Elle Early Appreciation Day
As a family business passes through generations of management the culture of the family business also shifts appropriately. At the turn of the century things at the farm experienced a change of guard in its own right.
There is a strong oral history in this family telling of the times when Jim, Susie, Annie, Billy, Bobo, Dumont, Mark, and Doug were being raised by Jamie and Elspeth which involves stories about the people that were helping to run HNG from the 1920s through 2000. Most of the employees were local Appalachian people who knew and experienced homesteading as the way things were, out of necessity. Growing a large garden, canning and putting food by, chicken killing day, hog butchering, curing hams, milking cows, picking apples, growing corn and tobacco and feeding a large farm crew each day were some of the tasks getting done. The stories about these folks who made life tick at HNGF are told to our children near bedtime by their grandmother, Granny Annie who reminisces about life during those times and keeps the memories alive.
I came to HNGF young, idealistic and in love in the year 2000. There were a few of these folks still around when I came to dwell in the Spring House Cottage behind the Big House. Grace, Clarence and Elle Early were some of the teachers of my early learning at the farm. I particularly took to Elle Early and her fierce spirit which true to her name got her out of bed and on the phone by 7:00 to arrange her transportation to work that day. Jamie and I ate breakfast with Granny (Elspeth) in the mornings and one of us usually took Elle home while Annie Ager, who was also up at ’em early, would usually swing by to pick her up and bring her in to work. A usual suspect on the menu at Big House breakfast were fried eggs as there were usually plenty of cracks from egg washing the day before. Granny liked her eggs more on the hard side as she didn’t like “Ager eggs” particularly which tended to be runny. The three of us spent alot of mornings eating together. Jamie and I listening to the long list of things Granny was going to accomplish-people to see and care for, meetings she was to attend and what she was leaving for Elle to get done that day.
Grace McAbee and Elle Early worked at the Big House, mostly on different days as they weren’t the best of friends; doing house keeping, getting flowers for the table, washing eggs, cooking lunch, harvesting and canning the garden bounty and working the apple stand when needed.
Grace was Clarence’s mother. She married at 13 and raised her family of 6 in a one room cabin with a loft just up the road from the farm. Her son Clarence has been a fixture at the farm for nearly 30 years and he still helps with the laying hens and taking care of the Big House repairs. Grace shared pickle recipes with me and taught me how to make apple butter and raspberry jam. She showed me that mayo and yogurt can be substituted in your cornbread and taught me how to feed a crew of twelve people for lunch multiple times a week.
Elle grew up in what used to be the heart of Fairview near Church Rd and walked to the old Fairview School, as she put it, each day. At the time when I first met Elle Early (cursive captial L as she signed her name) was in her mid eighties. On breaks between ironing and cleaning out the fridge you could find her drinking a Pepsi she had been cooling in the fridge that morning and smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette. She had a knack for telling you what she thought and more than a few young, long haired men got a good talking to for the length of their hair and how they should cut it, less they wanted to be mistaken for a girl. Her sense of humor and wit were something I always appreciated as she would catch you off guard if you weren’t quite listening with a good jab or joke aimed at something happening in the kitchen that day. We got to know each other over the years and she would invite me in to thank me for the ride with a piece of pound cake or a cutting from a plant she was growing that I was instructed to take and plant right when I got home. We often walked her gardens, talked about how things were growing and I’d water her plants for her as she put away the groceries we had just bought.
Elle was as fierce in personality and in her thriftiness. I have been by her side when she returned a black Sharpie marker that had dried out and demanded her money back at Food Lion as well as intimidating the sales associate into giving her the discount on Puffs tissue even though the coupon was for Kleenex. She shopped at Ingles as that was the only grocery store near Fairview for a good while but refused to buy Laura Lynn brand anything because she “never like anything that woman made.”
She passed away at age 96 but I still have two sweaters she thought I might like because they were really good to keep a person warm as well as a blanket she crocheted for Cyrus which she gifted us on her first visit to meet him a week after he was born. I reveled at the fact that she made this and the effort put into it because at the time she must of been nearly blind.
During the spring as I drive past her old house on the way to town I always feel a longing to walk her garden to see whats coming up and help her with the little things around the house but as time has passed so has her era. If she was still around I sure could use her energy and gusto at the farm as I know she would keep us all in line. When I’m in my eighties I hope to embody her abilities and appreciation for work well done when I am on that side of life at HNGF.