From Mecklenburg to Moore: Four North Carolina Families

Alexander infant, ca. 1914


Stories from the Frank & Loula
Richardson Alexander Family:

How a North Carolina Family
Survived the Great Depression






Depression Days

Frank Alexander

The 1910 census shows Frank Alexander running a shingle mill and living in the household of his future father-in-law, J. D. Richardson. Early in their marriage, Frank and Loula lived in Parkton township in Robeson County, while Frank traveled to South Carolina in connection with the lumber business. He owned three saw mills at different times and was in business with his brother Oswald and brother-in-law George Morgan. He also worked with brother-in-law John Richardson. For a time, Loula and Frank had a farm near Vass, then moved into town.

In 1925, the family was listed in the Moore County Directory as living on Main Street in Vass, with five children. Their house was near the Methodist church and across the street from Jim Smith's Garage. As a small boy, their son Quenton would go and hang around with the mechanics when they took a break on a bench in front of the garage. One of the mechanics teased him and gave him the nickname T. T., short for "Tough Titty." (An expression used in the same way as "Tough luck.")

Loula sewed, mostly dresses, to earn an income. She had a pedal-driven Singer sewing machine. Frank owned a butcher shop on Main Street under a general store called the Mercantile. The business failed in 1931, when the Bank of Vass went bankrupt and customers were unable to pay their debts.



Farm Life

Willie & Pollie Alexander, ca. 1914

That year, the family moved to a farm on Vass-Union Church Road, where they owned two properties of about seventy acres each, acquired for the sake of the lumber business. The two oldest daughters were away from home at that time, and Loula was pregnant with the youngest child, their third girl. Frank continued his sawmill business as well as raising crops and food. The oldest son, Jack, stayed out of high school for much of the year to help break land and sow wheat.

The farm work was done with mules. They tried a tractor briefly, but the metal wheels of the tractor wouldn't roll over the sandy soil of the area. They kept two or three cows for milk and butter, about a half dozen hogs and sometimes a goat.

Loula raised chickens and sold eggs to Hunter Hatchery in Sanford, as well as selling frying hens, capons, and eggs in the Southern Pines farmer's market. The children helped with the chicken business, which provided a large part of the family income. When they moved to the farm, Loula ordered 100 baby chicks, which were delivered by mail in a big box with air holes. She used boards, paper, and sand to make a place for the chicks in a corner of the living room, until Frank completed a brooder house. She learned from the local high school agriculture teacher how to caponize the male chickens, which would grow larger than the hens and were popular for Thanksgiving dinner. Eventually, she had three buildings that housed the chickens and kept about 500 birds. Quenton Alexander, ca. 1926

Among the animals kept on the farm were a number of dogs and cats. Especially valuable was a black Manchester terrier named Diego who was a good hunting dog as well as cow herder and guard dog. They had a white Scottish terrier called Shotsie who produced a number of litters. There were several barn cats, and while some of the children were small, there was a cat called T-Y, short for "k-i-t-t-y."

Pork was a staple in their daily diet, while chicken was reserved for Sunday dinner. The hogs were butchered in the fall, usually October, after the weather turned cold. Families would go to each other's farms to help, as this was a big job that had to be done quickly. The meat was preserved with salt. Sausage was made of organs and parts like the head, and was canned in jars. One year the weather turned unseasonably warm after the hogs had been butchered, and the oldest daughter, Willie, had to can sausage all day to prevent it from spoiling.

Loula first canned her fruits and vegetables at a cannery sponsored by the Agricultural Extension Service, then acquired a device that would seal the tops of tin cans at home. Later, Willie bought her a cast iron pressure canner for preserving food in jars. Frank's sisters, Lelia and Belle, would come to help can during peach season, from a crop of up to forty peach trees, as well as beans and tomatoes. During World War II, when sugar was rationed, she worried that she would not have enough to preserve the peaches. They raised sugar cane, but only to make molasses, a real treat with hot biscuits and butter.

