Dr. Ebenezer Childs
Dr. Ebenezer Childs, Lysander’s father, came south in 1850.
On Three Mile Creek in Avery County, North Carolina in the mid-1800s, Jacob Carpenter kept records of people who had died nearby. Amidst colorful accounts of the deceased, their reputations and their hunting successes, “Uncle Jake,” wrote a simple listing for Dr. Ebenezer Childs: “Dock Chiles ag 82 di march 5 1859 wars docker.”
Never mind the spelling (that’s “was doctor”) or that the actual year was 1862 – perhaps a transcriber’s error. The story of Dr. Childs and the town that bore his family name presents a more significant puzzle.
If you visit the beautiful Toe River Valley today to look for Childsville, you won’t find it. The town – renamed Calhoun in 1861, later renamed Childsville, once in Yancey County, later the county seat of Mitchell – was located in what became Avery County 100 years ago. But the town is not in Avery County. The town is gone.
In 1935, Muriel Sheppard wrote in “Cabins in the Laurel”: “Today, all there is left of the once honored Calhoun is a flat field and a wallow of blackberries and laurel. Not even a rotting log marks the site of the old court house.”
So why would this town, once a regional governmental center, have such a twisted and fateful history? There’s a hint in Tim Thornton’s “A Separate Civil War,” in Blue Ridge Country, July/August 2010: “[Civil] War in the mountains was a tangled thing.” In Childsville’s case, as tangled as a rhododendron thicket.
Let’s begin in 1778, when Samuel Bright obtained a land grant including land that would become Childsville. About 55 years later, a young entrepreneur named Col. Lysander D. Childs left Massachusetts and settled in Lincolnton, NC in Lincoln County. In 1843, he married Nancy Hoke, daughter of a wealthy cotton industrialist, and established a successful cotton business there. With this and other ventures, Lysander Childs began to amass a fortune.
He also bought a large tract for a plantation in Yancey County, and in 1850 his parents, Dr. Ebenezer Childs and Alvira Long Childs, moved from Mt. Morris, NY, to their son’s property. Ebenezer was 65 and Alvira 62. They’d left behind several grown children and a family mausoleum in Mt. Morris.
At their ages, what would have led the doctor and his wife to travel to such rugged and unfamiliar territory more than 700 miles from familiar towns? Reasons are unclear. Perhaps Lysander lured them to maintain the plantation while he pursued other ventures.
Besides Ebenezer and Alvira Childs, two other sons and a daughter moved to North Carolina’s high mountains. Albertus and Ebenezer Long (Eben) Childs and Leila Childs Tobey all brought families. Speculation suggests that the brothers had seen the South as an area to promote sales of their inventions, including Albertus’s patented winnowing machine, which cleaned grain before it was ground into flour. The machine was widely touted in the U.S. and Canada.
The family was quick to establish its presence: • On April 4, 1850, the Childsville Post Office opened in a large log building at the home of Eben Childs. Albertus Childs became postmaster, a position held until 1861, when the Union ended postal service to the Confederacy.
• Eben and Albertus opened a grist mill and saw mill.
• In 1854, Lysander and Eben formed the Childsville Mineral Company to explore mineral resources there.
• And Dr. Childs continued to practice medicine. The elderly doctor traveled far on rough mountainous terrain. Oral history tells that on his return home, Dr. Childs sometimes fell asleep; but his faithful horse continued to his stable and waited for the doctor to awaken.
In 1858, Henry E. Colton, naturalist, geologist and an editor of the Asheville Spectator, wrote about a visit to Childsville: “I am now enjoying the liberal hospitality of the gentlemanly proprietor of Childsville, Col. L.D. Childs, to whose energy and public spirit much is due; the fruit of his labors and example is seen in the improving and more refined condition of his section of the country.”
By 1860, Census records showed 50 heads of households in Childsville, including three free Blacks.
But tensions were mounting between North and South. Allegiances divided the county, communities and families. Dr. Childs and his family were Northerners in the South. In 1861, disagreement led to a split in the county. The southern region, favoring secession, remained Yancey County. By decision of the North Carolina Legislature, northern Yancey County joined corners of Watauga, Caldwell, Burke and McDowell Counties to form Mitchell County. The new county needed a county seat. By the legislature’s designation, the new county seat would be named Calhoun, honoring John C. Calhoun, the nation’s seventh vice-president and a staunch advocate of states’ rights and slavery. Childsville had lost its name.
