Two-Lane Livin'

The Story of the West Virginia Mountaineer

0 Comments 20 June, 2013, 10:15

As we celebrate our state’s 150th birthday this month, let us not forget a man whose legend lives on, in bronze, at our State Capitol.

If you have visited the Capitol and strolled around the grounds, chances are you have seen the statue of the Mountaineer. The bronze statue is of a tall, thin man with broad shoulders, wearing a fringed jacket and a wide-brimmed hat. He carries a gun over one shoulder and a flag over the other, and his craggy face seems to express the individuality and independence so valued by residents of our state.

The sculpture was modeled on two real live men of the hills, one Eli “Rimfire” Hamrick of Webster county, and his brother, Ellis Hamrick. The Hamrick men were of tall stock-none of Eli’s eight brothers were under six feet tall. Of the two models, Eli seems to have captured the most attention, and legends about his prowess in the woods and keen wit abound. Asked once if he had ever been lost, Eli is said to have replied, “No, but I been considerable bothered for three days or more.”

The son of Benjamin (or Kelly Ben) Hamrick and his wife Naomi, Eli was considered a colorful character in Webster county and a respected woodsman who could find his way with ease around the rugged terrain of his home. He often guided visitors on hunts and fishing trips and for a time the “Rimfire” club, composed of well-known businessmen in the coal, timber and railroad industries, and at one time even included a governor as a candidate for membership. Eli spent most of his life in his beloved Webster county, although he did spend a few years in Florida, making his living selling fish.

There are several stories about how Eli earned the nickname “Rimfire.” The one I like best is the least likely but best suited to the personality of a man known to be a storyteller of the best kind. According to the tale, Eli was hunting one day and saw a branch loaded with turkeys. He had only one shot left in his trusty gun, so he shot at the branch and split it open. The branch snapped shut before the turkeys could fly off, and Rimfire climbed the tree, cut off the branch, and went home with his turkeys.

But why Rimfire? What did the name mean? There is an excellent picture that can be found online of Hamrick posing with the rifle that gave him his name. The rifle was identified by Harley Nolden of the online forum The Firing Line as an obscure 1860 model Allen Drop Breech Rimfire Rifle that was used by some soldiers in the Civil War. Since Hamrick was born in 1868, it is possible that the rifle was passed down to him from a family member.

For some years it was thought that Eli alone posed for the statue, but it was later learned that Ellis also participated. Sculptor Henry K. Bush-Brown was said to have visited Webster Springs often over the course of two years before deciding to use the brothers as the models for his work. According to one story, Bush-Brown had Ellis model for the face; Eli was said by presidential candidate John W. Davis to have “a face as sad as sorrowful as Lincoln”, which probably explains the sculptor’s choice. The men’s mother was said to have made the fringed leather jacket worn by them for the statue.

So next time you visit the State Capitol, give a nod to the Hamrick brothers and to the breed of men the sculpture honors: proud, free, self-sufficient Mountaineers.

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The only state born as a result of the Civil War, West Virginia was the most divided state in the nation. About forty thousand of its residents served in the combatant forces about twenty thousand on each side. The Mountain State also saw its fair share of battles, skirmishes, raids and guerrilla warfare, with places like Harpers Ferry, Philippi and Rich Mountain becoming household names in 1861. When the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, leaders primarily from the northwestern region of the state began the political process that eventually led to the creation of West Virginia on June 20, 1863. Renowned Civil War historian Mark A. Snell has written the first thorough history of these West Virginians and their civil war in more than fifty years.
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