This week we continue with stories of early homesteading along the Mountain Creek area of Richmond County. Also I’ll relate some of my own family stories I’ve heard from my kinfolk.
Before the 20th century, rural folks in the south had little way of preserving their food. Why, they would just build what they called spring houses. This small building would be built over a spring of water, where the temperature was a little cooler. There they would place their eggs, butter, milk and other things to keep them from spoiling so fast. The little house was built tight with only a little door to keep out the leaves and animals.
Most farmers let their stock, like hogs, run loose. When winter came, the animals were fed out with grain and then butchered for a winter supply of meat. Folks would rub salt and sugar on the meat, then hang it in the smokehouse to cure. This type of preserving worked fine, as long as you had the salt and sugar. You see ,these two things — plus coffee — were not found on the farm, but had to be bought or traded for. Sometimes wild honey or cane syrup were used instead of sugar.
With nothing but wood to cook and heat with, folks kept large piles of wood stacked close to their cabin door. They would bank the fire before going to bed, hoping to have enough hot coals to get the fire going the next morning. On most mornings, around daylight, the sound of axes splitting wood could be heard echoing through the hills and hollows along Mountain Creek.
Folks also kept close watch on their livestock, like oxen and horses, for they were the “workhorses” that kept the farm going. You tried your best to keep these animals fed and as healthy as possible. Without these animals, a family farm was a tough row to hoe. Why, you have heard the expression a “one-horse farm.” Well, the number of horses or oxen you had determined the size of your farm.
Folks also tended to have large families back in the day. They were needed to help with all the manual labor that had to be done around the farm. And believe me, from the time the sun rose in the east ‘til it set in the west, you stayed busy — ‘cause the work was never done. Even on rainy days, a lot of work had to be done, such as repairing leather harnesses, cleaning out stalls, repairing and sharpening tools (a dull hoe makes for a lot more work) and shucking all that corn in the crib.
‘Bout the only time farm folks would slack off would be on Sundays, ‘cause that was the Lord’s Day; a day of rest for man and beast, even though both had to be fed on the Sabbath.
Around 1799, my great-great-granddaddy, Isaac Ewing, the young man who came from Maryland with his Pa (John), and started building Touchstone Plantation. Now, this won’t one of those fancy big white or brick mansions, but it was a real nice wooden-frame house for its day. Why, it even had an extra room for the circuit riding preacher or special guest to spend the night. This farm didn’t stand on its laurels because a lot of blood, sweat and tears went in to the operation of this plantation. Family and neighbors alike worked side-by-side to make this farm prosperous. Don’t know how, but old Isaac even found time to be a deputy sheriff of Richmond County.
As time went on and folks died out, parts of Touchstone Plantation were divided up and sold. I find myself very fortunate to still own 66 acres of the original plantation. Not many folks whose families once farmed along Mountain Creek still own the land their great ancestors once owned.
At the western edge of this original 66 acres, lies the old Ewing Cemetery. At one time, the Old Concord Church building stood among the stately oak trees surrounding the area. Not much sign of the old church is left, but the gravestones — both marked and unmarked — seem to tell a long-ago story of the people who made their worldly living along the banks of Mountain Creek.
As I walk through the graves, I can still remember the stories told by my grandparents, Monnie (Broadway) and Mitchell Bolton (farmer and surveyor), who were the last relatives of the Ewing family to live on the plantation. Some would be about my great-granddaddy, John F. Bolton, who married Celeste (Kate) Ewing (right around the Civil War) and stayed on the plantation to farm and raise their families. One story was about my Granddaddy Mitchell and his twin brother Marvin (who became a lawyer) trying to split in half the only apple they had on a chopping block. Seems Mitchell got talked in to holding the apple while brother Marvin tried to split the apple with an ax. You guessed it, Marvin ‘bout cut my granddaddy’s little finger right off. And then there was the time at Concord Church when the preacher asked my Granddaddy to pray. Well Granddad stood up and looked at the preacher and said, “Marvin does the praying for this family.”
I just couldn’t seem to get enough of the old stories and would beg to hear more. Granddad would then tell about the times he, Marvin and their only sister, Mamie (mother of about all the McInnis clan around Norman), would slip away from hoeing the cotton and go down to Mountain Creek and take a dip.
Granddad liked to tell the one about how Marvin (being an elder in the church), would sometimes have to go to member’s homes and try and collect their tithe for the church. Seems he went to an older lady’s home, a Mrs. Meacham, knocked on the door and was asked to come in. After a little small talk, Marvin asked Mrs. Meacham about paying her tithe. Mrs. Meacham got up from her chair, went to the back room and came out with some money. As she was putting the money in Marvin’s hand, she said, “Mr. Bolton, it seems this religion thing is ‘bout the most expensive thing a person can get into these days.”
Granddad said they tried growing a cash crop of tobacco in the hard, rocky clay soil, but found out it would grow better in the sand. This being so, and wanting to grow tobacco, Granddad bought a small farm near Rockingham during World War II. Moving to Rockingham and leaving their land and neighbors on Mountain Creek was a tough decision. They never really got over it and both returned as often as they could to what they called “The Ol’ Place.” As far as I know, my grandparents and my Uncle Everette Bolton were the last folks to be buried in the old Ewing Cemetery.
Seems when things go around, they come back around. A replica of the Touchstone Plantation home place built by Isaac Ewing still stands today. It was built and restored by Mr. Capel of the Capel Mills family. It’s a historical reminder of how our ancestors lived and raised their family while living here on God’s green Earth.
As I get older, one of my hopes is that our only daughter and her family will somehow hold on to the Ol’ Place. Also, that they will appreciate how much the dream of living and working your own land meant to her forefathers in their new country they called America.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson Co. Writer’s Club, Anson and Richmond Co. Historical Society and author of his new book, “Just Passing Time.”