Climbing Farther Up the Family Tree

Augustus Samuel Watkins

Augustus Samuel Watkins

gwatkinstreeAugustus Samuel Watkins, my great-grandfather, was born 26 Jan 1895, the fourth child to John Merido and Margaret Roxana Watkins.  When he was born, there was already 6-year-old Waitstell Ervin, 4-year-old Carrie L, and 2-year-old Evie E.  When he was three years old, Myra J came along, and by the time he was 6, the family was complete with Maude C.

The 1900 census shows the family with the first five children living in Brackett, North Carolina with their parents and their father’s older brother, Elisha M Watkins.  Brackett is in the same area as Vein Mountain, where the family cemetery is located.  Augustus was listed as Gussie and his father was listed as a farmer.  While he was young, as my Granny told it, he carried water for the building of the bridge over Vein Mountain Road.

At some point between 1900 and 1910, the family moved to High Shoal in Rutherford County.  Gus’s father sold  two acres of land to the Macedonia Baptist Church in January 1907 so we may be able to guess it was shortly before or at this time.  It is possible they moved seeking better employment opportunities because while in the 1900 census Gus’s father was listed as a farmer, the 1910 census shows him working as a weaver in a cotton mill.  The same census also shows Gus’s 17-year-old sister Eva as working as a weaver and shows Gus, at age 15, working as a doffer at the cotton mill.  This census also states he had not been to school in the previous year so we cannot know at what age or for how long he had been a doffer at the mill, a very dangerous job in which many children became injured and even lost limbs.  A doffer removed empty spindles from the machinery and replaced them.

Doffers in a Cotton Mill

Doffers in a Cotton Mill

Many of us will remember learning about the advent of child labor laws in America in history class.  One thing about researching your family genealogy is that history seems to come alive and be even more relevant when you find how your family story is woven through it.  In researching the role of a doffer, I came across pictures taken by Lewis Hine in 1908 for the National Committee on Child Labor. There was a mill called High Shoals Cotton Mill.  However, it is listed in Gaston County.  County lines may have been still changing at this time so it is possible this mill is where they worked or another one closer to home as it is a twenty minute drive by today’s standards which could have taken up to a day then depending on those mountainous roads.  For more interesting information working in a cotton mill, see the website Southern Cotton Mills  for more information on what it was like to be a doffer see North Carolina: Doffers.  Many did not make it into their twenties due to brown lung from all the lint in the air or from injuries in the mill, often from falling down in the machinery. For more pictures by Lewis Hine, see the Library of Congress online collection of photos from the National Committee on Child Labor.

Around this same time, Gus met his future wife, Juda Eva-An Taylor as she is listed in the 1910 census in the household two away from his family.  They were married on 14 Jan 1914 in Caroleen, North Carolina and had their first child, Mamie Sue the following year.  Gus speaks lovingly of Mamie Sue in letters dated between August and October of 1917.  The letters are simply addressed to Eva Watkins at Vein Mtn postmarked over a two cent stamp from Gus in Spindale.  He mentions living in a boarding house there and making $1.50 per day.

Letter to Eva, Aug 1917

Gus Watkins letter to Eva2-page-001 (2)

Letter to Eva, Aug 1917

The 1920 census lists the married couple in Green Hill, Rutherford County, North Carolina living near his parents, and brother Waits.  Here he is listed as a farmer.  Mildred and J.D. have been added to the family by this time.  The 1930 census shows them living back in Brackett with all but their youngest child having been born.

Gus outside S&W Service Center, Marion, NC

Gus outside S&W Service Center, Marion, NC

By 1940, Gus and Eva own their own home valued at $1800 on McDowell Avenue in Marion, North Carolina.  Mamie Sue has married and moved out.  The other six children, ages 9-22 are still living at home.  Their daughter Mildred is working forty hours per week as a stenographer for the state highway.  JD is working 56 hours per week as an attendant at a filling station.  Gus is listed as the proprietor of a retail grocery store working 56 hours a week.  It is possible this is the year the store opened as he is only listed working forty weeks out of the previous year.  Several years later, he and my grandfather, Harry Sebastian, would run the S&W Service Center together.Gus Watkins' brooms

During the mid-to late-1960s, my grandparents and mom visited my great-grandparents.  In typical fashion, Gran had a tape recorder ready and made this recording of Gus singing. I find it a rare and wonderful treat to have a recording of my great-grandfather.

Gus passed away on 1 Dec 1970.  My Gran said he was waiting on a customer in a store, had a heart attack, and died at 75 years old.  Gus was originally buried at Macedonia Baptist Church Cemetery, the family cemetery where his parents, brother, and many other family members were buried but was later moved to Green Hills Cemetery in Asheville when his wife Eva passed away.  He did not live to see the first Watkins family reunion, but I recall his two youngest sisters being there.

Gus's siblings: Maude, Myra, Eva, & Waits

Gus’s siblings: Maude, Myra, Eva, & Waits

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