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 5 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1987

Issue: July, 1987

Editor's Note....This is a serialized, true story of a poor Ozark family in the 1930's 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.

In the summer of 1935, on a hot Saturday afternoon, our world was shaken as though we had been hit by a bolt of lightning. In a way it was more surprising to me than that, for I had never even dreamt that something like that could happen to us. The disaster affected all of the family but as I look back, I recall feeling as though I had literally been thrown through a door from my childish, carefree world into a world of almost unsolvable adult problems. The things that happened, were said, and done during the next few months formed a backlog of unforgettable memories which affected almost all of my decisions the rest of my life.

Even now I vividly remember the hot Saturday afternoon in late August. The sky was clear. The sun was hot, the humidity caused the clothes to cling to the body heavily. Papa and Earl had gone into town to go to the grist mill, the post office, and to get some groceries, some canning lids, and some wino tablets for the little chickens that seemed to be getting the croup. Alice and Ben had been in town all week helping Mr. and Mrs. Reed. Mama, Jeannie and April had finished canning tomatoes and were cleaning up the kitchen. Us three little ones, Andy, Jonathon, and me were cleaning the back porch and smokehouse. We three, as the afternoon wore on, kept looking up the wagon road hoping that Papa would bring us back some coconut bon bons instead of peppermint sticks. Finally Andy and Jonathon, tired of working, hid from Mama in the spring house; the milk was kept there in jugs in a wire trough to cool in the cold spring water.

When I went looking for the two, I caught them drinking milk, not from a cup, but right out of a gallon jug. They said that if I tattled to Mama they would put a frog on me so I would break out in warts. I had a notion to tell Mama, but then I thought about the blue voile dress and decided not to. The boys drank their milk, ate some watermelon, then went on out to play. I just sat there on a bench by the cool spring thinking about the blue voile dress and how I hated Dovie Davis for making me feel ashamed of being poor. Alice did sometimes and some of the other children did too, complained about being poor; but never, until a few weeks before had I given it a thought. I wouldn't have then, but Dovie started bragging to me about her two new mail order dresses she got to wear to the revival.

Then one night at church she asked me how come I never wore any dresses except Jeannie's and April's old made over ones or some made from flour sacks. I remember how I wanted to lite into her and hit her, but couldn't because we were in church; so I just stuck out my tongue at her while my quick hot anger simmered down to a calm cool hate. When we got home that night, I asked Mama if she would order me a new dress and she answered that she would think about it. So I picked out the blue voile dress and showed it to Mama. Then I had a lot of fun thinking about how Dovie would look when I wore it to church.

A few days later Mama sold some hens to buy Papa and Ben some new work shoes and to get our pick sacks so we could gather in the cotton that was beginning to open. As she was writing out the order, I asked Mama if she could order my blue dress and she just sort of acted mad at me. So I just went out to the smokehouse to pout for a long time.

When I finally came out I saw Mama through the kitchen window still looking at the catalog. When she came to the blue voile dress, she looked at it a little while then closed the catalog and got up; then I saw the tears running down her face. Mama never cried unless someone died or something else really bad happened. I ran back into the smokehouse so she wouldn't see me for I knew then that she wanted me to have that dress awfully bad; that she hated being poor just as bad as us children did. I remembered then how when she combed and braided my long yellow hair, Mama always talked about all the calico and broadcloth dresses and fine eyelet embroidered petticoats she wore when she was a little girl. I'd always been glad though that I didn't have fine clothes for I loved to play in the spring branch, to climb trees, and clothes like that would be too much trouble to take care of and not as much fun to wear as overalls. I never mentioned the new dress again, but I still hated Dovie.

So that hot Saturday as I sat there thinking about all of that, I must have dozed off to sleep for I was suddenly startled by loud voices coming from the kitchen. When I ran to peak through the kitchen window, Mama was reading a letter and crying and Papa was talking loudly saying he never thought he'd live to see the day Will Jenkins foreclosed the mortgage on our farm with only two months notice to move. He rambled on about how he and Will had hunted and worked together in these hills like brothers when they were growing up. And about how Will had sold all his parent's hill land when they died twenty years before and bought level land in the rich Missouri Delta. He said the last time he heard from him, Will was so rich he had over twenty teams of mules to plow his cotton farms with. Now Papa said he just couldn't understand, even though he failed to make the payments regular since the depression, how Will could send out such a letter with such a short notice to move.

