The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Mama - Effie Peters Edwards - Remembers

By Gladys Edwards Willis © 1985

Issue: April, 1985

mama effie peters edwards_remembersWalter Edwards and Effie Peters. This photograph was taken in 1916, before they were married. Walter was home on leave from the army before going overseas.Mama seldom talks about the past. She is a "here-and-now" kind of person and lives each day as it comes. She says, "God let me live to see so many changes, the least I can do is adjust to them and live in the world as it is today.” Perhaps this attitude accounts for her longevity and ability to cope with today's problems.

On one of those rare occasions when Mama was feeling nostalgic (I had just read her The Mountain Laurel), she took me with her on a nostalgic trip back through her past.

Effie Peters Edwards was born January 16, 1899, near Endicott, Virginia. She was the only daughter of George and Mary Elizabeth Hash Peters. She had three brothers and says, "When you are outnumbered by brothers, you have to be tough." She has lived most of her life in Franklin County and the rest of it just over the line, in "spitting distance", in Henry County, Virginia. She says, "Anybody who has ever lived around here is never satisfied anywhere else. People here look after each other." Her roots are deeply embedded in the mountain country.

Mama remembers visiting with her great-grandmother, Polly Smith, who lived on Otter Creek when she was a little girl. Granny Smith used to sit and smoke a pipe during those visits. Mama still has Granny Smith's buttermilk pitcher. Mama says, "My grandma died young and my ma was raised by her Grandma Polly and two maiden aunts. Two bachelor uncles lived there too. Their house was real old and had a line across the porch to tell the time of day. When the sun was straight over the line, they would ring a big old dinner bell and my uncles would come in from the fields to eat dinner.” (That old house is still standing and is called the "Jim Smith" house.) Mama remembers all her kin folks lived nearby in the mountains, and she never heard of any living anywhere else.

"Grandpap Hash, my ma's pap, was a Civil War veteran and lived with us sometime. He died in the 1930's. He was almost a hundred years old. I remember Grandpa Willie Peters and three aunts - one of them is still living in Franklin County." Mama doesn't remember her father too well. He was killed when she was six years old. "I remember that," she recalls sadly. "He was shot off of an ox drawn wagon loaded with logs he was taking to the mill on Runnet Bag Creek. There was no law and order back then, so his murder was never solved. I don't know who did it or why. I guess we weren't ever rich, but after that, I remember just being poor. Ma didn't have insurance or social security, just an acre or two of rocky hillside land that was mostly a briar patch and we had to scratch out a living. There was nothing unusual about being poor in the mountain country back then, but it was awful hard on widows and children. We all had to help. My older brothers, Lute and Jim, were eight and ten and they plowed the land with a steer. Tom was five and I was six. My brothers were too small to carry a bushel of corn to the mill, so they carried a peck a piece and made two or three trips five miles each way.

Our house was a log cabin with a big open fireplace in the biggest room. Ma and me slept in there on a big bed. Tom slept on a trundle bed that slipped under the big bed. My other brothers slept in the loft.

Our kitchen was about the size of a closet and we would eat on a porch with windows that closed up in the wintertime. Ma used to cover the walls with catalog pages to make it warmer and cleaner looking. She made paste out of flour and she used to white wash the whole inside of the cabin - even the floor. But most of the time we cooked over the fireplace in a big iron pot that hung from a hook.

Sometimes our cows would go dry and the neighbors would give us milk. We did the same for them when their cows went dry. Our closest neighbor was Mrs. Ella Menucie. She was a widow with small children to raise. They had to pass our house to go anywhere. I guess she was Ma's best friend. They fell out one time when their cow got out and eat up some of our corn. Ma said she owed her three dollars. But the next day or two, our cows got out and eat up their garden and Miz Menucie said Ma owed her six dollars. Since neither one of them had any money, they decided to put yokes on their cows so they couldn't get under the fence and went on, being good friends.

