Checkers n Golf Can Drive You Crazy

Checkers and golf may seem a strange combination, but tools required for both games were originally made from wood. Language for play uses similar terms, such as shot and stroke, and both involve rules, intense competition and strategies, while maintaining a degree of sociability. These similarities have kept them popular even in an age of complex video games and colorful board games.

When my father was a boy, he made a golf club out of a special piece of a hickory limb. In his day, (1920’s) all golf clubs were made with hickory wood shafts. His club was a solid piece of wood with the head resembling that of today's hybrid clubs. Sometime in the 1950’s, I found Dad’s old club and started hitting apples, walnuts or any other object that fit the purpose. Having never seen a golf course or a golf ball at that time in my life...I was just having fun trying to see how far I could hit something. I would have little competitions with myself, trying for accuracy or distance, and not realizing that this little competition would follow me the rest of my life. Other than this, the only competition I was familiar with was Checkers.

Checkers was the game of choice among the locals that loafed around Smith’s General Store. You don’t see it being played nowadays, except when you visit Cracker Barrel Country Stores. Checkers it is a very competitive game and the folks that play, take the game very seriously.

It was not unusual for a game of checkers to last several hours, even days. There were times when one of the players would have to go home before the game was finished, so the board was “frozen”, meaning the board and all the checkers remained in place until the game could be resumed. The board was carefully placed on top of a display case, just beside the Pot Belly Stove, for safe keeping and where it would not be disturbed. Other folks who wanted to play, knew the board was “frozen” and did not touch if for fear of moving the checkers. So, Dad had several sets of checkers for them to use.

I recall one evening there was an intense game being played between Red Brady and Charlie Riffle. They had been playing and bickering with each other for a couple of hours. It was Red’s move and as he was slowly contemplating his strategy, Charlie got up from his seat to get a soda pop from the ice box. While his back was turned, Red saw an opportunity to shuffle the checkers and miraculously, he found his move.

Checkers Can Drive You to Drink

When Charlie returned with his Nehi orange soda pop, he immediately noticed the board had changed. Now, let me explain something here; it is considered a breach of the Rules of Checkers to touch a checker, or to move one by any means, if your opponent has left the board for any reason. Charlie commenced to throw a hissy fit and accused Red of moving the checkers while he was away, declared the game over and himself as the winner.

They reset the board and started a new game. After a while, Charlie realized he was about to get doubled jumped, which would give Red a King. He announced that he was going to put a couple of lumps of coal on the fire and ordered Red to keep his hands off the board.

Accidental Outcome

Although Charlie swore it was by pure accident when he stood up, his leg just happened to brush against the board, causing it to slip. This allowed one side of the board to fold under and all the checkers went rolling on the floor. Red jumped up and called Charlie a low-down scoundrel and a cheat. Charlie told Red to settle down; he remembered where the checkers were sitting on the board and he would put them back just as they were. So Red agreed, and the checkers were rearranged. But wouldn’t you know it, Red no longer had a double jump into the king’s row, and that caused yet another argument.

My mind was in a ponder as I sat there watching all of this. How enjoyable was this challenging competition when only one of the participants could win? And how much fun was winning, when you had to argue and trick your friend to do it? I was much too young to realize there was a lesson here.

Later in life I learned that lesson when I began to play golf. The game of golf is all about honor, trust, obeying the rules; or at least it is supposed to be. I once read that if we amateurs played strictly by the USGA Rules of Golf, as the pros do, none of us would have a handicap under 20.

A lesson can only be learned when it is put into practice. So whenever you are out playing your Saturday round with your pals, remember the rules, and follow them. Don’t be like Red and Charlie and take advantage of your pals while they are at the beverage cart buying their Nehi orange soda pop!
Not all the tales that were spun around the potbelly stove were “tales”. Some (like the one I am about to relate about Andrew Boggs, Jr.) actually contained a pretty good portion of fact ....with just a pinch of embellishment to add a little spice. Everyone in our neck of the woods had heard of Andrew Boggs, who was born on November 29, 1815. He was a legend! My grandfather Smith and Uncle Cooper Smith, both born in the 1870’s, were about as close to knowing him as anyone around, and both knew stories about Andrew Boggs and his strength.

