Dolly Sledge Hickman is as much a part of Mecklenburg County history as she is a student of it.
A true independent spirit, she has watched and participated in the county's growth from rural to urban. An active member of the Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society, she says it's important to preserve the area's history.
A lover of science, she was a pioneer in environmental education, personally responsible for inspiring a love of science in hundreds of students.
Hickman, 90, lives on Sledge Road property, originally a grant from the King of England that extended from N.C. 160 and N.C. 49 down to what is now Lake Wylie. She is the last Sledge to live there.
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Dolly's father, Hartwell Kendrick Sledge Sr., farmed the land. They grew corn and took it down to the river, where a ferry owned by the Knox family would take the wagon across to the mill. Since this was before Southern Power (now Duke Power) had dammed up part of the river, when the water was low it was actually possible to walk across.
“I was a child of the Depression,” Dolly says. “Because we lived on a farm, we always had food.”
But she also recalls that her mother once didn't even have a penny to buy a one-cent postage stamp. “Everyone was in the same boat,” she said. “So we didn't feel any different from the people around us.”
When teenagers got together, it was for a “pound party.” Since no one could afford to feed a large group of teens, each would come with a pound of something for the party, such as peanuts.
Dolly's mother, the former Julia Benton, was a graduate of Women's College in Greensboro (now UNC Greensboro). Benton was the first woman to vote in Mecklenburg County.
Dolly remembers her mother's riding sidesaddle to the polls after being admonished by her husband to vote as he told her. Dolly laughed, saying they probably canceled out each other's votes throughout their marriage.
Dolly's public school education is an overview of the school system at the time. She first went to the Observer School on York Road, so named because The Charlotte Observer was left there once a week.
Later, when several schools were consolidated, she and her siblings rode two buses to Berryhill High School on Dowd Road. Since that arrangement meant she was often late for first period, she convinced her parents to let her have skates. Instead of waiting for the second bus, she skated the rest of the way to school with her books in a self-designed backpack executed by her mother.
Dolly went to Elon College on a scholarship, then to Winthrop College in Rock Hill (now Winthrop University), where she graduated in 1939 with a triple major in journalism, physical education and science. Obviously an independent spirit, she always wanted to be a doctor. But, she says, that was not a realistic goal for a woman at the time.
She married in 1939 to JW Hickman Jr. They had three children: JW III, Robert Stanley, and Judy.
Her husband died in 1950. She raised her family, teaching science in the public schools. She later went to Charlotte Country Day School, where she taught and created a community of science lovers.
In collaboration with the biology departments at UNC Greensboro and Appalachian State University, teachers were trained in “outdoor education.” Dolly's “School in the Woods” evolved into an environmental science curriculum in schools and colleges. “School in the Woods” became an annual event at Charlotte Country Day.
Many of her students have gone on to careers in medicine, geology, ecology and teaching. Her living room is filled with books of nature photographs – some dedicated to her – written by John (she calls him Tom) Fielder, a former student. She gets regular calls from former students.
When she retired from Charlotte Country Day, the Dolly Hickman Science Award was established in her honor, recognizing an outstanding senior in science.
She traveled for a couple of years, and now volunteers one day a week in veterinary surgery at Long Animal Hospital.