Free Daily Headlines


Set your text size: A A A

Life in the early 1900s in these mountains

A photo from around 1945 shows Jere, Velma, Joan, Randall and Jim Brittain. [COURTESY OF JERE BRITTAIN] A photo from around 1945 shows Jere, Velma, Joan, Randall and Jim Brittain. [COURTESY OF JERE BRITTAIN]

EDITOR’S NOTE: When Jere Brittain, our West of the French Broad columnist, sent us this remembrance his mother wrote 56 years ago, I figured I’d sample the top to see what it was about. Once I had that first taste I couldn’t stop eating. I finished the 6,800-word piece in that single sitting. It was a fast read. I was impressed with the writing, the detail and the natural story-telling spirit that made Southern Appalachian life in the early 1900s come alive. I found out why as I read on. Velma Gillespie Brittain was stubbornly determined to learn. After attending seven grades at Maple Gap and Mountain View schools, she took a job cooking at a logging camp to pay her way at Fruitland Institute and later took a course at Cecil’s Business College in Asheville. In the coming weeks of the holiday season, we’ll run the remembrance in installments. 

From Jere:  In 1966, my mother, Velma Gillespie Brittain (1903-1971) wrote this short memoir of her childhood and teen years. It provides a vivid snapshot of life in rural Henderson County and Mills River in the early twentieth century. Thanks to my sister, JoAn Shearin, for conserving this important piece of family history.


I was born in the George Gillespie house, June 24, 1903. The first I recall were a few things about living in the Pink Beds. Papa and Mama (as we were taught to say) moved up there in a two-horse wagon. Papa was a trapper and watchman for George Vanderbilt. Mama cooked for the forestry school.

The mail came by horseback once a week from Pisgah Forest. I remember waiting on the front steps for the mailman since he always brought me candy. I was four years old then. We had a pet deer that I have a picture of. I recall watching the forestry students riding horses.  The house we lived in is the ranger house now.

We lived there for 18 months, then moved back to a partly finished house on the north side of Forge Mountain.

We used oil lamps till O was grown. On Saturdays we washed lamps and lanterns, then filled them with oil. Matches were not too plentiful, so we would cut a long narrow strip of paper and roll it so it was about the size of a drinking straw. Then we would fold the ends so they would not come unrolled. We would keep a glass full on the mantle to light lamps from the fire.

The best food I ever tasted was cooked on the fireplace. Mama would sometimes bake biscuits or cornbread and it was delicious. She would sometimes boil beans or meat on the hearth by keeping live coals around the pot. Potatoes were good baked in hot ashes.

Papa was a good cook too. He could make better jelly than Mama.

Once a year we would fill our bed ticks with new straw. For our best beds we would have a feather mattress to go on top of the straw.

Papa did not sing nor whistle, but he was very good with a French harp (harmonica). I had a great desire to play an organ and a violin. One of our pastimes was playing church. I always did the playing. I would sit for hours on our front porch pretending I was playing. Aunt Hassie got sorry for me and gave me her organ. She could only play a few simple songs but got me started.

When I was rather young I started to singing schools where they taught the shaped notes, etc. By the time I was twelve I was playing at church and at parties. I played at church for 50 years before I retired.

Uncle Will Field had the first battery radio in our community. It had a set of ear phones and only one at a time could listen. They had lots of company, each one anxious to have a turn.

First car ride

Uncle John White came up to Mama’s in the first car I can remember seeing. He took some of us for a ride, but I would not get in till he told me how he could stop it. I did not like his explanation but decided to try it.

The Holden family was one of the first to get a T-Model Ford. Either of the boys would “go to the moon” if the young people would buy the gas and provide a young lady to ride in the front seat. It fell my lot many times to ride in the front seat. We did not often go beyond Hendersonville.

There was a general store at Horse Shoe where we could go in a two-horse wagon or buggy. We could start early and get back from there before dark, but when we went  to Hendersonville, especially in winter, we had to leave before daylight and get back after dark. When it was cold we would heat a rock and put it at our feet. There were hitching posts all over town where you could tie up your horse or horses.

What we bought was mostly cloth since we exchanged butter and eggs at a local store for our coffee and sugar. Our meat was mostly pork. That produced sausage, bacon, ham and lard. We bought coffee beans and ground them each time we made coffee. When as a child I heard the coffee mill, I knew it was time to get up. My folks used lots of Postum. They would take a good grade of molasses and wheat, parch them in the oven, then grind and boil like coffee. We made our own hominy. We always dreaded this because we had to carry so much water.

The old people made all their soap. They would pour their ashes into a hollow log about four feet long and set it up on its end. They kept it covered so it would not get wet. When it was full, they would pour water on and when it came out the bottom it was lye. They would put this in a pot of water with meat scraps or grease and cook.  This would make a soft soap they kept in jars. I learned after I was married how to make soap with bought lye and made some very pretty white soap that would float.


My Dad’s best income was from trapping during winter months. There never was a person on Mills River who could equal his ability in trapping. He would look and reset his traps during the day, then skin and stretch hides at night. It was always my job to hold the lantern. The coldest job was to hold the light for him to tack up a coon hide. He was the most accurate skinner I ever saw. He usually shipped the hides to a fur company. He would get price lists. Perhaps one company would pay more for a certain hide. They all paid him above their list price.

He had so many trap lines he sometimes hired help to look them and carry in the animals. Sometimes they would get to the lines twice a week. Coons were bad to gnaw out. Albert helped look traps till he left home to work on a job.

Sometimes Dad would get an order for a live fox. I recall seeing Ed Gillespie (sometimes he would help look traps) come in with a live fox in his arms and it not even tied. When you got your hands on a fox it was never wild anymore. These were not too good for a fox chase.

The winters are not as cold as they used to be. My dad told me about one winter when it was so cold it froze the legs off the chickens up near the feathers. About that time Mama recalled how the rivers would freeze over so hard that people would cross at the fords with their oxen fastened to a log or wagon and never crack the ice. I remember when the river would freeze over till we would have fun skating. One winter James and I went down and crossed the river on the ice and went to Aunt Hassie’s.

* * * * *

In the next installment, Velma Gillespie Brittain remembers courting on a party line telephone, Papa’s perfect garden and a tangerine for Christmas.