By Carl Warren, Jr.
Like many communities, Westbrook Township was ravaged by the Union Army in March, 1865. As they marched from Fayetteville east on a sandy and often swampy road, they headed for Bentonville where many lost their lives. The population of Sampson County at that time was about 16,000 people. Most families lived on farms and most houses were spaces far apart from their neighbor’s homes. Life before the war was a challenge, often filled with hardships.
As the Union Army passed through what is today Spivey’s Corner, Shady Grove and Oak Grove Church communities, the soldiers took or destroyed crops, food, animals, farm tools, people, and buildings. The residents of the area were left with nothing to eat or a way to farm. It is reported that women and children had to go to Smithfield to get food assistance.
After serving in the Revolutionary War, Isaiah Warren moved from the banks of the Neuse River at Smithfield to what became today’s Lake Sinclair in Sampson County. He and his son, Blake are credited with farming Lake Sinclair and House’s Mill Pond area. Isaiah’s grandson, Bennett moved to the Oak Grove Baptist Church area in the mid 1800’s. Bennett’s son, Lovett was nine years old when the Civil War ended. The Bennett Warren house still exists about one fourth a mile behind Oak Grove Baptist Church and School.
Bennett owned a large acreage in the Oak Grove—McLamb’s Cross Roads community. However, with a heavy loss of the male populations and slavery now over, farming was severely troubled. Money was no good and nothing could be bought. Bennett’s son and Lovett’s older brother, Sampson returned by foot from Virginia after the war, and another brother, Malcomb died and was buried in Maryland near the end of the war.
Being just a nine year old child, Lovett suddenly became a man. With determination and perseverance he helped his father farm and learned the science of farming. At age 21,Lovett bought his first farm from a freed slave, Guardner Lee. Guardner had inherited land from his bachelor owner. Now a land owner, Lovett married Nehenah Tart, Whitfield Tart’s daughter. They began a family that produced thirteen children from 1882-1902. An oak tree was planted at the birth of each child which gave the name for this farm—Thirteen Oaks Farm.
From a simple one room house, the Lovett Warren home grew to three houses connected with breezeways. Here, as the economy began to improve, they grew cotton, rice, flax, corn, sorghum, millet, grapes, peas, apples, peaches, vegetables, and herbs. Tobacco production came much later. Resin was harvested from the pine trees, put into homemade wood barrels and floated to Wilmington on the Cape Fear River.
Two of Lovett’s and Nehenah’s children died at birth or very young. The family soon became eleven grown children. Nehenah died in 1927 and Lovett followed in 1936. With eleven children going to church at Shady Grove on a mule and wagon was tedious. Lovett hired Henry Carroll Ivey from Dunn-Benson area to build Oak Grove Church. Behind Oak Grove Church was Oak Grove School. This school became part of the Rosin Hill School in 1916 when the community voted to consolidate Oak Grove, Maple Grove and West Schools.
Life on the farm centered around the school, home and local church and the Annie Warren McPhail store. Going to Clinton on a mule and wagon was an all-day affair. Therefore the trips to Clinton were only about twice a year. Products harvested from the farm were carried to Clinton either to sell or trade for home-farm necessities such as furniture, cloth, tools, clothes, notions, shoes and medicine. At home, a seamstress came in for a week to make dresses and other clothing. The ladies also knitted socks, crocheted, quilted, wove and spun in addition to tatting lace. They cooked on a wood stove or in the fireplace. They washed on scrub boards and made soap from grease and lye. Farm laborers were the family members and hired men to work the mules. Share cropping came later.
Lovett grafted 150 apple trees and 50 peaches. He ran a mule-pulled cider press, made wood barrels for rosin transport, made sun-dried bricks, made wooden caskets draped with black fabric as needed for the community. He chaired the school and church boards, was the community “doctor” and “veterinarian.” One of his favorite pastimes was to flag down passing buggies to get the latest news. Also, he loved to sit on a bench at the old well and drink cool water from a freshly-drawn bucket, sharing this with friends and passers-by. In Lovett’s homeplace, remain his 1897-1917 United States Agriculture yearbooks, indicating his deep interest in the science of agriculture and growing plants.
