In Nickelsville, Virginia, Bonnie Collins Harris was born on Dec. 17, 1917, as the second child in a family that would eventually have 10 children. There would be four girls and six boys along with their mom and dad living in a log cabin that had a kitchen and dining room plus a large room upstairs.
“Back then we didn’t have living rooms like people today have,” explained Bonnie. “We just had that big room upstairs where we all slept and got ready for the next day.”
The family farm produced all of the food that the family would eat. “We had cows, chickens, pigs and all of the vegetables that we could enjoy during the summer and can for winter time,” Bonnie added. “We had fresh milk and eggs and enjoyed meals on a long table where we all sat together.”
Everybody worked on the farm. “We got up before daylight and went to work,” Bonnie continued. “We hoed corn, suckered tobacco, and worked until dark. It was a good life; we had everything we needed and plenty of support from our family.”
The family loved going to church and attended every Sunday. After church, about 30 people would gather for lunch after which they’d tell stories and share ideas with each other. The family was so dedicated to serving God that they built their own church called Collins Chapel which is still operating today.
Bonnie Collins was married on April 5, 1943, to Cecil Harris while he was on a three-day pass from his military post in Gulfport, Mississippi. Bonnie went back to Mississippi with her new husband, arrived on Sunday, and got a job in the Coca Cola plant on Monday morning.
“I’ve always worked hard,” Bonnie said. “I started cooking when I was 7 years old and still cook for my family every Sunday now. Usually my brothers and sister who live close come for lunch and to share our stories.”
Lucille Peters who is 98, James Ed Collins who is 93, and Blanard Collins who is 89 still enjoy their closeness and time together.
“I talk to my sister Virginia who is 87 every day; she lives a little further away in Virginia.”
When Bonnie’s husband was sent overseas with the military for a tour of duty, she came back to Kingsport. On Dec. 17, 1944, Cecil was captured on the first day of the Battle of the Bulge. Two of her brothers were also in the Battle of the Bulge and were wounded. Huey was wounded on Christmas Eve and hospitalized for three months. Another brother, James Ed was wounded on March 16, 1945, and spent 2 years and 10 days in the hospital. Bonnie received a telegram after Cecil’s capture from the Department of the Army telling her that Cecil was now a Prisoner of War.
As a POW, when Cecil was being marched by the enemy from one location to another, he escaped and hid in a haystack until U.S. troops came by and rescued him. He was then sent home to his wife. Bonnie and her sister were walking down the street in Gate City when they saw a young man approaching them who looked just like Cecil. “He had lost so much weight that I could have carried him all by myself,” said Bonnie. “We both thought he looked like Cecil but he walked past us. When he took a second look and turned around he came running and picked me up and swung me around and around,” Bonnie added with a smile.
After serving as city manager of Gate City for a while, Cecil worked for Holston Defense and eventually retired from there.
What is the secret of a long life? “Serving the good Lord and being good to everybody,” Bonnie said. “My advice to young people is to go to church, serve the Lord, and eat good food.”
At 100, Bonnie still does all of her housework herself, mowed her yard herself until this past summer, and keeps all of the trees and bushes trimmed up in her landscape. And she’s pretty handy with a firearm as well. “When a groundhog began eating up my garden, I took my .38 and shot him once. He didn’t fall down so I just kept shooting him until he fell over,” Bonnie said with a wink and a smile.
Bonnie and Cecil had three children (two of which are deceased); daughter Patty is a nurse at Holston Valley Medical Center. Bonnie’s family has grown to two granddaughters and two grandsons.
But if you visit Miss Bonnie at her home on any given Sunday afternoon, there will be a host of people telling stories, enjoying an old-fashioned meal, and making priceless memories.