Chapter 13

 

Nehemiah made me understand the truth about Eastside. He knew what killed his parents, and he dedicated his adolescence to making sure I did as well. He showed immense reverence for my parents, and the love he had for them traversed the racial distance in Stony Gap. But he took it upon himself to keep the record straight by enlightening me. He called attention to our differences, deliberately glorifying them, using them as backroads to elevated plains of understanding. He made me see how our differences were the best thing about our relationship, about any relationship. He was never critical, nor did he ever make me feel ashamed. But he made sure I knew why his parents died.

In 1952, ten years before I was born, my grandfather broke ground on Hearn Meadows, a housing development he had designed for the town’s mill workers. It was seen as a major contribution to the progress of Stony Gap and Uwharrie County, an investment in the lives of the people, ensuring a better community and stronger environment for industry. Town officials and community business leaders praised Pop’s plan, and shortly after he announced the project, two of the larger mills, the Manhasset Mills Company and Pruitt Manufacturing, each announced plans to expand their operations in Stony Gap.

At this time, the mill workers, all of them white, still lived in Eastside, a neighborhood built in the early 1900s by the mills to house them. Blacks were not allowed to work in the mills, and so none lived in Eastside. For generations, blacks had lived on the other side of the hill from Eastside, farther east, down on the rocky banks of Lake Laurel.

Twenty years after their construction, the houses in Eastside began suffering the first round of their demise. The mill owners decided to sell them to the mill families, believing pride would come from ownership and that the mill families would fund the repairs of their new homes. It’s true that Eastside underwent a transformation as the families began fixing up their houses, repairing the items they had complained of to the mills when they were merely tenants. But a generation later, the houses had aged further, this time beyond the inventiveness of cosmetic fixes; and on a millworker’s wages, the sagging roofs and leaning timbers could only be repaired piecemeal. The patchwork shoddiness of the houses created living conditions in Eastside that began to reflect poorly on the mills even though they no longer owned the houses, and the reputation of these living conditions made it difficult to attract new workers to the area, which made it difficult for the mills to plan their growth.

The timing was right. Pop recognized the opportunity to embark on a grand scheme that he had been mulling over for years. The development of Hearn Meadows to provide better housing for area millworkers was part of a larger plan he knew would create better lives not only for the mill families in Eastside, but also for the black families on the banks of Lake Laurel. And it was a plan that would make Pop a very wealthy man. The scheme would be Pop’s most ambitious, but it would not turn out as favorably for all involved as Pop had proposed; Pop was incapable of making things work out for the best for everyone. Instead, Pop’s scheme would create his biggest storm yet, one that would create more damage than any before it, and my father would spend the rest of his life in the path of its destruction. This is the storm that killed Nehemiah’s parents, and the one that ultimately killed my father.

The strength of Pop’s company, Transitional Realty & Construction, was based on the relationships he had established over the years with local sub-contractors and trades people, all of whom conformed obligingly under his bold and insistent personality. It was rare when Pop couldn’t provide them work and rarer still when they refused it. Pop had taken the business he had inherited from his father, a scrappy consortium of trades that required big machines and much of his time to operate them, and had grown it into the area’s most noteworthy real estate development company. Transitional Realty & Construction handled most of the expansions for the textile mills, but the mainstay of its business had become residential development.

Early in life, when Pop was clearing land with his father and preparing sites for the construction of new homes by area builders, the prospect of building homes intrigued him. As the textile mills grew, so did the need for housing, and before long, Pop found himself arranging deals with some of the county’s large farming families for small parcels of poorly irrigated land not useful for farming but suitable for housing. Within a short period of time, Pop had positioned his company to supply much of the housing required by the county as it grew. He became a shrewd businessman, attending the meetings of the City Council, the Uwharrie Transportation Committee, and the Chamber of Commerce, and maintaining regular contact with the district’s representatives in the state legislature to stay abreast of any initiatives that might impact the growth of Uwharrie County. In a short time, Pop became a revered business leader in the area.

Pop’s plan for Hearn Meadows appeared to the town council as almost too good to be true. Not only would the Transitional Realty & Construction create new housing for millworkers, the company would also finance the entire migration of the mill families.

Pop would take title to their properties in Eastside as down payment for their new homes in Hearn Meadows and then arrange affordable financing for the difference. In this way, all the mill families could move into Hearn Meadows, putting an end to the strife caused by those decrepit houses.

