I was fortunate to know John David Carter for well over a decade before he passed away in 2013. His friendship was fully entertaining, and the many stories he told me about his life made for a fascinating tale of triumph and tragedy. He had a sharp wit, a wry sense of humor, and an enduring love for the many brothers and sisters he grew up with at the Eliada Orphanage.
David’s life was defined by two people: the mother who gave him away as an infant, and Lucius Bunyan Compton, the founder of Eliada. He spent his entire life wondering how things might have been if his mother hadn’t abandoned him at birth, but he never doubted for a moment that Eliada was his true home. – CBD
My name is John David Carter, and I was born on April 2, 1936. I was born here in Asheville, N.C. You want to know how it was that I arrived at Eliada Orphanage? I was… my mother gave birth to me at Faith Cottage, a place that was founded by Dad Compton for unwed mothers. I was born there, and when I was three months old, I was taken from my mother and brought to Eliada.
I didn’t know my mother’s name for quite some time, until well after I had come out of service. That kind of private information was withheld from you, I believe. So after writing to the Eliada office, I found out my mother’s name. It was actually her maiden name. Of course, she was married by then and had three other kids.
She was a very pretty lady though, and after I contacted her, she wanted me to come and live with her and her family. But her husband never knew she had a son who was in his twenties, and I always felt out of place. Then they started getting into it, so I decided to pack up and leave. She wanted to go with me but I said no way are you leaving your family, and then I left. I didn’t really see a lot of her after that.
A few years later her husband committed suicide. He left a note giving his reasons, but I never did get a copy of it. My brother told me later he had been in a lot of pain. I went to his funeral, but the family didn’t want me to sit with them, and that really hurt. When we got to back to their home, I found my mother alone in the den. I walked up to her, gave her a kiss, and said, “Mom, there is one thing I need an answer to.”
And she asked, “What is it, honey?” So I said to her, “I need to know who my father is.” And because she had been drinking, because she was so upset, she threw her glass of liquor at me and said, “You will NEVER find out.”
That’s when I decided to leave for good. The next morning she drove me to the airport. We talked for a few minutes, and then I told her it would be the last time she would ever see me again–and then I walked away. And we never did see each other after that.
I know her kids blame me partly for what happened to their father, and I understand their feelings. But I’d still like to know who MY father was. I have a good idea who he was, but God only knows. When my mother died, my brother didn’t tell me until three months afterwards, even though they knew where I lived. That was shameful. They buried her in Huntsville, Alabama alongside her husband. I hope to get up there one day and put some flowers on her grave.
Little Boys’ Dormitory
Growing up at Eliada, it’s hard for me to remember when I was a young child. I know now that all the babies that came there were put in the nursery in the Main Administration building, so that’s where I started. But when I got older, I moved into the little boys’ dorm, and I felt pretty secure there because the little boys and the older girls both stayed in the Big House. So it wasn’t like you didn’t have any brothers and sisters. And you were pretty close to the kitchen, so you could sneak in there and get what you wanted after dark. The early part of my life was, I don’t know, maybe a little mischievous, taking into account my reason for being there. I also got quite a bit of support from people like Christine Tilley, and some of the other older girls.
The little boys lived on the second floor of the Big House, and it had around six of seven rooms. You started out in the large room with about four or five other kids. As you got a little older, you could graduate to a two-man room, or a two-boy room, whatever. We also had on that floor, if I’m not mistaken, a room where they used to have morning prayers once a week. The staff would meet there, and Dad Compton would pray over letters and things that were sent in to the orphanage. That was real interesting to me. I couldn’t figure out what…but now I know it was a sacred place to Dad.
We had our chores, such as cleaning our rooms and doing things like normal kids would have to do in their home. Yet there were other chores too. I recall having to churn butter, and our treat for two hours of work was a couple of cookies. We churned butter, and we always had things to do before we could go outside to play.
