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Mrs. Newman Remembers

Cottage in Schoolfield (from City of Danville ca. 1917).In response to the survey posted in the Schoolfield Historical Society’s newsletter, Linda Kirby Newman wrote a richly detailed account of her years as a “mill kid.”

1. How did neighbors interact in the mill community? Was it a close community? How so?

I was born into the Schoolfield community in August 1942. At that time, all the homes were owned by Dan River Mills and everyone in the community worked at the mills. DRM also owned all the stores, schools, banks, ball stadium, park, etc. in Schoolfield. My grandparents lived three doors from me. Everyone in Schoolfield knew everyone else and they looked after each other. The mill collected rent each week—$.25 per room. They also delivered a load of coal to the house for heating and a roll of toilet paper for use in the outhouse. My parents lived in a three room house on Washington Street for four years. When I was 5 years old, the mill sold the houses to the workers that wanted to buy them. My parents had had my younger brother the year before and wanted a larger house so they swapped houses with a lady and they bought a four room house (with a path) on Milton Avenue for $1600. I never realized that I was a poor “mill brat.” (I went to Schoolfield School through the 8th grade and then we had to go to the brand new high school, George Washington High School. When I started there as a freshman, the kids from the old GW, who looked down on the poor mill brats, let us know we didn’t measure up to them and would never be accepted.) But our street was filled with kids and we all played together. We played ball in a field at the edge of Schoolfield Cemetery or in the “field” behind our houses. We played “kick the can,” hide and go seek, etc. in the street until our parents called us home. We spent hours on each other’s porch, swinging and singing, playing jack rocks or pick up sticks. They all looked after each other’s children. In the late afternoon, parents would sit on the porch and visit with each other. Along what is now West Main Street, the mill had The Company Store that sold just about everything. That’s where we got our clothes, new shoes for school, and where “Santa” did his Christmas shopping. There was also a grocery store, drug store, and bank. We called this going to “the front.” The lower part of Milton stayed as a dirt road even after we were annexed and the upper part of the street was paved. At the bottom of Milton, where it ran into Holland Road, was the trash pile. This is where the trash trucks dumped everyone’s trash and it just sat there in a huge pile. We had to walk by it to get to the “Creek Store,” a small store that was on Holland Road beside the creek. We often stopped to look for pretty glass in the trash (from broken drink bottles) so that we could use it to play hopscotch.

After the city of Danville annexed Schoolfield, the names of many streets changed, Washington Street became Schoolfield Drive but Milton Ave. stayed the same. We walked over a mile to Schoolfield School each day along with all the dozens of other kids going.

2. Describe your family’s employment history in the mill.

My grandfather and grandmother lived and worked in the mills in Lenoir, NC, and came to Danville when my father was a small boy so both of them could work in the mill. They worked in Dan River Mills until they retired and lived on Milton Avenue until their deaths. My father quit school in the 6th grade and went to work in the mill at the age of 17. My mother grew up in the back hills of Fries, VA. She moved here to live with her sister and went to work in the mill. My younger brother worked in the mills during the summer while he was in college. I have never been inside the mills.

3. What is your birth date? Do you have brothers or sisters?

My birth date is August 23, 1942. I had a younger brother born on Sept. 27, 1946. He was killed at the age of 47 in Midlothian, Va., when trash being hauled from New Jersey to the dump in Amelia fell from a truck as it passed him going in the opposite direction and the trash fell off the top heavy truck and crushed him to death.

4. Did your family live in the same house or move to different houses in the mill community over time?

My grandparents stayed in their house on Milton Avenue. My parents lived in a 2 room house on Stokesland Avenue when I was born. They moved to a house on Washington Street (Schoolfield Drive) until I was five. They moved to Milton Avenue when the mill sold the company houses. They purchased that house and my father lives there today at the age of 81. My mother died at the age of 77 with advanced Alzheimers. My moms sister lived on Hylton Avenue, which runs parallel to Schoolfield Drive, until she died of Alzheimers. My dad’s brother and his family lived on Milton, beside my grandparents, until they moved to a new home in Sandy Shores when that development was first started. My grandmother thought they had moved to another state! My mom’s brother, who was a “boss” in the mill, lived on Park Avenue. The “bosses” lived on Park Ave. or Bishop Street, the more elite in Schoolfield.  (back to top)

5. Can you describe your family’s house?

Our house was a white house of wood with a red tin top. It had four rooms, the living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. All the house had a wooden porch, which was used all the time for play, relaxing in swing, or for visiting. There was a path to our outhouse, which was painted to match the house. All the houses on the street were either, two room, three room, or four room houses. The houses were close to the little narrow dirt street so they had very little front yard. There were lots of big maple trees planted in the yards. The houses had 10 ft. ceilings and were heated by a coal stove. There was a light bulb on a long wire hanging down from each ceiling. There were little fireplaces in two of the rooms for heating. My grandparents raised three sons in their house. It was a three-room house with a front and back porch.

