One hot Sunday in 1853, the last day of July, just as people were coming on horseback and on foot, home from the monthly Sabbath services held in the old Flat Rock Baptist Church, a baby boy, their second was born to Elizabeth Owen and James Gaskin. Thus did my father, John Ezekiel Gaskin, in a humble log cabin near Flat Rock, South Carolina, enter the world. His father was at that time building a more spacious dwelling (with two lower rooms and an attic) but was not to complete it himself. Sixty days later he was dead, stricken by that scourge of our fathers, typhoid. Grandmother, too, had the disease. The severe illness of the parents caused so much concern that the infant had almost starved before the discovery was made that he was getting no nourishment. An aunt prepared a "sugar teat” and thus perhaps saved his life.
Since my more or less vague impressions of my father's early life have been so colored by his own spicy anecdotes of some of his ancestors, I cannot refrain from including an intimate peep into their lives. On the last night of 1818 there had occurred two marriages of profound importance to our family. On that night Richard Owen had married _________, and Sarah Drakeford had joined her life to that of Thomas Gaskin.
All that is know of William Drakeford, Sarah's father, is that he came down from Virginia in 1753 and that year got a grant of land from George the Second. One hundred one years later the identical William Drakeford was laid to rest on a small knoll something like a hundred yards back of the Drakeford homestead, the spot now grown up in trees and shrubs. On July 8, 1933, my father, together with my brother Alva and me, visited the place. He identified the old graveyard, but, although we found a number of graves, he was unable to pick out his great-grandfather's. None of the simple, homely, stones bore any name. (I understand that the records verifying the great age of my ancestor are to be found in the State Capitol at Columbia; I have not, however, looked them up. Father got the story from Historic Camden by Kirkland and Kennedy.
Thomas Gaskin at the time of his marriage (1818) was twenty-two years old, one year younger than his bride, who must have been considered a hopeless old maid. He was one of a second set of seven children, his father having a few years before found it necessary to separate his younger ones from their seven half-brothers and sisters. He had therefore left the older ones, with their share of the property, in his native Williamsburg County and had bought, about 1810, a large tract of land in the upper part of what is now Kershaw County. The old gentleman had made his home at what is now called the Gaskin Hill.
For seventeen years Thomas and Sarah lived on the "House-Piece", a small tract of land about a mile from their later home. Then Thomas purchased and moved into the house previously occupied by John Smith, a "young man" who had anticipated Horace Greeley's advice and had gone west. (Later there were to be born in that same house fourteen of Thomas Gaskin's great-grandchildren, of whom I was twelfth.) James, the eldest child of Thomas and Sarah, was born in October 1819, and lived with his parents until his marriage in 1850.
Great-grandmother Owen was one of those who should have "inherited the earth". Born in 1800 she was to live to the grand old age of eighty-seven, surviving her husband by about twenty years. The thing I remember my father's saying of her is perhaps characteristic of his meek disposition. Her husband was a non-church member, not having put his foot inside a church for the last fifty years of his life. He had been greatly upset in his boyhood by a Methodist revival and had temporarily lost his mind. Ever after, he had an unreasonable antipathy toward all churches, though he was an ardent Bible student. A few years before his death his wife joined the church and attended thereafter, more or less regularly, its monthly services, but she never revealed to her husband her membership therein. What he might have said or done had he found it out is uncertain. He had at one time been lured to the home of a friend, where a religious service was to be held, and had remained through it all, but, as far as is known, that was the only formal preaching he heard during his married life.
So far as I know "Dicky" Owen lived and died on his farm a few miles southwest of Flat Rock, not far from the Wateree River. Here he used to sit for hours every day in a chair under a tree in the front yard. Near here he and his wife were buried in a little grove. I always remember most the yarns I heard father tell of his feud with Dr. Trantham. I do now know just what gave rise to this ill will on Dicky's part, for the doctor seems to have enjoyed the good will of the rest of the community.
I think it must have been in the late forties that typhoid invaded the plantation belonging to Richard Owen. Nearly everybody was stricken down, not only the Negroes, but also members of his own family, including his son Richard. This was in the days when people expected to take the disease, which consequently had a high mortality rate. Great-grandfather distrusted Dr. Trantham, the only medical authority available. Some one, with better intentions than judgment, called Dr. Trantham secretly. He gave treatment to all the sick and they all died, including Richard, Jr. The doctor had the effrontery, I suppose Dicky considered it, to appear at the funeral (probably held at the house). This infuriated Dicky to the highest degree. He warned the doctor that if he ever set foot on his place again, he'd never leave it alive.
This recalls another story about the two. The doctor was a great practical joker. Having heard that Dicky had threatened with death any one who dared invade his watermelon patch, he decided to play a trick. One moonlight night he planted a white-shirted figure in the forbidden spot. Then he made some noise to attract the owner's attention. He himself (very fortunately) got out of the way and stood by for results. They were not slow in appearing. The shirted figure was riddled with bullets.
Dr. Trantham himself also grew watermelons and was in his turn annoyed by bold thieves. He thought he knew approximately who they were. One day, calling one of his Negroes aside, he spoke to him confidentially. "Jack, I've hit on a good scheme to get the ones who have been stealing my melons. I've carefully put a little poison by each vine. It doesn't affect the appearance or taste of them, but the first bite is sure death". Needless to say, no further depredations occurred.
