Mother died while on a cruise with Daddy in 1993. To survive Dad married Mom’s cousin a few years later, but in the end developed Alzheimer’s and succumbed from complication of that Godless malady in 2002.
In an early post # 154 Talton-O’Neil-Parker I went into some detail about what I knew of Daddy’s family and his upbringing.
What follows is a book done by Mom and Dad in the early 1990s in which they reminisce about their youth.
This is in their own words, not mine. It’s what they remember.
GROWING UP COUNTRY BUMPKINS
Vera Lucille Edwards
James Earl Parker
We were born and grew up on small farms in North Carolina shortly after the turn of the twentieth century. It was a time and a place before telephones and radios and electricity and indoor plumbing. Our families had little money.
We grew our own food and made our own clothes. We worked hard in the fields, even when we were young. Our families were large and we slept several to the bed. We went barefoot through the summer. We spent hours in church on Sunday, and looked forward to family reunions with food piled high on long tables under shade trees in the yard.
We enjoyed being pushed high in swings, and fishing, and going with adults to the country store. We suffered through the deaths and burials of family members. Being farm children who were needed to work in the fields, we weren’t expected to spend too much time in school, and opportunities for higher education were limited. Our lives were hard, balanced only by very simple and innocent pleasures.
Both of us moved to small towns as we pursued our education and for a long time we regarded life back on the farm as old fashioned and outdated.
In town we were forced to deal with evolving technology, affluence and different values. We met, got married, started a business, raised a family, got used to television, airplanes, modern medicine, computers, social security. Our lifestyle changed rapidly we were consumed with adapting we rarely paused to reflect on how our lives had become so different from when we were young country bumpkins.
We have been asked by our children to take the time to record some of our memories of growing up during that different time, more than seventy years ago, on farms in the south. As we did this, we were struck by how the earthy values and sounds and sentiments of our youth have disappeared. The homes we grew up in are still standing, but they are not the hubs of working farm families now.
Cars whiz along paved roads nearby, planes roar overhead, electrical transformers hum in the distance. There are no children laughing, chickens clucking, mothers scolding, mules snorting as they pulled at the plow. There is no sense of battle against the seasons. There are no farm smells of the woodstove and wet hay and the smokehouse and manure. The days of our youth are gone forever.
Our strongest memories are of our family. Not the farming lifestyle but family. When we think back to when we were nine or ten or eleven our first memories are always about our brothers and sisters and friends and parents and how we got along.
We are telling our story to the children of our children’s children, and for that reason we have tried to be honest. We write from our own perspective, from the way we remember things; we know the recollections of others may be different.
In all this, now that it’s finished and done, we have come to have a stronger sense of where we came from and who we are now. We have a clearer appreciation of the blessings we have received in life. We are very proud of our family and our Southern farm heritage.
We wish to thank Wilma, Harold, Louise, Helen, Clerod, Doris, Johnny and Janice for their help. We would like to especially thank our son Jim who took our haphazard remembrances and put them in order.
Vera and Earl Parker
GRANDPA AND GRANDMA EDWARDS
Grandpa Edwards died when I was six years old. He was 87. He had been married twice, the last time to my Grandma who was 20 years his junior. I have a clear memory of him walking along slowly with his cane from his house to ours one summer afternoon. He wore a black felt hat that was rolled up on the side. After he had visited for a spell he said, “I think I will be poking on back.”
I also remember when he died. Daddy, Uncle Wilse and Uncle Jim were in the barn making his coffin out of wide boards that had been put aside over the years for just such an occasion. They had some of the boards across two sawhorses and were fitting the sides together and making the lid. One of the men was using a hand plane. Everyone was working quietly. As the plane moved across the boards pretty curls of wood would twirl out and fall to the ground. Some of my cousins and I picked up the prettiest curls and went back into the house where my Aunt Liya, Uncle Wilse’s wife, was making a little pillow for Grandpa’s head. The men finally covered the outside of the coffin with black cloth and lined the inside with white material. It was raining the next day, when Grandpa was buried. I remember my Daddy and his brothers taking the coffin out of the house and placing it in the back of a black, horse-drawn hearse. I watched as the hearse slowly left the yard on its way to the church cemetery.
I don’t have many memories of Grandma Edwards even though she lived until I was 23. She couldn’t remember things very well. I can see her sitting quietly y by the fireplace, patching clothes or darning socks. I think today doctors would say she had Alzheimer’s disease. Her twin sister, Aunt Kate, had a sharp mind and could quote from memory long poems written by their father, Solomon Snyder, a very respected minister in his day. .
My Daddy was born on a farm near Marshville, North Carolina on l July 1878 and lived his whole life within ten miles of his birthplace. He went no further than five or six years in school, which was common for a farm boy of that time, staying in school only as long as it took to learn to read and write.
Daddy lived with his parents until he married Mama at the age of 33. His younger brother, Uncle Wilse, and his family also lived with Grandma and Grandpa Edwards. It was the custom at that time for the youngest son to stay with the parents at the home place. Then when the parents passed on, it became his. When Daddy married Mama, he moved out and Uncle Wilse stayed on.
I have many warm, special memories of my father. Late most afternoons before supper he would sit on the back porch of our farm house in a straight back oak chair reading the Monroe biweekly newspaper. He would chew tobacco slowly as he read, occasionally leaning over to the side to spit tobacco juice on the ground. He’d often lean forward with his forearms resting on his legs and the folded newspaper between his knees. He never read to us, nor discussed his thoughts. He’d finish reading, fold the newspaper neatly and put it on top of a stack of papers destined for the fireplace, and go inside the house.
My father was a quiet, good man. He never raised his voice in anger or to criticize. He never spanked any of us children. I never heard him curse. However if one of us kids did something wrong, he could just look at us with those dark brown eyes and we’d feel like going through the floor.
I have vivid memories of maybe the most serious confrontation we ever had, and all he did was cut his eyes at me. He thought that according to the Bible a woman’s hair was her crowning glory and he didn’t want my hair cut. However I had thin, stringy hair for several years and it was forever hanging in my eyes. I was about eight years old and Mama had stood it as long as she thought she could. Daddy was off at church and she took me out on the back porch and gave me a haircut.
I was afraid Daddy would be angry. When he came in late Sunday afternoon, though, he didn’t say a word about my hair. He might have snorted at Mother when they were alone but he never said a word to me. He just cut those sad brown eyes at me and I felt as bad as a little girl could feel.
When I was around twelve Daddy sent Clerod, Norman and I out to pick cotton and he left to go to town to pay taxes. We were in the middle of the fie1d when he 1eft and as he went out of sight we began talking amongst ourselves. I do not remember what it was we were so interested in that day that made us talk so long, but when Daddy returned we were standing in almost the same spot we were in when he left.
He walked out into the field and called us to him and in a low, even voice said that if we did not work hard at picking the cotton that we would not have enough money to get us through the winter. He said he needed our help and he turned and left, leaving us feeling terrible.
As a young man Daddy had received the call to Preach and was ordained a Primitive Baptist Minister in 1903.
Preachers in Daddy’s church association would occasionally be called on to travel to other areas. Daddy was asked to do this often when he was still living with his parents.
One of those trips was to Horry County, South Carolina. Daddy was met at the train station by one of the county’s leading citizens and taken to preach at a church that man had helped build. While preaching he looked over the congregation and his eyes met those of Mama. He became excited and he had trouble finishing his sermon — He said later that he had had a dream weeks earlier of meeting a young lady at a gathering, “And when I first saw Clara, as I stood in the pulpit, I knew she would be my wife.” Mama’s face was just like the woman in his dream.
Daddy was taken to the house of the church founder after the sermon and he could hardly y believe his good fortune. This woman he had taken into his heart already to be his wife was the daughter of his host, and unmarried.
Mama and Daddy couldn’t see each other very often so they kept in touch by letter. This went on for several years. Once she wrote a letter and left money in the mail box to pay for the stamp. When Daddy got the letter, the mailman had hurriedly y put the stamp p on upside down, which Daddy took to mean “Don’t write anymore.”
So he didn’t respond. It wasn’t until he went down on another preaching mission that the misunderstanding was explained. I think that he might have hurried his schedule to get back to South Carolina to find out for sure if Mama didn’t want him to write again.
One year Mama told Daddy that if he couldn’t come that summer she wanted him to send her a photograph of himself. She didn’t know that she had run afoul of Daddy’s interpretation of the following passage in the Bible, Exodus 20:3,4: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, the likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath.”
Daddy thought having a picture taken was making a likeness and breaking one of God’s commandments. He agonized over his dilemma, but his love for Mama won out. He went into Monroe and had a picture taken by a professional photographer. He asked the photographer to send the photo d directly to Mama, because he didn’t want his family or his congregations to know. He later went to pick up his mail and there was the picture.
Thinking the photographer had made a mistake, he forwarded it on to Mama. One day she got a picture, two days later she got another just like the first. She didn’t know why until after they were married.
That is the only picture he ever knowingly had made during his lifetime.
Daddy proposed to Mama in a letter. I think his letter has been lost, but we do have Mama’s reply. She accepted matter-of-factly, without a single romantic word. They were married in Grandpa Harrelson’s house in 1911 and took the train back to their newly purchased one hundred acre farm near Marshville. They worked that farm and raised six children over the next forty five years.
Mama was born in Columbus County, North Carolina on 18 December 1887 and grew up on a large farm about twenty-five miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. She was the oldest of sixteen children by Grandma Harrelson. Grandpa Harrelson had been married before and when his first wife died in childbirth he was soon left with five small children to raise. He married Grand ma within the year. She was 16 years old and became a wife and mother at the same time.
Mama was born before Grandma turned 17.
Growing up, Mama’s job was to oversee the tenant workers in the rice fields of the large family farm. Her next sister stayed in the house and helped with the younger children and the housework. The children from Grandpa’s first marriage were away at school or were teaching.
Most of her sisters and brothers attended college or received some higher education. Many became teachers. Momma was teaching at a local school when she married Daddy. She could play the organ and had completed a correspondence course from Columbia Conservatory in Washington, D.C.
She never taught school after she married, but worked alongside Daddy to pay for the farm.
Because of her educational background she was a stern taskmaster with me and the other kids when we brought schoolwork home.
She focused much of her attention and energy on us. One of her driving ambitions was that we would be educated.
Her passions often erupted into anger and she would make people mad. If she wasn’t pleased about something, she would speak her mind.
Sometimes she would regret her outbursts, but if she felt she was right, she would pursue her point regardless of whose feelings were hurt.
Daddy sometimes had to intervene to ease tensions with relatives and neighbors. I can remember ongoing rifts between Mama and some of her brothers. Being the oldest she would d often write to them if she disagreed with something they had done, letters that were not always well received. These rifts were hard to mend sometimes because of the distances involved.
Her garden and orchard were her greatest pleasure. She would study the seed catalog and pick out special seeds she wanted. After our house was remodeled, she ordered shrubs, pecan trees for they yard; apple, plum, and peach trees for the orchard. She would dry peaches and apples during their season, storing them in small cotton salt bags for winter’s use. She canned string beans and tomatoes from the garden. Preparing those fruits and vegetables kept everyone busy between other farm chores. Sweet-potatoes were harvested in October and stored in a “potato” hill so they wouldn’t freeze. Nothing could taste better on a cold winter night than a hot baked sweet-potato with fresh butter.
She started growing peanuts because Daddy liked them. She began picking out the good ones and over ten years developed a peanut that had 3 nuts in it. These she planted in special rows and they eventually produced peanuts that had 4 nuts in them. l earned how to make peanut butter from her super nuts, something that became a real treat at our house.
Mama didn’t know how to sew till she married Daddy. She took the underpants that Grandma Edwards had made for Daddy, took them apart, cut patterns and began sewing. She learned how to sew a straight seam when she made underwear out of white flour sacks.
Then she made overalls for the boys and dresses for us, cutting her own patterns. She could also do beautiful embroidery, crochet, and tatting, which is a very delicate type of lace done with fine thread and a small shuttle. At one time she even did punch-hooking, making beautiful dresser scarves using different colored yarn for the designs at each end. She did a lot of needlework but I don’t think she ever was involved in more than one sewing or fancy work project at a time.
On rainy days she always found a closet that needed cleaning or some mending to be done or something to keep me busy.
She simply could not stand to see one of her children lounging around.
I had to stand on a chair when I began to help Mama wash dishes. I also had to stand on the chair when I was learning to cook on the wood-stove. I burned and broke many dishes and she would fuss at me but she kept giving me chores in the kitchen.
I remember one time before we remodeled the house, I decided as soon as I got through eating I would take a nap. I must have been five or six. Mama came in to where I was l lying down and she said with sarcasm, “Okay, you take your nap, I’ll wash the dishes, you don’t have to work. I worked out in the field all morning long but you don’t have to wash the dishes.” I got up as quick as I could to help her but she wouldn’t let me. “No you must take your nap,” she said. I stood there crying but I had to go back into the other room and lie on the bed.
She taught us honesty. I can hear her now, I’ll whip you more for telling a story than for anything you might have done.” I heard her say a thousand times growing up, “Tell the truth, tell the truth.”
I remember if she caught the boys fighting she’d make them kiss and make up.
How they resisted that. If we did something wrong, she’d make us go out and get a little e peach twig switch for our whipping. One time Norman got an enormous stick and brought it in. She was sitting at the machine sewing. “Okay,” she said, “you go and get me the kind that you’re supposed to get and I’m gonna double the dose.” Getting punished was serious business to her, not a thing to be joked about, certainly not by the punishee.
Daddy was not one to argue. He said it took two to fuss and he wasn’t gonna’ be one of them. Mama would get so mad at him sometimes when she wanted to argue because he’d walk away. He called her “Clara ” in the soft, tender way he had of speaking. She always called him “Mr. Edwards,” in her firm, authoritative way.
Though they had different attitudes, you always knew where you stood with Mama and Daddy. You knew what the rules were. Mama expected you to set goals and work hard. Daddy was such a quiet good man.
He respected the rights of others and loved all living things. l earned from the diversity of their personalities.
Mama and Daddy were never openly affectionate to one another. Public display between married adults, even in the family, wasn’t common when I grew up. However, Mama and Daddy had a fulfilled union which l lasted 45 years. Daddy died on the farm of cancer in 1956. Mama lived to be 91 and died in a nursing home with her children at her side.
GRANDMA AND GRANDPA HARRELSON
I have wonderful early memories of visits to my Grandma and Grandpa Harrelson ‘s house. Daddy would wake us early and take us to Marshville to catch the train to Nichols, South Carolina, where Grand ma and Grandpa would be waiting. They made me feel special and I looked forward to visits to their house. There would usually be twelve to fifteen uncles and aunts around. One aunt was only one year older than me and one uncle was one year younger.
We had such great fun.
There was a swing in the front yard among huge pecan trees, and one of my uncles would swing me up as high as the top of the house. Oh, it was exciting Grandpa Harrelson was one of the most prosperous farmers in his part of the country, and he and Grandma had a grand house. There was an organ in the parlor which Mama would play when we visited. There were three or more bedrooms downstairs. There were stairs off the foyer to the girls’ rooms on the second floor and stairs near the kitchen up to the boys ‘rooms. Pretty, store-bought wall paper was in all the rooms, which was uncommon in farmhouses of the period. The dining room and the kitchen were separated by a large screened passageway. Along the passageway was a sink with a hand pump for water. They also had ceiling lights which ran off batteries hung from the ceiling. We only had kerosene lamps at home, and their ceiling lights seemed so bright and glamorous.
I remember the woodstove in the kitchen because of a loving encounter I had with Grandma during one of our visits. She had cooked breakfast. The men had gone off to their farm work. As I sat at the table eating, Grandma asked if there was anything else I wanted.
I said, “Yes, I want some tomato soup.” Mama said, “She doesn’t need that. There is plenty already cooked.”
Grandma, who raised 22 children, some my own age, looked at me like I was a special child and said, “If Vera wants it, she’s going to have it.” She proceeded to get a jar of canned tomatoes and heat it on the wood stove. I remember looking at Mama and not being able to resist a grin.
One Christmas we went down and after greeting Grandpa at the train station, we pi led into his car. I was in the back seat and noticed a large burlap bag filled with something. I said, “What’s this?”
Mama said “Hush” very quietly. It was store-bought toys for all of us from Santa Claus. My eyes got big, my mouth was open. How incredibly wonderful.
In 1923, when I was eight years old, Grandma Harrelson came down with pneumonia. She was 52. At that time there was nothing that could be done to aid recovery except wait seven to nine days for the crisis to come – then the person died or had a rapid recovery. While we waited, the family was called from near and far. Uncle Bennie was away in Louisiana. It was difficult getting a message to him, but he was finally located. My family came as fast as we could. I can remember when we arrived seeing a nurse in a white uniform standing by Grand ma’s bed trying to make her more comfortable.
I was sitting in Daddy’s lap in her room when she died. She was buried the next day, my birthday. Daddy was asked to preside over the funeral and his text stands out in my memory. It was, “If a man dies, shall he live again?” It was such an emotional time, I can remember listening intently to every word Daddy had to say because I had loved Grandma so much.
Could she live again, I thought?
Uncle Bennie got in the day after the funeral. His first words were, “How’s Mother?” when he was told.
I can still see his sad face.
Grandpa, who always had an eye for the young ladies, married within five months to a woman who lived on his farm. He was 67 at the time. His new wife, Naomi, was 23. He was 6’3″ tall; she was 4’8″. What a pair. The family as we knew it was torn apart with Grandma’s death ‘and Grandpa’s subsequent marriage to Naomi. There were no more happy visits.
Grandpa Harrelson eventually lost his farm and almost everything else he owned when the bank foreclosed on a loan he had co-signed for one of his sons. This happened during the depression when Grandpa was not physically able to farm cash crops and had no money to pay the banks.
All told, Grand pa Harrelson sired 26 children. There was 52 years between the oldest and the youngest, who was born when Grandpa was 74 years old.
MY EARLY YEARS
In the summer of 1915 Woodrow Wilson was President. Germany was fire-bombing London and launching out with ground troops towards the Russian Eastern Front. World War One was on the horizon. In the western United States, the last of the unruly Indians were being contained on reservations. Zapata was routing government forces in Mexico.
I was born on a warm, quiet Saturday night that summer – 26 June 1915 – in the same room of our farm house where all my brothers and sisters would be born. Outside the rustle of the farm animals, a distant howling dog and the natural night sounds of crickets, frogs and owls could have been heard. From inside the farmhouse mother moaned in childbirth; she was a strong woman and her voice carried. She must have been tired when I was finally born. I weighed no more than six pounds.
