Interview with Earl Soles, Jr., 2014 October 24

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Interview with Earl Soles, Jr., 2014 October 24
Soles, Earl, Jr. ( Interviewee )
Baldeweg-Rau, Jes ( Interviewer )
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
Tidewater Main Street Development Project
Country stores
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Virginia -- Mathews


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To access audio version of this interview, click the Downloads tab at the top of the page.

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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
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Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
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TMP 064A Earl Soles Jr 10-24-2014 ( SPOHP )


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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins 241 Pugh Hall Digital Humanities Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 35 2 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness acc ounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, S POHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Suggested corrections to transcripts will be reviewed and processed on a case by case basis. Oral history int erview t ranscripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript i s written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and form at I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information abo ut SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. May 2015


TMP 064 Interviewee: Earl Soles, Jr. Interviewer: Jessica Taylor Date: October 24, 2014 B: Hello, this is Jes Baldeweg Rau and I am here in Mathews County, Virginia at the Mathews County Library. I am performing this project on behalf of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida. Today is October 24, 2014 and I am here with Earl. S: Soles. B: Earl Soles. If you could spell out your name for the recording, that would be fantastic. S: E a r l S o l e s. B: Fantastic. S: Soles. B: Soles. Like the shoe. S: B: king you some basic information, about your background. S: So I grew up in the county in a rural environment. My father owned a store, and I grew up in a country store. Our house was right next door. I began hearing stories early in life about life in the community. That was a part of the store operation; it was sort of a social center for men, especially at night, to come talk remember half of those stories that these fellas were talking about in a time way


TMP 064; Soles; Page 2 before my time. Went to high school here in Mathews and graduated, and then went off to college, majored in history and then had no idea what I was gonna do with that. [Laughter] S: Thought I would be maybe a coach in high school or teach history. I happened to get a job during the summer of 1957 at Jamestown. That year was the 350 th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown, and the park service was doing a lot of hiring. The state was preparing for the celebration as wel l, and that opened a whole new field for me as far as career goes. I really enjoyed the people I met in the National Park Service; all of a sudden, my history major had some meaning it was really a new field at that time. I was involved in what later became museum education. Now, there are degrees being offered in that program, and at my time, there were none. Your background was really based on the experience you had, really. But I really enjoyed that and I worked three summers, I believe, and then went to work fulltime with the park service when I finished college. I ended up at a small park early battle scene of the Americ an Revolution down near Wilmington. I was bored to death and had nothing to do, basically, at the place. There was a superintendent, there was a maintenance man, and I was the historian. We had very few visitors. We had brand new museum, though, and it was a neat place to knew about Williamsburg, but not a lot about the foundation. My father in law


TMP 064; Soles; Page 3 worked for Colonial Williamsburg, my wife was from Williamsburg, and he happe ned to be on the street one day talking with an administrator at the foundation, and was asking about the family and asking about me. My father in lot of fun. The guy said, well, tell him to get in touch with us when he comes to Williamsburg again. Well, lo and behold, in two were to get someone with a history background. [Laughter] S: So I came up for an interview, and my prime interviewer had just broken his arm, and I had to go to his house for the interview. I met with him there, and he was in pain. His arm was all folded, and every time he moved, his face was frowning my wife asked how it went. I said, hear a word I said, he was in so much pain. But anyway, got a call. I just absolutely lucked out I worked for that organization for thirty three years and had funded over the years. So if you had a good idea of your chances of getting in and seeing it happen were pretty darn good there. Great people to work with. In the museum field, I always felt there was no other equal to Colonial Williamsburg in terms of its professional approach to presenting subjects and materials in the whole field of historic preservation. I guess I had retired and they called me back for an interview. They were doing an oral history, and they had been doing oral histories in


TMP 064; Soles; Page 4 Williamsburg since the 1920s because they wanted to record information from people who actually lived in Williamsburg before the museum began, to get their e xperiences of what things were like and where things were and buildings that no longer exist, and where they were. So I think I became interested in oral history when that interview took place. I had used some of the histories early on, for instance, learn ing about brick building. Bricks were made on the building sites in the eighteenth century, and we were trying to replicate that process as a part of the educational program. It really was involved with trying to reconstruct technology that had been lost o n how bricks were made in the eighteenth century period. There were some early interviews with brick makers who had been in Williamsburg in the 1930s, who were actually there to make bricks because of the houses that were being reconstructed and buildings being restored that needed bricks. So that was a whole different purpose from my purpose. We were going to develop the future in visiting the historic area: you could actually see how bricks were made. The oral histories were valuable [inaudible 7:14] at that people living that experienced things that are no longer existing in Mathews. Acros s the street is a movie theater that was built in 1930; it went out of business came to town and set up for a week in the Lodge Hall or in the school, showed movies for a wee k, and then they pack their stuff up and leave. Then movies began to appear in hotels. There was one hotel here in Mathews; the guy bought


