Arriving in Virginia City, 1988

Title Slide for "Arriving in Virginia City" Photo of author in front of First Presbyterian Church and a second photo of the city taken from Flowery Mountain
Mt. Davidson from the tailing piles of the North End mines.

I pulled into Virginia City early in the afternoon. It was a Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, 1988, twenty-four hours after leaving Camp Sawtooth in Idaho. The summer had been idyllic, running a camp with plenty of time to hike in the mountains. Now I was heading again into uncharted territory.

The Drive from the Sawtooth Mountains to Virginia City

The previous afternoon, I’d driven from the camp to Elko on Highway 93. As I crossed the border, I was needing a place to relieve myself. However, I wasn’t sure about going into the casinos at Jackpot. I continued on, finally stopped in Elko, checking into a Motel 6. After diner, in the waning evening hours, I walked around the town watching trains run through and the sun set across the desert. 

Up early the next day, I grabbed breakfast at McDonalds and hit the road. I drove west on Interstate 80, which parallels the Humboldt River across northern Nevada. Stopping for gas in Winnemucca, I noticed a tire was low. I added air and continued, but with an uneasy feeling. Earlier in the summer, I had read a book about pioneers traveling across the 40-mile desert, from the Humboldt Sink to the Washoe River. This was not a place I wanted to have a flat tire. I pulled over in Lovelock and checked the tire again. It was low and leaking. I’d picked up a nail. Thankfully in the center of the tire, so it wasn’t ruined.  I found a garage who patched it in about fifteen minutes while I had lunch. Without losing much time, I was on my way. 

At Fernley, having crossed with 40-mile desert without realizing it, I left the interstate and took Alterative 95 south to Silver Springs.  There, I turned left on Highway 50, heading toward the Sierras. The country was barren and I felt isolated. Shortly before reaching Dayton, I looked up a canyon to the northwest and glimpsed the white “V” high on Mount Davidson, my destination. At Moundhouse, where at night one could see several long red neon lights advertising legal brothels, I turned north on Nevada 341. From there, it’s a steep grade up the mountain to Virginia City.

I drove through the waning town of Silver City and squeezed through Devil’s Gate. This was a crack in a ridge barely large enough for a highway. On both sides of the strip of asphalt were relics of the past. Old headframes for mines, abandon trucks, wooden shacks, and rusty hardware. In an open pit mine, I noticed the old tunnels honeycombing the exposed side of the mountain.

The next town was Gold Hill. From there, the road became extremely steep. I pushed the gas to the floor. My car creeped up the 13% grade that wound around a large open pit mind. Cresting at the Divide, the road dropped slightly. From here, it was known as “C Street, the main drag of Virginia City. After passing the old 4th Ward School, I pulled into a parking place in front of the old wooden church on the south end of town. 

Arriving in town
First Presbyterian Church in 2018

The doors were locked. I was hoping someone would be there, as volunteers tried to keep it open for tourists during the summer season. I looked carefully over the 120-year-old whitewashed building, wondering what I was getting myself into. Slowly I walked around the building. The vacant lots on each side were barren, except for a few hardy weeds attempting to defy the Nevada desert. Broken bottles, bits of rusty iron, and weathered, sun-bleached, chunks of wood, all remnants of an age past where hidden under the weeds.

Afterwards, I stood for a few minutes on the front porch, leaning on the rail, looking east, down Six Mile Canyon. It would become a familiar sight with Sugarloaf, the core of an ancient volcano rising the middle of the canyon. In the distance, a couple thousand feet lower, was an alkali desert simmering under the afternoon sun which I’d just traveled through on Highway 50.

“Well, I better get on with it,” I thought, attempting to encourage myself to walk the boardwalk to the Bucket of Blood, a saloon where I had been told to pick up the keys. The sun was warm and although the peak of the tourist season was over, there were still quite a few sightseers on C Street, vying for the slot machines that stood just inside the doors of all the establishments adjacent to the boardwalk. The noise of the electronic bandits and the smell of the sausage dogs and spilt beer overwhelmed me. I lengthened my stride, sidestepping tourists, quickly covered the three blocks.  

The “Bucket” in 2008

The Bucket, as it’s locally known, is a grand saloon. Except for slot machines, a 20th Century invention, it appeared little had changed since the last century when the mines produced broken men and millionaires. Chandeliers hung from the punched tin ceiling. The wooden bar was adorned with polished brass behind which hung a large mirror. Pictures of another era on the Comstock hung from the walls. I leaned against the bar and asked for Don McBride, the owner of the Bucket and husband of a member of the church. 

“He’s not here,” the bartender said looking at me sideways as he washed glasses.  “Are you Jeff?”  

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“He told me to give you this,” as he handed me an envelope.  I opened it. Onto the bar dropped a set of keys, one for the church, another for a house where I’d be staying, and a third for the post office box. There was a map, a church directory, and a sheet with names and phone numbers for people who might be of help. I returned to my car and drove to the house on B Street.   

Settling in
Where I lived on B Street

The little house the church rented for student pastors, my home for a year, was nothing to write home about. I’d been here in April, staying with Laura and David Stellman, the previous year’s student pastors. I’d flown out for the weekend to check out the position. The house had two small bedrooms, each barely large enough for a full-size bed, along with a living room, kitchen, and bathroom which sported an antique iron tub. None of the floors were level, but this is true for most of the buildings in Virginia City,. Mines held up with rotting timbers honeycomb the ground underneath the city. The earth constantly settles and occasionally sinkholes develop.  

I later learned the house had an interesting history, but for now it was comfortably furnished. There was a chair, couch, coffee table, and bookcase in the living room. There was also a television, but since I never signed up for cable, it remained unused. Both bedrooms had beds. I decided to live in the front bedroom, which had a single bed and enough room for a small desk and a dresser.  The bathroom was off this bedroom, and it also had a small closet. It was warm and stuffy inside. Opening the windows, the regular afternoon breezes began to blow and it was soon comfortable. 

On the Formica kitchen table was a note from the women of the church, welcoming me. They also had left a few groceries. In a box was a loaf of bread, peanut butter, jelly, cooking oil, and a few cans of soup. I looked inside the refrigerator and sure enough, there was a dozen eggs, a carton of milk, some orange juice, along with a six pack of beer and a bottle of wine. 

I walked out to my car and started shuttling the suitcases and boxes that I’d lived out of at camp that summer. When the car was empty, I drove back down to the church. There in a corner of the small narthex were four fruit boxes of books I’d shipped via mail on book rate, along with two larger boxes that I’d shipped via train. Howard, one of the church’s elders and a school principal in Reno had picked them up for me at the Reno station. I’d shipped these boxes in late May, which now seemed a lifetime ago. Curious as to what I’d packed, I hauled them into the house where I began to unpack.

The books quickly filled the shelves. The big boxes contained stuff for the kitchen: utensils, a wok, a coffee maker, all wrapped in dish and bath towels. There was also a light for my desk, a small fan, winter clothes, a couple of blankets, a two sets of sheets, and a few framed photos to make the house look like home.  

By six o’clock, everything was unpacked. I’d even hung the pictures. As I fixed a peanut butter sandwich for dinner, I noticed the house had cooled. The sheer curtains blew in the late afternoon breeze. The sun had long set behind Mount Davison which shadowed the town to the west. The evening appeared pleasant. I ate out on the front steps. I’d been in town nearly four hours and had yet talked to anyone except the bartender. Eating my sandwich and swishing it down with a bottle of beer, I read The Peace Pilgrim.

About halfway through my meal, a man who was obviously drunk and carrying a tutu, stopped by to introduce himself. Virgil Bucchianeri said he was the district attorney. I wasn’t sure whether to believe this man holding a lacy tutu, but he was friendly and wanted to welcome me to the town. He knew I was to be the pastor at the Presbyterian Church. “I’m Catholic,” he said, “but we all get along here.” He had to run, saying he had a rehearsal of a mountain man ballet at the Piper Opera House, which was just down the street beyond the courthouse. Well, I thought to myself, if I was to wear a tutu, I’d probably be drunk, too. I finished my sandwich and picked up my book and continued to read.

Meeting Victor

A little later, another guy walked over. Victor introduced himself and said he had been attending church since moving to Virginia City from Reno a few months earlier. He invited me to go with him down to the Union Brewery. I put my book up and dropped my plate into the sink. We then walked to the bar on the north end of C Street. I learned that Victor was a relatively new attorney in Reno. Although older than me, he had left behind an academic career for law school. He had been in practice for a little over a year, choosing Nevada because it was a state without a law school. He hoped meant there would be less competition. 

A few minutes later we arrived at the Union Brewery. The bar was housed in an old storefront building along C Street. It was long and narrow, rather dark, with wooden floors and plastered walls filled with photographs, bumper stickers. An artificial tree dangled from the punched tin ceiling, decorated with bars that patrons had tossed up onto the branches. The bar was decidedly local, with even a sign behind the cash register that read, “Have you been rude to a tourist today?” 

The Union Brewery

We entered and took our places on stools in front of the bar. The bartender brought Victor a non-alcoholic imported beer that they kept on stock for him. Victor introduced me to Julie, telling her that I was the new Presbyterian preacher. She gave me a quizzical look and asked him if I was one of his jokes. Then she asked me what I’d have. When I asked what was on tap, I learned that they made their own beer. This was long before the brewpub concept that taken off. The only homebrew beer I’d had up to this point had been bad, but I decided to try it. She nodded, twisted around, filled up a glass and plopped it in front of me. It was dark with a foamy head.

One sip, and I fell in love with the beer as I’d already fallen for the ballerina-like bartender, with her golden curves and beautiful smile. Julie wore tight fitting jeans and a half-opened shirt. In the low light she seemed angelic, dancing around, keeping everyone glass full, laughing at the jokes, and smiling at the compliments. But up close, the wrinkles around her eyes betrayed her carefree ways. 

I later learned she was married to Rick, the bar owner, who made the beer in the basement. I’d have to keep my admiration to myself. As for the beer, I would later learn it was like being in a relationship with someone suffering with bipolar tendencies. Some days are great, others less so as the quality of the beer varied, depending on Rick’s temperament and sobriety. Word would get around town to avoid the latest batch and I would switch to Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam for a week or two. 

We didn’t stay very long in the bar that night. We both nursed down one drink as we got to know each other, then headed back to our places on B Street. Victor had to be in the officer early the next morning and I was exhausted from traveling and unpacking. We said our goodbyes as Victor climbed the steps up to his apartment across from the courthouse. I walked south the half block to my new home where I fell into bed.

