ROANOKE TIMES Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times DATE: Sunday, July 7, 1996 TAG: 9607080003 SECTION: CURRENT PAGE: NRV-16 EDITION: NEW RIVER VALLEY SOURCE: ROBERT FREIS STAFF WRITER
WALTER Albert Dobbins claims to know Price Mountain better than anyone else, upside and down, inside and out.
"I've been in it all these years," he says. "There weren't a groundhog hole I didn't know where it was at."
For this mountain man, Price Mountain has been both home and source of provender for most of his 80 years. Dobbins has been all over it trapping various critters for their fur pelts. Beneath its surface, he's dug coal in a number of long-closed mines.
Now things are changing. There's talk of building new houses atop Price Mountain and along Stroubles Creek at its northern border. If either project becomes a reality, there's no telling what will become of the backwoods habitat that characterizes the four-mile-long, 2,400-foot mountain in west central Montgomery County.
So it's just as well that Dobbins has been slowed by heart problems. "This past year I didn't do much," he says.
These days you'll find him around his house, situated at the end of a road and across a rickety footbridge in Frog Hollow, with his chickens, dogs and cats, and a few rusty items in the yard.
Inside his cozy hutch, Dobbins has an old oil drum transformed into a wood stove. It's beside his favorite chair and topped by a steam-oozing kettle. Sit a spell, listen to his stories and it's hard to believe that you're within a half-mile of Blacksburg, the 21st-century Electronic Village.
"A country boy will survive," sings hillbilly crooner Hank Williams Jr., and Walter Albert Dobbins agrees. "I could live better than the people in town," he asserts.
Versatility and self-sufficiency are his blueprints for getting by. The plans were drawn early in his life and Dobbins has followed them throughout.
Born in Hiwassee in Pulaski County, Dobbins' family migrated to the coal town at Merrimac when he was an infant. At first he lived with his father, mother and two siblings in a three-room miner's tenant house.
There, he recalls playing king-of-the-hill on piles of slate and ice skating barefoot in wintertime. Coal mining was dangerous work for his father, but it paid better than farm work.
Even so, families had to play along with the seasonal rhythm that found the mines closed during warm months and open only when the demand for furnace coal was up in winter.
So the Dobbinses and the other coal mining families learned adaptability. Just about everyone had a garden. "If you didn't raise it, you didn't have it," he recalls.
His father taught him to hunt, a pursuit Dobbins has followed during his adult life to supplement his income.
Dobbins headed for work in the mines as a teen-ager, and dug coal in the big Merrimac mine until a strike and dismal economic times permanently closed that operation in the mid-1930s.
The union wanted a pay raise, from 40 to 60 cents per two-ton car each miner filled with coal. But the operator said that was too much, and he shut the operation down.
"Times was cheap then," Dobbins says.
He and other miners then worked at whichever county coal mine would hire them, at Price Mountain, Brush Mountain or down at McCoy. He'd thumb a ride to West Virginia in search of work and then have to ride along with the other railroad boxcar-riding hobos to get back home.
In December 1938 Dobbins had finished his shift at the Brumfield mine and was walking home across Price Mountain when he heard a muffled roar and felt the ground shake. He just missed a gas explosion that killed four men.
It was around then that Dobbins encountered his future wife, Clara, carrying her little sister on her hip. "I inquired about her," he says, grinning slyly, and was not deterred to find out that she was 12 years old.
They were married and Clara had the first of their four sons about a year later. They're still a pair.
When all the local coal mines closed after the end of World War II, Dobbins earned $50 monthly by working on the Virginia Tech farms or the Heth family farm off Prices Fork Road. ("That was big money in those days.") He also learned the masonry trade, which became his primary source of income.
Still, trapping on Price Mountain always helped to supplement his income. He'd walk seven or eight miles each day, checking his backwoods traps for foxes, rabbits, possums, muskrats, minks, squirrels and raccoons.
"A fox pelt would bring you $75. Catch two or three of them, you could live pretty good," he recalls.
His wife would can deer, squirrel and rabbit meat. "Sometimes we'd eat a young coon. Just according to what you needed," he says. "I loved squirrel. Get that going with gravy and a few biscuits. Man, that's hard to turn down."
For Dobbins, trapping was a necessity of survival, not an act of cruelty. He saw it as a means to keep the varmit population healthy by controlling its numbers.
Flea markets at Shawsville or atop Christiansburg Mountain were another source of family income. It's been a continuing habit, and the Dobbinses house is piled to the brim with curios and knickknacks, with passages cleared for walking and for viewing the television.
"As you can see, we keep everything," said Clara Dobbins, looking up from stitching a homemade quilt.
Dobbins' Price Mountain prowling has been reduced to some deer hunting, and he's sold all his animal traps. But he says he knows the mountain well enough to be skeptical of plans to build houses on the eastern summit.
"It's hollow underneath, likely to fall plum through," he says of the mountain and the old coal mines honeycombed beneath it. "I don't think they should build up there."
He speaks of one mountain location where air spews out of an old mine shaft forcefully enough to shiver the leaves and frost the exterior rocks on a cold morning, he says.
But that's not his worry, and neither is the disappearance of many of the little animals he trapped on Price Mountain. He's cut the bristling outdoorsman's beard that he wore and settled into his easy chair beside the wood stove.
Whatever comes, Price Mountain will just have to adjust, just as Walter Albert Dobbins did.
LENGTH: Long : 130 lines ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO: ALAN KIM/Staff. 1. For Walter Dobbins, Price Mountainby CNB
has been both home and source of provender for most of his 80 years
(ran on NRV-1). 2. Animals (above) always have played a special part
in the lives of Albert and Clara Dobbins. Through the years,
Dobbins helped supplement the family's income by hunting and
trapping. Today chickens, dogs and cats roam the Dobbins' home in
Frog Hollow (above). 3. A photograph from the 1920s (right) shows
the Dobbins family at their potato patch. Members pictured are (from
left) grandmother Lizzie, brother Lewis (with dog), father Edd,
Albert (8 years old) and mother Lena. 6. Clara Dobbins, 68, and
husband Albert, 80, have been married for 55 years, living most of
their lives on the northern slope of Price Mountain. 4. The
Dobbinses' house is piled full with curios and knickknacks, with
passages cleared for walking and for viewing the television. "As you
can see, we keep everything," said Clara Dobbins (above). color. 5.
Albert Dobbins (right) is pictured in a 1984 photograph by Gene
Dalton during Dobbins' trapping days. The raccoon pelts were turned
inside out and boards inserted to stiffen them. 6. Edd Dobbins,
Albert Dobbins' father, poses in front of the tenant house on
Merrimac Mines property.