Pleased with the promise of a better quality of life for their workers, the mill owners loved the plan. They marveled at Pop’s creativity and boldness, each privately wondering how Pop would make money off the project. It didn’t take someone who knew the home building business to see that the profit picture for Pop under such an arrangement was uncharacteristically low.

But Reuben and Hoagie Earnhardt knew exactly what Pop had up his sleeve. These two brothers were the bankers who agreed to fund the endeavor. Pop’s grand scheme entailed much more than just Hearn Meadows.

The Earnhardts — the Sandwich Brothers, as Pop called them — were the founders of the Bank of Uwharrie, the source of financing for many of Pop’s construction projects. They were an odd pair. It was as if a time machine had brought them here from the beginning of the century: Their politeness and formality engendered an old-world, small-town trust that many in the area had a hankering for. From the moment they opened their doors, the Sandwich Brothers drew in many customers. Both brothers wore three-piece suits, even in summer, and Hoagie, the older of the two, wore a monocle. When they created the bank, they had little experience in banking and no experience running a business. But day after day, they were the first at their desks in the morning and the ones who turned the lights off on their way out, turning the modest Bank of Uwharrie into a thriving business. When Pop first learned of them, he thought the Sandwich Brothers would be individuals upon whom he could exert his own brand of influence; initially he saw their politeness as exploitable, but he learned early and accepted quickly that the care the Sandwich Brothers took to preserve fairness in all of their customers’ dealings was even more diligently applied to their own.

Reuben and Hoagie recognized the strength of Pop’s proposal immediately and identified the equity Pop would generate at each of the three stages of his plan.

In the first stage, the Bank of Uwharrie would finance Pop’s purchase of Lex Hearn’s farm, the land upon which Hearn Meadows would be developed. After the completion of Hearn Meadows, the mill families would move from Eastside into the new homes of Hearn Meadows; the bank would hold their mortgages and collect interest, and Pop would own all of Eastside.

The next stage involved another migration: Pop would offer to the black families, who for years had struggled on the neglected rocky banks of Lake Laurel, affordable leases on the vacated Eastside homes. The houses on the banks of the lake, barely habitable and with no modern amenities, were in much worse shape than the houses in Eastside.

The town’s black population had lived along these southern edges of Lake Laurel for generations. Centuries earlier, long before the 1928 completion of the Harrison Dam and the formation of the lake, this impenetrable substratum south of Morrow Mountain had ruled out any serious farming by the area’s white settlers and rendered the land practically worthless. In the late 1800s, makeshift houses began appearing down the wide slope of this rocky section; once the dam was completed and the lake was full, these small structures became more concentrated higher up along the hill that rose out of the lake’s edge.

As he had done for the mill families with Hearn Meadows, Pop offered to take title to the black families’ properties along the lake’s edge in exchange for access to the houses in Eastside. The significant difference was that while the mill families had exchanged title for ownership of their new homes, the black families would permanently give up title not for ownership, but merely as a security deposit on leases of the Eastside homes.

This detail was lost on the black community. These families, having only ever felt relegated to the worthless land along Lake Laurel, never felt any legal right to it and eagerly accepted Pop’s offer, grateful to be given affordable access to houses with proper sewage, town water, and electricity. Some felt the rise up from such shabby conditions was providential.

The Sandwich Brothers saw the financial strength of Pop’s scheme from the beginning: With lease arrangements for the Eastside houses, not only would Pop continue to own the property in Eastside, preserving his equity, he would also generate a healthy amount of cash in rent each month, assuring the Sandwich Brothers that Pop could maintain a degree of financial solvency. This move would leave Pop with what he convinced the Sandwich Brothers was the biggest asset of his entire scheme, something he had had his eye for years: the land along the banks of Lake Laurel.

The first two stages, developing Hearn Meadows and taking ownership of Eastside, would give Pop the financial standing he needed for the Sandwich Brothers to finance the third and final stage of his scheme, the one he established up front with them as his ultimate goal: the creation of a new exclusive housing community along the banks of Lake Laurel.

It took very little for Pop to convince the Sandwich Brothers of the true value of that lakefront property. Over the decades, Uwharrie County had become as much an industrial county as an agricultural one, and Stony Gap, the county seat at the heart of the textile industry, had grown considerably. So had its wealth. That rocky swath along the banks of Lake Laurel, still regarded as a backwater, was in fact an unrecognized part of Uwharrie County’s most beautiful natural resource.

