Home and coffee still calling Brothers home

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 16, 2004

Suffolk News-Herald

Charred pine trees, scorched camellia bushes and tons of antique brick are all that’s left of the Brothers homestead following a fire in April. But, just as the 70-foot-tall pines continue to sway gently in the breeze, Charles H. and Napoleon Bonaparte NB Brothers still recall a childhood filled with wonderful memories.

When the house burned to the ground on April 28, it was Charles H. Brothers Jr., fire chief of the Whaleyville Volunteer Fire Department, who was called to the scene as well as other firefighters.


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&uot;As I stood there that Wednesday evening watching it burn, I could remember my childhood as if it were yesterday,&uot; he said. &uot;All of the grandchildren – including myself – playing in the front yard, or the smell of fried chicken coming from the kitchen as Nannie stood over top of the stove preparing it for all 22 children and grandchildren.&uot;

Those are the type of memories that course through the entire Brothers family. While the loss of their home place was devastating, even the gargantuan fire that devoured their home will never erase such reminiscences.

The two brothers grew up along with three other brothers, Ben, Henry and Tom, and a sister, Betty; and as children they knew every inch of the thousands of acres of land deeded to their great-great grandfather by the King of England. Much of the farm is located was The Great Dismal Swamp before it was designated as a National Wildlife Refuge.

Charles recalled walking behind a mule all day long, working the fields right alongside his brothers, father and other family members. He didn’t take much to farmin’ though, and it wasn’t long before he sought a life without the daylight-to-dark schedule behind the plow.

&uot;I left when I was about 24 years old and I went to get myself a job,&uot; said Charles. &uot;I wanted a job where you didn’t have to go milk the cow and feed the mules before you ate breakfast.&uot;

He also said that back in those days; men ate every meal as if it were their last. They enjoyed three huge, heavy meals each and every day, without concern over things like cholesterol or carbohydrates.

&uot;We worked hard and if you didn’t eat like that, you didn’t have the strength to work the fields,&uot; said Charles. &uot;You’d better not eat a skimpy breakfast. You ate plenty of oatmeal, biscuits, butter, and gravy…all of it.&uot;

As for the farming, &uot;NB,&uot; on the other hand, took to the plow, the never-ending rows of crops, and the unceasing hours of hard work like the plowshare cutting through that rich soil.

&uot;I love the soil – it’s something that is part of me,&uot; said &uot;NB.&uot; &uot;Farming is a way of life and I love to see the soil tilled and the crops come up. Nature is just a wonderful thing and I love it. I still work about 400 acres and it’s mostly soybeans and cotton now, but I do intend to get back into peanuts.&uot;

After Charles left the farm, he took an apartment and it wasn’t long before he met the love of his life, Carolyn Baker of Drum Hill, N.C. The two made their home on Pitch Kettle Road for two years before buying a home in Whaleyville where they have lived ever since. Charles worked for Webster Brick Company until he retired.

NB said he married a city gal who once told her granddaddy she would never marry a farmer.

&uot;Judy Speight was her name and I don’t know how I won her heart,&uot; said &uot;NB.&uot; &uot;We met where everybody met back then – at Herb’s Barbecue. I saw her and she saw me…that was it. I was farming and we got married in 1960, and I went to work with Birdsong Peanuts until I retired a few years ago. I still worked the farm after work and on the weekends. Now that I’m retired and have more time to farm, my wife says I’m happier than ever.&uot;

Charles is actually the older brother, born in 1934, as opposed to &uot;NB’s&uot; 1938 birth date, but the two have a running disagreement on who’s oldest. It’s part of the jovial good nature the two men share, and it’s part of growing up on the Brothers family farm.

Tom still lives in Suffolk; Ben is now a resident of Southern Shores, N.C., and Henry is in Prattville, Ala., but Charles and NB were the two who have never wandered far from the peanut, corn, soybean and cotton fields of home.

&uot;I remember playing under the house in the hot summertime and it would be so cool under there,&uot; said Charles. &uot;The house was more than 200 years old and the timbers under it were – well, you could see where they had been chopped out with axes and cutting tools instead of saws. They were huge; not like the timbers under today’s homes.&uot;

He’s not really sure of the actual age of the house that was once two stories tall beneath the tall pines. He and NB love to tell the history of the old home place, one beginning to tell the story, and the other picking it up.

&uot;The records of the grant, which actually came from the king, were burned up in a fire in the old court house when Suffolk was burned,&uot; said Charles.

