The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

William Carroll Montgomery

An Interview By Susan M. Thigpen © 1992

Issue: January, 1992

Carroll Montgomery and Crockett Hurst.Carroll Montgomery and Crockett Hurst.William Carroll Montgomery (Carroll) has a way of starting interesting conversations. When he called The Mountain Laurel and invited us to come over and visit with him and tell old time stories, he started the conversation with, "I have a twin brother that was born eight days before I was." Needless to say, I was intrigued and wanted to know more.

Carroll Montgomery lives on US Route 52 just outside of Wytheville, Virginia and was raised less than a mile down the road. Or as he puts it, "lived about a mile off the road, back in the mountain, in a planked up and down house."

Now back to the eight-days apart twins story. Carroll was born March of 1924. He was his mother's (Alma Hurst Montgomery) first baby. Her aunt by marriage, Marie Lindsey Hurst already had several children of her own and was also expecting a baby close to the same time as Alma. They made a pact between them that if anything happened to either one of them, the other was to take her baby. Carroll's mother had already been told that they feared for her life at childbirth. As it happened, Marie gave birth to Crockett Hurst. Eight days later, when Carroll was born, his mother did die in childbirth. True to her word, Marie Hurst took Carroll, nursed and raised him as her own. Carroll was raised in a family that eventually numbered six boys and four girls.

Carroll's family was living in the community of Sylvatus, in Carroll County, Virginia when he was born. He started to school there, but at the end of the first year, he had to miss a lot of school so the next year he was enrolled in the first grade again when the family moved to Wythe County where he attended Siloam School. At the end of that year, there was some kind of sickness going around and the family was quarantined, so he missed more school. The next year they were living in the Stony Fork section of Wythe County and again, he was enrolled in the first grade at Mt. Pleasant School. This time the family didn't move or get sick and he finally graduated to the second grade.

Carrol Montgomery & Crockett Hurst shortly after Carroll joined the Navy in 1942.Carrol Montgomery & Crockett Hurst shortly after Carroll joined the Navy in 1942.Oscar Hurst, Carroll's uncle, once was sitting with a sick man when the sick man died. The doctor was called in and signed a death certificate. Three men from the neighborhood came in to prepare the dead man for burial, but before they started, they stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. When they went back inside, to their surprise, the man they thought to be dead was sitting up in bed!

Although he was a part of a large and loving family, tragedy was to strike again in his young life. When he was only 11 years old, he was going with his foster father to the store when they came upon a man lying in the road. The man had been struck in the head and was unconscious. Mr. Hurst stopped to revive the man and see if there was anything he could do. As the man regained consciousness, he thought Mr. Hurst was the one that had attacked him, although later it was found out that the attacker was his son-in-law. He followed Carroll and his foster father to the store and grabbed Mr. Hurst, stabbing him thirty-three times in the back, in full view of Carroll and other witnesses.

After the death of his foster father, Carroll said that the family couldn't have survived if it had not been for the kind generosity of neighbors. Men came and cut wood for them and women came and made applebutter and other things. Carroll helped the family income by selling Grit newspapers. He had sixty papers he delivered on Friday after school and sixty he delivered on Saturday. The papers cost 5 cents and he made 2 cents on each one. He also sold practically everything and anything by mail order — Cloverine Salve, Rosebud Salve, Christmas cards, seeds, etc.

Although he was a small boy at the time, Carroll remembers the big crash of 1929 and the depression that followed. He said there was not a lot to wear and people ate simple. He laughs and says his blood was 60% water gravy! George L. Carter from Carroll County who had made a lot of money in coal and other mining, bought a lot of farms in Wythe County and created jobs by hiring people to work the farms.

Another hard-times story from 1928 came to his mind, "Mama denies it, but this is the Gospel truth. In those days, the tax assessor came around to each house to assess not only real estate but personal property. He brought with him a huge book to make the entries. Mama told me that if I saw a man with a big book that I was to run and tell her immediately. One day she sent me to the spring to get a bucket of water. On the way to the spring I met a man with a large book. I ran as fast as I could to the spring, got the water, ran back, passing the man again, on the way to the house. I told Mama and she gathered all us kids in the house, locked the doors and hid. The man beat on the door for a while and peeked in the windows, but we kept quiet until he went away."

During the depression, the six room house they lived in at Stoney Fork was owned by the federal government and they leased if for $15.00 a year. During the height of the depression, local men would take turns going up on the mountain and setting it on fire. The government would then hire everyone to fight fire until they put it out. Stoney Fork Creek flooded in 1934 and the water came up in the first story of the house. Everyone was evacuated, but the chickens in the hen house weren't as lucky, and drowned.