TMP 064; Soles; Page 5 theater. Well, there are people that expe rienced those things still living, and if you rganization called the American Association developing the subject and in training people on how to use the technology, what not to do, what to do. Because there are some de finite things that are positive about oral histories, and some things that are just . done in an incorrect way. you develop this information on these interviews. How do you make it accessible hope that that can change sometime. They only want to see the wri tten word, on interpreting it. ing tha t information secondhand, and it can get colored. All information can get exchanging information about what you experienced, not what your grandfather experienced and now what it was like in the Civil War. But what you experienced,


TMP 064; Soles; Page 6 things at the time. B: Would you say, along with oral history, but just the subject of history in general, is an undervalued area of study? S: theater, if you want to learn about the Mathews Fair and what has been done just a stack these are the subjects stacks or the shelves and I c this discussion about the fair or whatever the subject is. B: Why is it so undervalued, do you think? Why is it not S: reall y well person person or third person accounting if interview is a lot more valuable if I were talking to the father and not getting this information second hand. That becomes more folklore, more folk like. But to me,


TMP 064; Soles; Page 7 gonna document th at material whether it has any value to anybody or not. But it purpose. Like, the oral histories that Colonial Williamsburg were doing among its former employees, the purpose was more valuable. This would be, I consider it, a primary sourc e. But it all gets mixed up under the present structure of oral history, it seems to me. B: What are some of the S: B: No, no. This is great. What would you say are some of the bigger challenges to promote oral history? S: We did a workshop about a year and a half ago, pulled a group of people together, and had a guy from Colonial Williamsburg come and talk about this, on of have the leadership, someone who takes this on as a project. Then you have to have a group of people who will volunteer to do the training and get prepared to conduct oral result of these sessions, that someone or maybe two people will step forward and establish this effort and get it going, keep it going. I was hoping the library maybe is a core group for that, or maybe the historical society is a core group for


TMP 064; Soles; Page 8 stationed around in the community and talk with people about their experiences hose memories and those thoughts . I was gonna tell you something else really very important but I lost it. B: [Laughter] Well, hopefully, it gets back to you. Then, if it comes back to you, we can touch back onto the subject of oral history again. Bu t now talking more about yourself, is there anything where you grew up S: and there are people living who experienced it, but I lived in a segregated they grew up in a segregated community, and as you hear in the South very ocument the experiences that people had under this system and how they felt and how were they impacted on, how their families were impacted on. Because of the store, my store th some college and I think was a little more enlightened, maybe, than a lot of his


TMP 064; Soles; Page 9 B: Interesting. S: Dad had seen some things, other things, in life. So I was fortunate that first of all, to grow up in the store, and then fortunate to have a dad who seemed to be a bit and he felt they had been given a bad deal, but not everybody in the community more prevalent than we really realize throughout the country, not just in the South. B: Do you have an example S: But I had good black friends that I grew up with, and one was a World War II veteran, if you can believe that. His name was Reg Monroe, and he went to acks were allowed to carry guns in World War II. I may be wrong about that, in France. But he and his buddy and he told me this story one liked going to the front line. They deve loped this technique of getting burlap bags, wrapping their ankles and feet in burlap bags, and pour kerosene over the feet would be twice as big as they were supposed to be He said, we got away with this for two weeks, not having to go to the fron t lines because we were in sickbay the woods, and he w ould cut


TMP 064; Soles; Page 10 this was 1954 their school, and we had our school. In Mathews, we had a black school. Mr. Murray wa e him, I can see this and I can remember thinking about it. Finally, I realized that this was the principal of the school who also had the job and tie on. But the other inter esting part of this story is that he bought the school bus so they would have a school bus, and he was getting reimbursed. The rest of his guy bought the bus, the black guy. I mean . and how we treated the races so differently. Even when things were happening, there were all kinds of . there are people who feel that the black, even today, be segregated in many ways. B: Where do you find it in mod from S: Oh, God, yeah. B: But where do you still see this segregation or this modern day racism?


TMP 064; Soles; Page 11 S: Well, I think with the historic society I got to know the lady briefly; she was elderly, she was a black w ho lived in the community not far from where I grew up. She had been a librarian at one of the black colleges, I think Norfolk State. There had been efforts to get blacks to invest in the historic society and become participants. But it has been very hard t feel welcome. M t, but this gal did and she got active and got some things going. But participants and get involved directly. So the historic soci ety basically is lily white group. Churches are still some integration, but very little. Churches are still basically black or basically white. But the discrimination basically has been but of the would say, with most people here in Mathews, especially natives. But Mathews has changed a lot. It has become a retired community: a lot of military retirees. I had a lot of friends who, they came here from the state department and they bought property together and they just came to Mathews because they liked the water, they liked the rural atmosphere. The dendrochronology, I guess is the word, has changed since I gr ew up here because people are moving in. And locals are kind of intimidated by the come ly in rural sections. Often, like with the historic society, when I first got involved with the histo ric society, the locals were not too excited about it because the come what do they know about the history of this place? They


