Where it all began
He definitely does not look like a poet. Or a nurse. More like a biker or bear hunter — but looks can be deceiving.
Jeff Eberbaugh was born and raised in West Virginia and he said he's been writing poetry since he was just a kid. His books have helped put Pocahontas County on the map, and the festival they've inspired has garnered national, and international, media attention.
Eberbaugh wasn't born in Pocahontas County, but he has ties. He's been coming here to fish since he was little, and a few years back he worked as a nurse at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital.
It was in 1991 that Eberbaugh found his niche as an author.
“I had an idea for this silly little book called 'Gourmet Style Roadkill Cooking and other Fine Recipes.' I started writing all these hillbilly slang poems, then I put it all together,” said Eberbaugh.
Initially he didn't have the money to print the first thousand books he wanted, but fortunately he was able to cut a deal with the printing company, The Printing Press, in Charleston. He was able to get a little exposure when a Charleston newspaper wrote a story about his book.
“They wrote a story and it came out one Sunday morning. At that point I put in my two week's notice — I just knew I was gonna be rich,” joked Eberbaugh. “They wrote in the newspaper that I was gonna be at this Walden Books at the Town Center Mall in Charleston doing a book signing.”
Eberbaugh was surprised when he sold his first thousand books in only three weeks.
“Usually a local author, from what I've learned, they'll sell about a thousand books in a year,” he said. “So I knew I was onto something.”
An employee at the printing shop suggested that Eberbaugh approach the Associated Press with his project.
“I didn't even know what the Associated Press was,” recalled Eberbaugh. “This guy named John Curran wrote this article though and it went everywhere. Like two hundred newspapers all over the country, even in Europe.”
It turned out Eberbaugh's hard work paid off. He maintained a small post office box for book orders and was pleasantly surprised when the orders started rolling in.
“I went to the post office and opened my little P.O. box and there wasn't any mail in there,” he said. “So I started to walk out, and the postmaster, he said 'hey, you need to get you a P.O. drawer instead of a P.O. box! He handed me a box full of letters. Money! You know? Orders. I took it home and from then on, it just started a whirlwind of selling these books.”
Eberbaugh signed up some wholesale accounts, and things really started to pick up. Any aspiring author or artist can appreciate Eberbaugh's success story.
“I wound up having like five hundred wholesale accounts — book stores, sporting goods stores, gift shops, this and that. Then I started doing sporting goods shows and gift shows all around. I went to Denver and Florida and Pennsylvania, all over. At one autograph session at Walden Books in Charleston, I sold more books than any other author had ever sold, in just two hours.”
Eberbaugh said he rode that wave for about five years. Orders started coming in from all over the world, and he had a chance to travel the globe selling his books.
“I just sold books and traveled,” he said. “We got orders from Germany, Switzerland, it was crazy. I traveled the world. I went to China, Japan, all over with it. It was just a wild time.”
He didn't stop there. The following year, he wrote another book, “Roadkill Cooking Redneck Style.”
“It actually outsold the first one. I don't know how. Everybody wanted it. That's when Jeff Foxworthy and the redneck stuff was comin' out, around 1992,” he said.
A cutlery company, Smoky Mountain Knife Works, in Sevierville, Tennessee, picked up on Eberbaugh's success and started selling his books.
“They sold a tremendous amount of books,” said Eberbaugh. “I'd take pick-up loads of five thousand at a time down to 'em. They have a huge showroom and they'd sell the books like crazy. Finally, their brother company United Cutlery offered to buy the rights to the book.”
Eberbaugh said five years later, the company went out of business and sold out to a company in Georgia, Bud K Enterprises. He approached them about getting the rights to his books back.
“They said 'you know we don't have any use for 'em,'” Eberbaugh remembers. “You can have it back. They just gave it back to me! In writing and everything from a lawyer. I was ready to pay fifty or sixty grand to get 'em back. So I got the rights to my books back.”
Eberbaugh has written six books at this point, the most recent are geared toward kids.
“I wrote my latest one, I just finished, it's called the 'Incredible and Famous Sore Place Lickin' Dog.' Everything's in poetry. It's about a dog that has these magical, god-sent powers to lick a sore place and it heals right up. It's a kids book. It stars my dog and my daughter, Lydia, they're gonna be on the cover,” Eberbaugh said with a smile.
Eberbaugh also wrote a book titled “The Patriot's Forum” about his neighbor, Jessica Lynch. Lynch was serving in the Army in Iraq in 2003 when her convoy was ambushed and she was taken captive.
In all, Eberbaugh sold 175,000 books on his own, without having any knowledge of how to sell a book according to him. Another 100,000 copies were sold through Smoky Mountain Knife Works.
Eberbaugh's success bled back into Pocahontas County a few years later, and his books were the inspiration for what has become an institution in the area, the RoadKill Cook-Off.
“There's these two girls that worked for Pocahontas County tourism,” said Eberbaugh. “Back then, it was Cara [Rose] and Lauren [Bennett]. I had a lot of posters and little spin-off items. They wanted all these posters and books. They were starting this little festival. They invited me to be a judge. There were only three contestants back then. Just a few people walking around, but man, we had a ball.”
Rose recalled how the festival evolved from a simple brainstorming session, into what has become the largest single-day event in the county.
“We were thinking, what can we do different? One year we decided to make a big pumpkin pie. We were trying to break a world record. We didn't achieve that, but it was a big pumpkin pie,” laughed Rose. “The following year it was like, what can we do to beat that? Gibbs [Kinderman], myself and Lauren [Bennett] were talking one evening in the depot. One of us had Jeff's cookbook, it was either myself or Gibbs. We were like, why don't we have a roadkill cook off? So we did. Who would've thought it'd get to this?”
Eberbaugh eventually bought a farm in Wirt County, and his close association with roadkill continued.
“One year I hit like eight deer with my truck on the way to work and back,” he said. “I started stopping and pickin' 'em up if they weren't too squashed. I just started stoppin' and getting' the roadkill. I have a big meat shop at my house — a walk-in cooler, it'll hold 200 deer. I used to do deer processing, I'd do five or six hundred deer for people.”
Eberbaugh said he is really into sausage making, and he collects authentic, ethnic sausage recipes.
“I've got some from deep in the heart of Mexico, a little old Hungarian lady gave me her Hungarian sausage recipe, and on and on. I'm into the fermented sausages, and smoking and curing. I raise my own hogs and chickens and I cure and smoke everything.”
Keep an eye out for Eberbaugh on TV, he was recently featured on Penn and Teller's series “Tell a Lie.”
“Last year the Discovery Channel called and sent a whole crew from L.A. to my house. Penn and Teller weren't there but they sent the crew out. We went out and found a road-killed raccoon. I cooked it up and had some friends over. So I got to be on the Discovery Channel.”
Picking up fresh roadkill can be an adventure.
“One time I hit a deer, threw it in the back on the truck, when I got home – it was standing up! It just got knocked out. Man, it stood up in the back of the truck! That's how fresh it is,” laughed Eberbaugh.
Eberbaugh said being a nurse, he's careful about what he eats, and he doesn't see a thing wrong with roadkill. It's gotten to the point now, people in three counties bring fresh deer to Eberbaugh and he gets one or two every week.
“I started donating this stuff, especially recently. There's a lot of people that are just barely gettin' by. Single moms mostly. I'll slide 'em a dozen jars of canned deer meat and a couple grocery bags full of sausage. A ham or a smoked deer ham, we call 'em battleship rounds. People don't really know where it comes from, and they don't ask. It helps them out, and I enjoy doing it.”