Growing Up On Bloomington Road

John Henry Sells and wife Dora Belle (Holt) Sells were photographed in the front yard of their home in Pickett County.

A substantial amount of property located in the Bloomington community of Pickett County was once owned by a man named John Henry Sells who was married to Dora Belle Holt. They had a total of 15 children whose names were as follows: Barbara (died at two weeks old); Cosby; Arco (died at birth); Myrtie; Samuel; Neva; Ina; Joe; John Esco; Delcie; Sophia; Henry; Doris; Lizzie; and Millard. A mill built on the Wolf River in Pickett County was once owned by John Henry’s great-grandfather, Solomon Sells. It was known then as the Sells Mill and later, the name became Miller’s Mill. John Henry did some farming to help support his large family, but another source of income was making whiskey, something that was legal then and was overseen by the government. When John Henry brought the property in the Bloomington community, the price he agreed to pay was $2,000 cash and 100 gallons of whiskey. Selling whiskey as a bootlegger was something John Henry did not do. The whiskey he made was hauled from Byrdstown to places like Chicago and Detroit. As soon as John Henry was able to pay off the debt on the farm, he was no longer involved in whiskey business. Instead, he became a constable, a job that sometimes required him to raid illegal stills run by bootleggers.

At the time of the writing of this story, only four of the 15 children (John Esco, Millard, Sophia, and Doris) are still living. I sat down with two of the brothers, John Esco, age 96, and Millard, age 84, in Byrdstown on a hot, summer afternoon to listen as they reminisced about growing up in early 1900's.

The Sells home was described as one that everyone knew as always open and welcome to company and visitors. John Henry’s parents also made their home there, as did an uncle of Dora Belle by the name of Wolford Holt. Wolford was a self-taught carpenter whose skills were considered much above average. Although he quit school at a very early age simply because he didn’t like the teacher, he learned to do math, and would often ask Millard to give him several sums to add up. Millard sometimes had a list with as many as ten numbers that he had already totaled up, and each time Wolford’s answers were correct. Wolford perfected his carpenter skills to the point that when building a house that bricks were used for the exterior walls, he knew almost exactly how many to order. When he completed a job, there were hardly enough bricks left over to fill a wheelbarrow. The beautiful stone Baptist Church in Byrdstown was built by Wolford.

The girls in the Sells family helped take care of the household chores. Finding ways to save money and cut corners were always put into use around their house. One of the things the girls often did with the pants the boys outgrew was to take the seams in the legs apart and make a shirt by sewing the fronts and backs of the pants together. Drinking ragweed tea helped cure bad colds for the Sells children, and a sure cure for the ear ache consisted mixing of ashes and water together, and then tying the mixture up in a cloth to be held against the ear.

One of the Sells brothers named Sam didn’t learn to walk until he was 11 years old. He had been afflicted at a very young age of some type of disease that prevented him from using his legs. Because of this, he started school at a much older age than the other children. But getting an education was not to be for Sam. Because he was so much older than the other children, he refused to go, but this didn’t stand in his way. Many years later, he was often referred to as one of the best county highway superintendents Pickett County ever had.

"I never had a toy." That’s how Millard described his childhood. When he was 10 years old, his father bought him a pair of mules that were 13 hands high. His father told Millard he was now old enough to start working. Millard spent that summer clearing a place to raise corn, and in return for his work, he got to choose a pig from a litter that belonged to his brother, Sam. Their father told Millard before he left to go make his choice not to pick out the very best pig Sam had, but to choose a smaller one. Millard, who had always been taught to do what he was told, picked one of the smaller pigs. The one he picked out wasn’t quite weaned and for a while, Millard hand fed the pig. One day the pig got out of the pen Millard kept it in and was gone for a week or so before someone found it and brought it back home. After having two or three litters of pigs, Millard came home one day and learned his father had given the hog to Millard’s brother, Cosby. Millard was terribly hurt by his father’s actions, but he never let his feelings be known to his father. Although he understood that Cosby needed the hog, that didn’t prevent him from being mad at Cosby for a long time afterward.

Millard was also around 10 years old when he began buying his own shoes and clothes. Part of the money he used for helping to support himself came from selling animal furs. Three nights a week, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, he and one of his brothers would go out hunting. Millard always carried a sack to put the animals in. Usually the next day, the animals that had been killed were skinned and the hides were stretched out on boards to be left there until they dried. Possum hides brought fifty cents each which was considered good money in those days. The money made from selling furs would often go toward the purchase of a pair of work shoes for around $1.50 or overalls that cost anywhere from .90 cents to $1.25 a pair.

