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Lila Edwards: Great-Granddaddy Sang "Amazing Grace"

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 9/8/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

I visited with 97-year-old Lila Edwards at her home in Louisburg, 25 miles northeast of Raleigh in Franklin County. She laughed often and relished telling old stories of whimsy and folly, as if it were humanity's comic side that stood out most to her as she looked back over nearly a century of life. We both laughed when she told me how merely a taste of brown sugar or a trip to town was once a special occasion. We couldn't help but think what a different world we live in now. The whole day brought Louisburg to life for me. Along with my children, I explored the town's wonderful flea market, toured Louisburg College's art museum, and picked bucketfuls of strawberries at a nearby farm. But what I will always remember best about Louisburg are Mrs. Edwards' tales of raucous horse traders, an old man singing "Amazing Grace" to a millpond, and a child buried at night during the great influenza epidemic of 1918-19.

Lila Edwards. Photo by Chris Seward, 2002.In Lila Edwards's words:
I was in the Great Depression, but to me that doesn't seem like it's been so long ago, not like back when I was a child. I was born Oct. 12, 1905, in a little place called Inez, in Warren County. My father and my mother were just country people. They farmed for a living. They moved out into Centerville, down from here a bit in Franklin County, that next year and we lived on one of our grandfather's farms. I lived there till I got married. Money was scarce with farmers, like it is with retirees now. (She laughs.) We raised tobacco and cotton and corn, and we had a big garden.

My father had 2 or 3 mules or horses, a cow, calves and all, and we grew a lot of our food and divided with our neighbors. That was one thing that helped us get by. One family had something and the others had something else, and we divided like that, you know. We all had to do our work, wash dishes, and when we got old enough, cook a little bit. I helped my mother can after I got big enough too. We picked blackberries and things like that, and we ate a lot of sweet potatoes. After you dig them up, you fix a place and dig a little hole, and then put the potatoes in and cover them up and they'll keep through the winter. I still like to bake them. We lived close to branches, and we could go down there and play in the water. We never heard of a bathing suit then. We'd get in the branch with our clothes on, and my oldest brothers would go down and take a bath.

My great-granddaddy built a dam over a branch once. You've heard of folks drinking? (She laughs.) Well, my great-granddaddy drank. He was 102 when he died, but they say that he got up there on that dam when he got real old and sang "Amazing Grace."

When she was young, the farm economy was still based on draft animals, not the gasoline engine, and towns like Louisburg crowded with horse and mule traders every fall.

A long time ago, people in the fall of the year, they had money from selling cotton and tobacco. They'd come to Louisburg and trade horses and stay three or four days and nights. And drank, I reckon. And played cards too, I reckon. Well, one year my granddaddy came and brought his horse to trade him. He stayed three or four nights, and he probably traded two and three times and kept on trading back. He was probably drinking and playing cards, too. When he got home, he told his boys, "Boys, I want you all to see what I got this time!" They couldn't get up and go out there in the dark, but next morning they couldn't wait to get out there. And you know what? He brought back the same horse he had carried to town!

They didn't come into town so often. They'd come in to sell tobacco and cotton. In the fall, we'd have a little bit more to come and buy material for a dress and to buy sugar, stuff like that. I remember one thing that my daddy used to bring us was brown sugar, and we thought that was the best stuff. They didn't have picture shows and things like that in town, but we'd get us something to eat. I don't remember exactly what it was now. I don't think it was hot dogs, because I don't think we had hot dogs in that time. (She laughs again.) But it was something. I was saying goodbye when she told me a story about her little brother and what it's like to grow so old.

All we had in those days was horse and buggy, and one buggy wasn't enough to take us all to church. There was a whole lot of us, and some would go in the buggy and some would walk. One night we got about halfway home and the baby -- I reckon he was about 2 years old -- we didn't have him. Well, we thought he was in the buggy, and -- Lord, I hope my children don't ever read none of this -- they thought he was walking with us. We got together with the others and realized we didn't have him. So we went back to the church and the little fellow had crawled over there on the church steps and gone to sleep! That was my baby brother, Ollie. He's just been dead three or four years. He was the last one. I had two sisters, but one died right about the time the war stopped in 1918 or 1919. She had the flu. The whole family had it but my mama, and I reckon she had it but she couldn't go to bed, you know. The people wouldn't come in the house, it was so many folks died. I know one woman lost two children, and one of them they buried at night because the undertakers were so busy. My little sister was sick a long time, and she died that spring.

I always feared God. That's the main reason I'm living, I guess. I had six brothers and two sisters, a big family. I'm the only one left. It makes me feel funny. Lonesome. Nobody's left that even remembers the place that I grew up, because I don't think there's any of them that are that old. I'm not sure, but I reckon I'm the oldest woman in Louisburg. I have friends, but they're in the nursing home (she laughs), and, God willing, I think I'd rather just stay right here.
Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: : 
Lila Edwards lived from Oct. 12, 1905 - May 27, 2006.

U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, Ancestry Library edition. Accessed 2/13/2016.

Origin - location: 
Oct. 12, 1905 - May 27, 2006