William E. Keller was born 10/15/1855 near Taylorsville in Alexander County, NC, the son of Joseph and Rinda Keller. When he died on 5/26/1969 in Mitchell County at 111, he was the state’s longest living Social Security pensioner, and may also have been the oldest in the nation! His monthly check was about $50, and he also drew supplemental income from Mitchell County’s old-age assistance program.
“Uncle” Bill Keller, of course, experienced much in his 111 years. He had recollections from his childhood, he said, of Yankee soldiers burning and looting his neighbor’s homes. At 10 years of age he began working in coal mines near Pocahontas, VA; he also worked in sawmills. In one of his many interviews, Keller claimed to have worked for “a stint as a cowboy on a big Western ranch.”
He made his way to Pineola, where he married for the first time. His first wife’s name was not given in the various newspaper articles; their son William Guy Keller was born 8/28/1914 in Spruce Pine and died 2/22/1959 in Miami-Dade County, FL, at just 44 years of age. Keller outlived 2 wives; the second was Lydia Stafford (1875-1959), whom he married in 1934.
Bill Keller lived at the very end of Sullins Branch Road surrounded by chickens and cats that “had the run of the place.” He was a member of Spruce Pine Methodist Church, where he served many years as Sexton. Uncle Bill was hard of hearing; he had lost all his teeth and didn’t like to wear his dentures. Keller claimed his long life was due in part to walking in the snow barefooted to “avoid colds and flu,” but was also due to “the Old Master” who “must a wanted me to live this long.”
According to a 10/8/1961 Asheville Citizen-Times article, Uncle Bill did “everything an old man is not supposed to do – but in moderation.” He smoked cigars, cigarettes, and pipes, and dipped snuff and chewed tobacco. “And I don’t mind telling,” he said, “I drink a little, too. A little drink never hurt nobody.” He liked an “occasional snort of corn liquor” but was also partial to peach and apple brandy.
To supplement his Social Security, Keller sold eggs, found mica and trimmed and sold it, plus made “attractive baskets of colored wire. Practically indestructible, they are useful for sewing baskets and for other purposes” (Asheville Citizen-Times, 10/15/1963).
Along with his work to bring in supplemental income, Keller enjoyed television. He watched the news, he said, but especially enjoyed wrestling. “I’d like to get in there amongst them when they’re a wrestling.” Keller was described in the interview as a “strapping big man” in his day, six feet tall and 205 pounds, so he might have had yet another career as a wrestler!
His longevity – and his character – attracted much attention, and he was the subject of numerous newspaper articles. “A durable and industrious mountaineer,” Keller spent his final 3 months in Spruce Pine Hospital after friends found him ill in his home. He was buried in the Sullins Cemetery.