It’s difficult today, given the number of beautiful homes along the banks of Lake Laurel, to imagine any part of the lake as a backwater. But for generations, people in the area only ever associated Lake Laurel with Morrow Mountain State Park, where the mountain tapers into the serene waters of the northern half of the lake. The state park and this section of shoreline is a destination that delights local hikers, fishermen, and water enthusiasts as well as travelers and campers craving the replenishing effects of the park’s extended vistas, its network of wooded trails, and the quiet waters of Lake Laurel. In 1939, when Morrow Mountain officially became a state park, its resources, including its Lake Laurel shoreline, were protected against any development.

But Pop understood that the value of Lake Laurel did not end at the state park’s border. Rather, it extended south along the lake’s edge, through the swath where, as Pop characterized it, the shanties of Stony Gap’s black families appeared as blight along the otherwise pristine shoreline of water willow coves and tree-lined peninsulas.

Many afternoons, as a young man fishing from his boat on Lake Laurel, Pop would look across to the shacks on the banks and think only of how he could get his hands on that land. He imagined a future of waterfront living and a recreational lifestyle that until this point had eluded the imagination of those of means in Stony Gap.

He would call it River Run and it would be the first major housing development on Lake Laurel. It was the boldest part of Pop’s scheme, commencing only after the white mill families had settled into their new homes in Hearn Meadows and the black families had moved into Eastside. And this part of his plan was to remain a secret between the Keepings and the Earnhardts until that time. From business owners to mill managers to successful farmers, River Run and its homes, with their docks, boat houses, and breezy afternoons on wide waters, would become a prestigious enclave for a growing number of local residents.

Pop made a fortune off of River Run, much more than he imagined he would. He didn’t care that his grand scheme changed Stony Gap forever, digging, slowly at first and then with speed, a divide among its people that left some on the side of progress and with a better way of life and others on the side of unfulfilled promises in the midst of their own deteriorating circumstances.

 “You shoulda seen it, son,” he said to me one day when he took me fishing on Lake Laurel, when River Run was thriving, and new roads were being cut in farther down the bank for more houses. I must have been about five because Nehemiah had not come to live with us yet. We were in the middle of the lake motoring to one of his favorite fishing coves and looking onto the renewed banks that were now known, as if they had only ever been known, as River Run.

I very much disliked going fishing with Pop. It was a visitation required of me by Mom and Dad so Pop could spend a little time with me. But Pop made it no secret that he felt the requirement had been made of him. For years, he had spent most of his summer weekend afternoons alone fishing on Lake Laurel, devising his scheme to rid its banks of that shoddy housing and replacing it with River Run.

“It was a goddamn mess!” he yelled out over the noise of the motor. “Nigger shacks everywhere!”

Pop’s small metal boat, which he’d had for years, was equipped with an outboard motor that created as much noise and exhaust as any of his heavy construction machinery. Inside the boat, tied against the gunnel with sisal rope, sat a cooler for Pop’s bourbon. He would fill the cooler with ice and stuff a fifth of bourbon down into it, which he would consume in its entirety in a single afternoon. He drank regularly and heavily, justifying it with the banal assertion, “If I run out of bourbon, I run into trouble.” On this particular fishing trip, my last with Pop, thanks to Mom and Dad finally relenting to my complaints, he stuffed two fifths of bourbon into the ice, unwittingly ensuring no further visitation requirements would be made of him.

He was in a particularly foul mood that day and spent the entire afternoon sitting in the folding chair he kept at the bow of the boat. He never reached for his rod and reel. He swallowed his bourbon and spewed vitriol about anyone who came to mind. His ramblings were meaningless to me, and his talk was adult talk filled with adult language. As his speech became slurred, my attention drifted to casting my line.

“Do you hear me, boy?” he would yell at me, snapping me back to attention, as if holding me captive with a chain around my neck, jerking it so I would listen to his every word.

I don’t remember what he said or whom he talked about other than that his rants were spiked throughout with nigger this and nigger that. Years later, after my father killed himself and I began piecing together for my own records the arc of my family’s rise and fall, I realized that this particular day on the lake with Pop must have been during the time when all of Stony Gap was turning against him, having finally woken up to his manipulative schemes and exploitations.

On the way back to the landing that afternoon, Pop had a hard time keeping the boat going in one direction, and when we reached the middle of the lake, he took his hand off the throttle. The boat slowed quickly, and as it glided unpropelled across Lake Laurel, Pop leaned over the edge and vomited violently into the clean water.

 

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