Corn and wheat were taken to a mill in Vass to be ground into meal and flour. They also provided food for the animals. Potatoes and sweet potatoes could be kept for a long time and were an important part of the diet. The sweet potatoes were kept covered in hills of dirt, and the boys would put a raw sweet potato in their pockets as an easy snack when they went hunting, paring off bite-size pieces with a pocket knife. Beans and peas were dried. One crop that couldn't be preserved and had to be enjoyed only in season was watermelons. On a hot summer work day, they would refresh themselves with a watermelon right out in the field. Alexander children, about 1928

Attempts to raise fruit for profit had mixed success. The peach orchard failed to yield a money-making crop. Dewberries, a type of blackberry that grows well in the Sandhills, were more successful but eventually were too expensive to raise. Besides the family, Frank would hire women and children to pick berries at the rate of 1 cent per quart. A woman could pick a crate in one morning, which earned her about 24 cents.

Pickers would place the berries directly into the containers they were sold in, which were made of very thin wood and would reveal any crushed berries by the stain of the reddish-purple juice. The quart-size containers were placed in a crate and driven to warehouses in Vass or Cameron. The berries had to be delivered by noon, because they were loaded onto a large truck, not refrigerated, and driven up Highway One to New York City, where they would be sold the next morning. Buyers at the warehouses would bid for the berries, usually a little over a dollar per crate. Subtracting the expense of fertilizer, posts, twine, and labor, the profit was extremely small.

An important cash crop in the Sandhills was Bright Leaf tobacco, which was cured in small heated barns and sold in markets in nearby towns. Putting the tobacco in the barns was a big seasonal job which took a lot of hands to cut the tobacco leaves, tie them to long wooden sticks and hang them in the barns, then regulate the fires that dried the leaves and later, grade the leaves and keep them moist until they were hauled to market.

Children's Work

Frank Alexander and sons Jack and Quenton, circa 1935

A typical day for the children began with feeding the animals and milking the cows, while their mother cooked breakfast. They then had to get cleaned up and catch the school bus. After school they had a snack of milk and cornbread or biscuits, or some other baked goodies. Then they did housework, such as making beds, washing dishes, washing clothes by hand, ironing, and helping in the kitchen. The boys had jobs like hoeing the weeds out of crops of cotton, tobacco, soybeans, or corn. They also cut corn tops as fodder for the animals. The corn tops were rough and scratchy, and they had to bundle them up in their arms and stack them in the field to dry. When the fodder had dried and had to be taken to the barn, they lifted the stacks, called chocks, carefully, often finding a snake sleeping under them. Hay was stacked in the field and then stored in the barn loft.

Later in the day, the animals had to be fed and the cows milked again. The children then washed the clothes for school the next day, as they usually had just one set of good clothes. The boys wore overalls, shirts, and brogans, bare feet if the weather was warm. Loula made all the girls' dresses. Their chicken feed came from Siler City Mills, in sacks made of printed calico, which helped furnish fabric for dresses and shirts, as well as aprons, curtains, and quilts.

Farmer's Market

Loula and other members of the Rainbow Home Demonstration Club, under the auspices of the state Agricultural Extension Service, started a farmer's market in Southern Pines. Loula sold chickens, eggs, produce, cakes, fruit preserves, and cut flowers. The market took place on Saturday mornings, and was a social occasion as well as business. Loula would leave the house early and leave her oldest daughter in charge. The children did chores, such as scrubbing the wood floors and ironing shirts with a heavy iron heated on the stove, until their mother returned around two in the afternoon. She would bring home groceries that they couldn't raise themselves, including treats like Jello. The income from the market was also used to buy clothes for the children.

Lifestyle

The family did their shopping in the Vass Mercantile, a general store, or in the nearby towns of Sanford, Aberdeen, or Carthage, the county seat. They also bought merchandise from mail order catalogs like Sears-Roebuck or Montgomery-Ward. The children earned spending money by working for other farms, picking dewberries or putting in tobacco. Some of them had jobs like working in the grocery store, and one of the boys raised hogs in a school club, Future Farmers of America.

