There is nothing remarkable about the town where I live, and I am beginning to understand that this may be what makes it so entirely livable.
This town of less than 2,000 people which I’ll call Traveler’s Joy* (after the naturalized virgin’s bower that blooms in late summer in the roadside ditches) is situated in a not-very-prosperous county in South Carolina which I’ll call Tomahawk County.* We are too far from the large Carolina cities like Charlotte, Spartanburg and Columbia to be anyone’s bedroom community, and there are no historic landmarks or modern attractions to draw tourists, unless you count the delectable fried chicken at Brannan’s Fish Camp* or the giant water-tower shaped and painted like a peach which amazes drivers passing it at high speed on the interstate.
Businesses have retreated one by one from our downtown over the years, with the latest and arguably the most-lamented casualty being the town newspaper, which closed its doors last month. New industries are not lured here; the Town Council is cool to change of any kind, and is almost as averse to risk. And because Traveler’s Joy does not capitalize on its past glory, the few historic structures left from the days when the community supported a mine, several mills and a resort nestled against the south flank of Mt. Whitman,* where affluent Yankees disembarking at the depot would be whisked by carriage to the palatial hotel, are in too much disrepair to lend the town an air of old-world charm. Quaint it ain’t.
In general, people live here for one of three reasons: they were born here to people who were born here; they married someone who was born here; or they ended up here as the inevitable result of a series of ever-diminishing choices.
My husband FK and I probably qualify for the last category, since neither one of us was born here. And yet we have striven mightily to make a lasting home in Traveler’s Joy, despite our dubious circumstances. We have come to understand this about ourselves: that a certain amount of adversity is galvanizing. Thus galvanized, we have centered our lives on work, writing, study, community, and – at semester breaks or whenever we can steal a few moments to be outdoors – establishing a fruitful and wildlife-rich garden on the property.
Several years have passed since we fled the southern metropolis where we lived for fifteen years and took possession of our one-hundred-year old cottage in Traveler’s Joy, close by the Norfolk-Southern railroad tracks. The house proved to be surprisingly sound, with 12’ high ceilings and heart-pine floors worn as smooth as glass. Aside from new plumbing and some electrical work, it needed only interior painting and a kitchen renovation that replaced the bottle-green linoleum while preserving the tall cupboards that look like they were crafted in a high school shop class. The quirky character of the cupboards, like many features of this home, speak to the good intentions of past generations.
Our town lies in the heart of the Piedmont textile mill belt. Only a handful of mills still operate in this region that stretches diagonally from Virginia in the north to Alabama in the south. Abundant free-flowing rivers spilling down to the plains from the Appalachians provided those men of capital who built their mills here with reliable profits after the depredations of the Civil War. An even more profitable and essential resource for the mills was the near-endless supply of inexpensive labor in the form of poor southerners, who fled their hardscrabble farms by the tens of thousands for the mixed blessings of mill wages and milltown life. According to Like a Family, the Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World, our county boasted over 200,000 operative spindles in 1929, with the booming areas of Gastonia, Spartanburg and Greenville having over half a million (Hall, Map1).
Our cottage closely matches the mill-house design widely circulated in the Carolinas by Charlotte mill owner D. A. Tompkins around the turn-of-the-century. The Tompkins mill-house was intended to retain workers who were accustomed to rural life, so the four rooms of this “hall-and-parlor style” house are generously proportioned by modern standards. Two chimneys were designed to rise above the roof peak, providing coal fires in each room, with a porch fronting the home and a ‘shed room’ and covered porch on the back serving as a place for doing laundry or cleaning and skinning animals. In time, the back porch was enclosed to become part of the house and indoor plumbing would have been installed.
Also in Like a Family… the excellent book on southern textile mill communities by Jacquelyn Hall, James LeLoudis and others, the authors point out that in the early 1900s, the four-room mill-house was meant to accommodate a family of at least seven people, with all rooms but the kitchen given over to sleeping. Bessie Buchanan, who recalls growing up as one of nine children in a mill family, is quoted as saying, “The boys slept in one room, and the girls slept in another. And Mother and Daddy had a room. And the kitchen. We never knew what it was to have a dining room. We didn’t have a living room or a den or nothing like that; we wasn’t used to it” (Hall 127).
Luckily, we don’t sleep eleven (and with one tiny bathroom the size of an airplane commode, that would be difficult). However, our neighbor Margaret T. remembers that when she was nine or ten, the spinster sisters who lived in our house at the time would sometimes pay her a quarter to come down the hill and sleep in their second parlor at the front (the room we currently use as a dining room/workroom/guest room) while they slept together in the back. What Margaret was protecting them from by sleeping so close to the front door, she was never sure, but since her mother encouraged the arrangement, she has always assumed that the threat of an invading axe murderer existed only in the Thomas* sisters’ minds.
Another former owner remembered by the neighbors is Junior Swift*, who lopped off the two chimneys when he grew tired of maintaining them. He patched the holes in the roof but left the bricks piled on the attic floor. Even if we could afford to restore the chimneys, the fire boxes aren’t deep enough to burn wood safely, in any case. So, we content ourselves with the decorative value of the graceful Edwardian mantels in the main parlor and bedroom, as well as the vintage ceramic insert and brass fire-guard in the dining room that is a good conversation-starter. (Junior is the one who might have left a small guitar for us to discover, nestled between the studs in the attic wall. We’ll never know.)
This is where we live. We have grown accustomed to the train whistle blasting through our dreams at 2 a.m., as we have to the clattery hum of the compressor working late into the night at the small car-upholstery mill on the hill above us. We have taken in a one-eyed kitten named Miss Billie who dragged herself up Limestone Street* from a less-respectable part of town three years ago (unwanted cats are the only commodity produced regularly in great quantity in Traveler’s Joy) and, as of Christmas 2012, a puppy abandoned outside the First Baptist Church which we have named Alice. Alice has a hound’s soft ears and soulful eyes, and a beagle’s piercing vocalizations. For some reason, strays show up at our house during rainstorms. No doubt there will be more.
We are delighted by the riot of birdsong that surrounds our house on certain mornings (a visiting friend from New Mexico pointed out how extraordinary and uplifting this chorus is in the south, reminding us gently not to take it for granted). It’s fortunate that Miss Billie’s eyesight is inadequate for catching those bluebirds who perch on our vegetable-plot arbors in pairs, or the slim gray catbirds who bring their fledglings into our shrub borders on warm spring days and hector them to forage and to fly, and whose feline yowls always trick me into thinking that my cat has been trapped in a tree.
We are grateful for the huge pecans and one ancient water oak that shelter the house and beckon the birds, and are especially thankful for the kind neighbors who tolerate our customs and questions and who share cuttings of Confederate roses and bring us bulbs from their family homesteads. Some swapping takes place, but we are always the clear beneficiaries in this exchange, because along with the narcissus and peanut butter fudge we are gifted with many remarkable stories. It is an embarrassment of riches.
(*name changed to preserve the privacy of friends, family and neighbors)
Hall, J.D.; LeLoudis, James; Korstad, Robt.; Murphy, Mary; Jones, L. A.; Daly, C.B. Like a Family; the Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World. University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Print.