"SHIRLEY PEGRAM - ELKIN'S ONLY
This was transcribed and e-mailed to Sherry Bell Garrison - Feb 1999 - by Alan Martin, who was born in Elkin, Surry County, NC. Although not related to the Pegram family, the story of the Pegram sisters evoked vivid memories from his own childhood and he felt, as we do, that it is something worth sharing with our Pegram cousins everywhere. Thanks Alan! This is absolutely priceless!
The name Shirley Pegram does not mean anything to people living in Elkin today, except a few of the old timers who have a very vivid memory of her as one of the most colorful and original characters who ever resided in the community. As one of the elderly citizens who knew her rather well, I consider it my duty to posterity to write down some of my memories of Shirley, lest her memory be swallowed up in the mists of time.
When I was a small boy in the early years of the 20th century I had heard various rumors about the Pegram sisters and I had seen Shirley a few times. But I was only vaguely aware of their existence. I had heard that there were three old maid sisters who lived to themselves somewhere in the wilderness northeast of town; that they would not permit any hunting or trespassing on their land and that they would shoot all dogs (and some said, people) who encroached on their property; and that they had a pet black horse named Coaly, whom they considered a member of the family. They sometimes drove this horse into town but only with a halter--no bit was used and no whip. Coaly had a mind of his own and walked, trotted or galloped as suited his fancy, frequently stopping to graze on some choice morsel or simply to gaze around, and then when his spirit moved, galloping ahead at terrific speed which threatened to overturn the buggy.
They were also said to have two dogs, a small pet dog and a huge hound who was dangerous to encounter. These three sisters were all that remained at home of a family of eight. An older sister had gotten a college education, married and became a member of the faculty of Greensboro College for Women. One of the boys became a photographer, one a successful physician. Of the other two I have no knowledge.
The three girls were left in possession of the old home place when the youngest two were in their early teens. Shirley assumed responsibility of running the farm and earning a livelihood as best she could. The highway passed about a mile south of the place, and the narrow road which led to the homestead came to a dead end at the house, so there was no passing and no one ever came about unless he had occasion to visit the sisters.
They remind me, in a way, of the famous Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Anne, and Emily, who achieved literary fame, though they dwelt in a remote part of England in the early 19th century, living in a world of their own imagination and fantasy. Here within two miles of the thriving town of Elkin they were as remote from the stream of life as though they had lived in the backwoods of Kentucky in the early 19th century.
My first remembered confrontation with Shirley occurred when I was about seven years old. My father and I were taking one of our Sunday afternoon rambles through the woods, which are one of the pleasantest memories of my childhood. My father could find his way through the unbroken forest and come out eventually at some familiar or interesting place, while I would becompletely lost and befuddled. He could find the most interesting places and knew all the trees, birds and wild animals.
It seemed to me that we had been walking for hours without encountering any evidence of human life, when suddenly we heard the crowing of a rooster and the barking of a dog. "We must be getting near the Pegram place," my father remarked, and presently we came across a path which led us to a rail fence and an old fashioned stile--something I had never seen before but recognized from pictures I had seen of rural England. At this stile was standing a slender woman dressed in a fashion which, even I recognized, as being about 50 years out of date. She was accompanied by a small wire-haired dog the likes of which I had not seen before, perhaps some kind of Norwich or Cairn terrier or some other English breed.
My father stopped and entered into a conversation with the lady, while I remained silent, as was considered proper in those days. I eyed the small dog and the stile and took in all they had to say. They talked at length about birds, wild animals, trees and other things which I, as a small boy, was interested in.
I felt my father had led me through an enchanted forest to find deep in its interior a scene out of the storybook world of the past and a very special woman who somehow also belonged in that imaginary world which lies just around the bend or over the next hill. I felt I would like to go back again, but our rambles never took us there, and the memory became dim and more like a memory of a dream than an actual occurrence.
My next encounter with Shirley on her homestead came about two years later and was not nearly as pleasant as the first meeting. Shirley came occasionally to our home on a social visit. She always ate heartily and accepted slices of cake and other delicacies which she wrapped up to take to her "little sisters." My mother remarked that the meal she ate at our home was probably the only square meal she had had in a month. On one of these visits she made arrangements to supply us with butter, and my sister and I were to make the two and a half mile trip to her place every Saturday morning to pick up the butter--an adventure we looked forward to with a great deal of pleasure though with a degree of danger. So, on the following Saturday morning we set out on our expedition into the unknown.
