THE MORMON HOUSE
Written by Max Edward (Great Grandson of Bettie Jane Balance Aycock) and Sonia Peterson Aycock
December 2004 When he was only sixteen years old, my grandfather, Robert Edward Lee Aycock, left his home north of Goldsboro, N.C. in the small farming village of Nahunta and went almost 2,500 miles to Utah with the Mormon missionary, Elder Lewis Swensen, who had baptized him. He faced great difficulties.
In 1899 small western settlements were widely scattered and were separated by thousands of square miles of wilderness. Until the day he died, he was unable to dress, talk, or think like a Westerner. Even some of his children made fun of his Southern ways. Further, the boy was hardly mature enough to understand his Southern heritage, let alone to explain it to indifferent strangers or to pass it along to his offspring.
Consequently, my wife Sonia Peterson Aycock and I are in Nahunta trying to learn about the Aycock family by restoring the house that Grandad’s great grandfather Barnes built for his bride, Charity Pike Aycock, sometime in the 1840s. Not until I learned about the house that my great-grandfather Barnes Aycock had built and in which he died (the same house in which my great-grandfather Thomas Ruffin Aycock had been born and died, and the same house in which my grandfather Robert Edward Lee Aycock had been born) did I began to understand how I am connected to my family, to this country, and to the Church.
While we “chopped” corn under the hot Utah sun, Grandad Aycock grew weary of my complaining and told me about the difficulties of growing up in North Carolina. During the time that Grandad’s mother, Bettie Jane Ballance Aycock, was expecting their eighth child, Thomas and Bettie were investigating The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons.1
Interest in the Mormon faith increasingly isolated Grandad’s young family from the extended Aycock and Ballance families. Anti-Mormon feelings were extreme. While mob violence did not end in the loss of life in North Carolina, six deaths did occur between 1879 and 1900 in other Southern states. And in 1906 a mob burned down a recently completed Mormon church building about 100 miles north east of The Mormon House on Harkers Island, N.C.2 Thomas and Bettie allowed Mormon missionaries to hold meetings at the house, causing the neighboring children and adults alike to rebuff the family.
Furthermore, in December 1897, just two months before the baby Alma was born, Thomas Ruffin died of Bright’s Disease. Over the next two years Bettie and four of her children, including my grandfather, joined the Mormon Church. As the three other living children turned eight years old, they too became members. Slowly, straightening from his bent position over the row of greening corn, removing his felt, sweat-stained hat, Grandpa first wiped his forehead and then the back of his neck with his dirty handkerchief. I can still smell the sour, sweaty hat and handkerchief. Tears ran down his nose, and in a quivering voice he explained to me that he was not mature enough to handle the pressures.
At fourteen and the oldest in the family,3 he tried to shoulder the responsibly for the farm; the strained relations with the extended families and community he took personally.
During an argument with a hired man, he went to the house for the family’s rifle. Great Grandma too was feeling the stress. In December of 1999 she dressed him in knickers so that he got a cheaper train fair and sent him with Elder Swensen to Utah, more than 2,000 miles from his ancestral home. Consequently, I grew up without any more knowledge of the house than what Grandad told me as we worked. I was to learn much more over the years.
In February 1848 Barnes Aycock4, brought his new wife, Charity Pike5, to live in the house he had built-a large house for that time of almost 1,500 sq. feet. All of the Barnes and Charity’s children were born here. In time the house was willed to their youngest child, Thomas Ruffin6 Aycock. Thomas Ruffin married Betty Jane balance7 in Feb. 1883, and their eight children, including my grandfather Robert Edward Lee Aycock, were born in the house. It became Alma’s, Thomas and Bettie’s youngest, when she married William Walter Harper in 1921. Six Harper children were also born here.
The Harper family sold the house along with some land in 1960 to someone outside of the family. The new owners rented to a number of different tenants who made changes as needed without regard for its structural integrity or its significance to local Mormon and Aycock family history. When no longer habitable by “modern” standards, the house was used to store all sorts of things: used furniture and appliances, farm and yard equipment that dripped oil on the beautiful 8″ wide heart-pine board floors.