The Next Morning

I don’t remember anything else until early the next morning when light flooded the room. Sitting on the eastern flank of Mount Davidson, Virginia City catches the first rays of the sun and they all seemed to gather in my room that morning. Having spent the summer in a narrow north-south running canyon surrounded by tall mountains, I wasn’t used to seeing the sun until late morning. Getting up, I went for a walk. It was time to check out my new home.  

Other memoir pieces from this time in my life

Driving West in ’88

Matt, Virginia City 1988

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Christmas Eve 1988

Easter Sunrise Services (a part of this article recalls Easter Sunrise Service in Virginia City in 1989)

The Revivals of A. B. Earle (an academic paper published in American Baptist Historical Society Quarterly, part of his revivals were in Virginia City in 1867)

Looking at Virginia City from Flowery Graveyard (Southeast of the town)

Great Grandma McKenzie’s Death and the purpose of a funeral

Cover slide for Great Grandma and the purpose of a funeral

A decade ago, I read Thomas Long and Thomas Lynch’s The Good Funeral: Death, Grief, and the Community of Care. I’d taken a of study leave to read and was staying at my grandma’s house outside of Pinehurst. While there, I did what I have always done when here in Moore County, attend church at Culdee.  Afterwards, my daughter and I spent some time walking around the cemetery. Some of the tombstones brought back memories. At this time, I could count at being on being there for at least seven funerals. 

Since then, I can add two more, a grandmother and an aunt (of which I officiated as the church was without a pastor at the time). There are also those whom I never knew who are buried there, such as my great-great grandparents and an aunt that died from leukemia when she was three. The cemetery held other memories. As a young teenager, I recalled helping my grandmother clean up the cemetery. 

My first memory of the cemetery was from when I was eight years old. We left Moore County when I was six and was living in Petersburg, Virginia at the time. When the call of death came, we headed home… When I die, having lived all over this nation, I have often imagined my cremains coming home to rest on this sandy ridge between the Little River and Nick’s Creek, while awaiting the resurrection.

Memories of my first funeral home visit
The Frye/Puckett Funeral Home, 2016

My brother, sister and I stood in front of the casket holding the body of my great-grandma, Callie McKenzie. Behind us stood our mom, hovering over like an angel as she wrapped the three of us in her arms. We gazed at the body which everyone said looked so much like her. It didn’t. Bodies never look life-like, and great-grandma’s body was no different. Mom pointed to her hands. Wrinkled, they were covered with brown liver spots. Mom reminded us of all the strawberries she’d picked, the tomatoes she’d raised, the apples she’d peeled, and the corn she’d shucked. 

When I was younger, we lived next door and sometimes on Sunday afternoon, after church, we’d gather with our extended family in her backyard, under the pecan trees. The boundaries of her lawn were marked by the back porch, a dirt road over beyond the well, a corncrib in the back, and a smokehouse and woodpile on the far side, just in front of the canebrake. Tables were set out and we’d have lunch, followed by a slice of pie that she’d baked Saturday evening in her wood burning range. She had a gas range but preferred the wood burning one. “We’ll never taste another of those pies,” Mom sadly reminded us.  

Inside the funeral home, 2016

After a few minutes, Mom shuffled us out on the porch of the funeral home in Carthage, into the warm humid air of a July evening, telling us to behave as she went back in with the adults. Much later, we drove to my Dad’s parent’s home, where we stayed the night. 

My grandmother was gone at the time of her mother’s death

It was unnervingly quiet at my grandparent’s home on Juniper Lake Road. No one was home. There were no ice cream and Pepsi floats before bed, as was my granddaddy’s habit. My grandparents and my uncle, Larry, who was just a teenager, were in Florida on vacation and unaware of our presence at their house. Nor did my grandmother know her mother had died.

In this day before cell phones and computers, it was nearly impossible to find someone on short notice.  My dad called the highway patrols in Florida and the states in between with a description of their car, in the hopes they could get a message to my grandma. In the heat of July and the tobacco harvest beginning, my great granddaddy decided it was best to go ahead with the funeral on the third day. 

My grandparents arrived home a day later. No one was sure when they would be back, and we were visiting with my other grandparents. They pulled back around the house and neighbors, who had been on the lookout, didn’t see them arrive. My grandmother came into her house and saw the newspaper with the obituary open on the dining room table. Well into her well into her nineties, my grandmother spoke of how upsetting it was not to be present, not to be able to see her mother before her body was lowered into the dirt at Culdee’s cemetery.   

Great Grandma McKenzie’s death

My great grandma was in her 70s, which now doesn’t seem so old. She was out in the fields, by her son’s pond, picking strawberries, or so I’d remembered. But that must not be right. The harvest of strawberries in this part of the country occurs long before the heat of July. Maybe it was blackberries or some vegetable that she and my great granddaddy were gathering when she had a stroke. Granddaddy, who was five years older, ran back home to call for help. But it was too late.  

Her funeral

We lived in Virginia then. My Dad loaded up the car and we drove south, in time to make the visitation at the Frye Funeral Home in Carthage. The next day, I attended the first of many funerals at Culdee. We sat up front with the family, a couple rows behind from my great granddaddy. He sat on the first row, in a bit of shock. The casket, now closed, was up front, just below the pulpit. After the service, three men on each side carried the box containing the lifeless body of one who had dedicated a lifetime to her family and church out to the adjacent cemetery. There, Mr. Fitch, the preacher, quoted a few final verses of scripture, reminding us of our hope in the resurrection. Then they lowered the casket into sandy soil watered with tears. I’m sure we had a big dinner afterwards, but I don’t remember it. My main memories nearly sixty years later are of my great-grandma’s hands, the dinner in the back lawn, and how happy she was to see us whenever we walked through the woods from our house to hers when we lived next door.  

The purpose of the funeral

Long and Lynch, in The Good Funeral, reminds us that taking care of the dead is instilled in our humanity.  We have to deal with the body whether it is to be buried, burned or disposed at sea. We also must deal with our own grief, for the loss affects not just the deceased and those close (their spouse or children), but the whole community.  So the community comes together to remember, to take care of the body in an honorable way, and to offer up the life that is no more to God. We honor the dead for to do anything else would strike a blow at our own humanity.

Similar memoir pieces from this side of my family

A poem written by a distant relative titled “Out at Aunt Callie’s Place“. His aunt was my great grandmother McKenzie.

A memoir piece about her son, my great uncle Dunk.

From left: My great grandma McKenzie, my father, my uncle Larry, me in the hands of my great grandpa Mckenzie, and my grandmother. Photo probably taken in late 1957 or early 1958

Eddie Larson: another good shepherd

title slide of Eddie Larson in front of his cabin on Cedar Mountain

Last Sunday, I preached on the 23rd Psalm. Today, I thought I would share the story of another shepherd, a man I knew when I lived in Utah.

Eddie Larson at a cabin on Cedar Mountain
Eddie O. Larson (late 1990s)

“How are we today,” Eddie asked with a big grin. 

I always found him cheerful even though he’d known his share of heartache. His wife, Ned, the love of his life, had died of cancer in 1990, a few years before I met him. In his living room was a photograph of a large aspen tree. When the tree was small, Eddie had carved a heart and added his name along with the names of his wife and daughter. Carving on aspens was common among sheepherders. Eddie had forgotten about this tree, but as it grew so did the carving and one day a hunter came upon it. He photographed the tree, framed it, and presented it to Eddie as thanks for allowing him to hunt on his land. Eddie was pleased.

Eddie also loved his daughter. He doted on her and made sure she was well cared for. She was a few years older than me and mentally challenged. Although I never asked, I couldn’t help but wonder if his wife’s cancer and his daughter’s limited mental capacity had anything to do with those blinding predawn sunrises from the west Eddie and his wife experienced back in the early 50s when the herd was on the winter range in Nevada. Above ground nuclear testing was common in that decade as Eddie started out in the sheep business. Although the government said it was safe and there was nothing to worry about from the white ash that sometimes fell afterwards, we now know otherwise. 

Eddie’s early life
The old Community Presbyterian Church

Eddie Oscar Larson was born in Southern Utah to Swedish sheepherders. His father, Oskan Ludig Larsson changed his name to Oscar Larson. He and his wife, Alma, had only one son rather late in life. Oscar was in his mid-50s and his wife in her forties when Eddie was born.

They were gentiles in a land in which most people followed the Mormon religion. There were three Swedish sheepherder families, along with a few government and railroad workers who made up the Presbyterian Church in Cedar City in the 1920s. The other two families were the Lindells, who sold out and moved in the 1950s, and the Lundgens, who are still in the area. I recently wrote about Roy Lundgen and his wife in this blog.

Eddie was first local resident to be baptized in the new church which was built in 1927, just a few years before his birth. The first baptism was for a child of the pastors, but they soon moved on.  While often shunned in this religiously dominated world, his father was successful. They never lived extravagantly, but Eddie was able to go away to school. He first attended a Presbyterian boarding high school, Wasatch Academy, in Mount Pleasant, Utah. From there, he headed to Utah State in Logan, but had a hard time finding a place to stay as he was a gentile. If my memory is right, Eddie graduated from Westminster College in Salt Lake City. While he was in college, his father died. 

Eddie had set out to be a coach but decided to follow his father’s footsteps and began to build a herd of sheep. While he never had the size of a herd as his father, he was very successful and limited the size to better manage his land. Eddie would run his herd, with the help of a hired hand, for most of adult life. Right before I left Cedar City and maybe five years before he died, Eddie finally sold his sheep. By this point, he was having trouble with his eyes. About a year before he died, he was moved into a nursing home. Age and illness had robbed this man of the things he enjoyed, running up and down the mountain in all kinds of weather and basking in the beauty of God’s creation. 

A Proud Sheepherder

Eddie always proudly proclaimed to everyone that he was a sheepherder, even though for him it was business. For most of his time as a sheepherder, he hired another herder to stay with the sheep. This man lived in a sheep wagon and generally liked being alone. Occasionally his herder would come to town for supplies and drink, and after a few days of the latter, go back up on the mountain or out in the Nevada desert, where he’d dry out while tending and protecting the sheep.

Eddie made almost daily trips to check on his herder and the herd, bringing in groceries and feed for the horses. He’d help haul water for the sheep. Eddie kept around 1600 ewes in his herd. When that many animals are away from a watering hole, a lot of water had to be hauled. He had an old oil truck that allowed him to carry several thousand gallons of water. Such a herd also required many rams, along with horses and dogs to help with the work. 

