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Elizabeth Sanderlin: Old-Fashioned People

by David Cecelski. "Listening to History," News & Observer. Published 12/8/2002. Copyrighted.
Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Sanderlin is 98 and going strong. She was born and raised in Moyock, a coastal village in Currituck County, a land of seaside farms and freshwater marshes just south of the Virginia line. When I visited her home in Shawboro, a few miles from Moyock, she vividly recalled the days when the train's daily stop was a grand event and when teachers washed young mischief-makers' mouths out with soap. Her strength and independence were forged in the 1920s and '30s, when, as a home demonstration agent, she traveled the region's backroads helping families on the edge of hunger and despair.

Sanderlin joyfully described village life early in the 20th century, but she didn't leave out the mucky roads, the livestock wandering the streets or the lack of indoor plumbing. And yet like so many of the oldest people I interview, she still made me wonder if somewhere along our state's path to superhighways, busy cities, and backyard hot tubs, we left something important behind.

In Elizabeth Sanderlin's words:
You think about living nearly a hundred years! Isn't that awful? I have enjoyed every one of them. I am still enjoying them. I was born in Moyock in the home, not in the hospital, in 1904. My father was a merchant. He operated a country store that had everything imaginable. He had a counter for medicine, a place for the candy, fruit, vegetables, dried peas and beans. On the other side of the store was dry goods, and then in the center of the store was the Moyock post office.

Moyock was a quiet place, and the two churches the only thing I knew much about growing up. You had to make up your own entertainment, but it was always something going on. We had a train station -- the Northern & Southern went through Moyock -- and that was a gathering place for everybody at train time. You'd know you'd see your friends if you go to the station and gather there.

We didn't have much of a street, and people stayed stuck. The roads were terrible. And when you came through Moyock to Snowden, you had to get out and open the gate, which was a cattle gate. People let the cattle go where they wanted. They didn't keep them closed up at home.

My father had a home built on Tull Creek Road. They put electric power in the house and the bathroom, and we thought we had something. It had to run on batteries. We had a house out in the back with large batteries that operated the electric current. Run on Delco.

The man that built the house was very peculiar. At night he slept in a nightgown and house cap, and he had an imaginary wife and children. He never married, but he would talk to them. He would get up mornings early and tell his imaginary wife, the baby was hungry, get that baby the milk. To hear him talking to an imaginary wife was funny to us, but he was an unusually smart carpenter and he did a good job. He was a good ol' soul.

A lot of people drove up to Norfolk and worked at the Ford plant, and then we had some big farmers in Moyock. People used to grow their vegetables and corn, and they used to live at home. They didn't pay for groceries they way you do now. You raised what you ate. And when you went shopping, you took your eggs and your chickens to sell and buy your groceries. My father had a chicken coop out beside the store, and if they'd bring in chickens he'd buy them and put them in his chicken coop, and they did the same with eggs.

We had a happy home. My mother's health wasn't good, but she was always enjoying life. My mother and father both came from happy homes, and that's what they brought to us when they were married, because we had a real good time and did things together.

Every Sunday afternoon we'd go for a ride in a surrey, mama and papa and all the children, and we'd see what kind of animals we could see out of the clouds. I can remember a time mama was getting us ready and dressed to go and he had decided it was time to go see his sisters. He had two old maid sisters lived in Moyock. And we got ready to go and papa wasn't there.

Mama said, come on, let's drive right by him, play a joke on him. And she didn't know much about the car and she went around the block and she ran in the ditch, and the way the cars were built that day and time, the wheel just turned up and broke. But I enjoyed the fact that papa came up laughing about it. He said you thought you were going to leave me. You didn't do it!

We always had a house full of people, company coming in and church meetings. You never knew who was going to eat at our house because people would come from up the creek and other places to shop, and there weren't any restaurants over yonder. We lived right beside the store and daddy always said, Go off there, Mandy'll feed you.

I can remember going to school, so many grades in one room, and we didn't have running water in school and had the outdoor toilets and the pump outside. We had a very strict teacher, a woman that became principal of that school and made a high school out of it, the first high school in Moyock. She was smart as she could be, but strict. If she caught you telling a story, she washed your mouth out! She was a smart woman, and I learned to like her.

People then were people. They're people now, but they were old-fashioned people. Different! Entirely different. I can't put it into words because I talk funny anyways, but people were just different then. Everybody is for themselves now and they don't have time to think about anybody. What takes their time, I don't know, but it's entirely different now than it has ever been. I don't know why. I guess there's too much going on or something. People think more about themselves and making money than they do their neighbor. Used to be, you thought about your neighbor and your friends.

My mother talked to us about the right way to live. She taught us you get out of life what you put in it. She taught us about staying happy, going to church, and not doing anything you'd be ashamed of. She taught me to see some good in everybody and tell them about it. There's some good in everybody and you should help them to bring it out, that's what my mother always said.

As far as dressing up in clothes, that wasn't stressed. My mother held to learning and reading and music and doing the things you should be doing. And she taught me I wouldn't have anything to worry about if I kept my mind on good things and did good things.
Additional information from NCpedia editors at the State Library of North Carolina: : 
Elizabeth Sanderlin lived from September 27, 1904 - December 20, 2006.

Obituary: Elizabeth Sanderlin. Daily Advance, Elizabeth City. December 21, 2006.

U.S. Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014, Ancestry Library edition. Accessed 2/13/2016.

Origin - location: 
September 27, 1904 - December 20, 2006