Farming Alongside US 421

John Idol banner

“I knew firsthand what it was like to get out on US 421 in a farm wagon. When Rufus and Lane ran short of corn meal or chop for the livestock, Rufus hitched a team of horses to his wagon and then hoisted bags of shelled corn onto the wagon, often stopping by Lane’s to pick up Lane’s grain. To make a trip to a mill, he had to come down a steep slope on the Arthur Greene farm. He needed a brakeman to help keep the loaded wagon from pushing his horses off their feet.” John Idol, Chapter Eight of Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the book from which these columns are excerpted.

Out to Pastoral

by John Idol

Front: John, Jim; Second Row: Jow, with bandage over cut from lard tin lid; Third Row: Ken, Bill, Annie, Lane, on steps of Rufus Idol home, summer 1941.
Front: John, Jim; Second Row: Jow, with bandage over cut from lard tin lid; Third Row: Ken, Bill, Annie, Lane, on steps of Rufus Idol home, summer 1941.

Rufus was a good hand to plow. He did his own and then hitched up his wagon and came around Idol Mountain to plow land abutting US 421, doing most of his plowing and harrowing for Lane. Rarely any money passed between son and father, for Rufus traded plowing for farm hands, my brothers and me. Lane had few acres of his own to plow, for he needed as much pasture land as he could squeeze out of the eleven acres Annie had inherited. A stretch of relatively flat land lying directly before Lane’s house and a hilly tract lying to the right—as seen from the front porch—gave him fewer than three acres for a garden spot, potato patch, and cornfield. Behind the house and a few outbuildings, including a small barn, woodshed, pig pen and, later, a granary with a cellar, were three acres for pasture. Once, however, Lane had Rufus reverse the area plowed, asking him to turn the soil on the steep hillside beyond the barn. It was a bad decision. A small ravine ran down between two rounded humps that made up the pasture. The ravine was a natural gathering place for run-off when heavy rains fell.

The grassy soil of the ravine should have been left unturned. It wasn’t. When frog-stranglers came, down the hill rushed young blades of corn along with the soil beneath them. Before the season of summer storms passed, a gulley had been cut down the slope, some cuts running as deep as three feet. A slash of reddish-brown soil ran from the upper reaches of the pasture to a level area to the left of the barn. It was an eyesore as well as the cause of many hours of hard work as my brothers and I gathered and hauled rocks and limbs to fill in the gash. In time, after the corn patch became pasture again, the gash began to heal. We learned about soil erosion the hard way.

The lack of enough acreage to meet his needs for pasture, garden, and farmland led Lane to accept, willy-nilly, a sharecropper’s lot. Across US 421 from him lay two or more acres of the best bottomland in all of Deep Gap, the property of Jerry Watson that had passed into the hands of Raleigh Greer when he purchased the building housing the Watson Brothers’ Store and surrounding acreage.

No farmer himself, Raleigh did have a hog and cow to feed. When Lane asked to become a sharecropper, Raleigh readily agreed. Thus began a two-year arrangement that filled Raleigh’s corncrib with golden ears and fattened his hogs and kept his cow content. Rufus plowed the lot, Lane bought certified corn seed to plant, and watched the cornfield grow into a kind of showplace. He hadn’t seen anything like the size of cornstalks, ears of corn, or per-acre yield since he’d worked on a farm in Ohio years before. Sharing was not so bad, after all, since his own crib was filled to overflowing even after he’d given Raleigh his portion. Even so, why share if something better could be arranged? That question led him into discussion with Rufus, who had little use for some acreage spread across what I have come to call “Idol Mountain.” Here were roughly five acres nominally used as pasture but rarely visited by Rufus’ cattle. This part of Rufus’ farm had tufts of sedge, clumps of rabbit tobacco, patches of dewberries, a scattering of wild strawberries, and tangles of blackberry briars along the fence. It might have been enough pasture for a goat on a diet. Its most prominent feature was a path cut across it by the foot traffic. Rufus used it as he came across Idol Mountain to US 421 to sell eggs or butter to people living alongside his route. The Idol brothers traversed it as they climbed the mountain to get milk or grapes, in season, from Rufus’ house or went back and forth to help Rufus with his crops. Other persons used it to pay visits to Nancy and Rufus, unless they dared risk losing axle or some other vital part of a car or pickup on the narrow, rocky, and rough road leading to his house. The road to his house was merely a cart-way, his route, by team-drawn wagon, to take corn to be ground or bring home bags of meal or fertilizer.