I had a little water spaniel dog, and my mother and sister insisted on our taking him with us, saying that he would enjoy the trip. I argued against the idea, remembering what I had heard about the Pegrams shooting all dogs which came on their place. But I was overruled.
We stopped by to get Joe and Bertie Pegram, niece and nephew of the sisters, to guide us to our destination. After traveling about two miles over hill and dale, we made the last lap on a narrow road down a dark wooded hollow. We came to a break and a log spring-house and saw the house in a clearing on the far side of the brook. There was not a soul in sight, and the place appeared deserted and silent. We walked up to the door and knocked. Shirley opened a crack in the door and peered out to see who we were. At the same time the little terrier dog which I remembered jumped out the crack in the door and landed on top of my dog, snarling and biting.
The dogs were rolling over and yapping. Racing around the corner of the house came a long lean woman with red hair. She wore a sun bonnet and was waving a rifle that appeared to be 10 feet long. She yelled at the top of her voice, "They can't hurt my Tiger. I'll kill that dog. Just let me get at him!"
Shirley had the presence of mind to jerk us children and my dog into the house and turn the key in the lock. We sat cowering and trembling while Mollie continued to run round and round the house, beating on the door and windows and yelling at the top of her voice. She had let out the large hound dog who added to all the bedlam by a loud baying.
I glanced around the room and noticed a long muzzle loading rifle over the mantle, another in the corner and three or four old-fashioned pistols lying on the table and chairs. My sister was crying, and I doubted that we would get out of this alive.
Eventually, Mollie took herself and her pet Tiger away, the hound stopped his baying, and Shirley gave us our butter and helped us sneak away. I held my dog tightly in my arms.
I continued to make weekly journeys after butter for several months, sometimes accompanied by my sister, sometimes not, but never again did I allow my little dog to follow. I always approached the house with caution and a feeling of uneasiness. Sometimes I would see the pet horse in the distance. I was afraid of him because people had said he had been known to attack strangers. Shirley assured me that Coaly had almost human intelligence. There were strings draped around the flowers and vegetable garden, and I was told that he would not touch anything that was enclosed by strings.
Shirley was the only one of the sisters who was at all sociable. I would sometimes catch a glimpse of Mollie in the distance wielding a mattock or chopping wood, always with her rifle nearby. When I knocked at the door, I would often hear someone hastily leave the room and scramble up the stairs. I knew that there was a younger sister named Aurora Swan. But she was kept out of sight and not allowed to have contact with strangers. I never saw her but once during all my trips to the Pegram house. That was when she was going to Roaring River to visit relatives and was allowed to walk to Elkin accompanied by my sister and me and Joe and Bertie Pegram, where she caught the train. As long as Shirley and Mollie lived Aurora Swan was treated as a baby sister and not permitted to do any work or take on responsibility. She spent her time playing in the brook and hunting bird nests and wild flowers and communing with the fairies, which Shirley stoutly maintained still made their abode in their sylvan refuge. When I first saw Aurora Swan she must have been about 25 years old, but she only appeared to be about 16. She was a perfect beauty with long auburn hair, blue eyes and a faultless complexion. Her manner was like that of a small child, agreeable and modest.
My sister became quite friendly with Shirley, and we spent the day with her several times. She fed us with simple country fare and took us on long rambles over the entire place, showing us the old abandoned silver mine, the old barn which was about to fall down, and the herd of cattle complete with a ferocious bull. She had numerous mementos of the past, including a wild turkey's wings, a species which were found in the Pegram woods long after they had become extinct elsewhere in this vicinity. The wilderness was gradually encroaching on the original cleared land and woods and saplings grew around the house. There was only a tunnel through the shrubbery to the front door. A neighbor was asked to plow the garden patch because Coaly was never submitted to the indignation of being hitched up to a plow! The sisters were offered employment in the blanket mill [Chatham Manufacturing Company--at one time the largest single woolen mill in the world], and some of their friends urged them to accept jobs as means of survival instead of waging a losing fight against nature on a worn out farm. But no, they would not consider any way of life except that which they were accustomed to. They considered themselves as gentry, poor but proud. In those days a cultured lady would not consider working in a mill except as a last resort.
