Surname Saturday–The Crutes of Mecklenburg County

Brainstorming and journaling are good for the future

Sorting through my family lore stash, I came across two sheets of yellow paper, folded into quarters.  My father, Norman Strickland, had distinctive handwriting, the product of his years as an electrical engineer.  So even though the bulleted pencil notes were not dated or signed, I recognized the scraps of thought as Norman’s brainstorming, sketches for memoir writing that never progressed beyond the legal pad.

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“Use green tomatoes to remove tobacco gum from your hands” caught my eye. That tip had prompted a quick jot about where the cotton was grown on his family’s Mecklenburg County, Virginia farm, which led to him thinking about cows, which prompted his noting of the Crute family.

Those last thirteen words kindled a memory of my father standing in the feldspar-studded field of Oakview on a sweltering July day, my kids nearby roaming the hoof-packed cow paths.   Norman loved to recall how his father, George Strickland, always had a team of mules hitched up and two tractors going, with crucial assists from tenant farmers.  Norman must have been remembering the Crutes.

The note snagged this memory and my curiosity was piqued.  Who were the Crutes? 

Tobacco had been the cash crop on this Butcher’s Creek farm for five generations by the time my father learned that green tomatoes would remove tobacco gum.  Until the markets crashed in ’29 and the Southside of Virginia watched its economy slide with the rest of America, my grandfather had been capitalizing on his entrepreneurial spirit. A partner in a Chase City sawmill when he married my grandmother, Florette, in 1921 George remained an active source of farm labor and support for his guardians, Edward, Dora, and Molly Dodson.  In 1927, George inherited the Dodson home place, Oakview.  Then the depression silenced the saw mill.

Around the time my father was born in 1928, George, Florette, and their four sons were back on the farm, full-time.  And the Crutes were nearby.

Matthew Bell Crute and his wife, Cora Hayes Crute, lived just off the Boydton-Chase City Road on land, it is thought, adjoining the western corner of Oakview, with their eight children: Charles (18),Willie Bee (16), Robert (13), Clarence (12), Daisy (10), Alice (7), Angie (4), and Odie (infant). In the 1930 census, Matthew stated that he was a general farmer working on his own account, and all but the youngest two children were in school.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932

The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46. (Map from 1932 WPA Writer’s Project. Library of Virginia, Digital Collections.)

When my father was just a toddler, Matthew was treated by Dr. Funch from April 5-11, 1931 before the 46 year old father succumbed to the Spanish Influenza.  Was it after this tragedy that the Crute family supplemented their income with regular part-time work in the Strickland tobacco fields?  Did Cora also help my grandmother?  In what other ways did the Crutes interact with my father?

May 22, 1938

Early in the morning of May 22, Robert Monroe Crute was found, his skull crushed, his left forearm broken.  The physician on call, A. Tyree Finch, recorded that the death was thought to be a result of an automobile hit-and-run.  Cora buried her 24 year old son by his father in the home cemetery.

Newspapers recorded Robert’s accident as one of several automobile deaths in that month, as if cars were a mounting cause of concern. How I wish I could talk with my father about Robert, and his death.  Were folks suspicious about what had happened?

But fields need plowing

Norman joked about his father’s incessant movement and the expectations on the family to implement George’s plans.  Neighbors expressed horror watching twelve year old Norman atop one of the tractors.  “You’re going to get that boy killed!”  George paid them no mind.

That would have been 1940, and by census records Clarence was the sole means of support for his mother, and two sisters still at home, Angie and Odie.  Willie and Charles apparently moved on, as did Daisy and Alice.  Norman’s brothers, Sidney (18), Clifford (16), and Paul (14), were still at home, attending school and providing labor.  Clarence may have continued with part-time regular tobacco work,  taking a share of the crop in payment.

The following decade ushered in an era of migration, accelerated by World War II and its technological advances.  Farming, according to my father, was an honorable occupation but not necessarily one to which a kid aspired.  It seems that the Crutes dispersed as actively as the Stricklands did, in search of new opportunities.  I know where my folk landed.  I am still wondering about the Crutes.

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A team of mules and two tractors manned by three fellows that I speculate are  Charles, Clarence, and Robert Crute.

As I look at the bits and pieces of the Crute history intertwined with my family’s story, I realize how incredibly important Cora, Robert, Charles, and Clarence were to the Strickland family’s moving through the depression.

I wonder; how did the Crutes see their relationship to the Stricklands?  Was there any reciprocity from the Stricklands, any work done on the Crute farm?  Ruminating for another day…stay tuned.

Story by Story: A Doll’s Cradle

A doll’s cradle, tucked away, unseen for a generation, has found its way into my home, a piece of my mother’s collection.  In photographing this wicker treasure, I discovered a clue as to its origins.  Affixed to the bottom of the toy was a piece of masking tape with the words “made by Robert Minor for Marilyn, 193?“, written in my mother’s handwriting.

Robert Minor holding Marilyn, 1932, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. From the Marilyn Minor Strickland Collection.

Robert Minor holding Marilyn, 1932, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. From the Marilyn Minor Strickland Collection.

Marilyn’s granddaddy Minor (1869-1943) was a substantial man, stocky, square.  Looking at his picture, it is not hard to imagine that Robert Minor milked cows from an early age, or that he was groomed to take over the family cattle trading business as soon as he could count.  But his sturdy physique and natty attire belied an emotional vulnerability.  Intractable headaches and melancholy shaped Robert’s ability to work, to parent, to care and be cared for.  And once the family sold the mineral rights for the coal on that Pennsylvania farm in 1906, Robert had the means to do more than suffer in silence.

Treatment for nervous conditions in the early 20th century was limited, with most, like Robert, seeking the rest cure at various resort-like sanitariums.  Fresh air, clear spring water, no stressors, and occupational therapy were thought to be just the ticket to relief.  Relief did not guarantee return to a normal, productive life.

The stories told at family reunions, and recently uncovered postcards and letters, reveal that Robert never quite shook the demon depression.  He was subject to violent outbursts throughout his life.  His wife, May Laura, had even advised their adolescent son, Donald, to never be alone with Robert out in the barn.  Robert also had a habit of kicking his shin black and blue whenever he became upset.

Robert Minor must have retreated to sanitariums many, many times. Somehow the farm remained functional, and a legacy for Donald, his wife, Kerma, and his children, including Marilyn.  And in spite of frequent absences, Robert appears to have been a doting grandfather, buying dresses and toys when at home, and writing letters when away, like this note to ten year old Marilyn from Mercer Sanitarium, Mercer, Pennsylvania, when once again he was a resident of that therapeutic institution.

“Dear Marylin(sic) you little sweet thing, I only wish I could write you a nice letter one you would be proud of but Grandady (sic) isn’t able to do it.  Of course I could ask you about the school and your little friends and about your brothers and sisters and who your teacher is and where you go to school Willow Tree or Garards Fort, and how many there were in the school and do you mind the cold, and did you or any of them take the Hooping (sic) cough.”

At Mercer Sanitarium, Robert would have been under the care of Dr. W.W. Richardson, M.D.  Many nurses would have been called up to serve in various war-time positions.  I suppose, though short staffed, the basis of that 1942 care would have remained much the same as before the war: good food, raised on the premises; daily chores around the home and farm; and instruction in weaving, brass work, lace weaving, or basketry.  Basketry.

When I look at this doll’s cradle, I see more than eight inches of woven wicker.  I see a troubled mind holding in his heart what he couldn’t hold in his arms.  My dear little Marilyn…..

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