A CONVERSATION WITH MY MOTHER
ELIZABETH EARLINE ROSS
Earline was born 5/4/1920, in Hartsville, SC. She was one of the 15 graduates from the rural Antioch, SC, high school in 1937. She started working in the Hartsville Cotton Mill on January 2, 1939 when her father, L.C. Ross, moved his family to the mill village. She worked in the spool room and her first payroll for a week’s work was $4.64.
Earline and Malcolm had three children.
(By Wm. Hopkins, from a conversation recorded on February 19, 1989.)
Earline: “Let me tell you about my school. I started to school when I was six years old at Cordova school in Rockingham, North Carolina. The year before I started, Mary was going to school and they had plays. So, I was an angel in a play when I was five. When I started to school - my first year - I was a daisy and wore a yellow crepe paper dress. I was in a play every year until we moved back to Hartsville. One year, I was a hundred year old deaf woman wearing this long, black dress we borrowed from a woman. She said, "this dress is a hunnerd years old." so I thought that was what we needed. So I wore that and carried her ear horn. I played this old lady on the train to Paducah. And then I was in the Courtship of Miles Standishwhere I was Priscilla and married John Alden. And then, one year I was Daisy because the boys sang "Daisy, Daisy...", in A bicycle Built for Two.
Will: “When was that?”
“It was all through school. I loved plays and was in every one I could get in. I loved it! I could really put on an act!”
“You lived in the mill village in Rockingham?”
“Yeah, and the school always had the plays at night so everybody could come see them.
And then we came to Antioch and they didn't have plays very often. I was George Washington in one of their plays.”
“What did you do when you were going to school? Did you have chores?”
“Goodness, yes! When we moved to Hartsville, we worked in the fields; picked cotton, did whatever had to be done. We fed livestock, milked cows. We did farm chores 'cause Mama and Daddy worked all through when we were in high school. We didn't have time to wonder what to do with ourselves. At night, we listened to the radio or made our own music. We even made our own music to entertain the community.”
“Do you remember your first radio?”
“I remember the first one we had. It was a big console. We didn't have much choice of what to listen to. On Saturday night you listened to The Grand Old Opry. That's the only thing I remember on it back then in Rockingham. Daddy listened to The Grand Old Opry and we did, too. I don't remember listening during the week. Every night, Mama played the organ and we sang. That was when we were little, growing up. Then, in high school, we sat on the front porch and sang and the community either listened or shut their doors.”
“What was your life like in Rockingham?”
“There was a heap of us. We played together and helped keep house.”
“Did Grandmother work?”
“Yeah, she worked after Jim was born. Jim was about a year old, I guess, when she went back to work because he was little and in poor health and we had to feed him Eagle Brand milk. He'd sit on the floor and we would feed him with a spoon. What bit of it he got out of the can. Everybody always wanted to feed him because they got every other bite.
I didn't like school so much but I liked the extra things. I liked the plays. If you didn't go to school, you didn't get to be in plays. We always had plays going but I never liked school. I always went and didn’t miss many days at all.”
“Was it a public school?”
“Yeah, Cordova Public School. They tore it down the year after we left, I think. Went to Antioch and they tore it down after we left there. We was hard on schools!”
“High school was through eleventh grade then?”
“Yeah. I made good grades in high school. Good grades. I averaged almost 100 in physics. Physics was my best grade. All the others were 95 or something like that. I was good at physics because I liked my physics teacher.”
“How did you let me be so bad in physics in high school?”
“I don't know what happened to y'all that you didn't make good grades. I never failed a test. Never. I kind of wondered what happened to y'all. I never liked school but I studied because I had to make good grades because Mary always made top grades so I had to make good grades, too. So, I studied hard and made good grades because I wanted to.
My physics teacher is mayor of Salley, now. E. W. Clamp.
I also loved to play basketball and softball and go off and play other schools. Sometimes, we would have a play and take it to other schools and I liked that. But, just the regular school business, I didn't care much for it.”
“Do you remember Grand daddy's first car?”