My first memory is of walking behind my parents in a wheat field as Daddy cut the wheat with huge swings of a scythe and cradle with Mama, following him, catching the cuttings of each swing. When she had an armful, she would tie them into bundles with strands of wheat. The two of them worked methodically, without any lost motion, and I followed, watching, staying out of the way as we made our way across the field. It was hard, hot work for both of them. I remember eventually sitting with them and the black tenant farmer and his wife in the shade of a large tree on the edge of the field, resting, drinking water, looking back at the sheaves of cut wheat stacked in neat straight rows in the field.
When I was very young one of the members of the church gave me my first book, “Little Red Riding Hood.” It was in color. It was my dearest possession and I must have read it a hundred times. I can still clearly recall the pictures, and as I write this I smile, remembering the drawings of the wolf eating Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother and the woodcutters bringing her back alive.
THE FLU EPIDEMIC
In 1918 when I was three years old, a terrible flu epidemic swept the United State. Newspaper accounts later reported that the epidemic was as bad as the Bubonic plague of the Middle Ages. Ten times more Americans died from the flu than were killed during the First World War.
People in our area were dying by the hundreds. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Buena and their five children were stricken. Daddy, who was always ready to help anyone in need, said, “I have to go and help them.”
Mama pitched a fit. She was pregnant with Norman and already had me and Clerod at her knees. “Mr. Edwards,” she said, “You will surely get the disease and bring it back here and give it to all of us.”
He went anyway, leaving Mama crying in the kitchen.
For ten days he tended to Uncle Jim and his family. Uncle Wilse, who lived next to our farm, would take pots of food to Uncle Jim’s farm in his mule-drawn wagon and give it to Daddy, who would carry it inside and ladle it out to the sick family. Uncle Wilse would come back and give us reports. “Walter is kept busy,” I can remember him saying once, “tending the slop jar and the wash basin day and night.”
Their fever finally broke and Daddy came home. He was dirty and tired; he looked like he hadn’t had much sleep. But everyone in Uncle Jim’s family lived and Daddy didn’t bring the flu back. Daddy never took credit.
He said it was God’s will.
THE SNYDER SCHOOL
Mainly because of Mama’s emphasis on the three R, when I started to the Snyder school at the age of six, I could already read and write.
This was something many adults of my era couldn’t do. That first year I studied in the “little room” where the first three grades were held. I completed the second and third grades in my second year.
The next year, my third, I was placed in the “middle room” where the fourth and fifth grades were taught. It was while I was in the “middle room” that my teacher, Miss Hatfield, taught me to take pride in spelling correctly. In January she began a contest and she gave each of us a pretty notebook to use for our daily spelling tests. We got a prize if we made a hundred on every spelling test during the month. I only missed two words for the rest of the year. That recognition was important to me because I was very shy.
One time when we were in the big room a girl got up out of her seat and bent way over her desk to reach something on the desk in front. She had on bloomers made out of a flour sack. Usually the mother would use lye and take all the printing off the sack. But this girl ‘s mother hadn’t got all the colors out and across the back of her bloomer as she bent over was the name of the flour in clear letters. The boy sitting behind her started yelling out whatever that name was, White Swan flour or something like that. The girl was terribly embarrassed. But that was funny and made all the boys snicker.
Clerod knew the history of the Snyder School. He said the community where we lived wanted a school in the vicinity and the county refused to build one. So the farmers in the area, including Daddy, got together and built a school themselves and hired two teachers. They named it after a cousin of mine who donated the land. At first there were just two rooms, but the enrolment grew and they added a third room and a third teacher.
Mr. Griffin was my seventh grade teacher. He used to drive from Marshville every morning in a buggy, and he’d tie the horse to the tree near the school. Sometimes rowdy boys would turn the horse loose. Every night he’d return to Marshville in the buggy, eight miles. As I remember it he taught Daddy when Daddy was a young man. And here he was teaching us. He must have been 70 when I attended Snyder school.
Whoever got to school first in the winter would usually go out to the woodpile and get a load of wood to start a fire in the school stove. Daddy furnished the wood to the school for several years.
We had recess at mid-morning. The boys played catch ball. The girls went out in the woods in the springtime and swept off a little clean place and played house. We also played tag. The boys would get in on the tag and they’d tease the girls.
Teachers would whip unruly students, usually boys. They’d make them go outside and get a hickory switch and as the boy or boys who were going to get punished were doing that, they’d lower a partition between the middle and large rooms. The boys would have to bend over the partition when they returned so their pants would tighten across their rumps and the teacher would let into them.
In reflecting on my early years I find it interesting how some events that sound so trivial had such influence on the development of my character. The pride and self-esteem I felt about making good grades on Miss Hatfield’s spelling tests is an example. One day in chapel when I was in the sixth grade I was singing loudly, and out of tune, I suppose. A girl behind me turned to a friend and I could hear her whisper, “She sings funny.” They both giggled.
That hurt me so badly that afterwards every time I started to sing, I would look around to see if anyone was laughing.
As time went on, I became more reluctant to sing out loud at school or in church.
I would sing at home, however, and dream that I would be discovered someday by someone handsome and famous and would become a great singer.
The girl who made those comments behind my back in chapel turned out to be my best friend later in high school. I never told her that she was responsible for the self-conscious feeling I developed about singing in public.
Our character is defined by such little things sometimes.
Mama would fix lunch for us when we were going to Snyder. We’d get a sweet-potato most of the time, or sausage and biscuit. We didn’t have sausage often though because we didn’t kill many pigs — but Mama would always have something fancy prepared.
We carried our food in a syrup bucket. I remember one time, Mama took a biscuit and poked a hole in it and poured it full of syrup.
When I went to eat it, all I got was an old hard dry biscuit and a little bit of sweet in the middle.
The county finally took over Snyder school. They ran it for a while but when Union school was built they wanted to consolidate cl asses there. The people in the community told them no, if the county did that then the local farmers would open up Snyder again and pay no school tax. So the county did not close it.
The Snyder schoolhouse burning was an enormously big event in our lives that year. Clerod and Norman were there that day. They told and retold the story a hundred times about the fire bursting out in the flue over the stove when everyone was outside at recess. “Thank God for that,” would usually be the response to that part of the story.
The boys didn’t go to any other school initially because there was no transportation.
Finally the county got a big A model Ford bus and the students from the Snyder school began going to Union. Clerod drove the bus and put as many as 20- 30 children on it, all the Snyder school children.
When I finished the 7th grade in the spring of 1928, everyone in my class at Snyder had to go to Monroe and take a test to see who qualified to go on to high School. I was petrified with fear when I went to take the test. Later we were waiting at the Snyder school for Mr. Griffin to tell us who passed. I can see him now, coming down the hill in his buggy approaching the school. He had the results of the test on the seat beside him. He called us all into the school and said I and a cousin who had failed it the year before had both passed. Those that did not pass dropped out of school and went to work on farms.
Going for the Mail and the Lindbergh Flight
We lived on a little loop out from the main road and the mailman didn’t come to our house until I was twelve or thirteen. Our mailbox was about a mile away and Clerod and I would go to get the mail twice a week. We must have done this for four or five years. We’d walk down a little dirt road, past four or five homesteads, over several big hills and across a little creek. Trees and scattered brush grew close to the road between the houses. Mama and Daddy would anxiously wait for our return.
Mama made me a little mailbag out of heavy rock salt sack material. I put it over my shoulder and we would be very careful about getting all the mail out of the mailbox and putting it in the bag so that we wouldn’t lose anything, as we were often cautioned.
The Monroe Enquirer came twice a week, Tuesday and Friday, and those were the days we were dispatched to the mail box. When I got a little older I read that paper from cover to cover.
In 1927 Charles Lindbergh made his solo flight to Paris, France. Flying machines were so amazing to us on the farm. Anytime we’d hear a plane fly over the farm, we’d run out and watch it until I t went out of sight. We’d bet who could see it the longest. We’d try to imagine what it was like up there in the cockpit of the plane looking down.
I read the articles on Lindbergh’s solo non-stop transatlantic flight in the Monroe Enquirer time and time again because it was such an exciting event. His only companion on the flight was a cat. When he came back he was given a ticker-tape parade through New York City. I remember a short gossip article about a party the night before the flight, when he asked a girl to go out on a date. She said she didn’t know him. All she knew was what he had told her, that he was in town to take a little flight the next day. When she read about his flight after he made it safely, she must have said, “Oh, why didn’t I go out with him.” The little article ended with “The saddest words of mice or men is just this it might have been.” He might have called her when he got back and she could have ridden with him in the ticker tape parade.
When Mama went into labor, Daddy would take us kids down to Uncle Wilse. Every time we’d have to go down to spend the night we’d figure we were going to have another brother or sister. Particularly if we sent to Uncle Wilse’s at 2 o’clock in the morning.
It was the same way with Uncle Wilse’s children. Aunt Laura was having a new baby almost every year it seemed; she had eleven all together. So when all of our cousins from that family showed up at night, we knew Aunt Lura was gonna have another baby. The women were always attended by a doctor from town. Usually some aunt or sister-in-law or somebody would come to act as a midwife, or “granny woman” and help the doctor.
There were many widowed men marrying for the second and third times and one of the major reasons was because of mothers dying in child birth.
Giving birth back then was an excruciating experience because there was nothing to relieve the pain. There was a superstition, however, that an axe under the bed helped.
THE UNION SCHOOL
In the fall of 1928, I entered Union and was overwhelmed. What a huge school compared to little Snyder. What an enormous student body.
There were more people in that school than I had ever seen in one place in my life. The course work was much more difficult too. Snyder taught farm kids reading, writing and arithmetic. Union High School dealt with world history, algebra and foreign languages.
I would catch the school bus early every morning and be driven several miles from my home to school. I felt so vulnerable. On my first report card I had grades of 60, 70, 90 and 90. I was terribly disappointed because I had always been first in my class at Snyder. I didn’t qualify to take Latin, a course of study at Union that took freshmen with a B average on their first report card. I later took French. Though I was disappointed that I did not get into Latin class, the French class and my correspondence with a French girl were the highlights of my high school years. I would write to my pen pal in English and she would respond in French. We exchanged cards and pictures throughout our high school years and developed a friendship.
In my junior year I took a course in science and geography and was enthralled with the lab work. Though the science experiments were the most interesting, I remember we made a large map of the United States for geography. The state capitals were listed on the right with wires running behind the map from the individual states to the names of the capitals. Using a battery for power, we would place a wire on the state and if we touched the right capital name, a light would come on. This was about 1930 and it was the most fun I think I ever had, playing with that map. it had everything — challenge, technology. Some of my friends and I even played it during recess.
Another geography project was to develop a scrapbook of an imaginary journey to anywhere in the world. I chose the west coast of the U.S.A. and received material from various State Chambers of Commerce. Color pictures of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Death Valley came in the mail. (In 1961, thirty years plus later, I used some of that same material to help plan a trip out west on the birth of our second grandchild. Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Death Val ley hadn’t changed much.)
At Snyder we had only six months of school each year. At Union we had six weeks in August and September, then we were off about one month to pick cotton, then six months more ending in April so children could help with the planting.
They had no inside restroom facilities or water or anything of that nature in the school building. We had no lights. For drinking water they had an outdoor pump with a long piece of pipe that had little holes drilled in it about a quarter inch in diameter. Somebody would pump so others could drink. During recess there’d be a string of children all up and down that pipe drinking water out of those little holes. If the one who was pumping couldn’t get someone to pump for him then he’d pump like crazy, run around to the pipe and get a sip then go back and pump again.
I was graduated from Union in 1931 in the midst of the depression. I don’t remember the actual stock market crash on October 27, 1929 but I do remember how the Great Depression that followed affected people all around us.
Banks failed and some of our neighbors lost all their savings. My junior class had worked and saved money for the Junior-Senior prom. It was deposited in a bank in Monroe that failed. (Though we lost the money we still had our prom. Dessert was Angel food cake and ice cream.) Cotton was only five cents a pound. There was no money to buy anything or make payments on farms or businesses.
Those who had no gardens were often hungry. I remember Mama saying once, “I am glad we don’t have to get our meals out of a paper poke.”
Her garden gave us vegetables, our small orchard provided fruit, and everything not eaten fresh was canned or dried. We grew wheat on the farm which was ground into flour. Corn was ground into meal, cane was made into molasses. Cows provided milk and butter.
Chickens provided eggs and meat and were periodically sold for money to buy store-bought staples. Hogs provided pork and lard. The men hunted for rabbits and squirrels in the winter.
We had little money but we had plenty to eat. We had no payments to make so we got along.
Cars were replaced by Hoover carts which were mule-drawn carts fashioned from the axles and rear wheels of discarded cars. They were named for Hoover who was president at the time and blamed by many for the depression.
I remember as a young child seeing Daddy leaving the farm going to church in our mule-drawn buggy. It took him 4 hours to go the 18 miles to Jerusalem Church where he was pastor for 45 years. He’d leave home in the buggy early on Saturday morning, preach in the afternoon, spend the night at a member’s house, preach again on Sunday and get back to our farm by Sunday night.
I have pleasant memories of going with him before the family got so big and spending the night with some church members who lived close to the church.
When Doris was born, Mama decided that it was just too much for the whole family to go and we rarely went thereafter when Daddy had to stay overnight.
I remember sitting through Daddy’s long sermons. Sometime several preachers would preach during the same service.
Their sermons were delivered with a unique cadence with the preachers lifting their voices at certain words and passages. It was often very difficult for children to follow. There was no instrumental music in church, but much singing. I can still her my Daddy leading the congregation in “Amazing Grace” and “How Firm a Foundation.” Daddy’s churches had small sections on both sides of the pulpit.
The women sat on the right side with their children while the men sat on the left.
The young people sat to the front of the pulpit.
Services were held only one weekend a month in each church. Ministers, like Papa, would travel a circuit, preaching at up to four churches a month.
Church held communion every summer. They were all-day services with picnic dinners served on long tables in the yard. I remember those gatherings fondly.
Communion in the Primitive Baptist church involved foot washing.
In John 13 the washing of feet was a part of the Last Supper. It was a very serious part of Daddy’s ministry, usually done in the afternoon when the children were sometimes excused. One person would wash the feet of another. Never, as far as I know, did someone wash more than one person’s feet.
Sometimes when people had arguments that had been resolved, they would ask if they could wash each other’s feet. Mama did this once.
The preachers never received a salary–money and sometime gifts were quietly given to them as the members felt the urge.
Couples would sometime come to the farm for Daddy to marry.
I remember once a couple appeared in a mule-drawn buggy. He met them in the yard with his work clothes on. After they told him what they wanted, he invited them in, put on a coat and made them husband and wife.
Once when I was a teenager a couple came in a car. Daddy asked me to sign as a witness. I remembered being thrilled about that. It was so grown up and romantic and out of the ordinary.
LIFE ON THE FARM
I can remember Mama making soap in the back yard. She would take ashes from oak wood fires and put them in a hopper in the back yard so that it could collect rainwater. She would pour water from the well if there wasn’t enough rain and the drainage would make “lye” which, mixed with old grease would make soap for washing clothes. Later we would buy a box of Red Devil lye from the store to make the soap.
My parents placed great value on honesty. Because of that, plus Daddy’s deep religious beliefs, Mama and Daddy taught us from the beginning that there was no Santa Claus. It was just make believe. We always got a small gift though on Christmas day, with maybe an apple or an orange or some raisins on their stems. There was no electricity so there was no string of Christmas lights, no glittering ornament, no lights in the window. But the spirit was there.
Everybody in the family went to town during the last few days before Christmas.
There was always a sense of goodwill and joy over the holidays.
The Sears and Roebuck catalog played a variety of functions. Each year we spent hours thumbing through it, dreaming about owning some of the toys and clothing and machinery. I can remember picking it up at the mailbox when Clerod and I were making our twice-weekly mail runs. How excited I would be to get home and tell everyone the Sears and Roebuck catalog had arrived. For myself, I would go back again and again to the toy section and look at the pretty dolls. When the new catalog came, the old one was taken to the outhouse where it was read again until a page for that special purpose was needed. The toy section would be the last to go.
Since there was no indoor plumbing, an outhouse, sometimes called a backhouse or privy, was a necessary building for every farm house. The better houses had fancy ones. They were always behind the barn or at least some distance from the house and well. The two-seater ones were the most popular. There was always a well-worn path to them. They were used more by the women than the men.
Sundays meant a day of rest–no work, no matter how much the farm crops needed to be worked. There was usually a Sunday dinner – something special from everyday fare. I remember one Sunday Clerod and Norman went to the pond and caught eight or ten large frogs. They expected to be praised for providing such a treat, but Daddy said, “Boys, this is Sunday. You shouldn’t have done that. Throw them away.”
Later in his life one of his churches gave Daddy a 1947 Chevy. Before that we owned an Model A and before that a Model T. The model T had curtains on the side which we could pull when it got cold. Mama made special dusters that we put over our Sunday clothes to protect them from the dust the cars stirred up from the dirt roads.
Summer was no vacation for us kids. Work on the farm during this time began before sunrise and ended after sunset. The fire had to be built in the woodstove early because it took 30 minutes or more for the stove to become hot enough to cook the biscuits that were made every morning. The boys would feed the mules early so they would be ready to work. The women would do the milking and help in the kitchen.
Breakfast was hot biscuits, butter, molasses, maybe a little ham or fatback and gravy, occasionally eggs. There was usually little talk over the meal. We would often see the sun coming up as we ate. When the menfolk were finished they would head out to the field to do the plowing. Some of the women would follow soon thereafter to hoe weeds and grass from the crops.
About mid-morning some of the smaller children carried a large jar of freshly drawn cool water to the field. After a few minutes rest under a tree at the edge of the field, it was back to work until the midday meal at about 11:30. (We referred to that meal as dinner. Supper was the evening meal.) For dinner the men got vegetables and potatoes cooked with fatback, corn bread, milk and water. After about a thirty minute rest, it was back to the fields until sunset.
I remember Daddy always took a short nap after he ate at noon. He would lie down on the floor where there might be a cool breeze. Mama made sure everything was quiet for those few minutes.
How good the food tasted after hours in the hot sun. How much we appreciated the rest breaks. How cool and refreshing we found the water.
When Daddy and Clerod were working in the field Daddy would call him only one time to come down to breakfast. One morning Clerod didn’t get up when Daddy called. He woke up after the sun came up. Daddy was already in the field plowing.
When Clerod finally got his mule in the harness, got the plow to the field and started to work, he didn’t know what Daddy’s reaction would be. Daddy never said a word. He probably cut those eyes of his at Clerod, but he would have only done it once. The next morning Clerod got up by himself, long before Daddy called him.
In the fall we picked cotton. We used a large burlap sack with a strap over one shoulder. I remember it was a back- breaking job. Everyone in the family went to the field during cotton picking time. When the cotton was taken to be ginned and sold, only the men went. The boys were thrilled when they were old enough to go with the men to the gin mill in town.
