MARK BRINCEFIELD / FOR THE
BEFORE INTERSTATES: A father and daughter wave to the ferryman for a
ride across the waters of the Yadkin River many years ago.
Yadkin River has defined this place
by Hope Summerell Chamberlain ©1938
We always called it "The River," as if in all the world there
was but one. When first I began to know it, the same low-lying channel
restrained its tawny current as when, more than a hundred years before
I was born, the wagons of the first settlers came plunging down its northern
bank with locked wheels. The river was always colored reddish-yellow
by the soil of its bed, and sometimes it ran thick as soup when heavy rains
swelled its volume. Always it has been a stream capable of staging
magnificent freshets, with muddy waters that hurled and plucked at the
arches of the highway bridge. From the height of this bridge may
still be seen the ruined piers of two former bridges destroyed in years
past by the angry stream. But in moderate seasons it is commonplace
enough. When I was a child it looked much the same, but in the century
passing before I saw it the country all along its course had been tamed
and settled, and remains today a fertile, pleasantly rolling farming country,
which must once have been thick with woods of oak and hickory. The
substance of the soil, deeply tinctured by the iron which is one of the
elemental ingredients of it, varies in intensity of color from a warm red
to a luminous orange or to the somber russet of dried blood. This
soil, although stubborn and tough in texture, yields good crops and affords
the rootage preferred by a dozen varieties of oak trees. In wet weather
it will melt into a morass of sticky mud which stains like red paint.
Our Yadkin River in North Carolina makes a slow curve from northwest
to southeast, holding the county of Rowan in its embrace. From the
southeastern corner, the stream flows on, broadening as it goes, until
it enters South Carolina, where the name changed to the "Great Pee Dee."
Not always has there been a bridge by which the river could be crossed
near town. Long ago there was only a ferry. In horse-and-buggy
days, when I used to ride with my father out to the river and down the
sloping bank to the level of the water, we would always wait a moment,
to listen to the lapping current. On the far side of the stream a
pygmy ferryman could be seen moving about his cabin, his flatboat tied
ready at the landing.
With hands cupped around the mouth, Father must call, "Coo-e-e!"
long and loud like a trumpet. Even then, if the wind blew from the
wrong quarter, our man might not hear, but he would be certain to see us
at last. Then, shoving the ferryboat leisurely over, setting his
pole against the river bottom and walking backward to push, he would cross
to us. "Old Frank," our steady horse, would understandingly step
on board, although had he been a skittish animal he would have been taken
out of the shafts and held firmly by the bridle.
The crossing of the river was smooth and silent, the best part
being the place equidistant from either bank, where you might look upstream
to a wide curve and downstream to another. The river there resembled
a lake - a good big one if you had not seen many lakes. Father would
chat with the ferrymen - first about the river - Was it rising or falling?
- and then about his fishing - did he catch any "red horses" in his snatch-net
this morning? And, if he had, we should like some on the return trip
to take home to mother. Naturally, I must once have asked him, "What
are red horses?" and father explained, "Big fishes, to cook for dinner."
And on one special day the ferryman replied, "Ain't got no red hosses today,
but if the little gal wants to see that big ole gar-pike I found in the
net this mornin', thar he is!"
So he showed me, in a little pond where he kept his fish walled
in with stones at the river's brim, a long, slender, villainous-looking
fellow flapping about, having a mouth split well-back to divide his long
snout and make room for a double row of vicious teeth. There used
to be a proverb in Rowan, "Mean as gar-broth." Some hungry man must
once have cooked a gar-pike to find out.
From the Yadkin it is six miles southward to Salisbury, the
town where was our home. ...
"Did any Indians ever live 'round here, before the white people
came?" I asked Father on one of those long jogging rides which allowed
time for so many questions. And he replied, "They tell that long
ago, before people settled in here, there used to be an Indian Village
of the Saponas by the Trading Ford of the Yadkin River, but to be certain,
you had better ask Mother."
Now Mother invariably knew things, and she liked to tell you,
but with Father you discussed them, and had the pleasure of piecing his
bits of knowledge together with your own. Mother, being asked, repeated
to me the musical names of the Tuscaroras and Cherokees, tribes who once
hunted over our hills but who had gone northward before the middle of the
eighteenth century when settlers began to come thickest. An Indian
trail there surely had been, by which the first traders were guided south,
for the Indians had known how to establish the most practicable route.
This road crossed the Yadkin at the Trading Ford, where the great river
spread out and lay so shallow that at most times it would be easily passed
on stepping-stones. ...
From THIS WAS HOME by Hope Summerell Chamberlain. Copyright © 1938 by
the University of North Carolina Press, renewed 1966 by J. Mark
Chamberlain. Used by permission of the publisher. 1-800-848-6224.
Excerpted from a reprint in the Salisbury
Post (November 22, 2001).
This Was Home was the memoir of Hope Summerell
Chamberlain, a Salisbury native who left the city as a young bride in 1890.
The book, first copyrighted in 1938, dealt with life here during
her childhood in the years after the Civil War. It created a stir
because of its references to families in the area.
The book "literally stood the gracious old families of this
village on their respective heads," wrote Post reporter Bill Snider in
The first chapter, which is excerpted here, focuses on the Yadkin
Chamberlain died in 1960 in Chapel Hill at the age of 89.