6. Describe the front and back yards.

Our house on Washington Street sat on a hill. The front yard was mostly hill. The back yard was also on an incline. Our house on Milton Avenue was close to the street so with the cement sidewalk, we had very little front yard. There was a large maple tree on one side of the house. My mother kept flowers and rosebushes planted all around the house. The back yard was pretty level and had the outhouse sitting in the middle of the yard. We had a “wash house” that my mom and dad built where we did the laundry in a wringer washer and two rinse tubs. That had to be the coldest water in the world! There were always lots of flowers planted, marigolds, petunias, zinnias, and climbing roses. The mill owned the land that we called “the hill” behind our house. It ran down an incline to “the creek” that ran behind our houses. On the other side of the creek, the mill owed the land that ran up to the houses on Stokesland Avenue. When the mill owned this land, they kept it cut down and cared for. We played ball, rode wagons, used our sleds, build tree houses and hideouts on this land. Our parents used it to plant gardens. Some of the neighbors kept chickens and cows on it.  (back to top)

7. Was your house connected to municipal water and sewer? Did it have electricity?

As long as I can remember, we did have running water and electricity. There were water towers all over the place. I think at that time we got our water from the mill’s water plant. We had long wires hanging in the center of each room with a light bulb on the end. We did have to heat our water for baths, etc. until we did away with the outhouse and put in a bathroom with hot water when I was 11 or 12. I can remember when my dad and his brothers were working to put in the bathroom. They dug into a water pipe and flooded the yard.

8. What type of sanitation system did your family have and did it change over time?

Until I was 11 or 12, we had an outhouse in the back yard. So did all the neighbors. We had what we called “slop jars” in the house to use at night or in an emergency. Everyone was excited when we all started getting indoor plumbing.

9. If a privy was used, what are your recollections about its use and maintenance?

The privy was painted white with a red or green roof, depending on what color you had on the tin roof on your house. The wooden door was kept closed with a wooden knob that moved to hook behind a bent nail. There was one on the inside to look the door when the privy was occupied. I can remember a friend and me getting accidentally locked in my grandparents’ privy. We yelled until a neighbor heard us. The lady that kept my brother and me while my parents worked would sit in the privy reading Lash Larue books. She would have the door half open and would yell at us to stay where she could see us.

10. Can you describe health concerns of the community and the type of health care that your family received?

My pediatrician was Dr. Samuel Newman. I think all children went to him. You didn’t go to the doctor unless you were really, really sick. I had lots of earaches and sore throats. When I was seven, I developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. My grandparents from Fries and all six of my mothers’ siblings and their families were visiting when the diagnosis was made on an Easter Sunday. I can remember my grandmother holding me and crying because a neighbor of her in the mountains was crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Most of the mill workers went to the clinic, run by the mill, for their health care. You didn’t see a doctor unless you were very, very ill.

11. Do you recall family meals and what they typically consisted of?

My mother was quite a cook. We usually had a meat of some kind for supper —chicken, bacon, or sausage with biscuits and milk gravy. We usually had potatoes and maybe another vegetable. We had milk gravy and biscuits for just about every meal. We also ate lots of pinto beans and corn bread. We ate lots of green beans that Mom had canned. On Sundays we ate at my grandparents who live three doors from me. We always had fried chicken, green beans, tomatoes and cornbread. Once a month we went to Fries, VA to visit my Mom’s family. We didn’t have a car for a long time so we rode with my uncle and his family. We were packed in like sardines. My grandparents lived at the top of mountain. We had to walk to the house after traveling over miles of rutted dirt road. They had no running water or electricity, but we always ate well. They raised everything they ate. Of course, we always had milk gravy and biscuits. As we got older, my brother and I always looked forward to Thursday. That was payday. Dad and Mom would carry us to Chicken café for a hot dog, fries and drink. They served you in your car, and we thought it was wonderful. On Sundays during the summer, we would go up the street to my grandparents or they would come to our house and we would make homemade ice cream in our wooden freezer or we would go to the ice house and get a cold watermelon.  (back to top)

12. Was there a company store? If so, describe the range of its merchandise.

The mill ran a store along the street across from the mill. The store on the corner was the company store. They sold just about everything. That’s where Mom got her cloth to make our clothes, our bought clothes, our shoes, and our toys. I can remember going to the store and seeing toys on display way up on a high shelf around the first floor of the store. It was like magic. When I was eight, she got me a set of twin dolls there. I thought they were the best dolls in the world. (I later became the mother of twins.) I sent them to go overseas to a child when some club came to collect toys and I cried when they told me how poor the children were. Since I had two dolls, I sent one to them. There was also a drug store that had a lunch counter. Workers going to work on the second shift in the mill would stop in before their shift started and order a paregoric coke. They would get a fountain coke with a squirt of paregoric from a squirt bottle that was kept beside the drink machine. There was Schoolfield lunch that served wonderful food, but I wasn’t allowed to go in there because they served beer. There was a shoe store where you got your shoes shined or repaired. There was Schoolfield Bank where everyone that worked at the mill or lived in Schoolfield was known on a first name basis. Next to the bank was Jones Market. This is where everyone bought their groceries unless they went to Rileys Market that was a little further up the road next to Motley’s Pharmacy.

