The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Whistling Ed - An excerpt from, Memories Unraveled

By Pat Hadley Davis © 1991

Issue: August, 1991

I recall a man who came into an attorney's office where I worked. He was an elderly man who always had a German Shepherd dog he called "Davey Crockett" with him.

He became involved in a controversy regarding a road that crossed his land and claimed that the road, cut by the town of North Wilkesboro, [North Carolina], was nowhere near where the road was when he purchased the land. He felt that he had every right to block the road and did so by constructing a steel gate across it.

After a stormy session with the attorney the man stomped out of the office in a rage. The attorney said that the man would probably take the case to the Supreme Court because he was so sure he was right. He stated that the law suit would probably cost more than the land was worth but that "Whistling Ed" would fight a buzz-saw and, knowing him, he would probably come out the winner. That was my first encounter with "Whistling Ed" Williams. I had heard of him all my life; he really did become a legend in his own time.

I have gone to his grandson, Ralph Williams, to find out more about the legend and have recorded our conversation about this unique individual.

Ed Williams was born in Scottville in Ashe County. He was one-quarter Cherokee Indian and also of Irish descent. I had always heard that Williams was not his real name, which is true. His father deserted his mother when her three sons were small children and she took back her maiden name. Her sons went by her maiden name. Otherwise, so Ralph Williams stated, "We would be named O'Daniels."

Prior to coming to Wilkes County Ed had mined gold in Mexico and had worked at Ore Knob Copper Mines in Ashe County. He worked in a blacksmith shop in Laurel Springs and had become a master blacksmith who could temper steel. He was also a mechanical genius. He could make and repair any kind of machine he had ever seen and would buy old machines that the owners thought could never be fixed. He bought them up North and brought them back down South and made a killing.

"Whistling Ed" had been a friend of Congressman "Farmer Bob" Doughton when he was growing up in Ashe County and Congressman Doughton had helped him get a patent on a grist mill he had invented. He came from Laurel Springs to Ronda in 1921 and founded the New Williams Mill which manufactured grist mills. After he sold that company he came to North Wilkesboro in 1922 and started the Williams Machine Shop on Thirteenth Street. He manufactured many of the machines that were used by American Furniture, Oak Furniture, Forest Furniture, and Lineberry Foundry when they were opened.

"Whistling Ed" was always thought to be a bootlegger. That is not correct, says his grandson. He did not sell liquor. He made stills. It was not against the law to make stills that produced liquor. It was against the law to sell liquor. His stills were made of copper and were known to be the highest quality stills ever made in this section of the world. They were masterpieces of craftsmanship.

Ralph Williams like to tell of going to New York with his grandfather. After Ralph was old enough to drive, his grandfather would pay his expenses and give him $15.00 to drive him to New York. They took 4x4 lumber and sold it to machinery dealers to ship machinery on. It took twenty-two hours to make the trip by car in the 1930s.

On one trip "Whistling Ed" went to the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight. When "Whistling Ed" entered the arena he was awe struck by the size of the building. While waiting for the fight to start he was looking around and overhead admiring all the steel work and wondering how they could support such a large roof with the steel supports. The crowd began to roar and "Whistling Ed" didn't know what had happened. That fight was the World Championship Boxing match that lasted only minutes. While he was looking at the steel work the fight had begun and ended. He shouted, "What happened? I didn't see nothing."

"Whistling Ed" was so clever he could figure an easy way out of any situation. He even figured out a way to get around New York City in a hurry. He would hail a policeman (he called them all "Paddy") with "Hey, Paddy, I am just a hick from Wilkes County and don't know my way around. Where is so and so?" It always worked; the policeman escorted him anywhere and they got through the traffic in a hurry.

He had a leather piece of luggage that held five half gallons of Wilkes County White Lightening. He knew he could get anything he needed or wanted in New York with it on a trip.

Once up North they attended a machinery dealers convention. One of the machinery dealers told "Whistling Ed" he had a friend in his office that he would like "Whistling Ed" to meet. When the Williamses were ushered into the office, they were introduced to Albert Einstein. At first "Whistling Ed" was very reserved in the presence of such a great man but as they began to talk he became more at ease. He and Einstein began a friendly chatter and "Whistling Ed" told him a joke or two. They talked for an hour. As they left, Einstein told Ralph that his grandfather reminded him of Will Rogers, which was not the first time anyone had compared "Whistling Ed" with Will Rogers. Many people thought their mannerisms and looks were similar, perhaps because they were both part Cherokee Indian.

Once "Whistling Ed" came across a building which was to be demolished and which contained an enormous amount of huge steel beams. The owners said they would give him the steel if he would haul it off. There were several thousands pounds of steel in the eighty or ninety steel beams. They added that the metal would be worth several thousand dollars if it was straightened but it was obviously too bent to do anything with. It presented a challenge to "Whistling Ed" and his mechanical genius went to work. He had been working with steel all his life and soon discovered how he could straighten it. He bought two 24-inch I-beams and rigged up a hydraulic jack which straightened those beams so well no one could tell they had ever been crooked. He then made a fortune from selling them. Many of the buildings on Main Street built up until about 1950 were constructed with these beams. It was about the only steel used in those older buildings.

Ralph tells of his after-school job in the machine shop where "Whistling Ed" made stills. They took twenty-one foot long copper tubes, plugged them at one end with a wooden plug, and stuck them up to the second floor of the building. Then Ralph would go up on the second floor and pour sand in the tubes and tamp it down with a piece of steel, packing them full and tight. The tubes were then put around a mantel (a round cruet) and bent in about two and a half circles, becoming the condensers for the stills. The sand kept the thin walls of the copper tube from collapsing. Ralph said it took about two hours to tamp a tube and he earned twenty five cents a tube.