The house (seen in the picture below) had wooden siding, unpainted, with no underpinning around the foundations. It had a front porch and a side porch which was later removed in order to add on a room. Besides the living room and kitchen, there were four bedrooms. The parents' bedroom was used as a sitting room and contained a wood stove and chairs, and the radio. The toilet was a separate, small wooden building over a pit, called a privy or a johnny-house, with a wooden seat and an old catalog for toilet paper. A galvanized metal wash tub was used for bathing on Saturday night.

Electrical power was not furnished to most rural North Carolina homes until after World War II. Kerosene lamps were used for light and wood was used for heat. Frank and his sons installed a carbide gas system, the only one in the area, for lights in the house, only to be unable to afford the gas pellets during the Depression years. An ice box was used to keep food, except for a short trial of an Electrolux gas refrigerator, and a wood stove was used for cooking.

At that time, most people drew their water from a well by lowering a bucket on a rope, and then they had to carry the water into the house. Frank's brother Oscar used a hydraulic ram to pump water from a branch up to a height that provided enough pressure to make the water flow to the house. Frank attempted to construct a similar system, but unfortunately, the water from several springs failed to furnish enough pressure to pump water all the way to the house.

Frank Alexander with '36 Chevrolet, in 1939


Frank Alexander is pictured, at right, in the fall of 1939. The small child in the background is a grandchild. The car is a 1936 Chevrolet. At other times they owned a 1928 Chevrolet and a 1930 Essex. One of the boys traded the '36 Chevrolet for a Plymouth while he was stationed at Camp LeJeune during the war and another son bought a Dodge pickup after his military service.

Religion

On Sundays, the family attended Vass Presbyterian Church, where Frank was an elder and Sunday School superintendent and often led the singing. The family said grace at all meals. On Sunday evenings they attended another service or had a Bible reading and lesson at home. The lesson concluded with prayer, the whole family on their knees. Sunday was strictly observed as a time when no work was done, and most forms of recreation were forbidden. The boys occasionally weighed the consequences of going swimming on Sunday and decided in favor of taking the switching. In their adult lives, the children have continued to be regular church goers, of several Protestant denominations, three remaining Presbyterians, two becoming Baptists, one Lutheran, one Church of Christ, and one Episcopalian.

Entertainment

When the family got their first radio, a salesman came to the house and installed it, along with the "aerial," or antenna, and showed them how to use it. They enjoyed listening to country music during its radio heyday. WPTF in Raleigh broadcast the Monroe Brothers every day. They could also hear The Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville on Saturday nights, The Renfro Valley Barn Dance in Kentucky, The Louisiana Hayride, and stations in Del Rio, Texas and Chicago. "The Lone Ranger and Tonto" was broadcast at five in the afternoon. The boys sometimes got punished by their father for slipping out of the field to listen to it.

The boys liked to hunt and fish. Frank loved to fish when he had the time. Loula, having cleaned a lot of fish for her father as a child, made a rule that Frank would be the one to clean the fish. The boys owned .22 caliber rifles and liked to practice shooting when they had enough ammunition. They would also set out oblong wooden boxes to trap rabbits. The boxes were baited with apple peelings or fruit, so that when the rabbit went in after the bait, a little trap door would fall. They would sometimes skin and prepare the rabbits for their mother to sell at the farmers' market.

Frank wanted all the children to play a musical instrument and bought a variety of them, including a trumpet and a violin. The two oldest daughters picked dewberries to earn the down payment on a piano and took lessons at fifty cents apiece from a woman named Mrs. Coates, in Vass. The boys had stringed instruments such as guitars, banjos, and a mandolin. Quenton was a talented musician and won first place in guitar at a fiddler's convention at Lemon Springs when he was only about fourteen years old. His prize was a guitar. When the whole family played music together, Loula sometimes played a jaw harp. Frank loved to sing and had a good voice. He and his brothers would sing and his sister Belle would play the piano when they visited together. During the summer, the family attended shape-note singing school at Vass Presbyterian Church.

A variety of entertainments could be enjoyed outside the home. Musicians like the Monroe Brothers and Uncle Dave Macon used to travel and perform at local schools. Traveling groups like the Sauline Players presented plays. Loula enjoyed going to horse races, which were held at Pinehurst. The children sometimes went with a neighbor to Saturday afternoon movies, which cost ten cents and included serials with cliff-hanger endings, designed to fill the theater the following weekend. The churches held parties and picnics, the schools had sports like basketball and baseball, and once a year the county had an agricultural fair. As teenagers, the children went to dances on Friday and Saturday nights, and the boys and their cousins sometimes played music for the dances.