I remember on Mondays we used to have chocolate pudding. And I loved that chocolate pudding. I remember one Monday I just wanted to take off. I was upset with myself and the other kids because it was parents’ visitation day, and I decided I was going to run away. So I just ran off across what is now the ball field, Johnson field, and headed toward Leicester Road. Miss Crum, our matron, took after me, and she hollered that we were having chocolate pudding that night (laughs). So I went down into the woods and meditated on it for a while, and said, “Well, I better go back for that chocolate pudding!” (laughs). And that was how she got me back up there.
But overall, I wasn’t…I mean we had times when we were mischievous. We knew where the basement was, and we used to harass the older girls while they were doing the ironing in the basement. They had a tough job taking care of all of the kids’ clothes. And while they were ironing, we would sneak around and listen to them talking, just like young kids would do.
And we weren’t supposed to be in the basement, but one day we discovered where the “Fruit Room” was, which was where they stored all of the canned goods. And so me, a buddy of mine named Bruce, and of course Curly was in on it too…we went downstairs and we broke in. We got in there and we had a feast.
But then our matron Miss Crum somehow found out that things were missing, and she told Miss Green. So Miss Green set a trap for us (laughs). She caught Curly, she got a hold of Curly, and he squealed on us. And Bruce and I had just gotten a can of prunes, a big can of prunes. I loved those prunes, and she made us eat the entire can. I’ve never had the runs so bad in my life (laughs)! So that was our punishment.
Mom Edith and Dad Compton
In regards to Dad and Mom Edith, we had very little contact, especially with Mom Edith. She stayed up at the cottage by the Tabernacle most of the time, taking care of Dad’s business. And Dad was gone, all that evangelistic work and so forth—he was gone quite a bit. But when he came home he had his place in the dining room, right next to his office, you know. And everybody had great respect for him, and he would sit at the head of the table and the matrons would all sit around him.
And he was the type of person that you wanted to go to, but my biggest fear was getting through the door to his inner office. There were a lot of times I wanted to sit down alone and talk with him because hey, you know, I never had a father, and I didn’t have a mother. And there were times when he really could have helped me if he hadn’t been so busy running the orphanage. If only I could have talked with him or Mom Edith… we had our matrons, but geez, you know, they had twenty kids to take care of, and you couldn’t get a one-on-one with them.
But I feared him, even more so after he punished me for setting that crabapple tree on fire when I was younger. But that whipping made me realize that there are certain things a young man has to abide by…that his responsibility was to go by the rules. And I never really had a chance to talk to him like a son and father would. He was encouraging, but he was more concerned by his preaching and making sure that the orphanage had the funds to take care of the children.
Dad and Mom Edith may have communicated more with the others, I don’t know. David Harrison, I think, he had more communication–he had more guts then most of us did. And he was the type of person that liked to get into the office and look around, you know, see who’s on the blacklist (laughs)!
The Mountain Getaway
The biggest thrill I got as a younger boy was when Dad took us up to his cabin retreat in Brevard, NC. We communicated more there. It was very isolated, but Dad was well familiar with the area. I remember it had plenty of rattlesnakes. I mean it was really back in the woods, but I liked visiting the people back in that area. They were good country folks to be around.
And just below it was a fresh spring and a mountain lake. We would go down to swim. I remember it was close to a day camp for girls from South Carolina. We would swim, or take hikes through the mountains. There would be five or six of us in this small cabin. We would just sleep on the floor. I know they had mountain lions up there, and they would tell stories just to see if they could scare the daylights out of you. I always wanted to go back there and visit, but I never did. After I left the orphanage, I never did go back.
Older Boy’s Dormitory
Moving to the Older Boys’ Dorm was a big step for me. As a little boy, your life was more controlled then it was as an older boy. I had felt pretty protected where I was. But all of a sudden I was with the big boys, and it was a challenge for me to be able to take ’em on. Everybody had to share the same bathroom; there was no privacy. We had problems with the water. The heat wasn’t the best. But it was home…sort of.
