The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1925-26: Spending the Night in Southern Appalachian Farmhouses

By Grace Cash © 1991

Issue: July, 1991

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

That Dark Night At Uncle Turner's

The fall of 1925 Lillian and I went home with our cousins from school, and we rode the rattletrap school bus to Uncle Turner's three-mule, three-cow, three-dog farm. I was ten years old, and it was my first night-visit away from home. Riding the bus was a special treat, since we lived only two miles from the school house, and the bus didn't stop for us. Uncle Turner and Aunt Daisy lived three miles from our farm house, and about five miles from Chestnut Mountain school. He raised cotton, corn, syrup cane, peanuts, wheat and oats, and garden patches. The hard-surfaced white yards were dotted with chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. All their barnyard creatures, including the house cats, warming beneath the range stove, were fat and well-fed. The barns were full of hay and corn and cottonseed, and un-ginned cotton not yet hauled to market.

Aunt Daisy already had supper ready for the family, but for us she whipped up a dozen yellow layers of cake. The cake layers were not iced, not even stacked, but flipped over into a platter. You could have a half-cake or a whole cake to eat with canned peaches. There were cold ribs-and-backbones and press meat made from a processed hog's head, and baked sweet potatoes. When it came time for dessert, I turned the half-gallon Mason jar over into my plate, and peaches floated every which way, but the can didn't break. Uncle Turner just seemed to be waiting for something like this to happen, and he started chuckling, a rich deep laugh that matched the big man he was.

After supper we went to the fireroom which also served as the bedroom where my uncle and aunt and the baby-one slept in the roll-topped mahogany bed, raised high by a stuffed straw tick, a mattress and a feather bed, like the other beds in the farmhouse. Uncle Turner played with us, but Aunt Daisy was quiet and reserved, just happy to hold her baby and watch what we did, constantly smiling, but never laughing out loud. She was used to leaving the talking and laughing to Uncle Turner. He dared each of us some younger than ten to go to the two-story barn and bring back an ear of corn from the cow stable as proof that we did go to the barn. Our cousins thought nothing of going outside in the pitch dark, but I wouldn't have gone out in that black darkness even if I had been allowed to carry a lighted lantern.

Then came "the Blind Man's Game." Somebody would tie a scarf around your eyes, and tell you to pick up an object and transfer it to another location. I was to take the lighted kerosene lamp from the side-table and hand it to Uncle Turner. I lifted the lamp in my hands, and I walked a few steps toward where I thought he was. Then I turned it loose, and there was an instant maybe a second when the lamp was in mid-air, nothing holding it, nothing beneath it but space, until Uncle Turner reached out his big farmer-hands and clasp the lamp. Even while rescuing the lamp, he was laughing, big whaa-whaa laughter.

Bedtime came and we slept in a cold unheated room with our girl-cousins. The white cotton sheets were starchy, smelling faintly of lye soap, made in the backyard washpot. Each bed was layered with home-made quilts, but we had a time getting warm enough to go to sleep. At home mama would have heated bricks for our feet, and late in the night she would have tucked us in with pieces of an old red woolen blanket, the hearth-fire bringing out the odor of sheep's wool from Grandma Deaton's farm.

The next morning after a breakfast of fat sausages, turned-over eggs, big cat-eye biscuits, pear preserves and coffee, we boarded the bus for the trip back to the Chestnut Mountain school house. Uncle Turner had been such a vital part of our fireside fun the night before, I felt sad when I waved goodbye to him. He was at the barn lot, his face reddened by the biting frost, feeding his mules and cattle, and the fattening hogs not yet slaughtered for the salty meat box on the back porch.

Aunt Dessa's Family Spends The Night At Our House

That same Fall (1925) Aunt Dessa and Uncle Spear moved to North Carolina. Their last night-visit at our house lingers above all others in my memory. We lived three miles this side the Union Church community from which my uncle was now moving his family. They were migrating to North Carolina, to a farming area around Shelby. They had sent their furniture and farm possessions on ahead in trucks, and now their Model-T Ford was parked in our backyard, awaiting daybreak when they would get ready for the journey to their new farm beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Mama and Aunt Dessa kept the sadness of parting to themselves at least from their children. Moving two hundred miles away in 1920 meant permanent separation. Mama worked hard cooking supper, heating the four-eyed cook stove till it glowed red, fed by pine stove-wood from the back porch. There were eight visitors and nine of her own in the four-room house, and she couldn't bear for anybody to go to bed hungry.

