Interviewee: Alvis Atwell
Interviewer: John Dodson


I was born in Bland County, up next to Ceres over on a mountain side. I was born on April 19, 1907, in a two room log cabin. We moved to Ceres from Bland County on October 1921. My father was John Edward Atwell and my mother was La Josene Bumgardner. My dad was born on Walker Mountain. My grandfather Atwell came from Tazewell County to Ceres.

My earliest memories was we lived in a rented house, with the porch over a branch. Back then they choppedf wood. Daddy chopped wood and he would give us great big chips and me and the cousin of mine would stand there and see how far we could throw a chip over the hill. It was frosting in April, real frosty, and he reared back and to throw the wood chip and his feet flew out from underneath him and he fell backwards. He yelled “Ahhh!” (just like when you shoot a hog and I swore to my mother I thought he was dead. She came out and shot gun bullet in his mouth and brought him to. I was three years old and my cousin was six. He was three years older than I was. That’s about my earliest memory.

In October or November, some winters you never see the ground until April, but people got used to it. I don’t remember how deep the snow was up there exactly, but I remember Daddy would shovel a way out to the wood pile to get the wood. It was so high that us kids would go out the kitchen door. We couldn’t see over where Daddy piled up the snow so we would be able to go out and get the wood or go to the outhouse.

We had an outhouse. It was just an old house built up there was a big hole and after he would go fill it up. They would put a lot of dirt and some kind of liquid or something they’d pour into it to kill it. They would fill it up with dirt, tampered it so it wouldn’t sink and fall down, and move it somewhere else.

It was pretty cold in the winter, it got to six below zero. We had 8x10 window lights and they would crack. My brother and I would sleep close to the window and the snow would blow in and when we would would wake up and the snow would move the quilt and fall down our necks. And with all the health and strong, here I am at this age! It didn’t hurt us.

Daddy was like the Amish people, we growed everything but pepper, salt, sugar, and stuff like that. We had piles of potatoes and turnips. Put them in the cellar; we had a cellar full. My mother always had about eleven or twelve hundred cans, they were stacked from the floor to the top of the sills. And we would use it first, then they would bury some out in the holes; dig holes out on a hill where the water drain out from under them, line it with straw, put your apples and potatoes. And when we got through with what was in the cellar, we would go out there and open up those holes and ol’ big fall apples, fall apples that big was just like you pulled them off the tree.

We had a spring house and sometimes it would freeze up and we would have to carry it, but then we got many rocks, you couldn’t hardly dig it down. We finally got dug down we got a plastic pipe in it, I think now. That spring was over on Walker’s Mountain, that big spring we built a pipeline from there to Mr. Peery’s house built up there. And for his basement they lined it with wood in the bank and charged myself and brother sit on a rock pile, sack of straw, and beat rock up to put in his concrete, mix it up. Mix it up in a wheel-barrow and rolled it up there and poured the basement that house up there. We would make the gravel.

We kept our milk in the cold spring water in the summertime and that kept it cool. In the fall of the year when the meadows is up, the cows would give a lot of milk and my mother would make butter and put it in the crock up almost to the top. She would put clean grape vine leaves and lay it on top of that and put salt on top of it and that would keep the butter.

Then we got to making kraut. We would cut it up and put it in the big sixteen gallon jars, and every so often, put a little salt on it and take a churn and churn it up and down and tamp that kraut and then got out what you wanted and cover it back over. We used to bury cabbage in the fall and mama use to after we got the cellar full we would have to come down here, had a garden up there, down here and she just pull up a head of cabbage root and all, turn it upside down, and take her foot and rake dirt up, just leave the stalk sticking up. We would go up there when it was thawed, she just take a hold of that vegetable and shake the dirt off and take it. Take it down to the branch and wash those leaves off before we tore them in. Washed all those leaves off and took them outside leaves off and the inside was just as pretty as white. Boy, that was good cabbage.


The first school I went to was up Dolkes Chapel that was up over from Bethany’s church. And then after we moved down here, I went up here to the fork of the road, Bogle School. We didn’t have no high school, just had the seventh grade and it had that college up there at Ceres. Presbyterian college I think it was Sharon College. They would give report cards out and I remember about a writing tablet and it had a star in each ending. It was a four star seventh grade diploma. I believe that the way it is and I think it should be in those boxes in the woodshed you know when I tore this back part of the house and built the back part this front part is over two hundred years old. We got a date for it the man that built it and everything.

It was a woman and it was down the flat here and got too wet and they moved it up here, but then when I redone it, we tore it all down to the frame. We rewired it and put insulation in between it and it had pretty good weather boarding on it, but it got to coming loose and we couldn’t paint it so we put this board up on it. Most of the frame was chestnut and it wouldn’t crack or crumble up.

