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 17 of 24

By Lillie A. Emery © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

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 hardships and heart warming togetherness as they struggle through and celebrate life in the Ozark Mountains.

We all hurried about in the early morning light helping carry our belongings out so Mr. Throgmorton and Papa and Ben could load the truck. I just couldn't believe that we were really going so far away from home. It was exciting and scary to me just thinking about going sixty miles away and seeing strange new people. Mama had been crying and Papa looked worried like when he was looking for a place for us to move to, but Ben was acting happier than I had ever seen him. He'd told us other children a little bit about Mr. Langley and the old house we would live in during the picking season. He said it was at the end of the road away from the sharecroppers' shacks. He said there was about fifteen sharecroppers' families that lived there the year around plus two hill families that came just for the picking season and several colored folks that came up from Memphis every fall to help gather the cotton.

Ben said it sure was a lucky day for us when he and Papa went with Mr. Jenkins to his doctor in the Delta and met Mr. Jenkins' old friend and neighbor, Mr. Langley. They said without a doubt, a big family like us could earn two hundred dollars during the harvest season. Ben was so excited about the big fields of staple cotton, he said it was just like looking over an ocean; that it made our little cotton patches look puny and sick. So Ben had coaxed and pleaded with Papa and Mama until they agreed to his plan.

Papa, Alice and Earl were to stay home with the help of Jimmy and Joan Jenkins and their Mama and Widow Blooms to gather in all our cotton and as much of the other crops as possible; and Mama and all us other children were to go to the Delta to pick cotton. Since we all feared that Mr. Shaughnessy would return home some day, we had often talked about where we would move to. Mr. Jenkins wanted to move close to town, but he didn't have any money to pay down on a little house for sale there for just a few hundred dollars. So we just had to earn some money to pay Mr. Jenkins so he could move to town and we'd have our farm back and would not be homeless if the Shaughnessy family did ever return.

Mr. Throgmorton's truck was not really big enough for all of our belongings so it was unpacked and repacked a couple of times before all the absolute necessities were loaded.

First to be loaded was the cast iron cook stove then the wood to burn in it. Second, some planks to make a table, benches and platforms for our wheat straw mattresses and feather beds were loaded. Then boxes of canned food and potatoes and other vegetables, two wash tubs full of dishes, pots, buckets and jugs of milk and other food and necessities that Mama had prepared. Then on top of all that went our straw mattresses, feather beds and pillows. Mama, Ben and Jonathon were to ride in the cab with Mr. Throgmorton. Jeannie, April, Andy and I were to ride perched atop of the swaying truck bed.

Finally as we got ready to go, Papa said perhaps we should not leave, but Ben began talking about how much money we might all make and Mr. Throgmorton said he really did need the five dollars for taking us there.

Mama told Alice and Earl lots of things to be careful of and mind Papa then she got in the truck with tears in her eyes. Papa hugged me good-bye last; he tweaked my nose and said for me to mind Mama. As we rattled away waving to Papa it seemed to me I had never seen anyone look as sad as Papa did standing there with only Alice and Earl.

The first half of our trip was through hills. Several times we had to stop to retie the ropes that kept the truck bed from spreading apart at the top and leaning precariously. Us children sat in the middle of the truck bed so as not to lean against the shaky wooden frame least it break and spill us and all our belongings out in the road. Mr. Throgmorton said he had rather travel in the hills for he could coast down the hills and save a lot of gas that way and since it was such a hot day, he said the roads in the Delta would be harder on his tires.

When we got to the Delta land us children knew what he meant for it was much hotter. The late August mid-day sun beat down on us in a scorching way as we drove along the flat level road. There were no trees, no shade nor any breeze but just miles and miles of black, hot sand and endless rows of cotton that was ready to be harvested. Our lips were sun parched and we were homesick already.

We stopped several times to patch the holes in the worn inner tubes. We ate lunch huddled in the shade of the truck as we waited for the patches to dry on the inner tube. But we were not hungry for we didn't like the taste of gritty sand in our mouths left there by a small dust devil that whirled by leaving us and our food covered with a coat of black, fertile, cotton growing Missouri Delta soil.

For a mile or two along the road there would be no houses, then we'd see a big house sitting back from the road surrounded by green lawns and cool shade trees, then back behind it would be big barns and tractor sheds then farther on alongside the road in the edge of the cotton fields would be the sharecroppers huts. They would be rows of unpainted huts surrounded by groups of hungry eyed, dirty faced children.

We had to stop in front of a group of these houses to retie the loosened ropes. There we got a close look at the way sharecroppers really lived and got our first look at people with black skin. There were children standing in all the screenless doors and windows; children sitting huddled on the hot sand in the shade of the shacks; children with black dirt streaked faces. They all looked miserable. There was a group of barefoot mothers with tattered clothes and stringy unkept hair sitting on a tumbled down porch. Some of them were black and some of them were white but they all looked akin in their open-faced misery. A hut or two away sat a plump colored woman holding a little black baby in her arms. She rocked back and forth with closed eyes singing something about gathering at a river in a promised land. I wondered if she closed her eyes to sing so perhaps she could forget about where she was and to daydream about a cool river or creek. I thought about our spring and how cool the water felt as it trickled over our toes and I thought perhaps she had never seen a stream of cool water. Then I thought of how Papa always felt about sharecropping and said it was really feudalism. Then the awful truth of our situation really hit me for that was going to be our way of life if we didn't earn and save enough money picking cotton so we could buy our farm back from Mr. Jenkins.

The ropes were retied and we rattled on down the road almost to the end of our journey.

All the time we sat there in the road all the children and women just stared at us with blank expressionless faces and never uttered a word but just as we drove past the last hut one boy hollered, "Hey lookie, there goes another load of Arkansas hillbillies. Theys going to help us pick this here long staple cotton."

We came to a stop just behind a red pickup truck from which a black man got out to take an arm load of letters, papers and catalogues from a huge mailbox that was lettered Byron Joseph Langley II. Ben called from the truck and asked him where Mr. Langley was. The man answered, "I'm Mr. Moses and Mr. Langley done said for y'all to move in the house at the end of the road yonder. You is the Duncan family ain't y'all?" When Ben said yes he said to follow him. The few moments we were there, we got our first look at the Langley's castle like house. It was like a dream castle sitting back behind an island of green lawns, shrubbery, and gay colored flowers.

We drove down the dirt road just a little way then we came to a row of sharecropper's huts. The only difference between them and the other ones we had seen along the road was they sat back from the road. They had tall weeds in the front yards and tall cotton in the back yards with only a narrow space between each one. There was a bunch of children staring at us from each shack and one boy about Jonathon's age hollered out, "Hi, there ignorant hillbillies." About a quarter of a mile on, at the end of the small road was our house. It was small with a tumbled down porch at the front and surrounded by tall weeds. The weeds were surrounded by field after field of cotton except to one side there was a big abandoned mule barn and in back of that a small pasture with a few cows grazing. Mr. Moses told us the pump was over by the pasture fence and that there were some old hoes and other tools in the old mule barn we could use if we wanted to clear the weeds away from the yard. He added, "Some folks does care an' some folks just don't care how tall the weeds is in their front doors."

Mama and us girls swept out the sand and scrubbed up the inside of that three room shack using no telling how much lye soap and no telling how many gallons of water that Andy and Jonathon brought from the pump. Ben cut the weeds and cleared the tin cans and broken bottles from the yard. We worked long after dark by the light of the coal oil lantern. After Mama finally put our supper on the table we were almost too tired to eat but we sat there a long time planning about how much money we could earn in those big fields of heavy long staple cotton.