The sweet-potatoes had to be dug before the ground froze and the corn brought in from the field and stored. Corn was food for the mules, hogs, and chickens as well as a staple on our table.
It sounds like a hard life with only simple, ordinary pleasures, but it was all we knew. It was a life similar to everyone else’s around us. We knew the harder we worked the more money the crops would bring.
Daddy was so tender hearted he wouldn’t kill any of our large farm animals, including the hogs. Uncle Wilse always came over when it time to butcher a hog and Daddy would stay in the house. It would usually be a cold day in the fall.
Neighbors would have been called in so that all the work could be completed in one day. A fire would be built under a wash pot filled with water early in the morning. This was to scald the hog to remove the hair. After the scalding, the hog would be strung up by its back feet, insides removed, and then taken down and cut up for curing. The women would be in the kitchen ready to prepare the meat for its various uses. Everything was saved. There was a saying that we would eat everything in the pig but the squeal.
The last chore was rendering the fat into lard in the same pot used for the scalding earlier. Some of the fresh meat was given to the neighbors who helped.
Sausage had to be ground and seasoned. The smokehouse held the finished products and provided meat throughout the year.
Most of the work would have been finished when we came in from school.
For us the real treat was eating the warm baked sweet-potato with some of the fresh meat. The bad part was I had to wash all those greasy pots and pans.
We had tenant farmers on the farm some of the time. Roach Jordan and his family stayed on the farm for at least four years, an unusually long time because tenant farmers as a rule moved on after a year or two. I think one of the reasons Roach stayed as long as he did was because he and Daddy got along so well.
Roach Jordan was an older black man who had a young wife. They seemed to have a new baby every year. I can remember playing with the older children. Roach had an agreement with Daddy that he could get whatever oak on the farm he needed to make baskets. He made beautiful, well-crafted baskets that were used to hold corn and other farm produce. He also put bottoms in chairs.
Roach Jordan was given a field to call his own. He used Daddy’s plows and one of his mules. Before Clerod was old enough to plow, Roach Jordan worked one mule and Daddy worked another. He didn’t borrow much money from Daddy because he had a good business with his baskets. He even owned a Model T Ford and on Saturday he’d go to town to sell the baskets, usually to the hardware store. I remember seeing him leaving the farm with all his family inside the T model and his baskets tied all over the outside.
Roach would get the slats for his baskets from a white oak tree. I can remember seeing him going into the woods to select a good tree, one that didn’t have any knots in it. He’d take a hatchet and take off a little piece and pull it and if it would string up six or seven feet then he’d cut the tree down and drag it to his tenant house. He was a well-respected crafts man in our area.
All the tenant farmers made different arrangements with Daddy. If the tenant paid for part of the fertilizer he got more at the end of the year and if he didn’t pay for anything he got a smaller amount. I remember Daddy had a little book in which he kept a record of what was owed him. The tenants would come up each week to get a small amount of money for food. They didn’t do much canning because back then most didn’t know how, I don’t think. We only canned beans and tomatoes. I wonder now how those tenant farmers survived in the winter. Possibly they ate fat back and corn bread and maybe they had dried black eyed peas.
THE UNCLE JIM AND UNCLE WILSE SQUABBLE
The relationship among the extended Edwards clan was an important element in our lives and when Uncle Jim and Uncle Wilse had a disagreement in the settlement of Granddaddy Edward’s estate and refused to speak to one another, we were all affected.
Grandma Edwards had a twin sister, Aunt Kate, and their birthday celebration in September was always a big event. Since the birthday party was held at Grandma’s house where Uncle Wilse and his family lived, Uncle Jim and his family never came. The family fellowship suffered because of the pride and stubbornness of those good men. Daddy talked them into getting together on the top of a hill near our house for a face to face discussion about their differences. Mama and I watched from a distance but we couldn’t see them. When Daddy came down from the hill he said that they agreed to forgive and forget and shook hands. Daddy was so relieved.
Grandma Edwards and Aunt Kate’s birthday celebration was two days later.
Everyone was there. What a wonderful day.
Although Grandma Edwards and Aunt Kate were twins, they were different in almost every way. Grandma was tall and big, Aunt Kate was short and fat. Grandma was very forgetful as she got older, but Aunt Kate was alert to the end. As an old woman she could still quote from memory poems their father had written.
RENOVATING THE HOUSE
The original farm house had three rooms with a front and back porch. The fireplace was in the middle room of the house. A cast iron stove was in the kitchen to cook the food, and for heat. There was a shed room off the back porch where a man named Harrison Tice lived who helped Daddy and Mama with the farming. He was not very bright, but he was a good, hard working farm hand. He had no known relatives. He finally became so frail and infirm that Daddy took him to the county home where he spent his last few years. My brothers moved into the room after Harrison Tice left.
The farmhouse once remodeled
When I was about nine years old Daddy and Mama decided to remodel the farm house. He contracted with a sawmill operator to come to the farm and cut building lumber from some good pines in our woods . During the remodeling the kitchen was moved on log rollers some distance from the house. We used it all the summer and when a kitchen room was finished in the remodeled house, the old kitchen was moved beside the barn where it was used as a corn bin. The new house was two stories and had nine rooms, including a formal parlor. There was a large front porch and small back porch. It wasn’t ‘t painted for many years until Mama started a special fund–most of the children were away from home and she would ask us to put money into the fund rather than a gift on her birthday, Christmas, etc. She soon got the money to paint the house.
MY FIRST MOVIE
In 1932 I saw my first movie. I had gone to visit Mama ‘s uncle and his family in Tabor City. There were five girls about my age in the family and my uncle paid us to pick strawberries. This was the first money I ever earned. I used it to go to the theater twice that week. The News came at the beginning and then the silent movies . The pictures were jumpy but I didn’t know they could be any different.
The big screen, the action, the story, the sheer wonder of it all –it was exciting.
Even walking to the movies with my cousins, anticipating what we were going to see, was great fun. I remember one of the pictures was “Min and Bill ” starring Marie Dressler.
Admission was ten cents .
MY BROTHERS AND SISTERS
I was the oldest, then came my two brothers, Clerod and Norman. Doris was born when I was ten, Johnny when I was thirteen and Janice when I was seventeen, shortly before I left home.
Norman died of cancer in 1989 . I talked with my other brothers and sisters about him and about their memories of growing up.
Back row left to right, Johnny, Norman, Cleord Sitting left to right, Mom (Vera), Janice, Doris
I only got one whipping at school. It was for standing out watching some boys fight. We were hollering them on, encouraging them. It was a set of twins fighting their older brother. The brother said there was no way they could whip him. They were younger and smaller. He had said he’d whip both of them. We got out for the lunch hour and I guess there were eight or ten of us and we encouraged the twins to jump on him. So they did and we kept hollering and whooping until the teacher came out. Everyone who was out around that ring had to stay after school. We got a whipping bent over that partition.
I drove the school bus when I was at Union. it had benches on the sides and a double row down the middle. Sometime we’d have as many as 30 kids on the bus. There was a steep hill to climb and when it was raining, it’d be slick. I’d make everyone get out so the bus could climb the hill.
They’d have to walk up the hill themselves and they’d get covered in slick red mud, and they’d get back on with their shoes and black stockings wet and muddy.
What a mess.
Talking about vivid childhood memories, I remember very clearly when I had pneumonia. Daddy went to Marshville to get Dr. Blair and he put mustard plaster on my chest. “I’ll put this on now and I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said “and if the pneumonia’s not broken then we don’t have much hope.” I remember that. That was the only thing they could do for pneumonia, the mustard plaster. The next day he came and checked and I held my breath. He finally said everything was fine. He said, “I’m gonna take this mustard plaster off.” He reached down and grabbed and pulled skin and all. It was blistered, oh it was so blistered. Hurt so much I wished I had died.
I remember the Lindburgh flight made a major impact on me. The year I finished high school I decided that I wanted to fly. So I got a clipping out of one of the magazines and wrote to the Dayton School of Aviation in Dayton, Ohio. I came home from school every day and checked the mail first thing for a letter back. We were getting mail every day at the house then. Well, I came home from school one day and Mama met me at the door. She said, “Did you send for this”? She had some literature in her hand from the Dayton School. I said, “Yes, I did.” She said, “Well I tell you one thing you’re not flying in no airplane and I want you to get that straight, now forget it.” And I said, “Yes Mama.”
Although I wanted to go into aviation very badly, I never thought about it again.
Back then, what Mama said was it.
I decided later on I’d be an electrician. Mama didn’t know anything about electricity and I didn’t either, to tell you the truth. We didn’t have any lights, I had never screwed in a light bulb but I felt like it was gonna be something important in the future. The prospects of studying electricity were exciting. I wrote the Coyne Electrical School in Chicago and they sent me a book on their curriculum. A fellow on the faculty was named Harrelson.
When Mama read this she said, “I know this man’s Daddy. I know exactly who he is, he is from Tabor City and he’s a distant relative.”
That did it, she was all for me going.
Daddy didn’t have money to pay for my education at Coyne and he had to sign a note at the bank in Wingate. I never will forget it. We went to town and the president of the bank, a fellow named Lamb, met us and said, “Well Mr. Edwards if it wasn’t a requirement of this bank that you sign the paper I would take your word for the $250.00 you need.” I was sure proud of my Daddy. I l eft for school in November of 1935.
Vera was working at that time in Aberdeen and I would ask her for some money from time to time to help out. I also worked in the kitchen mopping floors, cleaning up tables and washing dishes to help pay my room and board. The total cost of the school, books, transportation, room and board and all that was required ran a little over $300.
I finished there in the spring of 1936. I stayed at home for a few weeks before going to work in Greensboro, North Carolina where I worked for about a year and a half as an electrician’s helper. There I paid back the $250 dollars on Daddy’s note. I was making 30cent an hour but we got time and a quarter for overtime. Sometime when we would have a motor or something in the motor shop, my boss would give me an hour of overtime to come down and dip that motor at one or two o’clock in the morning. I’d do it to make that 37 cents. I didn’t have a car, had to walk a mile down there and a mile back, and stay there 30minutes to an hour in the middle of the night. But those 37 cents added up and I paid my school debt.
Daddy didn’t have to pay a dime, he didn’t have to pay the interest. I paid everything I owed. Vera didn’t ask for the money back she had lent me. She also signed the note for my first car. I wasn’t old enough, as I remember. Bought a little green Plymouth.
VERA – Norman died of cancer in 1989. We loved him so. He was the character in the family.
He hardly acted like an Edwards, sometimes. He had a sense of fun and adventure about him that brought out smiles.
CLEROD – When he was about four years old he had curly, blond hair.
Mother wouldn’t have it cut. She’d take him places and people would say, “What a pretty little girl you got,” and Norman would get mad.
He asked her to cut his hair but she wouldn’t. She kept saying, “No, I’m not going to cut that pretty curly hair.” So this is what he did. We had tanglefoot on the beds, sticky brown mess on strips of paper about 8″ x 10″ that flies were attracted to. If you got it on you, you couldn’t wash it off, it would have to wear off. When a fly touched it he’d stick to it. We didn’t have screens then and the flies were all over the house. Mama would put big sheets of this tanglefoot on the beds to catch flies. One day Norman went in and laid on that bed and put his head on that tanglefoot. He was only about four, but I know for sure he did it on purpose so Mama would have to cut his hair to get that tanglefoot off. And that’s what she had to do. He was smart as a whip even then.
VERA – I always remember him being a little devil too. Mother made us school bags, and he’d get home and throw his book bag across a rack and he wouldn’t pick it up until the next morning. The other children would have to study, and he wouldn’t. Mother would get on him and he’d say, “Well, I’m making all As, how much do you expect.” I even accused him once of cheating to make those As, because he never studied. I said, “Let me have that school book of yours. I’ll just ask you some questions.” He had all the answers.
CLEROD – He’d make As on all his academic subjects but he’d make Fs on conduct every month. Mother asked the teacher, “How does he make so many As on his school subjects and gets Fs all the time on conduct?”
The teacher said, “He sits in class and takes in every word said and he is reading over his book at the same time. But in study hall you can’t shut the boy up.”
VERA: Yet he was Valedictorian of his class. Had an average of 96 for the four years of high school.
VERA – Norman also drove the school bus in high school. He’d stop real fast and sling the students to the front and start real fast and they ‘d go to the back. People complained, because he was so rowdy driving that bus.
CLEROD – Norman followed me to Coyne in Chicago. He majored in communications and operated a radio station in Salisbury for a while after he got out of school.
VERA – I think he stayed at home one year after he finished high school.
He bought a little battery radio and to save the batteries he would cut it off the length of time the commercial was on.
Then he would cut it back on. He had an interest in radio even then. I remember he still had pretty, blond, curly hair. Once he sent a school picture to a pen pal section of a little magazine called the “Pathfinder.”
He also had a talent with words and the letter he sent must have been pretty good. He got letters from all over the country.
He got hundreds of letters. I remember the mailman said, “Will you please tell us what this boy has done to get all this mail.” Some of the letters were real sappy and Mama got a hold of some and I think she wrote one girl who said some things in a letter that she didn’t think was proper. One thing he said in his letter published in the magazine was that he would answer all letters that he received. But he got so many letters that there wasn’t enough money to answer them all even though postage was probably just two or three cents. So he finally wrote a letter to the little magazine and said he appreciated all the letters he had received but he’d gotten so many he couldn’t answer them all. He did answer a few more.
He was some character.
CLEROD: I remember one time when Mother sent him out to get a switch because he’d done some mischief, and she was gonna whip him. He brought it to her and as he handed it to her he took off running across the field and she said, ” You think I’m gonna run after you, you’re crazy. I’m not gonna run after you but when you come back here you’ll wish you hadn’t.” A little while later he come easing back to the house and she really tore him up.
DORIS: I was asking Norman one day not long before he died, I said, “Well, Norman, you remember when the school bus broke down and I couldn’t walk home. You carried me on your shoulder.”
VERA: Let me explain. Doris for three years had what they called St Vitus’ Dance, a type of rheumatic fever. So we had to treat her very tenderly sometimes.
DORIS – Sometime I took advantage of it. But anyway the school bus had broken down coming from Uncle Wilse and Norman picked me up and put me over his shoulder and brought me home the rest of the way. I felt so good.
VERA – He probably bounced you up and down.
DORIS – Yes, trying to keep me happy. Another time, you know back then candy was just a rarity, he had gotten some from school. It was another time the bus had broken down and we had to walk home. Norman was six years older than me and could walk faster. He got way ahead of me but he’d left this little piece of chocolate candy on the railing of a bridge and I saw it and I thought, now why would he do that? He had taken a bite of it, but it was still in the wrapper.
VERA – During World War II, Norman took leave from the radio section of the Charlotte Police Department where he worked to join the Army. He spent two years overseas in the Signal Corps in Guadalcanal and the Philippines. He didn’t come home until the end of the war.
His wife and all of us were so glad to see him home. We loved him so.
Well, like all the other boys and girls in the family, I didn’t have any money to go to college after Union, so I went to Carolina business school. I lived with Vera and Earl in Charlotte until Earl was transferred to Rockingham.
Then I lived with Norman and his wife Tze until I finished the Carolina school. I wasn’t quite sixteen years old. I started school a bit early because Mama had taught me first grade. So I finished high school when I was fifteen, went on to business school and graduated before my sixteenth birthday.
My first job was working for a trucking company, USAC Express. I left there after a while and went to Harris Motor Lines.
I had known Frontis Williams for some time, Daddy knew his family.
He was in the Navy during the Second World War serving first in the Atlantic and then was transferred to the Pacific. He saw a lot of combat action, some of which he still won’t talk about, and was given one year of shore duty. He asked me to come to San Diego so we could get married.
Since I was working and had saved some money, I made plans to go.
Many girls were doing things like that during the war. Not many from our old farm community.
Before I left Uncle Wilse had a fit. “Why are you going to let her go, why?” he asked Daddy. I remember Dad said, “Well, she’s got money to come back on, I f she don’t like it.”
I left on the train from Marshville. I changed trains in New Orleans, Louisiana, and didn’t get off again until we pulled into the depot in San Diego, California, where Frontis was waiting on me. It had taken four days to cross the country.
My almost platinum blond hair was as black as soot. That was because it was in August and to get air you had to open the windows. The train was burning coal and the soot would just get all over you–in your hair, in your mouth.
Frontis and I were married in a little Baptist Chapel with two of his friends as guests. It was just a few days before the war ended.
Frontis got out of the Navy and we both got jobs in San Diego but Vera’s letters telling us about things back home in North Carolina made us homesick and we returned to Charlotte, a decision we have never regretted.
Vera, Clerod and Norman had left home before I was big enough to work on the farm. Daddy had a small patch of cotton then but other than that he wasn’t farming much.
Mama looked after the garden. Daddy rented some of the farm to someone who grew feed and raised hundreds of turkeys.
But we did grow cotton. I remember the boll weevil threatened to destroy the cotton blooms. We had to use poison made out of molasses and arsenic. We would make a wide mop and walk up and down the cotton rows, trying to swab every cotton bloom before the boll weevil got to it.
It was very poisonous. The box of arsenic had the devil and cross bones on the label.
When I was about three years old, I’m told, I broke my leg. Some of my cousins were visiting and were playing on three or four of the five-hundred-pound bales of cotton which were in the back yard. Someone turned one bale over on me as they jumped. Snapped my leg. Had to wear a cast from my armpits to my toes. When it was taken off I had to learn to walk all over again.
I finished high school in 1945. Went to Coyne electrical school in 1946 like Clerod and Norman. I studied electricity–Clerod loaned me $300 to go. Soon after I came home, I enlisted in the Navy for two years. It was either enlist or be drafted. I was assigned to a light cruiser and was off and on in the Mediterranean during my hitch. I came back home–went to High Point, lived and worked with Clerod until I married in 1949.
I remember helping to fill up the old well on the farm with Earl. Daddy had a new well drilled and a pump put in near to the house. The old well’s cover was rotting and was dangerous – we put in rocks, dirt, straw and anything we could find to fill that big, deep hole. We did it one Saturday while Daddy was at church. We had fun with some of the things we put in it, including straw. It filled up the hole but then the dirt settled. Daddy was surprised when he went out one morning months later and found a deep hole had appeared. I think he knew why.
I also helped Clerod wire our house for electricity. Janice and I were the only ones at home when we had electric lights, though for as long as we lived in the house we never had an indoor toilet.
VERA – I think I would say Johnny is most like Daddy, of the three boys.
Norman was an outgoing, fun-loving rogue.
