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Life at Oxford
Bemis, Nettie Nichols*

This little history of life at Oxford Orphanage from 1898 to 1929 is truly a gem and very pleasant reading, even if it does not include any of your family names.  Grab a cup of coffee, kick off your shoes and stay a spell. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Chapter I

Is it true that one should not look back over past years? How can one help thinking of events in the past fifty or sixty years if one is able to sit up day after day but not able to do any work, watched over, however, by the dearest niece and nephew who are trying to make me happy? Memories of past years come thronging thick and fast: scenes in childhood, home, high school, examination for a teachers' certificate, especially the day I crammed for an algebra test on a certain section in quadratics. I took book, pencil and paper down the path to the river. There seated on a board, I fixed the rules firmly in my mind and the next day at the exam what was my relief to find one of the questions on this section and my being able to explain it clearly. In a few weeks a good old neighbor who was on the school board called me to say I stood the highest-at 93. How well I recall the surprise and pleasure l

Then I taught ten years in Haverhill, Massachusetts, went to Pratt Institute and studied Drawing and Manual Training as it was called.

During my two years here dear Grandmother Nichols passed away. Now so many years later I recall her wise counsel, her trite sayings, many of which I have used in my busy work. I find myself saying, "Dear Grandmother, Dear Mother, Dear little Caddie" as memories of each crowd into my mind. When too near tears, I jump up to find some mending to do or crocheting, writing letters, anything to take my mind off the past. One thing is helpful, I forget quickly until the next thought time comes around.

Chapter II

I shall write--quite disconnected-the stories will be-accounts of my experiences as the thoughts come to my mind.

In September, 1893, I went to Durham, North Carolina, where I introduced drawing and manual training in the one public school. My life there four years was eventful as I had never been South before and the ways and manners of the people were a constant source of amusement to me as I have no doubt mine were to the people in the South.

One day in school I called for objects, like a sphere, in a primary class: a bright boy said, "A Scuppernong." The next day in a tone of disgust a pupil remarked "That teacher don't know what a Scuppernong* is."

I like to think now of my friends in that city after all these years. One day my hostess said, "We have something for dinner I know you will like." She brought on a soup of some kind I could not tell by tasting. "Clam Chowder " she said. Imagine my embarrassment !  Brought up in New England eighteen miles from the seacoast on clam chowders and clam bakes and not able to recognize clam chowder.  I have often wondered what the family thought of me but I could hardly explain that I couldn't find a clam on my plate and the chowder was made of water with no milk-nothing at all like the New England dish.

Chapter III

The four years in Durham had given me a brief view of life in the South. Now I was asked to go to Oxford, North Carolina, to an orphanage as Lady Supervisor.

What was institution life like? I wondered if there were any events in my own past experiences that would prepare me for this work.

On a bright August day in 1897, I drove up a long avenue between giant oaks to a long brick building four stories high. On being introduced to the Superintendent I learned that he had been there only a month, so we were both newcomers; he a Southern gentleman having friends all over the state, while I was a New Englander practically unknown except for the friends I had made in Durham. These had shown an interest and a most helpful spirit in helping me to solve the many difficult problems. After all these years I count many friends in that city from whom I love to hear.

I watched with amazement the scenes going on all around, children, matrons and teachers moving about here and there, bells ringing and a drum beating. What did it all mean?

Shall I ever learn all there is to do? The question was serious, but knowing that the friends who placed me here believed in me and the fact that my early training forbade quitting a task because it looked difficult kept me from taking a train home that first winter.

Back of the long building was a smaller one from which came the sound of the drum. I walked around to find out what that martial air could mean. From the porch a boy was beating a lively air and boys and girls came rushing from all directions to line up for dinner.

I watched as they filed into the dining rooms, boys on the left, girls on the right. Walking behind the children, I entered the dining room where all were standing while the blessing was being given. Then all were seated and no talking was allowed. This seemed strange to me after the wonderfully beautiful blessing from Ben Hur

"Father of all, God l What we have here is of Thee.
Take our thanks and bless us that we may continue to do Thy will."

A beautiful tribute to the administration who left it behind.

During the thirty years of my stay we found nothing better, using it three times a day. I venture to say many of these children are using this same blessing in their own homes today.

