Matt Prater

Mercury River Blues


There’s a legend, or maybe just an anecdote,

as I’ve only ever read it in one book

on the history of Saltville and Smyth County,

under a subheading marked “North Holston,”

which says George Washington stood once, Moses-like,

on a hunting expedition surveying the Hogoheegee

over what would become Saltville, from the top

of present day White Rock Mountain.


It was the furthest west he would travel in his life

(which of course is blatant bunk: French and Indian War),

and he remarked on the beauty and the buffalo

and the verdancy; but not, of course,

on the Yuchi town of Manatique,

which Glanville says (a scholar at Virginia Tech)

a band of men connected to De Soto

would’ve discovered shimmying up the Holston,

as he believes they did late in the 1500s.


Europeans first called the place Buffalo Lick,

which they heard from the Yuchi, and from observation

of buffalo licking the ground at the edge of small ponds.

Then the buffalo and Yuchi leave the story

(oh the world may never know how) and the Americans

take over the Holston valley and name the place

the salina, later Saltville.

                                    Their name changed the place

from being defined in the narratives of nature

to taking its place in a story of capital and industry;

what the worth of the town was to those outside of it named it.


Suffice to say the whole thing’s complicated.

Start at the William King mansion –

they call it now The Martha Washington Inn –

if you want to get a grasp on where it goes.

This one man’s house was built on kettles of salt

boiled and shipped from the Saltville brines

down the forks of the Holston through Abingdon

to Kingsport (named for his industrial progenations).

Patrick Henry’s sister’s son sold him the land,

and the land made so much bank that later on,

come Civil War, Grant himself considered the town

higher than even Chancellorsville in bearing.



Every other strip of Confederate bacon,

every Confederate leather boot or belt or gunstrap,

is owed to the town’s brine kettles, so that when the Union

can’t take the town the first go round,

they come right back and strike at it again.

Then come the Gilded Age, the British come.

A man named Mathieson starts making alkali and soda ash,

and later on (hush hush) the hydrazine that primes our rocket fuel

for atom bombs and moonshots so that, the rumors go,

there’s a list in the Kremlin that says take Washington out,

and then New York, then third or fourth

the Saltville plant or the armory at Radford.


Whether that was true or not there was certainly money,

enough for a movie theatre and a pool hall and a bowling alley,

a brothel and an under-the-table high school football recruiting scheme,

for endless rows of saltbox two-story houses

and a stained glass Methodist church

and an Essex replica Episcopal chapel for the Brits

and a cricket court next to their apartment row houses.

And all the men wore suits when they didn’t wear work clothes,

and everybody had good hunting dogs and there was a a semipro baseball team,

and the Masons and the Oddfellows and all the other semisecret clubs

had chapters here, doing whatever it was they did (which was probably

sneaking off to the brothel and funding recruiting).

And in general terms things went well for workers and hirers both,

and people laughed at Karl Marx and Adlai Stevenson (but voted Democrat,

of course – the working man’s party back then),

and things went well for father and daughter and son.


Of course there was Christmas Eve in ’24,

when the muck dam exploded on Henrytown

and Hiawatha and Henry and most all of the Praters died,

and the newspapers came from Bristol and Kingsport

and Danville and Roanoke and Richmond and New York City,

and it was the national story for the whole week after Christmas,

and aid flowed in, and the PR reports

noted the “Christian spirit” of the company

in responding to its workers in the wake

of this totally unforeseen, random act of nature.


But no one, or few at most, were laid off

even in the depths of the Depression. Shifts were rotated and split,

and the work went on semi-unceasingly through two world wars

and one baby boom of industrial prosperity.



War chemicals and industrial chemicals went out

from the plant’s great tower (the tallest wooden building in the world)

to every major center in the country

and every country in the Western block.


And the pensions were paid, and the paychecks were good,

and the company store stocked Winchesters and Ajax and White Lily

and Dapper Dan and menthols and South Carolina peaches

and gelatin packs and bluegrass 78s.


Bouffant blondes with cone-pointed breasts

packed tastefully under tight maroon sweatshirts

waved from the back seats of eggshell Thunderbirds

and other convertibles, draped with elaborate flower tapestries

for the Christmas and the homecoming parades:


Here comes the great Madam Russell,

who came in with the Asburys and managed the missionaries of Wesley

(James Madison came here once to seek her blessing

re his campaign for the presidency)!