Clerod has a lot of Mama’s stern determination, though he has continued a tradition on Daddy’s side of the family as a Lay Minister. He preaches throughout the South and leads the prayer at family gatherings.
But Johnny has Daddy’s character.
He is tender and loving and considerate the same ways Daddy was. That is not to say Norman and Clerod didn’t have those same qualities, but Johnny just reminds me of Daddy. He has no rough edges.
He is a good, quiet man, a good brother, husband and father.
Mama was 44 when I was born. She was not sure she would live through the delivery because she was so old and told Vera and others how to carry on with the garden in case she died. She was serious and very worried. I’ve always imagined that my birth was a joyous thing for her. She was so happy to have lived through it.
Mama emphasized the importance of an education with me, like she did with all of her children, and I could read and write before I started school.
As I think about growing up, I remember that Vera, Clerod and Norman were out on their own and that it was mostly Doris and Johnny around the house. Daddy wasn’t farming much. Mama ruled the roost from her rocking chair on the porch.
I had trouble keeping my weight down and was shy in school. Katherine Helms came to live with us during my senior year.
She was the star of the basketball team and very popular. I reckon she was my best friend at the time. I have fond memories of us going to school together.
I entered the Mercy School of Nursing in 1950 in Charlotte and stayed in the nurses ‘dorm while in training. My sisters and brothers helped me financially during that time.
I stayed on at Mercy Hospital after I graduated and have been the night Nurse supervisor there since 1957.
After graduation I was living in an apartment when I met and married Ray Mobley.
That marriage didn’t last long, but it gave me a beautiful daughter who has been the greatest blessing I have received in life. I moved in with Doris and Frontis in about 1954and have lived with them since.
We have developed a partnership in doing the housework and looking after the children that has work well going on forty years now. It is an extended family relationship that has given us a unique opportunity to share our lives.
My nursing career has given me wonderful rewards. Medicine and hospital care has improved from a time in the early 1950s, during the polio epidemic, when I saw so many people die, to a point now, where I see so many very sick people get well.
VERA -Janice has been doctor and medical advisor to the whole Edwards clan since she graduated from nurses’ school. It began first when Mama found a lump in her breast. She showed it to Janice who immediately arranged for a good doctor who operated and gave her radium treatment. Early detection made it possible for her to live 25 years longer.
Not long after Daddy began having trouble swallowing Janice advised tests and a surgeon. It was a malignancy that about two years later took his life.
During the last weeks of his Illness, Janice said “There is no need to take him to the hospital. He is not in pain. Let’s keep him at home with his family who will give him tender loving care. I will keep in touch with his doctor.” She gave us such comfort in her quiet, efficient way. She gave him glucose and whatever medication required during his last week. When he died, she immediately told us what our next steps were. Our little sister was the one who gave us the support and courage we needed in our first family crisis.
After Earl had emergency gall bladder surgery, Janice was called on again to be an angel of mercy. Earl had reactions from the medication during his recovery. The hospital called me early one morning and asked me to come stay with him because he was hallucinating and hard to handle. It was one of the worst days of my life fighting Earl who was reacting crazily to his medicine. Late that afternoon, Mama, who had just come to our house for a two-month visit, had a stroke and was brought to the hospital unconscious.
Janice was there in a matter of hours. She spent the next week at the hospital looking after two of the most important people in my life, giving me support and keeping the other family members aware of the situation.
There was Norman’s heart problems when he needed shots, after his regular medication didn’t regulate his heartbeat, then open heart surgery, and finally after a fall that broke his pelvic bone, his hospital stay and subsequent death.
Janice was always there, talking with doctors, letting his family know what to expect.
There was Zak, Doris’ grandson, who was born prematurely, needed much surgery, but is now a healthy, intelligent boy. There are neighbors and friends who have come to Janice over the years for help and advice. And her needlework; she is an artist. She learned at Mama’s knee and does incredible petit point work which she gives away as gifts. She is so valuable to all of us. We are so proud of her.
The fact that I and all my brothers and sisters went away to school after high school was unusual in our farming community. None of our other relatives or farm neighbors did. Here we were, all country people who had never been to a big city, leaving home on borrowed money. We were shy people too, all except Norman and Doris, maybe. Nobody stayed to work the farm. it must have been Mama’s determination that we get an education that drove us out into the unknown.
I finished high school just before I was six teen years old. It was in the midst of the Depression and no one had much money. I was the oldest of five children.
There was no way I could go to college so I went back to high school one more year, taking some courses that I had never taken before.
This was 1932, the year Janice was born. Mama didn’t feel very good during her pregnancy and it fell to me to take over the running of the house.
I helped get things ready for the new baby, planted and weeded the garden, washed the clothes, all with Mama giving me instructions from her rocking chair on the porch. When the time finally came, it was late one afternoon in June, Daddy went to Marshville for the doctor. When he returned, I went with the younger children to spend the night at Uncle Wilse’s. That was a long night for me. I had heard Mama say many times that she was afraid she wouldn’t live though the delivery because she was old and overweight. My cousins and I talked until the early hours about my concern for Mama and the new baby. I prayed fervently to God that night to look out for my family. Earl y the next morning Daddy came to tell us Mama was fine and to come home and see our baby sister. She was beautiful. Mama said she wanted me to name her. I said, “Let’s call her Janice Delphine.” I cared for her feeding and bathing over the next eighteen months and dressed her in the pretties clothes.
She was my pride and joy.
I made quilts during the winter that year. Mama let me use scraps from some of her sewing. I appliqued them on a white background. Then we would have a “quilting party” inviting some neighbors and relatives to come over and help put together the qui1ts. I made three altogether. I dated occasionally but had no serious interest in any of the boys. There was no “sparking” on the front porch. I went to bed every night hoping for some opportunity to go to college. I dreamed about going to college.
In August the farms were laid by and people would visit. Many people came to visit Daddy because he was the preacher.
They would just show up. You’d see them coming down the road about mid-morning. After dinner the women would sit on the porch and talk. The men sat under the shade of the big oak trees in the back yard.
One August day that second year out of high school Charlie Curlee and his wife Rebecca showed up for a visit. They had been parishioners at one of Daddy’s churches for years. We had eaten dinner when Mr. and Mrs. Griffin and their daughter, Elsie, from Marshville came by.
I was sitting with the women on the front porch when Mrs. Griffin asked me what I was going to do in the fall. I said I wanted to go to college but I didn’t have any money. Mrs. Griffin asked if I wanted to go with Elsie to beautician school in Norfolk, Virginia. She planned to leave in two weeks. I said I’d like to, having never giving that a thought before. But I said again that I didn’t have any money. Rebecca said, and I can still hear her saying it, “Charlie and I will lend you what you need.” I looked at Mama and her ears perked up and I said, “Oh, oh.” What an incredible offer.
Mama told me to go ask Daddy.
The men were sitting out under the oak tree. I stood by the side and waited until they stopped talking. Daddy finally looked in my direction and I told him what Rebecca had just said. He sat there looking at me without saying a word.
Charlie Curlee said yes, Rebecca had already talked to him about making the money available for me to go to school. Daddy looked away and kind of shook his head in a noncommittal way. I went back and said well, he didn’t say I couldn’t go.
Clerod was with the men and he said after I left that Charlie Curlee got up and turned his back, unbuttoned his shirt and looked down. In those days men carried money belts and Charlie, with his back to the men, reached in his money belt and got a handful of money, maybe a hundred and fifty dollars, and put it in his pants pocket.
He buttoned up his shirt, turned around and sat back down. He eventually gave the money to Daddy to pay for my tuition and they came to an understanding about how it was going to be repaid.
I was going to be leaving in two weeks, and I didn’t have any sleeping clothes because on the farm I just slept in my underclothes. Mama got busy and rounded up some chicken feed sacks that had a pretty print. I can see that print now, it was yellow and blue on a white back ground. She cut a pattern for pajamas and started sewing them up.
She’d would lay her sewing on her bed and I can remember seeing Daddy pass by the window nearby, look at that sewing and cut those eyes around at me and Mama with that hangdog look as if he was losing a daughter.
When it was time to go Daddy took me to the train in Marshville. Just he and I. We met the Griffins at the station and Elsie and I left at 10 o’clock on the night of September 2, 1933.
We traveled all night long.
Two instructors met the train in Portsmouth the next morning and took us across the ferry to Norfolk to a boarding house where seven or eight other students were staying. Elsie and I had a room upstairs, but we ate downstairs. We had to walk ten or twelve blocks to school. I had bought a new pair of shoes that blistered my heels and hurt my toes. I had no other working shoes so I had to wear them all the time. How I suffered.
The first day of school consisted mainly of enrollment and orientation. That afternoon a group of girls and I went to a movie–my first talking movie. It starred Shirley Temple, and was so sweet. During one scene her parents were separating, and she began crying. Since I was feeling homesick and my feet hurt and the movie was sad, I almost started to cry. I can see myself now sitting in the theater trying not to let anyone know that I was fighting back tears.
Norfolk was home port to a large Navy battle group. When I arrived, the U.S. Navy Atlantic fleet was in after months at sea and boy, oh boy, was that something for a eighteen-year- old farm girl still so much of a hick that her night clothes were made out of flour sacks. I don’t think I had ever seen a sailor before. Going to school in the morning was okay.
But walking back those ten or twelve blocks in the late afternoon, the sailor boys would be four or five abreast.
They flirted with us every step of the way. We tried to keep a straight face although sometimes we would laugh among ourselves over some of the things they said. Sometimes this would be misread to mean we were flirting back and occasionally one or two sailors would follow us all the way to the steps of our boarding house. What they did not know was that we knew next to nothing about boy-girl things. My best friend at the boarding house was a local girl, Hazel, who grew up across the bay at Newport News. She was engaged and her fiancé thought she should know something about the facts of married life.
He gave her a book on sex to read. We would gather in her room and read the book aloud and look at the pictures and blush. We’d say things like, “Oh, my God” and “That’s what that sailor was talking about.”
I was unsure how Daddy was taking my departure from home and was afraid he wouldn’t read my letters. But I came home sometime before I finished and one of the first things I asked Mama was, “Does Daddy read my letters?” She said, “Oh yes, he reads them word for word. He is as anxious to read them as I am.” What a relief.
When I finished school, jobs were scarce. Elsie and I returned to school as they tried to find an opening for us.
When I went back Daddy gave me his checkbook and told me to write checks if I needed any money. I knew there was little money in that bank account and I wrote checks only when I absolutely had to.
FROM OPERATOR TO OWNER
I finally found a job myself that lasted a month at a beauty shop in Concord, North Carolina. It was the month before Easter, a very special time in those days for the ladies.
They would buy new dresses, new hats and get a new hairdo.
I was hired only to handle the holiday rush at that beauty parlor. I heard through a former roommate that a beautician was needed to help an older woman in a beauty parlor in Aberdeen, N.C.
I took the bus down from Concord, got the job and began work immediately. I worked on commission and the first week I only made $7.05. I had thought I would make more money than that. Room and board at the house where I lived was $7.00. When I went to pay after the first week, I told the landlady that I had only made $7.05, and I didn’t think I could live the next week on five cents. I was trying not to cry. She dropped the rate to $6.00 per week.
After a few months the older woman resigned and I was left to manage and operate the shop by myself. I built up a good business and the shop was making money. It was one large room at the end of a long hall behind a drug store that was badly in need of modernization.
During that period women were very modest and they didn’t want any man to see them while they were getting their hair done. Once a lady had pulled off her blouse to have her shampoo. We put a cape over her shoulders and just started to wash her hair when the husband of another customer suddenly walked in. The woman without a blouse on shrieked and pulled the cape over her face. Of course this exposed her slip and bra to the man, buts that’s the way she wanted it. He couldn’t see her face, so he didn’t know whose underwear he was looking at.
Another time when I was in that little shop a farm woman came in to get her long hair cut. It smelled terrible. It was clean but it was the worst smelling hair I had ever been around. I couldn’t help but make a face behind her back.
She later explained that the previous night she had heard a sound in her chicken house and had taken her lantern and went to investigate.
Somehow in the dark of that chicken house she had run across the culprit, a skunk, and he had gotten her in the head before she could duck. She said she had washed her hair several times, but the skunk odor persisted and the only solution was to get her hair cut off.
I cut it short, shampooed it three times and sprayed it with a sweet smelling lotion. She left a much better smelling woman than when she arrived. After she left we quickly swept the place out and dumped the stinking hair cuttings out the back.
One day a salesman came in and said, “Why don’t you open your own shop? We can work out a plan for payment.”
I was one year out of school and had never thought of going into business for myself.
I told him that I’d think about it and contact him later.
I talked with the owner about buying her shop under the same type of arrangements, but she obviously didn’t want to sell because she quoted an outrageous price.
I pursued the idea of opening a shop of my own and I found a place in Aberdeen that I thought could be made into an attractive shop. Daddy endorsed a note for me at the Bank of Wingate for the down payment on the equipment. I designed the shop after one I had seen in a magazine.
Lady Clare Beauty Shop 1936
In the fall of 1936 I opened the doors to the Lady Clara Beauty Shop named for my mother. I was 21 years old. Most of my old customers came around. The business was an immediate success. I had a brand new permanent-wave machine with clips that dangled from the top, plus three dryers. I can remember having problems with the electrical plugs and hired an electrician a couple of times to come by to do repairs. I soon l earned that I could do it myself and because it was my business, I didn’t call the electrician again.
One of the reasons I was so successful is that I was a good hostess to the ladies and kept their confidences. I heard all the rumors, all sides to every bit of gossip in town. I was a good listener, though sometime my ears burned when I heard some of those ladies’ stories.
Business was so good that I hired Elizabeth Lewis to help me. We roomed together at a boarding house and became close friends. She was from Pinehurst and went home almost every week-end. I went with her often and we sometimes double- dated. I met someone I liked very much and our dating became serious. Elizabeth and I talked and dreamed about our future. She was ‘the best friend I ever had. We knew each other’s secrets, heartaches, and triumphs.
One morning I was eating breakfast in the sun-room of the boarding house with Lois McLeod, a secretary at the Gulf Oil Company, when Earl walked in.
Lois asked him to sit down and he and she chatted. He was polite but uninterested in me, I thought. That night he came by the boarding house in his GMAC car and Elizabeth and I were sitting on the front porch . He asked me to go for a ride. We were very comfortable with each other right from the start. I had my fellow’s ring on but we didn’t have a firm commitment about marriage.
Earl was involved with another girl, so we had a friendly relationship.
I thought Earl and Elizabeth would hit it off. I told her I wanted her to meet this good looking man about town, “Parker, ” and left that week end on the train to visit my family. When I got back on Sunday night, Elizabeth was at the boarding house. She said, “I have met your “Parker” and you can have him!!” He apparently had been a little forward.
Earl began coming by the boarding house for breakfast whenever he was in town.
We were friends and I looked forward to seeing him. When he didn’t show up I always felt a little disappointed. Sometime we would meet at the post office on our way to work. I remember once when I went to the post office he was there standing by a tall table reading his mail from the GMAC home office. He had on a tailor-made suit, standing so tall and straight, shifting his weight from one foot to another. I can remember thinking what a strong, handsome man this Parker is. He didn’t look up until I had opened my mail box. He smiled and my heart fluttered.
By the time we were married my shop was the only beauty parlor in town. I knew almost everyone in Aberdeen and my picture was on the front page of the Sandhill citizen.
ENDING TO MY STORY
This was written on the first page of the autograph book I had in 1932.
“May we live in the springtime of our lives, so that when the autumn comes we will not look back upon days spent uselessly, our hearts filled with vain regrets. Give to the world the best that you have and the best will come back to you.”
Vera L. Edwards
Looking at this and thinking about my life, I realize that I have made mistakes, but I have no “vain regrets.”
GRANDMA AND GRANDPA PARKER
My Grandpa Parker enlisted in the Confederate Army 8 April 1862, three days after his 18th birthday. His unit, Company D, 50th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, fought in Civil War battles throughout eastern North Carolina; Rocky Mount, New Bern, Smithfield, Fayetteville and Aberdeen. There is record of his unit having to move through a great swamp near Aberdeen, which may have been near where I lived and worked, for so many years, later.
Confederate military records also indicated that Grandpa did not answer roll call from August to November 1864. Though he never told us, he probably returned to the farm during that period to help put in the crops, something many other young soldiers in the North Carolina troops did that fall.
The last big battle for his unit was against Union troops near Bentonville, North Carolina. Grandpa walked back home when it was over. He followed behind General Sherman’s Union Army which was pulling back to the North and saw the destruction caused by the Yanks all along the way. He told me that he saw where local farmers had their houses looted and burned by Sherman’s forces. When Grandpa arrived back home he was barefoot, having worn out his shoes. I heard him say later, “A man cannot admit to my face that he is a Yankee. I’d have to kill him.” I knew other men growing up who served in the Civil War and they all hated the Yankees.
This had an effect on my life. My first employer out of college, GMAC, asked me to transfer out of North Carolina to a territory in the North. I turned them down, I know for sure, because of the hatred of the Northerners that I grew up with.
Grandpa married Bethanie Kitty Lee in 1868. He was fond of saying “I have never shaved, I never cursed an oath and I never knew any woman but Kitty, my wife.”
Grandpa and Grandma Parker lived near the community of Four Oaks, North Carolina when they first got married, but later moved 15 miles north to a farm in Johnston County. They had eight children, all named after biblical characters: Anna, Russell, Rachel, Bethania, Rosanna, Joseph Elijah (Bud), Augustus (Gus), and Zerubbabel (Zob). The girls were not educated, but the boys were. One was a civil engineer who later helped survey state boundaries in the West. Another was a lawyer. My Papa, Joseph Elijah (Bud), was with the postal service, at the time a prestigious vocation in our farming community, one which required an education.
My family always looked forward to our visits to Grandma ·and Grandpa Parker’s.
I remember one time we went in a buggy pulled by our old horse, Maud. Me, five of my brothers and sisters, Momma and Papa were all crowded in the buggy. On the way Maud stopped in the middle of a stream–there were few bridges in the county–and we couldn’t get her to go until she was ready. Papa whipped her, slapped the reins on her rump, got out and tried to pull her by the bridle.
Nothing worked. Maybe she was tired. She moved out of the stream when she got good and ready.
The first thing we did when we went to Grandpa’s house was to help him catch a chicken which Grandma would stew in a pot over an open fireplace in the kitchen. Always had chicken when we went to Grandpa’s.
Their kitchen was separated from the “great house” and had a large round dinner table with a lazy Susan in the middle.
Many big families during the 1800s used lazy Susan’s, though we never had one in our home. Us kids liked to go into the kitchen and spin it around at Grandpa’s but this was frowned on by the adults.
There was a front porch that Grandpa called the “piazza.”