The fate that seemed to link Dicky and the doctor together in a tragic way persisted till the end. Great-grandfather had always been keenly interested in fishing (he was a cripple, and thus was debarred from the heavier farm work). Towards the close of his life he spent many months constructing a complicated fish trap. He had completed it and had it dismantled, ready to be taken to the river and installed in a previously chosen spot. Suddenly he was stricken down with what would probably be called appendicitis now. He had already had several more or less periodic attacks, for which he always took a self-prescribed treatment of Epson salts. Having none in the house at the time, he suffered a couple of days without treatment. Finally he was persuaded by his wife to send to Dr. Trantham for some salts. The latter was deeply surprised, but inquired of the servant the symptoms of the sick man. "Why, he doesn't need salts, that would kill him. What he needs is a good dose of castor oil. I'll send him some." The patient obstinately refused to take the oil. "I guess I know better than that fool doctor what's
The matter with me and what I need. I've cured myself many a time before without his help and I won't have it now". So the old man, now in his early seventies, still bitter against his ancient enemy, death, gallantly refused the preferred treatment. (Incidentally, the fish-trap was never to be used. The eccentric old man had not taken any one into his confidence, so consequently no one could be found who was able to re-assemble the complicated contrivance which had already been dismantled to be taken to the river.")
His wife survived him twenty years, living to the great age of eighty-seven and dying in 18__, Father always said that she was one of the best and most unassuming women he ever knew. She was buried beside her tempestuous husband in the chalk soil of the little grove of trees on a knoll behind the home, a few miles southwest of the Drakeford place. It was forty-six years later when we took father to revisit the spot, but he still remembered the beautiful white chalk tomb in which his grandmother had been laid away. No marble marked the grave, but by the blackened, nameless headstones were blooming two lovely clumps of bear grass (something like yucca), then in full glory. A step-grandson (great uncle Isaac's step son) who himself had not much longer to labor, have now and then the little care the spot received end it was apparently a labor of reverence and love.
This is all I know of my own great-grandparents, though of their posterity I have heard much, not all of it either good or bad. I do know that Dicky was by no means delighted at his daughter Elizabeth's choice of a husband. The old man was an eccentric cripple, as I have said, who loved his family passionately, but ruled them with an iron hand. An older daughter, Nancy, had already been encouraged to marry a man much older than herself, uncle John Kelly, rich in Negroes, but rather poor in character. It was something of a come down, then, when Elizabeth chose a young fellow of thirty-one who had so little business sense that he had worked for his father ten years after becoming of age, with only a vague promise of reimbursement from his paternal employer, just as eccentric in his own way as his neighbor Richard.
However, James and Elizabeth were married and lived their brief life together. Strange that I know so little of grandfather. The records of Flat Rock Baptist Church show that he joined in 1839, before either of his parents did so, though both allied themselves with it shortly after. My grandmother said that grandfather's knowledge of women was practically nothing at all when he married her, though he had lived the thirty-one years of his life on a plantation amply stocked with Negro slaves. She said that his life had been pure. The not-quite-three brief years they lived together were not impressionable, apparently. Years later, when questioned, grandmother, who had married again and had lived, in the meantime, a life of troubles and deprivations, said that it had been so long that she remembered very little about grandfather except that he was a good man. Father always grieved that he could not remember him personally. He treasured everything he had relating to him, though it was pitifully little. An instance of this is a big, copper, penny, of the vintage of 1819, the year of grandfather's birth, which mother gave me a few months after Father's death. The fact that grandfather's grave remained for nearly sixty years without a name on his headstone is no indication of lack of care. One of the first things that Father did after getting free of the debt which had enthralled him for nearly twenty-nine years after his marriage was to purchase some simple grave stones for his father and for his own three little ones whom he had lost many years before.
Little Johnnie's early years were perhaps as happy as those of his neighbors. His mother lived with her two little boys in the home that his father had been building just before his death (incidentally, it was later burned during the passage of Sherman's army as they were going back north in 1865.). A friend stayed with them, a girl who later married a Mr. Downs and went to live in Rock Hill. When I was a student at Winthrop, about 1921, I visited the old lady and talked with her about her far away girlhood. My Father always spoke of her with affection.
Father said that one of his earliest recollections was coming in from his play one day and announcing, "I'm tired, and I'm hungry, and I'm sleepy." The speech created a small sensation in the house for it was his first complete sentence.
When he was a lad of four, his grandmother Gaskin became ill. One Sunday afternoon he was playing down on the big rock surrounded by walnut tree (a favorite playground for generations of children) in company with his brother Archie, George Coats, and doubtless other little boys, both black and white, when a servant came down to tell Johnny and Archie that their grandmother was dead. Although not understanding what the word meant, they stopped their play and went slowly back to the house. Johnnie never forgot that episode or the funeral in the house the next day.
Time passed, and war shadows could be seen on the horizon. The future looked uncertain. Great grandfather began to feel that he could no longer be responsible for the support of her eldest son's family, and told grandmother something to that effect. Archie and Johnnie were ten and eight, respectively, too young to do much labor except woman's work. Besides, they needed a father. A prospective one appeared.
