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Esther Autry McLean

She's built her life around caring for others
BY JACK McDUFFIE Staff Writer of the Bladen Journal in E-town NC

Caring for others has always been a major part of Esther Louise Autry McLean's life, something that eventually became her "life's work." Today she and her daughters operate McLean's Family Care, off U.S. Highway 701 north of White Lake.

About two weeks ago, her family gave her a birthday party to celebrate her life and accomplishments that began on a hardscrabble farm in the sandy soil of north Bladen County. She still lives and works in the same community where she was born on January 29, 1915.

Born in Autrytown

She was born in an area that is now referred to as Autrytown-Autrytown Road now goes through the community. She was one of nine boys and three girls born to Oscar and Cora Wright Autry. Five of her brothers and one sister are still alive. She grew up on the family farm working in the fields and helping with household chores. She attended two different, small one-room schools in the community where she would complete the seventh grade.

Her mother and grandmother had been trained and practiced as midwives, who delivered babies throughout their community. Ms. Esther, as many call her, was also trained as a midwife, but never practiced because the law had changed by the time she was old enough. Since that time, only physicians and formally trained midwives (registered nurses who have been trained as midwives) have been allowed to deliver babies.

Meets husband at age 17

She met the man she would later marry while working at another families home in the area. "I was 17 years old and Lency (McLean) saw me while I was washing clothes on a washboard for Mr. Learland," she explained. "Lency was from Olivia, near Sanford, and was helping my granddaddy, Ned Autry, on Mr. Learland's farm clear land." Mrs. McLean said that it was a bit embarrassing that he first saw her washing clothes. "But he asked me if he could take me to church on Sunday, anyway," she said, eyes twinkling. "He had his daddy's car and came and got me to take me to church. "But before we got to the church, his father ran out into the road in front of us waving his arms and shouting, 'Whoa, stop the car! I've got to take my wife to church,'" she said, demonstrating how Lency's father had waved them down. "He took the car away from us and we had to walk the rest of the way to Peter's Chapel (now St. Peter's AME Zion Church). "Lency was the first boy I'd ever been with, and I ended up marrying him about a year later," Mrs. McLean said, smiling. "My daddy told him he could marry me but he couldn't take me to Olivia. So we stayed right here in Bladen County. We farmed and Lency worked some for other people."

Build their first home

In 1938 they purchased three acres of land near where Mrs. McLean's father lived on what is now Autrytown Road. The land cost $12 per acre. "We built our first house on that land with timber we cut from the land," she said. "We'd work during the day and work on the house at night." After they completed the four-room house, they moved into it. Eventually the couple would have seven children-five girls and two boys. However, one of the boys was stillborn. Despite the fact that the family was making very little money, they saved enough money to make the down payment on 70 acres of land down the highway. They purchased the land from a Mr. McDowell, who had bought it from the Marshburn family, she said. Later her brother would purchase the adjoining 70 acres. "We paid $750 for it, and didn't know if we would ever be able to pay it off," Mrs. McLean said. As it turned out, they paid for the property in two years. Later they would build another house on this land.

Life of hard work

She says she has worked hard all of her life and that hard work during pregnancy likely attributes to the loss of one of her sons, L.C., at birth. To illustrate how hard she worked during those years, she was back putting wood in the furnace to fire the tobacco barn three days after the stillbirth of her son. She explained that her husband was off working on another farm and that there was no one else around to fire the barn. She gets emotional whenever the birth of the child comes up, said her daughter, Cora Lee. For about 20 years beginning around 1950, she worked at Lashley's motel as a maid to supplement the family's income. She was 50 years old before she learned to drive.

Becomes interested in caring for the elderly

She says she became interested in the possibility of running a family care business in the 1960s. In those days, these types of businesses were not required to be licensed by the state. "When we started, it wasn't really a business," she said. "The first person I took in was a Mr. Purdie from Elizabethtown. When we met him, he was walking along the street in the snow near the bus station," she said. "We talked with him at the bus station and asked him if he needed a ride home. "He said he did and we took him to his house," Mrs. McLean explained. "When we got to his house, we found out that all the windows were broken out. It was snowing and cold, so we asked him if he wanted to come home with us until it quit snowing. He said he would, and ended up staying with us nine years until he died around 1971." During those years, individuals who stayed with Mrs. McLean lived in the family's home. "By then all the children were grown and gone and we had room for them," she explained.

Business opens in 1975

McLean's Family Care officially opened for business in 1975 when Mrs. McLean was 60 years old. Before it opened, she had purchased a house in Elizabethtown and had it moved to the site. She added on to the building and it became the first building dedicated to the business. She later added another building to the facility. She has cared for "well over 100 residents over the years since opening the business," according to her daughter, Cora. The home is now licensed to care for 11 residents and presently has 8. "I've always enjoyed working with the elderly," she said, smiling. "Taking care of the elderly has been her life," said Cora, who is the administrator of the business. Mrs. McLean's husband died in 1977, about two years after she opened the business. The business is definitely a family affair. Not only do Mrs. McLean and Cora work there, another daughter, Carol Wright, also works in the business, and Delma Autry, Mrs. McLean's sister-in-law, has worked there since the business opened 30 years ago.

Aunt Esther has certainly done her share of hard work and has always been a strong inspiration in the Autry and surrounding communities. I will never forget how she furnished my mother (another sister-in-law) land for a little garden spot back in the early 70's. She had uncle Lency to prepare the gound for planting. She then helped us plant and tend the garden for the whole season. Although the mosquitoes and yellow flies were almost unbearable we had one of the prettiest gardens I have ever seen. I will also never forget the day when aunt Esther came to visit another one of her sister-in-laws who was very sickly at the time. She heard me telling some of my first cousins what hard time I had that day cutting and loading logs by myself in 100 degree weather. She came over to me and calmly said "son don't ever do that again" and as of today I have never even thought of trying it again.

Aunt Esther is presently the mother of our family and community. We will always love her for the person that she has been and always will be. Long life and Peace to her. One of many loving nephews, Allen Omega.

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