Category : Family Stories

The Civil War in Southwestern Virginia


The 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment fought at many of the skirmishes in East Tennessee as well as at the 1863 battle for Cumberland Gap and the1864 battle of Jonesville; however, the regiment was far from the most efficient unit (Weaver 1992):

From a military point of view, the history of the entire regiment hinged on the first nine days of September 1863. The capture of two-thirds of the regiment’s effective force at Cumberland Gap was never overcome. The 64th’s first regimental commander, Campbell Slemp, was cashiered from service for disobeying orders. Auburn Pridemore and the other field and staff officers, however, were apparently no better at military discipline than Slemp was. In-fighting among the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry’s regimental and brigade officers destroyed a potentially valuable group of soldiers for the Confederacy. (Weaver 1992)

Despite having one of the lowest battle casualty rates of the Confederacy, the death rate was “horrendous” in no small part because the majority of soldiers were Union prisoners-of-war at Camp Douglas (Weaver 1992). Lieutenant Colonel Pridemore lost the majority of his men to Union ambushes set up by “some Union man in the country” (McKnight 2006:181). In addition to losses suffered in battle, the regiment’s size was adversely affected by illness; the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment was reduced to less than 50 soldiers mainly because of disease (National Park Service 2016).

Few records survive on the initial volunteers or those that were conscripted from Lee County; however, the September 1st, 1862 roster of the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment Company I lists a total of 68 men from Lee County registered in service to the Confederacy (Appendix A).  The roster includes names, age, and physical description, county of origin, occupation, and enlistment information.  The men who served in Company I were composed largely of farmers whose ages ranged from 18-44. They served under William Collier and were one of eleven companies in the 64th Mounted Infantry. According to Weaver (1992) “the 64th Virginia Mounted Infantry Regiment and its precursor unit, the 21st Virginia Infantry Battalion, were recruited in the autumn of 1861 in Lee, Scott, Wise and Buchanan counties.” The regiment was first officially organized in December, and then reorganized in September of 1863; it saw action shortly thereafter in the county.

Despite the lack of rail lines in the county, the war placed Lee County in both a significant and dangerous position. Lee County bordered both Union (neutral) Kentucky and Union-leaning east Tennessee, and was geographically close to the new Union state of West Virginia. This situation made southwest Virginia a skirmish and raiding locale. The Cumberland Gap was a significant investment as a gateway to Tennessee and Kentucky for both sides.

The first attempt to take Cumberland Gap was by Union troops led by General George W. Morgan in June 1862 (Luckett 1964:314). Luckett (1964:314) states that “Morgan who had already pushed through Rogers’ and Big Creek gaps occupied Cumberland Gap June 18, 1862, reporting that, ‘after two weeks of maneuvering we have taken the American Gibraltar without the loss of a single man.” Union control did not last, and the Confederacy regained control in September after General Morgan disregarded Union orders and retreated (Luckett 1964:315). General Morgan’s retreat allowed for the easy reoccupation of Cumberland Gap by Confederate troops (Luckett 1964:315).

The second battle of Cumberland Gap can be described as a bloodless fiasco for the Confederacy. The Virginia 64th , under the leadership of Colonel Campbell Slemp,  fought under General John W. Frazer with the 5th Tennessee Brigade (Weaver 1992) (Luckett 1964:316). Union Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, surrounded the Gap and outnumbered Confederate forces three to one between September 7-9, 1863 which allowed him to capture the Gap in a bloodless surrender. According to Luckett (1965:316) Frazer surrendered “approximately 2,200 men and twelve pieces of field artillery.” Union forces maintained control of the Cumberland Gap for the remainder of the war.