For several years, one of the owners stored hay in the house, and his cows in search of food climbed onto the front porch and broke through the flooring. The enclosed back porch began to leak. Eventually, water damaged it beyond repair. Wild animals also began to use it: mice, rats, snakes, opossums, raccoons, spiders, crickets, but no termites because of the resin filled heart-pine. Trees and vines forced their way through the cracks. Hurricane Hazel in the 1950s blew one of the chimneys down, and in the 1990s Hurricane Floyd tore the tin sheeting off the roof.
The 1890s and early years of the Twentieth Century were years of unusual growth in the Church. Wallace R. Draughon says, “Whereas less than 500 baptisms had been recorded in North Carolina Conference prior to 1895, nearly 3,000 persons were baptized during the 1896-1900 period.”8 The house figured prominently in this growth and became labeled in the small local neighborhood of Nahunta, North Western Wayne County as The Mormon House. Because Bettie Jane after Thomas’ death could not turn to his family, to hers, or to any of the neighbors for help or comfort, she and her children sought the safety of the Mormon missionaries and the new, growing local Church membership. In doing so, she was challenging the cultural proprieties of those around her. Certainly this behavior did not endear the fragile Aycock family to the neighborhood, but only strengthened the resolve of the local Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers to alienate Bettie and her young family further.
Some warnings seemed kindly enough. A neighbor heard that Bettie was about to be baptized. She wrote: Words are inadequate to express my feelings but I beg you for the safety and happiness of your family and the love you bear your children, to pause, be not hasty, but wait until you learn more of these people with whom you contemplate connecting yourself. I know but very little but what I do know is contrary to the teaching of Christ. I refer you to Mark 10th Chapter, 8th verse please read ‘And they twain shall be one flesh.’ If they are true to their faith they cannot deny a belief in and a practice in polygamy or plurality of wives. Twain means two and not a dozen or perhaps more for Brigham Young their leader had sixty wives. You, in your woman’s soul must know what that means.9
Other behaviors, echoing this message and threat, were downright malicious. A neighbor wrote to the local school board that because Bettie was known to keep the company of polygamists, she was not a virtuous woman. Such behavior, the writer argued, was proof that The Mormon House was not a fit place for school teachers to room and board; the school board should, therefore, deny Bettie the small income she was able to earn this way. Only one man at the meeting defended Bettie’s virtue. His words, alone, kept the board from publicly acting against Bettie.10 Conference President Simmons in response to an accusation made by a Baptist minister complained in September 1922 to North Carolina Governor Glenn with, “Have the Mormons at anytime shipped a carload of women from Chattanooga (The Southern States Mission headquarters was at that time in Tennessee.) to Utah?” The response after more than 75 years of Mormon proselyting was, “No, not yet!”11
More than fifty years after Bettie’s death an elderly neighbor woman assured me that Bettie’s association with Mormon missionaries had been “strictly chaste.” A letter surviving 105 years is a testament to how much comfort Bettie needed and how soothing its words were to her. From Varina, Wake County, North Carolina Elder David Elton made an effort to console her: I continually invoke heaven’s peace and blessings upon your head, for I realize the many difficulties you have to contend with, in raising a family, without the strong arm of a loving and dutiful husband to lean upon. Though you may be afflicted, and everything looks dark and drear, -rest assured that God is your helper, and that His angels hover around you, to shield you from all harm. If we had not stormy weather, we should not appreciate the sunshine, so let us battle with the storms of persecution, that we may more fully enjoy the calms of Life Everlasting in the realms of Eternal glory, where sorrows have an end. The Lord will hear the cries of His oppressed sons and daughters, and answer their prayers. Nevertheless He seeth fit to chasten His people; yea he trieth their patience and their faith. The Gospel is God’s loving, kindly message to his erring children, and those who want to be kind to themselves will accept the same, and be numbered with the faithful.” 12
Features of the house made it a perfect stopping and gathering place for the Mormon missionaries as well as other new Church members who were looking for physical and spiritual shelter. It is centrally located between the railroad stop at Princeton and the one at Pikeville, and about half way between Goldsboro and Kenly. Barnes had built the house to make the visits of travelers at night particularly welcome. Two porch bedrooms did not open into the house, but from the front porch only. Travelers who passed at night on the lonely country roads often spent the night in these bedrooms without disturbing the rest of the family. After breakfast with the family, the traveler could be on his way.