At night, Eddie did the books and dealt with government leases. Although Eddie was one of the largest landowners around, he still leased land for grazing, especially for winter pasture in eastern Nevada. The annual livestock banquet in Cedar City often honored Eddie. There, this humble man seemed larger-than-life. People knew he worked hard, and it paid off. Not only did he have a successful operation, he own a huge parcel of land up on the mountain, some in Nevada including a four acre spring that was the envy of Las Vegas, and a lot of commercial real estate in Cedar City. 

The Seasons according to a sheepherder

Eddie lived by the rotation of the earth. In the summer, the ewes and lambs would feast on the grass in the high mountain plateaus. In late summer or early fall, he culled the lambs from the ewes and trucked them to market. It was always a guess as to how long to wait. The longer the lambs ate the mountain grass, the heavier they were and the more profit they’d bring. However, there was always the risk of early snows trapping the herd and then Eddie would have to haul in feed. This would eat up any profit he might have made. 

Some years were harder than others. There was the year of the fire. With much of the grass on his range burned, the lambs had to be sold off early, when they were a good 20 pounds light. On another occasion, he told me about an early snow. The lambs had already been sold, but the ewes remained on the mountain. His truck was stuck in the deep snow. It took him a day to walk out. Hhis herder stayed with the herd which was nearly immobilized by deep snow. Getting back to town, he hired a bulldozer to come and clear a path so the sheep could make it down the mountain. 

In the fall, as the aspen turn bright yellow, he’d ride a horse, trailing the sheep down the mountain and around the south end of town, using a 100-year-old livestock trail. As the days shortened, he and his hired herder would move the sheep from one alfalfa field to another, where the sheep would eat the remains left from the harvest as they moved toward their winter pasture in Nevada.

By December, the sheep roamed around the deserts of eastern Nevada, between Caliente and Pioche, where they ate sage and what grass remained from the summer. If there was snow on the ground, it was easy work. The sheep could also eat snow for moisture. But if there was no snow, Eddie and his herder had have to drive the old tank trunk to the warm springs at Panaca or another spring on the west side of his property, where they would fill it up and haul the water back to the sheep.

At the end of winter, Eddie’s sheep got to ride in trucks back livestock trailers as they headed east to the lambing barns near Kanarraville. They first sheared the sheep. Usually by men from Australia and New Zealand sheared the herds in the American West from late February through April. These crews would then returned home, shearing sheep Down Under in their spring which is our fall. Lambing always came after shearing. A sheared ewe had less problems giving birth. For a few weeks, Eddie would hire a host of people to help him by serving as mid-wives to the ewes. He was always in church on Sundays, except for this time of the year in which Easter often fell. During lambing, he lived by the lambing sheds. 

Finally, as the weather warmed and the snows retreated on the mountain, they’d move the herd up to higher elevations, where the cycle would repeat itself.

My experience with Eddie 

Part of the reason I felt called to Community Presbyterian Church in 1993 was the congregation’s vision of expanding and building a new church building. Eddie, the first local child baptized in the old church, volunteered to help raise the money for the new complex! He shared the vision for the church to grow and to serve the community he loved and helped us achieve it. We moved into a church complex in 1997. Just before I left Cedar City, in January 2024, Eddie donated mountain land to the congregation for use as a camp and perhaps a future conference center. 

I am thankful for the few times I took Eddie up on his invitations to take a day off and ride with him. We’d head out early. Sometimes we stop for breakfast or coffee. In his truck, he’d have some groceries and a few tools to repair fences or gates, maybe a salt block or two. Depending on where the herd was located, we’d drive an hour or two, all the while Eddie told stories about his dad and about the sheep business and about how lazy the cattlemen could be.

There is little love between sheepherders and cattlemen, a feud that goes back into the 19th Century. Part of the anger between the two groups is that sheep can eat grass down to the dirt and if the cattle come in after the sheep, they are unable to graze. Another source of conflict came, according to Eddie, from the sheepherders who work harder, but also tend to make a lot more money than those who tend cattle. However, after World War II, many sheepherders sold their lambs for cattle. 

When we were on the range, lunch was always at the sheepherder’s wagon. In the summer, we’d sit around under cottonwood trees. In winter, we’d all crowd inside the wagon, to get out of the cold and wind. The smells were enchanting. Pinion burned in the stove as coffee perked. Mutton was always served. Some days we’d eat it with potatoes and carrots, other days we’d have it in a sandwich, the bread slathered with mayonnaise and cheese. We’d wash it all down with coffee.

Some afternoons we’d scout out the next spot for the camp. Others, we’d take the tank truck out to the spring for water. As we drove around, Eddie would talk about the land. He showed me where he worked to stop erosion and to restore the grass that use to be more abundant. Over-herding animals in the first half of the 20th Century had taken its toll. When Eddie got into the business, he decided to run half as many sheep on the land as his dad and the previous tenants. His decision was slowly paying dividends and he was proud of his work and of his land. After he’d finished with the chores for the day, as the sun dropped in the sky, we’d head back toward town.

Eddie’s death

“When I was in my 20s and just starting out, I was told by another herder that sheepherding was a young man’s business,” Eddie confided in me one day. “Now I believe him.” Eddie died in 2008 at the age of 79. He was finally able to relax and let the Good Shepherd take over.

Sheep forging in an aspen grove on Cedar Mountain, 2008

Saving Damsels: a memoir

12 years earlier, at the beach (and obviously going to church) with my grandparents and my uncle. I must have been about one and have no memory of this trip..

From the time I was twelve till I started working at the age of sixteen, I spent at least two weeks every summer with my grandparents. These lazy summer days were spent doing odd chores around their house and yard, racing bicycles with the kids next door, and occasional going with my grandmother to visit relatives, dead and alive. Some were living and others were dead. She felt I should know where all my ancestors were buried. 

Every afternoon, my granddad would come home a little after five. Getting out of his truck, he’d yell, “Ready to go fishing?” Grandma had dinner ready. As soon as we finished, the two of us could take off to a lake, a beaver dam, or some farm pond where we’d fish till either a cloud blew up or the light had drained from the sky. Then we’d head home. Out back, under the floodlights by the porch, we’d clean our catch. Often, the next day, my grandma would fry up a mess of them for our dinner. 

It was wonderful to fish with my granddad, but he wasn’t much of a talker when fishing. Instead, he allowed me to have a bit of independence and freedom, as he’d go one direction and send me off the other. I valued the freedom, but now wonder if the real reason was my granddad’s belief that fish could hear you talking. To fish, one needed to be quiet.  

On this one evening, we fished in a rather large pond downhill from a house that belonged to people my granddaddy knew. They were not home. We drove around the house and my granddad parked his truck by the dam. With his fly rod, which is now one of my prize possessions, he fished one side of the lake. I crossed the dam and fished the other. I used a spinning rod and a Rebel, a top floating lure that when pulled fast would dive to about a foot under the surface and wiggle in a way that sometimes drove bass crazy. 

After a few minutes of casting and coming up without a strike, I heard the muffled cry of a woman calling for help. I looked, but didn’t see anyone. The voice seemed to come from behind my grandfather, yet he didn’t seem fazed. When the cry came again, I shouted at my grandfather.  He waved, said it was okay and that I was disturbing the fish. Well, it certainly didn’t sound okay and if someone was in peril, that should take precedence over fishing. When the cry came a third time, I knew someone was in trouble.

I dropped my rod. Checking to make sure my Kabar knife was safely stowed in its sheath on my belt, as I ran as fast as I could around the dam and up the hill. I kept yelling for my grandfather to join me., I couldn’t believe his hearing had gotten so bad, yet granddad didn’t budge. Instead, he yelled, “Come back here.” But I kept running. In my mind I had an image of saving some beautiful damsel in distress. I topped the hill, near the house, and started looking around frantically. 

There was no woman in peril. Instead, there was peacock. Its feathers were displayed like the NBC logo. I didn’t think much about it, except that it was strange. Peacocks are not native to the Sandhills of North Carolina. After a few minutes of looking around and seeing nothing, I walked back down the hill toward my granddad. About halfway down, the cry came again. I turned and saw the peacock up on top of the hill emitting that high pitched cry and heard my granddad laugh behind me. Feeling a bit foolish, I went back to my fishing. 

It’d have to wait for another day before I could make my debut as the new Lone Ranger.

Click here for another memoir piece of fishing with my grandfather.

Driving West in ’88

I wrote this back in 2015 and pulled it out as a piece for a memoir. It’s a true event that occurred when I drove West for the first time. On the way out, I stopped first in Nashville, where I met a friend that’d hike with along the Appalachian Trail. Then I headed to St. Louis, where I stayed at my great uncle and wife’s home on the western side of the city. Leaving their home, I was entering land that was new to me (I’d been to St. Louis a few times and once flew into Kansas City for an assignment in St. Joseph. But I had never step foot on the land between Kansas City and California. I’ve attached two photos (somewhat scratched) from that trip across Kansas. Sadly, I never got a photo of the red and black ’55 Buick.

My destination for this trip was to visit a seminary classmate at Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, then to Camp Sawtooth in Idaho where I’d spend the summer. From there, I would go on Virginia City, Nevada where I would spend a year as a student pastor. I have posted a number of stories from that time: Becoming a preacher, Matt, Doug, Christmas Eve 1988

A Katy train in Eastern Kansas, photo taken in June 1988.
A Katy Train in Eastern Kansas, June 1988
(copied from a print)

My stomach growls, but I want to get through the congestion of Kansas City and Topeka before stopping to eat. It has been five hours since breakfast outside of St. Louis at Homer and Bebe’s home. Since leaving their home in Pacific, I’ve only stopped for gas and to pick up a new map at the Kansas welcome center. As I put the miles behind me, I’m in unfamiliar territory. I’d spent time in Missouri but had only flown over the vast territory between Missouri and California. 

 As I drive west, I notice a strangely familiar car, a ‘55 Buick with a red body and black top. It’s travelling just a little slower than me. I turned on my blinker and moved into the left lane to pass. When I pull beside the car, I looked over at the driver. His left elbow sticks out of the window, and he holds the steering wheel with his right hand. He’s wearing a white tee-shirt and a beige hard-shelled jungle hat.  

“It can’t be,” I think. 

