In two short years our house of cards had fallen — we were orphans

Posted by | May 3, 2013

My father died suddenly at 44 years of age and is buried in a little grave yard, just outside of the town he helped to build among the people he loved. His grave is marked by a stone of Tennessee granite, on which is this description: “Erected to the memory of Walter Phillips by the employees of the Cranberry Iron and Coal Co.” At the time of his death there were six children, four girls and two boys. I was 14 years old and next to the oldest. The youngest was only a baby.

When my mother investigated, she found herself with a few hundred dollars and a large family. And while we had never wanted for anything, she was faced by a problem that, as I look back, must have seemed insurmountable. I’ll never forget the evening where she called us all together, including the old colored couple who had been with us for eight years, and explained our situation. And I can still see tears rolling down the faces of Old Mammy and Uncle Henry when she told them we would have to get along without them.

They assured her they would never leave us, but would get outside work and help with the expenses and still take care of the house and babies. “Greater love has no man shone.”

Walter Phillipls, Cranberry NCWalter Phillips emigrated from Cornwall England in the late 1860s, settling first in Jefferson Township, NJ. He worked as an iron ore miner in various mines of western NJ. In 1882, he was part of a surveying group sent by the investors of the Eastern Tennessee/Western North Carolina railroad then being built to Cranberry North Carolina. He moved with his family to Cranberry and was a foreman with the Cranberry Iron & Coal Co. (a division of the Eastern Tennessee/Western North Carolina Railroad) from 1882 till 1887.

The company, (Cranberry Iron and Coal Company) at a Director’s meeting voted to give her an allowance each month for a year. This was enough to live on and keep the family together, which was manna from heaven.

During that year my mother, who was a good cook, with the help of old colored Mammy, started to serve dinners to the members of the company’s staff and to excursion parties from Johnson City. I went to work in the company’s store and got 50 cents a day so that at the end of the first year, we thought we were ready to go on our own.

The company stopped their help with the understanding that we could draw on them if we got in trouble. My mother was determined to go it alone without any help.

By the end of the second year (1889) we were on the ragged edge. She had cut everything down to the minimum, with our clothes almost gone and no relief in sight, except to ask for help. This my mother refused to do. Two months later she died, just did not have the strength to carry the burden of sorrow and disappointment.

After eight years of happy family life, without a thought or care for the future. In two short years our house of cards had fallen and we were six orphans. The oldest 17 and the youngest three years. Mother lies beside my father on the hill on the edge of town.

Cranberry Iron Works, Cranberry NCCranberry Iron Works, 1895.

When our true financial situation became known, people in droves who claimed they had been helped in one way or another by my father, offered their help. Our pantry was filled and old Mammy and Uncle Henry almost caused a civil war when some good friends wanted to separate the children and have them live with different friends. Finally one gentleman, a good friend of my father, who lived in a nearby town had himself appointed our guardian.

That was agreeable with old Mammy and Uncle Henry as long as they were able to keep us together and take care of us. Later Mr. Charles H. Nimson, who I think was president of the company, came down from Philadelphia, and when he was told about our troubles he came to see us and insisted on knowing the name of some relative in New Jersey.

We finally found some old correspondence of my mother’s that she had, with the name of her brother and his address in Dover, New Jersey. He told us not to worry, we could get what we needed at the company store without money and old Mammy and Uncle Henry were put on the company’s payroll. And it was arranged that Mr. Wm. E. Ellis, who was our self appointed guardian, would see that we were properly taken care of.

Source: My Life: A Recollection from Thomas Jay Phillips I at

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