“Yeah. It had a trunk built out over the back and had Isinglass windows - like mica. You pulled them down and snapped them in. You just closed them when it was raining.
Was there a Hupmobile? That's what they called it.
The reason we had it was that Grandpa bought it. He drove it from Hartsville to Rockingham, up in North Carolina. He told Daddy that, if he would take him back to Hartsville, he could have the car because he never intended to drive one again. And he didn't. Never did drive again.
So, Daddy took him home. From then on, when Grandpa wanted to go to Rockingham, he paid someone to take him. He was through with that business.”
“After that, Grand daddy always drove Hudsons, didn't he?”
“Yeah, he did. I was thinking how stupid all that stuff was. I mean, for Grandpa to buy a car and...of course, Daddy needed it. Daddy said he never drove over ten miles an hour up there.
When they would visit Rockingham, Grandma would take the children to the company store at the end of the street where she lived. It had an ice plant down under it. Go in the back and down there you could buy cold, bottled drinks. Grandma would take us there and buy us a cold drink. Nehi was about all they had. We just knew that she was the only person in the world that could buy bottled drinks. We knew they kept them just for Grandma.”
“How did the company store work? The Hartsville mill didn't have one.”
“It was just a regular store. People could buy things and charge it and the mill would pay it out of your paycheck. Daddy worked for about a year and didn't draw a paycheck ‘cause it all went to The Store. If you had to go to the doctor, it went through the company store. Daddy would get just a little bit of money and I think he borrowed it from there.
For a long time, he would give us just a nickel a week. Each one would take a nickel to the store and buy candy. We would be lined up in a row - all five of us - and get a piece of this and a piece of this. Mary was bigger, so she got her choice first so she'd tell them what she wanted. I'd go behind Mary and get something different. Ruby would come up and get something else, and then Buck and Jim. All five in a row. They knew us as good as they did each other.
And then there was a time when Daddy didn't have a nickel to give us. Then it all went through the store. We'd still get our nickel's worth.
Then, when Mary was in high school, she was all grown up and got a nickel bar of candy and I thought she had lost her mind, getting one piece of candy with a whole nickel. It took me a long time to understand Mary spending all her money on one piece of candy.”
“How did the depression affect you?”
“The biggest thing I remember is the strikes they had at the mills and Daddy had to move to the mill. He had a cot at the mill and had to stay down there day and night.”
“He was a supervisor?”
“Yeah, he would stay at the mill for protection to keep people from coming in and tearing things up. He had to live at the mill. “
When things went through the company store, was during the depression. You just didn't have money. Nobody did.
We didn't know we were poor because everybody else was the same way.
We had one family on the mill village that we knew was different and that was the man that owned the company store. He owned the store and everything was run through the mill. The McKenzies. We knew they were different 'cause they had nickel pencils. That's the only way we knew they were different: we had penny pencils. Everybody in the school had round penny pencils except the McKenzies. Theirs were colored pencils with images on them.”
“Did people have cars then?”
“No, there wasn't many cars. Very few on the mill village.”
“How did you feel about people who didn't live on the mill village? Did you ever run into them?”
“Oh, we knew people who didn't live on the mill village, but they were the same as the people who lived on the village. If they went to the Baptist church, then they were your friend, whether they lived on the village or off the village.
The people on the next street, if they didn't go to the Baptist church, they were kind of on the border: you didn't have a whole lot to do with them.
The Methodists were the same way. If they went to the Methodist church, they kind of hung together.”
“Was that just because of your social association with them through the church or was there a class structure based on the church you attended?”
“I think that was it. The Baptist was top, the Methodist was a little bit lower and then the Holiness. You ignored them completely.”
“Did you have Holiness friends?”
“NO! They were in school but you didn't have anything to do with them.”
“But they might have lived on the mill village?”
“Yeah. Yeah, some did.”
“So there was a class differential even on the mill village, based on the church?”
“Yeah, it was just on the church.”
“What about the people you met in school who came from the mill village?”
“Well, they were the same way. It didn't matter where you lived, it was based on your church. If you went to a Baptist Church, you had Baptist friends. That's just the way it was and we didn’t think about it.”
