Reflections on Southampton County hog farmer

Published 9:34 am Saturday, April 30, 2011

Portia Theodora “Lady” McClenny, Bernard’s and Martha’s younger sister, recently handed me a story with pictures from a 1954 publication of Our World Publishing Co. of New York City.

That story, stretching across several pages of the 80-page national publication, presented their parents, Theodore (Th’do to us) and Portia, in their farming and hog breeding business.

I already had a May 30, 1949, Richmond Times-Dispatch article by staff writer Hamilton Crockford on Theodore and his buddy, and business associate, Rubdell Joe. That article was an old memento of Rubdell’s late widow, Wardell Joe.

Theodore (1920-1982) was a cook and armed rockets on the aircraft carrier Manila Bay. He spent a lot of time in the Pacific, including the Okinawa campaign.

He left the Navy in 1946 with the considerable savings of $200, even though Portia and the young Bernard and Martha had required a sizeable portion of his wages. Within a year and with savings from unemployment compensation, he managed a down payment on a $5,750, 120-acre farm on Southampton County’s Kelos Mill Road.

In a few months, he would pick up his first purebred, Spotted Poland China hog for $566 in Missouri. He would pick up another, a purebred boar in Indiana.

Theodore grew up on his father’s farm near Ivor. He attended the Hayden High School, and according to the Times-Dispatch article, had been a favorite student of the Hayden vocational agriculture instructor W.F. Banks.

My mother stayed with “…the Banks family” for a while when she attended Hayden. My aunt Wardell stayed with our legendary principal, Mr. S.P. Morton. They and others defrayed their keep by babysitting and other household chores and generally returned home on the weekend. This was the ‘20s and ‘30s, prior to county bus service.

Even when the colored gentry bought a few buses, the modest fare was too high for some. Portia’s younger brother, Rufus Wilson, met one such bus driven by Zuni’s the Rev. Askew at Crumpler Crossing.

I suspect that county buses arrived with the 1939 opening of Courtland’s Southampton County Training School.

The Times-Dispatch article went on to say that Banks “…now rates him number one among his 50-odd former students who are running their own farms today.”

In the 1954 Our World story, it was reported, “At state fairs, he has won over 100 ribbons, several state championships and one grand championship,” and received thousands of dollars in prizes and sales. “Today he is one of the 30 top hog breeders in the State of Virginia.”

Portia was raised on her father’s (Robert Wilson) farm near Freemans Mill Pond. She would walk the two miles to grammar school (probably under the tutelage of E.P. Johnson) at Crumpler Crossing and later by mule and cart to Surry County Training School.

The Our World article reports, “Today she takes care of all the budgeting for the farm, as well as the house. She has a brood of 75 chickens, which gives her all the eggs for the house and enough to sell (27 dozen per week, for 55 cents per dozen) for groceries.

“She makes butter from excess milk (from two cows), which she sells at 60 cents a pound. She makes her own sausages, gets her shortening from the hogs they kill for their dinner table and makes her own soap. She bleaches Purina feed bags for her sheets…and curtains.” [Theodore’s brother G.P. (another wartime sailor) and his wife Mildred, purchased and operated a similar farm.]

Portia says that the hog business had Theodore all over. Sometimes she’d go along. She recalls a distant fair in Waverly, Ill.

I remember a Wendell Somerville, an official of the Lott Carey Foreign Mission, in his annual visits to our Gilfield Baptist Church near Ivor a good 50 years ago.

Lott Carey (1780-1828) was a former slave from Virginia. Free and a Baptist minister by 1813, he became an African missionary and was instrumental in the early formation of the country of Liberia. [Liberia was an early 1800s half-hearted experiment at resettlement. Its ninth president (1878-1883) Anthony W. Gardiner (according to Southampton County, Va., by Thomas C. Parramore) was a Negro from Southampton County.] The mission that bears his name has served the educational interest of Liberia, especially in and around Montrovia since 1908.

Relationships were established, and in 1968, Theodore was brought over to share his agriculture techniques, indeed his whole farm experience. He went again and this time with Portia in 1970. Moreover, their home was the stateside residence of two African students for a while in the 1960s.

This is a story of one of the county’s illustrious families. And contrary to myopic views, progressive role models were, and are, everywhere.