Again and again, I am surprised how memory works. I was reminded of that again today when I was looking at an extraordinary collection of historic photographs of trucks and other vehicles (of all things). I was just glancing quickly through them, not paying a whole lot of attention really. But then I saw a photograph of an old Wonder Bread delivery truck and everything changed.
Suddenly I was three years old again and I was standing on the side of Highway 101. I was three or four miles out of Beaufort, N.C., near the turn to Mrs. Wright’s farm, and I was stepping up into a Wonder Bread delivery truck.
That was more than half a century ago. Yet when I saw the photograph, the smallest details of that day came back like it was yesterday. I swear I could smell the aroma of the fresh baked bread. I could see the driver and the truck’s spindly steel stick shift with the black knob on it. I remembered the red, yellow and blue balloons that festooned the Wonder Bread packages. I could see the crates of bread stacked up in the back, where my mother, my grandmother, my sister Elaine and my little brother and I made ourselves comfortable.
As I looked at the old photograph, I felt the excitement again that three-year-old me felt when the Wonder Bread truck showed up on that day after we picked up Elaine from Brownies and our station wagon broke down by the side of the road on our way back home.
I remembered the kindness of the driver that rescued us and the thrill of riding in a truck full of Wonder Bread and the excitement of being on an adventure in which I was sure everything would work out.
One quick look at that photograph and all that came back. At such times, I can’t help but suspect that everything I have ever seen, everything that I have ever touched and smelled or heard, and also every second that I have ever spent with those I have loved, is still somewhere deep and forever inside me.
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I found the photograph that brought that day on Hwy. 101 back to life for me in a spectacular collection of more than 2,000 photographs, drawings and documents related to the Hackney Brothers Body Company, a firm that was in business in eastern North Carolina from 1854 to 1996.
When the company was dissolved, the Hackney family donated the collection to Barton College’s library in Wilson, N.C. I first discovered the collection there on a trip to lecture in one of the college’s history classes (amazing students, amazing faculty). Now the college’s librarians have made a wonderful selection of those photographs and other materials available on-line here.
Founded in 1854, the Hackney company grew into one of the largest makers of carriages, farm wagons and buggies (as in horse and buggy) in the southern states in the last part of the nineteenth century. The first Hackney in the business, Willis N. Hackney, was from Nash County, N.C., and had apprenticed in Rocky Mount with a coffin and coach maker from Connecticut.
After that apprenticeship, he moved to Wilson, 20 miles to the south of Rocky Mount, and started a wheelwright shop. He and a partner eventually began to make coaches, wagons and buggies as well. (The best account of the company’s early history that I’ve found is here.)
After Willis N. Hackney’s death in 1886, two of his sons took over the family business in Wilson. By that time, their older brother, Thomas J. Hackney, had returned to Rocky Mount and established another coach and wagon-making factory there.
The factory in Rocky Mount did not last long though. According to articles in The Wilson Advance, African American workers burned down the factory in Rocky Mount on the night of February 18, 1890. The newspaper’s editor accused the black men of supporting what it called the “Ingalls Idea,” by which he meant land reform that would have turned black farmworkers into black farm owners.
Joshua K. Ingalls (1816-1899) was a Massachusetts inventor and minister who is considered a pioneering American anarchist (though he never called himself an “anarchist”). He believed in land reform and railed against the wealth and power of big banks and corporate monopolies. Ingalls advocated for what some people have called “free-market socialism,” which to him meant that “Every man will be rewarded according to his work” and each person was to receive the “. . . whole product of his labor.”
The newspaper’s accusations have at least a kernel of truth to them, but they only hint at a small part of a very complicated and little known chapter in North Carolina’s history.
In actuality, the fire at the Hackney’s factory was part of a much larger and incredibly bitter struggle. That struggle was between black farmworkers who were seeking to overcome debt peonage and other oppressive conditions that were an enduring legacy of slavery, on the one hand, and, to quote The Wilson Advance, “the best white people of that section.”
That conflict led to a series of warehouses and factories in Rocky Mount being burned down, brawls in the city streets, vituperative debates in the state legislature, lots of bad blood and an estimated 50,000 disenchanted black workers lining up at railroad stations and leaving Rocky Mount and other towns in that part of eastern North Carolina for good.
Those 50,000 black workers are often called “Exodusters”. In this case, the Exodusters were African Americans who fled the oppressive conditions of eastern North Carolina in order to make new lives either in the Western U.S. or in other parts of the South in the 1870s and 1880s. After I post this essay, I’ll also post a follow-up note that fills in the background of the Exodusters and the fire at the Hackney carriage factory in a little more detail.
