From the Program of the 6th Annual Convention of the Wicomico County Volunteer Firemen's Association, Parsonsburg, MD, June 23, 1931 and letters from Mary Hester Parsons and Etha Parsons Yohe. Where personal pronouns are used, Mary Hester speaks.
Isaac was the eldest son of the eight children of Hafford and Mary Bridell Parsons, who raised him at their home between Pittsville, known as Derrickson's Crossroads and Parsonsburg. When Isaac was a boy he learned the blacksmith trade with one Isaac Dale, at that time the best blacksmith anywhere around, but he would get too much toddy, being plenty of it obtainable. Isaac said that when Mr. Dale would get groggy he couldn't work and would give the shop over entirely to him, so by having a chance to do things himself, he soon knew enough about blacksmith work to go to work for himself. He was especially expert in making farm implements. In 1840 he married Catherine Truitt, who had a private school nearby, and settled near Pittsville on a part of the Truitt farm which had belonged to her father where he built a shop. Here Mary Hester Parsons and her three older brothers were born. Mary Hester was only a baby by the time they left the old Truitt farm.
Mary Hester writes that her first recollection of life was on a farm a few miles from Nelson's known as the Smith farm. There her sister Beck was born in 1850. They lived there until 1854. Isaac worked the farm and doing blacksmith work when not busy on the farm, but he got tired of renting and decided to buy land and make a farm of his own. In 1854 Isaac H. Parsons purchased of George Kendall Perdue 60 acres of land on the north side of the fork known as Johnson's Forks, where he built a home. Not much else was near at the time. He erected a blacksmith shop at the Fork where the Post Office later stood. Here he made all the tools for grubbing and clearing the farm. His old anvil now resides in Rebecca Wootten Phippin's collection.
Before continuing Isaac's
story, we sketch the history of the town of
No one seemed to know who he was, where he came from, or what he came for, evidently he was favorably impressed with the location, fertility of the soil, and general surroundings, and after looking about, purchased land at the cross roads and named the place Johnsons Forks. He lived about a mile away on the south side of the present road. He had a sea chest, brass bound, with a hollow end where he supposedly kept his money. He also had a desk with secret drawers. He divided his large farm into sections—one was called Old Savannah, one Old Russia. There was a lot of swamp land and the ex-slaves used to go in wading waist deep to gather high bush huckleberries, almost as tall as young trees. The house was large with exposed rafters, a large deep cellar, and each end of the house was brick with large fireplaces.
Gradually he became more communicative and related to his newly found friends, as they sat on the spacious plantation verandas, interesting stories of his travels in many countries, freely admitting in conversation that he was something of a nomad, a statement recalled and confirmed a short time later when he suddenly disappeared. All that was left was Johnson's Forks and curiosity. He has never been heard from since.
Quite a period elapsed after their nomadic visitor departed, before an attempt was made to establish business and build homes at Johnsons Forks. Isaac Parsons purchase of his farm in 1854 began a new period of building.
The land that he bought was covered in forest trees, there being none of the land cleared except a small lot of about three acres about half mile from the Forks that had a single story house on it of one large room, that was entirely surrounded by woods. When he came to look the land over he could not find a high place to move the house on but he decided to move the house and build the ground to it. He cut down a place big enough for the house and stables and neighbors helped him move the house to the spot he wanted it on. There it still stands on the identical spot where it was placed behind tall maples he planted like sentinels. It certainly took courage to start a home and raise a family in such a wilderness, but the family was happy. ``Being five children of us we did not have much room,'' Mary Hester continues, ``so my father built a lean-to for a kitchen and we made out fine. Then the Tug of War began. Clearing of land for a farm, the lot where the house was moved from was big enough for a garden and trucks so we made out pretty good. We had one horse, yoke of oxen and two cows. Having no pasture, we rented pasture for cattle where Claten Jackson now lives and on the old White farm now belonging to Charlie Wilkins. Those cattle had to be driven to pasture each morning and gone after at night, which we small children had to do. Beck, my sister, was too small to leave or to take. Usually I stayed with her and mother went if the boys were not at home.''
There were a number of free negroes in this section and Mr. Parsons hired them to grub the 60 acres, paying one dollar for every 3600 square feet, supplying the man with his own make of grubbing tools.
At that time there were few homes and these were widely separated.
Isaac built a large square two story store opposite from where Ennis Brothers store later stood. Here he sold everything from needles to wagons, and here in 1867 a part of the store became the first Post Office.
Mr. Parsons continued his
building operations after establishing the general store by putting in
operation a saw mill and grist mill.
These activities which were a great credit to the enterprise of Mr.
Parsons were forming a nucleus around which would be built homes and places of
business, a real town in fact, no doubt already visioned
by this far sighted business man when he invested his money at Johnsons Forks.
