The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

86 Years Ago - Alpha Pilson

By Tootsie Cassell Pilson © 1984

Issue: January, 1984

86 years agoMrs. Alpha PilsonSeated here with me is a quite outspoken and down-to-earth lady. She is part Indian with high cheek bones, muscled like a boxer, and does not have a wrinkle in her face. She is none other than Alpha Pilson, of Route 4, Stuart, Virginia (who happens to be my mother-in-law), and she is 86 years old.

I asked her to share some of her remembrances with us. Here is what she told me…..

Aplha Pilson was one of four children born to John Abe and Minnie Morrison. She grew up in an old log-bodied house with a separate kitchen outback. This house was situated on the Fairystone Park road near Buffalo Ridge, Virginia.

When I asked her about her childhood, she told me, “I guess we weren’t too bad off. My daddy cut and sold cross ties to the railroad; he also farmed on the side. We planted oats, wheat, corn and rye. We also sold hog meat. We raised cane and made molasses; we had bees for honey, and sometimes killed a beef in the fall.”

Alpha Pilson is no new comer to hard work. She told me that she and her mother sat up until 12:00 many nights drying apples in a drying house out back, and sold them for 25 cents a pound. They also dried raspberries and blackberries. Her mother called her a tomboy because she loved the great outdoors. She has milked cows and helped with the farming chores since she was 8 years old.

She attended school at the old Harbour School (which is still standing). She completed the 7th grade reader, but had to quit because her mother was quite ill.

When her younger brother, Lawrence, was born with club feet, her daddy read about a German doctor in St. Louis, Missouri, who could straighten feet. He took the boy by covered wagon to Fieldale and caught a train for St. Louis. The doctor charged $200.00 and the operation was a success. This operation and trip took three months. During this time, she and her family stayed with her grandparents.

86 years ago fpA lady of determination, Mrs. Alpha Pilson. The Mountain Laurel's front page photo of the January, 1984 issue.Her courting days were spent mostly at home with chaperones always in attendance. “I remember our living room well,” she told me, “We had carpet on the floor and going up the stairs. We had a living room suite and organ. We also had one of the first Victrola’s in these parts, and people would come from miles around to listen to it play.”

She was 15 years old when her mother died. When she reached the age of sweet 16, she married Dallas Valentine Pilson (better known as Tine). She and her new husband stayed with her father for one year after they married, keeping house for him. They spent the next two and one-half years with her husband’s parents, until their own home was built.

Tine Pilson was a carpenter and block mason by trade. He built them a one room house.

She told me, “We had the bare necessities when we moved in - a bed and a stove. Tine made us a table and cupboard (which are still in use). Later we bought six chairs.” He also built them a soap stone fireplace, which is her only source of heat today.

Her husband’s salary of $12.00 a week had to stretch far and near to clothe and feed the eight children they had, one after another. As the family grew, so did the house and the chores outside.

Many mornings found her up cooking breakfast, washing dishes, and carrying a baby to the field to work until noon. She would come home, cook the noon day meal, wash up the dishes, and back to the field she would go. Once when she carried her son Edward to the field, she laid him on a soft brush pile on a quilt. When she went to pick him up, a snake ran out of the brush.

She made her own lye soap with ashes, and boiled their clothes in a big iron pot. Boiling clothes were lifted into a tub with a stick then scrubbed on a scrubbing board.

“Everyone told me I was a good ironer,” she said. Many times after the boys grew up, she ironed 19 white shirts a week using old flat irons.

Their first transportation was a surrey pulled by a mule, but she remembers well going to church with neighbors in an oxen cart.

Being the outdoors enthusiast that she is, she took an interest in reading about and experimenting with roots and herbs. Through the years she has made her own tonics. Root of burdock makes a good blood medicine. Blood root is good for poison oak. Mint, blue skullcap and catnip are good for the nerves. Homegrown herbs are far ahead in favor than those commercially sold.

She also orders a moon sign book each year and plants her crops when the signs are right. I have yet to see her have a failure.

She was doing organic gardening before the term was coined. Even today she carries a half bushel of manure from the barn each time she checks on her cow and calf. For years she has been going into the mountains behind her house and carrying out loads of rich black dirt to use around her flowers and crops.

Her family all grew up and married. She was left a widow some twenty years ago. She is a determined lady and carries on with gusto, although she is 86 years old.

The morning I visited with her, she was up cooking breakfast for her sister, Addie Sue, and her husband, Rawleigh. The menu read…Squirrel with gravy and dumplings, country ham, fried apples, grits, and homemade biscuits to top it off.

The table her husband made some 66 years ago is still often filled to overflowing and company still comes by the droves.

She carries on quite well tending her cow and calf and doing the chores around the farm. Until quite recently, she still milked a cow. She told me her arthritic hands would be stiff if she sat down and did nothing.

A heaping helping of credit here must be given to her daughter, Clara, and son, Alfred, who faithfully keep a check on her.

In the winter time she keeps a roaring fire in the same fireplace she started keeping house with, and darns socks and cracks walnuts until late into the night.

There is not a lazy bone in this lady’s body. A year or so ago, she dug up half the hillside, with a mattock I could hardly lift, and planted herself a tomato patch.

Sunday is her day of rest. All work comes to a halt. She attends church regularly and still asks a blessing before each meal. Once when she was honored at church, her son, Roy, said, “She did not spare the rod!” She said, “I’m glad he said it. I still believe in it.”

I will have to admit that for years I have stood in awe of this woman. She was so self-sufficient she did not seem real, but through the years I have grown to love her for this very trait.

Her philosophy of life remains the same today as always. It is…if you want something done, do it yourself.

Can you think of a better way?