The Past A Stairway to the Future

BY Laurence Gray Sprunt

Some of this is old
Herein retold.
Some of this is new
And some of this is true.

Introduction by Annie Gray Sprunt Johnston

We Sprunts come from a long line of writers and at some point I guess everyone my father included wants to leave a little something as a gift to their family.

My father Laurence Gray Sprunt is the funniest man you will ever have the privilege to know. Dont get me wrong; you have to get through the faux gruff exterior to get to the real cream puff. He flirts vigorously and thoroughly entertains anyone who is fortunate enough to be in his presence.

But he is as peculiar as he is delightful. He hates spending money more than you can ever begin to imagine. Fashion is not his strong suit. Perhaps because of that he might have been mistaken for being homeless a time or two.

He has completed the Wrightsville Beach triathlon several times is a history buff a sailor and still swims every day of the summer. He loves Beth his wife of 47 years his five grandchildren the country St. James Church and most especially his Tuesday night poker group.

He is the lone survivor of five brothers and at age 85 lives a fabulous and vibrant life. He is smart wise and clever three qualities that dont usually go together. Back when all of his brothers would get together they would break out in song without much encouragement. I have only heard Fats Wallers “My Feets Too Big” about 10 000 times. He recites poems vintage movie lyrics and knows the name rank and serial number of every person killed in any battle. He does not however have any clue about any pop culture reference. He is wonderful to have on a Trivial Pursuit team; recently he was the only one to know the name of the drink in the Lil Abner cartoon. If you are interested it was Kickapoo Joy Juice.

His favorite motto is “If you wait long enough it will come floating down the river.” Anyone who knows him can attest to that.

A couple of years ago my father decided to jot down a few of his stories. His anthology “The Past A Stairway to the Future ” is a delightful assemblage of humorous anecdotes and historical reflections.

When printed he distributed these books to everyone he knew and relished the feedback. After he had exhausted his long list of friends he eventually started leaving the books in random doctors offices his physical therapists waiting room and probably the DMV. He enjoyed the surge of attention and then as time went on people stopped mentioning his book until now.

My family and I hope you enjoy the musings of husband father grandfather uncle and cousin LGS. Annie Gray Sprunt Johnston


The year was important to me for the following reasons:

1) Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.

2) Lindbergh flew the Atlantic alone.

3) Mother bought a few shares of IBM.

4) Mickey Mouse and I were born.

Item number three was the only important happening in our family. By the time that I learned that two plus two really did equal four the country was trying to endure the worst Depression in history. To me it seemed normal as I knew no other condition. Most people were suffering to some extent. There was a constant stream of people coming to our door begging for food or money. The housewives would call each other and report how many people came to the door with estimates of how many were truly hungry or just looking for cash with questionable expenditures in mind.

My family had been quite prosperous in the past but the business started to decline even before The Depression. The Depression further hit our family business and put a strain on my father as it did to nearly everyone businesspeople and laborers. Not infrequently my older brother would tell me “Mr. X lost all of his money.” My reaction was that I should go help Mr. X find all his money. Despite Roosevelts New Deal and my sentiments there was little success in curing The Depression which was diminished finally by the activity of World War II.

After finishing school and three years and five days in the U.S. Navy John Colucci Jr. and I flew to the West Coast to try to make contacts with plywood mills to sell their plywood in the East. (John having been raised in the plywood business here at home was very bright and attractive and I appreciated the guidance.) We spent three weeks visiting mills with no success and were about to return home disappointed at failure when we visited one of our last prospects. While waiting to see the head of the mill we started talking to the nice lady secretary who was interested in our mission and suggested that we call on a company that was being organized and might be a prospect. We went forthwith to visit this prospect and ended up representing this new mill.

A year or two later we joined other partners including my brother Kenneth and purchased a mill of our own. This was moderately successful. I bring this to light to emphasize that luck has much to do with success; if you keep your ears open to bright people and do not ignore suggestions from helpful people such as the aforementioned secretary.

After about 20 years we sold the plywood operation and I purchased a farmers supply company named Farmers Supply Company. It was modestly profitable and I enjoyed it. It was most rewarding in that I gained excellent experience in meeting and waiting on customers. Nearly all were fine people and I felt that all businesspeople would benefit from experience in retail sales.

In selling plywood I traveled throughout most of the country calling on the trade. After meeting dozens of contacts it dawned on me that all of these prospects were always cordial and welcomed me even when they had no interest in my product and I was never treated with disrespect. I suddenly realized that these prospects were fine people and it dawned on me that I had no reason to think badly of anyone. It was a very positive discovery in my contacts with people.

Farmers Supply Company was sold after 17 years so that I could devote more time to looking after Orton Plantation and especially the forestry program there. I am now lucky our son David takes a keen interest in managing the business end and I must admit does a better job than I did and do.

PaPa and Sonny

PaPa was worried that Sonny would go through school and get educated yet as a grown man would know nothing about business a job or making a living. PaPa lost sleep thinking about it.

One Saturday he said to Sonny “Lets go to the woods.”


PaPa said “Bring your favorite bush ax.”

They drove to a small spot in the woods that contained a mixture of small longleaf pines loblolly pines and turkey oaks.

“Sonny you might remember what I said last year about woods like this that have been in our family for a long time. Maybe you will manage or own it someday. What would you do to improve this small patch?”

Sonny said “Well I notice that it is a sandy kind of dry site and the longleaf pines would do best here. Therefore I will cut out the loblolly pines and the turkey oaks which do not produce a whole lot of acorns for the wildfire and I would chop out enough of the inferior longleaf pines leaving a spacing of about eight feet between them so that those left will grow better.”