Produce, mostly corn, was hauled over this route to
If any of them had repair work to be done on their farming implements they left them at the shop, expecting them to be repaired and ready for them on their return from Salisbury the following day, and very rarely were they disappointed, Mr. Parsons often working in the shop with his helpers all night in order to finish the job.
Of course, the farmers always made a considerable stop at the Forks to feed up, and many a loose coin was passed over the counter of the Parsons store for various kinds of merchandise, all of which showed a keen perceptiveness for business possessed by a man who was at the threshold of a new town in the making, a town soon destined to lose and forget the name Johnsons Forks, and adopt the name of the promoter with a burg at the end of it.
The roads were bad, as this
was a large corn belt stretching to
One night returning from
Mary Hester tells us her memories of this story. ``At the time the Parsons family moved to the Forks it was said that there were Ghosts to be seen and heard all around here, a man having been killed by falling from his wagon and it running over him and killing him while drunk. It happened on the road right in front of where the Fire Engine house now stands. Everybody almost at that time was superstitious and many of them believed there really were Ghosts to be seen. I could not believe there was unless I was alone, I some time had shivers. On one occasion mother had to go with my brother Pete for the cows, he being too small to go alone, it was late and the cows were pastured in an old field just this side of Morris Leonard's. It was a hot summer afternoon. Beck and I were undressed all but one little garment and put to bed and told to go to sleep. When they left no sleep for us! We thought Ghosts were all around us. Scared to death, we lay there and trembled. A limb or something struck the house--might have been the house readjusting itself after having been moved--anyway the noise sounded to us like a gun. We hopped out of bed with but little on and started to where mother and Pete had gone for the cows. There were woods on each side of the road--it was all woods where Mr. Owen lives. We ran and called mother until we got where Owen's house stands. We heard the cow bells jingling and we began calling the cows by their names. We called Goo Pink, Goo Julia, Goo Pink, Goo Julia. Mother heard us and thought something had happened and she tried to run but was so scared she could not. She told Pete to run to us. It was all over, we thought, when mother got to us. But it was NOT. We were in nice condition to be spanked and we needed it. These things, although trifling as they were, were real to us and soon as clear to me as things that took place long since.''
``I never saw or heard any more Ghost. I think that cured me but often when teams were going by I've heard them tell of things they had seen at the Forks.''
George W. Parsons daughter, Etha, recalls her grandmother. ``Grandmother graded the wool from the sheep, carded it and used a foot spinning wheel to spin the yarn. The fine wool was to knit their winter stockings, the next grade to weave counterpanes and the coarse to weave carpets. Grandmother packed the wool in saddlebags and rode horseback to an old woman who made her living weaving. They used leaves from trees and bark for dyes. Red oak, apple bark, bay leaves mad yellow. They would get limp indigo and mix it in a large vat away from the house, mix it with urine, every day add more until they had the color they wanted. They used something to set the color--probably coperus. Then the article was rinsed through many waters until all odor was removed, then aired. They would take a lath and wind the yarns around and around making stripes in colors they wished to make their carpets and take the chart to the weavers. Grandmother had beautiful counterpanes made for each of her children.'' (Rebecca Phippin has two of these-- blue and white and red and white--in her collection).
Mary Hester tells us of school life in early Parsonsburg: ``After we adjusted a little I and the boys started to school in the house now occupied by Anne Spence. The room next to the Church is the same room. (Etha Yohe tells us it measured 18 by 20 feet). In Winter sometimes from twenty five to forty children were enrolled for school but they did not attend regularly in those days.
``My first teacher was Greensbury Freeny and his father assisted with the younger children. Mr. Joshua Freeny the father of Greensbury (later Doctor) was an awful cross and strict man I thought, and I was a timid child and was so afraid of him I cried half of the time. He had a long black gum switch and kept it by him all the time. When he thought it time to scare us he would strike on the floor with his old gum switch and almost make us jump off our seats when he hollered out ``mind your books''. He asked my father why I cried so much. Pa said I was afraid of him and I would never learn anything while I was afraid so the old man changed to putting his arm around me when I went up to recite and that scared me almost as bad as the gum switch.
``Our chance for an education was very limited, there was no system about books when I first started to school. A child could take almost any kind of book and get what they could out of it. There were no classes. Each scholar recited or read his own. Often the teacher would be looking over some of the bigger boys arithmetic and never heard a word we had read. When we started to our seats he would say get your lesson over. And by the way what kind of accommodation do you think we had for comfort? Well, we had a large fireplace in the end of the room, three seats made of pine slabs with the flat side up. They had holes in the under or round side with large pegs inserted in the holes for legs. These were placed against the wall and those who were fortunate enough to get a seat against the wall had a place to lean and rest his back a little, the other seat were placed facing the fireplace with nothing to lean on to rest. Only our elbows on our knees and the teacher did not want us to stoop over but not having had any better arrangements we made out pretty good. When ``ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise'', you know, so we had that blessing.