Union occupation in Lee County did not necessarily preclude total control of the county. Cumberland Gap geographically resides a few hundred yards east, in Tennessee with the closest resources available located in Lee County (Middlesboro, Kentucky was not established until 1890). Incursions into Lee County were common and Union raiding parties often replenished supplies from Lee County residents, which included willing and unwilling supporters of the Union. One such incursion resulted in the burning of the Lee County courthouse. In late October 1863 a Union force pushed west from the Gap to Jonesville. The county clerk at the time had removed the records to an isolated farm house (McKnight 2006:180). The Union occupation of Jonesville triggered events that led to the Battle of Jonesville. Pridemore, a resident of Scott County, had lost too many men to protect the county from raiding parties and reported his lack of supplies, men, and resources faced with the occupation of Jonesville to Colonel Giltner (McKnight 2006:181). The loss of Pridemore’s men was in no small part due to ambushes of Union soldiers arranged by various county residents with Union sentiments (McKnight 2006:181). Giltner, Slemp, and Pridemore’s combined forces at Jonesville with Slemp’s, and “the Confederates succeeded in capturing an estimated 450 Union Soldiers near Jonesville during the first week of 1864” (McKnight 2006:181). The Confederate victory in Jonesville secured Confederate control in Lee County for the remainder of the war. Tensions were high in the area as Union forces controlled Cumberland Gap and Confederate forces controlled Jonesville. The proximity of these two areas likely made life in Lee County difficult for the remainder of the war (Figure 1).

            Richard G. Lowe’s article Virginia’s Reconstruction Convention. General Schofield Rates the Delegates, describes the southwestern representatives and corroborates John Williams thoughts on the sentiments of ‘mountain folk’:

…the handful from Southwest Virginia, had begun the war as Confederate soldiers and supporters. As time passed and victory eluded the South, these small farmers and hundreds of others from the southwestern hills had simply tired of the drudgery and pain of war, walked away from their campfires, and returned to their homes. For the remainder of the war they had had to dodge Confederate troops sent to fetch them back to camp. At times, the contest between the deserters and the regular troops had flared into open battle. By 1865 many of the deserters had become bitter enemies of the Confederacy and everything connected with it. The Republican Party was a natural receptacle for these mountain folk. (Lowe 1972:344)

The southern states were ordered to adopt the Fourteenth Amendment and ratify their state constitutions, which the assembled delegates did in 1867, although tensions between both sides lingered (Lowe 1972:341; Williams 2002:187). After the war, new delegates were elected to the State Legislature. Representatives at the reconstruction convention in Richmond representing Lee, Scott and Wise Counties were listed as, “Andrew Milbourn. Farmer. Native and always loyal [to the Union]. Wealthy. Republican ….Charles Duncan. Merchant. Original Secessionist. Was a Lieutenant in Rebel Army. Unreconstructed” (Lowe 1972:356).

Figure 1: Sketch of Lee County, Virginia

© 2017

Martha Grace Lowry Mize


Roberts’ Home Place on Newman’s Ridge

A few years ago, Bill Williams contacted me on Facebook. His dad and my dad had been friends growing up. I recently asked him if he knew where my dad’s home was, since dad had never showed me. He told me that he knew exactly where it was and that it’s across the street from his grandfather’s old place. He even said that they had squirrel hunted up there and that the fireplace and chimney still stand.

Needless to say, I was excited. Dad said that he grew up on the ridge. But, I never knew that it was Newman’s Ridge. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because that is the famous homeplace of the Melungeon people. The Roberts are typically tanned and we have always thought to be Melungeon. However, my DNA tests only show a percentage of Sardinian blood. The rest of the results were English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and Scandinavian. My thought is that our tanned skin comes from the Wallens. Elisha Wallen was reportedly dark skinned, dark eyed, and dark haired. I have seen some reports that Thomas Wallen, son of the Ralph and Joyce Wallen who were at Plymouth Colony, was an adopted Shawnee child. However, I do not have any confirmation on that story.

The location is a cleared area between 604 and 610 on the Virginia side of Newman’s Ridge. Many thanks to my friend Bill Williams for showing me where it is. I plan to investigate it the next time I travel to Blackwater.

The Wallen and Hurd connection to the Bruce line

A few years ago, I was advised that the first Roberts in my line, William Rookhurste Roberts, was actually a Bruce who moved from Anandale, Scotland to Kent, England in 1107. Reportedly, he changed his name to “Rookhurste”, translated as “hill of Rooks”, in honor of Robert “The Rook” Bruce, the first to bear that name. Later, he settled on “Roberts” and his line carried on that surname. Since I couldn’t confirm this outside of family tradition, I felt a little uncomfortable claiming Bruce heritage.

