I had a wonderful time visiting with Mary and her sister Pearl. Mary told me, “Well I’m happy to meet you and talk to you. But I’m not really sure why you want to talk to me. I never married, never had any children, so you’ll probably think my life was rather boring.” I assured her that her stories would not sound boring to me!! Mary lived independently until her early 90s. Then she moved in with her younger sister Pearl. I asked to meet Mary to see what she could tell me about Charles Dortch’s family. Charles wife Rosa, her maiden name was Perkinson. Charles, his wife and two sons were buried at the Perkinson, Walker, Smelley cemetery. Mary talks about some of the people buried there, in this interview. I also wanted to know whatever Mary could tell me about what it was like growing up in Mecklenburg. I’ve grown up on military bases and in big cities. I’d never heard stories like this before and I enjoyed every minute of it. Mary was born in Aug 1910, so her stories of chores as a young child would be about 100 years ago.
Labor Day, September 2005
Tape recorded. Transcribed Oct 2005, By: Julie Cabitto
Mary: My name is Mary L. Walker
Pearl: But I call her Dink, and everyone else calls her “Dink”, as a nickname.
Mary: Aunt Rosa Lee married Charlie Dortch. They have 4 children: Drew, the girl was the oldest. David, they called him Dave, he was next. Robert Leonard, then William was the baby.
(Regarding Robert Leonard) Occasionally I would see him after he moved down there off Highway One, because he and Lottie Clark were friends. Lottie Clark was Aunt Rosa Lee’s sister’s daughter and my mama’s cousin. She and Leonard, went down to Perkinson family cemetery and cleaned it up, and put a fence up. When I had the money, I put a tombstone up at my mamma’s grave down there. Lottie and Louisa May, a cousin of ours, who was on George’s side, my mamma’s brother, kept it cleaned up and paid someone to help keep it up.
Mary: Drew moved to Richmond. One time, Pearl, Ruth and I and went over there to see her. After Pearl and Ruth finished business school and went to work.
Mary: You know where aunt Ida and them went to school?
Julie: I don’t know where they went to school, but I would love to know where they went to school!
Pearl: It was Black Springs.
Mary: There was a mineral springs on the place. And there was a log school there.
Pearl: Well, the springs was a blessing, where you could get water to drink. And a whole lot of people settled around these springs.
Mary: There was a mineral springs. Way back yonder, long ago, people would camp down there if they’re having trouble, like kidney disease or something and drink the water out of the spring. (Looking to Pearl) Do you remember when they had, Uncle Jimmy Jones then, and Uncle Sammy had the box mill over there? Made their own boxes and things and all in La Crosse? He had kidney trouble. And a colored man Lawyer lived there and he would always bring Uncle a thing of that water every day when he’d come to work to drink for his kidneys to help him feel better. (for years he did this!) I think now that the grass is so grown up over there you couldn’t even find it now if you looked for it. Lawyer lived down there and he kept it cleaned up and all around there and all. The last I know, the old school is still standing. I’m not sure.
Julie: One of the things I wanted to know was if this was the church the Perkinson’s went to in La Crosse. (Showed picture of Methodist Church on North Carter St.) Because there’s a Perkinson that donated either the land or money for this church to start this church. So I was wondering if that’s where your family went to church? Also, if you didn’t have much transportation, then did you guys go to that church (on Carter street)? Or did you study on your own farm?
Mary: Yes, we went to church. Well, we always went to the Baptist church.
Pearl: We walked to school. And we walked a mile to school. I remember that well! You walked up a dirt road, you know. And you walked to school and you walked home from school too. We went to the Baptist church so far back as I remember. And mamma (Pearl’s mother) was Methodist.
