This oral interview with Helen Terrell McGee and her daughter Nancy McGee was conducted in June 2011. Helen McGee passed away at age 95, in 2014.
Helen’s mother, Bess Embree Terrell, kept a diary documenting her day-to-day activities in Smyrna from 1927 to 1942. They were made available to me when I was researching my book A Brief History of Smyrna, Georgia, published in 2013, and provided countless valuable insights into the day-to-day goings on in Smyrna in the depression era. The interview was conducted primarily to clarify and elaborate upon incidents and events described in the diary.
Bess Embree Terrell, Smyrna diarist
Bill Marchione: I’d like to get some information, Helen, if I can, on your mother, Bess Embree Terrell, who left such an interesting record of life in Smyrna through her diaries.
Her family was from Nebraska, as I understand it?
Helen McGee: Her mother was German. They were immigrants. The family name was Schroeder.
My mother grew up in Omaha in Nebraska. The one thing I remember about that is that there was a black person who went to school with them. And of course, down here in the South they’d shoot you at that time, and I always thought that was unusual. I don’t know how many years of schooling my mother had, but then she took a business course and worked as a secretary for years until she met my father (Carl Terrell) who had come out from Georgia to visit with his brother who lived in Nebraska, and daddy went to work for Otis Elevator. I don’t know how long he stayed there. Any way they married and lived there for a little while. Bob (Helen’s older brother, six years her senior, was born in Nebraska). Then daddy started moving around because he worked for Westbrook Elevator Company and had to sell and install elevators. This was before I was born. I was born here in Smyrna in 1919, while visiting with my grandmother.
Carl Terrell of Smyrna, later Smyrna City Clerk, who married Bess in Nebraska in 1912
BM: So the family moved around a lot.
HM: Yes, we rented. We tended to move where the business was. When you sell elevators you have an area that you service.
BM: What was the year of your parent’s marriage.
BM: And you say you were born here in Smyrna?
1389 Roswell Street, Smyrna. Carl built this house for his mother Buena Vista Terrell in 1906
HM: I was born in the the house on Roswell Street (1389 Roswell Street, the family homestead). My parents had moved back and were staying with Grandma for a while, daddy’s mother. When I was a year old we moved to Jacksonville, Florida. I remember going through the Piney Woods in South Georgia and seeing the taps on the pine trees where they get turpentine. I don’t know why I remember that. It was just unusual, I guess.
BM: Do you have any recollections of the house on Roswell Street when you returned? Had you been there in the intervening years?
HM: I don’t remember having been there when I was real small. But I remember it from when we came back in 1927, because we had a well out in back and a plunder house. Do you know what a plunder house is? You put everything in a plunder house that you don’t know what to do with. There was an add-on to the plunder house. We might have kept wood in there but we burned coal. Everybody had coal stoves back then.
BM: According to your mother’s diary the family raised a hog. It was in 1933 or 1934—at the depths of the depression.
HM: Yes, it was about that time. They raised the hog out on our farm on Terrell Mill Road. I think they brought itinto Smyrna to slaughter it. Then they salted it. They had a big box and after they dredged it, they sliced it up, and salted it so it would keep. You could eat it for a long while with all that salt on it. You had to wash the salt off.
The Farm on Terrell Mill Road. Bess and Carl stand at the extreme right.
BM: Did your father grow up at the farm on Terrell Mill Road?
BM: Had it been in the family for generations?
HM: Yes. The family had been out there for years. They had a grist mill there. That’s the reason why it’s called Terrell Mill Road. Now a highway runs right over the site. Rottenwood Creek ran right through the property. You can’t even find it now.
Nancy McGee: Mother, do you think granddaddy’s father was living out there on the farm before the Civil War? I have a picture of my great grandfather with cross pistols in a Confederate uniform. He was wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. I have his papers.
W.H. Terrell’s Civil War Pension Application
HM: We had a great time there. We used to slide down the hill.
NM: I remember that house because we went out there in the sixties when granddaddy sold the whole property. That’s when the expressway was put through.
HM: I don’t think granddaddy ever went back. They were chopping up the property and put six condos on it. He took one look and went back down to the car.