They had their initiations, like the time they took me snipe hunting. They took me up the mountain around where the Tabernacle was, right in the sagebrush by the fence near Huntsinger’s farm. I had never been up there before. And they gave me a bag and a dying flashlight, and told me to stay there and that they would chase the snipes down into my bag while I held it open for ‘em (laughs). Well, I stayed there for three hours and I haven’t caught a snipe yet! But I heard ‘em hollering, and then I didn’t hear no more hollering (laughs). And they had told it would be quiet at times and to be patient, so I just waited. Then the flashlight goes out and I finally realize what’s happening, and had to find my way back home in the dark. You know, kid stuff.
But the mountain was my retreat. I would walk past the Tabernacle and sit up by the concrete reservoir on top of the mountain. I would sit up there and just look towards Asheville and just pray that I could get over those mountains one day.
It was real hard on me when the other kids would have visitation, and their families would come and see them. Of course, I didn’t have that. All I had was, “Well, they’ll probably be here next month,” or “They weren’t feeling well.” There’s a reason for it. And that really upset me. I wanted to create my own world where I could have friends. I had that that at the Big House with the older girls, so I kept going back there.
At the older boys’ dorm I didn’t have any control. There would be fights if I stepped on one man’s turf, and I had to defend myself. It was a challenge for me. And not having…not having like…I would say a normal kid would have his parents, he could go home. I wasn’t a crybaby, but I couldn’t go home. And so you had to stand your turf.
I remember one time I got into a fight with a guy who was much bigger then I was, and I hit him on the head with a two by four. Well, that didn’t faze him, and he took off after me through the milking parlor and into the calf barn where there was a silo. You know what I’m talking about? There’s a hole about sixty feet deep where they put the silage. I ran over the top ‘cause I though the door hatch was closed, but it was open, and I fell through right into about three loads of silage! And of course he’s looking down there laughing at me…he laughed at me and slammed the door down. They finally found me after I kept hollering and hollering for hours.
You had to use your mind, and know how to survive. You had to know what to say. And my biggest problem was getting over the pampering from the older girls, and trying to become a man in the older boys’ dorm.
See, if you were an illegitimate child, life was more of a challenge there. Miss Green tried to protect you and mediate between the kids that had parents and the kids that didn’t have parents. She tried to help us, because back then being illegitimate was taboo. I mean, I’ve had scriptures read to me that I wouldn’t go to heaven. And that’s the reason I got saved so many times at the Tabernacle (laughs)! But I’m just joking about that.
Anyway, we were told these things, and it was hard for me to accept. So I took on the role of being a troublemaker, trying to win friends. The kids would dare me to bring a cow into the classroom while the teacher was out smoking behind the building, and when she came back in, there was a cow standing by her desk (laughs)! And of course they are pointing right at me, “He did it!”
And she would…I mean back then discipline was discipline…it was putting the fear of God in us. There had to be a certain amount of discipline, in my thinking, more so in the orphanage than in a natural home. And one of the reasons I was drawn to the mountain was that I felt I could communicate with a higher being up there, and it helped me to cope with growing up at a place like Eliada.
I would sit on top of that reservoir, and a couple of times…I have never said this…a couple of times I tried to move the reservoir cap so I could jump in. There were times that I got so upset with myself, with my not having…I mean, I knew my Mom and Dad were out there somewhere. But I would get very upset, and thank God I couldn’t move that cement top off of that reservoir. It probably took two or three men to move that heavy cement thing off the top.
The Tabernacle was one of my favorite places growing up. We all looked forward to the camp meetings in August. And it never failed to rain. My reason for enjoying it so much was because we got to meet people from the outside. And I was always looking for my Mom and Dad, always talking to people to find out where they were from. I was really trying to find out if they were my parents, but they never were.
I remember very clearly how we used to go as young kids and prepare for the ten-day camp. We would take the mattresses and air them out and put them into the little cabins. But we wouldn’t put them in until just before the people were coming. And they would tip us.
The Tabernacle looked huge to me. As a young kid it looked like there were thousands of people sitting there together. And then they had this little store where we could buy a ten-cent coke. That was a big deal.
