Norwood, Aquadale, Albemarle, Badin
Meet the “Writing Rosses of Stanly County,” probably the most prolific family in all of North Carolina literary history. Explore how one family could produce — in a single generation — a poet, a short story writer and two novelists.
Writers with a connection to this tour: Jean Ross Justice, Susan Meyers, Heather Ross Miller, Ruth Moose, Fred Ross, James Ross, Eleanor Ross Taylor and Peter Taylor.
This tour begins in Norwood, a town that sits on the western shore of Lake Tillery in Stanly County. Established as a trading center in the 1800s, Norwood’s colorful history has been preserved in two novels written by brothers James and Fred Ross. The Ross sisters, Eleanor and Jean, have also written extensively about their native region, in poetry and prose, respectively.
Fred’s daughter, poet and novelist Heather Ross Miller, continues the family’s distinguished literary legacy from her home near Morrow Mountain. James Ross’ 1940 novel They Don’t Dance Much, set during the Depression, celebrates the long tradition of Stanly County revelry made possible by prodigious local corn crops. His younger brother Fred’s 1951 novel Jackson Mahaffey is also set along the banks of the Rocky River, but a bit earlier — during the Prohibition era under President Taft. Corn liquor flows freely through both books.
Approaching Norwood from the south, U.S. 52 crosses the Rocky River. From the bridge, you can see the surrounding landscape. In pre–Revolutionary War times, N.C.’s first licensed tavern sat not far from this spot at the confluence of the Pee Dee and Rocky rivers.
The tavern was built to serve travelers passing along the King’s Highway, which ran from Charleston to Boston. Many early settlers made their way through this region, including Francis Asbury, the famous bishop who brought Methodism to North America and who preached in the area in 1785, a legacy that Fred Ross underscores in his novel.
Following Bishop Asbury’s celebrated visit, brush-arbor revivals became commonplace here. The swelling sound of hymns and hot preaching carried a great distance on summer nights. Early on in the novel, Mahaffey rigs up his old mule and buggy to investigate one such meeting and is instantly smitten by a pretty woman he sees there. Mahaffey tries his best to listen to the preacher:
I could tell right off the bat that he was a Methodist. He was tall, hungry looking, and poorly dressed. All faiths held brush arbor meetings, but the Methodist preachers were easy to spot. They preached whether they got paid or not. See a raggedy, hound-lean preacher and nine times out of ten he would be a sprinkling Methodist. It seemed that their nature required that they try to grow good fruit on dry and thorny ground. Not that that made any impression on me.
—From Jackson Mahaffey, by Fred E. Ross (New York: Bantam Books, 1951), 14.
Fred Ross was the only one of his siblings who stayed in Stanly County for most of his life. His first career had been as a pitcher in the semiprofessional baseball league sponsored by the textile mills in North and South Carolina. He also worked at the Alcoa plant in Badin from 1936 to the mid-1960s, where he served as payroll clerk and editor of Alcoa’s employee magazine.
Ross later edited newspapers in Mount Holly, Lillington and Jonesville. His neighbors in Stanly, however, remember his talent for baseball. He once went up against Shoeless Joe Jackson, former standout center fielder for the Chicago White Sox. Fred Ross’ elder brother, James, was also a baseball standout, attending both Elon and Louisburg colleges on baseball scholarships. James Ross served in World War II, studied at Columbia University, and then launched a career in journalism, which was largely spent at the Greensboro Daily News. His novel They Don’t Dance Much was published in 1940, then reissued in 1975 as part of Southern Illinois University’s Lost American Fiction Series, and issued again in 1986 by a publisher in London.
Crime novelist Raymond Chandler blurbed the first edition of They Don’t Dance Much, calling it “a sleazy, corrupt but completely believable story of a North Carolina town.” Others compared the unvarnished quality of James Ross’s prose to early Hemingway:
Toward dark Old Man Joshua Lingerfelt came out to see what the new place was like. He walked around it, tapping the walls with his walking stick that was made out of hickory and puffing his stinking old corncob pipe. After awhile he came inside and sat down at the counter. He was an old man that went to the war in Cuba. He had a wooden leg and got a pension from the government. He was bald-headed and didn’t have any teeth.
Not even false teeth. But that didn’t make much difference. He drank most of his meals anyway. He beckoned me over to where he was. “Gimme a beer boy,” he said, and spat on the floor. I got him the beer, and he grabbed it quick so as not to let any of the foam get away from him. He smacked his lips and sucked in his gums. “What in the devil you all mean putting up a place like this out here in these piney woods?” he said.
—From They Don’t Dance Much, by James Ross (London: Harrap Limited, 1986), 76.
Standing on the banks of the Rocky River today, the literary visitor can imagine the stories these woods could tell, but clearly they fired the imaginations (and perhaps the competitive spirits) of the Ross brothers. Next we meet the Ross sisters, Eleanor and Jean.
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