The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Ozark Dreams and Mountain Memories - Part 2 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1987

Issue: April, 1987

A photo of Lillie when she was a little girl.A photo of Lillie when she was a little girl.Editor's Note: This is a serialized, true story of a poor Ozark family in the 1930's as seen through the eyes of one of their children. Experience their hardship and heart warming togetherness as they struggle through and celebrate life in the Ozark Mountains.

I'll always remember the day I got my first close up look at the Martin family or as Widow Pollard called them, "That bunch of unwashed, unschooled, and un-churched hillbillies."

Mama must have let me tag along to town that day with Papa because she knew I was out in the smokehouse pouting about not getting to go with the boys down on the creek to fish. I heard Papa walk across the back porch and go into the kitchen and tell Mama he had to go to town to the blacksmith shop to get a new plow point for the double shovel so he could finish laying the cotton by. When I heard that, I scurried out of the smokehouse into the kitchen as fast as I could run. Mama looked up from her sewing at me then she just up and asked me if I wanted to wash up and change my overalls to a dress and go to town with Papa. It wasn't even Saturday, but she gave me two nickels to buy peppermint sticks with.

In no time at all Papa and I were sitting in the buggy seat as old Maud trotted up the old wagon road toward town.

When Papa stopped the buggy in front of the blacksmith shop a bunch of tobacco chewing, snuff dipping, cussing men were sitting around. Mr. Martin was sprawled lazily out on the dusty ground near them; tall and lanky he was, just sort of propped up there on his elbow chewing and grinning and spitting out tobacco juice. A few raw bone coon hounds were laying near him dozing or gazing with the mournful look of hungry hounds.

Papa told me to get my candy in Mr. Reed's drug store and to wait there until he came by for me.

I went skipping happily along up the gravel street with the sun in my eyes and my two nickels clutched tightly in my squeezed up fist. I almost ran into Mrs. Martin and the children standing outside the drugstore. But I just ran right on by them anxious to do my first shopping alone.

When Mr. Reed handed me my poke of candy, I asked him where it came from. He answered that it came from far away. I asked if it came as far away as China. He said, "Heavens no, it came from St. Louis." And then he asked me what I knew about China. I said not much, but told him that Jonathan and I had been there. "Oh," he exclaimed, "Where is China and when were you there?" So I told him about Papa telling us that China was down under our feet on the other side of the world. And about how we wanted to dig a hole through the ground to get there and look around a bit, but Papa had said it would be easier to walk around the world than it would be to dig through and besides that was much too far for us. And then he said it was so far that it was dark there when we had sun on our side of the world. Mr. Reed stood there smiling and said that was very interesting. So I went on and told him Jonathan and I went there one day when we slipped away from Mama to go to the deer lick and big cave. I told him how we took the wrong road through the woods and walked so far before we realized it was the wrong road that we were already in China. Then Mr. Reed wanted to know how we knew it was China. I explained it was dark there so we knew it was China for we had walked off and left the sun at home. Then I told him that we went back home and it was so far back that the sun had already gone to China and it was dark there. Then he asked me what Mama said when we got home. I said that she and Papa and all the big children were looking for us and that Mama just cried when she saw that we had got back; we figured she cried because she thought we were too little to go so far without her and Papa.

Then I looked out toward the Martin family and asked him if it was very bad to be unschooled. He cleared his throat and said something like 'er and oh, and well, yes and no. I added that if it was, I was pretty bad for I had never gone to school. He then began to talk and told me that me and my brothers and sisters knew about as much as we would have learned in the one room hill school because Papa and Mama had taken the time and trouble to teach us as much as they could.

Then I went outside to wait for Papa and the Martin family was still standing there waiting, I guess, for Mr. Martin to come by for them. Mrs. Martin stood tiredly there without any shoes on, holding a pale undernourished looking baby.

When I thought about it years later, I remembered the expression on her face and posture. They seemed to indicate a hopeless resignation to the storms of life. She seemed to sway clumsily with the very breeze or perhaps the swaying was caused by the shifting weights of her babies, the puny sickly one she unsteadily held on her hip and the about to be born one which caused her stomach to protrude with a heavy burdened look of eminent pain.

There, sort of huddled behind her tattered skirts in a crowded semicircle, were all her solemn eyed, dusty faced older children. The thought ran through my mind that they all really did need a good scrubbing up for they were so unwashed even their overalls needed a good lye soap scrubbing.

They looked at me. I looked back at them, thinking that was the first I had ever seen them standing on the ground. Always before we had just passed each other in our wagons along the road somewhere.

Mr. Reed came out of his fine drug store and handed each of the children a stick of candy. A flash of grubby little hands just grabbed the candy and then they resumed their huddle behind their mother. Mr. Reed started talking to them and asked them if they would like to go to school. They all really looked scared then. But the biggest boy, he was a little bigger than me, so I thought that he must be about ten years old, shook his head fiercely and said, "NO." Mr. Reed asked him why. With forlorn sky blue eyes he looked up at Mr. Reed then at his mother, then across a nearby cotton field towards the woods. He spat out a stream of reddish brown tobacco juice and said, "By Gad I'm a hain't not wantin' to go t' no dam skool." "Why Joe Henry, don't you want to learn to read and write?" Mr. Reed asked him. Joe Henry said, "Hell nope, thar hain't no need fur hit no how."

Mr. Reed added, "Maybe your Mama would like for you to learn to read and write." Joe Henry switched his tobacco from one cheek to the other then he answered shrilly, "She ain't hankerin' fur me to 'cause her an' Pappy, they'r not a knoein' how neither."

Mrs. Martin said in a hopeless sort of voice, "Joe Henry, you ort to b' a wantin' t' learn how to read an' cypher yur cotton pounds fur t' tell if'n you get enough money fur them."