“Did you have any pets when you were small?”
“Oh, no. We couldn't hardly feed the family. We had pet chickens and that was it. If your pet happened to be the one that was going to get killed for Sunday dinner, you just lost your pet! Boyd had them after he was up in school...about fourteen. He brought rats and rabbits or whatever he wanted to. He would keep them awhile and then get rid of them. Had white rats and rabbits. Of course, the rabbits would dig out and go under the fence and come up in somebody else's yard, so the rabbits didn't last a whole long time.”
“Even after you moved down here to the farm?”
“I had a little dog one time, after we moved to Hartsville. It followed them off to the woods one day and it never come back. I think it was because of it's name that they didn't insist on it coming back. I named it "Heck." I should have known better than that. It followed Daddy and Buck off one day and it didn't come back. I had a feeling when I got a lot older that the dog's name had a lot to do with them losing him in the woods. But, that's the only pet I ever had.
We did a lot of working when we were little. You had to help do whatever had to be done. Everybody helped.”
“What was Christmas like?”
“It was real slim. We didn't know it, though. We thought that was the way Christmas was supposed to be. Grandma and Grandpa would always send us a box at Christmas. They bought us a doll one Christmas; a big doll. On other Christmases, they'd send something. We thought Santa Claus brought it but we found out later that Grandma and Grandpa sent it.
They always send us a wooden box filled with fruit and nuts. That was what the family had. We didn't get an apple or an orange through the year. We didn't. That was just at Christmas. That's why they had fruit at Christmas, I guess, 'cause that's the only time we got any.
We had bananas sometimes when they'd be real cheap, but that's because Daddy had ulcers and he had to eat bananas, so we did have bananas. And, we had oranges when we had the flu and had to take something and had to have orange juice with it. We had oranges then, so I never liked it.
I remember the last Christmas Santa Claus came to see me and I got a story book and five dollars. I still have the book somewhere.
We didn't have a big Christmas. I don't remember us having a Christmas tree. We might have had, but I don't remember it.”
“As far as mill jobs go, Grand daddy had a better than average job. He was a supervisor.”
“Yeah, He had a better job than lots of people 'cause he always had a good house to live in; the last years, anyway. But we didn't know we were poor.
You know that chest that I redid after the fire? It had five drawers and the drawers are small. I remember that one drawer held all my clothes except my shoes. I had one sweater and one coat and one pair of shoes. Everything was in that drawer...dresses, everything. Each of us had a drawer.
We didn't know that meant we were poor or anything. Everybody else wore the same thing all the time, so we didn't know it. We sure got by. Everything was always clean. We washed enough, so everything ought to be clean!
My goodness, that chest has been there all my life. That held my worldly belongings, just one drawer. You always had to be careful how you put the dresses in there: that was your Sunday dress and that was your school dress. You didn't have more than three or four at no time. If one wore out, Mama might make us another one.”
“Did you go to church every Sunday?”
“Oh, law, yes! Every Sunday and every Wednesday night. The whole family on Sunday morning. Sunday night and Wednesday night, you went to church.”
“Goodness, yes! I think we got to go to a Methodist church after we got up to ten or eleven or so. I remember because they had something going on and we went with some people we knew at school. But, it was always the Baptist church.
And I sang in church, too. We'd get up and sing. Mary and me and two more girls had a quintet and we'd just get up and sing. So it was us and them every time you'd turn around. We even went to other churches to sing. We thought we were something.”
“Did you have time for hobbies?”
“Probably not. You didn't do things except just play together and sing a lot. We were singing "Titanic" as soon as was printed. We played ball in the yard. It was at least six feet wide. Buck says he knows they shrunk it 'cause we couldn't have done all we did in that yard and we weren't allowed to step outside to curb because that was the street.
We learned to skate on one skate. What few hours we had, I guess we had to hurry up and play together.”
“It was five and a half days a week, no vacation. Did Grand daddy work all the time?”
“I don't remember him getting a vacation. Buck says he knows Daddy joined us when we came to Hartsville. He said he had never seen Daddy before!”