At harvest time, markets were not easily available. Rosin, cotton and other farm products were loaded on wagons, pulled by both mules and oxen and were carried to the Cape Fear River’s edge at Fayetteville. There, they were loaded on hastily made rafts to float to Wilmington. The drivers of the rafts had to either walk back home or take the train to Faison and walk from there back home. As they walked, it was urgent to be on the look-out for wayfarer—robbers. It is told that brother; Blake Warren carried a needle and thread to sew up his money in his underclothes to protect it.
It is difficult for the people of today to realize during this period of history that everything was mostly done by animal, water or human energy. Electricity came to this area of northern Sampson County in 1939. Widespread use of tractors began in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Fields were fenced-in with rails for the geese to eat the weeds. Geese also furnished down for pillows and feather beds. All the buildings were built by hand. Crop cultivation was with mule-drawn plows and workers with hoes. No poisons were used to manage insect or weed control so all of those jobs were done by family workers. There were no radios, no TVs, no refrigerators, central air or heating, telephones, electric lights, running water, or bathrooms. The privy was down the garden path at the grapevine. Lovett installed a carbide acetylene light system later.
Hog killing day featured seven large hogs being dressed to fill the smokehouse with ham, shoulder, stuffed sausage, Tom Thumbs, lard, cracklings, back-bone, ribs, and liver pudding.
During this period, women could not vote and there were no public schools. The community had to personally build their own schools, hire and pay the teachers, and to maintain the property. Education was not a priority in those days. Many families felt it was wiser for their children to pick cotton and work in the fields that to go to school. Most women did not go to college; they stayed home to raise children. An exception to the norm of that day was Annie Warren McPhail. A daughter of Lovett Warren, she ran a large general merchandise store, a cotton gin, a saw mill, a rosin refinery (giving the name to Rosin Hill), a post office and her home was the place where many teachers boarded while teaching at Rosin Hill School. She bought eggs, strawberries, huckleberries to be carried by wagons to Dunn and then put on a train to be sold in the North.
The Great Depression of 1929 was another disaster for Sampson County. The banks closed and many lost their money, their farm and their homes. Before recovery from this, our nation was plunged into World War II on two fronts—Europe and the Pacific.
In the “good old days”, scarce money caused neighbors to help neighbors. Little or no money was passed as they swapped their time with each other. There were wheat reapings, barn raisings, corn shuckings, quilting parties, hog killings and more. Without electronics and automobiles, life was slow, enjoyable and neighborly. It was customary to walk to a neighbor’s home to “spend” bedtime. Sunday afternoons could be an occasion to go to another home where old-time hymns were harmonized accompanied by the old foot pump organ or a piano. Many picnics, reunions, parties were outdoors and were being enjoyed on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Occasionally, they would take the iron skillet, lard, tools, plates, forks and corn meal and go to an area where fishing was possible. They would cook the fish by the water’s edge and enjoy the food and experience.
In most country churches, preaching was only once a month. This allowed people to visit other churches. In the process, it was often that visitors were invited to “go home” with someone for a real family dinner (lunch). Sometimes the preacher spent the Saturday night before the Sunday preaching service with a church member. Some preachers and many church members did not have a way to travel. So neighbors helped out as best they could.
Life on a Sampson County farm has had both “hills” and “valleys”. It has not been entirely a “man’s world.” Through it all the women have gone beyond their call of duty in peace and war. At times they actually had to do the men’s work. They helped work in the fields, prepare food without refrigeration, rock the cradle, and with all the other duties of running a farm and home, many women were abused.
Life in general has been both good and prosperous to the Lovett Warren family. Whenever new things came on the market, Lovett was frugal, but was a ready customer. His 1913 T-Model Ford “Turtleback” run-about is an example of several of his cars. It was his nature to be a leader. To his credit, he taught Sunday school and was Trustee chairman for over 30 years at Oak Grove Baptist Church. He educated all his children as far as they wanted to go to school. Two of his sons became pharmacists. He gave four sons farms. His home “Thirteen Oaks” and farm are listed on the National Registry of Historic Properties by the United States Department of the Interior since 1990.