A small bedroom was off to the side of the porch where my first cousin Festus slept. That bedroom was called the “shed” and was a common feature off porches in farmhouses of the time.
There were no glass panes in the windows or screens on the doors of the house. Wooden shutters on the outside closed the windows. The doors were open in the summer and closed in the winter. Nothing kept the flies out.
Grandpa was a devout Primitive Baptist who believed in a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible. He was also a gifted storyteller and could hold our attention for hours with parables from the Bible.
He knew the moon and stars by the seasons and would tell us how to use them for direction and how to time our farm planting for the best harvests. I still remember him saying that root crops were planted on the “growth” of the moon and above ground crops were planted on the “wane” of the moon. He had a long, white beard and us kids use to think that he was the oldest, wisest man there ever was.
Grandpa had an anvil and forge and used scrap metal to make many of the things needed on the farm including large plows, door hinges and knives. He would also make and shape horseshoes to fit his draft animals.
We always went to Grandpa’s on the fourth of July because he was very patriotic and encouraged us to celebrate our country’s independence. Many of my aunts, uncles and cousins would come. The kids would sleep on floor pallets, giggling well into the night. On the Fourth there would always be a picnic with tables of food laid out under the trees in the yard. Every family came with special food available in the summer. I remember the plums were usually ripe at that time of the year and we would eat our bellies full. The boys would climb trees in the woods near the farmhouse where we could see farm land for miles and miles.
Grandpa bought “BIG APPLE” and “BROWN & WILLIAMS” chewing tobacco in 6″ x 6″ x 6″ wooden boxes. Each box had about 40 plugs which were packed firmly in 3″x 6″ x 1/2″ blocks. Both of these brands were wet with sweet molasses to improve the taste. Grandpa would pull the box from under his bed, cut a plug from one of the blocks, then cut that into smaller pieces. He would put them in his pocket and when he and I were off alone he’d give me a “chew, ” though I can remember him telling me not to tell my Momma.
Grandpa Parker was known for his integrity and intelligence. I remember he had rained a swamp by digging a ditch close to a quarter of a mile long through a ridge line. The ditch was tiered down more than six feet at places. It eventually drained the swamp and the land turned into rich farm land.
Grandpa also kept a King snake in his corn crib which eliminated rats and mice. Even as an eight- or nine-year- old youngster I remember thinking that was pretty smart of Grandpa. He also kept bees. For his beehives he would cut hollow logs into sections, turn them upside down and push pegs into them so the bees had something on which to build wax for the honey. He also built a special knife to harvest his honey.
I still have a clear image of him, bending over his tree- trunk beehives with that long white beard hanging down, tending to his bees.
He had a strong, very positive influence in my young life.
I never knew my Grandpa O’Neal, Mamma’s daddy. He was killed in 1898 under what was described as “unusual circumstances.” I heard that on weekends he would gather with other men at a local country store where they often drank straight from a barrel of whisky. By all accounts a pretty rough group hung out at that store and there were a number of fights. Once a group of men were planning to steal the horse of one of Grandpa’s friends on the pretense of trying the horse out because they might want to buy it. But Grandpa had them figured for con men and sent them on their way with the promise of good thrashing if he saw them in the area again. He was a hairy individual; in fact, there is public record about his hairy chest and back. He was also known to be very strong and tough in a fight. He was probably killed in an altercation near that country store by a man named Davis, but the exact details were never made known to his family. His body was dragged home under his buggy with his feet tied by ropes to the front axle.
Momma was in the yard that Sunday morning when the horse and buggy dragging her father’s body underneath came slowly down the dirt road and in towards the barn.
Grandma O’Neal did not remarry. She ran the farm thereafter by herself and asked for no help in raising her children.
She was an independent cuss and I remember her as being very hard. I do not know if that was just her nature or if she was bitter about her misfortunes with the men in her life.
Grandpa O’Neal’s death had been tragic. Before that she had been married to a fellow named Edwards. He died young after fathering two children, Mary and Alice. Then there was Aunt Melissa, “Lisser,” another daughter of Grandma O’Neal whose father was a subject of some community conjecture.
It should not be assume from all this that Grandma O’Neal came from a family of wild ne’er-do-wells, because that was not the case. She was a Talton before she married and came from a family that had large slave holdings in our area before the Civil War.
The Talton family is an interesting part of my ancestry. I remember stories that Grandma O’Neal’s father never knew his father and simp1y took the name of Talton. The hardness and tragedy of this Talton family line has been passed down, it is in our genes. There were many similarities between Grandma O’Neal and Momma. And I can sometimes feel the Talton sadness in my bones.
Grandpa O’Neal ‘s oldest son–Momma’s oldest brother–was Rich O’Neal. He was also part of the Talton line. He was a prominent farmer in our parts with acres of good farmland and several tenant farmers working for him. He was a hard- working, upright, family man. Like his father, though, he had a reputation for being a brawler. Fighting was common among the menfolk to settle disputes when I grew up. If you were done wrong by someone it was more or less accepted behavior that you would seek the person out and engage him in a fist-fight. It was a rough code of conduct but it made people in our farming community responsible for their actions. It also made men with a lot of brothers a little more equal than others. Uncle Rich didn’t have a lot of brothers, but in his case, he didn’t need much help. He was tough and he had a hell’va temper. I was at his house once when one of his field workers came by in a car. Uncle Rich jumped out in the road, stopped the car and just started beating that man in the head.
And I don’t know why. Just because he came by like he did in a car, I think. Maybe Uncle Rich thought he should have been out working.
But now more on men sometime taking action and justice in their own hands and calling out neighbors and others in the community for what they perceived as misdeeds. People living out in the country just would natural sometimes have differences of opinion, and there was no 911 and a pack of lawyers to call. You just had to handle it yourself. Sometimes if someone did you wrong you’d go to your neighbors in addition to your family to seek advice and if it came to it, some muscle in settling the dispute. This led to formation of Klu Klux Klan groups, which, where I grew up, was very accepted. The Klan imposed community standards. But back to Uncle Rich.
In 1927 he was driving a Ford touring car and ran into a truck with a bunch of convicts sitting in the back with their feet hanging over the side. Uncle Rich got out of his car and started yelling. A Mr. Wall got down from the truck and Uncle Rich hit him. Wall hit him back with a tire iron and Uncle Rich fell dead in the road. I arrived before they moved him. Uncle Rich’s oldest daughter was crying and I was trying to console her. She said “Earl, your Papa don’t stay home, but he’s alive and now mine’s gone.”
Uncle Rich was 36 when he died. There were more than a thousand relatives and friends at his funeral. There was much sympathy throughout the community for both families. No one could understand how such a tragedy could have happened on so slight a provocation. The two men, Uncle Rich and Mr. Wall, had grown up together.
I always liked Uncle Rich because he was so good to Momma and all of us kids. It was because of him that Grandma gave us the 44- acre home place. And he and Uncle Will built the two-room house for us when there was no one else around. I can also remember when he brought us food when we were hungry.
Another one of Mamma’s brothers was Uncle Will. He was my favorite uncle. in fact he was more like an older brother. Even after I married, when I went back home, he and I would go out carousing like we were best friends, sometimes staying out almost all night riding around and talking.
Sometimes we played poker at a country store and drank some apple brandy or homemade liquor. We often went to Percy Flowers’, a well-known liquor maker who was married to my cousin. Percy was a local celebrity; he had spent time in prison because he had beaten up a federal officer looking for a still on his farm.
Uncle Will fought in the First World War and he told me stories about digging trenches and fighting the Germans. I can remember that he said what was amazing to him was that after the fighting was over he found that he liked the Germans better than the French.
PAPA AND THE EARLY TROUBLED YEARS
Papa had passed a civil service exam and was a mail carrier before he and Momma were married in 1906. He was 23 and she was 17 years old.
They first lived in Selma in a small house but soon moved across the street into a house they built themselves. Wilma remembers seeing Momma holding the kerosene lamp while Papa drove nails into boards to put the wall plaster on. it was a big house with six rooms. It was where I was born.
Papa was carrying the mail then by horse and buggy. Since he had to change horses every day, he built a large barn in the back. I can vaguely remember Momma shutting Odis and Carl in the stalls if they were naughty.
The house still stands on the way to my sister Wilma’s, and she and her husband, Paul, own it. My younger sister Louise was also born while we lived there.
Not long after we moved into the big house, Papa bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle to deliver the mail and he sold all the horses but Maud.
Papa always did a lot of drinking. He was able to keep the family and his job as a mail carrier going, but the liquor began to take over his life.
Once when he was drinking, someone bet him five dollars that he couldn’t climb a bent- over tree on his motorcycle. They said he almost won that bet, as crazy as it was, but he slipped off the tree going full bore and wrecked his cycle. About the same time he lost or destroyed some mail and ended up before a federal judge. His brother, Zob, was a lawyer and kept him out of the penitentiary but he was fired from his job with the post office. That was in 1916.
Grandpa Parker had large land holdings that he had built up over time. He gave Papa a hundred acres of his property in the White Oaks area about two miles from Grandpa’s homestead. It was covered with a virgin forest and there were no cl eared fields for farming.
When Papa lost his job I remember us moving to his hundred acres. It was Momma, Papa, Odis, Wilma, Carl, me and Louise. I was four years old. We had all our things in two borrowed two-horse wagons and a buggy. Ten miles out from Selma we stopped at Grandma O’Neal’s to spend the night.
The chickens stayed in boxes on the wagon. The next day we moved on to our new home about seven miles further on. The roads were all dirt and there were no bridges. Although I was very young then, I remember clearly that our new home was not much to look at, in truth of fact it was little more than a shack. It had two rooms inside and the lean-to shed off the back porch. An open well was in the front yard and because we were on top of White Oak Hill, the well was very deep. I remember even before we got down off the wagons Momma explained that any kid caught near that open well would get a whipping. We brought in our wood cook stove from the wagon, and the other furniture, and set up housekeeping.
To clear the land Papa somehow acquired a saw-mill that was powered by a wood-fired steam engine. He used two black- and-white Holstein oxen to pull the logs to the mill. He had a helper, a black man named Preston Stancil who drove the oxen. Preston let me help him with the oxen, but I don’t think that they would “Gee” and “Haw” for me like they did for him. Draft animals— mules, horses and oxen–were taught to respond to Gee for going right,
Haw for left and Whoa for stopping. This was done, usually, in concert with pulling the reins, but sometime oxen were driven with word commands only. I remember that you couldn’t train oxen to back up. Mules and horses would, but oxen never would.
Those days at White Oak Hill were hard times. Papa continued to drink. He ordered liquor by the gallon and had it shipped by railway express from Virginia. His brothers and sisters, my uncles and aunts, all gave him a hard time about his drinking, but he ignored them.
Papa squandered all the money he made at the saw-mill and within a year of moving to White Oak hill he lost his land. Momma finally took all of us kids to a tenant house near her Mamma’s, owned by our great Uncle Rufus Talton. Papa left the area in search of work.
Momma tried to make ends meet by herself in the tenant house but it was difficult. I remember one time that first winter we didn’t have anything in the house to eat except some parched field corn. One Christmas all Momma could give us kids was half an apple with our names carved in the side. We finally had to move in with Grandma O’Neal.
We were living there when Uncle Will came back from World War I. He got married soon thereafter and brought his wife to live with us. The house was overcrowded and tensions flared. We felt unwanted but had nowhere to go. Uncle Rich and Uncle Will made Grandma O’Neal divide her land among her children.
As the land was being divided, there was some discussion about leaving Momma out because women didn’t figure in inheritance like the men did and also Grandma was afraid Papa would get his hands on the land. Uncle Rich however said “Addie has to have some land.” He was a tough man to deal with, Uncle Rich, and he made Grand ma O’Neal set aside 44acres for Momma and us on the back side of the O’Neal spread. Uncle Rich and Uncle Will framed a house on that 44 acres with just weatherboards, a shingle roof, a board floor and a few windows. Then we moved in.
This house, like the other one on Papa’s hundred acres, only had two rooms inside with a lean-to type room off the back.
Sometime shortly thereafter Papa came back. He fixed up the house and made it more liveable. He also tried to help us farm.
Things were going pretty good but then the flu epidemic of 1918 struck. Mom ma and all six children were sick in bed. Papa stayed up even though he was sick too. People would bring pots of soup, and put them inside a window, careful to keep a cloth over their face to keep from catching the flu. Papa kept a fire going day and night, milked the cow, cared for the hogs and mules and even washed the clothes. I have clear memories of the house smelling of vomit and diarrhea.
Although thousands of people died from the flu, everyone in our family survived.
To be fair to Papa he simply did not like farming. He got a job as a travelling salesman, selling Fuller brushes throughout the eastern part of the state and he left home again. He would come back home periodically. I learned to drive his car. I’d go back and forth in the yard.
One night when Papa was back home, there was a knock at the door. He opened the door and there stood ten or fifteen Klu Klux Klan members in white robes and hoods. Some were holding torches. One man standing out front did the talking for the group.
He said to Papa, “It has been reported that you are neglecting your wife and children. If you don’t straighten up and do right, we will put you over a log and beat you.”
Papa promised them he would, closed the door and we could hear the men leaving outside. All the time I was standing behind the door scared stiff. The rest of the family was sitting around the fireplace listening. Papa came over and sat down by the fire. He was very mad and accused Momma and her brothers of asking the Klan to come by and talk to him.
Another time when Papa had left home, some deacons from Antioch Church came and talked to Momma about her and Papa trying to get back together for the children’s sake. Momma thought Papa had sent them, and she was mad. She was often angry at Papa and accused him of many things and many shortcomings that he was not guilty of.
Papa was registered as a Republican. When women got the right to vote in 1920Momma registered as a Democrat, like her brothers. Once during a local election, Momma and Papa promised each other not to vote, so that they wouldn’t cancel each other out, but Momma slipped off and voted anyway. Papa found out and was as mad as I ever saw him.
Momma and Papa separated permanently after Willie Lee was born in 1925.
They finalized a divorce many years later.
After all the older boys had left the home place, a named Merlin Godwin helped Momma with the farming. After he left, a black tenant family worked the farm.
THE HOME PLACE
As I just said, our house initially only had two rooms inside . There was no ceiling and just one thickness of floor boards. Rough weatherboarding was nailed to the two- by-four frame to make the sides of the house. At night
lying in bed you could look up and see the stars between the roof shingles. When it snowed, snow would accumulate on the bed quilts. One time it was raining so hard one of the girls had to make an umbrella out of a piece of oil cloth and put it over Momma who was lying in bed with one of the babies.
At first our only outbuilding was a very small corn barn with a lean to for tools on one side and two stables on the other. it was made out of logs. The geese and chickens would crawl under the corn barn at night. The hens would lay eggs there and the little children would have to crawl around under the floor to get them.
Once when Papa came back he cut down a tract of pine trees from our woods and had them sawed into building timbers. He and Momma invited in all of our neighbors and close relatives for a “barn raising.” Over the course of two days we tore down the old corn barn building and built a free standing barn. Later Papa and Preston Stancil built a chicken house, a log tobacco barn, a smokehouse and a packhouse. The loft of the pack house was used to grade tobacco and the downstairs was for corn. When we got the Model T we built a shelter for it next to the smokehouse.
Momma had a well dug at the home place. It was usually one of the first things done at a new site, even before the farmhouse itself was built.
There were men in the county who hired out to dig wells. They would dig a hole with a spade and shovel about three-and-a-half feet in diameter and go down 15 or 20 feet, depending on the water level. At ground level, a frame would be built up about three feet to cover the well and to keep frogs, chickens, and people from falling in. Two posts were erected above with a crossbar to hold the pulley, which we called a “teagle.” A chain or rope would run through the pulley and attach to a water bucket.
Sometime we would keep things cool by lowering them down in the well almost to water level. Sometime if we killed a chicken late in the afternoon we might put it in a bucket with a tight lid and lower it down to keep it cool so it wouldn’t spoil. We’d also put milk down in a bucket during the summer. But we had to be very careful that whatever we put down near the water level did not spill out, because if it did it would contaminate the water, spoiling the taste. The only way to get pure water again was to draw out all of the water from the well bucket by bucket, and let fresh water seep in.
WORKING THE FARM
The boys spent a lot of time cutting wood during the winter. We used an old cross cut saw most of the time to cut timber into sections so that it could be split in to firewood. We used pine for the stove wood and oak and gum for the fireplace and tobacco barn. Each tobacco barn took more wood each season than it took to heat the house over the winter. We also had to cut some wood to make furniture and the outbuildings. We built benches for the children to sit on at the kitchen table.
Sometimes we’d have to stay home from school to cut wood ‘cause we couldn’t do it all on a Saturday.
We’d have to start breaking up land about March. So we had to start pretty early in the winter cutting wood. And we had to haul straw for the stables.
Before we started growing tobacco on the 44 acres, we grew cotton. I remember we would produce about three or four bales of cotton a year. They weighed about 500 pounds each after the seeds were taken out. So we’d take about 1500 pounds of seeded cotton to the gin and we’d swap the seed for cotton seed meal and hulls to feed the cow. if the cotton sold for ten cents a pound, that was 50dollars a bale which came to about 150 to 200 dollars a year total income for the family.
I remember that when we stacked the cotton up in bales in the yard, we would climb to the top and jump down. I have clear recollections of sitting on the top of the cotton bales and daydreaming.
We grew corn on the farm for as long as I remember. We used it to feed the animals and it was a staple on the supper table. We’d take some of the corn down to Atkinson’s mill to grind in to meal. The miller took an eighth of the meal as payment for doing the grinding. He had a little toll measure, made out of wood, and he’d fill that from each of our bushels and put it over in his barrel.
When we first started farming we would go through the fields in the spring of the year with a stick, knocking down cotton and corn stalks from the previous year’s crops. We didn’t know then that we should have left them on the ground so they could be plowed under to fertilize the l and. We would pick up the stalks after we had knocked them down and put them in a pile where we’d burn them. Later on we would borrow Uncle Will’s mule-drawn stalk-cutter and get the job done in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the effort. I remember thinking how amazing that stalk-cutter was, how modern and efficient.
We had a one-horse and a two-horse turn plow which we used to prepare the fields for planting. You could break up one acre a day with a man and a mule. After we broke it up, turned it over with the plow, we’d drag something over it to smooth it out. When we got ready to sow we would “run the rows.” For that we would use a cotton plow, with scoops, to make furrows.
We would have to clean out the barn once a year and take all the manure to the field for fertilizer. We also had to buy fertilizer at the store for the cotton and tobacco. After we spread the fertilizer, we used the turn plow to make ridges for planting. And then we would use a planter to plant the crop. We’d make the mule walk on top of the ridges to pull the planter that dropped corn, cotton or corn seed in the furrows and covered them with soil.
