Imagine Franklin Street in the 1890s -- it was then generally called Main Street -- as a wide bed of mud summer and winter.
When it was hot and dusty there were sprinklers -- big water tanks pulled by horses. When the street was ravaged by rain and sleet there were scrapers, heavy blades on iron wheels pulled by a four-horse team that smoothed the surface for the brisk parade of wagons and carriages making their way through Chapel Hill.
This was the way James Nunn saw it as a boy of 10 when he and his brother Massy walked five miles into town to sell eggs and chickens.
His reminiscences of Chapel Hill and Durham appear in "The Oral History of James Nunn: A Unique North Carolinian," transcribed and edited by W. Wilder Towle and published in 1977 by the Chapel Hill Historical Society. Nunn tells his story in conversations with Towle recorded on tapes in 1974-75, given to his family and then collated in five chapters: "Boyhood to First Marriage," "James' Married Life," "Employment Years," "The Philo-sopher" and "His Final Days."
One of eight children, Nunn was born in 1882 in a log cabin on Bob Emerson's farm, where his father, Richard, was a sharecropper, farming 10 to 12 acres of cotton and corn. This was the area where Durham, Orange and Chatham counties converge, and his boyhood memories of country life are remarkable for a man in his 90s.
He says, "I was a boy trampin' up and down the road back and forth from Chapel Hill, and out to the country to home. There wasn't but five or six houses, buildins', 'twix downtown and out to Carrboro. There was no Carrboro, then. Anyway, when I was ten years old comin' to Chapel Hill from the country, that was the time where I was talkin' about sellin' those eggs, there was a shoe shop downtown and there was a livery stable, Pickard's livery stable...That was on the right hand side just before you got to the post office goin' west direction. It was a livery stable, on the right hand side. Then there was a horse lot on the left hand side, where they used to bring in mules and horses...They had horses and buggies to rent and also carriages."
Nunn recalls walking into town to sell eggs and chickens when eggs were 10 cents a dozen or three dozen for a quarter and chickens fetched the same price, 10 cents a chicken or three for a quarter.
Nunn's vignettes of daily life on a farm in the 1890s are surprisingly detailed. He describes the steps needed for spinning wool, knitting socks and making soap. There is also an account of herbal remedies for coughs and colds, such as making pine bark tea.
Especially detailed is Nunn's description of baking corn bread or "ash cakes" on the open hearth. First, "skillet rocks," probably from a creek bed, were needed. As he tells it, "You could get 'em here and yonder, big old wide kind of ordinary thick rocks. You'd put 'em down in that hearth there, smooth 'em up level, you know, have a good solid hearth." Then he would "cook corn bread about as thick as a fist in a great big skillet, and that was the beautifulest bread." Best of all, he recounts eating these "corn bread ash cakes": "You'd get a big can of milk and sit down and crumble the ash cakes in that milk, and that was the best eatin' bread that ever you saw."
He also includes a description of drinking locust beer made from the bark of locust trees: "We used to make beer but now you don't hardly see no locust trees now in this part of the country. They'd make locust beer and eat it with those ash cakes that I was talkin' about. That was somethin'. You could make your big keg of that locust beer and set in back in the kitchen in the back part and have it lyin' there. You could go to it and draw you out a big old jar of that beer. And you could pour it up there. Like we drink orange juice."
From boyhood, Nunn recalls another kind of drink, "moonshine liquor." He tells how, although the government sanctioned some distilling, there was still a black market in selling this brew. He tells how a man who was regularly taking logs for heating to the university in his wagon would add a little extra to his load. When asked what that man was going to do with the liquor, Nunn laughed and said, "He sold it to students."
As a young man himself, Nunn was hard-working and noted with regret that he never had time to complete his education. At times he left the farm and helped build county roads and schools. He built his own log cabin on land that his father had purchased from the estate where he farmed, and later Nunn acquired land of his own. At 22 he married for the first time, and he and his wife, Penolia Purefoy, built up a small grocery business and made the Baptist church in their community the center of their life.
Their marriage, however, was childless, and much to his sorrow she died after an illness that lasted four years and left her blind. In 1928 he married Ella Farrow and their grocery business continued to prosper through the Depression-- she would often mind the store while he found construction work in Durham. They had six children, three girls and three boys, all of whom thrived, doing well in school, marrying and presenting him with 25 grandchildren, and finding good jobs. At the time of his conversations with Towle, five of his children were still living in Durham County and one son had moved to New Jersey but was able to return to be with his father on the day he died in 1975.
Towle's last conversations with Nunn reflect the strong spirit and love of life that glow through all the recollections although he was not oblivious to the hardships and inequities of the world he knew. As he puts it, "Well, you were just kind of used to it. You just went along with the program, you know." Like the majority of older people, he felt the old times were better, often saying of life around him, "It's just gettin' so fast," and he lamented the loss of community. "The world has got so fast, you can't respect nobody."
In his later years Nunn worked on the maintenance crew at Duke, then at UNC, and finally as a gardener for different families in Chapel Hill. One of his employers, Mrs. John J. Wright, adds her memories of Nunn as an independent thinker and delightful storyteller. She says, "James loved to talk about the 'olden' days, and I loved to hear it."
Sources: W. Wilder Towle. "The Oral History of James Nunn: A Unique North Carolinian," published by the Chapel Hill Historical Society, 1977. "Nunn, Towle: From Their Friendship Came 93 Years of Local History." The Chapel Hill Newspaper, June 18, 1978.
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