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.
INTRODUCTION by Ted Carroll
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
When 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.
“Never heard of it.”
And I think–good–, I want my home to stay as beautiful and quaint as I remember it.
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.
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.
For Rick and me, the sanatorium was the best place to grow up; it was the biggest playground you could image. During our growing up years, there were five of us who played together on the grounds. Grounds meaning where the grass was cut, the woods were off limits, but we pushed that boundary –a lot! Our five were: Fabio Chomicki, who was my age, his brother Alex, who was my brother’s age and another girl, Cecelia Smith, who was the oldest by four years. Hiking, bike riding/bike rodeo trick shows, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians (we had a ten-foot teepee in our backyard), hide and seek, and capture the flag using the entire grounds were just a few of our games. And of course, we marked off a football and baseball field. There was even a small cave in front of the nurses’ quarters that we played in or took shelter from a sudden cloud burst. Yes, that was off limits, but it was so cool to go in and look for bats; besides we could only go in about ten feet. And that’s how we rationalized that! There was a library that had a children’s book section, though children were not admitted to the sanatorium. Sometimes we would read, but mostly we played tag because that floor was the best “ice skating” floor we had ever found. Behind the library, was a three-car garage where we found a single horse-drawn fire hose carriage. If a door was unlocked on the grounds, it was fair game for us to explore and play in. But for some reason, we did not play on the carriage.
One of those unlocked doors was the door to the chapel. I would go in a lot and just sit. It was a quiet place and very cool in the summer to just relax. I attempted to play the piano or organ, but I never had lessons. Cecelia was married in that chapel and I decided then that I wanted my wedding there. By the time I got married we had moved away from the sanatorium, so my wedding was at the United Methodist Church in Salem.
The endless days of summer were filled with friendship and fun. We played baseball nearly every night after dinner. One of the doctors, Dr. José Fernandez, loved baseball and would join us. Since I was the only girl, our team got to have the third player. So it was Rick and Alex vs Dr. Fernandez, Fabio and me. Cecelia did not like playing baseball. When you could not see the pitch come across the plate, it was time to head home. I remember one summer, there was a pesky family of skunks that seemed to wait for Rick and me to ride our bikes home after baseball and just creep along to cross the road in front of us. Rick and I did have chores to do, but the anticipation of getting together and playing was all the incentive we needed to get the job done. Sometimes, we did not meet our mother’s expectations, but with no cell phones, she could not call us back home. Instead, we had to stay after lunch and try again to get it right.
Autumn was the season I loved best in the valley. The leaves were beautiful. Nowhere have I seen more color than at Catawba. It also meant back to school and that was exciting for me to see my friends again. We seldom got together in the summer because everyone had their chores to do. Catawba Elementary School was a square brick building that had four classrooms for grades first through seventh. As you look at the front of the school, the bus loading zone was on the right and the playground was on the left. There were swings, see-saws, chin up bars and a merry go round. The boys and girls usually played separately at recess. The boys played on the big baseball diamond at the back of the property. The girls played on a smaller diamond or on the playground equipment. When I started in 1957, there were two grades to a classroom except for the seventh grade. To be in the seventh grade and have that downstairs classroom and be the only grade in that room was hard to wait for. But by the time I entered the seventh grade, we were upstairs and next to the office. Mrs. Virginia Bell, our seventh-grade teacher, gave me the responsibility to answer the phone in the office. I will never forget the day President John Kennedy was assassinated. The person on the other end could not stop crying; so I ran to get Mrs. Bell. She was a little upset with me for not taking a message, but she finally left the classroom for the phone and returned in tears herself.
Autumn also meant: Halloween! Trick or Treat took place on the whole grounds! The nurses asked us to dress up in our costumes and parade around the dining room for the patients to enjoy before we went out to the houses. The patients also judged us for the best costume. We were not allowed to walk through the floors for the bedridden patients to see us.
