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born in 1874, the Civil War had been over for only ten years. Ulysses S. Grant was President of the United States. Winston Churchill, the English lion, was born the same year. Much of the South lay in ruin as it struggled to deal with Reconstruction. Marshall County in north Alabama, lacking the large plantations, had never been an enchanted, gracious, aristocratic society of southern belles, magnolias, and mint juleps. With few exceptions, rural people were impoverished before the War and fell even deeper into destitution afterward. As a strapping young man, Milas married the teenage Mary Miranda Hix. He was a few inches taller than most men of his day, angular, slim, but with a beak-like nose, and protruding ears. His appearance was acceptable, though he couldn’t honestly be described as handsome. Miranda was an appealing brunette with a trim figure, warm smile, and sparkling blue eyes. They made an attractive, although plainly dressed, couple. As was then customary, the two commenced to beget a brood of children. Albert, Leamon, Bertha, Mamie, Howard, and Leon appeared in succession. Interspersed were a stillbirth and a child, Edgar, who died in infancy. The framed, oval, sepia-toned photograph of Miranda, taken a year before her death, shows a somber, beaten-down woman who appeared nearer to fifty than to her actual age of forty-one. The sparkle was long gone from her eyes and the smile faded from her lips. Life had been difficult and she saw little prospect for improvement. “We’se movin’ tomorrew, Mirandey,” Milas stated flatly when he completed one of his many land deals. It was yet another in a series of such moves, none announced until the last minute. No discussion took place. Her opinion, if she had one, was irrelevant. He decided and she complied. “Ye heered Paw,” she told the older girls. “Holp me git thangs gather’d up.” The next day, the family loaded its meager possessions onto a mule-drawn wagon. Off they went to the lodging the stern patriarch had selected. Miranda didn’t inquire as to their destination. Years of marriage had led to the accumulation of little more than four iron bedsteads, several cane-bottom chairs, an unpainted, rectangular oak eating table, two wooden 1
chests, plain, homemade clothes, a black cast iron wash pot, and a wood-fueled cook stove. The load filled the wagon. Milas drove. Wife and children walked alongside. If they moved quickly, they could avoid being coated by the cloud of choking dust thrown up by the wagon. “This’s hit. Whoa.” Milas ordered the bony mule to stop at his latest acquisition. It was about three miles from their previous home. The house was nothing but a crude cabin with four rooms. Milas had given no consideration to the size of his family. It was of frame construction with unpainted, weathered, vertical boards nailed directly to the framing. Smaller boards, called battens, partially sealed the cracks. The tin roof had long ago lost its shine and developed patches of brown rust. Lightning rods extended a foot or so above the peak of the roof at each end. Metal cables ran down to stakes driven into the ground. The few windows had small panes of wavy glass containing bubbles of air. A few of them were cracked; a large, triangular corner of one was entirely missing. A previous resident had blocked the weather with a wad of black cloth. The front porch had a shed-type roof. At one end, suspended by rusty chains, hung a porch swing wide enough for two people. Each of the two front rooms had a door from the porch. Irregular, brown stones, stacked into pillars, supported the structure a few feet off the ground. The weight of the house was all that held them in place.
Farm House The inside was equally uninspiring. Rough, bare plank floorboards had cracks between them that allowed glimpses of the irregular ground beneath. The living room was the only one sealed, making it the warmest. A fieldstone fireplace was its source of heat. The kitchen and two bedrooms completed the accommodations. To contain a family of eight, both living room and kitchen must double as bedrooms. The outbuildings were the same as on all farms: barn, smokehouse, and crib. Like the house, they were unpainted and capped with roofs of corroding tin. Except for the barn, their walls were made of logs. The barn, in view of its importance in farming, was nearly double the size of the house. Its central portion had hinged double doors that opened outward to reveal the barn hall. Off the hall, to the right and left, were stalls for animals. Partly open above was the barn loft. It served mainly for storage of bales of hay. A steep ladder mounted to the right side of the hall provided access. A door opened from the loft into nothingness in front of the barn. It was a provision for 2
bales of hay to be loaded or unloaded. Attached to each side of the barn, shed-type extensions provided storage of feed and farm equipment. An intense odor of hay and manure permeated the entire building. Mice scurried away at any disturbance.
The Barn and Mule The smokehouse, much smaller than the barn, was a place for curing and storage of meat, so it had an overpowering aroma of spices. It had no ceiling, the joists were logs cut from the woods, and large, metal hooks served for hanging meat well out of the reach of animals.
Smokehouse The crib was for corn storage. Its short door began about three feet above ground level, but had no steps. Large spaces between its logs ensured that rats would claim a share of the crop.
Corn Crib The outhouse was adjacent to the hog pen. Unlike cartoon versions, no half-moon was cut into its door. Two square cutouts in a bench at the back served as toilets. A box, partly filled with white cobs, stood to the left of the door. A Sears and Roebuck Catalog, with many pages torn out, hung loosely from a nail. The tiny building’s horrid stench was overwhelming. Yet, it served an essential purpose.
Outdoor Toilet The sandy yard, as soon as the family got settled, would be rendered bare of grass and kept that way in the country tradition. Patches of grass or weeds in a yard indicated a lazy, shiftless family. Few had so little self-respect. After hoeing any vegetation, the industrious homemaker always swept her yard clean with a homemade broom constructed with light brown sedge called “broom sage.” From the woods across an overgrown field, issued the sound of a screech owl, interspersed with the mournful cry of a whippoorwill. In the distance, a circle of buzzards slowly glided on the rising air currents. Billowing white clouds, looking like giant pieces of cotton, contrasted with the pure blue of the sky. “Hit mought be a thundershower latter ’n th’ day,” Albert speculated as he surveyed the summer sky. “Holp yore Maw unload ’n’ set up, young uns,” Milas said as he moved apart and concerned himself with more important matters. “Make haste ‘n unloadin’ th’ wagon. I’ve got a som’ers t’ go.” They need expect no help from him. Moving was the work of women and children. His role was that of provider, progenitor of babies, and ruler of his family. Along with farming, land trading, and religion, those things were the limit of his world. As a deacon in the Mt. Olive Church, he assumed a moral authority that put fear of “th’ wrath t’come” in all. The flock thought of him as well versed in the Scriptures. In fact, he knew only scattered verses, had no clue as to context, and made minimal application of Divine dictates in his own life. For him, religion was a shield, a way to enforce his will upon his family, and good business. It created the illusion that he could be trusted. “Fear o’ th’ Lord air th’ beginnin’ o’ wisdom” he intoned to his Sunday school class. “Do unto others ez yu’d have ’em do unto y’u. Be not like unto th’ rich man who fount hisself ’n far up t’ ’is neck. All he keud do wuz beg fer a drop a water, but hit wuz too late. In my Father’s house air many mansions. God helps them who help theirselves. Y’u willn’t tell winter 4
from sprang but by th’ buddin’ o’ th’ trees.” Genuine and spurious verses carried equal authority with him, especially since he didn’t know which was which. Milas greatly enjoyed sacred harp singing. Such singing is always done without instrumental accompaniment. The name of the music came from a book named The Sacred Harp. It was a book of shape notes. The shape for fa was a triangle, so an oval, la a rectangle, and mi a diamond. Participants sing the notes, not the words. Such singing wasn’t done as a part of church services. All-day singings were common, typically including “dinner on the ground,” a potluck lunch. People who didn’t sing were welcome to attend, but the singers performed, not for an audience, but for themselves and the other singers. The songs were of a religious nature, but different denominations were represented at the sacred harp gatherings.
The Sacred Harp Nobody could rightly call Milas lazy. He labored from early until late on his farm until his children grew mature enough to fulfill a major reason for their existence. Economic assets, they were unpaid field hands. After his offspring freed him of the necessity for manual labor, he concentrated mainly on his land dealing. At a time when most country people remained in perpetual poverty, Milas steadily accumulated both money and property. A wily trader, he was ready to take advantage of neighbors’ bad fortune or ineptitude. Literate and able to cipher, he had an edge over most of his bucolic associates. He didn’t, however, turn families out to starve when he acquired their farms. “Reuben, y’u ’n’ yourn kin stay on ’n’ sharecrop next seas’n ef y’u will,” Milas offered to a man whose land he’d acquired for less than its value. The suggestion wasn’t intended as an act of kindness or made out of concern for a needy neighbor. The money he got for the farm barely allowed Reuben to pay off what was due at the bank plus most of what he owed at the feed and seed in town. He had no choice but to accept the offer. Both men knew it. “Thanky, Mr. Milas. I reckon I’ll do thet, but only fer a year or two ’till I git on my feet ’gain.” Putting a limit on the arrangement, even if only in his mind, helped the proud man retain a measure of dignity. Sharecroppers were at the bottom rung of the agricultural ladder. All viewed them as failed farmers. The very term “sharecropper” came to be one of contempt. Yet the practice was widespread in Alabama and throughout most of the South. 5
“Course, I’ll previde th’ seed ’n’ fertilize ’n’ op’n up a line o’ credit fer y’u at th’ store. “Yu’ll plant thirty acres ’n cotton ’n’ ten ’n’ corn. I’ll tell y’u when t’ seed ’n’ when t’ lay by. Since y’u own th’ mule, we’ll go halvers when th’ crop comes en.” No discussion took place. The terms couldn’t be negotiated. If it was a good year, the fields would produce well and both landlord and tenant would end up with a modest amount of money. Sometimes the crops failed due to weather, insects, or other factors. A bad year, whatever its cause, would be attributed by the landlord to lack of diligence on the part of the tenant. So it proved to be in the case of Ruben and his family that fall. “Y’u, shou’d o’ werked harder at yore crops,” Milas accused. “If y’u’d ‘ov done whut I tole y’u, thing’s would’ve turnt out better. I’ll put what y’u owe at th’ store on yore account ’n’ y’u kin pay me next harvest.” Reuben didn’t dare attempt to defend himself. To antagonize Milas would be too risky. He could force him off the land or sell it to somebody else at any time. His situation could become even more desperate. With a series of such failures, the family might fall into debt that it would take years to pay. Economic slaves, they became only marginally better off than blacks had been in the old South. Over time, the crops would improve. Money would come in. Meanwhile, the value of the land gradually increased. Milas’ investment would pay handsomely. Sharecropping, even with its indignities, was far preferable to “going to the poorhouse.” The poorhouse was a tax-supported building. People who couldn’t support themselves were required to go there. It was less expensive than the welfare arrangement that replaced it in later decades. By no stretch of the imagination, was it a debtor’s prison. No matter how much a person might come to owe, as long as he could provide for his immediate needs, he didn’t go to the poorhouse. The poorhouse for Marshall County was located a short distance outside the Guntersville town limits at what was later called East Lake. For years, Mr. Swords was its operator. The facility eventually fell into disuse as times changed. Even decades later, people driving by pointed in its direction and spoke mockingly of the poorhouse. The location of the building and its associated cemetery are now covered with a massive chicken processing plant. Disgraced in life, the poor are disrespected in death. Milas’ financial success, however, made no difference in the daily life of his family. Vegetables came from the garden, milk from their cow, and meat from hogs and chickens. Folk medicine substituted for doctor’s visits. Work was hard and unremitting. Perpetually pregnant, suckling a baby, or both, Miranda did the cooking, kept house, and tended an extensive garden. She was generally exempt from fieldwork except during the harvest 6
when all gathered crops. Excuses, legitimate or not, weren’t accepted. Gathering crops took priority over all else. “Milas, one o’ th’ boys needs t’ break th’ garden spot,” Miranda requested each spring. A high fence, constructed of poles, fine-meshed chicken wire and barbed wire, enclosed the garden. It was an essential feature since livestock had free range of the community. Stock laws didn’t come into existence until long afterward. A neighbor’s cow could devastate a garden in a single night. Deer, rarely seen, were kept at low numbers as a free supply of meat. They were little threat to the garden.
The Essential Garden Fence The mule easily pulled the plow through the soft soil of Sand Mountain. The pleasant, earthy smell of newly turned dirt was like no other. Earthworms, abruptly thrown to the surface, wiggled to escape the drying sun. Fat, white grubs also were tossed up. Birds dove to enjoy the unexpected treats. “Gee.” “Haw.” “Git up.” “Whoa,” commanded the boy unlucky enough to have been assigned the difficult task. After laborious turning and backing required by the confined space, the job was complete.
Plowing Time It then became the task of Miranda, assisted by her two daughters, to seed and cultivate the plot. Some years were favorable for crops: long-bladed stalks of green corn arose; tassels and silks led to ears with starchy, white grains; butter beans broke through the soil to produce a tasty crop; turnip greens flourished in thickly-planted rows; pole beans ascended limbs cut from the woods; okra spread its wooly leaves and bore green pods; potato vines developed cracks in the soil which announced maturity of their tubers. In one corner, tomato vines produced their green fruits that turned a bright red when ripe.
Care of the garden included crushing beetles by hand, chasing out an occasional cottontail, and sprinkling dry snuff to smother smaller insects. A makeshift scarecrow was constructed from a pole, old hat, and discarded shirt. The ruse was only partially successful. At times, hungry birds perched atop it before they swooped for a stolen morsel. Mamie spotted a shiny, block crow that lit in a tree by the garden and eyed it hungrily. She chanted the country rhyme, “Caw, caw said the crow. Sure as I’m born, there’s a farmer plantin’ corn.” She smiled in satisfaction at having thought of it. Weeds were a constant problem. “Time’t hoe th’ garden, girls,” Miranda instructed late in the afternoon after other chores were done and the approach of evening promised a light breeze and cooler temperatures. “Put on yore bonnets.”
Cultivating the Garden Hoes, ready for use, leaned against the garden fence throughout the growing season. Rain and sun caused the handles to weather to a rough brown. Edges of blades were always shiny, the result of regular filing to sharpen them. Nothing was worse than a dull hoe. Each of the three took a hoe and began to chop the offending vegetation. Crab grass, cockleburs, and chickweed all fell before the determined onslaught. “B’ shore t’ git th’ roots,” Miranda reminded her daughters. “If y’u don’t they’ll come rought back.” With aching arms and sore hands, they put away the tools for use on another day. The weeding was done. The garden was clean. Gloves were unknown. Fluid-filled blisters weren’t especially painful unless the raised skin was broken. They then became “blood blisters” which would take days to heal. All too soon, the task would have to be repeated. Some years, the garden performed poorly. The spring had been unusually dry and hot. During the day, the corn blades twisted to conserve precious moisture. If the blades uncurled overnight, hope remained. When the twist lasted, the corn crop was lost. The tomato vines dropped their leaves and sagged to the ground. Too-small tomatoes rotted. The beans turned brown and failed to produce. Even the ground seemed to suffer as it dried and wide cracks opened. “Ain’t hit never gonna rain ‘gain, maw?” asked a younger child. The garden was parched. All knew that meals would be skimpy that year–smaller portions and less variety. Some food could be foraged from the woods. Mushrooms were a delicious treat, but occasional experiences of entire families dying after consuming the fungi gave pause. A favorite was the polkweed, sometimes called polk salad. Locally, it was always called “poke salat.” “Hit’s only fit t’ eat ’n th’ sprang when hit fust com’s up,” Miranda cautioned her daughters when they went out to gather some for supper. “Onst hit puts on blooms ’r’ berries, leave hit ‘lone less y’u want t’ git sick.” In fact, polkweed’s poisonous at every stage, especially the tempting-looking purple berries. Miranda had learned from her own mother to boil the young leaves and pour away the water a few times. That removed the poison. Then the leaves could be cooked in some bacon drippings and eaten.
Polk Salat Berries “Hit’s not very good, maw,” Bertha commented as she tasted a bit of the green concoction. Nevertheless, she continued to eat it. “Some like hit ’n’ some don’t. Hit don’t cost nothin’,” was her practical reply. “We got t’ make do.” During season, the family picked blackberries from their property. In the spring, about the time the blackberries bloomed, a cool spell might strike. When it did, all agreed that “blackberry winter” was upon them. During years when the cool snap didn’t coincide with the white blooms, the lower temperatures might be designated “dogwood winter. When the blooms faded, small, green berries that grew slowly and eventually turned bright red replaced them. When the red berries changed to purple, they were ripe and ready to pick. “We’se goin’ t’ pick berries today,” Bertha informed her younger siblings. None of them complained since they knew it would result in a delicious blackberry cobbler, their favorite dessert. Because of briars, redbugs, ticks and wasps, the children dressed appropriately for the task. Long sleeves weren’t pleasant in the heat, but they provided a degree of protection. They always carried along hoes because they served more than one purpose. Girls wore bonnets, but boys went bareheaded on the short expedition. Each child carried a metal syrup bucket. The wire handles made it easy to hold them securely. Nobody wanted to spill the berries after going to the effort to gather them. The best blackberry patch, the one they picked every year, lay about a hundred yards behind the barn. Over time, the thick vines had grown more than head-high. As usual, they were studded with berries, most ripe but others large, but still red. The pickers began at the edge of the patch where the vines were lower and the berries easier to reach. When those were gone, Albert used a hoe to beat down the prickly vines so as to produce a narrow trail. If he encountered a snake, the hoe became a weapon. The children worked their way into the heart of the patch, picking as they went. A particularly enticing cluster of berries lay just beyond Mamie’s reach, so she hooked her hoe around the vine and pulled it 10
closer. As they worked, the trail grew longer and convoluted, but they were well rewarded for their effort. The buckets filled rapidly with the ripe fruit. “Howard, yore eatin’ near as many as yore keeping,” Bertha chastised. Indeed, her younger brother’s bucket contained less than half the amount of the others. He grinned mischievously as he popped yet another blackberry into his mouth. “Keep thet up ’n I’ll tell Maw when we get back,” she threatened. An indulgent smile showed that the youngster needn’t take the threat too seriously. Scratched and covered with redbugs despite their precautions, the children returned to the house with the fruit of their labor. Miranda was already preparing the dough for the cobbler.
Chapter 2: The Weather Could Be Violent North Alabama weather might make sudden changes. The sky darkened. The west wind picked up. Trees began to bend in the gusts. An ominous yellowish cast developed in the clouds. Scattered, heavy drops of water plopped to the earth. The metallic smell of an approaching storm filled the air. The 1908 tornado that had devastated the nearby town of Albertville had instilled a deep fear of storms throughout the region. Without warning, on Friday about four p.m., it had descended from the southwest in its awesome fury. The downtown business section and all the churches were splintered. Only the rail depot survived its destructive power. Over forty acres in the small town lay in ruins. Eighteen people had been killed and more than 150 injured. Twenty more perished throughout north Alabama on that memorable day.
Tornado Struck Downtown Albertville “Take the injured to the agricultural school. We’ll make that into a hospital,” commanded young medical student B.C. Scarborough. Along with another medical intern, David Sibert, he supervised removal of desks from classrooms to make room for rows of bedsprings. Soon the makeshift facility was crowded with fifty victims of the storm. Screams and pleas arose from some. The most severely injured suffered in stoic silence. The stench of death was in the air. As word of the disaster spread, doctors from nearby Guntersville rushed to the scene. Trains from Gadsden arrived with doctors, nurses, and workers. Medical supplies and drugs arrived from Gadsden and Fort Payne. Alabama people believed in taking care of their own. Scarborough, who later practiced medicine in Albertville for many years, suggested, “The ones not hurt as bad need to go with their relatives and stay until they get well. We’ll remain here at the school with the others.” The two medical students tended the victims virtually around the clock. “They’s some stealin’ from th’ stores!” a teenager informed the chief of police. “Jest walkin’ ’n an’ takin’ whut they please.” 12
Captain John C. Coleman, commander of the Albertville National Guard, soon put an end to the pilfering. “Go downtown in uniforms and stand with rifles. Don’t shoot nobody ’less you got no choice. Just seeing you’ll likely keep ’em at bay.” The strategy worked. Assisted by men from the Gadsden Queen City Guards, the soldiers protected the property that remained from the tornado. Townspeople who survived thanked a beneficent God whom, they devoutly believed, had reached down from heaven to shield them. As they came to that conviction, they ignored the deaths of several children, including a newborn girl. The minister of the Main Street Church also perished. Otto, the town drunk, lived on. Such was thought to be the nature of Divine caprice. It wasn’t to be questioned or explained. Each survivor was convinced he’d been spared for some glorious purpose. All of them agreed on one thing. “Hit sounted jest like a freight train.” Eyes were wide with excitement during description of the frightening experience. In the absence of big trucks and planes, a train was the only analogy available. Without fail, listeners were awed. “Y’all head fer th’ storm pit, chillen,” Miranda ordered. She gazed warily toward the threatening sky. Albertville’s experience years before had made her intensely fearful. “A cyclone may b’ a comin’.” As if to confirm her prediction, scattered pieces of hail about the size of a dime pelted the ground. Each bounced a time or two before coming to rest. Brilliant bolts of lightning leaped from cloud-to-cloud. Some extended all the way to the ground. The deafening boom of thunder was almost immediate. Rain, whipped by the wind, fell in sheets. The family was safe inside the cramped underground room. The two oldest boys shut and barred the homemade door. The wind became a muffled, but steady roar. Rain lashed against the door so hard that a steady stream of water found its way down into the storm pit. The family crowded onto wooden benches on each side. Miranda made a futile attempt to keep her only pair of shoes out of the few inches of water that accumulated on the dirt floor. The children splashed their bare feet and worked the soft mud between their toes. A thick mass of spider webs tangled one corner. A warty toad hopped near the rear wall. The storm house was an exciting adventure for the younger children, all the more so when violent weather came at night.
Typical Rural Storm Pit “Rock of Ages, cleft for me. Let me hide myself in thee,” the children sang softly, not in fear, but because they knew it would comfort their mother. Youngsters didn’t take storms 13
seriously. That they might be killed was a remote possibility. Only babies and old people died. Miranda sat with her eyes shut and head bowed. Her lips moved as she prayed silently. Mamie took her mother’s rough, but warm, hand and held it tightly as she snuggled against her. Despite his wife’s urging, Milas declined to change his routine in the face of such danger. As things turned out, it was just as well. A life-threatening storm never hit their farm. The numerous trips to the storm pit had been useless. His safety, despite lack of caution, confirmed his life-long belief: “Whut ever ez t’ b’ will b’.” His destiny was fixed from birth and nothing could change it, he was firmly convinced. The storm gradually abated and all became quiet. Bright sunlight emerged as the clouds dissipated. When the family emerged, they had to step long to avoid the rushing water in the roadside ditch that lay immediately outside the storm pit. Everything felt and smelled fresh and new. In the sky, opposite the sun, appeared an arching rainbow with its glorious bands of color.
Rainbow Appears After the Storm Passes “Look et thet, Maw,” Howard said as he stared toward the dazzling display. “Reckon thar’s really a pot o’ gold at hits end?” “Son, hit remin’s us thet God hez done promis’d thet no mo’ will He destroy th’ earth wif a flood. Hit wuz a promis’ made t’ Noe,” Miranda explained. Her simple faith was sincere. The family found an array of broken limbs from the more fragile pine trees. A clean aroma of pine filled the air. A thin carpet of green oak leaves lay in places in the yard. The hard-won garden, however, suffered a worse fate. Miranda sighed in resignation when she saw it. Corn stalks lay on the ground. Although they’d somehow manage to rise of their own accord almost to an erect position, the ears produced would be fewer and of lower quality. Only a halfdozen beanpoles still stood. The scarecrow was reduced to a bare stake; its garments vanished into limbo. The fence lay flat on the side of the garden opposite the gate. If sufficient time remained before frost, Miranda would set out a late garden. If not, they’d make do with what the crippled garden was able to produce. There’d be less variety and smaller portions. “Milas, I’ll be needin’ th’ boys t’ mend th’ garden fence,” she stated to her spouse as he calmly leafed through some papers. He didn’t look up and only grunted in reply.
Chapter 3: Feeding, Tending and Slaughtering Hogs “Albert, git out thar an’ slop th’ hogs,” Milas commanded after supper each day. It was an assignment the oldest son enjoyed and would’ve performed without constant reminders. He knew that his paw didn’t believe him to have that much initiative. Albert frowned at his father’s lack of confidence in his trustworthiness. “I wish, jest one time, he’d wait t’ see ef I take care o’ hit,” he thought, but remained silent. Nobody sassed paw. The slop accumulated in a black, metal container with a handle composed of thick gauge wire. At the top of the arc was a wooden spindle that prevented it from cutting into the hand of the one who carried it. The slop bucket was kept alongside the cook stove where it served as the repository of food scraps, peels, corncobs, and ruined food. Anyone who approached too closely was rewarded with a sour stench. Flies rose with a buzz whenever an addition was made to the malodorous concoction, but returned almost immediately to continue their frenzied feeding. Without screens, the only way to diminish the number of the pests was with a swatter called the “fly flap.” It was a tedious, futile task, so few bothered to try. Flies were a part of daily life. Nothing was wasted thanks to this primitive version of recycling. Garbage was turned into pork. The oldest boy trudged to the hog pen about a hundred feet from the house. Holding the slop bucket at his right side, Albert extended his left arm outward at an angle to balance the weight. The animals saw and smelled him coming. With hungry grunts they rushed eagerly to the wooden feeding trough in anticipation of a delicious feast. Partitions divided it into three sections, one for each pig. He made certain to pour an equal amount into each to minimize fighting. With greedy smacking and slurping, the hogs quickly devoured the foul-smelling fare. Their twisted tails twitched in enjoyment.
Hogs at the Feeding Trough One finished his share and attempted to root his neighbor away from the trough. Grunts, squeals, and bites erupted. “Stop thet,” Albert shouted. He grabbed a stout stick that he kept leaning against the fence for the purpose of enforcing order. He struck the miscreant a sharp blow on the end of his snout. “That’ll larn y’u t’ steal,” he said with satisfaction as the hog retreated, slinging its head in pain. A thin, red trail of blood oozed from its left nostril. 15
The feeding complete, friction subsided. The hogs, again best buddies, returned to root and coat themselves with the thick, black mud of their enclosure. Bare ground showed how thoroughly they’d consumed every scrap of vegetation in the pen. The hog-wire fence bulged outward all around where they’d shoved against it to reach additional weeds. A strand of barbed wire next to the ground deterred escape. The easy existence of the swine would come to an abrupt end in late autumn at some point after the first cold snap announced “hog killin’ weather.” Some months later, a chill was in the air. The time had come. Soon after sunrise, orders to mules, the clattering of wheels, voices of women and the shouts and laughter of children accompanied the arrival of visitors. They were expected, so Milas had all in readiness for the day’s activity. Neighbors from the nearest three farms congregated to help with hog killing. It was not only a necessary work to assure meat for the coming months, but a social occasion. Entire families came, although the hardest work fell to the men. The children had an exciting day of fun in store. The families had brought their wash pots to supplement the one owned by the Camp family. The men heaved them over the sides of the wagons and lugged them to the side of the house. The round, black containers would be used to heat water to scald the hogs. As when clothes were to be washed, fires were laid under the pots after they were filled with water from the spring. While they heated, two of the men attached a block-and-tackle to a strong limb on the old oak tree that sheltered the west side of the house. “Chillun git outsid’ ’n’ play. Y’all don’t b’ comin’ ’n’ th’ hous’. We’ll b’ fixin’ dinner ’n’ heer. Stay out o’ th’ way o’ th’ menfolk. They don’t need y’u gettin’ ‘round when they’s workin’ wif th’ hogs,” one of the mothers charged. Hog killing was a bloody, stinky mess, and extraordinarily hard work. It would be afternoon before the job would be completed. Such opportunities for group play were limited. They meant to take full advantage of it. “Hid’ ’n’ seek,” one of the boys called out. “Not hit,” he hurriedly added. To be “It” was the most undesirable position in the child’s game. That meant having to seek out and chase the others. That was considered to be less fun than hiding. Others quickly affirmed, “Not hit.” The children pointed their fingers at their comrade who was judged to have spoken last. “Yore hit,” they called out gleefully. “It” then took over direction of the game. “This here’s home,” he declared as he slapped his hand against a corner fence post well away from where the men were doing the hog killing. “No fair hidin’ anywheres ’round th’ scaldin’ pots.” “It” leaned against home base, covered his eyes with his hands, and began to count slowly. When he reach twenty, he called out, “Reddy ’er not, heer I com’.” 16
Most of the youngsters had blended into the surroundings. Any child not yet well hidden jumped behind the nearest available object. As “It” searched behind the smokehouse, a lanky girl with long, brown hair rushed from her hiding place inside a fig tree and made a mad dash for home base. “Hom’ free,” she cried out in triumph. That meant that she was exempt from consideration for being “It” in the next session and could relax as the present game continued. A boy jumped from behind a massive tree and attempted the same thing, but was spotted. “It” called out, “I spy Robert” as he pursued him. Laughing the whole time, Robert made a series of fast turns to avoid being tagged before reaching home base. This time, “It” was the victor. “Yore out,” he shouted as he touched the boy’s shoulder. Having been tagged, that youngster couldn’t play for the duration of that game session. Hide-n-seek continued until all had been found, or “It” tired of the play. “Olly, olly, oxen free,” “It” chanted to signal his playmates that the game was over and that they could safely emerge. Two of the boys decided to hunt doodle bugs. Their lairs could be found in dry, sandy soil where they looked like unsteady, miniature funnels. “Heer they air, unner th’ house,” one boy said as he pointed to dozens of depressions separated from each other by a few inches. The other boy inserted a straw into the bottom of the pit, twirled it, and chanted, “Doodle bug, doodle bug, com’ out o’ yore hole. Yore house ez on far ’n’ yore chillen will burn.”
Doodlebug Funnel When the ant lion larva moved, it was attributed to the charm. In fact the larva reacted as if an ant had fallen into its pit. By pulling away the sand, the doodlebug caused the victim to tumble into its devouring maw. If the boys were quick and determined enough to uncover the larva and to extract it from its pit, the insect would play dead as long as it perceived danger. If they’d known that the larvae would someday grow wings and fly, the fact would’ve astounded them. 17
While the children continued the day of play, far more pressing matters occupied the adults. The family’s principal meat supply for the months ahead must be prepared. Albert made an unnecessary visit to the outhouse when he saw a group of the men open the gate and enter the hog pen. One of them carried a butcher knife. As main caretaker of the three hogs, he didn’t want to see it when they were killed. He’d become fond of them, particularly the one with black patches on an otherwise white body. He’d named it Elmer. A bit of slop poured into their trough enticed the animals into a corner of their enclosure. The men pounced on one of the hogs and shouted encouragement to one another as they wrestled it to the ground. It squealed wildly, kicked its legs, and attempted to bite them, but it was no use. A burly man plunged the knife deep into the swine’s throat and made a savage slice. The men released the mortally wounded animal and jumped back to avoid being hit by its spouting blood. The hog continued to squeal, this time in pain. It ran until it became weak from blood loss, fell, struggled to its feet, and ran some more. Slowly, it collapsed and began to quiver. Then it lay still. The men laid it on a homemade table and admired their work.
The First Hog Has Been Killed With the block-and-tackle, the men raised the hog by its back feet. Before beginning the slaughter, they allowed time for any remaining blood to drain from the carcass. They then placed a large barrel underneath the suspended hog and partly filled it with hot water.
Hog Hoisted to be Prepared “Let hit down, boys,” Milas called out.