John Fletcher (grandpa to us) was at that time a newly made widower who had four living children. Jim was an unprincipled youth, destined for an early end, and Henry not much better, though I think he must have often, in later years, regretted his wild boyhood. Wiley and Billy were the feeble-minded twins. Grandmother had heard rumors of them, but her suitor assured her they had as much sense as anybody. What they needed was a mother's tender care.
By way of digression, I may say that grandmother later developed some affection for the unfortunate pair and found the care of them, though irksome, sometimes diverting. Take for example the occasion on which the sick Wiley received as a gift a cake sent by his kindly intentioned cousin Janie, whom he detested. Grandmother, who was anxious to make the gift as acceptable as possible, told Wiley that it had come from "Sis", the younger sister to whom he was devoted. He pounced upon it greedily and had devoured half of it, when grandmother considered it about time to give Janie some credit for her thoughtfulness. "Can't Janie bake a good cake?" inserted she tactfully. The words were scarcely out of her mouth before the cake, plate and all was slung though the window, to the great delight of a yard full of chickens, which were always waiting expectantly about.
Since John Fletcher had promised to take care of grandmother's two boys, the marriage was arranged and the new joint family moved down before Flat Rock, about two hundred yards east of "Aunt Sis's" later home.
As well as I remember there were only two rooms in the house proper, though a third was afterwards built, and the kitchen was probably a separate building. Eight people had to live in these cramped quarters, two of them hopelessly idiotic (though they could talk and perform very simple tasks, when they took a notion to). Grandpa was a poor disciplinarian never enforcing any orders he gave to his children. To his credit, be it said that he never used the rod on his stepsons, either. He seemed to have assumed towards them a tolerant, but wholly irresponsible, attitude. Father was never scolded, but he said that grandpa never bought him a pair of shoes in his life. If Henry or Jim refused to perform some task, it was given to Johnny.
During these years all the clothing worn by the family and the Negro servants were hand woven and hand made. There were at least three or four (more, I think) slaves to be clothed, besides grandmother's immediate (and increasing) family of eight. She was constantly carding, spinning, and weaving, assisted by the same Johnny who in later years often declared that he had spent many an hour and day thus employed.
The Negroes seem to have given more trouble and concern than help. Father has said that grandpa's women slaves were the meanest he had ever seen. Then, too, Jim seemed to prefer their cabins to their father's. Nevertheless, they had to be provided for.
Early in 1863, Johnnie held his little sister, Elizabeth, on his knees. Some years before when grandmother was a widow and grandpa Fletcher's first wife was still living, Grandmother had visited a fortune teller, who had told her that she would be married again and would become the mother of three other children. The prophecy was coming true. Ten-year old Johnnie was chief nurse to the small girl, the only sister to the six boys then there and the two who came a few years later. No wonder they called her "sis".
We of today can scarcely realize the disadvantages our parents and grandparents suffered in getting their little schooling, log cabin, meanly furnished, teacher paid solely by tuition fees, brief terms, and then many students forced by petty farm work to miss half the session, long distance to travel to and from school. Some of the teachers were undoubtedly well-prepared and understood childhood psychology, but many were sadly otherwise.
One of Johnnie's early teachers was such a tyrant that she not only allowed no innocent play in the schoolyard, but also refused to let the boys and girls do any running on the road home, rain or shine. Their mother for making too much noise reproved years later, when father and mother were visiting, with their small daughter and son, at a home where she also was a guest, the children. "Oh, let them play", exclaimed the erstwhile ogress. "I love to see children have a good time". Father's first impulse was to say something, but he always gave himself great credit thereafter for his self-control.
Another instructor was hump-backed, narrow-minded misanthrope named Latta. This incident will, I believe, reveal one side of him. He was clerk in the Baptist Church. One Sunday special service was held in the neighboring Methodist church, to which all the Baptist were invited. All went but three. Brother Latta recorded faithfully in the church notes for that Sunday the number present, with the caustic comment: "All the others neglected their duty and went to the Methodist church." I think Mr. Latta was an earnest teacher, however. The last year father went to school a prize was offered for the best scholar. So sure was the teacher that one of the two large girls would win that he bought the prize in advance. That explains why father had among his treasured possessions a book called "Women of Worth", rewarded to John E. Gaskin by ___Latta.
Of all his early mentors, father most loved and admired a preacher-teacher named Rodgers. He was everything that father felt a man ought to be. I am sorry to remember so little of him, though I do know that in father's early twenties Brother Rodgers was in his decline, but served again for a few months as pastor of the old Flat Rock Baptist Church.
Johnnie was thrilled with the war, not dreaming what its cause was. The patriotic meetings, the marching soldiers, the activities of the "patter-rollers", the collections for the wounded, the news of the dead or missing, the anecdotes of those returning, all made a deep and lasting impression on him. To the end of his life stories of this period were those he loved to relate. Yet I suppose there could not have been found a Southerner who more greatly deplored the useless carnage to defend slavery, which he came to regard with deep regret, mingled with great compassion for the unfortunate blacks. He had good reason for this. His Uncle Archie, to extricate himself from financial straits, sold into Georgia the mother of two of his young slaves. A few years after, when emancipation had passed from theory to actual fact, the poor woman, sick and suffering, worked her way painfully back to her children to die, apparently bearing her former master no grudge for his part in her misfortune.
