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Lifelong county resident recalls life a century ago

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By John Barnhart

One of Oakwood Manor’s residents will turn 109 this Saturday.

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    Mary Spinner was born on Feb. 20, 1901, the third of 10 children born to William and Frances (Fannie) Sledd.

    Sledd owned a 150 acre farm in the Big Island area, off Va. 122, and raised cattle, pigs and tobacco for market in the early years of the 20th century.  They also grew corn and hay to feed the animals, and peas and cane for sorghum molasses for their family’s use. William ran the farm and Frances handled all the couple’s financial affairs.

    In order to make molasses, the sorghum cane had to be processed  to extract the juice. William and Preston Johnson, two of William Sledd's friends, owned the horse-powered machine used to crush the cane.  The two men would bring it from farm to farm.

    All the children, girls as well  as  boys,  worked  in  the fields. One memory of those days were tobacco worms.

    “I was scared to death of the tobacco worms,” Spinner recalled.

    Tobacco worms are large, green caterpillars, the larva of a variety of moth. Spinner’s brothers, aware of her fear, would occasionally entertain themselves during the work day by putting one on her to make her scream.

    The workday was long. Spinner said that they worked until the sun went down.

    The hard work paid off and the Sledds did well.  It was a two-story house with four bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen. Like all Bedford County farm homes back then, the toilet was an outhouse and there was no electricity. Light came from kerosene lamps and Frances Sledd cooked on a wood-fired stove. Spinner recalls that her mother got up at 3 a.m. to cook her father’s breakfast.

    Cooking, back then, was even more of an art than it is now. The stove had no gauge to tell the oven’s temperature.  A cook just had to know what she was doing.

    This was the kind of stove that Spinner learned to cook on. It’s the type of stove that she used for cooking and baking for years after her marriage in 1924.

    The beds that Spinner recalls were different from what we have today.

    “I had straw ticks back then,” she recalled. “We didn’t have a mattress to sleep on.”

    Having lots of siblings, and being one of the oldest, meant that Mary Sledd had to help her mom. She helped care for her youngest siblings when they were babies and that often meant staying up late.

    “I’d think the baby was asleep and I could go to sleep,” she said. “Then that baby would go ‘waaaa!’”

    It also meant getting up early and watching babies while her mother prepared breakfast.

    “I said, ‘when I get grown, I wasn’t going to get up early for nobody,’” she commented.   

    Spinner started school at Powell School. Powell school was a one-room school that housed seven grades with one teacher. The school was heated by a wood-fired stove. The boys had to start the fire in the morning. She said that the boys also had to cut wood for the heating stove.

    “We had to sweep the floor every evening before we went home,” she recalled.

    There was one outhouse for the entire school, so the children could only be excused to the toilet one at a time. Drinking water was hauled from a spring in a bucket and then dipped from the bucket.

    She walked four miles to school each day. This often meant walking in snow up to her knees in the colder, snowier winters that Bedford County saw at the dawn of the 20th century.

    The school division did not provide textbooks. Her parents bought those for her.

    In 1915, Spinner became one of the first group of students to attend Sharon School. The new school, with two rooms, marked an improvement over the old one room school. Sharon School still exists. Sharon Baptist Church, which owns the building, renovated it a decade ago. It’s the pretty, white building that you can see on your left as  you drive up Big Island Highway, just before you get to Big Island. The old school building is next door to the church.

    Sometimes, things aren’t fair in life. Once some older girls were sitting behind Mary Sledd and some of the younger girls. They were passing notes and whispering, but the teacher’s wrath ended up coming down on the wrong targets.

    “We were the ones who got the whipping,” she said.

    Another unfair feature of life was segregation. Mary Sledd grew up during segregation and separate definitely was not equal when it came to schools. In her earliest days, she recalled that classes for black children were held in old houses.

    In her later school years, she recalls a time when transportation was available for white students, while black students walked to school.

    “They were riding, we were walking,” she said. “They would pass us riding. They’d pass us and they’d just wave.”

    Spinner recalled one time when a classmate, Ellen Brown, had enough of that and shouted an insult as they passed. Brown got a whipping for it when she got to school.

    Church was always important. She could remember going to Reed Creek Baptist Church for Sunday School. All the children went barefooted. Later, she went to Sharon Baptist Church, where she has been a member for a century. It was at Sharon that she was baptized.

    “We were baptized in that creek right by the church,” she said.

    Mary Sledd married James Houston Ware on Nov. 7, 1924, and the couple had two daughters.  Both now live in New York, call their mom regularly and frequently take her up north to visit with them.

    Ware worked at the paper mill in Big Island and farmed on the side, raising corn. The Depression hit just before their youngest daughter was born and things became tight. The extended family hung together and they got through as a family, with her parents helping them out with food.

    Ware died on Christmas Eve, 1960.

    In 1974, Mary Ware married Henry Edward Spinner, a retiree. He passed away on Oct. 2, 1974.