Before I begin that story, I just want to say a little about Uncle Cooper, who was a strong man in his own right. Uncle Cooper (1875 – 1967) was my Grandad’s Smith’s brother. Andy Boggs was 60 years old when Uncle Cooper was born, as the living legend of Andy Boggs was being told. As a kid in the late 40’s - early 50’s, I can remember Uncle Cooper (in his early 70’s) showing us kids his strength by picking up an anvil made from the steel of a railroad rail, by the horn, with one hand, and holding it out at arms length. I don’t rightly know how heavy that anvil was…I know I couldn’t lift it…and that was all I needed to know. He would take a 10 pound sledge hammer and, while holding it at the end of its handle, lower it to his nose and lift it back to vertical. Then he would turn to my brother and me and say “When you can do that, you will be men!”

Now getting back to my original tale, one evening around six o’clock, the store was full of warmth from the potbelly stove and some men sitting around, who were filling their pipes or cutting a fresh plug of tobacco. They began talking about how the folks now-a-days are just not like the way old folks used to be. I remember wondering what exactly that meant…now I know. Anyway, someone brought up Andrew Boggs’s name and the conversation sort of revved up.

Best Gunsmith in the Country

Uncle Cooper said that Andrew Boggs was one of the best gunsmiths in the country, if not the entire world, and folks came from all around to buy one of his hand made muzzle-loader rifles. One such fellow arrived at Andrew’s shop to do some business and when the work was finished, he declared that he did not have the funds to pay for his goods. Andrew, without speaking a word, walked outside to where the fellow had tied up his mule…untied the animal, bent over and put his head under the mule’s belly, wrapped his arms around its legs and hoisted it up on his shoulders. He then walked about ten paces and placed the surprised animal on the roof of a shed. Turning to the fellow, he said “That there mule will stay right where he is until you come up with a payment!”

That brought on some shuffling of feet and a couple of comments about how in the world a man could ever lift a mule. As was usually the case, another story followed about Andrew and some fellow (name unknown) who were arguing about which one was the strongest. The fellow finally suggested, with some authority, that they should just fight to see which one was the strongest. So Andrew took off his shop apron and followed his challenger outside behind the gunsmith’s shop for the contest. There were of a lot of small saplings and brush growing around the place and both men complained there was not enough room to have a good fight. So they started clearing a space by pulling the saplings up by the root. As the story goes, some of the saplings were as big as your arm, and Andrew was pulling them up two at a time - with each arm…finally the fellow conceded and declared Andrew to be the strongest man in them parts.

Boggs reported in the WV News

Now those two accounts were tales told around the pot belly stove, and were most likely a blend of truth and legend, but what I am about to relate is documented from the Webster Republican, a 1964 local newspaper in Webster Springs, WV. The article was printed sometime in September and since I have only a clipping from the paper, there is no indication who the author was. It read:

Andrew Boggs, Jr, was born November 29 1815, and married Mary Lake in 1839 and together they reared seven sons and daughters. Andrew and his brother were gunsmiths. Andy, Jr., could make the closest shooting guns of his day; they had the percussion lock and shot a patched ball. These guns were hand made (meaning lock, stock and barrel) and widely known as the American squirrel rifle. These muzzle-loading rifles were said to be the most accurate shooting guns in the world. Sportsmen who possessed a "Bogg's rifle”*, if they were good marksmen, generally carried off the prize at shooting matches.

Besides being a gunsmith, Andrew Boggs excelled most men in strength. In comparing his great strength with that of ordinary men, it is said that he would place a handspike (a bar or lever used to move logs) under a log and let a good strong man take one end of the spike and he the other. When the load would become too heavy for the other fellow, Andy, Jr. would put his arm around the log, pull it over his hip and carry it along with ease. He could lift a 125 pound anvil by the small end with one hand and pitch it for 10 feet. (Undoubtedly where Uncle Cooper got the idea, although I never saw him toss it.)

