The Diary of Sue Austin








COMMUNITY LIFE - Marsh Causeway

COMMUNITY LIFE - 1933 Hurricane


COMMUNITY LIFE - Socialization


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Knotts Island Diary

by Sue Fentress Austin

Edgar Wright Brumley and Minnie Hall Ballance met and apparently fell in love at a musical “happening" at Ezzard Simpson’s place. His house was situated at the far end of Blackfoot Road at the turn of the 20th century. Ed Brumley was sitting on the stairstep, inside the hallway and close to the fiont parlor, where the musical sounds of probably a banjo and a violin and maybe even a piano, were being listened and danced to. Minnie, too, was present and even though she was five years younger than he, this energetic young lassie apparently caught his eye. They courted and very soon married. Minnie, even after the babies came, would often hum to herself and do a little square of "jig” dancing around the house. The old Simpson House seemed destined to remain in the family given the fact that Ed and Minnie’s oldest daughter lived in it for awhile. Nita and her husband, Ulysses Dixon, bought it along with some land, and as they awaited the construction of their new home being built next door, temporarily lived in the house. By then it was in a very run-down condition.

On many mornings Minnie would rise early, 4:45 AM, to kill chickens for Sunday dinner. There was a special stump in front of the backyard woodpile, and Minnie would lay the chicken’s neck across the stained block of wood. Then with a small hatchet, she would neatly chop off each chicken’s neck. Then the horribly fascinating sight of headless chickens running here and there, their wings flapping wildly, minus of course their heads! Finally they would complete their dance of death and keel over. The author can describe this sight vividly since as a small child she used to watch her “Mimmie" expertly swing that old hatchet! In the Brumley family, dinner was the noon meal and supper the final meal ofthe day. Minnie would dress them (process of plucking feathers from the dead chicken after putting the chicken in very hot water, cleaning out the guts and cutting up the chicken) and the family would enjoy fried chicken after returning home from church. And, regardless of the summer heat, the old cook stove in the kitchen was always in use. Boiled potatoes would often go along with the Sunday fried chicken.

Adell’s diary contained numerous entries regarding the sewing done by her sister, Nita. Seems as though the babysitting of the younger brothers, especially little Paul, was mainly handled by Adell who enjoyed taking care of rambunctious Paul. Their mother was not especially fond of sewing; besides, she had plenty of other chores to keep herself busy. Ruth and young EW no doubt were kept equally busy doing other things. Nita loved sewing and says that she did not beg to look after the younger children. During the year of 1932 alone, Nita stayed extremely busy .... cut of our spring coats, fixed my red dress longer, made new blue dress and light linen dress, made Ruth a new white dress, made green dress and made white blouses.

Nita and Adell were in the 8th grade when little brother Paul arrived. The two sisters. ages 13 and 14, spent an anxious December 18, 1928, at Creeds High School wondering about what was happening at their home. They knew the baby’s arrival was imminent when they had left home earlier that morning. In those days, children were sent away from home until the little ones were born. Their Aunt Clara (Caffee) Capps met the bus at the lane that aftenoon near where Izola Waterfield Bonney now lives. Clara preferred that the children simply call her "Clara". She lived with her husband, Nevy, and their children Bernise, Nancy and Caswell in a house located on a dirt road that went through the field between the present Knotts Island School and Brumley Road. Clara loved flowers and always had a beautiful yard. She fixed them (the "them” probably also included Adell’s other two siblings too) supper and finally everyone was sent for — little red-faced Paul had arrived. Nita and Adell were told that little brother was an early Christmas present.

Nita was not thrilled to rock Paul’s little cradle and devised a scheme to make the tiresome chore a sight easier. She went and found her mother’s bag of scraps (for piecing quilts) and proceeded to tie them together. The whole idea was to make a long strip that would stretch and stretch, right on out of the room and down the long hall. Nita then deposited herself out on the front porch and just continued to pull on the line ever so often to keep that baby happy. Problem was — Nita was by now so far away from the cradle that Paul’s crying did not even begin to reach her ears! And to make matters worse, the cradle no longer rocked because the line was just too long. But the noise of the crying baby DID reach her mother’s ears and she came a-hurrying to investigate. She was a mad momma! Not only had Nita been ignoring the little guy, but she had also managed to ruin many of her mother’s valued scraps for piecing together quilts for the cold winter nights. The punishment is lost over the years, but no doubt there was something "special" for Nita’s lack of babysitting skills!!

