On my supposed isolationist “hillbilly” roots: the Nicholson family in Madison County, Va., part 2

Posted on November 6, 2011 by


Though Pollock’s first contact with Madison County took place in October, 1886, and it was the beginning of a long series of events that would impact the mountain people there, it seems unlikely that he actually visited Nicholson Hollow (also known as “Free State Hollow”) at the time. He does, however, mention it briefly, in the course of discussing his experiences of that month.

The mountaineers were “wild and wooly,” particularly in the area known as “Free State Hollow” (so named because, for excellent reasons, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs stayed out and the people practically ruled themselves.

Direct contact with the Nicholson family actually followed in the second visit, the following spring…

Aaron Nicholson, ca. 1880

… I stayed on at the Printz home and a day or so later I, alone, made a trip into Free State Hollow, a distance of about nine miles. When I told Mr. Printz that I had decided to go, he was full of forebodings as to what my reception might be. he explained that the reason why this isolated community had been christened Free State Hollow was because it was really a free state. The mountaineers were seldom disturbed by outside officers, it being too rough and wild for sheriffs and their deputies, and when a murder was committed in Free State Hollow, it was months before anyone was arrested…

Free State hollow, a center of the moonshine business, considered of a group of log cabins scattered along the Hughes River, most of which were located on the Stony Man Tract.

Very few dwellers in Free State Hollow had ever been to the town of Luray, the women and children and most of the men had never even seen a locomotive and there was no reading or writing, the people being absolutely illiterate. Old Man Aaron Nicholson [cenantua’s note… Aaron was born in October 1832, and died in 1911… one of my fourth great grand uncles; brother to Garnett] was the “grandaddy” of the entire clan and for that reason Free State Hollow was also called Nicholson Hollow.

Mr. Printz had advised me to follow the same path that we had used going to Stony Man Peak and when I reached the top to descend on the other side, going east and continuing down until I reached the Hughes River, a small mountain stream whose course would lead me directly to Nicholson’s home.

Dressed in a new corduroy outfit lined with blue mackinaw and with new leggings, trousers and a coat to match, I started off early in the morning, looking quite natty. In addition to a small lunch, I carried a new Kodak, one of the first of these cameras to come on the market.

In the descent from Stony Man Peak to the Hughes River the going was very rough with cliffs and rocks everywhere. I had to twist and turn but I knew that as long as I was going down and following the headwaters of the mountain stream, I was all right.

Presently a clearing and a log cabin came into view and I must confess that I was somewhat fearful as, unheralded and unknown, I approached the mountain settlement.

A crude log bridge spanned the Hughes River and as I crossed it, various mongrel dogs came out raising a particular racket. I knew that it was unwise to carry a stick where there would be strange dogs so, unarmed, I walked boldly forward. Before the dogs could harm me, the cabin door, which was open, was filled with the massive, bow-legged form of Aaron Nicholson. I can see him at this moment with his snow-white beard, his face burned red by the sun, his heavy eyebrows and with his deep-set blue eyes looking at me with curiosity and amazement.

“H’yar thar,” he shouted to the dogs. As they obeyed, slinking away growling and fussing, I walked up to Old Man Nicholson and extending my hand said:

“How do you do, Mr. Nicholson? I have heard you spoken of by Mr. John David Printz with whom I am now staying in the Page Valley, and he told me that you were a fine fellow, a peaceful man, and that I would get a good welcome from you. I decided to pay you a visit and here I am, Mr. Nicholson. My name is Pollock and I am visiting the country and enjoying myself.”

As I talked the old man’s eyes traveled to the Kodak which seemed to fascinate him. He had never heard of photographs and I doubt whether he had ever seen a newspaper picture or an illustrated book.

He then walked out, feet bare (as, in fact, were the feet of all Hollow people) and when he extended his hand, I knew that we were going to be friends. By this time the barking of the dogs had attracted the members of his family and they and the occupants of several other cabins below on the banks of the stream were now coming forward to see the stranger who had come into their midst. Gathering around, they formed a semi-circle in front of me.

