start on locating the cemetery.  The directions I downloaded from the Internet seemed quite precise - to the tenth of a mile.  From the corresponding Google map I had printed, it seemed as though the cemetery was just outside the tiny town of Littleton in Wetzel County, West Virginia.  Carefully following the directions, I made my way up a steep road until I got to where I had believed that the gate to the cemetery should have been located, but there was nothing, so I proceeded a little further up the road until I found a drive that was close to what the directions had indicated.

I drove into the property and encountered an elderly husband and wife unloading firewood from a large trailer cart attached to a four-wheeler.  The old gentleman was quite friendly, but a little surprised about my suggestion that there was a family cemetery on his property.  "Don't know about any Schneiders," he said, managing to mangle the surname and scratch his head at the same time.  "However," he said, suddenly brightening, "There's a couple of dead folks buried just about where you're standin'!"  Startled, I looked over at the unmarked mounds he was pointing at.  Before I could say anything, he interjected, "And there's a couple more up on the hill behind the house!"

It was kind of creepy the way he nonchalantly spoke about the gravesites and I felt old stereotypes of backhill folks begin to manifest themselves.  However, I regained my sense quickly enough, laughed, and said, no, I was looking for an actual cemetery.  With his wife paying attention to our exchange out of the corner of her eye while she continued to load wood, the old fellow asked me the name again.  "Strosnider," I said.  "Stros.  Snider.  Strosider."  He repeated the name until I nodded my head in approval.

"Well," he said finally.  "I don't know anything about no Strosnider cemetery, but I'll go and ask my pap.  I'll bet he'll know something!"  Before I could say anything, he grabbed his ATV, gunned the engine, and with old faithful hound dawg riding shotgun, proceeded up the drive to his house.  It's not as if I could have said anything, anyway - I was speechless.  His 'pap??'  The man himself was easily pushing the back side of 70!  I was amazed that either of his parents would still be alive.

As I chatted with the wife, it wasn't long before man, dog, and ATV came zooming back down the driveway.  "Well, I'll be doggoned!" the man said.  "My pap knows exactly what yer talkin' about!"  He proceeded to give me a classic set of country directions to the site with some of my favorite phrases:  'head on up the drive,' 'back down the hill a piece,' 'hang a tight left at the old woodshed,' 'bend around till you get to the ridgeline,' and 'stop at the iron gate with the orange cows in the field' were just a few of the offerings.

I thanked the couple for their time and patience and pointed my little Pontiac Vibe toward the orange cows.  Remarkably, the father's directions were dead on (as well as his son's translation of them), and I indeed arrived at an iron gate with orange cows in the field.  There were a couple of problems with the arrangement, however.  There was a chain with a padlock on the gate, I couldn't for the life of me see any cemetery, and there was a large bull who didn't seem very pleased that I was near his family.

As a stop-gap measure, the old gentleman had told me that the property was owned by a Mrs. Koontz (more on that surname later) and if I had problems, I should contact her.  Again, her home was located exactly where I was told it would be:  'down the road a piece from the gate.'  Encouraged by the sight of a car in the driveway, I knocked on the door a couple of times, but there was no answer.  However, the kind folks back at my previous stop had left me one last bit of information that turned out to be gold:  Mrs. Koontz was the owner of the little grocery store in town.

I drove back into Littleton and found the store without a problem.  Inside, to my dismay, it was actually quite busy.  Seems they also run a deli as well as a party store from inside.  There were kids, people stocking up for Saturday night festivities, and the takeout order phone was ringing constantly.  (After a moment's reflection, I felt a little ashamed at myself for thinking solely of my own interests and not those of the locals.  After all, there probably wasn't a soul in the place who had been blessed with my level of affluence.)

I finally got the chance to say a few words to the woman behind the checkout counter:  "Hi, are you Mrs. Koontz?"  She said, no, she wasn't and that Mrs. Koontz was home for the day.  I replied that I had just come from her house, but there was no answer at the door.  At this point, the telephone and a couple of patrons interrupted the conversation, but when it resumed, I explained what I was after and the clerk offered to telephone Mrs. Koontz and see if I could get some help.

I could tell by the responses on our end that the clerk's queries were being answered kind of tersely, but she did manage to find out that Mrs. Koontz had been recently divorced from her husband and now the property in question was under his jurisdiction.  Luckily, Mr. Koontz lived right in town and the employees at the little store were sure that he was home.  "He's a few doors down on the left side of the road" I was told.  Concerned that I might misinterpret their directions and bother the wrong person, the clerk elaborated:  "His house has a whole lot of stuff on the front porch."  Then, leaning toward me an whispering, she said, "His wife calls it junk."  I smiled.  This couldn't get any better if I had scripted it...or so I thought.

Gingerly inching down the street I spotted the house easier than I had anticipated.  Yes, there was a huge pile of, uh...'stuff' on the front porch:  old metal patio furniture, various body parts of dolls, and just about everything else imaginable in between.  There was a small path cleared to the front door, so I made my way up to that and knocked.  A woman opened the door a crack and I stated my name and purpose of the visit and was Mr. Koontz home?  She turned and called for him, then looked at me again and left the doorway.

