The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The John Hayes Hollow - Reminiscing

By Hazel P. Hedrick © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

It was in early spring, a beautiful sunny day, not a cloud in the sky and the sky was so blue it almost hurt the eye to look up. The air was just crisp enough for a light jacket. I was visiting my younger brother who still lives in the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina about six miles, as the crow flies, from where we were born and raised.

He, my younger sister and I were sitting around discussing the use–to–be's of yesteryear, reminiscing, I guess you would say.

It was such a pretty day that we decided to take a walk down memory lane. It had been a long time since any of the family had been back to the old home place, when we were there last there was no road up the hollow. Just a gully overgrown with bushes and briers, we had to almost cut our way through. We said this time we will go down the mountain by the Reid Hubbard and the Haywood Estep places.

We put on our walking shoes, climbed into my brother's old jalopy and headed down the mountain; we drove over some real rough, rocky road as far as we could in the old car. We parked it near what used to be known as the old Reid Hubbard place and started walking on down the mountain. Trying as we walked along to see something familiar that would help us find the fields where we would hoe corn all day. All the hill sides are covered with full grown trees now, it made us feel old to see huge trees growing where we used to work and play.

The farther we went the less signs of road we could find, but we knew we were on the right path when we saw the rotting logs and part of the chimney where Mrs. Molly Estep used to live, we called her "Miss Estep." She was a thin little old lady with gray hair, a deep wrinkled face and callused hands. She wore a long, black dress with a checkered apron tied around her waist, a big, black sun bonnet and high–topped shoes. She looked something like the witch you might see pictured in a children's story book, but that lady was the dearest heart I have ever known. She worked from daylight to dusk every day on the little farm, they had a cow, pigs, chickens, turkeys and ducks, there were some fruit trees near by and a large vegetable garden where most would have had their yard. She had to carry water from a far off spring and in the summer kept her milk and butter in the spring branch, as everybody did. Mr. Estep, we called him Haywood, was not a very ambitious man, as I recall he chewed tobacco and would sit on the porch and spit on the floor between his knees, or if he was sitting by the fireplace he would turn around and spit on the floor. I always wondered why he did that and why Miss Estep didn't say anything. When he was outside, she would get a broom and the wash pan of lye–soapy water and clean up his mess. I never heard her say an unkind word to or about anyone, not ever.

In those days it was hard to put up enough food in the summer to feed the family and the animals until spring. There were no pressure canners and few families had more than a couple dozen jars, they had no money to buy jars or the rubber rings you had to have new every year for sealing the jars. Little was known about canning, but everybody knew how to dry fruit and vegetables, some even knew how to dry strips of beef and pork sausage.

Miss Estep had no jars for canning, so she had to try and dry enough fruit and vegetables to keep them from starving until time to grow another garden. The chickens were not for eating, they were for laying eggs and the eggs were for taking to the store in exchange for coffee, salt, soda, and Haywood's chewing tobacco. The turkeys were to trade to a neighbor for some feed for the cow, the ducks were to lay eggs to eat, but half the time you could not find their nest before some wild animal did. Ducks didn't stay around the barnyard like chickens and turkeys, they followed the streams for miles and miles finding their food in the water, but they never went so far they couldn't find their way back.

As we stood there by the old home place of our nearest neighbor, we were remembering the many times Miss Estep would come out with a baked sweet tater or a piece of cold cornbread for us, as we walked by after a hard day of hoeing corn or piling locus sprouts. No candy bar will ever taste as good or be as appreciated half as much as that cold sweet tater or cornbread we would share as we dragged our hoe on down the mountain toward home. That dear old lady would have given us the last crumb from her table, and she always had a magic cure for every chigger bite, bee sting, cut, bruise or blister, all we had to do was show her where it hurt or itched and she would perform her magic.

I recall a time when my baby sister was so sick that mama thought she was going to die, she and grandma had done everything they knew for the baby and it was getting worse all the time. It was white as cotton, even its little lips, and it was too weak to cry, it just laid there not moving or making a sound, its little eyes rolled back almost out of sight. I remember Mama said, "Hazel go fetch Miss Estep." I ran almost all the way up the mountain. I was so out of breath I couldn't speak when I got there, Miss Estep gave me a sip of water and had me sit for a minute until I could get my breath, when I told her Mama sent me to fetch her she put on her bonnet and got me by the hand and without another word started down the mountain.

Miss Estep very seldom left the little farm for any reason, but when she could see I was scared, she didn't have to ask what was wrong, she knew it was serious. She took one look at that sick baby, turned around to me and said, go pull up a lapful of that vine that grows by the path up on the hill where we just walked by. I knew which vine she meant and did as she said, she had Mama to wash the vine then put it in a pot of spring water and boil it. When it had boiled Mama strained a cupful and cooled it. Miss Estep took a piece of cotton and soaked it in the boiling water for a few minutes then she sat by the baby's bed and one tiny drop at a time she wet the baby's parched, white lips. I don't know how long she sat there doing that, but after awhile the baby's eyes moved and then it's lips and then a hand. Miss Estep got up, handed the cup and cotton to Mama and put on her bonnet, said she'd be all right in a few days, and started back up the mountain.

Once more Miss Estep had performed her magic, to me as a child, she could make anything better, and she would never take anything as pay. Mama would sometimes try to give her a jar of molasses or some dried fruit, but she would not take it. The youngsters might need it, she would say. We knew she sometimes did run out of food before, but she would never complain or take any from us. I remember once Daddy went to plow her garden, she made lunch for him and all she had was a crisp slice of fatback, a bowl of fried onions and corn bread. Daddy never liked fried onions. I guess that is why I remember that.

We remembered, and could almost see and hear that great big turkey gobbler that used to strut his stuff, drag his wings on the ground, gobble real loud and come toward us, it would scare us half to death and Haywood would just laugh. He tried to make us believe the old gobbler would really get us if we got out of the road to pick a berry or an apple. We believed him and stayed in the road.

We were so trusting of our adults. They could tell us anything and we would believe them. I really believed the Gobbler would get us if we got out of the road, and Daddy told us the bats would come down and get us if we got in the watermelon patch. I remember my brother Johnny didn't believe that, so one evening after all our chores were done, he talked me into going with him to see if we could find a ripe watermelon. We no more than got in the patch when some bats flying around started diving and dipping toward the ground where we were. We ran away from that place as fast as we could go, and there was no way we would go into anybody's watermelon patch after that. Those bats almost scared us to death. Another little saying Daddy got away with when we were planting peanuts to keep us from eating the seed was, if we ate the peanuts in the patch, none of them would come up, and next year there would be no peanuts to eat or make Christmas candy. Daddy also told us if we could sprinkle salt on a birds tail, we could catch it. Oh how we tried to catch us a bird with Mama's salt shaker.