After the burning of the Hackney factory in Rocky Mount, the brothers consolidated their carriage and buggy enterprise in Wilson. The company flourished there in the late 1800s and throughout much of the 1900s. In no small part, the company continued to do well because the Hackneys and their workers proved willing to change with the times when necessary.
As the days of the horse and carriage waned, the company transitioned to the Age of Petroleum and the combustion engine. By the 1920s, the company’s workers were building mainly small truck bodies. They produced just about every kind of small truck imaginable: delivery trucks, milk trucks, ice wagons, school buses, fire trucks, ambulances, utility trucks, bookmobiles, hearses and many others.
Between World War I and World War II, the company specialized particularly in refrigerated trucks and in school bus bodies. The company began building school buses in about 1930 and as you can see in this photograph the factory in Wilson turned out a lot of them.
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Many of the more recent photographs in the Hackney collection reminded me of the trucks that were in use during my childhood. Many of the older photographs, on the other hand, reminded me of stories about wagons, trucks and buses that my older relatives told me when I was younger or that elderly people told me over the years when I was doing oral history interviews.
When I saw this drawing of a Hackney wagon that was built in the 1880s, for instance, I remembered my mother’s stories about the wagonloads of African American fishermen that passed by her family’s farmhouse when she was a young girl in Carteret County, N.C. My mother said that the fishermen rode wagons like the one in this drawing (though probably heavier and more roughly built). She said that the fishermen’s wagons were pulled by oxen.
That was in the 1930s and the fishermen came from a community near us called Craven Corner. My mother said that they passed down the old dirt road in front of her house early Monday mornings, long before first light, on their way to the menhaden fishing boats in Beaufort. They worked on the boats all week and then came back home on Saturday nights.
My mother remembered that they were often singing the same hauntingly beautiful songs that they sang when they hauled in their nets offshore. At sea the fishermen sang those chantey songs– many have told me over the years– to help them stay in time as they raised their nets, which was necessary with nets that large and heavy, and to help them to forget the cold and the pains of their labors.
My mother told me that the sound of their voices woke her up on those mornings and she would lie in bed and listen as they went by. Then she’d fall back asleep, wrapped up in the coziness of their music.
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I also thought of my mother when I saw the photographs of the Hackney Co.’s school buses. I remembered particularly a story that she told me about the Second World War.
One day early in the war, my mother said, the principal at Beaufort High School called her into his office. He didn’t ask her if she wanted to be a school bus driver– he just announced that, starting the next day, she would be driving the school’s bus that served Harlowe, the rural community where she lived. Harlowe is about 12 miles from Beaufort.
My mother was flabbergasted. At the time, she had never driven a bus. I’m not sure she had ever driven an automobile, though she had driven tractors before. I’m not even sure she had a driver license.
Yet the principal seemed to have all the confidence in the world that she could safely drive the bus on those old unpaved country roads.
My mother told me that, before the war, high school boys had always driven the local school buses. But so many of those young men had dropped out of school to enlist in the Armed Forces that the school didn’t have enough bus drivers anymore. My mother started driving the bus the next day and she learned quick, though not, she said, without grinding a few gears.
My mother may well have been driving a bus built by the Hackney Company, and perhaps a bus just like the ones in these photographs. She was one of many local women who took on jobs during the war that had previously been reserved for men and rocked them.
Just to name one: during the war, my grandmother Vera (just writing her name makes my heart sing!) worked in an aircraft machine shop at the Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, which was built 10 miles west of Harlowe in 1942.
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The photographs in Hackney Brothers Body Company Collection brought back many other memories as well. This photograph of an old bookmobile, for instance, immediately reminded me of Ms. Myrtle Peele, a farm woman in Martin County, N.C., who I interviewed many years ago. She was the county’s first bookmobile librarian. When I visited her, she was 90 years old and I can’t remember when I’ve spent a more pleasant day with a new friend.
Ms. Peele had begun her work on the bookmobile in 1940. For 40 years she carried books to readers in tiny hamlets, church parking lots and remote crossroads throughout the county. Often traveling muddy dirt roads, she typically worked 10 or 12 hour days because she believed so ardently in bringing books to people that in those days, she reminded me, didn’t have TV or the internet and rarely had any other book besides a Bible and a dictionary in their home, if that.
“Everywhere I went, there was a crowd coming up to me,” she remembered. “Now everybody reads, but then it was exciting. They were just so eager.”
She told me, “A lot of people back then didn’t have but a 3rd or 4th grade education. A lot of them were sharecroppers. Reading opened up a whole new thing for them, some of them, that they didn’t know or didn’t even realize was there. They had a dull life in other words: working, working working.”