The first Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions for Mitchell County was held in the home of Eben Childs, with the task of assigning county officials and determining a permanent seat of justice. Superior Court also met at Eben’s home in Childsville (“Calhoun” in court records) from 1861 until 1863. In October of 1861, Lysander and Eben Childs conveyed 50 acres for a permanent courthouse, a public graveyard, a public school, and Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist churches.
But sentiments tangled. Despite Union allegiances that led to Mitchell County’s formation, many key voices in its early government held Southern sentiments. Fiery minutes from the December 1861 Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions report arguments that the appointed commissioners’ decision represented “manifest injustice” to more distant residents of the county. Childsville’s population by Northerners may have exacerbated disfavor over that site for the county seat.
On May 20, 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union, and armed conflict soon followed. Despite their Northern heritage, three grandsons of Dr. Ebenezer Childs took the oath of allegiance to the Confederate militia in 1861. At Chickamauga two years later, when bullets struck Lt. Col. Edmund Kirby, three young soldiers ran to his rescue. Union fire left a heap of four dead bodies, including John Eben Childs, son of Lysander Childs, and Theron Sherwood, stepson of Eben Childs.
On August 23,1862, Dr. Ebenezer Childs died due to “deprivations” during the war, according to his grandson Clarence Childs in a letter in 1936.
War’s cruel hand reached across the mountain. Families were starving. Men enlisted and left families to manage the land and food production. Limited food supplies were confiscated by marauding Union troops or by the Confederacy to feed troops. Union blockades attempted to starve the Confederacy while Confederate taxation contributed to starvation. Lack of access to salt made preservation of meat impossible. Making matters worse, smallpox and typhoid outbreaks took their tolls. Commissioner Eben Childs was appointed to oversee the acquisition of provisions and the distribution of food and money to families of indigent and deceased soldiers.
Despite the loss of much of his fortune as his factories in Lincolnton and Columbia burned, Col. Lysander Childs responded to human need. The Civil War diaries of Mary Chesnut praise Lysander for saving her and many other Southerners from starvation during the war. A story is told of gray-haired Alvira’s begging Union soldiers not to burn her town. They spared it. After Dr. Childs’s death, Alvira and her daughter Leila Tobey moved from Childsville to Lincolnton. Eben and Anna followed in 1864. Only Albertus and his family remained near Childsville at a plantation onThree Mile Creek until 1880.
Alvira Childs died in 1879 at age 91. The Lincolnton obituary notes that the town suspended business during her funeral. The bodies of Ebenezer and Alvira Childs ultimately were laid to rest in Columbia, SC, where Lysander had settled, invested in industry and opened a bank.
By 1866, the Mitchell County seat moved to Davis, a small but established town, soon renamed Bakersville. Ostensibly, the county seat moved to the geographic center of the county. Calhoun again became Childsville, where the post office operated from 1866 until June 11, 1877. At its closing, Albertus Childs was again postmaster.
In 1911, Mitchell County residents again petitioned to divide the county. The courthouse in Bakersville was far away from eastern county residents, so Avery County was established as North Carolina’s 100th county. A new town was built as the county seat: Newland, formerly Old Fields of Toe, had been a mustering ground for Civil War troops.
By this time, Childsville had disappeared. Marauders had burned the old church after the war. Lumbering sent logs downhill, crushing unused buildings. Over time, much of the old town was absorbed by mining operations. Another corner of Childsville, where the post office and courthouse once stood, was bulldozed and buried under the Avery County Airport.
The poignancy of Childsville’s story lies not only in the account of this particular place and its people but also in the reminder that many places, many people, many pieces in the quilt of our heritage slip so easily from our memory – as if they had not shaped our lives nor enabled our existence.
They are a profound reminder of how quickly our heritage is lost if we do not pass our stories along.
War-Time Letters: Tragedy and Adaptation
Letters from women of the Childs family capture the heartbreak of the Civil War period. In November of 1863, Anna Childs, Eben’s wife, sent a poignant letter to Lysander’s wife Nancy. Both had just lost sons at Chickamauga. She wrote, “How cruel this war have been & no prospect of its ending . . . People are begging for bread almost daily now & what will it be by spring.”
