Blackfork subject of OUS project

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 7, 2008

They are visible all the time from roads, signs for towns or villages never heard of.

What’s there? Who lives there? How does it rank high enough to have a sign?

Those were the questions that Ohio University Southern professor Dave Lucas pondered as he drove State Route 93 to Athens and back.

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About 27 miles north of Ironton, one sign in particular, a big green sign with white lettering that said “Blackfork,” caught his attention and stuck in his mind.

“I had heard rumors that Blackfork had been a black settlement,” Lucas said.

One of his questions was if blacks had been forced to start their own settlement because of social injustice. He wondered if there was any truth to the rumors.

It’s a little different when Lucas ponders something like that. He came up with a research method called folknography, which uses the stories of people in an area to re-discover its history.

So for this year’s folknography class, it was decided to find out about Blackfork and another spot called Poke Patch. The whole project and an accompanying Web site were done by the students.

“The only thing I’ve done was as a research coach and teaching the folknography method,” Lucas said. “It has been a student-run project and it has been very exciting for me to watch them blossom.”

What the students found out was that Blackfork did indeed have black residents. But there were also Native Americans and whites living in the settlements. Both Blackfork and Poke Patch were destinations for slaves escaping the south. The villages were started around the 1820s.

“We found a whole new set of circumstances we didn’t expect,” Lucas said.

Cary Williams, an OUS senior, is one of the student directors and researcher for the Blackfork project. He took the folknography class because he needed a Tier III class to graduate.

The Ironton native said he was interested in the project and was surprised by the results of the research.

“I had talked to some older residents in the area and all they knew was that African-Americans lived there,” he said. “No one really knew the whole story about it.”

The short version of what the students discovered was that the three races not only worked together at an iron furnace there but also got along and even intermarried.

“They lived in harmony, they worked together and made the same wages,” Williams said. “It’s very hard to tell race out there now. They are very open and understanding.”

The Davis family, whose descendents mainly live in Oak Hill now, started the Cambria Company made brick and clay and there was the Blackfork Coal Company.

The Washington iron furnace is still there and a student named Craig Patton recently found the remains of the Cambria furnace.

Candace Fyffe is an OUS senior as well as a student director and researcher on the project. She too needed a Tier III class and was interested in the Blackfork project, which became much bigger than she expected.

“But it turned out wonderful, one thing continually led to another,” the Coal Grove native said, adding that she is thinking about continuing on the project even after graduation. “It’s a wonderful thing and my interest is too involved to stop now.”

Lucas said the name of Blackfork came from an English translation of the Native American phrase “Blackfork Crossing.”

The next wave of people to come to town were Welsh immigrants who named things after the Cambria Mountains in their native land.

“They though it looked like their homeland,” he said.

He said the Davis family treated all the workers at their businesses the same, no matter what their race was.

“That’s very unusual for that time,” Lucas said. “It is really a social phenomenon compared to the rest of the country.”

Earlier this year, Williams and Fyffe entered the finding about Blackfork in Ohio University’s annual Research and Creativity Expo.

Among 550 research, scholarship and creative work entries, they were one of 55 first-place winners.

For more information about the project go to