"Uncle Sam", one of Grandpa Fletcher's slaves was a faithful servant, whom no one ever thought of distrusting. One day he found a useless, discarded pistol, which he made up, took home to his cabin, and laid on the mantel. Strict regulations had been made, due to the ever-present fear of a servile insurrection, regarding the possession of firearms by the regulations-regulations which were enforced by the patrollers, a band of neighborhood men, the personnel of which was changed from time to time. Sam was caught, stripped, tied, and lashed unmercifully by those so-called officers of the law. Father said that he knew of no word of defense offered for the poor Negro by his master. "I wonder", said Father, in speaking of the incident, if Sam ever forgave Pa for that. I don't think I could have.
Grandpa's submissive attitude toward the patrollers was in marked contrast to that of his wife's sister, Aunt Nancy Kelly. When a band appeared once at her house, announcing that they had come to whip one of her regulations for her, she answered spiritedly, "unless you want to get killed, you'll let my regulations alone". Her words, her determined manner, and an ugly looking musket, expertly held, convinced the unwelcome intruders.
A never failing source of anecdotes was Jack Cottonham, a former slave of cousin Zeke Gaskin, who had brought him along from Alabama. Old Jack lived on Father's place for a number of years during the latter's early-married life. The housekeeper for his humble home was a colored woman to whom he was not married. True, he had once escorted her to church for the marriage service, but upon being asked by the minister, "do you promise to love, honor, and cherish this woman so long as you both shall live", he had answered, "Mas'r, I done promise to do date for thirteen other wives, and ev'y one of 'em is done been tuck fum me an' sol', or else I was sol'. I done said I's nebber gon' make date promise again, when I knows good'n well I's nebber gon' be able to keep it". Yet Jack was an honest man and proved a valued friend to my Father.
The slave owners were not always unmoved by the breaking of ties among their colored dependents. When little Johnnie was a nursing infant of one year, his great-grandfather Drakeford (previously mentioned) died, leaving among his survivors a son out in Alabama. The latter returned as soon as he could to the old homestead a few miles below Flat Rock to help settle up the estate. Among matters to be arranged was the division of the slaves. Deeply affected by everything that was happening, and not wishing to cause unnecessary suffering, the son was one night visiting in one of the Negro cabins, trying to find out what slaves would be willing to return with him to Alabama. As he sat in a chair, conversing with them about the matter, suddenly he had a heart attack and fell dead. Everyone thought that his death was caused by his deep-felt concern for the impending separation for which he was about to become responsible. Some weeks after, his widow, with her young son at her breast arrived for the funeral, which had been postponed until she could get there. Her nervous reaction to the tragedy was starving her baby. Grandmother took the child and kept it at her own breast until the mother recovered from the shock and was able to return to Alabama. Father often wondered what became of that boy, almost his own age, and like him almost miraculously saved from starving.
And now the war had become a grim reality. How many of the soldiers and farmers, young lovers, and middle-aged fathers, sensitive home-loving men and hardened adventurers, understood clearly the fine points in regard to the cause of the holocaust. How many had any idea that the Confederacy had struck the first blow? Our demagogues and politicians had announced that South Carolina had seceded from the Union and was now an independent state. She had been invaded by the Yankee Abolitionist. Her sons must rise to her defense. Great excitement prevailed everywhere. It is not my purpose to write a history of those four terrible years. In fact, I do not think they seemed so terrible to the eager young boys, who spent their time boasting of the prowess of their soldier friends and relatives and hoping the war would last until they got big enough to take part in it and help whip the Yankees.
As the home company was getting in trim and about to depart, there was much joking about the "dwarf and the giant" in it. "You're so tall, you'll be hit first thing, was the consolatory remark often flung at the latter." "The Yankee'll never see you at all" was the cheering farewell given to the smallest man in the company. Perhaps it was just as well. The dwarf was the first man killed; the giant was not even wounded during the entire struggle.
Conscription days came all too soon. Those under middle age who had not volunteered found themselves in a tight place. Many, including my mother's father, volunteered rather than incur the odium attached to the word "conscript", leaving their wives and children to the care of slaves, neighbors overseers, and a king Providence. Others secured exemption by means more or less ethical. Some got themselves appointed overseers of several neighboring farms. Grandpa Fletcher suddenly recalled that he had, twenty-five years before, while drilling with the county militia, had a sudden fit of
insanity, in which he had attacked a fellow soldier. It was obvious that a man thus afflicted would prove an undesirable soldier since his malady liable to recur in any moment of excitement, might cause him to kill some man on our own side.
Others resorted to still deeper trickery. "Box" Blackmon was so christened because of an intricate box, which he had constructed and placed in his home. It was a large chest with two compartments, only one of which was visible. The upper one was filled with wheat, the lower was filled, during moments of peril, with Mr. Blackmon, who chose this means of protecting what, to him, was the most precious part of his family. Of course, the story got out, and the deserter was discovered. He was Box Blackmon as long as he lived.
In the meantime tragedies were taking place in the fortresses in the camps and on the battlefield. Two of father's uncles, Ransom and Dennis (?) Gaskin, lost their lives during the war. I believe one died of disease, the other of wounds. Some of the regulations sent to help construct the defenses of Charleston died there of typhoid. A step-uncle, David Fletcher, died in a hospital in Pennsylvania. A few months after his physician sent the young widow a detailed account of his last hours and final messages. I read this lengthy letter some sixty-nine years after it was written. How could the writer have ever found the time? But he did and for an "enemy". No one who read that letter could ever hate Yankees as a class. The Flat Rock Baptist Church was taking up a collection for the wounded soldiers. What matter if the sum realized was only a few dollars, Confederate money, to buy little luxuries, which had risen sky-high in price. People back home were out of their own extremely meager incomes, sacrificing their necessities to provide comforts for those maimed and suffering "heroes".
