Project Canterbury

William West Skiles

A Sketch of Missionary Life at Valle Crucis in Western North Carolina 1842-1862

Edited by Susan Fenimore Cooper

New York: James Pott & Co., 1890.

Chapter XI.

In the summer of '54 Bishop Atkinson came to Valle Crucis for the first time.

At this date, only a year or two after the Divinity School had been broken up, Valle Crucis had already a sadly ruinous aspect. One was reminded of a wreck, so far at least as regarded the appearance of the buildings. Put up hastily, of all sorts of materials strangely blended together, wood, brick, stone, adobe, all were now crumbling, and ruinous. The Chapel itself, warped, and twisted out of shape, was only held together by many heavy, unsightly props on either side--a novel kind of flying buttress. It was scarcely considered safe. Still monthly services were held there. Bishop Atkinson, in his Address to the Convention, recorded his visit to the Valley:

"Sept. 30th: I visited Valle Crucis, in itself a most beautiful, and picturesque spot. * * * It is now the seat of a Mission where two faithful, and self-denying men are working [108/109] diligently for the temporal and spiritual welfare of a very destitute population. These are the Rev. Mr. Sidles, and Mr. George Evans. The Rev. Mr. Prout also officiates once a month, at the Chapel in the Valley.

"Oct. 1st, Sunday, in that Chapel, I preached, and confirmed six persons, and afterwards, assisted by Messrs. Prout and Skiles, administered the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper."

The warm interest of Bishop Atkinson in Mr. Skiles would appear to date from this first Visitation to the ground of his work.

As usual, the good Deacon was far from idle. To eke out his small stipend, at the request of his neighbours, he now opened a subscription school in the Office, or Library. Father Skiles, as he was frequently called now, in honour of his scanty half-gray locks, and venerable beard, always fond of children, knew well the simple loving arts by which their hearts are won. He always blended something of religious teaching, suitable to their age, with the lessons from spelling-book and reader. School hours over and the little ones dispersed, other labours succeeded. That small Office was seldom empty in the day-time, unless the Deacon was absent. The country people came [109/110] constantly to consult him. The Missionary was a sort of pluralist. He filled by unanimous public consent, several different offices for the common weal. A Minister of the Gospel, a schoolmaster, a sort of physician, he was also public scrivener, and legal adviser. Few days passed when some letter was not brought to him to read and to answer; family letters of all kinds, business letters, legal papers, with these his pen was often busy. There were then many men in those valleys, who could not write, or read writing, and among the women there were very few indeed who could even sign their own names. He was also general counseller to the neighbouring population. In perplexity, in troubles, they came to consult him, old and young, men and women. The grist-mill in the valley drew the mountaineers from their cabins to bring their grain for grinding. Some few, very few in fact, came in rude waggons, others on horseback, some on steers, many on foot. Most of them carried a gun, a backwoods' custom very common in that region, frequently a hound or two followed. The sack of grain was carried on the [110/111] shoulders, by those on foot. The men were, many of them, clad in home-spun tow shirts, and short trousers without coat or shoes, even in winter. They were rarely in a hurry, the movement of the country people of that region being, almost always, slow, and deliberate. They were strong, healthy, quiet and composed, frequently ruddy from exposure, and exercise. A number smoked corn-cob pipes. A woman riding a steer, with a child in her arms, and smoking a corn-cob, could frequently be seen at the door of Father Skiles' office, bringing the little one for medical advice. The men came for counsel on various matters. The variety of subjects on which the good man was consulted was really wonderful. With farming he was considered to know more than the mountaineers; in matters relating to stock, whether horses, cattle, or sheep, he was held to be an authority, and his opinion often decided a purchase, or a sale, or settled some small dispute. Frequently he acted as arbitrator between neighbours, his opinion being generally accepted as wise, and just, It was always a pleasure to him, when [111/112] he could act as peacemaker. And the opportunities for earning this blessing were not infrequent. He was often consulted on important matters of family life, the division of household goods, the disposal of children, a disturbance between husband and wife, or brothers and sisters. And all this work was done simply, and quietly, spontaneously, as it were. He was unconscious of his own value. He was one of the most humble of men. The sound good sense, the generous heart, the Lord had given him, acted instinctively, as it were, on each call of duty, whether trifling, or important. His influence throughout that mountain region was strongly felt. It was remarked that his room in the dilapidated Office was at times so crowded that it was "like a little Court."

