Uncle Harold was the first son (following older sisters Bergie and Ivora) born to Henry Taylor and Margaret Jane Shepherd, and it was he, along with wife Ola Whitt Shepherd, who eventually returned to live much of his adult life in the Shepherd family home on Hobson Branch in northern Buncombe County, allowing my widowed grandmother to live out her life in that familiar place.
In my early memories of them, they were well settled with Grandma at the home on Hobson Branch, raising tobacco, corn, and a big garden, and hosting the annual family Easter egg hunt on Easter Sunday afternoon. On that latter occasion, when far-flung siblings returned, some with children, Uncle Harold might be dressed as for the morning service at Piney Mountain Baptist Church, in nice trousers, a white shirt, and a wide colorful tie, perhaps with a summer straw fedora. But the more common image in my memory is of him in forest-green cotton work clothes – matching shirt and pants – but always sporting a gold ring with a square ruby set, regardless of tasks being performed, whether husking corn, suckering tobacco, or currying Ol’ Ed, the plow horse.
Aunt Ola had been a city girl, grown up in Winston-Salem, and had worked as an inspector at R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. The Shepherd family had migrated there from their Hobson Branch home in the 1920’s, seeking better fortune. Later in that decade Harold’s parents and younger siblings moved back home to the place on Hobson Branch, but Harold remained in Winston-Salem, working at R. J. Reynolds as a cigarette maker. By 1929 he had met and married Ola Whitt, and in 1930 they resided in their own household in Winston township, not very far from Ola’s parents and siblings. One photo of them is posed beside an automobile, presumably theirs, of mid- or late-30’s style.
Soon after Grandfather Henry Taylor Shepherd died in 1944, Harold and Ola left Winston-Salem, moved to Grandma’s house on Hobson Branch, and took up the farming life. Uncle Harold plowed the fields with Ol’ Ed, and the erstwhile city couple worked together raising tobacco for a money crop, abundant vegetables, plenty of corn for milling and cattle feed, pigs for meat, chickens for meat and eggs, and cows for milk and butter. Aunt Ola canned a bounty for winter and, with Grandma Margaret Jane, cooked wonderful meals for them and frequent guests.
Over the years, brothers and sisters who lived away would return for extended visits, usually during the summer months. Brother Jeter and wife Thelma came every year from Winston-Salem with children Taylor and Susan. Sometimes sister Zelma Rector and her son Dale would visit from Texas. Talmage and his son Stephen came every year from Maryland. There were visits by Aunt Ola’s parents and siblings from the Winston-Salem area as well.
Probably for the sake of economy, they did not keep a car or truck. If there was a need for hauling, it was horse and wagon, or Uncle Harold would ask a neighbor to “carry” him somewhere. They walked to Piney Mountain Baptist Church (of which his grandfather, John Wesley Shepherd, had been a founder), following a path across the hill, through the woods nearby the old Buckner family cemetery, down the Red Worm Hollow, passing brother Floyd’s house, Aunt Gennie’s house, the house built by Great Grandfather John Wesley Shepherd, and then up the steep gravel road called Elkins Branch to the church on the summit. Uncle Harold became a deacon and Aunt Ola became a mainstay of the congregation’s hymn singing with her strong clear soprano voice. Nevermind the hard farm life and the trek through the woods, she always managed to look good on Sunday in an attractive dress, with a bit of city style, and nice shoes.
Despite their frugal living, they introduced conveniences ahead of many neighbors. They closed the fireplace and added a coal-burning space heater in front of it. They had a freezer before we did, and bought one of the early television sets on Hobson Branch before we had one. They put in a septic system and built a bathroom on the end of the back porch, though they kept the outhouse in case of plumbing failure. To reach the bathroom, one went out the kitchen door and across the porch. Other improvements were a new large corn crib (lined with steel mesh wire to ward off hungry rodents), built about where the old cannery building had been years before, and the excavation and containment of a natural spring at the back of the yard behind the house. Uncle Harold was very proud of that small bungalow built by his father and improved by him. When asked about the unusual painted wood-graining on the doors and doorframes or the fireplace mantle with its faux-stone decoration masking the original brick, he delighted in telling about artistic “Frenchy” (Joseph Octave Morin) who had completed the decorations, married a Hobson, and apparently become a friend as well.
Uncle Harold, unlike most of his brothers and sisters, retained some antique phrases in his speech. In addition to the verb “carry” (as in “Can you carry [i.e, drive] me somewhere?”), he used “holp” as a past tense of the verb “help”. He might say “Mr. Lance holp me put up the hay.” When on some walk, or excursion, a small nephew had to pause for nature, he might say “Now be sure to shake the dew off your lily.” When I heard him saying these things, I simply thought his language odd, but later, in studying English literature, I came to understand that these were ways of speaking left over from earlier times, as far back as the 16th century. It says something about his character and pride of culture that he held on to these in the face of relentlessly changing speech customs in the wider world, including the bustling city of Winston-Salem where he had lived for years.