The hog soaked in the hot water for a few minutes. When they pulled it up, the men began to scrape away the bristly, but now loosened hair. Up and down the hog went. Scraping followed scraping. Despite the cool weather, the workers mopped sweat from their brows. “Water’s gettin’ too cool,” one of the workers observed. That resulted in more hot water being brought for the barrel. Others refilled the wash pots from the spring to have a continuous supply. Several scaldings were required. There must be no hair on the rind of the ham or bacon when it was cooked. The cleaning completed, the men removed the internal organs, cut up the hog, and commenced to prepare the meat. They sliced away the excess fat and then rubbed the surface with a mixture of salt, spice, and seasonings. The aroma only partly overcame the stench of the butchering process. Then it was time to kill the next hog and repeat the process. When the hardest work was over by the middle of the afternoon, it was time for the visiting families to go home. Except for a dinner break, all but the children had worked for several hours. A day of vigorous play, which would be remembered for a lifetime, left the youngsters happily exhausted and sleepy. “Afore y’u depart, com’ help y’r selves t’ som’ meat, fellers,” Milas called out. It wasn’t an act of generosity, but expected for all who’d taken part in the work. Milas would be repaid in kind when he assisted each of them. The parts that couldn’t well be preserved were always divided up. The families would enjoy fresh ribs for a few days, depending on the temperature. After the neighbors left, much work remained. Miranda and her older children took over. Milas made an occasional appearance to observe and supervise. Meat for sausage was sliced into strips and put into the manual sausage grinder along with fat. When it was ground, they added spices, peppers, and sage to taste. “Y’u thank thet’s ’nough sage?” Miranda asked. Milas took a pinch of the raw sausage and tasted it. “A speck mo’s needed,” he judged. Trichina worms and other dangers of eating raw pork were unknown. “Better git goin’ on renderin’ th’ lard,” he said when the sausage was done. Miranda placed piles of glistening, white fat into the wash pot to cook out the lard. The lard, stored in metal buckets, would be used throughout the year until next hog killing. It was used for soap making. Worse was its liberal use in cooking. Nobody knew the health risks of saturated fats and cholesterol. Strokes and heart attacks crippled many people and ended lives prematurely. 19
A by-product of lard rendering was crisp bits of fat called cracklings. They could be eaten while fresh and hot, but most were used to make cracklin’ bread. The cracklings were mixed with the batter when stirring up cornbread. With the brown and white cracklings, the hoecake was a delicious, though greasy, treat. When eaten with turnip greens, it was a particular favorite of rural people. The family hung hams and bacon from the joists of the smokehouse to cure. Because the bacon didn’t have bones, it was easy to cut off a hunk when it was needed during the year. It would then be sliced into individual strips called “rashers.” Ham was harder to manage.
Meat Hangs in Smokehouse “Git down thet biggest ham, Leamon,” Milas directed later in the year. “I’ll holt hit whilst y’u saw threw th’ bone. The unwashed hacksaw cut easily through the meat, but slowed, with a rasping sound, as it ground through the dense bone. The cured ham was a special treat to be enjoyed in small amounts and only on occasion. Timing was everything in hog killing. After the first hard frost, the temperature usually stayed low enough for the meat not to spoil. Occasionally, a prolonged warm spell meant loss of the precious food. When thoroughly cured, the meat wouldn’t ruin whatever the weather might do. Nobody wanted to kill hogs too soon. An accurate projection was simply impossible. It was one of the many uncertainties of rural life.
Chapter 4: Milking and Churning “Bertha, go milk th’ cow.” A sharp command was all Milas ever used with his children. He never considered asking if they felt well even if it were obvious that they didn’t. Fatigue, sickness, or even severe weather allowed no exception from necessary work. Each person on a farm must carry his share of responsibility for the family welfare. Bertha selected two metal pails, one large and one small. The smaller she half-filled with spring water from the bucket that stood on a shelf near the side door. The enamel dipper served as both scoop and communal drinking vessel for family and visitors. The larger bucket would hold the milk. She put on her white bonnet and headed toward the barn. She enticed the cow into the milking stall with a galvanized bucket of brown feed. It smelled sweet from the molasses mixed into it. As Ole Petunia, munched the feed, Bertha placed a sturdy wooden box at her side, near the udder. Before she began to milk, she splashed clear water on the udder and rubbed it vigorously with her hands. Intent on the feed, the cow didn’t seem to notice. The milk bucket in place, she used both hands to squeeze the teats. After a few seconds of delay, forceful streams of milk began to shoot downward. The rhythmic squirts were initially amplified as they struck the bottom and echoed in the empty pail. As the bucket filled, the sounds became muted.
Milking Time “Quit it,” Bertha directed as the cow flicked her tail to deter biting flies. The swing had narrowly missed the teenager’s head. She planted a sharp slap on the bovine’s flank. Startled, the cow moved forward. Only Bertha’s quick grab of the bucket prevented her foot from going inside. “You’d ’ave got me into hit, ole lady if you’d ’have ruint th’ milk.” Loss of the daily milk would’ve brought a tongue-lashing. Younger siblings would’ve gone lacking. “Y’u kin have yore calf now,” Bertha said, glad that the daily task was complete. She’d made certain to leave enough milk in the udder to placate the hungry calf. It’d been confined in the barn all day to ensure that it didn’t “steal” its mother’s milk. Bertha led the tan-colored cow to the pasture and returned to release the similarly marked calf. It dashed to its 21
mother and began to feed hungrily. White foam appeared around its mouth. Calf chow from the feed and seed store in town was a poor substitute for its natural food. The calf switched its tail from side to side, but paused to butt the udder when the milk flow momentarily slowed. Too hard a butt caused the cow to kick her hind foot angrily at her offspring. When the milk was gone, the cow and calf strolled into the pasture. They stopped to graze the best patches of grass. Both shook portions of their skins to scare away pesky flies, but it did little good. The pests settled back into place within seconds. The cow occasionally licked the calf with maternal care. Her rough tongue created damp, ruffled places in its coat.
Cow and Her Calf When she returned to the house, Bertha placed a white cloth over an enamel bucket, pushed it slightly inward at the center, and slowly poured the milk onto it. The liquid filtered through the cloth, but left a few specks of some unknown black material. Country people never heard of Pasteurization. If a cow became obviously sick, the milk was rejected as unsafe. Simple, commonsense precautions were usually sufficient. Few fell ill from contaminated milk. Bitterweed was a sturdy, green plant with yellow blooms that was the last food choice of a grazing cow. Since she removed competing weeds, it grew and spread vigorously to cover large parts of the pasture. If necessary, she would eat it, but the resulting pungent milk, while safe, was too unpalatable to use. That happened mainly in times of drought. Even then, it was often possible to change the cow to another pasture not so full of bitterweed. After a short while, the odious taste disappeared from the milk. Most of the time, however, the milk was fine. “Maw, I’m a goin’ t’ th’ sprang wif th’ milk so’s hit won’t git blinked,” Bertha called out. That description of ruined milk went back to the early 1600s, but was no longer used outside of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Bertha knew no other word to describe it. Rural folks didn’t have any means of refrigeration aside from the spring. Iceboxes existed, but required regular deliveries of heavy, square ice blocks. Only town dwellers enjoyed that luxury. Bertha poured the milk into a large glass jar and closed it with a heavy lid. Careful 22
to prevent an accident, she cradled the milk container next to her body and let the base rest on her bent left arm. Her destination was a small spring, about fifty feet from the house that bubbled from underneath sandstone boulders. The house had been built on that spot because of the spring. She placed the jar on a level spot on a rock. From a two-foot-deep water reservoir, she withdrew a similar jar with the remainder of the previous day’s milk. It wasn’t wasted, but taken into the house to add to the stock being accumulated to have enough to justify the time and trouble of making butter. Only the cream that rose to the top was used for that purpose. Into the spring went the current day’s milk. The coolness of the water would preserve it overnight. That was as long as necessary. A new supply would be forthcoming. To churn the butter was a task usually assigned to Mamie. Accumulated milk had to be utilized more quickly in summer than in the cooler months. It was an easy, but time-consuming and boring process.
Bertha and Mamie With the Churn “Mamie, better git a goin’ on th’ butter,” Miranda suggested. “Make shore all th’ milk has turned.” The second-oldest daughter tilted the containers slightly to be sure the milk had clabbered. She then brought the churn and dasher from the corner of the kitchen and set it with a thump in the floor beside the eating table. The churn was light tan ceramic with two blue lines encircling it for decoration. The circular lid had a hole in the center. Protruding through the opening was the upper part of the wooden handle of the dasher. At its base, the dasher had paddles in the form of a cross. It was called a “dasher” because it literally was dashed up and down in the cream. Careful not to make a messy spill, Mamie poured the cream into the churn. She inserted the dasher and slid the lid down from the top of the handle until it settled into place. A canebottomed chair, deeply sunk in the center from long use, provided seating. She began the process of churning the butter. “Up, down, up, down,” she repeated in keeping with the beat of the dasher.
The simple chant seemed to make the time pass more quickly. Too vigorous a chug caused a spray of milk to shoot out the center of the lid. The tepid liquid hit Mamie’s bare legs and ran down toward her feet. At length, the butterfat began to combine into yellow lumps of butter. Yet more churning was required. Lots more. “Maw, I reckon hit’s ready,” Mamie finally called out. Miranda took over from there. With a large wooden spoon, she removed the butter from the remaining liquid called “buttermilk.” She placed the butter into a wooden bowl and began to work it so as to remove as much water as possible. She, however, added water periodically until it worked out clear. After the addition of salt, she pressed the butter into a round, wooden butter mold. The solidified cake bore the impressed design of a flower from a corresponding form on the mold. Miranda took considerable pride in her butter. One churning produced two or three cakes. As with the milk, it was stored in the spring so it wouldn’t spoil.
The Butter Mold The family consumed some of the butter, but part of it she traded to the peddler who operated his business from a “rolling store.” The mobile merchant came by once a week. His horse-drawn wagon had a canvas top to protect the goods. Farm families made occasional trips to town for supplies they couldn’t produce. The rolling store provided welcome supplementary shopping. The ability to trade items was a bonus not available from town merchants. The peddler kept an icebox for perishable items like eggs, meat, and butter. He had cages to contain live chickens. Small purchases he put into a “poke,” or brown paper bag. The sack would be reused multiple times by the farm family. “I’m always glad t’ get yore, butter,” he said. “I git calls fer hit all th’ time.” Miranda smiled with satisfaction. She usually swapped for items the family needed, but occasionally received welcome cash that she could call her own. Over time, the small amounts accumulated enough to allow her to make some special purchase without feeling that she must ask Milas’ permission.
The Peddler’s Visit was Important
Chapter 5: Chickens and Eggs Country families always kept flocks of chickens. The fowls provided eggs and occasional meat to replace the usual pork. During the daytime, the birds had free run of the yard and surrounding grounds. They wandered at random as they pecked at seeds or insects and gulped small stones to provide the needed friction in their gizzards to enable them to grind up the hard items of their diet. “Kin I feed th’ chick’ns now, Paw?” Albert requested. The mildly disabled boy rushed to the corncrib and collected several cobs with dried grains attached. He liked the feel and smell of the corn as he rubbed it from the cob with the palm of his hand. Soon, he had a fistful of the seeds. They felt hard, clean, and cool. “Here, chicky, chicky,” he coaxed. Albert used a pitch higher than his normal voice. The chickens flocked in front of him in anticipation of a nutritious meal. He scattered the grains on the ground among the birds. They dashed in various directions as each sought to consume as much as it could. If two went for the same grain of corn, a hard peck moved the subordinate one aside. Only the rooster with golden-brown and white feathers and a large red comb commanded respect by all. The hens deferred to him as he stalked over to claim his rightful share.
Feeding the Chickens Damp chicken droppings made for unpleasant walking, especially for bare feet. “Don’t brang thet mess ’n th’ house, Howard,” Miranda ordered. “Clean yore feet. I won’t have them drappin’s on my floors.” The young boy sought out grass beyond the limits of the yard and rubbed away the offensive material as best he could. Only one adult rooster was a member of the flock. Although serving a vital role in raising chickens, the food he consumed made keeping more than one impractical. Another problem was that roosters fought one another relentlessly until one was killed or driven away. Shaking his large, red comb, and sporting sharp spurs on his legs, he strutted about in the yard. The lordly bird scratched and pecked the ground as did the hens, but accomplished the task with great dignity, as if he merely condescended to eat. Most of the time he kept apart from the hens. As if at a sudden whim, he raced toward one of them. Seeing him coming, she fled with a squawk, but the race was lost even before it 26
began. He mounted her, seized her smaller comb with his bill, lowered his body onto her back, shook for a few seconds, and his conjugal duty was fulfilled. The now-fertilized hen shook her ruffled feathers into place, flapped her wings a couple of times and returned to feeding. The rooster often crowed, as if in triumph at his conquest. Rarely, a hen attempted to crow. As an early English dictionary-maker remarked about a dog walking on its hind legs and a woman preaching, “it was not done well, but one was surprised to see it done at all.” The incongruous action alarmed superstitious country people as few things could.
I Hope Nobody Heard Me Crow When the matter was reported to Milas, he frowned, shook his head, and said, “I ain’t puttin’ up wif’ nothin’ like thet ’round heer.” He instructed one of the boys to do the necessary deed. Leamon cautiously approached the offender, axe in hand. When caught, the bird squawked loudly, but only for a few seconds. The hen boiled in a pot of water later in the day. Scientists later discovered that a hen sometimes has a bit of rudimentary testis. Under certain conditions the tissue begins to grow. The resulting hormone outflow begins to persuade her that “she” is a “he.” In those days nobody would’ve cared, even if such an explanation had existed. They knew what to do if a hen dared crow. “Ah whistlin’ girl ’n’ a crowin’ hen always com’ t’ some bad end,” repeated anyone who thought of the rhyme when either occasion arose. Behind the dwelling stood the chicken house. A plank building with a shed-type roof, it had a series of box-like hen nests lined with straw attached inside along the left wall. The nests weren’t for roosting, but for egg laying. When a hen produced an egg, she generally announced the feat by leaving the nest and cackling loudly for several minutes. Eggs were normally gathered only once a day. Miranda, or one of her daughters, checked each nest in the late afternoon. A given nest might contain a few eggs, or perhaps only one. If newly laid, the egg felt warm. The egg-gatherer transferred the smallish brown-shelled eggs to her apron which she folded and held carefully so as not to let any slip to the ground. Eggs were an important staple of a rural diet.
Eggs in Nest Most of the interior was occupied by rows of rough poles or boards mounted horizontally. These served as roosts. A thick layer of multicolored droppings littered the dirt floor. An ammonia-like stench pervaded. To clean out the chicken coop was one of the most odious farm chores. It was usually assigned to the youngest boy able to accomplish the smelly task.
Chickens About to Go to Roost Lacking receptors for night vision, chickens sought the roost as soon as evening light began to fade. Since they were blind in the dark, the precaution provided a measure of protection against predators. This feature of their behavior was the origin of the expression “Goin’ t’ bed wif’ th’ chick’ns” to describe humans who retire early. “Don’t ferget t’ go out thar ’n shet up th’ chicken coop afore plumb black dark,” Milas said to no one in particular. They’ll b’ goin’ t’ roost direckly.” A plank door and crude shutters over windows protected the fowls. Each could be secured in place by a “Georgia button.” That device consisted of a piece of wood with a nail through its center. When rotated behind a fastener, it provided security against animal intruders. For a neighbor to steal chickens was almost unknown on the mountain. “Only niggers’d do thet,” Milas averred when the possibility was suggested. He made the remark even though he’d only seen Negroes from a distance in the courthouse yard in Guntersville. He’d heard rumors of their criminal tendencies. Such reports were, to him, sufficient basis on which to form a judgment about the entire race. In fact, no blacks lived on Sand Mountain. Not a person would risk ostracism by selling or renting them land on the more arable plateau. They were equally unacceptable as sharecroppers. A handful lived in poverty at Guntersville in the valley. They were restricted to a small area on what was derisively called “Colored Hill.” The people occupied the lowest rung in 28
the social ladder. Descendants of pre-Civil War slaves, they had to accept whatever menial labor they could find. A few felt forced by conditions not of their creation and beyond their control to resort to robbery or other crimes to feed their families. Most lived quiet, honest lives of quiet desperation and eked out a living as best they could. A secure henhouse was an essential protection for the chickens against varmints. A fox or weasel that found an unprotected flock might destroy them all in a single raid. That was a crippling loss for a farm family. Chicks weren’t purchased, but hatched by hens at home. The farm family set aside eggs for the purpose. With the short life span of a chicken, there must be a continuous flow of replacements. A dozen eggs were normally placed under a setting hen. On occasion, thirteen chicks appeared. Double-yolk eggs were the explanation. More frequently, one or more of the eggs failed to develop a chick or the fledgling died soon after hatching.
Setting Hen Guards Her Eggs The mother hen paid careful attention to her chicks. At two-second intervals, she clucked to keep her brood under control. A different cluck, combined with lifted wings, brought them rushing underneath for protection. Anyone who approached her chicks could expect to be flogged and pecked. A mother hen was a formidable force.
Hen With Chicks Setting hens not given eggs to hatch sometimes rebelled. An occasional hen would “steal a nest” by laying eggs in some secret place outside the coop. Her treacherous action became known only when she emerged from hiding with a group of cheeping chicks following her.
Sometimes a hen that hadn’t hatched a brood began to emit clucks as if she had chicks to supervise. Even more important, she stopped laying eggs. Since she must be fed, but produced nothing, she was either “broke” from setting or killed. Breaking a setting hen could be difficult. “Go fetch me a dry shuck from th’ crib,” Miranda told Leamon. “Then ketch me thet thar settin’ hen.” The woman tied the shuck to the long tail feathers of the squawking bird and tossed her to the ground. As she fled in indignation, the shuck dragged along the ground. It created a rustle that caused the hen to flee in panic at a noise whose source she couldn’t identify. When tired, she stopped. Her next move caused the frightening sound to commence. Caught in a cycle, the hen ran until she lay on the ground and panted in exhaustion. Her eyes seemed to turn white every few seconds as she flicked her protective third eyelid. Miranda seldom expressed mirth. Somehow, the hen’s dilemma struck her as funny. She laughed anew each time the hen struggled to her feet and restarted the alarming rustle of the shuck. When the cruel, but necessary purging ended, Miranda untied the shuck, but still chuckled quietly. Such moments of fun were, for her, rare indeed.
Chapter 6: Washing Clothes and Making Soap Washday actually meant a day. Work began early and didn’t end until the middle of the afternoon. It was an arduous task that required family help, although the hardest work fell on Miranda. “Albert, Leamon. Build a far unner th’ warsh pot,” Miranda directed. “Hit’s time t’ git started on th’ clothes.” The boys trudged to the side yard where washing was done. The black wash pot was turned bottom up to keep it clean and to prevent rust. Thick rocks encircled a bed of ashes and charcoal from last week’s washday. On that base, they created a tepee of wood. At the bottom went a few pieces of pine kindling. The sticky resin made it easy to ignite. Progressively larger pieces of firewood they piled at an upward angle. When they judged that the amount was adequate, they set it ablaze. When the fire had burned down enough and began to produce intense heat, the two placed the heavy wash pot atop the rocks and filled it with water.
This Wash Pot Has Not Been Used for a Long Time While the boys worked, Bertha and Mamie moved the galvanized number two washtub from the back porch into the yard near the wash pot. Repeated trips from the spring were required to fill the rinsing tub. When movement of the water in the wash pot showed it was about to boil, it was time for the clothes. “Maw, hit’s ’bout ready,” Bertha called out. Miranda emerged from the house with the family’s laundry. She added soiled items, a few a time, to the hot water. With a heavy stick, white from long use, she stirred the laundry and let it soak. Farm work resulted in heavily soiled clothes. When they’d boiled long enough to loosen the encrusted soil, she used the stick to fish out the articles one at a time. If necessary, she beat them on a large rock to loosen any stubborn dirt. With her bare hands, she scrubbed them against the wooden rub board. It was difficult work. Skinned knuckles from striking its ridges resulted most every washday. She made no change of expression as the hot water reddened her hands. It was part of her lot in life. Complaint would change nothing. She then rinsed the soapy articles in the cool water of the washtub.
Rub board As the fire burned down, the older boys cautiously shoved more wood underneath. The fire popped and sparked. They had to be certain not to make ashes fly into the wash pot to dirty the clothes. When all the clothes were soaked, rubbed, and rinsed, it would be time to hang them out to dry. When the wash pot cooled sufficiently, the two boys awkwardly toted it to the porch and poured the still-warm water, bit at a time, onto its unpainted boards. Bertha and Mamie used homemade brooms to scrub the floor. Hot water was hard to come by–it couldn’t be wasted. The cold rinse water from the washtub then served to flush the lye soap from the porch. As the porch dried, it emitted an odor so strong that it could almost be tasted. The ground around the edges of the porch became soggy and slick. “Don’t track non’ o’ thet mud in th’ house,” Miranda cautioned as she hung the clothes out to dry. The boys returned the wash pot to its customary place in the yard. It seemed light with the water gone. The girls leaned the empty washtub against the wall on the porch. It would serve for weekly baths. The rub board they hung on a projecting peg. The clothesline was strung along posts at the rear of the house. That location was best to prevent road dust from passing wagons and horses from settling on the damp laundry. Wooden clothespins held the items in place on the wire line. The sunshine and light summer breeze took hours to do the job. In the winter, clothes might freeze before they dried. If so, laundry day might extend into a second day. When dry, the clothes were hard and stiff, but had a clean, refreshing aroma.
Clothesline Shirts, pants, aprons, underwear, sheets–everything in the laundry except rags–Miranda starched and ironed. She was fortunate enough to have two heavy, black, metal irons. On the top of each was the raised number six. She heated them on the top of the wooden cook stove. When the one she used became too cool, she returned it to reheat and ironed with its companion. Bertha sometimes helped, especially when the ironing continued into the next day.
The Iron Was Heavy and Hard to Use Lye soap was used on washday, for dishes, and for personal hygiene. Farm families made it themselves. Only two ingredients went into it: lard and lye. Lard was rendered and saved for the purpose at hog killing. The family dumped cool ashes from the fireplace and stove into a wooden hopper or bin outside. They were the source of lye.
Ashbin “Bin’s gittin’ purty full,” Milas remarked. “Mirandey, best git th’ soap a goin’.” He issued the decree and then moved on to other matters. The onerous task was her responsibility. “Mamie. Bertha. Y’u girls holp. I need t’ larn y’u how’t make soap anyways. One o’ these days y’all ’ill be gettin’ hitched.” The girls had helped their mother with the process many times, but repetition honed their skills. A time would come when they’d no longer have her guidance. The three poured bucket after bucket of water into the ashbin. When the liquid lye appeared, they siphoned it to mix with lard. They combined the two ingredients in the wash pot over an open fire. The right ratio of the caustic lye was essential. Too much caused the soap to burn the skin. Too little and the soap wouldn’t harden.
Making Lye Soap “I heered thet ef y’u drap a aig in, an’ jest th’ tip shows, y’u got hit right,” Mamie speculated. Miranda made no reply to the old wives tale. She knew by long practice when the concentration was correct. It was needless to waste an egg. “Keep th’ far a goin’ an’ keep stirrin’ wif th’ paddle. Tell Albert I sed fer him t’ keep y’u in wood.” The girls swung the wooden paddle back and forth and around in circles for hours. Their arms and hands ached. When the paddle stood straight up, the soap was deemed ready to be poured into metal pans where it would dry and harden. “How long’s hit gonna take?” Albert inquired. “We’s runnin’ short on soap ez tis. Y’u girls hurry’t up.” The process couldn’t be rushed. Two to four weeks were required, depending on conditions. If a family ran out of soap, a neighbor usually had some to barter. When the soap was ready, Miranda cut it into small bars for use. It was brown and, when dry, a bit crumbly. The soap emitted a pungent odor that could have been nauseating hadn’t she long ago become accustomed to it.
Bars of Lye Soap
Chapter 7: Growing and Gathering Cultivating the fields was mens’ work, but both sexes shared in the harvest. Milas planted corn mainly to serve as food for his animals. It was easier to cultivate and harvest than cotton, but less valuable. As the “roastin’ ears” reached maturity, the family gathered some for immediate use. His wife roasted them in the hot coals of the fireplace while still in the green shuck. Although ears of corn are now boiled in water or cooked in the microwave, people in Alabama still refer to corn on the cob by its original name. When the ears were done and opened, the eater pulled away the hot shuck and then had a mass of steaming silks to contend with. An occasional worm lay dead between the rows. Butter rubbed over the kernels, followed by a liberal sprinkle of salt improved the taste. Yellow corn was generally sweeter compared to the more bland taste of white corn. In either case, it was far better tasting if only a short time intervened between gathering and eating. Sugar quickly changed into starch. Toothless old people had no choice but to cut off the kernels with a knife. Younger people bit them directly from the cob. Some went from end-to-end, about four rows at a time. Other went all around one end like a beaver cuts a tree, and then progressed to the opposite end in circles. Whatever the technique, the result was a bare cob to be tossed into the slop bucket. Hogs would eat anything. One of the biggest perils of gathering roasting ears was a chance encounter with a packsaddle. That painful menace was the green larval form of an insect. A marking on its back that suggests a pack saddle was the origin of its name. Its color made it blend so well with the green blades of corn that it was easy to overlook. The larva’s projecting spines produce a violent sting. An encounter with one made the careless gatherer become far more cautious.
The Fearsome Pack Saddle In the fall, when the stalks and shucks turned brown and dry, and the main corn harvest came, packsaddles were gone. The gatherer need then fear mainly snakes, wasps, and yellow jackets. “Time t’ start gittin’ ’n th’ corn, boys,” Milas instructed in late October.
The boys hitched the mule to the wagon. It lurched through the cornfield as they pulled the dried ears and tossed them inside. They made loud clunks against the bare boards until the bottom was covered. Most of the crop would feed farm animals. A portion of it they took to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal. The small tub mills found in the taller, less populated part of the Appalachian Mountains farther north were unknown in Marshall County. The swift streams those type mills must have to operate weren’t often available. Leamon, accompanied by Howard, pulled the wagon to a stop in front of Baker’s Grist Mill. It was located alongside a stream that supplied the power for its grindstones. A dam backed up a small pond alongside the building. A leaky, wooden trough called a flume carried water to the top of a massive waterwheel. It creaked as it turned to generate the force needed to drive the belts and gears of the mill. The whole building had a pleasant, but dusty aroma of powdered corn.
Grist Mill “Paw wants this corn ground,” Leamon stated. The boys had already shelled the grains from the cobs. The miller poured the hard seed into a hopper that led to a chute. The corn fell into a hole in the center of the top millstone. Belts, pulleys, and gears rotated it above the stationary stone. A spout carried the ground corn into a container. No exchange of money took place. The owner of the gristmill collected his tithe to sell and sacked the remainder for the boys. The meal would be used throughout the year, mainly to make cornbread. “Y’all come back, boys, ’n’ tell Mile that I said howdy,” the miller called jovially as they loaded the sacks onto the wagon. Alabama was known as the “Cotton State” for good reason. As the principal crop, it was the main source of income for a farm family. North Alabama had been the location of few large antebellum plantations. Slaves weren’t affordable on the small farms. The family did the necessary fieldwork itself. Marshall County was one of the most densely populated rural areas in the Nation. Milas regularly examined the progress of his fields. “Bloom’s lookin’ purty good this yeer,” he reported to his wife. “We’s had ’nough rain so far. I jest holp hit keeps up.”
Various factors influenced success in cotton farming. Without enough rain, the bolls would be small and not much cotton would be produced. Irrigation didn’t exist on the mountain. Insects could damage the crop as could excessive rainfall or storms. Those factors were beyond control of the farm family. Chopping and hoeing cotton were the most important tasks in cultivation of the crop. It was customary to plant more seeds than could grow to maturity. The practice helped ensure a full stand. Bertha, hoe in hand, stood near the start of a long row. Because of the over planting, it was essential to thin the crop by chopping. At the same time, weeds that might sap the cotton were removed. The length of the rows and size of the field suggested a hopeless undertaking. Yet, along with the other family members, the laborious task would be accomplished. It always had. Bertha made a point of looking only at the immediate cluster of plants. The overall job was too monumental to contemplate. Hoeing the cotton took place several weeks later. No more cotton plants were to be cut down, but Johnson grass, Jimson weed, nut grass, cockleburs and unnamed additional weeds were destroyed. If a weed sprang up too close to a cotton plant to be removed with the hoe, it had to be pulled by hand. “Leamon, y’u cut down sum o’ th’ cotton back thar,” Milas complained to his second son. “Thet ain’t good farmin’. B’ more particular.” In due time, the hard, green bolls appeared, increased in size, and began to crack at the lines that marked them into sections. The slits gave glimpses of the firmly packed, damp-looking cotton. The plants were far taller than those seen after the advent of mechanical cotton pickers. On good rows, they were chest high. “Th’ cotton’s gwine t’ b’ reddy t’ pick ’n a few days,” Milas informed his family. “B’ shore yore pick sacks is reddy.”
Cotton Open and Ready to Pick Cotton sacks were one of the few items the Camp family usually purchased ready-made in town. They were constructed of rough, durable ducking material. A strap from the open end went around the neck and over the shoulder of the picker. A black, tar-like substance coated the 37
bottom of the sack so that it would withstand dragging over the sandy soil. Pick sacks could be made at home, but those rarely lasted more than a single season. A quality, store-bought pick sack would be used for years. Sacks came in various sizes in proportion to the picker. Men generally used longer sacks than women. A child’s sack might be only four feet long. Fluffy, light-looking cotton was deceptive. The sacks became very heavy when fully filled and well packed. They had to be dragged to the wagon to be weighed if the pickers were unable to carry them. When the crop was ready for harvest, work began as early as feasible and continued as late as light permitted. The start of work was delayed on mornings when heavy dew formed. Damp cotton was hard to handle. The weights were misleading because water was quite heavy. The shortened day might, during October, be compensated for by the “Harvest Moon.” The surprisingly bright illumination when the moon was full permitted additional picking after supper. Despite the diminished daylight of the autumn, the harvest moon made long days of picking possible. “We’s goin’ t’ start cotton pickin’ tomorrew,” Milas informed his family. Of course “we” didn’t include him, except as supervisor of the work. The next day the family was in the patch early, hard at work with the hot, exhausting job. The weeks-long process normally began in September. Schools didn’t start until after its completion. Hand picking was done either crouched over or on one’s knees. The picker had a choice of an aching back or sore knees.
