The All American Laundry

    You can drive the 600 miles from Philadelphia to Norton today with all ease in ten to twelve hours. But in 1927, you did well to make it in five days.
    Curly O'Neill accompanied France and me on our journey home in the spring of '27, bouncing over those narrow dirt roads in a Model T Ford.
    Along the mountain roads in our part of the country, any place a culvert went under the road there was a white post alongside the road--sometimes two posts, if it was a large culvert.
    "What are those white posts for?" France wanted to

    I told her that every place you saw a white post, someone had been killed.
    So every once in a while she'd make the sign of the cross and say, "There lies some poor soul. May he rest in peace. "
    The innocence of a country girl in the city is easily matched by that of a city girl in the country.
    Nearing home, we crossed Big Bull Mountain.
    France read a highway sign and said, "Hmm, Big Bull Mountain. Hmm. Don't they have cows around here, too?"


    France, Curly, and I arrived at the Old Home Place in Norton to find that, in the terminology of today's astronauts, all systems were "go".
    Most of the other brothers (remember, there were nine of us--plus four sisters!) were already there, the others were on their way.
    Mammy, Tom, Paul, and the smaller ones were already at work excavating for our reservoir.
    Etta and Pete, the youngest of the thirteen, were still quite small. Jim was still just a boy in overalls, but a good worker with keen initiative. Soon after we got the project organized, he became our "fireman."
    It was really fun to see that gang of brothers at work. Every man did more than his part, and did it cheerfully. We were on the job before sunup, and worked till it was too dark to see what we were doing .
    We had our own water and our own coal. The coal came from the "Little Tom" mine, just a few hundred yards from the laundry site, named for brother Tom because he was the one who had found the seam. Curly and Tom took the responsibility of keeping the laundry supplied with coal.

    The O'Neills were always (and still are) a rollicking, festive family. We played as hard as we worked, and that was plenty hard. Each one of the boys inherited our father's old-fashioned Irish appreciation of a good drink and a good time.
    Brother Tom had a special fondness (which later, I'm sad to say, became a weakness) for bottled spirits. I recall that when I visited the Home Place while on furlough from the Navy in 1917, Tom had prepared for the occasion by
putting up a 50-gallon barrel of wine.

    Tom was just as kid at the time, but he knew something about making wine. Everybody in the community made a big fuss over how good his wine was, and he took great pride in the knowledge that his product brought so much joy to so many people.
    It occurred to me one day that too much of Tom's wine was being wasted on neighbors, town winos, and passers-by. Hell, a stranger couldn't walk down the road without somebody stopping him to offer him some of Tom's wine. I decided, on my own, to preserve some of that good wine for a later time.
    I found two five-gallon jars, filled them with choice stuff, and buried them in deep holes that I dug with post- hole diggers in the yard of the Home Place. I used corners of the house and a cherry tree as landmarks, and it never occurred to me that I'd ever have any trouble pinpointing the burial spots.
    Well, that was in 1917. Ten years later, a small army of relatives and friends were digging the dam that was to supply water to the All-American Laundry. Every man-jack in the crew had worked himself into a state of near exhaustion, digging for twelve hours or more each day into a stubborn limestone hillside with hand tools, mixing cement by hand and transporting it by wheelbarrow.
(And my, isn't it wonderful, the way they designed both the wheelbarrow and the shovel to fit an Irishman's hands?)

    But our job was beginning to lag. The boys were worked to death. It was obvious that a psychological "lift" was needed. That's when I remembered the buried wine.
    "Boys, " I said, "I'm proposing that we have one hell of a victory feast, , as soon as we finish this damned reservoir ."
    And then I told them about that ten-year-old wine, and you should have seen their eyes light up! If spirits had begun to dim, that brightened them plenty.
    The reservoir was completed a few days later, and we had our feast. But the wine wasn't as easily found as I had though it would be. The. cherry tree was gone, and nobody could recall just where it had stood. Fortunately, Mammy had witnessed the burial of one of the jars , and i t was found right where she said it would be .
    And oh, what good wine it was--! Light and clear, aged to a mellow perfection. It was made to seem all the better by the fact that those were Prohibition days ,
when a good drink was hard to come by.

