Saturday, March 24, 2007

Elihu Jasper Sutherland: Judge, Gentleman and Scholar

Elihu Jasper Sutherland

During my growing up years in Wise County Virginia, the coffee table in our living room always displayed a book entitled Meet Virginia's Baby: A Pictoral History of Dickenson County. It was a pretty book, and very interesting. And the book's editor, Judge Elihu Jasper Sutherland of Clintwood, was the grandfather of my two very best friends who lived just down the street. He died when we were all quite young, but the memory of him, and the legacy he left, still lives on in his family and his community. Because we actually knew someone connected with the book's publication, even as a young child I sensed that the book was something to be cherished, and I often looked through the pages between the dark green covers with a sense of awe and wonder. Judge Sutherland was deeply revered by all who knew him, and he knew a lot of people. We lived about 30 or so miles from his home town of Clintwood but I imagine that just about everyone in town recognized his name and many knew him personally.

According to the Sutherland Books website, Meet Virginia's Baby is "A warm, human interest account in words and pictures of the hardy pioneers and their offspring who hewed out this 'Diamond in the Wilderness' from the rough ridges and bottom lands. . . " Although the book deals with Dickenson County, I would imagine that it captures the spirit of the hardy pioneers who settled countless other places in Appalachia as well. In addition to being a historian, writer and editor of books, Judge Sutherland was also a highly respected attorney. As reported by the Wise County Historical Society, he served as Commonwealth's Attorney for Dickenson County from 1924-1928, and later became one of the first "trial justices" appointed in Virginia. (A designation later changed to "county judge").

He published other books (see link to Sutherland Books website above), including Some Sandy Basin Characters which according to the website describes among other things the life of one "Baron de Tubeuf of Sugar Hill" who lived in a house above St. Paul that my mother always referred to as "The Old Count's House". I knew the inhabitant of the abandoned house was supposedly from France, but I never knew he was a Baron, nor that he was "de Tubeuf". Now I'm dying to learn more about this person, long dead when I arrived in this world. The old house was set up on the hill right above the bridge which separated Wise from Russell County as one left St. Paul headed toward Castlewood. Once when I was a teenager some parents took us up there to look around, and I remember that there was an old concert grand piano in the house that was falling apart. Imagine that, right between Wise and Russell counties! I'd always heard that his family had to flee invading Indians and that some people in the household survived by swimming the Clinch River and finding safety in town. I don't know if that was true or not (the story I always heard might be apocryphal) but until I did a bit of research for this column, I never knew Judge Sutherland had published a book about the "Old Count". Sounds like Some Sandy Basin Characters would be an interesting read.

There's a hiking and biking trail up there on Sugar Hill now, due in large part to the efforts of a local attorney named Frank Kilgore, who is sort of a one man Nature Conservancy and community activist. Click here for some information about the Sugar Hill Loop Trail.

I can never think about Judge Sutherland without remembering his lovely wife Hetty, who was a true renaissance woman filled with seemingly endless energy and creativity. She always welcomed me into her home with warmth and love and I will always remember her lovely house (named "Sunset Hill") set on the hill above Clintwood where she lived and gardened and sat reading amongst the huge oak trees. I keep in touch with her granddaughters every few years, and learned that she passed away within the last couple of years after living beyond the age of 100. I'll always fondly remember popping corn (the small purple kind on the cob) in her fireplace on the occasional happy Saturday night when I would be invited to visit her with her granddaughters.

If you'd like to know more about the fascinating lives of Judge Elihu and Hetty Sutherland, there's an interesting article about them by the Wise County Historical Society here. The information about Hetty describes her as "sturdy pioneer stock" who was born in a log cabin near the Pound River at Camp Creek. The world sure did change a lot during her lifetime.

Elihu and Hetty Sutherland made an important and lasting contribution to preserving the history of Far Southwest Virginia and to documenting the mysterious and inspiring pioneer spirit.


Jerry Gray said...

When I first moved to Dickenson County, my wife and went to the library and read "Meet Virginia's Baby" to learn about the County.
It was fascinating and informative.

I now have my own copy, which I share at my law office in Clintwood. It was formerly J. Cowan Smith's residence and law office. You might have known Helen Davis. He was her grandfather.

Anonymous said...

My father was born in the house on Sugar Hill...I believe my grandparents were the last to live in it, but I have to question your memory of a grand piano there. The house was built from huge hewn logs and later covered with clapboards. My father has several pictures of it, and we went there a lot until it burned in the 70's. It had a wooden spiral staircase, but small rooms by today's standards. My family still owns the cemetery on Sugar Hill, and some of my relatives are buried there.

April A. Cain said...

Since I was a teen quite a few years ago (the 1970's) and because I was only physically in the house once, it is entirely possible that the crumbling piano I remember came from another house I saw during one of the several "haunted house tours" my mother took us on in Southwest Virginia.

Jerry Couch said...

April, I think you are remembering the old Kiser house on the hill behind Greystone Manor. Perhaps you went there with Anita Robinson's daughters? There was an old grand square piano, heavily damaged by non-musical vandals, which sat in the hallway of the Kiser house. You're right - it was spooky.

The importance of the Kiser house has been generally overlooked. It was the headquarters of the company that developed the communities of St. Paul and Minneapolis in Wise and Russell Counties. Presumably it wasn't as spooky in those days. Otherwise no investor would have stayed around long enough to be parted from his cash.

As for Sugar Hill, the Glover family purchased the property from the Kennedy family. Cecil Glover and his wife, Mary, lived in the house in the 1950's. My father and Cecil's brother, Ted, helped Cecil install electricity and make other improvements - such as building a cistern and adding typical 1950's knotty pine panelling upstairs in Cecil's "den." Unfortunately Mary found the location "too lonely and too inconvenient." After Cecil and Mary moved out, the Glovers rented the house to the Salyers family for a while, then closed it. From about 1960 until the fire the house remained empty.

During the years the Kennedys lived at Sugar Hill they made many improvements as well. They installed a carbide lighting plant and updated the interior of the house. They also built an access road along the side of the clift above the present Oxbow Lake. The remains of this road can still can still be seen today. My father said the road was so steep Mr. Kennedy had to back his Model T Ford up the hill. Otherwise the car would starve for fuel and the engine would stall - Fords were not equipped with fuel pumps in those days.

vame said...

I posted above anonymously.
Well, my grandfather (William Kennedy) never learned how to drive but others probably had to back their cars up that hill. I was surprised to learn others had lived in the house after him. I do remember the pine paneling! And the carbide light system.
It is a shame the house burned, a real piece of Wise Co. history was lost.

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