The article continues, that Andrew, Jr., at one time, went into a bear thicket on the Little Kanawha River and, after stationing some men at various places around the outside of the thicket, he chased a couple of bears out. At the sight of the bears, the men lost their nerve and ran. This greatly infuriated Andy and he threatened dire punishment to the absconders for what he called rank cowardice. Andy took after the bears on foot, and ran for a mile before overtaking one of them as it was crossing a large log. Boggs took hold of the animal as he was on top of the log and held him there until Samuel T. Miller came up and stabbed the bear with his knife and killed it. *The reference to Samuel T. Miller is taken directly from the account in the Webster Republican, without any further introduction of who he was. However, further in the article, the author gave the following account of Samuel F Miller:

In the generation following Andy Boggs, Jr., was William Moore, the shoemaker of Webster Springs. He was better known as “Bill Moore.” His boots and shoes were prized just as highly as the sportsmen prized the Bogg's rifle. I doubt seriously if anyone really had the strength of this man. The following incident happened in the latter 1890 on Gauley River during the hunting season. Samuel F. Miller and Bill Moore went deer hunting at Turkey Creek and they had killed a deer which they brought down to the Gauley River (shown above). Bill loaded the deer, Mr. Miller and both guns on his back and waded across the river full of floating ice with perfect ease. Bill Moore was a man of remarkable strength and history can furnish fewer instances of greater strength and endurance than that of Boggs and Moore.

It is also told of Andy Boggs that he could hold, in one hand, a mountain rifle with a 48” barrel and drive the center of a target at 60 paces, off hand.

As a young boy, these stories were bigger than life and certainly Andrew Boggs was envisioned as a giant. I can still remember wondering if that poor mule ever got anything to eat while standing on the roof of that shed, waiting for his owner to come back with the money.

Even in passing, Andrew Boggs left his mark in WV history. A large rock remains that Andrew "Andy" Boggs reportedly moved from the Lewis County side of the Little Kanawha River to his mill site in the late 1800s. Boggs was the first to be buried on top of a hill east of the millstone in the area now known as Boggs cemetery. Legend reveals that, during the Civil War, Andy, who was sympathetic with the Confederacy, hid from the Yankees on that hilltop. He is said to have remarked, "If one could hide from the Yankees there, surely it would be a good place to hide from the devil."

Click here to read more about this legend of a man.
Andrew Boggs Jr.
A Strong Man
A Ledgen in His Time
New Tale Around the Potbelly Stove

The winter months were the most productive months in Smith’s General Store, when it comes to tale spinning. There is just something magical about a potbelly stove that attracts folks in the winter. A group of men would sit around the stove, just loafing and listening to tales, with each one always trying to outdo the others by telling a better tale. Whenever a tale was was so good that no one could top it, the store would clear out. The tale you are about to read was definitely a store clearin’ tale.

It was around mid afternoon on a particularly cold, snowy Saturday and Dad had just thrown a couple of big lumps of coal in the pot belly stove, which was already cherry red. Clarence had been sitting quietly on the bench, smoking his pipe and listening to the other tales, and for some reason he reckoned it was time for him to get his tale in the mix. Actually Clarence had a reputation for telling tales and held the record for clearing the store. This particular story has stuck vividly in my mind all these years.

Having worked in most of the areas sawmills during his entire life, Clarence had been part of a rich environment where telling tales was a form of recreation. Saw milling was, and still is hard work, but especially in the early 1900's. The trees were felled by crosscut saws, skidded out of the woods with horses or mules, and carried to the mill mostly by teams of horses or occasionally by truck, if the mill owner was really successful. The mills were powered by steam, generated by burning the wood scraps and sawdust. It was hard work in difficult conditions, but it was honest work, that built character and inspired tales.

