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Elk River Ghosts, Tales and Lore

Mack Samples

Pull up a chair and join Mack Samples as he recounts tales from along the Elk River. The Porter’s Creek Ghost tells the tale of an American Indian who purportedly drowned in one of his boats along the Elk, his splashing and struggles being detected by shy horses and locals for a century. In The Northern Lights, chuckle along with Samples as local Pentecostals who observed aurora borealis believed that the end was truly near, with the righteous rejoicing and the less-than-righteous beginning to panic. In The Mystery Buck, an enormous eight-point buck appears to torment hunters for more than 25 years, apparently impenetrable to bullets.

Many of the stories have been passed along for a century around campfires. Samples has painted a realistic portrait of life as it was several generations ago in WV. He credits his late aunt, Mayme Samples Cole, with many of the ghost stories, and remembers the cousins often being afraid to walk home after evenings at her house. His ninety-three year old mother, Velva Kennedy Samples, has refreshed his memory on many of the stories and filled in some critical facts.


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Published: 05/27/2002

TODAY is a day for memories. Some of us are into memories more than others. And among those who are smitten by memories is Mack Samples, who did something about them. He wrote them down and put them into a book.

Samples is a native of that part of the Elk River on the Kanawha-Clay County line, a very different part of Kanawha County than Charleston or even such legendary places as Cabin Creek. The Elk River people, while rural, are not all coal miners. Their heritage is mostly farming and their tales are tall.

Samples has collected stories from his community and his own memories and put them in a new book “Elk River Ghosts, Tales & Lore,” published by Quarrier Press of Charleston.

I’ve known Mack Samples for 30 years and I can’t remember a time he didn’t have an Elk River tale to tell me. It’s genetic with him. He comes from a tale-telling family. He remembers the stories of his Aunt Mayme and tells some of them in the book. He recalls how he was often afraid to walk home after hearing Aunt Mayme’s ghost stories which usually ended with “And that’s the truth if I ever told it.”

As with most old West Virginia tales, Mack Sample’s stories from the book are serious. Some of them are seriously chilling and others are seriously funny.

“The Pot of Gold,” is the tale of an Indian who showed up at the mouth of Barren Creek on the Elk River in the summer of 1888, claiming to be looking for a pot of gold hidden there by the French during the French and Indian War. The white folks in the area were curious about the Indian’s claim and followed him as he set out day after day to search for the treasure. What happens is a tale of mystery told in a way the old folks used to tell them.

I was surprised to find that some of the tales told on the Elk were common in other parts of the region. “Do You Want To Be Shaved?” is a story about an apparent ghost that inhabited one of the old Elk homesteads and would call out to visitors who stayed in one of the guest bedrooms “Do you want to be shaved?”

When I read it, it brought back memories because I heard the same tale in Cabell County from my ancestors when I was a child. It even had the same surprise ending.

Samples’ story of “The Northern Lights” is the tale of some Elk River Pentecosts who saw the northern lights for the first time one evening and thought it was the end of the world. It’s the same basic tale that Jesse Stuart, the late great novelist from Greenup, Ky., used as the basis for his novel “Foretaste of Glory.”

His story “The Death of Franklin Roosevelt,” recalls the special breed of people that Samples grew up knowing. He lived in the midst of a small but intense Republican enclave and they detested Roosevelt and his New Deal.

“They never stood in any soup lines. They never sold apples on the street. . . . They did not have much when the depression started, so they did not have much to lose,” Samples writes. “One man talked of how he had bought a new Willy’s automobile in 1928 from money he was making from a factory in Charleston. When the depression hit and he lost his factory job, he just traded his Willy’s for a milk cow, doubled the size of his garden and lived as well as he ever did.”

Needless to say, the day FDR died was not a day of mourning in Samples’ community.

“Elk River Ghosts, Tales & Lore” is a personal memoir about a part of our culture that’s often overlooked. Samples has preserved memories of the old ones by preserving the tall tales they told and by adding a few of his own told in the glorious cadence of the hill people.

By Katie Griffith and Paige Lavender

For The Sunday Gazette-Mail

This is the third in a series of multimedia projects from the West Virginia Uncovered project at West Virginia University.

CLAY, W.Va. — Stomping the ground with a hoot and a holler, Mack Samples dances with a rhythm and beat entirely his own.

