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Things really do change in 100 years

SoVaNow.com / December 26, 2012
When George Gordon was born on Dec. 27, 1912, Clarksville was a sleepy farm town. There was no lake and no real industry. The roads, at least the few that were paved, were cobblestone — the unpaved ones were mud. That is just the beginning of what Gordon has seen in his 100 years.

When asked to describe the Clarksville of his youth, Gordon quickly says, “It’s prettier now, especially at Christmas with the lights and wreaths on Virginia Avenue.” He says the town never decorated the streets for Christmas when he was a boy.

As an aside, he adds that Christmases are even better now. When he was a boy, Santa always skipped over his house.

Even though he born nearly 100 years after Clarksville was founded in 1818, Gordon says the town was still new. Much of Clarksville was destroyed in 1893. “A fire started in a blacksmith’s shop.” By the time the closest fire department arrived in Clarksville — from Oxford, N.C. — “three-fourths of the town had burned down.”

Gordon was the second child and oldest son in his family. His siblings included his older sister Ethylene and younger brothers Henry and Vernon. Their father was a tobacco farmer, which was not unusual since the area was still a major producer of leaf tobacco. He also grew cotton for a couple years “until he found out he could only break even on the crop.”

When it came time to enter school, Gordon came to town in a surrey pulled by a mule. Clarksville had almost no cars in those days. Even if they had existed, Gordon is not sure they could have made it through the muddy streets.

Gordon remembers his early life as “nice even though he had chores.” All that changed when he was nine and his father died. Being the oldest son, George assumed more responsibility on the farm. Nevertheless, he credits his mother as the person who kept the farm running after his father’s death. “Not only did she run the farm, but she also sent all four of her children to college,” says Judith Gordon, George’s daughter.

“The family,” he says, referring to his father’s siblings, “wanted to take us kids and take over operating the farm. They did not think my mother could handle it. She said no.” His mother did bring in tenant farmers to help with the work. There is even a house still standing behind the home where Gordon lives. For many years, it housed the tenant family that helped his mother.

Gordon laughs as he recalls one of his mother’s greatest frustrations — trying to get the family mule to take them to church on Sunday. “The church was in the other direction from the school. But the mule was used to taking us children to school, and it just did not want to turn toward the church.”

By the time Gordon was old enough to attend college, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression. He only had enough money to attend North Carolina State for one year. “People complain about the fiscal cliff now. Back then, we really had a fiscal cliff, no food stamps, or welfare. You just had to help yourself and your family,” Gordon says.

After one year of college, Gordon returned to Clarksville, to farming, and went in search of a job. “They were not easy to come by. And if you worked for the government, you could not work on a crew if it was headed by someone in your family.”

Gordon finally found work in Nelson salting unpaved roads. Salt was tossed on the streets to dry up the moisture, even during the warmer months. “You worked two weeks and then were off two weeks, and you were paid $0.35 per hour. If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. You weren’t paid to not work.”

When World War II broke out, Gordon was exempt from the draft for two reasons. First, he was a farmer. More importantly, he was the oldest son of a fatherless family. He and his mother were primarily responsible for overseeing farm operations. The draft board, at that time, tried to avoid causing a hardship on any family.

Gordon stayed home. He married his childhood sweetheart, Lillian, and had two children, George and Judith. All the while, he continued the family tradition of tobacco farming. When asked if the farm still grow tobacco, Gordon proudly says yes: “I can’t give it up, it made me the man I am today.”

But daughter Judith interjects that he cannot give full credit to tobacco. Even though it allowed him to grow the farm from a small 30- acre farm to the nearly 700 acres he owns today, Gordon’s finest characteristic, she says, is his generous spirit, mostly learned at the hand of his mother.

Judith recounts the story of a young man born to one of the family’s tenant farmers. The boy was born blind. Judith says her grandmother paid to send the child down to Duke Hospital and have his sight restored.

Gordon was named Clarksville Man of the Year in 1996 for his contributions to Clarksville. Among them, he helped fund and build the existing Clarksville Baptist Church and the Clarksville Masonic Lodge. He and his friends started the Sandy Fork Hunt Club, which still exists today. But he refuses to speak about such honors, more interested instead in talking about the many changes he has seen in the world in his 100 years.

“Too many to remember,” he says.

But they include:

The creation of Buggs Island Lake and the John H. Kerr Dam.

The closing of the once popular health resort known as Buffalo Springs. Gordon points out even if the Spa had not closed, it would not exist today because it “sat below the 320 mark.” Much of the land on which the spa was located was inundated with water when Buggs Island Lake was created.

The beginning and end of the Russell Stover Candy Factory, and Robbins Mills and Burlington Industries — the successor to Robbins Mills.

The opening and closing of both the movie theater and the drive-in theater in Clarksville. The movie theater was housed in the building most recently used by the House of Prayer, and the drive-in theater sat at the corner of Cow Road and Highway 58.

Changes in farming. When he was a boy, tobacco was planted and harvested by hand. “You could plant about 1-1/2 to 2 acres per day, and it took 6 or 7 people, 3 days to plant a 20-acre field. Today, with a carousel planter, one man can plant a 20-acre field in less than a day,” Gordon says, adding that curing was a 24-hour a day operation for the 6-days it took to cure tobacco.

When asked the key to his longevity, Gordon says “hard work.” He farmed until he was in his 80s. He also attributes it to being spoiled for nearly 60 years by his wife Lillian. She died in 1997. His humility stops him from telling how he spoiled his wife. In 1948, he built her the house where he currently resides. They moved in around Christmas.

Judith adds that his longevity may also come from the fact that Gordon keeps mentally active. He is fascinated by the smart phone technology, and he recently took up texting.

Putting it in context, Gordon says to think about this: “When I was a boy, we’d run to the window to see a car. As I got older it was a plane, and then they put a man on the moon. Now we can get all this information without even having to leave home.”

So what does he hope for Clarksville in the next 100 years? “Someone to stand up and push for the town” which he loves.

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