Recently, advised me that I had a genetic connection to a Mary Bruce(1752-1788), daughter of George Bruce(1722-1800). They were Quakers residing in Maryland. I was excited to explore this connection to the Bruce clan. They are descended from the same lineage as Robert the Bruce and are connected to me through the Hurd line. Mary’s son was Elijah Hurd, great grandfather to Mary Pollyann Hurd, wife of Davey Wallen. They lived in Kyle’s Ford, Tennessee on the property established by Revolutionary War veteran James Carr Wallen. Davey and Polly are my great grandparents. This means that both my Roberts and Wallen lines are descended from different people in the Bruce lineage. This is interesting since the Roberts and Wallens traveled together and intermarried.

The Wallens’ Travels

I was reading through the Wallens’ journeys from Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, to Kyles Ford, Tennessee, and beyond. I thought it was interesting and wanted to share.

1623-Ralph and Joyce Wallen arrive at Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, aboard the “Anne”.
1627-Thomas Wallen Sr. born.
1643-Joyce Wallen dies.
1650s-Wallens relocate to Providence, Rhode Island, where Thomas marries Mary Abbot. Thomas buys land there through the 1660s.
1654-Thomas Wallen Jr. is born in Providence, Rhode Island.
1669-Mary Abbot Wallen dies. Thomas marries Margaret Colwell.
1674-Thomas Sr. dies in Providence, Rhode Island.
1695-Thomas Jr. marries Sarah Elwell in Providence, Rhode Island.
@1700-Thomas Jr. moves to Cohansey, Salem co, NJ.
1708-Elisha Wallen Sr. born in Cohansey, Salem co, NJ.
1724-Thomas Jr. dies in Cohansey, Salem co, NJ. In his will, he gives Sarah permission to “bind out to a trade” Elisha till he’s 21. Elisha runs away to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he connects with the Blevins, Cox’s, Roberts, and other families. They relocate to Prince George’s County, MD, along with Elisha’s brothers James and William to live on land purchased by their father, Thomas Walling, Jr. some years before. Elisha marries Mary Blevins.
1732-Elisha Wallen Jr, “The Longhunter”, is born in Price George’s County, Md.
1734-Joseph Wallen is born in Price George’s County, Md.
1733 Wallens appeared on a list of tithables in the Monocosie Hundred in Prince George’s Co, Md.
1745 Elisha Wallen appeared in Lunenburg Co. from Smith Rivers where he made his home at a place called “Roundabout”, located about two miles east of the present town of Martinsville, Va.
1746-Some families from Maryland, including James and Daniel Blevins, well known hunters, made their homes on Smith River. A survey was made from the Walden’s to the Blevins’ for a wagon road.
1748-Thomas Jr. was appointed constable of Western Lunenburg Co. from Smith River to the Wart Mountains (territory later to become Henry and Patrick Counties) and entered and had surveyed 400 acres of land on the Sandy River (6 July 1748).
June 1748- Elisha was appointed surveyor of part of a new road from the Staunton River to the Mayo Settlement, leading from Bannister to the Smith River. From 1751 to 1757, this land was in Halifax Co., and beginning in 1767, was in Pittsylvania County.
1761-Elisha Jr went on his first long hunt, along with Jack Blevins, William Pittman, Henry Scaggs, Charles Cox, William Newman, and William Harrison. Elisha moved out to the new country and made his home for a while on the Holston River, 18 miles above Knoxville, Tennessee. He later travelled west and settled in Washington County, Missouri where he died in 1814.
1767-Joseph Wallen marries Milly Jones
17 July 1767-a list of tithables taken by Peter Copeland, Gentleman, for Lunenburg co., shows Elisha Wallen, Sr. and his sons Joseph and James Wallen and Capt. Williams Blevins. A county military organization was set up for Pittsylvania County in 1767. Among those listed is “Captain Elisha Walden.”
1771-James Carr Wallen is born in Virginia, probably Halifax
1777-The War Services Administration has a Revolutionary War Record for one Elisha Walden, who served in Lee’s Legion between 1777 and 1779. If we accept July 1708 as Elisha’s birthdate, the it would seem that this war record refers to his son, Elisha Jr.
1787-Elisha and Joseph Wallen receive land grants in Sullivan County, Tennessee, (Kyle’s Ford) for their service in the Revolutionary War. James Carr Wallen is the only son of Joseph Wallen to settle on this land. He builds the log house that still stands there to this day.
1791-James Carr Wallen marries Mary Johnson.
July 14, 1816, William J. “Big Sandy” Wallen is born in Kyle’s Ford, Tennessee.

