Remembering Nash County and its Progression
By Willis Boice Walker, born on a farm in Red Oak Township, Nash County, NC
Submitted by: Margaret Strickland
Date: 29 March 2010
Some of the things that stand out in my earliest memories before electric lights, tap water, and electric appliances along with telephones and automobiles changed our entire life style are easy to recall, because they were so dominating at the time. Travel was limited to mostly day time, and the distance was dictated by the time required to go and come back the same day. Anything else demanded corresponding with your destination, planning the entire trip and providing supplies for the duration.
Since most all routes were basically either wagon trails or cart paths, new roads being built for the horseless carriages created an atmosphere of great things to come, while relieving local residents of the responsibility of maintaining their section of the road. Using prison labor and machines that were originally designed for horse drawn farming, the road building era was born. To me, it seems that the road building program could easily be considered the number one catalyst in the progress of America.
I was fortunate to have witnessed the building of N.C. Highway #43 from Rocky Mount to Dortches, Red Oak and points beyond. Due to the fact that most—almost all—roads were single lane, if you met someone, one or both would have to turn out for the other. Also, due to this condition all new roads were laid out in an adjacent collateral position, which meant that often trees had to be cut and removed, stumps dug up and blind ditches had to be built for small streams. The surveyors, while seeking a line of least resistance, were still able to avoid moving buildings and crossing valuable crop lands. After the larger trees and stumps were removed, the “grubbing hoe” gang removed the smaller trees and bushes and readied the layout for the “scoops.” The scoops were large, horse-drawn, metal-body, two-handled devices manipulated by prisoners who controlled whether they were “dipping” or “dumping.”
Minus surveyors’ sightings and marks, the operator did the leveling with what they called “eye-balling.” This prepared the ground for the horse-drawn “drags” to manicure the soil for the “packers.” The large metal roller looked somewhat like today’s modern packers, but lacking weight, it had a metal rack (baggage rack) with huge stones and metal solids supplying the heft. Along with the sprinklers everything was horse or mule drawn. This was kind of like phase one that he to be completed and everything vacated before beginning the tar and gravel application.
Up until this point, be aware that all the work except transporting the machines was done with prison labor, some wearing ball and chain, under armed guards. The only exception was the water boy, who was what they called a “trusty.” Between Phase I and Phase II, there was a time allowed for the ground to “settle.” During this time Mother Nature and some of her creatures would seemingly undo what had been done. Cloud bursts would wash out streaks of road bed and the hogs would get out of the pen and root up large areas. The un-cooped chickens loved to scratch in the new ground and there seemed to be no limit to what could happen next. Even the benefactors would drive their mules and wagons across it, when no one was looking.
Time and constant manicuring prepared the roadbed for the tar and graveling procedure. At this point staging and timing were critical. Gravel wagons with hand operated handles dispensed the gravel fairly evenly, but prisoners with long handled rakes finished the smoothing. An off-set coupling [on the roller?] allowed the gravel to be lightly packed before applying the tar. As to how the tar was heated and loaded, I cannot describe because I never actually saw this operation. It was always back down the road. The tar wagons came on the scene smoking and smelling. As the wagon moved forward someone on foot would open the valve leading to the road width piping rig below and behind the tanks. This did a fairly good job of applying a uniform coat of tar, but occasionally missed a spot, which later became a pot hole. The tar was given time to cool and set up slightly before the final phase of “rolling” or packing. All the roads built in this form are known as macadam roads, and minus the pine derivative, tar, was widely used by the Romans to build great networks of such roads.
Nash County has stayed in step with the national trend and progressed from macadam, then cement, and now asphalt, to a point that, along with all the streets, driveways, and parking lots, you can understand the term “asphalt jungles,” but that’s another “story.”
Let’s talk politics in 1928—Herbert Hoover and Al Smith, two of the most controversial candidates to ever run for the presidency. Herbert Hoover reputedly got fabulously rich from being the sugar czar during WWI. Al Smith was the first Catholic to seek the presidency. This set the stage for a knockdown and drag out, not only between the candidates, but the voters as well. I clearly remember some of the rowdy arguments between husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, friends and neighbors. In the end you might have assumed it was the rich against the poor. Many of the differences escalated into acts of violence that, until this day, have never been atoned.
I personally witnessed three fist fights on Election Day that everybody said were the result of men with automobiles and gallons of moonshine canvassing the precinct for eligible voters without transportation and buying their votes with same. Needless to say the pawns were seen as drunken scabs and the fur flew.
I will not attempt to offer an opinion as to whether Herbert Hoover was a good or bad president. There are so many factors involved that are unanswered until this day. However, regardless of true or false conditions, we found ourselves in the midst of the worst depression in the history of the United States of America. It was properly named, and is still referred to, as the “Great Depression.”
Actually living through this era is the only way a person will ever comprehend its impact and realize the true conditions brought on by it. There are not enough adverbs and adjectives in the English language to describe all the emotions, hardships, temptations, suicides, and spiritual conversions that evolved over this period. Living on the farm was actually an advantage. Wood and water were free and plentiful. We raised our own bread, meat, vegetables, and dairy products, which we traded for other necessities. Kerosene and sugar were dirt cheap, and our mother made shirts and dresses from flour sacks and fertilizer bags. After the bank bust in ’29 there was no money, so the only way to get anything was to trade something for it.
The general merchandise store was already in operation, but the overall conditions demanded a different approach. First, the fertilizer companies stopped mixing and bagging the ready-mixed formulas and started bagging each ingredient separately. This meant the farmer or gardener or who ever had to mix his own. We mixed our “guano” in a large mortar mixing box and re-bagged it in the same bags. All of this enabled the fertilizer company to save hours of labor, purchasing and printing new bags, not to mention storage and handling. The general merchant also required less space and his entire stock was made flexible with added shelf life.
The farmer’s needs are switched from the banks to the general merchant, and to meet those needs he has to diversify his wares to include all of them. Along with tools, harness, dry goods, staples, etc., arrangement had to be made for a giant icebox to keep perishables in. Most merchants built a box large enough to hold several 100 lb. blocks of ice. This required a monstrous lid that was made easy to open by putting a pulley in the ceiling and attaching a counter-weight on a cord. My biggest interest in the ice box was the 5¢ soda pops such as Coca Cola, Cheer-Wine, Cherry Cola, and a chocolate drink called Mavis. I enjoy the memories of those wonderful treats as much today as I did the delicious flavors back then.