The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Our First Fifty Years

(December 24, 1937 - December 24, 1987)
By Ethel Vass © 1987

Issue: December, 1987

Maynard and Ethel Vass in the early 1940's.Maynard and Ethel Vass in the early 1940's.On December 24, 1987, Lord willing, my husband, Maynard, and I were married 50 years. Many changes have taken place in that half century.

On that rainy Christmas Eve in 1937, Maynard came for me at the home of my parents, Booker and Susie Ayers, at Fancy Gap, Virginia in a borrowed Model A Ford. The door glass was missing on the passenger side, so cardboard in its place kept the rain from coming in. It kept me from seeing out, but that didn't matter - I only had eyes for Maynard, anyway.

We got through two miles of mud roads and eventually arrived at the home of Maynard's uncle; Elder D. Smith Webb, at Woodlawn, Virginia. With Cousin Effie and her husband, Charlie Akers, great aunt Lou Webb, and my father as witnesses, Elder Webb performed the ceremony and we started our life's journey. I was 16, Maynard was 25. Over the years I have reminded him, he was old enough to know better - I wasn't. I had $3 left (money earned the previous summer working at 10¢ an hour at a Kraut factory) after buying my wedding garments. Maynard had 50¢ left after paying the preacher. He had a small paycheck coming at the end of the month. He was paying on my rings and on 1/2 interest in his parents small farm. I owned a cow my parents had given me, a bed and covers. I was especially proud of my rings; Maynard was the 5th of the Vass men to wed but I was the first to receive rings.

Maynard and Ethel Vass flanked by their children, in-laws and grandchildren.Maynard and Ethel Vass flanked by their children, in-laws and grandchildren.Our first year we lived with his parents in the Snake Creek area of Carroll County. There we were serenaded on our wedding night with a feast, country music and dancing. The crowd remained civil, although one or two guests got a little tipsy! My most embarrassing time came later. We were spending the night with Maynard's brother (my first visit). When we went to bed that night the bed fell. To this day I believe that mischievous brother rigged the bed.

Maynard worked odd jobs and was a substitute rural mail carrier. I discovered that a newly acquired sister-in-law had much material suitable for quilts. I immediately made a deal with her to piece quilt tops on the halves, so I spent the winter sewing quilt tops by hand. It was a few years later before I had a sewing machine. Springtime came and we got our crops planted.

We sold the farm on Snake Creek and purchased a farm in Hillsville. After the crops were harvested we moved to Hillsville. Our moving van was a wagon pulled by a yoke of oxen named Ben and Joe.

Maynard and I rented a one room cabin, bought a acre of land nearby and built a two room house plus attic on it. In late 1939 we moved into our very own home, complete with new outhouse. We carried water from a spring located down a steep hill (until very recently we still used the spring, carried to the house via electricity). Later, Maynard erected a windlass in the yard and we pulled the water up by cable. That worked great unless the bucket jumped off and then it was down the hill to remedy that.

Our refrigerator was a wooden box at the spring. Barrels and tubs were kept under the eaves of the house to catch rain water for laundry and baths. We had a nice new range for cooking; it had been purchased from Guynn's Hardware, and a tin heater for heating. The house was built on locust posts with no underpinning. The north wind would raise the linoleum up off the floor. When your bare feet touched the floor in the morning, they almost stuck fast. We still live in the same house, which we have modified: over, under, around and through.

Our biggest luxury was a loaf of store bread occasionally, for Sunday. Oh how good the bread smelled as you sliced it and tasted good too. These were depression years. This was life before electricity, wrinkle free clothes and television. Irons were heated on a stove and laundry on a washboard over a tub. The same tub used for bathing.

In April 1940, 5 days after my 19th birthday, our first and only son, William Daniel (Bill) was born; followed in October, 1941 by a daughter, Joyce Ann. Our home was complete!

I was still sewing by hand. One day I made a complete suit for Bill out of an old one of Maynard's. That did it, in a short while Maynard bought a Singer pedal machine for me.

Our mode of travel was a foot until we bought a 1929 model A coupe for $50. It ran pretty good, but stayed thirsty. Our first "big trip" was to Independence (30 miles away), we had to stop at several houses and/or streams along the way to get water for the car. We soon got rid of that one and bought a 1931 model A sedan for $150. Now that was a car! We drove it back and forth to Norfolk and it never missed a lick. Then we sold it for more than we paid for it after we decided we needed a pick-up truck.

After the start of World War II the economy picked up and living standards were better. We obtained electricity, a refrigerator, a wringer washer and an electric iron. I recall paying $1.00 each for our first iron and toaster, neither were automatic.

Then Maynard was drafted into the Navy, and I, like so many others was left with two small children. We were lucky, after boot camp, he was stationed at Norfolk Air Station, where he remained until discharged 21 months later. After I took care of my gardening and canning for the summer, Maynard rented an apartment in Norfolk and moved the children and me in. He hitched home one weekend and moved us in the Model A. We packed the car, with just enough room for the four of us to ride, and tied all we could on top. Remember when the Beverly Hillbillies were off the California? We were the original, Hillsvillebillies, off to Norfolk! I had never been farther from home than Winston-Salem, North Carolina. We crossed the ferry into Norfolk, I thought I was in another world and would never see Hillsville again.