The house was roomy and a mite grand in spite of its size. There were three porches, a hall and a double chimney. The unpainted house faced a country road on the front side, and the double-lane unpaved highway on the back side, and it was surrounded with a garden, fruit trees and flower beds. The farm land was red but the house itself was graced with white sandy yards. After supper Papa and Uncle Spear sat at the fireplace on the country road side of the house, and they talked about making a living in Georgia, where they were both raised, versus seeking a Canaan-land, which Papa believed ended with Moses. They didn't want for words, trying to out-talk each other, unmindful of what went on with the womenfolk and children at the fireplace facing the highway.

What we did was play games. Both Mama and Aunt Dessa took an active part, and they taught us games older than themselves, dating back to the Civil War. One of our games was called "Going To The World's Fair." Aunt Dessa said, "I'm going to take a feather bed." Even at the age of ten, I saw on Aunt Dessa's face the tiredness she felt from packing, and getting her family started on the trip to North Carolina. I didn't suspect then nor have I ever known whether she regretted leaving Georgia, but I did wonder how they could leave their community and kinfolks and move to a State totally unknown to them.

It was midnight before anybody even mentioned bedtime. Mama made down pallets all over the fireroom, and fixed beds in three sleeping rooms for the grown people. It was our last night together, but a firm steady friendship continued through the passing years. Uncle Spear would bring his family back to Georgia as often as he could, and Mama and Aunt Dessa exchanged letters. We never knew which was the richer, those who moved away or those who stayed in the Georgia hills, but I always suspected it was easier for Aunt Dessa to get two cent stamps than for Mama, since she wrote more often than Mama did, and Mama would go silent when I asked her why she didn't answer Aunt Dessa's letters.

1926: Visiting Uncle Henry's House

Uncle Henry was Papa's second brother, and such a fine cotton farmer that Papa conceded to him first place above himself. Uncle Henry and Aunt Julia had four daughters and seven sons, all still living at home except the eldest daughter, who had married and now lived elsewhere. The boy-cousins were tall and lithe-waisted and they had dark eyes and hair, and a swarthy complexion. Sitting on the long bench at the table, side by side, different names and different ages was all that identified one from the other. On the opposite bench I sat with my sisters and the younger cousins. Aunt Julia placed us all at one sitting, unlike houses I had visited where the youngest children ate at the last table, and got bony pieces of chicken, and whatever else was left over.

Yet the children eating at the second table at Aunt Julia's in the 1920's would have had little worse fare than at the first table. Farmers including our own family were near starvation that winter, and at this particular visit, Uncle Henry had just brought home from the county seat a load of flour in his two-horse wagon. He bought it from a company whose shipment was damaged on the train when a barrel of kerosene spilled on the flour. My uncle was elated he had got the flour at rock-bottom price. He sold Papa several 48 lb. sacks that day when our visit ended.

If any cook could have ruled-out the kerosene smell, Aunt Julia could have, and some of our family, and the elders of her family, claimed they couldn't taste the kerosene. I ate along with the others, enjoying well enough the fried chicken and gravy, vegetables and canned fruit, but when I bit into a biscuit I smelled-and-tasted the kerosene-tainted flour. (The 48-Lb. sacks of flour Papa bought from Uncle Henry kept us from going hungry, but I was glad when I could see the bottom of the flour barrel again.)

My cousins were little given to talk of any kind. Uncle Henry did most of the talking about the flour. Whether my cousins liked it or gagged like I did, later on, eating it at home nobody ever knew. Already Uncle Henry's boys and girls had their minds set on making music. Even then they were excellent dancers at barn dances, and fine singers of gospel songs at church and in the home. They were so bent on playing musical instruments of which they had nothing, not even an old organ [but] Uncle Henry managed to bring home from a country store discarded cheese hoops, string for waxing, and other necessary supplies for the sons to make their own banjos, guitars and fiddles. From these homemade instruments they produced such beautiful melody and incredible harmony that word spread about their unusual talents. They had offers to become radio performers, but Uncle Henry wanted them to stay in the farm community, and practice their music there, and in the church.

(1926-1980's: They married and had families of their own. It didn't seem to occur to their offspring that they couldn't sing, and they all did, coming into their own with modern musical instruments. Now the family clan fills a choir at the funeral of a family member, which is enhanced with solos, duets and quartets to the accompaniment of recorded music and a lively piano.)