This is the Tale as Clarence Told It:

It was late fall with cold nights and cool days. I was working for Jed Johnson at his mill up the right branch of Laurel Fork holler, which was about as far up the holler as you could stick a knife. For about four or five months we had been noticing an old she panther. She would come down off the mountain around 10:00 most every morning. She would just be out there looming around a couple of hundred yards or so from the mill. I reckon she could smell Bess’s cooking. [In those days, mill owners had camps where the mill hands could stay. Usually the mill owner’s wife would stay in camp and do the cooking, or he would hire a cook.]

I supposed the old panther must be hungry, so after lunch, I would walk out about two thirds the distance between us and toss some scraps towards her that were left over from Bess’s lunch . You know, that woman is one of the finest cooks I ever knew, her biscuits and squirrel gravy could win a blue ribbon at a fair anywhere! But gettin' back to my story, at first the ol’e panther would warily turn and trot off a few yards, but once Jed fired up the mill and we all were back working, I would see her sneak down and eat the scraps. This went on every danged day for several weeks. Each day, she and I would get a little easier feeling about one another, until I could throw scraps and occasionally she would catch them in mid air. She had become so brave that after we had shut down the mill for the day and were eatin’ supper inside, she would sneak down to lick the brine off the outside of the water barrel.

Now around Thanksgiving time, the snows had come and covered the mountains like grandma’s quilt covering a feather bed. We were all huddled up around the camp fire trying to keep warm and dry, and out there in the deep snow was that old panther standing out like a lump of coal in a basket full of wool. Somebody, I think it was Three Fingers Potts, said to me, "You’ve sure got friendly with that ole panther, I reckon if you were of the mind to, you could catch her."
I got to figurin’ on that, and couldn’t get it out of my head. I would lay at night listening to the hoot owls, and wonderin’ and studyin’ just how I could go about catchin’ that blasted panther. Finally, one day, Jed asked me to bust the ice in the water barrel and draw out a couple of buckets of water for Bess to use for supper. That’s when it hit me. I knew right then and there how I would catch that ole panther.

I kept an eye on that water barrel, waitin’ for it to be just about empty. When it was, I turned it on its side and let the rest of the water run out. Then I hunkered down and turned it upside down on top of me. I popped out the plug in the bung hole, which was exactly big enough where I could get my hand out just past my wrist. I waited inside the barrel for the old panther to make her evening trip down from the mountain to lick the outside of the barrel. Just before dark, she came. There I was cold as a pickle and crouched down inside that barrel try’in to be as still as water. I'd been waitin’ for just the right opportunity, and finally it was here.
A Tale of Tails

She had her backside turned towards me, just near enough to the opening to where I knew I had to snap into action. I poked my hand out through the bung hole, grabbed a hold of her tail and snatched it inside and, as quick as you can say Charlie Murphy, I tied it into a granny knot! Whew Wee, boys you ain’t never seen such a commotion! She let out a scream that could be heard into the next holler and tore off out of the camp and up the mountain like a herd of mad elephants. You could hear her bellerin’ and squawlin’ and the echo of that barrel bouncing off trees and rocks for miles. I swear I could hear that danged panther far into the night.

The men said they had never seen such a site, nor had they laughed so hard in all their born days! Well, as you might imagine, we didn’t see hide ner hair of that panther again. I sort of missed her, and nary a day went by that I didn’t still throw out some scraps just in case she came back around.

Now at this point in the story Clarence stopped talking as if the tale had ended. He just sat there methodically reloading his pipe. Finally someone asked him if he ever saw that panther again.

Bringing Up The Tale End

I’m glad you asked, he said as he struck a match to light his pipe. As the snow started melting, and the ramps were peaking up through the remaining snow on the northern slopes, you could smell spring in the air. The birds were flippin around and the squirrels were scampering back and forth playing and the sky was turning a deeper blue. We had just set down for lunch, when I heard a racket up on the mountain that was like nothing I had ever heard before. I shushed the men and told them to listen to see if they could hear it too. Sure enough a couple of them did. As the noise got louder and louder everyone was hearing it and to tell you the truth, we were all just a bit scared. It sounded like a team of horses running on a mile long wooden bridge, except there ain’t no horses up there and there ain’t no bridges up there neither!

