Louise J. Sills oral history interview

Louise J. Sills
June 7, 1972
Interview #1

Louise J. Sills:

I'm from North Carolina and I'm going to tell you something about my family. When my great-grandfather, David Sills, was twenty-one years old, he left his home in Greenville County, Virginia, and came to Nash County. He came to North Carolina looking for a place where he would like to make his home. He spent several months working in storehouses and when he got to William Edens' storehouse, he stayed four years, working for a hundred dollars a year.

While he was at Edens Store, he met and married a young lady, Mary Justiss, from Halifax County. They moved around a couple of years before he finally found a tract of land that he wanted to buy or could buy, and that's where they came to live. He bought this place in 1798 from Harry Huff; it had an eight-room house and a storehouse. Evidently, he was interested in store-keeping from the very start.

We have some old ledgers that list articles that people charged from his store, so we know a few things that he sold. Some of these articles were linen, rose blankets, buttons, hats, loaf sugar, brandy, and groceries. He had almost everything in the store except fine silks and broadcloth.

Donald R. Lennon:

What exactly was a rose blanket?

Louise J. Sills:

They were the finer blankets that were used at that time. They were not homemade. Some people at that time raised their own sheep. They would shear the sheep, card the wool, and make it into blankets, but these rose blankets were manufactured someplace else; he brought them in to sell.

He bought up lots of land. I don't know how he was able to buy so much land since he made only a hundred dollars a year, but land was cheap then. So, he bought up thousands of acres of land. His home tract was about six miles square and Belford, his home, was built to one side of this tract.

There wasn't a post office in Nash County, so Belford was made a post office in 1804 and David Sills was the first postmaster. The post office was one large closet in his store. He had an account book in which he wrote the names of the persons who received letters and where the letters came from. The outside of each letter was stamped with anywhere from five cents to twenty-five cents postage due. The person receiving the letter had to pay the postage. He also had two copies of a very interesting book. It contained the names of every post office in America, who the postmaster was, and the distance from the post office to Washington, D.C. I gave one of those books to the library in Rocky Mount and another one I sent to the DAR library in Washington. They were quite a curiosity; different people have said they had never seen those books before.

David Sills must have been considered very wealthy. Soon he needed and wanted a more spacious home. So in the early 1800s, he built six large rooms, connecting them to the back part of the house by a porch. The chimneys in his house were blocks of

granite and in the parlor there was a large fireplace where they burned wood; its hearth was one slab of polished granite.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did that come from here in Nash County or was it brought in?

Louise J. Sills:

I don't know where they got that granite. Years later my brother was going to build a house across the street and in the meantime, we had sold the old house and it had burned. The person who then owned the house said he wanted Jimmy to have that hearth for his home. So, they got it and brought it down here, but the workmen, trying to place it, dropped it and broke it. He hated to think about not having it, of course, but he didn't want a broken-up hearth. However, they did use part of those granite blocks in the chimney in the front of his house.

The stagecoach passed along this route about once a week. It would stop and the passengers would spend the night here. The drivers would put the horses up and get fresh horses to proceed on the trip. If they had a big load of passengers, the driver would usually blow his cow horn real loud when he was up the road about a half mile or so; the cook would hear him and she would run out and kill a few more chickens to add to the supper. By the time they drove in that half a mile and freshened up at the toilet, supper was all ready and on the table for them.

David Sills had this large ciphering book that we just looked at. It's now brown with age. He began using this book when he was very young. It had a sample of all mathematical problems, stated and worked, and samples of all kinds of legal instruments, business and social letters, foreign money, and so forth. If there was a blank spot, he often wrote a line about his family. Evidently paper was very scarce in those days.

Belford was a complete settlement. There was the store, which had most anything you wished to buy and there was also a blacksmith's shop where the slaves made farm tools, pots and pans to be used in those big open fireplaces, molds for the candles, and most anything else that could be made out of iron. There were several ponds on the place and when the thermometer went down to about sixteen degrees for three days in succession, the men would saw blocks of ice out of those ponds and put them in the icehouse over on one side of the yard. They'd pound those blocks of ice to form one big cake of ice and cover this with sawdust; so, we always had ice on hand. In the summer, if neighbors got sick and wanted ice, there was, of course, nowhere they could buy it around these parts, so they'd send up here for ice and we'd give them some. If they wanted to make ice cream, they would put the contents of the cream in a little cooler and sit it in a big bucket of ice and salt and turn it from one side to the other until it froze.

Donald R. Lennon:

I never have understood how ice managed to keep during the heat of the summer in one of these ice houses.

Louise J. Sills:

Well, the ice kept there all year. They also had coolers where they put the milk and butter; of course, this was down in the ground. They would let it down and it would always stay cold; the milk never soured. They didn't try to keep vegetables like we do today. We keep vegetables and meat in a refrigerator or deep-freeze, but with slaves and a big family, I reckon they cooked every meal. I don't reckon they ever had to warm over like I do.

They had a man who was the overseer for the slaves, one who looked after making sure that they worked and really saw what they were doing. They also had a housekeeper who looked after the slaves in the house. The house slaves cooked, sewed, and carded,

spun, and wove the cloth. They did all these things and the gentleman and lady of the home never knew how to do anything.

After the slaves were freed, the gentlemen and ladies knew absolutely nothing about real work, household work. One of my aunts, Aunt Pattie, was married and lived near home. My oldest aunt was Mary Sills; we called her “Auntie.” One time Aunt Pattie became sick and Auntie went up to look after her. They didn't have a cook because the slaves were gone, so Uncle Billy went out and cut a chicken's head off, and Auntie picked the chicken and put it in the oven and baked it. When dinner was ready, somebody said something about the chicken. Lord! She hadn't cut up the chicken or dressed it at all! They wouldn't eat it. That's how ignorant they were about cooking. She never did learn how to do anything. She lived to be eighty years old and never did know how to do anything around the home.

