Category Archives: Oakley

High on the Mountain

The mountain cemetery, as often as not, was placed on the highest ground.  My old neighbors Fred and Laurie Peterson had a family cemetery on a hill behind their house, on the highest point of land they owned.  You could see miles down the Toe River, as it flowed toward Tennessee.  Paying my last respects to them there, I felt uplifted, part of a vast universe.  

Ola Belle Campbell Reid said that when she wrote her song “High on a Mountain,” she was standing by the grave of her mother.  The lyrics speak of longing for “the days that used to be.”  Many people have interpreted the words as speaking to a lost lover.  I think they go much deeper than that.  

In northwestern North Carolina, near Ola Belle’s home grounds, I found the graves of my own great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, as near to heaven as they could be placed.  Standing at the top of a mountain, it’s hard not to feel inspired, even as you feel grief or nostalgia.  Ola Belle’s lyrics begin with “High on a mountain, wind blowing free…”  Every time I hear her song I see the Toe River valley stretching away into a blue-green haze and feel the free air all around, and imagine my neighbors and my ancestors gone to a well-deserved reward for their hard work, perseverance, and benevolence.

With all respect due to Marty Stuart’s interpretation of Reid’s song, I like Ola Belle’s own performance best.  It has a depth no love song can reach.

Copyright 2021 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.

“As I looked at the valleys down below,
They were green just as far as I could see;
As my memory turned, oh,
How my heart did yearn,
For you and the days that used to be.”

The One & Only Town of Toast

There is only one town in the world named Toast, and it is in North Carolina. Toast was born in 1929, when the U. S. Post Office decided that two rural routes served by Mount Airy needed their own address and postmaster. The Mount Airy News of May 23, 1929, reported that the new postmaster was I. V. Hutchens, who had a grocery store in the area. He created a room in the store for the post office and installed lock boxes for those who wanted to rent their own P. O. box.

The Department of the Post Office asked Mr. Hutchens to submit a list of possible names for the new town. They rejected four separate lists he sent them, and finally, some unknown bureaucrat in Washington, apparently without explanation, named the post office Toast. The Mount Airy reporter suggested, humorously, that the bureaucrat was inspired by his breakfast. Judging by an internet search, there is no other geographic location with the name Toast, so perhaps he was right.

Cousins Opal and Hubert Oakley in front of Calvary Baptist Church, about 1936.

In 1924 my grandparents bought a house near the Franklin Road in the area that would become Toast. The same year, my mother was born in that house, near Calvary Baptist Church. The family moved to the Sandhills in 1936, leaving a close-knit community that included some of their relatives.

Copyright 2021, Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.

Sources: “Post Offices by County,”, accessed 12 Sept. 2021.

“Who Named Our New Post Office Toast,” Mt. Airy News, North Carolina, 23 May 1929, p. 1.

“Stay in Mt. Airy and Work with Us.”

The fashionable young women posing here about 1930 are Reba Oakley (right,) her cousin, Ethel Mae Atkinson (left,) and another friend or relative in Surry County, N. C.

In 1929, when Reba was seventeen years old, she was employed at Argonne Hosiery Mill in Mount Airy. She was described as a button machine operator in the 1930 census. During the years of the Great Depression, many people started to work in the mills at ages as young as thirteen. They could expect to work until they were about sixty years old.

An ad from the Mt. Airy News in 1920 advertised for female workers, promising good wages, ideal working conditions, and the advantage of staying in your home town.

At the Spencer knitting mill of Mt. Airy, in 1930, female employees made 75 cents a day. They worked shifts of up to twelve hours, as many as 6 days a week. A full week at that rate would net $4.50. Men were paid a higher wage. However, half of all textile workers were female.

Statistics from the 1920 census show that North Carolina had become the second-most industrialized state in the South, with an output of a billion dollars per year in textiles, tobacco products, and furniture. By 1930, North Carolina was first in the nation in producing cotton textiles and first of the southern states in knitted textiles.

