In 1908 a young family was celebrating the birth of their second child, a baby boy they named Rob. He grew up on the banks of a little stream named McKenzie branch, which flowed down McKenzie Hollow to the North Fork of the Holston River, in the shadow of hills known as Chicken Ridge and Tater Knob, in the greater Bell Ridge Community. His big sister Maude and he were soon joined by another brother, Clyde, then sisters Edna, Olene, Clara, and finally Eula. His mom and dad were plain people who lived off the land, raising livestock, growing a garden, and enjoying the gifts of family and friends. When he came of age, he was sent up the road to Bell Ridge Schoolhouse to get his “book learnin.'” Here he played hard at recess, and studied as best he could. Sometime during these years he “got sweet” on a little Ketron girl by the name of Edith, and they would later marry and raise a small family. His formal education ended at the eighth grade, and he began working to help support the rest of his family at home. He worked for a saw mill and sometimes helped his Uncle Tom Galloway at the neighborhood store near the state line. He learned how to plow with horses, and loved to care for the animals on the little farm.
His dad would drive a wagon behind a team of mules to one of the two nearby towns to sell produce in season. Either at the Kingsport Jockey lot in the fledgling downtown district, or near the train depot in Gate City, the family found ready buyers for their wares. They forded the rivers at Cloud’s Ford in Carter’s Valley and over near Wilhelm in Virginia. He told of times the water was up and they almost lost their wagon or horses. Other times it was so low they could easily make their way anywhere across it.
Church was held on Sundays at the little Morrison Chapel on the hill overlooking the valley, near a large cemetery. The church had been built just 9 years before he was born, and was the only one in the community at the time. Men sat on the left as you went in, women on the right. The day’s services were divided into two parts, Sunday School and “preaching.” Preaching only happened if it was the Sunday for the local circuit rider to be there. Otherwise, they sang and held Sunday School and went on back home. Afternoons on Sundays were days to visit the old home place and enjoy family.
In 1929, he got hired at the Kingsport Press, a new outfit that had gone into operation near the downtown area, close to the Lovedale community (now Cherokee Village). He was put immediately in the book binding unit, doing the gluing and later operating a binding machine. He would talk with pride of his work on the binding floor. The work there helped him afford a home for his new family, having married Edith Ketron on the 10th Day of December, 1930 in her parent’s living room. Over time he was able to save the money to build a little cottage across the creek from the Ketrons where Rob and Edith would raise their own children: Wes, Bud, Nellie, and Virgil. He helped his inlaws with farm chores when he came home each day, milking cows, gardening, taking care of the herd, planting and processing tobacco. He was proud that he could pay cash for his new house, telling of paying the last dollar as the builders were driving the last nail.
He worked all through the Great Depression years, thinking all the while he was going to have to join the army to fight in the war. Later he found out that as he was employed in a printing press that happened to be producing government work, his service was needed here. In this way he served his country by staying home and supporting the effort in his own work.
During these years he led his home church into becoming a “station” church in the Methodist system, meaning they pulled their money together to employ their own preacher so they could have services every Sunday instead of only having Sunday School some weeks. His admiration went to preacher Bob Gillespie who was assigned to the church at the time. Bob was invited often to Rob and Edith’s little home for supper, where he ate corn bread and milk, regardless of what was on the table.
Rob joined the Pressman’s Union and became devoted to their purpose of making the workplace better. Now his children were growing, attending school, and beginning to dream of their own homes and families. In the 1950s, three of them would get married. Rob’s mother-in-law died and the decision was made to move into the Ketron home place so Edith could look after her widowed father. One of the sons moved into the house that was vacated. Soon labor relations between the Kingsport Press and the Pressman’s Union would break down and in 1963 the union called a strike. The strike drew national attention and has become a precedent setting one. It was never settled. Rob walked the picket line for years. Two of his sons and one son-in-law were working there at the time of the strike. They soon found that they needed to seek other employment.
Rob had dreamed of building a home on land he received from his father near Bell Ridge. The strike ended that dream as the promise of retirement benefits went up in smoke. He never moved out of the Ketron home. When his father-in-law died in 1974 the house became Edith’s, and he died there on the first day of spring, 1996.
In the years shortly before, during and after the strike, Rob became the penultimate grandfather, doting on each child that came into the family. He was a gentle, loving, and kind man who made each one feel like they were the most important young-un in the whole world while they were with him. He would take daily strolls to the Farm Store down the road and buy a soda and maybe a piece of candy or two for them. He taught them how to care for plants and animals. And he shared his lifetime of wisdom in the shade of ancient maples in the back yard of the house.
Here he held court with everybody who came by, from preachers to boot leggers. He treated each one with respect and kindness. He would often say that the best way to deal with people was to “ease around them” and not crowd them too badly.
In his later years he made a living plowing gardens for several neighbors, hauling cattle to market for friends, and raising a tobacco crop to pay the land taxes. He was a faithful, loving and caring man who defined what it meant to be a good neighbor.
He took interest in me in my early life and taught me many valuable life lessons. He was my pew partner in our church, and brought me to the altar to take Holy Communion, putting his arm around my neck as I knelt with him at the end of the rail. He would pass out life-savers during the sermon to keep me quiet. His big, gold watch ticking in my ear would help me get through a long sermon. He taught me to drive, to respect all people, and to notice the things around me, and give God thanks for them. He was in all respects my hero. I miss him.