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History Corner By Pat Ross & Fran Snead

November 07, 2017

Spotlight on the Southside:  “The Making of Homestead

By Pat Ross and Fran Snead

Everyone recalls that ONE teacher throughout their school career that was like no other.  For many students in Henry County, Mr. Gerald Byrd was THAT teacher.  In the 1970s, Mr. Byrd, an English teacher at Bassett High School, had a brilliant idea for his students to write articles for a school magazine.  This magazine included interviews with the so-called “older” people in the community, tall tales, ghost stories, remedies, recipes, signs, superstitions, and memories of just plain ole’ living.  Along with the help and support of many faculty members of Bassett High School, students were able to publish several folk life magazines in the 1970s.  The magazine was called “Homestead: An Anthology of Folklore and Historical Facts of Western Henry County”.  In the words of Mr. Byrd himself and serving as the introduction for the first publication (Volume 1 Spring 1976), “The idea for such a magazine as the “Homestead” has been in “incubation” for several years, prompted first by Eliot Wigginton’s “Foxfire” and encouraged by the celebration of our bicentennial year.  With the passage of time, much of our heritage disappears as those who have lived it die, taking with them their memories, their stories, remedies, signs, dreams, sorrows, and joys.  Through this magazine we hope to reach these people, interview them, and put down in print their stories and thus preserve the past.  History books tend to ignore just plain living but it is the backbone of the strength of our nation.  There is much in Henry County to be proud of and our greatest sense of pride comes from its people.  Our first “noble” ambition had been to include all of Henry County but that ambition soon faltered when we realized the monumental task that such an undertaking would involve in trying to reach out to such a wide area.  Consequently, we were forced to restrict our research to western Henry County.  But like the roots of a firmly implanted tree we found ourselves at times going beyond our boundaries because our very existence reaches beyond the boundaries of Henry County.  We have gone out in spider-web directions to interview people outside of school time, spent painstaking hours transcribing from taped interviews the wealth of material we have gathered, and have tried as accurately as possible to relay this information to you.  We have not changed the wording from tapes unless space demanded condensation.  If we have misquoted anyone we apologize; we sincerely tried to follow the tapes and write our material accordingly.”

In some of our next articles, we would like to share with you several excerpts that were also published in “Homestead”.  The Center was given some of the interview tapes that were used in the publication of this magazine, as well as permission from the teacher himself to copy, and to share with the public some of these stories.  Below is the interview with Mr. Nick Hairston; the student interviewer is unknown.

When was the railroad started?  “In 1890.  It was the Roanoke and Southern.  In later years it was sold to the Norfolk and Western.”

Who built it?  “Roanoke and Southern was the one that built it.  And I say in later years Norfolk and Western purchased it from Roanoke and Southern.”

Did you have an uncle that worked for it?  “I had an uncle that was a grade foreman.  He worked a bunch of men and mule’s grading the railroad.”

How did you venture into the railroad?  “Well, my mother says I come in a-bellowing a whistle just shortly after I was born, and I blew it right on up to 1917 and then I went to work as a brakeman on the Norfolk and Western on the Punk’nvine division.  In 1924 I was promoted to freight conductor.  I left the railroad in 1933 during the depression and came back to Bassett to make my permanent home and never went back, to my sorrow.

Did you have a home or did you ride the rail?  “I lived in Roanoke part of the time and then came to Bassett to make a short run and then I made it my permanent home.  I went into the trucking business.  There was a trucking business in Bassett then that hauled furniture.

How big were the factories then?  How many factories did they have?  “One single plant and it burned down in 19…I forgot…oh, it was back before 1919.  I believe it was in 1917 or 1918.

When did they start building the factories?  “1902 is when they started organizing the factories.”

What did Bassett look like?  What was here then?  “A whole lot more than there is now except factories.  Back in those days, they had a hotel, several restaurants, a drug store, and two or three grocery stores.  I thought one time a few years ago that they were going to change the name from Bassett to Parking Lots.  We used to have bowling alleys, movie theaters, skating rinks, and such as that.  We did our skating on the river and that was back in the wintertime when we had cold weather.  Except you didn’t call it skating, you called it “skeeting”.  The river would freeze over purt near eight inches.”