He Chose to Lean Over to Pick
A Group with Sacks Filled Going to the Weighing Station Mamie stood and stretched. Two hours of intense picking put a goodly amount of cotton in her sack. A skilled gatherer, she used both hands at the same time. At each grab, she emptied the four or five compartments of the open boll. She turned around and lifted the sack. A couple of hard shakes put the cotton toward the closed end. To complain never entered her mind. Picking cotton was an essential part of life. She silently rubbed her burning knees. After a full day, her fingers became sore next to the cuticle from contact with the hard, sharp burrs. A bonnet and long sleeves protected her from serious sunburn. All family members who were old enough had to help with the harvest. If the cotton wasn’t in when the time came for school to start, Milas simply kept his children out until it was done. Even Miranda was expected to share in the picking. When she had an infant, she pulled it along with her on the pick sack. If it became fussy, she’d stop to breast-feed it. The partly filled sack made a comfortable seat. “Hesh lettle baby, now don’t y’u cry...” she sang to comfort the infant. Soon it slept peacefully on the sack as she pulled it down the long rows. “Bertha, holp me ketch up,” she requested when her oldest daughter got almost out of sight. To stay along together made for opportunity to talk. That way the time seemed to go faster. Bertha dragged her sack into her mother’s row and picked back to meet her. The two could then start again at the same point in the parallel rows. They’d stay together until the baby once more had to be tended. “Howard, go fetch th’ water bucket,” Miranda called to the youngster who had been playing around the cotton wagon. “Rat now. We’s ’bout to dry up ’n this heat.” The boy, too young to pick cotton effectively, sauntered to the house. He returned, struggling to carry a half-filled enamel bucket of spring water. The metal dipper served as a drinking vessel for them all. Rural families knew little of germs and the transmission of disease. “Thet shore iz good,” Leamon declared when he took a drink of the cool spring water. “Snake! Snake!” Miranda suddenly called out in alarm as she pointed in its direction and backed away a few feet. “Albert, run t’ th’ barn ’n’ fetch th’ hoe. It’s gwine t’ bite som’body. Hurry!” As the oldest boy raced to fetch the hoe, others in the family gathered around to watch the reptile. It had bands of red, black, and yellow. The king snake represented no danger. In fact, it often dined on other snakes. Nevertheless, it would die violently. Country people had a deep and abiding fear of snakes. Albert shortly rushed up with the hoe. 39
“Hear ’tis, maw,” he called out. “Want me t’ keel hit?” She wasn’t about to entrust the important task to him. Without a word, she snatched the hoe and began to chop at the hapless serpent. It made an attempt to slither away, but the first blow cut deeply into its smooth, dry skin. Blood oozed out. “Git th’ head, maw,” Mamie urged. The snake was quickly dispatched to the relief of all onlookers. “Take hit o’er t’ th’ road ’n’ thro’ hit en th’ ditch,” Miranda instructed. “But bewar’ ’cause hit don’t die ’till th’ sun sets. An’ hits mate mought com’ lookin’ fer vengeance.” Albert gingerly worked the limp snake around the blade of the hoe and did as told. He knew all too well how treacherous snakes could be. As Howard walked along with him, Albert used the occasion to educate his younger brother. “Hit wuz a snake thet fooled Eve ’n thet garden, warn’t hit? Thet’s how sly they is. Al’ays stay ’way from ‘em. Last week I seed a hoop snake. Hit tuk hits tail ’n hits mouth an’ rolled down th’ hill t’ward the creek. Hit wuz outter site afore I kud blink twiste.” Myths about snakes were widespread among rural people who should’ve known better. To them, snakes had slimy skin, milked cows, chased people, and one, the coach whip, might beat to death an unwary victim. To persuade them otherwise was impossible since they either claimed to have seen it happen, or knew somebody who had. Testimony of that type, however mistaken, couldn’t be refuted. “I on’st seed a glass snake.” Albert continued the error-filled education of his big-eyed smaller brother who hung on every word. “I slammed hit wif a stick ’n’ hit broke inta three pieces. Afore I kewd do no more, hit went back togither ’n’ off hit went fer th’ bushes.” About ten thirty, Miranda took her baby and went to the house to fix dinner. Alabama people always called the middle meal “dinner,” never lunch. The evening meal was designated “supper.” The family had started early and so ate only a light breakfast. They were hungry, tired, and thirsty. The mother fixed a meal mainly of simple vegetables. She also heated some lard in a black, iron skillet and fried several pieces of cured ham. Its aroma filled the kitchen and spilled over into the yard. Leftover cornbread would have to suffice. Fresh milk from the spring would quench their thirst. It was time to summon her family. Dinner,” she hollered loudly from the side yard. It was uncertain whether anyone in the cotton patch could hear her, so she accompanied the call with loud ringing of the dinner bell. Its repeated clangs quickly caught the attention of the weary workers. They left their pick sacks in the field and hurried to the house. After eating, the family rested for nearly an hour before returning to resume the all-important harvest. 40
Dinner Bell “I’d ’ave hired som’ pickers, if I cud ’ave fount any,” Milas remarked to his wife. “Wif’ all th’ crops comin’ ’n at th’ same time, help’s sca’ce at best.” Outside workers were paid a set rate by the pound gathered. They earned somewhat less if the crop owner furnished dinner. Since he’d located no helpers, the family had to do the harvest alone. How hard he’d tried, nobody but he knew. Milas found it hard to pay for work that could be done free. The mule pulled the wagon into the field to serve as a depository for cotton from full sacks. Weighing was done and a record kept of each person’s success. Milas usually performed this chore since he was the family head and considered himself to be best at ciphering and writing. A spirit of competition prevailed among the pickers. The best ones took intense pride in their abilities. In good cotton, most adults could pick 200 pounds. A few of the faster ones could gather 300 pounds. Sometimes a pleasant, unexpected discovery was made during cotton picking. A watermelon vine would “volunteer” somewhere in the cotton patch. Perhaps the seed had been dropped or blown to the location. At any rate, there it was, an elongated shell of green with yellow flecks. A thump produced a hollow sound that announced it as ripe. “Well, looky hear,” Albert said when he made the discovery near the end of the row he was picking. “This’ll taste powerf’l good middl’ o’ th’ afternoon.” Around three o’clock, the pickers gathered around to share the welcome bonus. Albert used his pocketknife to make a split down the length of the melon. It broke into two pieces with a ripping sound. The meat was bright red and heavily-studded with black seed. He divided the fruit into as many sections as people in the field. In the absence of utensils, each had to choose between holding his juicy slice by the rind and biting into it and breaking out hunks with unwashed fingers. Either option could be messy, but the sweet taste made up for any unpleasantness. The best part of the melon was the “heart” near the center. It had no seed and was the sweetest and juiciest. Below that was the section crowded with seed. Eaters took bites and spit out the hard, inedible seed. It was still good, but less so than the heart. 41
Toward the rind was the least desirable part of the melon. It wasn’t as ripe and not as sweet. It was also harder to get without spoons. Most of it was generally thrown away. One could hold only so much watermelon and Milas might appear at any time to chastize them for wasting time. “I’m a goin’ t’ weigh,” Mamie announced to nobody in particular. She’d packed her sack to the point that she couldn’t lift and carry it across her shoulder. She dragged it to the wagon parked in the shade of a giant elm tree near the road. It was important to keep the mule in the shade if possible as it might overheat. A mule was a valuable farm animal. Its sickness or loss would be a significant setback for a small farmer. “Kin y’u weigh me ’n, paw?” she requested. The scale, a metal balance, was suspended from a big limb of the elm tree. Milas attached the cotton sack to the bottom and moved a metal “P” weight along the arm. The device had both large and small weights. Mamie was a skilled picker so the larger weight was required. He slid the weight along the scale until it showed the correct pounds. Numbers on one side of the arm were for the heavier sacks. On the opposite side of the arm were numbers to indicate the weight of smaller sacks. Milas carefully deducted the weight of the sack itself. Accuracy was important for him to know when he had enough cotton for a bale.
Cotton Scale Mamie smiled when he announced the number of pounds. She’d done well and several hours of picking time remained. She was proud of her ability. Few men could match her. When he wasn’t weighing, Milas came by to supervise. Sometimes he picked large double handfuls of cotton to stuff into one of his younger children’s sack. Youngsters and the elderly picked less, according to size and ability. He inspected the row being picked by his eldest son. “Albert, ye’re leavin’ goose locks,” he charged. “Do better’n thet.” “Goose locks” were tufts of cotton a careless picker might leave in the bolls. Cotton must be picked clean. Every ounce was important to Milas. Money was involved. When the wagon was full, Milas drove it to the house. He had temporarily enclosed the front porch with tin to provide for dry storage of the crop before it was taken to the gin. The huge 42
pile of cotton made a marvelous place to play for younger children. Some even slept there on cool nights. The insulating property of the cotton made for a warm bed. Cotton gins are rarely seen today, but many operated in those days. It was no more than several miles to the nearest one. Farmers placed tall wooden sides onto the wagons so they’d contain more cotton without it falling out along the road. A border of white on the sides of the dirt roads leading to the gins showed that it wasn’t entirely successful. “Goin’ t’ th’ gin ’n th’ mornin’,” Milas told Leamon. “Y’u kin com’ ’long if y’u ker t’. A big grin showed that he did want to go. It was enjoyable in addition to providing exemption from cotton picking for most of the day. To accompany his father when he had an older brother was an unexpected treat. In truth, Milas was a bit embarrassed by Albert. No matter how much he cautioned him, the boy seldom remained quiet enough not to be noticed. “Iz yore boy a lettle tetched ’n th’ haid,” was an inquiry that Milas disliked hearing. He never knew quite what response to make. Deep down, he suspected his oldest son’s problems might be a manifestation of Divine displeasure with him. It was a discomforting thought. The trip to the gin began well before sunrise. The business observed a policy of first come, first served, so the loaded wagons had to line up, each to wait its turn. Milas hoped to get the ginning done in time to get back to oversee at least part of the day’s cotton picking. In the absence of the wagon, the cotton had to be piled on the ground. If it got dirty, its value was lessened. Also, it would have to be stuffed back into sacks to be weighed. Leamon lay atop the cotton in the back of the wagon as it bounced along the dirt road. In those days before electric lights, the sky was inky black and studded with brilliant stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible as a white band in the sky. He stared out into space, contemplating his place in the scheme of things. He never discussed such matters with his father. It would have been useless because Milas was concerned with only what was immediately before him. That the thousands of points of twinkling light represented planets and stars would have seemed irrelevant to him even if he had known it. “I seen a shootin’ star, paw,” he called out. Before he could get the remark out, the streak of light disappeared. Milas made no reply. He concentrated on driving in the dim starlight. Despite the early start, a large number of other wagons had already arrived. The line extended out of the gin yard and along the shoulder of the road. Although the gin hummed with activity, they were in for a long wait. To help pass the time, two men in the wagon directly in front of them were engaged in a game of checkers.
Waiting at the Gin “I’m red,” one called out as they set up the checkerboard. The game continued for only a few moves before he called out, “Y’u got a jump.” “Thanky,” the other player responded. He jumped his black checker over the red one and, with a satisfied grin, removed the captured piece from the board. “”Thanky back,” the other man returned as he jumped two of the black checkers of his inattentive opponent. He’d claimed them and in the process didn’t open any of his pieces for a counter jump. “King me,” exclaimed whichever man managed to reach the opposite side of the board with one of his checkers. The doubled checker then had the ability to move in any direction. The game continued until one man had captured all his opponent’s checkers. “Play ’gain,” the loser asked. Nobody liked to be defeated at checkers. “Stay wif th’ wagon, Leamon,” the patriarch declared. “I’ll go o’er thar ’n’ play som’ horseshoes. Nary a one o’ thet bunch kin whup me.” Two metal stakes extended two feet above the ground about forty feet apart. No pitching box of sand absorbed the impact of the horseshoes. It was only a temporary venue for use during the ginning season. When the next game began, Milas was included. Teams were of two men to a side. A coin flip determined that Joshua would go first.
Joshua About to Throw 44
Some horseshoes clanged against the stake. Others missed and came to rest on the ground around it. Occasionally, one struck the post, bounced off, and rolled end-over-end several feet away. “Got me uh leaner,” Joshua called. That meant a score of two points. The horseshoe rested at an angle against the stake, but didn’t encircle it. On his first throw, Milas got a ringer, receiving three points for encircling the stake. The game continued with one point being awarded to the player whose horseshoe was closest to the stake if nobody scored otherwise. “Thet’s twenty-one. I win,” Milas crowed. He took pride in his horseshoe throwing ability. As the game progressed, Leamon had pulled the mule and wagon forward as the gin employees emptied the loads ahead of his. At length, it was his turn. Milas returned to watch. The gin workers sucked the cotton from the wagon with a flexible duct so that it could be put through the ginning process to remove the seeds. The gin might do the work in exchange for the seed to be made into meal or oil. If the farmer wanted to keep the seed, he paid a set fee. “Jest keep th’ seed this tim’,” Milas instructed. The gin removed the seed, compacted the fluffy cotton, shaped it into a bale and covered it with brown burlap. Next came sale to a cotton buyer.
Bale of Cotton “Extry good cotton this yeer,” Milas remarked to Hawkins, the buyer. “Let’s see whut y’u got heer,” he responded. He pulled a knife from his left pocket and cut through the burlap covering to get a sample of the cotton. Hawkins worked the sample between his fingers to ascertain the quality and the length of the fibers. His discovery and the going market set the price. Milas knew him to be a fair man and accepted the offer. 45
After the two returned to the farm, Leamon took as long as he dared to change clothes and join his siblings in the cotton patch. Milas had to weigh up what had been picked during his absence. Since all the bolls don’t open at the same time, a field might be picked twice. A greatly reduced yield came the second time. Sometimes the bolls themselves were pulled, rather than the cotton being plucked from them. That harvest sold for much less. Yet, it was a reliable source of additional income. Every dollar counted.
Chapter 8: Birthing Babies Standards of responsible childrearing were far different in those days. Parents rarely discussed sexual matters with their children. Not infrequently, an adolescent girl was taken by surprise by her first menstrual period. “Maw, I’m hurt. I’m bleedin’,” Miranda’s first daughter cried out shortly after turning twelve years old. She wept in fear. “No, hit’s jest somethin’ about all girls,” she stated with a calm voice. “I’ll show y’u whut t’ do.” After the mother supplied the necessary assistance for her upset daughter, she gave no further explanation. In fact, Miranda had little information to share. So it’d been when she was a youth. To speak about such matters wasn’t fitting. Calves and piglets appeared regularly. The parent’s casual comment went, “Th’ cow fount a calf.” Unless they happened to witness a birth, the explanation went unquestioned by the children. Somehow, each ultimately learned the truth, often from older children. When the expectant mother of a family began to experience labor pangs, the youngsters were sent away to stay with relatives for the duration. No reason was given beyond a family visit. They weren’t told to expect a baby brother or sister upon their return. The older ones eventually figured it out. “Maw’s gonna have a baby,” Leamon whispered to the other children. They were in a wagon on the way to an uncle’s house. He knew that it’d been about two years since the birth of Leon. Howard was six years old. Leamon had noted his mother’s expanding waistline. After covert consultation with an older pal, he affirmed his maturing concept of human reproduction. No longer could he be deceived. The older girls knew that he was correct, but maintained an embarrassed silence. The younger children either ignored his conclusion or looked at him with pity for his ignorance. As with animals, the explanation had always been, “Yore maw fount a baby.” Miranda, in the manner of rural women, hadn’t consulted a doctor. She received no prenatal care, special diet, or precautions. Her life went on just as when she wasn’t pregnant. A granny midwife would assist with the delivery. “Milas, send fer Miz Parsons,” she urged. “Hit won’t be long.”
Grace Parsons Was an Experienced Midwife The woman came promptly. Milas retreated to the front porch to wait. Five births had been uneventful. On other pregnancies, the couple had produced a stillborn child and Edgar who died a few months after birth. The sounds he heard this time were unlike anything in his experience. Something was seriously wrong. Yet, he made no move to comfort his wife. Birthing babies was women’s work. Milas took out his pocketknife and began to whittle on a length of wood. A pile of chips accumulated on the porch in front of the swing. A neighbor drove by in his wagon. The two exchanged raised hands in silent greeting. “Oh, Lord, have mercy!” Miranda screamed in agony. The outcry was followed by moans of pain. The midwife tried to reassure her. The placenta had implanted across her cervix. Miranda was doomed. After a piercing scream, all fell silent within the house. Mrs Parsons stepped out onto the porch. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mile, but Miranda didn’t make hit. Nor did th’ baby.” Milas showed no emotion. “I thank y’u fer yore help, Grace.” The newly widowed man drove his horse and wagon to a neighbor who did carpenter work. “Jake, Mirandey died whil’ ’go,” he said. “I need y’u t’ make up a coffin.” The deal concluded, Milas drove the wagon to his brother’s house to pick up his motherless children. He gave no thought as to the best way to break the shocking news. Women sometimes died having babies. It was a part of life. When he called them to the wagon, he said bluntly, “Young uns, yore maw’s died.” He offered no assurances or comfort beyond, “It wuz jest her time t’ go.” The family climbed aboard for the trip home. For a bit there was only silence. The two younger children hadn’t comprehended the fearsome news. They began to laugh as they played with a shuck doll in the floor of the wagon. 48
“Stop thet, boys,” Bertha ordered. “ Ere y’u deef? Didn’t y’u heer whut paw sed?” The two girls sobbed as the wagon jolted along the dirt road toward their home. Nothing would ever be the same again and they knew it. The two older boys said nothing. Boys weren’t allowed to cry. Later in the day, women in the community came to help prepare Miranda and her baby for burial. They dressed and laid them out in the coffin in the front room. A black cloth covered the table on which it rested. One of the ladies periodically bathed the corpses’ faces and hands. The rural custom of “settin’ up” all night with the body was followed. The family didn’t sleep. Friends dropped by to tell good things they recalled about Miranda. Neighbors delivered food for the bereaved family. Because no embalming was done, burial took place at Rock Springs the next day. The funeral service lasted nearly an hour. Despite being September, the temperature was in the upper eighties. The church was almost unbearably hot due to the blazing sun on its tin roof. The pews were hand-constructed of bare wood. Their seats had no cushions and the backs angled a bit too much forward for comfort. Worn songbooks stood in racks on the backs of pews. The windows were raised, but no cooling breeze developed. A picture of what they imagined to be Jesus hung on the wall above the pulpit. The representation, rather than being a vigorous young man, was of a thin, weak looking person whose features, except for a beard, were more feminine than masculine. A nimbus, a circle of light, was around his head. The minister praised Miranda as a faithful wife and mother. He quoted at length from Proverbs Chapter thirty-one. That section of Scripture describes the characteristics of an ideal wife. “She wuz a fine Christian wom’n,” he said. “Even now she’s lookin’ down from heav’n. She’s seein’ us ez we com’ togither t’ honor her. Life eternal air herran.” Later, the parson offered an conflicting idea, “In th’ comin’ day of jedgment, our dear depart’d sister will rise from th’ grave ’long wif’ all th’ honored dead ’n Christ. Oh, what a glorious day that’ll be.” Nobody seemed to notice the blatant contradiction of his earlier statement. “Yet, thar air here ’mong us sinners who has yet t’ b’ saved. Ye sit thar smugly thinkin’ we don’t know who ye air, but God knoweth. Ye cannot deceive Him. Ye trod th’ broad road thet leadeth into destruc’un. Damnation ’n hell, whar th’ worm dieth not ’n’ th’ far air not quenched, lays afore ye. Repent whil’ there b’still time.”
Preacher Spews Attacks The minister’s voice became louder and more frenzied. Veins stood out on his forehead. His face reddened. He mopped sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief. Cries of “Amen” rose from the congregation. That the service was a funeral, and not a revival, seemed to be momentarily forgotten. The preacher closed the service with a long prayer. In a final act of tribute, all present filed directly alongside the open casket at the front of the church. Several women paused to weep. Burial took place in a hand–dug grave near the center of the cemetery. To each side of the site were tiny graves that contained Miranda’s two other babies. The just-born child was buried with her. For many years the site was marked only with a brown fieldstone. Bertha, as the oldest daughter, saw her duty and accepted it. She’d forego marriage to run the household for her widowed father and his children. She didn’t discuss her decision with Milas, but moved into the role the next day. Meals must be cooked, clothes must be washed, ironing was required, the house had to be kept clean. Life had to go on. Milas made no comment. If he mourned his departed wife, it remained private. As in the past he was often absent from home for hours. He wasn’t the one dead. Life had to go on. “How’s yore tradin’ comin’ ’long, paw?” Bertha asked. She’d functioned as housekeeper, cook, and caretaker of her siblings for slightly over a year and felt she had a right to be informed. “Bout ez usual.” Milas was a man of few words. He had never discussed his business with Miranda. It was certain that Bertha would learn nothing of his personal matters.
Chapter 9: A New Beginning The family didn’t get even the slightest hint of what was to come so that they could prepare themselves for a radical change in their lives. Thirteen months after his wife’s death, Milas pulled into the yard in his wagon. With him on the seat was a poorly dressed young woman. A lean girl of six years sat between them. “This here’s Belle. We got hitched down at th’ courthouse in Guntersville today” he announced to his astonished children. He’d waited the year that decency and rural custom demanded before remarrying. Milas was 44 years old; she estimated her age at the mid twenties. Belle didn’t know, and never learned, her exact age although she knew the month and day of her birth. “Yore older then y’u air good,” was the only reply her mother made when Belle questioned her on the subject. In a time of home births, no certificates were issued and no records were kept. The woman was only four years older than Bertha, though she appeared considerably older. Her dress, cut from feed sack material, was shabby and faded. She wore no shoes because she didn’t own a pair. A white bonnet covered her head. Its strings were tied in a loose bow under her chin. Her hands were tanned from long exposure to the sun. “This here’s her young un, Birdie Swearengin,” Milas continued. “Y’all make yore new maw welcome. Show her ’round th’ place.” Bertha and Mamie were rendered speechless. The older boys pretended indifference. The younger didn’t care and ran over to become acquainted with Birdie. It would be fun to have a new playmate about their age, even if she was a girl. “Com’on, Birdie. We’ll show y’u th’ hid’ out,” Howard invited. Leon jabbered with excitement as they dashed to the secret spot in the barn loft. Belle Swearengin was a widow of a few months. After her husband’s death from tuberculosis, she was left in dire poverty along with her daughter. The extended illness and death of her mate forced Belle to eke out a living as best she could. An ox was all she had to pull the plow, but she strove mightily to fulfill her husband’s sharecropper agreement. Winter was approaching and the little she’d earned wasn’t sufficient to carry her through until spring. She didn’t know what she was going to do. Milas had learned of her circumstances. About three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, he pulled into her yard. Belle sat on the edge of the front porch of her run-down dwelling. She watched his approach with interest, but said nothing until he spoke.
“Afternoon, Miz Belle,” he said with only a trace of a smile. “Would y’u ker t’ speak a bit?” He didn’t introduce himself and they’d never met, but Belle knew who he was. She had an idea what had brought him. “Why shore, Mr. Mile. Have a seat heer on th’ porch,” she invited. She gestured toward a cane-bottom chair. Since it was the only chair, she turned to face in his direction as he sat down. “No doubt y’u heered o’ th’ passin’ o’ my wife,” he commenced. “Hit’s left me in a consid’able bind, what wif som’ o’ th’ young’uns bein’ small.” “I heered ’bout hit an’ I’m powerful sorry. All sez yore wife wuz a fine woman,” she replied. Milas turned the conversation to the weather. The two then chatted idly about the approaching winter for several minutes. Not one to continue to waste words, Milas got to the point of his visit. “I’m in need of a wife an’ hit’s plain thet y’u air ’n want of a husband. If y’u think well of hit, I kin pick up a license this afternoon an’ we kin git hitched at Guntersville tomorrey,” he suggested. “I reckon thet will be fine, Mr. Mile,” she answered without hesitation, questions, or discussion. “Then I’ll com’ ’bout this time tomorrey,” he said as he rose to depart. That was all there was to it. Neither knew much about the other. “Love” wasn’t a consideration. It was an eminently practical arrangement for them both. No time or money need be wasted in an extended courtship. There’d be no honeymoon. At the courthouse, Belle was forced to sign with an “X” since she could neither read nor write. In later years, she learned to draw an approximation of her signature when it was necessary, but she had no idea of the individual letters making it up. Milas was quite a catch for her even if he was older and had five children. When she arrived at his house, all she brought with her were the clothes she wore and a small iron wash pot. An old one from her mother, its legs were about burned off from decades of use.
Belle’s Wash Pot in Use as Flower Container “Pleas’d t’ meet cha,” Belle said into the air as she avoided eye contact with any of Milas’ children. “We’ll git ’long fine, I’m shore.” Belle got down off the wagon and glanced at Milas’ offspring and then toward the small structure that was to be her home. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wouldn’t be easy, but she’d take one day at a time. Suppertime was coming up, so she’d start with that. Belle strode toward the front steps to exude an aura of confidence and to demonstrate that she was now in charge of the household. Belle eyed Bertha standing in the doorway with a rag in her hand. She quickened her pace and mounted the steps. Bertha stepped back so that she could enter. Belle clasped her hands in front of her to stop them from trembling. Despite the tension introduced into the home by the unexpected appearance of Belle, things went tolerably well for about two weeks. Bertha reverted to the role of oldest daughter. She and Mamie often discussed their stepmother, but never in her hearing. “I don’t know whut Paw seed ’n her,” Bertha confided to Mamie as they picked beans. “She’s ugly ez a mud fence.” The simile was untrue. In fact, Belle was of moderate good looks. With grooming and better clothes, she’d have been acknowledged as pretty in keeping with the meaning of her name. “Me neither,” Mamie agreed. “We shore don’t need her ’round heer.” Belle generally ignored the older boys and left their discipline and work assignments to her husband. Albert and Leamon accepted her presence without apparent resentment. Howard didn’t seem to know what to make of her. “Who’s thet ol’ hag?” he asked Leamon. His sisters had influenced him in his caustic view of Belle. Leamon only grunted in reply. He had no intention of trying to explain such delicate matters to his younger brother. Leon, because he was so young, received maternal care from Belle, much as she supplied it to her own daughter. She felt compassion for the motherless child. In time, he’d forget Miranda, she decided. Despite frequent urging, she couldn’t induce him to call her “maw.” Bertha made sure of that. “She ain’t yore maw ’n’ don’t y’u fergit hit,” Bertha whispered insistently to Leon when their stepmother wasn’t in hearing distance. “Call her Belle.” 53
In the rural way, Belle laced all vegetables with dollops of light brown bacon grease. She, however, cooked them down to a slimy, tasteless mush. The twang of too much salt only added to the misery. Country-cured ham she sliced unusually thin and then overcooked in a cast iron skillet with a little lard until it was hard and dry. Its aroma was enticing, but any attempt to cut it on a plate resulted in the meat either fragmenting or scooting off onto the tabletop. “Pick hit up ’n’ bite off a piece,” Mamie whispered to Howard. “Chew hit up reel good afore y’u swallow hit.” A confrontation between Bertha and Belle was inevitable. It didn’t come about cooking, but cleanliness. “Belle, I think hit’d b’ lots nicer if y’u’d warsh yore hands afore y’u make bread,” Bertha advised. Her stepmother had come directly from the garden to mix up the sticky dough. “Jest wait. I’ll tell yore paw ’bout this when he gits ’n,” Belle stormed. She couldn’t let such an affront to her authority go unchallenged. She knew Bertha didn’t like her, but she’d gone too far. That night, she heard Belle’s shrill voice as she made accusations, but Milas only listened. He wouldn’t impose himself into a dispute between two women. They could work it out for themselves. The next week, Bertha withdrew herself from what she regarded as an intolerable situation. She had no intention of being submissive to Belle. Two unrelated adult women in the same house would never work. “Thar ain’t no way I’m goin’ t’ let Belle mean-mouth me,” she said to Mamie. “Even wif all I’ve done, paw didn’t defend me t’ her. What else ez thar thet y’u can do?” Mamie asked. It was a reasonable inquiry. At that time, single women in an agriculture-based economy had few career options. To obtain and operate a farm without a husband had virtually no chance of success. Yet, farming was all Bertha knew. It might have been possible to move to a city and find employment, but to leave the area of her birth was totally out-of-character for Bertha. She had never in her life been more than ten miles from home. “I ’xpect Embry’ll still b’ willing t’ have me,” she replied. Bertha dismissed her suitor over a year previously, at her mother’s death, but they parted on cordial terms. He respected the sense of duty that she felt toward her younger brothers. He had found no serious prospects for marriage. After she sent him word, he quickly came calling. 54
Bertha followed her father into the yard as he prepared to make his daily rounds of his various properties. What she had to say was for him only. “Paw, I’ll not b’ hare when y’u git back t’day,” Bertha advised. “Me ’n’ Embry’s gitting hitched. “I jest wanted y’u t’ know so’s y’u don’t larn hit from Belle.” Milas was casually acquainted with Embry and hadn’t got along with him from the start. They disagreed on everything from farming practices to religion. A small, feisty man, Embry declined to cowtow to Milas in the manner that he’d come to expect. “White’s a wuthless varmit,” her father responded. He frowned and looked directly at his eldest daughter. “Don’t b’ comin’ t’ me fer help when he can’t make provision.” “Thar ain’t no way I’d never do thet, paw,” she replied quietly, but in a determined voice. “Me ’n’ Embry’ll make our own way.” Although she and her husband resided only a few miles away, it was over a decade before Bertha again set foot in her father’s home. Milas had suffered a minor stroke. “Y’all come ’n,” Belle invited when Bertha and Embry unexpectedly appeared at her door. “Yore paw’s ’n th’ bedroom. I allow he’ll be mighty glad to see you.” Traditional southern hospitality and family connections allowed no other sort of reception whatever differences they had. Such matters were set aside at times of sickness. Milas, too, received his daughter and her husband in a civil manner, but was more reserved than Belle. Beyond “Howdy, Embry,” he said nothing directly to him during the balance of the visit. No emotional reconciliation took place between father and daughter then or ever. Relations between the two couples continued strained throughout the remaining decades of their lives. The following spring, Mamie followed suit. Although she didn’t like her, she’d developed a tolerable relationship with Belle after Bertha was no longer around to goad her against her stepmother. But when tall, handsome Ude Gibson came courting, she too was wed. Years later, she confided to her daughter, Vada, “I married mainly t’ git away from Belle.” Little more than nine months after entering the Camp household, Belle presented Milas with the first of what would become, along with multiple miscarriages, four additional children: Ailene, Iduma, Jean, and Junior. Bertha and Mamie only distantly came to know their half-siblings. Within a short time, Albert married Mellie and began to cultivate a forty-acre farm. It was financed with money lent by his father at six percent interest.
Miranda’s three younger children weren’t of age to leave home. A family of “his,” “hers,” and “theirs,” functioned as well as could be expected. Little time existed for friction to develop. Daily activities, school, and especially work filled their lives Chapter 10: School Days Milas continued his previous pattern of trading and buying land, moving frequently, and accumulating money. He never became truly wealthy, but was a prosperous man for his time and location. Uneventful years passed. Milas saw value in education. Through the years, he’d wanted his children to attend school as long as it didn’t unduly take them from their work in the field. However, he left it to them to get there. They could then learn or not as they chose, but he intended to see that they got the opportunity. Schools of that time were far different from today. The boys always sat on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Punishments were immediate and for a variety of reasons. The teacher used a small, flat stick to hit the palms or knuckles of any student who didn’t listen, answered incorrectly, or misbehaved. More severe misconduct brought whacks of a paddle across the rear. As a punishment for talking during lessons, a boy might be forced to sit on the girls’ side or a girl on the boys’ side. It was a significant embarrassment. “Paw, th’ teach’r whopped me t’day ’n’ I warn’t doin’ nothin,’ complained a scholar when he reached home. The usual reaction was “No dou’t y’u needed hit. Heer’s ’nother un to go wif hit.” The parent took the complainer to the woodshed for more whacks. The punished child was in trouble, not the teacher. Although poorly paid, the teachers were generally respected and their decisions unquestioned by parents. Lessons were provided in spelling, math, and science. Emphasis on penmanship resulted in beautiful script. Slates with chalk were reusable and so substituted for costly paper and pencil. Homework was rarely given. Children had chores to do when they got home. Friday afternoon usually brought a spelling bee. Competing teams, often boys against girls, stood at opposite side of the room. Any student who misspelled a word had to sit down. Finally it got down to one on a side. Back and forth flew the words until one student emerged victorious. The only reward was praise from the teacher and admiration from peers. Only Albert had failed to learn. His schooling ended during Miranda’s lifetime. With increasing frustration and little comprehension, he attended through the third grade but never managed to read or write. Mathematics eluded his grasp.