Mary: Well, I went to the Methodist church and joined the Methodist church when I was little. My mamma died when I was 7 years old. I went to live with my aunt up there in Smith Grove. Johnny and Buck went to live with Uncle Doll and his wife, who was my mamma’s brother. But aunt Lil was my daddy’s sister. And then you see, Earl was the baby. And Uncle Kemp and aunt Lee took Earl when he was a baby. And they told daddy, “We’ll take him and we’ll take care of him and raise him, if you make us one promise. That you won’t, when you get married again, or whatever you do, that you won’t take him away from me.” And they said daddy told him, “I will never take him away from y’all. But if he ever wants to come live with me, I could not refuse him.” So he never wanted to leave Aunt Lee and Uncle Kemp because he went there as a baby. He didn’t know nobody else. They were his mamma and daddy and his sisters and his brothers. So he lived there until he died. He died of a heart attack as a young man at thirty something years old. After mamma died, daddy married Pearl’s mamma. Mamma died in 1917, and he married Pearl’s mamma in 19 and 21. And then I went back and lived with them. And then Buck and Johnny went back to live with daddy too. And we was talking about the church. Well that year, in 19 and 21, we were farming. The Baptist church, a group of people had bought an old Presbyterian church. So they didn’t have a Baptist church there in La Crosse, but there was a Methodist church there. Until they founded this church. And that summer, daddy was a carpenter too. He was a farmer and a carpenter. And he needed a little money, some work to do, so he did some carpentry. The people were rebuilding the church (Presbyterian church). So they was working together to get the church remodeled and re-fixing. And I was 11 years old. I was born in 1910, I was 11 years old at that time. The ladies of the church told daddy to let us come to church, let us come to Sunday school. We weren’t going to church then, ‘cause we lived way yonder, 10 miles at that time. We was out there on the Daviess farming place, that year. He came back and told us, Johnny and I, and that they wanted us to come down there to church, and we wanted to go to the Baptist church. And they said we could drive old Nelly and the buggy down there every Sunday morning to church and back. So to get out, and back in La Crosse with our cousins and everything, we’d do most anything!! So anyway, that’s when we started to the Baptist church and we never went no where else but to the Baptist church all these years.
Julie: So your father helped build the Baptist church?
Mary: Yes. And I don’t know whether you want to hear all this anyway…
Julie: Yes, I love all this!
Mary: That was my life. That church was my life. Because you know, living on the farm and…then daddy moved from up there and bought this other farm, just one mile right back of where those churches are. (Methodist and Baptist) And he built our house. Built a house for us to live in. And rented a house after he finished up farming up there on that other farm. He built the house or started building the house. He got it up to where we could move in when we started the crops that year. Well it was years before he ever completed the house. But he built it so we had plenty room for us to live in. I think y’all might have grown when he finished up all of it. (Referring to Pearl) The upstairs and everything like it ought to be in. With the porches and all around it, and everything. Well I say, the Baptist church there, it was my life. I don’t know. I just looked forward to going to church. One thing, living down there on the farm and all. Anywhere you went or wanted to get, you had to get out there and walk. And so… There weren’t many Sundays I missed church, unless it was raining, snowing, sleeting, or icing or something that I couldn’t go. I started teaching the Sunday School junior boys and girls classes and doing any church classes, clean on until I got where my health failed. Well it will be 6 years this October since the first heart attack. Therefore I wasn’t able to do anything. Since Christmas, these two couples, they’re young members now, they came down here to see me and Pearl one Sunday night. We were sitting all together right here. I said, “Do ya’ll know what my greatest wish is?” And of course they wanted to know. They said, “Well what is it Mary?” I said “My greatest wish is to get back to church and worship one more time.” You know they went up back there and they called a member of the church and the minister and everything. And they set aside the tenth day of April as “Miss Mary’s Day”
They came back down here and told me what they’d done and said, “Now you think you’ll be able to make it up there?” I said “Yeah. And that Sunday I went up there. And they had the whole service was, my day. The sermon was preached on what women had done in the Bible. And he compared me with his mamma and everything Christian. Then the pastor got up and made a speech. He asked me if I would give a sketch of my life in that church. They asked me that before I went up there. I told them I’d see what I could do. So I told them the time I started that church was in nineteen and twenty one up until then. After all that service was over they had a big luncheon downstairs. That evening, we spent the whole evening with people. Visited everybody- in and out, and coming in and out. And people that didn’t get to the luncheon coming. That day, that church was filled with people that day. And then after everything was over, Pearl and William, Pearl’s oldest son, and his little boy Bill. And Scott was there. And William said, “Aunt, Mary, would you like to close off your day going home?” I said, “I sure would.” So he carried me home, where we lived all them years. (With tears) “That was a wonderful day for me! “
And then. My birthday was the 10th of August. And they did this because I was the oldest member of the church. I got about 36 birthday cards. And I got phone calls, and flowers and candy. And William and his wife made me the prettiest birthday cake you ever saw. I never heard talk of an ice cream birthday cake. The cake was filled up with ice cream, and decorated and everything with the candles 95 on it for my birthday.
