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June 11, 2022

Several years ago, on a chilly, rainy Tuesday afternoon, I officiated at the funeral service for an elderly lady. The lady was born in 1914 when Woodrow Wilson was in the second year of his first term as President of the United States. That year marked the beginning of World War I, soon followed by the Spanish Flu pandemic. Had she lived another six months, she would have been 100 years old.

Though rain was pouring on the day of the funeral, Floyd’s Pacolet Chapel was at near capacity. Usually, attendance is sparse when a person lives to a ripe old age.

Before she died, the ninety-three-year-old matron asked to meet with me to plan her funeral. She said, “There’ll be many surprised people when I get to heaven.”

“Why will they be surprised?” I asked.

She explained. “My family and friends have been in heaven so long that by the time I arrive, they will have all assumed that I went to the other place.”

Many in the crowd that gathered in the chapel for her service were relatives and close friends. As they came into the chapel from the inclement weather, I asked, “What do you remember most about this lady?”

Without hesitation, many answered, “Her old-fashioned pound cake.”

Seymour Rosenberg wrote a column for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal every day for thirty-three years. His “Stroller” column appeared on the front page of every newspaper issue. It was read by almost everybody because, sooner or later, almost everybody was mentioned in the column.

Each year, Seymour published a cookbook. My picture appeared in the very first Stroller Cookbook. Inside the front cover of that sixty-three-year-old publication was one of those family pictures that you wish you could avoid when you are almost fourteen and the oldest of eight children. In that photograph, taken by B and B Studio, I was standing behind six of my seven younger siblings.

As I recall, Mama had submitted a recipe for caramel cake to the Stroller just a few days before my youngest sister, Kitty, was born. Seymour Rosenberg called Mama when Kitty was six weeks old to arrange a time for Harry White to take the picture. Mama agreed to the photo but said she had no time to bake a cake.

I rode my bicycle to our neighborhood Community Cash grocery store, then located at the corner of Lucerne Drive and Union Road, to purchase the out-of-date store-bought angel food cake pictured in the photograph. Though Mama was pretending to cover that cake with caramel icing, she was actually spreading Peter Pan peanut butter on top. After the photographer left, we all tasted the cake but fed most of it to the dog.

Mama died in 2001. A part of her legacy is old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking. In fact, with a good bit of motherly cajoling and masterful delegating, she compiled and published her own Neely Family Cookbook in 1991. Her goal was to preserve many of her favorite family recipes and stories. She wanted all of us to be able to do some cooking.

“People just do better when they’ve been fed,” was her wise advice.

My culinary repertoire is limited to outdoor grilling, boiled shrimp, made-to-order omelets, bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches with mozzarella cheese, and my world-famous peanut butter and banana sandwich.

If the old saying “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is true, the men in my family may be the best examples. Good cooking has always had a special place in my heart.

Mama, a graduate of Winthrop College, was a home economics major. With eight children and fifty-four grandchildren, it was good that she was an excellent cook. Mama could prepare almost any food, but she always depended on Dad to make the best grits I have ever tasted. Mama’s specialties were desserts, especially her assorted cakes, chocolate, coconut, and pound cake. She acquired the pound cake recipe from my paternal grandmother, Mammy.

After four years in the Navy, my grandfather – Pappy – was working for the telegraph company in middle Tennessee when he got a very unusual request:  to get on a train and travel all the way to a place called Lena, South Carolina. A Help Wanted Ad had gone out over the telegraph, looking for somebody who knew how to wire a sawmill. Asbury Lawton in Lena, South Carolina, had purchased a new lumber planer, and he needed someone to come and wire it for him. The Lawton man knew nothing about electrical wiring. 

The telegraph foreman asked Pappy, “Would you like to go down south and wire a sawmill for this fellow?” 

My grandfather answered, “Sure would.” 

He got on a train and rode to Lena, South Carolina, near Lawtonville, a small town just north of Savannah, Georgia. The nearest train station was Estill, South Carolina.        

