Valley from the Past
By Conrad Richter
In a pocket of land shut off by the mountains, a famed author found a flourishing life.|
From Country Beautiful magazine, April 1963.
NOTE: This article is over 40 years old and I believe it is now in the public domain. If it is not, I
would greatly appreciate hearing from the current copyright owner, from whom I would beg permission
to retain the article on this website.
We first saw our Valley on a lazy summer day forty-odd years ago. Rounding the foot of a strange mountain, we crossed a red iron bridge and found we had blundered into a haunting landscape, mostly wild and only partly tamed by man, such as you sometimes see in old paintings of early America. The mountains on either side shut out the world and at once we felt something that we could not name. There was beauty here and peace. The red dirt road wound with unhurried calm along the creek. We passed scene after scene out of olden days, unfenced woods, parklike banks and tree meadows unspoiled by man. But the indefinable something we felt wasn't entirely from these nor from the glimpse of remote farms with fields encircled by forest or of weathered houses located far back by some secluded spring which we knew only by the crystal run that crossed under the road.
There are still in us sensations and capacities for sensation unguessed by modern man, and how were we to suppose then that what spoke to us here in this strange Valley and in what our inner senses gratefully swam was a racial remembrance buried deep within us, a recognition of nameless primal elements we had all but lost today? We knew only that we were irresistibly drawn by something unseen and unknown. The Valley, we felt, was where we must live and make our home. Some blind instinct worked in us, an instinct perhaps mysterious as that which brings the wild goose back to its native nesting place, but exactly what it was that had called us so powerfully lay hidden from our sight.
All fall and winter we felt the call and couldn't wait for spring. We came to the Valley again on George Washington's Birthday with a blizzard driving level across the fields blotting out the mountains in storm. It looked like nature warning us against our folly. But nothing could stop us now. Before we went back to the city we had acquired what we were told had been the homestead of the first Valley settler who in early days had hidden his young wife from the Indians in a chest1. How many times during the next months we reproached ourselves for losing our reason is of little matter here. Anyone who has ever labored to fix up a worn 150-year-old farmhouse, brought water half a mile from a mountain spring, patched up a shell of ancient barn facing the south as all barns should and stoned a third mile of lane nearly down to China can surmise our discouragements and misgivings. But already that first summer we had begun to find the bright coins of pleasure which we in our ignorance thought we had been seeking when we came to the Valley.
Perhaps our first delight was in our new fastness. The creek was our moat, and from the moment we crossed our own log bridge we were on home soil that ran to the top of the mountain. Halfway up on what Valley folks called a bench stood our house and barn and lay our garden. We looked over old fields of red beard grass interspersed with young white and jack pine across to the next mountain and back to our own. We found that unknown to us a colony of that rare and lovely October bloomer, the fringed gentian, grew by the hundreds in old fields near our spring, and that below us in the woods lay an ancient graveyard with rude fieldstones for markers2, all grown up in heavy oak and pine. Indians and the earliest settlers who had known them were said to be sleeping there.
We also found that foxes came on pale moonlight nights to utter their unforgettable wild bark at our Newfoundland bitch and that we had a ghost. From our bench we could see across the Valley to the stone house where Ike Fuhrman lived.
"What were you folks doing eleven o'clock last night?" he asked one day.
"We were in bed," I said and wondered aloud why he had asked.
"You had a light going from room to room," he said. "Upstairs and down. We stayed up till midnight watching it."
There was something in his face and the way he said it that made me curious.
"Is our house supposed to be haunted?"
He looked at me soberly.
"The most in the Valley," he told me.
Many a night I slept in the house alone except for Brimsey, our Newfoundland. I heard the deep methodical hoots of the big-eared owls roaming the Valley on velvet wings, the sound of distant locomotives when the air was misty and late Saturday nights the familiar voice of some Valley tippler making his way home on foot singing "The Old Rugged Cross." But, although our daughter once cried out that something white had brushed by her in the room, I never heard or saw a ghost unless it was one cold, dank evening in November. Ike had told me of what he called "spook lights." They saw them in our and Minskers' meadows3 along the creek. He said there were sometimes several moving around like lanterns, and when they came too close they would leap together with a flash of green light like lightning, and then there would be only one. I heard him with indulgent skepticism.
"If you ever see one again, let me know."
One evening some time after, our telephone rang. It was Ike whose mother was on the same party line.
"There were two of these things down in John and Miley's meadow tonight," he reported. "They jumped together and now it's a going up toward your place."