She went on: “But with the bookmobile, they could have something to look forward to. They could sit down a minute at night before they went to bed and read. It was something to give you an energy to think about what you’d like to be and do. It gave them a hope that tomorrow may be better. Books just opened up a whole world.”
I remember that, as I was leaving her home that afternoon, Ms. Peele told me that she sometimes still dreamed of the bookmobile. “You always met people that you would never forget,” she said to me. “Every day was different, and every day there was something you could laugh about. I think it did me as much good as it did the people I carried books.”
You can find my story “Myrtle Peele: Book Dreams” here. It features a boy with a pet goose that carried his books to the bookmobile as well as to his school so it’s definitely worth reading! (And also: Ms. Peele was such a beautiful soul.)
Years later, by the way, her son Paul was the one who first brought the very tragic story to my attention that became my essay “In Skewarky Cemetery.” That was the first essay in my “Love in the Archives” series and the interest in it continues to surprise me. It was most recently translated into Japanese and published in a Japanese anthology edited by Hayumi Higuchi.
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The photographs in the Hackney Brothers Body Company Collection reminded me of other people whom I have interviewed over the years, too. One of the most special was Gretchen Brinson, an 82-year-old retired nurse in Morehead City, N.C.. She lived in the neighborhood that people used to call the Promise Land when I first visited her nearly 25 years ago.
Ms. Gretchen was the first person that I featured in my “Listening to History” series that used to run in the Sunday edition of the Raleigh News & Observer. The story was called “Gretchen Brinson: A Born Nurse.” I thought of her the second that I saw the photographs of the Hackney Co.’s ambulances and hearses. In my mind, I was like, “Oh, that’s what they looked like.”
Ms. Gretchen saw far too many of those ambulances and hearses when she was a nurse at the little, 32-bed hospital in Morehead City during World War II. In the first year of the war, German submarines sank dozens of merchant ships in the waters off Cape Lookout.
At that time, Navy sailors (who had often been local fishermen before the war) would go out into the ocean, where the waves were often burning from the spilled oil or heating fuel that had ignited, and search for survivors. If they found anyone alive, they would carry them ashore and place them in ambulances such as the ones that the Hackney Co. built. Then they carried them to the hospital where Ms. Gretchen worked.
The hospital was overwhelmed, she told me. Day in and day out, the wounded arrived, and of course not all of them lived.
“Many of the young men who were here, son, did not live,” she recalled. “When the 3 o’clock train left town, the baggage car doors were most always open, and you could see several coffins in their wooden boxes, being shipped to other places. There was seldom a day for months, maybe a year or more, that there was not one or two or three or possibly more that went out on that 3 o’clock train.”
Ms. Gretchen also told me: “I don’t remember, son, that I was ever apprehensive about how close the war came to us.” She told me about her faith, and she told me about the lessons about life that she had learned when she was nurse caring for dying people. She also said that she had learned a great deal from her grandmother, who had lost seven of her nine children at an early age but never gave up on life or stopped caring for others . “I am not easily frightened,” she said.
Over the years I got to know Ms. Gretchen well. She had the kind of strength that I remember thinking at the tender age I was then, that is what I aspire to: that unshakable will and that fortitude is what I want to bring to the people in my life that I love when they need me.
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All of these memories and more came back to me when I saw the photographs at Barton College’s library. But of course the memory that I thought about most was the one of that day all those years ago when my mother and grandmother and two of my siblings and I were stuck on the side of Highway 101 and the Wonder Bread truck came to our rescue.
I remember the whole ride home too, being in a Wonder Bread truck was so new and exciting to me at that time. I remember how we passed the turn to North River and then crossed the old drawbridge at Core Creek, where we sometimes went swimming and where the wild plum trees grew.
I remember, too, how, after we crossed Core Creek, we passed the church and the old slave-dug canal that runs through the heart of Harlowe. We passed my cousin Henry’s house on the right, and then my great-aunt Beck’s house on the left, and a few seconds later the driver began to slow down as we reached Miss Beadie Mason’s home.
A few hundred yards later, the driver eased off the road in front of my grandmother’s house.
We clambered out of the truck and stood in the front yard for a moment, beneath the old pecan trees. My mother tried to buy two loaves of bread from the nice man, as a way of thanking him I suppose, but of course he declined to accept her money. Instead he very graciously gave us the loaves as a gift.
As he drove away, we waved and shouted thank you for the bread and thank you for rescuing us. That was a long, long time ago and as I said I was only three or maybe four years old at most. At that age, I had no idea yet that his kindness and a ride in a Wonder Bread truck were the kinds of things that one never forgets.