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Story of Belle and her beau inspires Johnson family memoir

Josiah and Belle Johnson, seated, pose in 1957 with their children Jack, Nancy, Whitt, Carolyn, Jim, Katherine, Louise, Al, Pete, Mutt, Joe and Ruby. [PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY JOHNSON HARRELSON] Josiah and Belle Johnson, seated, pose in 1957 with their children Jack, Nancy, Whitt, Carolyn, Jim, Katherine, Louise, Al, Pete, Mutt, Joe and Ruby. [PHOTO COURTESY OF NANCY JOHNSON HARRELSON]

When he was 26 years old, Josiah Johnson aimed to marry Belle Whitt, the 18-year-old daughter of a well-to-do general store owner from Marshall.

 

“She said no, but if he would continue to settle down and still felt the same, he could come back in two years and ask her again.”
The scene takes place in 1910, near the beginning of “The Life and Times of Josiah Johnson,” a remembrance by Nancy Johnson Harrelson, the next to the youngest of Belle and Josiah’s 13 children. The 57-page memoir is a tribute to her family, whose roots go back to James Johnson, who immigrated to America from Ireland before the Revolutionary War. Read amid the historic pandemic and cultural turmoil of our present days, the book serves as a reminder of simpler times and the rewards of hard work, ambition and family solidarity. It’s a nice glimpse of local history from Johnson family lore handed down from generation to generation and from Harrelson’s own living memory, from the outbreak of World War II to her parents’ deaths five weeks apart in 1978.
The book grew out of a conversation Harrelson, 87, had with a granddaughter.
“I didn’t know that grandma was from a wealthy family,” the granddaughter said. “And I said, ‘Yes, she was,’ and she said, ‘You need to tell these stories. We don’t know these stories.’”
Instead of a dry history, “The Life and Times of Josiah Johnson” is deeply personal and buoyed throughout by Harrelson’s immense love for her parents and her fond memories of growing up on a farm in Dana that served as base for her father’s extended agricultural businesses.
“I always thought it was fascinating how my mother and daddy got together and that’s a story worth telling,” she said in an interview.
After waiting two years, as Belle had demanded, Joe tried again.
“This time she said yes,” Harrelson writes. “So on Sunday, May 12, 1912, at a Mother’s Day picnic, my dad drove up unnoticed and Mama, who was watching for him, slipped away in his carriage. … They were married in Joe’s father’s yard.”
Around that time, Joe’s brother, Ott, asked Joe him run a peach orchard in Inman, South Carolina. Joe packed up Belle and Ruby, the first-born of what would become 13 children, and moved to the South Carolina sandhills. Belle was miserable.
She told Josiah: “I’ll live in a two-room dirt floor cabin if you will just take me out of this heat and back to the mountains.”
“And he did and they did,” Harrelson writes.

* * *

Thanks to the generosity of Belle’s father, Rueben Whitt, who gave all his children a home place as a wedding gift, the young couple moved into a two-story four-bedroom house on Dana Road. That would be their home for 65 years. Joe went to work clearing the land for farming and pasture land, selling off the timber, and building a barn, pig pen and chicken coop.
“My mother adjusted to farm life as easily as she accepted all things,” Harrelson writes. “She was a willing partner to my dad … Joe taught her how to milk cows, slop the hogs, feed the chickens and help in the garden. She canned vegetables and fruit every summer.”
Harrelson introduces the children the union produced every two years or so over 21 years: Ruby Elizabeth, Joe Jr., Merritt Franklin “Mutt,” Preston Phyletus “Pete,” Allen Byers “Al,” Wade Hampton, Patience Louise, Laura Katherine, James Franklin “Jim,” Mary Carolyn, Marion Whitt, Nancy Ruth and Jack Dickens. All but one grew to adulthood; Wade drowned in a pond near the family farm at age 8. Four brothers served in World War II — Joe Jr. in the Marines, Mutt in the Army Air Corps, Al in the Army (wounded in the Philippines, he received a Purple Heart) and Jim in the Army. (Pete Johnson’s son is Kirby Johnson, co-owner of Flavor 1st Growers & Packers, which President Trump visited last month to promote the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box initiative.)

* * *

 

Once when she was a little girl, Joe told her there were only seven grades to graduation in his day. “Great, I thought, I have to go 12 years to learn the same things,” she writes. “I thought my dad was the smartest person in the world and he knew all there was to ever know.
“I am not sure just what a young person of thirteen or so was ready to tackle after graduation, but I feel sure my dad caught it on the run!” she writes. “He was not a person to be idle for long.”
Hard work and an entrepreneurial spirit came naturally to her dad.
He “turned every possible inch of the farm into fields for planting vegetables,” Harrelson writes. During World War II he built a stockyard on North Main Street. A few years later, he started the King Street packing house that would sustain the extended family for years. Everyone worked at the packing house during the summer. By then a guidance counselor at East Henderson High School, Harrelson would bid farewell to the crew when school started. “I would tell them I was leaving the circus and going back to the zoo,” she writes.
“My brothers became farmers and truck drivers because we ran the packing house,” she said in an interview. “My dad was a prosperous person. He knew how to make money and he did it.”

* * *

 The family operated the packing house for 50 years. When they closed the business, the siblings sold the property to Kathy Johnson Griffin, the daughter of Jack, the youngest of the siblings.
“The twelve children of Josiah and Belle that grew to adulthood had a great heritage not only from our forefathers but also from our parents,” Harrelson writes.

At the end of their lives, both Belle and Joe were hospitalized at the same time.
“My parents were never alone in the hospital,” she adds. “All twelve of us had our shifts. Mine was after school on weekdays. My brother Jim spent every night with dad.”
In the sunset of his days, Joe had stopped eating and was growing weaker by the hour. Belle fell in his hospital room and broke her hip. She died in surgery on Feb. 11, 1978, followed a few weeks later by her husband.
“Dad was very low and in a weakened state,” Harrelson writes. “It was not long when he turned his head to one side and softly called out, ‘Belle, Belle, Belle.’ He sighed and gently passed away.’” He was 94.

Harrelson left a bad marriage to an Air Force officer and went back to school, earning a bachelor’s degree from Eastern New Mexico University and a master’s degree from the University of South Florida. She returned home to North Carolina in 1976 and worked as a guidance counselor at East Henderson High School until her retirement in 1993. She still lives on the Josiah Johnson family property in Dana. The story of her father’s pursuit of young Cora Belle Whitt has always fascinated her, and the part of their story she shares remains an abiding harvest of good memories.
“I wanted them to know the kind of man my daddy was, and my mother,” she said when asked what she wanted readers to take away from the story of Belle and Josiah Johnson. “They were both special wonderful people. We respected them, they loved us. It’s a story that needed to be told I thought, especially about my mother, the way they met. My daddy was determined to get her and he did.”

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‘The Life and Times of Josiah Johnson’ ($15) is available at the Henderson County Heritage Museum in the Historic Courthouse, the Johnson Family Farm produce stand, 1202 Kanuga Road, or by sending an email to elleyruth1932@gmail.com.