A family leaves the farm to make their way in a mill town
Norman remembers job-seeking in 1929. After her father's death, her mother sold the family farm and with help from a friend of her husband's, found Norman and her two brothers work at the small Linksburg Cotton Mill in Linksburg, North Carolina. She remembers trying to settle in to their new environment before they had a home, feeding the baby buttermilk and scrounging for food. When they finally moved into their new house, they feasted on ham and gravy.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Icy Norman, April 6 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0036. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Full Text of the Excerpt
My Daddy died
in February. Then we moved to Linksburg on my birthday the 13th of
April. That's how old Gilbert was.
So Mary, she didn't try to go to work. Me and Dewey and Barney
and Rosetta worked—she worked about three months and then she
had to quit. At first she didn't know that she was that way
when she got her job. We worked there then until August. They closed the
mill down for two weeks. They'd work a week, then stand two
weeks. You know, back then you didn't draw no unemployment.
So the two weeks that the mill stood, Mama told Dewey and Barney,
"We can't live here like that. You don't
know, the thing may shut down for good. We're going to go
hunt us a job, hunt you all a job." So we got in my
daddy's old T-Model. The whole two weeks that the mill stood
there, we was on the road hunting jobs. We went everywhere. Back then it
was in the Depression was starting. Mills was closing down. So you just
couldn't get a job. Every freight train that you seen pass
was loaded down with people going from town to town, hobo-ing.
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[TAPE 2, SIDE B]
[START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
- ICY NORMAN:
We tried there, and Mama said, "Being we're this
close, let's just go on to Durham and see Don." That
was Mama's oldest boy by her first. Him and his wife lived
out on the Raleigh road. I don't know what they call it now.
And they had built a home there. So we went down there and spent the
night. And Mama was talking to Don and said, "We've
been everywhere, and they can't find a job.
They've still got their job in Linksburg, but they work a
week and stand two weeks." And Don says, "Well, I
might could get them on there at the Golden Belt." That was a
hosiery mill. "Next week I'll see what I can do.
Mama, while you're this close, don't go home
tomorrow." That was Sunday. Says, "Don't
go home Sunday. Go up to Burlington. Somebody
told me that they was hiring help. They're starting tearing
out the cotton and putting in rayon. You might get on up
there." And Mama says, "Well, we ain't
tried there. We have to go back that way anyway to go back to
Linksburg." You see, we had to go through Haw River and
Danville and then to Linksburg. And so we come. Back then, they
didn't have no fence. There was a little old bitty mill; it
was a little old wooden mill, two rooms, and they had everything in it.
What they had, they had a few frames of spinning, and they had two
slashers, and then they had I forget how many dobber-headed looms. It
wasn't many. And then they had spooling, and they had
spinning. It was all in that little two-room building. It's
up there now where they got the…. Of course, they built on to
it and made it much bigger. They made a warehouse out of it. And then
they built on to it and made it bigger. And so we drove up, and Dewey
and Barney got out. You know, anybody could go in, any time day or night
that they wanted to. There was a little old bitty machine shop; it
wasn't as big as this porch. I can just see that little old
shop now. And they didn't have but two hands a-working in it.
And so Barney asked that man, "Can you tell us how to find Mr.
Copland?" And he says, "Yeah, he's right
down younder on that first…. There ain't but two
slashers. You can't miss him. One of them's broke
down, and he's down there helping us get that slasher
going." They went down there, and he had his sleeves rolled up,
and he was greasy as a hog from his elbows on down. And he seen Barney
and Dewey, and he just had a fit. He says, "Well, where in the
world is your mama and my little girl?" My daddy worked for him
there in Schoolfield, and he'd come every Sunday evening and
spend the evening with my daddy after he got to
the place he couldn't work. He thought the world of my daddy.
And Dewey says, "They're out there in the
car." And boy, here he come. He grabbed up a piece of old
cloth, and here's the way he was coming, just like this,
a-wiping it off. He come out there, and he was just tickled to death.
