July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Back in Prohibition days, the citizens of a West Virginia town decided to crack down on bootlegging and prostitution. The author remembers it well.
How does one describe a small town? And how does one explain a town when it sets out to catch all its sinners? All I can do is tell you a little of the history of my hometown, Hinton, Summers County, West Virginia, as I remember it.
It always touches my heart when I come in sight of Hinton, regardless of which direction I come from. I’ve been from Virginia to California and from Texas to Canada, and no scenery makes my heart skip a beat, increases my pulse, or causes a warm, glowing feeling to flood my soul the way the overwhelming beauty of our valley does.
When my great-uncle’s brother was in the Confederate army, he forded the river at what is now Hinton, where the Greenbrier and New rivers flow together. He said that there were only two or three houses there then. He told me this in 1940, and he died in 1942 at the age of 103. Less than ten years after the war, the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad came down the Greenbrier, and the town of Hinton was born. All railroad men who ran east from Hinton to Clifton Forge, Virginia, were known as mountain men, and all who ran west of Hinton were known as rivermen. Several railroad engineers and crews had two families, one at each end of their run. There was a saying at one time that there was no Sunday west of Clifton Forge and no God west of Hinton.
Hinton was built upon a bench of a mountain with a cliff on the river side. The railroad tracks are between the river and the cliff. The bench is perhaps two miles long and wide enough for two streets from one end of the town to the other. The streets, Temple and Summers, come together on the east end of town and go down Avis Hill. Avis Hill was so steep that when the circus came to Hinton, it objected to having to pull its equipment up the hill. In the early days Summers Street didn’t run all the way out behind Riverview School. I remember hearing that when it was extended, a black graveyard had to be moved to make room. I used to look for ghosts there after dark when I was a child, but I never saw any.
From the early 1920s, when I was three or four years old, until 1942, when I went into the service, Hinton was a beehive of activity. People were coming and going at all hours of the day and night, going to work on the railroad. All the women fussed because they could never hang their clothes out to dry; the coal dust settled on everything. All the houses looked dingy and grimy. Today Hinton is clean, with most houses in good repair and freshly painted, but the vital life signs of a growing community are missing. Hinton is like a hundred-year-old man sitting in a wheelchair and waiting for death to remove him.
The streets in Hinton were paved with bricks to the city limits, but mostly that was it. In the 1920s I remember the Model T Fords coming in on railroad flatcars. I loved to watch the cars being unloaded, and I can still hear the cars in winter with broken tire chains slap-slap-slapping against the fenders when they went by our house at 110 Main Street.
Our friend Marion had a store two houses from us with chickens for sale in coops in front of the store. Those roosters began crowing an hour before daylight. Marion had a son, Ray, who started chewing tobacco as a young boy. He could go half a day without spitting. He chewed and worked in his father’s store for twenty years or more before his father found out he used tobacco in any way or form.
Our house was a block away from the courthouse square. The old Confederate monument sat over in the corner of the courthouse yard, and we boys used to climb up the statue and put our fingers on the trigger of the rifle. We also tried to cock it, to no avail. I’ll always remember with respect what was written on one side of that marker: “This monument is dedicated to those men of the Greenbrier and New River Valleys who chose to follow Lee and Jackson.” There was another monument, a Civil War naval cannon, on the square when I went into the service. When I came home, it was gone. Some overzealous patriot had donated it to the war effort.
Now back to my story.
Hinton started to grow. With its railroad yards and roundhouse, it was a center for timber, coal, and farm produce, which made for quite an interesting and rowdy town. Naturally the men who built the railroads, cut the timber, and mined the coal had to have some entertainment, such as women and whiskey Madam’s Creek, across the river from Hinton, acquired its name from a house of ill repute that was set up there to take care of these men.
The first girls in Hinton proper had their main headquarters on Front Street, a dead-end street that runs for five or six blocks down next to the railroad. Men looking for a wild night on the town came from Lewisburg, Roncevert, and Alderson. The village of Cass sent down its lumberjacks. For years the railroad put on an extra coach to Hinton on the weekends closest to the fifteenth and the thirtieth of the month—paydays for the miners.
