Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons

The View from the Sundial Tavern

The Sundial Tavern, known up and down Coal River as "Kenny and Martha's," is a mom-and-pop-style beer joint on Route 3, in Sundial, West Virginia, just north of Naoma. Retired coal miner Kenny Pettry and his wife, Martha, now in their sixties, have been the proprietors for nearly thirty years. The bar's modest facade belies the often uproarious vitality of its evenings. On weekend nights the music of Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and Dolly Parton flows from the jukebox to mingle with the haze of cigarettes, the clangor of pinball, the crack and clatter of pool, and the jocular talk and teasing of friends from neighboring hollows and coal camps.

Like many taverns, the Sundial Tavern is a dynamic museum of local history, its walls covered with photographs, artifacts, and trophies that register local perspectives on national events, the triumphs of patrons, and the passing of eras. Among the items displayed are photos of Dolly Parton (who is Martha's second cousin), an ingenious trigger-and-funnel mechanism for planting corn, and a souvenir cap that registers the present struggle of the United Mine Workers for survival on Coal River. On another wall hangs a photograph of John Flynn, a beloved science writer and forest advocate, deemed one of the three best pool players on Coal River. He spent many nights here talking, sympathizing, arguing, joking, and shooting pool. He died in March of 1996 and is buried not far from Sundial in his family cemetery on Rock Creek, the hollow he was born in fifty-seven years ago.

Tucked into the display on the wall behind the bar is a set of framed and laminated leaves. Most people would be hard put to identify this specimen, but for many of the tavern's regular patrons it represents an extraordinary trophy and object of desire: the stalk from a rare six-prong ginseng plant, Panax quinquefolia. Above the large specimen is a lesser but still remarkable five-prong. The display speaks to the high status accorded to ginseng in life and thought on Coal River.

Diggers call it "seng," and on Coal River the passion for seng runs deep. In 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available, the state of West Virginia exported 18,698 dry pounds of wild ginseng root from its fifty-five counties.1

Though ginseng grows wild throughout the Mountain State, more than half of the wild harvest came from eight contiguous counties in the state's southwestern corner (Kanawha, Boone, Fayette, Raleigh, McDowell, Wyoming, Mingo, and Logan). "It's always been like that," said Bob Whipkey, who monitors the export of ginseng for the state's Division of Forestry. "There are more diggers there because of the culture. People there grow up gathering herbs and digging roots."

Because of wild ginseng's limited range and extraordinary value (diggers are averaging $450 per pound for the dried wild root), the federal government has been monitoring the export of ginseng (both wild and cultivated) since 1978. Of nineteen states authorized to export wild ginseng, West Virginia came in second, behind Kentucky, which certified 52,993 pounds. Tennessee came in third, with 17,997 pounds. In 1994 these three contiguous states certified more than half of the 178,111 pounds of wild ginseng reported among nineteen states.2


Still-life featuring portrait photographs and botanical illustrations on a sideboard.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Six-prong and five-prong trophy ginseng on display at the Sundial Tavern. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1996/04/11. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

Detail view of a ginseng plant.
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  [Detail] Ginseng plant with berries in fall. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/27. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.