Witcher’s Boys in Lee County During the Civil War

Here is a story about Confederate “Bushwackers” in Lee County during the Civil War, courtesy of Lawrence J. Fleenor at

Witcher’s Boys in Lee County During the Civil War

By: Lawrence J. Fleenor

October 1997

At the beginning of the American Civil War the mountainous region between Kentucky and Virginia did not fit comfortably into either the Union or the Confederacy. About a third of the people sympathized with the Confederacy, another third were pro Union, and the remainder just wanted to be left alone. Indeed, the northwestern portion of Virginia was to break away before the end of the war and form the state of West Virginia.

The parents of this generation had fought the bloody Indian Wars, and were heavily intermarried with the Mingos to the north and with the Cherokee to the South. Bushwacking and obligatory revenge killings…(transcriber note: It appears part of the paragraph is missing from the original document.)

Born February 16, 1837 in Pittsylvania County in Southside Virginia, he studied law a while and in the spring of 1860 moved to Wayne County, Virginia in what is now West Virginia. He was known throughout his adult life as “Clawhammer” because of the style of scissors tail dress coat he always wore. It proved to be an appropriate nickname, because he left wreckage in his wake where ever he went.

Clawhammer gathered a small number of pro Confederate men about himself, and began to engage in the free for all on the Kentucky border. Similar pro Union paramilitary bands also marauded in the area. Initially neither of the national governments recognized these guerilla bands, and if a man were captured from these units, they were frequently executed because the protection of the Articles of War did not apply to them. To afford their own bushwhackers the protection law, both the Federal and Confederate governments gave their bands official military status. Clawhammer’s men thus became designated the “34th Battalion Virginia Calvary, CSA.”

Initially labeled as “Independent Scouts”, the unit became known as “Witcher’s Boys.” It was their duty to serve as a counter insurgency force against the local Union units operating in West Virginia, East Kentucky, Southwest Virginia, and Northeast Tennessee. They soon began to distinguish themselves for their barbarity, their specialty being a variation of lynching done with a bent pole that jerked its victim into eternity.

At this point in the War, all men between sixteen and fifty were either in the Union or Confederate Armies or were draft dodgers hiding out in one of the numerous small bands of roaming marauders, or were “scouting out” individually in the mountains, hiding from the approach of all but loved ones who brought them food. Therefore, any man Witcher’s Boys found in these counties was presumed to have been either a deserter, a draft dodger, a spy, or the member of an opposing guerilla band, and could be shot without a trial. Clawhammer and his Boys seemed to have played their role with such enthusiasm that even Confederate General John B. Floyd said of them, “V.A. Witcher collected a band of 17 or 18 men, calling themselves partisan rangers. Instead of affording protection and safety to the property of persons of loyal Southern men, this company rendered themselves an object of fear and terror to the entire population, whether Union or Secession. Their deeds of plunder and robbery fell alike on those true or untrue to the South. They became to be viewed as a set of robbers and deprecators, banded together solely for the purpose of plunder, and acting without authority of law or order.”

So it was that on July 7, 1862 Witcher and his Boys were in Lee County rounding up men suspected of pro Union sentiment. There had many raids in other parts of Lee County, but this day as on other occasions Wallen’s Creek was their special target. A man named John “Jack” Miers, aged 32, was captured by Witcher’s Boys under the immediate command of a man named “Rowan.” Also, a man named John Davis Sage, aged 45 and whose wife was Sarah and had children, had been to the mill when they were accosted by Witcher’s Boys. They took Jack and Davis into custody. Another man named James P. Smith, whose wife was Martha Myers, and who had children, and who had also been to the mill. She was the sister of Jack Myers. Witcher and his Boys stole Smith’s fine team of horses. Smith followed Witcher’s Boys down the road and begged for his horses back, and on Powell Mountain they shot and killed him. They gathered up a group of thirty to forty men and incarcerated them in the log Blue Spring Church in Stickleyville for the night. Two of the smaller men thought they could escape by lifting a puncheon from the church floor and crawling out. Some of the captives held the puncheon up and let the two men escape. The next day Witcher’s Boys took the remaining prisoners including Myers, Sage, and the others including a man named James Berry out on Powell Mountain and killed them. It was some time before they were found and the bodies were hard to identify. One man had been hanged, and Sage was decapitated. Sage was identified only by the underwear that his wife had made for him. Some of these men were buried in the Duff Cemetery at Stickleyville.