But I enjoyed the Tabernacle very much. I remember walking down the mountain and going to the front and pretending that I was doing a “Dad Compton Special” (laughs). I didn’t have the white buck shoes, but I would go there, and I would get on the platform, and I would stand there and preach. And there was nobody there; it was empty. But it didn’t matter. I’d be preaching, and I’d look up to Dad’s cabin to see if anyone was listening (laughs). I’d do my sermon and then I’d leave. One time I went down behind the barn and was on this stump preaching to the cornstalks. Now I don’t know how many of those cornstalks got saved, but it was the best crop around (laughs).
Of course when it rained, you had to move from seat to seat. The way the roof was, you know when they sang Washed in the Blood, they meant it. I mean it rained, it poured down, and every soul in there should be clean. The water would be running right down to the altar, forming a little pool. They would try to patch those holes in the roof every year before camp, but we’d always get water coming in over the top of your head, forcing you to move over to the next bench.
Once we had a group come by from Bob Jones University in South Carolina. The “preacher boys.” They were in Asheville, and we had them over to Eliada. And these young fellows would come in and they would preach hellfire and brimstone to us, and at the end of the service they would look down and say “One of you may not be living tomorrow. You’ve got to accept Christ as your savior tonight or you may end up in Hell tomorrow!” And so I got saved…for the night anyway (laughs). We wanted to make sure we saw daylight.
Enoch Sanders and Brown’s Feed Store
I remember there was a farmhand at Eliada named Enoch Sanders. Once in a while Enoch would take some of the boys into Asheville to Brown’s Feed Store to help him pick up some items for the farm. One of the times I went with him to Browns, this good friend of mine, I won’t use his name, he and I went across the street. Mrs. Brown had given us a nickel and said, “You boys go across the street and get you a Coke.”
So we went across the street, and I’m in there drinking my Coke, and this friend of mine is in there filling his pockets full of chewing gum. I’m sort of eyeing him and I’m over at the window, and all of a sudden he goes over to pay. The woman behind the counter says, “Would you mind, are you going to pay for the chewing gum you got in your pocket?” And he says, “Oh, I got that at the grocery store.” He had about twenty packs of gum in his pocket.
So then the old man comes out, and it’s her husband. And he wants to throw us both in jail. She says, “These kids are from the orphanage, they don’t steal like that.” And he says, “Well, he’s got about twenty packs of my chewing gum in his pocket.” So her husband wants to throw us in jail, but she doesn’t want too.
And so they’re discussing this when Enoch Sanders comes in, and he says, “Boys, let’s go.” And she says, “Are these boys from the orphanage?” And he says, “Yes ma’am, they are.” Pointing at me, her husband says, “Well, I just caught this boy watching out for the other one who was stealing all this chewing gum.” And Enoch says, “That can’t be, ma’am.” And she says, “Why not?” And he says, “Well, these two boys just got saved at the camp meeting last night!” And Bruce said, “That’s right!”
And she says, “Boys, I don’t believe you kids would steal stuff like this unless you were hungry.” So she gives us an apple and some Juicy Fruit, and then she makes us kneel down there and she prays for us.
Then Enoch says, “Come on boys, let’s go.” So we went out and got into the truck. And instead of letting us ride with him, he says, “I don’t want you boys riding with me in the front. I don’t like riding with thieves.” And he put us in the back.
So I asked Bruce, I said, “Bruce, what were you going to do with all that chewing gum?” And he said “I was going to sell it to make a little money.” Well, it was a long trip back, and Enoch never did say anything about it again. I was thankful for that.
Thanksgiving was a time when a lot of the children who had parents would get picked up and taken home to celebrate. And for those of us who didn’t have a family, it was nothing more then looking forward to than a good meal. I didn’t feel that we had a lot of thanks to give, knowing that we were at the orphanage and everyone else was home with their families. To this day I still feel out of place when I’m invited out to peoples’ houses for Thanksgiving. Of course, some of that is my fault. I realize that.
I really looked forward to celebrating Christmas. I can remember the day each year they would put the tree up. They would put up this big, beautiful tree in the corner of the dining room. And the older girls would wrap all of the presents, and they would put our names on the gifts. You just sat there on Christmas Eve saying, “I wonder which one’s are mine?” And then you try to get bragging rights.