It’s straight and this one hole here up there in the corner in this wall here, that was a four inch wall, that thick in the old half this front part. This other’s new and we found a date in there. I forget now what date it was and I don’t know when it was built or when the girls moved it up here.

I went to the Lancaster school, we used to have those spelling matches. We would line up and start spelling, spell every word down the line and his dailie, I never will forget that. He was right on the end of the row, Charlie was, and they had spelt all the way down and came to a question and you had to give a definition before you spelled it. I forget now what it was he said, it was a cat-a-nine tail, cat-a-nine something with a striped tail, and what it was leading, directed to his, “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.”

I never will forget Charles. He made it up. One time when he was a boy, he couldn’t hardly learn but he lived on a two school teachers farm and they got to tutoring him and he got pretty smart. But anyway, when the whistle blowed, whatever word he said that there’s a thrashing machine. He spelled it when he spelled it that horn, that whistle blowed and said that there’s a thrashing machine. That’s a long, long time ago.

Our school was just a one room school, but over here at Zion, they had more pupils. They had the eighth grade over there. My wife got through almost all of the eighth grade over there. Her mother died and she had to take care of her mother and she rode across that, about five miles, rode across on a horse. I don’t see how she kept from freezing to death, but she got another year of schooling than I did.

The first school I went to had wooden benches and they finally got new ones, and the back ones my daddy had built, one of them out of wood and three of us could sit on it. I told them up here at the school house I would like to go in there and I don’t know if they tore it up or not, when they put the new seat in, but I knew there was three of us sitting on it and it had a hole up there where you would sit with your ink bottle in it.

We would dip a goose quill in that ink and write. They call them a goose quill, but they took them out of a turkey’s wing. You know and cut them out like that and make a pen and dip it in there put the end with no turkey feather wing.

My teacher was a first Sunday school teacher and a first public school teacher. She was a Kitts. Her mother lost her father in the war. She only had fourteen acres, but she raised two boys and two girls, but I can’t remember their names now. Ulna was, she taught me at school for a school teacher.

One time I had to write a certain word for so many times on the black board. It wasn’t my fault either, but I did it. There were old wooden benches and there were three of us sitting on it. The teacher would come back, and the boy that (was) wicked sat between me and the other boy, and boy she hit my ears and she liked to eat them up! Well, some of them said on the wooden bench that daddy made and bought and put it in the school. Several people tried to buy the the school, but there was no need, you couldn’t buy it. There has never been a true deed for the land, so they could never sell it. They had a pond over there and you could skate from here up to the road up there. We’d take and skate with our wooden shoes and the pond would freeze over.


My oldest brother was in World War I. He was a sharp shooter. He would go out ahead of the army and he spent fourteen days and nights between the Germans and us. One day he was getting hungry and he didn’t know what time it was. He thought it was sounding a little bit and he thought he would walk around and see. Anyway, he started and he fell flat on his back and laid there, I forget how many hours until it got dark again. He said that he thought the moon was high enough to see a dark spot and kept going, and we went to it and it was a farmer’s milk house. He got in there and drunk himself full of milk. That’s all he had for fourteen days and nights.

During World War I a lot of people caught the flu. It turned into an epidemic. We had all kinds of diseases when I grew up, roseola, and mama and daddy made the medicine. They would dig the herbs and make their own medicine. I think they may have used apple roots to make the medicine, but I forget exactly what they made it out of. Weed would grow down the road or the creek and she made medicines from kidneys. My grandmother Atwell made medicine she called bitters, I believe. She made them for the men and the women. I had an uncle that dug herbs and he patented liniment and his picture was on it with his overcoat.

If you had money during the great flu, wasn’t no fool that had a dry season. You couldn’t get no coffee, and my mother would take wheat bran and stung and get the mill she would take the meal and get it sifted all the flour out of it and take that wheat bran and put it with some kind of oil in a bread pan and put it on the stove and burn it and then take it outta there and that smoke would almost smother ya. You would be surprised how much it smelt or tasted like coffee. We made coffee out of that.

One time my daddy seen a piece in a little New York paper he called it Yellow Jacket. It was hot on everything he seen on there where he would get 100 pounds of brown sugar, so daddy ordered it. Well it looked like, but when you wet it and got it hot. It turned black, the sugar did. Well it looked like, but when you wet it and got it hot, it turned black, the sugar did. The sugar was made out of sugar bees we found that out.


We used to make molasses cane syrup. We would grow the cane and break the top of it down. The tops would make brooms that brooms tousle out it would pretty well ripe. You would just break it over and turn it down and let it finish ripping. The would take the stalks to a cane mill. You would sit there and use a crooked pole that went across and they poured a hole in it and put a long stick about that far from the end of that and you would hitch your horse to the cane mill and that halter or bridal rein went out there to that stick.

