Letter from West Virginia


First Person


“A newspaper for people who can’t read, edited by an editor who can’t write”

Jim Comstock (1911–96) was the iconoclastic editor of the West Virginia Hillbilly, a “weakly” paper based in Richwood, a former logging boomtown in Nicholas County fallen on hard times. I spent the first years of my life over the mountain from Richwood, where Jim’s stunts were much discussed. The Hillbilly wasn’t just a paper—it was an art project, a platform for historic preservation, a conservative wailing wall, and, above all, an exploration of the West Virginian id. Once, in early spring, Jim famously added “ramp oil” to the ink at the printing press, a tribute to Richwood’s Feast of the Ramson, which celebrates the wild leeks that sprout in the mountains after a hard winter. They give off a terrible stench. Warehouses full of mailmen were made to gag. To his delight, Jim received a stern rebuke from the postmaster general. “Now we’re the only newspaper under orders from the federal government not to smell bad,” Jim told the Associated Press. “That’s an awful thing to do to a striving newspaper.” 

The Hillbilly, brimming with social and political commentary, was governed by a prankster spirit. Mocking the do-it-yourself craze of the seventies, Jim printed an ad for a remove-your-own-appendix kit and received serious inquiries from as far away as Britain. He featured letters, probably faked, from concerned lady readers who thought he should change the paper’s name to the Mountain William. When the Kinsey Report came out, Jim measured its veracity by polling the female population of Richwood, door-to-door. And he published unsigned vignettes such as this one, titled “A Boy’s Best Friend Is His Mother”:

A man from the city stopped his car real fast in front of a mountain shack and ran into the yard to stop a young fellow who was beating his ma. He pulled him off the old lady and asked him why he would do a thing like that. And the young fellow said it was because she was fixin’ to wean him, that’s why.

Jim has been one of the few to capture West Virginia’s humor—absurd, fatalistic—in print. His politics were terrifying—he loathed the New Deal and opposed new mining safety regulations on the grounds they were burdensome to small coal operators—but he had a point when he remarked that West Virginians never felt impoverished or backward until the outside world told us about our depravity. “One nice thing for West Virginia,” he wrote, “is that when all the interstates go through, traveling newspapermen and magazine writers won’t be able to see a thing.” He loved nothing more than tweaking the elite—Senator Rockefeller (whom he accused of speaking “like a leaky bee-tree”), the national press that misunderstood his “satirese,” and the drive-by politicians who appeared every four years to kiss babies.

Jim had the look of a Presbyterian elder—lean, puckered, with thinning white hair and undertaker suits. You won’t find a picture of him smiling. A tight-fisted child of the Depression and a former teacher at Richwood High, he was an unlikely newspaperman, but not an ineffective one: even with its precarious finances, the Hillbilly survived for decades, with Jim and his protégé, Bronson McClung, raising hell week in, week out. To raise money, Jim offered the first subscribers twenty-five year subscriptions for twenty-five dollars apiece. At its height, circulation reached thirty thousand, with many subscribers out of state or abroad. Of Richwood’s three thousand residents, Jim claimed, only nineteen held subscriptions.

“Jim Comstock had two papers,” my dad’s old law partner, Steve Davis, for many years the chairman of the Nicholas County Democrats, wrote to me:

The Richwood News Leader for money and the West Virginia Hillbilly for fun and money. Back in the day, the law required that each county or judicial circuit post certain legal ads in newspapers of opposite politics. So Jim and Bronson McClung’s News Leader was the Republican paper and the Nicholas County Chronicle was the Democrat paper … You are from a small town so you well know you have to have moral courage or suffer from narcissism to write anything meaningful in a small-town paper. Jim did and was not the most popular guy in the county. He ran for Congress one time and didn’t even carry his home precinct. Over a few decades of writing and editing you manage to offend everyone in town or, at least, their relatives.  As you know feuding is a strong point and forgiveness is a weak point of [West Virginians] … The weak give in and just print baby pictures and obituaries. 

About that run: imagine southern West Virginia circa 1964, when it was dense with union coal miners and yellow-dog Democrats. Republicans were scarce, and Jim was of the cranky, sharp-tongued variety that political isolation breeds. His tongue-in-cheek campaign included a platform against the institution of motherhood, since “relief agencies encourage unmarried females to become mothers to get a dole.” He drowned in the predictable landslide. A few years earlier, he’d penned a satiric article during the 1960 primary election between Hubert Humphrey and JFK called PA WON’T SELL HIS VOTE TO NO CATHOLIC!, a comment on the open secret that Joe Kennedy was pouring money into West Virginia sheriff’s departments to buy votes. The New York Herald Tribune picked it up as fact in a piece about West Virginia’s anti-Catholic bias. Later, a slick New York magazine referred to the Hillbilly as a “sophisticated” newspaper. Jim demanded a retraction.

And yet he was a true believer in West Virginia. He pushed to save Pearl S. Buck’s homeplace and other historic buildings; when Richwood’s clothespin factory was set to close because of foreign competition, he called on every politician he knew in an attempt to save it, despite his free-market ways; he organized nature walks to see the rare arctic plants of Cranberry Glades, now a protected botanical area. Most important, he channeled the existence of those West Virginians who had “donned shoes,” as he would say, who had gone to college and wriggled above our station to become country lawyers and newspaper writers, dentists and nurses, bureaucrats and mine engineers—no longer the redneck proletariat but not quite ruling class. We straddled both worlds, enjoying our brick homes and security but never quite sure where we fit into the scheme, so we laughed at ourselves, which was acceptable. We were too sophisticated for the holler up Hominy Creek, but Yankees still laughed at us, no matter how much they coveted our electoral votes and our cheap coal.



