Alvy Dortch left Mecklenburg for economic reasons

Alvin (Alvy) Dortch endured many tragedies and hardships. He was one of five children. His mother Sarah Poythress died when he was only age 9. His father and two other siblings died by the time he was age 14. He also suffered from severe depression. I assume Alvin’s older sister Martha was like a mother figure to him. Martha married John Vaughan and died about the time Alvy was being sued for debt. Maybe after she died, Alvy didn’t think there was any reason to stay in the area. Since he couldn’t farm, it was hard to remain in a predominately farming area and survive economically.

After his parent’s death, Alvy lived with Rebecca Stanley, who I believe was his aunt. (Rebecca’s maiden name was Poythress). His brother, Oliver Jasper Dortch (known as “O.J.”) was living with Dr. Riggan, who was a dentist. Dr. Riggan had three marriages without any children. I’ve been wondering if there’s any family relationship with Dr. Riggan or his second wife Eliza Hart. Or perhaps Dr. Riggan was simply generous and tried to help his neighbors out of financial difficulties.

Alvy was conscripted into the Confederate Army at about age 18, while he was visiting Petersburg. He was first made a guard at a hospital. After getting sick several times, he put in a request to be transferred to serve with a troop of men who he knew. He ended up being a prisoner, yet survivor, of Point Lookout.

His oldest daughter, Theresa, had a seizure by the fireplace. Her dress caught fire and she died in front of her two young children, Fanne and Maude (ages 5 & 2). This happened while the men of the area were out harvesting tobacco. That same day, Alvy took his granddaughters Fannie and Maude Gray home with him. He raised them as his own children. His youngest child, Millard Dortch, was two years younger than his granddaughter Maude Gray and four years older than his other granddaughter Fannie Gray.

Part of Sally Vick’s 1951 letter. Sally was daughter of Alvy & Tennessee Dortch

With his war wounds, Alvy was unable to farm.  So, he created a wagon train business carting goods from the farmers in Mecklenburg, Virginia, to markets in Petersburg. Virginia’s economy was in tatters for decades after the war. There was catastrophic economic damage from the economic “Panic of 1893”. 15,000 businesses and 500 banks in the U.S. failed. No one had money. Farms were failing from drought and farmers lost their lands.  During the country’s economic crisis, Alvy struggled to provide for his wife, eleven children and two grandchildren. He applied for a military pension but received a rejection letter. He borrowed money from Dr. Riggan, but couldn’t earn enough to pay back the last $120 of the loan before Dr. Riggan died. As executor, Dr. Riggan’s (third) wife called in his debts.  Alvy became insolvent.

During times of trial, we often want to be with someone who understands us. I believe that’s what led Alvy to move to Southampton County, Virginia. There, he lived near his friend,  Samuel J. Glover. I haven’t been able to figure out yet, if Alvy’s wife, Tennessee Glover, was related to his friend. Samuel and Alvy had been in the same military unit. After the war, Samuel Glover lived with a ‘Hart’ family that is possibly related to Eliza Hart, second wife of Dr. Riggan. After leaving Mecklenburg, all of Alvy’s adult children were working, trying to earn money where they could. His wife, Tennessee, and a few children temporarily moved to Petersburg to get jobs, while Alvy worked at various odd jobs. The whole family moved to Kankakee, IL (just south of Chicago) about 1903. The family worked in factories there, including the Paramount Knitting Company. Tennessee and Alvy ran a boarding house.  It was big enough to house their young adult children, 4 grandchildren and 3 boarders.  One boarder married Alvin’s daughter Martha.

Fannie Gray married George Stowe, had eleven children and remained in the Kankakee area most of her adult life. When Fannie was much older, her daughter Catherine started asking about where she was from, interested in knowing more about her family in Virginia. Fannie didn’t really remember or know. Catherine started writing letters, which were given to me when I started asking the same questions.

1942 Fannie Gray

Boydton train depot

Boydton Train Depot about 1956, from Marcus Woodford

When I first saw this picture, I wondered where the depot was? I’d been to Boydton several times but had not seen a depot. I’m told it had been torn down, and that it used to be located on the south side of the tracks on Washington street, (the street seen crossing the tracks in the picture). The old Depot location is circled on the map below blue.

