By Debbie Rolen
For the Daily News
Before there were any settlers in this region of the Appalachian Mountains, it was a place for hunters, native Americans and tall hardwood trees. Eric Simon founded Appalachian Lost and Found to study and unearth artifacts to tell stories of the bold settlers who dared to carve out a home in the wilderness on both sides of the Tug River.
Simon says he sat at the feet of his grandfather to hear the stories that continue to inspire him to dig through the ruins of old homesteads and the mountains themselves to find and share the lost history of the early settlers and their lives.
Simon unearthed his first artifact in 1971 at the age of four. He and his grandfather were on upper Big Creek in Chapman Hollow, at Coeburn Mountain.
“Across the creek there were some old jars sticking out of the creek bank. I was mesmerized because I had never seen a piece of blue glass before. It was half buried in the bank and I dug it out. I took it home to my mom. I was amazed that people had once lived out in the woods,” said Simon,”That began my obsession with the past.”
Simon says his love of history continued to grow. In the mid 1970s, he found his first native American arrowhead in his uncle’s corn field at Big Creek.
According to Simon, his maternal fourth great-grandfather Richard Ferrell was the first permanent settler on the north side of the Tug River. There is a story about him and his dog Mate, who was his constant companion. Ferrell ran ahead of him. Mate chased a black bear across a frozen creek. The bear and dog broke through the ice. Both animals died and Richard named the creek Mate Creek in memory of his beloved dog.
Years later in 1890 when the Norfolk & Western Railway built a railroad through the region it spurred the growth of a new town along the bank of the Tug Fork. Erskine Hazard, a civil engineer who worked for the N & W Railroad, laid out the town in 1890 and drew up the first map of the new community. Hazard suggested that the new community take the name of his hometown of Matteawan, New York. The name stuck, but local residents changed the spelling and pronunciation to Matewan, to go along with Mate Creek. Creek.
Simon says Peter Cline was the first settler on the Kentucky side and his fifth great-grandfather had a settlement called New Garden Fort not far from there at the head of Thompson Creek. He was killed by Shawnees there on June 15, 1778, when they attacked his home. He knew they were coming, so he took Martha and their six kids to the nearby fort. He left the fort to go back and fight them by himself. By the time word got out that his home was under attack and three or four men went to join him, he was already dead and his cabin had been burned.
The search is always on for Simon to uncover stories and he says the sites are easy to find.
“A collapsed chimney may look like a pile of rocks. stacked up. Something attracts my eye and I flip a few rocks. Iif they are bright red or have black, smoky marks on them, I know it was a chimney and someone once lived there,” said Simon.
Simon spends time in courthouses to find information and ownership of property, which may have been the site of a civil war battle, a Hatfield McCoy feud event or an early settler’s home. He asks permission of property owners before he searches an area and says the property owners are usually very generous in allowing him to search the area with a metal detector or sift through the dirt to find non-metal artifacts. The property owner may keep all or some of the artifacts, with the remainder going home with Simon until such time he may put them on display.
“I have had two or three museums contact me to put some of my stuff on display,” said Simon, “I may loan some for display, depending on the location of the exhibit. I have done this all my life. I have thousands of artifacts.”
Simon created the Appalachian Lost and Found site on Facebook in June 2015. He was hoping to reach people who shared his interest in the history of culture in Appalachia. He now has more than 5,000 friends and followers of the page, who are from all over the U.S. as well as several from other countries. He updates the site often to display the artifacts and tell their story.
Simon has participated in archaeological digs at Hatfield McCoy Feud sites. Simon and his son found a number of artifacts, including a poker believed to belong to Randolph “Ran’l” McCoy.
Most of Simon’s efforts have been in West Virginia and Kentucky. He has participated in archaeological digs at Hatfield McCoy feud sites and is planning to dig on property in Logan County that was the site of Anderson “Devil Anse” Hatfield’s home.
Simon says one of his sons share his interest in the past— to a point. He plans to start taking his 10-year-old along on his adventures. He does most of his searching alone.
“It is my thing, something I love to do. Several people have insight into my love of history and they tell me I should share the things I have found. I have plans for several books, which will have pictures and stories to go along with them. I also want to write a book of poetry. I would like to lead classes or workshops to share Appalachian culture and history. It’s not about me. It’s about the culture and the history.”
Simon says his future plans may include a museum to house his artifacts, with him rotating displays of native American, Hatfield McCoy and Appalachian life artifacts. He says he loves sharing the region’s heritage and culture with those who grew up in the region but moved away, and those who have never visited the area, but have an interest to learn about it.
“Growing up, I didn’t have any friends. I spent all my time reading and searching for the history of Appalachia. I always dreamed I would be able to touch people and share what I’ve learned. Then, one day I woke up and realized I am living that dream.,” said Simon, “Thousands of people follow the page on Facebook and I get messages thanking me, with some saying they appreciate the stories and pictures that take them back to their childhood.”
Simon says his family respects his passion. He said his wife knew how he was when she married him over 27 years ago. The couple has three children, two young men in their twenties and an ten year old. The family makes their home in Williamson.
For more information, visit the Appalachian Lost and Found Facebook page.