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Ann McDonald reflects on growing up in Mills River during the Depression


Mrs. McDonald, 84, the mother of Henderson County Sheriff Charlie McDonald, has led the county’s Republican Women Club. She has been active with them since 1969, and had “lots of fun” in nearly a half-century.

The animated storyteller reflected on her family, childhood and community to The Tribune, and earlier for the radio series “Stories of Mountain Folk” with interviewer Judy Rhodes. That series can be heard for free online from Western Carolina University.

Her stories are near the end of two hour-long segments, archived on June 7 and June 14, 2014. Non-profit Catch the Spirit of Appalachia initiated the series in 2008 to 2011, on WRGC radio until the station closed. Hunter Library preserved it.

Her late husband Charles Wardell McDonald, an Asheville native, enlisted and served in WWII and then in an Air Force career. They married in 1954. She said, “We had great times together,” including as he was stationed in the Philippines then Norway. They voted absentee — mostly Republican. “We were fair and balanced, as we saw it,” Ann said. She admired Pres. Ronald Reagan’s communication skills and “common sense.”

Ann McDonald is similarly a people person. In leading RWC meetings, she abided by rules “without being rigidly formal. Rather that hit them with a bulldozer, you can waft a gentle breeze.” She noted that “I tried to resolve a problem without stepping on too many toes,” typically letting a minor debate “take care of itself.”

The sheriff said of his mentors, “Mom and Dad both believed there isn’t any sense to complain, if you don’t become active and vote. Mom was real faithful to the (GOP) party, to do what she could. Dad had a career of (military) service. He raised us with heavy emphasis on patriotism and civic duty. That influenced me to go into law enforcement.”

Mrs. McDonald is proud of her children. She calls Charlie, as eldest, the “top dog.” He has been sheriff for three years, getting reelected two months ago. He began in the Henderson County Sheriff’s Department in 1985. His brother David is a local plumber.

Their sister was born Ann Cameron Hayes, in the Philippines, when Charlie was two. “He and the cocker spaniel kept her entertained,” Ann said. She said Charlie asked Filipino neighbors “Would you like to see my bitty baby (sister)?”

Ann’s Hayes family is part of Mills River history. Her mother Ann Louise Townsend taught school. Ann McDonald lives near her childhood home and by All Saints Anglican Church, which is on former Hayes property.

Mills River’s earliest known land owners were speculators William Mills, and Andrew and David Miller. Mills had its first recorded land deed, in 1787. James Brittain is the Mills River resident most acclaimed for fighting as a Patriot in the Revolutionary War. Duncan, Moore, Kimsey and Russell are also surnames on pre-1800 land deeds there. The county’s first school was built on land Brittain deeded in 1797. Mills River’s first post office opened in 1828.

As a dairy and other farming hub, Mills River is called the “fertile crescent.” Many early families remain. “Most of them own the same property where they have ‘perched’ for generations,” Ann McDonald said. “They’re fantastic people.”

On the radio show, she noted as an only child “I was a chore girl.” She fed chickens and cattle, and collected eggs. She led the two Belgian mares to the creek, to drink.

“I couldn’t wait to milk Brownie the cow,” she recalled. “She would come up, and stand by me. I’d tickle her nose with a daisy — and she would eat it. She was a phenomenal animal. One day, I picked up the wrong flower for her.” Brownie let her know it. “The top of her head hit the bottom of my jaw. Two teeth came loose. I let out an apologetic scream. My father came running. I was all bloody. But I survived, and I didn’t lose my teeth.”

She learned to shoot a BB gun at age five, then to fire a .22-caliber rifle — but never by rocks, to avoid ricochets.

Born in 1930, she grew up in the Depression era. In such hard times, “you had to grow your own food,” she recalled. “We ate lots of fruits and veggies, chickens, and occasionally pork chops.”

She said to work full-time on family farms, many youths attended no school or merely learned to read and write. She went to college for two years, enjoying literature and history courses. She was briefly an insurance receptionist.

During WWII, rural teen life still revolved around farming, she told The Tribune. “Armies had to eat. I’ve never seen so many green beans” as then. German POWs from Prison Camp Road, organized by a local farm agent, picked beans, corn and tomatoes. Each group was sized to fit the field, and watched by merely one guard, Ann recalled. “They were no problem at all. They were awfully nice.”

Most farm families relied on mules. Mr. Hayes bought a tractor in 1940 on foresight, as war raged in Europe and a shortage of goods loomed.

Ann transferred to Hendersonville High. She commuted by Trailways bus, with gasoline scarce during WWII. She enjoyed the drama club. She graduated in 1948.

She first attended Mills River School in 1936, in first grade. Andrew Marvin “A.M.” Foster was principal. “It was a fantastic school,” she said. Church, school and state were intertwined. On her very first day, Beatrice “BeeBee” Corpening led them in singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Each Monday, “we started class with a Bible verse we learned in Sunday school. We sang a hymn. We said the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Four Corpening sisters taught there, with friendly Ruth for fourth grade. Ann’s favorite teacher, from fifth grade, was “tiny” Gladys Turner. “I liked her droll wit. She’d pull her glasses down her nose, purse her lips, and ask ‘Was that necessary? I don’t think it was. We shall proceed.’”

Grandfather Harry Bedillion Hayes Sr. retired here in 1912 from an affluent Pittsburgh suburb where Andrew Carnegie also lived, after selling the huge Hardy and Hayes jewelry store. Hayes lost his entire fortune in the stock crash of 1929. Ann’s father Harry B. Hayes Jr., an Asheville Country Club member, won WWI-era amateur golf tourneys.

Ann said her grandmother Mary Elizabeth “Molly” Orr learned embroidery from poor Irish maids, and that granduncle Andy Orr helped engineer the Saluda Grade rail route.

Today, the Town of Mills River has about 7,000 residents. It incorporated in 2003, setting its own land-use rules. “That was the best thing that ever happened,” to better preserve farms and little traffic of high-density housing, she said.

Ann McDonald is proud Mills River was one of two choices for the county seat, back in a mid-19th Century referendum. The winner was the central trade/wagon path, in current downtown Hendersonville. This area was in Rutherford County, then Old Buncombe County when it broke off in 1791, and finally Henderson County when it formed in 1838.

Regarding her family’s place in local history, “I’m so glad to be part of it.”

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