Neither "Whistling Ed" nor his son, Jim Williams, drank liquor. They said it was for selling, not for drinking.

"Whistling Ed" was one of the first men around here to have a garage for auto repairs. He could look at a machine and figure out how it worked. He worked on many kinds of cars, but mostly Chevrolets. Early autos had flywheels made of cast iron whose rims would easily fly off. Ralph says that removing, remaking, and replacing these parts was a big part of his grandfather's business.

There were few garages that worked on cars at the time and Ed Williams stayed busy. Occasionally when he finished a car he had to deliver it to the customer. Once he had Seymour Pearson's car in for repairs. Seymour, who lived in Oakwoods at the time, called "Whistling Ed" one night after dark asking him to deliver his car. "Whistling Ed" told him he couldn't come out after dark in the rain on that slick road. The road was too curved. Seymour shouted in the phone, "It don't make a damn, straighten the curves out and come on." "Whistling Ed" could straighten steel but he wasn't sure he could straighten curves so Seymour had to wait until daylight to get his car.

Jim Williams, "Whistling Ed's" son, fought in World War I. When Jim went in service he had worked around his father's blacksmith shop and had a sketchy knowledge of machines. When he went to France he had seen only one motorcycle in his life and had never ridden one. He was assigned to be a messenger and to ride a motorcycle. He told them that he had never ridden one and would rather not try. He was then assigned to working on motorcycles and eventually on planes. He fixed them, all right, but he wanted no part of riding on motorcycles or of flying in planes.

Jim Williams, being a veteran of WWI, was always a patriotic man. When his son Ralph gathered up scrap pieces of metal from his grandfather's scrap pile and sold it to junk yards to make money as a child, his father stopped him because he said the junk yards would sell that metal to the Japs who would end up shooting it back at us in the form of bullets soon. In 1941, he was proven right.

"Whistling Ed's" conviction that the town had trespassed on his land grew over the years and he became more inflamed by it day by day. When an old friend of his became Mayor of North Wilkesboro, he took up his battle again. He told the mayor that anyone who tried to come through there would be shot. This began a running war of words that lasted for about two years. One day the two happened to be at the Post Office at the same time. By that time, both men were quite elderly but something was said and they got into a fist fight. They both lost their footing and fell to the ground and continued to roll around on the grass hitting with their fists. Neither was seriously hurt but there was no real winner. Later on the two men mended their fences, became friends again, and remained so until the end of their lives.

"Whistling Ed" had always been active and independent. He came and went as he pleased. He once took a trip to Charlotte to visit his daughter in the mid 1950s and had a wreck on the way because he had gone to sleep at the wheel. He was in his seventies at the time and his driver's license was taken from him. Sometime after that Ralph took him to Lenoir and they saw a new Ford El Rancho pickup. "Whistling Ed" bought it right there on the spot; he couldn't drive it but he bought it.

"Whistling Ed" liked to see dirt moved. Bulldozers just fascinated him. He would hire a bulldozer and move dirt just to see it moved. Ralph told him he was going to wear the dirt out moving it around his machine shop. He graded the hill behind it and in the process graded someone else's land just to move the dirt around.

Before World War II there were not many bulldozers around but after the war they became plentiful. Nothing would do "Whistling Ed" but he had to have his own bulldozer, although he had no more use for one than a pig has use for a whistle. He was afraid to drive it so he hired a man to drive it for him. People soon learned they could get bulldozing done cheap from "Whistling Ed" because he just simply liked to watch it.

"Whistling Ed" had always been active but his body began to slow down as age gained on him. However, his mind was as keen as ever. He would go to his son's home on Old Highway 421 and sit on the porch to watch the traffic go by. His grandson told of the day when "Whistling Ed" sat on the porch most of the day and finally asked him, "Do you have any idea how many cars passed here today?" Ralph's reply was "Lord, no. Who would know?" "Whistling Ed" knew. He said he had been there since eleven o'clock that morning and he had counted every car and had it marked down on a paper. He had counted 1500 cars.

"Whistling Ed" said, "You know, the whole cockeyed world has gone crazy. Some of these days there ain't gonna be a parking place nowheres if people keep buying cars like that."

Why the name "Whistling Ed?" He was known far and wide for his whistling. People who had heard him whistle said it was unbelievable. A local musician who knew him, once told him that he sounded like two flutes, as if he whistled two notes at one time.

He was an accomplished musician; he played the fiddle and banjo. When he went to a dance he was the life of the party because not only could he play and sing, he was also a dancer. He was friends with many people from all over the country and he was often visited by out of town celebrities. Ralph tells of the time the singing group, the "Ink Spots", once visited him here.

"Whistling Ed" and Ralph attended the opening of the World's Fair in New York in 1939. They were supposed to be guests of Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt but they arrived too late to sit in the seats reserved for them. When Mrs. Roosevelt saw "Whistling Ed" in the audience she came over and told him how much she enjoyed the quilt that he had given her. He had met her when she visited Roan Mountain and had given her a handmade quilt.

When I remember "Whistling Ed," my mind's eye sees an elderly man with a rumpled face and rumpled clothes and deep set eyes that sparkled with courage and determination. To me, he looked like a living Norman Rockwell character.

He was a unique individual who developed all the talents he possessed to the fullest, which convinced those who knew him that they had known an amazing personality.

Editor's Note... The book "Memories Unraveled" may be ordered by sending $6.25 which includes postage, to Pat Hadley Davis, 1002 K. Street, N. Wilkesboro, NC 28659, or call 919-838-2828.