BM: How large was he farm?
HM: Seemed like there were 43 acres in all.
BM: When your parents came permanently to live in Smyrna in 1927, did they own a car?
HM: I believe so.
Helen Terrell with her brother Robert ad father Carl c. 1926
BM: I ask because there was a time in 1933 and 34 when you had a truck.
BM; And the way I read the diary I concluded that the Plymouth that you bought in 1934 was your first car. But then in reading the earlier diaries, it seemed that they had a car at that point.
HM: Yes, we did. We had another car. I remember at one point coming down here by car when grandma Terrell was still living here and we were on Pace’s Ferry, which was a lot different then, and experiencing something that was pretty close to a hurricane and I remember we stopped the car and got down in a ditch and stayed awhile. But I guess it was just high winds and didn’t cause any damage. Of course back then we didn’t know. It could have knocked somebody’s house down. I remember the first car we had didn’t have roll up windows. It had those flat things. I mean it was an older make. I can’t even remember what it looked like.
BM: I also had the impression that in 1927 you had a telephone on Roswell Street, but not in 1933 or 34.
HM: Father had the telephone disconnected and that’s when he put in a gas light in one of the rooms where we stayed.
BM: The electricity had been turned off.
HM: Yes. Gas was a lot cheaper than electricity at that time.
BM: It seems from the diary that when you came in 1927, you were just living in two rooms of the house.
HM: When we came back just after grandma died, she had rented out part of the house to a couple and they sort of looked after her too. She lived on the right and these people lived on the other side. I used to know who they were but I can’t remember their names. So we did. We lived in two or three rooms.
BM: A bathroom was put in pretty early.
HM: No, the bathroom was put in a little back room where we kept an ice-box and things like that. And this was about 1940. When I read that from your notes I wondered where you got that information.
BM: I saw a reference to putting in a toilet and I just assumed that it was a bathroom.
HM: I graduated from Marietta High School in 1936 and I don’t think we had an indoor bathroom at that time. So it was probably in 1937 or 38.
BM: Was it unusual to have an indoor bathroom at that time?
HM: Most of the houses had only indoor toilets.
BM: I’ve seen references in a couple of places to the first house in Smyrna to have an indoor bathroom. One of the houses that it’s been suggested was the first was the Edwards house, up here on Roswell Street.
The Edwards House, the residence of Smyrna mayor and businessman Patrick Edwards and his family on Roswell Street. Edwards served as mayor in the late 1920s.
BM: And also the Reed House (2751 Nelson Lane, constructed in 1900), so I guess indoor bathrooms came fairly late.
HM: We had a well when we first got back. We didn’t have running water. I do remember when we put in running water, but we didn’t put in a bathroom. We put in a sink and the different gauges and that was about it. That was right during the Depression. I know the Edwards house had a bathroom and the Collins house over in the triangle (at the intersection of Walker Court and Whitfield Street) might have had a bathroom because he was a druggist. He had a drugstore.
BM: This raises an interesting question. Your mother in a number of instances talks about “Going to Smyrna.”
HM: And “Going to Town” meant going to Atlanta.
BM: And also of stopping off at a drug store to socialize, to read the paper. I’m wondering what drug store she was referring to. Was that Atherton’s Drug Store or Collins Drug Store?
HM: Neither. The Collins Drug Store was north of where Roswell and Spring Street join. There was another drug store on the corner of East Spring Street. That’s the one she was referring to.
BM: Did you attend the Smyrna Elementary School?
HM: Yes, I was in the Smyrna School until 8th grade.
Smyrna Elementary School, established in 1920, on the west side of King Street, and rebuilt in 1924 following a devastating fire.
HM: You know where the First Baptist Church is?
HM: It was right across the street.
BM: Did you know Mazie Whitfield Nelson well?
Mazie Whitfield Nelson (1890 -1977)
HM: They were the ones who own the corner up there next to the Reeds.
BM: I saw a reference in the diary to you having been sick at one point and “Miss Mazie” came to visit you.