Shirley was the mainstay of the family group and the only one of the three who could mix well with people and carry on business transactions. She took the agency for hosiery and walked all over the countryside and town taking orders for socks. But she too refused to give up her freedom and live in town. "You don't have such deep thoughts in town as you do in the peace and solitude of the country, where you can be close to God," was one of her oft- expressed opinions. Asked if she did not get lonely living in such an isolated spot, she would reply, "I am never alone. God is with me always."
I don't know at just what period Shirley decided that she was destined to be a poet. All three sisters had great ideas about what they were going to do. Several times when I visited in their home I was informed that Mollie was on the verge of going to Washington City to study art and become a painter. But she never went, and so far as I know, never painted a picture in her life. So when Shirley announced that she was writing a book of poems which she intended to have published I supposed it was just something that existed in her wild imagination. I did not have much contact with Shirley in my early teens. Other interests absorbed me. I first became aware of the fact that she was actually planning to publish her poems through my father. She was continually pestering him for loans to help her finance the publication. She (in her own mind at least) was going to become famous and rich and would pay back every cent when her name became a household word like Longfellow and Edgar Allen Poe.
Finally, after years of begging, borrowing and going hungry, she managed to get her poems published. The year was 1911. We bought a copy at home, as did most of her acquaintances around town, and I read it through mostly out of curiosity. Frankly, I was disappointed. I make no pretense of being an expert on poetry. In regard to poetry I can only take the attitude that most people with little appreciation of the fine arts express when they say, "I only know what I like."
I don't think her poems communicate one-tenth of the nobility of her soul and the keen appreciation of the finer, simpler joys of life in the country that she evidenced in her casual conversation. She undoubtedly had poetry in her soul but appears to have been lacking in the literary skill to communicate her thoughts.
Her poems are lacking in rhythm, which is the primary requisite for a successful poem. She had probably never heard of such terms as trochee, iambs, or anapest, nor of the musical cadence that is produced by alliteration. Her poems will not scan property. She seemed to think that if they rhymed they fulfilled all the requirements of a poem. She went to great pains to get them to rhyme, often making use of awkward word combinations:
She frequently made use of the words "oh, yes" to make a line come out at the proper length. There is what is called primitive art--highly rated by some art critics. There should conceivably be such a thing as Primitive Poetry, produced spontaneously by uneducated, divinely inspired poets. If you are willing to admit the existence of such poetry, then Shirley's poems would come under that heading.
She was admittedly poorly educated and depended on inspiration instead of technical training. She was often heard to say that when an inspiration came to her, she would have to drop everything she was doing and run and write it down before it was lost forever. Whether she was a true genius or one of those people who have an overwhelming urge to express themselves without having anything significant to express, or one of those who have the thoughts but lack technical skill to express them, it is not for me to say. Time will tell if Shirley deserves to be rated alongside John Greenleaf Whittier. Certainly at the present time she is almost unknown and has been almost forgotten. There is a copy of her poems in the Elkin Public Library. There are a few sitting on shelves or in attics of locals who bought the book our of a feeling that her supreme effort to make a place for herself in the future in spite of almost insurmountable difficulties deserved recognition.
Her book did not prove a financial success, and the burden of providing the necessities of life for herself and her sisters became a strain on the aging Shirley. The barn collapsed completely; the house fell into disrepair; the trees almost took over the clearing. The herd of cattle were slaughtered one by one.
The pet horse died of old age and was buried with honor alongside the parents of the Pegram women in the family graveyard. Then, worn-out and disillusioned, Shirley died. Rumors spread that the other sisters had dug her up and were keeping her body in the house. Chief of Police Granville Church made a trip over to their place to investigate, but he found nothing amiss.
With Shirley's death the task of providing for the family fell on Mollie. When I worked at the Elkin Furniture Factory it was a familiar sight to see her passing on her periodic trips to town. She was always shouldering a large rifle and walking briskly. She was considered dangerous, and the men at the plant stood in awe of her.
Aurora Swan the "little sister" remained in seclusion at the old house, but when Mollie succumbed Aurora had to take on the responsibility of adulthood. She began to appear away from the house. Now about fifty years old, she bore not the slightest resemblance to the fresh young beauty I remembered from my one sight of her in my early boyhood. Emaciated, stooped and wrinkled, she resembled the popular conception of a witch. She was persuaded to go away to live with relatives, but she would not stay away from the scene of her happy childhood. As many as three times she returned to her home, until her people became resigned to let her alone.
