A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Marion County Newspapers about 99-year-old Bertha Gonce, who lives in South Pittsburg. She told me she was the eldest person in Marion County, so I put that in the piece. Soon after, I started receiving phone calls telling me that so-and-so's cousin is 99 and could you do a profile on them? So I've been collecting stories. From the eldest memories in the county.
This is James McEntyre, who turned 99 in November last year. He's a World War II veteran, son of a life-long coal-miner (back when they shoveled coal into a little train car and were paid by the tonnage) and remembers hitching up the mule team to a wagon with his dad to fetch a block of ice from the local train depot so his family could make ice cream on the fourth of July. His family never owned a car. He spent most of his life as a rural mail carrier in Whitwell, Tennessee. Here are some of his memories, in his own words:
On his family and the coal mines: My name is James Earl McEntyre, and my birthdate is November the second, 19 and 14. [I was born] in the house just up the road. My mother's name was Otsie Holloway. My father's name was Lawrence McEntyre. His middle name was Beauregard, named after a Civil War general. He was a coal miner. He worked in the coal mine for 44 years, the mines at Whitwell, and had some close calls. He started in what they call old number one, and then, as they worked the coal out of a certain section, they would move up the mountain. They would number the mines, and he worked through up what they call number nine opening before he had to retire. The coal seam in Whitwell varied from three feet average. The miners had to sit and shovel coal because in that space they couldn't stand up. Of course, way in the early days, miners were paid on the tonnage of coal that they were able to mine and send out to be put into the cars to be shipped. A hard job, and not much pay.
On going to school: I walked from [my] house to the grammar school in Whitwell. And high school. The first bus from Whitwell high school was in my senior year, and the way it ran, I could walk and be home before I would have been home if I had ridden the bus. So I continued to walk to and from school. My family never owned a car. When I was in grammar school, we did not have a high school (it was completed in 1929). I remember being told of a student that would get on the train in Whitwell as it went down the valley and get off in Jasper to go to the Pryor Institute for high school. After school, she would catch the train back to Whitwell.
On seeing his first loaf of bread: For a period of time when I was in grammar school, we had what they call a hosiery mill. The people that worked there had more money that your average miner did. I can remember -- we had to take our lunch to school in those days -- I had not ever seen baked bread in a loaf before. I go to school one day, my mom had made me a ham and biscuit for lunch. The son of a hosiery mill worker came to school with a sandwich that had lettuce, mayonnaise and cheese between two slices of bread. I remember trading him for his sandwich for my biscuit. Now, I would not trade him!
On farmers in the area: I can remember farmers driving a herd of cattle over the mountain to the markets in Chattanooga. It was a two or three day's journey. In my school days, farmers would cut a certain design in a cow's ear or a hog's ear to signify ownership.
On Ketner's Mill: I remember before I was able to get up on a mule's back by myself, daddy shelling a bushel of corn. He had a long, heavy linen sack. He'd put the bushel of corn in that long sack, half in one end, half in the other -- it was a real long sack -- and sling it over the mule. He'd put me on that mule and say, "Son, take this to Ketner's Mill." I'd take it down there. The place in front was higher, so I was just able to get off. The men there would take that corn and grind it, take a portion of it. They'd put the meal in the same sack, put it on the mule's back, and I'd take it back home. They ground meal six days a week.
On the train depot: In early July, I remember going with my father -- we'd hitch a team of mules to the wagon and we'd round up all the sawdust we could get our hands on -- we'd go down to the train depot and pick up a 100-pound block of ice. And then when we got back we'd make ice cream for the fourth of July.
On going to college: I graduated [high school] in 1933. That was in the beginning, or early years, of the great depression. And I had no plan of going to college at that point in time because I knew my folks didn't have any money. The chemistry teacher at the high school, Mr. Umphreys, who had gone to Milligan college in his college years, came by and asked my mother and dad if they wanted me to go to college. They said yes, but we don't have any money. And his remark was, "Have his clothes ready. I'll be by to pick him up Saturday morning." So, my few piece of clothing that I had, mom had them all cleaned Saturday morning. He came by, took me to school in his car, with his gas. We walked into the president of the school's office. He tells the president, "I brought this boy up here to put him in school." The president said, "School's been going on two weeks. We don't have any place to put him. We're full up." And Professor Umphreys looked at president and said, "I've hauled him up here. I'm not going to take him home. If you want to put him on the street, that's up to you." Mr. Umphreys left. So here I am, scared to death, not knowing what in the world I was going to do. I knew I didn't even have any money to go catch a bus home or anything, or wouldn't have known what bus to catch or what way to go home. So, they got a little folding bed and put me in a dormitory room with two fellas that had enrolled in school at the proper time. I had been valedictorian of my high school class, so they gave me a scholarship. They gave me a job washing dishes. And that was the way the school took care of my school expenses. I cried myself to sleep at least two weeks.
On being drafted for World War II: I was working for the TVA in Knoxville at the time, and I remember that I was told that I had to report to duty. [For] my preliminary testing, I had to go to South Pittsburg and they had hired an old retired doctor to draw people's blood for testing. And I definitely remember my arm exposed, seeing his hand shake when he started to inject the needle. And he had to do that four or five times before he hit the place he was supposed to hit to get the blood.
On fighting in World War II: When we got into France, I was in the 6th armored division, which was part of the 3rd army. I guess within the first week, we were ordered to stockpile our duffel bags, our gas masks, our protective clothing. And the amount of clothing I could take with me was what could be placed in a seat cushion in a half track. We were ordered to make a fast run out to Brest, France, bypassing all resistance. I thought, oh my goodness. we've left all of our gas masks behind, we don't have a chance now if they use any gas. But fortunately, none of the gasses were ever used to the best of my knowledge. We went overseas in January of 1944, and were in England then until the first week of July. Being an armored division we had to wait until a beach had been established by the infantry before the armored division could land. And then I came home in December of 1945. (McEntyre received four campaign medals.)
On his wife, Edith Nye: I carried a picture of her around in my billfold. In World War II, the fellas would see me looking at it and say "How in the world did you ever get a woman as pretty as her to even look at you?!" We were not allowed to write letters that made any reference to where we were. When my division ran out of gas, my group ended up in Nancy, France. I bought a small bottle of perfume and a handkerchief with the word Nancy embroidered on it. I put it in a package and mailed it to her. She kept that bottle of perfume unopened until the day she died. She sealed it with wax. (They were married in April 1946, soon after he returned from the war.)
On working for TVA: I went to work in the Chattanooga office at TVA and practiced making ABCDEFG and so on for three months. That's all I did eight hours a day. They wanted the draftsmen to make their letters so identical that if a change needed to be made in a sheet of plans, they could pull it out and give it to any of the draftsmen in the room. And their lettering would look so much like the one that had done the original plan, that you couldn't tell the difference. The TVA was supposed to design a replacement for every road that was flooded by floodwaters by the dams. So what I was doing and the other draftsmen, was taking the notes from the engineers and putting them on paper, drawing the plans. It was making a blueprint for the construction crew to build the roads, where to put the bridges and everything.
On the secret to a long life: Edith and I have been blessed with five wonderful, caring children, wonderful in-laws. Each of them is these last years has done everything in their power to make things easier for Edith and I. Edith passed away in September, 2013. She was 92 years old. I'm thankful to be here and to have such a supportive family. I kept a garden (and drove a tractor) up until last year. I'm too wobbly to drive a tractor now.