Mary Quinn Womick at 100
Mary Quinn Womick Prewitt was 100 years old on September 9, 2005. Family and friends helping celebrate her birthday at the Missionary Wesleyan Church on Sunday, September 11th, probably numbered at least 100. The number of birthday cards she received, including one from George and Laura Bush, far exceeded 100.
Her Nephew, Joe Yelton, addressed the crowd while holding a copy of the recently published book, Cliffside: Portrait of a Carolina Mill Town, which contains pictures of her as a teenager. He talked of Mary Quinn having been able, as few people are, to view the myriad of changes that have taken place in the last century. He talked about her memories of seeing an automobile for the first time when Raleigh R. Haynes acquired one; of the first airplane she saw, and of the many other “firsts” in her life that she would have viewed as wondrous things.
Mary Quinn Womick was born on Saturday, September 9, 1905, to parents Quinn Lee Womick and Eva Cole Womick. The log cabin in which she was born, in the West End area of Forest City, sat about where Rexel Lighting is now located. She was Quinn and Eva Womick’s third child, having an older sister, Josephine, and an older brother, Worth. Her father worked in the weave room of the Florence Mill, either walking or riding his bicycle the several miles to work and back each day.
Quinn moved the family to Cliffside and went to work in the weave room of Cliffside Mill when Mary Quinn was about a year old. This was probably no later than 1907, since she appears to be no older than two or three in a family photo made behind their house in Cliffside. In the photo, she stands at her father’s knees holding a bunny rabbit. One of the tall, cement-covered rock pillars supporting the house is clearly visible behind them. She believes the first house into which they moved was behind the old Baptist Church. Prior to the time of the 1910 census they had moved into the house beside the Company Store on North Main Street, about where the Memorial Building was later located.
Mary Quinn began first grade in the old Cliffside School building that was situated near the site of what would later become known as the “Boy Scout hut.” She attended school there through the seventh grade. Shortly before she started school, her sister, Lee, was born.
Mary Quinn’s father helped lay bricks for the Cliffside Methodist Church. She says one of her childhood memories is of her father standing on a ladder, laying brick. Apparently the wall on which he was laying the brick was not too high, since he allowed Mary Quinn to pick up a brick from the ground, climb up a rung or two on the ladder, and hand it to him to lay. Mary Quinn had felt very proud to be helping to build the church.
She was almost 11 years old at the time of the 1916 flood, and recalled being very afraid her father would be swept away by the muddy waters whenever he went near the river. She recently saw a photograph of the 1916 floodwaters that also showed the livery stable across the river near the Shelby Road. It reminded her of another memory from her youth. An Aunt and Uncle who worked in Cliffside Mill would save what they could from their combined wages, and after getting off work on Friday afternoon, would rent a horse and buggy from that livery stable. They would leave that evening for a visit with another of her uncles, Horace Cole, who lived North of Rutherfordton, in the Green Hill Community. They would return on Sunday evening, turn in the horse and buggy, and return to work on Monday morning. They often took Mary Quinn with them on the visit.
Eva, her mother, developed tuberculosis, and although Mary Durant, the Cliffside Mill nurse, came in to check on her and do what she could, more help was needed. Her father’s sister, Lillie Womick Griffin, who had been widowed in 1914, came to live with them and help care for her mother during her illness. Eva’s tuberculosis was further complicated by pneumonia, and she died in May of 1918, when Mary Quinn was 13 years old.
A number of years ago, an elderly man who was a lifelong member of Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church, where Eva was buried, gave the family an interesting bit of information. Barrett Daniel always attended every funeral or burial at Pleasant Grove. He said that the hearse bearing Eva’s body to Pleasant Grove for burial was the very first motorized one ever to bring a body there for burial. All before hers had been horse drawn hearses.
In the fall of 1918, the mill nurse, Mary L. Durant, became Mary Quinn’s stepmother when Mary and Quinn Lee Womick were married.
During the winter of 1918-1919, Cliffside was hard hit by the flu epidemic. Whole families came down with it, and Mary Quinn’s stepmother and her Aunt Lillie went about the village helping nurse the sick, both wearing little cloth masks over their faces in an attempt to prevent catching the flu themselves. It was a very bad winter, with snow and cold weather, and her father helped by cutting and splitting wood to heat the houses of those who were sick. Mary Quinn did her part by taking over more of the housework at home. Robert E. Freeman, a young man she liked to claim as her “boyfriend,” even though he was 16 and she had only just become 14, contracted the flu during the early part of the epidemic and died in October, along with his older brother, Russell.
At the beginning of the 1919 school year, when she was 14 years old, she and Pearl James, another Cliffside girl, enrolled in a boarding school in Brevard to continue their education. However, due to problems with her eyes requiring surgery, Mary Quinn had to drop out and return home. She did not return to school, but took a job in Cliffside Mill as a weaver.
