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Flossie Rice: The story of a Southern lady’s century-long journey …

Flossie Rice married James “Vance” Barnes, pictured above, in secret on her 18th birthday. Years after James passed away, Flossie married again – this time to Warren L. “Buddy” St. Clair. (Contributed photo)

Contributed by Grace K. Bowen

The phone rang and I answered to hear the familiar voice of my cousin and Appalachian artist, Mary Katherine Brown. “Mother will be turning 100 in a couple of weeks and we want you to do a write-up for The Erwin Record.”

I gladly agreed and was delighted to find one of my own had achieved the honorable rank of “Centenarian.” Few of my relatives have been so lucky; therefore, with great pride I present to you the life story of my dear cousin, Flossie …

She was born at her paternal grandparent’s home on July 4, 1918 to parents, Newberry and Leota Blankenship Rice. She was a pretty fair-haired child with the sweetest disposition any mother could ask for. Named ‘Flossie Ann.’ she became the seventh child and first daughter of the Rice family. Her grandparents were prominent Erwin citizens –  Mr. & Mrs. John Calvin Rice. The Rices were local merchants who owned a general store and livery stable near their home on Iona Street in Erwin. John Calvin and his wife, Malinda, offered room and board to their livery customers whose horses were stabled overnight. Their son, Newberry, was also a merchant who had a general store in Flag Pond.

Flossie’s heritage goes way back in Unicoi County history. Her Rice ancestor was one of Flag Pond’s founding fathers, Spencer Rice, who came to the area shortly after his brother, William, in the early 1800s. Her great-grandfather, Presley Blankenship, a Confederate sympathizer, was murdered during the Civil War at his Flag Pond residence where the Indian Creek Massacre took place in 1864. Her maternal uncle, Lewis T. Blankenship, was Erwin’s Chief of Police during the 1930s.

The year little Flossie took her first breath was also the year the world was introduced to a mass murderer – the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919. Miraculously, four-month-old Flossie and her parents and siblings were spared. However, Flossie would suffer great loss in her childhood, more than any child should have to endure …

She was one of 14 children born into the Newberry Rice family – John, Thomas, Parley, Claude, Berry, Flossie, Vernon, Mabel, Jasper, Edith, Max, Fannie, Mary and Billy. Throughout the years, the Rice family would face tragic and heartbreaking losses. The first of many losses occurred in 1914 when son Johnny died at age 5 from what the family thought was “salt poisoning.” Shortly after Flossie’s birth in 1918, her 24-year-old uncle, William J. Rice, was murdered during an unfortunate altercation when he was shot once in the head and once in the chest.

In 1922, when Flossie was 4 years old, her brother, Vernon, age 3, was playing outside where his mother was cooking beets in a large cast iron pot over a fire. Leota and Newberry thought the other was watching little Vernon. Both were distracted doing other chores when Vernon began poking at the fire causing sparks to ignite his cotton gown setting him on fire. He began to run crying and screaming when one of his older brothers finally caught him and rolled him on the ground extinguishing the fire. Sadly, the toddler was so badly burned that he died 11 days later from infection. 

The death angel called again in 1924 when son Jasper was stillborn due to Leota suffering from a bad case of flu. Tragedy struck again in 1928 when 10-month-old son, Max, died of undetected “intestinal worms.” The final loss of Flossie’s childhood happened in 1931 when she was 13 years old. Her baby sister, Mary, unfortunately, came into the world stillborn. This was difficult for Flossie’s mother, Leota, who had grieved so much over the loss of what was now her fifth child. However, the final birth had a happy ending for the Rice family when baby brother, Billy, was born alive and kicking! His happy arrival was a bright spot for all and to this day, Billy and Flossie have remained close and are the only surviving Rice siblings.

Flag Pond had a beautiful school campus that was started by the Presbyterians who came to this area in the early 1900s as part of their mission program to bring education and culture to the local mountain folk. It was here that Flossie began her education and graduated valedictorian of her class. She then went on to Unicoi County High School where she graduated in 1936.

Of this time, her daughter, Charlotte, wrote: “Mother told of her growing up on a mountain farm and working in her father’s store in Flag Pond and of the church services and school socials the young people attended. … Of one Box Supper where she was so worried that the boy she wanted to eat with wouldn’t get the winning bid … The story of the day a great blizzard hit during the school day and the children were sent home early on the bus. It was snowing so hard and fast that the driver couldn’t see and some of the big boys got off and helped guide the bus. When they reached their stop at Higgins Creek it was dark and the children, led by the bigger boys, held hands and made their way across the creek. Her daddy (Newberry Rice) met them with a lantern and took them the rest of the way to his house, where the children had to stay until the storm broke. … These are the stories her children and grandchildren will remember.”

The summer of her graduation also brought about a life-changing event. Flossie was in love with one of the sweetest boys in Unicoi County, James “Vance” Barnes. This East Tennessee State University student was the son of James B. and Mary Randolph Barnes of the Rocky Fork community. Vance, age 20, was tall and slender and his heart beat only for her. He proposed and the two decided to marry in secret, not telling their parents until after the wedding.

So, on Flossie’s 18th birthday Vance drove his bride-to-be to the home of Rev. Roscoe C. Smith. Reverend Smith was the minister at Erwin’s First Baptist Church. Smith was standing outside when the couple drove up and asked if he would perform the ceremony. The reverend asked them to come inside and he would be glad to; however, he then joked, “Unless you want me to marry you in your car.” To Flossie’s surprise, Vance then replied, “The car will be fine.” Thus Rev. Smith performed Erwin’s only known drive-by wedding on Saturday, July 4, 1936.

