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March 14, 2004

Alabama Roots: Old Trap

The memoirs of Ngnat's Great-Grandmother, Iva Wright.

Parts 1,2,3,4,5

Each year, as Annual Conference time rolled around, Methodist ministers began to feel excited, but also very nervous. In those days many ministers had no idea, when they left for the conference, whether they would stay at their appointments or be moved. Decisions like that were often not made until the conference was in session, and appointments could change from day to day, hour to hour. If a minister was to be moved, he did not know where he would be sent until his name was read out to the entire congregation on the final day of the conference. That was what happened to us in the fall of 1940. Carl was instructed to leave Hyde County and take up a new appointment, the Camden Circuit, a three-church charge including churches in both Camden and Currituck Counties. The parsonage, however, was in a place called Old Trap.

We had never heard of Old Trap, had no idea where it was, and were understandably appalled by its name. After consulting a North Carolina map, we found that Old Trap was a little village in the northeast corner of the state near Elizabeth City. It was surrounded by water and was not far from the Great Dismal Swamp. Old Trap and the Great Dismal Swamp. It didn't sound promising at all.

It was sometime after our move that we learned the origin of that village's odd name. It seems there was at one time a store there that became a constant attraction for the men of the village, a kind of a hang out. It was a place for men's vices--drinking and gambling--and the women of the village, in disgust, began to call it what it was–an Old Trap. The name stuck.

On the day we moved we had some difficulty finding our way and began to look for read signs. Eventually, we saw a sign on the side of the highway pointing to Old Trap. As directed, we turned right onto a little gravel road, but as we progressed, the road became more and more narrow and eventually it became little more than a narrow dirt path. Just as we had feared, we were getting farther and farther from civilization.

Soon we saw a little white church. We thought, "Surely this is our church," but there was no sign out front and it looked somewhat lonely neglected. (It was, we later discovered, an African American church.) We had turned at the wrong time and were going into Old Trap by the "back door." When we finally got into the community, our spirits began to lift somewhat and we stopped at a store and to inquire where the Methodist parsonage was. The store clerk seemed happy to see us and said, "Well, you've come to the right place Preacher. I'm the treasurer of your church. You'll be seeing a lot of me." He directed us to the parsonage just down the road.

The parsonage was a large two-story white frame house in somewhat dilapidated condition. A large yard and several outbuildings and an outdoor toilet surrounded it. We went in and found one of the church ladies waiting to greet us and make sure we had everything we needed. And even though it was early in the afternoon, the dining room table was full of good food. She stayed with us a couple of hours until the school bus came by with her children. A nice gesture on her part, of course, but to our dismay she talked constantly and by the time she left, we were worn out. We later discovered that, in spite of her talkativeness, she was a jewel, and while we lived there she did many wonderful things for us.

As the day passed, we expected more people to come by, and a few did, but they did not stay. They wanted to give us some time to get settled. After supper a little girl and boy from across the road came to the door. They were the Pugh children. The girl, Shirley, was eleven or twelve years old and her brother, Steve, was a year or two younger. They came in and sat down just like grownups. We were impressed. Both had wonderful manners, and they talked and conversed just like grownups. Of course, they had been taught well and instructed in what to do when the new preacher moved in. They were exceptionally bright children and visited with us often while we were there. In later years, after we moved, they kept in touch, and Shirley is still a good friend who calls, writes and visits often.

Woman in the Old Trap community kept us supplied with all kinds of good food. One woman we especially appreciated brought us milk and butter and even cream. They seemed eager were doing things for us and to look after our needs.

Our years in Old Trap were the war years. Although we missed our folks in Alabama greatly, we had not been able to visit them in a long time. We didn't have the money and we couldn't get enough gasoline for the trip because gasoline was rationed during the war. Our church family understood how much we longed for home, of course, and one day they showed us their concern. The church treasurer at that time, a young woman, came to us and said, "We feel it is important for you to visit your family back in Alabama. We know you don't have the money or the gas to do that, so we have collected enough money for you to make the trip. And here are gas rationing tickets." They were giving up their own gas to allow us to go home. It was a wonderful trip, for we had not seen our families for nearly three years.

The men in Old Trap community worked together beautifully. They killed hogs together. They went fishing together. They gathered their crops together, and they helped us to do things we didn't think we could possibly do. They helped Carl, for example, to get some hogs, and we raised little piglets and killed and cured our own meat. We also had a place for chickens and we had a large garden where we grew a number of vegetables.

