So many of our neighbors have lived in McDowell County all their lives, it is small wonder when you ask directions to a place, you get a reference to a building that “used to be…” My 87-yr-old friend at church was a classmate of Brice Sprouse. And Miz Ruby was telling me where she had a recent car accident, “Across from the old Roses.”
I said “By the grocery?”
“No, that’s the new one, it’s only been there for thirty years.”
I stood corrected. I didn’t know the meaning of “old.” And a new sign doesn’t change the interior, the past.
Miz Ruby has a brother who lives on Brackett Town Road. Their nephew runs the Thermal City Gold Mine that was in the Brackett Town neighborhood back in the 1830’s. It’s still just a mile down the road, but it’s over the county line now.
Property that used to belong to the company where Henry Sprouse was an agent for twenty-five years.
According to History of McDowell County, in 1959 Vein Mtn Mining Company that originally held 10,000 acres was known as Vein Mountain Products Company with operations devoted to the harvesting of timber. Brice said, “Vein Mountain was a community. My Daddy just looked after (the land) to make sure there was no trespassing on it and everything was going well. People took it for granted since they never saw anybody. There was a fella named Robert Watkins, who put up a pasture fence across Vein Mtn Mining property, and one of his neighbors told my daddy about it. He went over to talk with Robert. ‘Now Robert, you can’t put a fence across another man’s property.’ He said, ‘Well, I ain’t never seen nobody from Vein Mtn.’ Daddy said, ‘I’m their agent. You’re talking to somebody from Vein Mtn.’ Robert said, ‘I’m not goin’ to take the fence down.’ Daddy said, ‘Okay, but I’ll have to cut the barb wire. That’s my job.’ So he just goes out there and cuts all five strands.”
“In a month or so, Robert’s got a barb wire fence back up, so Daddy goes and cuts it again. And this continued there for about a year. Yunno, every 2, 3, 4 weeks, my Daddy would have to cut it. So Daddy went before the company, and they said, if he wants to pay five dollars a year, he can have his fence. That shows we own the property and he’s paying rent on it. Other than that, it’ll have to come down. So Daddy went and told Robert who said he ain’t payin’ no rent. Then Daddy just cut it all down. And that ended it, because Robert knew where he stood.”
Another story of that time: “There was a young boy in the community who didn’t have a job. He would slip back on the property and cut him a truck load of pulpwood to sell”, illegally. “One day Williard Seaman saw him on the road below his house so he come over and told us ‘You need to go over to the Hill Farm, cause you’re going to lose a load of wood.’ So Daddy got on the tractor and drove over there, and sure enough there’s this boy with a full truckload. So Daddy said, ‘Where’d you get that wood?’ and the boy lied, said he bought it off somebody he named. Well, his truck was stuck in the mud, and Daddy pulled him out. And then went to find where the boy had been cutting. It was on Vein Mountain property. So the next day, Daddy told him, ‘Buddy, I called the company. If you want to pay a double power bill, they’ll forget about it. If not, they’ll prosecute you. So the boy took the double power bill, and years after that, he said ‘Henry Sprouse is a man you can depend on. He isn’t out for blood. He’s being paid to do a job, and he’s doing his job’.”
Nora continued, “This was a wild grandson of a very respectable man who was a deacon in the church but also a bootlegger because of the times.” The grandson was friends with “a lot of other young men who were drinking and rowdy, and at one point he told them ‘you can steal from anybody in this community, but you better leave Henry Sprouse’s family alone.’ He wasn’t still living when Daddy died. But he had told this story, and I heard it at Daddy’s funeral when people were telling stories. I thought that it was a testimony to Daddy’s character.” Respect from the opposition.
There were other people who trespassed, cutting timber, and slipping in to get a load of pulpwood because there were buyers all over. They were competitors with Champion. Mudcut, Glenwood, Union Mills had pulpwood everywhere. Brice said they had two buyers at Thermal City. “The Southern and the CC&O Railroads run parallel down there and pulp yards on both tracks. You went to Canton on one track and South Carolina on the other. Champion paper was in Canton. We shipped to both. My daddy bought and sold for Champion down here. This was big pulp country back in my younger days.”
Larry shared a story from those days. “Dad had this Vein Mountain property surveyed one time, and Brice and I was helpin’ survey. Now they don’t survey like they use to. We had to measure with the chain. Dad was at one end of the chain, and I was on the other, and Brice carried the flagpole. Mr. Haney was the surveyor, and he would tell Brice to go north or south. We were out in the woods, and Brice didn’t know north from south. Brice would move one way, and Mr. Haney’d say, “No, go south.” And Brice said, “Where is South? I don’t know where South is at. I’m turned around in these woods.” Larry got a good chuckle out of that memory.
“But anyway, we come down off of the mountain and into this hollow, and there ‘as a branch and there ‘as a still that was set up there. My Daddy took out a pencil and paper and wrote on it ‘Move this still, or I’ll have it moved.’ And he put it on the still. Well, when the boys come back, they read that note. They went ahead and run off their booze, and then they moved it out. When my daddy passed away, we was havin’ a receiving up at the funeral home, and this guy come up to me and said, ‘Larry, you had a fine dad.’ I said, ‘Well, I think so.’ And he said,’Yunno he could have had me sent off to prison, but he wrote me a note to move my still or he’d move it. I never forgot that. I had a bunch of little children, (7 boys) and that was back when times was hard. You just couldn’t get a job anywhar. But he saved me.’
When Brice was living in Marion, and driving for Johnson Motor Line, he had his own International truck and trailer. “Then they split the terminal up, put half in Hickory and half in Asheville, and I went to Hickory with the company. Stayed there a few years and we were union. I took off when things were slow and some of the younger employees would get laid off from their jobs till business picked back up. I said, ‘Listen Bossman, let me go in their place. I got my truck, and I can be workin’ and making a living and they can too. So he agreed to do that. Sometimes I’d be gone two or three months before I’d be back. Once I was out in Amarillo, TX when the Bossman called me. I said ‘What’s the problem?’ He said ‘Bill (one of the younger drivers) is gonna take your job if you aren’t back by Monday morning.’ He’d take my seniority and he’d be the top man. So I had to come home. I wanted to come home and kill him, but I knew I couldn’t do that, so I just came back home and went back to work, and maybe six months later, I was doin’ the same thing again. But anyway, lots of times a driver could be off or take a leave of absence, and it’d be all right with the company. If they didn’t have any work. But, no pay. Once I took a leave of absence and was runnin’ up to Canada, and they had trouble getting hold of me. Finally they got me and said, ‘You better be back Monday morning or Bill’s gonna take your job again.’ I wanted to kill that son of a gun. I had to hustle home. He was a younger punk. I think a lot of ol’ Bill now, but he was ornery then. He was your friend but he would get ahead any way he could.”
There seem to be a couple patterns of behavior here. One is honorable. One is selfish and sneaky. Character traits that have been around from the beginning of time. And can be present in each of us. Kinda like Jacob’s struggle. Miz Ruby is right. Some things don’t change because of a new sign.