Early in 1865 Sherman's army marched up the old Flat Rock road. I suppose no home near the highway was left unvisited or unraided. As the invaders were making themselves at home in great grandfather Gaskin's house, eating hams, chickens, and everything else they could get their hands on, one of them approached the grim owner, who was sitting on the front porch watching from his chair the smoke which was rising from the flames which were destroying his son's home a mile away. "Well, old man, how do you like the Yankee's?" he inquired jocosity. "I think they're Yankees snapped grandfather, for whom the word carried with it a world of connotation, altogether lost on the questioner. If I had told him what I really thought of them he remarked later, he'd certainly have been surprised.
As the ragged Southern armies disbanded after Lee and Johnston's surrender and straggled back home, they brought with them an apparently endless store of anecdotes in which they themselves usually played the part of the hero. Some of these stores were humorous, some sad, and other revolting, usually taking their character from that of the raconteur. One of the most appealing of these, which concerned a dog and which was related by father in the last hour I ever talked with him, will be given in its proper connection.
A daughter of my great grandfather Gaskin had some years before the War married a native of Tennessee. At its outbreak she was on a visit to her father's. Her husband, who was living on the other side of the Union lines, finally found it necessary to send for her. He chose as his emissary a man more gifted with brains than arms, who decided to assume during his journey, the character of an itinerant preacher. When he arrived at his southern destination, he had many a tale of skillful strategy and of hair-breadth escape to delight an eager group of starry-eyed little boys, who had come to see their aunt's young family set out for Tennessee. I think the closest place the preacher was ever in was in a little village somewhere on his route, where he had alighted from the train to get lunch. Always suspicious of harmless looking tourist, the villagers accosted him and asked his name and business. Forgetting what day of the week it was he had replied readily "Well, brethren I'm on the business of the Lord. I've been traveling around these hills preaching the word the best way I can and trying to save poor sinners from a burning hell". "Ah, brother, you're the man we've been praying the Lord to send us, our own preacher is too ill to travel, and the congregation is waiting. They've come miles to hear a sermon, and we had almost given up hope. Come right along to the church". I imagine there was a lengthy hymn service that morning before the visiting evangelist felt prepared to speak. But he finally arose and delivered himself of such a stirring message that he found himself at its close, fairly bombarded with congratulations and invitations to dinner, coupled with a powerful plea to stay over and hold a protracted meeting. The preacher, however, regretted that pressing engagements forced him to decline this last invitation, but he promised to return at an early date. I suspect he gave that town a wide berth on his return north.
Billy Boone, a rough adventurer, to whom the war was more of a lark than anything else, always had a tale to relate. I think he never looked upon the Yankees as fellow beings at all, this perhaps accounts for the cold-blooded nature of his yarns, for at home afterwards he became the most peaceful and industrious of citizens. He had no slaves to defend, no end to gain but adventure, so he took full advantage of that. I have felt shivers running up and down my spine many a time as I listened to father's account of the prisoner whom Billy Boone had shot as he was down on his hands and knees drinking thirstily from a spring they were passing by. (It was nearly nightfall and Billy had no guard but himself to entrust his prisoner to). He had already noticed the handsome pair of boots, which the victim was wearing. Being unable to pull them off readily, he had cut off the legs they covered and transported them to a more convenient spot, where he could remove the boots at leisure. Boone was with the army that invaded the North. As they were making free in a Yankee home, they were sharply called down by the protesting hostess. In answer, Billy attempted a swaggering familiarity. "Let me alone, you can't hug me", she screamed indignantly. Billy deliberately surveyed her bulky form from front to back. "Oh, yes, ma'am I can", he drawled waggishly. "I can hug a part of you at a time and keep going till I get all the way around". Billy Boone always attended every Confederate reunion he could get to. When 1906 came around he was becoming rather feeble, but managed to get over to Columbia for the celebration. While there, out on the street he suffered a stroke. As his body was being removed some one inquired the cause of the disturbance. "Only an old soldier" was the careless reply. That unfeeling remark caused a sentimental chord to vibrate in the breast of a bystander who had never seen the soldier before. He wrote and published a short poem entitled "Only an Old Soldier" which in 1933 Father showed me pasted in an old record book.
During the fall of 1865 Grandpa told Grandmother that he thought Johnnie had enough learning and that he could no longer send him to school. Grandmother was in a quandary but she had no intention of giving up yet. A neighbor and prominent fellow-churchman, Joe Gardner, generously offered Johnnie, in return for certain unspecified out-of-school chores, a Christian home and school advantages. It was a few years after this charitable act on his part that he engineered the wholesale expulsion of nearly half the membership of Hickory Head (Later Bethany Church). He was also the leader in "turning out" one friend, a young woman who acknowledged that she had committed the gross misbehavior of riding horseback behind a young man who was not her brother. She never asked to be forgiven and restored. Some fifty years after, when she was run over and killed by an automobile as she was walking down the highway to a neighbor's home, I felt that a belated apology should have been made to her memory by the church. No one, however, remembered the circumstances but Father, who was unable to attend the funeral. Mr. Gardner afterwards acknowledged, in a private conversation with Father that he himself had been guilty of misconduct much more regrettable than hers. Then, too, when Joe's own daughter fell from grace, he would have taken no public notice of the matter at all if he had not received some gentle coercion, despite the fact that he had been most active in purging the rolls of other unworthy names.
