The Old South


Old South (1st column)

By Elton Camp

An Introduction to Life in the Old South

When Milas was born in 1874, the Civil War had been over for only ten years.  Ulysses S. Grant was the president of the United States. Winston Churchill, the English lion, was born the same year. 

            As a strapping young man, Milas married the teenage Mary Miranda Hix. He was taller than most men of his day, angular, slim, but with a beak-like nose, and protruding ears. Miranda was a brunette with a trim figure, warm smile, and sparkling blue eyes.  They made an attractive, although plainly dressed, couple. 

            As was then customary in rural Alabama, the two commenced to beget a brood of children. The framed, oval, sepia-toned photograph of Miranda, taken a year before her death, shows a somber, beaten-down woman who appeared nearer to fifty than to her actual age of forty-one. The sparkle was long gone from her eyes and the smile faded from her lips.  Life had been hard.

            “We’se movin’ tomorrew, Mirandey,” Milas stated flatly when he completed one of his many land deals. 

            No discussion took place. Her opinion, if she had one, was irrelevant. He decided and she obeyed. 

            “Ye heered Paw,” she told the older girls. “Holp me git thangs gather’d up.”

            The next day, the family loaded its meager possessions onto a mule-drawn wagon. Off they went to the lodging the stern patriarch had selected. The load filled the wagon.  Milas drove.  Wife and children walked alongside. If they moved quickly, they could avoid being coated by the cloud of choking dust. 

            “This’s hit. Whoa.” Milas ordered the bony mule to stop at his latest acquisition. It was about three miles from their previous home. 

            The house, a crude cabin with four rooms, was of frame construction with unpainted, weathered, vertical boards nailed directly to the framing. The tin roof long ago lost its shine and developed patches of brown rust. Lightning rods extended a foot or so above the peak of the roof at each end. The few windows had small panes of wavy glass. Irregular, brown stones, stacked into pillars, supported the structure a few feet off the ground. The weight of the house was all that held them in place. 

            Inside, plank floors had cracks between them that provided glimpses of the ground.  The sealed front room was meant to serve as a family gathering place. A crude, fieldstone fireplace was its only source of heat.

            The barn was nearly double the size of the house. An intense odor of hay and manure permeated it. Mice scurried at any disturbance.

            The outhouse was adjacent to the hog pen.  Two square cutouts in a bench at the back served as toilets. A box, partly filled with white cobs, was to the left of the door.  A Sears and Roebuck Catalog, with many pages torn out, hung loosely from a nail.  The tiny building’s horrid stench was overwhelming.  Yet, it served an essential purpose. 

            The yard would soon be bare of grass, kept that way in the country tradition.  Patches of grass in a yard indicated a lazy, shiftless family.  Few had so little self-respect.  After hoeing any vegetation, the industrious homemaker always swept her yard clean with a broom made of a common sedge called “broom sage.” 

            From the woods across a field issued the sound of a screech owl, interspersed with the mournful cry of a whippoorwill.  In the distance, a circle of buzzards slowly glided on the rising air currents. 

            “Holp yore maw set up, young uns,” Milas ordered as he moved apart and concerned himself with more important matters.  They need expect no help from him.  Moving was the work of women and children. 

            His role was provider, progenitor of babies, and ruler of his family.  Farming and land trading were all he knew.  His circumstances would change in the years ahead. 


Old South  (2nd column)

By Elton Camp

Staying out of the poor house

            Milas was industrious. He labored from early until late on his north Alabama farm until his children grew mature enough to be unpaid field hands. Freed of the necessity for manual labor, he concentrated on land trading.

            At a time when most country people remained in perpetual poverty, Milas steadily accumulated money and property. He was a wily trader, ready to take advantage of neighbors’ bad luck or ineptitude. Literate and able to cipher, he had an edge over most of his neighbors. Yet, he didn’t turn families out when he acquired their farms.

            “Reuben, y’u ‘n’ yourn kin stay on ‘n” sharecrop next seas’n ef y’u will,” Milas offered to a man whose land he’d taken for less than its value.

            The money he got for the farm barely allowed Reuben to pay off the bank that held his mortgage plus most of what he owed at the feed and seed in town. He had no choice but to accept the offer. Both men knew it.

            “Thanky, Mr. Milas. I reckon I’ll do thet, but only fer a year or two ‘till I git on my feet ‘gain.” 

            Putting a limit on the arrangement, even if only in his mind, helped the proud man retain a measure of dignity. Sharecroppers were at the bottom rung of the agricultural ladder. All viewed them as failed farmers. The very term “sharecropper” came to be one of disrespect.

            “Course, I’ll previde th’ seed ‘n’ fertilize ‘n’ op’n up a line o’ credit at th’ store. “Y’u’ll plant thirty acres ‘n cotton ‘n’ ten ‘n’ corn. I’ll tell y’u when t’ seed ‘n’ when t’ lay by. We’ll go halvers when th’ crop comes en.”

            No discussion took place. The terms couldn’t be negotiated. If it was a good year, the fields would produce well and both landlord and tenant would end up with a modest amount of money. Sometimes the crops failed due to weather or insects. A bad year would be attributed to lack of diligence on the part of the tenant. So it proved to be in the case of Ruben and his family that fall.

            “Y’u, shou’d of werked harder at yore crops,” Milas accused. “If yu’d ‘ov done whut I tole y’u, thing’s would’ve turnt out better. I’ll put what y’u owe at th’ store on yore account ‘n’ y’u kin pay me next harvest.” 

            With a series of such disasters, the family might fall into debt that would take years to pay. Economically, they became only marginally better off than those enslaved   had been before the War. Over time, the crops would improve. Money would come in. Meanwhile, the value of the land gradually increased. Milas’ investment would pay handsomely.

            Sharecropping was far preferable to “going to the poorhouse.” The poorhouse was a tax-financed building. People who couldn’t support themselves were required to go there. It was less expensive than the welfare system that later replaced it. In no way was it a debtor’s prison. No matter how much a person might fall into debt, as long as he could provide for his immediate needs, he didn’t go to the poorhouse.

            The poorhouse for Milas’ area was located several miles outside the county seat. The facility eventually fell into disuse and slowly crumbled and fell as times changed. The location of the building and its associated cemetery are now covered with a massive chicken processing plant. Disgraced in life, the poor are disregarded in death.

            Persons today who joke about “having to go to the poorhouse” don’t realize the grim reality behind the expression.

            Milas’ financial success, however, made no difference in the daily life of his family. Vegetables came from the garden, milk from the family cow, and meat from hogs and chickens. Doctors weren’t consulted. Family work, as we will see, was hard and unremitting.


Old South (3rd column)

By Elton Camp

Gardening and Gathering

            Rural life in north Alabama demanded hard work from all members of the family. Often pregnant, sucking a baby, or both, Miranda did the cooking, kept house, traded with the peddler and tended an extensive garden. She was generally exempt from fieldwork except during the harvest when everyone helped gather crops.

            “Milas, one o’ th’ boys needs t’ break th’ garden spot,” Miranda requested each spring.  

            The fence that enclosed the garden was essential. In the absence of stock laws, animals had free range of the community. A neighbor’s cow could devastate an unprotected garden in a single night.

            “Gee.”  “Haw.” “Git up.”  “Whoa,” commanded the boy assigned the task. After laborious turning and backing, the plowing was complete. 

            The pleasant, earthy smell of newly turned dirt was like no other. Earthworms, abruptly thrown to the surface, wiggled to escape the drying sun. They, along with white grubs, provided unexpected treats for birds.

            Miranda, assisted by her two daughters, seeded and cultivated the plot. Some years were favorable for crops. Corn, butter beans, turnip greens, pole beans, okra, potatoes and tomatoes grew abundantly.

            Care of the garden included chasing out cottontails and sprinkling dry snuff to smother insects. A makeshift scarecrow was constructed from a pole, old hat and discarded shirt. The ruse was only partially successful. Hungry birds sometimes perched atop it before they swooped to carry away stolen morsels.

