A place where it means something to be a Grey

Handley is a tiny West Virginia town 20 miles south of Charleston on the Kanawha River. It served the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad back in the day. Cars full of coal still constantly pass through town.

This is where my family is from. My great grandmother Grey owned a tavern next to the rail yard office. My great grandmother Legg owned the town’s general store; my father was born in the apartment above it. Everybody in town owed money to my two great grandmothers, who therefore owned the town. My father, being from the town’s two most prominent families, might as well have been royalty.

You probably never could have called Handley a well-to-do place even when the rail yard was still operating. Today, there’s not much left. The tavern and the general store are long gone; no real commerce takes place here anymore. It is a place where people quietly live out their lives. But Handley remains the one place in the world where it means something to be a Grey.

In the 1950s some of the family left the hills to seek work in South Bend, Indiana. My dad, as a boy, was among them. He met my mother there and so there he stayed and made his life. All I ever knew of Handley was the occasional story Dad would tell, and from them I learned that the West Virginia Greys were one ornery and rowdy bunch. I was never quite sure if I could believe Dad’s stories, because he was seldom ornery and never rowdy. When Dad settled down with my mother, he truly settled down!

Dad’s 71 now. Several years ago became the oldest living Grey, which gave him pause and caused him to reconnect with his family. He’s organized several family reunions since then. We met in South Bend every few years at first, but the West Virginia contingent kept enticing us to come visit them. Last summer, Dad and I and my brother and my sons all drove to Handley to visit – and 50 people showed up to meet us. It was such a good time that we planned a reunion this summer in Handley. It was the weekend before last, and it was as much fun this year as our visit was last. Relatives I had only ever heard of welcomed me as if I had always been known and long been missed.

Two things happened in Handley that made Dad’s stories seem a lot more real.

First, at the reunion I watched from across the room as my youngest son walked over to where cans of soda were set out for everyone. He picked up one of the cans, shook it vigorously, and put it back for some poor sap to find later. I made a beeline for him and led him outside, where I read him the riot act. When I got back inside, three elder men took me to serious task for not letting my boy have his fun! Clearly, orneriness is still prized among the West Virginia Greys.

Later, I led that same son up the hill to visit the four-room school building my father attended as a boy. As we neared the school, now abandoned and dilapidated, a fellow out tending his yard called out to me: “Are you a Grey?” I think I favor my mother’s family, so I called back, “Do I look like one?” “You do!” he exclaimed, and asked, “Whose boy are you?” So I explained my heritage back to my grandfather, after whom I’m named but whom everybody knew as Wilson. The fellow remembered old Wilson and, quite satisfied I belonged wandering around his town, waved and turned back to his yard.

I once wrote a personal story about joy that includes a photo of my dad and I when I was a boy. I hope you’ll read it.


18 responses to “A place where it means something to be a Grey”

  1. Todd Pack Avatar

    What a neat story! Folks whose families are from big cities have no idea what that’s like.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’m from a medium-sized city, so even I really don’t know what it’s like. But my dad does.

  2. Scott Palmer Avatar

    Few people these days know about their family background or seem to care. That’s a wonderful and poignant story, as well as an appealing little town. West Virginia has seen some hard economic times, but it’s a beautiful state with good people.

    However, I’d like to think that it means something to be a “Grey” right here in Indianapolis. It does to me: I know one of them. :-)

    1. Jim Avatar

      There is a paucity of Greys in Indianapolis, but I’m glad this one is having a positive impact!

  3. James Grey Avatar
    James Grey

    Hey Jim sorry me and Rick couldn’t make it to the reunion but that’s a great story about home so keep telling any good stories you can think of about people I’m to young to remember and I’ll keep reading them. Thanks from the other James Grey

    1. Jim Avatar

      Would have liked to see you again. I’m too young to remember a lot of the people myself but it’s been good to get to meet those who are still around!

  4. Ward Fogelsanger Avatar
    Ward Fogelsanger

    Interesting…my grandfather was from WVA also…Bluefield.

    Ward Fogelsanger

    1. Jim Avatar

      My dad says that WV has one of the highest birth rates in the nation but zero population growth because so many people leave!

  5. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    Great images and story Jim, the mountains of WV are beautiful don’t know if you got a chance to see them or not, I am thinking of heading there this fall !!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Thanks Bernie! We were surrounded by mountains where we were, but I never got any farther up one than to that schoolhouse.

  6. Nancy [ Roe] Stewart Avatar
    Nancy [ Roe] Stewart

    Very interesting Jim. In doing genealogy work on the Livesay family [my dad’s family] I traced them back to Virginia where they owned a copper mine and lots of land during the late 1700’s & early 1800’s. Then at some point they moved to Kentucky and later to southern Illinois. I sometimes think that my fondness for bluegrass and “old timey” music must come down thru the generations from those folks ! I also enjoyed reading Rocket Boys and learning a little bit about life in the Virginia mining towns and the people who lived in them.

    1. Jim Avatar

      That’s really fascinating. One of my cousins did some geneaology research on our family and came up with some data, but not much. It must be great to know so much about where you come from.

  7. Neil Avatar

    This is another really good reminder to dig out the old, old photos and get together with the “elders” in my wife’s family to try to figure out who’s doing what where. Now that I’m getting to almost be one of the elders, I know there’s not much time to do this. I’ve already run out of relatives on my side of the family. Thanks.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Yes, mark the backs of all your family photos with names now, while there are still people who remember the faces!

  8. Ted Kappes Avatar
    Ted Kappes

    Enjoyed this post very much. I grew up almost with the opposite experience of having most of my extended family from both sides nearby. I guess I always took it for granted so it is interesting to me how much it often means to someone to find that family later in life.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Ted, even on my mother’s side I had little family around day to day. My mom’s parents retired to southern Michigan and were just far enough away we saw them only from time to time.

  9. 40 is the new 13 Avatar

    This is such a fantastic post. It’s something… as the grandchild of immigrants… that I’ve never experienced. The reality of knowing you’re actually FROM a real place… that in a deeply rooted way you partly belong there. I especially loved the man calling out to ask if you’re a Grey. You’re fortunate to have that much personal/local history… it’s the kind of thing that happens all the time in these little bitty towns and makes me envious!

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’ve only ever been able to connect with this in my middle age, as we never visited WV when I was young and my father actually limited our exposure to his family. It is remarkable to me to visit now and be fully accepted and wanted just because of my heritage.

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