Rotary hears History Alive! presentation

A legendary Appalachian artist from the 1800s entertained members of the Elkins Rotary Club Monday during a performance by a member of the History Alive! program of the West Virginia Humanities Council.

Don Teter, a licensed surveyor born in Monterville, portrayed the historical character David Hunter Strother – who was better known as Porte Crayon. Strother wrote and illustrated under that name for The Blackwater Chronicle and Harper’s Weekly in the 1850s; he also served in the Civil War as a Union officer and topographer.

While in character, Teter dressed in a trenchcoat and used a cane to point to an easel, which displayed a series of large sketches completed originally by Strother and reprinted by Teter.

Teter first spoke about Strother’s time covering the trial of John Brown, an abolitionist who led an armed slave revolt on the federal armory on Harpers Ferry, Va., in 1859. Brown was tried in court and Strother covered the event for Harper’s Weekly. Harpers Ferry is now part of West Virginia.

“I had access to those proceedings,” Teter told Rotary members during his portrayal of Strother.

He said he initially thought Brown to be a madman, but he eventually reconsidered his position when slaves were freed by the government.

Teter, as Strother, moved between topics by changing papers on his easel. With each new page came an illustration for a different story. Following the trial of Brown, he spoke about prohibition and several inventions he created during the war.

These inventions, he said, included an “extender chair,” a device meant to allow Union soldiers to spy on the enemy beyond an adjacent hill.

The chair was meant to seat one person and would extend high into the air when a second person squeezed its accordian-like underpinning from the bottom.

Teter, as Strother, said even the strongest man holding the bottom of the chair would be unable to steady the contraption. It was after this self-proclaimed failure that he attempted using balloons for the same purpose.

He said he tried to lift a man into the air with a hydrogen balloon attached to a basket and tethered to the ground with rope. This project was met with greater success, aside from participants’ initial fear of flying, he said.

He also spoke about his adventures in the wilderness of West Virginia. He said he traveled to Blackwater Falls and the cliffs of Seneca Rocks.

“(I) wanted to get there before it was unspoiled,” he said about his motivation for braving the elements.

Teter said some people would have liked to tame the wilderness. In jest, he displayed a sketch of a family of bears dressed in period clothing.

He spoke again about bears when telling the tale of a man who set traps on his farm. The trap included a large container of bourbon a drink Teter referred to as “apple jack.”

The sketch that accompanied the story was of a host of bears, drunk in the forest, with one passed out on the forest floor.

“I trust none of you have ever had that experience,” he said to Rotary members, pointing to the bear who passed out.

When his presentation was over, Teter said he developed the character after coming into contact with Strother’s materials on several occasions in his life. At one point nearly 11 years ago, Teter said, Strother’s writings came to him while he was working on surveying presentations.

In total, there are thousands of pages of material written and drawn by Strother, Teter said. The Davis & Elkins College library allowed him to photocopy and blow up his sketches, and Teter said they are a great addition to his performance.

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