This story originally appeared in the fall 2015 issue of WV Living.
In the late afternoon, the men formed a loose circle on the Mountain Institute’s large wooden promenade. Some sat on benches, railings, and picnic tables, but most stood with their hands in their pockets, coats zipped up and hats pulled down against the frigid winds blasting the hilltop plateau. It was several weeks into spring but still quite cold in this hollow just below Spruce Knob. A quart-size Mason jar made its way through the crowd to keep everyone toasty, at least on the inside.
Sam Roberts, a bespectacled family physician from Elkins, stepped to the center of the assembly. He was wearing buckskins and what would otherwise be called a coonskin cap, except it was made from a skunk pelt. Sam banged a mallet against a small hand drum to bring the chattering crowd to a hush.
“Hear ye, hear ye!” he bellowed. “The polecats have reconvened for a rendezvous.”
This is the Polecat Rampage. Each spring for 54 years, this group of men has congregated in the West Virginia woods for a three-day event to celebrate the end of winter and the birth of a new spring. It’s a throwback to the old mountain gatherings when trappers would come together to sell their furs before letting loose and making merry.
The polecats aren’t weathered trappers. They’re doctors, construction workers, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, bankers, school board members, and business owners—pillars of the community. But they still arrive with a healthy appetite for card games, tall tales, trout fishing, bawdy jokes, campfires, whiskey—and lots and lots of ramps.
Allium tricoccum, a wild plant often described as a cross between an onion and garlic and commonly referred to as ramps, is the first vegetable to spring from the frozen ground after winter breaks. Old-timers used them to replenish their vitamin C after months of cured meats and canned vegetables. The polecats like them because they taste good and there are no women around to complain about the smell. The smell is the first thing you notice about the Polecat Rampage. One step inside the mess hall and your nose is immediately accosted by the sharp smell of cooking ramps.
Cleaned, raw ramps are available at each meal, and the older men always leave room on their plates for a small pile. Despite their aggressive flavor, ramps are beautiful little plants—rounded white bulbs, thin purple stems and broad green leaves. But the wild onions really shine when they’re used as part of a recipe. A different team of volunteers prepares breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and there seems to be an unspoken competition to see who can make the food as pungent as possible.
For breakfast there might be ramp eggs, ramp biscuits, and ramp gravy, and for lunch, cream of ramp potato soup. For dinner, look for ramp potatoes or ramp scallops. When third-generation polecat Butch Antolini cooks his traditional Thursday Italian night meal he always includes “ramps Giambronii.” He learned the dish from his maternal grandmother: ramps fried in bacon grease, mixed with crispy crumbled bacon and topped with red sauce.
Butch’s grandfather Carl Antolini was one of the original polecats. He began attending the rampage a few years after it started at the invitation of Sam’s father Don Roberts, the gathering’s founder. Butch says Carl tried to get him to go for many years, but he always put it off. Then, in 1985, his grandfather suddenly passed away.
That winter, Sam asked Butch if he would attend the rampage and cook the Thursday night dinner—it was a long-standing tradition for Carl to bring Italian food the first night. So Butch made his first pilgrimage to the Polecat Rampage in 1986 and has returned almost every year since. Now his father, his younger brother, and two sons all attend. “We’re the only family that has four generations that have attended,” he says. “You pass it down.”
Butch also has invited lots of friends over the years, and that group has become an extended family of sorts. “There’s 15, 20 of us. Nobody makes an excuse for not showing up,” he says. “When something goes on that long, you know there’s something about it.”
Ask a polecat how long they have been coming to these annual mountain rendezvous, and they likely will not answer with a year. The men measure their tenure by the location of their first rampage.
The inaugural Polecat Rampage was held at Middle Mountain Cabins near Bartow. Sam’s father, Don, came up with the idea as a way to commemorate a camping trip from 40 years before. Around 1926, when he was just a teenager, Sam’s father and three friends got together over Easter weekend. “They hiked up the Cherry River towards Marlinton, ate ramps and caught trout,” Sam says.
Don wanted to recapture some of that fun and camaraderie, so in 1961 he invited those three friends, along with some military buddies and members of his bridge club, to Middle Mountain Cabins. The men enjoyed themselves so much, they decided to do it again the next year.
Sam made his first pilgrimage to what would later become the Polecat Rampage in its third year, when the event was moved to a cabin in the Monongahela National Forest known as Shot Cherry. He calls it his “mountain bar mitzvah.”
Shot Cherry would remain the venue of choice for the rampage until 1976. “We got notified a month before the party we were not allowed to use it,” Sam says. The state changed its rules for renting the cabin—it was now only available for conservation groups or work groups. The Polecat Rampage made a last-minute relocation to Canaan Valley, but Sam says it just wasn’t the same. “There wasn’t the same camaraderie.”
So he got to thinking: If the polecats wanted to return to Shot Cherry, all they needed to do was form a conservation group. Sam had studied Latin in high school and college, so he came up with a name: “The Society for the Preservation of Allium Tricoccum and Mephitus Mephitus.” Ramps and skunks. The polecats made their return to Shot Cherry the following year and would remain there until the party finally outgrew the small venue in 1990.