Mary, David Sills' wife, died in 1818 and two years later he married Elizabeth Wilhite from Franklin County. He lived another thirteen years and then passed away.

Dr. Gray Sills was the only son by the first marriage to live to maturity. He attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and when he returned home, he used the store building in the yard for his office. Gray became deaf at an early age and it interfered with his social life. We have a letter he wrote to Louisa Jelks of Halifax County. He had seen her, but he was so deaf that he was embarrassed to go courting, so he wrote her a letter. It's a real classic. One thing he mentioned in his letter was that he had heard that she was too modest to write to a man, but would she please let this friend, who carried this letter, have some idea of whether or not she was interested in him. Evidently, she was interested, because they were married two months later.

Dr. Gray continued to carry on the plantation about the same as his father had, but he added some other things to it. This was a sparsely settled area and schools were not convenient for his children, so he had governesses from the North who came and taught. This was before the children were college age. Then several of the neighbors around asked to let their children come and go to school with his children. In a few years, there were several children from a distance who wanted to come, so he had several girls to board there. One of these girls was Miss Rowe Wiggins from Wilmington and she was the last one to die that I know of. (I think she was worth about $4 million when she passed away.) She stayed there seven years. She went when she was such a little kid that she slept on the trundle bed in their room. She said she loved the Sillses more than any people in the world and she was going to leave them something, but something happened and we didn't get a fortune.

He had this school and he had a little catalogue that showed the prices: board was $60.00 a month; tuition and English were $10.00; drawing and painting were $7.50; and music at the piano was $15.00. The vacation period was in the winter because it was so cold that they couldn't heat the buildings well. So they went to school in the summer and had their vacations in the winter.

One other thing that Dr. Gray added was a little church. He wanted to have a church on his plantation, because there was no church near them. He wanted the church on the road that was most traveled, the road now from Castalia to Louisburg. One day, he and two or three men were riding horseback, trying to decide on the exact location for this church when, all of a sudden, he saw a lady dressed in blue in their midst. They all spoke about her, “Oh, what a surprise to see a lady in such an isolated spot as this.” They

glanced off for a second and when they looked back, she was gone. So they jumped off their horses and looked behind the trees and under the bushes and all around, but they never saw her anymore that day.

Some little time later, Dr. Gray's daughter, Mary Louise, and some girls were riding in the carriage late in the afternoon and they were in about the same location. All of a sudden, they saw a lady in blue walking right in front of the horses. They all saw her and talked about it, but when they glanced off for a second, she was gone again. Those were the only two times that she was seen, but my aunt was as truthful as anybody I know, and she said she saw the “blue woman.” There was a story that people told which was believed by many to be the explanation for this “lady-in-blue” ghost. At that time, many people traveled in covered wagons, and, oftentimes, they would set up camp and stay for several days. One time there was a group of people in one of these covered wagons, camped in the same location where the ghost was later seen. There was a woman in the group who was very sick. Grandfather, being a doctor, went down to see her. He found that she was in critical condition, so he carried her up to his home where she died within a few days. He did not want to bury her in the family graveyard, so he had her buried out there at this camp. The local people used to say that she was homesick, because all of her people had gone and left her, and that she was roaming around looking for her loved ones.

After David Sills died, his widow, Elizabeth, married Spencer Alston. Elizabeth had three girls who were very young, my grandmother being the youngest. The oldest child had been a boy, but he died when he was young. When Elizabeth married Spencer Alston, he became the girls' guardian. At that time, women and girls never went

anywhere unless they were accompanied by some gentleman, so he would take the girls places. He would use their carriage, horses, and driver and charge them five dollars a month for his services. He also made his wife (their mother) charge for knitting their stockings. Of course, all of them wore home-knit stockings then. The girls would wear out the feet and she'd make a new foot, and she'd charge for all these little things that she did for her own children.

I have an old letter, or a bill, from a tavern service in Warrenton. Their bill for the night was $4.37½. Mr. Alston gave the girls pocket change of $2.00, which was also charged to their account.

He rented out their slaves. That's where they got some money each year. Those renting the slaves had to meet the following conditions: They had to be furnished two suits of good clothing each--one suitable for the winter and one for the summer--a pair of woolen socks, and a pair of double sole shoes. The smallest children, however, didn't need shoes, so they didn't have any. They had to be comfortably fed and humanly treated. The taxes had to be paid by those hiring them. They were not to work in the gold mines or fisheries and at the end of twelve months, each one had to be returned to the guardian.

In 1835, these minors owned fifty-nine slaves. In just a few years, it had increased to seventy-five, but the hire had decreased. When they had fifty-nine slaves, they received $1,214 for a year's hire, but when there were more little children, it dropped down to about $100 less, even though there were more slaves.

Donald R. Lennon:

Could the national economy have had anything to do with that?

Louise J. Sills:

I wouldn't think so. There were more little children and a little baby a year old couldn't be rented out, while a child ten years old could be. I think that was the difference.

Isadore, my grandmother, attended school in Warrenton and then went to Edgeworth School in Greensboro. Her expenses in 1840 were $326.19 for one year of tuition and board. The buildings were not heated and the girls had to go out in the yard, bring in their fuel, and make their own fires. It was a very cold winter and Isadore took cold. It settled in her ears and she continued to grow deafer. (When I knew her I was a little child and she couldn't hear anything. However, she read lips perfectly and people, at times, didn't realize she was deaf.)