            Mamie spotted a shiny, black crow that lit in a tree by the garden to eye it hungrily. She chanted the country rhyme, “Caw, caw sed th’ crow. Shore ez I’m born, thar’s a farmer plantin’ corn.”  She smiled in satisfaction at having thought of it.

            “Time t’ hoe th’ garden, girls,” Miranda instructed late in the afternoon. Other chores were done and the approach of evening promised a light breeze and cooler temperatures. “Put on yore bonnets.” 

Each took a hoe and began to chop the offending vegetation. Crab grass, cockleburs and chickweed all fell before the determined onslaught.

            “B’ shore t’ git th’ roots,” Miranda reminded her daughters. “If y’u don’t they’ll come rought back.” 

            With aching arms and sore hands, the trio put away the tools for another day. Fluid-filled blisters weren’t especially painful unless the raised skin was broken. They then became “blood blisters” which would take days to heal. All too soon, the task would have to be repeated.

            Some years, the garden didn’t do well. If the spring had been unusually dry and hot, corn blades twisted to conserve precious moisture. The tomato vines lost their leaves and drooped to the ground. Bean vines turned brown and failed to produce pods. Even the ground suffered as wide cracks opened.

            “Ain’t hit never gonna rain ’gain, maw?” asked a younger child.

            The garden was parched. All knew that meals that year would have smaller portions and less variety.

            Some plants could be foraged from the woods. A favorite was the polkweed, sometimes called “poke salat.” 

            “Hit’s only fit t’ eat ’n th’ sprang when hit fust comes up,” Miranda cautioned her daughters. “Onst hit puts on blooms ’r berries, leave hit ’lone less y’u want t’ git sick.”

            In fact, polkweed is poisonous at every stage, especially when the tempting-looking purple berries appear. Miranda learned from her own mother to boil the young leaves and pour away the water a few times to remove the toxin. Then the leaves could be cooked in some bacon drippings and eaten.

            “Hit’s not very good, maw,” Bertha commented as she tasted a bit of the green concoction. Nevertheless, she continued to eat it.

            “Some like hit ’n’ some don’t. Hit don’t cost nothin’,” was her practical reply. “We got t’ make do.”

            Farm work was difficult and the results unpredictable. Weather could, however, do far more than damage the garden and crops. As we will see, it occasionally became an immediately life-threatening force.

Old South  (4th column)

By Elton Camp

Stormy Weather in North Alabama

            North Alabama weather could become violent. The sky darkened. The west wind picked up. Trees bent with the gusts. An ominous, yellowish cast developed in the clouds. Scattered, heavy drops of rain fell with loud splashes. The metallic odor of an approaching storm filled the air.

            “Y’all head fer th’ storm pit, chillen,” Miranda urged. She gazed warily toward the threatening sky. “A cyclone may b’ a comin’.”

            As if to confirm her prediction, pieces of hail the size of a dime pelted the ground. Brilliant bolts of lightning made zigzag patterns in the sky. Some reached from the clouds to the ground. The deafening boom of thunder was almost immediate. Rain, whipped by the wind, began to fall in sheets.

            The cramped, underground room, where the wind became a muffled, steady roar, provided safety. Rain lashed against the door, sending a steady stream of water into the storm pit. The family crowded onto wooden benches on each side. Miranda made a futile attempt to keep her only pair of shoes out of the few inches of water that accumulated on the dirt floor. The younger children splashed their bare feet and worked the soft mud between their toes. The storm house was an exciting adventure for them, all the more so when dangerous weather came at night.

            “Rock o’ Ages, cleft fer me. Let me hide myself ’n thee,” the children sang softly, not in fear, but because it would comfort their mother. Youngsters generally didn’t take storms seriously. Miranda sat with her eyes shut and head bowed. Her lips moved as she prayed silently. Mamie took her mother’s rough, but warm, hand and held it tightly as she snuggled against her.

            Milas declined to change his routine in the face of such danger. It was just as well. A life-endangering storm never hit their farm. The numerous trips to the storm pit had been useless.

            His safety, despite lack of caution, confirmed his life-long belief, “Whut ever ez t’ b’ will b’.”  His destiny was fixed from birth and nothing could change it, he was firmly convinced.

            The storm gradually abated and all became quiet. Bright sunlight broke through as the clouds dissipated. When the family emerged, they had to step long to avoid the rushing water in the roadside ditch that lay immediately outside the storm pit. The rain seemed to have refreshed the land. In the sky, opposite the sun, appeared an arching rainbow with its glorious bands of color.

            “Look et thet, maw,” Howard said as he stared toward the dazzling display. “Reckon thar’s really a pot o’ gold at hits end?”

            “Son, hit remin’s us thet God hez guaranteed thet no mo’ will He destroy th’ earth wif a flood. Hit wuz a promis’ made t’ Noe,” Miranda explained. Her simple faith was sincere.

            There were many broken limbs from pine trees and a thin carpet of green oak leaves covering parts of the yard. The clean scent of pine filled the air. The hard-won garden, however, suffered a worse fate. Miranda sighed in resignation when she saw it. Corn stalks lay on the ground. Although they’d somehow manage to rise of their own accord, almost to an erect position, the ears produced would be fewer and of lower quality. Only a half-dozen of the beanpoles remained and they lay on the ground. The scarecrow had been reduced to a bare stake; its garments vanished into limbo. The fence fell flat on the side of the garden opposite the gate. If enough time remained before frost, Miranda would set out a late crop. If not, they’d make do with what the crippled garden was able to produce.

            “Milas, I’ll be needin’ th’ boys t’ mend th’ garden fence,” she stated to her spouse as he calmly leafed through some papers. He didn’t look up and only grunted in reply


Old South (5th column)

By Elton Camp

Slopping the Hogs

            Rural people raised hogs for consumption rather than for sale. Family size determined the number, but two or three was common. The hog pen ordinarily lay in easy walking and smelling distance of the house.

            “Albert, git out thar ’n’ slop th’ hogs,” Milas commanded after supper each day. It was an assignment the oldest son enjoyed and would’ve performed without constant reminders. He knew that his paw didn’t believe him to have that much initiative. Albert frowned at his father’s lack of confidence in his trustworthiness.

            “I wish, jest one time, he’d wait t’ see ef I take care o’ hit,” he thought, but remained silent. Nobody sassed paw. 

            Hogs didn’t get store-bought feed due to its cost and the fact that they’d eat most anything. When a chicken died of natural causes, it quickly disappeared, feathers and all, when tossed into the hog pen. The bulk of their diet consisted of what was called “slop.”  Slop accumulated in a black, metal container kept alongside the cook stove as a repository of scraps, peels, corncobs and ruined food. Anyone who approached too closely was rewarded with a sour stench.

            Flies rose with a buzz whenever an addition was made to the malodorous mixture, but returned almost immediately to continue their frenzied feeding. Without screens, the only means to control the pesky insects was with a swatter called the “fly flap.” It was a tedious, futile task, so few bothered to try. Flies were a part of daily life.

            Nothing was wasted thanks to this primitive version of recycling. Garbage was turned into pork.

            Albert trudged to the hog pen about a hundred feet from the house. Holding the slop bucket in his right hand, he extended his left arm outward at an angle from his body to balance the weight. The animals both saw and smelled him coming. With excited, hungry grunts they rushed eagerly to the homemade, wooden feeding trough in anticipation of a delicious feast. Partitions divided it into three sections, one for each of the pigs his family raised. He made certain to pour an equal amount into each to minimize fighting. With greedy smacking and slurping, the hogs quickly devoured the foul-smelling fare. Their twisted tails twitched in enjoyment.

            The spotted hog finished his share and attempted to root his neighbor from the trough. Grunts, squeals and bites erupted. “Stop thet,” Albert shouted. He grabbed a stout stick that he kept leaning against the fence for the purpose of enforcing order and struck the miscreant a sharp blow on the end of his snout. “That’ll larn y’u t’ steal,” he said with satisfaction as the hog retreated, slinging its head in pain. A small red trail of blood oozed from its nostrils.

