Our first house was right on Henson’s Creek in Spear, North Carolina. It’s a place in the road between Plumtree and Ingalls about 10 miles above Spruce Pine. Spear was named for a nearby mountain called the “Spear Tops.” It's one mountain with two very pointed peaks. It's incredibly beautiful and Henson’s Creek Road winds its way around the Spear Tops from near- by Mitchell County all the way to US 19e where the stream fed into the North Toe River. The Henson’s Creek Road was the route to Bakersville when it was the county seat before Avery was split from Mitchell County.
Dottie and I paid 4,800.00 for the little house. It was about three steps from the porch into Henson’s Creek and was squeezed onto the only flat spot on the whole 5 acres. It sat with its back almost against the mountain. Most of the land was so steep you had crawl up on all fours.
Upstream from our little place about a quarter of a mile was Ivor and Ruby’s house. They were born and raised right there in Spear. I would wander up to Ivor’s place through a couple of rickety gates and across his pastures. Often I’d find him sitting on a saw log under the roof of his woodshed. If he was in the house, I’d sit down and in just a minute, he’d stroll out of the house. The screen door spring screeched open and slammed the door behind him. Ruby would come to the door wiping her hands with a dish towel, wave then disappear into the dark of the tiny house. In my 20-something eyes, Ivor was an old man and carried an awesome load of wisdom for me to experience. He had stories, lots of stories about growing up in a place and time that are now only available in obscure books, old film and from rare people like him. I grew to treasure him as an elder and as a story-teller, he was a master.
Iv always wore bib overalls (“overhalls” in mountain talk) with a .32 pistol stuck in one of the pockets. “Snake gun,” he’d say and wink. He also kept in the bib pocket a cloth sack of cigarette tobacco, rolling papers and a lighter. He was never without a long-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a brown, wide brim, sweat stained, felt fedora.
One time I asked him what he did for a living before he retired. He told me that he was a teamster. “Oh,” I said, “Who did you drive for?” He looked at me funny. I said, “Did you own your own truck or did you drive for someone else. I mean, you were a member of the Teamsters Union, right? You drove a truck.”
“I never drove a truck.” He said peering off toward the mountain behind his place and took a pull on his hand rolled cigarette. I was totally confused by that. It was like telling some kid today that your phone had a certain number of rings on the party line (what the heck’s a party line?). “I drove horses.” That boggled my mind. It never occurred to me that teams of horses had anything to do with the word “Teamster.” I thought teamsters paid union dues, had a shop steward to complain to about the boss and refused to unload their own trucks.
“You drove horses?”
“Yep - and mules.”
“All your life?”
“Yep. Got my first job when I was nine years old. They were building the Yellow Mountain Curve on 19e. Told the boss man I wanted a job. He asked me if I could drive a mule and handle a drag pan. I told him I could. I lied.”
A drag pan was a piece of horse or mule-drawn equipment that scoops dirt and moves it to another place and dumps it. But it didn’t dump its self. The driver had to lift up on the handles to make it scoop dirt and then press down to allow it to dump. No hydraulics, no electronics or motors, just rock hard muscle. The driver had to handle the mule at the same time, the reins draped around their necks. There was no riding. The drivers walked behind the pans in circles scooping and dumping, scooping and dumping all day. It was a man’s job.
“Iv, how the heck did you learn how to do that at nine years old? Did your dad teach you how to drive horses?
Ivor turned his upper body toward me, propped the nearest hand on his thigh with his elbow up. His cigarette stuck to his lip. “Naw. We was too poor to have horses.”
“How did you farm, haul wood and plow your garden?”
“By hand – just by hand. Like I said, we was poor.” He squinted his eyes at the ridge that ran behind his house and angled toward mine.
“How did you learn enough to get the job?”
“I hid and watched. I knowed I could do it.”
Iv said the boss man watched him until payday. He gave Ivor his pay and then he said, “C’mon, boy,” and walked him about a mile up 19e to Burleson’s store. In its day, it was a genuine country general store (I’ll tell you about that another time). He bought Ivor a shirt, new bib overhalls and his very first pair of shoes out of his own pocket. Iv told it like he was still amazed at the man’s generosity.
“How long did you work for them, Iv?”
Ivor was sitting on his log with his legs spread. He was leaning on his knees looking straight ahead as if telling the story to his mountain. At my question, he pinched the cigarette between his forefinger and thumb, pulled it away from his mouth and spit a stray bit of tobacco between his feet to punctuate. He looked at me from under his hat and said, “We built that road all the way to Spruce Pine.” He never said how long it took but he said it with great drama. I caught the meaning of his pride in doing the work of those hard days and the feat of building a mountain road with mules and men.
We both sat on our logs under the roof of his woodshed leaning on our knees and looking at his mountain. The only sound was Henson’s Creek just behind us pulling me away from my time into his.