You would lead the horse around and around and around, it would take them stalks and grind them out. They would take the stalks out and make bedding and things like that with them. To get the blades off of it, they would strip them down and put them in between the stalks until it cured. They would feed them to the calfs because it was good for them.

We also made maple syrup, we had over eighty trees in these woods. They cut them all down though. You would boil it down, gather several water and pine logs that cut out troughs and made crawis. For instance, take these elders that grow and make spiel. They would drill holes and put them spouts in and drop the water down that trough. They would cut a little groove near the trough and you would take your bucket and turn that trough up and we carry it with those water buckets. They got so much of it running so fast that in itself took the front end of a wagon tongue and fixed the yolk across so it could rare up and balance it over on the horses.

You would put two barrels on that and the horse would go around that circle trough. Then we finally got some buckets and metal spiels that drove in there and you hang the metal bucket on that spiel. I got some of them out there in the wood shed. Mama would take it and take these bread muffin pans and she would take that syrup, lower it down to real thick and pour it out in it and let it cool, and there was a solid block of brown sugar. Tree sugar, and we had brown paper, I can’t think of what they call it. It was slick on one side and nothing would stick on it and I would wrap one of them sugar things up in that go to my traps on the way to school. I trapped and sold and daddy brought fur and shipped it. Done everything to make a living.

Trapping Animals

Daddy and I caught nine foxes one time. Red foxes and I caught a brown mink one time. It was the first mink I ever saw. There was a pond over here and water comes out from under a tree, it’s cold. I was over there for something and I heard a rabbit squalling and looked over there, out of that spring and that mink had come out of there and grabbed that rabbit and went in. I went back to the house and told Daddy. He said that we’ll fix that. We got some traps and went over there, got some rocks, and filled that hole up. We left just one hole for that mink to come out. When he came out he got stuck in one of those traps. So I went over there and there wasn’t a trap or nothing and that scared me to death. So I came back and Daddy went over and he killed it and skinned it. I think I got seventeen dollars for the hide. Seventeen dollars back then was a lot of money, but now it’s just pocket change.

You would catch a pole cat in a trap, but if you could get close enough to hit them down across their back, to break their backs, they couldn’t throw that stink. That’s why Daddy and myself always had a long walking stick. We would just ease up close to them and they’d look at you. You had to be careful and one time I killed one that got a little too close and got a little of the stink on me and I went to school. The ole timey school was heated with them old tin heaters, you know, and if you got a little too close and that skunk smelled a little. The teacher told me I better not come to school smelling that way anymore.

Tilson’s Mill

Tilson’s Mill was called many things. It was first owned by Bailey Castle. To make the wheat at the mill, the elevators would go up and you would pour your wheat out on the floor and scoop it up and there were these cups. They would go up and down them spouts to clean it out and either, I’d say about eight foot square big box and the flour went it that and they had pokes all the way around it. They would shake the flour through a cloth and the claws took all the brand out of it. They had two grades. One grade they called midlands, it was between there, and we used it for buckwheat and stuff in it.

There was a wheat they called marble root. Mama would dig the roots of it and boil it and feed the little turkey’s to keep them from taking diarrhea. We used to raise seventy-five to eighty turkeys and we would fatten them up and resell them by the pound. I still have the book that my father used to keep a record of the turkey’s.

We would sell the turkeys at the store up here. They would pick them, wrap them in brown paper, and put them in barrels; the barrels were wooden and haul them in wagons to Rural Retreat and ship them to New York. Those turkeys never rotted. Turkey went for different prices per pound back then. One man would put his turkeys in a pen and put gravels in their water and feed them. The turkeys would eat the gravels in their craw.

The store we would sell the turkeys at was 26-feet wide and 100-feet long. It had shelves in there you could buy your cloth by the yard. He had a cow and we would take water or a bushel of corn or something for him to feed his cow. You would pay by giving so much food to the cow and Daddy made palins for his yard and they would pay him so much for palins. He had an account that he would put the money in. If I bought anything, I subtracted it so I would tell Harry and he would take the money out of the account.


We had hog meat and we had our beef, we’d even catch us a coon. A coon is about as clean a meat as you can get. We would catch the coons early and pin them up and feed them until their fur got good and then we would kill and skin them. We would send the fur to the SK Eskavites store in New York and they used it for coats, collars, and cuffs. My wife and I would crochet and make cuffs and collars, I had four sisters that lived in Washington and they took them up there and sold them for us. We would crack walnuts and you would get credit for three hours work, that was nine cents.


We used to go to a little church down on a hill, they called it Fairview. Then I went to Sprouts Street; Goodman’s Chapel. When I was little we went to Bethany. We had baptisms in our church and one time the preacher, he wasn’t too stout, asked me to put on some overalls and help him. There was this one lady, she was pretty heavy, and a girl (she was the Sunday School teacher) the girl always wanted to be baptized but she was afraid. The girl kept looking and looking and she said, “Alvis, I want to be baptized too”. I said, “Come on in.” She started in and I baptized her.