All of a sudden, I got a glimpse or a flash of something moving just under the ridge where the sun had touched the mountain and it was headin' our way. We all got up and moved a little closer to the bunk house, ‘cause it weren’t no tellin’ what might be comin'. Jed went in and fetched his Winchester off the rack, just in case he needed it. Whatever it was, it was pretty danged big, and there was more than one. We lost sight for just a bit, and when they came back in sight, I be danged if it weren’t that old she panther and she was headin' straight for the camp! You won’t believe this, but she still had that water barrel on her tail, and right behind her was six cubs and danged if they didn’t all have nail kegs on their tails!

This tale cleared out the store!
Communication around the Potbelly Stove

Smith's General Store was a gathering place for the local codgers to come by and loaf, chewing tobacco, rubbing their snuff, smoking cigars or pipes and gossiping or spinning their tales. Back in those days, smoking was acceptable. There was always a checker board resting on an empty nail keg, awaiting the next challengers to the two wooden benches and rocking chair next to the potbelly stove.

Let the Tales Begin

As the tales would start flowing, the tobacco juice would too. The potbelly stove was fueled with coal and we had a coal shed just off the side of our store, which was accessible from the inside. It was the responsibility of my brother and me, to keep the galvanized bucket full of coal and have it sitting in front of the stove.

The coal bucket also served as a spittoon. One wintery Saturday morning, the crowd was gathering and I had just placed a freshly filled coal bucket in front of the stove. A couple of men were playing checkers and two or three were sitting on the benches telling their stories.

Move The Bucket!

Clem, who had just put in a fresh chew of mail pouch, spit his first load of juice, missing the bucket and hitting the floor. Dad scooted the coal bucket a little closer to Clem with his foot. In a few minutes, Clem let loose with another load of spit, again missing the bucket and hitting the floor with a splat! Again, Dad moved the bucket closer, in hopes that Clem would get the message.

Speak Up and Say What's on Your Mind

Then a third time, Clem missed the bucket and hit the floor. By this time, Dad was getting a little hot under the collar and with a little more determination, he scooted the bucket close enough to almost touch Clem's feet. Clem let another load fly right over top of the bucket, landing with a splash on the floor.

Wiping the dribble from his chin Clem drew a breath and said, "Bob, if you don't move that danged bucket, I'm goin' a hav'ta spit in it!"
Christmas Around the Potbelly Stove

The Pot Belly stove becomes a dear friend during Christmas with the cold winters in the mountains of West Virginia. In early fall, Dad would buy a load of coal from one of the local mines and hire someone to bring it to the store and shovel it into the coal house. I am not sure, but I reckon $25 would buy enough coal to get us through most winters.

The store was longer that it was wide, with no insulation, two large display windows in the front and two smaller ones in the back. The stove sat in the center of the floor, but near the rear of the store and gave off very little heat on cold days, outside a radius of about ten feet. You could pretty much gauge the outside temperature by the customers. On cold days, they made a bee line to the pot belly stove, for it was there that they could chase the penetrating chill from their bones, as well as, catch up on the week's gossip, join in on the never ending checkers tournament or spin a tale or two.

For those who have not experienced the deep soul warming effect of a Burnside Pot Belly Stove, it does a darned good job - one side at a time. To get the full effect, you have to become a vertical rotisserie, because just about the time your front is all warmed up, your back side is getting colder, so you have to keep turning, all the while keeping your hands close to the heat. We called it the "Pot Belly Shuffle".

