The worn brown Bible nearly crumbles when you flip from Matthew to Mark, its pages yellow and its binding torn.
Small enough to fit inside a shirt pocket, it dates to 1881 – likely the year a girl from Wayne County scrawled her name inside: Ellen Aycock with a backward N.
The girl who carried this Bible lived in a world where little existed outside tobacco farms and Baptist Sunday school, an era when infant mortality ran so high that children seldom got names before they learned to talk. You can see her own children listed on the blank pages just before Genesis. Susie in 1899. Martha in 1901. Only three of nine lived to be adults.
So a century later, no one can explain how this farm girl’s Bible turned up in the Florida Keys last month, rescued from a trash bin outside a $1 million house. It caught the eye of William Sherman, who works for a waste disposal company that services houses being torn down or remodeled, and he brought it home to his girlfriend in Little Torch Key. For three days, she pored over the handwritten names, finally tracing them back to Pikeville and the family Ellen Aycock never knew.
“It consumed my life,” said Holly Skillings, a stay-at-home mom. “I became so attached to it. I learned all the details of this woman’s life. All I ever wanted to find is somebody who would care for this and love it and treasure it.”
‘You’re still Nichols’
Back in Pikeville, Franklin Nichols explains that he never really knew his mother, let alone his grandmother. He was 2 years old when Susie Nichols died of heart dropsy in 1932, and because his father had trouble with alcohol, not to mention the family crisis striking at the height of the Great Depression, he and the youngest children got parceled out to willing takers.
At 86, he recalls a family coming by the house after church and asking if he’d like to follow them home. “I’ll get my hat,” Nichols told them, but by the time he returned, they’d chosen his sister and gone.
So the boy went to live with Jody and Ada Sasser, who farmed tobacco, cotton and corn. “His mama was my granddaddy’s sister,” he explained. “I just called them daddy and mama. That’s all I knew.”
Nichols blended into his new world with little thought of what he’d left behind, even adopting a new name.
“I found a doodlebug under the house one day,” he said. “I used that name till I was 4 or 5 years old. The real old ones call me Doodle Sasser.”
It wasn’t until he joined the Army, serving in the Korean War from 1953 to 1954, that he took his original name. The military insisted, “You’re still Nichols.”
By then he’d reconnected with his older brothers and sisters. He went on to teach carpentry at Charles B. Aycock High School, where he built five houses, and later had his oldest son Greg as a student.
But they never thought much, or even knew much, about the family that came before. “I think we really kind of took the Sassers for our kin,” Greg Nichols said.
Until two weeks ago, when he got a phone call.
At home in Florida, Skillings assumed that whoever owned the Bible must have died in the house on Sugarloaf Key, which had just sold for $1 million, and whatever family survived wasn’t near enough or didn’t have the means to sort through all the leftover belongings.
Still, when she showed it to a Facebook group called Key West Yard Sale, which buys and sells items online, everybody considered Skillings’ Bible too precious to sell. Instead, they encouraged the daunting job of tracking down its owner. One of those members started poking around online, typing in the name M. Ellen Aycock and Pikeville, she hit on the Gov. Charles B. Aycock birthplace – a state historic site in Fremont, 4 miles away.
Wayne County is fertile territory for Aycocks. Phone records show 884 of them within 50 miles of Pikeville, a town of only 678 people. And at the Aycock birthplace, director Leigh Strickland had a bound copy of the ex-governor’s genealogy.
For a while, Skillings thought the Bible might have belonged to a Mildred Aycock, certain to the point she contacted a distant relative to ask. But Mildred had been born in 1894, too young, and only became an Aycock after marriage.
Then they found Mary Ellen Aycock Holland, who seemed the right age with an 1874 birthday, but records from Aycock Cemetery 4 miles west of Fremont cinched it. The names and dates of the dead resting there matched the names in the old Bible. Susie. Martha. Eva.
“This is it,” Skillings said. “These are all her children.”
With those names in hand, tracking down descendants came easily. Strickland knew a woman who taught with Franklin Nichols and had all three children in class: Greg, Connie and Dwayne. Before long, Skillings had Greg Nichols on the phone, and soon after their call, she mailed the Bible in a gift box, wrapped in red tissue paper.
“I was scared to handle it,” said Franklin Nichols, who read his mother’s name and birthdate, written in his grandmother’s elaborate cursive more than a century before.
“We’re tickled to death with it,” said his son, Greg. “It was a little more emotional than I even expected, even though it was a person I never met. I tend to be a little more emotional. I’m just that kind of person. If you go to my office, I’ve got a bunch of old stuff. I’ve got the camera my mom said she got for graduation. That little Brownie camera. I just like stuff like that.”
The Nicholses have learned they are related to the former governor indirectly through a younger brother. Even with this hand reaching out from the past, the family can hardly guess how their ancestor’s relic found its way to the Florida Keys. With the news out, Dwayne Nichols got an e-mail suggesting it might have belonged to Uncle Charlie.
“I don’t know who Uncle Charlie is,” he said.
So they can only turn to the note Mary Ellen Aycock left inside the book she must have carried 40 years until her death in 1926, a voice that calls from tobacco harvests and church suppers and hard times:
“When on this page you chance to look, just think of me and close the book.”