One man who is now a retired druggist got a start in his profession delivering prescriptions to the girls on Front Street. He also delivered perfume, bubble-bath powders, mascara, hair dye, nail polish, mud packs—anything the girls thought might improve their appearance. He claimed that the girls of Front Street bought more of these things than all the rest of the people of the Green-brier Valley put together. These women always sat combing their hair in doorways or windows where they could be seen from the street.
When Prohibition came to Hinton, many people believed it infringed on their personal freedom and liberty, and they just wouldn’t abide by the law. From what I have read, Prohibition paved the way and paid the way for organized crime Be that as it may, I do know that about everybody who was out of work in the 1920s started making moonshine. And Prohibition didn’t help the integrity of our courts or judges. Many times, if a judge found out that an old mountaineer made good whiskey he told the local law officers not to tear up the man’s still too badly. He wanted the officers to confiscate the whiskey and bring it to him
One election year at about this time, the party in office was losing. The alarm went out. There was a madam at Meadow Creek who also furnished girls at Sandstone and Hinton, When she heard of the problem, she approached a leading politician and told him she could swing the election if he would provide two or three touring cars and the proper amount of whiskey. This madam always claimed she won the election by gathering all the fancy women and voting them at several polling places.
A present-day citizen living in Greenbrier County told me not too long ago that for years his job was to haul a carefully selected group of voters from one polling place to another all the way from Talcott to Meadow Creek.
Now all these shenanigans did not go unnoticed by the good and proper citizens of Hinton. The question arose in one of the men’s Sunday school classes: Why couldn’t all these lawbreaking bad people be picked up and expelled from the community? Representatives of three of the town’s churches met in deepest secrecy and pledged their support and money to the cause of cleaning up Hinton. Three ministers were placed on a committee. Then no more was heard about the effort for about a year, and most thought it had been forgotten.
One day a fine, young, suave businessman arrived in town, looking for a suitable location for a plant or factory that would employ between five hundred and a thousand people. He wanted to look at every available location up and down Greenbrier and New rivers, and in the meantime he wanted to be entertained. Since he spent his money like flowing wine, he had no trouble finding knowledgeable companions and comrades. He dined in some of the best homes in town and some of the worst.
He visited every place in town that sold whiskey by the drink or by the gallon, slept with a different woman every night, and gambled at poker, dice, and slot machines. He was a big tipper. He even had an office with a secretary that the town thought was his real estate headquarters.
Now I had a cousin Joey (he could have been first or forty-second) who was a young man at this time and who knew every loose and sporting woman in the valleys. Knew them by their first and last names. I didn’t care what kind of a character Cousin Joey was. I always had a great time with him, and I could always hit him up for a dime to go to a movie.
One time Cousin Joey ran a footrace against a thoroughbred horse for a hundred yards and won. I didn’t know it at the time, but the owner of the horse and Cousin Joey had this race rigged. They found somebody to bet ten dollars that Cousin Joey couldn’t outrun the horse. The hundred yards were measured very carefully. Then they were off! Cousin Joey was twenty-five feet in front before the horse was in gear. I have never heard such hollering, cussing, and laughing. Every time the horse would start around Cousin Joey, he would throw his arms out and the horse would fall back. The jockey didn’t help things by seesawing the reins. Cousin Joey came in by a nose. I laughed so hard I was crying. The sucker who lost his money wanted to whip Joey and the jockey at first, but later on he said it was worth it just to see the show.
Now Cousin Joey started escorting that businessman from Green Sulphur Springs to Pipestem, from Elk Knob to Barger’s Springs, and from Pence Springs to Bull Falls. There wasn’t a place of questionable nature that they missed. They even drove up Powleys Creek but couldn’t get all the way to the top of the mountain. They made the complete tour of Bluestone Lake and Jumping Branch. The businessman paid for everything, and Cousin Joey enjoyed it all. I especially remember that Flat Rock at the west end of Hinton had more than its share of fancy women and bootleggers. I visited there one time with Cousin Joey and had to sit in the car and wait for him. Because it was cold and raining, the madam came out and invited me in. She even fixed me a cup of hot cocoa, but I never told this at home.
