Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Happy 112th Birthday Grandpa Harper!

 Today I am celebrating my maternal Grandfather, Wirt Ross Harper.  I am almost a month late doing this one since I had to finish up the post on my paternal granddad.  At least I am getting this done before March ends. ;-)

Wirt Harper was born March 5th, 1909 in the tiny hamlet of  Winfall Virginia.  A spot on the map between equally miniscule Gladys, VA and the "megapolis" of Rustburg, the county seat of Campbell County.  His  father, William Robert Harper was 27 years old and his mother, Jennie Vie Tucker Harper was 23 years old at the time of his birth.  Grandpa was the oldest son and second in the birth order with an older sister named Ollie.  There were 6 more younger children-Royal, Lillie Vie, Robert, Raymond, Ernest and Tucker, all born between 1913 and 1924.

Wirt was named after his grandfather, his mother's father, James Wirt Tucker.  The family business was being a miller it seems.  James Wirt ended his working life as a miller(started out as an Overseer on a plantation, then did some farming and then worked in a grist mill).  James' son(Wirt's father), Robert was a miller from the age of at least 25.
Wirt and some of his brothers worked in sawmills when they were young men.  Wirt's brother, Robert, had an accident in a sawmill and when I knew him years later he walked with a limp.  Safety regulations were practically non-existent back then in the 1920's and 1930's.  There weren't many jobs in rural areas during that time for a young man so you took whatever job was offered.

All the Harper siblings were musical I am told.  Ollie and a few of the younger brothers played the piano, Royal was famous in town for being a very good guitar player.  Wirt also played guitar.  
A big pastime in rural Virginal was and still is baseball/softball.  Amateur baseball leagues were in every town.  Besides church that is how the young folks socialized.

Granddaddy Wirt played for the team from Brookneal(another tiny town in that area of Campbell County)in the Dixie Youth League.  There was also amateur teams for young adult men. Wirt is the second from the right kneeling in the front row in this photo taken in 1937.  My mom wasn't even 3 years old and Wirt was 28 in this photo.

Here's a photo of Granddaddy taken in his 20's.

And here is a photo taken with his older sister Ollie........

This might have been a special occasion like some one's high school graduation(Ollie and Wirt were 2 years apart).

And here is Wirt(on the right)with his friend Joseph Warren Sublett when they were young men.

Warren went on to marry Wirt's older sister Ollie.  Warren lived to be 101 years old and Ollie 96.  I don't think I ever heard Warren talk more than a dozen times.  He was not much of a talker as opposed to Ollie who was quite social.

Sometime after my Grandmother Lillian Vassar graduated from high school in 1932, Wirt and Lil got married.  Lillian's parents who by that time owned "Roxabel" after leasing the farm out from the owners to farm that land for years.  Each of the twelve children of my Vassar Great Grandparents were given a piece of the farm when they married, so Lil and Wirt set out to build a home on their patch of land.

Here is the log cabin my Granddaddy Wirt built(probably with the help of his younger brothers)where their little family lived until my mother was 5 years old.  They gardened and Wirt did a lot of hunting during this time at the height of the Great Depression to feed their family.
Mom was born in the Summer of 1934 so by the time she was 5 it was 1939.  The Depression was still very bad in rural areas with few jobs and folks scraping by.  My grandmother saw mom out in their "yard" one day playing with a snake and she knew she had to get her family out of there if they were going to flourish.

Grandma Lil had to beg family to loan her money so they could move their possesions down to the urban Norfolk Virginia area and rent a small house.  There were opportunities at the shipyards over on the coast as the US was starting up production on ships for the war that was coming.  Wirt got a job quickly as the Norfolk Shipyard as a "helper".  By 1942 he was a sheet metal worker there.

This is the first home my grandparents lived in, in the Portlock section of South Norfolk(now part of Chesapeake, VA).

Wirt's job was secure all through the war years and Lil stayed home and raised my mother(who was an only child).  Once the war ended the shipyard left many workers go as the work dried up and my Granddaddy was one of those laid off.

But he was a jack-of-all-traders kind of guy and had many skills, being good with his hands.  He may not have been educated but he always had some business going.  I know he owned a barbecue pitt shack and a locksmith business. among his many jobs.  He owned an automotive radiator business and advertised it on the side of his car......

He also had a shoe repair business when my mom was in high school........