While Anna Childs had found life in Childsville intolerable, Delia, wife of Albertus, adapted despite difficulties. As the war ended Delia wrote to her sister, whose two sons died fighting for the Union:
“It will take a long time to recover what we lost in this world’s goods and we will never recover the loss of our dear son . . . [Adelbert died of] consumption brought on by exposure in the army . . . At the commencement of the war we had 9 good horses and two good yoke of oxen and about forty head of cattle and about one hundred sheep and forty or fifty good hogs and eleven good milk cows. At the close of the war we had one blind horse, 27 sheep, 3 cows and 3 calfs and 19 hogs. The rest was taken by the contending armies and robbers. The Yankeys called us rebels because we lived in the south and the rebels called us Yankeys because we came from the North and we were robbed by both sides. We live nearly on the line between the two armies and we lost a great deal . . .”
Help NC’s 100th County Turn 100
The centennial celebration for North Carolina’s 100th county takes place at the Avery County Heritage Festival on June 4 in Newland. averymuseum.com.
This article and more stories on Childsville by Julia Ebel at blueridgecountry.com/childsville will be part of “Avery County’s 100th Anniversary: 1911-2011,” a book of history, heritage and pictures compiled by Avery Historical Society and Museum, and available at the festival.
Before Childsville: Pieces Still Linger
Though nothing of Childsville remains, some earlier signs of history linger. Behind the Unimin Corporation’s locked gates, over an old one-lane concrete bridge crossing the North Toe River, and across a couple of open fields lies Bright’s Cemetery, now fenced and marked for the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail. Field stones mark 25 gravesites that surround two identified graves: one for Capt. Martin Davenport, Revolutionary War veteran and early resident of Bright’s Settlement; the other for Robert Sevier, whose grave is one the few marked sites for soldiers who died during the Revolutionary War. A monument added later marks the grave: Capt. Robert Sevier 1749-October 16, 1780 Mortally wounded in battle of Kings Mt Son of Valentine Sevier the immigrant
Nearby two rows of tumbled stone lie in a heap where they fell as the late 1700s church was burned by marauders during Reconstruction.
In a field downhill and closer to the river, Davenport Spring still trickles, marking the spot where Overmountain Men camped in 1780 on their march to King’s Mountain. Unimin has added a rail fence around the spring. Still the wide valley of the North Toe River reveals the beautiful land that once lured planters and fortune seekers. Little did those earlier residents know the wealth of minerals that lay beneath their feet in quartz, feldspar, mica and other minerals.
These Revolutionary War sites are visited each September on a commemorative march sponsored by the Overmountain Victory Trail Association.
The Tombs of Dr. Childs
Having left a mausoleum behind in Mt Morris, New York, Dr. Ebenezer Childs, built another mausoleum in Childsville. The rock-lined tomb nestled into a hillside overlooking Childsville. As oral history reports, the unusual structure stirred the curiosity of young boys.
When Dr. Childs died in 1862 his body was placed in the tomb in a lead casket filled with whiskey as an embalming solution. Several years after the war, the body of Dr. Childs was moved from the hillside mausoleum to Lincolnton.
Horton Cooper’s “History of Avery County, North Carolina” states: “When Dr. Childs’ body was removed from the ‘Tomb’ preparatory to sending it to Lincoln County for burial, the whiskey-filled lead coffin was opened and it was found that the body was well preserved, only a blue mold having formed on the face.”
The decision to move the body remains enigmatic. As Cooper suggests, did Ebenezer Childs himself request that he not remain on the mountain after death? Did he see the tomb a status symbol or as a means for an easier move later. Was the decision made by his family, weathered and worn by the war that claimed so many lives? As the Civil War ended, all but Albertus had already left Childsville, the mountains, and the tomb behind; and Lysander had long been established in upscale Southern culture.
Dr. Childs and Alvira rest ultimately in Columbia, S.C. – in a grave, ironically, not a tomb.
Keeping Childsville’s History Alive
Childsville’s story likely would be lost were it not for such diligent story keepers as historian Tense Banks, the Avery Historical Museum and Claudia Hill McGough, a descendent of Albertus Childs and compiler of many records in Childsville in the volume “Old Times Are Not Forgotten.” Avery County historian Michael C. Hardy also includes a chapter on Childsville in “Remembering Avery County.”