He came to love western adventure novels, but had to depend upon someone else to read them to him. Howard recalled, “When I read to him from Zane Grey, his face showed intense excitement. It was real to him. Albert never got enough and would’ve listened for hours if I’d been willing.” “Mr. Camp,” the young teacher at the one-room school had explained, “Somethin’s not jest right wif’ Albert. I don’t know anythin’ I kin do t’ help.” “Special education” might have benefited him, but that was decades in the future. He had little prospect beyond a lifetime of manual labor. So it proved to be. As an adult, Albert developed a different explanation that spared him humiliation. He related it anytime he could get a family member to listen. “Paw made me drap outer school so’s he kould do fer th’ y’nger uns. I never got a chanct t’ get a education. Hit ain’t my fault. Hit ain’t fare.” Bertha and Mamie went through the sixth grade which adequately equipped them with the necessary skills of “readin’, ’ritin’, an’ ’thmetic.” Bertha inherited her father’s business ability. Mamie was a hard worker at home. She did a commendable job of rearing her three children, Beamon, Leston, and Vada, after Ude abandoned his family. As long as the family lived in the country and farmed, the day began shortly after dawn. The children “did the thangs,” as chores were described, attended school, and returned for more work around home. “Git on t’ school every day lest I tell y’u otherwise,” were Milas’ standing instructions. No school bus operated. Few country people had cars, but even those who did never considered driving children to school. Youngsters walked, hot or cold, rain, or shine. “September gales” presented wind and pouring rain to would-be scholars. These were from hurricanes that made their way into the Gulf of Mexico and weakened as they spread north over land. Nobody knew about such things in those days. Weather forecasting with radar, storm planes, and satellite images hadn’t even been imagined. The Almanac provided long-range forecasts about weather, but phrased them in such a manner as to be open to interpretation. People tended to remember the times it was correct and to forget its errors. A farmer might learn that when clouds appeared over his neighbor’s barn, it was likely to rain. As soon as one could see enough blue sky “to make kitten britches,” the rain was ending. When rain fell while the sun was shining, all agreed, “The devil’s beatin’ his wife.” That’s about as far as local weather knowledge went. 57
“Do we half t’ go t’ school t’day, paw?” Howard whined. “Hit’s raining som’thin’ fierce.” Heavy clouds made the day dark and gloomy. Rain rocketed to the earth, but at a sharp angle. Trees bent in response to the strong south wind. The roadbed was ankle deep in soft, slick mud. Ditches overflowed to leave only a narrow path in places. Low spots in the road were knee-deep in murky, brown water. A rain of “forty days and forty nights” seemed possible to the younger children. “Git on ’n’ don’t b’ late,” he responded. Leamon, Howard, Leon, and Birdie bundled up as best they could and trudged in the direction of school. Despite the harsh conditions, the two younger boys paused along the way to splash in puddles with their bare feet. They’d be soaked by the time they reached school, so it didn’t matter if they had a bit of fun. Leamon maintained a reserve of dignity in keeping with his role as the oldest brother still at home. Birdie was proud of her yellow dress and wanted to protect it. She tightly grasped Leamon’s hand to keep from slipping. “Why don’t you two cut it out?” Leamon asked his brothers. “You know paw wouldn’t like you to act up like that. Try to be civilized.” Leamon had begun to make a determined effort to avoid use of the country words and expressions of his upbringing. The southern mountain dialect had its roots in the Elizabethan period in England. The Anglo-Saxon origins of many people in north Alabama resulted in word choice and pronunciation that represented a more “pure” version of English. Yet it wasn’t “standard” English. Leamon meant to rise above his origins. In fact, as they matured, all in the family except Belle slowly abandoned much of the dialect. Heavy snow didn’t fall frequently in north Alabama, but when it did, schoolchildren faced an even harder challenge. Schools never dismissed because of weather. Slipping and sliding, off went Milas’ brood to school. “Hey, Leamon, looky here,” Howard called out mischievously. His older brother turned just in time to receive a wet snowball in his face. “Wait ‘till I get my hands on you. I’ll make you sorry.” “I ain’t afeared o’ you.” The younger boy ran ahead to stay out of range of his stronger brother. He saw no reason to invite retaliation by making himself too easily available.
As a girl, plus being Belle’s child, Birdie was usually exempt from any rough housing. She might tell on them, and then there’d be the devil to pay. They didn’t want to face Belle’s wrath. It was best to leave Birdie alone. The schoolhouse had four classrooms. The floors were plank and oiled rather than painted. Each room had a cloakroom at the back with an entrance at each end. In the past, boys had used one door and girls the other. That custom had fallen into disuse. The small room was where the children hung coats not needed on a particular day, as well as their syrup buckets that served as dinner pails. Pegs inserted into the cloakroom wall substituted for hooks. A shelf above the pegs was for storage of the dinner pails. A blackboard, with chalk tray, ran across the front of the room. Two outhouses stood well into the woods behind the school. One was for boys and the other for girls. Both reeked of excrement and urine.
The Schoolhouse Water was obtained from a hand-dug well in front of the school. It had a frame with a hinged top covering it. A roof provided additional protection. A windlass with rope was used to lower and raise the bucket. As one of the older boys, Leamon often drew the water. A pot-bellied wood stove stood in the center of each classroom for winter use. Firing them was the duty of each of the teachers. Neither janitor nor principal were provided. They arrived early enough to have a roaring fire going by the time the children appeared. With total lack of insulation and drafty windows, the heat was ineffective beyond about ten feet all around the stove. Children sitting too close to the stove burned up; those too far away froze. On really cold days, the water might freeze in the water bucket. The older boys kept wood brought in throughout the day. Whatever winter garments the children had, they often wore all day. “Hit’s cold ez a witches hart ’n heer,” Leon complained. “I wish somebody’d stoke up th’ far.” After several hours, the stoves glowed red, but it was too near the end of the school day to be of much benefit. Recess and lunchtime were favorite periods for the children. If the weather permitted, they remained outside. No school had playground equipment such as slides, seesaws, and monkey bars, but the youngsters had a fine time with improvised activities. With two grades to a room, the school went all the way through the eighth grade. Three of the teachers were men. The other, Miss Gunnels, was a thirty something spinster who had lived in the community all her life. 59
“Bless her heart, she’s so stuck on learning thet nobody kin stand her,” one lady in the community commented to another. The most horrible things could be said by one woman about another as long as the slander was preceded with the canceling expression, “Bless her heart.”
Miss Gunnels Teaching Her Students Miss Gunnels was discharged from her position that year. Although paid by the state of Alabama, she served at the pleasure of local trustees. These were drawn from the more prominent men in the community. As such, they reflected the values of rural mountain people. Miss Gunnels unfolded a note handed to her by the son of Burdo Buchanan, de facto chairman of the trustees. Despite its child-like printing, the message caused her to pale. Miss Gunnels had been summonsed to a meeting with the trustees after school that very day. Never in her ten years at the school had that happened. She believed she knew what they wanted. The four men gathered on the school porch shortly before dismissal. Burdo’s son spotted them. His grin and knowing look told the teacher that he had inside information. She saw him whisper something to one of his pals. They both laughed. As the children rushed out of the classroom, Miss Gunnels quickly touched up her hair, although there was little she could do as it was straight and fell loosely near her collar. Her plain blouse and skirt were clean; she wore neither stockings nor make-up. As the men entered the room, she straightened her shoulders. She was glad that she hadn’t let herself go like so many women in the community, but weighed little more than when she’d finished at the Albertville Agricultural School. Teachers of that period didn’t need a college degree. “Won’t you have a seat, gentlemen?” she invited. She gestured toward cane-bottom ladder chairs. The men sat down. Burdo shifted his feet toward the sides of the chair, cleared his throat, and glanced at his companions before proceeding. “Ruth, guess y’u know why we’s here,” he began. 60
“I have an idea,” she replied. She made eye contact with him and then with each member of the board of trust. Each dropped his eyes at her gaze. “Y’u been seen goin’ out wif’ thet drummer ’gain. Last Sattiday, y’all warnt back t’ yore place ’till atter ten. Thet ain’t settin’ a prop’r ’xampl’ fer our youn’ uns. I had my wif’ warn y’u ’bout hit last month. Seems y’u don’t ker whut we think.”
Burdo Accuses the Teacher “Mr. Buchanan, I’m an adult. What I do outside of school is no concern of yours.” Carefully enunciating each word, she spoke slowly and deliberately. Her eyes flashed with indignation. “We say ’tis, Miss Ruth,” another of the trustees asserted. He looked to his comrades for support. They nodded and grunted in agreement. One bit off a wad of tobacco and began to chew it. “Air y’u plannin’ t’ wed him?” Burdo demanded. “I may if he asks me.” A flush came to her cheeks. “Then you’ll b’ givin’ up yore job,” Burdo said with finality. “The men who teach here are all married. And so are you, Mr. Buchanan. And the rest of you trustees too. Have I not the same right?” “Married wimmin oughten t’ b’ workin’ ’way fr’m home,” Burdo declared. “Wif th’way y’u think, tis best y’u jest leave now. We all think thet. Ain’t thet right, boys.” The men murmured and nodded in agreement. The tobacco chewer spit in the direction of the stove.
“But the children. What will they do? There’s still two months left in the school term,” she protested. Burdo looked up. “My sister o’er ‘n Etowah County has a girl who needs a teachin’job. She kin take over.” “Oh, so that’s it,” Miss Gunnels almost whispered. On the way home, Leamon walked along with Gordie’s son. “What’s your paw doing at school today?” “He aims t’ git th’ teach’r fared,” the boy reported with a conspiratorial tone. “He sez he knows jest how t’ do hit.” Leamon reported the conversation to his father. “Paw, it just isn’t right. You ought to do something about it.” “Well, son, ef she can’t git ’long wif th’ trustees, I reckon it’s best she departs,” was all he said. Leamon liked the teacher. She had opened new ideas for him, even lent him some of her books, and worked with him after school. He discussed the injustice with John, a pal of his who lived on the Brock Place, about a mile from his home. “Something needs to be done about Burdo,” he confided. “You like Miss Gunnels too. Want to help me pay him back?” “I’d like t,’ but I don’t see much we kin do. Th’ word o’ th’ trustees a’ways stands.” “We can’t stop him from running her off, but we can throw a scare into him,” Leamon responded. “I have a plan.” The two boys searched in John’s barn until they found an empty syrup bucket. Leamon worked the handle loose from the sides, discarded it, and wiped a thick layer of dust from its interior. “This’ll do fine. See if you can get a length of string and some beeswax.” While John was hunting the items, Leamon picked up a nail and drove it through the center of the bottom of the syrup bucket. “Heer they ez,” John said. He handed the two items to his co-conspirator. “Whut y’u gwine t’ do wif ‘em?” “I’m making a dumb bull.” 62
Leamon inserted the string through the hole in the bottom of the syrup bucket. He then tied its end securely around the nail so it wouldn’t pull through and coated the string with the beeswax. When he gave a tentative pull along the string, the device emitted a horrible sound like a moan. “Man, thet’s relly somethin,’ John said in surprise. Although he’d never seen one before, Leamon had heard his paw describe how one was made. His success in its construction pleased him. The sound it produced was better than he’d imagined. Around midnight, the two boys slipped out of bed and met at the schoolhouse. Burdo lived in a frame house down a side road by the school. The half-moon supplied enough illumination that they could slip through the woods behind the school and work their way into position about fifty yards behind the man’s house. “This ought to be a good place,” Leamon said. He grinned in anticipation. Burdo was a superstitious man and poorly informed even in country matters. It should be easy to scare him. Leamon pulled his hand rapidly down the length of the string. The dumb bull produced a short moan. The next pull was slower and gave a louder, more prolonged, sound. By stopping and starting and varying the speed of the pull, he was able to create a frightening series of noises. “Look. They’s ’wake,” John whispered. The dim glow of a kerosene lamp from one of the windows showed that the ruse was working. Burdo opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch. “Whut’s thet there squaling? Hit goes like a wild anim’l o’ sum kind.” Leamon handed the device to John, who added his own variations to the voice of the dumb bull. Both boys struggled to stifle laughter. “Ma’be y’u better go down thar ’n’ check, Burdo,” his wife said as she joined him on the back porch. “I ain’t goin’ nowhars nigh sich a thang. Hit mought be a panther or even the dev’l hisself. Panther was a generic name for anything believed to be a large, dangerous member of the cat family. Rural lore had insisted on the existence of such creatures, although no one had actually seen one. They were objects of dread.
The boys continued to pull the dumb bull at intervals. The kerosene light went out. Moonlight showed two figures, one tall and one short, moving around near the house. “Hol’ hit shet. Push hit up reel good.” The sound of hammering commenced. The figures moved and after a short delay, the pounding sounds began once more. The activity continued on the opposite side of the house. Burdo gave muttered orders to his son that the tricksters couldn’t make out. “Hail. Got m’ finger,” Burdo said in anger and frustration. “I tol’ y’u t’ hol’ hit steady.” “Whut ’n’ th’ wurl’ y’u reckon they’s doin’?” John whispered. The boys waited until the banging stopped. All became quiet at Burdo’s house. They repeated the frightening noise at intervals for about twenty more minutes, but there was no further reaction. “I s‘pose we might as well go on home,” Leamon said. At school the next day, they learned that Burdo had closed and nailed the shutters all around his house. That afternoon, Leamon overheard him talking to a group of men playing dominoes at Simm’s Country Store. “Hit wuz horribl’ ez cud b.’ His voice quivered with fear. “I tho’ght shore we uns wuz don’ fer. Hit squall’d and wail’d ’n’ com’ rat up t’ th’ hous’ en scratch’d ’n’ tore agin’ th’ walls. I though’ shore et wuz gonna jump ’n’ one o’ th’ winders. We could a been kilt.” Leamon smiled with satisfaction. The trick had worked better than he’d dared hope. He’d never tell the truth about the incident and hoped that John wouldn’t. The situation wasn’t changed for the teacher, but Burdo didn’t go completely unpunished for his treachery. Miss Gunnels married a week after leaving the school. She and her husband moved to Birmingham. Few in the community knew or cared what became of her.
Chapter 11: Life Could Be Good When not working or in school, rural children enjoyed toys, games, and other childhood pleasures. Nothing they used was bought at the store. They had to make or improvise toys from what was available on the farm. Metal hoops used in play came from barrels or from worn-out buggy wheels. The child started it rolling and ran alongside with a stick to keep it moving in as straight a line as possible. Hoops tended to wobble, go to the side, or fall over, so considerable skill and determination was required. It was also great fun. Marbles was strictly a boys’ game. The spectacular marbles were of various colors: red, blue, green, swirled, and clear. The most treasured ones were the clear. Often a clear one served as the shooter, called the “toy.” “Here’s a good place t’ play,” Ollie declared to his companions. The neighbor boy scratched a circle with a diameter of about two feet into an area of level, bare dirt. It was the right kind of place–hard, not too sandy. Marbles wouldn’t roll in soft soil. The boys put in equal numbers of the spheres, bunched near the center.
Boys Playing Marbles A distance from the circle, Ollie made a straight mark on the ground and another a few feet from it. The boys gathered behind the second mark. “Whoever lands closest t’ th’ line gits t’ go fust,” Ollie declared. After each had made his toss, the order in which they’d play was established. Using his favorite toy, each boy thumped it with his thumb toward the marbles. If they were playing “keepers,” any knocked outside the circumference would become his. Playing “keepers” was often considered to be wrong and might even be forbidden by parents. “Funsies” meant each boy recovered his marbles at the end of the game. A boy could continue to shoot as 65
long as he knocked at least one marble outside the ring. If not, it became the turn of the next player. If a boy did particularly well with his toy, he came into a position to make a sly deal. “I’ll trade my toy fer ten o’ yore marbles,” he offered. Apparently believing the toy had special powers, some gullible boy might snap up the swap. “No fudgin’ ’lowed” warned any boy who saw that his competitor was coming too close to the edge of the circle when it was his time to shoot. Cheating wasn’t permitted. Another marble game involved the use of a “drop box.” A boy cut a circular hole slightly larger than a marble in the center of the lid of a cardboard cigar box. Inside the box, he placed a collection of marbles. “Want t’ drap ‘n my drap box?” a boy invited his comrades. He opened it to provide a tempting view of the colorful marbles, shut the lid, and held it steady and level for any takers. “Y’u git two fer one if hit goes ‘n.” The owner of the drop box usually came out ahead since most marbles didn’t fall inside. They became his property and remained in his drop box. That game was considered gambling, so not respectable, so it was played covertly, often in the boys’ toilet. The holder of the box kept it carefully concealed from the teachers. Otherwise they might confiscate it and notify his parents. Both boys and girls enjoyed playing with June Bugs. The large, green beetles appeared each summer. They were especially attracted to fig trees and blackberries. Easy to catch, they didn’t bite but pushed mightily with their heads to remove fingers holding them.
June Bug “I’ll hold hit whilst y’u tie a string ’round hits back leg,” a girl told her companion. “I’ll fly hit a while ’n’ then y’u kin.” With the string knotted at the base of its leg and a child holding the other end, the hapless June Bug could do nothing but fly in a circle with a buzzing sound. To the credit of the children, they released it after tiring of the game. A string by itself could serve as a plaything. It cost nothing, but provided hours of challenge and entertainment. 66
“Larn me how t’ make a crow’s foot,” Ailene asked her half-brother Leon. He had acquired the skill from Mamie. “Y’u do hit like this,” he commenced. He tied a knot to join the ends of the about a foot-and-a-half long string. On both sides, Leon placed one end over his thumb, across his palm, and over his little finger. Reaching across with his middle fingers, he pulled the string from the centers of his palms and over the fingers. After several more manipulations, he let the string slide off both thumbs at the same time. When he pulled his hands apart to tighten the string, the crow’s foot magically appeared. “Let me try,” Ailene demanded. It didn’t work for her. “Show me ’gain, but don’t go s’ fast this tim’. Leon repeated the procedure, but made sure to do it with enough speed that it was hard to follow. He wasn’t sure he wanted too many to know the secret. The ability to produce the pattern made him feel important. A more complicated string game produced a “Jacob’s Ladder.” It had so many steps that few other than Mamie herself were able to reliably produce the intricate design.
A Jacob’s Ladder Boys from the neighboring farm came by on hot Saturday afternoons. “Let’s go swim at th’ Jolley Mill Pond,” they invited Milas’s sons. The invitation was for boys only. Nobody had swimming suits. The Jolly Mill Pond had been the local swimming hole since the mill itself had gone out of operation years ago. A concrete dam and crumbling building with the remains of a water wheel were all that remained. It was well out of sight of the road. Overgrown bushes and trees provided the requisite privacy for the swimmers.
At the Swimming Hole 67
Some of the older boys had attached a heavy rope from a limb near the bank of the pond. It was an exciting place to swing and drop into the water with a splash. “I seen a cottonmouth jest now,” one of the boys warned his companions. “Better b’ war’.” “I ain’t worri’d,” another replied. “Ev’rybody knows thet snakes can’t bite unner water.” Taking comfort from the myth, the boys continued to swim and dive into the murky water of the pond. The splashing and shouting were the factors that provided protection by driving away the snakes. Nevertheless, their failure to be bitten perpetuated the false belief. Country children, and many adults, enjoyed fishing. Only the most basic equipment was needed. The pole was cut from river cane if available. If not, any thin, but relatively strong, limb could be pressed into service. Bait was procured locally. “I’ll dig th’ worms,” Howard volunteered, “while th’ rest of y’u gather up th’ poles. Down by the barn was his favorite spot for digging fishing worms. He repeatedly pushed the shovel into the soft soil and turned the dirt. Before the wiggling, slimy red worms could dig out of sight, he collected a bunch of them into a can with a little damp dirt. Cutting through the woods, they worked their way down to Slab Creek. In places it was easily possible to wade to the opposite side. The clear water at such shallow places made the bottom clearly visible. No fish were to be caught there. The spots sought by the children were the deeper ones, especially upstream from a fallen log. The water was murky and still. That’s where they snared the small bream that cooked up so nicely. “Don’t be hollering and stomping,” Leamon directed. “You’ll scare away the fish.” Nothing but dirt was visible in the bait can because the worms had gone to the bottom. To avoid suffocation, they must not dry out. Leamon dumped the can onto the ground. This revealed the tangled mass of worms. Each child pulled out a wiggling worm. He returned the worms and dirt to the can so they’d be ready when it was necessary to rebait the hooks. “Bait mine fer, me?” Iduma asked. “You know how. Do it yourself,” Leamon replied. “They’s so nasty. Leastwise, do th’ fust one fer me.” Beginning near one end, he forced the hook lengthwise through the center of the worm’s body for a short distance. A thick, yellowish fluid oozed from the point of entry. The barb emerged from the body wall. Leamon pushed the hooked part of the worm back from the point 68
and attempted to repeat the process. The worm stretched its body long and thin in a futile attempt to avoid the hook. A feast that could tempt only a fish soon concealed the hook. Leamon handed to pole to his sister. As inconspicuously as possible, he rinsed his soiled fingers in the creek. A rank stench remained despite his efforts. He wasn’t fond of baiting hooks either. Iduma raised her pole at a sharp angle so the line wouldn’t become entangled in the bushes that lined the creek. She slowly lowered the baited hook into a promising spot near the log. For a while nothing happened. “I feel a nibbl’,” she whispered. After a couple of tentative bites by the fish, it swallowed the bait along with the hook. Her line went tight. Iduma lifted her pole and pulled the small bream from the water. It shifted its muscular body from side to side, but escape was impossible. The young girl reached out to unhook the fish and transfer it to the stringer. “B’ware th’ fins,” Howard cautioned. The warning was well made. The fish extended its dorsal fin upward to expose its sharp spines. A careless fisherman could get a painful jab. “Start from th’ haid ‘n’ slide yore hand t’ push th’ fin down,” he recommended. The fish was soon on an improvised stringer, a piece of strong cord inserted into the mouth and underneath the gill cover. It allowed the fish to continue to take in oxygen while being unable to dart away. As the children caught more fish, they added them to the stringer until the youngsters judged that they had “a mess.” The term meant enough to feed the entire family one time. It was useless to catch more fish than could be used immediately since they had no way to preserve them. It was time to go home. Fish was a welcome supplement to their usual diet of pork and chicken.
Fishing on Slab Creek Everyone had caught some fish, although Leamon snared the most. He also caught an edible terrapin–a soft-shelled turtle. 69
“Stay ’way from hit. Ef hit bites y’u, hit won’t let go ’till hit thunders,” Albert declared. “Enny luck fishin’?” Belle asked Ailene as she entered the house. “We caught a big string o’ ’em ’n’ a terrapin, maw,” she answered with excitement. “Com” ’n’ see.” It was the job of the boys to clean the fish. They scaled them with a knife, slit them open, removed the internal organs, and cut off the heads. They also sliced off the head of the terrapin, allowed it to bleed, and removed as much edible meat as they could. It was a messy job, but they’d be well rewarded at suppertime. Belle also cooked up a mess of hush puppies. She combined cornmeal, flour, and onion. To that she added milk, eggs, and melted lard to form balls of the mixture that she dropped into hot grease. They sizzled as they sank, but when they turned brown and rose to the surface, they were done. The aroma, combined with the frying fish, was intoxicating to the hungry children. Even Milas came into the kitchen for a look.
Hush Puppies There were many pleasant days and happily remembered experiences for country families. In years to come, they would speak with fondness of “the good ole days.”
Chapter 12: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot Religion played a major role in the lives of Alabama people. Virtually all professed a belief in God. Churches, and activities related to them, were a main focus of country life. Most cemeteries were associated with a church, usually on the same grounds. Each had an established “decoration day.” It was a time to bring flowers for family graves and to visit with relatives whom one might not see except that one time a year. Milas and his family always went to decoration at Rock Springs. The Baptist Church there’s the oldest in the area, having been established in 1856. His father, mother, and first wife were buried there in addition to a number of cousins, siblings, nephews, and nieces. About a week before the decoration, the community gathered to clean the graveyard. Saturday afternoon, hoes and brush brooms in hand, they chopped away every trace of vegetation and then swept the burying ground. Only then did it look good enough for the decoration. People arrived early and stood in small groups in the graveyard, now a sea of freshly cut flowers. The occasion wasn’t used only to mourn the departed. “I ain’t seen y’u since dec’ration last yeer. How’re y’u doin’? Whar’s yore wife? How ’bout yore kids?” “How’s Cousin Bessie farin’? I heerd she wuz feelin’ poorly. I shore hope she’s improved.” “Did y’u see how Mary Lou ez dressed? I can’t believe she wore somethin’ like thet t’ decoration, can y’u?” “Y’all com’ t’ see us next time y’u pass our way. We’s most always at home.” “Did y’u see them flowers they put on Hirman’s grave? Seems they’d have more care fer him than thet.” “Gained a sight of weight since last year, ain’t y’u?” “Thet dress shore ez pretty. Did y’u make hit yoreself? I wish I kud sew like thet.” The Rock Spring decoration was always scheduled in the middle of the summer. That wasn’t always the most favorable time from the standpoint of comfort. “Maw, I’m ’bout to give out from this heat,” a small boy complained. “Can’t I set down sommers?” His shirt was stuck tightly to his skin from the accumulation of sweat. “Thar ain’t no whar to set. Jest stand hear b’ me. We’ll be goin’ bye and bye, soon as we see everybody.” 71
“Can’t I set there?” he persisted as he pointed to the flat top of a granite monument. “Ain’t y’u got no respect fer th’ dead? Never set on nobody’s tomb, nor walk on thar grave neither. Behave yore self ’r’ yore gonna b’ sorry when we git home.” Most of the markers were erect, brown stones from the fields. The better-made ones rose to a sharp point. Shallow lettering scratched into the surface provided basic information as to name, birth, and death. A few added sentiments such as “With Jesus,” “In Heaven,” “There Is No Death,” or the simple “RIP.” The smallest marker was a small, square stone with the inscription “negro slave.” It was said to be the grave of a slave child. That explained the unusual step of burying a black person in a cemetery for whites. Milas strolled among the graves while Belle chatted with her sister, Rachel. He glanced at the slave’s marker. “Thet jest ain’t fittin’, Milas,” an older, bearded man remarked. “Thet nigger ort eve’ now t’ b’ dug up ’n’ moved.” Milas made no reply to the cruel, bigoted remark. His mind was otherwise occupied. He strode toward the center of the graveyard and stood at the foot of his father’s grave. It read Wilton George Washington Columbus Camp and gave the date of birth as 1838 and death as 1910. The man had been a soldier in the Civil War. His multiple names paid homage to a long span in American history. Milas remembered him well, but not with fondness. Buried alongside him was his mother who had lived until 1917. A few feet away lay the grave of Miranda and her infant. Milas stood beside it, his head slightly bowed and his eyes closed. His thoughts were his own.
Milas Stands at Miranda’s Grave “Milas, I wesh y’u’d consider puttin’ a mo’ fittin’ marker on thet grave,” Belle suggested. “Thet pile o’ rocks looks terrible bad.” Her visit with Rachel concluded, she had walked up beside him. She attempted to slip her hand inside his, but he abruptly turned and walked briskly away without making a reply. Two years later, he erected a quality white, stone marker. 72
“I guess none o’ this uns family ez comin’. Hit’s jest too sad t’ see a grave bare like thet,” an older woman said. She removed a single red rose from her brother’s grave and placed it on the ground in front of the headstone. She stood silently for a moment and moved on. Not infrequently, the exact location of the nameless, rock-marked graves of babies had become uncertain. In those cases, families put flowers on a few of the smaller plots in the general area.
Graves of Babies Marked Only with Stones The fragile decorations would last but a single day in the scorching sun. Artificial flowers were yet to come. Still, they’d done their duty to honor the dead. It made them feel better.
Family Decorates an Isolated Grave Many of the families stayed to attend church services in the white-frame building across the road from the cemetery. Milas allowed that it was too hot and went home with his family when the crowd began to thin out. Visiting Rock Springs made him uncomfortable, but he felt obligated to attend the annual decoration.
The Meeting House When a traveling preacher arrived to set up a tent meeting, it was always exciting. Most of those men sincerely wanted to help people, but a few had other motives. Usually he represented no particular denomination. An open pasture was a preferred location. The Alf Teal place provided such a spot; it’d been used for that purpose many times over the years. The preacher and his crew arrived the day before he intended to commence services. The men staked 73
their large white tent and pulled it up into position. Underneath, they placed as many rows of folding chairs as they could squeeze into the limited space. A wooden platform, about a foot high, served as a pulpit. The preacher brought his own small band since music was an important part of the service.
Crowd Gathers for the Tent Meeting “Free. No admission charged,” read the banner erected near the road. Wagons, buggies, and horses began to arrive about an hour before the scheduled beginning of the service. Most were dressed casually, not in their “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes. They talked excitedly among themselves. Children ran and played in the pasture beyond the tent. Brother Roberts observed to one of his assistants, “Peopl’ seem t’ b’ freerer to except whut they needs from th’ Lawd ef they don’t half to worry how they dress ’r’ act.” The band struck up a lively tune, “Turkey in the Straw.” Then it switched to gospel music to set the right tone for what was to follow. All eyes were on Brother Roberts as he walked briskly to the front of the audience.
Brother Roberts “Brethren and Sistern, we’s heer t’ have a joyful time ez we praize the holy name o’ Jesus,” he shouted as he raised his hands toward heaven. A rapturous smile spread across his face. “Ain’t thet right good people?” The audience responded with cries of “amen” and clapping. Many of the ladies began to fan themselves with paper fans with thin wooden handles. They had pictures of Jesus or angels on one side and an advertisement for L.W. Bryant General Merchandise on the opposite.