HM: Well, Mazie ran the Maccabees (insurance Company). Mazie used to ride around in that little car. She didn’t abide by the traffic laws. You used to have to get out of her way.
NM: Mazie was a pillar of the community. The center of the universe. People used to laugh about that. I remember going to her house for dress up parties with the Hensleys. We’d put on grown up clothes and have tea in the yard.
Buena Vista Terrell, Carl Terrell’s mother. In 1906 Carl built the house at 1389 Roswell Street for his widowed mother.
Also, I have grandma Terrell’s deed from 1905 when she bought the lot on Roswell Street that’s signed by Whitfield and Buena Vista Terrell—B. V. Terrell was how she signed it.
HM: Buena Vista was her name.
NM: That was mother’s grandmother. She bought the property that I live on now from the Whitfield’s in 1905 and then the house was built in 1906.
BM: She was named for a Mexican War battle?
NM: I have no idea, but it was pronounced Bu-na.
HM: We found out later that she was from Fannin County (in North Georgia). Fannin County was a Republican stronghold.
BM: What was your parents attitude toward Roosevelt and the New Deal?
NM: FDR was a demi-god.
HM: He really was to all of us.
A Portrait of FDR in an oval frame
NM: Granddaddy had a round picture of FDR which hung in the back room, what is now my den, my entire life. That was their plunder house—their storage room.
BM: I thought that might have been the case from certain entries in the diaries. Your grandmother listened to the broadcast of FDR’s inauguration and all the ceremonies around it all day. She was glued to the radio. It was March 4, 1933. And I also got the impression that they supported a candidate for Governor who was running against Gene Talmadge.
NM: Good old Gene was a coat and pocket vendor.
BM: Gene Talmadge of the red suspenders.
NM: And segregation.
HM: It finally got to the point where they just hated Gene Talmadge. And of course you know who came along next, his son Herman.
I graduated high school in 1936 and then went down to what used to be Georgia Tech Evening School down on Walton Street in Atlanta and in doing some research I happened to pull out some books that showed how antagonistic many people were to Roosevelt. We felt he was a godsend. And he really was. We weren’t the only family that was just doing without. Things were really rough. We at least had a little bit of land to grow vegetables and such, but these books were full of articles and essays that found fault with everything that Roosevelt did. I was surprised. I thought everybody loved him. One thing he did. Under him we managed to get a loan that took care of the house.
BM: I remember seeing an entry in the diary that said that your father had gone up to Marietta, or perhaps it was down to Atlanta, to see about borrowing some money that the federal government was providing for mortgages.
HM: Well to us that was a life’s savings.
BM: The federal government funded many local improvements. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) put in the sidewalks that run along the west side of Roswell Street. That was probably in the late 1930s. In 1938 they built the high school building at the corner of King and Stephens Streets. That was the first purpose-built high school building in Smyrna. That was the biggest project that they carried out in the town.
NM: Granddaddy worked on the roads because they paid him to use the truck, but for some reason I thought it was out in Cobb County aways.
HM: No, I think he was working closer to home. You know in those days people who owned property would work off their taxes. What did they call it? There was a special tax you paid to the city. It wasn’t very much. It was about $7, which was a lot of money back then. You’d go and work on the streets or whatever to work it off. You said we had sidewalks. I guess we did. I don’t know why it didn’t impress me, because nobody else in Smyrna had sidewalks.
NM: When, Mother, did you move up to Kennesaw where you taught school?
HM: In 1939. That’s when the schoolhouse burned up there and we taught in an empty grocery store somewhere. F.T. Wills was the School Superintendent.
BM: His son was postmaster here in Smyrna later on.
HM: Yes, Zelan Wills.
Francis T. Wills, Cobb County Superintedent of Schools from 1933 to 1945, a resident of Smyrna
HM: Miss Wills the school teacher was his sister.
Anyway, it was easy to get a job because they weren’t paying the teachers anything. So I got the job and I had to stay in Acworth because there wasn’t any place to stay in Kennesaw so we walked from where we were staying, since we didn’t have any transportation. The people were so nice though. The people who lived up there for years could understand the situation we were in. They were real fine people.