Little’s Mills My father was forty-nine when I was born. An only child of older parents, he was just one generation removed from the Civil War. His father had died when he was six or seven, and he was left to be raised by his mother. Many of his week-ends, holidays, and summers were spent at a former plantation on The Pee Dee River in Richmond County, North Carolina, about 60 miles from his home in Charlotte. I titled my chapbook Letters to Littles’ Mills, to encompass the numerous people by that name who lived and worked there, but historically the community was known as Little’s Mills. My great-grandparents had two houses at Little’s Mills. They lived in the first one until about ten years after the Civil War. The original house remained in the family until the 1980s, although for most of that time it was abandoned. I have used the second house on the cover. It’s the house I feel the closest connection with, and I wanted to emphasize that we who live today are still closely connected to the era of slavery. My father died when I was in my early twenties, and the stories he shared of Little’s Mills were always lacking in detail, although it was obvious he loved the place dearly. These are the few vignettes I remember hearing of the house and land:
The upstairs was poorly heated, or maybe not heated at all. Before breakfast, he was to wash his face in a bowl of water on his dresser. In winter, the water was covered with a film of ice that he broke with the tips of his fingers, pressing just enough ice water against his eyes to get the sleep out and pass his morning inspection.
Next to the interior stairs were two barrels. One was filled with coffee. The other was filled with a grain, probably rice.
Every year they made Miss Leslie’s Black Fruitcake. The recipe made two cakes. One was served for Thanksgiving and one for Christmas. (Later, when I was growing up, my father made the fruitcakes every other year. We ate one fruitcake that Christmas, the other the following. The second fruitcake was liberally moistened and preserved in brandy. On fruitcake-making years, my parents spent most of Saturday slicing the preserved fruits, some until they were as thin as mica. My father always assembled the ingredients late Saturday night, only to realize the recipe called for rosewater. He always desperately called around town looking for rosewater. He always found out that only Stanley’s Drug Store carried it. Stanley’s was always about to close. He always got there on time. The fruitcake was always incredibly good. Which is surprising, given the imprecision of some measurements.)
There were tenant farmers at Little’s Mills. Some had once been enslaved, other's parents had been. My father learned this song from them; I’ve never heard it anywhere else: I am sorry for poor Adam/Just as sorry as can be/For he never had no Mama/For to hold him on her knee/And he never had no Papa/for to snatch him from the floor/And he never had no childhood/playing by the cabin door. /And I’ve often thought ol’ Adam/Would have lived a better life/If he’d only had the privilege/Of picking out his wife. I’ve heard it said that most song lyrics of enslaved people spoke to their present conditions.
My father told me that at one time enslaved people took grains, (and probably cotton) on boats down the Little and Pee Dee Rivers to be sold at a port, most likely Georgetown, South Carolina. I remember him telling me about someone watching through the window as the boats went by. I suppose that was his grandmother, the recipient of many of these letters, although I don’t actually remember him mentioning her. Ever.
He had an older cousin who lived either in their grandmother’s house or very close by in the other family home. As a child, my father adored this cousin like an older brother, but as adults they had a falling out over property issues. There were lawsuits and counter lawsuits, and before I was a toddler my father was utterly estranged from his cousin and virtually everyone else in the family. My father lost the lawsuit but was awarded two pieces of furniture. I never saw Littles’ Mills.
