|The All American Laundry
You can drive
from Philadelphia to Norton today with all ease in ten
to twelve hours.
But in 1927, you did well to make it in five days.
France and me on our journey home in the spring of
'27, bouncing over
narrow dirt roads in a Model T Ford.
Along the mountain
in our part of the country, any place a culvert went
under the road
was a white post alongside the road--sometimes two
posts, if it was a
"What are those
posts for?" France wanted to
I told her that
place you saw a white post, someone had been killed.
So every once in a
she'd make the sign of the cross and say, "There lies
some poor soul.
he rest in peace. "
The innocence of a
girl in the city is easily matched by that of a city
girl in the
Nearing home, we
Big Bull Mountain.
France read a
sign and said, "Hmm, Big Bull Mountain. Hmm. Don't
they have cows
and I arrived
at the Old Home Place in Norton to find that, in the
astronauts, all systems were "go".
Most of the other
(remember, there were nine of us--plus four sisters!)
the others were on their way.
Mammy, Tom, Paul,
the smaller ones were already at work excavating for
Etta and Pete, the
of the thirteen, were still quite small. Jim was still
just a boy in
but a good worker with keen initiative. Soon after we
got the project
he became our "fireman."
It was really fun to
that gang of brothers at work. Every man did more than
his part, and
it cheerfully. We were on the job before sunup, and
worked till it was
too dark to see what we were doing .
We had our own water
our own coal. The coal came from the "Little Tom"
mine, just a few
yards from the laundry site, named for brother Tom
because he was the
who had found the seam. Curly and Tom took the
the laundry supplied with coal.
(and still are) a rollicking, festive family. We
played as hard as we
and that was plenty hard. Each one of the boys
inherited our father's
Irish appreciation of a good drink and a good time.
Brother Tom had a
fondness (which later, I'm sad to say, became a
weakness) for bottled
I recall that when I visited the Home Place while on
furlough from the
Navy in 1917, Tom had prepared for the occasion by
putting up a 50-gallon barrel of wine.
Tom was just as kid
the time, but he knew something about making wine.
Everybody in the
made a big fuss over how good his wine was, and he
took great pride in
the knowledge that his product brought so much joy to
so many people.
It occurred to me
day that too much of Tom's wine was being wasted on
and passers-by. Hell, a stranger couldn't walk down
the road without
stopping him to offer him some of Tom's wine. I
decided, on my own, to
preserve some of that good wine for a later time.
I found two
jars, filled them with choice stuff, and buried them
in deep holes that
I dug with post- hole diggers in the yard of the Home
Place. I used
of the house and a cherry tree as landmarks, and it
never occurred to
that I'd ever have any trouble pinpointing the burial
Well, that was in
Ten years later, a small army of relatives and friends
were digging the
dam that was to supply water to the All-American
in the crew had worked himself into a state of near
for twelve hours or more each day into a stubborn
hand tools, mixing cement by hand and transporting it
(And my, isn't it wonderful, the way
designed both the wheelbarrow and the shovel to fit an
But our job was
to lag. The boys were worked to death. It was obvious
"lift" was needed. That's when I remembered the buried
"Boys, " I said,
proposing that we have one hell of a victory feast, ,
as soon as we
this damned reservoir ."
And then I told them
that ten-year-old wine, and you should have seen their
eyes light up!
spirits had begun to dim, that brightened them plenty.
The reservoir was
a few days later, and we had our feast. But the wine
wasn't as easily
as I had though it would be. The. cherry tree was
gone, and nobody
recall just where it had stood. Fortunately, Mammy had
of one of the jars , and i t was found right where she
said it would be
And oh, what good
it was--! Light and clear, aged to a mellow
perfection. It was made to
seem all the better by the fact that those were
Prohibition days ,
when a good drink was hard to come by.
We agreed to leave
second jar buried until the laundry itself was
complete, then dig it up
and have another feast. But when that day came, we dug
to bury an automobile in, all over the yard--without
finding the wine.
Undoubtedly, it is still there.
little postscript to this story: A few months after
the laundry went
operation, Mammy decided to put in an underground
stone store-house or
"dairy" alongside her house. I conned my kid brother
Paul into digging
it for her. Paul was a wee bit lazy when he was a kid,
but you'd never
have known it from watching him dig that hole. I told
him about the
wine, and how proud of him everybody would be if he
found it--and how,
since it was officially "lost," he could claim it as
his own and sell
for a dollar a gallon.
Well, Paul dug a
right where I showed him, eight feet deep, twelve feet
long, and seven
feet wide--just perfect for Mammy's storehouse!
though, he didn't find the wine. He was
sure that each shovelful was going to unearth the
magic jar--and I
have the heart to tell him, even later on, that
the wine was buried at least sixty feet
where he was digging.
And that second five
of wine, I repeat, is still there in the yard of
the Old Home
who was a carpenter by trade, was an interested
spectator when the
water from our big (100 ft. x 40 ft. x 10 ft.)
to the laundry site, a few hundred yards away.
We first primed the
pipeline and then, when the water came with good force
we opened the end valve all the way and let the water
run for a while
make sure that all the air was out of the line.
"Now Davey," Joe
volunteered, "Let me tell you how you can control that
a poplar plug, and whittle it down to a smooth finish,
and tap it into
the end of that pipe; it will save you a whole lot of
I mention that
not to ridicule Joe Peters, but to give you an idea as
to how much the
average man in rural Wise County knew about plumbing
To illustrate the
further: "Indoor" plumbing in the coal camps was
practically unknown. I
would estimate that there were four thousand homes in
the county that
"privies" built over a stream. They were always built
high above the
so that floodwaters wouldn't wash them away.