THE NEW GROUND
Papa cleared some land to give us more area for planting.
He cut the trees, and then every evening after school and on Saturdays we’d be sent to the field to dig up the stumps and the roots. We called this land the “new ground.” We’d haul the wood to the house so that we could burn it in the fireplace. Papa dug up the smaller stumps and we planted around those large ones that remained as best we could. The mules hated to work in that “new ground” because the plow would hang up on roots every few feet and they would be stopped dead in their tracks. When that happened the bar between the plow handles would hit you in the stomach or the crotch.
You had to back up, pull the plow out, and start again.
After a dozen or so times you’d be mad. The mule would get aggravated late in the afternoon and be tired. Odis especially hated plowing the “new ground.” He didn’t have any patience anyway and he’d start hitting the mule and cussing. The mule would get stubborn. They weren’t a very nice pair.
We had to tend this land for a year or two like that until the bigger stumps rotted through. it didn’t produce much, either, during that time. But in four or five years the land was completely clear and we had a bigger farm.
The first school I attended was Sandy Springs. It was about two-and-a-half or three miles from the house. We’d walk down the dirt road and have to cross several creeks. Some we could jump, others had a foot-log across them. We’d take our shoes off sometimes and wade across or walk the log barefooted. Sometimes when we would be half way across the creek on a foot log someone would suddenly turn around and “face off” with the person behind, which usually meant someone wen t into the water. Then when we got to school we had to sit up front near the stove to dry out. Our stockings and union suits and shoes would be wet and they would smell bad as they dried. Sometime when it rained or snowed someone would drive us to school in the back of the wagon but this didn’t happen often.
I remember we had to go some of the way with Milford God win, a cousin who lived close to our house. He was older than I was and bigger and stronger and he was always picking on me.
I hated that boy. One day he took my “toboggan” and threw it in a briar patch. That was the last straw. I don’t know, maybe I was having a bad day; I just can’t remember ever being that mad. I went into that briar patch and got my stocking hat and came out, crying, nose running, slobbering, arms flaying. I hit him everywhere. Got him down on the ground and whipped him good. He never bothered me again.
School began in the morning when the first students got there. The teacher might already be teaching by the time we arrived, because she had four classes to teach.
Sandy Springs had two rooms . One had grades one through four and we called it the “little room.” The other, although it was about the same size, we called the “big room.” It held grades five through seven. That was the extent of the school system in our part of the county. Learning how to read and write was about all people expected of an education. Everything else you needed to know you learned on the farm.
We sat in double, homemade desks, the types that had the desks on the back of the chairs in front. The teacher usually assigned seatmates. The unruly boys always had to sit at the front near the teacher. Sometimes brothers and sisters had to sit together because there might be only one book. There were no lights. No indoor plumbing fixtures.
The classes were small. I had maybe four or five classmates in my seventh grade class. There might have been 15 or 20 students in each of the two rooms. No more than 40 total in the school.
As was common place in schools of that period, the teacher would discipline rowdy students by whipping them with a switch. I remember Louise, my sister, got whipped once. The teacher, Miss Lessie, was whipping Louise around her legs. Louise was-hopping around and screaming, “Do it again, do it again.” And I was yelling, “Louise, quit saying that.” The only whipping I ever got in school was when a bunch of boys crapped in the spring where we got our drinking water.
The boys told Miss Lessie that I had done it and I got whipped, but I swear to this day that it wasn’t me.
We kept our water cups in a tree by the spring at school. The children from well- to-do families had aluminum cups that folded f lat. It set them apart.
We had tin cups. Another thing we did not have was paper to wrap up our food. Some children would have their lunch wrapped in newspaper. Ours was thrown all together in a large bucket. We’d usually have a sweet potato and a piece of meat. Sometime there would be some vegetables, maybe some collards l eft over from the night before. Sometimes we had a plain cake. All the food would be mixed up together in that bucket. We would eat around the stove in the winter. in the fall and spring we would go out in the yard and sit on the ground. Usually all my brothers and sisters would sit around the bucket as we ate.
One of the big events during the school year was the Box Party when we raised money to pay for improvements to the schoolhouse and for extra supplies.
The girls would decorate shoe boxes, or maybe a large box, with crepe paper and real flowers. The boxes would be filled with special food. The identity of the owner was supposed to be kept secret. Some parent would usually act as the auctioneer and the boxes would go for 50 cents or a dollar or two. Once a box went for five dollars, which was outlandish, and everyone cheered. I remember that it was generally the boys who dropped out of school and were working who would come to the parties and bid for the boxes. They wanted to share their boxes with the girl who had helped prepare the food.
When I went to Sandy Springs I remember there were some students who stayed in the first grade three or four years. Most dropped out of school entirely after that.
On the way home after school we rambled up and down the roads playing in the bushes. Sometimes we couldn’t tarry because we had chores that had to be done; but if there was nothing pressing at home we’d stop and look for goose nests or just play in the woods and along the creeks. During the winter we’d get awful cold, too. Cold and wet.
LIVING ON THE FARM
Our house was airy and in the winter we all crowded in front of the fireplace at night to keep warm. We’d have on all our clothes and we’d get hot in the front and cold in the back. There weren’t enough chairs for all of us k ids; some of us would sit on the floor or a gun shell box. Momma would sit over in one corner sometimes patching clothes.
Papa would sit off to one side of the fire, keeping it going. Momma and Papa didn’t speak much. We only had one kerosene lamp for light so there was not much reading. The kids just usually sat and talked, though during the school year some would huddle around the lam p to study. Neither Momma nor Papa encouraged us to do school work. They never participated. We never asked them questions . We went to bed earl y.
I slept in a bed with Odis and Carl. I was in the middle and sometimes they would put someone at the foot of the bed. There would be at least three to a bed. And maybe four or five. The girls, Wilma, Louise and Helen, slept in one bed. Momma always had the little ones in the room with her. We called her room the sitting room where we had the fireplace. In the summer we would put quilts on the floor so that we could spread out and be cooler. We would put the quilts where there was a draft, near doors and windows.
Generally in the morning the boys would set our rabbit boxes and get in the wood Momma would need for the day. We would feed the hogs and mules. We’d also milk the cow. The girls’ main early morning job was to draw wash water and put it in a pot on the stove. Other girls would go out to the potato hill and get some sweet potatoes for Momma.
The younger ones would sometime wet the bed and the older children would have to clean it up while breakfast was being cooked. Although we had an oil c loth under the sheets of the beds were the younger children slept, we’d still have to wash out the sheets and use some sweet soap to wash out the oil cloth. Often we’d leave the feather bed exposed outside in summer to dry out. But in the winter, as we hurried around to do our chores before leaving for school, we’d hang those sheets and that bed ticking over chairs near the fire.
We’d have to walk around that stinking steaming mess in front of the fireplace several times before we left.
One time Odis and I bought two billy goats with money we had earned putting in tobacco. We made a harness and wagon for the goats to pull.
The wheels were made out of solid round circles of wood cut from the end of a log. Odis and I tried to get the goats to pull a plow, too, but they wouldn’t.
I eventually sold my goat for three dollars and bought a bicycle that was my pride and joy. I remember riding that bicycle for hours on the dirt roads around the homestead.
Our all-time favorite toy was a hoop that came off the hub of a wagon wheel. We’d take a stick and roll it around as fast as we could go. If it was a rubber tire we’d use our hands. We’d take a buggy wheel and a stick and guide that thing all up and down the road. And run, run, run.
Two of my best friends growing up were William and Edward Neal. Their daddy, Gus Neal, was a tenant on Uncle Will’s farm. They were about my age. There were also some boys my age in Jake Neal’s family who lived up by Uncle Rich. But mostly I played with William and Edward Neal. We used to wrestle together. One of our favorite things was going swimming at the Brantley Dean Hole on Little River.
It was a deep wide place in the river where a boy named Brantley Dean had drowned many years before. We’d pull off our clothes on the river bank and jump in the water buck naked. Sometimes Uncle Will would go with us. I remember he threw each one of us in the water the first time we went down, which was his way of teaching us how to swim. I almost drowned then. I was yelling for Momma, flailing my arms, kicking for all I was worth but made it to the shore scared to death. Thought a lot about Brantley Dean on the way.
When we were playing at our house, Momma would correct the Neal boys just as she would one of her own. If I was at their house, Stella Neal would scold me if I got out of line. I had great respect for her. We would have to eat standing up at her table, she wouldn’t let us kids ever sit down, but she always had something good to eat. I loved her fried cornbread.
I joined the church during a revival at Antioch Church and was baptized in Little River with several others boys and girls my age. Several weeks later the Neal boys and I were swimming at the same place in the river and we made our way to the bank where we talked about religion. We all got serious and decided that since I had been baptized, I could baptize the others. There was no joking, it was as solemn an occasion as young boys could handle. I baptized those boys remembering the words as best I could from my baptism.
We felt pretty good about ourselves when we finished. I felt a kinship with my God.
This may be difficult to understand now, but the fact that the Neal boys were black never made any difference. I have tried to remember how my relationship with them varied from my dealings with my brothers or some other friends in the area, but all I can remember is that they were my closest friends and that we had fun together. They didn’t go to school, which I thought was a pretty good deal for them at the time, and they were usually around when I got home from school and finished my chores. As we got into our teens we grew apart and I don’t know what ever became of them.
My recollection is that the Neal’s’ grandparents were slaves of the O’Neal family, Mamma’s ancestors. When they were freed after the Civil War, they stayed on in the area and took on a shortened form of the O’Neal name for their own.
One recreation that we really enjoyed was night fishing on one of the outlets from the river. We would catch catfish, who only fed at night.
We’d tie a string from one tree to another across the river. Then we’d take five or six lengths of fishing line and tie them to the string. We’d have a nail for a weight and a fishhook, baited with a worm, on the other end. Then about 10 o’clock we’d go down, pull the catfish off and rebait the hooks. Sometimes we’d eat supper down there about 10, 11 o’clock at night. The next morning we’d go around and take more fish off the hooks.
Tending our rabbit boxes was also something we enjoyed. We’d have four or five boxes each and set them out in the late afternoon where we thought the rabbits would run. We’d check them before we went to school and if the lid was down I t would mean we had something and we’d bring the box home and leave I t in the shade until after school when we’d take the rabbit out, kill and skin it. Momma could make a delicious meal of rabbit smothered in gravy.
Sometime we’d go out on possum hunts. We’d try and catch the possum alive so that we could take him back to the home place and put him in a barrel. We knew that possum only ate “carrion, ” dead animals, and that the meat was spoiled. So when we caught one, we’d put him in a barrel and feed him persimmon berries and the like for several days, until we had “cleaned” out his system, before we butchered him. But there was no good way to cook possum. No one ever got excited about sitting down and eating possum, but it wasn’t bad with baked sweet- potatoes.
We also played cow-pasture baseball or straight-cat. It took four people. Two people would be at bat and each batter had a backstop. The batters were together, a team. And the backstops would be a team. If the team at bat could hit a ball, they would change bases. If the ball went far, the batting team would continue to change bases, four, five times. We kept score by making marks on the ground.
We made our balls out of tobacco twine. We would whittle down a hardwood limb to make a bat. Never had a baseball glove for straight-cat, though.
When I finished the four years of Sandy Springs I rode the bus to Selma for half the fifth grade while another school was being built near our farm. This school, Corbitt Hatcher, had the fifth, sixth and seventh grades. I began class there in 1922 when I was ten years old. I left the following year and went to school in Zebulun because of problems at home.
When I returned in 1924 I had to repeat the sixth grade.
I drove the school bus some that year and most of the following year when I attended the seventh grade.
In the spring we would buy wide-brim straw hats for about 25 cents apiece and a pair of bib overalls for about a dollar. During the summer we’d wear the hat, the bib overalls and a homemade shirt, without any underwear. This would leave things loose and cool. None of us kids wore shoes in the summer. I remember that before the summer was out we would wear holes all over our overalls and Momma would patch them with whatever cloth she had available. After a summer of working in the fields, we’d be dark from the sun, our hair would be bleached out, our feet would be tough as shoe leather, our straw hat would be ratty and with our patched overalls, we’d looked just like country bumpkins.
Other than the bib overalls, I never had any store-bought pants until I was twelve or thirteen years old. Momma would get old pants from relatives and cut them down for me to wear to school. She didn’t use the pattern of the old pants, she’d take them completely apart and use the best parts to sew a new pair of britches. She made knickers for me that would come down and button below my knees. I’d have to wear the knickers to church on Sunday. They itched and were hot because I had to wear my union suit underneath covered by the knickers and long black stockings. I might have looked cute, but it was uncomfortable as all hell.
Momma made all my shirts as long as I lived at the house. I was wearing one of Mamma’s shirts when I went off to college.
MORE WORKING THE FARM
When we started growing tobacco in about 1925, for the first crop or two, we’d have to make arrangements to put our tobacco in other people’s barns. We eventually built a barn of our own. When we put the tobacco in, somebody had to sit up all night to keep the fire going. The temperature had to be maintained at about 110 degrees to set the color. Then we’d have to cure the leaf at a higher temperature, about 140 degrees. Finally we’d get the temperature up to 170 degrees to dry out the stem.
Growing tobacco was a 1 2 month job on our farm, 13 months if you counted someone staying up all night to make sure the heat was kept at the proper temperature. Tobacco barning began in July. The last of the tobacco was sold before Thanksgiving when the market closed. Every week we went over the fields of tobacco, breaking off from one to four leaves per stalk that had ripened and turned yellow. This was called “cropping tobacco”. These l eaves were taken out of the field in tobacco sleds and strung on sticks about four feet long. This “stringing of tobacco” was done next to the tobacco barn. We’d have to work fast to fill a barn with about 300-400 sticks in one day in order to have the tobacco cured and ready by the same day of the next week, when we’d have a new barn full of tobacco cropped from the field.
The barn was fired by wood, day and night. After about five days we would let the fire go out and would open the doors of the barn so that the leaves would attract moisture and become supple and l imp, not dry and brittle. We would remove the cured tobacco to the packhouse and the barn would be filled again.
After we finished “putting in our barns,” we would work with neighbors who had helped us and put in their tobacco, or work for someone else for money.
Whether cropping or putting in tobacco, I remember how good a big Pepsi or big Orange tasted. There was nothing any better in my youth than a cold Pepsi on a hot day after I had been working for six or seven hours putting in tobacco.
I also have fond memories of the whole family becoming involved in grading the tobacco in the packhouse. There was a lot of kidding and gossiping with some good-natured argument going on between groups to liven up the atmosphere.
When the last barn was cured, we would have a big chicken stew and celebrate with all the people who had helped.
There was always a sense of accomplishment at those times. Speculating on how much our tobacco would bring at the tobacco market was a popular item of conversation.
When we first started working tobacco, Uncle Will would come by with his truck and take ours to market. He’d bring the money it brought when he came back the next day. When Wilma bought Momma the T-model, Momma and Odis would pull a trailer with the tobacco to market and she would pick up the money.
We would usually spend a small amount of the money we made on the first load of tobacco on special foods that we had not had all summer, such as oil cured sausage, cheese, sugar and a few other goodies for the kids.
We would always buy a big wooden box of soda crackers too. We’d carry some of the crackers to school. When we were finished with the soda crackers we would use the box for a chest of drawers. We kept the baby diapers in one, baby clothes in another and our clothes in another one.
Kind of like trunks.
Starting with the second load we had to go to Selma and pay off the lien we had against that year’s crop. We had to buy things on credit during the summer–fertilizer, seed, fatback, lard, flour, molasses, sugar and the like. The merchants charged us a ten percent carrying charge for credit they extended. The total we called the “crop lien” and was due when the crops were taken to market.
Some people never got out from under that debt. They always owed at the country store.
We’d pay off most of our debt from the tobacco. Money we made from cotton cleared our accounts each year.
After we paid our lien, the remaining money would go for shoes, clothes and as much as a bolt of unbleached cotton cloth.
The cloth would be used to make gowns, underwear for boys, sheets, pillow cases, everything you’d see in the house.
The women would dye some of the white feedbags to make shirts and dresses and quilt linings. I can remember seeing the women on rainy or snowy days making quilts out of old clothes and using the dyed white feed sacks for the lining.
To make the dye we would use walnut hulls to make brown and poke berries to make purple. The women also made an orange dye but I don’t remember what was used to make that color.
Momma could sew, but she had some sisters, including Aunt Allie, who could not. Aunt Allie’s daughters would come by to have Momma make their dresses. They’d spend the night as Momma was making their clothes.
I reckon she got a lot of the pants she cut down to make my britches from Uncle Will, because I know his wife would always have Momma making her dresses and she’d give Momma some of their old clothes to make over for us as payment.
Mamma Parker, as mean a woman as ever lived
Momma would make dresses for the older girls first, and they would pass them on down to the next one. She never threw old clothes away, never. When there was nobody to get hand-me-down clothing or when old clothing just wore completely out, she’d take them apart and cut the good parts into squares to make quilts.
There were Sunday clothes and everyday clothes. When you went to church you wore your Sunday clothes and when you got home you took them off and hung em up and they weren’t worn any more until the next Sunday.
Doing the laundry was a weekly chore. We used an old cast iron wash pot that held about 15 gallons of water and several other smaller tubs. The wash-pot was put up on some rocks and first thing on wash day we’d put wood around it and start a fire. Water would be drawn from the well and poured in. Once the water was hot, some would be poured into the other tubs. Then the dirty clothes would be put in the wash-pot and boiled. We had a heavy smooth stick to stir the clothing and we’d use that stick to get the clothes out of the pot. We’d dump them into one of the other tubs, making sure we didn’t drop any on the ground. We’d take each piece of dirty clothing then and rub it on a metal washboard with strong homemade lye soap. The scrubbed clothes would then be dumped into another tub of hot water and soaked for 15 or 20 minutes. Momma would put more Red Devil lye in the water as the clothes soaked.
After the clothes had soaked long enough they were taken from the hot water and put in the rinse water. We had two tubs of rinse water. We’d rinse the clothes in one, squeezing and twisting them with our hands and put them over into the other tub and rinse and squeeze them out. Then they were hung out on wires strung out between trees in the yard. We didn’t use clothes pins. We didn’t have any.
The white clothes, sheets and pillow cases, would be done first. Then in the middle washing there would be the not- so-good clothes, like old dresses.
The overalls would be last. If we had to whiten the clothes with bluing, we put it in the last rinse water.
We used ox lye soap when we washed and I don’t see how us children didn’t get galled. The women lost many layers of skin off their hands especially washing and rinsing our overalls. They’d go in the house with their hands raw and Momma would pour vinegar on them to kill the alkali of the lye.