            When the feeding was complete, friction subsided. The hogs, again best buddies, returned to root and coat themselves with the thick, black mud of their enclosure. Bare ground showed how thoroughly they’d consumed every scrap of vegetation in the pen. The hog-wire fence bulged outward all around where they’d shoved against it to reach additional weeds. A strand of barbed wire next to the ground deterred escape. The easy existence of the swine would come to an abrupt end in the late autumn when a hard frost was followed by freezing daytime temperatures announced “hog killin’ weather.” 

            Some months later, a chill was in the air. The time had come. Soon after sunrise, orders to mules, the clattering of wheels, voices of adults and the shouts and laughter of children accompanied the arrival of visitors. Hog killing was not only a necessary work to assure meat for the coming months, but a social occasion. Entire families gathered, although the hardest work fell to the men. The children had a day of fun in store. Next week, we’ll see what that special, exciting day was like.

Old South     (Sixth column)

By Elton Camp

A grim but necessary farm task

            It was hog killing day. The noisy arrival of early-morning visitors was expected. Milas had all in readiness for the day’s activity. Neighbors from the nearest three farms congregated to help.

            They brought their cast iron wash pots to supplement the one owned by the family. The men heaved them over the sides of the wagons and lugged them into the yard. The round, black containers would be used to heat water to scald the hogs and later to process lard. As when clothes were to be washed, fires were laid under the pots after they were filled with water from the spring. While they heated, two of the men attached a block-and-tackle to a strong limb on the oak tree that sheltered the west side of the house. 

            While the children enjoyed a day of play, far more important matters occupied the adults. The family’s meat supply for the months ahead must be ensured.  While the men processed the hogs, the women prepared a nutritious dinner, the noon meal.

            Albert made an unnecessary visit to the outhouse when he saw a group of the men open the gate and enter the hog pen. He knew what was coming. One of them carried a sharp butcher knife. As main caretaker of the three hogs, he didn’t want to see it when they were killed. He’d become fond of them, particularly the one with a black patch on an otherwise white body. 

            A bit of slop poured into their trough enticed the animals into a corner of their enclosure. The men pounced on one of the hogs and shouted encouragement to one another as they wrestled it to the ground. It squealed wildly, kicked its legs, and attempted to bite, but it was a futile struggle. A burly man plunged the knife deep into the swine’s throat and made a savage slice. They released the mortally wounded animal and jumped back to avoid being hit by its spouting blood. The hog continued to squeal, this time in pain. It ran until it became weak from blood loss, fell, struggled to its feet and ran some more. Slowly, it collapsed and began to quiver. Then it lay still and quiet. The men hefted it onto a homemade table and stood back to admire their work.

            With the block-and-tackle, the men raised the hog by its back feet to allow time for any remaining blood to drain from the carcass. Only then did they begin the processing. They placed a large barrel underneath the suspended hog and partly filled it with hot water. 

            “Let hit down, boys,” Milas called out. 

            The hog soaked in the hot water for a few minutes. They pulled it up and began to scrape away the bristly, but now loosened hair. Up and down the hog went. Scraping followed scraping. Despite the cold weather, the workers mopped sweat from their brows. 

            “Water’s gettin’ too cool,” a neighbor observed. 

            That resulted in more hot water being brought for the barrel. Others refilled the wash pots from the spring to have a continuous supply. Several scaldings were required. There mustn’t be a trace of hair on the rind of the ham or bacon when it was cooked. 

            The cleaning completed, the workers removed the internal organs, cut up the hog and commenced to prepare the meat. They sliced away the excess fat and then rubbed the surface with a mixture of salt, spice, and seasonings. The aroma only partly overcame the stench of the butchering process. Soon, it was time to kill the next hog and repeat the process. 

            Hog killing was intense work that required knowledge, experience and skill as well as brawn.  The sounds of children at play made the day less grim.  Tempting aromas wafting from the kitchen hinted at the feast to come for the hungry workers and youngsters alike.   

Old South  (Seventh column)

By Elton Camp

Children Play on Hog Killing Day

            During hog killing day, men labored with the swine while the women stayed busy preparing a meal. It was a time of fun and play for the children. Nobody expected them to participate in the difficult and sometimes dangerous work.

            “Chillun, git outsid’ ’n’ play. Y’all don’t b’ comin’ ’n th’ hous’. We’ll b’ fixin’ dinner ’n here. Stay out o’ th’ way o’ th’ menfolk. They don’t need y’u gettin’ ’round where they’s workin’ wif th’ hogs,” a mother said.

            Such opportunities for group play were limited. The youngsters meant to take full advantage of it. Hog killing was time-consuming. It would be late afternoon before the hardest work would be completed. They looked forward to hours of unsupervised frolic.

            “Hid’ ’n’ seek,” one of the boys called out. “Not hit,” he hurriedly added.

            To be “It” was the most undesirable position since it meant having to seek and chase the others. That was less fun than hiding.

            Others quickly added, “Not hit.”  The children pointed their fingers at their comrade who was judged to have spoken last. “Yore hit,” they called gleefully. “It” then took over direction of the game.

            “This here’s home,” he declared as he slapped his hand against a fence post well away from where the men were doing the hog killing. “No fair hidin’ anywheres ’round th’ scaldin’ pots.” 

            The boy leaned against home base, covered his eyes and began to count slowly. When he reach twenty, he called out, “Reddy ’er not, heer I com’.” 

            Most of the children had vanished into the surroundings. Any child not yet well hidden jumped behind the nearest available object.

            As “It” searched behind the smokehouse, a lanky girl with long, brown hair rushed from her hiding place and made a mad dash for home base.

            “Hom’ free,” she cried out in triumph.

            That meant that she was exempt from consideration for being “It” in the next session and could relax as the game continued.

            A boy jumped from behind a tree and attempted the same thing, but was spotted. “It” called out, “I spy Robert” as he pursued him. Laughing the whole time, Robert made a series of fast turns to avoid being tagged before reaching home base. This time, “It” was the victor. “Yore out,” he shouted as he touched the boy’s shoulder. Having been tagged, that youngster couldn’t play for the duration of that session. The game continued until all had been found, or “It” got tired.

            “Olly, olly, oxen free,” when chanted by the leader, signaled his playmates that the game was over and that they could safely emerge.

            Some of the boys decided to hunt doodlebugs. Their lairs were located in dry, sandy soil where they looked like miniature funnels.

            “Heer they air, unner th’ house,” one boy said as he pointed to dozens of depressions separated from each other by a few inches.

            One of his companions inserted a straw of grass into the bottom of the pit, twirled it, and recited, “Doodlebug, doodlebug, com’out o’ yore hole. Yore house ez on far ’n’ yore chillen will burn.” 

            When the ant lion larva moved, the reaction was attributed to the charm. In fact, the larva behaved as if an ant had fallen into its pit. By pulling away the sand, the doodlebug caused the victim to tumble into its devouring maw.

            If the boys were quick and determined enough to extract the larva from its pit, the insect would play dead as long as it perceived danger. None imagined that it would eventually grow wings and fly away.  

As with the adults, the children rested for about a half hour after dinner before resuming activities. Hog killing was a day filled with memorable activity. Even after the visitors left, much work with the butchered hogs remained.

Old South  (Eighth Column)

By Elton Camp

Old South 

Making Sausage and Lard

The hardest work of hog killing was over late in the afternoon. It was then time for the visiting families to go home. Except for a dinner break, all but the children had worked for several hours. A day of vigorous play, which would be remembered for a lifetime, left the youngsters happily exhausted and sleepy. 

If not for the community effort, the task would have extended over multiple days. It was time to show appreciation. “Afore y’u depart, com’ help y’r selves t’ som’ meat, fellers,” Milas called out. 

It wasn’t an act of generosity, but expected for all who’d taken part in the work. Milas would be repaid in kind when he and his family assisted each of them. The hog parts that couldn’t well be preserved were always divided up. The families would enjoy fresh ribs for a few days, depending on the temperature. 