In those days the mill whistle would be blown at noon to release the workers for their lunch period, and again an hour later as a signal that it was time to be back on the job. One day, having browsed too long in the company store, she was rushing to get back to work on time. Her looms, set #10 in the weave room, were at the foot of enclosed steps leading to the 2nd floor. On her return, she entered the mill on the 2nd floor, since it was quicker to reach her looms by going into mill on the floor above and down the stairs than going around to the downstairs entrance and across the weave room. Rushing as she started down the steps to her looms, she slipped and fell to the bottom, striking her head. After everyone else had started up their looms and gone back to work, her “side-weaver,” who ran the #8 set of looms adjoining her set, noticed that her looms were not running. He alerted the overseer, who went to see why she had not returned to work and discovered her unconscious at the foot of the stairs.
The accident resulted in her suffering three years of total amnesia.
After she physically recovered from the fall, she picked up and carried on with her life, and went right back to work in the mill. Three years after her fall, she suddenly became aware that something was wrong, when she looked around and was puzzled at discovering herself running a set of looms other than her own Set #10.
While her knowledge of events both before the accident and after she recovered her memory are clear, she can remember nothing about the “lost years.” She does not know whether she was aware of her past life during the three years she lost; she knows only what others have told her concerning that time.
One can only imagine how terrifying it was for her to suddenly become aware of her surroundings at the end of those three years and find herself somewhere she did not recall going, and to remember her former life as if it was yesterday, only to discover that three years of her life had vanished. Her family seemed reluctant to talk with her about it, so she became hesitant to ask questions. Even if this was because they felt it disturbed her, she must have wondered if their reluctance to discuss it was because they viewed this memory lapse as something to be ashamed of.
Of course, she would have received some medical attention at the time, but, with few external injuries showing, it is possible that this was only a matter of being seen by the company-sponsored nurse and doctor. Perhaps the seriousness of her injury was not realized, and the only care she received came from her stepmother, who was a nurse.
To this day she has no memory of those three years. She has longed to know, but has been unable to find out what transpired. She still has the desire to know the details, but there is no one left to ask. It is unlikely that the incident would have been reported in the newspapers, since mill management would not have wanted publicity about the fact that someone was hurt at the mill, especially if it was viewed as a minor injury. Today’s privacy laws would prevent access to records, even if they still existed after all these years.
Mary Quinn had gained three half-sisters when Ruth, Rose, and Daisy were born. Rose, then about 11 or 12 years old, attended school with a girl her age named Mary Ellen Prewitt, and they had become best friends. Mary Ellen’s Mother, Avey Lois Hand Prewitt, had died in 1931, when Mary Ellen was nine years old. She lived down near the ice plant with her father, Robert E. Prewitt, her 2-year-old sister, Lois, and three older brothers, Ernest, Paul, and Oliver. Mary Ellen was often in the Womick home with Rose, and the whole family became quite fond of her, and she of them.
Mary Quinn knew Ed Prewitt from their contact in the mill, and when he asked her to go dancing with him, she accepted. They dated for about a year before he proposed, and they drove his old Chevrolet to Gaffney, SC to be married on June 15, 1935.
Later in the year, Ed gave up his loom-fixing job at Cliffside Mill for a better paying one at Stonecutter Mills in Spindale. They moved to Harrill Street (later Twelve Oaks Drive) in Forest City, and while living there, two of Ed’s sons married and moved out, and the other joined the US Army. This left only Mary Ellen and Lois at home with Ed and Mary Quinn. In 1936, Mary Quinn gave Ed a son, Robert Edward Prewitt, Jr. The family moved to Spindale, and in 1939, Mary Quinn gave birth to their twin daughters, Dee and Lee.
Her stepdaughter, Mary Ellen, upset at being unable to graduate with her friends at Cool Springs High School when the family moved to Spindale, had been allowed to stay in Forest City, living with her brother, Ernest, and his family. However, when Mary Quinn became overwhelmed with the job of caring for Lois, Bob, and the twins, Mary Ellen came to help. Ed drove her to Cool Springs each morning and had someone pick her up each afternoon, so she was still able to graduate from Cool Springs with her friends in 1940. Knowing Ed and Mary Quinn did not have the extra money to buy her a class ring, Mary Ellen did not mention it to them. When Ed found this out, he went to the bank and borrowed the $12.50 for her ring.
Mary Ellen worked in Florence and Caroleen Mills for about a year before going into the WACS in the early 1940s. She met her future husband, Roy Brennan, while in service. They were married, and when they were discharged, moved to his home in New Jersey where his family operated a dairy farm.