After she went to Greensboro to school, she went to St. Mary's Hall in New Jersey and graduated valedictorian when she was eighteen. After graduation she married Dr. David Outlaw, a very wealthy young man. He wanted to travel, so they traveled, accompanied by a maid and valet. They spent one winter in New Orleans, having her ears treated. Every day, when she would go to the doctor, she'd pass the jewelry stores, which displayed their jewels out on the sidewalk. She couldn't resist buying a piece when she passed. The only thing I ever saw that she bought was a miniature gold coffee mill. It was a cute little thing. She wore these charms on her watch-chain. The ladies had quite a collection of charms for their watch chains.

Her husband died very soon and was buried in New Orleans. She was left with a little girl, just a few months old, so she came back to North Carolina with her little girl, Ida. When Ida was two years old, a cousin, John Pierce, carried them to Raleigh to catch a train. They were going to Mississippi to visit the mother and the sisters that lived there.

John Pierce said, “Mrs. Outlaw, I want you to save that little girl for me. She's the cutest thing I ever saw. I want to marry her when she gets grown.” And my grandma said, “All right.” Sure enough, when she got grown, they married and lived in Franklin County.

My grandmother stayed in Mississippi with her mother for a while. She was a very brilliant young woman and very beautiful. She had a quick repartee; she was always the center of every group. Once, at a banquet, a young lawyer said that he had heard she could write poems, but to prove it, he wanted her to write one right then. She said, “Well, all right. What would you like for me to write about?” He said, “Well, write about me.” So, without any hesitation, she replied, “By being asked by a vain, silly coxcomb to write an impromptu, giving himself as the theme: Be careful in asking a lady to write when you are the theme. Writing something good about nothing is harder than you, sir, may deem.” This captivated him and later he proposed marriage, but she did not accept. Later he was the governor of Mississippi.

It wasn't too long before Isadore married a widower, Scott Thompson, who had three small boys. They lived in Crawford, Mississippi. It was a sickly country and there were a lot of yellow chills and fever. One of the little boys was taken ill and died very quickly. I don't know what illness he had, chills or fever, but anyway they wanted to bury him quickly, because it was so contagious. He had a white hyacinth in his hand when they buried him. Years later, they wanted to move to a different place to live, but they didn't want to go off and leave the little boy buried there, so they had the undertaker come dig his body up. He asked all the family to come and stand by the casket when he opened it. When he opened it, the little boy was laying there in perfect condition with

that little white hyacinth. While they were looking, something veil-like appeared between them and the boy and in just a few seconds, there was nothing there but a pile of ashes.

Scott Thompson was Worshiper Grand Master of a lodge in Mississippi, which had been named for him. Later, this was combined with the Dabney Libscomb Lodge. We have, in our possession, his two silver emblems of the masonry. Engraved on the back of each was the name of the lodge and his name. Scottie Perry also has two of these in Goldsboro.

Travel in those days was slow and very expensive. When Ida visited her mother in Mississippi, she always stayed a year. Then when Mama got grown, she and Grandma came to North Carolina to visit Ida for a year. They visited Ida and different relatives in Nash County.

My father and Pattie were first cousins, but he had never known her until she came here as a grown young lady. He would ride horseback up to Ida's to see her. One night, as he was approaching the yard, he saw two girls leaving the house. They were coming down to meet him, dressed in white and slinging their hands. He didn't speak to them right then but, instead, jumped off his horse and tied it up. Once on the ground, he turned to speak to them, but they were not there. He thought they were behind the gatepost or behind the big oak tree. He looked around, but he couldn't find them. So, he just walked on up to the house and there was Pattie, sitting out on the porch waiting for him. He asked, “Where are the girls?” She said, “There are not any girls here. I'm the only one here tonight.” He told her about just seeing these two girls and, of course, she didn't know what had happened. They were not anybody she knew. So, the next day she told the cook about it and she said, “Oh yes, I see those girls frequently. They come

around the yard at night and sometimes even pick up chips.” However, we never discovered who those ghosts were.

Grandma used to tell us a lot of different stories. She had traveled around a lot and she would entertain us at night, telling us various things that had happened to her. She told us about the deep snows when she was at St. Mary's Hall in New Jersey; how the boys would come up and take the girls sleigh riding. The sleighs were pulled by black horses with silver bells. The girls would bundle up in the sleighs and ride around with these little bells tinkling. As they rode, they would sing.

Another story she told us was about one of her friends from out East. This friend moved farther out West to live and got very sick, dangerously sick. I don't know how they communicated. I don't reckon they had telephones, but they might have had telegraphs. Anyway, someone notified her friend's mother that her daughter was very ill. The mother left, going to her daughter's home, but before she could get there, the girl died. The undertaker said they couldn't wait any longer; they had to bury her that day because she had not been embalmed. So, they went out to the family burial plot and had everything ready to lower the casket when somebody looked up and said, “I see dust.” They watched as the dust got larger and larger. Then they were able to see a horse coming at full speed, so they waited. When the mother came, they opened the casket and she screamed real loud when she looked in the casket at her dead daughter. And someone said, “Did you see that? She moved her little finger!” She really had moved her little finger. So, they opened the casket and began to work on her. She had been in a trance, but they were able to save her life. Whoever had prepared the funeral had put a silver

plate on the casket with her name and the dates of her birth and death. She carried this little plate with her always until she died. Of course, she died two times.

Donald R. Lennon:

You always wonder how many times that type of thing actually happened back before the days of embalming.

