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Rachel Stotesbury: As Time Goes Along

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 03/21/2004. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Rachel Stotesbury and her neighbors will lose their land and homes if the Navy builds its new Outlying Landing Field (OLF) in Washington County. She lives in Wenona, a quiet farming community roughly 140 miles east of Raleigh. Now 88 years old and a widow for 27 years, she has never left the old farmhouse that she and her husband, Oliver, moved into during the 1930s.

"He was a farmer and I was a farmer and it's all we ever knew, " she told me. "We never had any money, but Oliver loved the land, and we lived." She paused, and then, with a dreamy, faraway look, said, "And, oh, Oliver, he was special."

Much of the public opposition to the OLF has centered on the threat posed by Navy jets to migratory waterfowl on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, five miles east of her home. Rachel Stotesbury wanted me to understand that other things are at stake, too: generations of struggle on a harsh frontier, an abiding love of the land, a close-knit community and a world of memories.

Rachel Stotesbury. Photo by Chris Seward, 2004.In Rachel Stotesbury's words:
When we grew up, that was the Depression and I tell you what, it got rough. I declare, Daddy, he sold eggs for 9 cents a dozen and corn for 50 cents. I remember one year he took a wagonload of soybeans to Plymouth, and all he got for it was one pair of shoes, two pairs of overalls and 3 cents.

He had an old Model-A Ford, and the license was $12 and it sat under the shelter for two solid years. We couldn't even buy the license on it. We lived on the farm so we never went hungry, but we never had any money. You kind of lived on hope.

Plymouth was a little community, and Pantego was a little community, and this was kind of a wasteland in between. It was an old swamp. My father-in-law said that, in the old days, there was a tribe of Indians that had their camp there by what they call Davis Landing. There was no way to get in, and for a long time nobody knew that they were there. There were no roads through here. If you wanted to go to Roper, you had to walk on logs.

When the people first came in, they landed somewhere down there at what they call the Hoop Hole, and they came in by the old river. They cut this big canal with draglines and floating dredges, and then the land began to drain. The Roper Lumber Company owned a whole lot of land over there in what they call the Dismal Swamp. They had a logging camp called Wonderland over here. They timbered off a lot of the big old cypress and began to sell land back to the farmers.

They had what they call the "open fence law." Nobody had fences, and your cows would go out and be wild. Oliver's father said you'd sit in the house and you'd hear a cow bellow and a bear would jump on that cow's back and maul her. He said you didn't dare go out there.

As time goes along, families would find a little hill and they'd settle and they'd begin to work out. They cut it down and it would lay there and they'd burn it off, and then the neighbors would come in and they'd have what they called a "log rolling." They'd roll those logs and get them in a pile where they could burn them, and the women would cook for them. They'd take a gallon of whiskey and put it at the end of the row and whoever got there first, that was the payoff. They probably needed it by then.

Some of the stumps were big around as this table. My father-in-law said that when his father died, he and his brothers worked in the logwoods. At night there'd be a stump that they wanted to dig up, and they'd take a lantern and sit on that stump and dig around it with the axes until they could get it up. They'd work until bedtime for one stump.

They'd begin to plant little crops around the stumps and, every so many years, they'd get it to a place where they could plow it. Oliver followed an old mule when we started. One furrow at a time. When he finally bought a little Farmall tractor, he felt like he was uptown. You had a big breakfast, you had bigger dinner, and you were ready for a big supper. You might have a bucketful of money, but you can't sleep on it and you can't eat it, but this old land you can get out there and scratch you a garden and have you a chicken or a hog. You can live. The people here have got their lives invested in this land from generations back. And it is fertile land. Some of the corn, the ear would be higher than your head.

So many of the young people now take the attitude: I don't need you. They think that they can make it on their own. But we all need somebody. I know before all this happened to me, seemed like, long into winter, you get that depressed feeling. You get to feeling like nobody cares.

But when Patsy up the road found out I was hurting, it wasn't nothing before the whole neighborhood was calling. And my neighbor Harvey, he's just as rough and tough, but he's got a heart as big as outdoors. And I thought to myself, God forgive me for being so sorry for myself when everybody was just so good to me.

It's always been that way here. When Oliver was in the hospital, the neighbors come together and got his corn crop in. Your neighbors would come in and help you at hog killing time. If your cow went dry and didn't have any milk, they shared milk and butter. And when the farmer's home up here burned, they had them in a new house and enough to live by night. You just lived and shared.

As time goes along, you live with a lot of memories, but you survive. At your age, you want things and you want to do things, but when you've been there and done that, then you get to the place where you just want peace and quiet. You're thankful for good neighbors. You can sit here and look at the land and nothing bothers you. You like to look back and think that you haven't done any harm to anybody, and maybe somewhere down the line you've done a little bit of good.

It's been a long lonesome time sometimes. Oliver's family, one is in Washington, D.C., one is in Chicago. Sometimes I go to bed and I think, well, Lord, they've all moved away from me and left me here in the middle of the field by myself. And my sister, she said, well, Rachel, you're the anchor. When something happens, they always come home here."
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