Wake Forest’s legendary Joyce Davis celebrates her 100th birthday on July 9th, marking a century of history right in our hometown.
In 2013, Ms. Joyce granted an interview to noted poet and author Emily Herring Wilson. Filmed at the museum and funded by a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, her recollections offer a fascinating record of life in Wake Forest during the first half of the twentieth century.
To mark Ms. Joyce’s birthday, we are publishing a portion of the transcript along with photographs from the Davis family collection.
Transcript from January 19, 2013
Joyce Davis interviewed by Emily Herring Wilson
What have you brought today to show us?
I have my first grade reading book, called A Child World Primer. And first grade would be about 1923, and it’s a real interesting little book, and we always called it ‘the Baby Ray book’… and Little Bo Peep’s in here, and I Saw the Moon, the Moon Sees Me, and this one is, I’ve turned to, is Baa Baa Black Sheep… have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full. Now I’m sure most children, maybe not this generation but my generation, and my kids, remember some of these things in this book, and this is a real old book and I treasure it very much. And it was published by the state of North Carolina and cost 42-cent. The price is on the back.
Tell us about life in the mill village.
Well, life in the mill village was a real good way of life. Everybody knew everybody, it was like one big family. And we used to hear somebody say, “Well, did Joey come for supper?” And they would say, “Well, he ate supper somewhere,” with somebody. Because whoever was at your house, they’d always eat and, like I said, we were like a big family. We rejoiced with each other, we were sad with each other, and we helped out each other. And it was just a good place to live.
Tell me what the mill village looked like when you were a child.
Well, it looked pretty much the same because the houses haven’t changed any. They were like four room houses with a front porch, and we all loved the front porch and stayed on the front porches a whole lot. And we had big back porches and gardens, we had big lots, which people don’t get to have these days and time, and we all had flower gardens and vegetable gardens, and way down at the back they’d even let you raise hogs if you wanted to. And some people even had cows, and it was just kind of an extension of the farm life, a real nice way to live.
Were there hard times?
Oh yeah, it was hard times… but we didn’t know it was hard times. Like the old saying, you were poor and you didn’t know it.
My grandfather had a little store in the mill village. And we thought he had more money than anybody in the world, because he had that little store. And we’d go with him to count his money. He had a sugar sack. Carried his money in that sugar sack. And we had an open fire, and always he had potatoes up under the grate. And he’d crack a pan full of black walnuts every night before dark–because he didn’t have any outside lights–and we’d have a bedtime snack and count money. And I’d read him the funny papers. He could run the store and count his money but he couldn’t read. He was a dear old soul but he couldn’t read. He died when I was ten.
You told that very well. That was a wonderful story. You made my hair on my arms stand on end to think about the walnuts. That’s a wonderful story.
It brings back real fond memories for me.
Tell me about school.
We had to walk. We didn’t have school buses back then. Now that was not easy, either. It was about a mile, I think. But we would go to school every day, rain or shine. No bad weather, nothing else kept you home from school… unless you were sick.
Did the mill provide you with anything like an infirmary, or healthcare, or a doctor there on the site?
Yes, we had a local doctor and you will never believe how much we had to pay. Ten-cents a piece. And we didn’t have any telephones.
What was it like when you went to the doctor?
Well, he’d come to the house. If you needed the doctor they had a bulletin board over at the company store. You’d go over there and put your name up. And sometime that day he would come.
Were you aware of any loss in the town… World War I, World War II. During World War II, did you experience any differences here? You have the boys going off to war from the college, you have the army school coming in…
Yeah, we had one boy in our community at the mill that got killed in World War II. Irving Cole.
How would a town react when a neighborhood heard that a boy had been killed in war?
Oh, it was devastating to everybody. Everybody, yeah. I well remember that when his body came home and how awful that was. They had his funeral at the church.
Tell me about your church.
Oh, well, my church (Glen Royal Baptist Church) is my favorite place. My granddaughter calls it ‘my grandma’s’ church… she says ‘grandma’s church, let’s go to my grandma’s church.’ And my daddy was the custodian when I was a child, and that means you had to go up and make up the fires in the wintertime, you know. And I must have been about three, because my sister wasn’t old enough to go. And we’d go up there on Sunday morning, my daddy would make the fires. And when it was time, he’d hold me up and let me ring the bell. And I love that bell. So I’ve already told my pastor, when I die, I want that bell rung for every year I’ve lived.
That’s going to be beautiful music.
It will, it will. I love that old church.
Well, let me ask you this. You said how much the mill village meant to you. How much your church meant to you. How much school meant to you. And I can tell how much your family meant to you. What is the same about all of those communities you’ve loved?
It all goes back to one thing, the closeness of the village and the town, and the concern we had for each other. I think that’s most of it. My mama taught us that as long as you behave yourself and do good… you’re as good as anybody. And that’s true.