Sonny cut as he spoke and PaPa was beginning to feel better.

PaPa asked “Sonny have you done any work this year besides school?”

“Yes all of my friends like skateboarding and they are always wrecking them and they cost about $25. A friend of mine and I found on the Internet a place in Texas that would ship a dozen at a time for $12 each. We bought two dozen and made some money.”

PaPa was feeling a whole lot better.

“Sonny what should you do when you make a little money?”

Sonny said “Put as much as you can in a tax-free retirement account and it should double in value every seven or eight years. At my age a small amount will become a large amount in my old age.”

After the woods were improved they went home and thereafter PaPa at night slept very well.

Orton House

Orton House faces the Cape Fear River because water was the chief means of access in the olden days. River steam ferryboats traveled between Wilmington and Southport regularly. By the end of the 1920s the automobile and improved roads made the river steamboats obsolete and I do not remember ever coming to or from Orton on river transportation. I asked my older brother Kenneth if he did.

“I remember one time when I came to Orton with Mother on a steam ferry boat. As we approached the dock at Orton Mother noticed shad fishermen tending their nets. She asked the captain if he would please pull alongside the shad boats so she could buy a shad which was done (imagine getting a steamboat to stop for shad these days). When we arrived at our dock some of the men were catching rockfish (striped bass) so she acquired one of them so we had plenty of fish.”

I miss the docks on the river at Orton. I miss the mules; I miss the short pulpwood trucks; I miss the oxen.

But the good old days are now.


My father was well educated and well read and so were most of his friends. Just to listen to them in the evenings was an education in itself.

Ever since this country established democracy after the Revolution being among the first countries to do so since the Roman republic this country has been trying to spread democracy around the world especially since World War II even to the largest dictatorships and to the smallest tribes.

“Democracy is not suitable for countries that are not highly developed ” said my father.

“That is interesting ” said I. “How did you come up with that?”

“I learned it at Princeton in my history class. My teacher was professor Woodrow Wilson.”

Recommended reading: “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain.

Hurricane Warnings!

Hurricane warnings! Hurricane warnings! The news sent a chill down the spines of us boys. It meant that the waves at Wrightsville Beach would be the best of the year and we all loved body surfing. Surfboards were not well invented yet. The weather reporting was not nearly so good as it is now. Most hurricanes passed off the mainland and only caused big waves in the ocean and if they did hit the beach the damage was for our parents and the insurance companies to worry about. We were going to have fun surfing and having a party.

In a day or two the reports became ominous and all of a sudden we became electrified hurrying to get our boats out of the water. As we hurried an old man from down the street approached us and said “Would you bully boys help me get my boat out of the water?” We thought how irresponsible it was for him to wait until the last minute when we were completely busy.

Now a flashback of about 15 years hit me. At that time my father was recovering from tuberculosis and was not much help in coaching me in sports. This old neighbor realized all of this and suggested that I enter the junior casting contest. Not having a conventional reel and rod he said that he would help.

“Go to Canadys and buy for about $1.50 a 12-foot Calcutta cane pole and get a reel with light line.”

He then showed me how to set the ferrules on the pole; how to seat the reel; how to taper a four-ounce lead bank sinker to streamline it; how to hold my arms; place the sinker on the sand; and throw the sinker. The best men could cast over 400 feet and after coaching for several weeks I could cast about 325 feet. Finally I came in second in the tournament and it made me feel very good in sports for the first time in my life. My confidence was built high all due to the old mans help and coaching. I never felt better.

“Yes sir ” I replied. “Mr. Burke we will get your boat out of the water right away.”

Martins and martins

Years ago my older brother Kenneth married a city girl who did not know much about nature. When they moved to our country place Orton many new friends enjoyed visiting to see the flowers landscape and maybe have a cup of tea. Since wildlife abounded it was a frequent topic of conversation.

One day the head of the birdwatchers club called my sister-in-law Betsy and asked “Have the martins arrived yet?” Betsy was concerned as she was not expecting a large number of Martins to come for tea. As she scurried around trying to prepare for a lot of visitors a friend happened to look up and saw a huge migration of martins heading north.

Betsy soon learned the difference between Martins and martins.

Old Folks Lack of Memory

Much has been written about failing memory as we grow older and the alleged cure is a big field in the expensive medical profession. I propose a preventive: DO NOT GET EDUCATED. Yes do not learn to read and write.

In my youth there were many elderly people especially in rural areas who could not read or write. In those days transportation was primitive few cares and only dirt roads which ranged from bad to impassable limited their going to town to shop maybe once a week or once a month. Educated people had to make a long list for their needs but the uneducated had to rely on their memory. They might need 10 to 20 items for their household. They almost never failed to get all of the items they needed (or those that they could afford). Necessity had trained them through their years to have a perfect memory which was not learned by list-writing educated people who complained of their lack of memory.

For the list makers: Try going to the grocery store without a list. If you forget the bread butter potatoes grits chicken beans and watermelon and you are looking forward to the big meal of the day you might go hungry; so your memory might over time react better next time or you might over time lose weight.

Better than Deer Hunting

A deer hunter at Orton arrived at his deer stand early but saw no deer. As he was about to leave a mama bear rare at Orton appeared with two small cubs about 30 pounds each. They were about the cutest animals that he had ever seen. Eventually the group left and the hunter drove about and soon saw three wild turkeys. He then saw a coyote ahead of him; then on the shoulder of the road he saw a bobcat (wildcat) at close range looking at him all of the above in one outing.

The failed deer hunt was exceeded by the rest of the day which to me would have been one of the best days of my life.