When Pappy arrived in Estill, the lumber planer he was to wire was still sitting atop a flatcar on a railroad siding. The monstrous machine must have weighed a ton or more.   A high shed to house the fancy electric planer had been constructed, but no one could figure out how to move such a heavy piece of equipment. Pappy’s first task was getting it off the flatcar and moving it into the lumber shed. Then he could begin the process of wiring. 

To get this planer off the flatcar, Pappy said he would need a load of railroad ties and a team of gandy dancers. Also known as section hands, these men were employed by the railroad. They used long, iron bars, somewhat like oversized crowbars, to realign rails. They sang in a steady rhythm with a definite beat as they worked the line. It was a familiar chant along the railroad.       

Nobody knew exactly what the stranger from Tennessee was up to, but they soon found out. With direction from Pappy, the men stacked the railroad ties log-cabin-style up to the level of the flatcar. While singing, they used the iron rods to move the heavy machine off the flatcar over onto the stack of railroad ties.

Then they worked the railroad ties down one at a time until the planer was sitting down on the bottom railroad tie just off the ground. Then Pappy took pine logs and peeled off their bark to create skids, rollers used to move the planer into its final resting place.

Once the lumber planer was moved, it took Pappy another couple of weeks to complete the electrical wiring. In the meantime, his life was changed for the better. 

If the old saying is true, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” the men in my family may be the best examples.

Pappy was not much of a cook, but he gave some of the wisest culinary advice. “Don’t get married and hire a cook; just marry the cook.” Pappy did exactly that.

On a Saturday night, while he was in Estill, Pappy went to an event at the local Methodist church. The church was having a cakewalk to raise money for some worthy cause. Members of the community, Methodists and Baptists alike, brought homemade cakes, pies, and other baked goods to contribute as prizes. The music played, the circle went around, and Pappy walked. Three times Pappy paid a quarter to get into the ring. The first two times, he came up empty. The third time was a charm. When the music stopped, Pappy had won the best pound cake he had ever put into his mouth. He was determined to meet the person who had baked the cake. He would say many times afterward, “That was the best seventy-five cents I ever spent.” It was not because he won the cake. It was because he won the heart of the woman who baked it.     

Mamie Lawton baked the cake that Pappy won. She was the younger sister of the man who owned the electric planer, Asbury Lawton. She became my grandmother. I called her Mammy. 

Mammy’s Pound Cake

1 pound sugar                                                           3 tablespoons cream

1 pound butter                                                          3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pound flour                                                            1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 pound eggs

All ingredients must be at room temperature. Cream the butter, and gradually add the sugar. Then mix alternately small portions of flour and eggs. Add cream, vanilla, and lemon. Beat mixture until thoroughly blended.

Grease and flour a tube cake pan. One inherited from your grandmother works best. Pour batter into the pan. Pound the pan on a hard surface 20 to 30 times to remove all bubbles from the batter. This explains all the dents in the antique cake pan.

Put the pan containing the batter into a cold oven. Set the oven to bake at 200 degrees for one hour. Then, increase the heat to 300 degrees and bake for about two hours more or until done. (Check the old-fashioned way, with a broom straw. Pull a straw out of a real straw broom. A broom made of plastic will not work. When you think the cake is done, stick the straw into the cake. Quickly take the straw out of the cake. If the straw has batter on it, the cake needs more time to bake. If it comes out clean, the cake is finished.) Turn the cake onto a cooling rack.

Mammy’s pound cake is delicious! It can be served warm. Thin toasted slices make a tasty breakfast treat. For special occasions, top it with homemade ice cream.

As a child, I thought the name, pound cake, came because Mammy pounded the pan filled with cake batter on a wooden cutting board before putting it into the oven. The name actually comes from the exact weighing of the principal ingredients on kitchen scales. That includes weighing the eggs – out of the shell.

Try Mammy’s pound cake. You’ll love it!

It might even bring romance into your life as it did for my grandparents.


Some of the stories in this column will be in the forthcoming book

Splinters: Tales from the Lumberyard

By kirk H. Neely

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. One way to measure the strength of our community is to observe how we respond to those in greatest need. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please volunteer, or donate, as you are able, to Mobile Meals of Spartanburg, 419 E Main St., Spartanburg, SC 29302 – (864) 573-7684.

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