The large hollow tree that had stood in front of the Stickleyville church at the time of this incident has only been recently cut down. One can still see the charring on the stump made by the fire that Witcher’s Boys built around it on that night so long ago. The tree itself lays on its side and shows within its hollow the char from the fire that was drawn up within it like a chimney.

After fighting creditably in the Battle of Gettysburg, late 1863 found Witcher, now a Lieutenant Col. Back in East Tennessee. In January 1864 Witcher came up from East Tennessee to help Col. Pridemore at the Battle of Jonesville. That April, a CSA military court removed him from command because of charges brought by General W. E. “Grumble” Jones, but intervention by Brig. General John Hunt Morgan got him reinstated.

During the Civil War, William H. and Polly Tritt Hughes lived near Dry Branch north of the highway just east of Pennington Gap. Even though their two sons were serving in the Confederate Army, another two of their sons named David L., aged 26 and unmarried, and a brother named William Hughes, aged 39 and who was married and had children, were among several neighborhood men who had moved to Ohio to avoid being drafted into the Confederate Army. However, David and William returned home so that David could see his girlfriend, a Yeary girl.

They did not stay in the home of their parents, but boarded with a neighbor, Joe Ely, whose double pen log cabin connected by a dog trot lay in the hollow under the hill where “Billy Dad” Yeary and his daughter lived. While they were in they went to a saloon run by a Spangler woman at Big Hill. Somehow, the saloon burned and the woman blamed the Hughes boys for it. At this time, Witcher and his “Boys” came up from Tennessee looking for draft dodgers from the Confederate Army, and spoke to the woman asking her for names of men in the area who he might want to look up. She gave him the names of the Hughes boys.

On December 11, 1864 Witcher’s Boys surrounded the Joe Ely home. They threatened to burn it down to get the Hughes brothers to come out, but because of the presence of children, they Hughes surrendered peacefully.

Soon after this, Nimrod Ely, then aged nine, was sitting on a snake fence and saw the Hughes brothers being carried off by Witcher’s Boys on the Road to Rocky Station by Big Hill. At Big Hill the Hughes brothers were clubbed to death with stones. Traditionally, the names of two Witcher’s Boys who did this were a Bailey and a Spurlock.* After the initial clubbing, Witcher’s Boys started to leave but one of the Hughes brothers was observed to be on his knees praying and one of Witcher’s men dropped back and finished him off. A sister of the Hughes boys followed them later, and caught up with them at Big Hill. One of the brothers was already dead, and the other was dying. The sister held her brother’s head in her lap as he died. She was threatened by Witcher’s Boys but unharmed. The Hughes Brothers were buried in the Hughes Cemetery to the east side of Dry Branch.

A few days later two of the men who had clubbed the last life out of the Myers (sic) brothers were involved in a card game at Dominion above St. Charles and one of them got into a shooting, and himself down on his knees, pleading for his life, and his assailant told him that he had given no mercy to the Hughes men, and shot him dead. For some reason, lost to memory, the slain man was buried in the same cemetery as s the Hughes brothers. This caused a division within the Hughes family, and years later when David and William’s brother Tobias Hughes died, he was buried in the neighboring Ely Cemetery rather than in the Hughes cemetery, because the murderer of his brothers was buried there.

In the last month of the War, Witcher was still rounding up men who were “scouting out” in Powell Valley, and carrying them off to oppose Stoneman in his second raid out of Tennessee into Virginia.

After the War, Witcher was admitted to the Tazewell County, Virginia bar, but in 1870 he moved to Utah. He returned to West Virginia and later back to his home near Riceville, Virginia, where he died peacefully in his bed, December 12, 1912.