The 2003 Vandalia Award-winner, a singer, dancer and musician, was born into a family of musicians in Clay. At the time, it was fine for music to be in your blood, just not in your feet.

Samples first began dancing in high school at the suggestion of a math teacher who approached him with an invitation to “Tea Club.” According to Samples, Tea Clubs were common places kids could go to learn ballroom dance during school, at a time when people still “couple danced.”

“I don’t say this to be smug or anything, but everybody told me almost from the start I was a good dancer,” Samples said. “I guess it was just there; it wasn’t anything I had to practice very much, it just came. ‘Cause I got rhythm.”

The rhythm that Samples says comes so naturally to him has enabled him to continue his family’s history of musicality. Samples can play the fiddle, guitar and banjo. He is the lead singer in his band and, of course, never misses a chance to kick up his feet.

While Samples learned more formal dances at Tea Club, square dance, flatfoot dance and the other more traditional Appalachian dances are something that came much more organically.

“I just kind of grew up in it and I didn’t have to learn it,” Samples said. “It kind of just came natural to me. I’ve never been to a workshop in my life, for any instrument or anything. I just learned it in the tradition.”

Samples was exposed to square dance with his brothers in the West Virginia beer halls of the 1950s that ran along the side of the main highways such as W.Va. 4. Each weekend the halls, or beer joints, as they were sometimes called, would host square dances with live bands.

“When I was 16, I was privileged to play in one of those bands in one of those beer halls,” Samples said. “I played guitar in a square-dance band and stood on that bandstand and watched people dance. That’s where it came to me.”

While Samples was up on his bandstand watching the dancers twirl by, others took a stand preaching the evils of dance.

“Grandmother often said that there was nothing wrong with dancing, it’s what the dancing led to that caused the problems,” Samples said.

With square dance, everyone is dancing with everyone else on the floor, not just one partner, Samples explained. At the time, there was a feeling that if people danced with other spouses it could lead to “other things,” such as adultery.

“When I grew up, I went to a rural country church, a Methodist church, and time after time, I heard preachers say in their sermons it was a sin to dance,” Samples said. “And I grew up facing that all the time.

“But it never bothered me a bit to sin.”

Even now, an anti-dance sentiment is still ingrained in the traditional religion of the area.

In 1995, Samples was invited to teach square dance to a class of second-graders in Clay. At the time, Samples was a West Virginia University Extension worker for Clay County and taught students around the state as part of his job.

“A few days went by, and I got this visit from the assistant principal at that school and he said, ‘What do you think you’re doing up here, teaching these kids to dance?'”

Samples said he was shocked, having not considered dancing an issue for some time.

“And I realized, it’s still around. In my mind, what in the world could be more harmless than teaching kids to square dance?” he said.

Despite this incident, the rhythm is ingrained in Mack Sample’s life. After more than 50 years of dancing, Samples continues to share his talent for those around the state, though these traditional dances are now considered a dying art.

“A strange thing has happened, nobody dances in Clay anymore,” Samples said. “It’s just not there like it used to be.”

As Clay County extension worker, Samples worked heavily with 4H and continues to work with the organization by teaching his art to students at the camps. Jeff Orndorff, 4-H Youth Development specialist with the WVU Extension Service, said Samples has been working with them for around 30 years.

According to Orndorff, attention to dance was recently beginning to wane, but in the past four or five years there has been a resurgence in interest.

“He gives the enthusiasm that he has for dance to all the students he’s involved with,” Orndorff said. “If there’s a dance, he can do it.”

Even at age 70, Samples says he doesn’t feel a lick of stiff joints or the signs of aging.

“I honestly don’t feel any different than I did when I was 30,” he said. “One of these days I’m going to crash, but so far I haven’t.”

This is partially the reason why Samples was chosen for the 2003 Vandalia Award. The award committee wanted someone still active and performing, and Sample’s name had come up in the past, according to John Lilly of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and member of the Vandalia Award committee.

“He’s kind of a renaissance man,” Lilly said of Samples. “He just loves what he does. He’s able to articulate it and present it to the general public, not just the folk dance crowd.”

Music and dance have never been far from Samples throughout his life, and he claims it will never leave him.

“As long as I can walk, I’ll do it,” he said.

Pages: 82