Last week, I told of how two of the first white settlements in Anson County (Mount Pleasant and Grassy Island) got their start in the middle 1700s and how the settlers around Grassy Island built a Methodist meeting house on Bethel Hill (as it was called back then).
The land for the meeting house was given by James Pickett around 1775. The old river road that I mentioned last week went around Bethel Hill and the meeting house was not far off the road.
The Methodists used the building from 1775 until the 1800s when a bigger building was built just up the hill from the old meeting house. Ebin Ingram, a well-to-do farmer and businessman, gave the land and most of the lumber to build the new meeting house, or church as it was called after we won our freedom from England.
In November of 1798, a well-known Methodist bishop of the time, a man by the name of Asbury, preached at Bethel. He traveled by horseback from Guilford County. The bishop was well-received and preached at several churches around the area before making his way back north.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, membership at the church fell off and the church had to close its doors. What was left of the congregation moved their membership to Mount Pleasant, a little Methodist church not far from what is now Ellerbe.
As with most churches in our time, the building didn’t stay empty long. In 1927, the Baptists gained permission to worship there and it gradually grew to be a strong Baptist congregation.
As the 1800s came, even more people settled into the river hills section of what is now Richmond County. Some small farms grew into plantations with owners like W.D. and Bob Ussery, Frank and Alfred Baldwin, John Reynolds, Thomas Roper, Ebin Ingram, Gee Hines and Willie Green.
With a lot of children in the area, part-time schools were held at Bethel Church and another small school up Mountain Creek by the name of New Hope, or what most people referred to as Possum Tail school. Each school had just one big classroom and just one teacher.
The room was heated by a pot-belly stove or a fireplace. The older boys would bring in the wood for a fire and bring water from the local spring for the children to drink. Children walked for miles through the hills and hollows just to get to school. It was a hard way to get an education, but still most of them came.
It seems when every generation passes on, most of their stories and experiences pass also, but a few manage to stand the sands of time and are passed on down through history. I’d like to tell you a couple that happened around the river hills section of Richmond County.
Mr. Joe Reynolds liked to tell the story of his Granddaddy Johnnie and of how he was such a strong and robust character. The story goes that his granddaddy and one of his young sons had taken a bale of cotton on a wagon to Rockingham to sell it at the Exchange. Before they left Rockingham to head on back home to the river hills, they purchased some supplies and had the wagon bed about full.
‘Bout time they got a mile or so from home, the wagon ran over a large rock in the dirt road and the back wheel came off. The wagon fell to the ground as the wheel rolled down a deep ravine, bounced off a tree and busted into pieces. Well, that didn’t bother Granddaddy Johnnie not one bit. Why, he jumped off the wagon, reached down and lifted the wagon up and told his son to drive on. His son drove the rest of the way home with Mr. Johnnie holding on to the axle.
Another story took place in the 1800s around the Grassy Island section of Pee Dee River and is referred to by a few locals as Harry’s Den. You see, back in the day, the larger farms required more labor to keep the farm going. Cotton was king and it took a lot of hands to raise and pick large fields of cotton. Although it wasn’t right, slaves were brought in to do the hot, backbreaking work required to raise a large cotton crop.
Back then, slaves were given first names only by their masters. There happened to be a slave who was given the same first name of his master, and that was Harry. Little is known about Harry except that he really, really resented doing the work that a slave was expected to do back then. He hated it so much that he ran away.
Harry’s master hired men to look for Harry but to no avail, because Ol’ Harry was holed up in a small secret cave he had discovered along the banks of Mountain Creek. The cave entrance was just big enough for a man to crawl through. Once inside, there was plenty of room for a man to lie down. Also there was a small spring inside to get water from. The floor of the cave was a large rock that ran out into the creek.
Harry lived in the cave for five years or more. Sometimes at night he would sneak out and visit the other slaves who would give him food if they had any. If that didn’t happen; well, let’s just say he lived off the land. He would take his food back to the cave and cook it over a fire.
Well, as time went by, food and clothes started disappearing all over the area. Ol ’Harry got the blame for it whether he stole it or not, but nobody knew or would tell where Harry was holed up at.
Just so happened on a cold fall morning, a couple of white farmers decided to go hunting along the banks of Mountain Creek. As they walked down the edge of the creek, they began to see and smell a strange smoke that seemed to be coming out of the top of a large rock. They went to investigate and saw some brush stacked up against the rock. As they slowly removed the brush, a small hole appeared.
As the men peered into the hole, what did they see? Nothing but Ol’ Harry laid back in the cave cooking a goose. Well, needless to say, there was more than one goose cooked that day.
Folks, I hope you have enjoyed these stories of the past. I hope to be telling more very soon. If you would like to share a story or two with me, just give me a call at 997-4658.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers Club, Richmond County Historical Society and the Story Spinners in Laurinburg.