Not understanding what was being said, I looked for the other children and found them all sitting in the wagon out by the corn crib. Ben had come back from town with Papa and Earl. He was explaining what had happened. He said the letter said that Will Jenkins was going to move in our house in October and that we had to move out before then. Earl and Andy both spoke at once and said they'd shoot the first person who drove through our gate trying to take over our farm.

Earl jumped off the wagon picking up a stick of wood and whammed it against the side of the corn crib. Ben stood up, looking wise and weary beyond his years; he patiently tried to explain that it was no longer our farm; that the letter was from a lawyer, and if we didn't move, the law would come and put Papa in jail; then they would move Mama and us children out of the house. April asked where we would move to. Ben said he didn't know. Earl began cussing real bad. He said he'd beat hell out of the whole Jenkins family; he picked up a single tree and with a wild bang broke it over a wagon wheel. We younger ones cried louder. Ben in a firm voice told us all to be quiet and listen to him. He said Papa and Mama shouldn't see us all acting like a bunch of cry babies; that they had enough to worry about without us all causing them even more worry. He said we'd all have to help figure out what to do, be good, help work and not to worry Papa and Mama for they were both getting old. Jonathon asked how old. Ben said that they were both past fifty–years–old. I asked if that was very old. Ben said it was really old, for a lot of people died before they got that old. That set off another barrage of tears. Earl quit cussing and sat down. We all were just sitting there looking forlornly off across the valley toward the creek.

But just then a calf that was being weaned broke out of his pen and began stealing milk from its mother. We all ran to help get the little critter back where he belonged. The big boys unharnessed the horses, watered and fed them and then we all sat in the wagon for a long time before Mama called us to supper.

It took a long time for all of us to get scrubbed up and settled around the table for supper that night. Papa sat quietly for awhile then cleared his throat loudly and said that he was going to visit Mama's brother down on Crowley's Ridge the next day. Then he added that we might move down there after all the crops were gathered. He said that it would take him at least a week to look for us a place there. We all began to fidget and look round at each other. Earl said, in a loud voice, that he hated the whole Jenkins family. Papa asked us all to be quiet and listen to what he was going to tell us. He told how he bought the farm with a small down payment when he and mama first got married; and how they had almost paid off the mortgage when the depression came, but since then they had not been able to make the payments. He said that according to the law, Mr. Jenkins had a right to foreclose the mortgage, but that he never thought he would do like he had done especially with him being so rich and owning so much rich cotton land.

Papa told us that we should not hate Mr. Jenkins. But said that he was no longer his friend for giving only two months notice was not right. He then told us not to worry or cry for we would get another place to live. Maybe even a better one. He said he and Mama were not going to worry, for with a fine family of children like us, they had no reason to worry. We all perked up then and ate our supper.

Papa was gone more than a week; it seemed much longer. Every morning Mama fixed an early breakfast and then told us all a list of things to do. She had never seemed to work so fast canning up bushels of peaches, apples, tomatoes and just about everything else that was still in the garden and orchards.

As we helped gather in all of the vegetables for canning it seemed unbelievable that we had to leave all that behind for someone else. Us children or Mama and Papa had planted every tree and plant in the orchard and garden.

At least two or three times each day we would gather around Ben when Mama wasn't near and ask him if he thought Papa would be able to find us a place down on Crowley's Ridge so we could have a house to live in. We wondered if someone would already be living in every house down there. Ben was just as worried as we were for he said we might have to move into Grandma and Grandpa Tinsely's old abandoned house. When they returned, they said the floors had rotted and was sagging into the ground from all the rain that had fallen in through the hole in the roof, that the well had caved in and was full of bricks and dirt and that the gardens and the orchards had grown up with weeds, bushes and small trees. Ben said that if we had to move there, he didn't know how we would fix it up before the cold part of winter set in, for we would have to first get in all the crops. He worried that Papa would get pneumonia and all us little ones the croup. We all tried to figure out how to patch the roof and floors so we wouldn't freeze and just as important, how to keep all our canned fruits, vegetables and potatoes and other foods from freezing.

August went and September came in while Papa was gone. The weather was very hot and humid. Everyday Jonathon and I would slip away to wade in the cool water that flowed down the hill from the spring. We'd sit on the bank of the little stream with our feet dangling in the cool, trickling water and wondered if we'd have a spring to play in when we moved. Never before had I given it a thought about how much the spring meant to us. It was the most fascinating place in our world. Its stream of water held mysterious secrets that produced a fertile, pregnant mass of floating, wiggling, crawling, creeping, hopping forms of life that changed day by day. All us children had spent endless hours playing in or just looking into that water.

