There is a place in upper Richmond County that is dear to my heart. No, there is no large building or fancy landscape, but lots of white flint rocks, clay land and cut-over timber. A place where time seems to stand still. The few curvy hard-top roads that remain were first dirt trails used by oxen, mules and horses pulling wagons or buggies. The cold running water of Mountain Creek still makes its way through the hills and valleys on its journey to Pee Dee River.
The small congregation of church members who remain in the area attend the old established churches like Concord, Saron and Mount Carmel. ‘Bout the only times their attendance picks up is at a funeral or homecoming — but still they press on as their ancestors did long years ago.
A lot of the small farms that once dotted the area have grown up in pines and their barns and houses have fallen in on themselves. The only thing left of the once-bustling Capel grist mill, located on Mountain Creek, is the dam and mill pond. Why, another old mill just down the creek, once called Baldwin Mill, would be hard to recognize unless you know it once existed.
In times past, the Capel Mill community and all along Mountain Creek — from its beginning in lower Montgomery County to where it flows into the Pee Dee River — was lined with small working farms. Nobody knows when man first moved into the area but Indian artifacts can still be found along the hills and valleys that make up the terrain.
In the 1700s, English, Scots, Irish and some Germans applied for land grants in the Mountain Creek area. During our Revolutionary War, some of these folks were still loyal to the King of England — tories, as they were called. After we won our freedom from England, a lot of these loyalists gave up their land and moved on. One of these families was the Flora McDonald family.
As time went by, families like the Ewing, Covington, Cole, McIntyre, Bostick, Hines, Broadway, Pankey, Meacham, Bolton, Allred and Parsons families all remained or moved into the area. They made their living farming the rocky-clay soil that forms the beginning of the Uwharrie Mountain Range.
The story of one side of my family, the Ewings, began when John Ewing, father of Isaac Ewing, landed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the late 1700s. Like it is today, immigrants were a little shunned and most of all the good farm land was already taken up. John moved on to Maryland to start his new life in America, but won’t long he found more land was available in the Carolinas. He hitched up his two oxen to a wagon, tied his milk cow to the back, loaded up his small family and all headed south down the Great Wagon Road. to Carolina. With all their earthy possessions in the wagon, they made their way through Virginia and onto what was then Salem, North Carolina (Winston-Salem). After a short rest, they stocked-up on supplies and made their way to the town of Salisbury. Then, by catching an old Indian trail later to be called the Old Salisbury-Fayetteville Pike Road, they soon crossed the Yadkin (Pee Dee) River and made their way through the Uwharries toward Richmond County.
After several months of hardships and traveling by oxen and wagon through three states, the family finally settled on their 600-acre land tract just west of Mountain Creek, not far from the Montgomery County line. They found several good water springs and a little branch they called Nell’s Branch on their new property. The water was a hard-mineral-type water, not all that good tasting, but safe to drink.
Arriving in the spring, a small crop had to be planted on what tillable land there was. They planted seeds of corn, wheat and vegetables that were brought from Maryland. Later, after more new ground was cleared, they would plant cotton — and many years later, tobacco.
Won’t no easy job setting up a new homestead and trying to work your farm at the same time, no-sir-re. Owning a slave or hired man was a luxury for any small farmer back in the day, but with the help of good neighbors — both black and white- the Ewing place began to take shape. Back then, neighbors didn’t live on top of each other. Why, they might live miles apart, but folks considered it their neighborly duty to help raise barns and cabins. In fact, it was a great excuse for a big get-together. Why, when word got out about someone trying to raise a barn or cabin, folks would come from all directions with tools and food and everyone would pitch in to get the job finished.
In most cases, all the building materials needed to build a cabin or barn were grown right there on the farm. Large flat iron rocks that had been removed while clearing land were used for corner and foundation stones. Trees were cut down, stripped of their bark, and used to make the walls of the cabin. Dove-tail notches were cut in the end of the logs so they were inter-lock. Then, the red clay was dampened, made into a paste, and packed between the logs to seal out the winter winds. Flooring was hand-hewn and fitted by craftsmen. Why, in every neighborhood there were different types of craftsmen, because most everything was made by hand, using simple hand tools. Most farms even had their own little blacksmith shop.
The top of the barns and cabins were made from wooden shingles that were hewn from oak, heart-pine or chestnut logs — chestnut being the best. I’ve heard ol’ folks say, many times, how they laid on a corn-shuck or goose-feather sleeping tick (mattress) looking at the moonlight through the roof. Never did leak though. Why, it had to take a big wind, blowing powerfully hard, for the water to come through them wooden shingles. If’en the cabin was built right, a good fire would run you clean out of the place.
Talking about fire, chimney material was also close at hand and abundant around Mountain Creek. White flint rocks were picked up from nearby slopes or fields. Smooth rocks were pulled out of the creek beds. Fireplaces and hearths were built inside the cabin and then the chimney took a turn upward against the outer wall of the cabin. Each stone was placed carefully so each one locked the other in place to form the chimney. Then, red clay paste was again used to fill in the cracks and to prevent loss of heat. The chimney was built high enough and in such a way that would easily draw smoke out from the fireplace below. Although these materials worked, chimney fires occasionally happened — especially with wooden shingles on the roof.
If’en you raised corn, you had to have a corn crib to store it and keep it out of the weather. This corn crib was built with smaller logs than were used to build a cabin. A larger air space was left between the logs and no mud was used between the logs so the air would naturally dry out the ears of corn. I heard one old fellow say that his family made so much corn one year, they had to remove the roof of the corn crib just to get it all in there. Said they piled as much as they could in there and then set the roof back on.
Next time I’ll tell you more stories of what it was like to live on an old homestead in northern Richmond County.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writer’s Club, Anson and Richmond County Historical Societies and author of his new book, “Just Passing Time.”