Roberts delivered a long, impassioned prayer while the audience stood with their heads bowed and eyes shut. It ended, “Come, Lord Jesus, Amen.” The man began his sermon by describing his own conversion and calling to be an evangelist. He boasted that he’d brought salvation and assurance of a place in heaven to hundreds of sinners. True believers could expect tongue talking, healings, and other manifestations of the Holy Ghost. He claimed to have no set sermon, but to be led by the spirit to say the right things. Any who didn’t believe his utterances, he assured his audience, could expect eternal damnation. “Their wuz a rich man,” he continued. “He didn’t ker nothin’ fer th’ pore folk ere fer whut wuz right. One day he died ’n’ wuz carri’d off t’ b’ wif th’ de’vil t’ live in hellfar. Then he wish’d he’d bin more gener’us wif his money, but hit war too late.” He had laid the foundation for what was to follow. Although the tent revival had been advertised as “free,” he went on to tell how desperately money was needed to carry on his ministry. It was the first of several such appeals. By the end of the service, “love offerings” were virtually demanded. “The Lawd says that the tenth part’s hissin. Ef ye don’t give th’ tithe, ye air stealin’ from God. “Bring in the tenth, says He.” His assistants passed the collection plate for the first of several times. The evangelist either didn’t know or remained silent about context. The tithing arrangement was part of the Jewish Law to compensate the tribe of Levi for priestly services and because they didn’t receive an equal share of the Promised Land. Not a single Israelite sat in his tent that night. The service continued. As Brother Roberts begged for manifestation of the Holy Ghost, he suddenly began to shake and talk in a tongue. The gibberish was mixed in with his normal speech at several second intervals. The audience gasped at his demonstration of Divine gifts. He then lapsed into several sentences uttered in the unknown tongue. Older women bowed their heads and their lips moved as they prayed silently. The men reached for their money pouches. Healings didn’t start until the second night of the tent revival. It took that long for his assistants to arrange for shills. Two of them brought in a young man lying on a canvas stretcher and placed him on the ground in front of the preacher. “What’s yore name, son?” he asked. A tear ran down his cheek as he spoke. “Ets Jacob, Reverend,” he answered. His voice was barely audible. He reached up and clasped Robert’s outstretched hand. “Whut wud ye have th’ Lawd d’ fer ye tonight?” Roberts inquired. “Ask ‘n’ ye shall receive if only ye has faith.” 75
“I wuz throwed b’ my horse. Now I can’t walk no mor’. Help me ef y’u kin,” Jacob requested with a louder, but wavering voice. Some of the women in the audience began to sob. “Son, I can’t do nothin’ fer ye. I am jest a channel fer th’ power ’o’ th’ Lawd Jesus Christ. If ye believe, he kin heel ye.” “I do believe,” Jacob said with a stronger voice. Brother Roberts got on his knees beside the stricken man. He looked up toward heaven and began to pray. “Lawd, this here boy ez fill’d wif a demon of paralyses. I know ye kin do all things. Heal this man ’n the name o’ Jesus.” He placed the tips of his fingers on both hands against Jacob’s body and yelled, “Heal! Heal!” Jacob began to quiver and moan. At each repetition of the command to heal, he moved more violently and cried out louder. “I feel the spirit comin’ inter me. Thank ye, Lawd. Thank ye.” “Git up ’n’ walk,” Roberts ordered. Jacob made a couple of weak attempts to sit up. Roberts took his hand and helped him to his feet. “Show us ye bin healed, son,” he ordered. “Ye know ye kin do hit.” Jacob took a couple of unsteady steps, but reeled uncertainly. Suddenly he seemed to gain strength and commenced to pace back and forth in front of the audience and shout. “I been healed!” he yelled. “Hit’s a miracle. All these months I couldn’t walk ’n’ now I kin. Glory t’ th’ Lawd. Thank ye, Broth’r Roberts.” The audience began to cheer and clap. Cries of “Praise th’ Lawd” arose from various ones. The assistants led Jacob from the tent as he continued to testify as to his miraculous healing. Only when he was out of sight in the darkness, did one of them slip him the agreed-upon ten-dollar bill. “We’ll b’ nigh t’ Gadsden in two weeks,” the assistant whispered. “We kin use y’u ‘gain there ef y’u will.” The shill winked and nodded his head in agreement. Jacob waited until his girl friend, Sally, got healed of her grievous affliction. Off they went to enjoy the welcome windfall. If the devious action bothered them, the payment more than made up for any qualms of conscience. “Thet preacher’s crooked ez a dog’s hine leg,” Jacob stated. Sally grinned and squeezed his hand as she contemplated spending her newfound wealth. 76
The tent disappeared after five days. The contributions gradually declined until they no longer met Brother Roberts’ expectations. He’d “stripped the Egyptians” all he could. Soon, he’d have a new flock to serve. Various denominations operated in North Alabama. Chief among them were numerous branches of Baptist, Methodist, and several types of holiness churches. New churches were formed easily. If a group in an existing group decided they didn’t like some aspect of its doctrine or practice, they’d pull out, obtain a small building, and go into business. In most cases, no formal qualifications existed for ministers. The flock usually expected their leader to have experienced a “call” to preach. The congregation wanted to smell the brimstone and feel the fire of God’s wrath against sinners, themselves excepted of course. A few of the pastors couldn’t read or write effectively. Although the “official” religion of Milas’ family was Baptist, he didn’t forbid his children to attend meetings of other denominations. “All roads lead t’ th’ sam’ place,” he often assured them. On one occasion, this liberal view led to an educational experience for Albert. It was one he never tired of relating, even decades later. Joshua, a teenager about Albert’s age, began to insistently urge him to attend the Saturday services of his church. “We follow th’ Scriptures ’n a way tet nobody else does. The rest ez afeared t’ follow th’ true teaching’ o’ th’ Lord. Y’u should come’ ’n’ see fer yoreself. Yu’ll b’ glad y’u did.” For a time, Albert resisted the invitation. “They’s pore as Job’s turkey,” he thought. All his friends went to Mt. Olive, a far nicer church than the one Joshua attended. Finally, his resolve faded. “I reckon I’ll go wif y’u next time.” The shabby structure was located well off the road in a scope of pine trees. It’d once been a barn, but the group meeting there had improved it enough to function for religious services. Albert swallowed hard several times as he approached the building with his pal. He recalled mocking comments his brothers had made about the group. A nervous tick began to affect the muscles of his left eye. He took a deep breath and marched on. It was too late to back out. A crudely hand-lettered sign read “Church of God With Signs Following.” It listed the name of the pastor, Brother Milton Fergis, and the time of the Saturday meetings. Albert wasn’t able to make out more than a couple of words, but “Church” and “God” made him feel that it was going to be all right to go there. The interior of the ramshackle building showed an attempt to make it more suitable as a place of worship. The walls had been lightened with whitewash. The group had constructed a 77
stage raised about two feet above floor level. Hand-built benches, without backs, substituted for pews. Behind the stage, long and short two-by-fours had been fashioned into a representation of a cross. A podium stood for the preacher’s use. A small table with a wooden box atop was to the right of the stage. Four cracked, dirty windows on the south wall admitted light. Members of the congregation were already present when Albert arrived. The men had short hair, long-sleeved shirts, and Sunday-best pants. Some of the older ones had beards halfway down their chests. The women wore no jewelry and used no make-up. Dresses were floor-length, with sleeves to their wrists. The older ones had their hair arranged into simple buns on top of their heads. Younger girls had long hair that flowed down their backs. Several of the flock smiled and nodded as Albert passed. Their friendliness made him feel welcome. “Who’s thet grinnin’ like a mule eatin’ briars?” Albert asked as he looked toward a welldressed man standing near the stage. The man walked in his direction. “Hit’s th’ preacher,” the other boy whispered. “Watch whut y’u say.” “Welcome, son,” said Fergis effusively. “We’s so pleased t’ have ye wif us. We believe ’n ever’ word o’ th’ Bible. Do ye believe ’n th’ anointin’ o’ th’ holy ghost? Air ye saved?” Albert, unsure how he should reply, simply answered “Yes,” but without conviction. The meeting commenced with singing of a gospel song, “A Mighty Fortress.” It lacked musical accompaniment. Some of the flock sang badly off-key. Then came a fervent prayer by Fergis. The sermon itself initially sounded familiar to Albert. The minister spoke of the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ and the need for repentance for sin. He emphasized strict obedience to everything found in the Bible. As he proceeded, he lapsed into occasional sentences spoken in a tongue. An old sister near the back of the meeting room began to cry and speak incomprehensively in a frenzied manner. “Brang her o’ th’ front ’n’ let her testify fer th’ Lawd,” Fergis instructed. The woman stood on the stage and continued to speak in gibberish. As she grew increasingly excited, she began to swing both arms in wide circles. Abruptly, she stopped, commenced to cry harder, blew her nose, and returned to her seat. “Praize th’ Lawd fer yore faith ’n’ gifts, sister,” Fergis called out. The congregation responded with “Amens.” “Now, I want all ye, ’specially our youn’ visitor, t’ listen as I read from th’ Gospel o’ Mark,” the preacher said. A hush fell over the group. They knew what was coming.
“And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” The preacher stared up toward Heaven and appeared to be praying. The congregation sat in reverent silence. After about five minutes, he turned with a jerk toward the box resting on a table to his right. He yanked open the lid, thrust in his hand, and pulled out a three-foot long timber rattlesnake. The reptile twisted wildly in his hand, curled its tail around his arm, and moved its triangular head menacingly toward his face. Its forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth. Its lidless eyes showed vertical slits for pupils. Taken by surprise, Albert was stunned. Oh, how he hated and feared snakes. He wished with all his heart that he hadn’t let Joshua talk him into coming. Now that he was trapped without any easy way to escape. He briefly considered making a dash for the door, but didn’t want to risk people laughing at him. “They shall take up serpents ’n hit shall not hurt ’em,” Fergis paraphrased. He draped the snake around his neck as it continued to writhe. His display of belief emboldened a man in his early thirties to jump to his feet and call out loudly in an unknown tongue. He began to dance erratically, bringing first one knee and then the other, upward with a fast motion. He approached the stage. “Brother, air ye ’n th’ spirit?” Fergis demanded. “Do ye believe?” “I am, I do,” he affirmed. His eyes were glazed, his mouth partly open, and his breath came in hard gasps and sudden spurts. He reached the box and extracted a copper head. The man handled it with careless abandon. The snake attempted to escape his grasp, but didn’t bite. The believer continued to prance about and call out, partly in English and partly in unrecognizable sounds.
Snake Handler The lady, who had testified earlier, rushed forward and joined them on stage. She took a cottonmouth in one hand and a diamond-back rattler in the other. She, too, spoke in unknown words and began to jump up and down. She fell to the floor on her back, kicked her legs several times, and abruptly became still and silent. 79
Albert wondered if she’d died, but nobody in the congregation seemed to be concerned. The snakes she had held slithered across the stage, but Fergis quickly scooped them up and returned them to the box. He slapped the lid securely in place. “I ain’t gonna do thet. Nobody kin make me,” Albert whispered urgently to Joshua. “I purt ne’r druther die then t’ pick up a snake.” “Nobody’ll try t’ force y’u. Only them thet feel they’s anointed ever do hit. I ain’t never tried hit, but I may sometimes.” The service turned from the snakes to more familiar preaching. Albert began to relax somewhat, although he kept a wary eye on the box of serpents still at the front of the church. Toward the end of the service, Fergis again returned to the sixteenth chapter of Mark where he emphasized the drinking of poison. He produced a small bottle from his side pocket. “This here’s strychnine,” he asserted. “Ez long ez I has faith, hit can’t possibly hurt me.” The man removed the cap from the vial, placed it to his lips, and drank about half of its contents. He calmly restored the cap, returned the bottle to his pocket, and continued with his sermon. Fergis seemed to have no ill effects from the powerful poison. Albert wondered if it truly contained what the preacher had said, but thought it best to keep his thoughts to himself. The congregation sang a final song, “I’ll Fly Away.” The pastor concluded the service with a long prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Albert had enough. Never would he return to that church, he vowed silently. That type church wasn’t unique to Marshall County. Historians note that a Church of God minister by the name of George Hensley had, around 1900, introduced snake handling into the Pentecostal church headquartered at Cleveland, Tennessee. After a period of years, the sect had repudiated the practice. Hensley responded by establishing a separate church. He survived to 1955 when he was seventy years old. The man died the next day after being bitten by a snake at a church meeting in Florida. Authorities knew the circumstances, but listed the cause of his death as “suicide.” The minister had survived numerous other snakebites over the years. Snake handling churches in north Alabama didn’t recognize Hensley as their founder. On Sand Mountain, James Miller came to the same conclusions as Hensley, but appeared never to have heard of him. Miller was most active in the area around Scottsboro, but his followers spread his beliefs. The church in Marshall County traced its origins to his teachings. Neither man was aware that the verses in Mark on which they founded their ministries are known to be later additions to the Gospel. Modern translations note them as not having the authority of true Scripture. Yet, they are a part of the 1611 King James Translation that many illinformed people hold to be the “original” Bible. Such persons credulously believe that Jesus and his followers, nearly two thousand years ago, spoke in archaic English and that the 400-year-old translation is the very book that existed at that time. No argument can persuade them otherwise. 80
There have been a number of deaths from snake bites during religious services. Those cases are attributed to lack of faith or failure to follow the leading of the spirit. The church tends to be secretive, but it’s estimated that fewer than one hundred people have actually died over the years. Those bitten refuse medical treatment and depend on Divine power to save them. Even among fundamentalist religionists, snake handling is looked upon with disfavor. It tends to give credence to the idea that the South is filled with ignorant people. The practice is now illegal in Alabama and all other Southern states except West Virginia. There are few prosecutions.
Chapter 13: That Good Old Mountain Dew Marshall was one of many “dry” counties in Alabama. That meant that liquor sales were illegal. The coming and going of prohibition at the national level meant nothing locally. Church doctrine dictated law. “Dry” was, however, entirely a legal fiction. Whiskey in the form of “moonshine” was readily available. Many men, and a few women, enjoyed an occasional drink even though drunkenness was universally condemned. The whiskey must be produced and purchased covertly. Lawbreakers feared the preacher far more than they did the sheriff. Sunday sermons often brought a tirade. “Whiskey’s th’ drank o’ th’ dev’l. Mor’ families has been ruin’d by hit than anythin’ on airth. Them whet makes hit air sinners as ere them whut buys ’n’ dranks hit. Th’ lake o’ fare ’waits ’em. When ye air screamin’ ’n’ beggin’ fer mercy, Jesus ez jest gonna laugh ’n’ say sorry but I ne’er knowed ye. Ye air but a goat, fit only fer destruc’ion.” The minister made no distinction between moderate use of liquor and drunkenness. “Now, sum sez a lettle bit ain’t got no harm ’n hit. Thet’s a trap o’ Satan fer th’ unwary. Ef three drinks makes ye drunk, that means ye air one-third drunk when ye take jest one.” The exhorter ignored the first miracle of Jesus: water turned into wine. He was a fundamentalist who affirmed the earth to be flat since the scriptures spoke of its four corners. Every word in the Bible was literally true; nothing was symbolic. The children of Israel had come out of Egypt on the backs of actual eagles. Animals with seven heads and ten horns could be located if only one looked hard enough. Nevertheless, he’d assure those who asked that the Bible really meant grape juice when it spoke of wine. On a fishing trip, Preacher Johnson confided to a fellow pastor, “Thar’s sum thangs ’n th’ Bible I wish warn’t thar. Like th’ Lawd makin’ wine ’n’ Paul tellin’ Timothy t’ drink wine instead o’ water. They shore air hard t’ ’xplain.” The other minister nodded in agreement. On the occasions of anti drinking sermons, fervent “Amens” arose from the flock, but even some of the men making the affirmation shifted uneasily on the hard pews and ignored accusing glances and mates’ elbows punching their sides. The preacher should stand up for what was right, but he’d gone all the way into meddling. Perhaps a lesser amount in the collection plate would make him reconsider. The young son of a local bootlegger hid a grin as he listened to the sermon. He had inside information, but it had to remain secret. Again last week, Preacher Johnson had come calling at his home. The pastor’s visit had nothing to do with bringing a wayward man to repentance. “Uh, Silas, y’u know thet my wif’ has been doin’ poorly lately. I think maybe she has th’ grip or somethin’. Do y’u ‘pose y’u kud give me a lettle bit o’ that medicine y’u make? Y’u know th’ kind I mean.”
Silas knew well enough. Johnson was one of his regular customers, even if a nonpaying one. The preacher always spoke in terms of medicine. For him to pay for it wouldn’t be fitting. Folks might get the wrong idea. “Y’u must ’ave a lot o’ sickness at yore hous.’ This ez th’ secon’ jar this month ’n’ hits a week ’till Nov’mber starts.” Silas wanted the parson to realize he wasn’t being fooled, but it was best to do it in a way that signaled he was willing to go along with the man’s pretense.
Jug of Moonshine Leamon, Howard, and Leon liked to go rabbit hunting. They tramped a good distance into the woods and were about to cross a fast-running stream. Leon spotted something he hadn’t seen before. “Whut’s thet?” He pointed toward a collection of containers, some large and some small. One of them had a twisted copper pipe attached. Ashes showed that a fire had recently burned beneath one of the larger receptacles. “Probably Ole Man Purdy’s still,” Leamon answered. “Everybody knows he makes shine.” They were a considerable distance from the man’s cabin, but that was necessary since the characteristic smell of a still, when in operation, could carry a good distance if the wind was right. It needed to be far enough from his dwelling that he could deny its ownership if authorities happened to discover it. The stream provided the necessary water for cooling and condensing the vapor into alcohol. The thick trees and bushes provided the needed cover for his illegal operation. In all his years of operation, he’d never been raided a single time.
Mr. Purdy and his Brother Make a Run The moonshiner had little to fear from Sheriff Richards with whom he had a good working relationship. As long as the officer remained reasonable in his demands, payments were a legitimate cost of doing business. The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was another matter entirely. They functioned as a national police force that could cross state lines in search of illegal distilleries. They often went right into the home territory of the small businessmen. Even if they didn’t capture the moonshiner, they destroyed his expensive equipment. “Revenoo’rs” as they were called had little respect from anyone in the community. It was rarely possible to bribe them. Few wanted the law enforced that strictly. “We’d best git out fr’m heer afore he shows up,” Howard advised. He looked uneasily around the perimeter of the small clearing. It was too late. They’d been spotted. Mr. Purdy stepped from behind a bush, a long rifle in his left hand. Nearly six feet tall, he was powerfully built. A several-days growth of beard covered his face. He wore bib overalls and a blue, long-sleeve shirt. On his head was a straw hat. Rough, brown work shoes covered his feet. He scowled at them and shifted the gun to his right hand. “Whut y’u boys doin’ messin’ ’round wif my still?” the formidable man demanded. “We jest chanced up on it, Mr. Purdy. We don’t mean no harm,” Leamon explained. The encounter made him momentarily abandon the more correct English he’d learned at school. He looked at their smaller rifles, plus the accumulations of Spanish needles and cuckle burrs on their pants. “Rabbit huntin’ I see. Y’u boys git out fro’m heer ’n’ don’t b’ tellin’ nobody whut y’u seen.” “We won’t,” Leamon assured the man. “Let’s be on our way, fellows.” The boys kept their word. Moonshining was a long-established, semirespectable occupation in most of the South. The home distiller need fear being reported only by one of his competitors or a bitter enemy. 84
Sale of the product was from the whiskey-maker’s home. Most of them took intense pride in the quality of their product. It was impossible to advertise, so building a customer base depended almost entirely on word-of-mouth. Satisfied customers were his most valuable assets. A crudely lettered sign “Worms for Sale” sometimes helped identify a bootlegger’s house. He would, however, sell only to people with whom he felt comfortable. At the least, a referral was required. Complete strangers were far too risky. When made improperly, moonshine could be a dangerous, even deadly, drink. Wood alcohol, methanol, could be present. If so, it could act within hours to bring blindness or death. Lead poisoning from the solder used in making the still could build up over time to dangerous levels. Some people sincerely opposed any use of alcohol. Their viewpoint was often based on the destruction of lives and families brought by drunkenness. Others employed selective use of Bible verses, separated from context, to justify their conclusion. All such teetotalers desired that any use of alcohol should be prohibited and laws enforced. “Nary a drap has e’er pass’d my lips,” asserted Mrs. Rachel Thompson. She took the lead locally in trying to influence wives to persuade their husbands and sons not to drink. The idea that a woman might indulge was beyond her wildest imagination. “All y’u got t’ do,” she assured a young wife whose husband sat on the front porch in a drunken stupor, “ez lay th’ law down t’ him. “Tell him ef he ’xpects t’ consort wif y’u, he can’t touch ole hootch.” “Y’u reely think thet’ll wurk? He’s powerful fond o’ th’ stuff.” “My man ain’t had a sup in o’er twenty years and he wuz jest as hot fer th’ stuff as yores.” Mrs. Thompson was nearly at the end of menopause. She found immense relief from bottles of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. She recommended it with enthusiasm to any ladies of her acquaintance as a cure for “female complaints.”
Poster Advertising Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound 85
“I git hit at th’ drug stor’ in Albertville. As long as I take hit ever’ day, I feel a whol’ lot better. Hit’s got a secret ingredient what th’ doctors don’t want y’u t’ know ’bout. Hit’d cut ’n t’ thar bus’ness too much. Jest try hit ’n’ see fer yorself.” What she didn’t know was that the elixir contained eighteen percent alcohol. When feeling particularly ill-disposed, she felt the need for Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters. It was nearly half alcohol, far more than many whiskeys. Such patent medicines were also readily available from traveling medicine shows.
If It Didn’t Cure You, At Least You Didn’t Care “I’d nearly ez soon commit adult’ry as t’ take a drink o’ whiskey,” Mrs. Thompson had been heard to say on many occasions. She was a righteous person.
Chapter 14: Ice and Snow The following winter brought one of the infrequent ice storms to Marshall County. Even the old people allowed that it was the worst they’d ever seen. The storm began on a cloudy December day. The temperature hung within a degree of two of the freezing point. It was much colder aloft. The storm started innocently enough, with a slow drizzle. “Hit’s bankin’ up t’ snow. Mought commence enny time, Milas speculated. “Y’u boys go brang up som’ wood t’ add t’ th’ pile.” No weather forecaster provided warning of what was to come. The first evidence that an ice storm was impending was accumulation of silvery shells of ice on the limbs of bushes. The cold rain picked up in intensity. Although it fell in liquid form, it froze as it struck exposed surfaces. “Looks like we’s en fer hit,” Belle said. “Hit’s beginnin’ t’ slick over.” She’d slipped dangerously on the ice-covered stones that served for steps at the back porch. As the day wore on, the ice spread to all the trees as well as fences and remnants of crops in the fields. Under the growing weight, the limbs began to droop. With a loud snap, a limb from one of the elms in front of the house broke and crashed to the ground. It narrowly missed the edge of the porch. The popping and crashing became more frequent and continued the rest of the day and into the night. Entire tops broke from larger pine trees and they were stripped of their fragile limbs. Smaller trees leaned at sharp angles before the load became so great that they swaged completely to the ground. The temperature remained at the freezing point. The next morning, the family awoke to a scene of chaos. Silvery limbs lay everywhere. The family could reach the barn to tend to the animals only by pursuing a zigzag course around the fallen boughs. The broken top of a pine tree had crushed the corncrib. Even the road had become impassible from debris of the storm.
Ice Storm Broke Trees “Boys, git sum axes ’n’ clean up th’ road ’long our proppity,” Milas directed.
To maintain the roads was the country way. When a boy turned eighteen, he could choose between paying a road tax and working it out by keeping up the gravel and dirt lanes. Most boys had no realistic option. They worked. Clearing up after the ice storm wasn’t part of that arrangement. It was something they did simply because it needed doing. All the other families would do the same. A widow without sons nearby would find neighbor men coming to her assistance. Nobody expected females to work on the road. As they chopped the fallen limbs into manageable pieces and pulled them onto the shoulder of the road, the boys stopped to gaze at the surrounding forests. The rain had stopped. The sun had come out. Flashing sparkles of green, red, yellow, and blue came from the stillstanding trees. It was a fantastic sight. At wide intervals, more limbs, weakened from the heavy ice, continued to pop and crash, but, for the most part, the storm was over. Aside from the extra work of cleaning up, it had little affect on the family’s daily routine. Electric lines and phone lines didn’t fall because none existed. Among the town dwellers, it was a different story. Some of them remained out of what they’d come to regard as essential services for days or weeks. City living made people soft. Two weeks after the ice storm came one of the deep snows that typically occurred only once a winter. It began with scattered flakes, but increased in intensity as they day went along. The frozen soil was an idea base to allow for significant accumulation. The ground became white, but leaves and grass sticking up through the snow initially marred the beauty. By later afternoon about six inches had fallen, giving an otherworldly appearance to the familiar landscape. Ailene and Iduma ran about in the yard, shrieking with delight, as the rapidly falling snow stung their noses and faces. Each expiration produced mists of white from the moisture in their breath. “Watch me,” Iduma called out. “I’m gonna ketch a sno’flake wif my tongue.” By nightfall the family was gathered in front of the fireplace. Instead of experiencing the comfy warmth tradition attributes to fireplaces, they had to deal with harsh reality. Howard scooted his chair close and faced the fireplace. After about twenty minutes, the denim of his overalls felt hot to the touch. The metal brads that held the cloth together became blazing hot and burned his skin. His face and hands absorbed so much heat that he began to sweat. At the same time, a bitter cold embraced his back. He moved his chair farther from the fire and turned it sideways. He burned up on one side and froze on the other.
Most of the meager heat went up the chimney. The house was drafty and devoid of insulation. The temperature inside remained well below the freezing point except directly in front of the fireplace and immediately around the wood cook stove in the kitchen. The heating situation was worsened by the way the family gathered firewood. Seasoned wood that was thoroughly dried produced the most heat. Spring, summer, and fall were the busy seasons, so cutting firewood was relegated to late fall and winter, often on a last minute, as needed, basis. The result was green wood that was hard to ignite, popped furiously, and used much of the heat it produced to drive off its own moisture. That night Belle pulled the extra quits from storage and laid them on the beds. The children, as usual, slept three to a bed. The weight of the added quilts made it hard even to turn over. Once body heat dispelled the biter chill of the bed, the children had cocoons of warmth where they slept comfortably until morning. The sky was still cloudy at daybreak. Occasional showers of snow fell. Outside laid a thick blanket of white. The wash pot was a smooth, round lump, bushes were mounds of snow, and the woodpile had disappeared under a cloaking of uniformity so that not a stick could be seen. The roadway was covered, but it didn’t matter since nobody was out on such a day. The accumulation came almost to the level of the porches. Except for the outbuildings and tall trees, everything was a sea of unbroken white. “Go check on th’ anim’ls, boys,” Milas directed. “Make sure they’s got enuf hay. If not, throw sum down from th’ loft. Then see t’ th’ chick’ns. Spread out sum corn fer ’em in th’ coop. They can’t walk ’n this snow.” The boys rushed out to do their father’s bidding. They were eager to romp in the snow. After a few steps, they found that it wasn’t the fun they’d expected. The younger boys sank well below their knees. Even long-legged Leamon had difficulty walking in snow of that depth. Milas stepped onto the porch to observe. “Git sum shovels ’n’ dig paths,” he said. “This snow’ll b’ heer fer a while.” The snow was heavy and wet. By concerted effort they cleared paths wide enough to walk single file. The exposed, brown ground became muddy as it gathered heat from the sunshine. The sides of the paths were far higher than the general snowfall. It was useless to throw the snow very far from where it’d been removed. The needs of the farm animals met, the children could play. “Let’s build a sno’man,” Jean suggested. All thought it an excellent idea. Some lesser snows were dry and crumbly. They weren’t suitable for creating the large balls that went into the construction of a snowman. This one was just right. The snowman began as a compressed lump of snow about the size of a soft ball. Working two or three at a time, the 89
children rolled the ball about in the snow. It grew rapidly as it picked up layer after layer. They were careful to make it as round as possible. “This un’s big enuf fer th’ bottom,” Howard declared. “Let’s start on th’ middl’.” They repeated the same process as before, but stopped when the ball was slightly smaller than the first one. “We musn’t make it so big we can’t lift it,” Leamon cautioned. “Snow’s heavy.” Four of the children worked together to heave the ball atop the base. They packed extra snow where the balls met to hold them together and to give their creation a better waistline. A much smaller ball of snow made an admirable head. Two rocks dug from the ground of the path to the barn served as eyes when pressed firmly into the head. A short, brown stick became a nose. No hat was worn out enough to be placed on its head. Their father didn’t smoke, so no pipe could be thrust into the mouth. The snowman was complete. As they stood back and admired their work, the children agreed that they’d done an excellent job. “Birdie, fetch me ah bucket o’ thet snow ’n’ I’ll make us some sno’ cream,” Belle called out. She stood on the side porch holding an enamel bucket. “Be shore t’ git hit from a deep place thet’s not got trash ’n hit.” The recipe was a simple one. To the snow, Belle added cream from the cow’s milk, some white, granulated sugar, and drops of Watkins vanilla flavoring which she’d purchased from a traveling salesman. She stirred the ingredients and added snow as necessary, until it reached an icy consistency. All agreed that snow cream was one of the best things about winter. Confined to the area of the house and yard, family members had to entertain themselves as best they could. Milas and Belle pursued one of their favorite pastimes, playing dominoes. Milas had a set of double nines. Most sets went only to double sixes. He placed the black rectangles on the kitchen table with the spots down and slid them around until they were randomly assorted. The two each drew seven dominoes to start. He always went first. Only multiples of fives scored points. The end dominoes all around were the ones that were added to make the determination. An intricate design developed as the game progressed. Milas kept score on a paper from a brown sack. Although she had little formal education, playing the game had enabled Belle to learn to count and add quickly. Both were considered to be skilled players.
Patterns Appear as the Game Continues Milas laid down a five-blank. “Thet’s five fer me,” he said. On a brown paper sack that substituted for a note pad, he placed an “M” to the left and a “B” to the right. Beneath his initial, he placed a vertical mark to represent five points. Belle placed a double blank at a right angle to the matching end of his domino. “Then add five fer me,” she said. As the game went along, Milas eventually found that none of his dominoes matched available ends. He had to “go to the bone yard.” That meant drawing from the remaining dominoes until he found one he could play. The first player to use all his dominoes gained all the points of the remaining dominoes of the opponent. By the end of the game, each of them had earned a considerable score. Belle won about as often as Milas. He didn’t seem to mind. The snow cover slowly diminished over the following week until only patches remained in shaded spots. The snowman survived several days longer. It gradually shrank, became unbalanced, and fell. Life for the family returned to what was normal for the winter. No fieldwork needed to be done that time of year. In 1836, the State of Alabama had declared Christmas an official holiday. In rural Alabama, its observance had little in common with modern times. Christmas trees or decorations of homes were rare. Gifts were given to children, but were modest by today’s standards. A child might receive a stick of hard candy and a few nuts. The Santa Claus legend was known but he didn’t visit country children. Any gifts they might receive were attributed to their actual source.
Chapter 15: The Carnival Comes To Town When the warm months of summer returned, a traveling carnival set up on an empty lot near the edge of Albertville. It was a small operation with a handful of adult rides, three rides for small children, a series of game tents, and a couple of live shows.