In some of the
you could look from the main highway down a row
and determine, when people went to the privy, whether
they had gone to
do "No. 1" or "No. 2." Even so, the kids had
in those same creeks. It's a wonder everybody in the
whole damn country
didn't die of typhoid poisoning. A lot of them
The State Board of
took steps to eliminate this type of filth in the
'30's and '40's, and
the situation is somewhat better today. But the coal
camps, of course,
are now practically deserted.
Oh, one more thing.
the courthouses in many county seats in Southwestern
indoor toilets were built with an iron bar located
immediately over the
commode, positioned in such a way that it would be
for a person to get up on the seat with his feet.
Those bars, too, are
gone--a sign, perhaps, of progress.
If ever a
well-named, it was the All-American Laundry. It
represented the hopes
aspirations and the sweat and blood and tears of a
family of fifteen as
American in its heritage and its thinking as any
you'll ever find. And
the laundry failed.
We launched the
in 1927, starting from scratch. The foundation was
laid on bottom land
near Powell's River, three miles west of Norton. We
reservoir, raised the building, put in
and the heavy machinery, all within a few months.
engineering and laundry experience, I played a
central role in
enterprise. I invested everything I owned, including a
a sizable chunk of money in 1927--into
For the first few
after we opened, everything went according to plan. We
of the building ahead of schedule, with every member
working his tail off.
Damp wash laundering
clothes was something new to Southwestern Virginia. We
picked up dirty
clothes, washed them, and delivered them damp. The
price was right: one
dollar per bag. This was long before washing
machines became a common home
I might add--so you just imagine how popular we became
with the house
of the area. Most home laundering was done with
soap, a washboard, and plenty of sweat and toil.
showed a profit of $12,000 in its first year. The end
of the rainbow
just ahead. We bought three new trucks, extending our
service to a fifty-mile radius of Norton.
I hired Rosie
and Easter and Maggie Salyers--the best hand ironers I
Other girls working for us, in addition to my sisters
were Lora Bowles, Helen Absher, Mossie Fletcher , and
Ted Jones. They
good, loyal employees, every one of them.
But then things
to go bad. First, there was a major drought in the
area that affected
us, and our water supply. When the reservoir
dried up, we ran four thousand feet of
galvanized pipe to the nearest water
on Stone Mountain, where Gal Shepherd once ran a big
But we had to lay the pipe on top of the ground, and
right away there
a big freeze and the pipe burst in a thousand places.
At about that
time, the demand for coal began to subside, and many
of the mines in
area began to fold. Many of our customers couldn't
even afford to buy
for their tables--so how could they possibly pay
anything to have their
clothes washed? We carried them on the
anyway, and continued to extend them credit for weeks
after they became unable to pay.
Meanwhile, our own
continued to mount. And we had other problems, too.
trucks were involved in three serious accidents in
one tragic one on Nov. 7, 1928, in which 15-year-old
brother Joe was
The business was
under, but we didn't know how to quit. During the
final few months,
our creditors hounding us day and night, each of the
only three dollars per week as his salary; the single
We ate ground hog, turnip greens, poke salad, and soup
we ate less than that.
And then the
Laundry was no more .
the Great Depression began a year earlier than it did
for the nation at
large. All of our families were in desperate shape. We
looking for work. But the ties remained strong.
Half a century
we are still one family.
of the All-American Laundry, I was working a second
job on the side,
coal. In fact, it was coal-hauling that kept the
laundry alive after it
would have otherwise folded.
went under, I devoted my full time to the coal
business, and had a good
thing going--for a while. With my kid brother Jim and
Jim" Baker, I was buying coal at the mine for $1.50
per ton and selling
it to retail customers for $5.00. One truck could haul
three loads per
day, and we had two trucks going. That may not sound
like such a hell
a profit today, but at that time it was.
In fact, it was too
Word leaked out that we were making a "killing"
hauling coal, and first
thing you know every yokel for miles around was
horning in on the
As competition mounted the price dropped, and pretty
soon the two Jims
and I were out of a job. Our trucks weren't really
designed for hauling
coal, and we couldn't compete with those that were.
We still had
If you can't make
hauling coal, by God, haul something else. Haul
anything. Haul logs.
A fellow named
contracted Jim and me to haul logs out of Big Black
Mountain. He agreed
to pay us $5 per thousand feet, with $20 per day
minimum. According to
our agreement, we'd receive no pay until Mr. Runyon
got returns from
bulk shipments--which figured to be twice a week, once
we got rolling.
We brought no
how many loads out of that mountain. Mr. Runyon
had five railroad
cars put on the siding, ready to load the next day.
But that evening we
a phone call, advising that we hold all shipments
until further notice.
That turned out to be forever. The Culyer Lumber
Company mill had
That, as the saying
was the straw that broke this poor camel's back.
this country's Great Depression lasted from 1930 thru
greatest depth about 1933.
My own personal
Depression began earlier and probably sank quite a bit
deeper than the
national average. By the fall of 1930 France had taken
who was born in 1928, and gone back to Philadelphia. I
put them on the
train with the last of my World War I "bonus money."
John, Curly, and
went out West seeking work, and I was tempted to join
them. The coal
business had collapsed, as had coal mining in general.
My trucks were
and there was no way to make a living with them even
if they were
There was nothing to do but lay around, catch ground
and fish. That may sound like the good life to some
old boy. Idleness was driving me out of my mind.
And then things
It all began when
killed Doc Cox.