“Wal, stranger,” said Mr. Nicholson, “I am powerful glad to see you. I heerd tellof John David Printz over thar’ in Page but I never see’d him. You hain’t got not gun and you air nothin’ but a boy. I sure reckon you hain’t no revenoo man. But, stranger, I want to know: what brought you into Free State Hollow?”

“Mr. Nicholson, I will tell you. – Curiosity. They all told me about the fine trout fishing in the Hollow and about the beautiful mountains which surround your home. They told me that if I wanted to see a real good mountaineer home, Old Man Nicholson had it, that he is the King of the Hollow and that all the other Nicholsons listen to his commands. They also told me that you are a great coon hunter – I am very fond of night hunting – and that you know the stories of the mountain people and their lives for sixty years back. you understand Mr. Nicholson, I wished to meet you.”

This talk evidently pleased the old man. He smiled (he really had a fine face) and all my fears were gone.

“Now Mr. Nicholson,” I said, “to prove to John David Printz that I have been to your home, I told him that I would bring back a string of trout. He knows I do not have any fishing tackle with me and that I could not get trout unless I got them from you. I want you to do me a favor and have some of these boys go and catch a few trout. While they are doing that I will show you my Kodak.”

Mr. Nicholson, however, seemed inclined to carry on further conversation and:

“Stranger,” he said, “what mought be your fust name and whar do you come from?”

“My name is George,” I replied, “and I come from the City of Washington where the President of the United States lives.”

You should have seen the faces of this group as I made that announcement!

“Wal, George, I reckon you and the President is good friends if he is your neighbor.”

“Yes, surely we are good friends. Everybody is a friend of the President. He is the great ruler of this country, yours and mine.”

“Wal, George, I mought ask you a question. You appear to be a tolerable edicated boy. Ken you spell ‘scissors’?”

That flabbergasted me and every person in the group became extremely attentive, craning their necks and poking their heads forward to hear my reply.”

“Why surely I can spell scissors. That is very easy. S-c-i-s-s-o-r-s. Scissors.”

Old Man Nicholson looked amazed. He turned around, gazed at his sons, daughters and friends and as much as if to say “that settles it,” remarked to one and all: “This here is really an edicated boy.”

He next turned to his eldest son and said. “Only one man has ever been in Free State Hollow who could spell that word and he was a schoolteacher who visited Sue Nicholson several years ago in the Hollow down near Nethers Mill.”

Then turning to his sons, Gus and Russ, two huge men, Old Man Nicholson commanded: “Go down a ways and git George some trout.”

Several started on their errand and I then unshouldered my Kodak. The older folks and the young men and girls gathered around but none of the children would approach me. (Those of my readers who visited one or more of the Hollows before 1937, as many did, will recall that even then the mountain children were afraid of strangers and hid in the brush, peeking out like wild animals.)

Taking the Kodak out of the carrying case, I explained how it operated and asked several of the mountaineers to let me take their pictures. Nothing doing! They seemed to think that that would be a terrible thing but finally a couple of the young men, tempted by a silver dollar which I offered, agreed to pose.

Also, I seemed to please the young women. Coming up, they examined my cap, felt my corduroy coat, smoothing it down with their hands, admired the blue mackinaw lining and chattered among themselves like a flock of magpies. I told a couple of funny stories, sang several songs and all of them became quite friendly, giving me apples and asking me to remain to “git a bite,” but the men came back with a fine string of trout which they had taken from the pool just below the house, and time was pressing.

As I prepared to leave, the men whose pictures I had taken asked to see their photographs and it was very difficult to explain to them that the pictures could not be taken out of the box immediately but had to be carried away, treated chemically and then printed by the sunshine. This idea seemed preposterous, they demanded the pictures and I was in a quandary but, finally, I opened the Kodak. Taking out the roll and being careful not to expose it, I told them that the pictures were there, rolled up, and that I would have to carry them to Washington after which I would return and give the pictures to them. Eventually they believed me and then I bade all a fond farewell.

This, my first, was a very friendly visit but I doubt whether it would have been so if the mountain people had been aware of the fact that my father and Mr. Allen owned most of the land upon which they were living.

The conclusion follows, in part 3.