Through the Eyes of Magadelena van Winkle

Written by Ken Fisher
Originally published in the ECHO 11/1989

It was the steady growth of urban comforts that pulled early settlers away from King’s Mountain in the late 1800s – and brought few replacement’s. Electricity, telephones, good roads, convenient schools, churches, and hospitals – and safety – these were the magnets that pulled the aging pioneers from our hills, either to our emerging towns or, as in the case of the Van Winkle family, to San Francisco.

Peter and Magadelena Moylan Van Winkle so well exemplified our early dairy-based settlers not only by life style, but also by their departure. Last month we saw how starting in the tough 1850s, and coming from a background of death and disappointment, and like moss clinging to a rock, the Van Winkles eked out an existence in this rugged and uncivilized north-end of the Mountain. And they thrived, dairying and selling low quality “cheese” milk in San Francisco – and raising 10 children, and building a large and comfortable house.

There are few family records covering this time period. The 1870 census shows that their ranch house was big enough to also house the local teacher; their farm laborer – and a carpenter – and that their nearest neighbors were “Paddy” and Mary Ward. It was well known that Paddy drank too much and according to family letters he wasn’t welcome at the home of the stern Dutchman – unfriendly neighbors at best.

Forged tough from the early deaths of her father and sister, and her marriage at age 16 to a man twice her years who she barely knew, Magadelena built a good existence, but was ever aware of the lure of urban comforts. As  her mother aged, Magadelena brought mama Moylan back to the ranch and cared for her until she too died in 1886. In the mid 1890s, tired of fighting death, disease,dirt, and dampness – and with her youngest child now teenaged, she coaxed her aging husband to move to civilization – San Francisco. Peter kept the farm, working it almost hobby-like until his 1907 death. Of Maqadelena’s 10 children only her second son, John, shared his father’s heavy love of ranch work. But even he couldn’t fathom living here, choosing instead San Mateo where he ran a coffee house. The others, all more urban now, saw only the past and the primitive in their childhood home and derided John for staying in San Mateo, which despite its obvious amenities compared to the Mountain seemed crude and uncivilized to these nouveau-urbanites.

Don’t get it wrong. They all loved the Mountain. It was home. They just didn’t want to live here. It was too rough. John came on weekends and tended the cows, and sometimes in mid-week, but the others used the old homesite only in summers. Too large to maintain, the old house was reported by D. Gordon Bromfield in the late 1890s to be ever in need of painting. It was  finally dismantled board-by-board for the lumber. Instead, the “milk-house” was converted to a summer cabin where family members visited. John Van Winkle’s daughter, Helen Van Winkle, now 85 and living in San Mateo, and  from whom I gained many family records remembers: seeing the lights of the 1915 World’s Fair – the  “Tower of Jewels”  – from the ranch. But it was fading.

Despite her keenness for civilization over the rough rural ways, the Mountain was the only real roots Magadelena ever knew. Live she would in midst  the City,  but throughout her life, the farm was kept, with son John tending it. After she died in 1924 – the year the new Skyline was built – as modern large-scale capital intensive dairying wiped out the small local herds, all John’s ranching efforts stopped. In 1929, in a well meaning attempt to gain income for the family, Magadelena’s youngest son Pierre swapped the ranch for leveraged income apartments in town. The idea was simply that “the old ranch generated no money and this would be a better investment.” In the Depression, with few tenants, they couldn’t meet the mortgage and lost the building – so in effect, they traded what today would be worth at least $1,000,000 of King’s Mountain’s spectacular views for nothing.

Helen Van Winkle remembers Grandma Magadelena surrounded by her off-spring – but ever so quiet. Yes, even in old age she returned for summer visits with her family. But as per the dictates of her cruel youth, they all always lived and dreamt for the present and future, and dwelled not at all on the past. Helen thinks Magadelena saw nothing important about her past here on King’s Mountain. It’s sad she didn’t vividly pass on her memories. She must have seen amazing things–from grizzly bears to forest fires. From 1890 to 1920 all the early pioneers, except for a few hermits, died or left King’s Mountain for a better life. They left behind a world that grew more beautiful as it distanced itself from its prime log-and-slash days. For decades to come the world would follow the Van Winkles’ lead and use the Mountain only for summer vacationing so that a later generation of pioneers would feel almost as if they were the first to live here.