Jeff Harvey

Picking up from where we left off last time with our look at the history of Flat Top and Ellison Ridge and surrounding areas, courtesy of William Sanders II’s “A New River Heritage, Volume IV, McClain Publishing, 1994, Parsons), we continue our look at the formative years of the late Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd, in his own words, was the “baby in a family of three other boys and a sister.” His biological parents were Cornelius Calvin Sale and Ada Kirby Sale, the latter a victim of the 1918 flu epidemic. Mrs. Sale nursed her children through their own bouts of flu before becoming ill herself. She told her husband that, if she did not recover, that she wanted her baby given to their in-laws, the Byrds (Mrs. Byrd was Mr. Sale’s sister) who had lost their own son to scarlet fever.

The Dalton Byrds moved to Bluefield when Robert was about three years old. Dalton first worked at the Bluefield Brewing Company, then the family moved to Landgraff, in McDowell County, where he worked as a miner. They later moved to Algonquin (present day Lamar) where Dalton worked in the coal mines of Clark’s Gap up the long Lamar Hollow from Matoaka and Giatto. Clark’s Gap was on the ridge of Flat Top Mountain along the course of the proposed Shawnee Parkway..

Robert started his education around the age of six in a little two-room building housing eight grades. He started out in the primer for two weeks before being promoted to first grade. his first year, he finished the primer through second grade.

It so happened that one of the two teachers, Lawrence Jennings, was a boarder in the Byrd home. Robert, showing signs of the ambition which propelled him through his life, decided that he wanted to work for a promotion and, accompanied by his father, went to Matoaka and bought several schoolbooks associated with a higher level. When he brought the books to school, his teacher asked him what he was doing to which Byrd said he wanted to be promoted to the next grade. She did so and he, in his words, “did well.”

Byrd was a classmate of Lorene Cole Basham of Wolf Creek. Another friend, Carl Meadows, a U.S. Navy retiree who grew up at Nubbins Ridge, recalled Byrd being among the kids who’d gather to listen to the Jack Johnson-Gene Tunney fight on the radio at the Meadows home (Carl’s father, Emmett Meadows, was a jailor, deputy sheriff and sheriff in Mercer County).

This was when Byrd attended the Willis White a.k.a. “Hambone” school where Meadows was three years ahead of him. Meadows did Byrd a major favor by adjusting the straps on the latter’s book bag so it wouldn’t drag on the ground.

Byrd’s legendary habit of playing the fiddle as a Senator had its roots in the training he received from Johnson “Joe” Reed as a child.

I’ll pick up on the further adventures of Sen. Byrd next time. Contact me at