We never had any cash. We used things that we had to trade for what we needed. We didn't buy much. Everything was made out of iron and lasted forever and there was no machinery to break down. The biggest thing we had was a chestnut orchard before the blight killed them. We would get up and pick up chestnuts before breakfast and take them to Tanny Cannady's Store to buy shoes and school supplies.

I used to sit before the fire for hours with a shoe last in my lap and crack walnuts on it with a flat iron. Ma used walnut stain to dye flour sacks for clothing and quilts. We wasted nothing.

We used every inch of a hog. We made soap and candles out of the tallow. We used the gristly parts like the ears and tail to make souse meat and ground the scraps for sausage and stuffed it in corn shucks to keep. When we killed a chicken, we saved the feathers for pillows and ticks."

I asked Mama about school and she even remembered her first school teacher - Mr. Hews Cannady in a one room school house near Long Branch. "We didn't learn much. The boys spent most of the time splitting wood for the fire and the girls carried water up the hillside to keep the water bucket full. We all drank out of the same gourd dipper and carried our lunch in a bucket. We had slates and wiped them clean with our sleeves.

I remember my first pencil. We had two one cent pencils for the four of us and cut them in half. I wanted the end with the sharp point on it and I didn't know how dumb I was until I made a mistake and didn't have an eraser!

I don't know what grade I was in. We went by readers. I guess I was reading in the sixth or seventh reader when I got too big to go to school. So, my education stopped there. We didn't go much anyway, just three or four months in the winter when there was no work at home. I never went on election day because we had to pass the polling place and sometimes there would be violence."

Mama must have learned more than she thought, because before her eye sight failed, she could write beautifully and enjoyed. reading. She can still out figure anyone who would dare cheat her.

"I must have been pretty healthy," she says, "I don't remember being sick much, but back then they cured you with home remedies and the cure was worse than the sickness; awful tasting bitters made from roots and hot mustard plasters!”

Sometimes a person who had a gift for healing would blow in your mouth to cure the "thrash" in your throat. I guess they worked. I am living proof that you can grow up without doctors and antibiotics.

We had granny doctors and midwives who spent their lives nursing people. They would come and stay day and night to break a fever or deliver a baby. They saved a lot of lives and brought a lot of new ones into the world.

People always helped each other back then. There would be wood cuttings, corn shuckings and barn raisings and all the men folk would come to help. All that was expected in return was a good meal and some moonshine to drink. The women would come along and bring pots and pans to help out in the kitchen. The usual meal was chicken and dumplings, all kinds of vegetables and cakes and pies. The women worked all morning to have the meal ready by noon and spent the afternoon cleaning up. But, there would be lots of gossiping and laughing, so it was enjoyed by all

The only social events would be quilting bees and apple butter stirrings. Sometimes somebody would give a dance in their house. I went along with my brothers and cousins. We didn't have dates like you do now. We went in groups. If a fellow wanted to court you, he would walk along with you and ask you to be his dance partner.

I first met Walter Edwards or "Waller Edards" as they pronounced it in the hill country, at a dance. The first time I ever saw a five dollar gold piece was at a social when we played "Who's Got the Thimble?" It was Walter's gold piece and the girl that had it hid it in her mouth and swallowed it. Walter got pretty well acquainted with her while he waited for her to return his gold piece.

Later on, I started keeping company with Walter when he come to our house for dinner after a meeting at Long Branch. Soon after that, he joined the standing army before World War I and I promised to wait for him. He gave me my first piece of jewelry. A gold chain with a cross on it. I waited for letters from, “somewhere in France.” Mr. Kurt Brammer was our mail carrier and he always read the letters to hear news from the front. I didn't mind. I put apples and plums in the mail box because I appreciated the letters he brought me.

After the War, I didn't hear from Walter until one Sunday he walked into a meeting at Long Branch and this time he drove me home in his model T. When his mother heard he was going to marry me she said, 'Oh Walter, the child is not strong enough to wring out a shirt!'"

Mama was 20 years old, five feet tall and weighed 98 pounds, but she not only could wring out a shirt, but was his equal partner for nearly 60 years.