The Carnival Comes to Town Its barkers, laborers, and performers resided in wretched conditions in shabby tents behind the row of rides. The carnival owner and his wife lived in relative luxury in a room at the King Hotel on the main street. “Paw ez gonna tak’ us t’ th’ fair Thursday night,” Belle informed the children. “Jest th’ littl’ uns can ride anythin’ ’n’ then only onst. Y’all kin all buy a bit o’ somethin’ t’ eat.” On the designated evening, the family squeezed into the wagon to travel the few miles to town. “Look at all th’ people gather’d in,” Leon exclaimed. “I never seen sich a crowd.” “Somethin’s cookin’,” Albert added. “Smells powerful good t’ me.” Iduma and Jean counted the few coins Milas provided to pay for a ride. They debated which one to enjoy. Among the unwholesome carnival foods, the favorites of the children were the garish colors of spun sugar known as cotton candy and salty, greasy popcorn. The hot dogs looked and smelled tempting, but their funds wouldn’t stretch that far. “Hit jest melts on yore tongue,” Leon said after he pulled away a large piece of pink cotton candy and stuffed it into his mouth. Coca-Cola was available at the carnival, but sales were slow. Few were willing to consume it with others watching. The drink had been developed in Atlanta in 1886. It originally contained coca leaves and cola nuts so that it had a tiny amount of cocaine. Cocaine was found in many foods and drinks of the time. The drug was sold as a harmless substitute for alcohol. At one point, Coke was marketed as a patent medicine capable of curing a variety of ailments. In the 92
early 1900s, the company quietly changed to coca leaves from which the cocaine had been removed. It was no longer promoted as a medicine, but as a refreshing drink. Still, the stigma was deeply implanted in Southern memory. Coke was often called “dope” and the delivery trucks termed “dope wagons.” Respectable people didn’t drink it–not openly anyway. Marshall County, in particular, had been scandalized by an incident at a local baseball game. One of the players was knocked out by a thrown bat. “Git me a Coca-Cola. I gotta have one now,” he demanded groggily when he began to regain consciousness. When the bottle was handed to him, he didn’t wait for anyone to locate an opener to remove the cap, but dashed its neck against a rock and greedily drank from the jagged container. He cut his upper lip so badly that blood ran down his chin and dropped onto his shirt. He didn’t seem to notice. “Look! He’s a dope fiend,” gasped various ones gathered around. They’d seen it with their own eyes. There could be no doubt. Word of the addictive nature of Coke spread quickly throughout the county. The myth persisted for decades. “Don’t y’u never let me see y’u drankin’ no Coca-Cola,” parents sternly warned their children. “There ain’t nothin’ good thet kin com’ from hit.” If any of the older children had money, they could play one of the various carnival games. The barkers promoted showy prizes of very little value as if they were rare treasures. When Albert spotted the milk bottle game, he was elated. Three bottles across the bottom supported two bottles above and one at the top.
Milk Bottle Game “Now, thar’s something’ I kin win at,” he told Howard. “Jest watch me.” “Step right up. Knock down all the bottles and y’u win your choice o’ one of these fine prizes,” called out the barker. “It’s so easy even yore granny can do hit.”
Albert paid the nickel charged for playing. He had extra money he’d earned at the gin. If all he had to do was knock down all the bottles, he was certain of a prize. It looked extremely easy. Farm work had given him a powerful arm. He flung the ball as hard as he could at the base of the pyramid. All the bottles toppled except one. Albert groaned in disappointment. “That’s all right m’ friend. Y’u almost did hit. Try hit ’gain. Only five cents, jest one nickel,” the barker coaxed. “Com’ over ’n’ watch, folks,” he added in hope of drawing a crowd. Albert dug into his pocket and extracted a V-nickel. He did no better than the first time. Under pressure from the carnival employee, he spent fifty cents before he gave up. He never suspected that one of the milk bottles was heavier than the others. By the way he stacked them, the operator could usually determine if the player would win. Only a direct hit on the weighted bottle would cause the stack to fall. The trick greatly increased his profit. As Albert turned to go, the operator reached over and patted him on the back. “Sorry, m’ friend. Better luck next time.” From chalk on his hand, he’d identified Albert as an easily deceived sucker so the other barkers would be able to spot him and know that he was a “mark” and easy to exploit. The brothers stood and watched the balloon and dart game. For the nickel charged, a player got three darts and won by popping a single one from the rows of colorful balloons. Occasionally, a dart would hit dead center and the winner would walk away with a small kewpie doll. The balloons were under inflated and the darts dulled. The dishonest tricks assured good income to the operator.
Pop the Balloons and Win a Prize When the carney spotted the uniform of the sheriff, he quickly switched the box of darts on the counter for one on the shelf below. They looked identical, but the ones in the second box were sharp. In case the sheriff was coming to check for honesty, he was ready. “Hey, sheriff,” he called loudly. “Com’ over ’n’ play on th’ house. Win a prize fer yore kids.”
The officer departed with three prizes. It was a small price to pay to avoid trouble and at the same time gain the confidence of the fairgoers. As soon as nobody was watching, the man swapped the new box of darts for the old. “Step right up. Win a prize,” he called anew. Business was brisk. Always popular was the freak show. “Two-headed pig.” “See the chicken with four legs.” “Siamese twin calves.” “The Man With Three Legs.” “All Genuine.” For all those wonders, and more, the charge was only 25 cents. What the carnival didn’t reveal was that all the freaks except the man, while once alive, were now stuffed. Animals with such serious defects didn’t live long. The young man with three legs sat on a stool with a low barrier all around to keep the visitors at a comfortable distance. He smiled and nodded as people approached, but said nothing unless somebody took the initiative. Then he’d cheerfully explain about his condition, as he understood it.
Man With Three Legs “The doctors say I have parts of the body of my twin brother that attached before we was born. Right here’s a lump that’s his body.” He laid his hand atop a distinct bulge near his waist. “This leg at the back’s his,” he continued. “We was supposed to be Siamese twins, but he didn’t develop all the way.” The third leg extended almost level from near his buttocks. It had an extension of the man’s pants down to its knee and dark socks below that. On its undersize foot was a boy’s shoe of the same style and color as the other two. The man demonstrated that he was able to cause the leg to jump upward a short distance. It looked nothing like the painting out front that showed him running with three full-size legs on the ground. Nevertheless, onlookers were duly impressed and took a liking to the personable young man. “I feel sorter bad comin’ ’n heer ’n’ lookin’ at y’u like this,” apologized a middle-aged woman. “I hope hit don’t embarrass y’u. I’ve got a son yore age.” 95
“Not a bit,” he replied, accompanied by a smile. “It’s the way I make a living. I’ve traveled with one carnival or another most of my life. You’re helping me by buying a ticket. My only worry is that people might quit coming. It’d be hard for me to hold a regular job.” His presence and demeanor blunted any criticism the fairgoers might have had of the collection of dead animals. “Well, hit didn’t say the freaks wuz alive, but thet they was genuine,” one customer admitted to another as they filed out of the tent. “I got my money’s wurth.” Birdie and Iduma paid to “See the Fat Lady.” Her stage name was “Little Lulu.” She sat on a wood block in a sleeveless red dress that stopped a few inches below her knees. The confined space of her small tent made her appear even larger than her 350 pounds. Her arms were massive, especially above the elbows. The girls could see her legs only from the knees down, but each was enormous. She had triple chins composed of rolls of fat. Her pudgy face made her eyes appear small, like those of a hog. Frizzy, brown hair sparsely covered her head. Lulu sweated profusely, silently fanned herself, and smiled weakly if spoken to first. She appeared to be miserable.
Little Lulu Sold Her Picture Away from the games and rides so that it could only be glimpsed, was a red tent with the word, “Dancers” on a sign in front. Smaller print announced “Men Only” and that it opened at ten o’clock. It wasn’t set up at every stop. Its operation depended on being able to bribe local law enforcement. The “cooch” show opened after the main crowd had gone home for the night. Its slang name came from the earlier term “Hootchy-Cootchy.” Today, the performers might be called “exotic dancers.” Among the men who paid the $2.00 admission were a deacon from the Main Street Church and an alderman from city government. Both pulled hats down on their heads and turned up their collars. They cast their eyes about to see if they were being observed. “I shore hope nobody sees me goin’ ’n,” the adlerman whispered to the deacon. “I’ve got t’ stand fer reelection next yeer.”
“Hit ain’t none o’ their business whut we do,” the deacon muttered back. He pulled his hat even lower over his face and glanced around uneasily. “Let him who ez without sin cast th’ fust stone,” he quoted sanctimoniously. Shortly, the waiting men were safely inside. It was standing only since no seats were provided. Loud music accompanied the scantily clad young women as they danced onto the stage and performed as best they could to the beat of the music. Few minded their lack of talent. Foy diverted his eyes when he caught sight of the girl with the long, brown hair. She was the age of his daughter and bore a striking resemblance to her. As inconspicuously as possible, he eased away from the leering men and slipped out the door. Never again did he attend the cooch show.
Dancers at the Cooch Show Neither Milas nor any of his boys would’ve considered taking in the show, not even if it’d been free. Some things decent people didn’t do. The carnival provided something out of the ordinary to talk about for weeks. The children looked forward to its annual appearance. It was a highlight of the year.
Chapter 16: Farming Practices One of the most difficult farming tasks was clearing a new ground. This was a way of converting unproductive, wooded land so that it could be used for crops. The first step in the months-long process was to kill the trees. “Boys, go ov’er thar whar we’se puttin’ th’ new ground ’n’ git started on girdlin’ th’ trees,” Milas directed. Tree girdling is a way of killing a tree in place. It can be started any time of year, but works best if done before new leaves come out in springtime. The boys went to the new ground, axes over their shoulders. Girdling requires cutting away a deep section of bark all the way around the tree. Water moves up the tree through the more dense wood in the center of its trunk. Food from the leaves moves downward through the tissue underneath the bark. If food fails to reach the roots, they die, and finally the entire tree. It can take from one to three years, depending on the type tree. Sprouts from below the girdled area must be kept cut for quickest results.
Tree Trunk Has Been Girdled “This shore ez hard work,” Howard complained. He stopped to rub his aching arm and shoulder muscles. The axe had to hit the trunk from above at an angle to produce a deep cut. A whack from the bottom removed a good-sized chip. The process had to extend all the way around the tree. Oaks and dogwood were particularly hard to cut. After a full day’s work the axes had to be sharpened on the grinding wheel. Not only was the work difficult, it brought another problem: red bugs. That was the name given to chiggers. The mites themselves are red and a red, inflamed, intensely itching area developed around each place where one had adhered to the skin. “Maw, kin we have sum butter?” the woodsmen asked before bedtime. “Redbugs has kivered us up.” The salted butter, when rubbed on the mites, smothered them so that the duration of the irritating symptoms was shortened. 98
Highly Magnified View of a Chigger The clearing continued off and on over a period of several weeks. Many trees grew in the new ground. The following spring, most of them didn’t put on leaves. The bare branches and trunks began to dry out. “As y’u has time, start clearin’ th’ underbresh,” Milas said. “Perhaps we kin have th’ new ground reddy fer plantin’ by next sprang.” He knew that, having been out of cultivation for years, the rich soil would produce abundantly for a time. It was worth the extra work, especially since he didn’t have to do it himself. The boys cut the smaller bushes and young trees to the ground and gathered them into high piles to dry. In a few weeks the family had multiple fires burning day and night in the new ground.
Piles of Brush in the New Ground “Go stoke up th’ fars,” Milas said when the flames began to burn low. The wood burned out in the center where the heat was most intense. The boys slid or tossed unburned limbs and logs from the edges of the piles onto the glowing beds of red coals where the heat quickly ignited them. After several such stokings, the piles were reduced to white ash. The first plowing of a new ground brought its own challenges. The nature of the area’s sandy soil meant few rocks would be encountered. Roots were another matter entirely. With about as much of a tree below ground as above, the soil was matted with them. The plow stopped 99
with a jerk whenever it hit a particularly large one. The plowman could be thrown with force against the plow stock.
Breaking Up the New Ground
“Ow, thet hurt,” Albert complained. He rubbed his bruised chest where it’d hit the bar between the plow handles. He didn’t have to order the mule to wait. It’d learned that it was futile to pull against such resistance. Albert had the creature back up and make repeated attempts until he could position the plow so that it cut through the root. He pulled it from the ground and threw it toward a still-standing tree. After the first season, the plowing would be far easier. Yellow jacket nests were a constant danger. The stinging insects built extensive underground homes. Only a small, round opening provided evidence of their presence. The nest wasn’t disturbed until the plow cut into it. This brought a swarm of the angry yellow jackets seeking to defend their domain. The wasps directed their stings to the nearest target with skin thin enough to penetrate–the unfortunate plowman.
Yellow Jacket “Yaller jackets!” Albert screamed as the insects covered his face, neck, and hands. They stung furiously and repeatedly. He abandoned the mule and ran for the creek. The wasps continued to inflict painful stings. Only when he’d coated himself with mud and water did the attack abate. He hated breaking up a new ground. The only comfort he got from the furious attack was that his paw was likely to have one of the other boys take over the plowing for a day or two. The phases of the moon were considered in planting crops. The necessary information was available from the Farmer’s Almanac. Every rural family regularly consulted its copy. “Paw, do you really believe it helps to plant by the moon?” Leamon asked. He’d gotten beyond such superstition, but felt it unwise to attack it directly. “I ain’t shore thet hit matters. But they’s no harm done ’n goin’ by hit.” His doubt was quietly shared by some of his neighbors. Most, however, felt that it was a necessity for successful farming. Potatoes were planted on the dark of the moon. Seeds were planted within two days before a full moon. Nobody planted on the day of the full moon or the day of the new moon. The Almanac provided detailed instructions. Stories circulated about farmers who had unwisely violated the planting rules.
“Roscoe planted his cotten unner th’ wrong sign three years ago ’n’ his crop failed almost total,” a believing neighbor warned. “I tried t’ tell him, but he wouldn’t listen.” He’d forgotten that the man had turned off sick that year, and had been unable to give the usual attention to cultivation. None of them knew of scientific fallacies. If one thing was done and a particular result followed, that was all the proof needed that the first caused the second. No other possibility was considered. The Latin expression, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” had as little meaning for them as the concept has for many even in the present. “After this, therefore because of this” made perfect sense to Milas and his contemporaries. At any rate, he wasn’t going to take a chance. He planted by the moon. Farmers had few outside sources of information. One that was well liked was the broadsheet titled Grit. Started in 1882, it was designed with a rural audience in mind. Boys sold it farm-to-farm to make a little extra money.
Grit Vendors Sought “Mr. Camp, want t’ buy a Grit?” Robert asked. “Hit’s got stuff on gardenin,’ projects y’u kin do, funny stuff, ’n’ religious thangs. I thank y’u might reely like hit.” “Boy, I’ve bought hit fer years, startin’ long afore y’u wuz born. Y’u don’t have t’ tell me nothin’ ’bout hit.” He handed the smiling lad the necessary change. Robert returned in a couple of weeks with a new issue. Grit was well designed to serve people isolated from cities. The young salesman provided welcome reading material while he gained valuable lessons in honesty, integrity, and the handling of money. Such newsboys continued to sell Grit into the 1950s. At the time, few would’ve imagined it would still be published in the 21st Century. Another popular magazine was The Progressive Farmer. It started in North Carolina in 1886. Targeted to the southeast, it provided the newest information on cultivating crops and raising livestock. Open to new ideas, Milas regularly read it. It helped him in his own farming and in supervising his sharecroppers. It’d started out as a broadsheet, but changed to a tabloid. The periodical came in the mail upon subscription.
The publication came to have a central office in Birmingham. The organization, decades later, gave birth to Southern Living Magazine.
Reading the Progressive Farmer
Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Issue
Chapter 17: Environmental Emergencies The year Iduma was born, Marshall County experienced an earthquake. Only the mature people had experienced one before. “Whut’s thet, Milas?” Belle asked when the shaking commenced. Her voice trembled and her eyes widened. She placed her hand on the eating table to steady herself as the floor moved.
The dishes in the kitchen cabinets rattled. The floor vibrated lightly for several more seconds. The chickens began to cackle and the hound dogs to howl. It was over within less than half a minute. “I reckon hit wuz a earthquake. I recollect one when I wuz jest a lettle boy. This un wuz a sight worse.” North Alabama is in a moderate risk area for earthquakes, but in living memory all had been as inconsequential as the temblor that day. Generations had passed since the great earthquakes of 1811-1812. They’d been centered in the New Madrid Fault in Missouri. The violent shaking had continued off and on for months. People near the epicenter had been forced to live out of doors to avoid being crushed. Reelfoot Lake in west Tennessee had been formed. The mighty Mississippi River had run backward to fill the chasm produced. Due to the nature of the land, North Alabama had been affected by those long-ago seismic waves. Few, other than scattered settlers and villages of Indians, inhabited the area at the time. Had it been populated as today, moderate damage would’ve resulted. Not even oral stories of those terrible quakes had endured. The slight shaking created little concern. “Thar will b’ earthquakes ‘n divers places,” Milas paraphrased, but let it go at that. A continual and more significant danger was fire in the woods. Crops, livestock, and even houses could be destroyed. The community could expect no outside help, but had to deal with the problem itself. Belle awoke her husband just before dawn. “Milas, I smell somethin’ burnin’.” The stench of burning woods stung their nostrils. As the sun arose, it revealed a haze of smoke throughout the area. “Git up, boys, we’uns may half t’ fight far t’day,” Milas called out. “Make haste.” The boys hurriedly dressed. A woods fire was a genuine emergency, although exciting to combat. Seldom did they have that much adventure. Milas stepped into his yard and scanned the horizon. A wall of dense white smoke was visible to the south. The smell and thickness of the smoke was quickly intensifying around his house. White ash, looking almost like flakes of snow, began to float downward all around. “Hit’s down by th’ Taylor place. Hitch up th’ wagon ’n’ let’s git goin’.
By the time the group arrived, others also streamed in to fight fire. The only equipment was what they could improvise–pine branches heavy with green needles. The limbs made excellent tools. A few swats would extinguish a few feet of the fire line as long as it was in low-lying vegetation.
The Woods Burned The dense wooded areas couldn’t be saved. The fire quickly fed on undergrowth and jumped to the crowns of the trees. Cottontail rabbits and an occasional fox rushed by the men, oblivious to their presence because of the greater danger of the fire. The firefighters coughed and struggled to see with watery eyes. “We can’t put hit out, boys,” called one of the older men. “Th wind has got hit plum out o’ control. We got t’ build a back far.” The men deliberately set ablaze one of Taylor’s cornfields. The flames rushed toward the main fire as well as in the other direction. They used pine boughs to extinguish the flames that threatened to devour the entire corn crop. The backfire had the desired effect. The flames extinguished themselves when they reached the alreadyburned area. The loss was minor. When the Cherokees and Creeks had controlled the land, the threat of major fire didn’t exist. Native Americans regularly burned the woods. The cool, low fires kept down the undergrowth without killing trees or destroying animals. With dense vegetation controlled, it was easy and safe to get through the woods. Hunting was easier and more successful. That early ecology lesson had been lost upon arrival of white settlers. Apart from tornadoes, people in north Alabama were rarely killed by natural disasters. The main threats to life were heat, severe summer weather, drought, winter weather, lightning, and flooding. “Ef hit gits too hot, hit shore kin harm folks,” Milas commented during one particularly hot July day. He had seen cases among his neighbors of that happening. Fieldwork might be postponed for a day or two during especially hot spells, but if the searing temperatures continued, rural people did what was required. Lucas was a man in his forties, but with two minor children at home. Despite temperatures in the upper nineties, he and one of his grown sons worked most of the day on the back forty. Late in the afternoon, the man became agitated.
“I can’t hardly beathe,” he said with a shaky voice. “I ain’t exactly shore where I am or whut I’m supposed t’ b’ doin’. Kin y’u bring me a drank from thet spring over thar by th’ boulders?” He pointed toward a slight rise created by a terrace. “Thar ain’t no spring out her ’n the field, paw,” his son replied. He realized that his father was hallucinating. “Y’u look terrible sick. Hit’s time fer us t’ go t’ th’ house.” Lucas took a few steps, but reeled and fell to the ground. His son rushed to his assistance to find that he wasn’t sweating, although his skin looked red and felt hot. Calling and shaking did no good. The unconscious man breathed erratically. His son quickly unhitched the mule from the plow, heaved his father across its back, and rushed him to the house. The man’s condition was a medical emergency, but his family only knew to get him in the shade and wipe him with cool water from the well. When he began to come around, they managed to get him to swallow a few sips of water. “Paw ain’t never fully recovered from gittin’ too hot,” his son explained when people inquired as to why he no longer worked long days in his fields. Summer weather could bring thunderstorms with high winds, lightning, and hail. Occasionally, both humans and animals were injured or even killed as a result. Milas recalled, “One night, th’ yeer afore Leon wuz born, we had th’ worst lightnin’ storm I ever knew. Ever few seconds hit would light up bright ez day when th’ lightnin’ flashed. Th’ thunder was upon us almost ez soon ez th’ lightnin’ struck. Hit come up so sudden thar wuz no time t’ git t’ th’ storm pit. Yore maw an’ th’ girls got on th’ bed till hit passed. They wuz scart half t’ death.” The next morning, the family learned that a neighbor had lost six cows, his entire herd, to the lightning. The man lamented the serious loss to Milas. “They wuz gathered unner a oak tree behind th’ barn fer pertection, but hit work’d ’gain ’em. Lightnin’ hit th’ tree, split th’ trunk clear t’ th’ ground, an’ kilt t’ whole bunch. I font ’em layin’ on th’ ground when I went out t’ see ’bout bringin’ ’em t’ feed.” Hail sometimes accompanied thunderstorms. Most pieces were insignificant, less than an inch in diameter. Though they might accumulate enough to whiten the ground, they caused no damage. Rarely, enormous hailstones developed. Property could be damaged and lives endangered.
Most Hailstorms Did Little Damage Elvira Reed, the oldest person in the community never tired of relating an occurrence in her childhood and repeated it to anyone who’d listen. “I wuz ’bout ten yeers old when hit com.’ Th’ hail started ’n like common, but soon hunks ez big ez my closed fist began t’ fall. Mor’ ’n’ mor’ crashed down. Hit beat th’ tin roof t’ flinders on th’ house an’ outbuildings and tore up th’ crops somethin’ terrible. Thar warn’t hardly no corn made thet yeer an’ th’ cotton was sparse. Even th’ leaves wuz beat off o’ trees, but they didn’t seem t’ b’ hurt so much. Th’ strangest thing wuz thet three miles away there wuz nary a piece fell.” Flooding that occurred was localized and limited in scope since Sand Mountain was a thousand foot high plateau.
Mountain Creek Flooding was Minor Robert Gibbs inspected his field the next morning after a day and night of heavy rain. Rice Creek was out of its banks. The swirling water had washed away about an acre of his corn crop, a minor loss. His house stood on a rise about a half-mile from the stream. Nobody on the mountain was foolish enough to build on a spot subject to flooding. Excessive rain could, however, interfere with transportation, especially at fords. A ford is a place where a shallow stream crosses a road. Rather than place a pipe or build a bridge, the road runs directly through the water. Under normal conditions, wagons, horses, and pedestrians easily passed. Flooding could produce several feet of water at the fords. When it drained away, the road would again be passable. In the valley at Guntersville, circumstances were quite different. Flooding was a serious problem throughout the Tennessee Valley prior to the construction of TVA dams and reservoirs in the 1930s. Because of poor farming practices, floods washed away the topsoil, caused severe erosion, and limited the ability of farmers to grow crops. Danger increased as cities and towns were built along The Tennessee River. People sometimes lost their houses or even perished in the floods.
Valley Flooding Could Destroy Houses Uncle John Moultrie, Milas’ brother-in-law, recalled, “I’ve seen th’ river up so much ’n Guntersville thet people could row boats down th’ main street ‘n front o’ th’ First National Bank. Hit mought stay thet way fer days ’till th’ waters subsided. Hit did consider’ble damage to stores ’n’thar goods.” Yet, for the most part, environmental dangers were minimal. When problem arose, people banded together and helped each other. Nobody expected the Federal government to intervene or furnish aid. FEMA, perhaps fortunately, didn’t exist. Country people were self-reliant.
Chapter 18: All Were Immigrants The bulk of Native Americans had been forced to move west by the Indian Removal Act in the mid 1800s. A fair number who had adopted white ways managed to remain. Intermarriage between whites and Indians wasn’t widespread, yet a number of people in Marshall County could count Cherokees among their ancestors. Elias House, an olive-skinned neighbor boasted, “I’m a descendant of a Cherokee princess. Y’u kud say thet I’m sort o’ royalty.”
The fact that the tribe had no kings, queens, princes, or princesses was unknown to Elias or his neighbors. The story sounded good and served to make him more “respectable.” Even among those had made no such grandiose claim, however, mixed racial heritage caused little trouble. Even if they had noticeably darker skin than their neighbors, it was casually dismissed with the comment, “He’s part Injun.” If the person was hard working and tried to fit in, he was accepted. Tolerance was enhanced by the fact that there was no history of violent Indian attacks in North Alabama. “Paw, do you know where our folks came from?” Leamon asked. He had a better sense of time and place than most. “I reckon hit wuz mainly fr’m England. Thar mought b’ som’ Irish mixed in, but I ain’t really shore.” Milas, born in 1874, was seven generations removed from Thomas Camp who had been born in 1661 in Nasing Parish, County Essex, England. This ancestor had immigrated to the United States and settled in Virginia where he died in King and Queen County in 1711. Of the three Thomas Camps who appeared in the Englishman’s direct line of descent, the most interesting was the one who died in 1798 in North Carolina. The prolific man sired twenty-four children by two wives. They became the ancestors of most of the Camps in the United States.
Home of Thomas Camp Thomas’ grave lies in an overgrown rural cemetery near Isothermal, North Carolina. A fieldstone scratched with his name and date of death was all that marked his grave until decades later when descendants erected a granite marker and chain-link fence to preserve the site.
Original Marker of Grave of Thomas Camp
Marker Placed in the 1960s
Signature to Will of Thomas Camp III (Note difference in writing from body of will) Even if most people were vague as to ancestry, one transient group knew its origin very well. About once a year a small band of Gypsies visited Marshall County. They arrived in three colorful wagons pulled by horses. One of Milas’ neighbors, Bill Self, always permitted them to set up free in his pasture. Their presence caused a wave of excitement to spread throughout the community. “Th’ Gypsies ez here ’gain,” a woman called out to a neighbor who was passing by on foot. “Bill’s put them up this yeer too. I sorta wish he wouldn’t do thet. They scare me.” The wagons were brightly painted with intricate designs. A single door opened from the back of each. The sides featured windows with curtains. The space within was divided into two areas. One was for cooking. The kitchen end had a stove with a metal chimney that extended upward through the roof in addition to a closet, storage chests, pots, pans, and dishes. The other portion of the wagon served for sleeping quarters. Numerous items hung on nails or pegs on the walls.
Gypsy Wagon The Gypsy women did most of the work and were the main generators of income. They make baskets, prepared remedies from herbs, and told fortunes. Cooking and cleaning also fell to them. Two of the older women actually spoke a dialect of Romany in addition to English. They had no success when they attempted to pass the language to their descendants. “Granny, that’s old stuff. Nobody needs to know that anymore,” one of the children countered when the matriarch attempted to instruct her in Romany. “They’s heer t’ steal chillen,” Mrs. Barnette avowed. “Y’u best keep yore boys ’n partic’lar locked up ’till they leave.” That belief was one of the many stereotypes country people held about the Roma. It was based on stories from unspecified places where children had supposedly mysteriously disappeared following departure of the travelers. It was firmly held to be true, but nobody could supply specifics. The parental threat, “I’ll give y’u t’ th’ Gypsies,” usually was scary enough to bring a naughty child into compliance. The day after their arrival, two of the women began to visit homes. They took with them a girl about two years old. The presence of the child lessened fear of speaking to them. Their objective was to obtain money or items of value. Traditional Southern hospitality combined with a superstitious dread of a “Gypsy curse” caused most people to open their doors to them. “Do you have anything you can give us?” they asked Mrs. Heaton. The woman, a widow, had little to share, but recalled Jesus’ advice to give to the poor. Perhaps He’d want her to help them. If she turned them away, they might put a hex on her. She’d heard of that being done. “Come ’n ’n’ I’ll see whut I kin find t’ spare,” she replied.
She presented the women with some potatoes and onions. To the child, she gave a piece of peppermint candy left from Christmas. “We are poor and have no money to pay for these fine things, but I want to do something for you,” the older Gypsy woman offered. “I will tell you about your life and what the future holds.” Superstitious people generally believed that Gypsies had magical powers to tell fortunes. The crone, with colorful scarves and dangling earrings, had deliberately dressed to fit the part. She had a mysterious look in her eyes.
Gypsy Fortune Teller “Let me look at your hand,” she requested in a tone that allowed for no refusal. Mrs. Heaton extended her shaking hand, palm up. She was curious to know what the woman could tell her, but was apprehensive that the report might reveal some horror. The Gypsy traced four lines on her palm and described the nature of each. “This is the heart line, this the head line, here’s the life line, and finally we see the fate line.” The woman went on to speak in generalities about present and future matters. She adapted her statements to what she could see about Mrs. Heaton and her surroundings, especially family pictures. “Your children sometimes disappoint you, but you love them. I see that you’ll be coming into a small amount of money. Yet you’ll have problems in your life. Sickness will come your way, but you’ll recover. Something unexpected will happen and you must decide what to do.” The Gypsy watched her reaction and continued with general statements that could apply to almost any person on earth. “Sometimes you are friendly and like to be around people, but at other times you like to be left alone. You have learned it can be best not to let others know what you think. You have things you fall short in, but you can usually make up for it. You want other people to like you and think well of you.”
Mrs. Heaton took the generalities and applied them to aspects of her life, specific events that had already happened, or things that took place in the months ahead. She became astonished how much the Gypsy woman had been able to tell her about herself and the future. Her testimony encouraged other women to listen to the fortuneteller when she came to their houses. “If you truly appreciate knowing these things, you should reward me in some way. Perhaps a little money?” the woman coaxed. Soon she was on her way with a few jingling coins in her pocket. “I delcare, they purt ner knew everythin’ ’bout me,” Mrs. Heaton confided to a neighbor that afternoon. “Hit was jest shockin’, like she could see rite inside me.”
Gypsy Women Visit Homes A few of the Roma weren’t above outright stealing. Milas entered Poe’s Country Store at the crossing near the school to find the proprietor standing behind the counter with a blank stare on his face. An older Gypsy woman stood beside him, opening the drawer where he kept his cash. “Whut air y’u doin’? Git out o’ heer rite now,” he ordered. She spit out a sentence in Romany and began to stare into his eyes and point the fingers of both hands in his direction. “Y’u can’t hypnotize me like y’u done him. Now git away from thar. Keep yore hand out o’ th’ cash drawer.” The woman slowly backed away empty-handed, all the time muttering under her breath in frustration at his interference. As she dashed for the door, her bracelets and earrings jangled. Her long skit swept the floor and knocked over a display of soap powder. Even after she was gone, the unpleasant scent of her perfume lingered. The business owner, left in a state of hypnosis, didn’t feel normal for several days. He recalled little about the incident. Milas reported the incident to the sheriff who cut short the visit of the band. “Don’t b’ comin’ back heer enny more,” he ordered the group’s leader. “Unless y’u want t’ b’ put ’n jail.”
It was an empty threat since the victim was unable to testify against them, but it had the desired result. The caravan continued its travels, but only far enough to be out of the jurisdiction of the Marshall County sheriff. It would return the following year despite the warning. The sheriff, a bit leery of their power, would take no action unless another incident arose. Rural communities were clannish. Newcomers, even Caucasians, were viewed with suspicion. “They’s not from ’round heer,” was said of them. Only years of fitting in could lead to them being fully accepted, although a marriage might speed the process. Diversity wasn’t a goal of country people in Alabama.
Chapter 19: Rural Diseases and Folk Remedies Country folks suffered from a variety of ailments. Some of them were related to diet. Food was high in saturated fats, cholesterol, and salt and might lack essential elements. Other problems, such as diphtheria, influenza, cholera, and scarlet fever were infectious, caused by microorganisms. Other medical problems resulted from injury due to accidents. North Alabama lay in what was called the “goiter belt.” Rural people ate almost entirely what was produced on the farm. This resulted in numerous cases of goiter, especially in older people. A lump in the lower neck on one or both sides represented an enlarged thyroid gland. Its hormone is partly composed of iodine. Without adequate amounts of that necessary component of a healthy diet, it can’t produce its hormone adequately. This lack causes the body to stimulate the thyroid, but the only result is its enlargement. One can’t make chocolate cake without chocolate. In the same way, a person can’t make thyroid hormone without iodine.