 I take a second look. Is this an aberration? The car is identical to the first car I remember riding in and the man driving looks just like my dad did when he was younger. I remember as boy fishing in Dunk’s Pond with my dad. He wore that same style of hat and a white t-shirt. And, in the days before air conditioned vehicles, he often hung his left elbow out the window. 

“What had happened to the car and dad’s hat” I wonder as I pulled around the Buick. As I sped down the highway, I kept glancing back in my rear-view mirror, thinking about my dad and wondering about that man who could have been his twin.    

I decide to stop at the next intersection with a place to eat, but after passing a few exits with nothing, I gambled on the next town. I pull off at Paxico. There’s nothing at the interchange, but I followed the signs across the Southern Pacific railroad and then, paralleling the tracks, into a small town with a decisively western feel. The air is stifling hot as the humidity builds, but I need to stretch my legs. I walk the length of the commercial district, the few buildings that still exist each having an awning over a wooden sidewalk to shade those passing by. Then I head out by the railroad tracks and watched a west bound train rush through without slowing down. 

After a few minutes of walking and watching the train, I head back to the bar and grill. It’s cool and dark inside. It takes my eyes a few minutes to adjust as I grab a seat at a table and ordered a hamburger. A radio plays in the background. Between country music songs, there are advertisements for farm implements and reports on crop prices.  At the bar, three men in overalls drink drink beer and discuss the weather, hoping they’ll get some rain out of the storms forecasted for later in the day. I eat, taking it all in. I feel free as I’m on my own and have been racking up the miles.

Thirty minutes later, after paying my bill, I’m back in the car heading west. I watch in fascination as the clouds builds on the horizon. I dreaded this drive across Kansas, but I find myself intrigued by these gentle hills and rich dirt. As the clouds become darker, I notice a bolt of lightning and then another and then it hits. A tremendous wind is blows against my car. I hold on to the steering wheel with both hands. Then comes the rain, racing in sheets across the prairie. Soon, drops of rain and hail pound the roof with such force that it drowns out Steely Dan cassette playing in the car’s stereo. I slow down. Under an overpass, I notice a group of motorcyclists seeking shelter. 

Soon, the storm passes. Steam rises from the highway, making distant views hazy. I pick up speed. Ahead, out of that haze, I see the car again, that 55 Buick. It’s way ahead, but I’m gaining on it.

I will pass him several more times today and even tomorrow morning, the last being just before I leave I-70 and take 1-25 north toward Cheyenne, Wyoming. 

Sunset and utility poles in western Kansas, June 1988
Sunset over western Kansas (copied from a print photo)

Roy, Utah, & Aimee Semple McPherson

View of Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, looking northwest. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar City, Utah from Cedar Mountain, 2010 (Lund is in the distance, before the far mountains)

“My mother always told me that if she had enough money, she would have stayed on that train and headed back to Minnesota,” Roy confided to me. This was in the late 19th Century. His mother, who had met his father when he was on a trip back east, had come west to begin her married life. The train stopped in Lund, a small town along the line that would later become the Salt Lake and San Pedro Railroad. After that, it would be part of the Union Pacific line, but all that was in the future. Lund is in the middle of a garden of sagebrush. The country is barren and flat, but in the distance, mountains rise. In 1898, it was the closest rail hub to Cedar City. It’d be another couple of decades before a spur line was established, linking the city and its iron mines to the larger world. On

Roy’s father was there by the small station, with a buckboard, waiting. He loaded her luggage in the wagon. The train continued westward toward Modena and Pioche. Roy’s parents began their life together with a bumpy and dusty thirty-four mile ride to Cedar City. She would live there for the next eight decades. A couple years later, she gave birth to Roy.

View of Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City, Built in 1926 and used as a church until 1997. Currently, it is used as an office.
Presbyterian Church 1926-1997

Roy’s father was one of three Swedes to come to Cedar City to herd sheep. In time, each began to save money and acquire their own herds and land. They stood out as Gentiles, non-Mormons, in a community dominated by Latter-day Saints. These three families would later form the nucleus of a Presbyterian Church. While they had been Lutheran, the Presbyterians had missionaries in the region. Roy’s mom agreed to help establish the church if the missionary pastor would teach Luther’s catechism. She would continue teaching Sunday School in that church until she was nearly a 100. She died at 104, a decade before my arrival. However, many of the members at that time still had fond memories of her. 

Ranching operations the desert near Cedar City, Utah. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Ranching operations near Cedar City

I spent my first Christmas in Cedar City with Roy and Velma and their son’s family, having a large dinner around their dining room table. I had moved to Cedar in October 1993. My wife had stayed behind to finish up her degree at Buffalo State. The day after Christmas, I flew east to meet her. We would visit to our families in North Carolina and Georgia before driving her car across the country. Around their table, I sat as an “adopted orphan” at Christmas,” hearing their story for the first time. 

Roy’s first wife was Vera, who’d died in the 40s. Roy had a large sheep operation by then and two young children. He then married Velma, Vera’s identical twin sister. Velma loved telling of the first time the mailman stopped after she had moved to Cedar City. The poor man almost had a heart attack, thinking Vera had come back from the grave. Velma laughed at my suggestion that she should have let the rumor run wild that God was known to raise the Presbyterian dead.

Roy was ninety-two and still active. But he didn’t get out a lot during the winter, with his son running the sheep operation. The exception was to attend church in January, close to his birthday. For the next three years, he stood up during joys and concerns and brag about his age. That first January he bragged that he was going to be 93 and could still ride a horse. The next January, he stood and bragged that he’d be 94 that week, and still his own boss. His wife leaned over to Edith Kirtly, both of whom were in their 80s and hard of hearing. She thought she was whispering, but everyone heard as she said to her friend, “That’s what he thinks.” The congregation erupted in laughter as Roy sat down, his face red with embarrassment. 

Over the next few years, I got to know Roy better and we had many discussions on faith. While he supported the church and believed in Jesus, he struggled with doubts that reached back to his youth. He was a high school student when his father, who was at a sheep camp, had a lantern explode in his face. Glass shivers flew into both eyes. From that point on, Roy and his brother alternated between school and running the sheep. In the summer, they were up on the mountain. During winter, the camped in the sagebrush at lower elevations. 

Roy’s mom took his father to doctors in the east and San Francisco, searching for someone who could restore his sight. But the damage was too extensive and there was nothing to be done.

Then she heard of Aimee Semple McPherson, a Pentecostal preacher whose worship services from Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was broadcasted across much of the country in the 1920s and 1930s. Known for her healing, she packed her husband up and they headed to Los Angeles, renting a small cabin not far from Angelus Temple. For several weeks they attended worship services and was visited by Sister Aimee. When she thought he was ready, she had him come up on the stage to have his sight restored. She laid her hands on him, prayed over him, and proclaimed him healed. Of course, his father’s eyes were too far gone. He never regained his sight and confided in his son that he never believed Sister Aimee could healed him but attended to satisfy his wife. 

The red hills of Navajo sandstone west of Cedar City, UT. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Cedar Canyon, west of the city

It amazed Roy that I knew about Sister Aimee. A new biography of her had been published a few years earlier and, as one interested in American evangelicalism, I had read it shortly before moving to Utah. In our conversations, I shared much of her intriguing and scandalous story with him. 

Roy died in 1997, the year after Utah celebrated its centennial, and two months before the Presbyterian Church moved into its new home. He lived all 96 of his years in Utah. He’d become a successful sheep herder. Although a Gentile in a community dominated by Mormons, he was an important business leader within the community. He even helped the Mormons by contributing to the construction of the second Mormon Stake House, which was just down the street from his house in the 1940s.

Roy was excited that the Presbyterian Church was building a new worship center. As the old church was too small and the new church not yet ready, his service in the funeral home. The room was packed with old ranchers and farmers as well as members of the Presbyterian Church. I preached on the 23rd Psalm, which seemed appropriate for a man who spent his life running 100s of thousands of sheep up the mountains and out across the valleys that surrounded Cedar City.

Another story from my Cedar City days: Doug and Elvira

On Cedar Mountain in the fall with the aspen in yellow. Photo by Jeff Garrison
Up on Cedar Mountain in the fall

Doug and Elvira: A Pastoral Tale

Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, UT, where this conversation occurred. The congregation moved into a new and much larger facility in 1997.

A slender woman in a business suit stood at my office door. I guessed her age to be in her early fifties, fifteen or so years older than me. She was attractive and well-dressed. I wondered what she was selling. I stood and invited her in. 

“I’m Jeff.  What can I do for you?”  

As I offered my hand, I realized she was shaking. Her rather limp hand clasped mind and, looking down, she asked quietly, “Can we talk?” 

I gestured for her to take a seat as I stepped back behind my desk, sat down, smiled and nodded. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were both destined to be shocked by what would be revealed.

“I’m Elvira’s daughter,” she said.

“Yes, Elvira, she’s a special woman,” I said with a smile.  

In a few months, I had become very acquainted with Elvira. An elderly woman, she shown up at worship one Sunday morning in late 1993 or early 1994. I don’t remember if it was the first Sunday, but she soon starting requesting each week that we pray for her son, Carl.  I included him in our prayers during worship and he remained on the congregation’s prayer list. Over time I learned he lived in Elko, Nevada and was experiencing a relapse of cancer. Elvira was from Nebraska. She now lived in an adult foster home in Cedar City, Utah where I had visited her. The couple who ran the home were happy to see to it that Elvira got to church every Sunday morning and someone from our congregation would give her a ride home. While I was unsure about her living arrangements and her story, she had in a few months become a part of the church’s family.

Sitting in my office, Elvira’s daughter began telling me the story of moving her mother from Nebraska to Utah. At first, Elvira had lived with her daughter and son-in-law at their home in St. George, a town fifty miles south of Cedar City.

“It was a mistake,” she confessed. 

At their age, without children of their own, Elvira was like a child. And she had become a wedge between her and her husband. I sensed Elvira’s daughter experienced guilt for having placed her mother in the home but didn’t know what else she could do.  

“Are there other siblings who could help?” I asked. 

“No,” she said trembling.  

“I know you have a brother who has cancer. Is he Elvira’s only other child?”

“Yes. But my brother has been a problem all along. He was married and had a son, but then left his wife for a man. That’s a sin, but my mother just accepts it.”  

“Well, he’s her son,” I said.  

“Don’t you think that’s a sin?” she asked.

“I didn’t say that,” I responded. “But that’s not the issue. We’re all sinners and to her, he’s also her child, her flesh and blood.”

“He’s always asking my mother for money, and never pays it back.” I could sense she had nothing but disgust for her brother. There was a pause and I waited for her to continue.