And he told Mama, he says, "Well, I promised, the last time I
seen Mr. Norman—I take it that he's
gone." And Mama says, "Yes." And he says,
"I promised Mr. Norman that if you ever needed any help and I
could give you all a job, that I wanted you to come to me. I reckon
that's why you all have come, ain't you?"
And Mama says, "Yes, we've been everywhere hunting a
job." And he says, "Well, you don't have to
hunt no farther. You've got a job. I can put Dewey and Barney
to work tomorrow, but I can't put my little girl to work
under three or four weeks. I can put Barney and Dewey to work tomorrow.
We're tearing the cotton out and putting in all
- MARY MURPHY:
What year was this?
- ICY NORMAN:
1929. And so Mama says, "No, if you can't put Icy to
work, we'll not come."
- MARY MURPHY:
Your mother was a hard bargainer. [Laughter]
- ICY NORMAN:
And so he says, "They can go to work tomorrow. I need
them." And she says, "No, if you ain't got
nothing for Icy to do, we'll come back when you can give her
a job." And he says, "Well, you come back, and
don't make it over three or four weeks." You see,
Barney and Dewey knowed everything in the mill. They could do anything:
they could spin; they could doff; they could fix; they could do
anything. And me, I was helpless; I didn't know nothing.
- MARY MURPHY:
What had you done in the woolen mill?
- ICY NORMAN:
I didn't do anything in the woolen mill. I filled batteries in
the Linksburg Cotton Mill. That was in the weave room, filling
batteries. I knowed how to do that, but see, they didn't have
nobody doing that here. And so we come back, and he told Mama that he
was ready for me to go to work. And he says, "When can you
move?" Mama says, "Well, if you'll give Icy
a job, we can move any time." And so he called up a moving van,
but before he called them Mama says, "Have you got a house
empty?" And he says, "No, not right now, but
I'll have you one empty in a week or two weeks, a five-room
house. I know Mr. Andrews up here in the Post Office. He just finished
building a new house. Go up there and see him." Went up there,
and Mr. Andrews said no, he hadn't rented it, and so he give
Mr. Copland the keys and we went up there and looked at it. Oh, it was
the prettiest little house; it was a little rock house. That was the
prettiest thing, and I was tickled to death over that. Oh, it was so
pretty. And so we went back by the Post Office, and Mama paid him the
rent. And so Mr. Copland asked Mr. Andrews, "Can I use your
telephone to call the transfer?" And he says,
"Yes." And so he called a transfer, and the transfer
says, "I'll be there in a half hour." And
Mama told Barney, "You take Rosetta, Mary, and the
baby"—that was Barney's little
baby—"and Icy back to Don's, and me and
Dewey will go with the transfer, and we'll be back tomorrow
evening." We went back, and it just tickled Don to death. But I
still thought…. I was so green, I didn't ask Mr.
Copland would I make any money. And come to find out, anybody that
didn't know nothing had to go in and learn the job, and if
you learnt the job and they was satisfied with you, they'd
give you a job. Well, Mama and the transfer come in. We left
Don's and come on back, and the A and P
store was there where the old Duke light place where you'd
pay your light bill, where they tore down, do you remember it? They tore
it down the other week. Then it was an A and P store there. We stopped
there, and my mama told Barney, "You stop and get some
coffee." She told us to stop and get some coffee and get some
flour and some milk. And we stopped there at that A and P store and got
it, and we went on up there. We had the key to the house. We went on in
and took our suitcases in. All at once, Gilbert started screaming and
a-crying. We couldn't get him to shut up, and instead of
getting sweet milk Barney got buttermilk. And Gilbert was on the bottle.
[Laughter] It was right funny. You
laugh at it now, but Lord, it just worried me to death. That
young'un screamed. And there was two big old pear trees out
there. Well, there we was. We didn't have a bite to eat, no
way to cook nothing, and so we set there. And so Mary says,
"I'm going out there and get me one of them pears.