I put on my sheepskin coat. When I got out in the cornfield I could see a bobbing yellow light between me and the meadow. How far away it was I couldn't tell. Some moments I thought it very far. Then suddenly it would seem so close the hair stood up on the back of my neck. By its course from the meadow I knew it had been coming toward us, but now, as if it had detected me, it turned away and started off on a tack toward Oliver's cuttings. It was a raw night with rain in the air and a fairly strong wind from the east. I had read and always believed that so-called will-o'-the-wisps were luminous gases drifting in the air currents. Tonight it came over me that what I looked at, whatever it might be, was not floating gas, for it made its way steadily into the teeth of the wind. Had it been daylight I might have run and perhaps caught up with it, but the night was pitch-black. Unseen corn shocks were still bunched here and there. Sharp corn stubble stood underfoot, and fence rows and tangled overgrowth lay ahead. The bobbing light gained on me until at last I saw it disappear in the mountain near where once there had been a house. Several times I had stood by its stone foundations, all that was left of it, looking lonely and abandoned here in the deep woods.
"It must have been a man with a lantern," I told myself. "Perhaps a coon hunter out with his dogs." But why he had traveled where there was no path and had run from me so fast I did not pretend to know.
Meantime we thought less and less about our curious call to the Valley. We were fast becoming natives ourselves. Most every day driving the twelve miles to and from my office, I picked up someone from the Valley. It might be one of the woodsmen named Fite; or one of the Sponsler brothers who lived and farmed without benefit of a woman; or Jim Dell whose father had been coachman at the Peter Allen house where in the late 1600s Indian girls had danced and bounties for Indian scalps had been paid; or perhaps Mrs. Meck who at seventy-four tramped four miles to the village summer and winter with her eggs and butter, and although she lived by herself told me time passed so fast that one week was hardly here until it had gone; or Stouffer, a laborer, who traveled weary miles daily through the early winter darkness; or old Bub Knapp who, Stouffer told me when he saw him ahead, would never accept a ride with anybody but who did, bidding me a courteous "Goodnight to you" when he got down at his lane; or one poor destitute family that lacked more than money, with many children and little public support in those days. These were only a few. All paid their way with talk calculated to interest and entertain me, revelations of their neighbors and themselves.
When first we had visited the Valley we had been aliens and outsiders, such as the coal region fishermen who took bushel baskets of fish from the creek with nets and dynamite; or as the summer picnickers who often made off with Valley wild flowers and red-berried branches of the black alder which the natives sold at market; or in the fall as uninvited hunters who pillaged Valley fields of game and were accused of shooting recklessly close to Valley houses and children.
But now we ourselves had become neighbors and landowners. We had been scrutinized, inspected, talked over and seemingly not found wanting. Although our house stood half a mile from the road, Valley folk began making their way to our door, the first a young woman to help in the house and when in a few months she stayed home one night to have her baby, she sent her sister, who in turn failed to appear one day for the same reason, after which we found another who served us faithfully till the end. Their daily news of the Valley and its people was our morning paper relayed to us in early American words and expressions. They said sassafrac and shumac; hireling for hired man, mind for remember, rift for burp, camfire for camphor, to mention only a few of them.
Others followed our path up Christmas Tree Hill. Young John Fistle, who brought our daily milk, had little to say, but old John Minsker4 who tilled some of our land talked copiously, anything to put off his work in the fields. His indolent farming was a legend in the Valley. He planted potatoes in July and dug them out in November or December, a day or two ahead of the first hard freeze. He planted corn around the same time. It often stood uncut until November and in bunched shocks through the snows of winter. On the other hand, he was the most expert and meticulous weather prophet we ever met. He would look up at the clouds or sky, note the wind, bring forth some sage saying of his own creation, then make his prediction, often contrary to the forecast in the morning Patriot and reliably accurate. In our years with him I never knew him to fail, although later on when feeble with age and corrupted by modern largess and short cuts, he would when asked echo the printed government forecast, a little shamefacedly, it seemed, and often wrong.
But now he was in his sixties and prime, an indifferent farmer but master hunter who invited me along on his trap line and shared his secrets. On the mountain he was like a man inspired, exulting in the woods, striding along at a pace I could hardly keep up with, pointing out deer tracks in rocks or a gray fox trail on a dry, solid path, pouring out a constant stream of observed signs and connotations invisible to me. Then suddenly he would turn, stop dead, face me and tell with exuberance an experience that had just come to mind. He was the ultimate of what folks used to call "good company."
By this time the mystery of what had called us here had almost left our minds. We were swallowed up by Valley life and doings. Dewey Knapp came to cut our blighted chestnut into ties and lagging. His father, Bub, planted young evergreens with me, and his brother. Lot, hauled stone from our fence rows and shale bank to bolster our sinking lane. I found working out-of-doors with these men, their Valley talk and banter in my ears, the earthy smell of the ground in my nostrils, the gift of the gods, so that mornings passed before I knew it except for the hunger rising in me. My respect for the ancient ways and life acceptance of these men grew. How easily they adapted themselves to nature, not minding a little rain or snow but taking it as a deer or fox did, surprised that somebody objected to getting wet. They reclined on the ground to eat their lunch or "piece" and seldom if ever caught cold. After the day's work I found keen pleasure in sitting out with one or more of them under the walnut tree near the barn, talking about country things and people, aware of the imperceptible fall of dusk about us, the lights coming on in distant windows and the feel of the earth turning beneath us, all the while in tune with night and day, the seasons, the earth and the planets.