And here is the great J. Leonard Mauck,

Smyth County superintendent of schools

for something close to twenty or thirty years,

and namesake of the James Madison University

baseball stadium in Harrisonburg, VA!


His football team went undefeated in ’38,

and his players went on to become four-star generals;

and one, the great halfback Roy Debord, mayor

of Cocoa Beach, Florida, and a quality control engineer

on every NASA mission from Mercury to the Enterprise shuttle!


And here come the great artists Robert Porterfield and Hobart Smith

(and by Smith’s rumor, Blind Lemon Jefferson, too)

who founded the great state gem the Barter Theatre,

who played “Black Snake Moan” on an electric guitar,

who fiddled with Gullah island singers

on records for the great Alan Lomax!


Of course, at some point the great parades

and the flow of endless industry surceased.

And all that stuff the papers came and gawked at,

all that happened. The company just dumped too much

of the wrong stuff in the wrong places for too long

and they couldn’t or they wouldn’t get it out,

and Nixon went pinko to the minds of most here

and signed all those EPA rules. Then bureaucrats

came thumbing their noses in things, and the work

was shipped to Lake Charles, LA or Strawberry Plains, TN –

which almost nobody here wanted to leave for.


So some went back to farms, and some retired,

and some went on to Westinghouse

until Westinghouse shut down, too; 

or they went to some company or coal mine,

until those places went down or they died.


And the best students in the school went from becoming

engineers for Olin to middle school teachers

for Smyth County or Washington County schools.

And the kids who used to struggle but bust their butts

went from driving Hazmat to driving Pepsi trucks,

or for Navajo or JB Hunt or Conway. Or else,

if things didn’t go so well, the brightest and the struggling kids

both went from working for the plant to disability,

and their kids went from disability to dope (which isn’t

politically correct, but it’s the God’s honest truth).


Now those who can leave leave home for Virginia Tech,

then move on to jobs in Newport News or Atlanta, and we

who didn’t want to drive a Peterbuilt, but couldn’t build houses,

and didn’t want to lose our teeth and die at forty-two,

well we get degrees in nursing or education,

or we work the midnight shift at highway truck stops,

or do contracting work, or haul ourselves

back and forth and back and forth to Grundy

or Pikeville, or Mercer or McDowell, to work the mines.


Which is to say the whole thing isn’t tragic –

just convoluted, complex, consternating.

Even the Holston isn’t that bad if you catch and release.

There were kids, they say, who used to go there

before they knew better, and they would dig up the mercury

from the bottom, and roll it between their fingers,

or put a dot of it on top of a coin and just balance it there.

They said it was shiny, and the coolest thing

any of them would ever see again,

and that they would do it, all of it,

the whole thing all over again if they could.


Four main roads enter onto Saltville.

Each one gives a different view of place,

each one a distinct element and story.

Highway 107 comes from Chilhowie,

easiest access in from the broader world,

and weaves down rounded hills that form

the southern ridge and border of the town,

which made it so hard for the Lincolnites

to break across in the Civil War. At one curve,

a bit beyond the Edgewood subdivision,

is an outlook from which every profile

of the town contains some picture.

The company houses of East Main Street

line out a winding curve against the edge

of other, smaller, little northern hills. Below these

the company-built golf course, the well fields

and the well-kept craftsman houses

of the teachers and nurses who live

in the center of town. The view from here

in the orange light of evening in late summer,

or in stormy July when the downtown is lit

by strobes of Ferris wheels and Sky Drops

and the thoroughfare of carnival games

and kiddie coasters and stage lights

suggests an image of ubiquitous,

resplendent middle classness.


But say you come to town via Route 80,

Alison’s Gap from Tumbling or Poor Valley,

on Hayter’s Gap having come from Lebanon,

and you come onto Lick Skillet and the Pines,

and Tri-Cities Dry Ice and Titan Wheel,

and the skeleton of Olin-Mathieson

at that very point where the Holston,

poisoned, winds out of the valley. Here

the picture of the town is wholly changed:

rows and roads of single story bungalows,

if any farm stock goats instead of cows,

and quarter acre vegetable gardens line houses

where the roads are so narrow they effect

some coal boom town in southern W.Va.