TMP 064; Soles; Page 12 looking at folks who are a little better educated, have a lot more in the way of a lot of the come heres have got involved in lots of different programs here. That intimidates B : newcomers, they had that broader perspective, being from different parts of the country? S: that in every case. But generally, a little higher educational level with people who come here and retired, versus someon except maybe to go to work at the shipyard or for the government someplace over in Yorktown or Langley Field or Fort Eustis. We have a lot of military, defense operations in this area ge with this migration. In order to find employment, you had to leave the county, but in many cases that was a daytrip. In some ca ses, men would live in Norfolk during the week, work at the shipyards down there in the nineteenth century, and then come back on weekends. To get back to oral history, which is so aggravating in a way, Mathews was basically a water community. The roads in the early part of the nineteenth century were atrocious. There were no really good roads; they were mud paths mostly. So people travelled by water and


TMP 064; Soles; Page 13 steamboat service became a major source of moving people as well as cargo. Steamboats from Baltimore ser ved Mathews, steamboats from Newport News and Hampton and Norfolk served Mathews. The steamboat lines divided the county in half. Where I lived, steamboat service went to Baltimore. Where we are now, steamboat service, that primarily was a daytrip to Norfo lk. So you have that sort of division. But the people who experienced my parents who experienced that era I think the last steamboat was in here like 1933 or something like that. o record their memories of what it was like to take a steamboat to Hampton or what it was like it was to take a steamboat. You get on the steamboat here, say, eight who went fo to get to Baltimore than it would be to get to Richmond, which is the capital of the state. So my family had connection s in Baltimore because my aunt went to nursing school in Baltimore, others who just went for general employment. Part of [Interruption in interview] S: Medical school, if you were going to medical school, you went to Baltimore. The sad part is that no one really recorded that data from the people who remember good collection of early


TMP 064; Soles; Page 14 these projects, all of these experiences, sitting out there still and we need to do something about it. B: Would you be able to, as a secondhand source, since we cannot obviously get the direct source from people like your parents, could you talk a little bit about your parents? S: Yeah, yeah. B: Their experiences, starting from how they met and then S: Yeah. Mathews h ad, I think, five high schools at one point. There was one on there was in New Point . and that was because of the transportation. Cars were n ot as readil y available. There were no cars for periods of this time, so you had to be able to walk to get to the school. Then they finally consolidated all of the schools in Mathews in 1940. They built Mathews High School, which you passed here. My father met my moth er in high school, and I grew up. That was kinda typical, because you were not on the road a lot. he was born in 1904, so late, early [19]20s he did get to go to William and Mary for a year, and then he went to Lynchburg Coll ege, I think, for a year or two. He relayed to me basically that


TMP 064; Soles; Page 15 college allowed you to be able to be a teacher. They thought you were educated if you went to college at all. Even I had teachers in high school that had no college, because of the rural nature of the place and the lack of funds. B: S: the cl a good teacher. I can confirm that because he had no patience. I was terrible in math, anything could not understand why better at some things than we are other things. My mother was always sort of a stay at home person. Both were very active in the church, as were most people in Mathews. They really connected with their Bap tist church. This was the social arm as well as the spiritual arm, growing up in the community like this. Not a lot of visiting after work in homes and having a drink and sitting around kind of ou finished the day, you ate and then maybe you read something, a little radio, and you went to bed. be more interested in the past than in the future, I guess, growing up. [Laughter]


TMP 064; Soles; Page 16 B: your father, you said already, had a huge influence on you. S: He had a great image I remember the guys one of the things we talked a little bit about, integration and segregation and the races, I heard him do this two or three times. And this was a time when a lot of discussions were going on about peop le were having a hell of a time with that. A hell of a time with that. My dad used an example they were talking about this in relation to schools. It may have been just associated with the difference in the races and my dad and these men were standing around talki ng, and my dad finally spoke up. Reg Monroe was my black guy, my black friend; h obviously H e said, Willy, do you think if you passed away and you got to the pearly gates, and you were next in line, b ut Reg had passed away before you had passed away, would you think that Saint Peter would say, Reg, you gotta nna handle that? That really kinda made an impression on me. If I make any sense at all. B: That makes perfect sense, yes. S: ting pearly gates because I oring


TMP 064; Soles; Page 17 existence, right? Why would you want to go to a place like that? But anyway, probably most of my friends are gonna be in the other place anyway. [Laughter] S: So he was sort of liberated. My dad was liberated, especially when it came to the races. He really did not have any prejudice. In the 1930s and [19]40s in this I just feel fortunate that I had that, he set that example for me. He had total respect, equal respect with blacks and whites. I think the blacks knew that and reciprocated. I He felt that way. B: I hate to cut this conversation short, but unfortunately we have expired on time. o thank you very much. S: Well, thank you. B: For taking this time. S: It was fun. B: Oh, absolutely. I enjoyed it very much. Today is October 24, 2014, and that concludes this interview. Thank you. S: Thank you. [End of interview ]


TMP 064; Soles; Page 18 Transcribed by: Jessica Taylor April 6, 2015 Audit edited by: Jeff Flanagan April 6, 2015 Final edited by: Jessica Taylor