My mountain grandfather: ‘Tough as nails’

By: Azalea Bolton - Contributing columnist

My mountain grandpa — known as “Pap” by all who knew him — was literally tough as nails. I guess that’s how he had to be growing up where the soil was rocky and the growing season was short. Back in those days, there were very few choices for making a living. I’m sure everybody at least had a garden to raise food to eat and if they were lucky they’d have some left over to trade for staples like flour and sugar. They probably had chickens for laying eggs and sometimes for frying or throwing in the pot with some dumplings. I know I’ve heard my Mom and her siblings talk about them using cane to make syrup when they were children. That syrup could also be traded for sugar and flour or whatever else they didn’t raise themselves.

During the winter, when there were no fresh vegetables and fruit, they would eat off of what they had canned and what they had put in the cellar, such as cabbage and potatoes. I’m sure they would also kill game, such as deer or bear, so they would have that meat to help make it through the long, cold winter months.

One other way that some mountain folks had of earning a little money was making moonshine. Pap even tried that for a while when times got really tough and he had four little children who needed to eat and there were no jobs to be found. The story goes that he put his still up under the house and put the pipe up through the stove in the house so the smoke from the still went up the chimney. He put the fear of the devil into all his kids and told them if they told anybody about it, they wouldn’t be able to sit down for at least a week. When the revenuers came around asking his little girl (my Mom, Ruth) about Pap’s still, they didn’t get a thing out of her. She wouldn’t tell them even when they offered her some candy. She knew better than to rat on Pap, no matter how badly she wanted that candy.

That incident with Mom must have caused Pap to have some second thoughts about his children being questioned by the revenuers and then possibly having to serve time for making shine. Somehow he made his way to Virginia and went to work in a coal mine there. He would then send the money he made back home to his family in North Carolina. He probably lived in deplorable conditions in Virginia, but at least his family was fed.

While Pap was working in the coal mine, he had a life-changing experience that would affect him for the rest of his life. It seems one day, when he was down in the mine, there was a creaking sound as one of the supports above the miners started giving way. Pap yelled for the others to run and he stayed behind trying to get some additional support up under that wooden beam that was collapsing over his head. It fell down on top of him and badly injured his arm. When the doctor took a look at Pap’s arm, he told him the bones were so badly crushed that he was going to have to amputate his arm from the shoulder down.

Pap told him: “You’re not taking my arm off. Just take the bone out and sew it back up.”

The doctor said: “Mr. Gwyn, you’ll have no use in that arm at all if I do that. It’ll just hang there and be no good to you at all.”

Pap answered him: “I don’t care. At least I’ll have an arm, so don’t you dare go and take off my arm.”

So, the doctor did what Pap told him to do and just removed the bone where it was crushed — from his shoulder on down. That left him with an arm that most people would have considered to be absolutely no good to him at all. I’ll tell you, though, from personal experience, that Pap could do almost anything he wanted with that arm. His muscles in that arm were so strong that he could throw a grown man down to the ground without blinking an eye. Like I said, “tough as nails” — and I should have added: “…and twice as dangerous.”

After what would have been a disabling experience to most people today, Pap became a demolition expert. He could use dynamite to blow up stumps or rocks and clear land so it could then be used for farming or pastureland. He never wanted to be a burden to anybody, but worked instead — up until he broke his hip when he was in his 70s.

My mom was the youngest of Pap’s four children and she said he wanted all of them to learn how to swim. They lived not far from the Elk River and he took them there so he could teach them. There is a high waterfall there on that river and it’s a beautiful sight to see it from down on the banks of the river. I’m sure it didn’t seem quite so beautiful to those four kids, however, when Pap took them to the top of the falls and told them to swim as he pushed them off!

I really didn’t know Pap very well until we moved back to Richmond County from Lumberton, and then, later on, Pap moved here from Avery County. My grandmother had died and both his daughters, their husbands and grandchildren were already in Richmond County and I suppose he was lonely all by himself. Some of the things I especially remember about Pap was how he always loved to pick on me. I suppose, at first, I was an easy target for him because I didn’t know when he was teasing me since he never cracked a grin. After I learned that about him, he and I established a good relationship up until the day he died. He just loved to offer me some of that snuff he always dipped. I realize now that he probably did that just to see the face I’d make as I’d say: “Yuck. I don’t want any of that nasty stuff.”

Pap also got me started eating dates. Mom always got some for him whenever she bought groceries. Most of you have probably never eaten dates, but I can personally vouch for them as being a sweet-tasting fruit that I dearly love even to this day. Several months ago, when my husband and I visited the world’s largest Harris Teeter store in Moore County, I was looking around the produce section and lo and behold I spotted some there. They sell them by the pound and I loaded up on some and now every time we’re over that way, I go in there and buy enough to last me a while. Yum. Yum.

These are just a few memories of my mountain grandpa, Harrison “Pap” Gwyn. Next time, I’ll tell you the story of my great-grandpa, Mountain Jim Gwyn and the Lost Silver Mine.

Azalea R. Bolton is a resident of Richmond County, member of the Story Spinners of Laurinburg, and a member of the Richmond and Anson County Historical Societies.

Azalea Bolton

Contributing columnist