Levie Russell McClain is a smoker.
He says he has smoked cigarettes since he was 16 and went to work in a cotton mill.
McClain, who has lived in Madison County most of his life, will be 102 August 31.
“Yep, it’s gonna kill him one of these days,” said his son, Bill McClain, chuckling. “Seriously, he’s never sick.”
McClain still maintains his own household in a home whose original section is perhaps 150 or more years old. His daughter, June McClain, who lives in nearby Jackson County, said the home was purchased by her grandmother, Reesie Mercer McClain, sometime in the 1950s. She said many people have come by over the years who have had connections with the home.
McClain still microwaves and prepares snacks for himself and is provided a daily meal by the Meals on Wheels program through the Madison County Senior Center.
Center director Kelsey Tyner, said she is amazed at how well he manages and was astonished to find out how old he is. Tyner met him while learning the home meal delivery routes shortly after she was hired as the new director earlier this year.
McClain has been married twice, and both ladies are still living. Bill’s and his sister Barbara’s mother, from whom McClain was divorced in 1947, is now 96, remarried and also still enjoys good health.
“They haven’t seen each other since then, and they wouldn’t even know who each other is,” Bill said.
June said her mother, now 79, is also in good health and living in nearby Jackson County. She said though the two don’t live together, they do still ask about each other.
It’s obvious that longevity runs in McClain’s family. His mother lived to be 86 and his dad, Walter Martin McClain (known to many as “Uncle Mart”) lived to just a few days short of his 91st birthday.
McClain is hard of hearing these days, so conversation can be difficult, but his children say it’s only been in the last few years that his memories have begun to falter.
His physical strength is another matter. He still has a firm handshake and strong hands, which probably has something to do with his long years behind a plow and as a “dolpher” in the cotton mills.
“He’s always been strong, I still have to get him to open a jar sometimes,” June said.
A mill dolpher, McClain explained, had to lift and remove the full bobbins of thread and replace them, quickly, so the other workers could keep going. McClain worked for years in a mill in Calhoun.
“I was kind of a good one,” McClain said with a sly smile.
Though the work was not steady – McClain said he and his friends could go outside, smoke, or maybe go to a nearby social gathering when the bobbins didn’t need to be changed – the days were long, usually 10 – 12 hours, and the work was hot and dirty.
“Lint would be flying all around, sticking to their clothes and faces,” Bill said.
He was paid the princely sum of $5 a week for his work. “In the late 1930s and early 40s, that was considered pretty good pay,” Bill said.
McClain grew up on farms in and around Madison County and in nearby Calhoun Falls, SC. He attended a two-room school house called “Locus Tree,” (he’s not sure now exactly where the school was located) and made it through the fourth grade walking the four-mile round trip to and from school each day before his responsibilities on the farm outweighed the importance of his education.
“I had to stay in the field,” he said. McClain was the only son; he had two older sisters and two younger ones, so much of the plowing and other heavy labor fell to him.
As he grew older and married, McClain mostly made a living as a truck farmer, raising cotton, corn and vegetables to sell.
After retirement, he enjoyed spending his days with friends, all of whom he has since outlived, according to his daughter. “That’s got to be hard for him,” she said, though he doesn’t speak of it.
He continued to drive a car until a few years ago and to cook and clean for himself.
These days he stays pretty much at home (his children say he won’t go to a doctor) and though his hearing precludes easy conversation, he still enjoys having company, and telling stories of a bygone way of life.
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