Last week two contributors to a biography I wrote on William Brown (Pete) Gibbs, Jr., The Bear Hunter’s Son, “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.” (This poetic description may/may not have connections with my eighty-year-old friends who died in 2019, but I’ve always loved this image. Poem “High Flight” was written by John Gillespie Magee, 19 yr-old aviator who died shortly afterwards in a 1941 midair collision.)
I wrote first about Max Woody, who passed on Tuesday, January 2. (Read my comments in last week’s post, January 5) I had not seen the notice about Henry Seawell Brown, PhD, who died December 30 at age 88. His funeral service was at the Concord United Methodist Church, followed by private interment at the Brown Family Cemetery.
Two years ago, on December 28, I visited Henry at his lovely historic home in the North Cove community, and he told me stories of his family who had lived there for generations. (North of Marion) A few years before, they had celebrated the 200th anniversary of this Brown family farm. He showed me a copy of the original deed, signed and witnessed, “written with a turkey feather and painful to read.” He pointed to the name Romulus Walter Brown. He was the “ancestor to all of us, including the Gibbs, because one of his children, a sister to my Granddad, married Harrison Gibbs.”
“Romulus Walter was in the Civil War as a cavalry man. His father John Seawell worked a lot, kind of got out of farming.” Henry showed me a bill of sale for a sleigh that John S. Brown had bought from his father Samuel for $4,000 in 1855. Also he bought “a fine riding horse for his son because Romulus was going to be inducted into the Confederate Army. The horse was shipped up from Texas and called Star of the West.” Romulus was therefore able “to join up as a cavalry man because he had a horse, and he didn’t enter as a private; he entered as a corporal and stayed in until the war was over, 1865 I guess.”
This NC State Senator John Seawell Brown cobbled together several tracts of land that included property along Buck Creek and the historic Carson house, the first seat of government in the area, called Pleasant Gardens. John moved into the Carson House around 1880 and lived in it until he died in 1893. “At intervals they have a reenactment over at the Carson House,” where Henry later served on the Board of Directors. “We kept it in the Brown family until 1910, and then it was bought by a Morris family” of Marion.
All together, Samuel and John S. and Romulus acquired lots of land. The Browns owned the whole valley, 2660 acres, both sides of the road because 221 wasn’t there until the 1920s. “The road was over there next to Linville Mountain.” (The old folks did not want to take up good farmland with a road. ‘No, put it over by the hill where it’s rocky. We want to grow corn on this.’) The Brown farm started about three miles past the Baxter plant location today, all the way up the foothills to beyond the current golf course.
Henry said, “My Granddad inherited the original 300 acres that their ancestors bought from a Joseph Wilson. The Wilsons entered and claimed this land back in 1700 something. This was the son of the original man who claimed it, and he then sold it to Daniel Brown, 300 acres for $920. That was a lot of money in those days. The house that Samuel built in the 1800s was destroyed in the 1916 flood. “Every generation of Browns has a bunch of Sams. There’s a Big Sam, a Little Sam, a crippled Sammy, also ole froze face Sam.”
“When my grandfather, Henry Seawell, got married, he went over to Buck Creek to farm on John S. land. Romulus stayed and worked this land in North Cove. Granddad’s wife was only eighteen, and when their first child died the first year, she was devastated. Romulus came to his son, called Seawell, and said, “I’m going to close down the distillery; it might have been a sin. It could have been a punishment to cause your child to die, a punishment for having it, so I’m going to close it down. So he took down his still long before the turn of the century.” He also took down the store that was with it where he sold whiskey. Seawell and his wife, Mary Jane, moved back to the North Cove land, back near her people, the English family farther up the mountain. And Romulus went to the Pleasant Gardens property where he lived out his life and is buried with his father John S. at the Brown Cemetery at the top of the wooded hill on Hiway 80. (near Pete’s old house) Romulus died in 1905, but his wife Delia Bobbitt Brown lived on to manage his estate.
Granddad did not tear down the mill. “Sometime before 1900 the mill burned. The guy was convicted; he was mostly blind, a McCall, and one snowy night he got out and burned Grandfather Brown’s mill. And then went back home. And they traced his tracks going and coming. He finally admitted, “Yeah, I did it.” He had been in competition with (the Browns) for the grain to grind for people. We “didn’t press charges. I think Romulus said, ‘Well, he’s a neighbor. We’ve gotta live with him. I just want everyone to know who burned their mill. That’s all I want.’ But it was rebuilt by my grandfather.”
