John and Norma Gurley
At the Cliffside reunion this year, I again met John and Norma Land Gurley. Although our lives had touched on several occasions in the past, I had seen neither of them in years. I learned that at some time both John and Norma, as well as John’s father, Clanney B. Gurley, had been residents of Cliffside.
Clanney B. Gurley was born in the Golden Valley area of Rutherford County in 1892 where he lived with his Grandparents, Joseph W. and Elizabeth Whisnant. Sometime between 1910 and 1916, Clanney, his wife Effie, and their two sons, Kenneth and John, lived in Cliffside for a short time. They moved back to Golden Valley just weeks before the 1916 flood that devastated much of Western North Carolina.
Cliffside did not suffer as much damage as many other places, but the receding floodwaters left a great deal of debris that washed down from upstream. Clanney told his sons he had been told that Berry McCurry, a resident at that time, salvaged so many logs from along the river that he was able to keep himself and several of his neighbors in firewood for a couple of years.
In the 1920s Clanney went to work at Florence Mill in Forest City, and moved Effie and his houseful of boys onto the mill hill. John went to school in Forest City, and then went on to work in Florence Mill.
Norma Land was from Danville, Virginia. In the mid 1930s, when she was a teenager, she came to Forest City to visit her sister Mattie, who was married to Walt Brady. The couple lived next door to the Clanney B. Gurley family, so of course Norma and John met.
John teasingly says that Norma made him marry her. He then admits that the truth of the matter is that when Norma returned to her home in Danville, he drove to Virginia to bring her back to marry him. John and Norma were married in 1934, and their first home was in two rooms of a little four-room house on Harmon Street in Forest City. Their first child, John, Jr., was born in Forest City in 1936.
John went to work for the Dixie Home Store in Forest City and trained as a meat cutter. He and Norma became “Cliffside People” when the company transferred John to their Cliffside store in 1938.
Norma was not happy to be moving to Cliffside. She was used to a bigger, livelier town. She felt she would be lonely since John would be at work all day, she knew no one living there, and did not make friends quickly. She was even more apprehensive when she saw her new home on South Main Street, across from the row of warehouses below the post office. The house was one of several that sat below road level in what she called a hole that you had to look up out of to see anything.
She soon changed her mind about Cliffside. John was friendly and outgoing, so they soon had a large circle of friends. Many evenings, and almost every weekend, they either cooked for or ate with friends.
Jess and Ruth McCurry were among their Cliffside Friends. Jess and Ruth wanted to go to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and urged John and Norma to go with them. Jess had just bought a new Plymouth and was reluctant to drive it in such a big city, so with John at the wheel, the two couples set out for New York. They found an apartment available for short-term rental that they could share. It was in a very convenient location, just behind the Jack Dempsey Cafe on Times Square, and would cost them only $30.00 for their entire 10-day stay. John gleefully figured it cost them only $7.50 each, so they took it, and had a wonderful time.
The two most memorable events that occurred while they lived in Cliffside were attending the World’s fair and the birth of their daughter, Linda, who was born later in 1939. Norma learned how kind and caring her neighbors were while she was carrying her daughter and after the baby’s birth. She said they were as concerned for her and looked after her as if she was family.
John left the Dixie Home Store in 1942. They moved back to Forest City and opened John Gurley’s Grocery, a little neighborhood grocery store at the intersections of Depot, Harmon and Florence Streets, directly across from the Florence Mill gate. It was separated from the Southern Railway Depot by a row of warehouses and a narrow alley, and the back of the store was only a few feet from the railroad tracks. In spite of the fact that John’s store was just a couple of blocks from Main Street and the bigger grocery stores located there, he had a fairly steady number of customers.
The store building was not much to look at, since it was sided with sheets of tin, some of which was rusted in places, but it was in an excellent location. It was in the path of anyone going into or coming out of the mill at shift change, of the mill hill children walking to or from Forest City Elementary School, and of the families living on Harmon, Park, and surrounding streets. He also had a good many customers from Lake Street, since it was closer to take the path across the park and over the railroad tracks to Gurley’s rather than going across Young and Church Streets to reach the bigger Shytles and Reepe Grocery over on Oak Street.
The Florence mill hill was not a wholly separate society as was the Cliffside Mills village, but was still one of those idyllically safe places that used to exist, and was well populated with children. The major danger to a child was in crossing a road, although many of the roads were still dirt and gravel and there was very little traffic on them. Parents felt safe sending a child as young as six or so to the store to buy a loaf of bread or a quart of milk, but preferred him to cross as few roads as possible. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, I lived on the mill hill with my family, Ernest and Malleree Atkinson Prewitt and my siblings, Jerry, Gail, and Kay. During these years, I walked to the store many times to buy “loaf bread,” milk and a Pepsi, Coke, or RC Cola. I recall paying 12 and 15 cents for a loaf of bread, and five cents for a long necked bottle of Pepsi. If I had not already spent all my 50¢ weekly allowance on penny candy, I sometimes got a carton of six Pepsi Colas for a quarter. I do not recall the price of milk.
In the early 1940s, we had a large Blue Maltese cat named Tillie, who was both beautiful and smart. Until they saw it for themselves, few people believed that she could open a closed door when she wanted out. She would leap from the floor and wrap her paws around the doorknob, shift her weight from one paw to the other, and drop to the floor. Her shift turned the doorknob just enough to release the latch, and after dropping to the floor, she was able to use her claws to pull the door open wide enough to get out. She was a good cat, never bothering anyone, and the neighbors liked her and fed her tidbits from their table.