Their discussion led to an agreement that the crest of Idol Mountain would be part of Lane’s inheritance. The arrangement raised no hackles on either of Lane’s sisters. A deed was drawn up, and, with the start of the next planting season, Rufus hitched his team to a sled and pulled a plow to the crest. The soil he turned over was not as fertile as what he’d opened in Raleigh’s bottomland, and for the first two years yielded less than Lane could have made by continuing to be a sharecropper. The third year told a different story. By heavy applications of fertilizer and by turning over a mixture of clover and meadow grass that Lane grew beneath the rows of corn, his cornstalks shot us as high as an elephant’s eye and the ears of corn he gathered matched the size and fullness of the ones he’d harvested on Raleigh’s acreage. Besides his corn patch, he now had room for a potato field. The corn he raised would be needed for his cattle and horse, but from the abundance of his potato crop he added several dollars to the family coffers. Tater-eaters though he and his sons and daughter were, they could not put away all the spuds the potato field yielded. Annie’s baked, fried, mashed, and creamed potatoes disappeared rapidly from her table, and her combination of creamed and buttery young potatoes and sweet peas would have been a treat for the gods, but we mere Idols enjoyed it instead.

The mountain-top acreage, small as it was, provided the land Lane needed to keep both his pride and independence. He’d no longer be a sharecropper, though there was no evident stigma attached to that status in Deep Gap. Yet, a man with too little property to care for his family and animals suffered some embarrassment, if only in his estimation of his own self worth. He enjoyed farming the mountain-top, built a small barn there for storage and for stabling his farm horse, Joe. It was the place where my brothers and I spent many days planting, hoeing, and harvesting. It was a place, if we cared to, where we could pause to look over a wooden fence and see the hand-carved headstones of John Nicholson and Thirza Greene Idol, our great grandparents, whose graves were on the southeast edge of the acreage Lane inherited. Part of that acreage, the portion lying closest to the graveyard, is my inheritance from Lane. Other portions belong to brothers Bob and Jim. In his retirement, Lane turned the mountain-top into meadowland for his cattle. It now is the grazing land for deer, all uninvited, all insistent that whatever grows there is grown for their guts.

Lane’s Aunt Clemmie Watson Wellborn lived near the headwaters of Meadow Creek on a small farm, one far too little to support her nine children and a few in-laws and grandchildren who lived in a cluster around her house. She had to become a sharecropper in earnest. She found good land to farm at Dick Watson’s place, a good two miles from her homestead. One side of Dick’s property bordered US 421 and stretched across Meadow Creek, ending on the beginning slope of Carroll Gap. It was less than a half mile from the land that Raleigh let Lane use. To get to Dick’s spread, Clemmie hitched her team to a wagon, piled in farm tools, and tapped four or five of her boys to go with her. She passed by our place on her way to Dick’s. Wearing a large sunbonnet and a work dress, she sat on a plank stretched across the wagon bed, her sons spread out behind her. When she drew near to where we were hoeing corn or cane near the highway, she said, speaking to her horses, “Whoa, boys, whoa.” The horses stopped instantly.

“Howdy,” she said. “How are ye?” We saw that, like Nancy, she had used a birch brush to load her lower lip with snuff. Little furrows of it seeped from either side of her mouth and ran down her chin.

“Fine, I reckon,” said Annie. “We’re tryin’ to git this patch of corn hoed out so we can go pick some blackberries. It’s all I can do to keep food on the table for these hungry boys.”

“Lordy, Annie, I know what you mean. Seems like all a body can do is work from before sunrise to long into the night to feed a bunch of hungry boys.”

“Yeah, Clemmie, there’s a lot of truth in that ol’ sayin’ about bein’ eat out of house and home. My boys would do it in a minute, if I didn’t make them pitch in an’ do their part.”