Education

Frank and Loula always had magazines and newspapers in the house. Loula read the Raleigh newspaper daily and also subscribed to a local paper. Frank enjoyed studying the Bible, wearing a pair of store-bought reading glasses. All the children learned to read at an early age and attended Vass-Lakeview School. Four of them earned college degrees. Willie received a scholarship to attend Louisburg College and then Duke University. Loula was especially determined that her oldest daughter become a schoolteacher. During the Depression, when funds for her education ran out, Willie continued by working her way through nursing school. Their occupations later in life included fireman, nurse, teacher, railroad conductor, accountant, department store manager, real estate broker, medical records consultant, and office manager.

Health

Frank never used tobacco or drank alcohol. A small bottle of alcohol was kept inside a large clock and was used by the teaspoonful for medicinal treatment. Loula never drank alcohol, but she did dip snuff, as many women did in that period of time.

Loula had most of her childbirths at home, with a midwife in attendance. The exception was a pregnancy that was accompanied by illness in the later months. A woman was hired to help in the house, as Loula was hospitalized for a month or more in the hospital at Sanford. When the birth finally took place, they discovered the reason for her illness was an undeveloped twin that had died in the womb.

Quenton became ill in December of 1934, beginning with a sore throat and developing other symptoms so severe that he was taken to Duke Hospital in Durham. There he was diagnosed with Bright's Disease, of which he died a few weeks later.

Wartime

Jack Alexander, ca. 1942

During World War II, all the boys who were old enough served in various branches of the military, including Army, Army Air Corps, Marines, and Merchant Marine. One of the daughter's husbands also served in the Navy. The farm was near Fort Bragg, and one of the children recalled watching from a distance as soldiers practiced parachuting to the ground.

Loula died in 1943, of a blood clot which developed after surgery. Frank and the three children still living at home then moved to town again, into a house which had been the Vass Presbyterian Church manse. Frank and one of his sons built a hen house behind the manse, to raise eggs for sale. He died a little more than two years after his wife. The youngest children were sent to boarding schools and spent holidays with older brothers and sisters.



Legacy Old Presbyterian Manse, Vass, NC, photograph by Hap Carr

In his will, Frank expressed his wish that his four youngest children complete their high school and college education. His advice to his children was "it is my will that each and every one of you commit your way unto the Lord and strive first for that which is spiritual, and all other things needful will be added unto you."

Frank and Loula's children have all expressed respect and admiration for their parents' hard work and high standards. One of them named the gifts he received from his parents: perseverance, honesty, thriftiness, and self-sufficiency. In their stories a sense of affection and devotion amongst family members is also evident. In spite of hard economic times, the Alexander-Richardson family has flourished.


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Sources:


Population Schedule of the Thirteenth Census of the United States: 1910, North Carolina, Moore County, Greenwood Township, (Washington: National Archives and Record Service) Enumeration District 69, Sheet #9A.

Population Schedule of the Fourteenth Census of the United States: 1920, North Carolina, Moore County, McNeills Township, (Washington: National Archives and Record Service) District 92, sheet 4.

Population Schedule of the Fifteenth Census of the United States: 1930, North Carolina, Moore County, (Washington: National Archives and Record Service) Enumeration District 12, Family #316.

Interviews with children of Frank and Loula Alexander.

Written accounts by Allan Alexander, based on interviews with family.

Will of W. F. Alexander, Book O, Moore County Wills, pp. 296-301.

A. Selders, editor, Directory of Moore County: Carthage, Pinehurst, Hemp, Southern Pines, Vass, Cameron, and Aberdeen, (North Carolina: Selder's Directory Co., 1925) (Troy, NC: Montgomerian Print).

Manly Wade Wellman, The County of Moore 1847-1947, (Southern Pines: Moore County Historical Association, 1962) p. 186.

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