Do not believe for a second that mountain folk are naturally standoffish and inhospitable.
Quite the contrary: the shyness of an inherent solitariness; anticipation of condescension on the part of a more affluent stranger; wariness of the outside world—all are often justified by bitter experience.
These qualities have given mountain people a reputation for being reticent, unfriendly, and aloof. Those who know the gentle folk of the hills, however, would contend that they are characteristically warm, welcoming, and outgoing once their apprehension is put to rest.
With a good listener, they are set at ease. With a good listener, they tend to be great talkers—great at reminiscing and swapping tales, still a favorite mountain pastime.
Among the highlanders of Southern West Virginia, particularly those whose board-and-batten homes are perched on hogbacks farthest from rustic country roads, the bonds of community generally are strong and those of family stronger still.
A good sense of humor helped mountain folk stick it out when times were tough during prolonged economic slumps, sometimes with nothing more than a cabin, a blanket, and a brazen aspect.
Some of the most tenacious folk that I encountered along my mountain treks while writing newspaper and magazine articles and shooting photo essays, during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, were traced near bold mountain summits, rearing majestically against the sky, reminding men and women of their triumphs.
There remains a spirit of wildness that, even today, cannot be mistaken where it breathes among the hills. It is still a presence in the lives of mountain dwellers, as it was back in the days of the earliest pioneers.
Take Windy McClung for instance.
McClung suffered through three mining mishaps before he lost his right leg a few years ago. The 65-year-old Greenbrier County man told his surgeons: “Unless you can fix it, take it off.” That was in 1974. Doctors removed McClung’s leg just below the knee. But the barrel-chested and bubbly mountain man did not despair over his lost extremity.
Five days after his amputation, the imaginative McClung crafted an artificial limb out of solid black walnut: “I cut the leg and two rifle stocks out of the same piece of timber,” he recalls.
While surgeons urged him to wait for a few months before using the homemade device, McClung was up and ambulatory on his foreleg facsimile in about five weeks.
Now, more than a decade after his surgery, McClung works his 100-acre farm on Baker Mill Road near Grassy Meadows in Greenbrier County.
The former coal miner is a proud descendent of the famed Bill McClung, who was the first settler in the Meadow River valley.
McClung tells his grandchildren about how “grand pappy Bill” hid his wife and children in the swamps along the Meadow River to escape being scalped by the fierce Seneca war parties in the late 1700’s.
The 100,000 acres that the pioneer McClung received in a land grant allotment included about 50,000 acres in Greenbrier County.
During his later years, McClung moved to a farm that is believed to be part of his grandfather’s frontier estate. The old farmhouse, where McClung now resides, was built during the Civil War era. A horse, two ponies, two mules, a pet skunk (de-scented), four dogs and 40 head of cattle roam the soft-shouldered hills and mountain meadows surrounding the farm.
On the front lawn stands a 150-year-old “bee tree” which is home to thousands of the honey-producing insects.
McClung grows corn and hay for his livestock. He and his wife, Lillian, have been wed for over forty years. “I’m stronger now, and I can hobble around pretty good,” he says, smiling under his burly gray-black beard.
And now that he owns a “store-bought” artificial limb that enables him to operate his tractors and 4-wheel-drive vehicles, McClung keeps his hand-hewn wooden leg around for a spare.
“I stay busy, and I don’t miss the leg either.”