Guilt by omission: A photojournalist recounts an untold story

Earl Groves 1
Earl Groves, the owner-operator of a steam-driven sawmill in Deep Hollow, West Virginia.

Nancy L. Abrams began her journalism career in Terra Alta, West Virginia, where she was managing editor of The Preston County News, a job she held for a decade. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, Nancy trained as a photojournalist. She holds an MFA in creative writing-nonfiction from The New School. Out now, The Climb from Salt Lick: A Memoir of Appalachia recounts her time as a small-town reporter in West Virginia.

I remember my first trip to see Earl Groves. I had been told about his sawmill, powered by a steam engine. A relic from the past located in a place called Deep Hollow. The narrow gravel road curled along a creek colored bright orange by acid mine drainage. Great heaps of coal waste–gob piles–loomed overhead. Sunlight could barely breach the sharp cleft between the hills. The sawmill was a brown skeleton in the ruined landscape.

I’ve had these prints for years. I remember when Earl took that ten dollar bill out of his wallet and used it to clean his glasses. I remember thinking he was showing off a bit.

This story, these photos, never saw publication in The Preston County News, the weekly newspaper I edited. I’ve nursed the guilt of that omission for more than forty years.

I think this may be the only mention of Earl in The News. My column, Under the Desk, in April 1978:

I was delighted to see a good friend of mine at an auction Saturday.

Earl Groves, 83, is one of the nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my more than three years in Preston County.

I have been working on a story about Mr. Groves for more than two years. It has yet to appear in The News because I don’t consider the story finished.

The story centers around Mr. Groves’ steam-driven sawmill located near his home in Deep Hollow. Not only does Mr. Groves run the mill single-handed, he also harvests the lumber he cuts.

And there’s more. After the lumber is cut, Mr. Groves uses it in to construct wondrous things.

Because of a busy working schedule I don’t get to visit Mr. Groves as often as I’d like. But I promised him Saturday that I’d be down to visit him in the near future and wrap up the story.

Now that the promise is here in black and white, I’ll have to do it. . .and it will be my pleasure.

Instead, this story–or non-story–became my shame. I remember talking to Earl on the phone. And I’m sure I visited to give him copies of these photos. His grandson James told me that Earl had enjoyed being the object of my attention.

Why didn’t I finish the project? I suspect I was afraid that it failed to meet the standards of my training at the University of Missouri, where the highest goal was to tell a story. Without a narrative, this is just a collection of photos. I may have been so taken by the visuals that I didn’t put down my camera to pick up my notebook. What did Earl have to say? I don’t know for certain. I have my negatives; I don’t have my notes from the past.

I struggled throughout my career to simultaneously perform the duties of writer and photographer. But I could have done it with Earl had I committed the time, had I put down the camera to capture his words. I did not carve a space in my schedule. I was in my mid-twenties; I had not yet learned that time whooshes by at an alarming pace.

Here’s an excuse that I want to be true: I didn’t pursue the story because my presence at the sawmill caused Earl to work harder than an 80-year-old man should. Perhaps I was afraid that the old boiler he stoked would explode. So I wasn’t a slacker; I was a fretter.

In these photos, taken during two visits, Earl brings the sawmill to life. He wrestles with the boiler that powers a web of belts that make sharp saws spin into blurs. In photos taken early in the day, Earl is clean and smiling. Clean was an effort in a place layered with dirt, sawdust, and grease. If you look closely, you can see something in Earl’s breast pocket. You can’t tell that it’s a postcard of a two-headed calf. Earl gave me that card; I still have it somewhere. In the final photos of each shoot, Earl is filthy. He looks exhausted.

Every story in The Climb from Salt Lick is vivid in my memory. I am a stickler for the truth. And I am not certain why I failed to finish the Earl Groves story. So he is absent from my pages once again.

Earl is long gone. So is the grandson who introduced us. I’ve mellowed in the four decades since these photos were taken. I appreciate these photos because they capture a proud man and his passion for his work. And a steam-driven (steam-driven!) sawmill. All gone to dust now.


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