By Bob Heafner © 1983-2012
Issue: June, 1983
This is a tribute to a father. John Wheeler Helms was born in 1898. At the age of 19, he married 20 year old Dolly Susan Radford. They started a family. By the time he was 34 and she was 35, they had 13 children. She died giving birth to the last two, who were twins. Upon her death, many friends, neighbors and kinfolk offered to take the children to raise but it would split them up into different homes. John Wheeler wouldn’t hear of it. He said, “No! They’re my kids and they won’t be split up.” So, at 34 years old and with 13 children (three less than 16 months old), he became both father and mother to his family. His oldest child was sixteen years old.
Lillie Agnew of Patrick Springs, Virginia, was his middle child. There were six older and six younger children than her. She was nine when her mother died. She recalls that her father, if he ever dated another woman after her mother died, she never knew it. “He liked his toddy but he kept his family fed.” When they killed a hog, the meat wasn’t sold, the family ate it. When they milked a cow, the family kept the milk.
They were farmers. They tenant farmed for years for Charles Langhorne Spangler (Tump Spangler to everyone around Meadows of Dan). Finally, Wheeler made a trade and bought a farm with a forty year loan financed by the government. Two years after they got the farm, not only had they paid off the forty year loan, but they had cows all over the fields, a cattle truck Wheeler could haul his trading cattle in and they had a car.
Life wasn’t easy. They all pulled together, from the smallest child, to the oldest, to Wheeler. The kids handled a lot of the farming and Wheeler handled the trading and a shrewd trader he really was. It took a good man to get the better of Wheeler in a trade. He was crafty but he looked out for his own. He had to with 13 mouths to feed. At 34 years old, he shouldered more responsibility than most of us will ever know.
When his aging mother became sick, he looked after her as well. When his sister became disabled, he took her 9 month old baby, brought him in with his own 13 and raised him like his own son. Joe Jones is that son’s name and he lives in Ridgeway, Virginia, today.
In talking to neighbors who lived around them during that time period, one neighbor said, “I’ve never seen a man take on so much and do so good at it.” He raised his family and they were a good bunch of kids. He would clean them up on Sunday morning and they would be in church and well behaved. One thing that stood out most in his mind was how close the family was and how they always seemed to laugh and joke and be close to each other.
As I was talking to Lillie Agnew about her father, she laughed and said the reason they were all so big wasn’t just because he fed them well but that he “Kept their skin loosened up right well so they had plenty of room to grow” (referring to the whippings he used to give them.) “Course,” she said, “We probably deserved a lot more than we ever got.”
Wheeler raised his kids to be tough - I guess that would be the word. He raised them to survive. When it came to cattle or farming, there wasn’t any better. There’s a story that goes around up here about a fellow who had a bull that was so mean, folks were scared to ride on the road beside the pasture where he was kept. They had to get rid of it but the man who owned it was so afraid of it that he wouldn’t even go in the field with it to shoot it. So, the story goes, he told Wheeler that if he’d get that bull out of his pasture, off his land and out of his eyesight, he could have it.
Well, Wheeler and J.D., one of his sons, saddled up their horses and rode about three miles over to look at that bull one day to see if they could figure out a way to get it home. Just as the rest of the family was beginning to get a little concerned about them, they heard something coming down the driveway. Lillie looked out the window and there came J.D. with a saddle on that bull, riding it! The old bull’s tongue was rolling out he was so tired. Just as a matter of pride, to show folks they could handle most anything, J.D. had taken his saddle off his horse, put it (somehow) on that bull and rode him home, three miles. According to Lillie, by the time they got to the house, that bull wasn’t anything but a big, old pussycat from then on.
At age 34 with 13 children, he had a lot more children than he did education. He knew how to trade; he knew how to barter; he knew how to farm; he knew how to love. A tribute for Father’s Day could not be directed to anyone more deserving than John Wheeler Helms. He faced a task most people would have just given up at the beginning. He faced it and he accomplished it. John Wheeler Helms was a great father and a man among men. He wasn’t afraid of responsibility. He did what had to be done. At 34 with 13 children to raise, he didn’t give up. He stuck it out. He loved his family above all else. Anyone who knew him would attest to that.
In his later years, he was a wonderful old man. I met him after he had turned 70, but even then, there was a twinkle in his eye and a sparkle about him that just came through as friendly, open and warm. During his lifetime he lost a wife, a five year old daughter, a son, loved ones - he suffered setbacks most people would never overcome.
One of the last setbacks was his home burning down. When his kids were all grown and all but a couple of his sons had moved out, his home burned and he almost perished with it. If it hadn’t been for a passing neighbor, he wouldn’t have survived. After that, he lived with his son, Elmer, in the Trot Valley section of Patrick County for the last twenty years of his life.
John Wheeler died in 1979. When he died, he had twenty-four grandchildren and twenty-seven great-grandchildren. John Wheeler Helms deserved the love and respect his children showered upon him. He is a tribute to fathers everywhere who put the love of their families above all else and who put the needs of their children a little higher than their own. Here was a truly great father. We are proud to tell his story in The Mountain Laurel.