The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Tribute to My Stepfather - John Saunders Gilbert

By Willie Floyd Blackman © 1990

Issue: July, 1990

Our father died in 1934 leaving my mother and three children to the horrors of the depression. How this family survived on black coffee and biscuits only the good Lord knows. However, in late 1935, a man of great value came into our lives. Not so much of monetary values but of values free for the asking and enjoyed very much by the folks of the Blue Ridge Mountain area.

This kindly gentleman, twice my mother's age, was raised as near, as I have been able to determine, in the area of Stuart, Virginia. He was born about 1871 and was a member of the Primitive Baptist Faith. His father was actually a Primitive Baptist minister.

The object at this time is not to become involved in their family genealogy, but to pay honor and respect to a man that I loved and respected very much and as I do so, remembering the mountain values that became such a large part of this mountain man, who became our step-father. Being a boy of ten, an age whose very existence was calling out for the mature wisdom and understanding of a father figure; our stepfather filled that position as perhaps no other could. He was a very prudent and a god-fearing man. He also had devoted friends and relatives which lived in both North Carolina and Virginia.

At a very early age of perhaps 18, our stepfather moved away from the Stuart, Virginia area and into the Leaksville, North Carolina area (now Eden) and soon into the Danville, Virginia area. It was during this young age that our stepfather was employed by the D & W Railroad, also known as the Dick and Willie. I am sure there are many that can still remember the Dick and Willie. My stepfather's retirement was for a 40 plus years of service to the railroad.

This kindly gentleman was married twice, first to Lemma D. Jefferson. She was born February 1878; she died 7 November, 1934. There were nine children born. They were John, Thomas, Godrey, Morris, Violet, Martha, Iris, Daisy, and Mary. I do not know the exact order of their births. I now believe all have passed away.

My desire to write in memory of our stepfather has to do with the fact that he was an honorable man in all things. As a young man he became a very devout Christian. He was instrumental in the chartering and the establishment of "The Church of the Living God." The writer can recall the location of many different church buildings in which he would preach on a rotating schedule. This was during the days before many rural areas got electricity. Many churches had a gas type of lighting and all plumbing was located at the outside privy.

Mr. Herb Lewis, of Cascade, told an interesting story of having seen our stepfather upon returning to Danville in the evenings. On one occasion, it appeared as though he had locked the train engine in control as he stood there preaching to the brakeman and fireman.

Those were the days when he and I would go down on the Dan River to do some cat fishing. He loved to fish and taught me to fish and to enjoy hard work. He would say, "Son, hoe the garden and mow the lawn and when you've caught up with your work you can play ball, or go fishing with your friends." I also recall him saying, "The rewards from one's labor can neither be taxed nor stolen." At his retirement in 1937, the monthly retirement check was for the sum of one hundred and twenty-five dollars. Not a large sum of money by today's standards, but more income than some families had. One fringe benefit of his years of work with the railroad allowed us free fares on the "Southern" railroad.

Some of the things that we admired most was the love he had for his children as well as his stepchildren. The intenseness displayed in trying to understand and solve the problems with many hours spent in prayer for resolutions to the problems. His unselfish attitude was seen in all things. I remember he never bought anything for himself. Mother had to actually buy all his clothing.

To my knowledge our stepfather never received any money or salaries or benefited in any way as compensation for serving the church. How times have changed!

My two sisters have now passed away and being the sole survivor I wanted to pay a last tribute to a man that taught us how to live life and love others. Surely there are many direct descendants of the beloved man. I wish they could have known the greatness of this man as I did.

His name was John Saunders Gilbert, son of Don Gilbert, who was born in 1834 and Violet Ann Handy, who was born in 1842. John had one sister, Mittie Tecora Gilbert, who was born 1869 and married John Preston Williams who was born in 1849. God blessed this couple with 14 sons and two daughters. All married but three sons. All are deceased but one, Dudley S. Williams of Stuart, Virginia.

I am grateful that in my early boyhood days of the 30's, that I personally knew such a person. He brought and influenced me with what I think of as good quality values. He was a beacon light in my life, enabling me, in part, to have five beautiful children and many grandchildren.