After the neighbors left, hours of toil remained. Miranda and her older children took over. Milas made an occasional appearance to observe and supervise. Meat for sausage was sliced into strips and put into the manual sausage grinder along with fat. When it was ground well, they added spices, peppers and sage to taste.

            “Y’u thank thet’s ’nough sage?” Miranda asked her husband. 

            Milas took a pinch of the raw sausage and tasted it. “A speck mo’s needed,” he judged.

He thought nothing of consuming the uncooked pork. Trichina worms and other dangers of eating raw pork were unknown in that day. 

            “Better git goin’ on renderin’ th’ lard,” he said when the sausage was done. 

            Miranda placed piles of glistening, white fat into the wash pot to cook out the lard. Stored in metal buckets, it would be used throughout the year until next hog killing. It was an essential ingredient in soapmaking. Its liberal use in cooking endangered the health of all in the family. Nobody knew the risks connected with a diet high in saturated fats, cholesterol and salt. Strokes and heart attacks crippled people and ended many lives prematurely. 

            A byproduct of lard rendering was crisp bits of fat called cracklings. They could be eaten while fresh and hot, but most were used to make cracklin’ bread. The cracklings were mixed in with the batter when stirring up cornbread. With the brown and white cracklings, the fresh baked hoecake was a delicious, though greasy, treat. When eaten with turnip greens, it was a particular favorite of rural people. 

            In the absence of electricity, there could be no refrigeration. Another means must be used to preserve the meat during the coming months. The family hung hams and bacon from the joists of the smokehouse to cure. The drying, combined with preservatives, prevented bacterial growth and spoilage. Because the bacon didn’t have bones, the family found it easy to cut off a hunk when it was needed during the year. It would then be sliced into individual strips called “rashers.”  Ham, however, was harder to manage. 

            “Git down thet biggest ham, Leamon,” Milas directed later in the year. “I’ll holt hit whilst y’u saw threw th’ bone. 

            The brown, unwashed hacksaw blade cut easily through the meat, but slowed, with a rasping sound, as it ground through the dense bone. Slices of the cured ham were a special treat to be enjoyed in small servings and only on occasion. It was always served along with fresh-baked biscuits and red-eye gravy. 

            Timing was everything in hog killing. After the first hard frost, the temperature usually stayed low enough for the meat not to spoil. Occasionally, a prolonged warm spell meant loss of the precious food. When thoroughly cured, the meat wouldn’t ruin whatever the weather might do. Nobody wanted to kill hogs too soon, but accurate projections were simply impossible. It was one of the many uncertainties of country life. 

Old South  (Ninth column)

By Elton Camp

Farm-Fresh Milk

            Milas’ family, like his neighbors, kept a cow. “Bertha, go do th’ milking,” he said. A sharp imperative was all he used.      

Bertha selected two metal pails. The smaller she half-filled with spring water. The larger would hold the milk. She put on her white bonnet and headed toward the barn.   

            It was easy to entice the cow into the milking stall with a galvanized bucket of brown feed. The molasses in it gave a sweet smell. As Petunia munched the feed, Bertha placed a sturdy, wooden box at her side as a milking stool. Before she commenced, she splashed clear water on the udder and rubbed it vigorously with her hands. Cleanliness was important.

With the milk bucket in place, she used both hands to squeeze the teats. After a few seconds of delay, forceful streams of milk shot down. The rhythmic squirts were initially amplified as they struck the bottom and echoed in the empty pail. As the bucket filled, the sounds became muffled. 

“Quit it,” Bertha stormed as the cow flicked her tail to deter biting flies. The swing had narrowly missed her head. She planted a sharp slap on the bovine’s flank. 

            Startled, the cow moved forward. Only Bertha’s quick grab of the bucket prevented its foot from going inside.

            “Yu’d have got me into hit, ole lady if you’d ruint th’ milk.”  

            “Y’u kin have yore calf now,” Bertha said when the daily task was complete. 

            She’d made certain to leave enough milk in the udder to placate the hungry calf. It’d been confined in the barn all day to ensure that it didn’t “steal” its mother’s milk. Bertha led the tan cow to the pasture and returned to release the similarly marked calf. It dashed to its mother and began to feed hungrily. White foam appeared around its mouth. The calf rapidly switched its tail from side to side, but stopped to butt the udder impatiently when the milk flow momentarily slowed. Too hard a butt caused the cow to kick her hind foot angrily at her offspring. 

            When the milk was gone, the cow and calf strolled into the pasture. They paused to graze the best patches of grass. Both shook portions of their skins to scare away pesky flies, but it did little good. The insects settled back into place within seconds. In a show of maternal care, the cow occasionally licked the calf. The roughness of her tongue created damp, ruffled places in its coat.  

            When Bertha returned to the house, she placed a white cloth over an enamel bucket, pushed it slightly inward at the center, and slowly poured the milk onto it. The liquid filtered through the cloth, leaving a few specks of some unidentified black material. 

            “Maw, I’m takin’ th’ milk t’ th’ sprang so hit won’t go blinked.” 

            That description of milk went back to the early 1600s, but was no longer used outside of the southern Appalachian Mountains. Bertha knew no other word for ruined milk. 

She poured the milk into a large glass jar, closed it with a screw-on metal lid and   cradled the container next to her body. The base of the jar rested on her bent left arm. 

Her destination was a small spring that bubbled from underneath sandstone boulders about fifty feet from the house. She placed the jar on a level spot on a rock. From a two-foot-deep water reservoir, she withdrew a similar container with the remainder of the previous day’s milk. Not to be wasted, she took it into the house to add to the stock being accumulated to have enough to justify the time and trouble of making butter. Only the cream that rose to the top was used for that purpose. The current day’s milk went into the spring. The water’s coolness would keep it tasting fresh for a day.

Old South   (Tenth column)

By Elton Camp

Churning and Making Butter

Rural families milked cows by hand. Part of the milk was for drinking, some was used in cooking, and the rest was set aside for making butter and buttermilk. 

            In Milas’ family, churning was usually assigned to the second-oldest daughter, Mamie. Accumulated milk had to be used more quickly in the summer than in the cooler months. It was an easy, but time-consuming process.

            “Mamie, better git a goin’ on th’ butter,” Miranda suggested. “Make shore all th’ milk hez turned.”  

            She tilted the containers slightly to be sure the milk had clabbered. That result comes only when raw milk, with its bacteria, is removed from refrigeration. To do the same with pasteurized milk only results in revolting sour milk. Mamie fetched the churn and dasher from the corner of the kitchen and set it, with a thump, in the floor beside the kitchen table. The churn was light tan ceramic with two blue lines encircling it for decoration. The lid was circular with a hole in the center. The upper part of the handle of the dasher protruded through the opening. At its base, the dasher had wooden paddles in the form of a cross. It was called a “dasher” because it literally was dashed up and down in the cream. 

            Careful not to make a spill, Mamie poured the cream into the churn. She inserted the dasher and slid the lid down from the top of the handle until it settled into place. She sat in a straight chair with a cane bottom, sunk in the center from long use to begin the lengthy, boring process of churning the butter.  She always dreaded the onerous task. 

            “Up, down, up, down,” she repeated in keeping with the beat of the dasher. 

            The simple chant seemed to make the time pass more quickly. She had an incentive to be careful. Too vigorous a chug caused a spray of milk to shoot out the center of the lid. The tepid liquid would hit Mamie’s bare legs and run toward her feet. At length, the butterfat began to combine into yellow lumps of butter. Yet more churning was required. Lots more.

            “Maw, I reckon hit’s ready,” Mamie finally called out. 

            Miranda took over from there. With a large wooden spoon, she removed the butter from the remaining liquid called “buttermilk.”  She placed the butter into a wooden bowl and began to work it so as to remove as much water as possible. She, however, added water periodically until it worked out clear. After adding salt, she pressed the butter into a round, wooden butter mold that had belonged to her own mother. The solidified cake bore the impressed design of a flower from a corresponding form on the mold. Miranda took considerable pride in her butter, both as to quality and appearance. One churning produced two or three cakes. As with the milk, it was stored in the spring so it wouldn’t spoil. 