Nobody knew better than a neighbor everyone called "Little Jim" that folks were always welcome at the Sells home. "Little Jim" lived alone and every night just as the Sells family sat down to supper, there would be a knock on the door. It would always be "Little Jim," and even though everyone knew he was there to eat supper with them, "Little Jim" pretended he really hadn’t stopped by to eat with them. It was only until after the children had finished their meal, "Little Jim" would get a straight back chair from another room and come to the table. He wouldn’t eat out of a clean plate, but ate instead out of a plate one of the kids had used. The night he didn’t come by for supper, John Henry knew something was wrong. He sent one of the children to see about "Little Jim," and sure enough, he was found in his bed very sick. When John Henry learned "Little Jim" wasn’t well, he had the boys to hook up the team of mules to the wagon and put some quilts in the back to lay "Little Jim" on. "Little Jim" was taken to the doctor who advised that he probably wouldn’t live more than a week. A brother to "Little Jim" who lived in the Union B community came to get him and "Little Jim" died a short time later at his brother’s home. Millard and his wife, Christine, always remember "Little Jim" every year with memorial flowers for his grave.

One of the first jobs John Esco (everybody calls him Esco) got paid for was hauling dirt in a wheelbarrow for a man named Albert Neal, the owner of a country store near the Sells’ farm. Esco was paid .50 cents a day for his hard work. It was Esco who later bought the first radio for the family to listen to. The year was 1935. Two antennas had to be put up in order for the radio to work.

Esco recalled how their brother, Henry, almost got in trouble once for getting in a neighbor’s watermelon patch. The neighbor came to the Sells’ home to report that Henry had been seen taking a watermelon from his patch on Sunday, a day that evidently everyone understood was off limits as far as watermelon patches were concerned. The only thing that saved Henry from whatever the punishment was for being in a watermelon patch on Sunday, especially if the patch belonged to somebody else, was the fact that the day Henry was seen getting a watermelon was actually on a Saturday. The neighbor was mistaken about what day of the week it was, and went back home probably embarrassed because of his mix up in the days.

Albert Neal, owner of a nearby country store, raised a type of watermelon known as diamond backs. Millard happened to hear him talking to someone one day about a really fine watermelon he was growing especially to save the seeds from. Mr. Neal described the exact location of that particular watermelon without realizing that while he was describing just exactly where the prized melon was growing, a plan to raid the watermelon patch after it got dark that night was being formulated in young Millard’s mind. After darkness descended, there was Millard in Mr. Neal’s watermelon patch. Knowing that Mr. Neal had made the statement that sometimes he sat up in a tree to watch for possible watermelon thieves to appear in his patch, Millard got down on his stomach and crawled through the patch. He had a friend with him who waited to share in what they hoped would be a really good treat, but after all the crawling to the exact place where the giant size watermelon lay, what a disappointment. After getting the watermelon out of the patch, it was, in Millard’s words, "green as a gourd." Much to Mr. Neal’s dismay, the prize melon he was growing just especially to save the seeds from, ended up in a nearby culvert. Many years later, Millard confessed to Mr. Neal that he was the one who stole that watermelon. By the time Millard confessed, he had married Mr. Neal’s daughter, Christine.


Millard Sells and his father, John Henry Sells, pose with a horse and a young colt.

The Sells children sometimes spent winter days sitting around the fireplace playing checkers or playing Rook. One Sunday, Millard slipped some of the Rook cards into his pocket before going to church at Smyrna. During the service, he took the cards out of his pocket and began to spread them out on the bench. After the service was over and everyone got back home, Millard’s mother, who hadn’t said a word to him about what he had done with the cards during church service, got him by the collar and led him over to the fireplace. She asked him to hand over the cards, and when Millard gave them to her, she threw them in the fire. Nothing else was said or done, but Millard got the message she sent loud and clear.

These are only a few of the memories both Millard and Esco have from their childhood days. Each one could write a book filled with very interesting events that took place over the years. Strong family values and good working habits were instilled by their parents in each of the Sells children, something that is quite evident in both Esco and Millard’s lives today. And even though I’ve only scratched the surface, it’s been fun to catch a glimpse of how life was around Bloomington so many years ago.