Nita and Adell were only 18 months apart in age but in temperament they were m-i-l-e-s apart! Adell was quiet, reserved and generally went "along with the program," but her sibling, Nita, was another story. What Nita called "the pond incident” is a classic example of a headstrong child. Nita had gotten in trouble over something or other, and her mother had gone for the switch to use on her defiant child. There was water in the front yard and Nita did not stop until she was standing smack dab in the very middle of that pond! So when her poor mother reappeared with switch in hand, there stood Nita with her only pair of everyday shoes on. Her mother stood as close along the edge as she dared without getting her own shoes wet and yelled, "Nita, you come out of that water right now! I’ll get you!” Nita did not budge. Finally her angry mother left; she was not about to wade out into the middle. Nita recalled so vividly, over seven decades later, just standing there, out in the middle of that pond, for a very, very long time. Finally, however, she did have to come out and face her angry mother. And yes, she did get her "switching" and probably it was twice as hard for being so defiant. That was our little Nita early on, a determined and very strong-willed little girl.

Minnie Brumley said to Essie (Fentress) White, her closest neighbor and very best friend, as they sat piecing a quilt: "Edgar never comes home fiom school and says anything. However, as soon as Paul gets home I know exactly what the teacher was wearing, everything she ate for lunch and who got into trouble in the class!” Paul was probably the most talkative of the Brumley children, followed closely by Ruth. Another cute notation about Paul related to report card time during his school years. His mother said, ‘Paul, what happened?” as she looked down at his not-as-good-as-expected report card. His reply, “You always tell us not to waste anything and I didn’t! I had enough to pass.”

In February of ’32, the diary mentions that Bill Fentress (called Willie then) had to have his tonsils removed and did so in the office of a dentist no less! Oh yes! Afterwards he enjoyed replaying the tale to his buddies of how those tonsils looked just like an old bloody oyster to him!

Adell would always ask for a bis-it everytime her parents took her to see Aunt Clara (Brumley) Simpson. Finally they decided to fill her up BEFORE the planned visit. They fed the child and off the family happily went. During the chitchat at Aunt Clara’s, she asked little Adell why she didn’t want one of her biscuits? Adell replied, no doubt with a sad look on her face, "They wouldn’t let me ask for a bis-it."

Another fondly recalled occasion was Miss Nita and the Hay Loft Affair. She, Adell, and their cousin, Nancy Capps were all playing in the family barn, in their favorite spot – the hayloft. Nancy was one or two years older, but apparently joined in the fun right along with her Brumley cousins. There was a lot of loose hay and they were a-slipping around, falling here and there and having the best old time. The most fun of all was to swing on the second floor door, while holding onto the wooden frame just above. Before she realized what was happening, Nita had slung herself right out the second floor. Her little body went flying across the empty space and loudly dropped onto the bottom of the ground floor. She had the wind knocked out of her and just about scared poor Nancy and Adell to death! Someone ran and got the two mammas who no doubt were relieved that Nita had only knocked herself out and wasn’t dead. Nita remembered being very, very sore the next day. In today’s world, the ambulance would be called, many x-rays taken and the child probably observed overnight at a local hospital.

Adell wrote about her mamma sitting on the front porch, no doubt rocking the baby of the family, Paul. Meantime, Adell, her Papa and the oldest son, EW, played ball out in the front yard. She mentions in the same diary entry of reading stories to Paul and of him kicking her and how she pretended to be hurt and crying. Some pretend games just never go out of style, do they? Adell never tired of playing with her brothers. One game remains a mystery as to what it exactly was or how it was even played. We only know about it because of the note written on April 14, 1935. . .Played games with Paul, 4 legs/This & that. The author is touched that Adell interjected her narratives with these little snippets of everyday life. Most often these glimpses of Adell related to the little ones. Once she wrote on a day she stayed home sick from school that Paul is sitting here beside me on the chair arm as I write this. He was the wee one who most definitely touched her heart.

