The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

An Interview with Ralph Garrett

By Avram Friedman © 1990

Issue: September, 1990

Too often "history" is just a chronicle of the events surrounding the wealthy and powerful. The meaning of all other lives and experiences is ignored by the books which are taught in our public schools and recorded by most newspapers and media outlets. As a result, a wealth of knowledge and wisdom is wasted and lost. What is retained is a record of the dealings, deeds and misdeeds of an unrepresentative few. We study this "history" (mandatory) and then history repeats itself. Perhaps we should begin to study a different history.

Avram: Tell us about yourself, Ralph, and where your family came from.

Ralph: I've been here for sixty-eight years, all but three years when I was in the service. I was born in Sylva. I've been right here in Jackson County [North Carolina] and I've farmed and laid bricks, rocks and helped people do different types of work all over the county.

My great grandpa, Scott Davis, on my mother's side, he come from Scotland over to here and he stayed here for years and then my grandfather, Joseph Allen Davis stayed here until he was eighty-seven years old. He was a native of Jackson County.

My father's side comes from Towns County, Georgia. I went down there but I never did get to see my grandfather on my daddy's side but about four times. He farmed in Georgia and he raised different things like soy beans, corn and taters. And he come from Scotland. My daddy left Georgia whenever he was just a boy and he came here, he was a great big boy and Cal Love finished raisin' him. He got big enough to where he worked at the tannery in 1916.

He worked there until the tannery-leather company went out of business. Then he moved off to Haywood County and he died and I brought him back to the Westeer Chapel Church and buried him. That was twenty years ago.

A: What did he do at the tannery?

R: He tanned cow hides and worked leather. They made belt leather up here in the Sylva Plant. They made shoe leather and stuff like that in Hazelwood and that plant ain't over there no more. The tannery was here before the paper mill was and then the paper mill come and both of them run here in the county until Meade would repair their buildings and they condemned them on 'em and they moved out to Alabama. Then the county and Jackson Paper they called it, the county really took it over and they repaired the building and put the machinery back to work. It was the biggest industry in Jackson County until the sewing room started and now then they've got about five different sewing plants that employs more people, though mostly women work instead of men. Men used to have the jobs, but now it's the women that have the most jobs in the county.

A: Can you tell me what it was like? What were your earliest memories like of life in Jackson County?

R: You had to get out and work for a very cheap wage. If you worked goin' over to haul corn for someone they'd give you twenty-five cents a day for all day. And if you went to help get wood, you'd get fifty or seventy-five cents a day. They they got it up to a dollar a day and then they got it up to a dollar and a half a day. That was fifteen cents an hour and I started laying bricks in '35-'36. I wasn't old enough to get a social security card, I got it in '37 and I worked on the Lloyd Hotel, put on the addition there, and I built flues and things like that for people just livin' in the country.

A: How many people were in your family?

R: I had one brother and one sister and they died at birth. I'm the only one survivor. All my family is dead except'in me.

A: How much education do you have?

R: I finished the third grade and finished three months of the fourth grade. I quit because my grandfather had gotten sick and I was big enough to carry water and I got a job as water boy workin' for Mr. Paul Warn and he give me seventy-five cents a day.

R: And you carried water for workers?

R: For workers on the job, yeah. A wood job where they sawed it with cross cut saw, busted the wood with go-devils and wedges; they called it 'acid wood." It was chestnut wood which there ain't no more chestnut no more in this county. This county was full of it at that time, around fifty-five years ago. Then in '35-'36 I took trainin' in layin' brick. In '37 I laid brick at fifteen cents an hour. Then I went from a dollar and a half a day to seventy-five cents an hour. That's how quick the change in the forties come on. Then when I had to quit about ten years ago, we was getting six dollars an hour. Nowadays brick layers get about fourteen dollars an hour around here and there's quite a difference between now and the days when I started.

A: Did they used to manufacture brick right on the spot where they used it?

R: Yeah, my great grandfather he had a brick outfit where he ground the clay and rest it out to form the clay and cut it off into brick, solid, that the mud would come off the width and the thickness of the brick and they chopped 'em off and cut 'em at the end and then his kind of brick, they run out of state and then the mortar brick today is the full length of the brick and is cut the other way. It's got the full length and then the presses where they press it to put the face on, different types of faces. Well, when it come out they cut it off the full length of the brick and the old brick was cut off the nor-way, the width of the brick and the thickness of it. That's the difference in the brick that they made back in the old days and the brick they make now.

The first stove kilns they fired with wood. And now then they're fired with gas and oil. It makes a big difference in the brick too. The ones that was cooked with wood, they was solid. They didn't have no bondin' holes. The ones they got now, they got bonding holes. The brick that was made solid, there's more of it there. It's really stronger than the brick that's made now.

A: What did they use as a raw material for the brick?

R: Clay.

A: ...that was found around here?

R: Yeah, C.J. Harris had a clay mine in Webster and over on Hog Rock, they call it Little Savannah now. They got out different kinds of clay over there. They got out clay to make brick, they got out clay to ship.

A: Are those mines still there?

R: Yeah, some of them old mines are still over there, but they're not worked no more. There used to be a train, a little train, a dinky-type train that went from Dillsboro to Webster and up Hog Rock to haul that clay out of it.

A: Where exactly is Hog Rock?

R: That was the name of the creek at the time. It goes right by the airport all the way to Webster to the other side of Cullowhee. Now they got it modernized and they called it Little Savannah cause there's lots of families got in there and they quit mining the old clay mines.

A: Did there used to be a grocery store up that way?

R: Yeah, Harris he used to have a grocery store down here in Dillsboro and all of 'em come down and they worked for him...

A: Isn't that where Bradley's is now?

R: Yeah and it was Harris's then, and then Ralph Tatham took it over and he run a store until he got too old and then Cannon Brothers Oil Company and the Post Office used to be in the same building. And then after Cannon Brothers moved out then they got an antique place that moved in now and that's just about what Dillsboro is anymore is an antique. It's sort of a curious thing, not a town like it used to be.