Skip to main content

Collection Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia

Giles the Seng Man

One of the more famous buyers who infused cash into the economy during the boom-and-bust period of coal was "Giles the Seng Man." Diggers generally sell ginseng to centers that recycle scrap metal and broker other non-woody forest products like moss, mayapple, bloodroot, cohosh, and golden seal. During the thirties, forties, and fifties much of the ginseng on Marsh Fork was bought by "Giles the Seng Man," remembered for his woolly aspect and bibbed overalls and his annual trek along the roads tracing the tributaries of the Coal River's Marsh Fork.

"There used to be a gentleman," Denny Christian said. "Old Man Giles, they called him. The Seng Buyer. And he wore bibbed overhauls. Had no vehicle, no horse, nor nothing. He always come in a-walking. Every fall he would make his rounds. And I'd senged that summer with my grandpa, and old man Giles, he came through."

"He was a legend," said Jenny Bonds, quilting with the women who gather weekly on Drew's Creek.

"Nobody knows where that old man come from," said Mabel Brown. "And nobody knows where he went," Jenny finished. "He'd just walk by in his big old overhauls and strut, strut by."

"Old Man Giles many a time come to our house," Dave Bailey remembered. "He'd keep change in his pocket. Wore overalls, had a gray beard and an old hat and here's the way he'd walk, you know." Here Bailey demonstrates Giles' inimitable strut. "He'd say 'Hubert, you got any seng?' And Dad would get wood all the time, go out in the woods, cut a little timber, if he found seng he'd dig it. He'd have a handful dry, maybe fifty cents worth."

"Do you remember Giles the ginseng man?" I asked Dennis Dickens.

"Tommy Giles?" said Dennis Dickens. "I remember him well. I used to sell to him. He was originally from Germany, I think. Someone told me that they got him as an alien and kept him in prison through the war. I know he wasn't around here through the war. He was a great big man, black beard, and he always walked. Somebody'd stop and ask him, 'Want a ride Mr. Giles?'…'No, I'm in a hurry, I'll just walk!'"

[Detail] Mabel Brown, Jenny Bonds, Nancy Miller, and Sadie Miller at their weekly quilting bee in Brown's Hollow. Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/26. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
[Detail] Dennis Dickens and his wife, Ruby, sitting on the front porch of their home… Lyntha Scott Eiler. 1995/09/30. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.
 Back to top