Storytelling: Court Day in West Liberty

by Earl Nicodemus

To the reader: I must preface this document by informing the reader that I am a storyteller rather than a historian. Until radio took over the storytelling role about 100 years ago, Americans would entertain each other by telling stories about the exploits of their ancestors or about the exploits of local folk heroes. Those stories are as much a part of our American heritage as the events that inspired them. I have undertaken to learn some of the stories and share them with you! I would never allow the facts to get in the way of a good story!

For 20 years, from about 1777 until about 1797, Black’s Cabin, later known as West Liberty, was the county seat of Ohio County. The first court in this part of the country was held in West Liberty. On court days, the town resembled a county fair. As many as 2000 people or more would converge on the town. Ben Biggs owned an ordinary and a distillery, so one has to wonder if he were instrumental in promoting court days because they were so good for business! An ordinary was sort of a combination of a motel, livery stable, restaurant, and bar! However, Ben was not the only person to make a few shillings on court days!

One enterprising gentleman was the apple man. Try as I might, I have been unable to find out his real name or the exact location of his orchard, but here is his story!

The apple man came to this region as a fairly young man around the late 1760s. With him, he brought a bag full of apple seeds with which he planned to start an orchard. He settled somewhere over toward Beech Bottom, where he planted his apple seeds. Some of the seeds did not grow, but enough of them grew for him to have a large number of apple seedlings, many of which he transplanted into an orchard. Some of the others he sold to people throughout this region of the country. In fact, he sold apple seedlings throughout northern Virginia and Western Pennsylvania until well into the early 1800s.

Most apple trees grown from seeds do not produce fruit that is good to eat, but it is still good for making apple juice that can be fermented, so business was good! Most of you will know that the Wellsburg Apple Festival celebrates the discovery of the Grimes Golden apple by Thomas Grimes near Wellsburg in the early 1800s. Some stories say that the Grimes Golden seedling came from Johnny Appleseed. However, it is much more likely that the seedling came from the apple man.

In addition to selling his seedlings, the apple man would load some of his apples onto a wooden horse- drawn sledge and bring them into West Liberty on court days. He would place a board on the sledge and sell the apples for a penny each. The apple man was very frugal. Sometimes, a customer would give him a one bit coin. The one-bit coin was worth 12.5 cents, so he would cut an apple in half and give the buyer 12.5 apples. His reputation as a tightwad was well known!

As the apple man began to get up in years, everyone began calling him “Pap.” Even though wagons had replaced sledges for just about everyone in the region, Pap continued to drag his old patched up apple sledge over to West Liberty. Some of the folks around decided that they were going to take up a collection and buy Pap a wagon. A couple of farmers even offered to donate old wagons that someone could fix up for Pap. When he got wind of the plan, Pap got a little upset. “If I wanted a wagon, I’d buy a wagon” he told them, so that was that!

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Pap raised hogs. He built a smokehouse where he smoked the hams and bacon which he sold to his neighbors. As Pap got older, his health began to fail. He had good days and bad days. If he were having a bad day, Pap sold the hams and bacon for a little less money. On his good days, he charged full price. Even his wife, whom a lot of folks called “Granny,” called him Pap. One morning Pap sat down at the breakfast table. Wondering how he was feeling, Granny asked, “What’s the price of bacon today, Pap?”

I don’t know the exact location of Pap’s farm and orchard, but Apple Pie Ridge Road leads from West Liberty to Beech Bottom, so I suspect that his farm was somewhere out there. That would explain the name of the road. If someone knows his identity or the exact location of his orchard and farm, I hope you will share it with us!

Another enterprising young man who lived in West Liberty was Absalom Ridgley. Absalom came to West Liberty from Baltimore, Md., where his family owned a dry goods store. Dry goods are goods that are not wet! In those days, they would have included cloth, sewing supplies, personal items, blankets, small hardware items, small kitchen utensils, and other non-perishable items that one would expect to find in a general store.

When he came west, Ridgley loaded a couple of pack horses with dry goods from his father’s store thinking that some of those items might be in short supply in the West. He arrived at West Liberty just in time for a court day. Absalom spread out a blanket atop a large stump where he displayed his wares. Within a few hours, he had sold everything, and people wanted more. Over the next few years, Absalom made numerous trips back East, each time returning with more pack animals and bigger and bigger loads of goods. Eventually, he opened a store in West Liberty, which was the first such store in Ohio County. He hired people to make the trips back East for merchandise, and he hired people to work in his store, so he was also one of Ohio County’s first employers.

Sometime during the early 1800s Ridgley married and moved to Wheeling, where he opened a general store. In 1838, he built a house at 58 14th St., where it still stands today.

Court days were full of fun things to do. Men liked to bet on shooting competitions and on horse races. One story tells of a man who wagered the shirt that he was wearing on a horse race and literally lost the shirt off of his back! There was plenty of food and plenty of alcohol, so people came from miles around. The prominent families in the area included names like Brady, McCullough, Beck, VanMeter, Curtis, Foreman, Mounts, Hedges, Biggs, and Boone.



Featured Photo by Ryan Stanton / CC BY / Filters applied