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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Icy Norman, April 6 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0036. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A family leaves the farm to make their way in a mill town

Norman remembers job-seeking in 1929. After her father's death, her mother sold the family farm and with help from a friend of her husband's, found Norman and her two brothers work at the small Linksburg Cotton Mill in Linksburg, North Carolina. She remembers trying to settle in to their new environment before they had a home, feeding the baby buttermilk and scrounging for food. When they finally moved into their new house, they feasted on ham and gravy.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Icy Norman, April 6 and 30, 1979. Interview H-0036. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My Daddy died in February. Then we moved to Linksburg on my birthday the 13th of April. That's how old Gilbert was. So Mary, she didn't try to go to work. Me and Dewey and Barney and Rosetta worked—she worked about three months and then she had to quit. At first she didn't know that she was that way when she got her job. We worked there then until August. They closed the mill down for two weeks. They'd work a week, then stand two weeks. You know, back then you didn't draw no unemployment. So the two weeks that the mill stood, Mama told Dewey and Barney, "We can't live here like that. You don't know, the thing may shut down for good. We're going to go hunt us a job, hunt you all a job." So we got in my daddy's old T-Model. The whole two weeks that the mill stood there, we was on the road hunting jobs. We went everywhere. Back then it was in the Depression was starting. Mills was closing down. So you just couldn't get a job. Every freight train that you seen pass was loaded down with people going from town to town, hobo-ing. [END OF TAPE 2, SIDE A] [TAPE 2, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE B]
ICY NORMAN:
We tried there, and Mama said, "Being we're this close, let's just go on to Durham and see Don." That was Mama's oldest boy by her first. Him and his wife lived out on the Raleigh road. I don't know what they call it now. And they had built a home there. So we went down there and spent the night. And Mama was talking to Don and said, "We've been everywhere, and they can't find a job. They've still got their job in Linksburg, but they work a week and stand two weeks." And Don says, "Well, I might could get them on there at the Golden Belt." That was a hosiery mill. "Next week I'll see what I can do. Mama, while you're this close, don't go home tomorrow." That was Sunday. Says, "Don't go home Sunday. Go up to Burlington. Somebody told me that they was hiring help. They're starting tearing out the cotton and putting in rayon. You might get on up there." And Mama says, "Well, we ain't tried there. We have to go back that way anyway to go back to Linksburg." You see, we had to go through Haw River and Danville and then to Linksburg. And so we come. Back then, they didn't have no fence. There was a little old bitty mill; it was a little old wooden mill, two rooms, and they had everything in it. What they had, they had a few frames of spinning, and they had two slashers, and then they had I forget how many dobber-headed looms. It wasn't many. And then they had spooling, and they had spinning. It was all in that little two-room building. It's up there now where they got the…. Of course, they built on to it and made it much bigger. They made a warehouse out of it. And then they built on to it and made it bigger. And so we drove up, and Dewey and Barney got out. You know, anybody could go in, any time day or night that they wanted to. There was a little old bitty machine shop; it wasn't as big as this porch. I can just see that little old shop now. And they didn't have but two hands a-working in it. And so Barney asked that man, "Can you tell us how to find Mr. Copland?" And he says, "Yeah, he's right down younder on that first…. There ain't but two slashers. You can't miss him. One of them's broke down, and he's down there helping us get that slasher going." They went down there, and he had his sleeves rolled up, and he was greasy as a hog from his elbows on down. And he seen Barney and Dewey, and he just had a fit. He says, "Well, where in the world is your mama and my little girl?" My daddy worked for him there in Schoolfield, and he'd come every Sunday evening and spend the evening with my daddy after he got to the place he couldn't work. He thought the world of my daddy. And Dewey says, "They're out there in the car." And boy, here he come. He grabbed up a piece of old cloth, and here's the way he was coming, just like this, a-wiping it off. He come out there, and he was just tickled to death. And he told Mama, he says, "Well, I promised, the last time I seen Mr. Norman—I take it that he's gone." And Mama says, "Yes." And he says, "I promised Mr. Norman that if you ever needed any help and I could give you all a job, that I wanted you to come to me. I reckon that's why you all have come, ain't you?" And Mama says, "Yes, we've been everywhere hunting a job." And he says, "Well, you don't have to hunt no farther. You've got a job. I can put Dewey and Barney to work tomorrow, but I can't put my little girl to work under three or four weeks. I can put Barney and Dewey to work tomorrow. We're tearing the cotton out and putting in all rayon."
MARY MURPHY:
What year was this?
ICY NORMAN:
1929. And so Mama says, "No, if you can't put Icy to work, we'll not come."
MARY MURPHY:
Your mother was a hard bargainer. [Laughter]
ICY NORMAN:
And so he says, "They can go to work tomorrow. I need them." And she says, "No, if you ain't got nothing for Icy to do, we'll come back when you can give her a job." And he says, "Well, you come back, and don't make it over three or four weeks." You see, Barney and Dewey knowed everything in the mill. They could do anything: they could spin; they could doff; they could fix; they could do anything. And me, I was helpless; I didn't know nothing.
MARY MURPHY:
What had you done in the woolen mill?
