104-Year-Old Sullivan County Resident Offers Advice for Longevity

Mrs. Joann Conner believes her 104-year-old mother, Pansy Oliver Torbett, may be the oldest living person in Sullivan County. 

“My mother,” said Joann, “was born in 1903 in a log house that stood along (old) Jonesboro (Jonesborough) Road in Piney Flats. This old stagecoach road stretched between Abingdon and Jonesboro, passing through the Rocky Mount estate. “Between 1910 and 1915, the David and Cordelia Smalling Oliver family rode to Johnson City on a farm wagon to attend the carnival. Chairs were placed on the wagon for adults; kids sat on the floor. 

“On the way back most all the kids slept, while the adults talked softly. Mom remembers fording the river and how the moon shimmered in the water as the horses splashed across it. “Sometimes while traveling to Johnson City, they crossed over on a ferry that was located near the current Austin Springs Bridge. People drove their horses up to the riverbank and rang a bell for service. A lady came out of a shed and skillfully operated the ferry; this always impressed my mother.”

Pansy started school at the nearby small two-room Locust Grove School. The Oliver sisters were fortunate to have ponies to ride to school. On rainy, snowy or very cold days, they rode a covered buggy harnessed to a pony. After graduating from Mary Hughes Institute in 1920, Pansy attended the Normal School in Johnson City and boarded at a house at Unaka and Boone. She rode the train to and from Johnson City on weekends and the streetcar to and from the campus each weekday. After obtaining a teaching certificate, Pansy taught at Chinquapin Grove (grammar) School, often walking to and from work.

When the Oliver family moved to a new brick house in 1923, they were fearful that their furniture might get damaged during the move on the old horse-drawn farm wagon, resulting in family members carrying some items on foot. Joann said that the nine-room dwelling was built at a cost of $5000 using lumber harvested from trees on the farm. Telephone service was added about 1930, electricity in 1939 and an indoor bathroom in 1940 using water that gravity flowed from a cistern located on a hill next to the barn.

An event occurred around 1914 that Pansy’s mother attributes to bringing her daughter and her future husband together. The family was on their way to Piney Flats to sell eggs and shop. Pansy held a basket of eggs on her lap. Clifford Torbett and his father were riding with them. Suddenly, a motorcycle came over the hill making a loud noise. It scared the horses and caused them to run frantically off the dirt road until the wagon eventually hit a stump. The only damage was a broken harness; even the eggs survived the mishap. Mr. Oliver repaired the harness with his belt and they continued their journey.

Pansy and Clifford eventually began “courting.” When the lad visited his sweetheart, he sat on one side of the parlor while she sat on the other. When they walked to church, they were always on opposite sides of the road. The couple married in 1925. “Church was always the center of mother’s life,” said Mrs. Conner. “After serving in Popular Ridge Christian Church, Union Church and Dunkard Church, she joined Edgefield United Methodist Church where she played piano and organ.”

The good-natured Mrs. Torbett was asked to what she attributes her longevity. Her quick and witty reply was “staying out of doctors’ offices.” She continued by saying to “work hard, stay active and take care of yourself.”