Making sure the stove was full of coal was the unspoken responsibility of whoever was closest to the coal bucket. But, it was the job of my brother and me, to clean out the ashes and fill the two coal buckets before we headed off to school in the mornings, and to repeat the same routine in the evenings when we came home. This was a task much appreciated by the early patrons, as Smith's General Store was open from 7:00 am to 8:00 pm during the winter months.

Something Special in the Air

The store took on a special air at Christmas time. Dad would order in some exclusive stuff that he only stocked once a year, like chocolate covered cherries, chocolate drops (you know what I mean, a chocolate shell with sweet creamy goodness inside) and, of course, peppermint candy canes. He would also get a shipment of wrapping paper and ribbon, string, tape and tags, and place them in a Christmas display, on a reserved spot just beside the cash register, to be certain the ladies could find them.

In the food department, he would order an extra supply of packaged dried fruit, sugar, flour, nuts, cinnamon, nutmeg, canned pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Because folks would be making or buying gifts, a couple of bolts of festive material, a few extra boxes of galoshes, five-buckle artics, gloves, scarves and toboggans, and whatever other items Dad thought people would need or want, were added to the store's normal inventory.

Mom would decorate one of the display windows in the front of the store by spreading out a soft cotton sheet and strategically placing the Nativity scene in a place of prominence. My brother and I would cut snow flakes from folded paper and, using thread, hang them as if they were floating in the air above the Nativity.

You know, the closer Christmas got, the further the warmth of that old pot belly stove seemed to radiate. People started taking on a special sort of spirit and their troubles and cares of life were overshadowed by wishing one another peace and goodwill. For a period of time, losing at checkers seemed less personal, the tales a little more believable and the gossiping was only about good things. It was Christmas time at Smith's store and the Pot Belly stove seemed to radiate more than heat.
This is not Dad' s store, but it will give you an image to have in your mind as you read these tales. Click the photo to go to the blog where I found this image.
The potbelly strove becomes a dear friend during the cold winter months in the mountains of West Virginia. Its belly radiates a soul warming heat which has a magnetism drawing folks to gather in The Smith General Store to gossip, spin tales, or perhaps join in on a friendly game of checkers. Pot Belly Tales is about stories I recall from growing up in my parent's store in French Creek, West Virginia. Some are true and some are'll have to decide!
THANK YOU for visiting!

Smith's General Store, home of the potbelly stove tales, was located in French Creek, WV and was open from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm, Monday through Saturday, and by request on Sundays after church services if someone needed a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread for Sunday dinner.

Panther Fork, Slab Camp and Bush Run roads all converged in the center of town and intersected with US Route 20. The store provided the staple foods and necessary supplies to sustain life, from milk to kerosene, horseshoes to five buckle artics, salt fish to rolls of bologna, bananas to plug tobacco, as well as bread and canned goods.
Located in the center and towards the back of the store was the potbelly stove, which became a favorite place for folks to gather and loaf, play checkers or catch up on the community social events and even gossip. It was a silent friend in the warmer months, willing to take the chill out of the air on cool summer mornings and would warm the body and soul from the biting winter air. Even in the spring and summer, dad would occasionally fire it up to take the early morning chill out. 

While providing heat and comfort to the patrons, that ole' stove was a witness to many a tale from the local codgers. These tales were a form of community entertainment as well as a challenge for the participants who engaged in a competition to tell the best tale.  

Although these narratives were not intended to be entirely accurate, their presentation and purpose was to trigger a reaction that would warrant the honor of being the best tale of the day. I have written them as best I can recall, dealing with the years that strain my memory, and I hope that while you are reading them you can visualize the anticipation, excitement, humor and warmth that was present around that ole' potbelly stove.
Tales Around The Potbelly Stove
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God passed some of my dad's creativity to me. My childhood exposure to the humor and somewhat exaggerated details relayed in these tales have been a contributing factor in my vision of a group of golfing characters called Scruffy & Pals. Go check them out.
Copyrights belong to Daniel Smith.  No copying, reproducing or sharing allowed unless authorized by me.
By Dan Smith
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Smith's General Grocery, French Creek, WV