            The family ate part of the butter, but part of it she traded to the peddler who operated his business from a “rolling store.” His horse-drawn wagon had a canvas top to protect the goods. Farm families made occasional trips to town for supplies they couldn’t produce. The rolling store provided welcome supplementary shopping. The ability to trade items was a bonus not available from town merchants. The peddler kept an icebox for perishable items like eggs, meat, and butter. He had cages to contain live chickens. He put small purchases into a “poke,” or brown paper bag. The sack would be reused multiple times by the thrifty farm family.

            “I’m always glad t’ get yore butter,” he said. “I git calls fer hit all th’ time.”  Miranda smiled with satisfaction.  She usually swapped for items the family needed, but occasionally received welcome cash that she could call her own.

Old South  (Eleventh column)

A Whistling Girl and a Crowing Hen

By Elton Camp

            Like most others, Milas’ family kept a good-sized flock of chickens. The fowls provided eggs and occasional meat to replace the usual pork. During the daytime, the birds had free run of the yard and surrounding grounds. They wandered at random as they pecked at seeds or insects. On occasion, they gulped small stones to provide the necessary friction in their gizzards to enable them to grind up the hard items of their diet. 

            Damp chicken manure made for unpleasant walking, especially for bare feet. “Don’t brang thet mess ’n th’ house, Howard,” Miranda ordered. “Clean yore feet. I won’t have them drappin’s on my floors.”  The youngster sought grass beyond the limits of the yard and rubbed away the offensive material as best he could.

            “Kin I feed th’ chick’ns now, paw?” Albert asked. 

            The mildly retarded boy rushed to the corncrib and collected several cobs with dried grains attached. He liked the feel and smell of the corn as he rubbed it from the cob with the palm of his hand. Soon, he had a fistful of the seeds. They felt hard and clean. 

            “Here, chicky, chicky,” he coaxed. Albert used a pitch higher than his normal voice.

            The chickens crowded in front of him in anticipation of a nutritious meal. He scattered the grains on the ground among the birds. They dashed in various directions as each sought to consume as much as possible. If two went for the same grain of corn, a hard peck moved the subordinate one aside. All deferred to the golden brown rooster as he stalked over to claim his rightful share. 

            Only one adult rooster was tolerated. Shaking his large, red comb, and sporting sharp spurs on his legs, he strutted around in the yard, scratched and pecked at the ground as did the hens, but accomplished the task with great dignity, as if he merely condescended to eat. 

            Most of the time he kept apart from the hens. As if at a sudden whim, he raced toward one of them. Seeing him coming, she fled with a squawk, but the race was lost even before it began. He mounted her, seized her smaller comb with his bill, lowered his body onto her back, shook for a few seconds, and his conjugal duty was fulfilled. The now-fertilized hen shook her ruffled feathers into place, flapped her wings a couple of times and returned to feeding. 

            Rarely, a hen would attempt to crow. As Dr. Samuel Johnson, writer of the first English dictionary, remarked about a dog walking on its hind legs, “It was not done well, but one was surprised to see it done at all.”  The incongruous action alarmed superstitious country people as few things could.                                                              

            When the fact that one of his hens had crowed was reported to Milas, he frowned, shook his head, and vowed, “I ain’t puttin’ up wif’ nothin’ like thet ’round heer.”

            He instructed one of the boys to do the necessary deed. Leamon cautiously approached the offender, axe in hand, and seized her. When caught, the bird squawked loudly, but only briefly. The hen boiled in a pot of water later in the day.

            Scientists later discovered that a hen has a bit of rudimentary testis. Under certain conditions the tissue begins to grow. The resulting hormone outflow begins to persuade her that “she” is a “he.”  In those days nobody would’ve cared, even if such an explanation had existed. They knew just what to do if a hen dared crow. 

            “Ah whistlin’ girl ’n’ ah crowin’ hen always com’ t’ some bad end,” repeated anyone who thought of the rhyme when either occasion arose. It was literally true in the case of the hen. The girl, with nothing to fear, only grinned at the old country saying and continued to whistle. 

Old South  (12th column)

By Elton Camp

Miranda and the Setting Hen

            A small shed served as the chicken house. Box-like nests, lined with straw, were attached along the interior wall. When a hen produced an egg, she generally announced the feat by leaving the nest and cackling loudly for several minutes. 

            Miranda, or one of her daughters, checked each nest in the late afternoon. It might contain a few eggs, or perhaps only one. If newly laid, the egg felt warm. The egg-gatherer transferred the smallish brown-shelled eggs to her apron which she folded and held carefully so as not to let any slip to the ground. 

            Most of the interior of the chicken house was occupied by rows of rough poles mounted horizontally. These served as roosts. A thick layer of multicolored droppings littered the dirt floor. An ammonia-like stench pervaded. 

            Lacking receptors for night vision, chickens sought the roost as soon as evening light began to fade. This is the origin of the expression “Goin’ t’ bed wif’ th’ chick’ns” to describe humans who retire early.

            “Don’t ferget t’ go out thar ’n shet up th’ chicken coop afore plumb black dark,” Milas said to no one in particular. “They’ll b’ goin’ t’ roost direckly.” 

            A plank door and crude shutters over windows were always closed at night. A secure henhouse was an essential protection against varmints. A fox or weasel that found an unprotected flock might destroy them all in a single raid. That was a devastating loss for a farm family.

            Chicks weren’t purchased from a hatchery, but brooded by hens. The farm family set aside eggs for the purpose. With the short life span of a chicken, a continuous flow of replacements was needed. A dozen eggs were normally placed under a setting hen. On occasion, thirteen chicks appeared. Double yolk eggs were the cause. More frequently, one or more of the eggs failed to develop a chick or the fledgling died soon after hatching. 

            The mother hen paid careful attention to her chicks. At two-second intervals, she clucked to keep her brood under control. If she saw danger, a different cluck, combined with lifted wings, caused them to rush underneath for protection. Anyone who approached her chicks could expect to be flogged and pecked. A mother hen was a formidable force. 

            Setting hens not given eggs to hatch sometimes rebelled. An occasional hen would “steal a nest” by laying eggs in some secret place outside the coop. Her treacherous action became known only when she emerged from hiding with a group of cheeping chicks following her. 

            Even if a hen didn’t hatch a brood, she’d sometimes begin to emit clucks as if she had chicks to supervise. Even more importantly, she stopped laying eggs. Since she must be fed, but produced nothing, she was either “broke” from setting or killed. Breaking a setting hen could be difficult. 

            “Go fetch me a dry shuck from th’ crib,” Miranda told Leamon. “Then ketch me thet thar settin’ hen.” 

            The woman tied the shuck to the long tail feathers of the squawking bird and tossed her to the ground. As she fled in indignation, the shuck dragged along the ground. It created a rustle that caused the hen to flee in panic at a noise whose source she couldn’t identify. When tired, she stopped. Her next move caused the frightening sound to start again. Caught in a cycle, the hen ran until she lay on the ground and panted in exhaustion. Her eyes seemed to turn white every few seconds as she flicked her protective third eyelid. 

            Miranda seldom laughed. Somehow, the hen’s dilemma struck her as funny. She laughed anew each time the hen struggled to her feet and renewed the alarming rustle of the shuck. When the cruel, but necessary purging ended, Miranda untied the shuck, but still chuckled quietly. Such moments of mirth were rare. 

Old South  (13th column)

By Elton Camp

 When Washday Was All Day

            Washday in the Old South was an entire day. Work began early and didn’t end until the middle of the afternoon. It was an arduous job that required family help, although the hardest work fell on Miranda.

            “Albert, Leamon. Build a far unner th’ pot,” Miranda directed. “Hit’s time t’ git started on th’ warshing.”

            Her sons trudged to the side yard where the weekly task was done. They laid a pile of wood within the circle of rocks and set it ablaze. The two lifted the pot atop the rocks and immediately filled it with water.  To add water to a hot pot could cause it to crack.  A newly lit fire didn’t produce intense heat. 