    We agreed to leave the second jar buried until the laundry itself was complete, then dig it up and have another feast. But when that day came, we dug holes large enough to bury an automobile in, all over the yard--without finding the wine. Undoubtedly, it is still there.
     (There's an interesting little postscript to this story: A few months after the laundry went into operation, Mammy decided to put in an underground stone store-house or "dairy" alongside her house. I conned my kid brother Paul into digging it for her. Paul was a wee bit lazy when he was a kid, but you'd never have known it from watching him dig that hole. I told him about the buried wine, and how proud of him everybody would be if he found it--and how, since it was officially "lost," he could claim it as his own and sell it for a dollar a gallon.
    Well, Paul dug a hole right where I showed him, eight feet deep, twelve feet long, and seven feet wide--just perfect for Mammy's storehouse! Surprisingly,
though, he didn't find the wine. He was just sure that each shovelful was going to unearth the magic jar--and I didn't have the heart to tell him, even later on, that

the wine was buried at least sixty feet from where he was digging.

    And that second five gallons of wine, I repeat, is still there in the yard of the Old Home Place, in 1972!


     Joe Peters, a neighbor who was a carpenter by trade, was an interested spectator when the first water from our big (100 ft. x 40 ft. x 10 ft.) reservoir was transferred to the laundry site, a few hundred yards away.
    We first primed the two-inch pipeline and then, when the water came with good force (forty pounds pressure), we opened the end valve all the way and let the water run for a while to make sure that all the air was out of the line.
    "Now Davey," Joe Peters volunteered, "Let me tell you how you can control that water. Get yourself a poplar plug, and whittle it down to a smooth finish, and tap it into the end of that pipe; it will save you a whole lot of water..."
    I mention that incident not to ridicule Joe Peters, but to give you an idea as to how much the average man in rural Wise County knew about plumbing in 1927.
    To illustrate the point further: "Indoor" plumbing in the coal camps was practically unknown. I would estimate that there were four thousand homes in the county that had "privies" built over a stream. They were always built high above the water, so that floodwaters wouldn't wash them away.
    In some of the camps, you could look from the main highway down  a row of "company houses" and determine, when people went to the privy, whether they had gone to do "No. 1" or "No. 2."  Even so, the kids had their "swimming holes" in those same creeks. It's a wonder everybody in the whole damn country didn't die of typhoid poisoning.  A lot of them did.
    The State Board of Health took steps to eliminate this type of filth in the '30's and '40's, and the situation is somewhat better today. But the coal camps, of course, are now practically deserted.
    Oh, one more thing. In the courthouses in many county seats in Southwestern Virginia, the first indoor toilets were built with an iron bar located immediately over the commode, positioned in such a way that it would be just about impossible for a person to get up on the seat with his feet.
    Those bars, too, are now gone--a sign, perhaps, of progress.


    If ever a business was well-named, it was the All-American Laundry. It represented the hopes and aspirations and the sweat and blood and tears of a family of fifteen as American in its heritage and its thinking as any you'll ever find. And the laundry failed.
    We launched the business in 1927, starting from scratch. The foundation was laid on bottom land near Powell's River, three miles west of Norton. We dug a
reservoir, raised the building, put in piping and the heavy machinery, all within a few months.

      Due to my engineering and laundry  experience, I played a central role in the enterprise. I invested everything I owned, including a bankro1l of about $5,000--
a sizable chunk of money in 1927--into the business.

    For the first few months after we opened, everything went according to plan. We completed construction of the building ahead of schedule, with every member of the "organization" working his tail off.
    Damp wash laundering of clothes was something new to Southwestern Virginia. We picked up dirty clothes, washed them, and delivered them damp. The price was right: one dollar per bag. This was long before washing
machines became a common home appliance, I might add--so you just imagine how popular we became with the house wives of the area. Most home laundering  was done with scalding water, lye soap, a washboard, and plenty of sweat and toil.