“Well, it’s nice seein’ ye, Annie, but I reckon we’d better be movin’ on.” She clucked to her horses and off she drove. Late in the afternoon, she headed home, not stopping to chat, for she had a supper to prepare and many other chores ahead.

Her husband, Uncle Bob, a wisp of a man, was a mail-carrier on what was then called a Star Route. He drove a black 1932 Ford coupe and delivered mail to homes sitting on roads leading off US 421, taking most of the working day to make his rounds. Carrying mail was a six-day a week job. He had little time for farming and thus left most of the farm chores to Clemmie and their sons. As she drove her wagon to and from Dick Watson’s farm, I pictured her and her sons as rugged pioneers, just the sort of hardy souls I read about in Zane Grey novels. With her sunbonnet and long dress, she looked like someone out of the 19th century or a pioneer woman on the Oregon Trail.

I knew firsthand what it was like to get out on US 421 in a farm wagon. When Rufus and Lane ran short of corn meal or chop for the livestock, Rufus hitched a team of horses to his wagon and then hoisted bags of shelled corn onto the wagon, often stopping by Lane’s to pick up Lane’s grain. To make a trip to a mill, he had to come down a steep slope on the Arthur Greene farm. He needed a brakeman to help keep the loaded wagon from pushing his horses off their feet. He found brakemen in Lane’s sons or Mae’s son, Rodney. Struggling on a bouncy wagon to keep their balance, they pushed hard against the pole that moved slabs of rubber cut from car tires and slowed or stopped the rotation of the wagon wheels. It was far better to slow the rotation than to stop it entirely.

A sliding wheel on a slick surface is like having no brakes at all. While one or more of us manned the brakes, Rufus held the team to the slowest pace possible, not an easy job sometimes when the wagon shaft shot ahead of them or double-trees banged against their legs. Coming down the slope prompted a steady flow of “Whoa, boys, whoa, easy now, easy!” The horses must have been as happy as we were to leave behind what is now called “Hot Rod Road” and clomp, clomp their way up or down US 421.

For a few years, the closest mill was located near Watson’s Garage on 421. It was run by Alex Ray and powered by a one-cylinder gasoline engine. When it finally kicked into action, after much coaxing and priming and some cussing, it went “Pop,” “Pop,” “Pop,” its one-stroke clamor shaking the small building in which it sat and its un-mufflered exhaust emitting puffs of blue smoke. Smoking and popping, it spun a belt that turned the grind stone and sent meal or chop into waiting bags.

Southern watermill of another era.
Southern watermill of another era.

When Alex ceased operation, we had to go much longer distances to a mill, sometimes going up 421 and turning onto NC 60 to reach the mill of Allen Watson, sometimes down 421 to the road to Jefferson, now US 221, to have Conley Greene grind the grain. For a short time, Lonz Miller had a mill as part of his operation at Deep Gap Cash Store. I’ll have much more about that store later. At a much earlier time, when I was much too young to be a brakeman, I remember riding in Rufus’ wagon to a mill on Gap Creek powered by a waterwheel. A flume fed a stream of bubbling water onto the wheel and splashed down in bright, liquid crystals to the creek below. The wheel turned smaller wheels, on which belts of several sizes ran to other wheels, but the chief job of the waterwheel was to keep the grind stone going. Lumberingly, it rotated, rumbling as it received fresh grain to crush into meal or chop. From a chute to which bags were attached, meal or chop dropped from the grind stone. When the bag was nearly full, the operator of the mill, scoop in hand, took his portion and dumped it into a waiting bag. Then he ran twine around each filled bag and passed them all to Rufus to load onto his wagon. This water-powered mill was a casualty of the flood of 1940, the flume destroyed, the waterwheel overturned, and the millhouse swept away as Gap Creek became a raging river. The mill was never rebuilt and thus Deep Gap lost one of its remaining ties to an earlier time.