Then if you come in south from 91

through Broadford, North Holston, and McCready

from Rich Valley, then past the little turns

of Cedar Branch, where the Confederates held

at the first battle of Saltville/Cedar Branch,

then it would seem at times there should be

orange trees, or olives, with Ellendale

a little Salinas, a tiny California:

the houses are large and the cows fat

and the goats and the ewes and the corn grow well,

and the fields are full of quartz and limestone,

and the capital is kept for centuries in land

and tractor and progenated bull.


Yet come in north on 91 from Glade and Lodi,

and there’s a muddle of farmland and row houses,

of hollowed church and hollers, of hollow barns,

of crannied communities of twenty houses

distinct as city boroughs, as the Bronx or Queens

or Yonkers to those who live there. A doublewide

sits next to a house with a veranda porch

sits next to a field of grazing cattle sits next

to seven trailers sits next to a gas station sits next

to the abandoned mines of US Gypsum Co.


Borne but scorned by this two-stoplight town,

your every second memory is the day you opened the door

on your Daddy’s reputation and got locked inside.

Now it’s only what you do after the losses

that lines out who you are. Something shouldn’t be the way this is,

but this is certainly that way. And if you knew how not

to stay, you wouldn’t stay in a place that has no place,

in a place that doesn’t have (just is) a history.


But you keep on doing the nameless thing,

looking for the name something says is still out there,

somewhere, waiting – the one not carved

on someone else’s tombstone. Same time, of course,

you know that that’s the only place to look for life:

in the haunting hold of our weatherworn names,

and in the fading granite of scraps and pictures

hidden in dead uncles’ worn leather wallets.


One of them left for Detroit to build Plymouths,

still another followed Olin to Lake Charles,

and some of them thought of moving to Atlanta,

which had both jobs and White Lily biscuit flour,

when the industrial dispensation lifted from us

and we became the only thing you know we are.


It’s easy enough to live in the place you’re allotted

when polyglot architecture and coal car graffiti

match the spirit-stamping names and particular narrations

of a city’s sections, coalescing; less so when the difference

is family rather than ethnicity, tree rather than climate,

denomination rather than religion. And yet (and yet)

we are a city, a real one: boroughed, literal, spiritual,

and bound to a particular, fractal story.


There is this Southern writer of CNF

who wrote this book of essays on small towns,

In it, she writes of coming to convince an aunt

to move from Saltville to an old folk’s home.

The aunt refuses, and the writer asks her

just exactly what it is she’s staying for.


“My life,” she says (or something just like that).

This, of course, does not convince the niece,

at least until a scholar comes from a far off school

and happens to come to auntie’s house

and happens to ask her about the letters she kept,

sent to her family from a General Robert Lee.


And oh, how the letters are worth money!

And oh, how it still barely pays the bills,

but the niece she can see now, oh the niece she can see

how much the dead can mean to, and do for, the people.

So she leaves the aunt to carry on in her village.


My mother, to note, is not convinced the story is…

pure memory. It isn’t bunk, by any means, she would maintain,

but still that essay talks about a Henry and a Della,

and the only married Henry and Della

that anyone in Saltville’d ever heard of were

Mommy’s own aunt and uncle Allison. To wit,

my mother surely would have heard about those letters.


None of this is to condemn the work, in any means.

There are truths in it of survival, personal and social,

and of how history can resurface in our lives

in endless ways. Of how the dead can nourish us,

of how their memories give immeasurable comfort.


I only really mention it to mention this:

history can sometimes wriggle around the teller,

but the teller will always wriggle through the history.


Civilization on civilization has pedigreed this loam:

Dinosaur nation, Mastodon nation, Yuchi, Spanish,

Buffalo and Hillbilly testify from the fecund Hogoheegee.


Out of prosperity and lust we rose, at the crossroads

of colonial war. Designed in baron William King’s own image

to be the first stop on his road to New Orleans,


we were shaped by all that could be shaped beneath us,

and be that salt or stone or chemical, we blistered on,

for more than generations, a ball bearing on the wheel of History.


We know quite well the past that has obsessed us.

What keeps us back are not the ghosts that haunt us.

What keeps us back is how we haunt our ghosts.

        return to poetry

Matt Prater is a poet and writer from Saltville, Virginia. His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Appalachian Heritage, Floyd County Moonshine, The Hollins Critic, James Dickey Review, Motif, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, The Pikeville Review, and Still: The Journal, among other publications. A graduate of Radford and Appalachian State universities, he currently teaches at Emory & Henry College in Emory, Virginia. His first chapbook, Mono No Aware, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.