            While the boys worked, Bertha and Mamie moved the galvanized washtub from the back porch into the yard near the wash pot and filled it with spring water. When movement of the water in the wash pot showed it was about to boil, it was time for the clothes.

            “Maw, hit’s ’bout ready,” Bertha called loudly.

            Miranda emerged from the house with the family’s laundry. She added a few items at a time to the hot water. With a heavy stick, white from long use, she stirred the laundry and let it soak. Farm work resulted in very dirty clothes. When they’d boiled long enough to loosen the encrusted soil, she used the stick to fish out the articles one at a time. With her bare hands, she scrubbed them against the wooden rub board. It was difficult, unpleasant work. Skinned knuckles from striking its ridges always resulted. She made no change of expression as the hot water reddened her hands. Complaint would change nothing. She then rinsed the soapy articles in the cool water of the washtub.

            As the fire burned down, the boys cautiously shoved more wood underneath. The fire popped and sparked. If ashes flew into the wash pot, they’d dirty the clothes. When everything was soaked, rubbed, and rinsed, it was time to hang the laundry out to dry.

            When the wash pot cooled sufficiently to be touched, the two boys awkwardly lugged it to the porch and poured the still-warm water, bit at a time, onto its unpainted boards. Bertha and Mamie used homemade brooms to scrub the floor. Hot water was hard to come by–it couldn’t be wasted.  The cold rinse water from the washtub then served to flush the lye soap from the porch.

            The boys returned the wash pot to its customary place in the yard. It seemed light with the water gone. The girls leaned the empty washtub against the wall on the porch. It would serve for weekly baths. The rub board they hung on a peg by the door.

            The clothesline was strung along posts at the back of the house. That was the best location to prevent road dust from passing wagons and horses from settling on the damp laundry. Wooden clothespins held the items in place on the wire line. The sunshine and light summer breeze would take hours to do the job. In winter, clothes might freeze before they dried. If so, laundry day might extend into a second day. When dry, the clothes were hard and stiff, but had a clean, refreshing scent.

            Shirts, pants, aprons, underwear, sheets–everything in the laundry except rags–Miranda starched and ironed. She was fortunate enough to have two heavy, black, metal irons. On the top of each was the raised number six. She heated them on the top of the wooden cookstove. When the one she used became too cool, she returned it to reheat and ironed with its companion. Bertha sometimes helped, especially when the ironing continued into the next day.

            Brown lye soap was used to wash the clothes. Produced at home, it’s a story for another time.

Old South  (14th column)

By Elton Camp

 Lye soap was made at home

            People in rural Alabama never considered buying factory produced soap. Even if it happened to be available locally, such a purchase would be a waste of money as well as subjecting the family to community ridicule as lazy and “puttin’ on airs.” 

            Lye soap was used on washday, for dishes and for personal hygiene. Farm families made it themselves. It was entirely a natural product, free from the perfumes and oils found in many present-day bars of soap. Only two ingredients went into it: lard and lye. Lard was rendered and saved for the purpose at hog killing. Lye came from the ashes of wood stoves. The family dumped the cool ashes into a wooden bin outside and saved them for soap making. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that tobacco chewers and snuff dippers often spit into the fire. 

            “Bin’s gittin’ purty full,” Milas remarked. “Mirandey, best git th’ soap a goin’.” 

            He issued the decree and then moved on to other matters. The onerous task was her responsibility. 

.            “Mamie. Bertha. Y’u girls holp. I need t’ larn y’u how’t make soap anyways. One o’ these days y’all will b’ gettin’ hitched.”

            The girls had helped their mother with the process before, but repetition honed their skills. A time would come when they’d no longer have her guidance. The three poured bucket after bucket of water into the ashbin. When the liquid lye appeared, they siphoned it to mix with lard. 

            “B’ careful wif th’ lye,” Miranda cautioned. “If hit gits on yore skin, hit can cause a burn lest y’u wash hit rite off.”

          They combined the two ingredients in the wash pot over an open fire. The right concentration of the caustic lye was critical. Too much and the soap burned the skin. Too little and it would never harden. 

          “I heered thet ef y’u drap a aig in, an’ jest th’ tip shows, y’u got hit right,” Mamie speculated. Miranda made no reply to the old wives tale. She knew by long practice when the ratio was correct. It was needless to waste an egg.

             “Keep th’ far a goin’ an’ keep stirrin’ wif th’ paddle. Tell Albert I sed fer him t’ keep y’u  ’n wood.”

             The girls swung the wooden paddle back and forth and around in circles, watching as soap bubbles began to form on the top of the mixture. A slow chemical reaction was taking place that split the neutral fat of the lard so it could react with the lye from the ashes to form soap. The technical term is saponification, but rural people neither knew nor cared about such details. Only the end result interested them. 

 The girls’ arms and hands ached from the hard stirring. When the paddle stood straight up, the soap was ready to be poured into metal pans where it would dry and harden. 

             “How long’s hit gonna take?” Albert inquired. “We’s runnin’ short on soap ez tis. Y’u  girls hurry’t up.”

             The process couldn’t be rushed. Two to four weeks were required, depending on conditions. If a family ran out of soap, a neighbor usually had some to barter. 

             When the soap was ready, Miranda cut it into small bars for use. It was brown and, when dry, a bit crumbly. The soap emitted a pungent odor that could have been nauseating hadn’t she long ago become accustomed to it.

             The pot could be cleaned safely only after it had cooled. If water was poured into a hot pot, it might crack and be ruined. Since it already contained soap, water and a good scrubbing were all that were needed. 

             “Dry th’ inside real good ’n’ then coat hit wif som’ lard so hit won’t rust,” Miranda said. A properly cared for wash pot would last indefinitely even with frequent use. 

 Old South  (15th column)

 By Elton Camp

Corn was an important stape of life        

    Corn was a vital Alabama crop that fed both people and animals. It was easier to cultivate and harvest than cotton, but less valuable. 

            As the “roastin’ ears” reached maturity, Milas’ family gathered some for immediate use. His wife roasted them in the hot coals of the fireplace while still in the green shuck. Ears of corn are now boiled in water or even cooked in the microwave, but people in the South still refer to corn on the cob by its original name. 

            When the ear was done and opened, the eater pulled away the hot shuck to find a mass of steaming silks. An occasional worm lay dead between the rows. Butter rubbed over the kernels, plus a liberal sprinkle of salt, improved the taste. Yellow corn was generally sweeter compared to the more starchy white corn. In either case, it was far better tasting if only a short time intervened between gathering and eating. Sugar quickly turned into starch.

            Toothless old people were forced to cut off the kernels with a knife. Younger people bit them directly from the cob. Some chomped from end-to-end about four rows at a time. Other went all around one end like a beaver cuts a tree and then progressed to the opposite end in circles. Whatever the technique, the result was a bare cob to be tossed into the slop bucket. 

            One of the biggest perils of gathering roasting ears was a chance encounter with the fearsome packsaddle. That menace was the green larval form of an insect. A marking on its back that suggests a packsaddle was the origin of its name. Its color made it blend so well with the green blades of corn that it was easy to overlook. The larva’s projecting spines produce a violent sting. An encounter with one made the careless gatherer become far more cautious. 

            In the fall, when the stalks and shucks turned brown and dry, and the main corn harvest came, packsaddles were gone. The workers need then fear only snakes, wasps and yellow jackets. 

            “Hits time t’ start gittin’ ’n th’ corn, boys,” Milas instructed in late October. 

            The boys hitched the mule to the wagon. It lurched through the cornfield as they pulled the dried ears and tossed them inside where they clunked against the bare boards until the bottom was covered. Most of the crop would feed farm animals. A portion of it they took to the gristmill to be ground into cornmeal.

            Leamon, accompanied by Howard, pulled the wagon to a stop in front of Baker’s Grist Mill. It was located alongside a stream that supplied the power for its grindstones. A dam backed up a small pond alongside the building. The flume, a leaky, wooden trough, carried water to the top of a massive waterwheel. It creaked as it turned to generate the force needed to drive the belts and gears of the mill. The whole building had a pleasant, but dusty aroma of powdered corn.