They gave me the 9 and 5 candles. That church has meant a lot to me, my whole life…..
(Referring to where the railroad tracks were by the family cemetery off Country Club Rd)
Pearl: That used to be the Sea Board Coastline but I don’t know what it is now. They don’t run trains down there no more do they?
Mary: There ain’t nothing there, just a dirt road.
Julie: There was a station there?
Mary: Well, at La Crosse. That cemetery was part of my grand daddy Perkinsons plantation. His parents and his parent’s plantation. Because Aunt Mary Drumright was my grand daddy’s Perkinson’s sister. And she gave the land there to start the Perkinson cemetery.
That George Perkinson (died in 1911) was my granddad. Rosa Lee’s dad. Because I was born in 1910, so I would’ve been one years old. I know they said he used to set me on his knee and bounce me up and down, and I don’t remember him. I remember grandma.
Julie: So, I wanted to ask you, the farm, where the cemetery is: We heard that that’s Perkinson farm. That’s a different farm than you grew up on then?
Pearl: Yes, we grew up down a dirt road in La Crosse.
Mary: I was born on another road over where the Clark’s live. Daddy owned that farm when he and mom was living. After she died, he sold it. Then he built this other house after he married your mamma. (Gave directions to her and Pearl’s old house) You’ll see a big 8-room house, just like a box. You know how they used to build them, 4 rooms up and 4 rooms down. I bought this land out there on High (?) street, in La Crosse, and had my house built, until I couldn’t live by myself, and then came here to live with Pearl, and it’ll be 6 years this October.
Julie: So the house by the cemetery was Mrs. Smelley’s house right? I was wondering if she was a Perkinson?
Mary: Well, his mamma was a Perkinson. Yes it was part of the Perkinson plantation. Granddaddy Perkinson, there was 3 of them. Two girls and one boy. And their plantation was over on that side of the railroad and then the Smelley plantation was over on this side of the railroad, across the road.
Julie: So the Smelley farm was on the other side of Country Club Road? Across the street from the cemetery?
Mary: Yes. The road across by the railroad. That was the Smelley family. But it was the Perkinson’s family. But I don’t know how, Uncle Sammy, …any way, the man he bought it from, that was aunt Ida’s, aunt Ida Perkinson. And he was a Smelley. They didn’t ever live there. They lived over at the other OLD Smelley place, when they were young married. And then after they, during World War I, they moved to La Crosse and he went into the grocery business and had a store.
Julie: You said Perkinson farm was about a thousand acres?
Mary: I think so, I don’t know how many acres but it was a big farm. The Smelley farm was about 100 acres. (Directions to old Smelley place) On the same road you go up there to get to the cemetery (Country Club Rd), turn left, go on up to the light (Hwy #58). Turn right to go to South Hill. Then you turn off right up there where, there’s the Peebles and service station go down there and you’ll come to the Smelley place. But you won’t see nothing when you get down there. But there’s a big red barn standing. It’s all that’s left standing on the Smelley foundation now, but the cemetery.
…Aunt Ida, uncle Sammy, her husband, he and his sister ran this big grocery store in La Crosse for years and years and years. And then he was in lumber business, you know, saw milling and cutting and all that.
My granddaddy and grandma (George Perkinson and Rosa Smelley) had 5 boys and 4 girls, so 9 children. Uncle Johnnie (never married), uncle George (married Annie Andrews), uncle Doll, uncle Kemp (Jessie R. Kemp Perkinson) and he had the store and Lynn. (Uncle Lynn married Ethel and they didn’t have any children.) And there was Mamma (Pearl), aunt Ida, aunt Snow, and Aunt Sally Ann. And Rosa Lee married Charlie Dortch. So there was 10.
Julie: What did you do on the farm?
Mary: Same thing every body else did. Get out there and work with a hoe or do anything that had to be done on the farm.
Pearl: Yea, Daddy, he farmed and everybody worked.
Mary: Everybody had to work.
Pearl: I think mama and Dink deserve a whole lot. Cause farm work is hard work!!