Goiter A solution to the problem was available– to add iodine to the diet. The vehicle chosen by public health authorities was ordinary table salt. It was inexpensive and universally used. There was, however, a problem. “Thet iodized salt has pizen ’n hit,” insisted a good number of uninformed persons. “Don’t never use hit.” Those who made the statement had no idea what iodine was. It was a warning they’d heard by word-of-mouth and passed on blindly. “I heered hit wuz a plot by Jews to kill good Christian folks,” an old man asserted at a local store. He shook his head and assumed a grim look to impress his listeners. No amount of reasoning or distribution of information on the need for iodine had any effect on those who “knew better.” It was the same mindset that caused so much opposition in later years to fluoridation of public water supplies to prevent dental cavities. Goiter continued to be a problem for years to come. “Them city folks can’t fool me,” a woman in her fifties insisted. “Goiter’s jest a part o’ growin’ old. My maw had one. I never heered o’ hit killin’ nobody.”
Even as she spoke, a lump was slowly developing in her lower neck. When the enlargement became noticeable, it would verify her views. The spread of contagious disease was promoted by the well-intentioned practice of going to homes of stricken people to care for them. That one might catch the disease and bring it home to family wasn’t considered. When a person in the community died of an infectious condition, the procedure of preparing them for burial carried serious risk. It was customary to wash the body with soap and water. When the person was laid out for viewing, neighbors washed the face and hands with vinegar to slow discoloration. The existence of bacteria and viruses, and their role in disease, were either unknown or ignored. Doctors were consulted only as a last resort, except in cases of broken bones. Home remedies were widely known in the community or were perpetuated by word-ofmouth in individual families. Howard was standing on a rock near the Jolly Mill Pond when one of his pals sneaked up behind and gave him a shove. He fell with a thud after a drop of several feet. The other boys laughed and walked away as he lay stunned. After several minutes, he struggled to rise to his feet, but a sharp pain in his ankle made it impossible for him to stand or walk. In his early teens, he was strong, but it was only with intense effort that he was able to crawl the considerable distance to his house. “Paw, I’m hurt,” he called out as he neared the porch. Milas came into the yard to survey the situation. A cursory examination showed no evidence of a broken bone and he saw no bleeding. “Git a rag ’n’ keep thet ankl’ rubbed wif kerosene,” he advised. “Yore gonna b’ up ’n’ ‘bout ’n a few days.” Kerosene was regarded as a universal cure and so used for a variety of problems. Some even dabbed it on inflamed tonsils. It was readily available and inexpensive. Nothing more was done even though Howard suffered intense pain and was unable to walk for three weeks. It was the customary country way. Milas never considered taking him to a doctor. He could live or die on his own. “Y’u kin lay ’round th’ house ’till y’u mend,” Milas conceded. That was the only advantage the youth got–exemption from work until he improved enough to hobble about. He was in his twenties and on his own before his first visit to a physician.
Of the many home remedies, some helped, most did nothing, but a few worsened the situation. Even as is true today, most conditions are self-limiting. Problems generally get better, with or without treatment, by the natural healing process or the action of the immune system. If folk medicine was used, it was given credit for the cure. If the person died, it was held to be “God’s will.” In such a case, nothing could have changed the outcome. Who could overcome the will of the Deity? A spider’s web placed across the wound was used to treat bleeding from external injuries. The web material provided a framework to trap platelets and speeded the natural clotting process. If the procedure didn’t introduce infection, it might help control minor bleeding. Some injuries were severe. When Birdie gashed her hand while chopping firewood, Belle found the usual remedies to be inadequate to solve the problem. “Maw, hit hurts ’n’ I’m afeerd thet I’ll bleed t’ death,” Birdie whined. As blood continued to ooze from the deep cut, Belle became increasingly alarmed. Something had to be done. “Leamon, hitch up th’ wag’n. We’s takin’ Birdie t’ see Miz Helen,” she directed. The use of “Miz” with the first name of a woman, married or single, indicated familiarity, but a high degree of respect. Miz Helen was reputed to have the power to stop bleeding merely by reading a verse from the Bible. The blood stopper, accustomed to such visits, hurried to the wagon when they pulled into her yard. “Let me see thet hand, chile.” She wanted to help. After examining the injury and giving Birdie a reassuring hug, she rushed back into her house and returned with a well-thumbed copy of the King James Version of the Bible. Turning to Ezekiel 16: 6, she walked toward the east as she read the verse, but substituted the youngster’s name in place of “thee.” “And when I passed by Birdie, and saw Birdie polluted in thine own blood, I said unto Birdie when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto Birdie when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” Within an hour, the bleeding slowly diminished and finally stopped. To assert that natural mechanisms, with the passage of time since the injury, had controlled the blood loss would’ve been futile. The result spoke for itself. If Birdie had bled to death, the explanation would’ve been that it was “her time to go.” It was a “no win” situation for medical correctness. The simple faith of rural people sustained them.
“Thanky, Miz Helen. God bless y’u,” Belle uttered. Tears filled her eyes as she hugged the blood stopper. No payment was offered and none was expected. Miz Helen believed that she had a free gift and she gave freely. The day’s experience would be repeated many times, strengthening sincere belief in the woman’s healing powers. Another elderly woman in the McLarty community used a different technique to end bleeding. It wasn’t necessary that the victim be present. When informed of a person in need of help, she held up both hands and called out, “Upon Christ’s grave three roses bloom. Stop, blood, stop.” Mamie was a firm believer in the use of Carter’s Little Liver Pills for herself and her children when they felt unwell.
Advertisement for Carter’s Little Liver Pills “I took ’em ’n’ they clean’d off my liver,” she insisted. “I got t’ feelin’ a heap better.” The placebo effect is powerful. The pills were nothing but a mild laxative. Decades later, the government forced the company to rename the product so as to exclude any reference to the liver. “Carter’s Little Pills” it then became, but its marketing agents got around truth in labeling by enclosing the new name in a massive capital “L” which continued to convey the idea that they acted on the liver without actually making the claim. Earache was a common complaint, due to an infection in the middle ear. Then, as now, most cases clear within days with or without treatment. Rural folks knew exactly how to cure it. Belle advised suffering Iduma, “Go t’ th’ woods ’n’ find a rott’n log ’r stump. Brang me a Bessy bug.” Iduma found a suitable location about fifty yards from the house. The large, black bugs had a colony inside a decaying stump. The one she captured emitted loud squeaks by rubbing its wings against its abdomen, but it didn’t bite or sting. She brought the insect to her mother.
Betsy Bug “Lay on th’ bed wif yore hurtin’ ear turned up,” Belle instructed. She tore off the Betsy bug’s head and allowed a drop of its blood to fall into the ear canal. Because something was being done, Iduma immediately felt better. Within about three days she fully recovered. The placebo effect combined with action of immunity did the work, but the Betsy bug got the credit. A chronic and serious health problem was tuberculosis, usually called “TB.” It killed more people in the South than any other infectious disease. More women than men were infected. It was more common from the middle teenage years through the midforties. It didn’t respond to home remedies and could spread from one family member to another. At the time, antibiotics hadn’t yet been discovered. “Hit looks like Lige ez gonna half t’ go ’way fer a while,” Milas commented to his wife. “He wuz doin’ tolerable well fer a spell, but he tuk a turn fer th’ worse here of late.” Lige was a neighbor who lived about a mile away. For months, the man experienced nausea, weakness, fever, night sweats, chest pain, and weight loss. Most ominous was his coughing up blood. A doctor in Albertville had diagnosed the dreaded consumption. In view of his serious condition and the fact that the disease was highly contagious, authorities were required to send him to the state TB sanitarium near Gadsden. The institution could provide no specific medication. Streptomycin was decades in the future. What it did offer was rest, a nutritious diet richly supplying vitamins and minerals, and plenty of fresh air and sunlight. If all else failed, surgery could be used to collapse the diseased lung for treatment or even to remove a portion. The man might rejoin his family within a couple of years. Confinement was mandatory. “Whut’s his wif’ ’n’ chillen goin’ t’ do,” Belle wondered aloud. Lige was a farmer with four youngsters. “I’ll send th’ boys down t’ help ’n’ I’m shore others’ll do th’ same,” he assured his wife. As he predicted, the community closed ranks and assisted the needy family until the return of its head.
Except in the case of smallpox, vaccinations weren’t available. The usual childhood diseases ran their course. The victims suffered to varying degrees, but most survived unimpaired. Almost every child had measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chickenpox. Fortunately, survival of the diseases conferred lifelong immunity. Two of the Camp children became sick. It started with fever, sore throat, swollen glands, and red tonsils with pus on them. Within a day, a red, rough rash that looked like sunburn spread all over their bodies. Scarlet fever called for drastic measures. The public health officer walked warily toward the house, paused a moment in the yard, then mounted the porch with firm steps. He didn’t knock or call out. His visit, at some homes, provoked angry words or threats. In his hand was a large sign that he nailed to the wall. At the top in large letters were the words “Scarlet Fever.” Below the heading it read, “These Premises are Under Quarantine.” The notice ordered that no person could enter or leave the dwelling. The placard couldn’t be removed. Penalties for noncompliance were severe: up to a hundred dollars fine or as much as thirty days imprisonment were possible. All in the community obeyed. In time, both children felt better. The outer layer of skin peeled from their bodies first and then their hands and feet. The emergency was over. Life could resume as normal. Another condition that had to be dealt with was the possibility of people, especially children, being invaded by parasitic worms. The stereotype of a lazy, shiftless hill person had a bit of reality when hookworms were involved. Roundworms known as Ascaris were common, but not as serious. The Rockefeller Sanitary Commission undertook to wipe out hookworms in the South. Its work extended to Marshall County. The group began with schoolchildren. When tests revealed the presence of the parasites, workers went home with them so as to talk with their father. Brad Greenberg was one of the young men recruited to work in the campaign. His accent and speech patterns instantly identified him as being “from the North.” As an outsider, and even worse, a Yankee, many viewed him with suspicion, especially the adults. There were whispered rumors that he was Jewish. He had, however, developed a good rapport with the school children. He spoke to them on their level and often supplied candy. The Taylor children excitedly introduced their companion who had walked home from school with them. “This here’s Brad. He’s wif th’ Rock’feller Commission. He wants t’ speak wif paw.” Traditional southern hospitality made it almost mandatory that an invitation to “come in ’n’ set a spell” be extended. It was imperative that Brad act in accord with local
custom. A visitor couldn’t directly state his business, but must sit and talk about the weather and trivialities for a while. It helped defuse distrust and resentment of outsiders. When he felt that he’d gained the family head’s trust, he got to the point of his visit. “Mr. Taylor, I’m sure you don’t know it, but your children have somehow picked up hookworms. It can happen in most any family. I’m here to offer help. The Institute pays me a salary, so I don’t charge for anything I do.” “I reckon hit won’t hurt nothin’ t’ listen,” the father conceded. A detailed discussion of the parasite’s life cycle would’ve been lost on the uneducated man, so Brad confined his discussion to the main points. The worm worked its way into the body through bare feet, it was connected with the way an outhouse was built, and it could be cured and prevented from returning. To recommend that children not go barefoot would’ve been useless. Youngsters, especially boys, looked forward to the springtime when they could start to go without shoes. They wouldn’t accept the possibility bare feet allowed the tiny larvae to penetrate their skin and end up draining blood from their bodies. At his host’s invitation, the worker examined the privy. It was like thousands of others. The waste fell onto level ground underneath the toilet openings. A heavy downpour washed the material onto the ground around the structure. It looked like a picture from a parasitology textbook Brad had studied in graduate school. He had to be careful, however, not to appear in the least condescending. “What’ll keep your kids from having problems is to dig a deep pit and then build another outhouse over it,” Brad explained. “If you and your boys think well of the idea, I’ll be pleased to come back and help. The Commission will pay the cost of materials.” The courteous approach had the desired result. Within a couple of weeks, the main source of infection had been eliminated. Brad medicated the children to kill the adult worms in their small intestines. Another small skirmish in the war against hookworms had been won. Milas’ children didn’t have hookworms, or if they did, the numbers were so small as to have no effect on health. Under about two hundred of the half-inch long worms might produce no symptoms in otherwise healthy people. The Ascaris roundworm was far less dangerous than hookworms, but because it was easily seen, it created greater concern. It was, by far, the most common parasitic worm of the time. Suzy was playing in the yard, when she suddenly vomited. On the ground lay a white, nearly foot-long worm with the diameter of a small pencil. It twitched aimlessly in the bright sunlight.
“Maw, maw. I’ve got worms ’gain,” the child cried out. Tears steamed down her face and she turned so she couldn’t see the writhing worm. The adult parasite lives in the small intestine where it feeds harmlessly on its host’s food. But it has a tendency to explore which sometimes takes it from the intestine into the stomach where it’s subject to sudden expulsion. It was a driving force behind the country practice of deworming the family that became a spring ritual in most families of the time. Even without treatment, the worm lived less than a year, but reinfection was common. Public health workers often found two hundred or more eggs per square foot on school toilet floors. A far different health threat, one that could be avoided, came from the use of tobacco. Then, as now, persons who became addicted found giving it up to be inordinately difficult. The dangers of tobacco use weren’t as clearly recognized in those days. Smoking tobacco was a common rite of passage that easily developed into a lifelong addiction. The same was true of chewing tobacco and snuff. Even youngsters might smoke what was called rabbit tobacco. It was readily available and free. The short, green plant, in late summer, bears white blooms that develop into seedpods. By late in the autumn, the plant dries and the leaves give off a distinctive aroma. The smell became even more intense when the leaves are burned.
Summer Appearance of Rabbit Tobacco “Lets go smoke some rabbit tobacky,” Howard urged Leon. “I swiped sum o’ Albert’s cigarette papers t’ roll hit ’n.” The boys harvested enough of the leaves to make two cigarettes. They folded the cigarette papers lengthwise and spread the leaves as uniformly as possible. Each licked one edge of the paper and folded it over to produce a lumpy cigarette. They felt daring and adventurous. Neither would admit that the experience left them feeling nauseous. Howard gradually escalated to smoking real tobacco. He, as well as Albert, died of lung cancer after decades of use of the odious product. Common among area women was the use of powdered tobacco called snuff. The most popular brand was Garrett. It was available in town or from the rolling store.
Can of Snuff “Heer’s sum money. B’ shore t’ git me sum Garrett’s Sweet when th’ peddler comes by,” Belle instructed Birdie. “Don’t fergit. I’m nearly plum out.” A snuff dipper, Belle placed a pinch of the brown powder between her cheek and gum. Its nicotine was readily absorbed into the blood stream through the lining of her mouth. Periodically, she brought a spit can to her mouth to eject tobacco-tainted saliva. Brown fluid ran from the corner of her mouth and dripped from her chin, but she seemed oblivious to it. The habit greatly increased the risk of oral cancer. In addition to the blood stoppers, a few other local people were held to have extraordinary powers to heal. Prominent in Marshall County was R.C. Morrow who lived near Albertville. He was said to be the seventh son of a seventh son. As such he was believed to have abilities that included curing thrush in babies and removing warts. He was highly respected in the community and often consulted. Mothers took their babies for him to breathe into their mouths, in order to make thrush disappear. Rubbing warts, plus a silent incantation known only to him, reportedly caused them to vanish. Mrs. Reed’s baby had redness and tiny blisters in his mouth. The infant was so uncomfortable that he wouldn’t eat. The problem was due to a fungus, but she didn’t know that. “I’m goin’ t’ take him t’ Mr. Morrow,” she informed her husband. Her spouse raised no objection. Women made decisions like that. It was no concern of his. When she reached the man’s house, he cordially invited her inside to learn what she wanted. Morrow was accustomed to such callers and felt it his duty to help. Mrs. Reed described her child’s symptoms and showed him the interior of his mouth. “I can’t absolute promise, but I’ll b’ glad t’ do whut I kin,” he said. “If hit don’t work purty soon, y’u best take him t’ one o’ th’ regular doctors.” The man took the baby into his arms and blew into its mouth. After a day or so, the symptoms abated. His reputation as a healer was further enhanced. Mr. Morrow was himself the father of seven sons, but it was widely reported that he refused to accept his impending death in his mid-eighties. As a consequence, he didn’t pass on the reputed gift to his seventh son despite repeated pleas from family.
Belle reported, “I ain’t superstitious, but I know he heal’d me o’ my warts. They wuz gon’ th’ very next week atter he treated ’em.” In later years, she herself became a “wart witch.” Her success was virtually assured since the virus that causes warts is combated by immunity until it’s defeated. Belle’s sister Rachel was a noted fortuneteller. People came many miles, sometimes even from other States, to consult her. Her method involved use of tarot cards. Many were amazed at her abilities. Others declared her a charlatan. “I always use th’ Waite-Rider deck,” she informed a visitor who sought her services.
Waite-Rider Deck of Tarot Cards “Then you’ll do a reading for me, Rachel? My sister from Fort Payne came to you two months ago and everything you told her was right. My husband’s a doctor and didn’t want me to come here, but he doesn’t know everything. He just thinks he does.” Rachel shuffled the cards and withdrew a single one that she laid on the table in front of the well-dressed woman. It was the Four of Swords. This here card shows a man laying on a sword t’ b’ buried. Hit means t’ bury th’ hatchet. Troubl’ ’n th’ past needs t’ go t’ rest.” “You’re talking about the spat I had with my best friend, Mabel, aren’t you? We’ve never discussed our dispute with anyone. I’m astounded that you know about it.” Rachel smiled and nodded as she continued to shuffle the cards. The woman had taken the general comment as applying to something she thought nobody knew. The next card Rachel placed on the table was the eight of wands. “Here y’u see flyin’ wands comin’ down t’ land. Cause they’s ’n th’ air, they mean ideas ’n’ thoughts. Th’ cards is sayin’ y’u should be op’n t’ new ideas.” “I will, I will,” the woman exclaimed. “From now on and for the rest of my life.”
The reading continued until Rachel perceived that the woman was growing tired and having trouble concentrating. “Th’ cards ain’t got no mor’ t’ say t’day,” she said as she stood up to indicate that the interview was over. “Your reading was wonderful. How much do I owe you? It’s worth almost any amount for such valuable advice.” “I don’t never charge nothing.’ Hit wud profane m’ gift o’ tarot.” “Then I insist on giving you a present. It isn’t payment for your services, but something I want to give you.” The woman pulled a twenty-dollar bill from her alligator skin purse and forced it into Rachel’s hand. After she left, Rachel stuffed it into a sack in a chest drawer. It was a nice addition to other “gifts” for her work as a seer. “Marking” of unborn babies was a widely held belief that caused much anxiety during pregnancy. The idea was passed down from mother to daughter over the generations. It asserted that an experience of the mother while carrying a child might, in some way, mark the baby. It may be in the form of a birthmark or even a worse condition. Feeding the fantasy is the fact that a significant number of newborn have a skin blemish of some type. Such marks usually go away without treatment. Those that remain generally aren’t a threat to the child’s welfare. Belle’s neighbor, Lizzy, looked with alarm at her newborn daughter with a purple birthmark on her chest. “See thet there mark? I wuz pickin’ blackberries ’n’ et way too many. They made me sick ez a mule. Afterwards, I jest knew I’d marked m’ baby. See how thet ez ’n th’ shape of a blackberry.” No amount of reasoning could have convinced her otherwise. The indisputable evidence lay before her. A particularly horrendous experience of the Willis family strongly reenforced local belief in marking babies. Mr. Willis operated a small country store. His establishment had been broken into twice within a brief interval. If the loses continued, it threatened to make it impossible to support his family. “I reckon I don’t have t’ put up wif sech stuff as thet,” he told his pregnant wife. “Hit jest ain’t fare t’ rob us like thet. I’m goin’ over yonder t’ th’ store at night fer a spell ’n’ see ef I kin ketch th’ varmit doin’ hit.”
Not being willing to be left alone at night, the woman accompanied her husband. The third night, the sound of a window being pried up awakened the couple. The burglar had returned. The criminal crept over to the shelves in the hardware section and began to place items into a burlap bag. Mr. Willis grabbed his shotgun. “When I get th’ drap on him, light th’ lantern,” he whispered to his wife. “Hold hit rite there,” he commanded. “Drap thet tow sack. Y’u ain’t robbin’ me no mor’. Put yore hands up. We’se goin’ t’ th’ sheriff.” Instead of obeying, the robber jumped aside and jerked out a small caliber pistol. He shot at Willis, but missed. The storeowner, taken by surprise, returned fire, striking the intruder in the chest. He fell to the floor, writhing and crying out in pain. A pool of blood rapidly spread on the floor. Mrs. Willis came forward with the lit lantern. She gasped in horror at the gruesome sight. Within minutes, the young man died. Four months later, her newborn daughter continually cried out strangely and constantly thrashed her arms and legs. The doctor suggested a genetic cause, but the mother knew better. “I jest knew my baby’d b’ marked by whut happened at th’ store,” she sobbed. “Hit may b’ thet God ez punishin’ us fer takin’ thet boy’s life. Losin’ our goods wusn’t cause ’nough fer him t’ die.” The child continued in the pitiful condition throughout its nearly three decades of life. The parents found that she could temporarily be distracted from making the disturbing movements and sounds by supplying her with newspaper to tear into strips. Neighbors saved their papers and brought them to the Willis home for that purpose. All knew that the baby had been marked. In later years, scientific experiments were conducted to examine the marking concept. Pregnant women kept logs wherein they recorded any experience that they thought might even possibly mark their babies. In the cases of those with some birth abnormality, researchers sought a correlation with the experiences cataloged by the mothers. None were found outside the parameters of random chance. As he pointed to a large, irregular birthmark raised well above skin surface, Dr. Burrows reasoned with the baby’s mother. “Now, you see that mark and all the things you listed while you were expecting that might mark your baby. Do you see a single one that even remotely resembles that blotch?” The woman slowly read down the list. “No, I can’t say thet I do, but I now recollect thet I seen a big spider whilst I wuz expecting. Hit scared me bad. Thet mark ez ’n th’ exact shape o’ a spider. Can’t y’u see thet?”
It was a common reaction. When confronted with the facts, most of the mothers suggested a just-remembered experience that accounted for the nature of the mark. “He who is persuaded against his will is of the same opinion still.” Many otherwise rational people persist in believing that babies can be “marked” despite the lack of evidence. Country people had a spring ritual thought to be essential to health. After a winter of limited exercise and consumption of dried vegetables and salted meat, many didn’t feel up to par. “Hit’s time fer spring tonic,” the mother of a family avowed. “Yore gonna feel better soon.” All, including the adults, took an annual dose of an odious elixir composed of sulfur and molasses. “Maw, I don’t want hit. Hit tastes horrible,” a youngster complained. “Be thet as hit may, yore gitting hit anyhow,” the parent insisted. She firmly believed that the family needed a spring-cleaning to purify the blood. All her life, she’d taken it and meant to see that her children did the same. Resistance was futile. Even with the multiple dangers to health, mistaken ideas, and lack of medical care, a person who survived infancy had a reasonable chance of living into the seventh, eighth, or rarely even the ninth decade of life. The extremely short life span often cited is an average pulled down by the deaths of many babies. Of typical families of nine or ten children, often only five or six lived to adulthood. Many died within the first year of life.
Chapter 20: Days of Fun and Fury Practical jokes weren’t common, but the perpetrators took inordinate delight in them. Among younger boys, only one was widespread. No matter how many times the hoax was pulled, some gullible boy hadn’t learned about it. “Let’s go snipe huntin,’” Howard invited a boy whose family had recently moved from town into the county. “Whut’s a snipe?” Rufus inquired. “Hit’s a bird thet makes mighty good eatin.’ Easy t’ ketch too. They’s a bunch o’ us goin’ tonight. Jest bring ’long a tow sack.” That night, Rufus joined a group of six boys armed with burlap bags. They made their way into the woods to the end of a long ditch that carried away water during heavy rains. It was dry and rocky. “Y’u git right heer whar th’ ditch ez deepest, Rufus,” Howard said. “Th’ rest o’ us’ll go t’ th’ othe’ end ’n’ run th’ snipes down th’ ditch ’n y’u kin ketch ’em in yore sack. It’ll take us a bit to find ’em, so be shore to stay right heer. If y’u leave even fer a minute, y’u might lose ’em.” The gullible teenager, eager to please his new friends, did as instructed. He heard them crashing through the woods calling out to scare the snipes in his direction. All became quiet. Rufus assumed that they were so far away that he couldn’t hear them. No doubt they’d get a large catch of snipes. He’d been assured that they were more tasty than chicken. Time passed. The night sounds began to take on an eerie quality. The dim moonlight made familiar shapes seem ominous. Bushes seemed to move. An owl screeched in the distance. Only gradually did Rufus realize that his associates had gone away, leaving him “holding the bag.” Shamefaced, he hurried home, making certain not to let his parents or siblings know how easily he’d been fooled. “How’d y’u enjoy snipe huntin’?” one of the conspirators asked in a mocking tone when he encountered Rufus the next day. “Ketch very many?” “Aw, I knowed whut y’all wuz up t’ th’ whole time.” I got home by th’ time y’all did. Y’u didn’t fool me a bit.” Rufus never went snipe hunting again–not as the victim anyway. That joke worked only once. Among older boys, a particularly vicious practical joke might be pulled. It was complicated and risky so that it could be done only on rare occasions. The adults all condemned it, although they secretly laughed at any young man who became its victim.
“We’se goin’ t’ see Meg tonight. Yore comin’ wif us ain’t y’u?” the set of plotters asked one of their number believed most likely to fall for the gag. He was a couple of years younger. They went on to explain that Meg was a woman of easy virtue who’d welcome a group visit. All claimed that they’d been with her many times. “Y’u mean y’u has never heerd o’ Meg? She puts out,” one said in mock astonishment at the intended victim. “Hit’s time y’u grew up t’ b’ a man. Ain’t thet right boys?” The others agreed, putting the victim of the scam in a position where he could hardly refuse to participate without his manhood being called into question. Soon after dark, the group approached a run-down cabin supposedly belonging to Meg. Inside was a visiting cousin of one of the boys. Her unfamiliar voice was ideal. Safely out of reach of her parents, she’d eagerly agreed to participate in the hoax. “Boy, we got t’ b’ quiet ’n’ make shore Meg’s husban’ ain’t home. He’s terrible jealous, but she sez he’s visitin’ his maw near Crossville fer a couple a days.” “Meg, air y’u there?” another boy called out. “Com’ on in, fellers,” a female voice invited. “All’s clear.” The group of young men had barely entered the dark cabin when a husky male voice called out from the woods. “Meg, who’s thet ’n thar wif y’u?” Meg whispered in mock alarm, “Hit’s my ole man. I didn’t ’xpect him home tonight. Y’u boys best run fer yore lives. He’s sed he’d kill anybody who ever came ’round me.” As the boys quickly rushed outside, the voice boomed out again. “Who’s thet messin’ ’round wif m’ wife’? I’ll kill th’ ones doin’ hit. Shore ez fate I will.” The “husband” shot up into the air a couple of times and burst noisily from the woods in the direction of the cabin. He continued to shout dire threats. At the next shotgun blast, one of the boys yelled and clutched his stomach. “He got me fellers. I’m bleedin’ bad.” “Run fer yore lives!” called the head conspirator. “Hit’s ever man fer hisself.” All but the dupe of the gag fled only a few feet. They pointed derisively and sniggered as they heard him crashing into the woods in panic.
“Shoot ’n th’ air once mo,’ Rob” one urged. “Give him a big scare.” After that blast, another boy screamed out in mock pain. “Stop thet! Y’u done kilt anoth’r un. Yore gonna brang th’ sheriff down on us,” Meg screamed loud enough for the stooge to hear as he stumbled in terror through the dark woods. The group, along with “Meg” and her “husband” almost collapsed with laughter at the success of their scheme. They agreed that the only regret was that they couldn’t publicly gloat about it. None wanted to experience the parental wrath that would be sure to come. A small group of bigots operated beneath the surface in the community. They were inherently opposed to the idea that anyone anywhere might be having any fun. They hid behind robes and hoods and dealt in fear and hatred. Although nobody in the Camp family belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, most of them considered blacks to be distinctly inferior to whites. It was all they’d ever heard. Some of the children eventually became more tolerant as time passed and circumstances changed over the following decades. Others retained the racist views instilled in childhood throughout their lives. “Others kin do ez they please, but I don’t want nothing t’ do wif th’ Klan,” Milas stated. “I holp none o’ y’u boys will either.” The fanatical organization was weak in North Alabama. During the Civil War, only minor skirmishes had taken place in the area. A goodly number of people in North Alabama during the Civil War had greater loyalty to the Union than to the Confederacy. They had nothing to gain by the perpetuation of slavery. This viewpoint was particularly pronounced in Winston County where residents asked both sides in the conflict to leave them alone. Marshall surrounding counties hadn’t been the location of great plantations in the days before the War. For that reason, only a scattering of African-Americans lived there. With the main object of their prejudice not readily at hand, the Klan didn’t flourish. Yet, a few groups operated, meeting in private homes, railing also against Catholics, foreigners, and Jews. Few, if any, had ever met a single person belonging to one of those despised groups. The Klan might assume another function. It sometimes appointed itself keeper of community morals. If nobody else would do anything about a “fallen woman,” they might send her a warning letter. Its essence was “We are watching you.” It was signed “KKK.” The same might be done to a man who failed to support his family or who was a drunkard.
If the letter didn’t work, the malefactor might be awakened late at night by shouts to find a flaming cross in the yard. Beatings were rare. The hooded men were cowards. Most on Sand Mountain disapproved of their views and actions, but few dared speak against them openly.
KKK Member For the most part, people enjoyed life despite its various hardships. Living was simpler then. People had their troubles, but they had considerable pleasure in their bucolic existence.
Chapter 21: The Move to Town After the birth of Belle’s four children, Milas made what, for him, was a monumental decision. Due to his growing prosperity, it was no longer necessary for him to operate a farm. He decided to move his family into Albertville. His children must be able to attend high school. “Belle, start gatherin’ thangs up. We’s movin’ into town next week,” he informed his spouse. “I want th’ chillen t’ b’ able t’ attend th’ higher grades.” After the move, for the first time in his adult life, Milas no longer directly operated a farm. He depended on trading, sharecroppers, and rentals for most of his income. He also tried his hand at being a merchant. “Belle, I’ve decided t’ op’n a store heer ’n town,” he informed his spouse. For a few years he pursued that occupation. It was while his father’s store was in operation that Howard got his hands on an unexpected bonus. Finding the cash register unguarded, he stole the magnificent sum of fifty cents. Years later, he reported, “I didn’t know what to do with so much money, so I kept it hidden. It took me a really long time to spend it all.” After a time, Milas grew tired of operating the establishment and sold his share to his business partner. The house he’d selected was on Thaxton Avenue on the edge of Albertville. A white, frame house with electricity and water, it was by far the nicest he’d ever owned. It featured front and back porches, a living room separated from a formal dining room by French doors, four bedrooms, a kitchen and for the first time in his life, an indoor bathroom. Outbuildings were a medium-sized barn and a garage.
Milas Camp Home in Albertville as It Appears in 2009 He eventually acquired the two houses to the west of his. Those, he made them into rental property. Milas continued, over the years, to purchase additional land and houses in the town and rural areas. Ultimately he held eleven parcels plus his own home.