Just below our house, down below our garden, lived a black family who had no garden plot, so we shared our vegetables with them. I remember once when the carrots were ready to harvest, I took a little foot tub out into the garden and gathered a tub full to can. Our neighbor was out in her yard, so I called her to the fence and asked her if she would like to have some carrots. She said. "I sure would." but instead of taking some out of the little tub, she took the whole tub full, thanked me, and went to her house. I stood there with my mouth open, shocked but amused too. She had misunderstood me, but it was ok.

When our hog had a litter, she died and we were left with about six piglets to be bottle-fed. We worked hard to keep them alive and warm and had made a place for them in a large box on the back porch. One afternoon I was hosting the Home Demonstration Club. The living room was full of ladies in their Sunday best, socializing and having tea when some of them began to smile and giggle. I turned and saw all those little piglets. Someone had left the backdoor ajar, and those pigs, having wiggled until they got out of their box, marched into the living room single file as if to join us for light refreshments. I was embarrassed, but the ladies had a good laugh. Unfortunately, we later lost the pigs. They died one at a time.

We did have one hog that we killed The men of the community were going to come and help Carl with that job just as they did when they killed their own hogs. It was going to be a wonderful day, and we were looking forward to it. I got up very early that morning, started a fire in the fireplace, and began preparing breakfast when the men began arriving. They came much earlier than we expected, and we really were not yet ready for them. I knew they were used to having good meals on hog killing days, so I worked all morning preparing what I thought was food enough for everyone. Later on, however, but I found out that the other women in the community cooked for days ahead for things like that. They had cakes and pies and all kinds of things, and I didn't hadn't prepared that kind of meal. When I found out what they had been used to, I was very embarrassed, but the day turned out fine because the men worked beautifully together and we had plenty of meat to last us for many months. Carl, bless his heart, had the feeling that he was taking very good care of his family. We were going to have canned foods and ham and bacon and plenty to eat. I'll never shall forget watching him out in the back year with a big wash pot full of cracklings he was cooking, rendering the lard. He was whistling away, as happy and content as I had ever seen him. He was doing those things he had grown up doing in Alabama, those things his mother and father had taught him.

Old Trap is located on a point between two rivers (the Pasquotank and the North Rivers), and fishing was a part of the daily life there. Many evenings we enjoyed community fish fries. The men would go out and catch mullet, then everyone would gather in someone's back yard and cook them over an open fire.

After the men hauled in the catch, it was the job of the women to dress the fish and cook the cornbread. Everyone would then gather around and cook the fish. There was nothing better fresh mullet, fried cornbread, and a cup of hot coffee. We enjoyed those gatherings often.

We had experienced a hurricane before, but while we were in Old Trap, we endured one that frightened us terribly. For one thing, the big old house we lived in was not watertight around the windows, and when the hurricane winds began to blow, they blew water in through every crack. The water just sloshed in and soon flooded the lower floor of the house. At one time, we were walking around--especially on the north side of the house-- in water up to our ankles. We had a piano at the time and we were trying our best to keep it dry. We kept moving it around from one side of the room to the other. Finally we just had to give up on it. I was trying to keep the children on one side of the house where the wind was not hitting as hard because they were frightened. I sat for a long time in a rocking chair holding them, but the rocking chair was just shaking like a leaf. We didn't know what the house was going to do from one minute to the next. It creaked and moaned and leaned with each blast of wind. That was the worst storm we lived through while we lived on the coast.

Although we anticipated no good from that storm, we did hope it would solve one of our problems. Behind the house and just at the edge of a large ditch–a canal really--stood our outdoor toilet. It was in a bad state of repair, and we had talked of needing new and better facilities. What we hoped for was a nice, new indoor bathroom. When the winds began to blow, we agreed that a good, strong blast that blew that old toilet into the canal behind it would be a blessing. The wind did blow it hard, but alas, not as hard as we had hoped. It left the toilet standing, but leaning so precariously over the canal that we could use it no longer.

Carl and I joked about the leaning toilet in front of the girls, wishing it would just fall completely over, and they joined our campaign. One day I glanced out the window and saw Jo and Grace, about ages six and four, trying to push that building all the way over into the canal. Did we ever get a new indoor toilet? No. We had to make do with what we had. The people were planning to build a new parsonage and they didn't want to spend anything on the old one. So we were just there at the wrong time. They did begin a new parsonage while we lived there, but we moved away just as it was completed and ready for the next ministerial family.