There was yet life in the valley, although the different buildings, with one or two exceptions, had already fallen into a ruinous condition. There were the children of Father Skiles' school playing, and shouting about the Office. Across the valley, in the meadows beyond the little stream, labourers might be seen [112/113] laying up fodder for a herd of some fifty cattle. Near the buildings in the home field some twelve or fifteen sleek, straight-backed, broad-haunched, small-tailed calves were seen gambolling, and feeding. Night and morning a procession of twelve or fifteen sleek, glossy, Durham cows came home to be milked. Of the milk and butter from this fine herd, no account was taken; what was not eaten at table, or used for cooking, was left freely to the negroes. On the mountain was a large herd of fine Dur-hams, grazing at will. Every Saturday, Mr. Miller went up to the Alpine pasture to salt the herd; occasionally, for a holiday, Mr. Skiles, and Mr. Evans went with him. After reaching the wild open pasture, the usual call would be given, and in a moment the great creatures would come running, jumping, leaping, in their uncouth way, surrounding the visitors, their kindly faces, and large dark eyes all turned towards their friend the farmer. The Missionary was always pleased to see the herd, a number of the cattle having been under his care in previous years. He was of course thoroughly familiar with their clumsy gambols, at the [113/114] "salting." Strange that animals so finely formed in their own way, should be so awkward in their movements! How different from the wild creatures still haunting the woods on the same mountains, the graceful deer leaping over the fallen trunks, beneath the shadows of the primeval forest, within sight of the pastures where the cattle were playing their rude antics. It was a regular habit with Mr. Miller to take gun, and hounds, with him to the "salting." A deer was almost invariably roused on returning, and the crack of the rifle, with the baying of the hounds, was often heard from the pastures where the herd was feeding. The cattle heeded these sounds very little, they were seldom alarmed by them, being familiar with the dogs. But occasionally when the chase led through the open ground about them, they would be thrown into wild terror, for a time. In one year, at this date, about '54, seven deer were killed within the limits of Valle Crucis. One day the children in the Missionary school heard the dogs in pursuit of a deer, and presently a noble heavily-antlered buck, of great size, was seen at bay in the mill-dam, only a [114/115] few rods from the school-room. It was soon shot. This buck had been so well fed that the depth of fat on its ribs was almost incredible. The flesh however, had so strong a taste from the bitter acorns on which it had been feeding, that it was uneatable.

There were great fishermen, as well as hunters in the valley. A brother of Mr. Miller was a very skilful angler. The finest of brook trout were on table almost every day, during the season. Occasionally he would go to particular points on the mountain streams, familiar to him, equipped with rod and flies, and return in the evening with perhaps fifty or sixty trout, some of them nearly a foot in length. Mr. Miller was something of a naturalist, rather too much so for the comfort of his friends. Among his pets was a live rattlesnake, a near neighbour of the Missionary. He kept it in a cage on the porch. On one occasion when Mr. Skiles and Mr. Evans were passing through the porch after supper, they heard Mr. Miller calling out in surprise: "Why, what are you doing here?" It was the rattlesnake with whom he was conversing. The creature [115/116] was crawling about at leisure, having crept through the slats of his cage, flattening himself to an incredible degree to accomplish the feat. Mr. Miller, not at all discomposed took the creature by the neck, with a pair of tongs, and with the other hand held the tail, rattles and all, and coolly replaced it in the cage. On another occasion he was seen riding past the Office, with a bag of trout at his side, and over one shoulder a pole, with a live rattlesnake attached to it. He had seen the snake, caught it, tied it with a strip of bark to a tree, until he had caught trout enough; and then fastened it to a pole, neck, body, and tail, and carrying the pole over one shoulder, rode quietly home with the deadly reptile at his back.

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