Every spring and summer we kept a careful watch over the quantity and progress of frog eggs that were deposited in the warm, shallow at the edge of the deep pond that formed down at the foot of the hill. We watched the newly hatch tadpoles grow until they shed their wiggly fish–like tails and began hopping around out of the water on legs that came from only heaven knows where. We watched the crayfish build their tall mud chimneys along the edge of puddles. We watched the yearly parade of mother quail and killdear as they cautiously lead their fluffy baby chicks, no bigger than a thimble, noiselessly through the grass to drink from the cool water.

At night many furry animals came to drink from the spring. We could identify every foot print left in the mud. Almost every morning there would be fresh tracks left by rabbit, possum, coon, and sometimes fox.

As Jonathan and I sat there letting our toes be tickled and cooled by the trickling water, we would figure out a way to move the spring, orchard, and gardens and strawberry patch and all the other good things that were ours and just too good to part with.

At dusk one afternoon I was out trying to catch a hummingbird that flittered around among flowers along the garden fence when I looked up and saw Papa as he rode through our gate. Old Maude gave a tired snort as Papa dismounted. Ben and Earl who were sitting on the lot fence, jumped down to unsaddle, feed, and water the tired animal. Ben asked Papa if he found another farm for us; Papa just shook his head wearily and answered no. As I sat there still and quiet among the flowers, I felt a world of pity for Papa and a world of fear for Mama and us children. Never before had I noticed Papa looking so old, so stooped, and limping so badly on his foot that had the big toe shot off.

Even back then bad news traveled fast. One day when Papa had been to the county seat looking for us a farm, he returned by town and the post office and was given a strange looking letter. It was from the rich Missouri Delta from a Mr. Wilson who owned a huge cotton farm. He wrote that he had heard about Papa's troubles and that he was offering him an opportunity to make a living for his large family. He wrote that he would let us live in one of his houses if we would work on his cotton farms on a share crop basis.

With a drawn face, Papa told us about that letter. We all knew how he felt about sharecropping in the delta cotton country. He'd often said it was feudalism in its worst form.

The big landlords who needed many hands to work in the cotton fields wanted large families to move into their farm houses. These houses usually were small shacks crowded together along the dusty farm roads with no space between them for yards or gardens. The cotton rows came right up to the back of the huts.

The poor sharecroppers would be forced to buy all their necessities on credit from the land owner's store at the prices he dictated. Some families lived for two or three generations like this because they never could earn enough money to pay off their grocery bill at the landlord's store. As long as they were indebted to him they could not move.

After Papa told us about that letter, we all just sat there on the porch, just looking out across the creek valley to the distant green hills. Not one of us, not even Jonathon, seemed to notice much less wonder if there really was a pot of gold at the end of the brilliant rainbow which suddenly sparkled against a distant clouding sky high above our valley.

The uneasy silence was broken by Mr. Shaughnessy as he rode up on his big black and white spotted horse. He and his wife and three grown sons, John, Shane and David, lived on a farm across the creek to the south of our farm. He and Papa had known each other since they were young boys. They sat there talking for awhile then Mr. Shaughnessy mentioned that his middle son was getting married next week, and said that after the young couple spent a few days with the brides family at the county seat they would visit the farm and that a big chivaree was being planned for them. Then he said the young couple planed to go up North to Detroit to find work. Mr. Shaughnessy and his family had spent a few years living there and he had worked at the Ford Motor Co. Everyone said that was how come they were so rich and had their farm fixed up so fine and that the Shaughnessy boys got a fine education going to schools there that were as big as the court house at our county seat. Us children sat fascinated listening to Mr. Shaughnessy talk to Papa. He said that he felt sure he could get a job again at the Ford Co. He felt he should go back for the sake of his sons for they were running around with a wild gang that was without a doubt bootlegging liquor across the Missouri state line into our dry county there in Arkansas.

Then Mr. Shaughnessy asked if they moved back up North would Papa rent his farm and move in their house. With out a moments hesitation, Papa said yes. Then there was a moment of awed silence; all of us children looked at Papa and Mama who were looking at each other with surprise and pleasure and the first smile we had seen in a long time. Mr. Shaughnessy shook Papa's hand as he left and told Papa they would talk more about the farm and crops and the chivaree.