One of my favorite stories to hear while growing up in North Carolina involved an area near my Grandparents home in Surry County. My first memory of hearing this story stems from a family reunion many years ago with dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles all gathered at my grandparents home just before Thanksgiving. My father’s side of the family knew how to “put on a party” back in the day. Every gathering held homecooked dishes filled with fresh vegetables from the garden, canned bread and butter pickles, wild game, persimmon pudding or egg custard pies and the biggest biscuits I’ve ever seen in my life. Serving turkey, squirrel, rabbit, dear and even bear was not uncommon at any of these events. During the summer months, fresh caught fish such as brim, catfish and bass were fried to a juicy tasty satisfying meal. Smells of strong coffee brewing and the chitter chatter of common “catch up talk” was the scene during the meal. Afterwards, another log would be put in the old woodstove and somebody would grab one of the many guitars sitting in a corner of the room. Tuning and strumming while the conversation would swift to old songs, memories and stories. It was quite a show and I loved every minute of it.
Common songs were Wildwood Flower, Log Cabin In The Lane, Old Joe Clark and Soldier’s Joy just to name a few. No television, no radio, no video games, no cell phones just conversation with homespun music, a perfect combination. Grandma would always bring out the shoeboxes filled with old photos, passing them from one to the other while pointing out who this person was and where the photo was taken. She would go on with who they married, how many children they had and some important event that happened to them. My Grandmother was a treasure trove of names, dates and events. The old photos would ignite the conversation into old stories of long ago. My father could tell a story that never left you. When he began everyone would stop what they were doing, the music would fade to a whisper and all eyes were on Daddy and his words. He had a simple way of doing this, by actually capturing a particular scene in a normal conversation and throwing in some “wows” and “what did he say” adjectives as if they were nothing at all. He never changed his voice in a dramatic way or used hand gestures or movements. It was his use of words and his common speaking that really made the story stick with you. I want to share one of these stories with you today and I’ll do my best to share my father’s words along the way.
Old Man Mathis lived on the road leading into Mt. Airy and he owned the farm next to Tom’s Creek off of Matthews Road. We lived there for over seven years and I used to fish in that creek every chance I got. Never fished much at night though because some mighty peculiar things always happened down there after dark. I was about nine when we moved on the place and around sixteen or so when Pa moved to White Plains. We raised tobacco, apple trees and always put in a big garden. The old house was part of a log cabin in the front and somebody added a kitchen with a back porch on the back. It was a hard living, wouldn’t you say that Pa? Ole Yeah, worked from the time I got up to the time I went to bed. There was always something to do. That place was different from any other place I’ve lived. Me and Bill have seen some stuff there, haven’t we? We’ve heard some stuff too (chuckling). One night up into the evening, Pa had went to town and me and Bill were at the tobacco barn keeping an eye on the fire. We heard footsteps coming down the road heading towards us. We figured it was Pa coming in from town. Bill peeked around the corner and didn’t see anyone. I leaned over and heard the steps getting louder as if they were right there in front of us walking on the dirt, kinda shuffling a bit. Nothing, not a person in sight, no one. Bill had Pa’s shotgun leaned up against the barn door and I grabbed it real quick. I asked Bill if he saw anything. He said nope, but I’ve heard that sound before. What do you think it is, I asked him. Bill never answered.
We heard stories from the neighbors who lived about a couple miles up the road that an old judge used to live in the log cabin and he owned a saw mill down along the creek. He operated that mill in his later years and he lived to a ripe old age. There is an old ford crossing at the bottom of the hill that was part of the old road before the Civil War. I’ve found all kinds of stuff down there buried on the banks. I guess it washed up from the creek and got stuck in the ground and buried over the years. Before the war, we heard it was a big farm like one of those plantations you read about. I don’t know much about the history other than that but I’ve seen some weird stuff out there.
What was old man Mathis first name Pa? Will, I believe it was. Yep, old Will Mathis, he’s buried over there at Midkiff, right? I believe so. He said he would never live over there, not sure if he had or not. I never talked to him much. One evening me, Pa and Bill were out looking for deer tracks and we were losing light so we were headed up the hill towards the house. All of a sudden I heard the loudest racket up near the house. I didn’t know what it was. Pa took off running and beat us to the side yard of the house. It was so loud we couldn’t hear each other think. I just starred at the tall grass and watching the wind or something lay it down as the noise went in front of us. Pa said, Come On, let’s get to the house. Ma was fixing supper and once we were inside we heard nothing but Charlie playing with his toys and Jessie crying in the crib. After supper, me and Pa went outside and I asked him what he thought it sounded like. A wagon with a six team or four team pulling it, empty or hardly any weight in it. Those horses were stomping off in a hurry too. We looked for horseshoe prints, wagon wheel ruts since it just rained earlier in the day and the ground was soft on top. Nothing. But, the weirdest thing was the grass. All swayed over in a big round circle like something big turned around in the yard. The grass in the center was standing just as straight as could be. No prints at all. What was it? I just can’t tell you.