While at Norfolk, we shared an apartment with another couple, and scrimped and saved so we could build to our house when the war ended. Instead, both of us being landlubbers, we bought his parents' half of the farm (which we still own) and settled back into our two rooms. It was in the early fifties before we started adding to our house, and installed running water and indoor plumbing.

Our house has character. Most of the building material was grown on our farm. Maynard did most of the finishing and was very creative in his work. Whenever I saw that certain glint in his eyes and he was holding a hammer, saw and nails, I knew we were getting an improvement on the house. He also landscaped the yard with his tractor and blade and made a ground level entrance to the basement.

Although Maynard worked at various jobs, including 8 years as county jailer/deputy sheriff, his first love was farming. He finally bought more land and farm machinery and devoted all his time to farming and custom work, as long as his health permitted. It was a sad day for all of us when his health failed and we had to say good-bye to the cattle. After going in debt for his machinery, he just about worked night and day until it was paid for. It was not unusual to hear his tractor going at 5:00 a.m. and/or 10:00 p.m.

While jailer, our family lived in an apartment in the building - under the store, so to speak. I was bookkeeper, cook, jail matron and Justice of the Peace. While there, in 1953, our last daughter, Susan Lynn, was born. An honest to goodness jailbird! She was a joy for all the family, especially her 11 and 13 year old siblings.

When the girls were big enough they did their own sewing, mostly of Dan River cotton and feed sacks. (Recently I found a feed sack in my materials and made my 6 year old granddaughter a dress. She wears it proudly.) Our scrap material was saved for quilts and stuffed animals. We grew most of our food which we canned and stored for winter, slaughtered 1 or 2 hogs and a beef. We kept chickens for eggs and meat. Feathers were used to make pillows. We kept cows for our milk and butter. And we were always careful not to go into debt more than we could pay. If we couldn't afford it, we did without.

The children did chores and helped prepare food for winter. When Bill was 3 or 4, his chore was to feed the chickens. One day he came running and said, "Old big wat in chicken house, done eat one all up." The "wat" turned out to be a skunk, which Maynard killed but we were aware it had visited for a long time. When Maynard needed help on the farm, I helped him; when I needed help in the house, he helped me. Many times, after working all day, he and I would can and store food until the wee hours of the morning.

We all pulled together. Did we ever fight poverty! Bill bought a lawnmower and mowed lawns to pay for it; bought a bicycle and delivered papers to pay for it. He and Joyce worked part time at the Carroll News and all three worked at Vass Grocery. Susan practically grew up there, by then I was working there and would take her along to help. She also helped her daddy on the farm every chance, driving the farm truck, ringing pigs, birthing calves, etc. All of their earnings were deposited on savings toward their education. The first car Bill owned was after he finished college and had a teaching position.

Bill was diagnosed a diabetic at age 11. After a period of adjustment to insulin injection, he had lived a normal live, working and getting an education. He received his BA from King College, his MA from Radford University. He continues to teach math.

Meanwhile Joyce was working her way through nursing school at Roanoke Memorial Hospital School of Nursing and became a RN in 1963. She continues to do private duty nursing.

We had a breather before Susan entered college. She had more money saved but tuition was also more. She, too, worked at college and summers. She did her own financing to study in Paris her junior year at UVA. Later she received her MA at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. She is a French teacher.

Over the years we traveled right much, always taking the children. After all of them were finally on their own; Maynard and I finally took our honeymoon - a week in Florida. I thought how nice it would be to travel at our own pace, not having to stop at every rest station for food and drinks and/or rest rooms. I was fooled because we still stopped at every station - and we missed the children.

Maynard and I stayed busy over the years until his health failed a few years ago. Only then did I retire from work outside the home, after 37 consecutive years in the work force. At that time I had a position with Mt. Rogers as direct care with the mentally handicapped, which was not really a job - it was a great pleasure. Now I stay busy caring for my husband, making quilts and doing other needlework, reading, writing, gardening and enjoying our 7 grandchildren. We had hoped to travel extensively after retirement, but that was not to be.

I have had a busy wonderful life. Talk about life beginning at 40, mine began at 16! Maynard and I have traveled in 35 states and Canada, including a trip to the west coast via Amtrak. We have attended Primitive Baptist churches in 12 states and approximately 60 churches throughout Virginia. We have entertained church brethren and sisters, friends and relatives in our home from numerous states and areas. It is not unusual to have 30 or more people for a meal or a dozen or more overnight. At such times it is inevitable that Joyce or Susan will start playing our old-timey organ and everyone gathers around with song books. Maynard had a beautiful bass voice and both Joyce and Susan have a wonderful singing talent. Our house has been filled with praises sung to God.

We have had the normal ups and downs, sickness, but never a death in our family. The Lord has been SO good to us. And as the song goes, "there never was a time we didn't love."