DAVID KIRBY'S PINE CRIK TALES - Blowin' Up Stuff, Groundhog Euthanasia, Courtin' With Manure


A Pine Crik Hollow Home

Former Pine Creek resident David Charles Kirby, the son of Roy and Eva Buck Kirby, recalls his life and times growing up in a remote Pine Creek hollow and in Calhoun County.

He attended a one-room school taught by his mother and graduated from Calhoun High School in 1954, with a BS degree in agricultural engineering from WVU (1959).

Professionally he is a Certified Fire and Explosion Investigator and Professional Engineer in WV, OH, and PA, having worked 22 years as Loss Prevention Engineer with Factory Mutual Engineering; 20 Years as Process Safety Engineer with Union Carbide in South Charleston; 12 years a Sr. Principal Engineer with Baker Engineering & Risk Consultants of San Antonio, TX.

He is married to the former Betty Estep of Mt. Zion, their children, sons, Dr. Kris N. Kirby, professor at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts; and Gregory D. Kirby, of Parkersburg, Safety Engineer at Cytec, Willow Island, WV.

Kirby's recollections reflect life from the Great Depression to the fabulous 1960s, earlier tales can be found under People, Humor and History.

The Farmall Tractor

In 1949 we got a brand new Farmall "C" tractor. We hadn't had it long, and Dad didn't know where it would go and where it wouldn't. He broke over the bank into the creek up Rough Hollow (since renamed Ron's Hollow).

He was hopelessly buried in a swamp and the mower was fouled with a willow bush. We had the Farmall C and the one-and-a-half ton Chevrolet truck, but I didn't know how to drive.

Dad put chains on the truck, pulled into place in the meadow above the tractor, and hooked up about ten feet of heavy duty chain to the tractor. He showed me where bulldog low gear was, and told me to let out the clutch and give it the gas.

Problem was that I had to sit on the front edge of the seat, and to keep myself from sliding back when I pushed on the clutch, I had to hold onto the steering wheel. Dad was on the tractor and would yell go, but I kept killing the engine.

Dad never was very patient, and jumped off the tractor two or three times to see what was going wrong. During this ordeal I accidentally got it into reverse instead of bulldog, and backed up a few feet, putting a lot of slack on the chain.

I struggled around, got it in bulldog, and floored it. I must have been going ten miles an hour when the chain tightened. It yanked Dad and tractor clear out on the bank trailing a willow root that was at least three feet long.

It pulled a kink in Dad's neck, and he bailed off the tractor doing some awkward cussing. He looked at me and back at the tractor, all the time rubbing his neck, and finally allowed that maybe that was what it took to get him out.

That was how I learned to drive.

A little later when the newness wore off he let me start driving the tractor. I took to it like a duck to water.

Dad had cleared off a ridge meadow, where the deer stand is now, plowed it up using a root-cutter plow and sewed alfalfa. First-cutting, for some reason, he decided to locate the stack at one end of the T-shaped meadow.

We had a buck rake for the tractor (a buck rake is like an end-loader, except it has large wooden teeth to run under the hay). Dad would rake the hay into windrows with the horses while I went around behind him and gathered up the hay with the buck rake and ran it to the stack.

I was having trouble keeping up with him because of the long drive to the stack. I found that as I approached the back side where I was going to dump the hay, if I let off on the gas and then cut it hard and used the left brake and simultaneously went full throttle, there was enough weight on the front end to let the tractor spin around 180 degrees to line up exactly where I wanted to be.

After about three times of doing this Dad saw me. He stopped the horses, jumped off the rake, and came running toward me his arms flailing like a windmill as he flagged me down. I knew I was in trouble. I got a terrible tongue lashing.

He wanted to know "what kind of hot rod did I think I was driving?" I didn't do that anymore. Now I was really getting behind, and was running wide open in the highest gear I could use. I had learned to double-clutch, and would gear down as required as the tractor slowed down. I was running wide open in fourth gear (about fifteen miles per hour), and had just let the buck rake down to pick up a new windrow, when the frame of the buck rake hit a buried stump.

The only things that moved after that instant were things that were bending and me. The frame of the buck rake bent back into the tractor, flattening both front tires. I catapulted forward from the seat and the steering wheel caught me in the pit of my stomach, just below the ribcage, knocking every living inch of wind out of me.

I rolled off the tractor, and lay on the ground thinking I was going to die. My dog, Lucky, also thought I was going to die because he came to me and licked me on the face. We worked most of the rest of the day with spud and sledge hammer straightening up stuff enough to get the front wheels turning.

High School Years (1950 to 1954)

I had perfect attendance my first seven-plus years of school. Mom couldn't very well leave me at home by myself and dragged me to school whether I was well or sick. I got measles near the end of the eighth grade and missed four days.

For ninth grade, Mom and Dad decided it would be too hard for me to walk to Mt. Zion to catch the bus to the High School in Grantsville. I didn't have a problem with it, but they wouldn't listen to me. Mom asked to be assigned to the Sycamore School, and got it.