&uot;Mom, Katherine Brothers, has it recorded in her papers that it was given to our great-great grandfather in 1699,&uot; said NB. &uot;Our father, Henry Brothers, inherited the land as it was handed down in the family. We believe it’s been in the family for five or six generations.&uot;

NB visited England a few years ago and while there, he tried in vain to obtain the property records.

&uot;What I found was that all the land back then was actually granted through the churches,&uot; said NB. &uot;You not only had to find out which church your family came from but you would have had to look at every record book in the church. I never did find the records.&uot;

What he did find was that the grant was given with natural boundaries, like from one swamp to the east reaching the swamp to the west, and the same for the north and south property lines. Taking that into consideration, the Brothers farm was once about 15,000 acres in the original grant.

Whether it’s thousands of acres or the 400 acres NB still farms, both men love every dirt clod, every furrow of plowed fields and every grain of sand along the lanes. NB seems to be the history narrator, and Charles is the one who comes forth with their shared memories of days gone by. One of his most vivid memories is when the Army stationed men in watchtowers at the end of the farm lane to watch for enemy airplanes during World War II.

&uot;We were just kids then and boy, that was something,&uot; Charles said. &uot;They had that tower down there and it was thanks to the soldiers in that tower that my sister was saved from drowning one day.&uot;

It seems Betty had gone swimming in the little creek across Desert Road, where the farm is located, that filled up whenever it rained and she got in over her head one day. It was a soldier in the tall watchtower that spotted the child as she was going under a bridge. He ran to save her, of course – a heroic feat that was never forgotten by the Brothers family.

Not much about the soldiers was ever forgotten, in fact, since they were often invited to take supper with the family.

&uot;Mama would call them to come eat with us and they really enjoyed it,&uot; said Charles. &uot;One would always have to be on guard, so I’m not sure how they worked out who watched while the others ate. Mama may have sent a plate to him…&uot;

When he spoke of the delicious meals his mother made, NB also recalled the special coffee served from his mama’s kitchen.

&uot;When we made coffee, it was so good and I’ve never tasted any like it anywhere else,&uot; said NB. &uot;A while back, I was out in a field and I smelled that same smell – like Mama’s coffee. It was coming from a house where a family lived and the woman was making coffee there that day. I realized then, it was the water on the farm that gave it that smell and taste. I don’t care where you are on this farm, if coffee is brewing from this water, you can smell the aroma everywhere – it’s wonderful.&uot;

NB also had a memory of that watchtower, a structure resembling a fire tower, he explained. He said the military had issued orders not to allow the children up in the tower. He was there one day when the commanding officer stopped by.

&uot;It was hot and the soldier I’d been visiting with had stuck me in a duffel bag and zipped it up,&uot; said NB. &uot;I didn’t think the officer would ever finish talking and when he did, he told that soldier, &uot;don’t let that boy suffocate in that bag.’ We didn’t fool him at all.&uot;

Charles also recalled that those soldiers remained friends with his family, often writing letters to them and sometimes actually coming by the farm to visit once again.

&uot;I remember one of the soldiers, Walter Siesta, and he was a nice person,&uot; said Charles. &uot;I remember him distinctly, but all of them were good to us and we treated them like family. I find it remarkable that even though they lived in other states, they still came to visit.&uot;

It’s heartbreaking now, to look at the place where the house stood. It is a huge pile of broken bricks and charred timbers, but NB describes it with great love. He said it once had &uot;two rooms up and two rooms down&uot; and a T off the backside of it.

&uot;The dining room and the kitchen were at the back of the house,&uot; said NB. &uot;Then, it had a single bath in it for the entire family. We believe the house was built in the early 1700’s.&uot;

NB also recalled a black woman, Wortley Reid, who had worked for his great grandfather, Henry Brothers. She also worked for NB’s grandfather, Napoleon Bonaparte &uot;Boni&uot; Brothers, and she helped raise the children of Charles and NB’s generation.

&uot;She was a walking history book,&uot; said NB. &uot;She would say that ‘Old Man Henry Brothers did not know when this house was built,’ and that means the house could have been here even before our great-great grandfather’s time. He was born in the early 1700s.&uot;

Charles added that the Mrs. Reid, was in her late 80s when she died, and both men added that they thought of her as a grandmother. She had been kind and loving to every member of the family, they agreed.

The two men looked upon the pile of rubble that was once their family’s home. Neither shed a tear but a smile spread across their faces as they could feel &uot;Mama calling us in to supper, and smell the coffee brewing.&uot;