In a move to augment his income, Grandfather Jerry had started an apple orchard, setting out a wide variety—Buckinghams, Yellow and Red Delicious, Stayman Winesap, Virginia Beauties, Romes, and others for which no one seemed to have a name. When Annie and Lane chose their portion of

Jerry’s estate, they inherited the major part of the orchard. Lane built his house behind two large apple trees. What to call them we never knew. The fruit they bore was dark yellow except where the sun kissed the topmost part and planted a rosy blush. They were great for cooking but not a favorite for eating raw. Before them, between the highway and where they stood, was an apple tree called a Sweet Dixie. It produced an early apple, a tasty apple, an apple that we boys ate too soon, suffering tummy-aches as a result.

Deer in the apple orchard.
Deer in the apple orchard.

Those two trees in front of the house provided welcome shade in the summer. We often sat beneath them to cap wild strawberries, play board games, or visit with kinfolk and neighbors. Behind the house were other apple trees, a Limbertwig or two, more Buckinghams (great for dried apples), and a hard, green apple with rusty freckles. We didn’t know its name either, dubbing it Horse Apple because it appeared to be a treat for our plow-horse, Joe. It stood beyond the barn-lot in the pasture. It was a good “keeping apple,” one that held up unwrinkled and eatable in storage. Apple blossom time was a wondrous, fragrant scene in spring, and harvest time busy. Seeing the variety of apple trees surrounding us, I sometimes imagined that Johnny Appleseed had dropped by to help Jerry plant his orchard. The story of Johnny Appleseed was one of my favorite tales.

To be continued . . . .

Deep Gap Days: A Crazy-Quilt Narrative of My Boyhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains

John Idol grew up in the Blue Ridge, attended Appalachian State University, served as an electronics technician in the United States Air Force, and took his advanced degrees in English at the University of Arkansas. He spent most of his years as a teacher at Clemson University, and held positions as president of the Thomas Wolfe Society, the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society (for which he served as editor of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Review), and the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. His books include studies of Wolfe, Hawthorne, and a family history, Blue Ridge Heritage. In retirement in Hillsborough, North Carolina, he takes delight in raising daffodils and ferns, and in promoting libraries. Idol hopes one day to awake to find that all parasitic deer and squirrels have wandered off with Dr. Doolittle. Author Photo: Lindsay K. Apple


  • eboleman-herring

    John, every time I read an excerpt from your book about “my” slice of Appalachia and, especially, when I look at the faces in your family photos, I’m right back in my mother’s birth-town of Townville, South Carolina. I first knew Townville in the 50s, by which time The Great Depression was a memory, if still bitterly clear. My grandparents were bowed and cone-curved by all the interminable hard work of their lives. Their 80s and 90s were spent, largely, between their Baptist church pew and the Kennedy rockers before the pot-bellied stove. By the time I knew them, Lon and Abalena were just plumb tuckered out . . . but such decent people. I knew no racism in Townville. I knew no smallness, no meanness (but for my grandparents’ watch-goose). I guess people pulling all together to keep large families fed–and safe from drowning in the crick or being crushed in the silo–didn’t have much time for smallness. That would come later, alas, with greater prosperity. Bless you for your writing, John; for bearing witness to another time and place that I, too, remember. Love, Elizabeth

  • Sandra Kay

    I love this chapter. I was in the same class as your dear Sister Joyce at school.
    Solomon Greene & Nancy Hodges were my ancestors. I come through their son John Riley Greene.~~~~~~Your Thursa Greene Idol comes through the same father but a different mother, Mary Sherrill. My ancestor John Riley & Thursa were 1/2 sister’s & brothers. ~~~~~And oh such a treat you have inheriting the Sherrill Lineage. William Sherrill & Agnes White. I too have inherited it too. John Riley’s wife Mable Malinda was the daughter of Elihu Watson & Celia Sherrill.
    Thank you John, Jr. for this on line chapter I have found.
    Sincerely, Sandra Kay

  • Stanley Baker

    When I saw Solomon Greene in your book, I bought a copy. I descend through Solomon & Nancy Hodges Greene. Thier son John Riley Greene was my gr-gr grandfather. I met your father John Idol at a gas station in Boone in 2000. He asked if I knew his Watson uncle in Coshocton, Ohio. I found out that John and I both descended from Solomon Greene. I have driven Route 421 between Wilkesboro and Boone many times. My second cousin Doc Watson had a section of this highway named after him.