Edgar Wright (EW as Adell referred to him in her diary) was the oldest son, and rather quiet like his middle sister, Adell. EW often had his little friends over to his house to play, eat with him and spend the night. He, in turn, visited at their houses, sometimes overnight too. August 2, 1936.. .Tonite Ruby and Albert came. Albert stayed all night with EW and Paul. EW was on that particular night a month shy of his 14th birthday. Burnice Waterman was another childhood friend, as was Tunis Corbell. October 17th was EW’s birthday; an annotation on that date, reads. . .Helped to cook E W’s birthday dinner. He invited Ruby White, Katherine Pallet, Margaret Waterfield, Thelma Ewell Bernlie, Bernice Waterman, Tunis Corbell. They ate dinner with him. He was 12 years old. Had chicken, creamed potatoes, salad pepper & cake. Had a good time. Pa & EW went fishing this PM didn ’t catch any.

The Frank Hughes family lived across the field, between the Brumley house and the schoolhouse. There were three little boys: Melvin, Frank Jr., Ervin and a girl named Violet. Whenever they visited, EW and Paul would have a noisy time playing. A favorite spot of the rambunctious boys was under a large table in the Sitting Room. Violet, Nita and Adell would go into another room where they could visit in peace and quiet.

Paul Cromwell, the youngest of the Brumley children, was the very first to be bundled into the car and driven over to see Doctor Nicholson. The good doctor lived on the main road, just beyond the main area of Creeds, VA. Paul had not even started school, so he was under 6 years of age. It seems this youngster, after observing his father feed the hogs and noting how much they enjoyed "eating" corn with their noses, tried to do the exact same thing! Of course, as soon as he "snorted” his corn, young Paul realized he was in real trouble! The ingested corn would not come out and he went crying to his mamma. His mother could see the corn, but was unable to retrieve the small grains. She feared the corn would get to his brain and he would die. His parents were also fearful that Paul would get upset with all their probing, start crying and suck the corn further up. Nita was enlisted to walk the child around in the yard outside, amusing him while her parents got ready for the trip. Soon Ed and Minnie were on their way to Creeds, a trip between 30 to 60 minutes depending upon the condition of the dirt roads. On the way to Creeds, Paul fell asleep. As they drew closer to the doctor’s house, Paul’s mother noticed a small grain of corn on the cover of his blanket. She searched closer and found still another. It soon became obvious that our "little piggy" was free of his corn problem, so happily the old Essex was turned around and home they all went.

Still another “Paul" story was all about the fish bone that wouldn’t come up and wouldn’t go down. The Brumley supper menu the night before read more of same — fried fish. Paul was not as cautious as he should have been picking out the bones and got one stuck in his throat. His parents sent him on to school the next morning, but were concerned about the little fellow’s problem. Paul’s father heard that Doctor Nichols was on the Island visiting some sick folks so he went looking for him. The problem was explained and he and Doctor Nichols went together to the schoolhouse to seek out Paul. Permission was obtained from his teacher and Paul was called out into the auditorium; the bone removed by the good doctor.

In later years when Paul was fussing at Nita to see a doctor about some of her ailments, she reminded him that no one years ago ever went to a doctor unless there was a major problem. She recalled that his siblings NEVER went to the doctor and that he was the sick one of the family. She was correct that country people did generally attend to their aches and pains themselves, no doctor visits for a sniffle, cough or runny nose. Most of the time our bodies cure themselves given time and rest.

Nita and Adell’s mother had made her two eldest daughters look-alike dresses, as she often did when they were young. Minnie had sewed them in the current style, which was low-waisted with a lovely sash that tied in the back. The girls were generally dressed alike because as sisters they would fight over outfits if everything was not exactly alike! Nita was dressed first for church. Her mother made the pretty “finger curls" that almost touched her shoulders and she was told to go and play while Adell was being dressed. Wow! 'That was surely a mistake. Nita wasted no time heading outside for the "fox grapes" which were wild grapevines, growing at the corner of the house. This little monkey did not stop until she was immersed in the vines, swinging around and around. It is not too hard to visualize what happened next. The gathered portion of the dress skirt got caught, and almost completely ripped away. Little Nita knew immediately she was in BIG trouble. She ran inside, tears-a-flowing, with tattered dress in hand to show her mother. She remembers imploring her mamma to "please put my skirt back on”. Her mamma was not amused and after scolding her tomboyish child told her, "I am not going to even try, you will just have to wear an old dress!"