I stood on the porch expecting Mr. Koontz to arrive, but then the woman came back to the door and asked, "Isn't it a little cold out there?"  I said, "Well, a little..."  Then she said, "Well, what are you waiting for?  Come on in."  Inside the living room was more 'stuff' than I have ever seen in such a small area in my entire life:  video tapes, knick-knacks...you name it.  Mr. Koontz came out and shook my hand and I explained to him that I am a relative of the Strosnider family and word had it that the cemetery was on his property.  He nodded and sat down in a chair.  I asked him if it would be OK if I went up there and took a couple of pictures.  He nodded again.

Then I explained that I was having a little trouble with the directions and wasn't sure exactly where the cemetery was located.  It was at that moment that a young boy came into the room, and having obviously overheard some of the conversation, interjected, "Let me take him up there, pop!"  Mr. Koontz hesitated a second, then looked over at the woman.  She shrugged and nodded her approval.  The boy was obviously pleased at the opportunity and as I thanked the couple, the woman remarked, "Just get my boy back here when you're done."

It was then that it dawned on me just how unusual the events of the last couple of minutes actually were.  Here was a complete stranger - me, an older male, no less, obtaining permission from the guardians of a young boy to transport him in my car outside of town.  I shuddered to think of what those implications could mean in another context and quickly dismissed all of it from my mind, appreciative that there were still parts of the world where people couple be trusted.

The boy was quite talkative, but I enjoyed every second of his conversation.  He told me about where he goes to school, how he has plans to leave the small area he lives in when he gets older, and what some of his daily life is all about.  There was the 'straight stretch' - a moniker given the only straight piece of highway in the entire surrounding area which ran by the little grocery store toward one of the churches.  (Evidently, this 'straight stretch' was a resource of recreational activity for motorized vehicles and the like.)

Sure enough, the place where we were to enter was that exact same chained gate with the orange cows (and the menacing bull).  I asked the boy if he had brought a key to get in and he smiled and said that although the gate is chained and there is a lock, it is rarely closed.  He demonstrated by simply unhooking the lock from the chain and pushing in the gate forward.

Once inside, I asked about the bull.  The boy laughed and waved off my apprehensions.  "That's just Victor," he said.  "He's just a big pussycat."  The boy proceeded to give me a highly detailed account of the genealogy of the little herd (including ol' Victor "taking a turn with his daughter" whereby I had to stifle bursting out loud with laughter) and a quite informative overview of his family's duties in caring for the animals.  The conversation was taking place as we trudged along a solid mud road deeply pocked with hoof prints.  I remarked that it was fortunate that the weather was still cold or else we would be knee-deep in mud.  The young man laughed again and said, "We'd just get a couple of pairs of boots from back at the house!" 

Left - Nathan Paul Koontz, my tourguide

As we walked and talked I found myself wishing that the cemetery wasn't so close so that our conversation could last longer, but there it was - on the top of a small knoll.  "There it is!"  the boy exclaimed.  He became curious as to what my efforts were all about.  He wanted to know who all the folks were - it was a special meeting of two distant universes.  He had seen these gravestones time and again - I was seeing them for the very first time.  He wondered at my sense of discovery regarding something that had been always simply a part of his daily life.

Eagerly, he helped me peel back weeds and bushes to get at some of the gravestones.  I explained to him that everything he knows today - his home, his school, his friends, and even his Jeff Gordon NASCAR jacket - was due to the efforts of these brave pioneers buried on his family's farm.  I was inwardly pleased at his change in demeanor to one of some sense of respect.  We both glanced around at the monuments one last time in silence as the brisk mountain air whipped around the knoll.

Being closest to the gate of the cemetery, I pushed against it believing that it would open, but the gate wouldn't budge.  Seeing what had happened, the boy quickly jumped forward and unchained the gate, explaining, "I always chain the gates.  My daddy wouldn't want me to forget."  He looked up to see if I was bothered by that, but on the contrary, I was quite pleased.  I explained that what he had done showed a sense of responsibility and that it was a darned good idea.

It was then that I had realized what this entire episode had cost me in terms of time - I had so many other places to visit, yet, for some reason, I didn't want this chapter to end.  All of my cares and concerns had abandoned me as it was wonderful to be out in the country and chatting with a bright young man and learning about his world.  He never asked me a single question about mine, but I didn't care.  I wouldn't have had much to say given the circumstances, anyway.

We trudged back up the rutted mud-road and as we approached the last gate, an older boy in a pickup truck cruised by looking at us.  "That's my brother," the young man said.  I wondered if he had been commissioned to check up on his little brother, but I didn't mind.  I was glad that things were happening just the way they were.

We Wayts are related to the Koontz family of this area.  There was a George Koontz who married Shirley Young, a grand-daughter of Christopher and Jessie Logan Wayt Young.  I asked the boy and his brother if either of them had ever heard of George and they shook their heads.  As I was putting away my laptop, I thanked the boy for his help, and he climbed in his brother's truck and they sped off back into their world.