Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 27, 2013
SALISBURY — Jesse and Minnie Byrd somehow found a way.
Their 14 children aren’t quite sure how the couple did it, outside of hard work, prayer and love.
But the Byrds were never wanting. There was always food on the table, even if the family members sometimes ate in shifts.
The children had plenty of clothes, thanks to much sharing. Minnie made sure they were always clean.
Even with only one bathroom, the family’s seven-room house on Old Wilkesboro Road proved big enough. Now and then, the kids slept three to a mattress, but the Byrds also relied on bunk beds through the years.
For family transportation, the Byrds depended on a station wagon. For recreation, they made their spacious back yard a neighborhood playground.
They attended church together, and the children had their responsibilities inside and outside the house.
Jesse and Minnie made sure each child had at least one wrapped gift under the Christmas trees.
Minnie says her children were “no trouble whatsoever,” and she can’t understand why people with much smaller families struggle with discipline today.
“We enjoyed raising our children,” Minnie says. “We worked hard, went to church on Sunday. What more could you ask for?”
Jesse and Minnie are 92 and 85, respectively. Today their children, who all still live in and around Salisbury, range in age from 48 to 71.
There were nine girls and five boys.
For the record, the children — in order of their birth — are Nancy Smith, Jesse Byrd Jr., Ann Wallace, Katie Crockett, Christine Vinson, Ernest Byrd, Pat Sturdivant, Anthony Byrd, Kathy “Obby” Casler, Sammy Byrd, Ronnie Byrd, Mary Mae Sturdivant, Gail Barber and Angela Whisonant.
There’s not necessarily any rhyme or reason to the names. Some come from favorite relatives. Others were suggested by the children already around the dinner table. They had to gain approval, of course, from Jesse and Minnie.
The couple now live on West Bank Street, near the old Price High School. In the corner of their living room, behind Jesse’s easy chair, hundreds of family pictures are on display
Minnie says it’s just half of what they really have. The photographs take in Minnie’s late mother (also named Minnie), the 14 children, 37 grandchildren, 50 great-grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren.
The smiling faces cover more than a century of family life. Minnie’s mother lived until she was 104. The newest member of the family is 7-month-old Ya’zere Smith.
“I can say it’s been fun, it’s been sweet,” Sammy Byrd says of coming from such a big family.
As one of 14 siblings, you adapted quickly.
“You really don’t have time to be selfish,” Jesse Jr. says. “We had each other’s back.”
Katie Crockett, a church elder, says her parents were good at delegating. When they handed down the law to the older children, Jesse and Minnie depended on them to pass on the word to the younger ones.
Back-talking was not allowed. As Grandma Minnie liked to say, Crockett recalls, “God doesn’t like ugly.”
Jesse and Minnie Byrd grew up in Fairfield County, S.C., near Winnsboro, where both lived and worked on farms. They met at church — “no better place,” Minnie says.
“Yeah, love at first sight,” Jesse adds. “We’ve never been apart since then.”
Minnie already had a child, Nancy, when she was 13, and the Byrds raised her together after their marriage in 1944.
Two years later, the new family moved to Salisbury and lived with Jesse’s Uncle Willie, who helped him land a job with the railroad.
Jesse built the family’s home next to Uncle Willie’s house, and he would work for the track department out of the Spencer Rail Yard for 37 years. Jesse and Minnie’s first child together, Jesse Jr., arrived in 1949.
For the next two decades, it seemed, Minnie was giving birth.
“Because I love them, and I have a good husband,” Minnie explains. “He loves kids himself. It wasn’t nothing to raise kids.”
The couple came by big families honestly. Minnie was raised in a family of 13 children; Jesse, in a family of 12.
On the side, Jesse and his railroad supervisor, Gary Angle, delivered oil and coal around the city, and Jesse also offered a tree-cutting service.
“Just to keep doing something after I retired, to keep from sitting down,” Jesse says.
Minnie ran the household.
“My brothers and I all listened to her because we knew she was right about things,” Jesse Jr. says.
She also was a great cook.
On Sunday mornings, before the family left for Mount Zion Baptist Church, Minnie would prepare breakfast and Sunday dinner at the same time, so the dinner was ready when they returned.
Family members still salivate, thinking about her fried chicken, collards, rice and gravy, pinto beans, greens, cabbage, string beans and cornbread.
For dessert, Minnie dished out blackberry pie, sweet potato pie and rice pudding.
The Byrds harvested food from their own vegetable garden, and Minnie and the girls canned things for later.
Jesse Jr. says the children played a lot of softball, baseball, basketball and horseshoes in the backyard.
Jesse Sr. installed a spotlight, so the games could continue into the night.
The children looked forward to going with Jesse and Minnie to Rowan Dairy for ice cream on Sunday afternoons.
On weekends, the family might visit the homes of Jesse’s railroad friends, or they would visit the Byrds. The whole clan also enjoyed the family days in Spencer sponsored by the railroad.
In later years, when some of the kids could drive, the family formed a convoy of vehicles to drive down to South Carolina and visit relatives.
During the summer, Jesse also obtained passes from the railroad so the whole family could take a train trip north to visit one of Minnie’s sisters.
Each year, Jesse says, it seemed as though he was asking for an additional pass to cover one more child.
“It was fun growing up,” says Ann Wallace, the third oldest of the children.
Wallace describes how she and her siblings stuck together, learned to share and realized quickly the importance of compromise.
Having siblings of similar sizes and ages meant they all could mix and match clothes.
“Some people thought we were rich,” Wallace says.
Her parents taught the children simple things through their actions every day, Wallace adds.
It translated to loving and respecting each other, treating people the way you wanted to be treated and putting God first.
Pat Sturdivant says one of the good things about a family this size was there was always someone to play with.
Jesse Jr. recalls a bit of military-type organization required for everyone to have their turns for baths and to keep the siblings’ belongings separated.
“We knew where everything was,” Jesse Jr. says. “You didn’t tamper with what didn’t belong to you.”
Many of the children mention how their parents often looked after and fed other kids in the neighborhood. They also said their parents didn’t play favorites.
“They were hard-working parents,” Pat Sturdivant says.
Nancy was the first child to marry in 1967. Jesse Jr. was serving in Vietnam by 1968.
The seven-room house on the high point of Old Wilkesboro Road doesn’t stand any longer. Jesse and Minnie moved to West Bank Street in 1979.
Next August, the Byrds will mark their 70th wedding anniversary. Their official household today is just them and their white dog, Charlie.
But children and grandchildren come in and out of the front door every day and night.
Because of some recent health issues, Jesse stays around the house. Minnie still gets out, especially to attend North Rowan High football games.
One of their granddaughters is a North Rowan cheerleader.
Back home, Jesse takes in the games on radio, sipping hot cups of coffee.
The Byrds have never looked on all their children and grandchildren as any kind of burden or challenge. Rather, they’ve been a joy and a reason for them to keep smiling.
“We just raised a sweet family of kids,” Minnie says. “My life has been blessed. I couldn’t have asked God for no better.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.