Imagine life in our area in 1915… can you? Rolling farmland, cotton and tobacco as far as you could see. A tiny southern town with a rich heritage and much slower pace of life. I think if you close your eyes, you can see what that might have looked like.
One of our oldest residents, [Martha] Leach, was born on July 6, 1915. This was three years after the sinking of the Titanic and smack in the middle of the first World War. Those things are just events in history books for most of us, but Miss Martha grew up in that world – a world before the Great Depression and Prohibition, before Nazi Germany and Pearl Harbor. Events that we only read about today are a part of Miss Martha’s collective memories over the last 102 years.
Born in the Raleigh area, Miss Martha first moved to Holly Springs with her husband, James Leach, in her thirties when James came to the area to work on the Holland farms. Field work attracted a large number of people who had lost jobs during the depression and the Leaches were among many who moved around looking for work. But when they landed in Holly Springs, they stayed. James worked and Miss Martha began watching children for others who needed to work.
Holly Springs in those days was a tiny farming town of only a few hundred people. Most of what is now downtown was woods, including where Miss Martha now lives on West Earp Street. The downtown had a completely different look, with a small grocery store in what is now the Holly Springs coworking space (old police station) and a five-and-dime-type store in what is now Dewars Florist.
The pace of life was slower, and based primarily on an agrarian calendar, with the lives of the residents wrapped around the planting and harvesting patterns of the area farms. Miss Martha had no children of her own, but was an active member of the Church of Christ in downtown Holly Springs. She became everyone’s mother and everyone’s grandmother – feeding and taking care of hundreds of children in our community. When she wasn’t babysitting, she worked on several of the area farms as well. One of those farms belonged to the father of Margaret Prince, who Miss Martha babysat for many years, and with whom she now lives. Miss Martha became very good friends with Margaret’s mother, and thereby become a member of their family. Miss Martha never drove a car. She walked or rode with others her entire life, but most of what she needed was within walking distance and she had a whole community to take her where she needed to go.
One of Miss Martha’s favorite activities in her youth, when she wasn’t raising children or feeding members of the community, was picking cotton. “I loved picking cotton,” she shares. “We picked cotton in the fall when it’s not as hot in the fields, and I loved that work almost as much as I loved taking care of babies.”
After the death of her husband, Miss Martha stayed in the community that had become her home, continuing to babysit and feed members of her parish. For many years, she lived in a house owned by former town commissioner Parrish Womble on Main Street across from the original location of the church. In close proximity to church, Miss Martha was able to feed and care for generations of Holly Springs residents as her ministry to the community.
Miss Martha enjoyed living in that little house for more than 10 years before she moved into the Dorothy Nixon Allen Manor on Holly Springs Rd. and retired from watching “her babies.” She continued to serve through her church, which moved to its current location behind the post office almost 20 years ago and when the time came that she could no longer live by herself, she was taken in by one of those babies she had helped raise so many years ago.
Margaret Prince didn’t blink when the time came that Miss Martha needed help with daily living. “She was part of my family, and had been for as long as I could remember,” remembers Margaret. “There wasn’t even a question of where she would go when she needed help.” And when Miss Martha is asked how she likes living with Margaret and her family, she glows in response: “The good Lord gave me a good home to live in and all I have to do is sit and look.”
In 2015, the family threw a big party for Miss Martha’s 100th birthday, at her granddaughter’s house in Apex, complete with a printed program! The party every year combines a ribs cook-off and Miss Martha’s birthday into one major event for the family. In 2017, the family threw another big party for her and placed a Happy Birthday banner on the road in front of her house. Miss Martha enjoyed the many people who stopped in to wish her a happy birthday!
This year, in addition to neighbors, friends, and fellow parishioners, Miss Marsha received a visit from six members of the Holly Springs Fire Department, including Chief LeRoy Smith. The crew appointed Miss Martha as honorary fire chief for the day and promised to schedule a ride on one of the fire trucks in the very near future. That visit was truly the highlight of this year’s birthday celebrations! “Everyone has been so nice to me,” she shared.
When questioned about what changes she has seen since she moved to Holly Springs in the 1940s, Miss Martha says the biggest change is the pace of life and all the new businesses. Margaret helped elaborate on that a bit. “It was a one cop town, with one stoplight at the intersection of Main Street and Center Street,” Margaret describes. “George Underwood owned a furniture store downtown on Main Street that eventually became the town hall. That building is gone now. There were just a few hundred people here until recently. Everything around here was woods and farmland. It’s completely different now.”