Copyright 2020 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved.


Ad, Mt. Airy News, Mt. Airy, N. C., Feb. 26, 1920.

North Carolina Museum of History, “History Highlights/Twentieth-Century North Carolina,” August 25, 2006,, accessed Aug. 29, 2006.

“The History of International Working Women’s Day: Ella Mae Wiggins,” no date,, accessed August 29, 2006.

Ernest H. Miller, Miller’s Mount Airy, N.C. City Directory, Vol. 1, 1928-1929 (Asheville NC: Southern Directory Co., 1929), p. 198.

Alice B. Hatcher, Spencers, (Dobson NC: published by the authors, 1988) p. 11.

1930 U.S. Census, North Carolina, Surry County, Franklin Township; sheet 2-B, line 65.

“He is a good preacher.  Come and hear him.”

George Washington Oakley (1879-1957) was the oldest son of Robert T. Oakley and Margaret Jane Willey of Surry County, N. C.  He married Etta May Sparks in 1901 at Mitchells River Church in Surry.  They had three children. 

In 1910, he was farming in Carroll County, Va., but by 1918, when he registered for the WWI draft, he was working for a furniture factory in Mt. Airy.  His draft card described him as tall and slender, with blue eyes and medium dark hair.  He was able to read and write, although his father and five younger brothers were not.

He was a charter member of Calvary Baptist Church in Toast in 1913 and served as a trustee in 1920 when land was purchased for the building. 

George became a popular preacher in the Baptist churches of Surry County.  He served as pastor of Hills Grove, Piney Grove, and Ivy Green Baptist Churches in the 1920’s.  In 1930, he was the first pastor of Pinnacle View, near Pilot Mountain.  He also participated in the weeklong Revival services that local churches shared in the summertime.

In the 1930 census, his occupation was “minister, Baptist Church.”  At his death in 1957, he was pastor of a church in Baywood, Va.  His grave is at Pleasant Home Union Regular Baptist Church in Alleghany County, N. C.

The Siloam community column in the Mt. Airy News of the 1920’s frequently announced the titles of his sermons at Hills Grove and asserted that “He is a good preacher.  Come and hear him.”  The titles of his sermons were taken from Biblical texts.  The following sermons were preached between the two world wars, and may reflect the concerns of the times.

Some George Oakley Sermons, 1917-1929:

1.  ”Consider Your Ways.”  From Haggai 1:5-7, a lesson in prudent thinking and action.

2.  “The Unguarded Gate.”  Book of Ezekiel, chapter 38, in which many of the enemies of Israel were named and battles predicted.

3.  ”And With HIs Stripes We Are Healed.”  Isaiah 53:5; preached at a Revival service.

4.  “Handfulls [sic] of Honey”  Judges 14, a story of a riddle told by Samson, which he challenged his enemies to solve.

Copyright 2020 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.


”Personal Mention of Siloam Residents,” Mt. Airy News, 4 June 1926, p. 1; and “Siloam News,” 5 July 1928 p. 4. 

Indian Stories

My Grandma’s mother, Martha White Johnson, told her grandchildren that she had Indian ancestry. My mother said that after her parents moved to the Sandhills, some kin from the mountains came to visit, with the purpose of finding some proof of their Native ancestry. Her father refused to talk with them and made them leave. My sister told this story to someone with Native connections, who explained to her that people with non-white ancestry were often refused credit at the banks and stores. As a farmer, Grandpa would have depended on credit to keep him going until he took his tobacco to market and received whatever cash he was going to make for the year. Unfortunately, if he or Grandma had Native ancestry, it was not to their advantage to prove it.

Mama repeated a lot of stories that were told to her when she was a child. When one of us children was crying, she would tell us that the old folks used to say when the Indians were hiding from their enemies, they would stop the babies from crying by covering their noses and mouths so they couldn’t breathe. If anybody made noise and they were discovered, they’d all be killed. She teased that if we had been Indians, we wouldn’t have survived.