Residential developments began encroaching on the wilderness that surrounded her home. In the winter time when the leaves were off the trees the old house could be seen form one of the houses on Dutchman Creek Road. And one of the families who lived there took on the responsibility of making periodic visits to see that she had sufficient food and fuel. During a prolonged snowy spell one winter when the paths were almost impassable these neighbors failed to contact Aurora for several days. When they did finally break their way through Aurora was found lying at the door of the house where she had fallen and broken her hip, but still alive. She was transported to the hospital where she did not survive but a few days.
Thus ends the tragic, and at the same time heroic, story of the three sisters. During their lifetimes they would not allow the timber to be cut; they said it would disturb the squirrels and the fairies who were very real to them. They promised that after they were dead, if anyone cut any trees or disturbed the squirrels or fairies they would come back to haunt them.
After Aurora's death the place was bought by the Elkin Furniture Company for timber. The old house was repaired and repainted and served for the home of the sawmill man. The brush was cleared away, the large timber felled and the natural beauty of the place almost destroyed.
There were wild tales circulated about the sisters having been seen prowling around at night, but so far as I know they have never come back.
The old house was destroyed by fire several years ago. Little remains to remind me of the sylvan retreat I had known in my boyhood. I made a pilgrimage on foot back to the place a few years ago to try to recapture the feeling I had experienced when I visited it as a boy. The place still had its feeling of remoteness as I hiked down the dark hollow to the brook and the few remains of the house. Everything was peaceful and quiet. A big, red-tailed hawk circled over the clearing. I found with difficulty the old family graveyard, with the markers almost obscured, overgrown with brush and briars and with good-sized trees growing among the graves.
I felt a great longing to be able to communicate with the dead and to transmit a message across the barrier that separates the living from the dead and assure Shirley and her sisters that I, for one, would never forget!
I would like to end the story here, but the wheels of progress keep turning. The Pegram property has been acquired by a land company. A modern highway has been built right across the old road that used to wind down the dark hollow. Several pretentious homes have been build in what was once a primeval forest. The old clearing which was the original sight of the house is intact, lying right off Brookwood Road. At the present writing it is considered a most likely site for Elkin's proposed new million-dollar hospital. If and when it is built, the old graveyard should be restored and should be considered a shrine for the sentimental people who would like to keep alive the memory of Shirley Pegram, Elkin's First Poet.
Additional comments from Alan Martin:
I wish he had written a date on his story. I guessed late 60's/early 70's because he makes reference to the upcoming new Elkin Hospital. The Hugh Chatham Memorial, as it is known, did build and relocate (opening date 1974) but not directly on the Pegram place as Mr. Johnson thought would happen. What was placed directly on the "old homeplace" was a housing development. My father tells me that as preparations were made to build the houses the graves were to be moved to Hollywood Cemetery, Elkin's largest cemetery located near downtown. Dad said that when the graveyard was dug up very little remains were found and that old-timers in town suspected the graves had been pilfered long before by those suspecting to find the sisters' valuable personal belongings buried with them! Last trip to Elkin I went to the cemetery to see their marker and gravesite. There is one large flat marker covering the space of a single grave. Names and dates of the parents and the three sisters are on it.
There is some discrepancy as you will see when reading the last part of the story by Mr. Johnson. Mr. J. described their order of death as Shirley, Mollie, then Aurora. My father has always insisted it was Mollie, Shirley, then Aurora. I'll see what I can find out for sure. I do know that my father, about the age of 13, was at the house the night Mollie passed away.
He and Leroy Hayes, two young teenage boys at the time, were asked to accompany several women from town who wished to make the long walk at night to the Pegrams because they had heard Mollie was very ill. Their brother, Dr. Bob Pegram, had been summoned from Canton, NC (they would see no other doctor). Dad said if a local doctor had been summoned she might have had a chance. Dr. Bob said it was probably ptomaine (sp?) poisoning caused by drinking milk from a rusty milk bucket. My father did hear Mollie, who was lying on a cot in the living room, tell her sisters that "I'm going to have to leave you in a little while." The sisters said, "No, Dr. Bob's here now and everything is going to be all right." "No," Mollie said, "I have to leave you."
One of the sisters then asked, "What would you have us do, sister? Would you want us to go live with Dr. Bob or stay here?" Mollie's last words were, "No, you stay on here.....as WE have.........and I will come back....... and be with you." I've heard this story from my father many times over the years, and he shudders a little every time when he tells it. Very vivid memory for him as a young boy.