Maps above: 1955, below 2020. Tobacco Heritage Trail is where the old tracks used to be.

I would like to know more about the depot. This wanted ad (from 1902) showed it took 5 hours to travel from Boydton to Richmond, VA. I wonder what it cost to ride? Where did trains go from there? West to Danville, east to Norfolk and northeast to Petersburg and Richmond? When was it torn down? When was it built? Was it there during the Civil War? If so, how interrupted was the service with blockades? Have you visited the Boydton Train Depot or taken the train from there? Do you have any memories of the Depot? If so, let me know.

Thank you Marcus Woodford for sharing your picture and also telling me the old location.

Tobacco-Mecklenburg’s cash crop

Gray sisters: Martha Moseley, Dolly Taylor & Nannie Kidd (from Jim Kidd)

I love this picture of 3 sisters linked arm in arm. I think they look adorable! I like to imagine from the way they look here that they were friends, and stood by each other through both good times and tough times. This is the only picture I know of, with my Virginia family on a farm. Tobacco was a huge part of their life. Peanuts, squash and sweet potatoes were also important crops. There was often a huge kitchen garden for the family near the house. They ate what they grew. Obvious to farmers, but not so obvious to me who grew up in cities and rarely saw family vegetable gardens. This picture was probably taken in Mecklenburg about 110 years ago. In the late 1890s, Nannie Gray Kidd remained in Bracey, her siblings moved to Danville, VA. Martha and Dolly (pictured) lived in Danville at the time of this picture, but as they lived in the city; I’m assuming Martha and Dolly came to visit Nannie in Mecklenburg when this picture was taken in the early 1910’s.

2007 Lindbergh Tudor

Lindbergh Tudor told me his hair was always a mess as a young boy, even in school pictures. He explained there was usually sticky tar in his hair from working in the tobacco fields and it hurt to comb that out. He also designed his wagon to work well with transporting tobacco leaves. He made spaces between slats to hold tools, which was also a good width to tie tobacco leaves to the slats. I love the inventiveness of farmers! I really enjoy meeting farmers and asking about their farms’ history.

2004 Mary Walker & sister Pearl. Farmed tobacco in LaCrosse

Mary Walker told me that as a young girl, her large family lined up in the field. The youngest children held bundles of tobacco leaves together, while the older children tied the leaves together. Teenage siblings carried the tied stalks to the wagon. They all had various jobs. They also helped and worked together with their neighbors, who were often close relatives.

I was repeatedly told that picking off hornworms and tar that stuck to them, were their least favorite part of tobacco farming; that and being exasperated with the heat and humidity . Some people told me it was their job to squash & kill hornworms to save their family crops. Those are huge, fat, scary, gross looking bugs! I’m glad I’ve never had that job!

tobacco barn

Most people I’ve interviewed from Mecklenburg told me tobacco was their cash crop, and a big part of Mecklenburg’s history and economy. I’ve heard some tobacco was hung to dry, in taller barns. I found this shorter barn pictured above near Boydton. Growing up a city girl, I’d never seen a structure like this before. I took a picture to show people and ask what it was used for. I was told the tobacco was cured differently with this type of barn. Sort of smoked dry to cure it before a lot of the crop was lost to humidity. People told me this was where Brunswick stew was big. The curing process took several days and lots of hands. People camped around the barn during this harvest and enjoyed Brunswick stew.

I’ve been asking everyone I meet for interviews about their chores when they were children. Everyone tells me farming was hard and exhausting work, even at a young age. But it was necessary for survival, to have enough food to eat, and keep the farms running. There was no big equipment, they farmed (and often still farm) with simple tools “the old fashioned way”. Not many had tractors, because they couldn’t afford it. Everyone had to work long hours with shovels, hoes, resourcefulness and as a team effort. People told me they understood why a lot of their kids and grand kids didn’t want to continue farming. They could get more money and have their finances more secure with other types of jobs. Old farms, older farming methods, and their stories are starting to disappear. So I want to preserve and share as many stories and pictures as I can find.

Do you have pictures or stories about your family farming? What were your family’s cash crops? Comment below, even if not from Mecklenburg. If you have a Mecklenburg related farming picture you’re willing to share, please let me know! I’d love to post it on this site.

tobacco barn for hanging tobacco (Brunswick VA 2006)