How did you keep the ice?  “Back in those days there were three…let’s see…Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Stone…it was four icehouses in Bassett and people would cut out the ice off of the streams and put them in the houses and cover them with sawdust.  That’s what they used for ice in the summertime.  You would dig a hole about half the size of this room down this deep and line it with sawdust and then pack ice in there.  Covered with sawdust and it would keep all summer.”

What was your salary?  “I charged the freight rate just like the railroads did.  I would charge so much per 100 pounds in several localities wherever I ran.”

What sort of occupations were around here besides the factories?  “That was it.  Well, you had some county sawmills back in the country, but it wasn’t anything else in Bassett.  All the surrounding countryside had small farms.  The furniture industry was the only thing around here for a long time.”

What made them decide to move the industry here?  “John D. Bassett.  Mr. Bassett was a sawmill operator and he sawed cross ties and he sawed lumber, and that’s how he got the idea to go into the furniture business.  He was a lumberman himself, and there was a lot of lumber and timber in this county.  (And the Dillon boys made their money selling sweet potatoes.  Burton and Benton Dillon grew taters.)”

Do you remember the flood of 1937?  “Yes sir.  I was in it.  When you said the flood of ’37, you said it.  That was it!  It looked like the whole country was going to be washed away.  The water was about four or five feet deep over the railroad.”

From what I heard, they said there were cows, pumpkins, and all floating down the river.  “Houses too.  There was a lady from Union, Molly Ruth Mullins from Jamison’s Mill.  She called down here to tell the people to prepare themselves for the flood.  It had already passed them then.  That’s the way they got warning down here.  After they blew the whistle, and people got out of the factories, then, by golly, before they could get anywhere, most of them couldn’t go.  The river ran down within the next day, but Lord help us, it took forever to clean up the mess.”

What were some other years they had floods?  “Well, we had one in 1947, but the ’37 flood was the biggest.  The dam, I guess, would have been built in the early fifties.  During that ’37 flood, I walked out on that little bridge to watch the flood.  I saw four houses, four little four-room houses, go down the river, bump under the bridge, and here came a great big log settling on it.  When I came off of that bridge, the water was up around my waist.  We were so intrigued by watching things, you know, going down the river, and I tell you, that was some flood.  It even got up in the hotel about three feet.”

What did people do who were too lazy to work in the factories?  “They made some moonshine.  There was a lot of people who made it, hauled it, and drank it.  I drank my share of it myself.  I was around them when they made it and around them when they drank it too while it was still warm.  And I drank the beer before they made it into whiskey.  They hauled it in wagons. The first people that I knew that hauled it were cousins of mine, and they hauled it to North Carolina in a wagon with two mules.  They sold all they could in Virginia and then in North Carolina, too.  There were people in all these hollows up and down the country that made whiskey.” 

What was done to the stills when the revenuers found them?  “They didn’t set fire to them.  If they did anything to them they would just cut them up with an axe.  They’d bust the boxes all up and let the beer run down the hollow.  There were only bootleg joints in those days.  You’d go there and buy your whiskey but there weren’t places where you could go and drink.  You’d buy your own whiskey and then go somewhere else to drink it.  People would get a license to make whiskey back there in the mountains.  And the government had a man who would come around to check it, to gauge it, to see whether they were making it up to a certain proof and that they had a license to make it like that.  A lot of years after that, they cut out all of that and you had to have licensed distilleries.  Everybody couldn’t make it like they did years and years ago.”

How much schooling did you get?  I didn’t learn anything much, because I didn’t study any.  When I was in it (school), we didn’t have but seven grades and they had two years of high school.  That’s all they had.  But I didn’t finish what they did have.  I finished the grade school and I left school and went to West Virginia and went to work in the coal mines, before I finished the first year of high school, and I never did go to school anymore.  Up on the hill, where the Primitive Baptist Church is; right there, just in front of that.  That’s where it was.  That was the high school.  Now that was the place I went to.”

(Information for this article was found in the files at Bassett Historical Center.)