“He came back here to farm?”
“Yeah, when Grandpa bought the farm. Daddy's health was so bad he came to help on the farm and then found out you can't raise a family on a farm, so then he had to go to work, too, but he still farmed and worked in the mill. He left up there because of his health. To get outside...his ulcers.”
“It must have been a lot of pressure to feed that mob.”
“Yeah, there was five of us and then Boyd and Clyde, too, 'cause Boyd hadn't gone to work. Well, they went to work when they were fourteen or fifteen, as soon as they were able to quit school. Boyd hadn't been working but a short time when we moved. Up until then, Daddy had all of us.”
“How did you feel about moving to a farm?”
“Oh, God! I thought I was dying! I thought they was just going to bury me. I probably cried all the way from Rockingham. That was all I knew then.”
“How old were you?”
My lands! Just taking me completely out of civilization! I just knew that. And then start me to Antioch school on top of that! After being in this sheltered...I mean, in Rockingham, you were sheltered! You didn't go around people except on the village and they all went to the same school and they all did the same way. You didn't know what young people saying curse words was. That didn't happen, it just didn't. Everybody did what they were supposed to, 'cause they knew they'd get in trouble if they didn't. They were nice.”
“Then you came to Antioch!”
“In the first place, I had hay fever so bad, I had to have air, and for Mama to go in this strange school with me and tell the teacher to put me next to the window because I had hay fever... Naturally, they stuck me on the other side of the room against the wall. I was in the seventh grade.
Well, they had these gross people in there. Had one that was nineteen years old and was big for nineteen and had one leg. He sat two seats behind me and me scared to death because the girl in front of me couldn't say three words without one of them being a curse word. And, I just knew good and well that God would just strike us dead. I was scared to death!
The fella with one leg's crutches would reach all the way up to where I was sitting.
Now, I came out of North Carolina history and all this stuff into South Carolina. I'd never seen a South Carolina history book. I didn't know a thing about South Carolina. We did everything different up there and school was different. I got to the school at mid-term exams. This Lawton Gainey, sitting back there with his crutches, found out that I half-way thought I knew what I was doing - he'd reach up with his crutches and knock everybody up to me aside and tap me so he could see my paper. If he couldn't read it from where he was, he'd come take it off my desk or tell me to pass it to him.
We'd come up with some wrong answers on a test - stuff that was about North Carolina that only I would know. It was a mess. I never did get over being scared of him. That went on until the year was over.
I was sent to the principal every day.
When somebody would decide, "I can scare her easy," he'd come to my seat and say,"I've got a bee in my hand and I'm going to put it down your dress." I would scream and run around the room.
The teacher would send me to the principal. She knew there was no use sending him 'cause she'd had him all the time.
I wouldn't know what I was in there for, either. By then, I thought I didn't know anything. I would be back tomorrow with a different tale. I spent most of my time in his office 'cause I didn't know nothing.
I didn't know what to do about those people.
It was terrible! I was in shock the whole year. They sent for Mama and Daddy 'cause they couldn't do nothing with me.
My goodness, I didn't know what to do but run! I was never in the seat when the teacher had to go out of the room. You had orders to stay in your seat and I was never in mine. When she got back, somebody had already run me out of mine. It was terrible.”
“Why was that school so different from the one in Rockingham?”
“Because the ones in Rockingham acted like they had sense. The children had grown up there and they knew they had to do what the teachers said do.
When we got to Antioch, it was calm. The year before that, they had run the principal off. I mean, run him off! They beat him and run him off! They couldn't keep teachers or a principal. The teachers never had a chair to sit in. They would take it loose and it would collapse when she would sit down. They hung one of the teachers out the window. It was a terrible place!
I learned to cope with it the second year. I learned I didn't have to be scared of them, so I didn't run a lot. I just let them say what they wanted to and ignored them, so I didn't run a lot then. It got better. The first half year was panic time. Nobody couldn't figure out why I was so unruly and why they couldn't handle me.
I was scared, that's why!”
“Did Mary have those problems?”