The rampage moved to the Cheat Mountain Club for about a decade until relocating again in 2001 to its current home at the Mountain Institute. The event has grown considerably since the inaugural rampage, which hosted only about a dozen men. Nearly 200 people cycled through the Mountain Institute during this year’s three-day event.
It remains an exclusive club, however. There are still no women allowed, and unless you have a family member or friend who is a polecat, you can’t be one either. When Canaan Valley Gas Company president Arden Swecker’s father-in-law brought him to his first rampage in 1978—a few years after the triumphant return to Shot Cherry—he had a sit-down interview with Don Roberts to see whether he would be inducted into the polecat brotherhood. “After a half hour he said, ‘I think you’ll fit right in.’”
After a few years Arden brought his own father, who became a regular at the rampage’s perennial poker games. This year he was accompanied by his son-in-law. He says he keeps coming back, and bringing other people with him, because of the relationships polecats build with one another. “It’s the characters here. You develop a lot of friendships.”
Fellow polecat and acclaimed surveyor Don Teter agrees. “As we get a little older, the people we know get scattered around,” he says. The annual pilgrimage to the rampage allows Don to reconnect with friends, many of whom he doesn’t see throughout the year. “I’ve got work piled up that needs done. I told my wife I’m going up there for three days and forget about that stuff,” he says.
It’s a refrain you hear from many polecats. Sure, the rampage is an excuse to have a good time. But it’s also a chance to escape modern life for a while, to reminisce about days past, to pay homage to your Appalachian heritage, and to rest your nerves after a winter cooped up indoors.
For this reason, there is no real schedule at the Polecat Rampage. Attendees come and go as they please, some stay the full three nights while others just drive up for the day. Some men show up as soon as breakfast, lunch, or dinner is served, while others wait to straggle in.
A few traditions have sprung up, however. Butch’s family and friends have a secret fishing hole they always visit. Arden always brings along some homemade wine, made from homegrown fruit and bottled and fermented in whiskey bottles. Jim Crowley prepares a very popular shrimp boil before dinner each night.
But there is one sacred tradition at the rampage, which occurs on Saturday afternoon—the “Polecat Punch.” It started as a way to finish off opened bottles before everyone went home. Whatever was left over got dumped into the pot, and the concoction was consumed while the men stood around, told stories, and said their goodbyes. The tradition morphed over the years. The punch didn’t taste very good in the early years, so Don Roberts came up with the recipe that’s still being used today. The event was also moved from Sunday morning to Saturday so the polecats could enjoy as much as they wanted before going home.
The punch has also become a ceremony to honor the memory of polecats who have passed away, albeit in a very light-hearted way. “Hear ye, hear ye,” Sam Roberts bellowed that Saturday evening. “The polecats have reconvened for a rendezvous.” After a brief but very loud demonstration of a replica Civil War-era cannon and a lesson on testing the quality of homemade moonshine—by lighting it on fire in the palm of your hand—Sam beckoned the men to a large handmade ceramic pot to receive the Polecat Punch.
Each received a plastic cup filled with an orange-colored concoction containing several whole bottles of hard liquor, fruit punch, and sliced fruit. They returned to their places and remained quiet while the names of every deceased polecat was read aloud. When the last name was spoken, each man hoisted his cup, lowered it to his lips, and threw back a swig. “God, that’s good,” one sighed.
Before the mood got too maudlin, Sam announced it was time to tell some jokes. The men spoke up one-by-one. If it was a joke first told by a long-gone polecat, they made sure to invoke the name of the original teller. “Many of the jokes have a point,” Robert said later. “They kind of represent the humor and the wisdom of the past.” Other polecats trotted out new routines—jokes that could someday be their legacy. Many were met with belly laughs. A few drew groans. But before the atmosphere got too bawdy, Roberts ceded the floor to Cliff Marstiller. He lifted his cup of punch and offered a toast.
Two polecats went out strolling, upon on a fine spring day
Discussing the coming rampage as they made their fragrant way.
With great anticipation for the revelry in store
They spoke of friends they’d see again and those who’ll come no more.
Some call the rampage nonsense, but little do they know
Our scents they need recharging with the melting of the snow.
So Roberts, Hyre, and Antolini conceived our annual rite.
They met at Middle Mountain to drink, play cards, and fight.
Thus was born the rampage to these wise and hearty ones.
They’ve passed it down throughout the years, the fathers to the sons.
A stink was raised at Shot Cherry, Cheat Mountain Club as well,
And now the Mountain Institute has known our pungent smell.
We gather around the yurts there, with ramps upon our tongue,
And lift a glass to our founding fathers from the spring of ’61.
When Marstiller recited the last line, everyone took another pull from the Polecat Punch. And with that, the rampage was beginning to draw to a close. The next morning everyone climbed in their cars, trucks, SUVs, and campers and returned home.
By Monday the polecats were back at their offices and job sites, no longer mountain men, yet revived and ready to take on the challenges of the year to come. To the outside world there would be no evidence of the weekend they spent in the mountains, unless someone happened to get very close. Then, they might detect the faint, sharp smell of cooking ramps, which not even city water can wash away.