“My mother doesn’t have that much, but she he gave him enough for a down payment for that house he and his opera singing lover built in Virginia City.”  

Doug, 1988

My brain exploded. “It couldn’t be,” I thought. Maybe she sensed my reaction for she stopped and, for a moment, we sat quietly.

“Did your brother also go by the name, Doug?”  I finally asked.

She turned white. Her eyes widened. After a moment, she nodded and bowed her head. Finally, she continued. “His name is Carl Douglas. We always called him Carl, but his friends know him as Doug.”

“I know him,” I said, confessing what was now obvious. “I haven’t seen him in three or four years and didn’t know he’d moved to Elko.” 

Memories of Doug flooded my mind. It seemed so ironic I’d been praying for a couple of months for someone I once knew well.

I’d met Doug and Rudi in 1988, right after moving to Virginia City. I was thirty-one years old and a student pastor at a small congregation there for a year. The first week, Doug and Rudi invited me to dinner at their home in the Highlands.  Although they were already living there, the house was still under construction. Doug had done most of the work. Before dinner, they showed me around their home in which the kitchen cabinets still lacked doors and there was much trim to be finished. I had the sense they might be gay, which was confirmed when they showed me their master bedroom. I was nervous, looking in, as I’d never been in a bedroom of someone gay. But I almost laughed. I was amazed at how messy it was, which went against my stereotypical images that I had of how gay men lived.  

First Presbyterian, Christmas 1988. The nativity scene is to the right.

Over the next few months, I got to know them better. Rudi sang at church functions and Doug was our go-to handy man. He built a manger for a nativity display we posted beside the church at Christmas. He had helped me winterize the house I was living in. Later, he’d help design a retaining wall that kept the hill behind the church from encroaching on the sanctuary. By then, though, he was too sick to do the work.

Perhaps my best memory of Doug was from New Year’s Eve, which was a Saturday in 1988. As I practiced my sermon for Sunday that afternoon in the sanctuary, I heard water run under the organ. Upon investigating, I found a crack in the pipe supplying our hot water heating system. I called Doug and he came down immediately with his tools. Together, we spent an hour on our bellies, under the organ, cutting out the damaged pipe with a hacksaw and then soldering in a new piece. We took turns holding the pipe and torch, as we each talked about our plans for the evening. Thanks to our efforts, heat was restored, even though we were both late for our respective parties.

Doug also helped me with my first computer. He ordered the parts and built the computer, showing me how it fit together. This was in January 1989. The computer had 640 kilobytes of RAM, a 30 meg hard drive, and a 5 1/4 floppy disk. He only charged me for the parts. It was still expensive, but about half of what a computer cost in those days (which is more than they cost today). With the coming of a computer, I would never write another sermon by hand.

Me, backcountry skiing outside Virginia City, late December 1988

A few months into the new year, Doug became sick. He had tests and asked me to go with him to the doctor to hear the report. It was cancer, lymphoma. The prognosis wasn’t good. The doctor had tears in his eyes as he talked about the prognosis. 

Doug soon started chemotherapy. On at least one occasion, I drove him to Reno for his treatments. We’d had a pleasant talk heading down the mountain on Geiger Grade. On the way back, Doug was sick and spend much of the trip with his head in a bag. By late summer, when I was leaving to return to seminary, Doug had lost most of his hair, but he was doing better. In the summer of 1992, when I visited Virginia City, I stayed with him and Rudi. Doug had been in remission for over a year. 

Later that year, I’d heard through mutual friends that they had split up. I lost contact with them. 

C Street, Virginia City, December 1988

I’m sure the room was spinning for Doug’s sister as I told her about my time as a student pastor in Virginia City and how Doug had been very involved in that church. We talked for some time that afternoon, as I tried to encourage her to reconcile with her brother.   

I am sure many people would consider this meeting as a coincidence, but I saw God’s hand-written all over it. I had to reconnect with Doug. The phone number Elvira, his mother, had for Doug in Elko no longer worked. I made some calls to friends in Virginia City. No one had heard from Doug in a while, but I was given a phone number for Rudi, who was now living in Las Vegas. Calling him, I was shocked to learn he and his new lover had moved Doug down for Elko. Doug was living with them. He had become so weak that he could no longer care of himself and there was fear he would be homeless. 

A few weeks later, as I was coming back from a trip to California, I stopped in Vegas and visited Doug. He was resting on the couch and remained prone the entire time. I was afraid it would be the last time we’d see each other. I could tell that he was pleased I had stopped and that his mother was in the church I served. I stayed only for an hour as Doug appeared exhausted.  

It turned out that wasn’t the last time that I saw Doug. A few weeks later, in early September, Rudi called and said that Doug had rallied and wanted to come up and to see his mother and me. The day of the reunion of Doug and his mother was hot with not a cloud in the sky. We toured Cedar City and ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. By the time lunch was over, Doug was tired. Rudi suggested they head back to Vegas. But before they left, as we stood talking in the parking lot, Doug pulled me aside and asked if I would be willing to officiate at his funeral. He knew it wouldn’t be long. I assured him it would be an honor.

It was just a week or two later when I received the call that Doug had died. He was 48 years old. I went over to Elvira’s to give her the news. She expected it. She wanted to attend the funeral and hoped her daughter would take her. However, her daughter refused, so I offered to drive Elvira down to Vegas. 

The day we left, her daughter asked us to stop along the way for dinner. She lived only a mile or so off Interstate 15, so it really wasn’t out of the way. I agreed, secretly hoping I could encourage her to attend the funeral, but she remained adamant. After dinner of hash made from a left-over brisket, that was quite good, we left her home in St. George and continued to Vegas. 

As the interstate came out of the Virgin River Gorge, a violent thunderstorm moved through with high winds and blinding lightning that cooled the air from the day’s heat. I slowed down in the driving rain, but it felt as if the storm was cleansing the earth. Elvira and I both marveled at the lightning. That night, we stayed overnight at Rudy’s. Elvira slept in Doug’s old bedroom while I camped out on the couch where Doug had laid when I visited him earlier in the summer.

The next morning, September 30th, I escorted Elvira inside the chapel at the cemetery for one last look at her son. Then they closed the casket. Slowly others gathered. By the time all were present, about a dozen of us, we filled only two rows in the oversized room. Rudi, Doug’s former lover, was there with his new lover. His son had made it.  Hilda, who had also been a student pastor in Virginia City a few years before me and was organizing a new church in Green Valley, a Vegas suburb, was there, as was her husband whom she met in Virginia City. A few women who had been friends with Doug and Rudi rounded out the group. On schedule, the chapel’s organist played music. Hilda and I read scriptures and offered prayers. Then Hilda sang a solo and I preached the homily. 

Afterwards, we made our way out of the cool chapel into the late-summer heat of a Las Vegas morning, stopping at the gravesite. A few words were spoken, and the party broke up.  Elvira and I stopped for lunch and then drove back to Cedar City that afternoon.

Before the end of the year, Elvira moved back to Nebraska, into an assisted living facility. We kept up with each other for a couple of years through Christmas cards, but then her cards stopped coming. I sure she is no longer with us.  However, I am glad to have had the privilege to minister to her and to her son. I just wished her daughter could have found a way to reconnect to her brother before it was too late.  But I learned that I can’t change people and it’s not my job. Instead, I had to care for all three in what limited ways I could.

About the photos:

Several of these pictures was from a photo album given to me by the church when I finished my year. I know I have other pictures of Doug and some with his mother when they made the trip to Cedar City. I am sure I also have others of Rudi. They were probably taken on slides and stored in one of several large tubs in storage. The photo of the old Community Presbyterian Church of Cedar City was taken from the church’s website.

Other Virginia City Stories:

Matt in Virginia City, 1988

Riding the Virginia and Truckee

Christmas Eve on the Comstock, 1988

I have often used stories about my time in Virginia City in sermons. In this recent sermon, I spoke of my uneasiness during my move to Virginia City.

Virginia City (with St. Mary’s in the Mountains in the middle). Photo taken from the Flowery Cemetery, southeast of the town.

Uncle Dunk

Dunk in the 1980s

I drove to hospital in Pinehurst the first day I had off. It was the thing to do, especially since my dad was living on the other side of the world and my grandmother, a widow for just a few years, had her hands full. There, in a sterile room, was Uncle Dunk. His name was Duncan Calvin McKenzie, but to everyone he was Dunk.

Dunk wasn’t really my uncle; he was my great-uncle, my grandma’s brother. As a man, he seemed to have as many lives as a cat. He was still living in the old place, his parents’ home, on Doubs Chapel Road, next to where we lived before moving from Moore County when I was six. I remember the old house well, the kerosene heater in the parlor where we’d gather in the winter. In the summer, we’d sit on the back porch unless it was Sunday, then everyone sat on the front porch while us kids climbed in the large magnolia trees whose branches reached the ground, making it an easy tree to climb.

Dunk had come home from work one weekend with the intent on doing some grilling. The coals just weren’t turning white fast enough for Dunk. He was ready for that meat to start sizzling. I’m sure his judgment was already somewhat impaired by alcohol. He tossed some gasoline on the grill. 

Dunk was in pain when I was saw him, but he’d live another day. In fact, he’d live another twenty-five years. That gasoline saved his life, for afterwards, till he finally went into a nursing home, my grandma kept a close watch over her younger brother, keeping him mostly sober.

Dunk in the 1930s, working tobacco
with his father and two neighbors

My first memory of Dunk came from when I was just a little boy. I was probably four. My parents had brought an old home, a couple hundred yards east of my great grandparents place, and were fixing it up so that we could move in. Every evening, we’d be over there working, or at least Dad would be working. Dunk, who was still living with his parents, my great-grandparents, just up the road, would come down and help the best he could. 

During much of this time, he wore a neck brace then, which made him kind of look like the women from the Karen tribe of Burma with long necks and heads pulled high by metal bands. Of course, Dunk’s brace wasn’t a fashion statement; it was the result of having totaled his car on 15-501. I think it was near the Lower Little River Bridge. He almost didn’t make it then. Despite a broken neck, Dunk did what he could. When not able to help, he’d play with us kids. I’m sure, his keeping us our fingers away from the Skil saws, was a big help. Dunk would late help my father build the copper clad steeple for Culdee Presbyterian Church.