Next came the VPI vs VMI football game on Thanksgiving Day. That meant my aunts, uncles, and cousins from Richmond would be spending four days with us. When my cousins started dating, we could have as many as sixteen people staying at our house for the weekend. And it never failed that when it came time for them to drive back to Richmond, their car would not start. Each year Dad would ask me if I wanted to go or stay with his parents in Roanoke. Not until high school did I want to go to the game, so Dad would give me five silver dollars—the price of a ticket then.
The day after Thanksgiving, Mom would pack a day’s worth of leftovers for my aunt and me to take to Mr. Joe Chapman. I am not positive if this was the F. J. Chapman who was the proprietor of the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs Resort. We had to hike about two miles to his cabin that was behind the first house on the right after you turn onto Rt. 320 from Rt. 779. Our house was the first house on the left. Sometimes he would answer his door when we knocked, but most times we left the food on his front porch. He always had a stick of Teaberry Gum for Rick and me. Neither Dad nor Mom mentioned his passing; I just noticed one day that I never saw him walking to Clarence’s (Carroll) store on the grounds just west of the chapel.
Winter. Winter meant snow, Christmas, and more snow. The guard would take a few of the inmates up the side of North Mountain to cut Christmas trees for the employees as well as a tree for each floor of the hospital. Mom’s family tradition was to put the kids to bed on Christmas Eve and then bring in the tree, decorate it and put the presents around it. Nothing was said until Rick and I walked into the living room the next morning and saw everything. (They made Rick promise not to tell me.) That was what Mom and Dad did until I started school and figured out when Christmas was because of all the decorations we were making at school. No wonder they fell asleep after breakfast. Later on, Dad hid our presents in the basement of the sanatorium because they could not trust us not to snoop around.
“Roanoke County Schools Are Closed!!!!” Steel wool for the rust and then candle wax for the runners and the sleds were ready. There were so many hills to choose from and it also depended on the roads that had been plowed. If the road was packed right, we could start at Clarence’s store and go all the way to the pump house at the intersection of Rt. 320 and Rt. 779. But that walk back up was a killer. One of our best hills had a 6x6x4 foot cement hole that a creek poured into and then continued underground. We had a six-foot opening to skirt through because of a tree on the other side of the cement hole. Someone suggested we try to get as close to the hole as we could. Rick was first to go, but he misjudged and fell four feet into the hole. He did not get hurt, but we decided to try another hill—a wide open alfalfa field. Ever just wonder how you made it to adulthood?
There were two pink Japanese Cherry trees planted in front of the main entrance to the sanatorium that bloomed in the spring. Redbud, Mountain-Laurel, jonquils, tulips and many more that I do not know the names of flourished at Catawba. Weather permitting, the nurses organized an Easter egg hunt around the front of the sanatorium and invited any children who were visiting a loved one to join in. In those days, the Easter eggs were real eggs that we dyed. The nurses tried to keep count of the number of eggs found, but there were always a few that were lost until the lawnmowers came out a few weeks later. One of those lost eggs left a big red mark on the side of the sanatorium wall!
Our house sat on top of a hill above Catawba Hospital Road. It was a single story, three bedroom, two bath house. All of the state-run facilities at that time painted their wooden frame houses with white paint and dark green trim. In the early days of the sanatorium, the medical thinking was fresh air, good food and rest to cure a person with tuberculosis. Many of the employees were patients who decided to stay on and work for the sanatorium. The employees were given time on their lunch break to either walk outside, sit on a bench or in bad weather, sit in a sunroom.
All of the houses had a southern facing sunroom and my bedroom was on the south end. It had five large windows. I had shades on the windows, but they were always up to the top and when the weather warmed up, I would open them up and let the breeze in. There was no air conditioning, so in hot weather, we opened all windows and doors. Each door had a hook and eye on the bottom of them to lock them open. Sometimes we forgot. It was funny to hear each door slam shut in sequence down the hall from back to front. To this day, I have always had my bed facing the window so if I am in bed sick, I can see outside.