Matthews Road was an old road dating back to over a hundred years. I think the older part of the road came through the old ford crossing below the house and came up that way. Sometime or other, that bridge was put up, don’t know when and the road came through from that way. Bridges were prime targets for you to get robbed. They hide out under the bridge and wait for you to cross, jumping you from behind. I’ve seen some mighty peculiar things down near that bridge too.
I was coming home after working at the Jessup’s place. I crossed the bridge and headed up the hill. Halfway up, there was a man walking towards me. I said to myself, Where in the world did he come from? He was an older man, dressed in overalls with a white shirt buttoned all the way to his neck. Wore a gray felt hat and white hair passed his ears. I didn’t get a good look at his face but I spoke to him as I passed by. After I walked a ways, I turned around and he was gone. Never saw him again. Pa you said you saw a man like this one time. Pa replies, I asked him how are you doing? He never said a word or looked up or nothing. He just kept on walking towards to the bridge. I got to the top of the hill just before turning the curve and looked around and he was gone. I saw him more than once and it was always at the same time of the day, early afternoon when the sun was starting to hit the top of the hill. I thought it was my eyes or something.
One Saturday evening, I was up sitting at the table in the front room. Ma and everybody was already in bed. I was waiting on Bill and Pa to get home from town. It was quiet and I had the lantern sitting on the table burning. I had just turned the overhead light off to save electricity when the door knob on the door began turning. I just figured it was Bill and I said Come on in Bill. The door didn’t open but the knob kept turning back and forth, back and forth. I finally got up and opened the door. No one was there. I looked outside up towards the road, nothing. I closed the door back and thought what in the world is going on now. I started cleaning my gun and Bill walked in about a hour later. What was it you said Bill when I told you about it? I said, cleaning that gun wasn’t going to do you any good cause there are things out there that a gun can’t help you with. (laughing) Yep, that’s what he said alright. But, I carried that gun with me upstairs anyway.
I have tried my best to use the words of my father in the story above. I am so thankful to be able to relive this and cherish the memories of him through one of his many stories. The photo above shows the layout of the property as it appears today. The red X is the old road Daddy was referring to as it declines down the hill to the old ford crossing at Tom’s Creek. The blue X marks the spot where the team of horses pulling a wagon was heard in the side yard. The yellow X is the location of the tobacco barn and it still stands today. The green X marks the spot where the old house once stood. It burned down over twenty years ago and the area is still surrounded by the apple trees that are original to the property when Daddy lived there.
I remember clearly one late summer day, when I was about thirteen. We all visited the Mathis Place and were allowed to pick apples. Grandma loved the Mathis Place apples and often remarked about their hardy flavor. We strolled the grounds and I was able to visualize Daddy’s story into real life. I walked the same pathways as he did as a young boy and visited the creek where he fished so often. The old house was left abandoned and we were all able to walk inside. As I entered through the front door, I knew this was the older part of the house. The floor planks were so wide and the loft leading upstairs was typical and common from the day when this log home was originally built. It was a small room but I’m sure it served it’s purpose to many all through the years. The back porch was rotten and the boards had fell through to the ground. The additional kitchen was just as poor as the roof caved in and allowed the weather to do more damage. No one had lived at the home for many years and the apples were lying on the ground.
I’ve tried my best to find out the judge’s name who once lived here, according to Daddy’s story. I’ve also attempted to prove the existence of the old mill along Tom’s Creek. No proof of this has surfaced as of yet, but there is still time to research and uncover the details about the old Mathis Place. I’ve since shared this story with my children, friends and others all through the years. It’s funny to think about now, but when I was dating, way back in the day, I took my boyfriend on a trip to the Mathis Place. We only pulled into the driveway and the car, a 1974 Cutlass Supreme, shut off. It would not start for anything. We were able to locate someone who had jumper cables and gave us a boost. We finally got back on the road again and never had anymore trouble with the car all the way home. Coincidence? I’ll let you be the judge on that one. It’s possible, a loose cable on the battery could have caused it and probably a great number of other mechanical things as well. We were certainly not mechanics, just two teenagers out for a Sunday ride in Surry County. But, I guarantee you, I got my point across about the Mathis Place with my boyfriend that day as he made his mind up to never visit the place again.
Family Stories Matter, I recently shared this on social media with Piedmont Trails sites. The stories may not always be true, exaggerations seem to grow into a story as it is passed down from one to another. But what really gets me hyped up over a story is the personality of the person sharing it, especially if you are tuning into a live performance. It speaks volumes to the characteristics of not only the person but of the story itself. I am so fortunate to have grown up with amazing storytellers. They had a talent for sharing a “good one” and I’m afraid the art of storytelling has become a dying breed and is no longer as popular today. For me, these stories were some of the best memories I have growing up. Now we have so many other distractions, such as social media, texting, messaging and times they do change. Nothing remains exactly the same. The future generations may not be able to embrace this art if we don’t continue the tradition and tell the story. I have much more details on the old Mathis Place and if you have questions, just let me know. You may have your own stories about this particular area and if you do, I would love to hear them. I want to dedicate this article to my father. Thanks Daddy for sharing your stories with me. I wished you were here to see this. All the lessons, all the talks, all the encouragement and the story keeps going on. I’ve not forgotten.