PEDDLERS AND REVIVALS
When we couldn’t go to town in the fall of the year, peddlers would come on a sort of van pulled by horses. They’d have a wide variety of things including lace, buttons, clothing, pepper, liniment, salve, thread and flavorings. We’d be picking cotton or shucking corn and they’d pull into the yard. We’d all run out to see what they had, crawling all over one another to look inside the vans. I remember Momma bought enough cloth once to make Wilma a dress.
They were always foreign peddlers, as I remember it. The peddlers would love to wind up at our Grandma O’Neal’s, because she lived in a larger house and would take them in. They always came by after we had sold some of our crops and had a little money.
We sometimes got information on what was happening in the world from these peddlers. It was only of passing interest, though, because the most important things were local events that directly affected your life. Our world back then was our family, our neighbors, our school and the surrounding community.
We’d get the biggest news about things going on with our neighbors when we’d go to church. The second Saturday of each month, churches held a business meeting followed by a sermon. On Sunday we had Sunday school and then church services.
We went to Antioch Baptist Church about every Sunday. Our horse and buggy couldn’t carry all of us kids and some would have to walk the two or three miles. This was always fun because we would put on our best clothes and meet many cousins and neighbors along the way. Later there was BYPU (Baptist Young People’s Union) on Sunday evenings. I was voted President of the Union. At the close of the first meeting, I was asked to dismiss the group with prayer. I froze and couldn’t say a word. A girl, Bessie Narron, sitting beside me kept nudging me saying, “Say something, Say something.” Finally I did say a few fumbling words but I was so embarrassed. Public speaking was a hard thing to jump right in on for a country boy.
Revival meetings were held at Antioch Baptist each year after tobacco-barning was over. We always looked forward to the revivals because it gave us youngsters a chance to get together. Most of my friends joined the church during the revivals and were baptized in the river at the close of the meetings.
Millard Johnson was a preacher I remember well. He had a farm about ten miles from the church. He was a good man. He would occasionally come by the house on Saturday and spend the night. I can remember him sitting on the porch after supper and talking.
The first radio we ever heard was at Uncle Joe Talton’s house. All of us kids used to go down to his farm house on Saturday night to hear his radio. It ran on batteries. For an antenna he had a wire strung between two trees in his yard.
I remember the station we listened to originated in Nashville, Tennessee.
Reception was better about 12 midnight but we had to go home long before that. People would tell us about what they heard the next day at church. When I was there it was hard to understand exactly what was being said, but when there was music, you could usually follow the melody.
In 1923, when I was 11, my brother, Carl, and I were playing in the house. in one of the room we found a. 22 rifle that we thought was unloaded. I had the gun, Carl was climbing up on something. The gun went off. Carl was hit in the head and died a few days later.
Carl at that time was assuming some responsibility around the farm and Momma was relying on him. She was devastated by his suffering and death. I felt completely responsible. I found the only way to deal with what had happened and Mamma’s unforgiving attitude was not to think about it. To pretend to myself that it didn’t happen. It was hard to do at first, but I worked on it and though I can remember feeling guilty all the time, I didn’t dwell on the accident. I blocked it out after the funeral.
Papa was working in the railroad shops in Rocky Mount, N.C. at the time. After the funeral he took me back with him.
We hopped a log train about three miles from our house and rode it to Kenly. It went very slow. I remember the engineer knew we were on it but did not try to throw us off. Possibly because I was working to keep the thought of Carl’s death out of my mind, I focused on everything happening around me. I remember looking out, seeing houses and empty fields pass. The train had a wood-fired engine and stopped along the way to add wood
Daddy a year or so after the accident, notice his melancholy visage.
and water. In Kenly, Papa bought tickets for us to ride in the passenger train to Rocky Mount. I stayed with him for about two weeks, sitting outside in the yard of his boardinghouse while he worked. It was good for me to get away from Momma and the sadness around the home place, I suppose, but I was lonely.
I returned home and was able to keep my head up for a few weeks, but I could not get over my sense of guilt.
Momma had few kind words for me and we rarely made eye contact. I eventually left home and went to Zebulon where I enrolled myself in the sixth grade of the Wakeland county school. I was staying in an abandoned dormitory when some of the teachers at the school found I was living there and had no food. They asked me to stay with them at the teacherage and I did, firing the furnace for my room and board. I also got other jobs. I helped the janitors every day at the schoolhouse and kept the gas records for the school buses. On Saturdays I worked in a dry cleaning plant.
We’d never used a knife and fork at our house, and I had to eat with the teachers who set out more eating utensils at every meal than I had ever seen before.
I had no idea what to do with them all. I was only 11, the only kid at the table with all those strange, educated teachers. Plus I was still very much affected by the accident and withdrawn. I usually kept my eyes down and avoided conversation. One evening we had chicken and I was trying to cut it with my knife and fork and the piece I was working on went sailing across the table and hit a teacher. I was going to get up and leave the table—I was trying not to cry–but they were so nice, they all tried to make me feel better. I never felt so bad in my life.
Eventually I went back home and attended Corbett Hatcher school which was near the house.
It was often difficult living with Momma in the years that followed. Once she hurt me so bad by the things she said, I put all my clothes in a flour sack and left, crying as I walked along the dirt road away from the house. Wilma, my oldest sister, ran after me and told me that she loved me and to come back home. I didn’t know where I was going and it was so good to hear my sister say that she loved me. I went back with her. Momma didn’t say a word when we walked back into the house.
More than sixty years later it is difficult, and painful, recalling those days. I have suppressed the memories al l these years. I have never even discussed that part of my life with Vera or my children, though they have always known that I hold myself responsible for what happened to Carl. I am so terribly sorry.
FARM ANIMALS AND HOME COOKING
Most farms families around us had two cows to produce the milk needed for a family. We only had one most of the time but we made do. Undoubtedly the best cow we ever had was the one Grandpa Parker sold us, very cheap as I remember it.
She was a good producer and we always took extra good care of her. In the winter we fed her cotton seed meal mixed with some hulls from the cotton we had ginned. We also gave her corn shucks. In summer we would tie her out where she could get green grass when the pasture wasn’t good.
We tried several times to breed her but we never quite got her time “in heat” right. If she wasn’t “in heat” she wouldn’t breed. Odis and I had heard of the different ways you could tell and when we thought that her time had come we took her down the road to Uncle Will, who had a powerful bull. The first time the bull was willing but our old cow just wasn’t interested. We were sort of embarrassed and Uncle Will went over with us again what we should be looking for. A few weeks later we thought she was showing all the right signs and we took her back to Uncle Will’s bull. We were wrong again. The third time we took her we were close and that bull and our cow almost got together.
But not quite.
Odis and I were sitting on the fence watching. I think it was Odis who suggested that if our old cow stood still that it would help things. So we took her, with the bull coming quickly behind us, over to a tree in the pasture that had a large branch near the ground and we put the cow’s head in the V of the tree and the branch. The bull had a. stationary target.
He almost killed our cow. She wasn’t ready or in the exact right position or something. The bull pushed her down towards the ground but her horns were caught in the tree.
The bull was snorting, and the poor cow was mooing and had her tongue and eyes bulging out. Her neck was stretched.
It was all Odis and I could do to get the bull off and away. We had to lift that old cow up so we could get her head out of the tree.
We never took her back to Uncle Will’s bull.
I don’t think she wanted to go, either.
Sometime when we were milking that old cow, we’d have contests. Because it looked like fun, the younger ones would want to milk too. That’s how we passed on the job.
The young boys could milk her faster than the girls because they could squat down and put the bucket between their knees and use both hands. Sometimes they would squirt milk in the smaller children’s mouths. Milking wasn’t so bad at night, but in the morning we’d have our hands full. First we’d have to wash the cow’s bag and tits because she would have been lying down in her stall overnight. We would be cold and anxious to get back in the warm house. The cow would be kicking and moving around, and sometimes she would stick her foot in the bucket.
We felt like killing that old cow at times.
We kept hogs all the time when I was young and the boys had to feed them every day. Sometimes a sow would have little pigs in the spring, which was an exciting time. We would keep several of the piglets and sell two or three. Usually we would make a pet out of the runt of the litter. It’d follow us around the yard when we let it out of the pigsty and sometimes it would come right on in the house. People heard Momma scream for miles around when she saw pigs in the house.
We’d also take the sows to Uncle Wills to breed every year. We’d tie a rope to one of their back legs and one would hold the rope and two other kids would get up by its head and herd it along. I think this was the “orneriest” job we had to do on the farm. Imagine what it was for us kids to make a dumb sow weighing 200-300 pounds walk a mile or two in a straight line. It’d only happen to the pig once a year, it wasn’t something that she’d be trained to do. It was like pushing a rope.
If that was difficult, the worst job, worse even than cleaning out the stables in the spring, was castrating the boy piglets so they wouldn’t pester their sisters. I mean, if we had trouble getting them to go get bred, you can imagine how much trouble we had in getting them castrated. Once we got one done half way and it got up and ran away.
Odis and I had to run it down and it was squealing and running faster than I had ever seen a pig run before or since.
We had two mules when I grew up named Kate and Nell. Before we got them we only had Papa’s horse, Maud. Our buggy wore out leaving us with only a two-horse wagon. We didn’t have a wagon seat, we had to sit down in the bed of the wagon or stand up. We’d use that wagon when we went to town. That was ten miles one way on a dirt road, a full day’s trip.
We always had chickens and geese around the house. They did not take much care because they found most of their food in the yards and fields.
The geese we kept primarily for their feathers. I remember that Momma would give newlywed couple goose-feather pillows. There was a phrase for plucking the goose feathers: You’d say we “picked the geese before molting.”
The chickens were a meat staple and they gave us eggs, except during the cold days of winter. The eggs were sometimes traded at the country store for pencils, paper and other little necessities. Wilma started that when she talked Momma into giving her three eggs to trade for school supplies. We would sometime sell the hens during the winter if we needed something and had no money.
Following is a story my sister Wilma tells about selling hens. “We needed money to buy sugar. Papa got a hen off the nest that wanted to set, but had no eggs under her. Usually in the spring the settin’ hens were not plump like they would get in the summer after the chicks were hatched, but this setter was the only one we could catch. Papa and I went to Selma to sell her. We went up to this house in the black section of town with this clucking hen. The woman said, “I believe that hen is a setter.” Papa, looking for the best deal, said, “No ma’am, she is not a settin’ hen.” The woman said, “I tell you then, I’m disappointed because I wanted a settin” hen.” I jumped up and said, “Papa, you know that was a settin’ hen, because you got her off the nest.” Did I ever get a scolding for contradicting him. And the woman didn’t buy the hen either.”
If we had unannounced guests, we’d go out in the yard and catch a chicken for the meal. If it was a big one Momma would make a pastry stew, if it was a small chicken she’d fry it and make a lot of gravy to spread the chicken taste around.
We wouldn’t have any young chickens until the spring of the year, because the hen wouldn’t set on her eggs until then.
I have fond memories of the time of the year when the little chickens hatched and they’d be running around the yard behind the mother hen.
We would sit around and watch those chickens grow. I know they didn’t weigh over a pound apiece when we started selecting them for the supper table. Momma could cook one of those itty bitty chickens and somehow everybody would have a piece.
Momma said the choice piece was the head, but I don’t think she really liked it, but that’s what she said. She saved the feet, head and neck to flavor soup or a stew. Sometime she would fry them and they’d make for tasty bones to chew.
There wasn’t anything thrown away on those chickens but the toenails and the intestines. For Sunday dinners sometimes or a special occasion, like we finished barning the tobacco, we would kill a hen or a rooster and Momma would make chicken stew.
On Saturday if we had any money, Momma would fix a cake or Jell-O or banana pudding. Well, we didn’t have banana pudding until Wilma came back home from teaching with the recipe. I remember the first banana pudding Wilma fixed for us. I thought that was the best thing I ever had in my life.
When us boys got big enough, teenagers, we’d eat everything we could get our hands on. We’d find the cake and eat it up, until Momma got wise and went to hiding it, putting it in a lard bucket, and putting the lid on, and putting the bucket in the smokehouse under lock and key. But there were times when we’d find the key and go in the smoke house and eat the cake. I remember Odis’ favorite was lemon cake.
He’d almost die knowing there was a little lemon cake in the smoke house. He’d turn the house upside down looking for the key.
In the wintertime we ate canned tomatoes, that’s about the only thing we could can in those days. We were big on tomato soup with ‘hot buttermilk biscuits and hot corn bread.
Because of our large family Momma would can the tomatoes in half-gallon jars. We’d make whole meals out of tomato soup. We only used plates; had no soup bowls. The soup was put in a plate and usually “sopped” with biscuits.
Some families only cooked two meals a day, serving l eft overs for the lunch or supper meal. But our family was so large that Momma always had to cook three meals a day.
She’d make biscuits or corn bread every time she cooked. Sweet potatoes were a staple. We also ate a lot of black eyed peas and fresh vegetables. We didn’t have much rice then. That had to be bought from a store. We also ate meat most days that we had stored in the smokehouse, unless we had chicken.
When Wilma started teaching she found that she could order free samples from manufacturers when their new products first hit the market. She would order some for her students but always saved some for the family. The first thing she got I remember was corn flakes. She also got some toothpaste, the first toothpaste anyone in the family ever tried. It came with tiny little toothbrushes.
Until that day the only toothbrushes we used were made from black gum trees.
We would go to the woods and find a small black gum tree, pull off a small branch so that there would be a knob left on the end. The bark would be stripped off and the end chewed until it was soft. If you rubbed your teeth with the soft end, it would clean them and make them white.
Black gum tree limbs were also used by women who dipped snuff. It was one of Mamma’s special pleasures, dipping snuff. I can see her now sitting in a rocker on the front porch dipping snuff under her lip, chewing that black gum toothbrush, spitting off the porch and looking out over the 44 acres.
We never drank any sweet milk, we always saved the milk so we would have butter. The only milk we drank was buttermilk. We would churn the milk into butter every day or two. That steady up and down motion of the churn-dasher caused some to chant. A favorite went something like, “Come Butter Come, Come Butter Come, Peter standing at the gate, Waiting for a butter cake, Come Butter Come.” Wilma learned her multiplication table milking the cow and churning the milk. “One Times Four is Four, Two Times Four is Eight.”
Top left to right: Otis, Dad (Earl), Louise. Second row, Helen, Mamma Parker, Bottom row, Harold, Willie Lee, Braxton Wilma took the photo
When I finished the seventh grade at Corbitt Hatcher, I had to take a county test to see if I qualified to go on to high school. I passed and entered the newly built Corinth Holder high school about seven miles from the home place.
I was the tallest boy on the Corinth Holder basketball team. The others couldn’t jump as high so I was the center. We practiced on a dirt court outside but played other high school teams in a tobacco warehouse. We only had one basketball for the whole school. In those days the two centers rejumped after each basket. For the county tournament the center on the other team was about three inches taller, so I had to stand on his foot occasionally to keep him from getting the jump on me every time. We won the county tournament in 1932 for the first time.
I played baseball with the high school baseball team. Once we were playing against the All Star team, a local team of older boys who had dropped out of school. One boy, Roosevelt Mayden, who had served a hitch in the Navy, was pitching for the All Stars. He was a good fast ball pitcher. We had players in scoring position and I was called on to bunt, which I knew nothing about. I squared too much over the plate and was hit in the face with one of Hayden’s fast balls.
My right cheek bone was crushed in.
A teacher took me home from the game – I never went to a doctor. My cheek bone is still pushed in and I have always had trouble breathing.
The principal of Corinth Holder was Mr. Harry Keller. He would call me in to his office and talk with me occasionally about how I should take control of my life. I can remember that he told me that my life was going to be pretty much what I made of it. The key, he said, was to set goals, be determined and stay out of trouble. On reflection I think he probably saw little chance that I would make something of myself. Papa was gone and Momma was left with nine of us kids trying to get by on a small dirt farm. What chance did he figure I had?
My sister Louise and I were graduated from Corinth Holder high school together in 1932. I had to walk the seven miles to get to graduation.
Momma, Louise and some of the others rode in the family Hoover Cart.
It rained on the way back and everyone got wet. I remember that I felt very proud of myself for having graduated from high school, and the rain felt good.
By the time I graduated from high school Momma and Papa were divorced and Papa no longer came by the farm. He continued to work in Rocky Mount, building railroad cars, but later worked in a cabinet shop in Smithfield, North Carolina, not far from the farm. He went to the funeral for my brother Harold’s first wife and stood off to the side. No one went up to him, although someone saw him standing there and said “There’s Papa.”
The last time I saw him, Harold and I were driving through Smithfield and he was walking down a side street. He was almost blind. I stopped the car and Harold went up to him and asked him for directions to some local store. He said he didn’t know where it was. Harold came back to the car and as he was telling me that he didn’t think the old man recognized him, Papa walked off down the street. I didn’t know what to say to him and made no effort to follow.
He married the ex-wife of the man who lived at the home place fora while, Merlin Godwin. She eventually left him and he was living in a local boarding house when he died.
Some of the children were notified eventually and we gathered in Smithfield, purchased a cheap coffin and had Papa buried in a plot by himself. Momma was sick and no one ever told her he had died. As far as I know she never asked anyone about him. Later when she died, the place beside Carl had been taken, and after much discussion it was decided to bury her beside Papa. They couldn’t get along in life, but we take comfort from the fact they appear to be getting along, side-by-side now.
MY WONDERFUL SISTER WILMA
Wilma was thirteen years old when she finished elementary school. She wanted to go to high school, but the closest one was in Selma and no one in our family knew anyone in town for her to stay with. She resigned herself to the fact that she had finished school and would work at the home place until she got married.
One day that summer all of us kids were picking cotton on property Momma had rented from Aunt Emma when we saw a man and a woman drive up to the house in a little Ford Runabout. This was not a usual event. The man got out and asked Momma if she knew a Wilma Parker.
Momma had never seen them before and asked “Why do you want to know?”
The man said he was Mr. Odom, the principal of the Wakeland School in Zebulon, and he had made the necessary arrangements for Wilma to go to his school, if she wanted.
We saw Momma pointing in our direction and all of us kids watched with our mouths open as the couple began walking across the cotton field towards Wilma. We could only imagine that she was in some terrible trouble.
The arrangements were for Wilma to sleep in a small dormitory but she would be sponsored by one of the teachers at the school, Mr. Massey.
When Wilma left for Zebulon, Momma put her clothes in a paper bag. We stood in the yard and watched her go, sitting in the jump seat of Mr. Odom’s runabout.
To earn her keep Wilma did chores around the Massey house. She would get up early in the morning and build a fire in their coal cook stove and then go out and milk their cow. In the afternoon she would let the cow graze on the school ground. She also watched over the two young Massey children.
Although Wilma returned to the home place every summer to work on the farm, only once during her four years at high school did anyone from the family visit her.