Across the road from our house, there was a low ridge that I often climbed. Starting in February, I would hike a little further down the backside to an open field where jonquils bloomed. There must have been fifty or more blubs. I have no idea how they got there. These jonquils bloomed earlier than the ones around the grounds. I loved surprising Mom with an arm full of jonquils. We both knew spring was just around the corner. And again, to this day, I have always remembered spring with jonquils: either a bouquet of jonquils while she was living or a small garden filled with bulbs at every house I have lived at.
We went to the Methodist Church right across from the elementary school until Rick was eleven and we changed to the United Methodist Church in Salem because Mom wanted Rick to meet some of the other kids his age that would be going to Andrew Lewis High School. But the county changed us to Northside after it was built. One by one we stopped going to Salem. First Dad, then Rick and I, respectively, due to going away to college and finally Mom stopped making the drive alone to Salem. But in the summer during my elementary years, I went to vacation bible school at the Methodist Church and then to the Baptist Church. It was one way I could see my school friends while on summer break.
Turning fifteen and getting my learner’s permit was a day I so looked forward to. Nothing can compare with the independent feeling of being able to get yourself from point A to point B. My first experiences were “guiding” the car up Rt. 320 to the edge of our garage. I scooted over to get under the wheel and Mom worked the gas and brakes. After I got my license, most of my driving was to the church in Salem and back. One Saturday Dad asked me if I wanted to drive him to Salem to get a haircut. This trip involved parallel parking! Took me three tries, but I got the car in the space. But the “piéce de résistance” was heading home and Dad telling me to turn left onto Bradshaw Rd and then right onto Old Catawba Road. My brave Dad was letting me drive “up”, not down, on the first road over Catawba Mountain. What a rite of passage! And every time I come home, I drive it.
High school was a different time for me. I still had my Catawba friends and new high school friends, but I felt like I was existing in two different worlds. The bus ride across the mountain took nearly an hour. We got plenty of talking in while coming and going on the bus. But when we got home, we either had chores to do or homework. We were growing up; no more time for getting together and playing. Catawba was too far for many of my friends on the other side of the mountain to visit on the weekends. And sometimes, it was too far for my parents to drive me to their house. I never felt they understood my feelings of living the country life. By my junior year, I didn’t let it bother me anymore. I loved living where I was. Who could say they climbed pine trees in March to ride out the winds, or climbed a tree to read a book on the side of a small cliff, or pick blackberries and raspberries in the wild; not berries on a berry farm? Life at Catawba was unique.
The Old Hotel
The sanatorium was built on the same grounds as the Roanoke Red Sulphur Springs Resort. The ornate gazebo that housed the hand pump still stands to this day. The pump does not work but just a few feet away from the gazebo, a small rusty pipe sticks out of the ground and a trickle of water drips. You do not need to get close to realize the trickle of water is sulfur water.
Behind the gazebo up the hill, the old hotel used to stand. It was a two-story wooden structure with a wide set of steps going up to a long front porch and another covered porch on the second level. We counted seven bedrooms, plus one room with indoor plumbing, if you could call it that. Some of the front steps were missing, some floorboards were missing, some of the big windows were broken or taken out and lying on the floor. Yes, we played in it. Yes, it was off limits. The last time we were there, we were in one of the upstairs front bedrooms looking at the many books that had been dumped there. Cecelia was with us this time. None of us realized that she was standing on a tick mattress that was over top of one of those large windows. We all suddenly stopped in our tracks when the glass cracked. The glass skinned a large piece of skin off her heel. She ended up having a skin graph from her hip and in a cast for six weeks. Our parents were livid. The hotel was behind the nurses’ quarters and they were told if they saw any of us near the gazebo, to call Dad immediately. That was enough to scare us away. And sadly, it was the last time Cecelia played with us away from her house.
The Governor Comes for a Visit
My Dad was very old fashioned: there was men’s talk, there was adults’ talk and there was women’s talk. So, I already had two strikes against me knowing what was going on around me. But. . . . This was a story Dad told about the Governor of Virginia and I don’t know which one. The Governor and two of his assistants drove from Richmond to visit the sanatorium to meet with Dad and Dr. Cecil Smith, the superintendent. After their business meeting and lunch in the dining room, the governor and his assistants walked to their car to head back to Richmond. But the Governor’s driver had accidentally locked the keys in the car. A coat hanger was found but with no success. The door remained locked. Then Dad made a phone call to the guard of the inmates and asked if he knew of anyone who could jimmy the lock. There was an inmate who was arrested for car theft and was serving his time at the sanatorium.