Although Carroll had four sisters, he was the one Mama Hurst chose to do the cooking and clothes washing. The wash water had to be carried about a mile and a half and heated in a big pot over an open fire. Then the water was put into an old Maytag "put-put" washing machine. They let him out of school a half day each Friday so he could go home to do the wash. The family had no car so he would walk to the R. N. Kincer feed store that was located across from the present day jail in Wytheville to buy feed for their farm animals. He would borrow a wheel barrow and cart the hundred pound sacks of feed to the corner of Tazewell and Monroe Streets, where the Rock House Museum is located, and hitch a ride with someone going his direction. When he got to the spot closest to his house on Route 52, he would get out and leave the feed there and walk the mile or so to the house. There he would get empty feed sacks and go back to the road. The feed would be divided up into several sacks of a more manageable weight and carried to the house.

In the old days, much lumber was taken out of the mountains in the Stoney Fork area. Plank roads made of slabs were laid into the hollows to support the heavy weight of the wagons full of lumber. The main entrance to Wytheville from the north was by Tazewell Street and it had a steep hill to navigate. Teams of oxen were used to bring heavy drags to the top of the hill to attach to the wagons to hold them back as they went down the hill. The foot of the hill is where Spiller School is now located. The drags were disconnected there and the oxen made the return trip to the top of the hill. The wagons of lumber then proceeded to the railroad station to be unloaded and shipped. This earned the route the nickname of "Drag Hill."

When Carroll was about 15 years old, he was attending High School in Wytheville and taking a class in electricity, which was taught by the agriculture teacher. This must have been about as exciting then as space age technology is today because electricity was just beginning to come to this area. The teacher, Pete Kreiger, taught him how to install electricity in houses. Borrowing tools from the school in the summer, Carroll wired houses for a living. Electricity didn't make its way into the hollow where he lived for a long time though.

Someone gave the Hurst family a Delco generator system in 1941 and Carroll wired the house for it. He and his brothers got a washer and refrigerator for their mother to make her life a little easier and more pleasant. When he wired the house, he lost his pocket knife. Years later, around 1946-47, the government put the house up for sale by sealed bids and Carroll bid on it. He got the bid and tore the house down for building materials. When he tore it down, he found his pocket knife.

Newly graduated from high school in 1942, Carroll joined the Navy to help the war effort. He was sent a train ticket to Norfolk, a street car token and a meal ticket. He was to stay the first night in Richmond in a hotel the Navy had rented. There was a practice air raid and blackout that night and he thought he was in the middle of the war for sure. When he arrived in Norfolk, he had fifty cents in his pocket. He went to the canteen and bought ten nickel candy bars and went back to his barracks. He sold the candy bars for 15¢ each and by the end of the first week, sent his mother $15.00!

From Norfolk, Carroll was sent to school to be trained in electronics at Berea, Kentucky and then to Perdue at Lafayette, Indiana. The Navy sent him to Florida for a while; then to Cleveland, Ohio for propulsion school; then to Boston where he put into commission the destroyer escort the USS Cabana.

Meanwhile, there was more than a little romance going on. When Carroll was sixteen, one day he and a friend were in the H & S Kress store in Wytheville where he saw a girl that really caught his eye. He winked at her and she winked back. He told his friend that day, before even meeting her, that someday he was going to marry her. When he came home on a thirty day leave from the Navy, he and Helen Virginia Blessing were married on April 30, 1945. Although Helen was the youngest of four children with the other three being big brothers, she was not spoiled and enthusiastically joined in whatever Carroll was doing if she could help. Not long after they were married, though, Carroll was sent to sea, to the Pacific, and Helen was left all alone.

At first he went to Hawaii where he was assigned to the clean up that was still in progress from the attack on Pearl Harbor. For the next two and a half years, the USS Cabana was in battles from Tarara to Iwo Jima with Carroll Montgomery aboard. At times he heard the infamous "Tokyo Rose" broadcasts and has in his souvenirs, a copy of a Japanese propaganda leaflet designed to destroy morale. He said that "Tokyo Rose" broadcast such outrageous lies about battleships being sunk when they could look out and see the very ships she mentioned being destroyed.

Although Carroll was the first of the family to join the service, all six of the Hurst boys served their country. Three served in the Army and three in the Navy. All came home safely, but there was much concern when one was captured in Italy. Four of the brothers served in World War II and two brothers served in Korea.

After World War II, Carroll came back to Wythe County where he and his wife bought the old Blessing place he lives in today. He went into electrical contracting work and in 1960 ran for and was elected Justice of the Peace for four years. In 1968, he worked as rural postal carrier until he retired in 1986. His beloved Helen had cancer and he cared for her until her death in 1989.

Retirement has been anything but boring for Carroll. He is active in the Rural Letter Carriers Association and made the arrangements when the state association met in Wytheville last year. A couple of days before our meeting, he had just finished a 1,500 piece mailing for the Association members. One of his hobbies these days is the Civil War and visiting battlefield sites. He is also an avid bird watcher and I enjoyed the bird activity outside the picture window in his living room where he has several feeders set up.

As usual, I stayed longer than I had intended to stay, as we "talked old times". As I was leaving, Carroll was also going out the door to take his usual daily walk. No, retirement hasn't slowed him down a bit.