Louise J. Sills:

She told us so many of these types of incidents. Sometimes, I don't know why, but they would dig up these bodies, move them for some reason, and they would find that they had pulled their hair out--all kinds of things like that happened.

In recent years, we thought there was one up here at Louisburg. A cousin of mine died. She and her husband had been living in South Carolina. Her name was Carolyn McLauren and she was brought to Louisburg and buried. The next Easter her husband came to visit her grave. He was staying at a place that was real close to the cemetery. He couldn't sleep, so he got up and since it was almost daylight, he went out there to her grave. Right next to her plot was a brand new grave with beautiful fresh flowers. He heard something knocking and as he listened, it seemed like it was coming from the ground. He was so excited; he began looking for a house close by for someone to open the grave, but it was just a matter of seconds, or maybe a minute, when it began to get softer and softer and finally quieted down. So, he didn't tell anybody. He went downtown and, hanging around the drug store, asked, “Who was buried yesterday?” Someone said, so-and-so was buried, “and I never did believe she was dead, because she never did get stiff.” Charles didn't say anything, because he knew if the family knew that she came to life, they'd be miserable.

Donald R. Lennon:

I know, but it seems like he would have started digging with whatever he had to dig with.

Louise J. Sills:

By the time he had gotten shovels and some help, why, a half hour or more would have passed. She didn't live five minutes.

Another story she told us was about a brother of one of her girlfriends. He was at the University of Pennsylvania studying medicine and she wrote, asking him about her coming to visit him. He wrote back that he'd be so happy for her to come. She thought, “I believe I'll surprise him. I'm just going and he will not know it.” So she went on a train and, when she got there, she took a cab and gave the driver the address of her brother's boarding place. As they were leaving she said to the cab driver, “My head is about to kill me. Go by a drug store. I've got to get some medicine for my head first thing.” So he went to the drug store and when he opened the door for her to get out, there she was laying back there, dead. He didn't know what to do with her, so he decided to take her to the hospital and sell her body. Each of the medical students took turns pulling back the sheet on the bodies they were going to examine and that morning it was her brother's turn. He pulled the sheet down and there was his sister, lying there dead. He fainted and fell and, of course, the others didn't know what had happened. The others didn't move until he was revived. They discovered that she was also in a trance, so they worked on her. She was revived and lived years longer.

Our cook's son was working in the hospital in Richmond some years back. A little girl died there on the hall one day. They carried her body down to the morgue, for the undertaker to claim it and take it away. For some reason he had to go down there to this room and when he opened the door, this little girl hollered out, “Mama.” He said he never understood why she was calling “Mama,” but he didn't waste any time getting her out.

One of our old doctors that lived up in Castalia often would tell this story. He had lots of night calls; often he'd have to get out at night and ride around the country to see different sick people. When he'd get to a certain plantation, the Braswell place, a headless man would get in and sit down in the foot of the buggy. He would ride with the doctor until he got to the Mathis crossroad and then he always disappeared. He made out that was the truth, but I don't believe it.

Donald R. Lennon:

Let me ask you a question about Belford again, about the lady in blue and the church that you were speaking of at the time.

Louise J. Sills:

Gray Sills built the church around 1857. It was a Methodist church and it served as a house of worship until a tree crushed it, maybe as long as twenty years ago. It was not rebuilt at the original site; it was rebuilt in Castalia, the little village nearby. Although Castalia is a Baptist community and has a large Baptist church, this little Methodist Church still has a small membership.

Castalia was named by a Miss Preston, one of the governesses at Dr. Gray Sills' school. There was also a boys' school up at Cedar Rock, about six or seven miles away. Miss Preston married Mr. Richardson when this little village was just springing up and she named it Castalia. Not long after that, they moved the post office from Belford to Castalia, so there is no Belford Post Office any longer.

Donald R. Lennon:

Going down the highway from Castalia to Louisburg, is there anything that would let someone know that he or she is passing Belford?

Louise J. Sills:

No. Belford was over at a crossroads that went north and south, east and west. There was a great, large house sitting up in a grove and down in front of the house was a nice yard with palings and great big gateposts. Down in front of that, there were a good

many acres of land before you got to the crossroads. But all of that has grown up now and is so thick that when I go up the Warrenton Road, I can hardly find Belford. It's just grown up so; I hate to think of it. It's growing out of our recollection even.

Belford was on a red hill. Oh, it was the reddest land. I don't know how my mother ever kept a clean house in the winter with the children running in and out, bringing in red mud everywhere. But, then, farther on up the road, hardly half a mile, it was sand. People that were traveling just did not want to go over that red road, so they got so they would cut through the field. Papa hated for them to go through his tobacco field and he'd block it up, but the first thing you'd know, somebody else was going through again. They kept going this way until the old original road that I knew was no longer there. They used this path through the woods and the corn field. Right now, they are paving that road from this highway to Louisburg; it's almost impassable from the turn off the main road going to Louisburg now. It was a fine old place in its day and I hate for it to get out of people's knowledge.

Let's go back and discuss Dr. Gray Sills and his family. Two of Dr. Gray Sills' sons were doctors and they, along with another son, were also in the Confederate Army. Dr. David, the oldest son, developed typhoid and was in the hospital in Goldsboro. It was dangerous to cross enemy lines, but Dr. Gray gave a friend a tract of land to go and bring his son back home safely. My father was too young to join the Army. If it had lasted one more year, though, he would have been in it. He was seventeen then and at the age to go to college, but Reconstruction days were so difficult that he was not able to go to college. My mother was the same way. She was born around the same time in Mississippi and the older children were all able to go to college. However, they didn't have any money when

my mother was old enough to go, because slaves were money and there were no more slaves. These people just didn't know how to work, so they had a very difficult time for some years.