This was an unthinkable solution that Adell would get to wear her new dress, while Nita was to be stuck in an old one. "Too bad." her momma said. "Good punishment for disobeying!" Nita recalled that she just cried and cried. After all the intervening years, Nita still remembered her sadness at wearing that old dress while her sister was in a pretty, new frock. Big sister was too full of energy and seemed to have no trouble getting into mischief.

Probably one of the worst punishments Nita ever received was when she and her younger sister Ruth were fighting over a kerosene lamp they used to study by. The girls were arguing and fussing over the lamp and pulled on it hard, so hard that it actually broke in two! It could have easily caught the house on fire; fortunately their father was close by and quickly extinguished the fire. He told them they were going to get a "laming" (spanking). The sisters had to wait all that day and part of the next for their punishment. Finally he told them to go into the Branch (a wooded area bordering on the yard) and “get a switch apiece, and get a good one or else you will go back and fetch another!" Mostly though it was their mother who disciplined the children so the few times when their daddy handed out the “lamings," the children never, ever forgot them

In the summer of 1932 Adell happily writes in her diary that Ruth found my little doll’s cap. This is an interesting statement and we wonder why an already graduated senior would even care. Adell, like many girls growing up on Knotts Island, cut out pictures of doll clothing from the few available books/magazines and would have have even cut out "people" figures to be the "dolls”. Rarely did a little girl own a real doll to dress, and certainly not the Brumley girls. Adell would have had a little treasure box where she kept her dolls and their paper clothes. This little hat that Ruth found rated a special note in her diary. Adell was obviously pleased. Quite possibly Ruth, age 13, had been the one playing with the dolls and had earlier lost the little cap. We can sense Adell’s pleasure.

Effie Waterfield and her daughters came to get their hair cut frequently. One of them, Irma, was just getting over Yellow Jaundice, a condition that causes the eyeballs and skin to have a particular yellow "look." Nita, Adell and Ruth also came down with the same condition and spent a good portion of the summer in bed. When the sun went down, older sister Nita commented that because Ruth had the darker complexion, her yellowish skin took on a very weird and ugly look. All the sisters felt sick, sometimes ached and foods did not always taste very appetizing. Many days they would just stay in bed and rest. Nowadays we call that disease hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver. In the late ‘20s and into the ‘30s, people on the Island contacted this disease but just continued as best they could to lead a normal life. No one thought anything about visiting back and forth, going to church, and attending school. The cold bug of today is probably a good comparison. People do not really stop their going unless the cold turns into something else. Similarly in Adell’s day it was the same way. Folks just did not realize how potentially dangerous being jaundiced could be.

On June 22, 1934 Adell writes Ruth is very sick with poison on her face. Ma & Nita went to Mr. Bonney’s to get something for it (coppers). I read the rules for action. Tonite Ruth said she had a dimple like Jim Miller. And the next day Adell again talks about her sister’s problem — Ruth still very sick with poison. Efie & children came to get hair cut. Tonite Lester & Bill came. I rode to clubhouse & back Stopped at restaurant. Down towards the South End was Mr. Ottma Bonney’s Store. The gentlemen Ruth was referring to, Jim Miller, was a favorite visitor at the Brumley house. He was handsome, could sing wonderfully and was fun to be around. He and Lester Waterfield enjoyed singing duets in the churches. The clubhouse was owned/operated by a man named Corey. A classmate, Alvah Jones, operated the little restaurant. He sold ice cream, drinks and the sweet stuff that all young folks enjoy.

When the author asked her Aunt Nita about the individual personalities of her brothers and sisters, she said:

Nita called herself stubborn and headstrong, somewhat of a tomboy, always sliding down ditch banks on the way home from school.

Adell was quiet and at college she would always say, "Nita, what are you going to do?”

Ruth was smart, never really grew up, in that she was always the "baby girl." She enjoyed being the youngest, spoke what she thought and it didn’t bother her whether another liked what she said or not. She was quicker at the process of thinking than the rest of the children.

Edgar never talked much, quiet, even more so than Adell.

Paul was the baby of the family, talkative and expressive like his sister, Ruth.