Harold and Ola were very close to brother Floyd Shepherd, his wife Pansy Maney Shepherd, and their several children still at home. Not many days would pass before Harold would walk across the hill to visit them, where they had settled at the foot of Red Worm Hollow on Stockton Branch, or Floyd and some of the children would walk back the other way to see Harold and Ola. That path across the hill, by Buckner cemetery, came to be almost their private thoroughfare as most everyone else had abandoned walking in favor of automobiles. If either brother needed help for some project, the other was only a ten-minute walk away.
At the next house down Hobson Branch, Grandma's brother Fred Shepherd lived with wife Tennie and daughter Irene. Harold and Fred might be back and forth nearly every day, assisting each other in some way or just to chat.
Also, sister Zelma Shepherd Rector eventually bought the Freeman Hobson house further down Hobson Branch; so she and son Dale, who was surely closest of all the nephews to his Uncle Harold and Aunt Ola, were nearby all the time. Ola and Zelma came to be more like sisters than in-laws over the years and Dale became almost a surrogate son to his Uncle and Aunt.
Uncle Harold and Aunt Ola did not have children, but once when Uncle Harold was showing Daddy and me the hams curing in the barn loft, he said something to Daddy – probably not expecting me to pay attention. He said that sometimes he thought that he and Aunt Ola should have tried to have children. I wonder about this remark still, but can only gather that it was by choice that they did not have children, especially because it always seemed to me that they adored each other (without, of course, any overt demonstrations in our presence).
In the mid-fifties, when Uncle Harold was pushing sixty, he took an interest in Shepherd ancestry and got up an excursion of my father and me to visit Yancey County for the purpose of looking up Shepherd relatives. We went in Daddy’s blue Chevy pickup truck on a Saturday, Daddy driving, me in the middle, and Uncle Harold on the side. We drove up and down Indian Creek and other old ways, stopped occasionally to ask farmers who was where, and sometimes found someone Uncle Harold knew with time to chat. Unfortunately I don’t remember a single detail of the Shepherd-related persons we found, as I was just along for the ride. It would not be until half a century later, when I found myself to be approximately the age Uncle Harold was then, that I became consumed with curiosity about my forebears.
Uncle Harold had a wry sense of humor, with a confidence in his views, on many matters, that could have a sharp edge. Shortly after we moved into the simple ranch-style house which my parents built in the 1950’s after much personal sacrifice, Uncle Harold came over for a drop-by visit. He looked the place over, and, probably comparing it silently to the charms of Shepherd-family bungalow, said he thought the roof line was too plain and would have been better with a gable to break it up a little. Daddy liked Uncle Harold – often saying “Let’s go see Harold” – but on this occasion both he and my mother were notably silent, letting the untimely remark fall with a silent thud.
Uncle Harold, who was not himself a tall man, had a favorite nickname for tall and long-legged brother-in- law Lyda Allen; it was “Highpockets”.
Many of my favorite memories of visiting their house have to do with food because Aunt Ola was a wonderful cook. My best memory, I think, was the summer afternoon during peach season when Aunt Ola invited our family to come for homemade ice cream. In the kitchen she cheerfully prepared the custard with eggs, vanilla, cream, sugar, and fresh peaches, and filled the churn’s narrow shiny cylinder. Then, outside in the back yard under the big shade trees, the churn was assembled, stocked with ice, and we all took our turn at the crank, keeping it going as Uncle Harold chipped ice off a big block and added it around the churn cylinder, with salt to make it colder, until we could hardly budge the crank and the ice cream was finished. That was the best ice cream I ever had.
Grandma died in 1961 and in the 1970’s Uncle Harold and Aunt Ola decided to retire from farming. They sold the family home to Harold’s cousin, Clyde Shepherd, and moved back to Winston-Salem. Some in the wider family assumed that it was Aunt Ola’s wish to be nearer her kin in later life (Uncle Harold was 13 years older than she). Again, they had a nice spacious older house, on a big level lot on a pleasant shady street. I visited them there once when I was passing through Winston-Salem on a vacation from my job in New York City. They had a large, flourishing garden and seemed quite content; certainly they welcomed me with open arms and gladly gave me a tour of the house and garden.
Apparently, something was missing, however. Within a year or two they had sold the place and moved back to the mountains, settling into a ranch-style house, on Stockton Branch, which they rented from their nephew James Denver Shepherd. This newer house was conveniently much nearer Piney Mountain Baptist Church, approximately on the spot where Great Aunt Gennie’s little house had been. They no longer had to trek over the hill and through the woods to go to church.
When Uncle Harold began to suffer poor health around the age of ninety, Aunt Ola cared for him herself at home, assisted by neighbors and relatives, as long as she could, until her own health was threatened, and then sorrowfully saw him off to the nursing home. After he died in 1990, Aunt Ola moved to Hobson Branch once more. Sister-in-law Zelma had turned her house over to son Dale and his family and moved into a trailer on the hill close by. Now Dale obtained a second trailer and sited it higher up the hill for Aunt Ola. She moved in and soon had the place as neat and homey as all her previous places. For a few years there was a blessed compact little village, very easy to visit, until Aunt Ola’s health failed to the point that those nearby were not sufficient for her care and she moved into a nursing home in Madison County. She died in 2001 and was laid to rest beside Harold, among the Shepherds, in the cemetery of Piney Mountain Baptist Church. - Dwight Childers 28 Aug 2009