After we left Moore County, we’d only see Dunk occasionally. On time, he’d told my Grandma that he wanted to see us. She went and found him drunker than I’d seen a man before. She brought him home with her and ran him through the shower, then sat in one of her hard maple chairs at her dining room table and poured coffee down him. He cried, saying he was ashamed of his condition. By making him sit there, I wasn’t sure if she was trying to punish him or to use him as a lesson for us kids. I was probably ten or eleven years old and just didn’t know what to make of it all. I still don’t.

A few years later, after Dunk’s daddy died and the old place was getting pretty worn down, my Dad took my brother and me over to see if he was home. Knocking on the back door, he yelled for us to come in. Dad opened the door, but wouldn’t let my brother and me go in. I could see there were four men in the sittin’ room, but no were sitting. They were nearly passed out on the sofa and floor. Seeing us, Dunk struggled out to the back porch, where he held tightly to the screen door in order to remain upright. I think he was both ashamed as well as glad to see us. One of the other men yelled out some lurid comment. Dunk told him to shut up. By then my Daddy was herding my brother and me toward the car. I was probably thirteen or fourteen then and even today I not sure what to make of it all.

As the years drifted on, I’d occasionally see Dunk at Culdee Church when I was in Moore County on a Sunday. He’d be out front on the lawn after the preaching was over, smoking cigarettes and talking to the men. Of course, if he’d fallen off the wagon, he’d be missing among the assembled crowd.

Dunk in the Navy during WW2

Regardless of his condition, Dunk always remember us kids at Christmas and send us something. At first, it was mostly candy, often a box chocolate covered cherries that would leave a little sticky glue on the corners of my mouth. When I got to high school, he went through a phase of giving me bottles of Old Spice Aftershave, even before I was shaving (something I gave up long before I used all those bottles). Then, thankfully, he started giving me packages of handkerchiefs. This kept up till I was in my forties and I’m sure even today half the handkerchiefs in my dresser drawers were gifts from him.

As he got older, his wounds begin to bother him. During War World Two, Dunk was a pharmacy mate in the Navy. He served on a supply ship in the Pacific, and if I remember correctly, it was struck by a torpedo or maybe a kamikaze. I don’t think it sunk, but some of the sailors aboard were lost. He seldom talked about the war, but it must have bothered him. His back and neck, both of which had been broken at various times from automobile accidents, always hurt. He shuffled around; at least he couldn’t get into too much trouble. He started to go to a men’s Bible Study and attended church more regularly. I reckon it was in his blood as his Daddy and Granddaddy and Great-granddaddy had all served as an Elder at Culdee Presbyterian. He never served as an Elder, but for his last quarter century of his life, he attended faithfully. He also took delight in his dogs.

Dunk reached out to my adopted son. When we’d visit in the summer, he’d take him out fishing on his pond, the same pond I’d first fished in when I was just a tot. I liked that they got to share that together. Both went through a lot. As the boy got older, whenever we talked, he’d ask about Dunk. Dunk also adored my daughter. When he learned she was taking violin lessons, he presented her with a violin that had belonged to his granddaddy, the man for whom he was named. His granddaddy traded a barrel of kraut for the violin, back in the 1860s. Dunk was tormented by demons most of his life, yet deep down there was goodness.

Becoming a Preacher

I wrote this essay in the late 1990s. when I served a congregation in Utah and had no idea I would eventually end up back in the South… I recently pulled it out and edited it a bit before sharing it. The essay shows some of what I was reading at the time. If I would undertake such a quest to again to put my thoughts on preaching on paper, I’m sure it would be quite different. Nonetheless, much of what I wrote still seems relevant.
-C. Jeffrey Garrison

Ramblings about my preaching

That’s me in Virginia City

After worship, Howard Bennett, the church organist, came up to me smiling, his arm outstretched, and loudly proclaimed, “We have a preacher!” It was the second Sunday of September, 1988, Camel Race weekend. I had just preached my first sermon for the First Presbyterian Church of Virginia City, Nevada. For the next twelve months, I would serve the congregation as a student pastor. It felt good to hear Howard’s praise. I didn’t consider myself a preacher. I needed his affirmation for I didn’t know if I had what it would take to deliver a year’s worth of sermons to a group of people I was just getting to know. Howard’s praise provided confidence!

I based my sermon that day on the question Jesus asked the disciples in Mark 8:27, “Who do people say that I am?” The theme was Christocentric, heavy on theology and void of humor. Thinking back, I’m sure what Howard meant by his affirmation was that I sounded like a preacher. No longer am I sure it was a compliment, although I’m positive Howard meant it that way. What happened, I now believe, is that with a strong pulpit presence, I discovered how to make people listen—or at least stay awake. I’m not so sure this is all together positive. Staying awake in some of my sermons might fall into the cruel and unusual punishment category.

Combination Mine Shift with Virginia City in the background
My Accent

One thing I learned early on in preaching is that there was a benefit to my accent. I disagree with Norman Maclean’s father, a first generation Scottish Presbyterian preacher in Montana. The elder Maclean tried to eradicate his Scottish brogue and despised those who came from the mother country and flaunted their accent. Instead, I have found that having an accent makes people take notice. Perhaps it’s because they must concentrate on listening. Down South, I’d be just another prophet without honor instead of the celebrity I became during my three years in the pulpit in upstate New York.. Sometimes, of course, the benefits of an accent are mixed and lead to misunderstandings. There are still people in Virginia City who believed my Palm Sunday sermon about Pilate, had something to do with a pilot (perhaps he flew for Air Rome).

Although I count my accent a benefit, I have always considered my uniquely southern-style grammar and diction a liability. I’ve struggled with grammar and when I get excited and talk fast, any rules of grammar which I might have picked up along the way fly out the window. Even though I’m proud to be a Southerner in the pulpit, at times I’m a bit afraid the congregation might think of me as a bumbling idiot. Southerners in general suffer from this malaise which serves as an antidote to our healthy sense of pride.


A few years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week studying with the late Dr. W. Frank Harrington of Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia. The conference was in Hastings, Nebraska and consisted of Presbyterian pastors in the Rocky Mountain or Plains states. Frank, the pastor of the largest church within the denomination, amazed me in how commanded everyone’s attention with his thick slow southern voice. Frank vindicated southern preaching for me. His approach in the pulpit was like a Southern lawyer addressing the jury. Leaning up against the pulpit, speaking in a slow conversational tone, he’d get us to laugh and to cry and then, when he had us hooked, demand we make some decision concerning our faith. “Always preach for a conviction,” Frank repeatedly reminded us.

Frank was a true Southerner. Like all great preachers—J. Wilbur Chapman, B. Frank Hall, C. Kenneth Hall, D. Lyman Moody. C. Wesley Jennings and C. Jeffrey Garrison—he had an initial in front of his real name. Although he never admitted this, I’m willing to bet he cursed his parents to the grave for not using his first name. As a Southerner, Frank had the ability to tell stories and to laugh at himself, invaluable gifts for preaching. All of us have fallen short of God’s glory and Frank’s prime fault was that he hailed from the lesser of the Carolinas.

With only a few notable exceptions such as Norman Maclean, Southern authors have, in my humble opinion, been the only literary voice in twentieth century America. Even non-Southerners such as Big Sky writer, A.B. Gurthie, Jr., big game stalker Ernest Hemingway and the quintessential bum Jack Kerouac found it necessary to sojourn in the South. As with Frank Harrington’s preaching, these authors remind me that we Southerners have something to say. Sometimes it might not be what people want to hear, but we say it anyway, partly because we’re ornery, partly because that’s what we feel God calls us to do.

What is preaching?

H. Eddie Fox, a Southerner who hails from the Methodist tradition, defines preaching as proclaiming:
“the biography of the deeds of God in terms of one’s autobiography with the hope that persons, enabled by the power of the Holy Spirit, respond to God’s act of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, in repentance and faith, and live out the new life in faithfulness to the kingdom of God.” 

This definition leaves out an important component of preaching, the call of God. As Fox and his co-author George Morris points out a few pages later, the Jonah story demonstrates “two fundamental truths.” Going to Nineveh wasn’t Jonah’s idea and hearing about God wasn’t the Ninevites’ idea. God wanted the word out. Preaching is proclaiming God’s biography, but at God’s request. When I honor this request, I trust God’s Spirit works in the life of the hearers so they may be moved by God in ways I, as the preacher, may never know.

The humbling knowledge that God’s in charge

Sometimes preaching is humbling. There was a woman in the Virginia City congregation who was living, with kids, in an abusive situation. During one sermon, she heard me say something that empowered her leave her husband and seek safety. To this day, I’m not sure what she heard because I was preaching what I thought was an ecological message about taking care of God’s creation. God does work in mysterious ways—even to the point of allowing someone hear the gospel in a sermon that has little to do with the message. John Calvin explains the power of preaching to be in the Word, not in the minister. Though humbling to our egos, there is comfort knowing God uses preaching and teaching to “awaken faith and promote sanctification.” The burden of preaching is lifted from our shoulders and placed upon God’s broad shoulders.

Of course, knowing God works through our preaching does not excuse us from preparation. Preaching is hard work. We must incorporate God’s Word into the modern situation and do it in a way that doesn’t bore our congregations to death. Preaching should not be, as I once heard a professor from a reformed theological seminary sarcastically quip, “taking out and examining the doctrines.” Preaching should be alive. It involves telling stories—God’s story and our story. And telling stories should be fun and humorous.


Billy Sunday, the so-so baseball player for the Pittsburgh Pirates who became a sensational (or sinsational?) evangelist, once said: “God likes a little humor, as evidenced by the fact that He made the monkey, the parrot—and some of you people.” Today, the preacher task is more challenging. Media moguls, with resources to create mind-blowing scenes, have taken over storytelling. The preacher must rely on the use of words and an occasional gesture to connect to the mind of the listener so that his or her imagination might visualize the possibilities that exist within God’s kingdom.


Probably the greatest gift a preacher can give to his or her work is honesty. This means we may have less to say than we’d think. One of the problems with preaching is that people expect us to have answers and we, wanting to please, also want to answers questions concerning life and faith. But do we? What do we really know?


Wendell Berry, a Kentucky tobacco farmer who spins a pretty good story, tells about the preacher in Port William’s, Kentucky, who, upon learning that a son of parishioners is missing-in-action during World War Two, immediately goes over to family’s home. A relative of the missing man, while discussing this visit, says, “the worst thing about preachers is they think they’ve got to say something whether anything can be said or not.” The task of preaching is to be honest and at times admit we do not know what God is doing. Instead, we are called to be faithful. As the funeral liturgy goes, “even at the grave we make our song, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Development of my theology; 
Or, before you get into the pulpit, you better have something to say

I was born in Pinehurst, North Carolina, just two days after the death of Humphrey Bogart. This was the same year that Jack Kerouac published On the Road, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas shot it out in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Elvis released “Jailhouse Rock.” In some existential sort of way, these events may have played a role in my theology. Since I don’t know anyone alive who understands existentialism, I’ll refrain from speculation.