That was when Momma made her some bloomers and a petticoat. She and Odis took the horse and buggy and drove all the way to Zebulon to deliver her those clothes.
For Wilma’s high school graduation Mrs. Massey bought her a white and blue crepe dress from a local dressmaker. Wilma was the oldest child so no one from our family had yet gone to high school.
At that time we didn’t know what graduation was all about. So no one from our family attended her graduation.
Few farm girls in North Carolina went to college in the 1930s. Wilma loved school and wanted desperately to go.
She didn’t have a dime to pay for tuition, though, and felt that she had been a terrible imposition on others just going to high school.
She worked on the farm all summer after she graduated from high school. She had no idea what she was going to do in the fall.
Mr. Odom, the Zebulon principal, went to summer school at Columbia University in New York that summer and roomed
My wonderful Aunt Wilma and me
with a Professor Mathers of East Carolina College. Mr. Odom told him about Wilma, this bright little farm girl who had left home to get a high school education.
Professor Mather, who had been president of East Carolina College at one time, said he’d help her go on to college if she wanted.
Mr. Odom wrote to Wilma, I remember when she got the letter, and told her about Professor Mather’s offer.
Wilma of course accepted, thinking that it was an act of God. At the end of the summer Uncle Will took her to the train depot in Middlesex where she boarded a train going to Greenville, North Carolina, the home of East Carolina College.
When she got off in Greenville with her one suitcase, a man named Mr. Deal was standing on the platform waiting for her. He said that Wilma was supposed to stay with him and his wife, both professors at the college. They curtained off an end of a hall in their home for her single bed and Wilma stayed with them for a year.
For ten years after that year they would send the “Deal Box” to our family. It was a missionary box, filled with some very nice things. They knew the size of each child and would send coats, pants and underwear. And they always reserved one corner for confectionery; candies, chewing gum and other things that we had never seen at our country store. It wasn’t a little box either, it was so large that we always wondered how the mailman could bring it.
During the summer break that year Wilma got a job in a license bureau in Raleigh. This led to an offer to teach a seventh grade class in Knightdale, North Carolina, in the fall. Although everyone encouraged her to go back to school, she took the job. She was eighteen at the time. She went on to get her A.B. in education from Atlantic Christian College in Wilson and her Master’s eventually from the University of North Carolina. She taught the seventh grade in a variety of eastern North Carolina school for over 60 years .
A college president once said she “has done as much to erase illiteracy in North Carolina as any person I know.”
Almost all the money she made teaching initially she gave to the family. One week-end when Wilma came to the home place for a visit, Louise told her she needed a new dress. Wilma gave her the dress she was wearing. She sat at the sewing machine all Sunday afternoon working on a dress to wear back.
One Christmas she bought a basketball for the boys and hid it in the hay in the barn. We found it and played with it but hid it back in the hay so she wouldn’t know. Once the bank threatened to repossess our two mules, Nell and Kate, because Momma couldn’t pay a $200 note. Wilma went to the bank and arranged to make regular payments until the $200 debt was cleared. She bought the family a Model T car and a new Victrola with records. Our favorite record was the “Blue Hawaii Waltz.”
Wilma played a significant, supportive role in my early years. She was always there. When I had no reason to hope for anything better, when I doubted myself, when I didn’t know what to do, Wilma was there, always aware of what was going on in my life, what was good and bad.
I used to be so happy to see her come home. We’d go off to the side and talk.
She complimented me on the good in my life, and had a remedy for the bad. She was responsible for my admission to Mars Hill College. She used to send me letters during those years at Mars Hill, cheering me on.
She’d always pen a $1.00 bill to the letter. I had no other source of spending money and I would open those letters from Wilma, the only person who ever wrote me, and there would be those one dollar bills. This was during the Depression and she did without to send me those one dollar bills.
I love her so much.
MY OTHER BROTHERS AND SISTERS
Wilma was the oldest of my brothers and sisters. Odis was the next born, two years her junior. He quit school after the fifth grade so that he could help Momma on the farm.
With Papa gone most of the time Odis assumed a position as the man of the house, though Momma was boss. Odis did a man’s work, even as a young boy.
Carl was a year younger than Odis and until the accident he did a lot of the heavy work around the farm. He was always Mamma’s favorite I think, the one she imagined would stay on at the home place and work the land.
I was the next born and then there were my other two sisters, Louise and Helen. Louise was very popular in high school.
She and I attended Mars Hill College together and were best friends during that period. Helen, my kid sister, had an irrepressible sense of fun and well-being. We always called her “Little Helen.”
I remember her as always being happy and excited about something, like making pies or going swimming with Braxton, regular things like that, but she would always be so excited. She could be pesky though, like any kid sister- anywhere, tagging along with me to community dances, when I didn’t want to be tied down to some big eyed, big eared, nosey little sister. Just before her senior year she wrote a letter to the principal at Corinth Holder applying for the job as school bus driver. She got the job. Problem was that she had no idea how to drive. Had never driven a vehicle before. I taught her the fundamentals of the clutch and gear- shift and went with her to pick up her bus. She sorta jerked along when she started out but she never had an accident. She made six dollars a month, and I think at first spent all of it on peanut butter. She was valedictorian of her class in high school and went on to work in the state legislature.
Harold was the next born and Momma planned for him to work the home place.
Odis had gotten married and had left the farm. Harold married Huel Boykin and moved into the old tenant house. They soon had a kid and Huel was not pleased with the prospects of living in that old airy house, working like a tenant farmer for Momma for the rest of her life.
What was especially galling was that she had to go down to Mamma’s to get water. After the crops were taken in one fall and Momma only gave Harold $20 for all the work he had done, Huel had had enough. Harold would probably have stayed on with Momma until she died, but he came to me for help because Huel asked him to. I helped arrange for him to purchase an ice plant near where I lived and he moved off the home place. Momma was furious when she heard that I was responsible for Harold leaving her and I had very painful encounters with her whenever I went back to the home place. Harold’s second child was born while living with us for a short time before moving into a house near his ice plant.
The two youngest children in the family were Braxton and Willy Lee, nine and thirteen years my junior. I was out of the house when they grew up, though I was very proud of them and, like Wilma, contributed to their education. Braxton, who was stricken with osteomyelitis as a child, graduated from Atlantic Christian College after high school and went on to spend a career as a Junior High School principal.
Willie Lee graduated from Corinth Holder in 1942. He was class president, valedictorian and recipient of a number of awards and scholarships.
He did his undergraduate work at Atlantic Christian College, graduating magna cum laude. He went on to Yale University where he graduated cum laude with a Master’s of Divinity degree. I opened a joint checking account for him to draw on to cover all his expenses while at Yale. He married a beautiful woman from Canada and after college spent six years preaching in large churches in Greensboro and Raleigh, North Carolina.
Then one day he stopped doing all that. Just like that. He quit. Changed his life. Quit his church, divorced his wife, worked for a symphony orchestra for a while and then moved to New York City where he worked in a T.V. studio producing plays. He later lived in Martha’s Vineyard, Key West, and eastern North Carolina. in 1991 he owned and ran a luxury hotel in Costa Rica.
I had been so proud of him and was devastated when he left the ministry and his family. I couldn’t come to grips with it, became frustrated and angrily told him he owed me all the money I had paid out for his education. He did not pay of course, and I am sorry to say we haven’t seen or talked with each other for a long time.
In September 1932Louise and I left for Mars Hill College in the mountains of western North Carolina. Wilma had made the arrangements. She paid Bo Hinton $10 to take us to Zebulon to catch the train and gave us money to buy our tickets.
Some church members, neighbors and relatives gave us a farewell party the night before we left. I think we were the only graduates from Corinth Holder at that time who had ever gone away to college.
The train ride took all night and we arrived in Ashville mid-morning where we got on a college bus for the ride up to Mars Hill. The school was nestled in a cool, high mountain valley and the countryside was beautiful. It was a junior college associated with the Southern Baptist Church denomination with an enrollment of around 300. The rules were strict, chaperones were required at all times for all boy/girl outings. Cheating was not allowed. Chapel was held every day before lunch.
The college offered needy students on-campus work to pay for their tuition and other college expenses. Outside of the faculty and the administrative staff there were only two full time paid employees of the school, a building- groundskeeper and a dietitian.
Students did all the other work. I arrived with $35. Actually I had $36 because I had hidden one dollar in my shoe. I had saved this money from working in tobacco during the previous summer. They told me, however, that $35 was not enough and I asked to speak with the “manager.” They said, “You mean the President, Doctor Moore.” After I told him that I couldn’t get any more money he said, “You look like a strong young man and if you’re willing to work both school years plus next summer then I’ll l et you enter school.” I was assigned to the kitchen as a cook. Louise was to help prepare food and wash dishes.
I wanted to be an engineer so I took Math, Chemistry, English and French. I struggled with French until my professor suggested I drop it and take it the next summer when my class load would be lighter.
The dietitian, Mrs. Shaw, was a stern lady. She was tough but she gave me a lot of responsibility. I first worked in the bakery but soon was transferred to the kitchen upstairs as cook. The second year I had to get up each morning at 5:00 a.m., go through the girls’ dorm to her room to pick up the key. I would sit at her table for each meal so she could alert me to needs that arose. I was the one she raised her voice to if dinner was not ready at the proper time. One time I let a cake burn in the oven. Louise saw Mrs. Shaw go to the time sheet after she talked with me and erase some hours that counted towards tuition expenses .
Louise fumed but said nothing.
Louise and I were homesick when we first got to Mars Hill. We would see each other every day in the kitchen and used to go for long walks together to keep our spirits up. She would often wash and iron my clothes.
During my freshman year Dr. Carr, the dean of students, appointed me to serve on the Student Council to fill in for a boy who had been shipped home for being a fire-bug. I was the first freshman to serve on the Council and the only one who worked. I was extremely proud of the honor.
It was against the rules for anyone who worked to smoke. Despite this another boy and I would buy five-cent bags of tobacco and papers and roll our own.
During the first year everyone who worked was asked to make a commitment to the non-smoking rule. When we were questioned in the kitchen my buddy and I admitted that we had broken the rules and smoked. We were sent to office of the President, Doctor Moore. He gave us a stern lecture but ended by saying that since we had admitted to the rules infraction that we could keep our jobs. What a relief.
I met with Doctor Moore on other occasions. On a hot sticky day a ministerial student who supervised the waiters told me the fish was cooked too hard and referred to me as a dirty, greasy cook. I grabbed him and put my balled up fist under his nose. He told Mrs. Shaw and she sent me back to Doctor Moore’s office. He decided to let the matter pass when he heard my side of the story.
I stayed at school for the summer of 1935, working in the kitchen, painting dorms as well as taking that damn French course.
The kitchen had four coal burning stoves. The fire-box had to be cleaned of ashes and soot every day. During the winter other students were given the job in the summer there weren’t many other students around and although only one stove was used, I had to do the work myself. Each afternoon I had to go down early to clean it before starting supper. It did get hot even in the mountains. A cute summer-school student started coming down each day. Since I had to keep myself clean, I couldn’t wipe the sweat from my brow, so she began wiping my face when my hands were sooty.
One day after cleaning I had built a fire and was waiting for the stove to heat.
We went into the pots and pans pantry and were behind a swinging door, when Mrs. Sams, the Vice President’s wife, peeped in. I think she was bringing the menus for the next day. I was sitting against the counter because the cutie wasn’t very tall. We had our arms around each other, close together with a certain twinkle in our eyes. Mrs. Sams gasped and quickly closed the door and went into the dining room. I overtook her. She looked at me with tears in her eyes. I said, “Mrs. Sams, if you don’t report this, I will never do it again.” The cute girl never came back to wipe my face again, and I never heard anything more about it.
Louise worked at the Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly Conference Center during the summer. Wilma had worked there for several years and returned that summer to work in the post office. Louise waited tables. They made three dollars a week and sent it all home to Momma to help pay expenses on the farm;.
I had to do a term paper in English my second year. It was a good paper and I gave it to a lady who lived in town to type. She looked it over and asked me to review it one last time before she typed it. I couldn’t see anything wrong and I gave it back to her to finalize. When I got the paper back from my professor, I had made a poor grade. It was a good paper but I had spelled water “warter” several times and the professor had counted off points for each misspelling. The girl was a friend of mine but thought it would have been cheating if she made any changes.
I hitch-hiked home for Christmas the second year. Louise took the train. In Thomasville it began to snow and I stayed at the Salvation Army shelter overnight. I got home the following day before Louise. Wilma was so proud of us.
She told everyone that her brother and sister were coming home from college for the holidays. Just like in the movies.
Louise and I graduated and received our diplomas at the end of our second year. Momma, Odis and his wife Elva, Harold and Braxton came up in that Model T that Wilma had bought for them. Here again Wilma was so proud and happy for her family. This time it was because her Momma and brothers would see the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains for the first time. There wasn’t enough room in the model T for all of us to ride back, so I volunteered to thumb home. I tied my clothes to the back of the car and caught a ride from campus before Momma and the rest left. I got home first. When the Model T arrived with the rest, we found that the rope holding my clothes had come untied and part of my clothes had been lost.
I have fond memories of Mars Hill, that beautiful college in the mountains. The only money that was paid to the college f or my education was the $35 I gave when I enrolled. When I left I went by the disburser’s office and actually got money back for the hours I’d worked over and above what was required for my tuition and other expenses.
From the time I arrived at Mars Hill until I thumbed back home the second Christmas, I left the campus only twice. Once was to go to Ashville to test for the Naval Academy, arranged by Wilma, and the other time was to go to have my eyes examined. I was turned down by the Naval Academy but got a free pair of glasses because I claimed to the social services that I was a resident of Mars Hill and could not afford glasses.
FIRST JOBS OUT OF COLLEGE
In 1934, the first summer out of college, I tried to raise an acre of tobacco, but I started too late in the year and the young tobacco burned on the stalk. In the fall, I went to Raleigh and took a placement test at Kings Business College. I did very well and only had to take business law, shorthand and bookkeeping to receive a business certificate. I was at the school for seven months and found I had absolutely no aptitude for shorthand. A teacher stood watching me struggle with it one day and said “Parker, you ever think you’re going to be called on to take another man’s dictation?” “Well no, “I said, “I want to be the one to do the dictating.” “Then you’re wasting your time taking the course.” So I quit. Didn’t get my certificate from the college because of this, but that was O.K.
Back home the next summer I worked at the Wilson Tobacco Warehouse running work crews. My men unloaded tobacco from farmers’ wagons and trucks, getting it on the floor to be auctioned the next day. We also cleaned the warehouse each night. I worked 12 hours each night from seven p.m. to seven a.m., seven nights a week for a salary of $20. I had to pay room rent and food. Ate a lot of five cent hot dogs and Pepsi Colas. Had money in my pocket and fifty dollars in the bank when the warehouse closed at Thanksgiving and I went back to Raleigh.
I moved back into the same rooming house I lived in when I attended King’s Business College earning my keep by tending the furnace and sweeping the floors. I remember dating a lot of local girls, going to the local picture show sometimes. I joined the YMCA and played basketball in a local league. I asked one of my basketball teammates to cash a check for fifty dollars to draw my money out of the bank in Wilson. The check bounced.
I was terribly embarrassed and hitch-hiked the next day to Wilson. I went in the bank, out of breath, and found they had charged me a fifty cents service charge somewhere along the way putting me fifty cents below a fifty dollar balance. Welcome to the real world, Earl.
I drew out the forty nine dollars and fifty cents and returned to Raleigh. I paid my teammate back, but I’m not sure if he believed my story.
The country had just come through the Depression and jobs were scarce. I got a job selling shoes during the Christmas season that year at Charles Department Store for $13.00 per week. I got a discount and for the first time in my life bought some very nice clothes.
After Christmas I began selling appliances at Munford Plumbing and Heating on a commission with a $10.00 drawing allowance. This meant I was guaranteed $10.00 a week , but it was taken out of the commission on my first sales.
Tough work without a car to travel around. Nobody bought refrigerators during the winter. In the spring they would. When I could get a ride, I would follow an ice-truck around to see who was buying ice. I’d approach the lady of the house with a pitch for her to buy a refrigerator on time.
Sometimes I didn’t sell anything, however, and I owed the ten-dollar draw the next week.
I heard about a book keeper opening in the Raleigh office of GMAC, General Motors Acceptance Corporation. When I applied I was told that a credit man was needed in Charlotte. I made application for that job and got it. It paid $110.00 per month with a car and expenses. When I was notified that I had gotten the job, my first thoughts were that my years of struggle were over. I had security and a career. What a happy day.
I took a bus to Charlotte and began work on June 1, 1936. In very short order I was given the territory around Lenoir to collect on delinquent accounts . I did a good job and in May 1937 was transferred to Aberdeen.
My job basically was to go out and talk with people who were behind in their car payments . People were buying more luxury, consumer items on credit, some for the first time.
Some became over extended.
Usually I would get payment. Sometimes though I didn’t, and would have to repossess the automobile. Some people objected to this. Once I was in Asheboro trying to finish a week’s work by collecting from a man who was a salesman for his father’s wholesale company. I had trouble locating him. His twin brother told me he would be home late that afternoon, but I had better leave him alone. I went anyway. It was my job. The twins came out of the house together and at the same time hit me full in the face before the first word was said. I got in my car as fast as I could with two men hitting me as hard as they could. The next morning my face was badly swollen. I was trying to figure ways to get the car the following Monday when payment in full was received. I was certainly glad to see the problem solved that way.
A car dealer in Pinehurst had sold several cars to people who worked at the McCain Sanatorium , and several became delinquent at the same time. I found two of the cars at the same place. I fastened my tow hitch to one, tied the second one bumper to bumper to the first one and came into Pinehurst pulling both with my car, a distance of about 12 miles.
Dealers didn’t want to see cars coming back in. They wanted to see money. When I came back with two at once, it did not put a smile on the face of the Pinehurst dealer.
Still another time a black man in West Southern Pines was behind with his payments. I had looked for him a long time. Finally I found the car at his house and he said, “I can’t pay.” I said, “Well partner, I have to take your car.” He said, “if you touch that car, you won’t leave this yard alive.” And he went back inside. I walked to his car, looked back at the house but didn’t see the man looking out.
I figured he was bluffing. I hooked his car to mine and pulled it out of the yard. Never saw the man again.
Soon after I got to Aberdeen I met Vera at the coffee shop on the side of the boarding house where she lived. I came by later that afternoon and we rode around town, and in talking about ourselves, found that we had many things in common. I felt very comfortable with her. She was also a very good-looking, bright young unmarried woman who owned her own beauty shop. The best catch in Aberdeen. I’m not sure when I decided that I wanted to marry her, but I did and it was the best thing I have ever done in my life..