So Johnnie's few belongings were gathered together and taken over to the Gardner home. The wife was always king, but Johnnie soon discovered that there was more to the contract than his mother had understood. Brother Gardner had a genius for finding useful work for the idle hands and feet of growing boys. There was water to be brought, wood to be hauled out and carried in, cows to be grazed, driven up, milked, housed for the night, milked again in the cold hours of dawn, and put out again, and sheep and pigs, which had no such regular schedule of attention. If everything was satisfactorily looking after about eight o'clock, Johnnie might trudge off to school, if not, no matter how inconsequential the duty he stayed home to complete it. "Oh let the child go on to school: Mrs. Gardner broke in pleadingly more than once, but her husband was adamant. It would not do to foster habits of slackness in adolescent lads. And he ought to be thankful for a home. So, out of all the three months, Johnnie spent there, scarcely six school weeks could be counted up. Grandmother took her boy back to her sadly overcrowded house, and his school days were over.
Until the winter of his sixteenth year, then, Johnnie lived with his mother, helping her with her numerous household duties, which included the care of little "sis" and the baby boy, David, born in March 1868. Since the emancipation of the slaves, he was almost her sole help; nevertheless, another offer now came for Johnnie's services.
Archie Owen, Elizabeth's brother, had in the middle 1850's married Annie Gaskin. This uncle and aunt had in seven years time become the parents of six little girls and boys, two of who had died in infancy. (This probably explains Aunt Annie's somewhat shrewish disposition.) Annie was the next younger sister of Grandfather Gaskin. The ones Johnnie was most interested in were Amanda, born in 1860, and Johnnie Owen, a few years younger. The other girl married my mother's brother, Jimmie Stover, and later moved to Texas, where she died. I think that next to my mother and his own mother, Father thought more of his double first cousin Amanda than of any other woman. Johnnie Owen, however, always served as an illustration for any moral points on filial ingratitude, parental insufficiency, or general financial mismanagement.
Archie Owen was a small, quiet, frugal man who spent his life trying to accumulate a small homestead to leave to his son, Johnnie. I think that in many respects my father was more like his uncle Archie than was Archie's own son. Aunt Annie was rather stout and somewhat shrewish, but I never heard father criticize her attentions to him. I believe they treated their nephew kindly during the four years he spent on their place, and if, later he had reason to find that they were more mercenary than he had previously believed them, I do not think he held it too long against them. The story of their posterity had more dark pages than bright and Father always felt humiliated for uncle Archie's sake.
Johnnie Owen proved to be a spoiled, indolent, thriftless, and prodigal son. Father always held him responsible for Aunt Annie's broken heart and Uncle Archie's insane attempts to take his own life with a pocketknife. A few days before this happened, Father after an intimate conversation with his uncle in regard to Johnnie, had sought out Aunt Annie and cautioned her to keep all cutting instruments out of her husband's way. The unfortunate man recovered from his injury but died a few months later. Johnnie Owen had the brilliant idea that millions were to be made in the sawmill business. His father continually had to extricate him from some financial difficulty. Each time Johnny came out with less than he had before, but he always attributed that to some piece of hard luck, that would not occur again. It had not taken uncle Archie long to see that the small farm he had would soon "melt away" under Johnnie's hands, so he provided that it be entailed to Johnnie's children. Johnnie often remarked to father, "I don't see why Pa never laid up any more, he ought to have done better than he did". It is indeed hard to comprehend how he arrived at that bit of reasoning.
Amanda married Joe Cephas (Ceoph) Hilton a few months before Father's own marriage. She had been like a sister to Father and her somewhat unfortunate choice of a husband always a source of regret to him. Ceoph was a better businessman than his brother-in-law, but he had all of Johnnie Owen's other undesirable traits, plus a few special ones of his own. As an old man of seventy-five, he remarked to a crowd gathered around the village store "whiskey can't hurt anybody, I've drunk it by the barrel, and it never hurt me". Ceoph may be right, perhaps, it did not hurt him, but my Father always held Deoph's notorious family troubles up to us as an unquestionable illustration of the "sins of the fathers".
I greatly fear that I have digressed pretty far from my father's four years at uncle Archie's, but I have borrowed his habit of taking a bird's eye view of the lives of his friends and acquaintances.
After his first year there, Father moved out to a one-room cabin in Uncle Archie's back yard and "kept batch" there for the next three years. I do not know what arrangement he made with his uncle about the farming, but, when he left, he had a hundred fifty bushels of corn. I never heard of any money he had earned. Other matters were not happening which brought about a new period in his life.
I have not said much of Father's brother Archie, reserving all I know to tell at one time. Father said that Archie's nature was different from his own, the elder brother being the one who wanted to leave home to seek his fortune. So Archie had bought a little trunk, put all his possessions therein and trekked off to Florida always a land of promise.