We rented a room with Virginia Groves, who lived on the Mt. Zion Ridge about a mile from the Sycamore School. I walked about a quarter mile to catch the bus at the State Road Garage. Dad had bought a new Dodge truck in 1950 and so we had good reliable transportation. He would frequently drive out of the holler and eat supper with us.

Black Gunpowder

They were good times for me. I had a bicycle and would ride out along the ridge and get with other kids. I especially liked Jack Umstead. During that winter he learned how to make black gunpowder from sulfur, salt peter, and charcoal.

He learned the ingredients from a book, but not the proper proportions. That we worked on by trial-and-error. We bought the sulfur and salt peter (potassium nitrate) and we made our own charcoal by burning pine chips in a lard can with a metal lid, sealed except for a small hole in the lid.

We would fill the can with chips, put it on an outside hotplate, and cook it until smoke quit coming out of the hole. By trial-and-error we changed proportions of the three ingredients until there was the least amount of ash left after it burned. We found out that the gunpowder had to be confined to explode; otherwise it would simply make a bright flash.

Ignition of an enclosed container was my expertise. I took his electric train transformer and ran two insulated wires to two bare ends, where I connected the two wires with a very thin copper wire. When you plugged in the transformer the tiny copper wire would glow and ignite the gunpowder.

Our first trial of my new idea was in his basement. We took an empty 30-06 shell, filled it half full of gunpowder, inserted our electric squib, filled the remaining portion with gunpowder, and pinched the end closed on the two insulated wires. I was sure that the shell would not explode, because it had performed with modern powder without exploding.

I was right; however, what I had not anticipated was the rocket effect. It zipped around the basement and broke three quarts of sauerkraut. Even cleaning it up as best we could, the whole basement stunk like kraut. I was sure his Mom would kill us, but she was actually amused.

However, the basement was off limits for any more gunpowder tests.

But, with that experiment, we were in the rocket-making business. We put fins on every piece of pipe and tubing we could find; some of them would go up 50 or 60 feet.

Finally, I wanted to build a bomb that would contain the energy of the black gunpowder. I found a piece of two-inch schedule 80 (heavy duty) pipe that was about two feet long and threaded on both ends. I put a cap on one end, filled it half full of gunpowder, inserted the electric squib through the hole of a wooden plug that I had drilled a hole in, and filled the remainder with gunpowder.

I then screwed on an elbow to hold in the wooden plug. We put it out in the Umstead's front yard and propped it up, pointing it at their barn at the edge of the hill. I thought that it would hold the pressure of the gunpowder, but if it didn't I reasoned that it would fail at one of the screwed connections and not become shrapnel.

After all of this reasoning I still got afraid, and we went into the living room to plug in the transformer, looking out the window at the pipe. By the time we got the whole thing put together it was dark.

When we plugged in the transformer there was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. We ran outside, and we could hear the pipe going down-range making a "woo-woo" noise as it tumbled end over end through the air. It not only went over the barn, but it went over a neighbor's house on the next ridge over, which had to be at least a quarter mile away.

You could go heavy on the sulfur and make one heck of a stink bomb. One day I took several ounces of our stink-powder to high school. The high school building was a big cut-stone, three story building, with window wells to let light in on at least one side of the rooms.

It was a warm day and most of the windows were open. At the end of noon break I sneaked into Eugene Reynolds's classroom (first floor), put a few ounces on the outside ledge of the heavy stone window sill, lit it off, and ran out into the hall without anyone seeing me.

I assumed that the smoke would actually stay outside, but with the window up and windows open on the upper floors, all of the smoke drew into the building; probably the chimney effect of the three story building. The whole building filled with choking smoke.

Of course, someone called the fire department and the facility was evacuated. I was afraid I was in real trouble. However, they weren't very good detectives and couldn't figure where the smoke came from. They kept looking around the Chemistry Lab. They never figured out that the smoke actually came in from an outside window sill.

(Editor's Note: Today David Kirby would be charged with a terrorist act.)

Ridding Groundhogs

It was early Fall after hay season, and Mom and Dad decided to visit Uncle Earl in Ohio, leaving me to babysit the farm. All I had to do was milk, and feed the chickens. I invited my friends Mike Ferrell and Roger Stump to spend Friday night with me. They showed up on Rogers's old Pontiac tractor (a story in itself: a 1937 Pontiac Coupe with the top cut off, chassis shortened, and large truck tires on the rear).

We had been having trouble with groundhogs all summer and they were eating up our garden. Uncle Ray had said to burn them out with gasoline.

I tried that, but the gasoline would just soak into the ground at the edge of the hole and burn there, and the groundhog was safe and sound back in his den, which always had two entrances.

I related our groundhog problem and failed solution to Mike and Roger. Mike was really sharp—top of our class. He said why don't we try to pour in water, and float the gasoline into the hole on the water?

That sounded like a brilliant idea to me. I grabbed a box of strike-anywhere matches, and two ten-quart buckets. We went by the tractor and siphoned out a couple of gallons of gasoline into one of the buckets, and we headed up the holler.

