Remembering Rutherford: Pumpkin Crockett recalls good life, people at county farm

Remembering Rutherford, Daily News Journal, January 10, 2015, Greg Tucker

William “Pumpkin” Crockett

William “Pumpkin” Crockett

William “Pumpkin” Crockett was born and raised on the county farm. For him it was “heaven on earth.”

Hoping to make the “poorhouse” a self-sustaining operation, Rutherford County in 1892 purchased approximately 175 acres of “good land” between the NC&StL railroad right-of-way and the Stones River Middle Fork just north of the Rucker community.  In this new location (the third since being founded in 1829), the poorhouse initially met expectations, but by 1905 the county farm was again a taxpayer burden, due in part to corruption and mismanagement.

(This county facility was officially designated “the poorhouse” when first organized in 1828.  (please click here for the September 10, 2010 article titled, “First County poorhouse was on Cripple Creek”).  In the early 20 th century it was identified as the “county farm.”  Today’s Community Care nursing home replaced the old county farm.)  Based on a 1906 investigation by the Quarterly Court, the “poorhouse commissioners” were all replaced.  The new commission terminated the poorhouse superintendent, and in 1907 hired Rollie S. Holden (uncle of Rollie M. Holden, founder of Holden Hardware on the Square) to fill the position.  Holden soon proved to be not only “a good and practical farmer” but also a conscientious and trustworthy accountant and a caring overseer for the elderly, ill and indigent farm residents.

Crockett remembers Holden as a kind and generous patriarch.  Crockett’s mother, Lillie, was born in the Murfreesboro Bottoms in 1914 and orphaned at a young age.  As a child she lived with her older sister who was abusive.  When Holden learned of the black child’s circumstances, he drove his wagon into the Bottoms and took custody of Lillie.  The young girl was taken to the county farm where Mary Williams Holden, wife of the superintendent, raised her.

When the Holdens first arrived to take charge of the county farm, they brought with them James Banks, a 12-year-old black child.  “By the time I came along, Banks was in charge of the farm work and other duties… kind of like an assistant superintendent,” remembers Crockett.  Few people ever knew Banks’ given name because he answered to a three-letter nickname.  Regarding Banks’ nickname, Crockett notes: “That nickname may be unacceptable today, but back then it was what he considered his rightful name and nobody called him any different.”

Rutherford County Poorhouse today’s Community Care of Rutherford County

Rutherford County Poorhouse
today’s Community Care of
Rutherford County

According to farm lore, Banks had been abandoned and deemed retarded or “a problem” after he “boiled a bunch of baby chickens.”  He was apparently in a foster relationship with the Holdens before they accepted the county farm assignment.

Another youngster who came to the farm through the kindness of the Holdens was Willie Wade. As a black teenager in the Cemetery community, Wade was convicted of petty theft and sentenced to the county workhouse.  The workhouse superintendent at that time was Charles Holden, brother of Rollie.  Charles and his brother, believing it would be a mistake to require the young boy to live and work among the adult inmates, had Wade transferred to the county farm.

“Willie was given lifetime employment at the farm,” explains Crockett.  “I remember that he was kind of the chief cook and bottle washer.

Had a wooden leg ’cause of a tractor accident on the farm.

He was also the father of Johnella, my older half-sister.”

Another favorite personality on the farm in the 1940’s was Alberta Everett, widow of Rutherford County’s only black Confederate veteran.

“Miss Alberta came to the farm with her husband when he got crazy; she was a loyal wife.  She stayed after he died, ran the milk separator, and interpreted dreams,” recalls Crockett.  “She was really good-natured and would play ball with me.  She was also educated and helped us with our schooling.  She served as the county farm midwife and delivered me.

According to her, I had a big head as a baby and for that reason gave me the name “Pumpkin”.  I liked the name and still use it now.”

Farm resident Mattie Crutchfield claimed a unique lineage.  “Miss Mattie was dark-skinned but passed for white,” recalls Crockett.  “She claimed to be a Melungeon, a Portuguese descendant.  Her son, William, was born at the farm and was adopted out, but the adopting mother brought him back and told Miss Mattie that he couldn’t fit in. They both cried. William was retarded but functional.  He liked loud engines.”

Several county farm residents provided unique services.  “Smokey Joe Smotherman was a short black hunchback with a thick mustache,” remembers Crockett . “Despite his scary appearance, he was a gentle fellow.  He would always sit up with the dead to keep the cats and other varmints off.  He also cared for the syphilitic residents.” (A 1909 report shows that 12.5 percent of the poorhouse residents “suffered from syphilis.”  More than half of the residents “were of unsound mind.”)  For Crockett, however, county farm life was good:  “Living at county farm was like heaven on earth for me.

We always had plenty of good food.  I learned farming and did lots of fishing in the river.  They sent me to Happy Hill School on Marshalls Knob.

Miss Alberta helped me with my reading.  We studied with a kerosene lamp.

“Willie and Banks let me ride the mule pulling the hay wagon.  Back then they would fork loose hay onto the wagon.  I would sit in the middle of the wagon and let the hay pile up around me.  When someone was to be buried in the poorhouse ‘boot hill’

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