Christmas morning, they ring the dining room bell and we all go up there, and that’s one of the few times I’ve never been late! All the kids are there, and Dad is there, and Mom Edith too. And the Woodmen of the World, I remember them very well—they were also there. They were the ones who would hand out the gifts and call out the names.
And so you got a new pair of shoes and a new pair of knickers, and then you go back to the older boys’ dorm, bragging about your gifts. But you get there, and there’s nothing waiting for you from “Mom and Dad.”
Once I got into a hassle with another kid with fewer presents then me who says, “Yeah, but my gifts didn’t come from the Woodmen of the World. They came from my parents.” And of course one word lead to another and we got into a fight over it. And he put a few knots in my head. But the older I got, the more I figured out what was happening. Those of us who didn’t have parents would find an extra gift or two under the tree.
The orphanage was very considerate. Miss Green, she carried that orphanage for so long, working as Dad’s secretary. She solved a lot of problems for us kids. She was very instrumental in my life later on, trying to help me make the right decisions. My opportunities were there, more so for me than probably any other kid. But all I wanted to do was live on the wild side. Had I been smart, I’d probably be sitting pretty well. There was some way I had of meeting with different people. I don’t say this braggingly. I couldn’t find…I just couldn’t get myself adjusted to not having parents.
I had some opportunities…like in 1952 going on national television in New York on a program called “Strike it Rich” with Warren Hull. I won the trip with Ann, Mae, and Bill Miller who used to pitch for the New York Yankees. Of course Miss Green went along too. We were able to go to New York. That was an open door. And Miss Green got lots of calls afterwards to adopt me, but the orphanage policy was not to adopt.
There were offers. I could have gone to college and really made a success of myself. But when Dad died in 1949, there was a changing of guard–first the Board tried to run the orphanage, and then Miss Green. It all changed.
And next, here comes Luther Horn. Now he might have known how to preach, but he didn’t know nothing about children. He knew about old time religion, and that was it. Then I started Emma High School, and all the sudden the older boys were gone. David Harrison, Curly, Fred Kurfees, the others–they were gone, and I was the top dog.
Then the rebellion came. I tried to take control of the situation because I felt like we were being abused by overwork. It was sunup to sundown. You had to work before classes, then you would come home from school and you had to go right back out in the field and plow or haul hay or work in the barn. There was no time for recreation.
We weren’t being treated right, so we rebelled against the system, and the system came down. They threatened us with the Stonewall Jackson, the hell-hole of North Carolina training schools for unruly kids. It scared us, but we rebelled anyway.
So instead of going to work one day, we hid underneath the school building and stayed there until somebody turned us in. And then here comes Luther Horn and says, “You better come out now.” And we told him we weren’t coming out. And he said, “We’ll use tear gas,” and this was the first time I had ever heard of tear gas. And then they brought out the fire hose, and they said “we are going to spray this place unless you come out!” And they still couldn’t get us ‘cause we were way underneath the building. And when they turned the water on, it just peed out. No water pressure. We howled!
Finally, here comes Miss Green. They knew she could get me out. So here comes Miss Green, and she talks to me for a while. So finally I said, “Come on guys, let’s get out of here.” So we got out and they took us upstairs and Luther Horn says, “I hate to do this, boys. God forgive me, I’m gonna have to whip each one of ya.” I looked at Luther and I said, “Now Dr. Horn, you’re not going to whip me.” He said, “Now son, it aint gonna be hard.” And I knew then that Dr. Horn didn’t want to whip nobody. He’d rather be a’ preachin’ then a’ whippin’ (laughs).
So he says, “You’ve got to be disciplined, David.” And I said, “I’ve had it. I’ve had it.” Well, he gave me a choice. He said, “You’re either gonna take the discipline, you take the whipping or we’re gonna have to send you to Stonewall. And I said, “I’m not going to Stonewall, and I’m not gonna get whipped either!” So I walked out. And he didn’t whip me. But I decided to leave. I was old enough by then to make that decision, and it was a stupid one.