    The All-American Laundry showed a profit of $12,000 in its first year. The end of the rainbow lay just ahead. We bought three new trucks, extending our pick-up and delivery service to a fifty-mile radius of Norton.
     I hired Rosie Nickels and Easter and Maggie Salyers--the best hand ironers I ever saw anywhere. Other girls working for us, in addition to my sisters and sisters -in-law, were Lora Bowles, Helen Absher, Mossie Fletcher , and Ted Jones. They were good, loyal employees, every one of them.
    But then things started to go bad. First, there was a major drought in the area that affected everybody--especially us, and our water supply. When the reservoir
dried up, we ran four thousand feet of two-inch galvanized pipe to the nearest  water source--Carding Machine Branch on Stone Mountain, where Gal Shepherd once ran a big government still. But we had to lay the pipe on top of the ground, and right away there came a big freeze and the pipe burst in a thousand places. At about that same time, the demand for coal began to subside, and many of the mines in our area began to fold. Many of our customers couldn't even afford to buy food for their tables--so how could they possibly pay anything to have their

clothes washed? We carried them on the books anyway, and continued to extend them credit for weeks and sometimes months after they became unable to pay.

    Meanwhile, our own bills continued to mount. And we had other problems, too. Serious problems. Our trucks were involved in three serious accidents in three weeks, including one tragic one on Nov. 7, 1928, in which 15-year-old brother Joe was killed.
    The business was slipping under, but we didn't know how to quit. During the final few months, with our creditors hounding us day and night, each of the married brothers took only three dollars per week as his salary; the single ones took nothing. We ate ground hog, turnip greens, poke salad, and soup beans. Sometimes we ate less than that.
    And then the All-American Laundry was no more .


    For the O'Neills of Norton, the Great Depression began a year earlier than it did for the nation at large. All of our families were in desperate shape. We scattered geographically, looking for work. But the ties remained strong.
    Half a century later, we are still one family.

    During the final weeks of the All-American Laundry, I was working a second job on the side, hauling coal. In fact, it was coal-hauling that kept the laundry alive after it would have otherwise folded.
     After the laundry went under, I devoted my full time to the coal business, and had a good thing going--for a while. With my kid brother Jim and Vera's husband, "Uncle Jim" Baker, I was buying coal at the mine for $1.50 per ton and selling it to retail customers for $5.00. One truck could haul three loads per day, and we had two trucks going. That may not sound like such a hell of a profit today, but at that time it was.
    In fact, it was too good. Word leaked out that we were making a "killing" hauling coal, and first thing you know every yokel for miles around was horning in on the business. As competition mounted the price dropped, and pretty soon the two Jims and I were out of a job. Our trucks weren't really designed for hauling coal, and we couldn't compete with those that were.


    We still had the trucks.
    If you can't make money hauling coal, by God, haul something else. Haul anything. Haul logs.
     A fellow named Runyon contracted Jim and me to haul logs out of Big Black Mountain. He agreed to pay us $5 per thousand feet, with $20 per day minimum. According to our agreement, we'd receive no pay until Mr. Runyon got returns from his bulk shipments--which figured to be twice a week, once we got rolling.
    We brought no telling how many loads out of  that mountain. Mr. Runyon had five railroad cars put on the siding, ready to load the next day.
    But that evening we received a phone call, advising that we hold all shipments until further notice. That turned out to be forever. The Culyer Lumber Company mill had burned down.
    That, as the saying goes, was the straw that broke this poor camel's back.
    According to historians, this country's Great Depression lasted from 1930 thru 1936, reaching its greatest depth about 1933.
    My own personal Great Depression began earlier and probably sank quite a bit deeper than the national average. By the fall of 1930 France had taken our daughter Bernice, who was born in 1928, and gone back to Philadelphia. I put them on the train with the last of my World War I "bonus money." John, Curly, and Jim went out West seeking work, and I was tempted to join them. The coal hauling business had collapsed, as had coal mining in general. My trucks were ruined, and there was no way to make a living with them even if they were running. There was nothing to do but lay around, catch ground hogs, pick berries, and fish. That may sound like the good life to some people--but not this old boy. Idleness was driving me out of my mind.
    And then things started looking up.
    It all began when somebody killed Doc Cox.

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