Ralph was born in the Riverbend Community north of what is now Mt. Holly, Gaston County, North Carolina the son of Confederate veteran Jacob Underwood and Esther Lawing. The house where he was born stood for well over a hundred years before being torn down for business development in the 1980s. For a period of time, Ralph and his parents and siblings lived in the house known as the Mulligan Place.
|The Mulligan Place|
United States Census, 1900
Ralph moved from Gaston County to the Paw Creek Township of Mecklenburg County about 1900. The home his father built also stood for over a hundred years before being torn down about 2014 for the building of a nursing home. Ralph attended the McGee School and old Long Creek School until 8th grade. He wished he could have completed his schooling at the Boiling Springs High School (now Gardner-Webb University), but there were no funds to do so.
|McGee School about 1901|
Ralph was musically inclined, and learned to play the banjo and trumpet. In 1909, he was a member of the Mt. Holly Band, an ensemble of men from the area, many of whom were related (or would become related) through marriage.
|Mt. Holly Band, 1908|
In 1910, Ralph worked helping to lay track for the Piedmont & Northern Railroad near his father’s farm, part of which line was being built through property he would one day own, the farm of his future father-in-law, George Luther Neal. Luther was Ralph’s second cousin.
1910 United States Federal Census
The money that Ralph made laying the railroad line was used by Ralph to fund his move to Houston, Texas, where his brother, John Underwood, was living at the time. While working several different jobs during the time he lived there, Ralph went to night school and took classes in architectural drawing and accounting.
Also while living in Houston, Ralph was a consistent member of a local Baptist church, eventually rising to the leadership of the Baptist Young People’s Union (B.Y.P.U.). He attended retreats at Palacias on the Gulf Coast near Houston. Ralph also visited his Aunt Margaret Underwood McGee and her family in nearby New Boston, Texas.
In December 1916, Ralph felt the filial call to home where his aging parents lived. He returned to farming there. It was during this time that he got to know his future wife, Beatrice Reamer Neal, who lived about a mile or so from his home. She and Ralph were second cousins, once removed, by virtue of their common descent from John and Jane Reid Moore.
Ralph registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He gave his address as Rt. #10, Paw Creek, North Carolina, and his occupation as a farmer. Ralph claimed an exemption from the draft due to his parents being soley dependent on him. According to his daughter, Betty Underwood, Ralph was criticized in the community for not going to war.
|Reamer and Ralph Underwood, his 90th Birthday|
Ralph continued to farm and care for his parents. After the death of his father, Ralph was employed by the Duke Power Company in Charlotte, North Carolina. In 1923, Ralph and his wife bought the the Neal farm and house. In the 1940s, Ralph bought a tractor for the farm. Though he often used this tractor for winter turning and spring preparation of his fields. He often used a mule for the actual plowing of rows.
1940 United States Federal Census
House Owned or Rented: Owned; Value of Home or Monthly Rental if Rented: 3000; Attended School or College: No; Highest Grade Completed: High School, 4th year; Hours Worked Week Prior to Census: 40; Class of Worker: Wage or salary worker in private work; Weeks Worked in 1939: 52; Income: 2150; Income Other Sources: Yes; Household Members: Ralph S Underwood, 50; Reamer N Underwood, 42; Mildred B Underwood, 18; Ralph S Underwood, 16; Doris E Underwood, 15; Betty J Underwood, 13; Laura N Underwood, 3; Matthew D Underwood, 52
In the late 1960s, Ralph borrowed a young mule from a neighbor, Troy Harkey. Troy told Ralph to keep the mule, and Ralph named him Jack. By the early 70s, Jack was smart enough to know when Ralph needed him for work and would walk away from him. Ralph would get his grandson, Pip Sheppard to go get Jack for him.
They would live there, birthing and raising their children, farming and mentoring their grandsons, until they moved to a nursing home in Stanley, Gaston County, North Carolina, in 1984.
Ralph was a much esteemed member of the community and patriarch of his five children and 16 grandchildren. When he died in 1986, his funeral at the First Baptist Church of Mt. Holly was attended by over 300 people. His eulogy was delivered by his great-nephew, the Reverend John Sherman Farrar of Virginia, the grandson of Ralph's eldest sister Laura Underwood
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