The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Memories To Last

By John M. Johnson © 1995

Issue: Winter, 1995

Over the years I have had the pleasure to live with, and be friend with one of the most interesting persons of my existence. I have been accepted and reared as a son during those years of love and affection. I have listened to the stories of days long past, and I have recorded those stories in memory and on magnetic tape on which the depiction of bondage, poverty, and success has come to life. Within the following paragraphs I shall attempt to pass on to the reader segments of a man's story and of his adventures, from his early life until his death.

Reece Boyd Johnson, Sr., was born June 29, 1904, in the Cove section of Wythe County, Virginia. He was the son of William Elbert Johnson [1877-1935], and Josephine Crockett Monroe Johnson [1877-1916]. To this union there were born eight children: Annie Louise, Josephine Beatrice, William Sanders (deceased), Mary Bell, John Henry, George Edward (deceased), Lillian Naomi (deceased), and Reece Boyd Johnson, Sr., who departed this life on May 10, 1992.

When I became interested in research and genealogy, the Johnson family of Wythe County, Virginia, was the most difficult family of Wythe County, to bring to life. Even though they were there to be interviewed at any time that I wished. When Ida Dean Johnson [1903-1977] passed away, my life as a researcher began to unfold, and all the memories that had been collected in a meager brain took shape as a Johnson family history collection. Just bits and pieces of Ida's life, and of her family are recorded. It is all lost, as there are no family members left to interview.

In the early 1980s I began to interview Reece Boyd Johnson, Sr. Being the person that he was, very little persuading would trigger the adventures of his life, and within minutes an adventure came into focus. His memories took him back to the very early days of his life in summer time. The Cove section of the county was blowing in hay; in winter snow found its way through the cracks of a "planked up and down" home to the quilts and blankets under which he and his brothers and sisters slept. They found no comfort here; the attic room in which they slumbered was much too frigid to linger, and as quickly as one would awake, these children found their way to the "pot belly stove" where heat was found.

In summer and autumn blue birds that were absent from town life kissed the breeze of spring time, and cows were heard bellowing in the distance. This was a time [about 1908] when his father William, and his mother Josephine, walked from their old home place, down a dusty lane and across State Route 600, to clear the field on which their winter crops were to be grown.

John Crockett, (whose families were perhaps the first to settle in the Cove) made an oral lease to William Elbert Johnson, a lease to till the land for fair share. William was to take care of the land for three years, and while doing so, he and his wife, perhaps with their older children cleared the surrounding land. This was a common occurrence, as money was rarely paid for wages during those early days. Negroes cleared the land, used and sold the proceeds for cash. Some Negroes also owned small tracts of land that they owned and farmed.

When the family arrived in the fields in the early morning (much like in the days of slavery), into the earth a deep hole was dug and lined with a blanket. In these holes the younger children were placed. Another blanket was erected with wood poles (to resemble a tarp) over this hole, to protect the children from the hot rays of the sun.

When I was a child, the rattlesnakes were plentiful in the "Cove." Perhaps they were more active in 1908. To prevent children from getting snake bites, "Old Spot" the dog was trained to police the area. Spot laid down, and stayed close to the children, and if a snake was detected Spot would began to detain the approach of the serpent with loud barks and yip's. At times he would physically grab the snake and sling it for a distance. Josephine [the mother of Reece] would come with a 22 caliber rifle and destroy the snake, and all was calm again.

By the time he was six years old Reece's work began. From the beginning to the conclusion of the day, he along with his brothers and sisters carried water, fed the hogs and chickens, and chopped wood, and of course there was school. This was about 1910.

By the time Reece was seven years old he found himself on horseback with John Crockett. They burned the brush piles on the land that Crockett possessed in great masses. Reece's job was to carry a burning twig and "jump" from the horse to ignite the brush. This was done until the land was cleared from State Route 600, to the top of Cove Mountain to the south. Over the passing years Cove Mountain has regressed to woodland.

The Rough Ride To Church

God and church was instilled into this family from the beginning. Like all children, church was not only a place to go and serve God, this was also a place to be educated; and at times it was a place to play and to have fun. Reece spoke of these days in vivid detail, for it seems these were the fondest days of his life.