Now I wonder if this story came from the Indian Removal of the 1830’s, when Native Americans of many tribes were forced to leave their homes in the Southeastern states and move to reservation land in Oklahoma. Some people managed to hide deep in the mountains and woods long enough to stay behind. Martha White’s great-grandparents, John and Rachel May, could have done just that, as they lived in mountainous and sparsely populated Patrick County, Virginia.

Copyright 2020 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.

Class of ’42, Cameron High


Graduates of Cameron High School, Cameron, N. C., in 1942.


I have not found a date for the opening of Cameron School, but William Hamilton McNeill, who was born in 1869 in Moore County, graduated from Cameron High School. (He later became mayor of Carthage, N. C., and owner and editor of its newspaper, as well as a state legislator.)

When the 1963-64 school year ended in Moore County, N. C., Cameron, Farm Life, Carthage, and Vass High Schools were consolidated into Union Pines High School.

Copyright 2019 by Glenda Alexander.  All rights reserved.


“A Pocket Manual of North Carolina for the use of Members of the General Assembly: Session 1911,” ed. by R. D. W. Connor, (Raleigh: North Carolina Historical Commission 1911) p. 298. Accessed through Google ebooks, 28 Dec. 2019.

“Carthage High School — Carthage, North Carolina,” accessed 28 Dec. 2019 at


Mystery Musician Identified!

Several weeks ago, I posted a snapshot that I found among my grandmother’s family photos, and identified one of the two individuals as Frank Jenkins, a musician from Surry County, N. C.  His companion, who held a guitar, now has a name:  Walter Barney Smith.

Walter Smith wrote several songs that are known to old-time music fans. He recorded several with the Carolina Buddies in the early 1930’s. “Otto Wood the Bandit” and “The Murder of the Lawson Family” were based on real events that took place in North Carolina. Apparently Smith led tours of the Lawsons’ cabin in Stokes County and performed his song as a finale. The 78 rpm record label pictured is from my mother’s copy of the record.

The Carolina Buddies and Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers contained many of the same personnel over the years, including Posey Rorrer and Norman Woodlief. However, I find no record so far of Smith performing with Frank Jenkins, his partner in the photograph.

Smith’s wife and three daughters performed with him over the years. In the Smithfield, Va. Times of July 20, 1939, was an ad which read: “On Stage In Person! Kid Smith and Smith Sisters WGH Radio Station Stars in Their New Radio Hillbilly Show–Good string music with harmony singing–Featuring Expert Tap Dancer Little Lorene” (Smith’s youngest daughter.)

At the top of the page is a portrait of the four of them, with “Kid” dressed as a clown, and daughters Dorothy and Thelma with ukulele and guitar. WGBH was a station in Newport News, Va.  Kid performed many humorous songs, including some he learned from his father, Luther B. Smith, such as “The Cat’s Got the Measles and the Dog’s Got the Whooping Cough,” and some which he wrote, such as “Evolution Girl.”

I found several photographs of Walter Smith online which helped me identify him in my family snapshot. (Including one with his collar stylishly turned up.)

A good illustrated article about Smith can be found in Tony Russell’s book, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) pp. 87-90.

Many of his songs can be found on Youtube. His songs have been covered by many other artists, including Doc Watson and the New Lost City Ramblers.

Walter Smith died in 1977 in Virginia.

Sources consulted:

At is a discography and an album cover photo showing his distinctive haircut. covers more of his recording career.

Smithfield Times, Volume 20, Number 16, 20 July 1939, p. 4.

Copyright 2019 by Glenda Alexander. All rights reserved..

