In 2009, during Fuquay-Varina’s Centennial, I met Gertrude Harrelson. Gertrude was born on December 18, 1923, somewhat older than I; yet, we both remembered what life was like on Broad Street in historic Varina. We could recall when free movies were shown on Saturday nights between the Bank of Varina and Thomas’ Drug Store. The street at that time was a dirt road; today it is the well-travelled Ransdell Road.
I learned that Gertrude’s family moved from Prospect Hill in Caswell County to Wake County for a better livelihood in 1932. At the age of 9, she came to live on my grandfather’s farm with her parents and three brothers. Gertrude’s family farmed cotton and tobacco for James Alfred Akins. The Akins’ homeplace was located about three miles west of Varina.
Gertrude became a member of First Baptist Church on North West Street in Fuquay. The church is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, just three years after the town’s centennial. Though she hasn’t been able to attend for some time, she still speaks fondly of First Baptist.
Lively and alert today at almost 89 years of age, Ms. Harrelson remembers several families she knew over the years. She said that my father, Herbert Akins, often came to visit my grandmother, Frances Rowland Akins, who was living at the Akins’ homeplace at the time her family was on the farm. She said my dad would put my two oldest brothers, Sherrill and Belvin, out of the car near the entrance to the home which was about a quarter mile off the main road (Hwy. 55.West). The boys were 5 and 8 at the time; they would race through the apple orchard to see if they could beat my dad to the house. She laughed as she said, “It was like letting two race horses loose in the field.”
Gertrude walked from the farm to the Fuquay Springs Colored School, more than three miles. The school later became the Fuquay Springs Consolidated School. Consolidation took place when Holly Springs, Willow Spring, Buckhorn School and New Providence School merged with the local school. When it rained, her father would sometimes pick up Gertrude and her brothers in his new 1934 Ford. Thinking back, she said, “He was a little extravagant buying a new car when we had to work so hard for our money.” She did, however, like riding in that car.
Remembering her seventh grade graduation, Gertrude told how her class was to have a special program. The girls were to wear dresses made of organdy. Because she and her mother had been sick with pneumonia, money was not very plentiful. Instead of buying organdy, her father went to Varina Supply Co., operated by J. H. Akins and N. H. Hopson. He bought voile for her mother to use in making the dress; voile was not as fine as organdy. She said she thought she looked nice in spite of the difference in material. She wore the dress with white shoes, having small heels that her father had purchased at the same store. She emphasized the importance of what she learned from that experience saying, “You don’t always know people’s circumstances; my parents couldn’t afford the organdy. After I was grown, I learned not to worry when I couldn’t afford things.”
Gertrude’s mother not only sewed for the family, she sewed for the principal and teachers of the school Gertrude attended. The family also had teachers to room in their home. The rent and sewing money helped supplement the family’s income.
After graduating from high school, Gertrude attended beauty school in Durham. She married, but in time was divorced; she never had children. In 1953, she began operating a beauty shop in the basement of her parents’ home. The equipment for her shop was purchased with money she earned doing day-work for several families in the area: These included Robert Holding of the Bank of Fuquay; Richard and Mary Aiken; Johnny and Charlotte Johnson.
In the late 1970s and 80s, Ms. Harrelson had a day care in her home for children of both races. Although the children played among her pretty knick knacks, she said she never put any of them away. She recounted how she would show them articles and tell them, “You can look, but not touch.” The children respected her wishes; they never broke any of her collectables.
Gertrude’s family worked for several other farmers in the area over the years. She listed a number of them: Lessie Scott, Everette Utley, Gib and Maggie Blanchard, N.H. Hopson and Carlyle Adams, who was brother to Miss Mae Adams. Miss Mae taught seventh grade at Fuquay for many years. Gertrude said Mr. Carlyle was their landlord, but lived in the Hayes Barton section of Raleigh; Miss Mae lived in the big house outside of Holly Springs near where the Harrelson family farmed. In 1946, still living on the Adams’ farm, her father bought timber from Clarence Adams, Miss Mae’s other brother, to build the house on Charlotte Street where she lives today.
When Gertrude’s father was farming for Mrs. Maggie Blanchard, they lived at the intersection of what are now James Slaughter Road and Hwy. 55. They grew tobacco where the Food Lion is now located and had a corn field nearby; they also planted tobacco on what is now Green Lawn Cemetery. Mr. Elmo Fish helped Miss Maggie as administrator after her husband, Mr. Gib, died. During that time Gertrude’s family also farmed some land for Mr. Elmo. Gertrude said her father always had his own horses, and farm equipment necessary to take care of his part of the farming operation.
Woodrow Davis, a local antique dealer, knew Gertrude had grown up at his mother’s (Nancy Akins Davis) homeplace. For that reason, Woodrow liked to show her objects in his shop. Gertrude was grateful for his interest and took to heart his advice. She learned to appreciate and read about antiques. With fondness she still remembers some of the things Woodrow taught her. As she reminisced, I noticed several books about antiques and collectables by her favorite chair.
It was interesting to meet someone of Gertrude’s character and learn about her family and my family. Learning some local history was my pleasure as well.