MEMOIRS OF MARGARET WILLIAMS ELLIS
I was born on January 15, 1928 in a comfortable , small farm house at Sugar Hill, a small sparsely settled rural community in Wilson County near Elm City. I was born on Sunday morning at home with an Elm City doctor, Dr. Putney, in attendance to Emma Lucille Taylor Williams and Charles Thomas Wade Williams. My mother was 22 years old and my father was 28. Other members of the family were an older sister, Audrey Cleo who was four years, 4 months old and a brother, C. T. Williams Jr., who was 17 months old. My father, whom I will refer to as "daddy" did not like having three names so he had the family name Wade removed from his birth records so he could name his first son junior. It was customary in those days to choose children's names carefully and will be noted in family history that children very proudly have the names of ancestors. Our heritage was more important in the early years than at present. More emphasis was put on maintaining the status in which you were born than in rising above it. Last but certainly not least, the other member of the household was my paternal grandfather, William David Williams, son of Amanda Moore Williams and Abisha Williams. We were taught to call our grandfather, "Pa", just as daddy did. Daddy's mother was Sally Ann Jackson, a very pretty woman I am told, who died of tuberculosis when daddy was very young. Pa raised daddy and his two older brothers, William Riley and John David, in his home and never remarried. Pa was a landowner but had a small farm and no tenants. Farms were then measured in size by cleared land, not acreage. land for raising crops was cleared as time and help permitted. Woodland was valuable as you felled your own timber, dressed it and use it for constructing outbuildings, home improvements and additions as families grew. Young saplings such as maple trees were used in making furniture such as porch furniture, tables, etc. Furniture making was a trade for which the Williams family had been famous and still is--with the oldest member living to practice this trade being B. D. Williams of Rocky Mount, a cousin of daddy's. He too is a grandson of Abisha Williams.
It was very practical for people to have large families in those days of the 1930's as we were just past the slavery and families survived at different levels based on their own ability to grow within the family unit. Since Pa lost his wife, his family did not grow and therefore his plantation did not grow.
We were very comfortable as I remember. Our home had beautiful leather furniture, library tables, mantel lamps, family portraits, ceiling high solid wooden beds. There was no electricity within probably 30 miles of our home. We used kerosene old lamps for light and wood burning fireplaces in nearly every room for heat. Wood was cut in early fall and stacked for drying for heating the entire winter. It was chopped daily at the end of the work day by ax and the men of the house maintained a fire as late as possible at night and banked the coals with ashes to speed the warming of the house in the morning and to thaw ice from the buckets and wash pans for the family to use upon rising for work the next day. Wood burning cook stores heated the family kitchen, dinning and sitting area as well as heating water in the reservoir that was standard on most cast iron wood burning stoves. The most famous maker of these wood ranges, as they were called, was "Home Comfort". They were once all black cast iron with large efficient baking ovens that later came in baked on enamel colors of yellow and green. I remember one owned by my maternal grandmother being green in color. The ranges were usually placed in a corner of the kitchen, called "catty-cornered" so as to allow room to stack chopped wood in the wood box behind it. Little ones hopped out of bed every morning and crouched in the wood box corner to keep warm after crawling out of a warm bed and sometimes to dry out that wet night shirt. We had no inside toilets and young and old used portable potties known as "slop jars" that were emptied and scrubbed daily and set out in the sun for airing. There was no penalty for bed wetting at any age but getting up in the cold naturally taught kids to stay dry at a very early age.
We called our mother "mammy". This was taught to us by Pa who called her mammy. It's a good thing we did because we called our maternal grandmother mama just as mammy did, and we also called mother's daddy Papa. We called none of them grandma or grandpa. My papa was John David Taylor, son of Hilliard Taylor, and my mama was Margaret Elizabeth Moore, called Maggie Taylor and sometimes Mag Taylor. My pa was called Uncle Dave by all relatives except the immediate ones and also Uncle Dave was his title by the townspeople and country neighbors due to his age and quiet manner. He must have been quite a gentleman in his day. We children had great respect for him even though I remember as he became quite aged and his mind grew feeble he told many little white lies on us kids. He had a long beard and mustache and sat in a large, high back chair that he made in the center of family activity and in spite of his sometimes cantankerous ways, mammy waited on him and babied him just like one of the children. She and daddy agreed with him and understood him just as they did us. I don't remember any bickering, arguments or misunderstandings in the family when I was young. Keep in mind, in the 1930's, you felt just as responsible for the elderly members of the family as you did the young ones. There were no homes for the aged and disabled.
