Boomer Winfrey  

Varmint County Correspondent

As the New Year  has arrived, I have taken a bit of time to reflect on my time as a reporter here at the Varmint County War Whoop & Exterminator. I took the job as a cub reporter straight out of journalism school back in the ‘80s, never imagining that I would still be living in Varmint County 30 years later.

By the time the War Whoop’s editor & publisher, H. Harley Hamm, ran into that bit of unpleasantness with the IRS and was forced to close the paper, I had fallen for a local girl, Mary Margaret McSwine, youngest sister of lawyer Philbert McSwine (pronounced McSween). Instead of taking off for another newspaper job, I hung around, racking balls and pumping gas down at Smiley’s Pool Emporium & Quick Stop Gas.

I’m glad I did. The War Whoop’s chain-smoking office manager, Fluvia Pinetar, kept the newspaper alive for most of a year, running off a few hundred copies on an old mimeograph machine in her basement. It was mainly a Pinetar family newsletter but at least it kept the tradition alive until H. Harley’s daughter, Virginia, reopened the War Whoop & Exterminator, having bought the printing press and office building for peanuts at an IRS auction.

Virginia Hamm, who prefers to go by “Ginnie” for obvious reasons, reopened the War Whoop & Exterminator with yours truly as news editor and the rest is history.

And history will be the subject of my next couple of columns, as it is time to review for those of you who are new readers of the Slippery Rock Gazette, just how Varmint County got to be like it is and exactly how can a place come to be called “Varmint County.”

The second question is the easier of the two to explain. The earliest settlers of this isolated region, nestled in the mountains along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, included an old hermit hunter and trapper named Phineas McCracken, who made his home up on the upper flanks of the mountain that still bears his name, and a hero of the American Revolution, Louis Lowe, who settled here with a land grant from the Continental Congress shortly after America won its independence.

Louis was a member of the Continental Congress from Virginia and a colonel in George Washington’s army. He might have also become a signer of the Declaration of Independence had it not been for his two fatal weaknesses – strong drink and beautiful women.

On his way to Philadelphia for the signing ceremony, Louis imbibed a bit too much from a flask of rum and fell from his horse, breaking a leg. He was taken by a traveling minstrel to a nearby tavern where his leg was placed in a splint. He might still have had time to make the trip before July 4th, 1776, but unfortunately the tavern owner had three lovely daughters who vied for the honor of nursing the crippled hero and Louis tarried, arriving at Independence Hall a day too late.

Perhaps as a consolation, or perhaps to tuck him safely away where he could do no harm, Congress granted Louis a large tract of land on the frontier of the new nation. After the war ended, Louis Lowe migrated west with his lovely wife Camilia and settled into a life of hunting, trapping and homesteading.

However, it was not long before, in his travels, Louis met another settler on the far side of McCracken’s Peak who had a lovely, and lonely daughter, Gertrude. To make a long story short, Louis Lowe ended up with two wives and two families, separated by a lofty mountain range. 

He would spend half of the year with one family and on the pretense of being off on long hunting and trapping trips, spend the other six months with his other family. 

Both wives were ignorant of the existence of the other and to keep the secret from the wagging tongues of traveling peddlers, he pronounced his name two different ways. One wife was Mrs. Louis Lowe, pronounced as in the English version, “Lewis Lowe” as in “go.” The other wife was Mrs. Louis Lowe pronounced like the French “Looey Lowe” as in “cow.”

The old man was able to keep up this charade until the day he dropped dead while imbibing at a tavern over in the new county seat at Burrville, then the two Lowe clans unfortunately learned of the other’s existence at a rather tense funeral ceremony.

The infamous Burr-Hamilton duel precipitated a renaming crisis in the just-named Burrville, but was blocked by a prominent citizen –  an example of politics that is still par for the course, in these parts.

The infamous Burr-Hamilton duel precipitated a renaming crisis in the just-named Burrville, but was blocked by a prominent citizen –  an example of politics that is still par for the course, in these parts.

Burr County, and the county seat of Burrville, had the misfortune of being named in honor of Vice President Aaron Burr. Shortly afterward, Aaron was involved in that unfortunate duel with Alexander Hamilton, a handsome war hero who many predicted would be the next President.

Not too long after that, Aaron Burr was arrested and tried for treason, accused of plotting to break off much of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase as an independent country with Aaron as president for life.

The founding fathers of Burr County met to discuss a change of name, but one of the more prominent families of the area was named Burr, and successfully blocked suggestions that Burrville be renamed “Hamilton.”

Over around McCracken’s Peak, however, the descendants of Louis Lowe had other ideas and petitioned the State for permission to form a separate county.

Soon, a mass gathering of “Go” Lowes, “Cow” Lowes and a couple of McCrackens met at a tavern nestled at the foot of a rock prominence known as McCracken’s Nose, named for its resemblance to the notable honker on old Phineas McCracken.

It was not long before the Cow Lowes and Go Lowes were at each other’s throats, each side insisting that the county be named for its most prominent settler, Louis Lowe. The rub was in which pronunciation would be accepted, and tempers flared, guns and knives were drawn and the meek ran for cover.

Cleotis McCracken suggested a compromise, that the new county be named in honor of his grandfather, but all Lowes from both sides rejected that idea, complaining that Phineas already had two mountains named after him while most folks had never set eyes on the old hermit. 

Finally, Granny Alpha-retta Lowe stood up, and being the 107-year-old mother of the late Louis and therefore the matriarch of both clans, scolded her descendants.

“My son was a lot of things, includin’ being father or grandfather to everyone in this room, but I’m not sure that makes him deservin’ of having a county named after him.  Maybe ya’ll should just call this place Varmint County, since yore behavin’ like a pack of varmints!”

And so dear readers, Varmint County was born, to prevent a bloodletting between Go Lowes and Cow Lowes, and in the process kicking off a longstanding rivalry with neighboring Burr County.

Things settled down into a more or less peaceful routine for the next few decades, as other families began to move into Varmint County, but that’s a tale for another time. Next month we will look at how the Haigs and Hockmeyers landed in these here parts and the truth behind their century-old family feud.