Old-Time Musicians in the Family

The Old-Time music genre is rooted in the British Isles in centuries-old dance tunes, ballads, and folk songs. Pioneers in the Southern Appalachian Mountains brought the music with them when they came to America for a better life. They put their own designs on it when they played and sang about the Rights of Man, a Soldier’s Joy, and the Wife’s Lament. Their music blended with the music of other immigrants and African slaves and became the foundation of Bluegrass, Country, Rock’n’Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Jazz.

musicians012 copy 2 (1) copy

Searching through a box of photographs that belonged to my grandmother, I found a picture of two musicians that no one in the family could identify. The photograph was obviously a snapshot, slightly tilted. The building in the background looks like a very large house with a high-ceilinged porch. The musicians were standing on a large rock in front of the steps. The style of the men’s shirts and ties is typical of the 1920’s, which fits the look and condition of the photograph itself. That makes this picture almost a century old, and the people who would remember it are long gone. (The illustration here is cropped from the mentioned photograph. I like the shadow of the guitarist’s fingers on his guitar. I also like the way he rolled up his sleeves and flipped his collar up–shows a sense of style.)

My grandparents came from Surry County, N. C., so I did an online search of Surry County musicians and came up with a photograph of Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters during the 1920’s.

The banjo player, James Franklin Jenkins, had a strong resemblance to the one in our picture. He was also known as “Fiddlin’ Frank” for his skill on the fiddle, which he played in his own band, the Pilot Mountaineers, which included his son, Oscar, on banjo, and Ernest Stoneman on guitar. His portrait with that band helped to confirm the identity of our banjo player to my satisfaction.

So, who is the guitar player in the picture? Comparing him to photographs online of Ernest Stoneman as a young man, I think he should be considered as a possibility, although I’m not convinced. I have made note of any old-time musicians who cropped up in my family history, but no one seems to be the guitar player in our photograph.

Frank Jenkins was born in Surry County, N. C., in 1888, making him the same age as my grandfather, Ed Oakley. He spent his life in the Marsh Township, south of Dobson, while the Oakleys lived north of Dobson, in the Round Peak area. Frank sometimes played music with a neighbor of the Oakleys, Ben Jarrell. Like the Oakleys, the Jarrells moved to Surry from Rockingham County. Ben also played with Houston Galyean, a relative of Ed Oakley’s first wife, Maggie Snow. Ed’s aunt, Matilda Oakley, married Gideon Moncus (1855-1943) who belonged to a family of musicians, the Moncuses and Prevettes. That family moved from Surry around the 1920’s and worked in the mills of Rockingham and Davidson Counties.

My mother once mentioned some uncles or cousins who played music and made a recording. I often feel that I am chasing ghosts in fragments of remembered conversation. Could the guitar player be one of those relatives? It may have to be enough that those musical ghosts whisper a fiddle tune in our ears once in a while, or pass on their legacy by inspiring a song.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander, including above photograph.  All Rights Reserved.

Sources consulted:

Bob Carlin, String Bands in the North Carolina Piedmont, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2004) pp. 24-25.

Tony Russell, Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost, (accessed online at p. 10.

Death Certificate of James Franklin Jenkins, North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976, database online at; Original data: N. C. Bureau of Vital Statistics, Death Certificates on Microfilm in State Dept. of Archives, Raleigh, N. C.

Census Reports on N. A. R. A. Microfilm, accessed online at


September 25th, this week, was “World Lung Day.”The World Health Organization, concerned about a world-wide epidemic of tuberculosis,  got a hearing this week at the United Nations to ask for funding to fight the leading infectious killer of human beings in the world today.

The United States gained control over the disease during the mid-20th century, after the introduction of antibiotics and x-rays. I remember the mobile x-ray unit that used to visit the county seat at least once a year. My mother and other people with family members who had the disease were required to get a yearly x-ray so that the illness could be promptly diagnosed and treated. My brothers and I would wait in the car on the courthouse square while she stood in line.

Apparently this was a common experience all across the U. S. The American Lung Association raised money from the sale of Christmas and Easter Seals, stamp-like stickers you could put on your cards and letters, advertising the organization’s efforts against “lung diseases, air pollution and smoking.”