Mama has her own recipe for a happy marriage. She says, "You get out of it what you put in it and too many people go into marriage expecting too much and giving too little." It worked for her.

My parents life together could be a love story. Their personalities complimented each other. Walter had a reputation for telling tall stories and Effie had a reputation for telling the truth, so when he wanted to authenticate a story, he would say, "Ain't that so, Effie?" and if she said it was, that proved it

Mama worked by his side at her first job at the John Goode (barrel) Stave Mill. He cut staves and she packed them. When he went to West Virginia to work in the coal mines. Mama left home and Franklin County for the first time. "I hated the coal dust and the danger of the mines," she says, "When we were expecting a family, I insisted on coming home."

Mama had some definite ideas and they usually worked out for her. She wanted two children - "I saw too many people have more than they could take care of. I wanted girls because I never had a sister." She had two daughters and now three granddaughters, one grandson, four great-granddaughters and one great grandson. She is no longer outnumbered by boys.

After returning to Franklin County, my parents became tenant farmers and Mama remembers, "tying my children to a tree so I could watch them while I worked in the fields. Finally, Walter got his "soldier's bonus" and we bought our own place."

But Mama wasn't too happy with the location. It was in a remote hollow on Beards Creek and she thought it was lonely. Her ma got sick and came to live with her and she took care of her until she died in 1936. It was during the depression, so Mama, thankful to have a roof over her head, stayed busy using all of her experience in how to survive being poor. "I guess us mountain folks got along better than most. We already knew how to make do with what we had."

In 1942 the depression was over, but the War was on and there was a shortage of everything. "We had to make do again." But tragedy struck and the house burned down and destroyed everything. "I remember how desperate I felt. No insurance and no where to go. But with the help of neighbors and Walter's getting a job at the Ferrum Pool Room, we got along.

Walter always wanted his own business, so we sold our land and in 1944 we bought a restaurant at Oak Level, just over the county line. I was scared to death and hid forty dollars under the rug in case we didn't make it, but it was what he wanted and I did all I could to help."

Mama put all her energy into making it a success and with her energy, determination, good cooking and friendly smile, how could they fail? "Many of our friends had gotten jobs at DuPont and Bassett and stopped by our place every day and many people were going and coming during the war, so we had a good business. But it was hard work and long hours for 15 years. Walter had a stroke and I had the responsibility of his health and running the business.

But, it had its rewards in many ways. I remember one snowy Christmas Eve. A stranger came after we closed and begged me to open up. He said he and his family were traveling and were out of gas. He was afraid they would freeze to death. I was afraid of strangers, but I couldn't take a chance on people freezing to death, so I let them in to keep warm and made them something to eat. The next morning he offered to pay me, but I wouldn't take pay and he thanked me over and over. I have never felt more Christmas spirit before or since':

The restaurant burned in the early 1960's, but this time they were better prepared for the loss and retired to a house they had built near the restaurant. "the next ten years were the happiest of my life. I had my dream house to keep. Walter had his garden to tend. We each had the church and time together. It was a time of contentment."

When my father passed away in 1975, Mama was losing her sight. We worried about how she would make it alone. But, we didn't really know Mama. The best way to describe her is to say she is a survivor. At the age of 86, she is the only surviving member of her family. She has survived the loss of her husband and all the rough times of her past. Now she is surviving the loss of her sight. With the help of a companion, she keeps up her home and takes care of her affairs. She does church work and takes time to be a good neighbor. Her greatest joy is to cook a meal for her children and grandchildren. She was blessed with good health, a lot of energy, great determination, a sense of humor and a beautiful smile. (She was insulted when she went for her eye operation and was asked to remove her dentures. She has never lost a tooth, which is remarkable considering she never owned a real toothbrush until she was grown. She made them out of black gum twigs!)

Mama has faith in God and in herself. "I ask God every morning to let me see a little light and when I open my eyes and it isn't completely black, I thank him and take it from there." Her motto is, "Don't give in to yourself," and she keeps going. I think her grit and courage are inherent characteristics and she is a true product of her mountain heritage.