“No, she didn't have. Well, some of them thought I was kind of pretty at the time and they thought "Boy, we're going to have a good time now." It took me the rest of the first year to learn that life don't have to scare you to death.
The rest of the time, it was easier.”
“Did you have a boyfriend?”
“Oh, gosh, yes! I always had a boyfriend. I think that was my biggest problem, 'cause I liked people, especially boys. We had a contest the first year...during my troubled times. The whole school was making money for something and they were voting on the most popular girl in school. This was two months after I started to school there. The boys had to pay a penny for a vote. Out of the school, I got to be the most popular girl in school.
I hated to leave Rockingham when I was in the seventh grade 'cause I had a boyfriend. He was sitting on the curb crying when I left, and I was crying in the car. He had given me a diamond for Christmas a couple of months before. Probably not a real diamond, but I've still got it. Anyway, that's about the way it went from then on...one after another. I thought I did pretty good.
That wasn't the reason I was always in the principal's office, though. I was just a disturbance to the class. After I got out of the seventh grade, the next three years went pretty smooth.
I was so innocent when we came to Hartsville. I'd never been up against anything like that. Because I was so scared and didn't know what was going on, I guess I acted like I thought I was a little better than everybody else. I reckon that's why I had such a rough time. I hadn't figured out life and all that stuff.
When you finished school at Antioch, you knew something even if it wasn't nothing but life. You Knew something. Everybody was farmers and I think everybody was turned loose at age one.
Thirteen finished high school in my class. They'd start a hundred in the first grade and be lucky to have thirteen graduate. Goodness, I was in the tenth grade when they got plumbing out there. There's a lot of things that wasn't a bed of roses but most of them are funny when you think about them. At the time it wasn't too funny.
I know we went to school on the first school bus built. A little, narrow, green bus that was wide enough for a bench down each side with a bench across the back for two people. Everybody else just stood up. It got packed tight in there!”
“Did you have chores on the farm after school?”
“All the time. We took care of the animals. I'll bet all the cows didn't come up to our cow, Daisy.
Let me tell you about Daisy. She was a young cow and she gave milk but she was young and wild. We had four cows.
I was in school and played basketball so when we played ball out of town, when I got back, I had to milk my cow. Black Gal was the cow I milked and Daisy was in there with her. Well, one night I came home and had to milk Black Gal and feed the hogs. That was my job, too. So, when I went in to feed the hogs, it was dark and Daisy was mad 'cause I was coming into her territory after dark. She ran towards me and I throwed the whole bucket of the hog food in her face and she butted it back on me!
She was mean. Mama went to the barn one day. They had hung a bar across the door to keep the cows out. Mama leaned over the bar to get something and Daisy lifted her up and dumped her in the barn. By then, we was all ready to kill Daisy. Another time, Buck had started into the barn and Daisy lifted him up against the wall and every time he would slide down she'd butt him back up. She kept him up on the wall. Boyd was at home and heard him screaming and he jumped the fence and went in and ran Daisy away from Buck. She was so mean! I don't remember what happened to Daisy, but I'm sure they got rid of her 'cause nobody could handle her.”
“Oh, Glory be! Why did I quit? I quit because I couldn't work.”
“You went to work when...1939?”
“Yeah. And I worked after you were born. I was out with you for about...not many months, because when you started walking I was working.”
“Who took care of me?”
“Ma Hopkins did. I'd always take you down there to stay at her house. She kept you and your cousin Dickie (Hopkins) for a while. Then I quit work to stay home with you. And then Jack was born. I didn't work after Jack was born until after Betty was born. I went back to work when Betty went into the first grade. I stayed with ya'll while you were growing up.
In about '67, I started being out of work a lot. I believe it was about '69 when I completely stopped. The doctor said I had a form of muscular dystrophy. They sent me to Columbia to all kinds of doctors to find out what was wrong with my hands and arms and one said it was a kind of muscular dystrophy. I got to where I couldn't lift the things I had to lift and do the things I had to do.
So, I quit work. When you can't do it, you can't do it.”
Thank you for everything, Mom. I still miss you.
November 2, 2018