On a hot August day, (about 1911) he and his family were going to a "camp meeting" at an old Negro church about four miles from their home in the Cove. The church was located near the Gap of the Cove, across St. Luke Fork. Seated within a wagon pulled by an ox, were William and Josephine Johnson, and their family. As the ox neared the banks of Cove Creek it smelled the water, and away it went. There was no stopping the creature.

After the wagon hit several rough places on the ridged dusty road, and hurried across a downward field, a pin which kept the tongue of the wagon in place worked loose. Now the wagon was free, and the ox was on its destination to the waters of Cove Creek. After the wagon came to a halt, the children were crying, William and his wife Josephine were upset, and Reece had bit his tongue from the rough ride.

Reece spoke fondly of his mother. His shirt was now red with blood, there were people from all parts of the county to attend the meeting, and his mother [Josephine] tried desperately to remove the stains from his shirt with little effect but the "camp meeting" went on. As the crying ceased, and the pain disappeared, within the church the children began to be seated and gradually begin to play; and the church was no place for play. "If any child got out of hand in church, the nearest adult would take you by the hand and lead you out of the church." At this point the person now in charge would break off a twig from a bush and "spank you without mercy."

Church was not the only place where strict discipline took effect. While visiting another home in the neighborhood (which consisted of approximately eight homes), children were made to play near the fireplace, or stove. If the older people were speaking of something not fit to penetrate the tender ears of children, the children were made to leave the room, or go out side. Of course Reece got his share of spankings at church, and at the home.

The Death of A Mother

The winter of 1916, was another cold and miserable season. Snow again found its way through the crevices of that "planked up and down" home in which the Johnson family lived. There were eight children in this household to be fed in the early morning of winter. The youngest was Lillian Naomi born in April of 1915. From this birth, and the harsh winter, Josephine contracted tuberculosis, and by March 15, 1916, she was dead from this dreaded disease.

On Thursday morning (March 16, 1916), Josephine's body was placed upon the kitchen table to await the horse drawn hearse (from Wytheville) driven by Dan Johnson, who worked for the local undertaker, John Porter. Her body was placed into a coffin covered with doe skin. From here her remains were taken to the family church on the hill and to the cemetery. There she was laid to rest.

Shortly after the death of Josephine Johnson, William (her husband and the father of Reece) left the children to be reared by the older daughters. William found work in Bluefield, and Pulaski, Virginia, to pay for the medical and funeral expenses for his deceased wife. He saw it was difficult for his young daughters to care for the children at home, so William arranged for young Reece to stay with Mrs. Sally Crockett, (a school teacher) from whom he received much of his early education.

On this farm Reece was disciplined also; if Mrs. Crockett did not have time to get a switch, she used a buggy whip and promptly sent young Reece home. With Reece, was a note (firmly tucked into his shirt pocket) to his father William. The note was to explain why the punishment took effect, as Mrs. Crockett knew that another spanking would follow when William read the message.

Reece Johnson, never frowned upon such punishment, in fact, he regarded it as an early lesson in discipline. He cherished the thought and memory of Mrs. Sally Crockett, and in every conversation the name Samuel Crockett was included. For Sam was his best friend.

The years quickly slipped away from a young Negro child born in the Cove section of Wythe County, Virginia; and like the speed and coming of a new day he found himself in a man's world at the age of 13 years old. From this young age he found no time to look back.

The Many Travels of A Young Man

West Virginia, for many years (from the late 1800s, until the 1930s) offered not only jobs for white persons, but here blacks also found employment. The coal mines of this state attracted persons from as far south as Alabama, and as far north as Ohio, and New York.

For a young man without a mother, and his father away from home at great periods of time, Reece found himself at the Max Meadows furnace working in steel. He recalled the great "smoke stack" that towered far above the small community. He described in great detail the interior of the mill and its floors on which they walked; constructed of square iron tile which measured about 4 inch's square. He often spoke of the times that he sat on his porch in the "Cove" and knew when the tipper was dumping hot limestone. "You could read a news paper at 10 o'clock at night." From where he sat on his porch, it was more than 10 miles away.