My mother’s half-sister, Reba Oakley, and Reba’s mother and grandfather, from Surry County, N. C., all died of tuberculosis. In 1912, when Reba was born, T. B. was causing more deaths than heart disease or cancer, and The American Lung Association was less than a decade old. Reba’s mother died of the disease only 3 years later.

Reba’s grandfather, William Tyson Snow, had already died in 1906, of “consumption,” as it was called then. The family apparently believed that the infection was latent in Reba’s lungs for decades. She became ill as an adult and was treated at a state sanitarium for several years, before succumbing to the debilitating effects of T. B. at age 34.

A latent infection from T. B. is now said to be very rare. It is possible that Reba was infected as an adult. However, because of her infection, her family were all required to be x-rayed yearly for several years. Fortunately, they all remained healthy.

Poverty contributes to the prevalence of the disease in Africa and Asia today. However, it’s easy to forget that only a century ago, many of our own citizens were working on subsistence farms and spending long days in textile and other factories, where their exposure to lint and other air pollutants made them sick. As unemployment and homelessness grow in our population, so do diseases we often consider misfortunes of the past.

Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander.  All Rights Reserved.

More about Reba Oakley and family:

Sources consulted online:

Esther Johnson of the Surry County Genealogical Association commented, concerning the Mt. Airy Granite Quarry: “That was one of the things that happened to people who worked in our Quarry here in Mt. Airy. Everyone at school had to take a test for TB.”

Learning to Be a History Detective

I knew my grandmother was important. She was a modest little lady, even considering that she could put anybody in the family in their place with a sharp remark or a stern look. She never had her hair cut or wore a skirt any higher than mid-calf. She ignored the doctor’s advice to take a walk every day because she thought it unladylike to go walking down a public street like that. She preferred to stay out of the sun and do needlework, read her Bible, and watch the soaps and country music shows.

Fannie Johnson Oakley was a middle child, with four older siblings and five younger ones. She used to keep up with her siblings by letter. Remember snail mail? Born in 1892, she passed in 1976, when Bill Gates was barely out of high school.

Important to my research, I have been able to use her collection of photographs, and the list in her handwriting of her family’s birthdays, in lieu of a family Bible. I recall sitting in on conversations between her and my mother and Aunt Opal, who all remembered the family’s life in Surry County, N. C. The hints I remember from those conversations have been important clues for me in playing history detective.

However, once sister Fannie was gone, no one kept up with the Johnson family. There was no one to send an obituary to or share pictures of the grandchildren with. Now they’d be posted on Facebook or Instagram for everyone to see. I find pictures from my own Facebook albums whenever I go searching for clues on the web.

In 1976, Grandma’s sister Mary also died, without any of her nieces, including my mother, knowing. The last of the Johnson family, the youngest brother, Elijah, passed about eight years later, as I learned from a Social Security record on’s DNA tests and website helped me connect with a grandson of Mary, but Elijah had no children, and he moved to an area far from the rest of the family. I didn’t think that a long drive to his last known home town would accomplish anything.

Then I discovered that Rootsweb had a message board for Russell County, Virginia, where Elijah died. I joined and posted a message about my search and got an immediate reply that someone found a listing for Elizah Johnson in a cemetery book. I searched the web to see if such a book was available to me and found that it was in a number of far-away libraries.

Further inquiries on the board were lost in a flurry of messages saying the moderator of the list had died, which he then informed the group, he had not, and that was followed by apologies and people unsubscribing because irrelevant posts were filling up their email. In the meantime, I called the cemetery, and a helpful young woman found my kin in the records and confirmed that Grandma’s brother and his wife were indeed buried there. This gave me a record that qualified as genealogical proof.

I posted a message on the board to thank them and let them know that I had found Elijah with a “J.” No one lol-ed or even tehe-ed, and I know, being genealogists, they are at least as old as I am, and they should get the reference. I will excuse them, however, as most of them have unsubscribed and moved over to the Facebook page. Message boards are apparently becoming history, too.


Copyright 2018 by Glenda Alexander–except the Liza image–All Rights Reserved.