Culdee Presbyterian Church

My theological development started on Easter Sunday, 1957. The location was Culdee Presbyterian Church, located in Eastwood, North Carolina, a community which even then didn’t have a post office. It had a Shell Station, a small grocery store called “Bunches,” and a Presbyterian Church. The Post Office closed about the same time the last logging train pulled out of Eastwood Station. This was before my grandmother’s birth. Culdee Presbyterian Church was built on a sandy ridge between Nick’s Creek and the Lower Little River. My Scottish ancestors settled this land two hundred and some years earlier. Out on the ridge where the church sat, they staked out a cemetery filled with many of my ancestors.

1957, my great-grandfather McKenzie holds me. My father is the one with dark glasses. My grandmother to right. My great grandma is next to my dad, and my uncle is in front of my dad.

At the time of my baptism, Culdee consisted of a white-washed pine board church and a cinder block Sunday School building. The McKenzies, Blues, and McDonalds had organized the congregation in the dark decades after that fateful and foolish charge up Seminary Ridge. Ninety-five years later, they were just beginning to get over it, although it would take another generation or two to completely purge the system. On that Easter Sunday, dressed in my finest, my mother and father, flanked by grandparents and great-grandparents, presented me to the Reverend J. Thomas Young to be baptized. A few drops later, I was marked as a member of the Covenant.

Garrison/McKenzie Influence

The Garrison/McKenzie clan played an important role in my early theological development. My Grandfather Garrison had converted to Presbyterianism from a hard-shell Primitive Baptist background, due to his marriage to my grandmother. His conversion represented a pentecostal event in the life of Culdee. The congregation witnessed God’s love extending even to those without a Scottish name. He serves as elder at Culdee for many years. The presbytery elected a commissioner to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, US. Unfortunately, his health kept him from attending. Although he died twenty years ago, to this day I still think of my grandfather as the ideal elder. He regularly read and studied the Bible. His prayers at the table, when the family gathered, were reverent and brought to my mind an image of a good and loving God.

My Great Grandfather McKenzie has also served as a model of faithfulness for me. He served as an elder for forty years and for most of that time was also the Sunday School superintendent. My great grandfather died when I was in Junior High, but I can still see him in the room at my grandparents. He lived with them the last couple years of his life. He would sit in his rocking chair and read the Bible. When the good book wasn’t in his hands, it would be sitting next to his bed on the nightstand. The family in which I was born was steeped in the Bible.

Early memories of church

My early memory of church was watching our neighbor, Art Zenn, prepare the site for a new building with his bulldozer. It was great fun to watch him push dirt around. The congregation started construction on its new sanctuary around 1960. My grandfather was on the building committee and did much of the plumbing and heating work. My father and great-uncle built the copper clad steeple. A crane hosted the structure into place. In 1962, just a year before we moved away from the area, the new building was complete. They tore the old, white-washed wooden sanctuary down. The new brick church began to grow as it reached out to new people in the community. No longer are all the officers Scottish or married to a Scot.

Cape Fear Presbyterian

I grew up in was Cape Fear Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city we moved to when I was in elementary school. My fondest memories are working on the Boy Scouts of America God and Country award with the pastor, C. Wesley Jennings. Mr. Jennings only had daughters and found the scouting program a way to make up for this shortcoming. He prodded my brother and me through the program. During this time, I began to understand more about what it meant to accept Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. As I started High School, I began to read the entire Living Bible, in a teen version called “The Way.” The Bible had been a Christmas gift. I checked off each chapter read in the front of this Bible. Although I gave up the challenge after a few months, I read over half of the Scriptures.

Encouraged to consider the ministry

While in High School, my congregation started electing women and youth to church offices. I was honored to have my name placed in nomination for deacon and surprised to be elected. In the Southern Presbyterian Church, Deacons had oversight of the budget and buildings as well as being responsible for taking up the offering and serving as ushers. I bought a suit and assumed my duties. The hostility within meetings shocked me. Money does that! While serving as a Deacon, people began to suggest I should become a preacher. 

The ministry was not an altogether new idea. I had told my grandmother, when I was ten, that I planned to be a Presbyterian minister. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I began to wonder where they came from. However, the ministry seemed an exciting possibility, yet I wasn’t totally comfortable with the idea. It would be another decade before I felt the call to the ministry. By then, I had graduated from college, worked in a bakery, and for the Boy Scouts. I had also been married and divorced and had moved to western North Carolina.

My call to ministry was a process that began with my healing from a broken marriage. My first wife and I had problems. We separated. Then she became pregnant from another man. We quickly divorced, and she remarried. Crushed, I slipped into a period of depression which lasted a couple years.

Experiencing a call

A new town and new friends restored my confidence, and a new church again offered me a chance to serve by spending one night a month in a homeless shelter. It was also a time of decisions as I was trying to decide if I wanted to stay on with the Boy Scouts or seek some other form of employment. During this time, the thoughts of seminary began to come to me. On a backpacking trip early in January 1986, while mulling over options, I decided I’d try seminary. When I got home, I called one of the pastors at the church I’d joined in Hickory. Even though we’d never discussed the ministry, he asked, “what took you so long?” That Spring I received affirmation from many minister friends, two of whom were Lutheran. 

I also received my first opportunity to preach that Scout Sunday, just a few weeks after deciding to enter seminary. As a scout executive, I had often been invited by troops to “say a few words” at their church. Then, out of the blue, this pastor whom I’d never meet, called and told me he planned on me giving the sermon on Scout Sunday. I was floored. The first Sunday in February 1986, I preached my first sermon in a Methodist Church. That summer, I sold my house and moved up north and entered Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I’d chosen Pittsburgh over Union at Richmond and Columbia in Georgia because I’d never been there and wanted to see what it was like. Besides, Roberto Clemente had played ball there.

Looking back on it all, I can see God’s hand gently nudging me toward seminary and the ministry. While at Pittsburgh, I worked in two different congregations, both of whom encouraged me in my journey. God’s guidance and the love and encouragement of these folks prepared me for the task of preaching. My own journey taught me to trust and place my faith in God.

Impact of Growing Up Southern On My Theology 

Oscar Wilde supposedly said, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, that “one couldn’t admire the moon in Georgia without being told how much better it looked before the War.” Mark Twain noticed the same thing in conversations about the moon in New Orleans. These two accounts mean either my Southern ancestors spent a lot of time looking at the moon during the closing decades of the nineteenth century or someone stole another’s story without properly crediting them. It doesn’t much matter anyway.

The Truth Behind Southern Mythology

It’s a well-known fact that southerners, at least those of us who are Caucasian, reminisce over the antebellum period when our ancestors spent afternoons sipping mint juleps in rocking chairs on the porch of the big house. Listening to these stories, one must assume this was also an era before mosquitoes, ticks, sand gnats, and flies. Those pests must have been introduced as retribution by those pesky Yankees.

The truth is that few of our ancestors enjoyed such luxury, but after Sherman burned everything, one could always act like the family lost its fortune during the war. Even when I was a child, 100 years after it was all over, what seemed important was not how much money your family had, but how much it had before the War. If the truth was known, my kinfolk was probably out in the swamps, hard at work chopping wood for the still that made whiskey for the mint juleps that everyone else’s family enjoyed on their front porches. While swatting gnats, they’d swap stories about ghosts which, once they got around, explained those mysterious lights in the swamps and help keep the revenuers at bay.

Lost Eden or New Jerusalem

All this nonsense just goes to prove that Southern Theology, at least the theology of the common folk, focuses more on the lost Eden than it does on the coming kingdom. In other words, we look back more than we look forward. Although it rings true in the South, in some ways this is true about all of America. “The biblical image of humankind living in a garden dies hard in America,” notes William Pannell, a professor of evangelism at Fuller Theological Seminary. We long for the past and this hinders our ability at sharing the gospel in a world that no longer looks or shares the same heritage as we do. Pannell jokes that southern style religion as shown on television is “merely a camp meeting with air conditioning.” The people such productions reach “are in harmony with the style and message of the preacher.”

Just because Southerners tend to look back to the garden doesn’t mean we don’t anticipate the return of Christ. We think and worry about the second coming a lot. We certainly don’t want to do something we’re not supposed to be doing when Michael’s trumpet blows.

My great granddaddy, who was born in the late 1880’s, often shared stories about his childhood with me. Sometime around the turn of the century, he was in another man’s watermelon patch doing what boys from the South do best. He’d cut open a watermelon, eat it’s heart out, drop the rest of the melon for the birds and seek out another ripe juicy one to enjoy. It was the middle of a hot cloudless day when suddenly the sky turned dark, and the temperature dropped. He noticed that the birds singing as if it was evening. My great granddaddy looked up and saw the sun disappear. He dropped the watermelon and ran for all eternity, as fast as his bare feet could take him. He didn’t want to be caught raiding another man’s watermelon patch on judgment day.

It is my belief that one’s theology needs to look both backwards and forward. We need to look back beyond the Civil War, to first century Palestine and that man we claim to be God named Jesus Christ. And we need to look forward, not in a fearful way to the horrors of judgment, but to Jesus’ promise of a new and coming kingdom. Perhaps looking forward has been difficult for southerners because of the guilt of our past. Even the most ardent racist would have a hard time reconciling a belief in a kingdom where non-whites would be subservient to the rest of us.

The Spirituality of the Church

One of the theology I grappled with coming out of the Southern stream of the Presbyterian Church is the concept known as the “Spirituality of the Church.” This doctrine was taught by one of the South’s greatest theologians, the “humble” James Henley Thornwell, a man who admitted he wanted to be “regarded as the greatest scholar and most talented man that ever lived.” The concept of the “Spirituality of the Church” separated the church and state into “two separate spheres of authorities and functions.” The church was to be spiritual. Its task was evangelism, to bring people to Christ and then to send them back into the world where they carried out social obligations as Christians.