When Louisa Sills' father died in 1845, he left his estate to be divided into ten parts. The slaves she inherited were: a man, forty-six years old, valued at $300; a twelve-year-old boy, valued at $440; an eight-year-old boy valued at $325; and a five-year-old boy, valued at $225. Dr. Gray gave each of his children some land about a half mile from Belford. His youngest son, Thomas Alfred, who was my father, was given the home place. He and his bride, Pattie Thompson of Mississippi, lived there with his parents and two maiden sisters until their deaths. One of the sisters, the oldest one, outlived my father.

At Christmas, all of the children and their families went to Belford for Christmas dinner. It took a lot of cooking in advance. We always had as many as a dozen cakes, eighteen pies, turkey, ham, backbone, and most everything you could think of good to eat. Papa always saved the largest turkey, one that weighed about thirty-five pounds, for the Christmas dinner.

One Christmas morning we had this large turkey, so large it couldn't be cooked on the stove, instead it was being cooked in a washpot out in the backyard. Suddenly, the cook came running in and said, “Oh, Miss Pattie, did you know that the hogs got out and they've knocked over the pot and are dragging the turkey around the yard.” It was terrible news, but she said, “Go out and kill another turkey, a smaller turkey.” So another one was killed. It made dinner a little later, of course, to have to cook a turkey from the start that morning.

Mama had two nephews who lived in Louisburg. One night they had been down to Castalia for a dance. The roads then were just real bad; it took almost three hours to go from Belford to Louisburg in that deep sand. So, after the dance was over, they decided that since it was so late they would go up to Uncle Tommie's and spend the night. The little dog heard them come in, so he barked and barked. Papa saw that the dog wasn't going to stop barking, so he thought that there must be somebody out there trying to steal his meat. In the dark, he got up and went out on the back porch and shot toward the smokehouse. The next morning these boys came down to breakfast, just giggling. They had laid up there and listened to the shooting and didn't say a word. Papa went out there to see how the smokehouse looked and found holes all over the front and all over the doors. If there had been anybody trying to get the meat, they wouldn't have lasted very long.

Donald R. Lennon:

What had caused the dog to bark?

Louise J. Sills:

The boys came in the house to spend the night instead of going to Louisburg. They didn't want to drive to Louisburg after one o'clock, so they decided they would come in and spend the night at Uncle Tommie's. He didn't ever lock the door, because we didn't have anybody breaking in and robbing in those days; so the boys just came on in and went upstairs to bed. The dog heard them, however, and didn't like it. He was trying to protect us.

The Sills family lived at Belford exactly one hundred years. Papa was elected clerk in 1898, and that was just one hundred years after his grandfather had settled there. When he was elected clerk, he moved to Nashville with his five small children. He

expected to go back to Belford to live after four years, but he was reelected and the children had gotten used to living in Nashville, so we never went back to the country.

The house was rented for many years. We came to a smaller house in Nashville, so much of the furniture was left behind. Each time a different tenant would move, they would take a piece or two of furniture. We never went back, but we got the old piano that no one had sense enough to figure out how to get out of the house. It is one of those old square pianos made of rosewood. They had to turn it up on end and unscrew the legs in order to get it out. We had a library table made out of it, and it sits in Scottie Perry's front hall. It's a beautiful thing. I kept it here for many years. My mother gave it to Izzie, but, then, after Scottie built her home, she said, “Well, I want her to have it now.” Mama also gave Izzie the dining room furniture and the sideboard; that was a very old piece. So after Tom Dameron built his home in Raleigh, he got that, and he's had it worked over. It is a beauty.

I have one old piece; it's a secretary that belonged to the first David Sills. An inventory of his estate mentioned a bookcase and a writing desk, so we put the two together, because that is the way they always sat. All of the furniture was divided up and each of the children has something that came from Belford. Now that little table there, that was in the house at Belford. These tie backs--they are gold--were in the parlor at Belford. I always thought they were brass. One day a cousin from Philadelphia was here and she asked me if I'd give her something that belonged to my grandfather. She had been so devoted to him because her father had lived there for years, and I had an extra pair, so I gave them to her. She took them to a jeweler to polish, and he said, “These are

not brass; these are gold.” He cleaned them up and she told me to send mine to him, which I did; so these are gold.

Donald R. Lennon:

Had you known they were gold, you would have thought twice about giving them to her.

Louise J. Sills:

Well, they would have been very difficult to have cleaned if they had been brass. The way they were engraved, the polish would have gotten down in the crevices and would have been very difficult to get out. I never would have prized them then, but now knowing they are gold, I think they are valuable.

My father had been clerk for about fourteen years when his health began to fail, so he resigned. My brother, James Nicholson Sills (Jim Nick), was appointed the same day. He had worked in the clerk's office about seven years before being appointed clerk. After his appointment, he worked for fifty years more. So, he was in the office for fifty-seven years. The last thirty years he was in there, I went in as deputy and assistant clerk until he retired in 1962. He and I left the office at the same time. About that time is when they began to change the court system and now it has all changed completely. Nothing in it is the same as it was when we left and now it's even a state office. All the reports are made to the state every day and they are paid by the state. I'm so glad I stopped when I did, because we thoroughly enjoyed the clerk's office as it was.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well, the Sills family pretty much dominated the Nash County Circuit Court's office.