You see, I didn’t have the ability to talk. I couldn’t talk with Dr. Horn. He didn’t know anything about raising children. All he knew was preaching the gospel and passing the plate. But Miss Green tried, she tried so hard to understand and convince me, “David, you’re doing the wrong thing. You need to finish your education.”
And I said, “No, I’m going. Take me to Asheville to sign me up for the Army.” So she took me, and they said it would be about two weeks before they let me know something. So later on Miss Green called me into her office and said, “You can still change your mind if you want to. I think you ought to change your mind. The principal at Emma wants you to come back to school.”
She sat down with tears in her eyes, begging me not to go into the service, saying I had a good future ahead of me, that I should take my discipline. And I was hardheaded enough that I said to myself, “No more of this.” I blamed the orphanage. I blamed the Board. I blamed everybody I could blame. So I went into the service.
See, I was eighteen, but I hadn’t finished high school yet. That had to wait until afterwards. In any event, I felt that I was old enough and could handle myself. But then I went into the Army, and I found out what it really means to become a man.
I was in service from 1954 to 1957, and I did my basic in Jackson. I thought Eliada was tough! But gee! Boy, I’ll tell you. There in basic…those guys are tough. And I called Miss Green after the third week and said, “Is there any way you can get me out of this?” (laughs)
I wanted to go to Germany, where Curly was. But it didn’t work out that way. They sent me to Alaska. And of course David Harrison was in Alaska. He was teaching school up there. But I didn’t enjoy Alaska a bit. I was there eighteen months, and then I came home on leave. I worked it out to where my leave would be during camp meeting. I flew back to Asheville, and Miss Green came to the airport to pick me up and take me back to Eliada.
Now before I left Alaska I had stopped at the PX and bought all kinds of medals. I had the super-thrower, the tank driver…you name it. I looked like General Patton (laughs). I looked like Patton—but I wasn’t nothing but a private. I remember Miss Green looked at me. She said, “You’ve really done well for yourself. Look at all those medals!” I was trying to be impressive, but I was walking humpbacked I had so many medals hanging from my chest. Of course I had to get rid of all of them before I flew back to the base (laughs)!
So I got out in front of the Administrative building, and here comes Ann Arrowood. She was a girlfriend of mine, and she met me there. The whole crowd was there, and the kids were really looking up to me. I looked like Curly! When he was in service, he got the same treatment. But he was a hero…Curly earned his medals. I didn’t earn mine.
In any event, when an orphan brother came home like that in uniform, he was respected. They really looked up to him. I remember shining Curly’s boots when he came home. The same way with me–I had the kids shine my boots. And Miss Green let me stay in one of the guestrooms in the baby cottage.
My big moment was during the camp meeting. I went to the Campground, and of course I was dressed in my uniform with all my medals. The speaker mentioned to the crowd that one of the boys from the orphanage had flown in from Alaska on military leave, and he asked me to stand up and be honored. So I stood up, and that was my big moment. Everybody was looking at me in uniform with all my medals!
Now I look back at that and I say, “Geez, you know, you could have done a lot better, Dave, if you had stayed and got your education.” But that was my big moment.
I haven’t really had any direct involvement with Eliada since I left in 1957. Maybe once or twice a month I’ll go out and drive around and visit Dad’s grave. I also used to go by and shop in the old Dairy Barn Thrift Store, but that’s not there anymore. I just enjoy walking around. Several times I have gone and taken pictures. I’ve mentioned to Christine that it would be nice to…on Sundays they used to take us walking up through the camp ground to the top of the mountain. It would be nice if I could do that again. That mountain used to be bald, but it’s all grown up now.
In closing, I would like to share these thoughts. For most of the years there, my life was sorta like any other kids’ life—except for one thing. I was given away by my mother because I was unwanted at birth. I find comfort in knowing there was a place like Eliada. A place that opened it’s doors of love and understanding to an unwanted child. I learned honesty and caring there. If not for Eliada, I would have lived in a home where there was nothing but distrust and hate, or maybe even worse. And it gave me honesty and love for my orphanage brothers and sisters—all 89 of them. Thank you.
–John David Carter (February 2000)
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)