South Charlotte

She's as firmly rooted as her tree

Nell Hucks Lee is a lot like the prolific fig tree she planted 48 years ago in her yard – firmly rooted in the red clay soil of Fort Mill.

Lee has lived most of her 88 years at the corner of Pleasant Road and S.C. 160, just west of Fort Mill.

For 47 years, she worked two miles down the road as a weaver at Springs No. 1 mill, where her daddy worked too.

She has seen her intersection grow from when it was a sleepy dirt road and her daddy ran one of the few country stores between Fort Mill and the Catawba River, Hucks Grocery – with farm-fresh eggs, hog feed and liver mush.

Joe Wade Hucks ran the store and raised 15 children on his farm. The family got milk and fresh-churned butter from two milk cows. Joe Wade smoked cigars, farmed cotton and owned about 40 acres at the crossroads once known as Hucksville.

Part of the family land was recently sold to make way for the Harris Teeter, Goodyear Tire, Back Yard Burgers and Blockbuster video across the street. The old Hucks family home site is now home to the new Walgreens drug store.

Although Lee could load up and move to the beach – or across the street to Baxter Village – she has no intention of leaving her home, despite the traffic that has descended around her like locusts.

There are times when she does miss the quiet country community she lived in for more than 75 years, the place where she and her late husband, Oscar Lee, raised three daughters. But she has no real regrets about the growth, and likes the convenience of the nearby stores.

Well, she has two complaints about living in one of the fastest growing communities in the Charlotte region:

“The days of backing out of my driveway onto Pleasant Road are long gone. If you did that now, you'd get run over,” she said with a laugh from her easy chair in the den

And on a more serious note, she's concerned about the rising crime – several local stores and banks have been robbed in the past two years.

“When my Daddy ran his store, you'd know everyone in this community and anyone passing through,” she said. “Plus, with my husband being a sheriff's deputy, we never had no trouble around here.”

Some things have remained constant, such as her beloved church across S.C. 160, Philadelphia United Methodist, where she's been a member since she was a child. She usually drives her car just twice a week – to church and the Harris Teeter.

“Our church has been re-built and expanded a couple of times, but it's always been here, always will,” she said.

One of the more amazing things about Lee lives just outside her back door – a sprawling fig tree wider than a two-car garage and taller than her house.

She got the tree 48 years ago as a cutting, about as long as a person's forearm, from a fig tree in her mom's yard next door.

“I got three cuttings and the only advice she had – besides watering it – was plant it so the north wind didn't hit it,” she said. “And guess what? The other two trees were in the wind and died. And look at this thing. It just won't stop growing.”

The figs began ripening about three weeks ago, and family members help pick the figs for her to make preserves. The tree produced 177 pints of preserves last year and 90 so far this year. Son-in-law Harold Lewis uses a step ladder to get to the taller branches.

“I don't know whether it's because we've had more rain this year, but I've never seen more figs than what this old tree has this year. This may be a record harvest,” he said.

The pale brown fruit is about the size of your little finger and bruises so easily that most grocery stores don't carry them. They're sweet and good to eat right off the tree. But they're perhaps at their best after being slow-cooked several hours and transformed into a sticky concoction that is the pride of many Southern kitchens.

Lee's fig preserves are thick and sweet with a summery garden taste, just the right consistency to slather on a hot biscuit.

“Fig preserves on buttered toast are my favorite breakfast food,” said eldest daughter Pat Lewis, who was helping last Monday with the canning by the kitchen sink.

Lee is not bashful about her homespun recipe: “You take two pots of figs and cover it with one pot of sugar, let it set overnight, and then simmer it for two to three hours on the stove. Then can it quick as you can.”

She gives preserves to friends and family, but also sells pints for $3.50 and quarts for $7.

“For breakfast, my mother would serve a half-gallon of fig preserves and make 35 biscuits on the wood stove; she had a big family to feed,” Lee said.

For nearly a century, the Hucks family has taken care of the land at the intersection of Pleasant Road and 160. And now the land is taking care of the family that lived at the crossroads once known as Hucksville.

Dan Huntley can be reached at 803-547-9000, ext. 38, dhuntley@charlotteobserver.com

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