Ruth had ordered her graduation ring in 1934. Adell’s October 29th entry says Ruth told about rings to come tomorrow. Oh dear, what a time it was. I wonder? ? How things will turn out. Don 't know how she will get it. The money did not seem to be available to pay for this ring and reading between the lines, we can see the family was terribly upset. If "talk" got around in the community, it would have been an embarrassment to the proud Brumley family. Ruth did go to school the next day, Tuesday. Adell, at home still searching for a teaching job, writes Miserable day. Wonder about ring. What she did. Mr. Chaplain got pecunia for R ’s ring. And the next day, Wednesday, the diary reads that Ruth got her graduation ring. No doubt Ed Brumley paid back the pecunia (money) as soon as he could sell something from his farm.

Another Ruth crisis was in November of 1934. Adell writes about Ruth telling the family about fussing on the bus, about the seats. Adell says on the 15th that Ruth wouldn 't do as Miss Pickens said and slip to back of bus. She and Miss Moye came PM. Had Board Meeting about Ruth. Pa took appeal. Ruth was sent to school the next day, Friday. That evening Adell says that Lester came and he and Pa talked about the bus trouble. And on Monday a final entry relating to the bus matter said Mr. Elliott went to see Pa about Ruth. And so the saga of the bus incident ends. Whatever the problem, it got resolved satisfactorly and her father, in taking an appeal, apparently supported his daughter 100%. Mr. Elliott was affiliated with the School Board, most likely the chairman.

Nita Lee Brumley, by 1939, was contemplating marriage. She and Ulysses Dixon had been going together for several years, but until her loan was paid off to Mr. Knapp, marriage was never a consideration. It had taken her five years of teaching to finally make that last payment, on December 20, 1939. Today it seems hard to believe what the women teachers of yesterday had to endure. First of all, in most communities, a married teacher was not welcome. Getting married meant automatically becoming a bad influence for the children. When Nita first decided to marry, she told her school system (Washington) six weeks ahead of time as stipulated in her contract. Mr. Beale, the principal and at whose house she boarded, called a Committee Meeting about this looming situation. It was decided she could stay and complete her second teaching year. She would, however, stay in the Teacherage beginning in January, 1940, and not be allowed to leave but one weekend a month to spend time with her new husband. December 20th was both the final loan payment to Mr. Knapp and Nita’s Wedding Day. Ulysses Dixon and his young bride decided to drive to South Mills, a town near Elizabeth City, NC to be married. The Clerk of Court saw that the male had Virginia as his residence, not North Carolina, and could not marry them. The Clerk inferred that Ulysses could use a NC address — in other words sort of tell a little lie. Ulysses said, "I have waited this long to get married and I’ll be damned if I will tell a lie!"

They returned sadly to the car and Nita asked, "Just what are you going to do with me at this time of the night? We are not married and it’s too far to drive back to Knotts Island." Ulysses had another unmarried relative living with him and Nita definitely could not stay in a house with two unmarried men. Simply unheard of behavior for a woman, especially a teacher in 1939. They remembered that Lacy Ansell from Knotts Island was an Assistant Clerk of Court in the Portsmouth area and they sought him out for help. He agreed to return to his office and issue the license. Lacy got his wife and met them at Deep Creek and the Justice of Peace finally married them. From there, they traveled to Knotts Island, legally husband and wife at last!

At first Nita was only able to go home one weekend each month to be with her new husband. Mr. Beale, ever supportive of his former boarder, told Nita about a school named Riverside, located in Bertie County, where married teachers could continue teaching. So she was hired for the next year in what proved to be a very good move. This school was in Colerain, NC and the class she was offered was the same age group she had student teached at college, 6th graders. And even better, she could board with her Knotts Island cousin, Belle Simpson Cullipher. Belle was the daughter of Ed Brumley’s sister; Clara, and she had married Edwin, a fine man from the Colerain area. Belle and Edwin later returned to Knotts Island, built a house and had two sons, Burwell and Louis. Belle taught for many years at Creeds School with both Nita and Adell.

Much has been written about Nita’s stubbornness, but this very trait gave her the needed strength to endure much for the remainder of her life. Her son, Ulysses James (U .J .), when a freshman at college, suffered the onset of mental illness. During this same period, her husband, Ulysses, in the late 1960s suffered a heart attack and died. Their daughter, Linda, was still in high school. Nita continued to teach school in the Virginia Beach, VA School System and attempted for over 20 years until her death in the early 2000’s to help her son fight this horrible, unsought affliction.


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