Granddaddy Wirt was a "fun" dad according to my Great Aunt Hilda.  Mom and Hilda were first cousins(Grandma Lil and Hilda's mom, Rosabel, were sisters).  Her parents, Rosabel and Raymond moved to Portlock after my Grandparents and mom and Hilda went to school together until Hilda's  parents divorced in 1949 and Hilda was sent away to live with her grandmother(my great grandparents)back at "Roxabel".  Wirt would do fun things with my mom and Hilda was always included since her parents were otherwise occupied.  At a family reunion Hilda told me she loved my grandfather like a dad and wished he had been her father.

They didn't have a lot of money but my mom had a rich childhood with her parents.  Here's Wirt and mom posing with their catch of the day from a fishing excursion.  This must have been taken shortly after they moved to Portlock.

When my mother was in high school Wirt decided to buy a house lot in the neighborhood where they lived and build the family a new house by himself..........

Here's my mother practicing her majorette moves on the property.  You can see the concrete blocks stacked behind her that Granddaddy was using on the exterior of the house.

Here's a photo of the complete house dated 1949.

It was cute and Pepto Bismol pink. lolz

Another view of the house from 1963.......

That's my brother in the foreground and my grandparents in the background.

It was a modest  home with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath, a living room, a small dining room and a small kitchen.  There was a fenced in yard and a one car  detached garage with a covered area next to the garage. The property backed up to another yard/house where my future father lived with his sister and mother.  My parents went to high school together and were friends as teenagers.

At some point after going into the 1950's Wirt couldn't work anymore.  He drank a little too much(the curse of the Harper men)and he smoked cigarettes.  He started having lung issues so he retired and became a house husband and my grandmother Lillian got a job working for Sears in the carpet department and was an award winning saleswoman.

Wirt still kept busy and worked at his carpentry sklls.  When the 1950's rolled around and the Soviets became a threat like many Americans he had a bomb shelter built in his back yard....except he built it himself.

Here I am at Christmas of 1964 in a Native American dress-up outfit playing a drum.  That "hill" behind me is the bomb shelter(with two bird houses sitting out from it).  My brothers used to play submarine inside of it.  Wirt also built a concrete fish pond in the back yard with a stream that ran in a loop from and back to the pond with a waterwheel to power it.

Another of Wirt's projects with a speed boat he built in his driveway.

Here I am in April of 1961 sitting in it on an Easter visit.  Wirt was mightily proud of that boat and took us out to sea in it many times in the Summer.

In 1966 my grandparents decided to move to Chesapeake and build a modern home(mid century style)in a better part of town.  Wirt didn't build this one but he drove the construction crew nuts because he would show up every day to watch the workers to make sure the job was done correctly. lolz

This is the back view of the brick home they had built.  That's me between my Grandmother Lil and my mom coming down the patio steps.  Soon after this photo, Wirt put up a glass greenhouse, build a fountain by the driveway and had an extensive woodworking shop put in their two car attached garage.

After they moved into the new house Lil started getting sick and Wirt's breathing got a lot worse.  Grandma Lillian was diagnoses with metastatic cancer.  She had a trailer home put up back in rural Virginia where they were from for Wirt to live in near his kin after she died.  Wirt was very dependent on Lillian so she tried to take care of things for him before she passed.

We now think that my grandmother's cancer, my grandfather's health issues as well as my mother's health issues were either caused or exacerbated by Asbestoes poisoning from when Wirt worked in the shipyard.  He was exposed at work(long before anyone thought it was a carcinogen)and then brought it home on his clothing to his wife and child.

My grandparents were deeply in love and stayed devoted to each other throughout their lives.

After Lillian died in 1967, Wirt just gave up on living.  He ended up in the hospital and died exactly 5 months to the day after Lil in 1968.  He had COPD, Emphysema and his death certificate listed his causes of death as Chronic Nephritis, Uremia and Asymmetric Septal Hypertrophy(a heart issue).  The death report should have read he died of a broken heart.

Even though he died when I was 9 I remember him fondly as a sweet, quiet man.  He was a great storyteller and loved playing with and entertaining his grandchildren.  Wirt had a wicked sense of humor and was a practical joker.  There was never a dull movement when Granddaddy Wirt was around.

He loved his family and would do anything for them.  I know you are up in heaven with your sweetheart Lillian doing the things devoted lovebirds do and watching over what's left of your family down here.

Hugs and Kisses Granddaddy,



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