ICY NORMAN:
I didn't do anything in the woolen mill. I filled batteries in the Linksburg Cotton Mill. That was in the weave room, filling batteries. I knowed how to do that, but see, they didn't have nobody doing that here. And so we come back, and he told Mama that he was ready for me to go to work. And he says, "When can you move?" Mama says, "Well, if you'll give Icy a job, we can move any time." And so he called up a moving van, but before he called them Mama says, "Have you got a house empty?" And he says, "No, not right now, but I'll have you one empty in a week or two weeks, a five-room house. I know Mr. Andrews up here in the Post Office. He just finished building a new house. Go up there and see him." Went up there, and Mr. Andrews said no, he hadn't rented it, and so he give Mr. Copland the keys and we went up there and looked at it. Oh, it was the prettiest little house; it was a little rock house. That was the prettiest thing, and I was tickled to death over that. Oh, it was so pretty. And so we went back by the Post Office, and Mama paid him the rent. And so Mr. Copland asked Mr. Andrews, "Can I use your telephone to call the transfer?" And he says, "Yes." And so he called a transfer, and the transfer says, "I'll be there in a half hour." And Mama told Barney, "You take Rosetta, Mary, and the baby"—that was Barney's little baby—"and Icy back to Don's, and me and Dewey will go with the transfer, and we'll be back tomorrow evening." We went back, and it just tickled Don to death. But I still thought…. I was so green, I didn't ask Mr. Copland would I make any money. And come to find out, anybody that didn't know nothing had to go in and learn the job, and if you learnt the job and they was satisfied with you, they'd give you a job. Well, Mama and the transfer come in. We left Don's and come on back, and the A and P store was there where the old Duke light place where you'd pay your light bill, where they tore down, do you remember it? They tore it down the other week. Then it was an A and P store there. We stopped there, and my mama told Barney, "You stop and get some coffee." She told us to stop and get some coffee and get some flour and some milk. And we stopped there at that A and P store and got it, and we went on up there. We had the key to the house. We went on in and took our suitcases in. All at once, Gilbert started screaming and a-crying. We couldn't get him to shut up, and instead of getting sweet milk Barney got buttermilk. And Gilbert was on the bottle. [Laughter] It was right funny. You laugh at it now, but Lord, it just worried me to death. That young'un screamed. And there was two big old pear trees out there. Well, there we was. We didn't have a bite to eat, no way to cook nothing, and so we set there. And so Mary says, "I'm going out there and get me one of them pears. I'm about to starve." So we went out there and got us some of them pears and eat them pears. And poor little Gilbert. We'd carry that baby and we would give him water, and we'd try to give him that buttermilk, and that give him the colic. And we had a time. And so there was a big old house right across on the same side, and that woman come over there and says, "What's the matter with that baby?" And Mary says, "He's hungry, and Barney got buttermilk instead of sweet milk, and he's wanting his bottle." She says, "You come on home with me." It was Mrs. Jones. "Bring his bottles, and I'll fill his bottles up with milk, and we'll fix that little feller something to eat. I kept hearing that baby a-crying, and I couldn't figure where that baby was at. Then I seen one of you all with him, a-carrying him." And so we went over there, and [she] says, "Have you all had anything to eat?" And I was bashful. I never opened my mouth. And Mary says, "No, we ain't eat nothing since we left Uncle Don's house in Durham." And she says, "Well, we'll fix that. We'll fix you all something to eat." And oh, she was the nicest somebody and a sweet woman, but I was bashful. And I was starved to death. I was bashful, but I wouldn't eat but just a bite or two. Oh, Lord have mercy, I could eat a whole cow, if it had been. [Laughter] But I was bashful. And so she fixed six bottles for Gilbert. They always kept six sterilized bottles ahead. And so Gilbert was happy as a coon when he got, and the little old feller, he took that bottle and he sucked that bottle, and he went to sleep. We fixed him in the car. And it was hot, and Barney run the car up under that pear tree under the shade. We opened the car doors. The little old feller, he just died. Well, it went on, and poor old Mama and them, they didn't get there, it was nine o'clock that night. Back then you didn't have no electricity; you had to use lamps. We didn't have no light. Mama and the truck and Dewey come in. Gilbert woke screaming again, wanting his bottle. The little feller was just hungry. [Laughter] And Mary stuck one of them bottles in his mouth; we didn't have no way to warm it. Mary says, "I'm not going back over to that lady and ask her to heat that milk for me. He can suck that or do without." And so he took it. And so nine o'clock Mama and them come in. Well, we was all getting hungry again. They unloaded the furniture, and we put the beds up and fixed our beds where we'd have something to sleep on. Mama brought some kerosene oil with her. We lit the old oil stove, and Mama says, "I don't know where none of that stuff is. They packed that stuff." And we rambled around in a box, and we found a ham. We was already eating on the shoulder. Mama wasn't going to let us cut our ham until we eat all of our shoulders up. And that's what we was hunting for. We'd got down to the good lean meat on that shoulder. Oh, it was so good. And I just couldn't wait to get a piece of it. I was so hungry. I didn't eat but a bite or two, because I was bashful. And so Dewey says, "Mama, here's a ham. I can't find that shoulder we was eating on." Mama says, "I don't care. Cut it. I'm getting weak." [Laughter] So he got the lamp lit, and he cut. He just went right down the heart of that ham, and he sliced it. And Mama and Mary and Rosetta all was in there, and we had on two frying pans full. And we fried a platter that long and that high of that ham. And Mama went and fried some eggs. We had a big old pan. It was that wide and that square—it just fit in the bakery of the stove—she made that thing full of biscuits. Made some hot coffee. We set down there, and we ate every bite of that platter of ham. And she made a big bowl of milk gravy. And boy, was that good. That was the best stuff. And we sat there and we ate. There was Rosetta and there was Dewey and there was Barney and there was Mary and there was me and there was Mama and there was Florence. That was seven of us, and it didn't take long for that platter of ham to get gone. And it didn't take long for that bowl of cream gravy to get gone. We ate that big old square pan of biscuits. And I have never in my life eaten no ham that I thought was as good. My daddy could really fix meat. Oh, Lord, I wish I could get some like that now, but you can't. But don't nobody know how he fixed his, but he could fix meat.