From this experience, and being in the presence of older men, perhaps this kindled the notion to "catch" the Norfolk and Western railroad train, not as an employee, but as a "hobo." From these adventures he traveled as far north as Rochester, New York, and as far west as Toledo, Ohio. He explored Kentucky, Tennessee and finally West Virginia; to Northfork, Keystone, and Logan, and to places that I have never heard of in my life. There were times that he (without money or employment) prayed to return home to that old "planked up and down house" in the Cove. Any place could have afforded more comfort than an old cold freight car, in the dead of winter. He faced death on occasions, from missing or loosing hold on a passing train car. He often displayed the scars from which he was dragged for several yards by these cars. Why did you not let go your grip? "Well son, I would have either missed the train, or I would have been dragged under, and cut to pieces."

There were numerous occasions Reece was without food and drink for two and three days. No one shared either bed or eat, for these were the days that approached the great depression; and he was a young boy living as a man.

By 1921, Reece found his way back to Virginia, and soon found employment at the Pulaski Mines at Pulaski County, Virginia. The mines were nothing new to him, for he had worked the mines in West Virginia. He trusting nothing or no one but two mules, "Doc" and "Shot." A great amount of respect was given to the rats and mice which were within the confines of the mines. But, he spoke vividly of this pair of mules that pulled the full cars of coal, and whose ears which he would constantly observe. Much attention was directed to the mules ears; if the ears of the mules were erect, the mules were calm. When the animals began to become restless, and their ears lay close to their heads "you had better grab on to the cars, or to the mules."

Within seconds the mules would run to the mine entrance, and shortly after an explosion or a "cave in" would occur. The same applied for rats and mice "on the move." When this parade of rodent's occurred one could expect a methane gas explosion.

By 1922, Reece had settled at Pulaski, and was still employed in the mines. Here in this desolate part of Southwest Virginia, he met Ida Dean [1903-1977], the daughter of Isaac and Rhoda Dean of Poplar Hill, in Giles County, Virginia. Here in this mining community both Ida, and her mother Rhoda, were cooks for the mine company.

Just a few years after Reece met and became acquainted with Ida, they married on December 25, 1925, in Wythe County, Virginia, and never desired to return to Pulaski County. They made their home in the Cove section of Wythe County, and here they started their family.

Life was not easy between the years of 1922, and 1933; the dangers of mine life had disappeared, but the hard work of farming and share cropping became a part of life. The family had flourished by 1933, as three children had become part of the Johnson family. But, all that seemed well was not well. Being distant from the commodities of town and city life, all families in the Cove were helpless, when tragedies struck; the Johnson family were not exempt from these fears.

It was in 1933, when fire destroyed their home, leaving Reece, Ida and their three children homeless. Nothing was saved but the clothes that they wore and a cook stove that was dragged from the ruins after the fire. Reece was severely burned trying to save a young son; "burnt flesh hung from my arms, but I had to save the children."

A New Beginning

An old "eight man" tent was erected in an open field below the destroyed house, and the cook stove which was salvaged, was put to use in the front yard of their new canvas home site. "Ida never gave up, and her ability to cook remained the same."

Between the years 1934, and 1937, the family found refuge at the home of William Elbert and Harriet Stuart Johnson, the second wife of William, (the father of Reece). Reece found employment in Wytheville, chopping and selling wood; and hauling and selling coal. By the end of 1937, he acquired his first piece of land on Lexington Street, in Wytheville, and by 1938 he had constructed a three room house.

In this home Ida would conceive and rear seven more children. Under the hands of God, and before the face of humanity, Ida and Reece Johnson, labored for 52 years serving God, family, and the community.

Ida died in June of 1977, and Reece died in May of 1992. Ida dedicated her life to family. Both she and Reece, set the example for this family to serve, and prosper but never look back, and to never give up.

From his skill as a carpenter and stone mason, the work of Reece Johnson, and his father before him can be noticed in several parts of Wythe County. His work will serve as a reminder to this community and his family to those who wish to point out and elaborate upon his afore mentioned skill. His work in stone and carpentry shall last much longer than his meager life granted by God; but shall soon be forgotten by mortal man.

If I should forget the example which Reece and Ida Johnson, have instilled in my meager life, I shall never forget the words which Reece once spoke to me as a young child. "Never look back at a degraded past, but face the future with pride and respect; and if you must look back, look back upon the pride and respect that your forefathers had." Reece Boyd Johnson, Sr., and Ida Dean Johnson were my father and mother.