A full-length loft allowed at least ten missionaries at a time to sleep on the wide bare heart-pine floor. The loosely organized group of Mormons usually held Sunday services at Radford Crossroads in the Meadow Meeting House, but Bettie’s need for contact with other Church members kept her door always open for chance meetings, “cottage discussions,” and District Conferences. Mormon missionaries knew that Bettie in spite of the harm it did to her reputation and the threat to her safety would always welcome, feed, and house them. During the time Ben E. Rich was Mission President, “Bettie’s home was the office for the North Carolina District.”13
The journals of missionaries from 1899 until Bettie’s death in 1926 suggest how central this house was in missionary activities:
25 August 1898: “Borrowed Sister Bettie Jane Aycocks horse and wagon and drove to Eureka.” – ”Lewis Swensen
11 March 1900: “We went to Mrs. Bettie Aycock’s where we had a meeting and I was the speaker.” Many years latter while writing his autobiography, Brother Sullivan says: “Sister Aycock’s home was always open for a meeting place, and we had many fine meetings there.” -”James H. Sullivan15
14 July 1909: “Walked two miles to the home of Sister Bettie Aycock where we spent the remainder of the day with them.”-S. Daniel Peterson
26 July 1909: “We walked 8 miles to the home of Sister Bettie Aycocks arriving just before night. We spent the night and next day at her home. The treatment at her home, table, grub and all make an Elder feel that he is right at home.” -S. Daniel Peterson
2 December 1911: “Arrived at the home of Sister Aycock. Saturday we washed, pressed and shaved, and Sunday we held a sacramental and testimony meeting which was well attended, also blessed the little babe of Bro. And Sister Ralph Aycock. Gave it the name of Wilton Glenn. Spent the night at Sister Aycock’s singing gospel songs and trying to learn Gospel passages. Monday morning was raining when we wakened and continued all day so are still at the Elders home. (Sister Aycock’s) We spent a pleasant evening there and next morning Herman Aycock left for a mission to Virginia .” – S. Daniel Peterson
5 June 1911: “We held a cottage meeting at the home of Sister Bettie Aycock, a fairly good crowd was present.” -S. Daniel Peterson
11 Sept. 1911: “I then carried Pres. Francom three mi. farther in Bro. Radford’s outfit to the home of Sister Bettie Aycock where he met Elder James A. Martinsen and they traveled together.” -S. Daniel Peterson
19 Nov. 1911: “We walked two miles to the home of Sister Bettie Aycock where at 10:30 A. M. in the presence of a room full of relatives and friends I officiated in the ordinance which united in the holy bonds of matrimony Bro. Charley Maples and Bertha Aycock. -S. Daniel Peterson
The Mormon House was a refuge for missionaries through the tenures of three mission presidents: Ben E. Rich, Ephraim H. Nye, and Charles A. Callis. Furthermore and more important to me, Bettie’s love of the gospel was to have a significant influence on the growth of the Mormon Church in Eastern North Carolina. The informal and sporadic meetings at the house eventually became the Nahunta Branch.
Consequently, in the early 1940s Bettie’s grandchildren donated the land and materials and also helped to build a church just a Vi mile from the house. And Herman Barnes Aycock, Bettie’s second son, became the first Branch President in Nahunta. In 1954 this congregation joined with the Grantham and the Goldsboro Branches to form the Goldsboro District. The second District President from 1949 to 1961 was Bettie’s grandson Elbert Anthony Aycock;17 the district authorities dissolved the Nahunta Branch in 1957 and the congregation along with several other small branches moved to Goldsboro; the current bishop in the Goldsboro First Ward is Rex Howard, the husband of Bettie’s great grand daughter.