The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mountain Memories of P. A. Early

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1991

Issue: October, 1991

F. K. Rich, noted Wythe County furniture maker.F. K. Rich, noted Wythe County furniture maker.The Mountain Laurel received a subscription a while back from P. A. Early and written on it was, "I am 80 years old. Come to see me." Checking the address I found it was Main Street of Wytheville, Virginia only a few blocks from our office. We were practically neighbors!

When I called Mr. Early on a recent Saturday afternoon, I quickly accepted his invitation to come right over. The result was an enjoyable afternoon of listening to him tell of his mother's relatives who had owned the very house we were sitting in since 1835. The house was probably built in 1827. He was quick with names, dates and anecdotes of his early life and family history and related them to me in such a lively way that the characters seemed to come alive as I listened. Needless to say, it was a most enjoyable Saturday afternoon.

He began by telling of John Harvey Allen who ran a furniture shop in Richmond but moved to Wythe County in 1842. He had a 200 acre farm where Reed Creek runs under Interstate 77 today at the east end of Wytheville. There was a toll bridge built over Reed Creek and he was the toll house keeper after his eye sight failed. His son was Robert Harvey Allen who had a daughter, Margaret who married David Allen Rich in 1880 on the toll bridge farm. David and Margaret had a daughter, Mary Margaret (who was P. A. Early's mother) and two sons.

On the paternal side of the family, P. A.'s great-grandfather was Fleming K. Rich (born 1806, died 1861) who was the cabinet maker who made the famous Wythe County Pie Safes among other pieces of notable furniture and coffins. It was F. K. who bought the house on Main Street. It was originally two houses with a carriage way between them and F. K. had a furniture showroom in the house on the east side and lived in the house on the right. The furniture showroom was on the first floor and upstairs was a varnish room and an apprentice room. The house is of log construction with wooden pins pegging together the rafters. The house with the furniture showroom in it was two stories and the house to the west of it was a story and a half. In 1836, he bought the lot to the west of both houses on Main Street and built a home for his daughter.

Mrs. Rich's Boarding House, now the home of her grandson P. A. Early.Mrs. Rich's Boarding House, now the home of her grandson P. A. Early.F. K.'s son was David Allen Rich who was the father of Mary Margaret. Mary Margaret married P. A. Early, Sr., an engineer from Illinois, and later gave birth to P. A. Early, Jr., the man who owns the house today. They were living in Petersburg, Virginia when P. A. was born.

P. A. Early Sr., was the chief engineer who built the dam in Marion, North Carolina creating Lake James. He also engineered the world's deepest highway cut in McDowell County. He did it in stair step cuts so that rock slides would not roll down to the highway. He confided later to his brother that if he had it to do all over again that he would have tunneled.

F. K. built his cabinet making shop about a block over from Main Street where the Virginia's Nursing Home now stands. P. A. said, "In those days they took orders for the furniture people wanted made. Someone would come in and say they wanted a dresser 37" inches high and so on. They had furniture made for the size space they had and according to their needs." Much of the furniture in P. A. Early's house today was made in his great-grandfathers furniture shop and they cover a full range from dainty occasional tables to massive side boards.

P. A. EarlyP. A. EarlyEventually F. K.'s sons and grandsons ran a furniture business called Rich Brothers and later known as Pless Furniture. When it was sold to Pless in 1940, the furniture store had been in the family for over 100 years, since 1831. The store stood where Helig-Meyers Furniture store is today, at the corner of Main and Fourth Streets. I found it interesting that folks in this area have been buying furniture at that location for over 160 years.

Once F. K. was talking to a man who walked up to his house as F. K. was sitting on the porch. The man talked for a good while and then said, I think I'll spend the night with you. They went on talking and later the man said again, "I think I'll spend the night with you." F. K. said, "I told you I don't take in boarders. What makes you think you're going to spend the night here?" The man said, "Because I'm your brother." It was his brother John who had moved south thirteen years earlier and F. K. didn't recognized him!

During the Civil War, there was ammunition stored in the old Presbyterian Church and the church was burned by Northern troops, causing quite an explosion. This was probably the raid of December 1864. P. A. said that the family story was that when things started exploding just down the street, a shell of some sort snapped their collie dog's tail off and the dog hid in the cellar under the front of the house for two weeks. The Northern troops discovered the Rich's had Confederate saddles stored in their house and his great-grandmother had to talk them out of burning the house. They ended up trading some furniture from the troops for an old horse.

In 1887, F. K. Rich's widow remodeled the house. This was when the two houses were joined, with a hall where the carriage way had once been. The house at that time had twenty-five rooms. You can still see the height of the old half-story walls in P. A.'s living quarters where the roof was raised to the second story height to be level with the other house it was joined with. In P. A.'s time, a hat trunk was pulled down from the attic and when it was opened, it was found to contain paperwork and tax receipts dating back to 1797! There is an old grandfather clock standing in the corner that is eight feet tall which supposedly came from the Allen grandfather.

