Life in old Rowan

This Was Home


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 1941.
  The first chapter, which is excerpted here, focuses on the Yadkin River. ...
  Chamberlain died in 1960 in Chapel Hill at the age of 89.

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