*Footnote: Two of the Witcher’s Boys involved in the killing of the Hughes brothers were initially identified as “a Bailey and a Spurlock.” On the muster roles of the 34th Battalion of the Virginia Calvary (Witcher’s Boys) there are listed six Baileys, and only one Spurlock – all from Tazewell County, Virginia. The Baileys are: Cloyd, Green, J. D. (probably John or James based on census records), Lewis, Rufus, and Thomas S.; while the lone Spurlock is Thomas. Bibliography: Addington, Luther F. The Story of Wise County, Ball, Bonnie- “Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia”, pub. 15; Cole, Scott S. – 34th Battalion Virginia Calvary; Interviews and family documents supplied by the following: Ruby Bailey, William T. Hughes, Sr., Jessie Myers, and Kitty Schuler.

Read more about Colonel Vincent Addison Witcher at

The Duck Creek Quartet

Two of my parents’ closest friends are Ralph and Willa Dean Hurley of Sneedville, Tennessee. They attended church together for many years at Duck Creek Baptist Church in Sneedville, where Ralph and dad served as Deacons and dad occasionally led the singing with Ralph playing the piano. I was searching for their contact information for my mother, and found this article at about Ralph and the Duck Creek Quartet.

Success from a small town

Ralph Hurley recalls the Duck Creek Quartet

Morris and Sandra Hurley, along with Shelia Simmons, suggested I do a story on Hancock County’s nationally acclaimed Duck Creek Quartet, and their 56 years of singing together. This was a good reason to make a trip to one of my favorite destinations. Sam Myers is a friend of Ralph Hurley, the last living original member of the group, and went along for the visit. Heading to the Duck Creek section of the county, we soon came to the handsome Hurley hilltop home, which has a splendid frontal view of Newman’s Ridge, as well as a beautiful scene of the Clinch Mountains at the rear of the house. Ralph and Willa Dean Hurley would welcome us into their home, where Sam and Willa Dean visited while I heard Ralph’s story.

Original members of Hancock County’s Duck Creek Quartet, c. 1968. Front row, Ralph Hurley and Hubert Wilder. Back row, Kyle Wilder, Dewey Hurley, and Calvin Hurley.

Born 1929 at Hancock County’s Yellow Branch section, Ralph was the youngest of Marion and Tennessee Lawson Hurley’s four sons and a daughter.

“He never owned a place,” Ralph told. “My father was a tenant farmer and we moved every four years after we had cleaned a farm for the owner. When I was born my older brother wouldn’t look at me for a day, then asked my father how much he had to pay the doctor to deliver me. When Dad told him that it was $5, my brother asked him why he didn’t use that money to buy them some clothes. I remember when I was 17 years old and asked my dad for 25 cents and he didn’t have it.”

Circumstance had bred a work ethic into young Ralph, who would work for land owners for 50 cents a day. That ethic would take him much further than he could have imagined as a young man. Hancock is alive with musical talent. A popular pastime in the area was singing conventions and singing schools that taught shaped notes. Sam and Ralph would later roll off some names of the old singing teachers that included Willis Hurley, Ray Elkins, Ralph Debord, Tillman Shockley, Tandy Harville and Millard Singleton. “They taught us the notes first,” explained Sam.

Beginning school at Duck Creek Elementary, Ralph would graduate from Hancock County High School in 1949. Heading off to Lincoln Memorial University, he would be there for three weeks when he received his draft call.

“I was in the second group in Hancock County and they got me, so I volunteered for the Air Force before I was called up. My basic training was at Lackland and then I went to Denver to the camera repair school for airplanes. I missed going to Korea by a flip of a coin. There were 36 of us to a barracks in Denver and the sergeant divided us in half. The captain said that half were going to Europe and the other half were going to Korea. A coin was flipped and I was in the half going to Europe.”

After three months at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, Ralph boarded a ship for Germany, where he endured a three days and nights trip on a flatbed railcar fitted with benches to arrive at Sandhofen, Germany. He recalled seeing “just a bunch of steel posts sticking up” from recent World War II damage. After two months at Sandhofen, he was sent to the Rhine-Main Air Base in Frankfurt where he was assigned to a Special Services photo lab where he would supervise two German men and a German woman. One of his jobs would be to teach photography to pilots. He told that he was treated well by the German people and would stay in the country for a little less than two years before returning to Camp Dix, New Jersey to be discharged in 1952.