I'm about to starve." So we went out there and got
us some of them pears and eat them pears. And poor little Gilbert.
We'd carry that baby and we would give him water, and
we'd try to give him that buttermilk, and that give him the
colic. And we had a time. And so there was a big old house right across
on the same side, and that woman come over there and says,
"What's the matter with that baby?" And
Mary says, "He's hungry, and Barney got buttermilk
instead of sweet milk, and he's wanting his bottle."
She says, "You come on home with me." It was Mrs.
Jones. "Bring his bottles, and I'll fill his bottles
up with milk, and we'll fix that little feller something to
eat. I kept hearing that baby a-crying, and I couldn't figure
where that baby was at. Then I seen one of you all with him, a-carrying
him." And so we went over there, and
[she] says, "Have you all had anything to eat?" And I
was bashful. I never opened my mouth. And Mary says, "No, we
ain't eat nothing since we left Uncle Don's house
in Durham." And she says, "Well, we'll fix
that. We'll fix you all something to eat." And oh,
she was the nicest somebody and a sweet woman, but I was bashful. And I
was starved to death. I was bashful, but I wouldn't eat but
just a bite or two. Oh, Lord have mercy, I could eat a whole cow, if it
had been. [Laughter] But I was bashful.
And so she fixed six bottles for Gilbert. They always kept six
sterilized bottles ahead. And so Gilbert was happy as a coon when he
got, and the little old feller, he took that bottle and he sucked that
bottle, and he went to sleep. We fixed him in the car. And it was hot,
and Barney run the car up under that pear tree under the shade. We
opened the car doors. The little old feller, he just died. Well, it went
on, and poor old Mama and them, they didn't get there, it was
nine o'clock that night. Back then you didn't have
no electricity; you had to use lamps. We didn't have no
light. Mama and the truck and Dewey come in. Gilbert woke screaming
again, wanting his bottle. The little feller was just hungry.
[Laughter] And Mary stuck one of them
bottles in his mouth; we didn't have no way to warm it. Mary
says, "I'm not going back over to that lady and ask
her to heat that milk for me. He can suck that or do without."
And so he took it. And so nine o'clock Mama and them come in.
Well, we was all getting hungry again. They unloaded the furniture, and
we put the beds up and fixed our beds where we'd have
something to sleep on. Mama brought some kerosene oil with her. We lit
the old oil stove, and Mama says, "I don't know
where none of that stuff is. They packed that
stuff." And we rambled around in a box, and we found a ham. We
was already eating on the shoulder. Mama wasn't going to let
us cut our ham until we eat all of our shoulders up. And
that's what we was hunting for. We'd got down to
the good lean meat on that shoulder. Oh, it was so good. And I just
couldn't wait to get a piece of it. I was so hungry. I
didn't eat but a bite or two, because I was bashful. And so
Dewey says, "Mama, here's a ham. I can't
find that shoulder we was eating on." Mama says, "I
don't care. Cut it. I'm getting weak."
[Laughter] So he got the lamp lit, and
he cut. He just went right down the heart of that ham, and he sliced it.
And Mama and Mary and Rosetta all was in there, and we had on two frying
pans full. And we fried a platter that long and that high of that ham.
And Mama went and fried some eggs. We had a big old pan. It was that
wide and that square—it just fit in the bakery of the
stove—she made that thing full of biscuits. Made some hot
coffee. We set down there, and we ate every bite of that platter of ham.
And she made a big bowl of milk gravy. And boy, was that good. That was
the best stuff. And we sat there and we ate. There was Rosetta and there
was Dewey and there was Barney and there was Mary and there was me and
there was Mama and there was Florence. That was seven of us, and it
didn't take long for that platter of ham to get gone. And it
didn't take long for that bowl of cream gravy to get gone. We
ate that big old square pan of biscuits. And I have never in my life
eaten no ham that I thought was as good. My daddy could really fix meat.
Oh, Lord, I wish I could get some like that now, but you
can't. But don't nobody know how he fixed his, but
he could fix meat.