            “Paw wants this corn ground,” Leamon stated. The boys had already shelled the grains from the cobs. 

            The miller poured the hard seed into a hopper that led to a chute. The corn fell into a hole in the center of the top millstone. Belts, pulleys, and gears rotated it above the stationary stone. A spout carried the ground corn into a container. No exchange of money took place. The owner of the gristmill collected his tithe to sell and sacked the remainder for the boys. The meal was used throughout the year, mainly to make cornbread. 

            “Y’all come back, boys, ’n’ tell Mile that I said howdy,” the miller called jovially as they loaded the sacks onto the wagon. 

            Far more important, and central to life in the Old South, was the cultivation, gathering and sale of cotton.

Old South  (16th column)

By Elton Camp

Alabama, the Cotton State

            The designation, Cotton State, was given for good reason. Cotton was the main source of income. Very few large antebellum plantations were located in North Alabama. Enslaved persons were uncommon because families did their own fieldwork. The “Black Belt,” a reference to the color of the soil of the Southern counties, was the location of most of the huge plantations with extensive slavery.

            Milas regularly examined the progress of his cotton patches. “Bloom air lookin’ purty good this yeer,” he reported to his wife. “We had ’nough rain. I jest holp hit keeps up.”

            Various factors influenced the degree of success in cotton farming. Without adequate moisture, the bolls would be small and not much cotton would be produced. Insects could cause damage. Such things were, in those days, beyond anybody’s control.

            Chopping and hoeing cotton were the most important tasks in cultivation. To help ensure a full stand, it was customary to plant more seed than could grow to maturity.

            Bertha, hoe in hand, stood near the start of a long row. Because of the over-planting, it was essential to thin the crop by chopping. At the same time, weeds that might sap the cotton were removed. The length of the rows and size of the field compared to her tiny hoe suggested a hopeless undertaking. Yet, along with the other family members, the laborious task would be accomplished. Bertha made a point of looking only at the immediate cluster of plants. The entire job was too monumental to contemplate.

            Hoeing the cotton took place several weeks later. No more cotton plants were to be cut down, but Johnson Grass, Jimson Weed, nut grass, cockleburs and additional nameless weeds had to be destroyed. If a weed sprang up too close to a cotton plant to be removed with the hoe, the cultivator had to pull it by hand.  

            “Leamon, y’u cut down sum o’ th’ cotton back thar,” Milas complained to his second son. “Thet ain’t good farmin’.” 

            In due time, the hard, green bolls appeared, increased in size and began to crack at the lines that marked them into sections. The slits gave glimpses of the firmly packed, damp cotton. The plants were far taller than those seen after the advent of mechanical cottonpickers. On good rows, they might be chest high.

            “Th’ cotton’s goin’ t’ b’ right t’ pick ’n a few days,” Milas informed his family. “B’ shore yore pick sacks is reddy.”

            Cotton sacks were one of the few items the family usually purchased ready-made in town. They were constructed of rough, durable ducking material. A strap from the open end went around the neck and over the shoulder of the picker. A black, tar-like substance coated the bottom of the sack so that it would withstand dragging over the abrasive soil. Pick sacks could be made at home, but those rarely lasted more than a single season. A quality, store-bought pick sack could be used for years.

            Sacks came in various sizes in proportion to the picker. Men generally used longer ones than women did. A child’s sack might be only four feet long. Fluffy cotton looked light, but the sacks became very heavy when fully filled and well packed. They had to be dragged to the wagon to be weighed if the pickers were unable to carry them.

            When the crop was ready for harvest, work began as early as feasible and continued as late as light permitted. On mornings with heavy dew, the start of work was delayed. Damp cotton was hard to handle. The weights were misleading because water was heavy. The shortening days might, during October, be compensated for by the “Harvest Moon.” The bright illumination, when the moon was full, permitted additional picking after supper. Next week, we’ll look in as the family begins the all-important harvest. 

Old South   (17th column)

By Elton Camp

The old cotton fields back home

            When the annual cotton picking commenced, it consumed the time and attention of the family to the exclusion of all else.

            “We’s goin’ t’ start cotton pickin’ tomorrew,” Milas stated. “We” didn’t include him, except as supervisor.

            The next day the family was in the patch early, hard at work with the hot, exhausting job. The weeks-long process normally began in September. Schools didn’t start until after its completion. Handpicking was done either crouched over or on one’s knees. The picker could choose between an aching back and sore knees.

            Mamie stood up and stretched. Two hours of intense picking put a goodly amount of cotton in her sack. A skilled gatherer, she used both hands at the same time. At each grab, she emptied the four or five compartments of the open bolls. She turned around, lifted the sack and with a couple of hard shakes, put the cotton toward the closed end. After a full day, her fingers became sore next to the cuticle from contact with the hard, sharp burrs. A bonnet and long sleeves protected her from serious sunburn.

            All family members who were old enough had to help with the harvest. If the cotton wasn’t in when the time came for school to start, Milas simply kept his children out until it was complete.

            Even Miranda was expected to share in the picking. When she had an infant, she pulled it along with her on the pick sack. If it became fussy, she’d stop to breast-feed it. The partly filled sack made a comfortable seat.

            “Hesh lettle baby, now don’t y’u cry,” she sang to comfort the infant. Soon it slept peacefully on the sack as she pulled it down the long rows.

            “Bertha, holp me ketch up,” she requested when her oldest daughter got almost out of sight.

            To stay together made for opportunity to talk. That way, the time seemed to go faster. Bertha dragged her sack into her mother’s row and picked back to meet her. The two could then start again at the same point in the parallel rows. They’d stay together until the baby once more had to be tended.

            “Howard, go fetch th’ water bucket,” Miranda called to the youngster who had been playing around the cotton wagon. “We’s ’bout t’ dry up ’n this heat.”

            The boy, too young to pick cotton effectively, sauntered to the house. He returned, struggling to carry a half-filled enamel bucket of spring water. The metal dipper served as drinking vessel for them all.

            “Thet shore iz good,” Leamon declared when he took a drink of the cool spring water.

            “Snake!  Snake!” Miranda called in alarm. “Albert, run t’ th’ barn ’n’ fetch th’ hoe. It’s gwine t’ bite som’body. Hurry.” 

            As the oldest boy raced to get the hoe, others in the family gathered around to watch the reptile. The king snake with bands of red, black, and yellow represented no danger. Nevertheless, it would die violently. Many country people had a deep and abiding fear of snakes. Albert shortly rushed up with the hoe.

            “Hear ’tis, maw,” he called out. “Want me t’ keel hit?” 

            She wasn’t about to entrust the important task to him. Without a word, she snatched the hoe and began to chop at the hapless serpent. It made an attempt to slither away, but the first blow cut deeply into its smooth, dry skin. Blood oozed out.

            “Git th’ head, maw,” Mamie encouraged. The snake was quickly dispatched, to the relief of all onlookers.

            “Take hit o’er t’ th’ road ’n’ thro’ hit en th’ ditch,” Miranda instructed. “But beware ’cause hit don’t die ’till th’ sun sets. An’ hits mate mought com’ lookin’ fer vengeance.” 

            The snake was an exciting diversion, but as soon as it was destroyed, the family returned to picking cotton.

Old South  (18th column)

Of snakes and watermelons

By Elton Camp

            As Milas’ family picked cotton, they discovered and killed a snake. Albert gingerly worked the limp snake around the blade of his hoe and took it to a ditch for disposal. He used the occasion to educate his younger brother.

            “Hit wuz a snake thet fooled Eve ’n thet garden, warn’t hit? Thet’s how sly they is. Al’ays stay ’way from ’em. Last week, I seed a hoop snake. Hit tuk hits tail ’n hits mouth an’ rolled down th’ hill t’ward the creek. Hit wuz outter site afore I kud blink twiste.” 

            Absurd myths about snakes were common among rural people who should’ve known better. To many of them, snakes had slimy skin, milked cows, chased people, and one, the coach whip, might beat to death an unwary victim. To persuade them otherwise was impossible. They either claimed to have seen it happen or knew somebody who had. Testimony of that type couldn’t be refuted.