There is much appeal in this concept. It is true that a regenerated individual who lives his or her life in Christ should make a wonderful public servant and carry forth Christ’s will into the public sector. The church is the one organization designed to bring people into a relationship with God. There are other organizations better suited to carrying social change than the church. However, the concept has been misused to keep the church quiet on serious social issues (like slavery and race relations). Prophets of old did not limit the scope of their wrath to the spiritual realm and neither should the church. Jesus reminder that we need to be wise as serpents and as gentle as doves probably applies here.

The doctrine of “the spirituality of the church” as well as a strong emphasis on Scripture, helped separate politics from the church. As a result, the pulpit became a place where only sins specifically forbidden in Scripture were condemned. An interesting challenge to this doctrine, which crossed denominational lines, came from the Methodist revivalist Sam Jones. A former alcoholic, Jones became an ardent prohibitionist and turned his revivals into “civic reform crusades” seeking to limit society’s access to alcohol, prostitution, and gambling. By the time I grew up in the South, the drinking of alcohol, which is not prohibited in scripture, was often portrayed as the root of all evil. This created sort of a split personality amongst southerners. Some sins not listed in scripture were condemned while others, such as racism, were labelled as a political problem and not discussed in the pulpit.

Acknowledging sin

Growing up southern, I memorized at a young age Paul’s word, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I think I could have quoted this verse even before I could quote John 3:16. However, there seemed to be a distinction between sins. Although we’ve all sinned in some spiritual sort of way, some of us have sinned more than others and those of us who have sinned by the flesh have thereby fallen further from God’s glory and are to be looked upon with contempt. It is biblical that we’ve all sinned, but this categorization of sinfulness only serves to create a false pride in those who are strong enough to avoid being caught in the sins of the flesh (drunkenness, adultery, etc.).

I wish someone, at an early age, could have reinforced the concept of God’s grace as well as they taught the concept of sin. I would have been a lot more accepting of others had I understood all along that God’s love extends equally to even the vile sinner.

Current State of My Theology 

A portrait commissioned by First Presbyterian Church of Hastings (Michigan). I served this congregation from 2004-2014. The picture in the back of the portrait is the new church we built during that time.

Somehow, I managed to survive growing up in the South. As a preacher, I am thankful for my past, it provides great source material for sermons. Partly due to my growing up in the South, I was instilled with reverence for Scripture, Almighty God, a need for a Savior, the importance of a religious community, and a fear that hell is being unable to swat mosquitoes in a backwater swamp on a hot day. Most of these traits have served me well as I’ve tried to tell others about Jesus Christ.

Dave, Blue Hole Canoes, Bill, Bob, and a book review 

Dave and my introduction to Blue Hole Canoes

In the winter of 1976, I was a freshman at University of North Carolina at Wilmington. One night, I attended the local Sierra Club meeting. The hot topic at the time was the protection of the New River, a river I’d paddled and felt I should become involved. I don’t remember much of the program, but I did meet Dave Benny that evening. Dave was close to twice my age, and an engineer at Dupont. He had recently purchased a Blue Hole canoe. Learning I also had a canoe (It was my first major purchase when I was sixteen), and had paddled several rivers in Southeast North Carolina, David picked my brain. Over the next six or seven years, until I left that part of the state, Dave or I would lead many of the canoe trips offered by the Wilmington chapter of the Sierra Club.  

The Unique Blue Hole Canoe

Dave’s Blue Hole was a unique canoe. I don’t remember why he decided to purchase a boat built for white water to run in the black water rivers in the eastern half of the state. But I was impressed how well it handled in narrow winding streams where there were lots of logs just under the surface. Those unseen logs would often catch the keel of my Grumman canoe. The Blue Hole had a flat bottom which helped it float them. Its design also allowed the paddler to quickly turn and to move easily across a fast current, a benefit when paddling in a swampy area during high water where the water flow wants to pull your boat out of the channel and into the swamps. 

A faded photo from the early 80s that I recently found. At Crusoe Island, Columbus County, NC, on a paddle down the Waccamaw River. I think Dave’s Blue Hole is the canoe to the right. The photo of me and the boats were either taken by Dave or another friend, Phil Morgan, who paddled with me one of the trips I made down the Waccamaw River.

However, when the river widens and the wind picked up, the flat bottom made the Blue Holes less desirable. One had to paddle harder to keep the boat tracking properly. Many of our trips would begin on smaller creeks and then end up on larger rivers, where Dave and whoever was paddling in his bow had to work harder than the rest of us. 

The Blue Hole was made of a new substance called Rolex ABS. It was much stronger than fiberglass and a lot quieter than aluminum, like the Grummans. In my boat, any bump on a submerged log or a drop of a paddle or water bottle into the boat would be announced to everyone. Dave’s boat was much quieter. 

Dave and the finer things in life

Dave and I didn’t paddle together much. We were generally in our own canoes, with each of us having another participant in our bow. But on occasion, the two of us would go out together to scout a new river or creek. Then, we’d often take Dave’s canoe. Dave seemed to have all the cool toys. As a middle-aged single man, he could afford such things. In addition to his canoe, he was the first person I knew with a Leica, a German camera known for its superior optics. He also purchased a Sea Gull 1.2 horsepower outboard motor. This British designed motor, I would later learn, was popular among sailors to power dinghies and rafts to and from a mooring. 

Dave obtained the Sea Gull motor so we could take a canoe upstream to check out new streams. After motoring upstream, we’d paddle back down to our vehicle. One such stream was Colly Creek, which flows into the Black River. That little motor pushed us upstream easily. But there were lots of weeds in the stream, which kept tangling up the prop and causing the sheer pin to snap. Dave, however, came prepared. We became very proficient at replacing sheer pins that day and when we had no more pins, we were in sight of a bridge we could use to launch from. It was time to turn around. We paddled with the current to our waiting vehicle at a bridge just downstream of the confluence with the Black River. Colly Creek became a favorite paddling stream, and I must have run that creek a dozen times. 

Leaving Eastern North Carolina and acquiring a Royalex Canoe

I left Eastern North Carolina early in 1984 and lost contact with Dave. In one of our last trips together, he had invited a woman along. I heard they later married. For a few years, I would occasionally hear about him from my brother who was also an engineer with Dupont, but in another factory. But then he retired and that was many years ago. 

My Mad River at a campsite along the Missinaibi River, Northern Ontario, 1992

As for my old Grumman Canoe, it was stolen in 1985. I would replace it with a Mad River Explorer. Like the Blue Hole, it’s also an ABS Royalex boat. However, instead of a totally flat bottom like the Blue Hole, it has a rocker bottom which allows it to track better downstream and on lakes. I still have that boat. I have paddled it in rivers in nine states as well as northern Ontario where I paddled to the James Bay. I have replaced the wooden gunnels twice, and it’s still a good paddling canoe. I must continue caring for that boat for they no longer make ABS Royalex.

Paddling with Bill in one of his Blue Holes
Bill and me

Two weeks ago, when I was at Montreat, a Presbyterian Conference Center in Western North Carolina, I met up with another old friend. Bill and I had been a part of the team who ran the youth program at First Presbyterian Church in Hickory NC. We both paddled a lot, but only once made one trip together, that I recall, on the Henry River (where parts of the Hunger Games would be filmed decades later). Bill, who has lived in Asheville for over 30 years, suggested we paddle the Tuckaseegee River. Bill’s canoes have multiplied. He now owns a trailer full and they’re mostly Blue Holes. On this day, he brought along a tandem boat which we paddled together. 

Meeting Bob Lantz
Bob Lantz on the deck of his cabin

We made our way down the river, through rapids named the 1st Hole, the 2nd Hole, the Slingshot. A short bit after running the Double Drop rapid, Bill suggested we drop in and see a friend of his. We found Bob Lantz at his cabin on the river and spent some time sitting out on his porch drinking a beer and talking. Bob was one of two designers for the Blue Hole canoe. After talking to him that day on the river, I decided that I needed to read his book. Doing so, I realized that Dave’s canoe would have been one of the earlier boats built by the company, only a few years after its founding. 

Sadly, Bob no longer paddles. He’s had a couple of knee replacement surgeries and cannot kneel in a canoe. But he does get to enjoy being on a beautiful river and watching canoes, kayaks, and rafts float by. 

Bill’s Blue Hole at the Take-out on the Tuckaseegee River


Bob Lantz, Lean Downstream!! The Whole History from Beginning to End of the Blue Hole Canoe Company 

(Bob Lantz, 1979), 231 pages with many photos and diagrams. 

This book contains many moving parts. It’s part memoir but includes engineering and business details of canoe construction along with bits about how to paddle and work to save rivers in Tennessee. Combining these elements, the reader learns much about the growth of canoeing as a recreation activity in the 1970s and 1980s. The author appears upfront with his honesty, admitting when he made mistakes. And his mistakes include a superior attitude of how to paddle before being taught proper techniques as well as business and personnel blunders while running a company. 

The book jump around a lot. However, the author warns the reader about this at the beginning. Lantz takes a thread and runs with it (such as the business of building canoes) then backtracks to fill in his personal details. He also tends to blatantly “foreshadow” what will happen in his writing by telling his readers he’ll get to it. However, the book is easily read. Lantz writes in a conversational style, not the technical style one expects from engineers. This less formal style seems to work well and serves the author’s purposes. 

The author claims this is the “whole history” of the Blue Hole Company. However, I couldn’t help but assume some things are left out. But such is the nature of any writing as we can’t cover or report on everything. I would suggest the book is a history of the company through the eyes of one of its major players.

This book is also a history of the personal life of the author. I must admit, I felt sorry for him. Lantz was suddenly single and middle aged, sitting by his wood stove on winter nights in an old Tennessee farmhouse. When I visited his cabin on the Tuckasseegee, I admired his stove. He seemed appreciative and said it was his second Jotul wood stove. His first one eventually burned out the sidewalls trying to heat his house on the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. Reading the book, I realized the stove is a minor character in Lantz’s story. 

That said, I was impressed with what Bob, a former aerospace engineer, and friends were able to do. They developed a company that radically changed the sport of white-water canoeing. From the idea to build canoes out of Royalex, to their design and develop of aluminum gunnels (purposely using low-tempered aluminum) and thwarts, Blue Hole was a pioneer in the canoe industry. The company lasted for fifteen years (1973-1988). Sadly, internal struggles seemed to sink the company. When friction between partners increased, the bank called the loan and the company liquidated. 

I recommend this book to those interested in the development of canoeing in this country. Even if you don’t read it all, the book has great photos. As a warning, I doubt those uninterested in canoeing and rivers would find much enjoyment from the book. I am also grateful to the role the author and the company played in protecting several rivers in the Southeast.