Boomer Winfrey  

Varmint Co. Correspondent

Memorial Day weekend in Varmint County is an odd mix of somber reflection and unbridled merriment. Many of our citizens follow the ages-old traditions, such as attending church on Sunday, gathering the clan for a family dinner and then on Monday morning, going out to the various cemeteries to decorate the graves of distant ancestors.

Memorial Day Monday is also a time for honoring the county’s veterans who have passed on, and a solemn memorial service is held every year at the Varmint County Veteran’s Cemetery.

The cemetery has an unusual history, having been created several decades ago and playing a role in ending the century-long feud between the Haig and Hockmeyer clans.

That feud, you may recall, began shortly after the Civil War. The Haigs were all unapologetic Rebels, the men folk to a man having all fought for the old Southern Confederacy. Natives of the Louisiana swamps, many Haigs migrated north after the war to settle in Varmint County. 

There they found pristine spring waters and isolated mountain hollows ideal for their preferred pastime of manufacturing fine corn whiskey.

The Hockmeyers were all Appalachian hillbillies, of Scotch-Irish and German blood, who had settled here in the 1780s. During the Civil War they tended to remain loyal to the old Union, some fighting for the North while others retreated into the mountains to wait out the war. The Hockmeyer clan already had a corner on the making of corn liquor, so when the Haigs arrived, a natural rivalry was born.

Most have long forgotten what event kicked off the blood feud, but it lasted for nearly a century as young Haigs and Hockmeyers waylaid each other in the woods, ambushed each other at their moonshine stills and generally kept Varmint County in a state of unrest until after World War II.

During that war many young men from both clans ended up fighting together for the same cause. They returned home with no stomach for more bloodletting with their former comrades-in-arms and tended to disregard the old hatreds of previous generations.

Then in the early 1950s, the young daughter of Caleb Hockmeyer was lost in the woods during a blizzard and rescued by some young Haigs. They rushed the half-frozen child to Granny Haig’s cabin where she was warmed and fed. Caleb and Elijah Haig, as patriarchs of their clans, decided the time had come to bury the hatchet at long last.

Around that same time, the county fathers down at the courthouse decided to dedicate a veteran’s cemetery to honor the many young men who had given their lives in the nation’s various conflicts. The Hockmeyer family cemetery near McCracken’s Peak was filled with the graves of Union veterans from the Civil War, as well as many men who had served their country in the hundred years since. An American flag flew proudly from a central pylon surrounded by generations of Hockmeyers.

Over in Haig Hollow, two dozen graves of old veterans rested beneath a flag as well, the old Stars and Bars of the Confederacy. Generations of Haigs who later served their reunited country also rested there.

To make a long story short, Elijah and Caleb agreed to end the feud by moving the remains and gravestones of their veterans to the county’s new cemetery. There both flags were hoisted side-by-side, and the Haig Civil war veterans were re-buried, not together, but alongside the Hockmeyer veterans, North and South, Haig and Hockmeyer, reunited at last.

While the county’s veterans and political leaders gather at the veteran’s memorial and cemetery to honor the sacrifices of the county’s old soldiers, a celebration of a different kind is underway over at the Mud Lake. This is, of course, the annual Inter-mountain All-Star, No-Star Spiritual Convention, Chicken Pluck and Round Robin Softball Memorial Tournament.

This massive party was first organized some 30 years ago by a young group of rabble-rousers including the young lawyer Philbert McSwine, young Ike Vanderpool, Hugh Ray Jass, Archie Aslinger and others. The three-day party started out as a simple softball tournament with an evening cookout and late night of merry-making, but has grown through the years.

Today, the various children and grandchildren have gotten into the act, coming home from their scattered new homes and colleges to catch up with old friends, eat, play and party. Highlights include the Saturday afternoon parade of states, followed by softball games and later, the chicken pluck and potluck. 

An elected Commissioner of the Games tosses out the first ball and the Queen, usually a male, opens the cheesecake and cobbler bake-off and hosts formal ceremonies at the Elvis Shrine, where everyone is expected to pay homage to various Elvis memorabilia. One recent year Penny Haig won accolades for her contribution to the Elvis Shrine, an Elvis impersonator she had met in college.

Fire chief Stanley “the Torch” Aslinger always concludes the Saturday festivities with an incredible fireworks show. Stanley was an explosives expert in Vietnam who once was credited with torching an entire province.

His first fireworks display at Mud Lake caused the Emergency Management Agency over in Burrville to place the National Guard on alert. His secret: an ingenious combination of rockets, explosives and Haig “Spring Run” moonshine.

The party goes on until the food and booze are exhausted, the banjo and guitar pickers are picked out and the last dancers have crawled off to their tents.

Then on Sunday it begins all over, with a breakfast potluck followed by Gospel Hour and a sermon from the Reverend Cleotis McNew of the New Tabernacle Church in Jesus’ Name. In deference to Reverend McNew, the revelers wait until he has departed to begin the Bloody Mary Stir-Off followed by the annual group photo and more softball.

Sunday night concludes with the “New Orleans Seafood Fest” featuring recipes from Granny Haig’s personal Cajun cookbook and fish fresh out of Mud Lake compliments of Ike Vanderpool. Game rules forbid practicing, sliding or tobacco-spitting on the dugout steps. 

General rules include “compliance,” meaning nobody is allowed to play who is not under the influence of a “legal” foreign substance. This last rule is subject to some interpretation. The Hockmeyers long ago deviated from their traditional moonshine industry to pursuits of a more “agricultural” nature, while the Haig’s corn whiskey is technically illegal except as a jet fuel additive.

Varmint County Memorial Day weekends may exceed Varmint County 4th of July celebrations for sheer merriment and buffoonery. After all, the 4th hosts the annual renewal of the Haig-Hockmeyer feud in a free-for-all at the county fairgrounds. After that brawl is concluded, most young men from both clans are in no shape to continue celebrating.