Mary: I don’t know what most farmers do now with machinery and stuff. But back then you had to do it with a mule or a horse and you’d take a hoe and do the rest of it.
Julie: Did you have very many animals?
Pearl: Horses and mules. That was the days before tractors and what have ye. The boys plowed with the mules and the girls worked with the hoes and pulled the suckers. Mercy! The smell of those tobacco suckers! Made you want to barf.
Julie: That doesn’t sound very fun.
Pearl: It wasn’t very fun. Getting’ that tobacco wax all over your hands you know.
Julie: I’ve heard that it’s itchy?
Pearl: Yes! And your hands get just as black, it’s just as black as that telephone right there. The wax that comes off the plant …And see us little ones, we had to stand there and get three tobacco leaves in your hand, and hand it to one of the boys that was tying it on a stick. Then you lay it down, then you hang it in the barn, then you cure it.
Julie: So you didn’t do like the log cabin where you smoked it dry, you guys hung it on the poles and dried it?
Pearl: You hung it up. What they did, what I remember, was they always sorted it out, you know, put it in piles. Well we younger ones would take it and put it together like that and hand it to one of the older ones, and they would put it on the stick. And hang it up in the barn and cure it.
Julie: So you had one of those tall tobacco barns? That you’d hang them on the poles?
Mary and Pearl: Yes.
Pearl: Well you could put, I don’t know how many hundred sticks of tobacco up there to hang to cure. That was hard work! Whew!
Julie: I’ll bet. And you had to harvest tobacco when it was really hot outside…
Pearl: That’s exactly right!
Julie: Did you have fruit trees?
Pearl: Apple trees, pear trees, plum trees, grape vines
Pearl: Peach trees. We made all kinds of little jellies and jams.
Mary: Well, you put up enough stuff in the summer to have it last through the winter. We had a big sweet potato patch. And a sweet potato house.
Pearl: Those were so good!
Mary: Then you pull the potatoes up and put the potatoes in there. And old Irish plant potatoes in the spring.
Pearl: Put those in a basket them put them in the house.
Mary: We had hogs and we’d kill them in the fall. Pack the meat down in salts for 6 weeks, then take it up and wash it and clean it, then put some kind of stuff on it to keep of the stickers and things from getting in it. Then take it up to the smokehouse and smoke it, like you know they smoke meat. Then we had all the meat we needed. Cows, you can milk and then you’ve got all the milk and butter you needed. What I’m saying is you just about lived on your own on the farm.
Julie: So you were pretty self-sufficient farmers?
Pearl: And EVERYBODY worked! Just cause you were 2-3 years younger than the next one ahead of you, that didn’t lessen your work. You worked hard, like crazy, just like everyone worked.
Mary: We’d always have a big turnip patch, last of August, first of September. We’d have turnips all through winter. In the spring we’d have turnip salad. Most the time you put some around the plant bed, where you put your plants in before you put your tobacco in every year. When I was growing up, 9 times out of 10, for Easter, you’d have turnip salad. One year, I took a bag of turnip salad of to Ms. Willis over there in the hotel, she’d give me 10 or 15 cents for a big bag of turnip salad. I saved them dimes and quarters, till I got enough to buy me a piece of cloth, and she’d make me an Easter dress with it. By Easter, she’d always give me a pair of slippers for Easter, and I wore those slippers all through summer and to Sunday and school. Until they got bad. Then they’d (parents?) buy me a pair of slippers to wear for school and Sunday and they had to last the rest of the year.
Julie: So did you used to sew?
Pearl: She still can sew.
Mary: That’s the way you did everything.
Pearl: Everyone worked together.
Mary: At one time I remember, I’ll never forget- As I told you, I spent most of my time in church, whenever I could. If there was anything going on in church, I was right there. On Easter, us little girls, we’d all get up there and sing. I think we did a good job. Well, after church was over, this lady Florence _____ . (?) We were walking out the door and she put her arm around me and said “Mary, you were the prettiest little girl up there and you sang like a little bird and you had on the prettiest dress.” If she had given me a million dollars, it wouldn’t have made me any happier for her to tell me I was the prettiest little girl. I just had this little gingham dress or nothing fancy we had made it, but anyway it just made me feel like a million dollars! Just a few little words can make people pretty happy sometimes!