There was in Edgecombe County a large fenced in home called the "county home". Daddy's oldest brother, Willie, was a watchman. He raised his family in a house near the county home. The county home housed the poor homeless, the mentally ill, and also had a tuberculosis section, as tuberculosis was quite prevalent. Sad as it was, a person became a ward of the county or state and was committed to this home for one of those reasons. Uncle Willie did not farm because all of his children were girls, except the baby boy. So he did various so-called "public jobs."
We raised all of our food including meat and fruits except for grains for wheat bread. We did not raise beef except cows for milking as that was the only source of milk and dairy products available to us. The family milk cow produced milk for drinking as well as for cream, butter or buttermilk. If we had cheese it was bought with the other staples such as flour and salt. We raised chicken and pork and also guineas, a semi-domesticated fowl very much like chicken. Mammy did not raise turkeys to my knowledge but mama did. The turkeys were not as friendly as the chickens and neither were the guineas. The guineas roosted in the trees and flew more like birds, but turkeys were confined like chickens and would fight children. I was very afraid of the turkeys running around in the yard at mama's, just spreading their tail feathers, gobbling and just daring you to get near them. The chickens, of course, were raised for eating and were kept for laying eggs. The country storekeeper would give you a nominal price for eggs or a chicken on foot in exchange for penny candy or lemons. But we did not do that often as it was not a good practice. But you frequently would sell a chicken to buy six lemons and five cents worth of ice for a huge bucket of lemonade on a Sunday afternoon. Lemons, bananas and oranges were about all the fruits we needed that we did not grow. In the fruit orchard, there were several varieties of apples, peaches, pears, plums, damsels, figs, cherries, blueberries, wild huckleberries and briar berries. These were eaten fresh in season and used for pies and cobbles and were canned and used for pickles, preserves, jams, jellies and dried fruit. We had a huge grapevine with two varieties popular in this area, the "black James" and "scuppernong". All kinds of jellies and jams were made from these and they were also "candied" with sugar in sealed jars. The man of the house usually made some wines and ciders for winter night sampling. Some wines were better than others and were used for fruit cakes. There was some brandy and hard liquor called "moonshine" although this became almost extinct when liquor was legalized. Otherwise alcoholic beverages were not available.
Vegetables of every kind were grown and eaten in season from early Spring greens all through the summer and into the dead of winter when they would freeze. They were also canned and made into relishes and soups. There were only two or three months of the year that fresh vegetables weren't available and this was during icy freezing weather. We also grew our own Irish potatoes and sweet potatoes that were kept all winter in storage and eaten until the new crop came along. During these months we relied on the home canned supply.
Nuts were also grown on the farm. The trees were planted in and around the yard as they supplied the shade for cooling the house as well as producing nuts for food. There were several varieties of pecans and walnuts; also hickory nuts. Peanuts were grown in some sections of Wilson and Edgecombe counties as a money crop and also for family use. They were eaten boiled, before full maturity, and raw, parched or roasted or stored to dry for candy making in the winter. Many candies were made at home. There were nut fudges, peanut brittle, sugar candies and taffies. The only store bought items needed were sugar and flavorings of sorts. Candy making was common practice and involved all members of the family including the very little ones who had the job of scraping and eating the syrups from the mixing bowls before washing. The nuts had to be prepared by the older family members.
On occasions, neighbors would get together and make social affairs of candy making. Taffy pulls were common. A couple of batches of sugar taffy would carry several families through the winter. I member several of these socials that my parents had and remember attending some at neighbors' houses. It was fun to walk several miles to gather at a neighbor's house for a cup of hot, homemade cider and a candy pull. The children drank hot cocoa and played outside, catching "lightening bugs" (fireflies). We also played "hide" (hide and seek) a great deal. Playing hide in the cold dark was one fun game to play. You could get the daylights scared out of you one minute and be okay the next. It was really dark outside then as there were no outside lights. Not even much light would shine from the oil lamps through the windows. But the moon and the stars shone bright enough to see your way around. There wasn't anything in the dark to hurt you anyway, except an occasional winged bat.
(Margaret Williams Ellis began writing her memoirs on September 19, 1987. She died June 15, 1990.)