One day Tillie disappeared, and could not be found. Someone told us that John Gurley was upset that cats were getting into the store’s trash cans in the alley beside the store, and had threatened to kill them. Although we had never known her to go that far from home or to get into trash cans, we were sure that Tillie had been murdered. I’m sure John had nothing to do with Tillie’s disappearance, but my brother and I, then seven and nine years old, decided he was guilty.
John kept paint and brushes at the store to paint his own sale signs to hang on the front of the store. During ball games that were of high local interest, he would listen to the radio inside the store and at the end of each inning, quickly paint and post the scores on the outside of the store where his sale signs usually hung. The mill windows were either painted over or frosted, but any employee who was interested in the game could walk to the front of the mill, tilt up one of the windows, and look across at the store to see how the game was going. One of the mill supervisors grumbled that John should stop doing that, since he was having a hard time keeping his men on their jobs during ball games.
As do most people alive then, I recall where I was and what I was doing when I learned that WWII had ended. I was 10 years old, and was walking down the path through the park, returning from John Gurley’s Store, when the mill’s whistle started sounding repeatedly, car horns started honking, and people were yelling that Japan had surrendered and the war was over.
I did not know until recently that John had heard the news on the radio about the time that I left the store. He had quickly unrolled a long length of his white butcher paper and painted a sign that stretched across the whole front of the store. In huge letters it read “WAR ENDED”. It was seen from the mill windows and the excitement began. Norma said John had stacked a pile of watermelons for sale in front of the store, and several people were so exuberantly happy that they tossed the watermelons high into the air to burst when they hit the ground.
When I saw John and Norma at Cliffside Day this fall, I confessed my long-ago sin of falsely accusing John of disposing of our cat, and we had a laugh about it. In return, he made a confession of his own. Working long hours in the store, he had to eat whenever he had a chance and whatever he had at hand. In addition to the meats he cut, he kept various luncheon, or deli, meats in the meat case, including a long roll of bologna, encased in red, from which he cut slices to the customers’ specifications. Loaves of bread were not closed with the twist ties that are used today. The ends of the paper were folded up neatly and a sticky label held them in place, sealing each end. John confessed that during long days at the store when he got hungry, he had occasionally taken a loaf of bread, peeled the end label loose just enough to slip out one slice of bread, and then stuck the label back on tightly. He would wrap the pilfered bread around a slice of bologna to make a sandwich that would last him until supper.
Supermarkets came on the scene, and it became impossible for small community groceries to compete with them. John stopped operating the store in 1953. He leased the building to a couple who ran it as a store for a while, but they were not able to make a profitable venture of it, so closed it. John and Norma still own the building, but it is not occupied, and sits forlornly there on the corner.
After he closed the store, John went to work as a salesman for Cowan Tire and Battery Company in Forest City. Norma took a job as the company bookkeeper, and when Cowan’s became a licensed NC Tag Office, someone was hired to help with the bookkeeping and Norma became the license plate agent. John and Norma worked there until John took early retirement in 1962.
John had always loved carnivals and fairs, but the trip to the New York World’s Fair had apparently made an addict of him, since he also attended those in New Orleans and Knoxville, and complained for years because he had missed the one in Chicago. This addiction was likely why he decided about 1956 to buy a portable “store” on wheels that he could pull behind his truck and take to carnivals, fairs and other public events.
Having heard of a vendor wagon for sale in Greenville, SC for $1100.00, he borrowed that amount from the bank and went down to look it over. He was negotiating with the seller for a better price, and the haggling had gone on for some time. His youngest daughter, Kathy, was about 6 years old at the time. She became impatient and was promised a hamburger after they finished if she would be quiet. She ruined all his negotiations when she looked up at him and said, “Daddy, you got $1100.00 from the bank, so why don’t you just give it to him and let’s go get our hamburger.”
Both during and following the years they worked at Cowan’s, he and Norma sold soft drinks, cotton candy, popcorn, peanuts, candy apples, snow cones and other things from this vendor wagon. They took it to all the county fairs and carnivals, to the NC State Fair in Raleigh and on each weekend during the summer, they took it to Lake Lure. They were apparently good employees since Mr. Cowan allowed them time off their jobs to go to these events. Norma says they wore out three wagons, and still have the last one, which John likes to go out and look over every once in a while.
Around the end of WWII, Daddy (Ernest Prewitt) and Grandpa (Ed) Prewitt had jointly bought a 36-acre farm on Doggett Road near Forest City. After both their deaths in the 1950s, the farm was divided and sold. John and Norma bought part of the farm and replaced the old farmhouse on the property with the very nice brick ranch-style house where they now live. They share their home with their daughter, Linda, who cares for them.
John had major heart problems in 2000 and bypass surgery was performed in Charlotte. His recovery was doubtful, and his stay in the hospital stretched on for 114 days, many of them in intensive care. Norma and Linda rented an apartment near the hospital so they could stay with him the entire time, and were finally able to bring him home. He had another heart attack in November of 2005 that has slowed him down a good bit. At age 91, he does not hear well, but his mind is alert and his memory contains the answer to any question one puts to him. Norma, still a very attractive lady at age 88, admits to suffering some memory impairment, but laughingly declares that John remembers everything, so she just asks him.