Louise J. Sills:

Yes. Well, we just grew up in the office. We didn't know anything else. Jim Nick was such a popular clerk. Young lawyers didn't know anything. They would get the in-book knowledge in college and when they came out, they didn't even know how to

write a mortgage or a deed or anything. So, they would come in and ask questions and I got so that I could help a few of them. All of the older lawyers that he knew thought a lot of Jim Nick and still do. When he retired, the Bar Association, the State Clerks Association, and his friends entertained him. They gave him tributes, gifts and testimonials--a little bit of everything complimentary. It was very gratifying to know that somebody appreciated what he had done. The Clerks Association was created soon after Jim Nick became clerk. He was in his twenties, so he went to the association as one of the really young clerks. He was appointed secretary and served two years; then they named him president. He held every office except vice president. After he was president, they appointed him and one or two others to be on the legislative committee. Their job was to ensure that certain laws being considered were worthy and needed to be passed for the best interests of the people. Since he's retired, he's been back to every one of the meetings except one and they still pay him a lot of attention and respect.

The first telephones were put into Nashville when I was in college. We had an operator, Miss Roxie Collins. She would sit there at the switchboard and if somebody wasn't asking for a certain number, she would be listening. She knew exactly what everybody was doing and where they were going. It was really nice to have somebody that knew all about everybody in town.

Donald R. Lennon:

There was no privacy, though.

Louise J. Sills:

No privacy over the telephone.

One day my brother's wife and a friend went to Raleigh. Coming back along about Zebulon they had car trouble. So, she went in someplace and called up Jim Nick and said, “Come after us. We're broken down.” Miss Collins butted in and said, “No,

Mrs. Wayne Whitley has gone to Raleigh. She is going to leave there at three o'clock and it's just about time for her to be in Zebulon. You just stand there. She'll bring you home.” Sure enough, she did.

Somebody was very ill here one night and I went to the phone to call the doctor. I got so excited that I couldn't think and Miss Collins said, “Honey, I'll get them for you.” Sure enough she did. She called the doctor and somebody else and in five minutes they were right here. It was a great help. When the dials were put in and we all had to look up the number, we hated it a lot, but now we've all gotten accustomed to it.

Grandma used to know some people who had some very long names, and I wrote them down. There was a boy and a girl in one family. The girl's name was Mary Anne Rebecca Small Todd Dolly Yankee Doodle Yaho Bonaparte Dekelsey Reed. Her brother was named Enis Stenis Steve Marinus Maricus Capus Miles Giles Monroe Coleman Reed.

Donald R. Lennon:

Those were actually their legal names?

Louise J. Sills:

Yes, their actual names.

Donald R. Lennon:

Their father had a weird sense of humor.

Louise J. Sills:

Our neighbor's cook had a little girl and this was her name: Artemissie Lizzie Hanna Clanna Dupina Josindie Ethelindie Josindie-McCaroline Mitchell. My sister and Mable Cooley wanted to learn her name, so they would go and ask her. She couldn't tell what came next; she would have to stop and say it all over. They would write out one word and ask her to say it over. It took a good little while for them to write it down so all of us could learn it.

Around the year 1800, people liked to travel and explore. Some used covered wagons and some rode horseback. One time my Uncle Henry Mumford, of Franklin County, was traveling through Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. He'd ride for a long distance and then late in the afternoon he would begin looking for a place where he thought he could spend the night. One day, about sundown, he saw a great big fire house and thought it would be a fine place to spend the night. He went to the door and knocked and a man came. My uncle asked if he could spend the night. The man said, “Yes,” and he was very gracious. A nigger man came and took his horse and carried it around to the stable. They asked him to have dinner with them that night. After dinner they sat around and talked for awhile. Then they gave him a candle and showed him to his room upstairs. He had a nicely furnished room with an old four-poster bed. There was beautiful old furniture all over the house. When he got in bed, he couldn't sleep; he laid there for a long time. After awhile, he got up and opened the door, and, of course, it was pitch dark. He listened a little bit and heard the man talking about sharpening the knives, getting the knives ready. So he listened a little bit more and got very excited at what he heard. He shut the door and went and pulled up the cover on the bed that was down to the floor. There was a man lying under the bed, dead. He pulled this dead man out and put him in the bed and pulled the covers up around his neck, like he was asleep. He dressed, took his shoes in one hand and his pistol in the other, and slipped down the back stairs to the stable. He got his horse and away he went. Frightening times, weren't they?

Before the war was really quite over, some Yankee troops came by Belford. My father was just about seventeen and he'd tried to look after the farm and keep the plantation going as best he could. These soldiers demanded the keys to the smokehouse

and the granary, but Papa wouldn't give them to them. He said he didn't know why they didn't knock his head off, but they left and didn't disturb a thing. But everything didn't fare that well.

The carpetbaggers and Yankees tried to take over everything they could and I think they must have tried to get the Negroes to feel that they were very important now that they were no longer slaves. Times were mighty bad. A group of white men banded themselves together and dressed up in sheets and robes to scare the slaves and that element of people. That's about what saved the South, it seems. The federal government was very hot against the Ku Klux Klan. They wanted to get them and kill them. Papa had a first cousin, Mr. William Jelks. He was one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. To save his life, he had to run away. He went down to Alabama and they lived there the rest of his life. He was made governor of Alabama. When I was in Montgomery one time, going through the museum, many things were pointed out about Governor Jelks and his wife.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were any of the others involved in the Klan activities other than Jelks?

Louise J. Sills:

Not that I know of. We used to have letters here that Jelks wrote. See, Papa's mother was Louisa Jelks. Some of the Jelks were in Mississippi and Alabama, and some went to Little Rock. But all of them had left his part of the country. I have visited some of the Jelkses in Mobile. I don't know whether he was in anything else besides the Klan.