Joe Henry kicked at a small marble size rock with his bare toes; he sent it skipping up the street then he said real loud, "I hain't not goin' t' no skool, fur Pappy dun sez him n' me an' Tom Henry kan go coon huntin' a lot nows we got the cotton layed by. We's goin' t' learn Lil Ole Sam how t' trail 'em an' how t' tree 'em. 'Sides Pappy sez skoolin's no better'n bein' in jail nohow. Only Pappy sez you don't hafta bootleg no fresh corn likker to b' a gittin' in."

In a weary voice Mrs. Martin said to Joe Henry and Tom Henry, "Go an' fetch yur Pappy 'fore I jes collapse rit' here from wer'ness."

Mr. Reed ran into his store; he brought out a cane bottom chair and told the poor woman to please sit down and rest herself. Mrs. Martin sank wearily on the chair and said, "Lan' sakes, seems I's jest plum wore out. Must b' th' hot sun an' this new youn'un I'm 'spectin'." Mr. Reed looked more than a little nervous; meekly he asked her when she was expecting her new baby.

She gave a tired sigh, then sort of peered up the street toward the blacksmith shop then answered, "Well, at first I figured 'bout turnip plantin' time, but here of late I'm figgerin' hit'll b' jest a short spell after the cotton's layed by so's hit'll be jest about any time."

I perked up real fast and said, "Mrs. Martin, If you want a new born baby, Dr. Gilbert will take one out to your house in his buggy, for he carries all new born babies in his black bag with his pills and his castor oil."

Mrs. Martin said, "Youn'un I wished hit twas that away."

Just then there was a loud commotion up the street. It was Mr. Martin's wagon. He was sitting on the edge of the wagon bed with his dusty feet resting on the double tree that held the tongue of the wagon in place. Joe Henry and Tom Henry and several hound dogs were running along behind the wagon.

Mr. Martin was singing Buffalo Gal and whipping his mule to a fast trot; just as he got even with his family he stood up and pulled hard on the reins and hollered, "Whoa."

Then he said, "Wommern an' lil ole boys an' lil girls hurry an get in this wagon fur I've got me som' coon huntin' to do fur t'nite. Me an' Joe Henry an' Tom Henry air agoin' t' learn Lil Ole Sam how't trail 'em an' tree 'em t'nite."

Mrs. Martin put the baby in the wagon. Joe Henry and Tom Henry helped the next two littlest ones in while the three middle ones scrambled up. When Joe Henry climbed in, he held out a frail hand to help his mother.

In the meantime Mr. Martin was just sitting there loudly singing about dancing with a dolly with a hole in her stocking. Then he hollered, "Gitty up mules."

The whole kit and kabootle soon disappeared down the road in a cloud of dust.

Just then Papa came along in our buggy. Mr. Reed was still standing there looking down the road toward the Martin wagon. He looked at Papa with flashing, walnut brown angry eyes and said, "That ignorant skunk ort to be horse whipped for spending his money on corn liquor when his family needs so many things." He then turned and tweaked my pigtails and said to papa. "Winnie has lovely golden hair." Then he went inside his fine drug store.

Holding my poke of candy in one hand, I reached the other one up to Papa and he reached down and gave me a big boost and sat me on the buggy seat. I smoothed my skirts out in a real ladylike way and handed Papa a stick of candy. I asked Papa if Lil Ole Sam was one of the Martin's little boys or one of their coon hounds. Papa answered that he didn't have the slightest idea. I was wondering if a little boy or a new coon hound was going to be learning to trail 'em an' tree 'em that night. Then I asked Papa why Mr. Reed was so mad at Mr. Martin and he replied that most people didn't like him for the way he treated his family and didn't care if they had shabby clothes as long as he had some liquor to drink.

When I asked Papa why, he said if I asked one more question about the Martin family he was going to eat up all my candy and then swap me for one of the Martin's coon hounds. We both giggled about that.

I must have asked him dozens of other questions about other things as we drove four miles back to our farm. On the three miles of town road were five houses, the church and graveyard, and the one room school house. There was a heap of things to know about every person in every house along the way.

Then we came to the wagon road that turned off to go by our farm and we had to pass two more houses and three more wagon roads that branched off from our road going down into the hills and hollows to other farms. Dovie Davis was the first house next to the town road. They had their mailbox right on the town road. In the next house was the nice Jackson family. They had all grown children and a nice house with a piece of linoleum on their kitchen floor. Then the road went on by our North West forty along the South West forty, by Widow Bloom's farm that joined ours somewhere along the creek bank along the corner of our South West forty. Then the road went on and turned and followed the creek bank to the Martin's farm. I had never been to their house, but we went often to Widow Bloom's house and she came to our house almost every day.

From our house we couldn't see the Martin's or Widow Bloom's either. But sometimes we could see the smoke from their chimneys and sometimes on still, cold, clear mornings or late afternoons the smoke from our chimneys and from Widow Bloom's linked together to form a beautiful, magic looking smoke bridge that lingered motionless over our valley, high above the trees that grew along the creek bank.

With so many people, houses, and other things to see and talk about along the roads it seemed that it was no time until Old Maud was going through our gate hurrying on to stop the buggy by our back porch.

By then I had forgotten all about being mad at the boys for not letting me go fishing. When they got their share of the candy they were not mad at me for getting to go to town with Papa.

When I was scrubbing up for supper, I asked Mama why Mrs. Martin let Mr. Martin spend all heir money for corn liquor. Mama said she guessed it was because they had been brought up that way. Then I said, "Mama, they all really did need a good scrubbing up, even their overalls," Mama scolded and told me to quit worrying about other folks and just be sure that I got my own face and hands clean. For the first time that I could remember, I didn't mind for Mama to be so tedious.