The most important thing that happened at Old Trap was the birth of our third child, a little boy, George Thomas Wright, or Tommy. We were thrilled to have a son. We loved our girls, but felt our family would not be complete with our a boy. Tommy was due to be born the first of December, so we began making plans for his arrival and decided we to do our Christmas shopping early. We bought dolls for the girls, and I decided that since I had time, I would make doll clothes as well. I had no sewing machine so I visited my neighbor across the road, Doris Leary (Mrs. Sammy Leary), and used hers. We enjoyed sewing together at night, and I made some cute little clothes for those dolls.

When Christmas morning came, the girls were excited about their new dolls. Grace, remembering that she had other clothes upstairs that might fit her new doll, and raced up the steps to find them, but she fell and came tumbling down. She screamed and cried and frightened all of us, but she was not hurt. That scare did take some of the shine off that Christmas morning, however.

Our house was big and it was hard to heat. The girls slept upstairs in one of the big rooms there, but I made a playhouse at the top of the stairs because the heat from the living room kept that area warm. They spent many hours there at the head of the stairs with their dolls and toys and books. Grace's Christmas doll, Frances, went the way of most dolls, but Jo still has her doll, Shirley, to this day.

I had decided not to go to the hospital but Tommy's birth, but to have the baby at home. Grace had been born at home, and I had gotten along fine. One of my neighbors had some experience as a nurse, and she agreed to come and help me out. Everything went well and I had no trouble at all. There was another woman in the community who was had been expecting a baby about the same time. She was hoping for a boy because they had six or seven girls already. But her baby was another girl. She was so jealous of our boy.

In our church there in Old Trap, it was getting near that time of the year for the special day called Race Relation Sunday. The members of the official board got together and talked about the plans they would like for the day. Carl had heard about the college in Elizabeth City for the black people (Elizabeth City State College) and had been told that the president of the college was a very good speaker. He suggested to the board that it would be a very good thing if the president of that college came to our church to speak on that Sunday and bring his choir along with him. The people consented to that, thought it was a good idea, and the plans were made. But soon as the news got out into the community that we were having black people come to our church, and the people got all upset. One day Carl was in one of the local stores where several people were sitting around and a one man said angrily, "If those people came into that church, I will never darken the church door again."

Carl was somewhat taken aback, but replied, "Well, as far as I remember, you haven't been darkening it for some time. I don't recall ever seeing you there."

Of course, the news of our plans got around and we didn't know what to expect to take place on that Sunday. Every time Carl went into one of the stores, the men would stop talking, indicating to him, of course, that they were still upset about what was going to be happening at the Methodist Church.

When the day came, Carl and I made sure we were at church early so we could greet the college president and his the people as they came. They got there early. We noticed several of our church members there when we arrived, but not a single one of our them greeted the guests in any way. They just stood back and looked at them. Of course, Carl and I greeted them and tried to make them welcome. They had a large group in their choir and did an outstanding job with their music. They almost raised the roof with their signing. The gentleman who preached was so effective that everyone was touched by his message. It was amazing to us the change that transpired during that service, because at the end of the service, people couldn't wait to get to those people, to talk to them, and to thank them for coming. It was a huge success. We were so thankful and so pleased because during those years, race relations were a very touchy subject.

Another thing that year caused us a little difficulty. Next door to the parsonage--just across a little dirt road--lived a woman who had a very bad reputation in the community. She was living with a man who also had a wife right down the road. He spent part of his time at home with his wife and part of his time at this woman's house. The woman helped to operate a store that was connected to her home. It was a gathering place for many young people in the community; they danced there and also spent time gambling in a back room. It was an undesirable place to have in a community like that, and especially next door to the Methodist parsonage. Carl was particularly concerned about it, and one day, in the presence of several others, Carl made the rash statement that it would be a blessing if it caught fire and burned up.

Well, you know what happened. Not too long after that, we were awakened at night by a very bright light coming through our bedroom window. We got up to investigate and saw a fire burning brightly across the road. Someone had set fire to the place and it burned to the ground. Her home did not burn, but the little store did. Of course, the first thing we thought of was what Carl had said about his desire to have it burned. We were terrified that he would be accused of setting fire to it. An investigation was conducted, however, it concluded that the store's owner had burned it himself for the insurance money. Though Carl was not accused, we learned a valuable lesson about not speaking rash thoughts aloud.

When Jo was five years old, and she was very eager to go to school. She had a little book bag Carl had given her, and every day she filled it with papers and books-- things she called her "importants." She would put on her coat and take her book bag out to the roadside to meet the school bus, which stopped outside our house. She would wait until all the children had boarded the bus, then she waved as it pulled away and drove out of sight.

