By C.V. Moore
It’s hard to say which part of the story is more epic. First there’s the fact that John and Samuel Pringle lived together in a hollow sycamore tree for three long years in the wilderness of present-day Upshur County, hiding from the British-American Army.
Then there’s the part where Samuel Pringle throws down in fisticuffs with a huge black bear.
You can decide for yourself Saturday when a classic West Virginia tale comes alive at Hawks Nest State Park.
That evening, Gene Thorn, a living history storyteller from French Creek, presents “The Life and Adventures of Sam Pringle,” one of his signature tales.
Thorn himself is a descendent of the pioneers who settled western Virginia in the 1760s and ’70s.
“I just feel like I’m part of them when I’m doing a living history performance,” he said.
“I kind of get lost in time. It’s a connection for me to the past.”
The past is where Thorn feels most at home.
He learned the story as a kid from a man named Dice Hinkle, who taught his parents in school.
He and his family would regularly visit Hinkle’s house, where he had set up a replica Indian encampment and staged a tree to look like the Pringle Tree, where the brothers lived. It was adorned with flintlock rifles, powder horns, kettles and other trappings of early pioneer life.
Hinkle’s house was a living museum of oil lamps, Indian arrowheads and cast iron skillets.
“He would tell stories and play instruments and sing songs. He was just an entertainer. For a young boy it was something I’ll never forget,” said Thorn.
Between hearing Dice tell the Pringle story and reading a book called “The Scout of the Buckongehanon,” by J.C. McWhorter, Thorn said he “caught the bug” for living history storytelling.
Now he hopes to entrance a new generation with the tale.
“This story in particular is something that kids just absolutely love. They get wide-eyed when you start telling a bear story. Well, this is a real one,” he explains.
Thorn will give a first-person account of the bear fight.
“It’s exciting — the terror that he must have had when this was happening, but to keep the cool in his head. For him to survive it is absolutely miraculous. He lived to be a ripe old man.”
Thorn stresses that bears were different back then. Most had never seen a person before and they didn’t have a “fear of man,” so violent encounters were more likely when the two met.
He would know.
Thorn is director and head biologist at the West Virginia Wildlife Center, an Upshur County zoological park that features animals native to the state. There, visitors can walk a 1.25-mile old-growth forest loop and observe mountain lions, gray wolves, black bears, eagles, buffalo, elk and smaller animals.
All program attendees will receive free admission tickets to the West Virginia Wildlife Center for the 2013 season.
The Pringle Tree was supposedly so big that an 8-foot fence rail could be turned inside of it.
“Sycamores are the largest trees native to West Virginia, capable of growing to 100 feet or more. It was not uncommon for hunters and others to find temporary shelter in hollow sycamores, but the Pringles are the only ones known to have set up extended housekeeping,” writes Noel Tenney for the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Though the original is long gone, there is still a sycamore tree in the very spot where it once grew. It’s a third-generation descendent of the Pringle Tree, located right off W.Va. 20 near Buckhannon.
Hawks Nest State Park Lodge, which has recently been renovated, will host the living history performance Saturday from 7 to 8 p.m. Attendees are invited to purchase dinner at the state park’s onsite restaurant between 5:30 and 7 p.m.
“I would welcome everyone to attend,” Thorn said. “We’re close enough but yet far away enough that if you need a break, we’d love to have you here.”
The renovations to the lodge include new furniture, bedding, flat-screen televisions, an energy-efficient HVAC system and other elements.
For more information on this or other Hawks Nest dinner theater events, call 304-658-5212.
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