Lot was the one who said our bridge wasn't safe.
"Jake didn't care how he built it," he said. "For one thing he left the bark on the stringers. He ought to've peeled and faced them. Then they might have lasted twenty-five years. Now they're nigh rotted through in five."
He came one morning with his double-bitted axe over his green-checked shoulder and I went with him up the mountain. Not every man has the privilege of picking out his own trees for his bridge. Ours had to be straight and hold their size at thirty-four feet to hew eight inches square. We found some splendid red oaks. After that came the felling and facing, the skidding to the creek and its spanning.
Not that the stream of Valley life lapped around me alone. Evenings and daytimes, sometimes before we were up, more than once after we were in bed, neighbors came to the house on errands, perhaps to telephone the doctor or the town insurance man who had cut off the policy because the premium hadn't been paid, or the city alderman who held some member of the family for bail. The errand accomplished, it wasn't seemly for them to go until they stayed to visit and talk for a while.
Life had grown sweet on its own account here on our bench above the Valley. We knew our fellows, were acquainted with many of the joys and tragedies of their lives. We genuinely liked them all, the provident and improvident, the lawful and unlawful, the exemplary and the rascals. When drought or flood came, we felt them sharing the common adversity. When hard winter snows descended on us, we knew they were snowed in, too. We watched them face hardships matter-of-factly and heartbreak with courage, taking the bad with the good, for this was life, this was the way it came to all.
When tribulation struck us and we had to give up the dearest place we had ever lived and leave the Valley for the unknown, we were better prepared to endure it. For weeks as the time approached we thought we detected in Valley friends a new unaccustomed soberness and restraint. When the final day of parting came, neighbors climbed our bench to give us good-by. There was no jovial bravado now. I can still see them standing there, some to our surprise openly wiping their eyes. It gave us the curious feeling of a Valley funeral, that we who were about to leave were the dying and they who mourned us remained the living. Years later I stood on a pier with the liner waiting and saw groups of Old World men with the same cruel faces and unashamed grief as they bade good-by to brothers they would probably never see again.
Fortunately for us we were able to return, to visit if not to stay. We still go back and, forty years after, when we come within a mile or two of our Valley, indeed when first we glimpse on the horizon the blue sky line of either of its two mountains, something comes up in our being to overwhelm us with feelings we have never experienced anywhere else on earth. Here is where we lived closest to the heart of man and nature, where we drank deepest from the ancient springs that nourished the race.
Once in the yellow pages of a rare old book, I came on a plaint made long ago by an early American witness who lived before 1776 and after. He spoke sadly of the changes that had come to our country following the Revolution, the new class consciousness, the artifices of status, the "me and thou" where there had been before a much freer mingling and mutual respect of rich and poor, learned and unlearned, the good and the bad. He was saddened by the new affectations, the emphasis on the material and worldly that had succeeded the hardy devotion to the once simple verities of life and the heart.
At first when I read, it seemed only a worn lament for the past from the dead language of a dusty book. Slowly it grew alive. I remembered our Clarks Valley folks in their pocket of land shut off by mountains from the rest of the world, where in our lifetime the essences which our fathers had lived by and which had been the "dwelling place" of the race for countless generations still flourished along with the old uncontaminated ways and poetic expression of commonplace things.
Was this, I wondered, what in the beginning had obscurely drawn us to the Valley? Could we on that first day we saw it have possibly felt intimations of these roots which we were to find reached deep down into our own inherited being where once upon a time they had been native and familiar? We shall never know, only that we are grateful for the mysterious call we heard and heeded. Without it we should have missed a rich tarrying-place on the life journey, a place that has left its mark on most of the books that I have written5.
Codicil apprearing with the story:
A native of Pennsylvania, Conrad Richter received the Pulitzer Prize in 1951 for his novel, The Town. Mr. Richter, who is interested in Early American speech and life, is also author of The Sea of Grass, The Trees and The Light in the Forest.
Mansker Chronicles Notes:
- See Ludwig, the Chest and the Indian for this story. The
Richter house is in such close proximity to what is known in the Valley as the old Minsker place,
and its geographical location between that land and the old cemetery, is a strong indicator that
in the early days all of the land belonged to Ludwig.
- See the Old Minsker Cemetery photos.
- See the Visit to Clark's Valley page for photographs of the meadow and the Richter house.
- John Minsker, Sr., born in Clark's Valley, Pennsylvania, on 8 August 1867, was the son
of Moses Minsker, the grandson of Ludwig Minsker III, and consequently the great-great-grandson
of the immigrant Ludwig Mäintzger (see the Descendants Page).
- See the Conrad Richter page.