The Painter

Some old-timers are still pissed off about Jim’s most elaborate caper, but it must be recorded for posterity. As in all West Virginia tales, there are conflicting versions of what happened, but all involve the “painter” (aka panther, mountain lion, cougar), that roamed the West Virginia mountains until the late nineteenth century, when it was extirpated under the bounty system. But rumors of its existence have persisted. It is our yeti. The editor of the neighboring county’s paper, a Hillbilly rival, was particularly vocal in his claims that “the painter still walked these hills.”

But Jim was a realist, and painter fantasies were not for him. One day he received a visit from a man involved with a pathetic little zoo, soon to be shuttered, and he had a panther. If a buyer didn’t turn up, he was going to have it put to sleep. The gears began to turn. Jim called up a local mountain man and told him about the situation, working the angle that this marvelous beast must live on, and besides, wasn’t the volunteer fire department—of which the trapper was a charter member—short on cash?

They brokered the panther’s sale, and the mountain man put it in a cage on Kennison Mountain. That afternoon, Jim brought several men to see it. The news nearly tore the town in two. The Kennison Mountain panther was put on display at the firehouse, and they charged admission for a quarter.

“That’s the same one broke into my chicken coop!”

“It run cross the highway last year, but I didn’t want to tell nobody! None of you would have believed me!”

“I almost shot it in deer season. I didn’t pull the trigger.”

When word got out that it was all a fake, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of hair, and even worse. My source tells me, “When a fellow is laughed at enough, he will strike out … The local dentists and sawbones made a lot of money off the fights that occurred … It’s still a very sensitive topic.”

Jim was always pulled between civic engagement and “pure devilment,” as my grandma would say. He embarrassed everyone, yes, but at least that Richwood fire truck would keep on shining.

Jim, the archconservative, arranged for the panther to live out its retirement at French Creek Game Farm, a state-run zoo.


“The Kennison Mountain panther was put on display at the firehouse, and they charged admission for a quarter.”


The Case of Old Blue

In the early eighties, my dad and his law partner, the aforementioned Steve Davis, got sewn up in some hard-hitting journalism courtesy of the Hillbilly. A law firm is a moneymaking proposition, but to my dad’s chagrin, Steve would sometimes take up cases that could be classified as entertainment. My dad was out when an angry hunter appeared. He had bought a defective coon dog.

“Guy told me it run straight coon,” he said. “Hell, it run off chasing deer every night!”

Now, a well-trained hound is a pricey thing. Even then, one could demand a couple thousand dollars. You wanted one that ran “straight coon,” so it wouldn’t lead you after foxes, deer, and other undesirables in the night. Steve asked to see the dog, and by the time my dad returned, it was too late. The firm of Breckenridge, Davis, Null, & Sproles had taken on the Case of Old Blue.

There was no written contract, but the client had purchased Old Blue for three hundred dollars and a good pump shotgun. After a few botched hunts and frustrating nights, the client had gone to the coon-dog impresario and demanded his money back, as well as his gun. Let the buyer beware, said the impresario. Besides, the money had already been spent.

Inevitably, the Hillbilly was out in force at the Nicholas County Courthouse on the day of Old Blue’s trial. Here I include a picture of the proceedings. You can see the bailiff leading Old Blue in front of the counsel—Steve and my dad, who has much hair and is despairing that his legal career has taken such a turn.

The magistrate found all this entertaining, until Old Blue, being displayed to the jury, paused to piss on the base of the flag. The magistrate was perturbed not so much by the hound’s sedition but by the circumstances: it was a new courtroom with good carpeting.

Steve called local good ol’ boy Clennie Workman as a character witness for Old Blue. The buyer had also complained that Old Blue wouldn’t bark, and of course a man can’t follow a nonbarking hound through the night. Clennie, a hunter of great renown, took the stand and claimed the impresario had “whooped the bark out of it.” Well! Much jumping up and shouting then. The bailiff had to calm the place down. A man had been impugned as a dog abuser.

In the end, partly in thanks to Clennie Workman’s reputation as a man who knows a good dog when he sees one, the magistrate found in favor of the buyer, though it was a partial victory: he was refunded the gun but not the money, and the impresario took back Old Blue. No one was pleased—except the reporter from the Hillbilly, who had documented the trial with the vigor of the Post covering Watergate. In the Winter 2000 issue of the state publication Goldenseal, Clennie Workman mentions the case as one of the highlights of a life spent among hounds. The article is titled STRAIGHT TALK ON COON DOGS. Steve tells me,

I saw him not long afterward at the Go Mart. He was driving a little VW Beetle. I complimented him on his expertise in dog flesh. He said, “Oh, I got a top notch coon dog now.” He popped the hood and this big hound was laying all squished down in the VW trunk in front. After a little admiration and relief for the dog, he slammed the hood down again.

Matthew Neill Null is a writer from West Virginia, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a winner of the O. Henry Award, the Mary McCarthy Prize, and the Joseph Brodsky Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is author of the novel Honey from the Lion and the recently released collection Allegheny Front. Next year he’ll be in residence at the American Academy in Rome.