Part 7: New Century in McDowell County

A new century calls for new ideas. All around McDowell County, changes were being made. In 1903, the Commercial Bank of Marion was built for $8,000. At the same location, it is now Fifth Third Bank. There were still some miners unsure how to use this new convenience. There is a story told about a 1910 resident who took his grains of gold to the bank whenever he had a sizeable bill coming due. The bank did not have scales for troy weight and sent the gold to the mint in Charlotte. When the bank received a check for the appropriate value of the gold from the mint, the amount was deposited in the miner’s account, and he could pay his bills. (History of McDowell County)

In 1904, a two-teacher school was built in the Glenwood community on an acre of donated land. A.L. Bright was the principal. Brice and his siblings would later ride a jitney bus over the mountain to go to school in this community, between their valley and Marion.

In 1905, the chartered mining operations at Vein Mountain run by General Thomas H. Hubbard hired Miles Flack who had a store near Brackett Town to be their agent. He was instructed “never evict a Civil War veteran from the property” and do not charge rent to anyone living on company property. (History of McDowell County). A unique company policy, but an attempt to unite patriots. Very commendable: peace starts with one person, me.

Also in 1905, the Clinchfield Railroad bought a line that went through McDowell County enroute from Elkhorn City, Kentucky, to Spartanburg, South Carolina. The tracks followed historic paths blazed by Daniel Boone and early settlers. (and wildlife, don’tcha know) Over Mountain Men covered part of this route in their march from Sycamore Shoals, TN, to the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780. There is a difference in elevation of 1200′ maneuvered by a series of loops around the different mountain peaks. “One seven mile loop descends 300′ and has nine tunnels.” In 1908, two railroad companies, CC&O Railroad (later Clinchfield RR) running north and south, and Southern Railway running east and west, increased the number of travelers to Marion. By 1910, Marion had a selection of hotels like the Eagle Hotel, the Fleming Hotel, and the Hotel Marianna. (“Walking Tour of Historic Downtown Marion”)

There was also an increase in residents. So many, in fact, it was necessary to start the first rural mail delivery in May of 1906. Alonzo Sherrill nobly “carried the mail” for thirty-five years between Old Fort to Garden City/Pleasant Gardens. And no leash law yet. And no shorts for his uniform because knees were considered unsightly, which they are. And he must have slogged through a lot of mud because the roads in Marion would not be paved until the 1920’s. Sidewalks were stone slabs, no doubt some were the Carolina granite so abundant around here. What a government trooper! Thank you Alonzo. The perks were outside military regs but had benefits, nonetheless. Home at night and beautiful, peaceful scenery to commune with nature. A wise man. (Was there Off! back in those days?)

Tunnel of 1907 Still In Use in 2013

Tunnel of 1907 Still In Use in 2013

Of all the changes in this county, one constant is the tunnel on Vein Mountain road that today still runs one lane wide under the railroad. There are traffic lights that are sensitive to movement, and motorists rely on its accuracy because the eastern approach is on a blind curve. This is part of the visitor’s tour that every resident shows to friends and families from more sophisticated areas of the country. We have rural charm.

Brice Sprouse said that “Taly labor” was used to build the tunnel, and when the weather was cold and they couldn’t pour concrete, his granddaddy hired these men for work at the gold mine. “He’d go pick them up and bring twenty or thirty of ’em up here and they’d mine all day. I don’t know if they found any gold. When it warmed up, they’d go back down and work on the tunnel. I always thought “Taly,” which is what my Daddy called them, were Chinese, but they’re not. They were from Italy. Italians are gifted with rock. They built all this stuff up around Grandfather Mountain. All that park was done with Taly labor.”

“There’s a house up the hill (from the homeplace) that has a tin roof on it, but it’s hard to see. It was the O’Neal’s family home, and my granddaddy helped them build it. When they were building the tunnel, a train came by on the trestle above them, and this little black boy jumped off. He was about thirteen-years-old and hunting a job. Well, you couldn’t hire a thirteen-year-old, but he hung around, and that night when they left, they locked him up in the tool shed. The next morning my granddaddy took him some breakfast on his way to work. And the next night, granddaddy brought him home. He carried him back and forth and named him Gus O’Neal. Granddaddy gave him a room in the basement, and he slept with my daddy. They growed up together like brothers. After the tunnel was built, he came here to work on the farm and stayed here ’till he was married. My granddaddy gave him the land up on the hill where the house is now. He built him a home up there, raised a family up there, and they killed him up there.”

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2 Responses to Part 7: New Century in McDowell County

  1. michael allison says:

    Thanks for a story that might have never been told.

    • georgia ruth says:

      My pleasure, Mike. There are so many folks who live their lives, without awards, true to their solid values and their faith. Together they raise up the next generation, and I am grateful. You are among them, my friend.

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