The cousin and the plantation were mythic in my mind. I always heard that the cousin had inherited Littles’ Mills and let it go to ruin. (The story is more complicated than that, as I will recount in my notes on “Epilogue, Littles’ Mills, 1983.”) I never heard my father speak of this cousin in any other way than as the very devil himself. Then, one day while I was at work, a woman came to my parents’ door. She told them the cousin was in the car. My father went out to see him. “I want us to be like we used to be,” his cousin said. He had traveled over an hour just to say that. They talked a while, then the cousin and his (friend?) (caregiver?) (partner?) drove away. Within months, my father and his cousin were both dead. The Letters I think litigation must have been a favorite family pastime for generations. Letters to Littles’ Mills is based on two sets of letters. One set, mostly from family in North West England (in a county then called Cumberland), was written to Billy Little, who had run away from a cabinetry apprenticeship in 1798. Billy is said to have secretly shipped off all his cabinet making supplies and then walked, in the middle of the night, to Liverpool. From there he sailed to America. He was later joined by his brother, Thomas, my great-great grandfather. Billy established himself as a very fine cabinetmaker in North Carolina. His work remains highly regarded to this day, and it was primarily over his furniture that my father and his cousin fell out. One piece of Billy Little’s furniture was a desk purchased by a Mr. Eli Griggs in the 1930’s. In the desk, Griggs discovered a secret drawer filled with letters and other documents that had belonged to Billy Little. (My father must not have known about the sale of this piece of furniture. He had expected to win a desk with a secret drawer in the settlement, but when the furniture was delivered a different piece was sent. A ten-year-old lover of Nancy Drew, I was crushed by the substitution). The documents were given to Henry Wall Little, who preserved the letters and allowed an O. McRae Raven to have photo-engraved copies made. Raven assembled these copies, along with typed transcriptions into a bracketed, two-hole punched book. I eventually found a copy among my father’s things. Most of the letters in this set were written to Billy by his English relatives, especially his brother George. The letters, spanning the years from 1799 to 1845, contain many fragmented stories about the lives of the English Littles and their neighbors. My father said the Littles were British peers who came to this country after falling on hard times. In truth, they were farmers, cobblers, pub keepers, and seamstresses, with the occasional accountant or barrister thrown into the mix. More Eliot and Dickens than Austin and Trollope. I found myself loving them all the more for that. It was a challenge to focus only on what related directly to the American Littles. One narrative ran through the letters for years: Billy Little insisted on suing a cousin named Gillespie back home, for what reason I cannot say. Although the man was reportedly very poor and some of George’s letters strike me as a veiled effort to get his brother to give up the suit, Billy Little persisted and eventually collected. I wanted to keep the poems focused and avoid undue complexity, but it was a difficult decision not to include that narrative in the collection, because I believe if reflects a tendency to view individuals more as a source of capital than as human beings, a tendency that is the foundation of slavery and other evils that took root in the new country. You can read samples of the other letters here. It may also be a family trait to keep valuable letters in a table drawer. Once, when I was home from college, my father asked me about my classes. I told him I especially loved reading William Faulkner. “If you love Faulkner,” he said, “You should read the Myers War letters. They are Faulkner.” He directed me to a drawer in a living room table, and to an inlaid wooden box on top of it. These contained a jumble of hundreds of letters, all on time-stained blue or white paper, many in cross-writing, most of them written to his grandmother, Fanny Myers Little, from 1851 to 1892. Fanny’s family moved to Byhalia, Mississippi before the Civil War -- according to family legend due to a following out with their in-laws, although the lure of uncultivated land during the boom years of cotton production seems at least as likely a reason. I never knew how true my father’s words, “They are Faulkner” actually were until I looked at a map and saw that the family had settled in the next county over from Faulkner’s birthplace and in the town in which he would eventually die. Most of the letters to Fanny come from her parents, Absalom and Adeline Myers, from a friend (reportedly a former governess), and from her brothers, who were participants in some of the most notorious battles of the Civil War. The most prolific of these writers was Cal, who spent much of the war in the vicinities of Orange and Richmond, Virginia. As with the letters from England, I had to restrict my focus to what seemed most relevant to the poetry I wanted to create. In doing so, I left out much more than I included. The writers’ obliviousness to the dignity and worth of the people who surrounded them, the piety they professed in the face of the enormous sin they were wrapped up in --- this is what I chose to focus on. Had this been a novel, I would have incorporated some of the writers’ other qualities: their deep concern for one another no matter what they themselves had to endure; their spunk and good humor; their overwhelming though utterly misguided desire to live good lives. Martin Luther King said, “The whole system of slavery was largely perpetuated by sincere though spiritually ignorant persons” (“Love in Action”, in Strength to Love, 1963). This truth pervades the letters. I believe the majority of evil is done by people who see themselves as good people. The challenge for us is less to look at our ancestors and identify their now glaringly obvious wrongs, than it is to discover and remove the logs from our own otherwise beautiful eyes.