Years later, when I was a grown man, I attended the funeral of a relative in Charleston, and a nice-looking middle-aged woman came over and introduced herself to me. It was the madam of Flat Rock. She had seen the obituary in the newspaper and had made it a special point to be there. She insisted I go home with her, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer. The madam of Flat Rock showed me everything in her home with a great deal of pride and let me know that she had a comfortable bank account. I felt she wanted me to praise everything she had acquired, and I did. She inquired as to the health of Cousin Joey, and when I said he was dead, she said she was sorry she had missed his obituary in the Charleston Gazette. I never knew what happened to her or her family or saw them again.
I have gotten way ahead of my story here.
One beautiful morning Cousin Joey borrowed my grandfather’s old 1917 Buick touring car, picked me up at our farm, and drove back to Hinton. Cousin Joey had a big, fat cigar screwed up in the corner of his mouth when we came in sight of the courthouse and the county jail, where a big crowd had gathered.
Joey stopped the car and asked one of his friends who was standing on the sidewalk, “What’s all the commotion, and why’s everybody standing around in front of the jail?”
“Don’t you know, Joey? Your drinking buddy went to Charleston or Bluefield and had blank warrants sworn out for every person in town who was doing something illegal. You showed him everything. The law arrested so many people last night the jail can’t hold them.”
Just then I saw the madam of Flat Rock standing outside the jail. She winked and nodded at us with a faint smile. I waved back, but Cousin Joey let on as if he didn’t see her. (Later I heard that she got thirty days in jail, and that while she was there, she didn’t lose much of her income.)
Cousin Joey almost swallowed his cigar in his hurry to get that old Buick turned around. After letting me out at home, he went back up Elk Knob Mountain and down Laurel Creek to Sandstone. There he gave a friend of his a dollar to drive the car back. He got on a westbound train, and it was six weeks before anyone knew where he was.
Now what was the outcome of this attempt to round up all the sinners?
The people who dreamed up the caper had to admit the plan had backfired. The idea had been to catch all the white trash, but almost everybody in town had some family member picked up. Even the mayor made the headlines of the Charleston Gazette: MAYOR OF HINTON ARRESTED IN VICE RAIDS. It took the mayor three or four weeks and three or four lawyers before he got his story straight. When he did, he claimed he wasn’t selling whiskey from his office: the whiskey found there was evidence that he was keeping for the courts.
The Charleston Gazette printed a retraction.
Cousin Joey was never charged with anything for his part in this charade, but he was always uneasy when the topic came up. He was told more than once that if it hadn’t been for him, the raids would have been a failure. Several years later he and I were walking down the street in front of the Holley Hotel in Charleston when a man jumped up from his seat by one of the windows and came running out.
“Hey, Joey, how have you been? It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you.” It was Joey’s free-spending drinking buddy.
For a minute I thought Cousin Joey was going to run, but he stood his ground. After the small talk was over, it came around to the discussion of how to catch a sinner in Hinton.
The man said, “Joey, I had to sue those preachers before I got the rest of my money, but I got it. I had a contract, you know. The preachers are still furious with me because they claimed I caught the wrong people. No hard feelings to you, Joey. We did have some good times together, didn’t we, buddy? And the preachers paid for them.”
About fifteen years ago I was visiting in Hinton and I was invited to a church supper. Three or four retired railroaders came around and shook hands with me, and most, if not all, of them remembered my grandparents, my father and mother, and my aunts and uncles. Finally it got around to Cousin Joey. They all started laughing about his part in the churches’ plan to clean up Hinton. The present preacher was listening to our conversation, but I never did see him smile. The railroaders said that when the whole mess was over, the working girls were scattered from Alderson to Thurmond.
I asked those old railroaders what the consensus was about the effort to clean up Hinton. Their answer was unanimous. There should have been a lunacy warrant for all three ministers.
I believe you can understand why I have enjoyed reading William Faulkner’s The Reivers so many times. You can’t go home again, but you can go and take a look.
I want to leave one last thought with you. Has anyone ever seen a family tree that didn’t need a little pruning here and there? But even at that I wouldn’t have cut Cousin Joey off. And if you’re a West Virginian, be careful what you say about the behavior of some of the men in my family. I might know something about the behavior of the women in yours.