(Julie and Pearl agreeing)
Julie: So when you did canning, was it the whole family, or did neighbors all get together and you all did it together?
Pearl: Each family. They may have worked together on some things, but most the time it was each family.
Julie: So how did you keep all your potatoes and turnips from getting rotten all winter?
Pearl: You can put a bucket of hot coals in there.
Mary: You had a potato house. You walked over to the potato house and took some out. You had a potato house, a smokehouse, a chicken house, and all the rest of them. And they’re all filled up for the winter. You pull the sweet potatoes up and put them in the sweet potato house, and then in the winter time there comes a real, real cold spell, and most people get frost. You use wood heat, and you take up some of the hot coals and put them in an iron trough or something. Set that iron trough down in there and that’ll keep your potatoes good all winter until the next spring. You have enough left over to cut up and start you another bed and start out another year.
Julie: Wow, that’s hard for me to imagine. Things spoil so fast here in Virginia from humidity!
Mary: Most everybody did their own cooking, I mean canning and fixing. We knew how to hold through. We canned peaches and pears, and apples, and …most the time we dried apples. You know, dried apples? When we were little, we’d take apples, peel them and slice them and toss them up there on top of the tin. (tin roof) Well there was a shed out there with a tin top to it. In a day or two they’d dried dry, take ‘em up and had them all through the winter to eat.
Julie: So I have to ask, did you clean the roof before you put the apples up there?
(Mary and Pearl laughed!!)
Mary: Oh honey, we didn’t know about germs back then!! No, we just tossed them up there!
Pearl: We had a little potato house. You had a top on it. Then you had a space about that high (raised her hand about 2 and a half feet high) that you put dirt on. That kept the warmth in there. Then you put a great big old iron pot with hot coals, and you set that …I remember that pot well! It was about that big around (about like a 15 quart pot) and you fill that pot up with hot coals, and you set that in that potato house. You’ve got a bunch of boards up there to keep the cold air out. In this house you can store sweet potatoes, potatoes, onions, what have you. You put them in there and kept them in there and they didn’t rot.
Julie: So you covered the potatoes with a little bit of dirt to help keep them warm?
Pearl: No. You put a layer of dirt on the bottom, and then you got the potatoes, on the ground. And pack them in there neat. Keep them a little warm, and the top of the house covers them up. I know a little about this.
Mary: For the turnips, you can go to the woods and cut some pine branches and cover the turnips with them to keep the turnips from freezing.
Julie: So when would you go to school? If you needed to help on the farm all the time, when did you go to school?
Mary: We went to school every day, like everybody else did, as long as the roads didn’t get so full of ice and sleet that you couldn’t get there.
When I was going to school, I think it was with Pearl and them, there was an old barn, just when you got to La Crosse. I always put on some old socks and things over my shoes and overcoat and everything and all. I’d unload right there in that barn. Then I’d go on right cross there, just before I went to school. Then come back out that evening and we’d put all that stuff back on, then go on home. They didn’t ever knew I took off all that stuff. They never knew we took it all off and left it in the barn and went into school.
Pearl: I think that old barn fell down by now.
Julie: So what’s the youngest you would go to school? About 6?
Pearl and Mary: We started school at 6 years old.
Julie: Then how long would you go to school? I guess it depends?
Pearl: 12th grade.
Mary: No, I only went to school till 11th grade.
Pearl: Well when I went, we went to 12th grade.
Mary: I only went to 11th. I graduated, but Buck and Johnnie didn’t. They quit school. They was in high school but didn’t finish. They wanted to do something else I reckon. Johnnie always wanted to be a mechanic. He was a mechanic in one of the World Wars. I can’t remember which one. He was in the African campaign. He was fighting down there in Africa. He got pneumonia or something and they sent him back. Then he went to work over there at Camp Pickett. He had a severe heart attack. He was just a young man then. He was married then. But he wasn’t able to do much for his wife because he had one heart attack after another until he died. They had one little boy, and now he’s in Texas.
Julie: How old would you have been when you had to start cleaning out barns? Was that one of your jobs?
Pearl: No, we girls didn’t have to do that. The boys did that.
