WANT TO READ “EMILY’S LETTERS?”
By Jim Buice
When Catherine Pitts started to put together a book she calls “Emily’s Letters,” she felt like she got to know her great-grandmother, who died in 1880.
Certainly, she has spent countless hours going through information she “inherited” when her grandmother, Sallie Bailey, died in 1960. Included were letters from Emily Foster Bailey, her great-grandmother, who wrote to sons Rad and Lewis after the Civil War.
“I told the people settling the estate I wanted all the old information, all the books, all the papers that were saved,” Pitts said. “So when they got through, they handed me a box of stuff. And in there were all of these letters. The interesting thing is these are letters that Emily wrote in 1880 to her sons who were prospecting for gold in Colorado.”
Pitts, who lives in Winston-Salem, is the daughter of Edgar Reynold (Ray) Williams and Ella Mae Wyatt Williams of Davie County.
She has worked on compiling and trying to interpret the letters for years. There are 11 letters written by Bailey, who was born in 1825, to her sons, along with letters from the sons to family members back in North Carolina. There also are two letters from Sallie Bailey’s cousin, Phillip Bailey of Bailey Brothers Tobacco Manufacturers.
Pitts said the fact that Emily Foster Bailey could write must have meant she was from an affluent family. However, her writing style, where she used no periods and indiscriminate use of capital letters, often created havoc in trying to figure out what she was trying to say.
“When you think about that day and age, a lot of women could not write at all,” Pitts said. “But it looks like she got up to third-grade education and didn’t get any further. I went to numerous people older than I to help with the colloquialisms.”
In one letter from Emily to Lewis, one of the sons, she wrote: “Arrested Ab Phelps for black garde to the women P D before the bawds.”
Pitts explained that the “black garde” is an unprincipled scoundrel and that she personally believes that she was too “lady-like” to say anything that had to do with urination, so Emily said “P(ee)D” in front of the prostitutes. In our time, Pitts pointed out, we would say that he “exposed himself.”
Another more typical excerpt from Emily: “We are behind with the work. Hired Bill Drake for one month at nine dollars. Most done cutting wheat. It is not good. Not done setting tobacca plants. No season. It has been dry for three weeks.”
And this: “Court at Moxville this week. Peter Lions goes to Raleigh for five years for stealing a bridle.”
With each letter in the book, Pitts offers the original on one page and her interpretation on the next.
Speaking of that time in history, Pitts said she gleaned quite a bit of information from reading between the lines on how many lived.
“There was a lot of drinking going on in those days,” she said. “Just about everybody had their own liquor making because the water was not fit to drink. So I think they all stayed soused.”
Pitts said that apparently one of the sons died out in Colorado and the other son returned home.
“Apparently when he came home, he brought the letters that he had with him,” Pitts said. “Grandmother Sallie saved them all these years.”
She said the letter from Phillip Bailey of Bailey Brothers Tobacco Manufacturers was one of the more interesting ones.
“They were apparently in competition with R.J. Reynolds Tobacco,” Pitts said. “I did some research. Either they merged or sold out.”
Pitts eventually entered all the information into a notebook (all the letters and information were copywrited in 1994) and decided several months ago to put it into book form.
“I am amateur geneologist, and I thought it was time to get it out there for everybody,” she said. “I’ll never break even on the time I spent. I sent copies to all the surrounding libraries: Davie, Davidson, Rowan and Winston-Salem, and sent copies to Raleigh to the state library. I didn’t expect to make many sales off it. This is only of interest to geneologists, historians and old family members.”
Pitts, who was born in 1922 and is approaching age 90, has quite a varied background. She has operated a sewing center and a mail-order business. She has been weaver and a wine-maker. She also made an unsuccessful run for a spot on the Davidson County Board of Commissioners in 1990 when she lived in Davidson County.
Her husband and two sons have all passed away. However, she and son Andy launched Red Barn Data Center, a successful business venture in the 1990s, out of their house in Winston-Salem.
“He was the brains behind it, and I ran the office,” she said. “At one time, there were 50 telephone lines in this house. He convinced me that we had to get to the Internet, and I knew nothing about it. It was expensive because you had a lot of expensive equipment. We were the first to bring the Internet to North Carolina in 1994. I think it was two or three weeks later that Charlotte got the Internet. People back then didn’t know what the Internet was. I had to put out booklets.”
The Red Barn Data Center will be her next book, and Pitts calls it a “daunting task.”
But it won’t be any more difficult than trying to interpret all the letters from more than 100 years ago. Pitts, however, is glad she took on the challenge.
“The main thing that I got from all of this was that to me Emily Foster Bailey was a name, and after I got this in the computer and into my interpretation so I could read it, I ended up thinking, that’s my great-grandmother,” Pitts said. “I got to know her. She had a sense of humor. She’s a great gal. She was left with pregnant when her husband died. She had a child that was 3 or 4, and another child that was 7 or 8 years old. And she had a farm to take care of. She had tobacco. I learned her. I’m very protective now of my great- grandma.”
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