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Velma Gillespie goes to school

In a photo from around 1906, Minnie Sitton Gillespie stands behind her children, from left, Albert, Lola and Velma, at Pink Beds Forestry School, now the Cradle of Forestry in America in Pisgah National Forest. [COURTESY OF JERE BRITTAIN]

The Lightning is running the memoir of Velma Gillespie Brittain during the slower news cycle of these holiday weeks.

Here’s Jere Brittain’s introduction of his mother’s remembrance: In 1966, my mother, Velma Gillespie Brittain (1903-1971) wrote this short memoir of her childhood and teenage 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.

Uncle Walt Cairnes died of typhoid fever when Lloyd was just a few months old. Mama took Lloyd and kept him till he was old enough to go to school. Aunt Hassie and Uncle Perry married about that time and Lloyd went to live with them. Our place seemed more like home to him so he always spent Christmas with us till he went to college.

My parents liked names for their children that were not too common, at least for the three older ones (Albert, Lola, Velma). They took Progressive Farmer. The editor for the women’s section was named Velma so I was named for her. I still have an old issue of Progressive Farmer.
In the kitchen, everyone had a razor strap hung up. These were to strap the straight razors. They were also used to keep the children in line. When a man used one it would really tan your hide.

Party line

Talk about a party line! There used to be one up here when we were small. It was a local line that started out with ten phones. They were wall phones and operated with batteries. Everyone had a different ring, some of which were: rinnnng, ring-ring, rinnng-rinnng, etc. It would ring at every house and people would often listen in to catch up on the news. You were supposed to ring one short ring when you had finished so someone else could use the line. If you heard five long rings, everyone was supposed to answer.
There was lots of courting on the phones. Lola and Tom used to talk by the hour. I would sometimes go down below the house where I could reach the wires with a stick and cross them so they could not talk. Needless to say, Lola would get mad.
Dr. Greenwood and Davenport’s Store had two phones, one for the upper river and one to Hendersonville. If it was ever necessary to call outside, you could call one of them and they would relay the message. Rud Whitaker was the repairman. After he had to repair the line, each party was asked for a set sum. Other people kept getting phones until the line was overcrowded and later discontinued rather than have so many listen in. Randall and I used to meet at a set time to talk. After that line went down it was many years before Bell put a line up here.
My father began to have epilepsy when he was 36. At first he would only have attacks at night as he went to sleep and not often, but as the years went by he would have the spells more often and finally any time day or night. He loved to fish, but if he was gone overtime, Mama would send me to look for him. I would run from one fishing hole to another and be scared almost to death. He passed away at age 54. I thought then he was old. Now it seems like he was a young man.

A tangerine for Christmas

Christmas was a happy time, much different than today. I never remember getting a toy unless it was a home-made doll. We would hang our stockings. We usually got an article of needed clothing, an orange, a tangerine, some stick candy and a few nuts. Sometimes the clothing wasn’t what we wanted and I would go off by myself and have a good cry. Perhaps it would be a cap but unlike what the others wore.
My Dad was proud of my ability to help get wood, help with hides, prune and worm apple trees. I just watched him prune till he had epilepsy too bad to climb. Then he would advise me how to do it.
When we had the toothache very bad for several days and it did not get better, the folks would either take us to the family doctor or have him come. He would set you in a straight chair, take his knife and cut around the tooth, then pull. All of us had teeth with long roots, so it was very painful. When I was in my early teens, Albert was working at Carolina Creamery in Asheville. He sent for me to come and go to the dentist at his expense. The dentist had reserved one day for me and used it. He filled 15 teeth for $30.

Father’s immaculate garden

Guess you might say that my Dad was a landscape gardener. He loved flowers and shrubbery. We had a beautiful lawn. So far as I recall, we were the first to have a lawnmower. He had a beautiful grape arbor. It had a swing and was an ideal spot for courting in the summer. As long as he was able, his garden was a beauty. The rows were perfect. After he hoed a row, he would take a rake and work out his tracks.
The yard and garden looked like a picture from a seed catalog. He believed in keeping everything neat and in order. He had a place for everything of his around the house and kept it there. He used to tease Mama when she lost something and tell her if she had a place for everything and kept it there, she would never lose anything.
His barn, crib, apple house and woodshed were kept in perfect order. There was a walk back through the center of the woodshed with wood on either side graded out according to size. Dad would make the beds and sweep on Sunday mornings so Mama could get dinner and get the children ready. The beds had feather mattresses on top and it was very difficult to get a feather bed smooth. When he got through they were perfect. I recall Mama telling him that if she put in that much time she would never get her other work done.
I started out rather young to help make quilts. We used to card our own quilting batts. They would be 4”X 10” and made a very soft quilt. It was always a job to reach the center of the quilt with batts. The last years I was home, Mama and I made some very interesting quilts for the public. I recall one we re-did for a woman in Hendersonville. When I took the finished quilt to her she paid me in silver dollars-either seven or nine. Anyway, they seemed quite heavy.
Mama was a good cook and it seemed she had lots of boarders. I recall two government men staying there. They brought in some beautiful mountain trout.

* * * * *

In the next installment, Velma writes about grade school, working as a cook in a logging camp to pay her way at Fruitland Institute and taking business courses in Asheville.