But he was too scared to help for fear that the Governor would sentence him to more time. Dad tried to talk him into unlocking the car, promising him that no more time would be added. The inmate finally told the guard that he would do it if the Governor would sign a piece of paper stating nothing further would happen to him. The Governor did indeed sign the piece of paper and I bet the inmate kept it forever. The door was opened in less than 30 seconds!
“How Dry I Am”
Our house was situated more toward the working end of the grounds where the mechanic’s shop and plumber’s shop were located. Right next to us, was the Boiler House that housed three large coal-fired boilers. These boilers produced steam for the sanatorium, as well as cooked the slop from the dining room for the hogs on the farm. It was a rare treat when the wind blew the other way from our house.
Every day the fireman would blow the steam whistle at noon. Between noon and 12:30, he would also open the soot blower to release the accumulated soot in the chimney. This produced a lower pitch whistle and lots and lots of black soot. Monday was wash day and Mom dried our laundry outside on a clothesline for about the first 9-10 years. The clothes were seldom dry by the noon whistle. Sometimes Mom got busy inside and forgot about the laundry until she heard the whistle blow. By the time she ran outside, it was too late. Once the soot hit the cloth, it stuck. If the clothes were dry, you might be able to save the laundry by blowing the soot off. But if things were still wet, it just smeared.
I heard Mom complaining to Dad every week about the soot and the laundry. Finally, she wore him down and we purchased a dryer. It was such a big deal in the valley that a reporter from the newspaper came out to interview Mom on the day it was delivered.
My bedroom was right above the laundry room and I would hear the dryer play “How Dry I Am” instead of a plain buzzer when the clothes were dry. If you are curious, google Westinghouse dryer that plays How Dry I Am.
“What’s that in our driveway?”
“A jeep,” was all my Dad said.
A rusty, olive green, World War II jeep was sitting in our driveway. It had a ragged canvas top, no doors, a jump seat over the back wheel wells and torn seat covers. And I later found out that it did not run. But Dad went to work on it and ordered parts. It was summer and I was around 11 or 12 and I became his “gofer”. He would tell me what tool or what fluid he needed and off I would go to get it for him. It finally cranked over only to backfire. After weeks of trying to get it to run, Dad asked one of the inmates who was a mechanic, to help him after work figure out what was wrong. After more parts came in, the inmate got the jeep up and running.
I was inside when I heard it crank over and it continued to run. I ran outside to see what Dad had planned next. He said he was ready to drive it. I begged him to let me go and he finally said yes. He first drove it to the end of our driveway and backed it up to see how the gears, brakes, and steering worked. Then we started around the grounds. Everything seemed to be in good working order so Dad decided to go further from home. We drove to the end of Rt. 320, where the inmates’ quarters were and thanked the inmate who worked with Dad on the jeep. The inmates’ quarters are still there today and the new Catawba Volunteer Fire and Rescue Station is just west of the old quarters.
We bore right at the triangle at the start of Rt. 698, Keffer Rd. The western end of Keffer Road ends in a sharp left turn, going downhill to a T intersection at Rt. 311. Dad didn’t come to a stop; instead, he did a hard left U-turn.
“DAD!” My left hand reached under the seat as my right hand grabbed the outside frame that held the windshield in place. I almost fell out of the jeep. Remember: no doors and no seatbelts.
Dad put the jeep back in first gear and chuckled, “Guess you better hold on for the rest of the ride.”
