Memories of an Extraordinary Family and their Home Farm
Paul A. Miller
Paul reveals things got off to a "bad start" -- meeting the Spikers for the first time, that is.
A BAD START
Late boyhood and college years defined my occupational desire to be a county agricultural agent. This came true in the spring of 1939 while I prepared to graduate at WVU and then go to Ritchie County as assistant county agent.
I appeared for duty on July 1, 1939, and spent a summer of day and night assignments. But I was not so busy as to overlook the office presence of Catherine (Kitty) Spiker, secretary for a federal farm program. The happily awaited moment arrived when she invited me to Sunday dinner at the family farm near Oxford, WV.
I drove to Oxford to find neither Oxford nor farm. Locals both directed and warned of the disrepair of the nearest road. But I went on anyway toward the “bridge and, turned left’, as directed, and over a steep hill to the farm. That largely vacated “road to the bridge”, filled with weeds, ruts, brush and boulders, is likely the worst strip of country road in the whole of my experience.
But I made it! Settled on the home porch, Mr. Spiker asked me about the trip. When I told him the truth, the whole family erupted in laughter. I would later accuse Jean of falling to the floor in a fit of guffaws at this greenhorn who obviously knew nothing about West Virginia roads, and had taken an abandoned lane. The mood could be felt: How could such a guy be hired to visit and advise farmers?
That first afternoon on the front porch grew into a catastrophe! The Spikers threw out question after question. What kind of farm did you come from? Answer: “Well, it was not really a farm, just sixteen acres as a backup for my father, an industrial worker.” Sly glances again: This guy a county agent? What church did you belong to? Answer: “Free Methodist”. More glances, and from Mrs. Spiker: “Never heard of it.” What are the politics like up your way? Answer: “Most are Democrats”. What about your family? And again the truth: “Democrats”. Absolute silence fell upon the porch. Mr. Spiker cleared his throat and said quietly: “I think we better eat.”
I evened the score, however. Catherine and I were married in the next year.
A MOLASSES HOMECOMING
In from Africa and military discharge on December 12, 1945, I got off the bus in Harrisville, met Mr. Spiker for the ride to the farm and to see Catherine (and Paula for the first time) since the past March. Along the curving hilltop road to Pullman a rear wheel came off, stopped us cold, rolled ahead on the road, and prompted a walk to a friend for help. I joked with Mr. Spiker that his plan to welcome me home was surely dramatic. From him: only a slight grin!
But I was soon home, up the stone steps to the porch and welcoming hugs and tears. The family was in the midst of making molasses. The task was to boil down the molasses in large kettles over open fires, this in a field some 200 yards away. These were tended by Mr. Spiker and some seven or eight neighbors. I was invited to help out and join in their neighborly talk.
Mr. Spiker’s skills were evident. Rather slight, thin, muscled, with a stunning shock of gray hair, he was crisp of eye and movement, little given to nonsense, yet possessed of a quiet affection that, without notice, could infiltrate and embrace you. The two or three evenings of neighborly talk around the fires and kettles revealed the strength of his leadership, his devotion to civic duty, his view of me as a son rather than a son-in-law, and glad of my safe return and continuing interest in the farm. Always to be remembered is his sad-faced habit of telling the family gathered on the porch: “It looks like rain out there; I don’t want you to hang up on the hill, so get started.”
No setting in December, 1945 could have been more helpful as Catherine and I made our decision before the family fireplace, for me to depart on January 2 for graduate study at Michigan State University.
THE REIGN OF SILENCE
The summer of 1952 was indeed a nervous one! I had been granted a leave of three months by Michigan State to work on and complete a Ph.D. The three of us began a three week stay at the farm in August. My aim was to outline and begin writing a doctoral dissertation.
Mrs. Spiker took immediate charge, a manner to which she was accustomed. The stair landing at the top was cleared of its awkward storage uses and fitted with a desk. And the porch swing at the corner would come down to free an outdoor work space.
On the evening of our arrival, at supper, Mrs. Spiker made herself clear, saying firmly: “Whenever Paul is at work at the top of the stairs or on the porch, we all have to be very quiet.” Such is not normally the case for farm people during the summer months. So I made the plea that such discipline need not be so strict and even tried some humor: “I think, Mrs. Spiker, that you need not go to this length in worry over the financial future of Catherine and Paula!” Did she smile at this? No!
She was a take charge lady! Don’t monkey with Gay Spiker! She had her own plan to manage household and farm, and, like Jake Spiker, had little time for nonsense. But her plans were fed by loyalty, energy, frankness and persistence, all anchored in a lovingly and steadfast interest in every member of her family and, as well, the community. When a neighbor grew ill, in good weather or bad, roads negotiable or not, out she went on foot with her medical kit to help, and, if necessary, stay by the patient’s bedside until improvement seemed assured.
Well, the outline and a good start on the dissertation resulted from that experience of working under Mrs. Spiker’s “reign of silence”. I knew thereafter, as well, to pay attention and get aboard when she made up her mind.
One would find it hard to describe how strongly bonded were the daughters, sons, and respective in-laws of Gay and Jake Spiker (though the “in-law” status soon melted away and you became as son or daughter). Each of that sizable group with a clear uniqueness, they all found a special joy in being together, living in support of each other, honoring their parents, shouting affectionate jibes when an unexpected event made it possible. They and their respective spouses grew to become and remain genuinely my brothers and sisters.
My first Spiker acquaintance was Lynn. This began when we were students at WVU, especially as athletes in wrestling and boxing respectively. We occasionally joined in travel to contests outside Morgantown.
I learned to enjoy Lynn’s bursts of joyful laughter and one needed to be prepared for his sly joke at your expense (as, when learning of my going to Ritchie County for the first time, he would tell me solemnly : “You will soon meet …”my married sister, Kitty (or Catherine), who works in the county agent’s office”. And playfully, he never allowed me to forget that his Lewis County 4-H judging team beat my Nicholas County team in the finals to win the 1942 state championship. Lynn Spiker, in a long career, would become one of the most notable agriculturists and extension workers in West Virginia history.
With Catherine’s death and more time, and when my thoughts turned to marrying Francena, I walked with Lynn on the pathways of Jackson’s Mill to share this intention and ask that he explain the likelihood to others of the family. While his exact words are not remembered, their meaning lingers to this day: “Paul, we love you and we will love Francena and invite her to be one of us.”
I have always wondered how Lynn passed the news along, and I suspect and hoped the discussion traveled finally to the porch at the farm.
And so it came to pass that Francena, in her own way, became “one of us”.