One Saturday in July 1872 Johnnie walked from his home at his uncle's over to pay a visit to his mother. He found her in great distress over a painful dream, which she had the preceding Thursday night. She had dreamed that Archie was at the point of death, the vision being so vivid and horrifying that she had waked up to hear the clock striking eleven. Her mind had already conjured up all the perils confronting a young man far from home and loved ones. She felt that she could not rest until she had heard that he was safe. Johnnie tried to comfort his mother, but could not help feeling anxious himself. Early the following week grandmother got a letter from Archie's employer in Florida, announcing that on the preceding Thursday night (a few days before Archie's twenty-first birthday) at eleven o'clock her son had died. There were few particulars to be learned. Archie's simple belongings were sent home in the trunk they all recognized. That and a faded tintype photograph are all that Johnnie had left of his brother.
I spoke some while back of great grandmother Gaskin's death a few years before the war. After then, when Aunt Annie's marriage had left the old man alone, he had lived on there in semi-retirement, with his housekeeper, a colored woman named Nancy, for whom he built a cabin a few yards away (about where our old pecan tree now stands). Thomas Gaskin was always reasonably hospitable, Father said, but he never particularly wanted his house built by the side of the road, where he could be a friend to man. In fact, in this time, his dwelling was some hundred yards from the nearest road, which was little traveled.
I think I must here digress again to tell something of Thomas's brother Darling. Perhaps it will help to give an insight into both their characters. Darling was his mother's baby. In her old age, because she loved him best of her brood of seven, she deeded her widow's third of the property to Darling, who had already dissipated his own share, in return for his promise to take care of her in her declining days. I suppose he carried out the bargain, though the old lady must have often regretted her rash action for Darling's home was not a particularly comfortable one.
Aunt Polly, the mother of his ten-odd children, was a vigorous, industrious, soul, who could not abide her husband's easy-going indolence. She continually had to keep behind him to get anything done. I well recall an incident of this kind, one, which I often heard, Father relate: There was new ground near his house which Polly was trying to get cleared up for the boys to cultivate. It was thick with shrubs, roots, and brambles, which must be cut, gathered and burned before the soil could be plowed up and planted. One day she was not greatly surprised to see Darling back at the house long before dinnertime. "But Polly", he defended himself pleadingly, "that place is just full of snakes, you know you don't want me to die of snake bite. What good would I be to you and the children then?" Fifteen minutes later he was back at the house again. "Polly, I told you how it was, when I got back out yonder, the first thing I saw was a big, black snake sticking his head out through the gate, just waiting for me." In his later years he spent little time with his wife and children, preferring to travel about on foot from place to place among his widely separated relatives. On one such pilgrimage he "turned up" at Thomas's home. Here he found peace, with no perpetual scolding continually dinging in his ears. One day he gathered up enough courage to make a proposition to his fortunate brother: "Tommy, I've been thinking, you know you and I are the only ones left of our family. We're brothers Tommy, and we ought to spend more time together. Don't you think we ought to pass our declining days with each other"? "I'm getting along very well as I am", retorted Thomas unfeelingly. "You'd better get on back to Polly and your children. If you keep traipsing around the country the way you're doing now, you're going to die off in the woods some fine day, and the buzzards will eat you". "Tommy, the devil himself couldn't live with Polly, Darling answered hopelessly. "If you'd treat her decently and go on home and behave yourself, as you ought to, you'd find Polly all right. There's nothing the matter with Polly, it's you that need to be changed". So Darling found himself on the road again. Thomas's prophecy almost came true. Darling did not end his days out in the woods, it is true, but he did take sick on one of his jaunts, and died in the next house he reached - away from both Thomas and Polly.
While I was on the subject of Darling, I want to relate a peculiar coincidence that I ran across a few years ago. For four years I had taught in North Carolina School for the Blind in Raleigh. A student, Clayton Stridge, had lost one eye and nine-tenths of the vision of the other in a boyish prank. Clayton, a lovable boy who had grown from a mischievous, rather indolent youth to one of the best students of his class, was about to get his diploma. His grandmother had come up for the commencement program. In the conversation attendant upon her introduction to me, she learned that I was from Kershaw County in South Carolina. "My mother was raised down there", she exclaimed. "She was a Gaskin, I think, that's not your name, is it? She married a Robinson, a man who had a wooden leg he got in the war. I'd like to know more of her people, but I was only eight when we moved to North Carolina". One of the first questions I asked Father when I got home concerned a Robinson with a wooden leg. "Why, yes, of course, I knew him", he answered readily. "He married one of Uncle Darling Gaskin's daughters, I forget which. They soon moved to North Carolina, and I lost track of him." His news set me in a fever. Father was as amazed as I at the relationship that we had uncovered. Late that summer I met an old Mr. Rivers who had known the family intimately and had actually spent a night in the Robinson home in North Carolina. So Clayton and I were cousins, his great, great, grandparent being my great, great uncle. (I've seen Clayton several times since, but though I revealed our relationship, I never dared tell him the new-ground snake story.)