The Great Depression was holding fast and as Flossie’s daughter, Charlotte, wrote: “Like other couples of that time, my parents suffered through the Depression.” However, the nation left one burden behind and faced another when World War II came around.

“By the time America was about to enter the Second World War, my parents had two children, (Charlotte and Mary-Katherine). Hearing there was a need for workers at the Naval base in Portsmouth, Virginia, Dad and Mother took us girls and moved there,” reported daughter Charlotte.   

On Dec. 7, 1941 the Barnes family was startled by the sound of the Naval base sirens blasting, announcing the attack on Pearl Harbor. A dark veil lingered in the air and the Barnes had no choice but to accept what was inevitable – war. It was hard for Flossie during the war years as she struggled with living in a tiny apartment in a strange city so far from home. Regardless, Flossie was well aware that any sacrifices she had to make was for the sake of our great nation and she did so without complaint. At the war’s end, the Rices returned to Erwin where Vance worked as a foreman at the Clinchfield Pottery and Flossie at Industrial Garments as a seamstress. Erwin was the town the couple raised and educated their four daughters until the Pottery closed in 1957.

“At that point, Dad moved his family to Eau Gallie, Florida, near Cape Canaveral. Cape Canaveral was where the amazing space program was in process of sending a man to the moon. There Dad was employed with Pan Am at the base,” explained daughter, Charlotte.

In 1959 America added Alaska and Hawaii to the Union. It was also the year of Vance and Flossie’s 23rd wedding anniversary. However, 1959 was also a year of great sorrow. Vance suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with cancer, dying three months later at the age of 44. Flossie was devastated over his passing, but had to overcome her grief in order to take care of her two youngest daughters, Brenda and Patricia, who were still at home. Determined to move forward, Flossie learned to drive a car at age 40, plus she decided to go back to work. She soon became the head teller at the First National Bank of Eau Gallie, Florida, where she worked until retirement. Then her life was once again blessed by love when she met and married a wonderful gentleman named, Warren L. “Buddy” St. Clair. The two enjoyed their retirement years traveling and just spending quality time together. The St. Clairs divided their time between Ocala, Florida, and Erwin until 1986 when Buddy passed away. Flossie once again felt the pain of a broken heart. She continued living in Ocala until 2007 when she finally returned home to Erwin to live out the rest of her days surrounded by family and the beautiful Smoky Mountains.

When asked what was her key to longevity Flossie replied, “No drinking, no smoking and regular visits to the doctor.”

In her lifetime Flossie has lived and witnessed many historical and not so historical events. She was born at the time of the Woodrow Wilson Administration and has lived to see 18 presidents thereafter. She was among the survivors of the great influenza outbreak of 1918 which took the lives of an estimated 670,000 fellow Americans. She has lived through seven wars, learning by radio and television of the estimated 432,032 American soldiers killed in battle during those wars. She has witnessed 227 eclipses, both partial and full, in her lifetime.

In the 1960s she watched intently as man took his first steps on the moon, the shocking assassination of President Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement. She has witnessed a century of fashion evolution from the constant rise and fall of ladies’ skirts to the men’s shifting tides of bow ties … to neck ties … to no ties.

She has done at least 12,000 loads of laundry based on an average of 2.5 loads per week over a 100-year span. She has been blessed to awaken and rest for a century under the comfort of 36,500 sunrises and sunsets. She has driven countless miles to and fro and prepared endless breakfasts, lunches and dinners for family and friends. But none of these compare to the seeds of love she and her beloved Vance planted so long ago that has now blossomed into a large loving family of four children, 14 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and seven great-great-grandchildren.

Her family was and is her ultimate accomplishment as proven by her daughter’s heartfelt testimonials: “Mother is the most amazing woman in the world,” said Patricia B. Massey of Blountville.

“Our mother wanted the very best for us four girls as we grew up. She made each of us beautiful dresses that could not be found in department stores, they were always originals and made by her own hand at night after putting in eight hours at Industrial Garment. She loved us dearly and still does,” said Mary-Katherine B. Brown of Erwin.

“Mom taught me and my husband, Jim, by her example. She taught us to put Christ first and seek His will in all that we do. She encouraged us to take our income and give first to God, pay all our bills second, to give a set amount into a savings account and then ask God’s direction for the use of the rest of our income. Another great lesson she taught was the key to having joy in your family’s life. She said to always put Jesus first, others second and you last. Jim and I found that our children and grandchildren came to love Mother, as we do, because of our example to them. When we asked them to describe her they said the following: Wise, very generous, slow to speak, a great listener, graceful, beautiful, resilient, has self-control, kind and full of knowledge. They all agree that some of their grandmother’s favorite qualities are that she is a great Southern cook and they loved her double cornbread and her banana bread and then the last is she has an excellent memory and loved to tell all the details of her life,” said Brenda B. Massey of Ocala.

On July 4, Flossie celebrated her 100th birthday surrounded by family, neighbors and friends. Her daughters’ heartfelt comments testify to the true character of a loving mother.

Her eldest daughter, Charlotte B. Nicely of Daytona Beach, Florida, summed up the life of her mother by saying, “This incredible woman met every obstacle with grace and determination. We are in awe as we consider her long life. She tells that she took her first ride in a horse drawn wagon, but has seen rockets shooting off into outer space. As we remember the independence of our great nation and its extraordinary ability to survive, we, her family, remember, honor and celebrate an independent lady who through 100 years has survived with true American spirit.”