When she finally was ready to start school, I was planned to go with her on the first day to help her find her classroom and meet her teacher. But I was very pregnant with our son Tommy and it was going to be rather embarrassing for me. Carl could not go because of a previously planned church responsibility, and Jo was begging me to let her go on the bus by herself. She felt like a big girl and was confident that she could manage that go alone. Thoughtlessly, I agreed that she could do that. When the bus pulled away, of course, I panicked. How would she know what to do when she got there or where to go?. I berated myself asking how I could do such a thing. How could I be so thoughtless? What I hadn't realized was that my neighbor, my good friend Doris, was going to be there helping her, and things went well. Her first day of school was frightening--not for her, but for me.

Something happened when she started to school that bothered me greatly. She came home from school one day with her hair in disarray. Each morning I carefully braided it and put ribbons on it, but some little boy would pull the ribbons off while she was on the bus. He teacher never had the time to get her hair fixed again, and so she came home time after time after time like this with her hair down in her face.

One very cold windy day she came home very cold and with her pants all wet. When I asked what had happened, she explained that they had to stand outside for a long time waiting for the bus. She was afraid if she went inside to the bathroom, the bus would leave her. So there she stood and she finally wet her pants.

One day after playing with some neighbor children, Jo came home with a rash of red bumps on her stomach and she was feeling feverish and irritable. I found out that the children she had played with had also had a rash, and so I asked their mother about their illness. She said they had impetigo. She gave me some ointment to take home and instructed me to prick each of the little bumps and put the ointment on them. It was just terrible for Jo, and she cried the whole time. She didn't get better, however, and we asked the doctor to come. He examined her and announced that she didn't have impetigo, but instead a bad case of chicken pox. I felt so bad for having made her suffer through having all those pustules pricked. She remained very sick and ran a high fever before she finally recovered.

When Christmas time came, we had planned an evening of group singing at the church and Carl has asked Jo to sing a little song she had learned about the baby Jesus. That night I left Grace and Tommy in the pew to play for her, but as soon as we got there, Grace started crying. When I asked her what the problem was, she said she wanted to sing too. She was only four--we didn't realize that she even knew the song–but we let her get up there with Jo and sing too. They sang, "On a bed of sweet new hay, In a stable far away, Little baby Jesus lay, Fast asleep; And his mother always near, to cuddle up the baby dear, Little baby Jesus lay, Fast asleep."

My sister, Vivian, and her daughter Henri Anne (Anne) came to visit us while we were in Old Trap. One day we watched our three girls playing in the back yard. Vivian had her camera, and was waiting to capture the perfect moment. They were sitting around the little table and chairs Jo and Grace had always enjoyed so much having a tea party. They had cookies, which had been placed in front of each child, but before eating, decided to bow their heads and have a blessing. When we realized what was really happening, Vivian snapped the picture. Grace and Ann and Grace had their heads bowed reverently and their eyes closed, but Jo's eyes were wide open, and she was busy stealing the cookies off their plates. What a picture. Every time we looked at that picture in later years, we realized how typical that was of Jo. She was always instigating something either adventurous or naughty, and she had a great sense of humor.

When Tommy was small and toddling around, I sometimes had to call on the girls to look after him, to keep him out of the road, and so on. I never could depend on Jo to do that because she always had a book to read or something else she was interested in. Grace then was the one that task fell to, even though she did it reluctantly sometimes. She was always the little mother and I depended on her.

Tommy didn't like to take afternoon naps. I would have to lie down with him, tell him a story, and keep my arm around him to hold him down until he went to sleep. Of course, what happened was that I would go to sleep, and when I awoke, he would be out in the yard playing. I guess I needed the sleep more than he did.

We enjoyed living in Old Trap. We had churches that were wonderful to work with and people who were thoughtful and did many wonderful things for us, but moving time came around again.

Posted by Bigwig at March 14, 2004 03:11 PM | TrackBack
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Comments

Great story! While I grew up in Greensboro, as a child I remember going to visit relatives in Ashe County, North Carolina (borders Tennessee and Virginia) where the church members often rotated between three churches in two counties (Ashe and Allegeney) because they were following the Methodist Circuit preacher from church to church.

My mother still talks of a time when most people in Ashe County didn't own cars and they stayed at their churches using lay ministers on the weeks the pastor didn't come riding his horse to town. I think the last circuit preacher in the United States is still riding a horse near Cherokee, NC, but don't quote me on that as I'm really not sure. -Billy

Posted by: Billy The Blogging Poet at March 14, 2004 09:48 PM
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