Enemies there were on the grounds a-plenty. They had never had a supervisor before, at least not so named. I now learned that the North  and South were not friendly.  At home we had never felt any animosity toward the South, never considered any trouble, but the idea of a Northerner being placed over Southern ladies was not to be endured at the orphanage. This spirit was not evident in Durham and here was a disturbing surprise. Many of the workers were antagonistic and sure I never would succeed. Their attitude showed as much and it was a hard pull.

During the later years I lived to see those who were my enemies at first come to be my very good friends. The Superintendent, Colonel Hicks, was a grand old Southern gentleman. He told me he had run a powder mill near Raleigh during the war. How kind and friendly he was-a staunch friend as long as he lived.

Chapter IV

The main building of the Oxford Orphanage was four stories, as I have said, with a driveway leading to the entrance through a large grove of wonderful oaks. The girls lived in this building and the boys in cottages on the right set in, a curve from the main building. Ground had been broken for four cottages on the left for the girls. At the back of the main building was the Masonic Hall; the first floor used for dining rooms with kitchen added and a bakeroom below. The second floor was used for Grand Lodge meetings once a year.

The laundry and sewing room were in a building some hundreds of yards away on the north side. Nearby was the superintendent's cottage on the right and hospital on the left, with the dairy and barns some distance away from the superintendent's cottage at right. These buildings were almost in a straight line east and west. All very primitive and overlooking our two hundred acres or more of farm and pasture land.

The laundry machinery would run until all the water was pumped out of springs below the buildings, then when the springs filled again the work could go on.

Imagine how few clothes could be laundered; in fact, the children had very few.

Chapter V

Lack of sufficient water was a great handicap to the work and a menace to health. The town had no water supply so Col. Hicks decided to have a deep well drilled on the grounds. It  was slow work and some, like doubting Thomas, thought no water would be found. Day after day the drilling through gravel, rock and sand continued, one hundred feet, two hundred feet. Still they kept at it, Col. Hicks watching every clay. He remarked that he did not believe the Good Lord would withhold water from his people. So the drilling went on. As bits of soil or clay came up with the drill from deep down in the ground, he would examine it carefully.

Col. Hicks never lost his sense of humor and one day he tasted a bit of soil and turning to a visitor standing near said, "It's salty, isn't it?"

The young lady took a taste and looking up to him said, "I believe it is." On the way back to the cottage he said with a twinkle in his eye, "So much for the power of suggestion."

Soon the blessed water came, a pump was installed and pumping was kept up for twenty-four or more hours and still the water came. Such a wonderful gift! Health conditions would be vastly improved with no contamination from surface water.

A few years later the town began a driven well, water came soon and the news spread rapidly that it was good water, better even than the orphanage from their deep well. Parties of

ladies rose early mornings and with drinking cups in hand took a walk to drink the new town water. In a week or two all the surface wells in the neighborhood began to run dry, That was one time when I was not caught with the early risers. The walks ceased. There were no more praises for the town water. A change of location was made and drilling started again.

An immense tank located in the tower of the main building was pumped full of water each day and drawn out to all cottages and buildings. The weight hanging outside indicated the quantity of water in the tank, but it did not always function. When this happened we either had no water at all or an overflow. The pump could be stopped or started by sending word to the shop, which took time. In the meantime, sometimes water would be pouring over the top of the tank and running down the stairways from the fourth floor to entrance hall through sitting room and book room before we discovered there was trouble.

"Can't you see the indicator as you pass from the office to the pump?" we said to the engineer. "Yes, but I did not notice," he said. "Well, please look."

Evidently he did not look, for twice more the girls and I walked over the stairs to mop the ice cold water from the floors and place pans to catch the drip from the ceilings. The last time was just as the girls were going to church one Sunday morning. Called back to help, we decided that should be the last time. Monday morning I went to the office and said we were not going to mop any more floors because of an overflow. The engineer and his boys could do it.

Did an overflow come? Yes, and Mr. Pump-man came very pompously to perform the task. We handed out buckets and mops, then withdrew from the scene. The tank never overflowed again. We wished we had rebelled sooner.

Drinking water for the dining rooms was pumped from two small wells, one on either side of the campus on the left side. These always managed to be frozen every cold, winter morning, when the little girls came from the dining rooms with buckets to pump water for breakfast. Then warm water had to be carried to thaw out the pumps. Oh, it was bitter cold those mornings, but little girls had been doing this winter after winter.

* A Scuppernong is a species of grape.

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Source: Bemis, Nettie Nichols: Life at Oxford, 1937, Herald Press

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