There was a great big flat rock, maybe twenty feet square or so, lying at a 45 degree angle on the creek bank. There was a ground hog hole at the top side of the rock, and another at the bottom side, a couple of feet above the creek waterline. The creek was down, with only about a foot of water in a pool below the rock.

We made a bucket brigade, and must have poured twenty-five buckets of water into the top hole before we saw water seeping out the lower hole. I then poured in the gasoline. Roger was standing at the edge of the creek, looking into the lower hole. Mike said in his deliberate manner, "Ro-ger, best … stand … back, flames might shoot out of that hole."

Good thing he did.

I got on my knees at the top of the rock, shielding myself as best I could from the hole by the edge of the rock, and struck a match. I am not sure what happened next. I remember a blinding flash, and I found myself lying on my back in the middle of the creek.

I didn't have any eyebrows, or hair left on my arms. The explosion had blown leaves out of holes all around the hillside, apparently from a tunnel network that had been abandoned. The series of holes would "puff … puff," and then blow again. This was the tunnel network burning out all available air, then sucking in more air for secondary explosions.

This happened three or four times. It was getting dusk, and a lazy blue flame spread around the hill. This was a laminar cool flame in the heavier-than-air unburned vapors that were too rich to burn (I learned the technology much later).

It was beautiful.

We had to stomp out a few leaf fires, but nothing serious. We had no groundhog problems in that area for years.

Making Nitroglycerin

Sometime after the groundhog event I decided that having a little nitroglycerine around could be handy, and decided to try to make some.

I contacted Mike and Roger. I did not have chemistry in high school, but both of them had. Roger's dad taught chemistry at the high school, and Roger had access to the chemistry lab. He pilfered some nitric acid, sulfuric acid, glycerin, and a 500 ml flask.

He had read up on the proper procedure somewhere. I forget the recipe. However, as I recall, you mixed the two acids together in the bottom of the flask. You then gently poured in the glycerin on top of the acid. You then gently mixed the concoction. This all took place in our cellar at the farm.

They helped, but I was the mixer.

When I started stirring the glycerin into the acid it started changing color and bubbling a little bit. I am not sure what I expected, but I got scared and ran out of the cellar. We (i.e., I) hadn't really thought it through.

Mom had several hundred quarts of canned goods in glass jars along with various other commodities in the cellar. After several minutes I took a peak in the cellar, and the mixture had turned a dirty brown.

I realized that we had to get it out of the cellar, and we drew straws to see who would carry it out.

I lost.

I got a very large towel, gently wrapped it around the flask, and carried it out into the back yard as gently as possible. I remember wrapping the towel under the flask and getting my fingers under the towel. Trying to set it down gently and getting my fingers from underneath without shaking the liquid was difficult, especially since I was doing my own share of shaking.

After getting it sat down and the towel removed, there was still the problem of determining whether or not we had made nitro, how sensitive it was, and how powerful.

I got Dad's 12-gauge Browning and took a shot from about forty yards. The No. 4 magnum shot did a good job of disintegrating the flask and contents.

No. 4 magnum shot did a good job of breaking the flask, and the highly acedic contents did a good job of killing the grass. We were left with some broken glass and a two foot circle of smoking dead grass.

The Dodge

In 1950, Dad traded the one-and-a-half ton Chevy truck for a half ton Dodge pickup. I started driving it immediately and got my license on December 24, 1952 (twelve days after I was sixteen years old).

It was really nice to have a vehicle I could take courting. It had a few drawbacks. Dad would take a cow to market at Parkersburg about every Saturday in the Fall and he wouldn't get home until five or six o'clock.

The truck would be covered with cow manure, and I would have a date at about seven o'clock. I would pull the truck to the pond bank and throw a few buckets of water on it to clean it up as best I could. There was no time to take the cattle rack off. It would wash off the worst of it, but would not get rid of the odor.

I would pick up Norma McCoy and take her to the Mt. Zion Drive-In. Trucks had to park on the back row. Best we could do was roll down the windows, hope for the prevailing wind (it usually blew from west to east, which was from the front of the truck toward the back), and suffer through it. Sometimes Mike or someone else would invite us to sit in their car and watch the movie.


I learned that I could backfire the truck by turning off the ignition for a few seconds, and then turning it back on. If I timed it right the muffler would fill with unburned gasoline vapors, and turning the ignition back on would light it off, making a loud backfire.

One afternoon I was driving around the Mt. Zion Ridge toward Grantsville and came over the rise just beyond "Pop" Gun's house. I looked ahead maybe 100 yards and saw Carroll Offutt standing by his car along the side of the road in front of their house.

I turned off the ignition and turned it back on just as I got to him, and it made a huge backfire. What I hadn't seen was that his dad, hidden from me by the car, had a wheel off and had his head under the fender working on a break line.

When I backfired the Dodge Carroll's dad lunged upwards and "rabbit punched" himself on the back of his neck, and fell like a beef.

I had slowed down to laugh at Carroll when his dad rolled to his feet, and I went out of sight with his dad shaking his fist at me. I had to quit backfiring it a few days later after apparently obtaining an optimum mixture and blowing the entire exhaust system clean off of the truck.