About Ed Atkinson
The life of James Edward Atkinson was one of transition. He saw, firsthand, what we view as history. Born into a family of landed gentry in 1857, he was waited upon by slaves whose children were his playmates. A small black boy his own age was assigned to sleep at the foot of his bed on cold nights to keep his feet warm. In 1860, when he was 3 or 4 years old, the first Pony Express mail service was begun, and his native South Carolina seceded from the United States of America. When he was five years old, his father, his uncles, his cousins, and a good many of the family slaves went off to fight a war that was foreseen as one of short duration, lasting possibly a year.
Their confidence in the outcome of the War Between The States was shattered as the fighting continued far beyond the year they anticipated. Amenities heretofore taken for granted were few and far between, and even the basic necessities became scarce. Many of the plantation fields lay fallow, as those who normally tilled them were off at war, many never to return to work their land. Their life blood had already soaked into soil other than their own.
As battles were lost, as husbands and brothers and sons were lost, slowly came the realization that their cause was lost, and their lives were changed forever. The lifestyle of plenty enjoyed on the plantations at the beginning of the Civil War was markedly different from the lifestyle at its end.
Former plantation masters who survived the war were forced to the realization that they could no longer enjoy the fruit of someone else’s labor. Upon their return they must, from resources almost depleted, hire their former slaves to help restore their homes and their lands if they were to provide for themselves and their families. The rich became poorer. The landed gentry became land poor. Their former lives of plenty became lives of scarcity and deprivation.
When Ed was 10 years old, Alaska was bought from Russia for $7.2 million. When he was 11 years old, the first of the Southern states were re-admitted to the union, and the Ku Klux Klan had become active in the south. A year later, in 1869, General Ulysses S. Grant, who had laid waste to much of the South during the war, was elected President of the United States of America, and the Union-Pacific Railroad was opened. In 1870 the Northern Pacific Railroad was begun. In 1872, when he was 15 years old, millions of buffalo died when vast herds out west were slaughtered, but closer to home, and to his heart, his Mother died.
Two years later, in 1874, seventeen year old James Edward Atkinson rode away from the Chester County, SC plantation of his Grandfather, James Atkinson, taking little more than his horse and clothing with him. He was running away after being refused permission to join his older brother, George, in working on the railroad. His “working on the railroad” was not running trains, but helping to construct the paths they would follow from Spartanburg to Asheville.
While working on the railroad in Polk County, Ed met his future wife. In 1892, at age 35, this seemingly “confirmed” bachelor married 18-year-old Louise Arms, of Columbus, NC, the daughter of a schoolteacher from Massachusetts who had settled in Polk County in the 1850s. Shortly after their marriage, Ed gave up building railroads to settle down, and returned to the land to farm for his livelihood, as he had done in his youth. The great railroad strike of 1894 did not affect him, since he and Louise had already moved to present Cherokee County, South Carolina,
Ed & his children
About 1893, both he and his brother, Gill Atkinson, moved to the State Line area of Cherokee County, SC where they bought farms and started their families. When construction began on Cliffside Mill, Gill sold his farm and moved his family to Cliffside. A few years later, Ed also sold his farm, and during the winter of 1905 loaded the younger children and the family’s belongings into a wagon, hitched up the mules, and headed north to Cliffside. His older children walked to their new home, leading their two milk cows. The family moved into a house on Riverview Street, and Ed went to work for Cliffside Mill, first as a carpenter/laborer, and later helping to run the steam plant.
Ed is shown in the 1910 Census as, at age 46, one of the oldest mill employees. He was actually 52, but had likely “miss-stated” his age for fear of being viewed as too old to be hired. Although many men lived longer, because of the high number of deaths among children at that time, the average age at death was 49 years and six months. Ed would live for almost 45 years more, practically another whole life span.
He moved his family from Cliffside back to Cherokee County in 1911, but over the years he spent extended visits with relatives who remained in Cliffside. Ed was a man of great pride. He took pride in his cleanliness and his appearance. He took pride in his honesty and in his dealings with other people, and expected the same from them. He took pride in working hard to provide a living for his family, which was not always easy.
Once, when times were especially hard, his wife Louise decided she would help out. She made a number of brooms from the sedge, or broom straw, growing in a fallow field near their house. She planned to take them to Cliffside and sell them door to door. She knew Ed would not approve of her plan, but would likely see this as a reflection on his ability to provide for his family. She did not mention the brooms, but just told him she would like to go to Cliffside to visit Nell for a few days. Her sales campaign was of short duration and was not very profitable. During the first afternoon, she sold only three of the brooms, and one of the three was sold on credit. The next morning, Ed, unaccustomed to her being away, arrived in town. He asked her to please come home since he missed her.
In the 1940s, widowed and in his 80s, he moved back to Cliffside to live with his daughter, Nell Atkinson Hill, and her husband, Roy. They had a room built onto their South Main Street house for him. By then, his hair and thick mustache had become snowy white, but his blue eyes still sparkled. He still carried his tall, slender frame in an erect carriage, and his constant companions were the pipe in which he smoked sweet smelling Prince Albert tobacco, and the cane he used or carried hooked over his arm.
He lived in the Cliffside area for the rest of his life. He died in 1954 at the age of 96 years and five months. All his children lived and worked in Cliffside at one time or another, some of them for almost as long as Cliffside existed.