13. Did your family trade with merchants, druggists, doctors, and other service providers outside of the Schoolfield community?

I can remember how exciting it was to catch the bus with Mom and go “down town” shopping. We would go to Thalheimers and it seemed so huge to me with its four floors and high ceilings. Then we would go to Belk-Leggett. They sold everything from toys, to clothes, to furniture. She loved to get us shoes at Greens Shoe Store because they had a machine that showed where our foot fit in the shoes. (X-ray!!) It was a very special day when she would take us to the drug store on the bottom of Main Street and buy us a hot dog and soda. We went to town for special shopping. Regular shopping was done at the Schoolfield stores.

14. Was your house furnished by the mill?

Our house was furnished by the mill until the mill sold all the houses when we were annexed by the city of Danville.

15. Describe your household furnishings in terms of diversity and condition.

My mother worked in the mills, but still kept a spotless house. She and Dad did all the fixing up of the house. They lowered the ceilings in the house to help with the heat. We were so excited to get rid of our coal-burning stove and get an oil heater in the living room. It blew out heat on both sides. We filled a tub of water and took our bath beside the heater in the winter. They refinished the hardwood floors, put sheetrock over the fireplaces and built larger closets. The kitchen had a sink in a white metal cabinet and there was a white wooden china cabinet with a flower sifter. The kitchen table was metal, white with red trim and both sides pulled out to make it larger. I can remember how excited my mother was to get cabinets built in the kitchen. Mom was an excellent seamstress. She made all my clothes and most of her clothes. We loved to go to the mill store and buy bundles of material to make clothes. She made curtains for all the windows and slipcovers for the sofa and chairs. My younger brother slept on a cot in a little area between my parents’ bedroom and the kitchen until they added on a room for him. My mother could do any type of construction, repair, etc. unless it involved height. All the roofs were tin. They were painted silver, red, or green. My Mom climbed on top of the roof once to help Dad paint it. She got scared when she started to get off the roof and they had a time getting her to climb down.

We loved to listen to the radio on Sundays to hear “The Lone Ranger” and “The Shadow.” I can’t remember the name of the program we listened to on Saturday but it always came on with the song, “This is the day the teddy bears have their picnic.” We did not get a television until I was twelve, but one neighbor, who had 6 children, was the first to get a TV. We all congregated at their house to watch Howdy Doody and Man Against Crime.

There was no such thing as air conditioning so we slept with the doors and windows open and the starched white curtains blowing in the welcome breezes. Everyone sat on the porch in the late afternoon to cool off. We didn’t get a telephone until I was 16, so we did a lot of walking to friends’ houses.

Our house was neatly but inexpensively furnished. During the spring, summer, and early fall Mom kept cut fresh flowers in the house. Every Saturday we thoroughly cleaned the house. My worst job was washing metal blinds from the windows one slat at a time.

16. What type of toys do you recall?

We didn’t have a lot of toys. We treasured the ones we had. We saved broken glass to use to play hopscotch. We loved different colored chalk to draw the hopscotch on our cracked sidewalks. The girls would gather on the different porches and play with our paper dolls (The ones of movie stars were the favorite.), color in our coloring books, or play jack rocks. We spent hours playing jump rope. You were really skilled when you could jump doubles. We all loved to play pick-up-sticks and had some pretty heated arguments about the sticks “moving.” We played ball all summer, either in the back yards or in a field on Holland Road. We broke many windows. At night we gathered to play hiding-go-seek, kick-the-can, or red rover, red rover. The guys would gather under the houses and play with cars and trucks in the dirt. They also played marbles in the “bare” spots in the yards where the grass had been totally worn out. The girls played with their dolls. I remember my Bonnie Braids doll (Dick Tracy’s baby) and my “walking doll.” I treasured my dolls but they were all stolen from under our house when I was 11. I remember when I got my bike for Christmas. It was red and black and I always wished that it was pink or blue because an older child told me that girls didn’t ride black bikes. Since most of the kids on the street didn’t have a bike, we lined up and rode it one at a time, so I didn’t get to ride it any more than the neighborhood kids. We all had metal skates to skate on the sidewalks. Since the sidewalks had lots of cracks and holes, we had lots of skinned knees and elbows. We had to show off by learning to skate on one foot and holding the other up. My brother got a wagon one Christmas. We would load into it and go flying down the hill behind our house toward the creek. I can remember having a Monopoly game and a Skunk game. We spent hours playing these games on the porch.

Ironically, I work in the old Schoolfield School Building now. I work for the 1st Department of Danville Public Schools and our offices are in the building where I attended junior high school. The main building is now used as a central office annex. I was just in there this morning with a friend and we went down memory lane as we walked the halls.

The Schoolfield mill kids—we were poor in material things, but so, so rich in the things that matter.

Linda Kirby Newman
1833 Barker Road
Ringgold, VA 24586

*Two of our four sons graduated from William & Mary