“I aim t’ give one place t’ each o’ th’ chillen,” he explained to Belle. “But I won’t do hit ’till I’m old. Ef I give nearly everythin’ away, thar won’t have no arguin’ ’bout inheritance.” It was a long-range goal. He had decades yet to live. Albertville had a long history as an educational center. In 1893, the Alabama Legislature passed a law mandating several agricultural colleges. The Seventh District Agricultural School had its cornerstone laid in the town the following year. Dwight Thomas, unofficial town historian, described the building. “It wuz a grand Victorian buildin’ wif a bas’ment, two main floors, a attic, ’n’ two towers. The taller tower had a roof kind o’ like a church steeple. One day ‘n1912, th’ whole thang burnt t’ th’ ground. We built hit back wif fire inshorance money, help from th’ Legislature, ’n’ Albertville people wif funds. We didn’t aim t’ see hit put sommers else. Thet school wuz ours an’ we meant t’ keep hit.” The high school building that Milas’ school-age children attended was opened the following fall. Even grander than its predecessor, it was of brick with four massive Ionic columns supporting the front portico. It boasted three floors plus a large auditorium at the back. Inside the front door, a steep stairway rose to the second floor. At each end, sets of stairs led to all floors. It was, by far, the largest and nicest building in the county.
Albertville High School It went by the name State Secondary Agricultural School, but was informally referred to as the “high school.” Ultimately, it came to be called Albertville High School, but kept connection to its agricultural origins with the name “Aggies” for its sports teams. On McCord Avenue was the junior high school. Alongside it was an older building for lower grades, called the City School. Both were of brick and stood within sight of the high school. The older building had a medium-sized auditorium on the second level. The newer structure had a basement lunchroom. The two, combined with the high school, made quite an educational complex for the time and place. It was the presence of the secondary school that had led Milas to move his family from the rural areas into Albertvillle. His house was at a distance of about two miles. It was an easy walk for the children. The school’s Alma Mater shows the high esteem the town had for its high school. The students, on special occasions, reverently sang it while they stood in respect for what the school meant to them.
In the hills of Alabama, In the town called Albertville, There is a school, We love its every rule And it’s there we’ll always be. You may search the wide world over, But you’ll find no better place, In the hills of Alabama Than the dear S.S.A.S. In 1928, ten faculty members covered the fields of history, home economics, agriculture, sociology, music, science, mathematics, English, and expression. Two of the ten taught home economics in keeping with the limited expectations then held for girls. That was the year Howard, a member of the Lee Society, graduated along with 54 others in the senior class. Birdie was a member of the Junior Class. Leamon was already in college. Because he was studious and remained unmarried, Milas paid his college expenses. Instruction in agriculture was a major part of the curriculum, but was open only to boys. For many years, the majority of the boys took the courses that extended over two periods for four years. During the freshman year, they studied crops, soils, fertilizers, plus the planting and cultivation of the farm crops grown in Marshall County. The sophomore year dealt with livestock, feeds, the improvement of breeds, and poultry. The junior year saw emphasis on horticulture, including diseases of plants, pruning, spraying, and planting of trees and truck crops. The senior year was devoted to farm management, including problems faced by farmers and upkeep of the farm. Each boy was required to take on a project related to what he’d learned. The project was customarily done during summer vacation. Of the two periods devoted to agriculture each day, the first period was used for discussion and classroom study. The other period was for making observation trips, judging cattle, or doing work on the campus or school farm. A shop where the boys were taught carpentry and other shop work was provided. B.E. McPherson, a much later principal, commented, “Agriculture continued to be offered for decades, but became less and less popular with the students. Marshall County gradually turned away from reliance on farming to include other jobs. Finally, only a few boys enrolled, mainly those who actually intended to be farmers and those who couldn’t do well in the regular classes.” Available only to girls was home economics. Most of them took advantage of the opportunity to enroll three out of the four years during high school. Girls learned the principles of food planning and preparation, the selection and making of clothing, and the
problems related to the home and its improvement. Two laboratories provided practical experience. One was the Sewing Room and the other the Kitchen. The girls were advised with the sexist adage, “The shortest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” That men should share in home duties was a concept for the future. The teachers went into the home of the girls to advise them as to improvement. Girls, as did the boys, carried out projects for extra credit. From the beginning, the school had a science laboratory used in connection with teaching biology and chemistry. These courses, along with history and English, were important for students who planned to go on to college. Each year, the principal held a meeting with the freshman class to explain about the most important extra-curricular activity. “You are expected to be a member of one of two literary societies. The societies are named for Robert E. Lee and John T. Morgan. You all know who Lee was, but Morgan was an outstanding Alabama senator. Each society is divided into two sections: one for girls and one for boys. The societies meet on Wednesdays and present programs.” The boys’ section was mainly debates, speeches, and discussion of current events. The girls’ program studied lives of great musicians, piano music, vocal music, readings, and discussion of topics considered of interest to girls. Sexism was rampant. The concept of gender equality lay far ahead. Each February 22nd, the Lee Society and Morgan Society held their annual contest. The date was chosen to honor George Washington. The contest generated strong feelings. It was held at night in the school auditorium. Every seat was taken and many stood outside to listen. To the victor went the Society Cup. The coveted prize was bronze with two large handles to the side. It rested on an ornate, tiered base. To be chosen by election to represent one’s society at the contest was one of the highest honors for an Albertville student, although it meant much work in speech preparation. It was important to win. The Lee Society won the year Howard graduated. He, however, wasn’t one of the selected representatives. The groups weren’t entirely academic. On December 8, 1927, the boys’ literary societies held their annual football game. Howard’s Lee Society won 12 to zero. The societies weren’t the only student activity. Also available were the Dramatic Club, the Music Club, the Mountaineer that issued the annual, the band, and sports. Like most schools, an extreme emphasis on sports prevailed, especially for football. A highlight of the year was the Senior Banquet. The year that Howard was a senior, it was held November 27, 1927 at 7:00 p.m. in the Masonic Hall. The seniors, plus about 25 guests attended.
“Howard, what was it like?” Birdie asked. “I’ll be a senior next year so I want to know what to expect. “There sure was a lot of praise given to the football team. You’d almost think the banquet was for them instead of the seniors. The Masons’ building had bright lights, lots of colored decorations, swinging balloons, footballs placed all around, and loving cups to be given out. I never saw anything like it before,” Howard related. He strived to use correct English to impress his stepsister. “Sounds exciting,” Birdie responded. “What I liked best was the magician. I can’t possibly figure how he did some of those things. Faculty, students, and some on the varsity team made a bunch of toasts. I got tired of that real soon, especially since they had food waiting for us.” Food was served in the cafeteria at one end of the hall. The group feasted on fried chicken, hot rolls, salad, pickles, sandwiches, ambrosia, cake, and punch. It was the biggest night of the year for the senior class. That year had been an especially good one for the Albertville football squad. Under the leadership of its coach, Jack Frost, from the University of Georgia, it became one of the strongest in the history of the school. Frost rose to speak at the Senior Banquet. “We played ten other schools this year and won all but one game.” A collective groan rose from the audience. The single defeat was a particularly bitter one. They didn’t like being reminded of it. The opening game was at home against Limestone County High School. The Albertville Aggies dominated the game from its September 23rd three o’clock start to its finish. They scored 44 points to their opponents zero. The next team to fall six to zero a week later was Arab that played on the Aggie home field. The slim margin of victory showed that the team, while strong, wasn’t invincible. October 7 saw the defeat of Crossville with a score of 57 to zero in another home game. The score against Crossville might have been higher except that the game was called in the fourth quarter due to rain. The first away game was on October 14th with a 20 to zero Aggie victory over a significantly larger school at Gadsden. The series of wins resulted in soaring confidence.
Snead Seminary at Boaz fielded its first team that year, but went down to defeat 25 to 12 on Albertville’s home field. Frost was delighted that his boys could triumph over a college team, even it was a fledgling group. The Cullman Panthers visited on October 28th but scored only one touchdown against the Aggie score of 19. It appeared that Albertville could only win. The next week they found out better. The single disappointment of the season came on November 4th when Marshall County High School at Guntersville defeated Albertville by a score of six to zero. This was the first win by Guntersville in the entire history of the rivalry and took place before a crowd on the Aggie home field that was estimated at 2,000 spectators. A week later, the Aggies triumphed over Fort Payne by a lopsided score of 57 to zero. The next game was to be with Valley Head, but their officials called it off, resulting in a win by forfeit. The tiny school rightly feared to play the mighty Aggies. The final game of 1927-28 was on November 24th when the Aggies traveled to Blountsville to overcome them 26 to six. Eight of the team were seniors and so played their last game at that location. Milas’ hopes to advance his children’s education exceeded his expectations. Birdie, Leamon, Howard, and Leon all went on to become college graduates. Leamon completed a master’s degree. Without access to the high school, none of that would’ve been possible. To graduate from the high school at Albertville was no small accomplishment. Both it and the town were well thought of. Twenty years after the business district’s destruction in the tornado of 1908, Albertville had recovered to become a substantial rural town. Its infrastructure included public water, electric lines, and telephone lines. Yet the town was small enough, and few enough actually had telephones, that numbers could be only one or two digits. A wide variety of stores operated. The Acorn Store was the first department store and advertised with the slogan, “Merit is the Trade Mark of Success, Value is the True Test of Cheapness.” Those needing to have a hat cleaned and blocked could see Joe C. Wakefield. He also provided steam laundry, a tailor, and dry cleaning. Buggies, wagons, farm implements, hardware, and building material were available at Gipson-Johnson Company. The Whitten Ford dealerships sold cars, trucks, and tractors. George Nixon operated a Standard Oil gas station. L.W. Bryant General Merchandise sold shoes and flour with the slogans, “Every sack guaranteed or money refunded,” and “We buy by the carload and sell by the wagonload.” Seay and Maddux sold groceries as “The quality store that saves you money.”
The Albertville Trading Company sold dry goods and featured a Jitney Jungle self-service grocery store. Anyone needing nitrate of soda from South America and highgrade fertilizers in addition to general merchandise could see J.L. Hatley. The Star Company served the public with dry good, notions, shoes, hats, millinery, clothing and Rose Blanche Flour. In the absence of home refrigerators, W.R. Brice sold ice with the assurance that the product would “Save food, flavor, and money.” City Drug Store was a Rexall store that promised “The best in drug store service, the best in drug store merchandise.” The competing Marshall Drug Company offered drugs, patent medicines, schoolbooks, school supplies, jewelry, and toilet articles along with Pee Gee Paints and the best linseed oils. Hewitt Drug Company in the King Hotel Building promoted “Purity and Accuracy.” Hogan Jackson operated the Albertville National Bank with the assurance that it was “Under United States Government supervision and a member of the Federal Reserve System.” Williams Hardware and Supply Company boasted of having 20,000 feet of floor space in its building and warehouse. J. Willie Johnson and Son provided photography that they called “Fotografs.” Robert O. Johnson, who survived into the 21st Century, continued the family business. Doctors H.B. Gunn and G.C. Niles took care of dental needs. B.J. Nelson was the optometrist and also vended jewelry. The O.K. Barber Shop and the King Hotel Barber Shop let it be known that their work was “strictly sanitary.” Other business establishments and professional people operated in Albertville at the time, but this provides a sample. Because he was living in town but had business interests in the county, it was imperative that Milas own automobiles. His first car was a Model T Ford. Henry Ford started production of the famous model in1908 and continued for nineteen years. It was designed to be affordable by most families. By the late 1920s when Milas purchased his first one, the price had dropped to about $300. He bought it at Whitten Ford in Albertville. “Mr. Camp, this here’s th’ best car ever made,” the salesman asserted. “To start hit, y’u jest operate th’ choke wif yore left hand whilst y’u push yore foot on thet round button on th’ floor. Then y’u control th’ throttle wif thet lever on th’ steerin’ wheel. In th’ floor air three foot pedals. Th’ one on th’ left, y’u push down and hold hit forward t’
go t’ low gear. If y’u hol’ hit half way, hits ’n neutral. Or to get to neutral, y’u kin pull th’ lever on th’ floor upright. If y’u push hit forward an’ take yore foot off th’ left pedal, hit goes into high gear.” “I see,” Milas said uncertainly. He began to shift his weight from foot to foot. “Now this here pedal ’n th’ middle puts hit ’n reverse an’ th’ pedal on th’ right operates th’ engine brake. Th’ floor lever also controls th’ parking brake. Y’u jest pull hit all th’ way back ’n case of an emergency. Hit’s really easy t’ drive.” Milas pulled out his pocket watch. “I got t’ go now, but I mought see y’u later.”
Model T Ford Milas did return and purchased his first car, but he brought one of his sons with him to receiving operating instructions. Despite owning a number of vehicles over the years, he didn’t drive until all his children were grown and away from home. At that time he bought a 1949 two-door Chevrolet with a three-speed manual transmission, but barely managed to get it home. “I put hit ’n low, but when I let out th’ clutch, hit jerks an’ goes dead most of th’ time,” he complained to Junior. “You’re not giving it enough gas and you’re letting the clutch out too fast,” his youngest son explained.
1949 Chevrolet Despite numerous driving lessons by his children, Milas never learned to drive the vehicle correctly. Belle knew nothing of such matters. When he went through the countryside to check on his various renters, they had advance notice of his dread approach. When he moved forward from any stop, he raced the engine wildly and repeated the action at the changes into second and high.
“I heer Mr. Camp a comin,’” a renter called out to his family. “Look lively thar. He’s aimin’ t’ check up on us. Let’s not give him nothing t’ fuss ‘bout.” Eventually, Milas began to dispose of his properties. As he’d planned, he owned enough to give a tract of land to each of eleven children. They, however, weren’t of equal value. The problem was the difficulty of parceling them out in such a way that there’d be no quarreling. “Belle, I’ve decided t’ sell off all but th’ home place ’n’ give the chillen money instead of land,” he announced. “I don’t want no fightin’ over things onst I’m gone.” Over a period of time he did just that. On two occasions, he distributed cash from land sales. Finally all was disposed of except a renter house he gave to Belle and the home place that was to be for the use of Belle during her lifetime.
Chapter 22: Milas Grows Old When Milas entered his later seventies, he began to decline both physically and mentally. He became gaunt, his eyes receded back into his skull, his skin discolored and wrinkled, and his hearing became increasingly less acute. Belle finally had to announce his condition to his children. She wept as she related, “Thet renter house thet Mile give me wuz causin’ problems. I axed him ’bout hit, ’n’ he jest said he couldn’t advise me no mo.’” Belle had been accustomed to him seeing to all business matters. She’d noted his gradual decline in ability, but explained it away until she couldn’t continue to deny what had happened. He was no longer the competent and capable man he’d been all his life. “Yore paw needs t’ see a doctor,” she explained to Leon. “Hits got t’ whar I don’t know whut t’ do fer him.” At that point, a young doctor named Martin came onto the scene. A recent medical school graduate, he was enthusiastic about the power of medical science. Within a short time he had Milas taking several powerful medications. The results were catastrophic. Although remaining physically strong, the drugs caused him to become mentally unstable and unpredictable. Belle could no longer manage him alone. Most of the family gathered at his house for a general meeting to decide how to handle the situation. The long-established custom of the family had been to care for elderly people at home. “We can’t put paw in some institution,” they agreed. “He took care of us when we were young and now it’s his turn.” The children arranged a schedule for the various ones to come to his house a day at a time to care for him. As the numerous medications took a firmer hold on him, the situation worsened. “Who’s thet old hag?” Milas asked one of his sons as he stared at his wife. “Whut’s she doin’ heer? I’ll make her leave.” Although she knew he wasn’t responsible, Belle sobbed at the cruel words. “I jest don’t know how Milas kin talk ’gain me like thet,” she lamented. “I’ve always done th’ best I knowed how by him.” “That’s Belle, your wife,” one of his daughters said. “You remember her don’t you?” He glanced at his wife and children with a blank expression. He didn’t, at that moment, know who any of them were.
The following week, he attempted to choke one of his daughters. From that point, it became necessary that two men be with him at all times. Although having problems with his mind, he was dangerously physically strong in his hands and arms. One day when Leon was taking his turn caring for his father, he realized something was unusual. Unable to locate him anywhere in the house, he looked outside just in time to see him drive his car into the street. Leon jumped into his own car and followed the slow-moving vehicle. Milas drove to town and circled back toward home. He pulled into the garage, but was unable to stop the car in time. It burst with a crash through the back wall. Leon rushed to his father’s assistance and found him shaken, but uninjured. “Paw, don’t you think its time you gave up your keys,” he asked. “I reckon so,” Milas replied. He never drove again. Leon related the incident and other instances of aberrant behavior to his siblings. “I’ve decided on something I have to try,” he said. “I’m going to take him off all his medicine no matter what the doctor says. I think that’s a big part of his problems.” Dr. Martin was indignant. “I certainly don’t recommend that!” he said, miffed that his advice was being disregarded. “If you do it, you’ll have to be responsible for what happens. Do you want to kill your father? He’ll die if you take away his medicine. What kind of son are you?” Despite the young doctor’s opposition, Leon carried through on his plan. Within a few days, Milas greatly improved. His mind returned, not enough for him to take care of business, but sufficiently for him to function normally at home. For a period of years, he and Belle lived alone without need of help from the children. It was during this period that the only formal reunion of his descendants took place in 1955. “If we’re ever goin’ t’ git together, hit needs to be soon,” Bertha insisted. “We’re all livin’ now, but when we start t’ go, hit might b’ fast.” The big event was scheduled for a Saturday at the home place. Each family was to bring food so that the burden didn’t fall on Belle to cook for such a large crowd. The table in the formal dining room was covered with a dingy, lace cloth. It practically groaned under the weight of the feast. Brown leak circles on the ceiling were jarring flaw in the old-fashioned decor. Initially, ten of the eleven children showed up for the all-day event. A gang of grandchildren were in attendance, some willingly and others under parental compulsion. “I allow thet Albert won’t be comin’,” Bertha said. “I asked him ’bout hit, ’n’ he said thet he mought. But y’u know how put upon he feels.”
A quick trip the few miles to his house was required for two of his brothers to persuade him to complete the reunion. It was the first time in many years that all eleven had been together in the same room at the same time. It was such an occasion that Pace Photography Studio was summonsed to take pictures. A few spent the night at the home place, but as had always been the case, nobody slept in what was known as the Granny Room. At the end of the hallway lurked the Granny Room. It was the smallest of the four bedrooms. A half-bed was forced against the left wall, a chest-of-drawers stood against the right. A ceramic receptacle with single bare bulb, controlled by a pull chain, was centered on the ceiling. The blown bulb had remained so for nearly a decade. Belle was afraid to stay the room long enough to make the replacement and nobody else seemed to care. A ragged, brown throw rug lay at an angle alongside the bed. The only window opened toward the back yard. Faded, dusty curtains covered it so thickly that little light penetrated. The room had a musty, closed-up odor found only in a house not in use. Except for spots of black mold, the horizontal boards of the walls were the same dark green they’d been on the long-ago day when Granny Duvall died. Not a soul had slept in the room for over twenty years. Few had entered it. The door was habitually kept shut, invariably so at night. The Granny Room was a place of dread among family, especially the grandchildren. Most of the adults scoffed as they made brave statements. “I’m not a bit afraid of that room.” “Nothing’s gonna bother you in there.” “It’s just a bedroom like any other.” “Don’t be a coward.” “There’s nothing to worry about.” “I don’t believe Belle’s wild tales.” But, one and all, they declined to sleep there during family visits. “The couch is more comfortable.” “I’ll just stay in the room with my sister.” “It’s crowded. I’ll sleep in the barn.” “It’s such a hot night. Think I’ll take the daybed on the back porch.” “A pallet on the living room floor will be fine.” Belle was no longer even moderately attractive as she had been in her youth. Her yellowing, gray hair stuck out in all directions. Decades of exposure to the sun had imparted a leathery look to her wrinkled skin. Glasses with thick lenses made her eyes appear overly large. She wasn’t fat, but her abdomen protruded, its muscles weakened from child bearing. Inexpensive dentures gave an abnormal bulge to her lips. Make-up had never touched her face. She owned no jewelry. Belle had been a hard-working, often unappreciated, presence for many years. Most seemed to take her for granted. Fifteen-year-old Bernie was the only grandson spending the night. Several granddaughters shared the middle bedroom with its four double beds. He was assigned Junior’s room for the night.
“It’s next door to the Granny Room. You won’t be afraid, will you?” his mother asked. “If you are, you can sleep on a pallet on the floor in the living room with us.” “Tell me again what they say about that room?” He’d heard a vague story about it, but the details became important only now that he’d be sleeping with only a thin wall between his room and the feared place. “Oh, there’s nothing to it, of course,” his mother explained. “It’s the room where Belle took care of her mother, Granny Duvall, for a few years. Granny died in that room. Afterwards, Belle said that she saw a casket floating in it. She claims to have seen it several times over the years, but we know that’s impossible.” “Then why won’t anybody sleep there?” Bernie asked. “Why, Leon has slept there a time or two and absolutely nothing happened.” She had no idea if Leon actually had slept in the room, but believed the idea would reassure her son. Bernie didn’t want to be thought a wimp, didn’t believe in the supernatural, and certainly didn’t want to spend the night on a hard floor. “Sure, I’m not afraid. I’ll stay in Junior’s room.” He came to rue his decision. Junior’s room was small, but cozy. When he was dressed for bed, Bernie clicked off the overhead light. Enough light entered from the window that he could easily see to move about. He was glad that it wasn’t totally dark. The bed was comfortable with clean-smelling sheets and three flowered quilts. It quickly became a warm cocoon on the cool night. As he was about to drift off into sleep, there came a rasping, grating sound from the direction of the Granny Room. Instantly alert, Bernie pushed the covers off his chest and sat up. The sound repeated again and again with only seconds of delay. He felt his heart begin to beat faster and harder. As he prepared to leap out of bed and run, he recognized the sound. “It’s nothing but a mouse chewing inside the wall,” he thought. “I’ve heard that exact sound in the barn at home. There’s nothing to be afraid about.” Bernie pulled the cover up around his neck as he lay down again. The persistent sound continued. Despite what logic told him, the unfamiliar surroundings and proximity to the Granny Room proved unnerving. After a couple of hours, he remained wideawake although tired from the activities of the long day. Each time he opened his eyes, he automatically turned and stared at the wall separating him from the Granny Room. He realized that he’d remain sleepless the entire night.
“I’m gonna get some good out of this,” he thought. “Those girl cousins of mine should be easy targets.” Bernie eased out of bed, pulled loose the white top sheet, and wrapped it loosely around his body and over his head so that only a small vertical slit remained so he could see. Cautiously slipping into the hallway, he reached back and turned the doorknob so that it wouldn’t make a click as he shut his bedroom door. He was in arm-length of the closed door of the fearsome Granny Room. He placed his hand on the knob, but hesitated. In seconds, his resolve returned and he pulled it outward and slipped inside. It was darker than Junior’s room, but enough light penetrated for him to jerk the quilt that covered the single bed halfway to the floor. Bernie struggled to stifle a cough from the fog of dust. He gently laid a cane-bottom chair on its side and slid the top drawer of the chest partly out. The room looked sufficiently disheveled for his purpose. He stepped back into the hallway and crept cautiously toward the bedroom occupied by his cousins. The rough boards felt cool under his bare feet. No matter how slowly he eased forward, repeated squeaks came from the old floorboards. From the front of the house arose distant sounds of snoring. From his cousins’ room emenated a combination of scents of powder, perfume, and hair spray. Bernie wrinkled his nose and frowned.
Bernie Slips Down the Hallway “Owwww, owwwww,” he cried mournfully as he stepped through the open door. He imitated the sound of a crazed old woman as best he could. Bernie repeated the plaintive call twice more until his cousins began to arouse. “What’s that?” one of them shouted as she caught sight of Bernie encased in the sheet. Her exclamation aroused the others and they began to scream frantically. With a final moan, Bernie darted into the hallway and made a mad dash for the Granny Room. He slung the opened door with a loud bang against the wall of the hallway. Quickly, he jumped into Junior’s room, roughly slid the sheet into place, leaped into bed, and closed his eyes. He tried to lie still, but shook with barely controlled laughter at the sounds of alarm. Chaos reigned in the house as his cousins screamed for help. One of them sobbed hysterically. The ado brought the parents stomping down the hall, demanding an explanation as they converged on the girls’ room.
“A horrible, moaning ghost came right into this room,” one of them said. “We all saw it, didn’t we girls?” She got a chorus of frightened agreement from her cousins. They tumbled out of bed and embraced their parents for comfort. “Then we heard a loud bang from toward the Granny Room. I bet it was her,” she quaked. “I never want to sleep in this horrible house again.” Although suspicious that it’d been nothing but a dream, the parents ganged in front of the entrance to the Granny Room as the terrified girls stood behind them. “Look at that,” Iduma shrieked. “That door’s always been shut at night ever since Granny died.” Leamon, who considered himself to be above superstition, turned on the hallway light. He boldly stepped into the partially lit room. When he jerked the chain on the ceiling light, it wouldn’t come on. When he detected the disorder, he made no comment. The others remained in the hallway, but peered inside. “Everything’s all tore up,” Iduma said fearfully. “I tole maw they should’ve moved out of this house years ago. Granny is mad because we all had a good time today but she couldn’t take part. I just know it.” In view of the loud talking, Bernie decided it was time that he must make an appearance or else bring suspicion upon himself. He opened his bedroom door and stepped into the hallway, rubbing his eyes as if he’d been asleep. “What’s going on? Is something wrong?” He tried to look as innocent as possible, but it was a struggle for him to keep from laughing at the gullibility of most of his relatives. The scheme was working even better than he’d expected. By that time, Bernie’s parents arrived from the room where they’d been asleep on a rollaway bed. After she learned of the scary episode, his mother caught his eye for a second. Instantly, she knew he was the culprit and eased to his side. “Get back in bed. We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” she whispered as she jabbed his side sharply with her finger. A measure of calm slowly returned, but nobody slept much for the rest of the night. Bernie presumed that he’d be punished, but the fun had been well worth it. Besides, he’d seen a hint of amusement in his mother’s eyes that told him she also found it funny. Adults felt compelled to hide such feelings.
As he hoped, his mother didn’t reveal his culpability. The night’s events served to increase apprehension about the Granny Room among some of the family. Even those who attributed the events to overactive imagination by the girls had a particle of doubt. “Hey, you never know,” one of them privately admitted when questioned about it. “Granny was a strange old bird.” About two years after the reunion, Milas abruptly died. He’d taken a turn for the worse and was placed in the hospital primarily as a precaution. He seemed to improve. It was while he laughed and joked with Howard and Eloise that he fell suddenly silent, shut his eyes, and quit breathing. He was months short of ninety years old. The funeral was held at Mt. Olive Baptist Church were he’d been a deacon for decades. At the insistence of his older daughters, Preacher Moore was put in charge of the service. It was a warm, sunny spring day. The church was crowded with family and acquaintances, despite the fact that Milas had outlived almost everyone his age. The brown, metal casket with fluffy white lining lay open at the front of the church, directly before the stage. Milas looked extremely bad, but that didn’t stop the foolish utterances that are customary at a funeral. “Oh, don’t he look natural,” exclaimed a neighbor woman. She looked expectantly at bystanders for affirmation of her statement. Nobody endorsed what was so clearly untrue. She ignored the fact that when alive he never wore make-up or lipstick. In rural southern society, the only time a person “looks natural” is when he’s dead. Others made equally inane comments when they walked up beside his casket for a look. When it was time for the service to start, the funeral director clicked the lid shut and pulled a blanket of red roses over it. To both sides stood wreaths of various sizes and types of flowers. The combination of scents was sicky-sweet and almost overpowering in the small church. After a long prayer delivered in a monotone, Moore introduced an elderly man, Preacher Isbell. He was to share in the service. Isbell was obviously confused and unwell. He made general comments in a shaking voice. “To tell you the truth, I thought Uncle Mile was already dead,” he stated. The man made unclear references to the Scriptures, but when he tried to find a verse to support his thoughts, his hands shook so much he couldn’t effectively turn the pages of his Bible. Twice he pushed his gold-rimmed glasses higher on his nose and began to read, but the verse he found wasn’t the one he intended. The mourners sat in embarrassed silence. Finally, to the relief of all, he ended his part and returned the service to Moore.
The fundamentalist minister was up to his usual standard. He started out calmly enough, with the customary views of his church. As he went on, the man became increasingly excited. He allowed that while Milas was assured of a heavenly reward, he wasn’t so certain about some of his grandchildren. Speculated that some of them might well come to reside in “hellfire” if they didn’t change their ways. Bernie punched his cousin sitting next to him. “He’s talking about us,” he whispered. Bernie was unorthodox in religious views and the other boy was a smoker and drinker. “Better get a set of asbestos clothes,” he smirked. “We’re both gonna need them.” The minister continued his harangue, pausing occasionally to mop sweat from his forehead with his white handkerchief. After nearly an hour, the service ended with another lengthy prayer that essentially summarized all that the man had asserted during his sermon. In the Appalachian Mountain way, the funeral director opened the casket so that the mourners could file by a final time. Bernie, pressed into service as a pallbearer and so sitting near the front, noticed with revulsion that the pink make-up from his grandfather’s nose had rubbed off onto the white satin lining of the casket lid. The undertaker tried in vain to discreetly remove the stain. As the audience passed, Belle and a few of his daughters broke down in hysterical sobbing. The ceremony seemed to be designed to provoke an emotional display. It succeeded. Burial was in the church graveyard. Milas had decided to be placed there rather than alongside his first wife. He’d been married to Belle far longer than to Miranda and Mt. Olive was his home church, although he hadn’t attended for many years. After a brief prayer, the funeral home personnel slowly lowered the casket into the grave. The family retreated inside the church or to their cars to avoid seeing the necessary work that followed. Only when the flowers were arranged on the grave did they return. Milas’ younger daughters pulled the tags from the wreaths and noted the type on the back for the obligatory “thank you” notes. The family scattered to their various homes, not to be together again until the next funeral commanded their presence. On the way home, Bernie remarked to his parents, “That was totally disgusting.” “If you had any respect for the dead, you wouldn’t say something like that,” his father accused, completely missing the point of the comment. With the passing of Milas, members of the family shifted a generation in a single day. He had seemed a permanent fixture, but had gone “the way of all flesh.”
In Conclusion Milas Camp, Miranda Hix, and Belle Duvall were the progenitors of eleven remarkable people. This story of an Alabama family was written partly to preserve memory of that family. Descendants who may happen to read this account should keep in mind that it’s “enhanced nonfiction.” Much of the dialogue is fabricated as would have to be the case when the author relates in detail what was said long before his birth. Descriptions of relatives and others are not intended to malign anyone. That’s the way they seemed to him. Others might disagree and can write their own versions as to how these people seemed to them. To avoid awkwardness in wording, the author has designed himself as “Bernie,” a version of his middle name. All other family names are unchanged. Names and traits of people outside the family are usually fictional. Some specific events, including a few described as experiences of family members, are constructs. A writer is allowed to take such liberties in a work of fiction. The descriptions have been used as a vehicle to describe country life and belief of the period. To preserve information about those days is another major purpose of this writing. In most ways, this story of the Camp family could be the story of any of thousands of others living in the South during the first half of the 20th Century. The End Completed May 3, 2009
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