Kittens, Moonshine, and Sherwood Anderson: A Love Story

My summer travels brought me to the small town of Marion, tucked in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. My partner, Roberta, was doing genealogical research and we had some old family sites, the library, and a cemetery to visit.

The town holds literary interest, because it was here that  Sherwood Anderson, author of Winesburg, Ohio (1919), lived while working as a newspaper publisher and editor during his later years. But the evening we arrived, we were weary. Our only order of business before dinner was touring Main Street, not doing research of any kind.

We emerged from the General Francis Marion Hotel and ventured across the street to a quirky looking shop called Appalachian Mountain Spirits. Although it was closing time, co-owner Scott Schumaker, a large man with a gentle demeanor, said we could look around while he took care of some paperwork. Roberta wandered off. I got no further than the cages of kittens near the front door.

Kittens at Appalachian Mountain Spirits
Kittens at Appalachian Mountain Spirits

They were all up for adoption, and I was transfixed. A couple of black and white kittens and a solid black one were vying for my attention. A beautiful gray cat lay fast asleep. In another cage, a tiny silver tabby tucked her chin into her chest and dozed. She was the one I had to hold, and Scott Schumaker obligingly unlatched the cage and placed her in my hands. I wanted to slip her in my pocket and take her with me everywhere.

That was what I wanted but not what I did. The store was closing, and Roberta and I left, murmuring our goodbyes to Scott as we headed outside and down a couple of doors to a nice, down-home restaurant called the Wooden Pickle.

Although Roberta and I had never been out of each other’s earshot during our visit to Appalachian Mountain Spirits, it turned out we’d had completely different experiences there. After learning what she had discovered while I was cooing over kittens, I resolved to return the next evening and conduct a mini-interview for this blog.

So here’s my conversation with Dana Schumaker, co-owner, with her husband, of Appalachian Mountain Spirits, 112 E. Main St., Marion, Va. As you read this, imagine kittens mewing in the background:

HH: How long have you been here?

Dana: Two and a half years.

HH: What is the purpose of the store?

Dana: We are a distillery with an ABC store and a whiskey tasting room, so we have locally made artisan wares in the front, the ABC store is in the middle, and our still is in the back.

HH: Tell me about these cats up front. What’s going on with all the kittens?

Dana: Well, I have been an animal rescuer for 20+ years. When we opened this store in Marion, I decided that I wanted to support the local shelter, since it is a very high-kill shelter, and I have [found homes for] kittens and adult cats since last September, and we are approaching about 300 adoptions.

Dana Schumaker, co-owner of Appalachian Mountain Spirits
Dana Schumaker, co-owner of Appalachian Mountain Spirits

HH: Who’s adopting all these kittens and cats?

Dana: A lot of locals. And believe it or not, I’ve actually had someone from as far away as Ohio adopt a cat, so even people who are traveling are getting them as well.

HH: Do people come in for the whiskey and stay for the cats, or vice versa?

Dana: It goes both ways. We have people come because they heard that I have cats and they end up going to the back and trying the whiskey. Some people come in for the whiskey and fall in love with the cats.

HH: Where are you from?

Dana: Originally from Orlando, Florida.

HH: What drew you to the little town of Marion?

Dana: The mountains. My husband and I knew that we wanted to move to the mountains, and we especially wanted to be close to the AT [Appalachian Trail]. We hadn’t decided where, and someone directed us to southwest Virginia, and we fell in love with Marion and moved here.

HH: What was this building before it became your business?

Appalachian Mountain Spirits, Marion, Va.
Appalachian Mountain Spirits, Marion, Va.

Dana: It was an Amish goods store and prior to that, I’ve been told, it was a bookstore, a photography studio, a jewelry store, and a Rose’s department store.

HH: Wow, that’s lots of different things. Do you have plans for things you might add to what you sell here or other things you might do?

Dana: We want to do something with the upstairs. We just haven’t decided what yet. We’ve thought about having a cigar bar or a private whiskey club. We don’t know.

HH: But, plans in the works?

Dana: Yeah!

After the interview, I went to the back of the store, past several shelves of moonshine and the whiskey tasting bar, in search of Roberta. She was talking to Scott, who had hooked up a guitar made from a cigar box to an amplifier. It took a little doing, but he got it to work and the sound was lovely.

