Local

Gaston built on Mack family's contributions

Newlin Mack leveraged his turn-of-the-20th-century job as Gaston's rural mail carrier into a family name whose imprint lingers into the 21st century.

Just ask around the working-class Lexington County community that once relied on cotton and the Seaboard Air Line Railway, and the influence of "Mr. Newlin" emerges.

Mack delivered good news and bad through letters and packages on Route 2 for more than half a century. His image is preserved in a grainy and discolored 1915 photograph of him riding a mule-drawn buggy.

The photo appears in local-history books and calendars as well as in the homes of Mack relatives.

Four generations of Macks represent Gaston's rural heritage. Yet the descendants worry how time has changed their community and have doubts about current leaders.

Newlin Mack's three remaining children brim with pride for his contributions and those of their mother Frances Mack.

"They were like an early version of the Greatest Generation," said daughter Becky Mack, the youngest at 71. "They were people who gave back to their community."

Son Edward Mack, 76, said that by the time his father died in October 1977 at 84, Newlin Mack knew the influence he had had on the town of 1,400 residents. "But he was not flashy about it."

Their parents' contributions are both apparent and veiled in memories of longtime residents.

- Newlin Mack donated 20 acres for a public school that bears his second wife's name: Frances F. Mack Primary School.

- He gave a few acres of road frontage to build Hillcrest Baptist Church.

- One of Gaston's major residential streets is named for the Macks.

- Edward Mack and his son, Ed, helped build all-white Sandy Run Academy, a private school on Mack property, which reflects Gaston's segregationist past.

- Fresh water springs on Mack land became a water source when neighbors' wells ran dry.

- Newlin Mack built a pond that served as a swimming hole, a place for baptisms and added a cabin for community events, including meetings of The Henpecked Husbands Club, which he helped found. He never posted "no trespassing" signs.

Terry Pound, a resident who gathers oral histories of Gaston, calls Newlin Mack a pillar of the community.

"I think Mr. Newlin in particular was a very influential, early Gaston resident," said Pound, 67. "If you mention his name now, pretty much people have fond memories."

THE MACK NAME

The patriarch's children and 16 grandchildren still have about 30 acres of the estimated 300 the pipe-smoking, slow-talking mailman accumulated.

He bought land for peanuts at Depression-era delinquent tax sales. His federal job allowed him to keep his wife and seven children fed amid the hardships of the 1930s and still invest in their future.

"I remember him telling me he bought land for 25 cents an acre and sold it for 50 cents," said Pound, who taped an interview with Mack nine months before his death.

Newlin Mack was a shrewd businessman despite having dropped out of elementary school because he simply did not like it, his relatives said in a recent interview.

His father, Jackson Mack, was from the Gaston area and maintained the rail line, relatives said.

Newlin Mack became a part-time mail carrier at age 18 in 1912, a job he held for about 50 years, though it was interrupted by a brief stint in the Navy - a military tradition all his sons followed.

His 22-mile route earned him $47 monthly part time and $88 when he began daily deliveries that took him to what today is South Congaree.

Rural mail delivery required Newlin to ride his circuit on horseback at first, carrying saddlebags of mail house to house.

"So he knew about all the land," said eldest surviving son Robert Mack, 82. "People would come to him to find what was for sale."

Becky Mack and Pound recall one of Newlin Mack's favorite stories about how close a rural mailman could grow to his neighbors.

It was 1929 when a brown envelope from Washington arrived addressed to Charles Sonntag, a friend of Mack's who lived alone in the Sandy Run woods.

Mack knew Sonntag had been among a handful of Army privates recognized by Congress for agreeing to be infected with yellow fever in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Col. Walter Reed oversaw the tests, which were an experiment to prove the disease was carried by mosquitoes. The results led later to a vaccine for a disease that was claiming more soldiers than warfare itself.

The moment he presented the gold congressional medal to his friend remained with Mack for the rest of his life.

"He was standing by the mailbox," Mack said in a deep, gravely voice captured in the 1977 interview.

"'All right,' I said, 'stand at attention.' He broke into attention just like any soldier would.

"He just stood there. He was a German, and cried like a baby. I kind of helped him weep a little bit right down there in the woods," Mack said, his voice breaking with emotion almost a half century after the event.

The story of her father's kindness still brings Becky Mack to tears in 2009.

LOW-KEY INNOVATOR

A self-reliant person, Newlin Mack was an improviser at home and for his town.

The two-story Mack residence featured an outhouse with windows and four seats - two for adults and two child-size. A trellis of honeysuckle decorated the structure.

"By outhouse standards, it was really quite fancy," Becky Mack said.

Her father planted sugarcane and built a mill so his family could enjoy cane syrup on their biscuits.

He extended electrical power to his pond where neighbors would picnic and swim. He ran an underground pipe from a nearby fresh spring so they could draw water, Becky Mack recalls.

When a drought in the 1950s left many wells dry, neighbors in pickup trucks carrying 55-gallon drums would line up for their fill, Pound recalls.

Frances Mack worked to bring Gaston its first residential phone service from Columbia in the early 1950s, said Becky Mack, who lives in Cherokee, N.C., but visits Gaston frequently. Families had been using the phone at Culley's store to get news of births, deaths and other important matters.

Newlin Mack had an activist personality. But his manner was understated and plodding.

"If he was thoroughly provoked, he might say, 'damn,'" Becky Mack said.

Brother Robert recalls their mother's description of her husband's way. "Newlin could be in the worst kind of hurry, but you'd never know it," he said, chuckling at the memory.

Robert's own humor led to another characterization of his father's habit of puffing his pipe filled with Granger tobacco.

"He was like Clinton," said Robert, who sports suspenders and walks with a cane. "He didn't inhale."

CHANGING FACE

The Mack children have watched their town from the days when roads were dirt, model-Ts replaced horses, everyone raised each other's children and schools educated only white children, including the Macks'.

The Ku Klux Klan was strong in southern and eastern Lexington County. A grand dragon lived in nearby Pelion even into this decade.

Edward Mack remembers seeing rallies of hooded men, though he was quick to add, "None of us was in the klan."

But he and his son, Ed Mack, 49, cknowledge the family's role in building Sandy Run Academy in 1969.

"A lot of that started so I could go to school," said Ed Mack, who lives next door to his father on Mack Street, a short stretch from the academy that served as a haven from the U.S. Supreme Court's directive to integrate public schools.

"I laid the brick," said his father, a mason by trade. The school was built by "a bunch of people who didn't want to go to school with the blacks."

Becky Mack laments the loss of other parts of the town's way of life.

Woods filled with springs, creeks, pines and sparkleberry trees made for vast playgrounds.

"Now the woods are full of people we do not know," she said.

A new ugly face of Gaston emerged early this decade. The area is part of the "meth triangle," a portion of rural Lexington County where police say the making and selling of methamphetamine exploded.

The town also has been racked more recently by misspending and political corruption.

A former mayor, ex-town administrator and town council spent Gaston into what state municipal officials have described as the worst financial mismanagement they can recall.

Council and a new mayor elected this year are reducing the debt. But some of the Macks are among unsatisfied critics.

"My biggest disappointment about the whole thing," said Ed Mack, "is how many incumbents were re-elected. If there are that many people who would vote for those clowns, maybe it's time to move."

The remaining Macks are going nowhere else and their supporters would have it no other way.

"All his sons and daughters are highly respected," Pound said of Newlin Mack's descendants. "They put a lot of things back into the town."

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