Donald R. Lennon:

I asked this because William L. Saunders from Louisburg is usually credited as being the man most instrumental in the development of the Klan in North Carolina during Reconstruction.

Louise J. Sills:

I don't know that William Jelks was the high leader.

Donald R. Lennon:

Considering the close proximity, geographically--Saunders lived in Louisburg and Tarboro--I was wondering just how active this area was in Klan activity.

Louise J. Sills:

I don't know. Well, the Jelkses lived in Nash County. While searching old records, I've seen different names of the Jelkses, but they have all disappeared now. I've heard Mama talk about a cousin in Mississippi who had a great big fine house. It seemed like the people who had large, showy homes were the target for the damage and plunder. The Yankee troops came to her house and told her they were going to burn up the house and asked her if there was anything in it she wanted. She said, “Yes,” she wanted two things, “A rocking chair and a palmleaf fan.” So, they got the rocker and the fan, and she sat out there on the front lawn and watched them burn up her house. She sat there, I know, with her heart breaking, but she wasn't going to let on that she was sad. She must have had a wonderful spirit to have been able to watch it and fan.

The Yankee troops went to one of the Williams' homes up there near Warrenton. The owner had a lot of meat, nice hams, and he didn't want them to get them. So, he went upstairs and ripped up the floor and laid these hams on the ceiling and then nailed the floor back. He didn't think anybody would ever think about looking between the floor and the ceiling for valuables. I don't reckon it went through immediately, but the grease from those hams soon leaked through the ceiling, and I've heard them say that whenever the house was painted, the grease would always pop through where those hams had been.

Donald R. Lennon:

Was that supposed to have happened at the Buxton Place?

Louise J. Sills:

Yes, The Buxton Place up near Warrenton. That was his uncle. Did Scottie tell you about that?

Donald R. Lennon:

She mentioned it.

Louise J. Sills:

I've heard that some of them would hide the silver spoons under the baby's bed, or in the carriage, or in any place where they thought no one would ever look.

One of the most outstanding and startling events of my childhood was a hanging. We had a public hanging here. I think it was on March 13, 1900. We hadn't lived in Nashville but just a very short time, and we were living next door. One day a farmer went to Rocky Mount and sold his tobacco. He was driving his wagon, which was being pulled by two horses or two mules, along about the River Bridge when two nigger men came up to the wagon and asked, “What time is it?” He reached his hand in his pocket to find his watch and at the same time, one of them reached his hand in his pocket and pulled out a gun and said, “Give us your money!” He said, “I'll give you my money. Don't shoot me!” But they shot him anyway and took his money. He didn't die immediately, however. Since there was no hospital in Rocky Mount, he was just carried to his home. The sheriff picked up these men, Robert Fortune and John Taylor, and they were tried in court and sentenced to death by hanging. When they knew they were going to die, they made arrangements to sell their bodies to a university, for which they got a certain amount of money. They took that money and bought cigarettes and goodies that lasted as long as they lived.

When the appointed time came, they built a scaffold on one of the hills down there in back of the courthouse. Everybody around, young and old, went down there to see that scaffold. I don't think I got on it, but I saw it. I don't know what day of the week it was, but it was in March, and a storm came up just about the time the niggers were carried out on the scaffold and placed on the trap door. Long back hoods were put over

their heads and, just at that moment, there was thunder and lightning twice and it started to rain black water. I've heard a lot of people talk about it raining black water. The men were dropped and their necks were broken; they dangled there for a few minutes before they were pronounced dead.

It was the largest crowd that had ever been in Nashville. People came for miles, driving horses and mules. They tied their horses in everybody's yards. Everywhere in the world that one could put a horse, it was tied. And, of course, all the crowd was around there in back of the jail. My brother was just a little fellow about eleven or twelve years old, and he and his older brother and a lot of the little kids climbed up on top of some houses so they could see, but he said, “I couldn't see it because there were at least 5,000 people between me and the scaffold.” They did see the scaffold, but they didn't see when the men dropped.

There are always some people in a crowd trying to make some money out of something. These people got the rope that was around the men's necks, raveled it up, and made little bows and sold them to people to put on their coat lapels.

Donald R. Lennon:

You mean they would actually buy it?

Louise J. Sills:

They bought them as souvenirs. It would have been good, I think, if we had kept the hanging. Now anybody can commit murder, do anything on earth, and get by with it.

For a contrast, let me tell you about one of the area's most prominent preachers. His name was Dr. Betts, but everybody called him Uncle Betts. He and his wife came here before I can remember. The church scarcely paid anything. I don't know how they lived in those days on that little amount. Frequently he'd go up to Belford and spend a week at a time, and, of course, they'd feed him and his wife and his horse. Then he'd go

to other members of the church and stay a week with them. He had an old horse that was so boney; he looked like he was about to starve to death. One night the horse dealer here in Nashville, who had a livery stable and sold horses, sent someone up there to the parsonage to get the old horse. He carried him down to the creek near the pasture and shot him and then put a fresh horse in his place.

When Uncle Betts was riding along the roads, he would always stop and pick up people who needed a ride. The first question he always asked a stranger was, “ Are you ready to die?” One day there was a peddler walking along with his pack and Uncle Betts asked him if he wanted a ride. When he got him settled in the buggy, he said, “My brother, are you ready to die?” The peddler thought he was going to get shot; he made one leap and jumped out of the buggy and off he ran. He was never seen anymore.

When I went to Greensboro College, Uncle Betts had retired and was living up in Greensboro, with his son, I guess. He often came up to conduct chapel exercises. The story I'm going to tell you about happened on the first day of April.