Some time in 1870 Thomas Gaskin suffered a stroke of paralysis. For four years he was almost a helpless invalid, faithfully nursed by black Nancy. He was, most of the time in his right mind, however. His financial affairs were naturally going from bad to worse. Before the war he had bought large tracts of land around his homestead, for which he had gone into deep debt. The war came on, the slaves were freed, his creditors were pressing him, and so he sold the land to clear up his debts. He still had some three hundred acres with which he had to satisfy several obligations, all of his living children had received some provision, but the children of his dead sons, Ranson and James had nothing. Add to that the fact that he was a hopeless paralytic, who had no money with which to pay Nancy for her care of him. He therefore made a will leaving Nancy a small adjacent farm and Ransom's two children, Jimmie and Sallie, one bordering on his and Nancy's (later bought by William Truesdale and inherited from him by Henry Smith's wife, "Miss Jean"). Father, as the only surviving child of Thomas's eldest son, in consideration of his father's ten years of unremunerated labor, was to get the homestead. Lum Haile, an accomplished legal scribe of the neighborhood, had drawn up the will.
A few months after the death of Johnnie's brother Archie, in 1872 cousin Zeke Gaskin spoke to Johnnie one day about his prospects. Although this was unknown to Johnnie, Zeke, a nephew of Thomas Gaskin, was entirely in the old man's confidence and later became the custodian of his will. He knew of Thomas's plans, but he saw with alarm Johnnie's patrimony dwindling away because of his grandfather's illness and inability to look after his business. He therefore advised the boy, then nineteen, to move over to the old homestead. I'll go over to see Uncle Tommy and make it all right with him", Zeke promised. The next day Johnnie's grandfather sent over to him an invitation to come and make his home with him. So three weeks before Christmas of that year Johnnie changed his home for the last time. He was to live over sixty years at the old place.
We found things in a sad state indeed. The farm had been mortgaged to get enough money to hold things together. There was no one to look after a crop, as Nancy's children were too young for responsibility. She herself did the cooking, the housekeeping, and most of the nursing. Uncle Archie had been coming over every week to shave his father-in-law, but some act or speech had incensed the old man, so Lem Stevenson, the Flat Rock postmaster, had been substituting for him. When Johnnie came, he offered to take over the sartorial duties for his grandfather. Unfortunately, the razor was not of the keenest and the operation proved unbearable. Grandfather stopped him in the midst of the shave and to the day of his death a razor never touched his face again.
One night during the last of the invalid's life, grandfather had a hallucination, in which he was firmly convinced that he was away from home. In terror and distress he called Nancy. He insisted upon getting up to go home, refusing to be convinced that he was already in his own house. Johnnie was called and together the two supported his staggering steps about the dark room, skillfully guiding him away from the door. How long this lasted, perhaps neither ever knew. Finally, grandfather became thoroughly exhausted and was induced to lie down again. The next morning he called his grandson. "Johnnie I want you to get an ax and saw and cut some doors in this house, I walked all over it all night and couldn't ever find a single one".
Johnnie had brought with him over to his grandfather's home the hundred fifty bushels of corn that he had raised at his uncle's. It came in well to feed the old horse and pigs. Father worked hard that year, had a fair crop, and so that fall he decided to buy a good horse of his own. After Johnnie had purchased the horse, grandfather decided to make a change in his will and bequeathed to Nancy the old nag he had previously willed to his grandson. So he sent over to Lem Stevenson, his former barber, a request to come over and made the necessary changes.
That afternoon while Johnnie was plowing up potatoes with his new horse he was hailed by Lem who was shouting and gesticulating wildly. "Johnnie, for God's sake take out that horse and ride up to Lum Haile's and bring him back with you". Father was anxious to complete his potato gathering, demurred at Lem's impatience, whereupon the latter burst out again. "Johnnie if Uncle Tommy was to die tonight, you'd never get a cent, I've opened up the will and read it and it's no more Uncle Tommy's will than I am. Lum Haile wrote it, knowing that your grandpa couldn't read handwriting. I've got to have him here, because he knows the boundaries better than I do. But I'll draw up a will that I'll be damned if the devil himself can break".
In short, there were so many inaccuracies in the first will that it could easily have been broken. I have already said that all of his heirs except Nancy, Ransom's children, and Johnnie had been previously provided for. If the document could be broken, the other heirs in addition to what they had already received would share equally with the others. Moreover, the boundaries designated were entirely different from what grandfather had meant to make them. As he listened to the particulars, father began to recall and for the first time to understand, an oft-repeated phrase of his Uncle Archie's "Lum Haile is too good a friend of mine to ever do me an ill turn". It was almost incredible and yet father could not banish his suspicions.
The next day was Saturday, the day a business conference was being held at Flat Rock Church. A conference of another kind was going on at Grandfather's home. Johnnie left and went to church, planning to go home with his uncle's family in order to prevent any attempt on Archie's part to go over to Grandfather's. But the wife of one of the witnesses summoned had already spread the news, and Uncle Archie came on over. It was too late, however. The new will was already signed and witnessed. Johnnie would have a home.
Father often wondered what his future would have been had he not bought a horse that fall. He never forgot the part, which Lem Stevenson had played in making safe his birthright. The last time he recounted the story to me he had accompanied little Lewis, my two-year-old nephew down to the lower field pasture and me. Since it was still early he suggested that we sit down on the grassy terraces near the brook. There he rehearsed the entire incident, using his stick to point out the boundaries in both the new and the old will.
In September 1874 at the age of seventy-eight, after four years of paralysis, Thomas Gaskin died and was buried near his wife and son in the little family graveyard out in the pasture. The old man had many faults and no doubt much to answer for, but Father always had a condoning word for him.
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