In the last part of the last century and the first part of this one, Wytheville was a summer resort town with people coming from far and wide to enjoy the cool mountain breezes and take the mineral water cures from nearby springs. P. A.'s grandmother ran the house as a boarding house for summer people from places like New Orleans, Louisiana and Mobile, Alabama. He said that his grandmother's dining room would seat 70 people and they held dances in the dining room when he was a child. His mother was educated in the Catholic Convent school a block or so away and was taught music by Sister Mary Amy from France. She was often asked to play the piano for dances because she had a way with dance music, but she was a wonderful dancer and would have rather danced. P. A. said, "When she danced the swinging waltz, everyone in the room would stop to watch."

There were mechanical "Shoo Flies" placed in the dining room to spin and keep away flies. He still has one of them in his living room. While showing it to me, P. A. told me to pull the piece of paper out of the Shoo Fly. When I unfolded the paper, it was the original receipt for the contraption dated 1897. From this time on, the house was known as "Mrs. Rich's Boarding House."

His grandmother died in 1905 and his Aunt Mary Rich Petit continued to run it as a boarding house until 1910. The house stood empty until 1914, when his mother returned to run the house and open it for guests once more. It must have been a grand way to grow up, meeting all the interesting strangers who took rooms at the house. For the most part, they were people from states where the summers were insufferably hot and who could afford to spend the summers in cool comfort here in the mountains. Perhaps the biggest reason, however, was the epidemics of yellow fever in the low, swampy lands to the south and Wytheville had a much healthier climate.

Today the house has four apartments and P. A. has made his home there since returning to Wytheville with his mother in 1914. The house was renovated in 1941 when a third of the house was torn down, making it the size of the house today. The lot behind the house (where another house stands today) was once a part of this property and was a garden space.

The building that now houses the Log House Restaurant was willed to his mother by the owner, a Mr. Chatwell in 1936. For years P. A. ran it also as rental apartments, and then sold it.

About 1917-1918, P. A. was being kept by a woman his mother hired to cook. The woman put him in a room off of the kitchen that was not only unheated but had big tubs of ice in it from where the roof leaked and dripped down. The room was so cold that it actually caused his feet to become frost bit. He said, "When Mother came home and found out, you can imagine what happened to the woman!" He can remember the year he started to school during World War I and hearing people yelling one day, "The War is over." He doesn't remember if it was the real Armistice Day or one before it called "False Armistice."

When P. A. was in the second grade the great flu epidemic broke out. He said that his mother was in the drug store when "Dash" Robinson came in. It was early fall and the days were still warm, but this man had on a heavy winter overcoat and complained about being so cold. He was from Graham's Forge and after leaving the drug store, he went home and died, the first local victim of the epidemic. P. A.'s mother, who was in the drug store at the time, was the second case of influenza in Wythe County. P. A. had it too, but both he and his mother survived. He said that although he couldn't exactly remember having the flu, he did remember his legs and back aching from the sickness.

Always a good student, perhaps because he loved to read so much, P. A. won a five dollar gold piece that was presented by the D.A.R. when he was in the seventh grade. Another of his memories was when the Convent burned. He said he was sick at the time but they let him look through a crack in the door and he could see the smoke billowing high. He recalled that paper and sparks blew blocks away to start secondary fires in town. With a boy's curiosity, he and another boy explored what was left of the building later. Looking back, he says it was a wonder that something didn't fall and hurt them seriously.

Another memory was when they tore down the old Trinkle House on the corner of First and Main Street. He said that Civil War cannon balls were still stuck in the wooden frame. In 1925, when Lee Trinkle was elected governor of Virginia, his mother made the dress for his brother Clarence's wife to wear to the inaugural ball. It was made of velvet that cost $15.00 a yard.

Once Mrs. Early read a recipe in a book for a good cleaner for brass. It contained water, sulfuric acid and nitric acid. She sent P. A. down to the drug store to get the chemist to make some for her. P. A. said he brought it home in a glass bottle with a glass stopper and it was almost too hot to handle. The druggist told them just to let it cool down. It worked wonderfully as a cleaner, but P. A. said that it would eat the cloth rag off the end of a stick they were using to apply it. A neighbor lady heard how good it worked and had the druggist to make some for her too. She took it home and shook it up and it promptly exploded! She was lucky not to be seriously harmed, but it scared the druggist and he wouldn't make any more of it for anybody afterward.

P. A. Early attended the University of Virginia in the 1930s, but ill health forced him to leave after two years. He now knows he had hypoglycemia, but that was undiagnosed in those days. Through the years he has battled other serious illnesses such as pneumonia and myosinia gravis, but he has survived them all and is still living independently amid his treasures from the past and a collection of many good books.

The afternoon passed all too quickly and all too soon I had to leave, but I knew that I would find my way back to talk more with this delightful gentleman about the "Early" years of Wytheville.