Members of the Carpenter family were among the first white people to settle in what is now central West Virginia, and their descendants populate a wide area today. Family stories recount the arrival in the late 1700s of brothers Benjamin and Jeremiah, who, along with their mother, were the first settlers on the upper waters of the Elk River. With a few belongings, including a fiddle, tied to the backs of oxen, they followed creeks and Indian paths through the wilderness until they reached the mouth of Laurel Fork, later called Centralia (near the Braxton-Webster county line). They established homes there. Legend holds that the Elk River was named for an elk killed by Jeremiah Carpenter.
The Carpenters have produced some of West Virginia’s most distinguished fiddlers, their repertoire often reflecting the family experience. When Benjamin was killed in an Indian raid in the early 1790s, Jeremiah fled with his pregnant wife (an Indian, according to family lore) and waded about two miles up Laurel Creek to a huge, overhanging rock to hide until the threat had passed. His son, Solomon (in later years also known as ‘‘Old Solly’’), was born under that ledge, and the tune ‘‘Shelvin’ Rock,’’ which commemorates the struggles of the pioneer period, was added to the family fiddling tradition. Its authorship is generally credited to Jeremiah.
‘‘Camp Chase’’ is probably the most famous of the Carpenter tunes, partly due to the tale that goes with it. It seems that another Solomon Carpenter, known as ‘‘Devil Sol,’’ was a prisoner during the Civil War at Camp Chase, Ohio, and fiddled his way to freedom playing this tune in a prisoners’ fiddle contest. Apparently all the fiddlers played the same tune and Sol won by adding some unusual notes according to his fancy. Devil Sol’s grandson, French Carpenter, carried his music into the mid-20th century.
Another fiddler, William ‘‘Squirrelly Bill’’ Carpenter, learned the family tunes, which he passed on to his son, Shelt, and grandson, Ernie. Ernie Carpenter’s repertoire spanned five generations of fiddling Carpenters, and he won the attention of many contemporary fiddlers. Ernie, a recipient of the Vandalia Award in 1988, died in 1997. The Carpenter family home at the mouth of Laurel Fork was inundated by the Sutton Dam, completed in 1955 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Ernie Carpenter never got over his sense of loss of the old place, which was his fondest connection with the past.
This Article was written by Michael Kline
Last Revised on July 12, 2012
Sutton, John D. History of Braxton County and Central West Virginia. Parsons: McClain, 1919, Reprint, McClain, 1967.
Milnes, Gerald. Play of a Fiddle. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Milnes, Gerald & Michael Kline. Ernie Carpenter: Tales of the Elk River Country. Goldenseal, (Summer 1986).