Soon that jeep had a new coat of “fire engine red” paint, a new canvas top, new seats, new doors, new SEAT BELTS, and a long antenna and radio for communicating to the fire engine and pumper truck when the valley volunteer firemen went out to fight a fire. At that time, all three vehicles were housed in the white garage by the elementary school. The emergency call would come into Keffer’s Store and to Dad and he would call the fireman at the Boiler House to blow three short whistles, wait and repeat one more time. That whistle could be heard up and down the valley and could reach the farmers in their fields. When it blasted, it would stop you in your tracks. Thankfully the fire whistle did not blow often.
The 1963 Forest Fire on North Mountain
When the fire call came in that day, we were not in the valley to hear the whistle. My mom’s sister and her husband, and the four of us were looking at camping trailers on Williamson Rd. While the adults talked about the different styles, Rick and I were running around looking inside every trailer on the lot. Rick noticed a large white cloud toward Catawba Mountain and pointed it out to Dad. All talk of trailers stopped and we piled in the car.
Dad started speeding to get home. As we left Roanoke City, it looked like the smoke was in Mason Cove, then it looked like it was Catawba Mountain. I sat between my Dad and uncle in the front seat. My uncle wrapped his arms around me so I would not lean against Dad as he took the turns. Several times he had to pass a car and my uncle would call out if it was clear or not to pass because Dad could not see on a right-hand turn.
We topped the mountain and realized that the fire was along the ridge of North Mountain. By this time, the smoke was getting dense. Dad stopped at Keffer’s Store to find out from June where the firemen were and we took off again heading west on Rt. 311. The smoke was so thick now that I had no idea where we met up with the other men. Fire was burning in the brush on both sides of the road and it was hard to breathe. Dad got out and disappeared. My uncle took his place under the steering wheel and we went home.
I ran to my room and packed some clothes in a suitcase. Rick just went to his room and sat in the middle of his bed; looking lost. My Mom and my aunt were in the kitchen pulling food out of the refrigerator. I thought they had lost their minds! The fire was in the woods on the far side of the alfalfa field behind our house and it was burning across the top of the ridge in the front.
“Mom, we need to leave, at least get to the bottom of the (Catawba) mountain.”
“Carolyn, the men will need food.”
My aunt had lost her patience with me by this time and told me to put my things back into my room and come help them with the food. I just stood there until Mom turned to face me, then I saw the fear in her tears and in the shaking of her hands. I put my suitcase back in my room and helped them wrap sandwiches. Rick and my uncle went outside to hook up all water hoses and water the grass.
When Dad and some of the other men came home to get some food, Rick and I were not allowed to hear their conversation. It was my turn now to sit in the middle of my bed and stare out of those five windows at the flames across the field. I just watched and waited all night for my home to be safe again.
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. Every day I was either walking or riding my bike near the hospital and a patient would tap on their window to get my attention. They would wave and tap again in hopes I would stay longer. In the summer, they would crank open their window and ask me where I was going or if the weather was nice or if I could come visit. I always stopped to wave or talk. Rick and I were never allowed to visit. We could only go on the first floor where the business offices were located at one end or into the one-room clinic where we got all our vaccinations located at the other end. A couple of times we ate in the dining room, but there was a side for patients and a side for employees. After I picked my jonquils for Mom, I would go back to that meadow and pick more for the nurses to put around the hospital floors.
After graduation, I went to Radford University and it felt a little like home. I was still in the mountains with beautiful fall leaves, snow, and flowers in the spring, but it was not “the valley”. I have been away from Catawba more years than I was there. I settled in Richmond after college and danced with the Richmond Ballet and then the Concert Ballet of Virginia. My husband, Bob, and I came back to Roanoke on the major holidays every year when our parents were alive. Now, I drive back home to tend to their graves and since I’ve come as far as Roanoke, I drive Old Catawba Road (up and down now!) and drive through the grounds of the sanatorium. I try to tell my children what it was like to grow up in the valley, but words cannot do it justice. Those who live in the valley know that feeling of calmness you get in your chest when you cross over the top of Catawba Mountain and know that you are home, even if home might still be another 10 miles away.
Like articles like this? Then you would love Echoes From Catawba Volume 1, Growing Up In Catawba Valley, Appalachia.
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