They had baptizing over here along the creek, it was pretty rocky there. We went over to a water hole and there wasn’t enough water and it was just rocky and the preacher, he was an odd man, went to baptize someone and he slipped and fell in and I had to pull the lady out by myself.

At Fairview Church, there was this preacher that would stomp so when he preached. He would stomp, stomp, stomp and there were two, mischievous boys and they said they would stop that stomping and they went out and got yellow jackets nests. When he was in at night to stomp that nest up and cut the limb off and took it down there. When he went to stomping it was down under and they pulled the stopper out and them yellow jackets went right up there and got that preachers leg. He said, “I’ll tell you friends! The Lord Jesus Christ is in my heart,” but he said, “Hell fire is in my breeches leg.”

Then my brother-in-law, Andrew Crouse, they had a baptizing and this woman was getting baptized and they had a whole limb go in. Those boys slipped and when she went in, they cut that limb and she went in and liked to of drowned. They had trouble! He had to pay a fine and serve time over that.


When people died they had to wash them and dress and shave them to get them ready for the undertaker to come and get them. Right up the road here at Angus’s, Esther Angus died and Rose asked me if I would come up and wash and shave him, and another neighbor lived right up the road there. He went with me and got a pan of water ad washed and shaved him and put him on new just what we would call pajamas and got him ready for the undertaker. They had horse hearse then. One time, two little girls died and I took them to the grave and I just read scripture, had prayer, and buried them.
The undertaker would come and prepare the body in the home. We used to have wake’s. We would sing at the wakes. I had a quartet, my only girl was gifted for playing the piano. She played the piano and I lead the songs and Duane, Noah, and myself sang. We would sign at different churches and then we would sing at wakes.


We used to play a games, where you would put something in your hand and you would go through with a thimble and you would have to guess whose hand that thimble was in. There was a game that we would play outside and you would ring up around and around; you would have a handkerchief and you dropped it behind somebody and it grabbed it then he went around. If you didn’t grab it somebody else would grab, push, and put him in the middle.


I had several important people in my life; I suppose you’re supposed to forget your mother and father and keep to your wife. Outside of my wife I would have to say my mother and daddy is the most important people that I can remember. They raised all of us eight girls and three boys. Mama would take the girls and learn to do stuff. Dad would take us boys out and tell us about planting corn and showing us how to do it. He learned us how to work and he learned us to love it.

Daddy could handle, haul, and just go around a plant quicker almost quicker than lightning. I tell you now he certainly had nerve, you wouldn’t back him down. He told us children and I taught my children the same thing, said don’t start trouble, but he said if you do, don’t let them back you up in a corner. It meant to hold our own.

One of the happiest moments of my life was when I was with Daddy and I told you he used to farm for people for just one-third. I was out with him and I think this was the first time he called me Son. We were coming along and he was talking and he said, “Son, if you’ll help me there’s five acres up there on top of the hill, Mrs. Umbarger said she would give somebody five years lease to clean it up. If you’d help me, we’ll quit giving two-thirds of our labor. We’ll grow on it; what we want to grow on it.” Boy, I thought I was a man when he said if you’ll help me. I think that’s one of the earliest moments I was thrilled to death, I thought I was a man and sure enough. I could pile bush you know that drag a few little limbs and stuff. He said, “If you’ll help me, we’ll clean that up a little bit up there and we’ll raise our own stuff and we won’t have to give it away.”

I don’t believe my daddy ever frowned at mother Atwell. I don’t think he could earlier, but from the time I got old enough to know anything he didn’t. I was the seventh child with the boys, I believe no with the girls. Let’s see, there was so many of them I can’t remember, but I think I was about the seventh one of all the children.

The saddest memory that I have was when I lost my wife. I thought I just couldn’t live and the boys was here helping me down here behind the house and I was just about out of my mind. I said boys, “I just can’t make it.” My boys gave me a lot of support. I had three sons: Donnie, Lowell, and Duane. The only daughter I had was June Ellen. I don’t think I could name all of my sisters, but maybe I could with a little time.

My father bought this farm years ago before we ever came down here, but he rented it to a man and we lived there on the mountain and then we moved down here in November of 1921. The house was a two story house. We rented it and Charles and I came down here and painted it before we moved down here. The man that owned it bought on what they call delivery stables. He had horses instead of trucks like what they got now to haul people’s stuff. He had a big barn, a big log barn on each side, and a shed over our head and it had nine stalls on each side. They had horses and my wife’s brother drove one of them wagons, I think the man had two wagons. He had a bunch of horses and he drove those turkey’s in those barrels and hauled them to Rural Retreat over the mountains.