Scott Schumaker, co-owner of Appalachian Mountain Spirits
Scott Schumaker, co-owner of Appalachian Mountain Spirits

Roberta bought that guitar. When she plays it, now that we’re back home in our corner of Virginia, I’m sure I’ll think about the Schumakers and the whiskey and the cats.

I’ll think about the new kitten, a tall black and white one, that had arrived just an hour before our second visit to the shop. He’d been found behind an old factory where they used to make Buster Brown shoes.

When Dana Schumaker let me hold him, he stood completely still in my arms. Hoping. Waiting. If I could’ve taken him home, I would’ve named him Sherwood and given him my whole front lawn.

A kitten in Marion, Va.
A kitten in Marion, Va.

The Road to the Dump: A Love Story

To get to the county dump, I take Mount Sharon Road. It’s a quiet country lane lined with farmland and mountain views. In the late afternoon, the light is fantastic. One fall day, I stopped my car right in the road, stuck my head out the window, and took pictures of shadows falling across green lawns and golden fields.

There are a few steep rises so you have to be careful. More than once, my heart has leaped as another car barreled toward me taking up more than its share of the road. The perils of mortality are alive on Mount Sharon Road.

After another couple of turns, I go down another road and arrive, at last, at the dump. Wire-mesh gates stand wide open. Great big bins await the garbage of the local citizenry. Other bins beckon to conscientious recyclers of plastic, newspaper, tin cans, and glass. There’s also a place to dispose of old batteries and another place where you can deposit used clothing that some other person might still want to wear.

Sometimes, in a folding-chair far away, there sits a Man. If you have trouble with an extra-heavy bag, the Man will come and hoist the bag into the bin for you and talk a while.

The Man is not the only one at the dump. Fifteen or sixteen cats live there. You have to drive slowly when you arrive so you won’t disturb these creatures, perched like little sentinels all around the entrance.

I have been trying to get to know these cats. The first time, the Man came over to help me and talked about his own cats. He and his wife had way too many, and he finally took most of them to the animal shelter. He talked on and on about these long-ago cats.

Keeping up my end of the conversation as best I could, I eyed the residents of the dump. Some stood still; others darted out from under and around the bins. I was mesmerized. The Man said someone comes by to feed them. Behind the recycling bins I glimpsed plastic plates laden with half-eaten food—the Man spoke the truth. Unable to contain myself any longer, I called out to a cat, and she came running up to me. She was longhaired and sweet and should have been somebody’s pet. I noted her lopped ear—the universal sign that a feral cat has been caught, neutered, and returned to its home turf. She let me pet her and then went wild when I tried to pick her up.

On subsequent visits, I have lingered among the cats. The pretty, longhaired one seems to be gone; perhaps someone lured her into a cage and took her home. The others are not as friendly as she was. They let me get close but not close enough to touch them. I’ve been tracking a fluffy, mid-sized black cat that is ridiculously cute. I’ve noted several gray and tan ones. A couple of big muscular cats sidle back and forth as the young, leggy ones scuttle under the bins.

Conversations between county citizens go like this:

“They won’t let you catch them. I’ve tried.”

“I know. I have, too.”

“Somebody feeds them.”

“They look healthy.”

Then it’s goodbye, and people go back to their cars and trucks and go home. They forget all about the cats until next time.

I go home, too. On Mount Sharon Road, dusk is falling. I think about where we all end up: some of us in fine mansions, some in tidy little apartments, others in tents under bridges or walking stoned and bareheaded down a desolate road at one a.m.

The cats, too: some snooze on satin pillows while others, well fed, live out their nights and days at the dump. Meanwhile, their unneutered cousin lunges for a field mouse deep in the woods. Still another decides to cross the street at just the wrong moment, and the car’s driver (who had studied, in his modern poetry class, Wallace Stevens’s “The Man on the Dump”) barely registers the light collision as a life abruptly ends.

The next morning, a twenty-three-year-old will find the body and cry hard. She’ll cry again that night and still again on her way to work the next day.

Years later, maybe she’ll cross paths with the driver of the car that killed her cat, at the supermarket or gas station or the county fair.

Or maybe they’ll meet at the dump.

An old man now, he catches her eye and says, “Somebody feeds them.”

And she says, “I know. They look healthy.”

And the man goes home and so does the woman, and the sun goes down on the cats at the dump. And a car glides past another car tonight and the next day and forever and ever on Mount Sharon Road. And love shimmers everywhere–everywhere!–in the still country air.