``Every child had to furnish his own book besides the parents had to pay the teachers salary out of their own pockets. So I think we did right well even to learn to read and write. Many barely did that much.
``The old Gomly's spelling book was in most families and when the children learned all that was in them they could usually read, write and knew the multiplication table and could do simple addition.
``Later the McGuffy's readers were used in the school, still later we had history, grammar, Geography, but none of the girls took up grammar unless they chose to do so, as the teachers did not insist. I chose to do so though did not get far.''
Mary Hester continues, ``I think it is about time I get back to our lives on the farm. My father began clearing land. Labor was cheap and those who owned slaves would hire them out for a certain amount for a month, or year, and my father worked at his trade blacksmithing and made quite a good thing by working at his trade and hiring cheaper labor. By keeping at clearing land it was new and produced fine. He soon had a nice little farm. He built a new addition to the first house, moved up to the Forks and we had as comfortable a house as any of our neighbors.
By that time the boys were grown up and able to farm or do blacksmithing or almost any kind of work that the majority of the Parsons are able to do. Then the War Cry broke out. ''
The dispute between the north and south over the slavery question was at this time agitating the minds of the people here on the Eastern Shore and in our community, as it was in every part of our beloved land, and discerning minds could see that it was only a question of time when the people of the two sections would be in deadly conflict. When the war finally began, Thomas White, Daniel, Joseph and Samuel Hayman, three brothers, were called; also James Workman, John J. Perdue, Leven D. Davis and Beauchamp Hobbs.
Etha Yohe described the religious life of early Parsonsburg. ``Before a church was built in Parsonsburg, people went to Melsons where a church had been built in 1780 and where camp meetings were held. The families formed a circle with their wagons and made a large covered construction in the center for services. It was a plain, rough structure, boards on small logs for seats. They slept in their wagons. They used the large iron pots used for butchering for cooking. Each family put in a chicken for pot pie that was served on long outside tables. Bread and cakes had been brought from home.
``They were very emotional people, sometimes shouting and singing all night. The mourners bench would be full of sinners praying for forgiveness. The family and friends stayed beside them shouting and praying.
``In 1839 the first church was built in Parsonsburg. It was started on a Christmas morning by a Mr. Kendal who suddenly got tired just praying to God to show him how to get a church in Parsonsburg. He just started cutting down trees and when people came to investigate, they too started chopping. By March the mission chapel was built. It was not finished inside but had only benches with a three inch board for a back. It had a gallery where the slaves were permitted to come. One time at a big meeting with lots of shouting and singing a slave woman fell over the railing down on the people below, but no one was hurt.
``Later George Parsons who did beautiful cabinet work built a Bible table and very good pews. He was the first Sunday School Superintendent, a post he held for sixty years.
``In 1855 a camp meeting was held on the grounds where the Community House now stands. There were about 50 tents, a boarding tent, a refreshment stand, a horse pound and in the center a large tabernacle. It was just a roof and elevated end for the choir and preacher's table. The first bench near the pulpit was the mourner's bench but was used for seats only in the evangelistic services. On every corner of the campground was a large post. A box about four feet square was braced to the post. It was filled with sand and at night they put a little straw on the box and tossed on large knots of light wood and the fire would leap in the air and the air would be filled with the aroma of rosin.
``Then a large bell was installed over the camp tabernacle. This rang every morning for a short prayer service. Many took their meals in the boarding tent which had a large kitchen in the back with two cook stoves. Out back were iron pots, one for hot water, one for beef or vegetable stews. There was a staff of Negro mammys and negro waiters. Our families had kitchens in back of our tents and a maid.''
In 1866 after the close of the
war there was much agitation in this and other sections for a railroad, and the
project was finally accomplished during the following year, in 1867, when the Wicomico and Pocomoke railroad pushed east through Walston's Switch toward
Mr. Parsons had four sons and two daughters: George W. Parsons, Samuel Peter Parsons, Daniel J. Parsons, Isaac W. Parsons, Rebecca Parsons, and Mary Hester Parsons. Each of his sons learned the blacksmith trade, married and settled near the father, the daughters also married and settled in the vicinity, each of his children reared large families who in turn settled in the growing little community. His second wife was Laura Ann Collins Layfield, and together they had another daughter, Gertrude May Parsons. Laura Ann had three daughters, Ida, Jane and Annie (`Aunt Annie') Layfield, by her first marriage.
SOURCE: Letter Etha Y.