The night before April 1, a group of mischievous girls collected fifteen alarm clocks and went into the auditorium and scattered them all around--in the piano, the organ, under seats, everywhere they could hide one. They set them to go off one every minute for fifteen minutes. On the morning of April 1, Uncle Betts came for the service. He never brought a Bible; he knew it. He got up to repeat his scripture and “ding, ding, ding,” went the clocks all over the auditorium. Miss Roberson, the president, looked so surprised. She didn't know what on earth was happening. She stood up and said, “Girls, I don't want another laugh.” So, all the crowd had to keep quiet, even if they were just as amused as they could possibly be.

I have a little bit of a summary of what has happened since I was about ten years old. It will show the difference in times. Do you reckon that will be interesting?

Donald R. Lennon:


Louise J. Sills:

Well, our living habits have changed just like the world has changed. Sometimes I think of the changes in our living since I was about ten years old. We lived on a very large lot. It extended from Main Street to the street behind it. The back of the lot was a vegetable garden with a wire fence around it. Then we had a deep back yard with a board fence about five or six feet around there. To the back of the yard, on one side, were the stables for the horse and the cow, and a shelter for the buggy. There were also feed rooms, with the chicken house beside them. Then, there was a hog pen in the back garden. On one side of the backyard was a smokehouse where the meat was hung. There was a fire in the ground to smoke the meat while it was being cured. There was a well off of the back porch, with a pump and a trough going out to provide water for the team. On the back porch was a large icebox and each day the ice man would come with a block of ice to go in the icebox. We had to have a hole in the bottom so the water from the melting ice would run out into the backyard.

We had this cow, so we had more butter, milk, and cream than we could use. Sometimes the neighbors would get some from us. One day the cook shelled a lot of butter beans for dinner and threw a pile of butter bean hulls in the backyard. After a while, somebody came in and said, “What's the matter with the cow? She's all blown up like a balloon.” The cow had eaten those butter bean hulls with their little sharp points and they had punctured her intestines. She really blew up. I don't know that she exploded, but she died that morning. They had to haul her body off down yonder to the

bone yard. After that we never had another cow. Later, someone opened up a diary in Nashville, so we could buy milk in glass bottles.

We had a stone churn that we put milk and cream in. We would turn the dasher up and down, and in a little while that cream would turn to butter. We'd take out that butter, wash it and get all the milk out, and then we had a little wooden paddle that made a nice cake of butter for the table.

We had a real fine horse. One day, our cousin, who was a West Point graduate and a captain in the cavalry, came by and wanted to borrow the horse to drive up to Castalia. The horses that he had he always rode very fast. He rode this one as fast as he could go and when the horse got home, he was very wet with perspiration all over. We watered the horse and turned him out in the yard to cool off. The horse took cold and had pneumonia and died. So that was the last of our horses.

It was about that time that automobiles were coming into use, so it wasn't too long before we had a car and no more horses. Now all the people are getting interested in horses again; they've got to have a change.

Then around 1914, the highway department built the area's first hard-surface roads. It was between Nashville and Rocky Mount. Then the town took up where the town line started and paved the main street.

Just about this same period, they dug deep wells for our water supply. We don't have river and creek water like so many towns; we have water from the deep wells. They dug the wells and, of course, piped the water all over town so everybody could have running water and bathrooms. Electricity was also put in. We got water and electricity at just about the same time. Everything began to change then, because people who used to

have little iceboxes could now have electric refrigerators and deep freezers. We also could have cook stoves and numerous other things after the electricity was installed. Until that time everybody had a garden and a lot of vegetables they couldn't eat, so they canned them for winter use. Then, everybody stopped canning vegetables. Some freeze them, but now you can go to the market and buy most anything you want in a can or package, all ready to be used.

Then radios came in. The first radio that I ever saw was one our neighbor had made and it had earphones. Not but one or two of us could listen at the same time and I thought it was very difficult to get really interested in it. Later, they had them in stores and one could buy various kinds of radios and music boxes. I know we had big ones. There was a deaf and dumb boy here in town and he could put his hand up there on the walls of that machine and tell you what it was playing.

Then, a little bit later, we had televisions. There is one in almost every home these days; they've got either a black-and-white or a color television. Of all these niggers, I don't know of a one that doesn't have a television. Times have really changed about as radically as going to the moon.

Donald R. Lennon:

One thing I've noticed was the amount of contact between your people here in Nash County and your relatives in Mississippi. There appeared to be a great deal of travel. Considering the distance, it's amazing the amount of travel back and forth that apparently took place.

Louise J. Sills:

Well, you see, it started when my grandmother married Spencer Alston. I don't know why they wanted to go to Mississippi. It was a fad. Now Mama's people, the Thompsons and the Scotts, lived in Virginia. I think the Thompson's plantation was next

to George Washington's. They gradually moved on down, too. Some book that I've read said that many times people moved in groups--relatives or friends--a band of them would go together. It seems like they must have had money because I've heard little remarks that have made me think that. One of these remarks was that when a lady would get a dress, she wanted one in fine silk that could stand alone. I don't know whether you've ever heard that or not. A dress of fine silk would have so much body to the material that it would stand by itself. Now, they wear as little as they can get by with.

[End of Interview]

Louise J. Sills oral history interview
Louise Jelks Sills, whose ancestors came from Greenville Co., Virginia, and settled in Nash Co., North Carolina., recounts family history and tradition concerning life at Belford Plantation. The plantation was started by her great-grandfather David Sills and remained in the Sills family for a hundred years. Interviewer: Donald R. Lennon.
June 06, 1972
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oral histories
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East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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