Ed took a job at Florence Mill in the early 1940s, and the family moved back to Forest City. During the early years of WWII, Mary Quinn was one of the many women who went back to work outside the home. She took a job at the Florence Mill in Forest City, where she would work for several years, and the extra income allowed them to finally accumulate some savings.
About the time the war ended, Ed and his son, Ernest, jointly bought a farm on Doggett Road near Forest City, and in early 1946 Ed moved his family to the country. Both Ed and Mary Quinn took jobs in Avondale Mill in 1948. Lois graduated from Cool Springs High School in 1951 and moved to New Jersey to be near Mary Ellen, and then moved to Charlotte, NC, where she married Dewey Crawford and had two sons.
Their son, Bob, went into the US Army in 1954. Mary Quinn’s father died in 1955, and in 1957, Ed died, at age 64. Bob came home from service in 1958, and he, Mary Quinn, and the girls moved into a mill house in Avondale, renting out the farm for a short time before selling it. Her daughter, Lee, married and moved to Chester, SC in 1963, and the following year, Dee married and moved to Pennsylvania and Bob married and moved to Spartanburg, SC.
About 1966, Mary Quinn bought the house in Sandy Mush where she now lives. She continued to work at Avondale until she retired in 1970 at age 65. She lived quietly, attending church, visiting her children and grandchildren, hosting visits from her stepchildren, and spending time with Mary Ellen in New Jersey during the summer. When her daughter, Dee, lost her husband in 1975, her mother invited Dee to make her home with her, and she did so. Dee went to work in Florence Mill, and she and her mother shared the household, jointly raising Dee’s stepson, Tim, and her son, Jason. They also enjoyed doing crafts together, attending church, and visiting family and friends. After her daughter, Lee, lost her husband in 1997, Mary Quinn frequently visited with her.
Mary Quinn’s older sister, Josephine, died in November of 1990. Her brother, Worth, died in 1991, and Lee, her last surviving full sister, died in 2001.
When Mary Quinn’s health began to fail, the girls did not want her to stay alone. Dee’s work schedule at Haynes Mill at Avondale, where she was transferred when the Florence Mill closed, allowed her to be off for several days at a time. Mary Quinn was able to stay in her own home during the days Dee was off, and traveled to Lee’s home to stay for several days while Dee was working. Traveling back and forth to Lee’s house in Chester, SC was very tiring for Mary Quinn, so Dee retired early in order to care for her mother full time. Lee frequently came up to spend a few days helping Dee, and during the summer of 2005 moved into the house to help share her care full time.
Mary Quinn’s health prevents her getting out of the house very often, but she enjoys sitting by the window watching the birds that visit the feeders in her yard, and the squirrels that chase each other up and down the oak trees and steal food from the bird’s feeders.
While recently sorting through a box of Mary Quinn’s photos and memorabilia, her daughters found Mary Quinn’s copy of Mrs. Grover C. Haynes’ book Raleigh Rutherford Haynes. The presentation note taped in the front of the book reads: “To Mrs. R. E. Prewitt. This book is presented to you at the request of the children of Raleigh Rutherford Haynes.” It was signed: “Mrs. Grover C. Haynes, Sr.,” the author.
Seeing the book made Mary Quinn want to read it again. Her enjoyment at rereading it was obvious when someone asked to see it and she requested, “Just don’t lose my place!” She can read for only a few minutes at a time, but her bookmark showed she had already reached Chapter eight.
Although she tires easily, her mind is clear and active. Having already celebrated her 100th birthday, she is now “going on” 101.
Get a glimpse of what the world was like in 1905, the year Mary Quinn was born. For more on Mary Quinn and her family, t of what the world was like in 1905, the year Mary Quinn was born. For more on Mary Quinn and her family, there is another essay with photos in Family Stories.
Photos courtesy JoAnn Huskey
Update — March 22, 2006
Mary Quinn Womick Prewitt died on March 4, 2006, and was buried in Cliffside Cemetery on March 7, 2006. She had lived for 100 years, 5 months, and 3 1/2 days.
Although in pain over her last few weeks of life, she did not complain. She welcomed each visitor with a smile, and when they asked how she was, she dismissed the question by asking how they were. Rather than recounting her own frailty and illness, she focused on making each visitor aware that she appreciated their visit and was interested in them and their lives.
Although physically declining and sleeping a great deal, when she was awake she was still mentally alert and aware. She went to sleep and died peacefully, in her own bed, surrounded by those she loved best.
We are grateful we were able to keep her with us for as long as we did. We know that her body just wore out, but selfishly cannot help thinking how wonderful it would have been if it could have kept pace with her mind. That way, her physical condition would have remained as good as her mental condition, and she would have been with us longer.
In addition to losing someone we loved, we also lost a reservoir of first hand knowledge and memories of the past that we will never be able to retrieve.
— JoAnn Huskey