Julie: How young did they start out? I remember reading in the Laura Ingalls Wilder book, Farmer Boy, he was cleaning the stalls out when he was 7 years old, and getting up at 4 in the morning to help his dad on the farm. I thought, that’s so young! And my grandpa said when he was 5, he was picking cotton in the fields, that they worked really young.
Pearl: Yea, you had to do what you could do. Nobody got to sit there and hold your hand, everybody had to chip in and work.
Julie: Well it kept them out of trouble to right? (Everyone chuckles)
Mary: Well there wasn’t so much to get into trouble then.
Pearl: We lived a mile from a park, we walked a mile to get to a park. Every time you went to school or church, no matter what you did, you always walked a mile to get there.
Mary: But look at some of those other kids at school. Some of them had to walk 4 or 5 miles.
Pearl: And that’s a country mile too! We walked to Sunday school else and everywhere else. Wherever they put the path, you walked. That’s the only way you got to go, you know.
Julie: So when did you have a car?
Mary: I didn’t have a car until I was out on my own and bought it myself. Daddy had a flat bed pick up truck. None of us had a car until we was on our own and able to buy one ourselves.
Julie: Did you grow enough on the farm to sell some of it somewhere else? Or did you only grow enough for yourselves? Did you grow extra?
Mary: You grew extra to can or sustain you through the winter time.
Julie: I heard some farmers, if they had big farms, they grew a lot of extra and sold the surplus in Petersburg, did you do anything like that?
Mary: There were stores in La Crosse. We’d sell to any stores in La Crosse. Back then. But there’s none there any more. At one time there was at least 4 grocery stores, a dry goods store, a hardware store, a drug store, barbershop, post office. The only thing I think that’s left operating in La Crosse right now is the post office, a tin office and the plant out there. …The others closed up, drug store, the barber shop and the grocery stores… Uncle Sammy and aunt Effie owned one of them, Minnie and Lyle owned one of them, and John Cook had one.
Pearl: Didn’t Mr. Smith Jones have a store?
Mary: Yeah, Mr. Jones had one. And Mr. Luther Moseley had a hardware store, and the funeral home. There was two factories and a fabric store, and now there ain’t nothing down there.
Pearl: Well see, there in South Hill. They have more grocery stores and things, and that’s only about 3 miles from La Crosse.
Mary: It’s those big stores taking over, you know, like Wal-Mart. They’ve taken over all the little stores and the little stores can’t compete. And then of course they had the service stations on the corner for years and years and years. There was one service station by my house. My house was the first one in the area, and then it keeps building up. We went there with Pearls boys recently to the Lake. It wasn’t the same place as when I left a few years ago. It wasn’t the same neighborhood.
Pearl: Well I worked my senior year in high school. I worked for Uncle Willy Crab. He ran a store. They sold dry goods. He gave me a job to work Saturday’s and Saturday nights, and I got along fine. I did great. The only thing I had trouble with these little kids. We had shoes for little kids, and shoes for big kids. And them kids were the devils to get shoes on them!
You could set them down in a chair, & straighten out their socks just as straight as anybody could ever straighten them, and them devilish kids, they would knock their toes up, and you couldn’t get that shoe on to save your soul. And I learned more patience with them, and I never had much patience to begin with. I worked in the ladies side, and the children’s stuff was on this side of the store. Well, you could sit them kids down there, and hold the shoe up to the bottom of the foot, and know there was no doubt this shoe would fit, and them devils would knock their toes up and then them devils 9 times out of 10, I couldn’t get the shoe on them to find out. I’d stand there and do the best I knew how. It wouldn’t be too long before the parents would come back and wonder what the hold up was. And I’d say, “Well I can’t fit the shoe on the child, because he’s ballin’ his toes up. And so the shoe isn’t going to fit.” And I want you to know that all those parents had to do was put that shoe on, and they did not knot up their toes any more! But that was the worst thing I had to do. I enjoyed working there. I worked over in the ladies department where they sold dry goods and hose, and anything that the ladies wore. I really enjoyed it and I learned a lot. One thing I never did very good was keeping those kids from knotting up their toes! But I really learned a lot in that store.
End of interview
Mary Walker died 23 February 2008, at the age of 97 & 1/2. She lived an adventurous life, during the good old days!
For more information about the Dortch cousins Mary mentioned:
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