Catawba is My Home

FOREWORD by Ted Carroll

After writing A Silent Killer Comes to Appalachia, focusing on the enormous impact that tuberculosis (TB) had on my family in Catawba and many others in the mountain region, I felt a personal lack of closure. The disease and its consequences had forever altered our family destroying our opportunity for a normal life and left us in a dysfunctional state that would scar us forever. It seemed like the Silent Killer story left a fog of darkness over me with regards to that part of local history. Within days I received an e mail from a member of a family that I remembered living there during the last couple of decades of the facility that was known as Catawba (TB) Sanatorium. Carolyn Pillow Mayhew was the daughter of Robert (Bob) Pillow who was Business Manager of Catawba  Sanatorium from 1946 -1973. In 1973 it would become Catawba Hospital, ending its years as the first TB sanatorium in Virginia. We shared a couple of e mails and I got a revelation that Carolyn had a valuable story that she could share that would close the door on the darkness of this iconic facility with a feel-good story of her life growing up on the historic grounds of the Catawba Sanatorium. I asked Carolyn to do a story and she agreed. A Silent killer Comes to Appalachia would have a Part 2.


Carolyn did not have descendants from Catawba, but she was born in our valley which gave her the same roots we all have that have sprung from preceding generations. She portrays in her life story of growing up in Catawba, largely confined to the Sanatorium grounds, which would extend to the area of Keffer’s store, Catawba School and Catawba Methodist Church. Carolyn is an excellent writer who captures your attention in such a way that you relive her story as if you were there. This is a heartwarming article that you will be thankful to have read.

The Silent Killer Comes to Appalachia – The Sequel

Catawba is My Home
By Carolyn Pillow Mayhew

catawba-westend-infirmaryWhen someone asked me where I grew up, I used to say “Catawba Sanatorium.”  They would look at me funny.  For a while, I use to answer “No, I did not escape.”   But now I say Catawba Valley.

“North Carolina?”

“No, Virginia.”

“Never heard of it.”

And I think–good–, I want my home to stay as beautiful and quaint as I remember it.

Robert (Bob) Pillow

My father, Robert (Bob) Pillow was business manager of Catawba Sanatorium from 1946-1972 when it was a tuberculosis hospital, built on the same land that the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs Resort was built on in 1857.  Dad grew up in Roanoke City and graduated from VPI (Virginia Tech) with a major in business.  He continued to live and work in the city until World War II started and then he enlisted in the Army and fought in Europe.

Mom, Dorothy (Dottie) Penn Pillow, grew up on the State Farm in Goochland County, where her father was superintendent of the correctional center.   All of the jobs on the State Farm such as outdoor grounds maintenance, painting, and including cooking, ironing and cleaning for the employees that lived there were performed by the inmates.  It was quite a learning experience for my Mom and her three sisters when they got married and had their own houses to take care of.

Bob and Dottie Pillow – 1937

Mom and Dad lived in a small two-bedroom house right next to the woods behind the nurses’ quarters and close to the chapel.   They were no further than sixty yards away from the last standing hotel building from the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs Resort.  Just down the hill from their house was the gazebo that sheltered the hand pump for the sulfur water.    They stayed in this house until I was born and then we moved to the house I grew up in. Catawba Sanatorium was further “in the country” than the State Farm was.  The sanatorium had about 15 to 20 inmates that worked outside painting or cutting grass with a push mower, leaf removal in the fall, snow removal in the winter, shoveling coal for the boilers to produce steam for the sanatorium and garbage pickup.  There was a dairy farm for milk and butter for the sanatorium’s dining room and the farm also had hogs for supplemental food.  Fields of corn or alfalfa were planted and harvested by the inmates for the cows every year.   But they did not do any cooking, cleaning or ironing.  Mom had to learn how to do that on her own.  One of the cooks from the dining room walked to our house two or three times a week and taught Mom how to cook when they first moved to Catawba.  My brother, Rick Pillow (born 1947) and I (1951) use to tease our mother relentlessly when she was trying to be brave and cook something new that one of the valley farmers had brought to Dad.  One time it was frog legs.  From our classmates we had heard that the legs jumped in the pan when you fried them.  Mom quietly started cooking them, but Rick and I came in to watch because we knew what was for dinner.  Suddenly Rick pointed to one and said, “Look!  That one jumped!”.   Mom took the pan, walked outside to the garbage can and threw them away.  Another time it was rabbit chops.  Me, being young and not thinking, picked up the chop and “hopped” it a couple of times on the plate.  Mom left the table, and Dad stared me down.

Rick and Carolyn Pillow

For Rick and me, the sanatorium was the best place to grow up; it was the biggest playground you could image.










The Tapping


Except for Cecelia and the fire, all of the stories I have written about have been happy or funny memories.  Growing up at Catawba Sanatorium was wonderful.  I wouldn’t want to change anything about that time in my life.  My friends in the valley are special to me.  And some were special; God rest your souls:   Fabio, Johnny Starkey and my brother, Rick.

But the saddest thing about living on the grounds was the tapping on the hospital’s windows of the patients.

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Enjoy articles like this? Then you would love Echoes From Catawba Volume 1, Growing Up In Catawba Valley, Appalachia.   Click here to order Echoes From Catawba Volume 1  hardcover, collector’s edition: $27.99, includes shipping.  Also available on Amazon. Paperback: $18.99 and Kindle: $5.99

Also available at the Salem Museum Book Store in Salem, Virginia and The Emporium on Main Street in New Castle, Virginia.

Click here to view the Catawba Sanatorium photo album.


5 thoughts on “Catawba is My Home

  1. Carolyn very good writing. You knew it first handed living on the grounds.. The old hotel i use to go up and play in it also. Thanks for your story.

  2. NO truer words have you shared than “the calmness you get in your chest when you cross the top of Catawba Mountain and know you are home”

  3. My father was one of the patients there for several months I believe. He was sent home to die. The community built a “sleeping porch” for him to breathe in the cool night air. He said one day some strangers came and prayed for him and that night it felt like a big hand squeezing his lung. He was sent to UVA and they had records there years ago that he was free and clear of TB, it just left a dried up lung. He became a minister and went on to have 7 more children. I am the youngest – but he never forgot his time at Catawba and the kind nurses. He was from Patrick county, Richard Wright.

    1. Alma, I really appreciate this wonderful comment you posted. I have put it on the article on the blogsite. A lot of people will read it and be moved by such a warm and moving true story about your father. God Bless you. Ted Carroll

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