Returning to Sneedville, Ralph and his brother Dewey would open The Farmer’s Market, where they would stay for six years. They would then start the Hurley Insurance and Real Estate Agency, where Ralph would focus on general customers and auctions, while Dewey worked with the Nationwide Company. Auctions were a big business for the company and Ralph told that during a 10 year period they would average an auction a week. After 15 years in that business Ralph had the opportunity to buy controlling interest in the Citizen’s Bank of Sneedville Bank from Martha Collins, the bank president. While Dewey would remain in the real estate business, Ralph would serve as president, CEO and owner of the bank, where he would retire in 1994.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Ralph had attended an ice cream supper at Hancock High when he met a very pretty Willa Dean Lawson. “She absolutely struck me at that moment,” he told. The two did a cake walk together and would not see each other until he was soon in the Air Force. In basic training he would write her a letter, which was quickly answered. Following his discharge, they dated until their now 62-year marriage would begin in 1955.

“We’ve never had a short word to this day,” Ralph smiled. “She worked in the bank with me.”

“I love him even more today than I loved him yesterday,” told Willa Dean. “I wouldn’t trade him for anything.”

The Hurleys have a son, Scott (Ladonna) who is an attorney in Knoxville, a daughter, paralegal Jody Wormsley, and grandchildren Blake, Holly, Jordan and Parker, as well as great-grandchildren Willa and Ruie.

Willa Dean would later add that Sneedville was a vibrant town in her earlier years. “We had five clothing stores, but none now. On Saturday evenings you couldn’t find a parking place because so many people had come to town.”

Ralph had first attended the Yellow Branch Baptist Church, but moved to Duck Creek Baptist in 1938 when he was 9 years old, and where he’s still a member. The youngster had taken a few piano lessons and “the Lord just give it to me” he told. At age 9, he would begin a 45-year stint of playing piano three times a week for the church. Ralph had also played with a musical group, The Gospel Sounds, with Dwayne Wilder and Hopie Hopkins. The group did so well that they played with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs during a Sneedville performance.

The Duck Creek church had a tradition of family singings where the still 9-year-old Ralph would join with his brothers Calvin and Dewey, along with his cousins Kyle and Hubert Wilder to form the Duck Creek Quartet. Five in the group made it possible for one to be absent. After Dewey’s death in 1984 Tim Wilder would join the group until the group finally retired in 1994. In the group’s early years it was common to find churches that frowned on stringed instruments, but Ralph would gradually add a guitar, while another guitar, a harmonica, and a bass were sometimes used. Throughout the quartet’s existence they would continue to rely heavily on a repertoire of their traditional singing school songs with their bouncy tempos.

The quartet would soon get noticed and in 1941 were invited to sing at station WJHL in Johnson City, where they would return several times. They would perform regularly with Rev. Johnny Coffey on Morristown’s WCRK radio station, where Johnny McCrary was the announcer, as well as other radio stations. Other appearances have been in North Carolina, Baltimore and Detroit, as well as with Ralph Stanley and on Preacher Mull’s television show. They would be signed by King Records and in 1986 their acclaim attracted the attention of the Smithsonian Museum, which invited the group to represent the State of Tennessee in its two-week American Folklife Festival.

“When the Smithsonian called they asked us what we charged and we told them nothing,” Ralph explained. “The girl on the phone went silent. They did pay for all our lodging and food and gave us a stipend. We’ve done over 1,500 funerals and many events and never did charge anybody, but some did give us gifts. We did it as our religious duty. After one appearance, we stopped at a McDonalds in Greeneville where some people recognized us and asked us to sing. We got the manager’s permission and sang for the group. Before that night was over four preachers had invited us to their churches.”

It’s a common Hancock tradition to have food for visitors and as our visit was winding down, Willa Dean invited us to her kitchen table which looks out on Clinch Mountain. On her table was hot apple dumplings topped with vanilla ice cream, chocolate graham crackers spread with cream cheese, and a wonderful relish dip with vegetable chips. Plates were piled with second and third helpings.

Still a businessman, Ralph fills his days with buying and selling stock. “I lose some and gain some,” he ended. Church remains important to the Ramsey’s and they continue to regularly attend their nearby Duck Creek Church.