Around 1905, the Clinchfield railroad came through the North Cove property and “offered a nice price to buy the right of way for about a mile.” The Browns were able to capitalize by selling “timber as well as foodstuffs to the construction outfit.” Henry showed me photos of the camp, with its mule barns, commissary, clinic, bunkhouses, and engineer’s office. There were about 400 people living there between 1905-1908. “They had a bakery, a steam plant, a water pump to make steam so they could drill through the rocks and all.” (I wonder if any of this had influence on Henry’s vocation. He got his Master of Science in Geology in 1954 and Doctor of Philosophy in geology and geochemistry in 1968. His obituary at Westmoreland gives his long list of credentials.)
“When the railroad crew moved out, Granddad decided to replace the old house since he had the money. Well, he got the new one almost up with rafters and siding and everything, without roof, and the flood of 1916 came and got into the old house and the new one. So he pulled it back down and moved the home location up the hill.” Where it is today.
“My dad said he was about ten or twelve when the flood came in July, 1916. The railroad had rechanneled the creek away from a sharp bend so they wouldn’t have to build two bridges.” The garden had a picket fence around it, and when they heard the fence fall, they knew the creek had over run its banks and was coming to get them. “Granddad said, “Let’s get out.” And they went up to a corn crib that was a little bit farther away from the creek, and on higher ground, and spent the rest of the night there. “My grandmother was gross with her last child; he was born in 1916.” ( I am operating with Henry’s recorded interview, and my academic friend said “gross” which means “evident” or “obvious” in archaic language, according to Webster. I’m sure she was beautiful.) The mill had been rebuilt by that time, and the flood did get into it but did not destroy it.
“The flood took a lot of topsoil off the mountains…my Dad said before the flood the upland where the house was placed and back toward Honeycutt Mtn was what they farmed. Now the upland is not as rich like down in here by the Catawba River.” “They said that after the 1916 flood you could go along what we call Morgan bottoms going out toward Old Fort the flat along the river and a lot of topsoil had been washed away, and you could find arrowheads, and there were just gangs of them. The 1940 flood came, and you couldn’t find any; they had been covered back up.”
I told Henry I had seen the effects of the 1940 flood in a photo of the temporary lake between the Carson House down to the Hilton pottery shed. Of course, he knew the story. “Apparently the Buck Creek got up against the Carson House but people stayed to keep loose timber from backing up against the house and washing it away. The family had been sent across Buck Creek over on the other side, and they were told by those who stayed, ‘you’ll know we are still safe over here because we are going to put a light in the window.’ Well, in the middle of the night the kerosene ran out, and the folks who were keeping a vigil thought the house was gone. But it wasn’t.”
(In 1916)”The old road was still over there (by the mountain); it went all the way from Marion, as you come out of Marion take a sharp left and go out toward Pleasant Gardens on 70. Hiway 221 used to be down the river just a little piece over an iron bridge that you had to go down a little hill to get to it. You went down to Marion across the little branch on the left side next to the mountain. But it was actually abandoned after about a mile up the road. That’s where the First Methodist Church was but they decided okay we’ve got another road coming through so we’ll stop the road here. And if you go up the road, you’ll turn into now 221. I remember when 221 was gravel, a lot of mud and ruts. It went through the middle of everybody’s farm.”
Henry showed me a picture of his mother who was a Daniels, raised up on Jonas Ridge. “Dad first saw her when her father was a construction man who built railroads in the Great Smokies when they were first logging them out. Around WWI, (local workers) were coming back home and it was winter, and the Daniels had to get out here and walk up the mountain to Jonas Ridge. By the time they got to our place, the rest of their family had come down and built a big fire so they all got warm and walked up the mountain” together.
Henry and his wife Wilda bought the family homestead along with some around it from his Aunt Bea in 1965. There was no heat or running water, and the elderly lady was staying with her brothers and sisters during the night, returning home during the day.
Henry lived a totally different lifestyle from most farmer’s children today. They were isolated in North Cove, protected by a close community, most of them relatives. But also isolated from worldly temptations and other lifestyles. “I don’t think I was in Marion more than six times before I got grown. I had all kinds of family around me and a church up the road. When my dad was growing up, he and Uncle Dewey and maybe my Granddad, hitched a team to a wagon and they’d go to town. They’d leave early in the morning, go down the old Linville Highway, get into Marion, park behind the courthouse, do their shopping or trading. They would come back. By the time they got half way, it was night so they camped out and come on home the next day. So going to town was a two-day trip.”
Henry showed me a photo: “This car was driven by one of Granddad’s grandsons out to the state of Washington. My Uncle Hud married a girl from Nebo, a Parks, who had family out there that was going to give them a farm (in Washington). But they got homesick and came on back.”
I wanted to share some of Henry’s memories. They seem to represent his life more than statistics and a list of achievements of which he had many. Henry Seawell Brown valued his family, and he will be missed by them and an entire community.
The current Brown cemetery is located on Brown property in North Cove, close to the fire station.
Copyright @ 2019 Georgia Wilson