Matriarch of W.Va. Farm Family a Custodian of History

4/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Marla Pisciotta West Virginia Correspondent

LEETOWN, W.Va. — Virginia Duff Tabb has accomplished much in her lifetime.

Most recently, she was one of 10 women recognized for their contributions to West Virginia agriculture.

Married in 1946, she and her late husband, Lyle, reared six children, — five boys and a girl, were custodians of German prisoners of war, and owned and operated one of the largest dairy farms in Jefferson County.

Farming was not easy, but with hard work and perseverance they succeeded.

Tabb was originally from Coraopolis, Pa., but the Duff family eventually purchased 619 acres of land on a farm in Jefferson County, named Avon Bend.

A farm girl all her life, Tabb recalled that before she married her sweetheart she had to help harvest the corn crop at her family farm.

At the time, she was 20 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 109 pounds.

Now 87, Tabb remembers shucking as if it were yesterday.

“We all worked on the farm. My family raised beef cattle, horses, sheep and chickens,” she said. “We had a 290-acre apple orchard, planted grain, wheat, barley, oats, corn and alfalfa. We had a vegetable garden and used work horses for plowing.”

Tabb said back then it was difficult to hire laborers because of World War II.

After they married, the couple moved to Leetown and would eventually purchase the Tabb family home — Vinemont.

As a young mother, she canned just about everything she could get her hands on, she said.

“One time we went to a cherry orchard after they stopped picking cherries. I took all the kids and we picked what was left,” Tabb said. “I canned 295 quarts of cherries from that pick.”

Tabb said she and the kids gleaned apple orchards as well, from which she made applesauce and apple butter and canned apples for pies.

After acquiring Vinemont, Tabb decided to visit the attic one day and discovered a collection of diaries, the oldest written in 1851.

With worn covers and faded pages with tattered edges, the diaries were still readable and full of a wealth of information.

“I took them out of the attic so they wouldn’t get eaten up with insects and rodents. I have since documented who wrote them,” Tabb said.

The diaries began when the Tabb family lived in Oakland, Md., and then in Berkeley County, W.Va.

The ones regarding Vinemont began in 1872.

Eight members of the Tabb family — four women and four men, all brothers and sisters — wrote the diaries.

“During the Civil War they didn’t record any information in the diaries for fear the enemy might find them and use the information against them,” Tabb said.

Some years have a diary written by both the men and the women.

“One thing I noticed right off was the women told about what went on at the house, whether they were raising chickens, how many eggs were being produced, what came from the vegetable garden, sewing, canning and management of the house,” said Tabb.

On the other hand, the men would write about the kind of crops planned and when they were harvested, a visit to the blacksmith and what horse had to be shod, she said.

“I realized they did a lot of visiting. They were always going someplace. They attended churches in Middleway, Leetown and Kearneysville,” Tabb said. “And although it’s but a short drive now, in those days it took much longer in a horse and buggy.”

In those days, according to Tabb, the churches had traveling preachers.

The four sisters were old maids and held down jobs away from the farm. One was a secretary in a dry goods store and could operate a typewriter; another was a housemother at the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and the Blind in Romney; and two were nurses at a hospital in Charles Town. All had income.

Prior to Lyle and Virginia’s purchase of Vinemont, Lyle’s father, Jim Tabb, ran a milk route from Vinemont to Leetown.

“They milked the cows, bottled the milk, sold and delivered it to families in Leetown. The next day they would gather up the empty bottles and deliver full ones. They charged 5 cents a quart,” Tabb said.

Lyle and Virginia would eventually have 330 Ayrshire milking cattle on the Vinemont farm.

Virginia was no stranger to hard work. Earlier in her marriage, when her oldest son, Cam, was about 18 months old, Lyle got undulant fever from the cattle. He was in bed for three months.

“I had to help in the fields. I ran the hay baler. Just about everything was done by hand. We didn’t have that much machinery. That was a bad time for everyone involved,” Tabb said.

The milking business was going well until 1964, when the federal government took the Tabb family off the milk market because of residue in the milk.

“For five months we dumped all our milk, roughly 400 gallons a day,” said Tabb.

“We fought Washington, D.C., knocked on senators’ and the legislators’ doors for help.”

Tabb said the government had recommended putting a chemical on the alfalfa fields. It came up through the alfalfa and through the cows.

“The government said that wasn’t possible but we proved it was, and we won,” she said.

All manner of happenings occurred in and around the Tabb family.

In the late 1940s, the Tabbs were in charge of 64 World War II German prisoners of war.

“We took them to farms around the area where they helped do the work,” she said. “They were boarded at Newton D. Baker (the Veterans Administration hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.). The government gradually shipped them back after the war,” said Tabb.

Tabb said prisoners were paid by farmers through the government for their help.

“We kept in touch with one of the prisoners long after he returned to Germany,” she said. “The last time we heard from one German boy was in 2010.”

Reaching out to others came naturally to the Tabb family.

“We had student exchange students stay with us from Holland, Sweden, France and England. One summer we had as many as 130 kids stay with us,” Tabb said.

Some kids that came from disadvantaged families stayed at Vinemont the entire summer.

One student that visited from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute heard the Tabbs would help teach agriculture. She came for the summer, fell in love with their oldest son and became their daughter-in-law.

Tabb attributes the good life on the farm to her husband, Lyle. His influence on his children is evident. Every one of them looks out for each other and their neighbors, she said.

Lyle Tabb died in 1994.

The sons arrived late to their father’s funeral. On the way to the church they stopped to help a neighbor with a flat tire.

That pretty much says it all when it comes to the Tabb family.

Virginia has been the chief cook and bottle washer all her married life. She continually makes gifts by hand, from baby blankets to burp cloths and knitted dish cloths, for her 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

Over the years she has won ribbons for her cooking skills. In 1957, she won at state level for her egg custard pie. Her award was a Tappan range.

Neighbors never blink an eye if they see the small-framed senior touting a rifle to shoot a groundhog.

That same farm lady keeps the books and records for Vinemont.

And she has taken on keeping a diary for the happenings at Vinemont.

“I started doing them in 1960. One thing I improved on was putting down the high and low temperatures and the weather,” Tabb said.

She said the information in the early diaries wasn’t specific.

“They never gave out measurements. They’d write blustery’ or it snowed or rained. Never how much,” said Tabb.

The other issue with the old diaries was that first names were used without adding the last names.

“I went through the books when Lyle was living and he remembered a lot of people. I’ve marked the diaries as much as I could for the next couple of generations,” she said.

Today, four generations live on the Vinemont farm.

Virginia is still active in the daily farm operations. Her home is the hub of recordkeeping and two-way communication.

“We’ve always had lots of people on the farm,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade living the life of a farmer for any other occupation.”


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