Childhoods interrupted, the loss of a child and a case of bubonic plague: Robert and Marie Mills have overcome plenty of challenges in their long life together
By Katie Scarvey
By the time Robert and Marie Mills met one another as children, they’d already been through a lot.
The son of a sharecropper, Robert grew up in Ellerbe. He started working with his father when he was 6 years old, planting, picking and cutting cotton.
In 1929, when he was 12, his father died. Robert’s mother no longer had the means to take care of him and his five younger siblings, so she sent them to the Presbyterian Orphans Home in Barium Springs.
Marie’s story is similar. Not long after her father died, she and her four younger siblings were also sent to Barium Springs. She was 10.
Although Robert is slightly older than Marie ó he is 90; she is 88 ó he was one grade behind her in school at Barium Springs, since he’d never had a chance to attend because he had to work as a child.
Robert and Marie remember meeting during a week of vacation at Lookout Dam.
Robert’s girlfriend óHattie ó had just dumped him. Marie was “walking along with her head down,” Robert says, when he noticed her. He was in sixth grade and she was in seventh.
So what’s a boy to do when he sees a pretty girl?
Why, take a branch of purple pokeberries and slap it on his feet.
“The juice got all over me,” he says.
It got all over Marie, too.
So ó why did he do that?
“I was showing off,” he says.
It must have worked.
One week ago, on June 8, Robert and Marie celebrated their 70th anniversary.
They have fond memories of Barium Springs. The relationships they formed there are so important to them that they gather together with other alumni every two months in Mooresville for a mini-reunion.
The residents of Barium Springs were like a family, Robert says.
Sandra Mills, the couple’s daughter-in-law, is convinced that Robert and Marie’s early experience at Barium Springs made them the people they are.
“It made them strong,” she says.
Daughter Melva Menius agrees. Their background, she says, made having a family even more important to them.
The seven Mills children grew up understanding the importance of Barium Springs to their parents. Every August, the whole family returned for homecoming.
The children and teenagers who lived at Barium Springs worked hard. Marie recalls working during her junior and senior years in the “baby cottage,” where the youngest residents lived. She also waited on tables and canned fruit and vegetables.
Robert worked on the farm, clearing land and driving a truck. He remembers hauling fruit back from Statesville to the kitchen in Rumple Hall.
Still, there was time to play as well.
Marie was on the girls basketball team, and Robert excelled at football, basketball and track. He remembers scoring three touchdowns in a game against Salisbury, and he held the record for the mile at Barium Springs, he says ó 4 minutes and 39 seconds.
He continued to enjoy sports into adulthood.
His son, R.L., Rockwell High School class of 1959, recalls that his father would scrimmage with his high school squad, without a helmet or pads.
“He probably knew more about football than our coaches,” says R.L., who lives near his parents on Poole Road.
Marie graduated in 1938. Robert would have graduated the next year, but when Marie left, he decided to go with her. That June, they got married after a prayer meeting at Old Town Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem. They’d been dating for five years by then.
They got a job taking care of a service station owned by O.O. Rufty on Long Street in Salisbury.
Robert pumped gas, he says, while Marie “sat on the icebox and ate all the ice cream.”
“I did not,” she says.
Although they only made $10 a week, they were able to save half of that, since they were living rent-free in a room next to the service station.
Soon, Robert went to work at Macanal Mill on East Franklin Street. Robert stayed there 42 years and officially retired at 62 ó although he was close to 70 when he really quit working, he says. In 1947, the Mills family moved to the home on Poole road where Robert and Marie still live. Robert grew corn and oats, and lots of vegetables; he also raised cows and pigs. He remembers selling baby pigs for $2 each.
Marie also worked at the mill on and off. “She’d work, and then get pregnant again,” Robert says.
“I wonder whose fault that was?” Marie asks.
Robert joined the Navy from 1944-1945. He and Marie had six children by then.
Was his absence hard for Marie?
“Yes, I won’t lie,” she says. “But I had good neighbors, and my mother-in-law lived close.”
Being in the Navy was tough for Robert, too. Tougher than most could ever guess.
Stationed in Portsmouth, Va., on the U.S.S. Wyoming, he was bitten by a flea, he remembers.
Not a big deal, really.
Unless it happens to be the wrong sort of flea.
Several hours after he was bitten, Robert noticed red streaks shooting up his arm. He went to sick bay and told the doctor he’d been bitten by a flea.
The doctor made the diagnosis immediately ó Robert had bubonic plague ó and quarantined the entire ship.
They traced the disease to a ship from Hong Kong that was docked nearby, Robert believes.
In a coma for seven days, he remembers waking up packed in ice because his fever was so high.
The timing for him to get bubonic plague was not great. When he fell ill, Marie was in the hospital in labor with son Jerry. She remembers overhearing a nurse talking about a telegram that had arrived, saying, “I’m not telling her that now.” At the time, Marie did not know the telegram was for her.
Robert recovered and eventually made it back home to his family in Salisbury.
Another tough time was when their oldest daughter, Patricia, died in 1964. She was only 25 years old when she died of an undiagnosed heart condition six weeks after her fourth child was born. Robert and Marie have remained close to her husband, Bud Lowan, who lives nearby.
Some time after Patricia died, Bud came to them and said, “Do you all mind if I get married again?”
They were happy for Bud, whom they consider a son.
“Every man needs a woman,” Robert says.
Robert and Marie are both in good health. At 90, Robert still mows the grass and tends a large garden.
Family is important to them. The walls of their Poole Road home are “insulated” with family pictures, Robert says.
Their children include daughters Melva Menius and Carol Robbins and sons R.L. and Jerry, who live locally. Daughter Shelia Gould lives in Lincolnton; son Gurney lives in Florida.
Robert and Marie have 25 grandchildren, 39 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
“If they come up to me and say Paw-Paw, I take ’em,” says Robert.
What’s the secret to their happy marriage?
“Be honest,” Robert says. “Don’t run around on your wife.”
“Have faith in God,” Marie says.
“Trust each other. You’ve got to pull together.
“And don’t go to bed mad,” she adds. “And tell each other you love each other.”
The first thing they do in the morning and the last thing they do at night is kiss one another.
They’re happy with their lives.
And they’re thankful.
“If food’s on the table, it’s gonna be blessed before it’s et,” Robert says.
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