            “I ’onst seed a glass snake.”Albert continued the error-filled education of his big-eyed smaller brother who hung on every word. “I slammed hit wif a stick ’n’ hit broke inta three pieces. Afore I kewd do no more, hit went back togither ’n’ off hit went fer th’ bushes.” 

            About ten thirty, Miranda took her baby and went to the house to fix dinner. Alabama people always called the middle meal “dinner,” never lunch. The evening meal was designated “supper.”  The family had started early and so ate only a light breakfast. They were hungry, tired, and thirsty. She prepared a simple, but nourishing, spread of vegetables and ham.

            “Dinner,” she hollered loudly from the side yard when the meal was ready. Uncertain whether anyone in the cotton patch could hear, she accompanied the call with loud ringing of the dinner bell mounted on a wooden post. The loud clangs immediately caught the attention of the weary workers. After eating, the family rested for nearly an hour before returning to the field to resume the all-important harvest.

            “I’d of hired som’ pickers, if I could of fount any,” Milas remarked to his wife. “Wif’ all th’ crops comin’ ’n at th’ same time, help’s sca’ce at best.”  How hard he’d tried, nobody but he knew. Milas found it hard to pay for work that could be done free.

            “Well, looky hear,” Albert exclaimed when he made an exciting discovery near the end of the row he was picking. “This’ll taste powerf’l good middl’ o’ th’ afternoon.” A watermelon vine had “volunteered” and bore a good size melon. The elongated shell of green with yellow flecks produced a hollow sound that announced it as ripe.

            Around three o’clock, the pickers gathered to share the welcome bonus. Albert used his pocketknife to make a split down the length of the melon. With a ripping sound, it broke into two pieces. The meat was bright red and heavily-studded with black seed. He divided the fruit into as many sections as people in the field. In the absence of utensils, each had to choose between biting directly into the juicy slice and breaking out hunks with unwashed fingers.

            The best part of the melon was the “heart” near the center. It had no seed and was the sweetest and juiciest. Below that was the section crowded with seed. Eaters had to take bites and spit out the hard, inedible seed. It was still good, but less so than the heart.

            Toward the rind was the least desirable part of the melon. It wasn’t as ripe and not as sweet. It was also harder to get without a spoon. Most of it they tossed aside to be enjoyed by honeybees and yellow jackets. Only so much watermelon could be eaten at once, and besides, Milas might appear at any moment to chastise them for wasting valuable picking time.

Old South  (19th column)

By Elton Camp

The  cotton crop is a success

            The brown mule pulled the wagon into the field to serve as a depository for cotton. Weighing was done and a record kept of each person’s success. Milas usually performed this chore since he was the family head and considered himself to be best at ciphering and writing. A spirit of competition prevailed among the pickers. The best ones took intense pride in their abilities. In good cotton, most adults could pick 200 pounds. A few of the faster ones could gather 300 pounds.

            “I’m a goin’ t’ weigh,” Mamie announced to nobody in particular.

            She’d packed her sack to the point that she couldn’t lift and carry it across her shoulder, so she dragged it to the wagon parked under a giant elm tree near the road. The mule was kept in the shade so it wouldn’t overheat. A valuable animal, its sickness or

            “Kin y’u weigh me ’n, paw?”

            The scale, a metal balance, hung from a horizontal limb. Milas attached the cotton sack to its hook and moved a metal “P” weight along the arm. The device had both large and small weights. Mamie was a skilled picker, so the larger one was required. He slid it along the scale until it showed the correct pounds. Milas carefully deducted the weight of the sack itself before making the entry. Accuracy was important for him to know when he had enough cotton for a bale. 

            Mamie smiled with satisfaction when he announced the number of pounds. She’d done well and several hours of picking time remained. She was proud of her ability. Few men could match her.

            When he wasn’t weighing, Milas came by to supervise. Sometimes he picked large double handfuls of cotton to stuff into one of his younger children’s sack. Youngsters picked less, according to size and ability.

            He inspected the row being picked by his eldest son. “Albert, yore leavin’ goose locks,” he charged. “Do better’n thet.”

            “Goose locks” were tufts of cotton a careless picker might leave in the bolls. Cotton must be picked clean. Every ounce was important to Milas. Money was involved.

            When the wagon was full, Milas drove it to the house. He had temporarily enclosed the front porch with tin to provide for dry storage of the crop before it was taken to the gin. The huge pile of cotton made a marvelous place to play for younger children. Some even slept there on cool nights. The insulating property of the cotton made for a warm, but lumpy, bed.

            Cotton gins are rarely seen today, but many operated in those days. It was no more than several miles to the nearest one. Farmers placed tall wooden sides onto the wagons so they’d contain more cotton without it falling out along the road. A border of white on the sides of the dirt roads leading to the gins showed that the restraints weren’t entirely successful.

            “Goin’ t’ th’ gin ’n th’ mornin’,” Milas told Leamon. “Y’u kin com’ ’long if y’u ker to.

            A big grin showed that he did want to go. It was enjoyable, in addition to providing exemption from cotton picking for most of the day. To accompany his father when he had an older brother was an unexpected treat. In truth, Milas was a bit embarrassed by Albert. No matter how much he cautioned him, the youth seldom remained far enough in the background not to be noticed.

            “Iz yore boy a lettle tetched ’n th’ haid?” was an inquiry that Milas disliked hearing. He never knew quite what response to make. Deep down, he suspected his oldest son’s problems might somehow be a manifestation of Divine displeasure with him. It was a discomforting thought.

Next time, we’ll accompany Milas and Leamon to the gin.

Old South  (20th column)

By Elton Camp

A trip to the cotton gin

            The haul to the gin began well before sunrise. The policy observed was that of first come, first served, so the farmers arrived early to avoid a long wait.

            Leamon lay atop the cotton in the back of the wagon. Before electric lights, the sky was inky black and studded with brilliant stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible. He stared into space, contemplating his place in the scheme of things. Milas saw only what was immediately of concern.

            “I seen a shootin’ star, Paw,” he called out. Before he could get the remark out, the streak of light disappeared. Milas made no reply. He concentrated on driving in the dim starlight.

            Despite their early start, many other wagons had arrived first. The line extended out of the gin yard and along the shoulder of the road. To help pass the time, two men in the wagon directly in front were engaged in a game of checkers.

            “I’m red,” one called out as they set up the checkerboard. The game continued for only a few moves before he called, “Y’u’ve got a jump.” 

            “Thanky,” the other player responded. He jumped his black checker over the red one and removed it from the board.

            “Thanky back,” the other man returned as he jumped two of the black checkers of his inattentive opponent. He’d claimed them and in the process didn’t open any of his pieces for a counter jump.

            “King me,” exclaimed whichever man managed to reach the opposite side of the board with one of his checkers. A king could move in any direction. The game continued until one man had captured all his opponent’s checkers.

            “Play ’gain,” the loser usually asked. Nobody liked to be defeated.

            “Stay wif th’ wagon, Leamon,” Milas instructed. “I’ll go o’er thar ’n’ play som’ horseshoes. Nary a one o’ thet bunch kin whup me.” 

            When the next game began, Milas was included. Teams were of two men. A coin flip determined that Joshua, one of his neighbors, would go first.

           Some horseshoes clanged against the stake. Others missed and came to rest on the ground around the post.

           “Got me uh leaner,” Joshua called. That meant a score of two points.

             On his first throw, Milas got a ringer, receiving three points for encircling the stake. The game continued with one point being awarded to the player whose horseshoe was closest to the stake if nobody scored otherwise.

            “Thet’s twenty-one. I win,” Milas crowed. He took pride in his horseshoe-throwing ability.

             As the game progressed, Leamon pulled the mule and wagon forward as the gin employees emptied the loads ahead of his. At length, it was his turn. Milas returned to watch.

             The gin workers used a flexible duct to pull the cotton from the wagon so that it could be put through the ginning process to remove the seed. The gin compacted the fluffy cotton, shaped it into a bale and covered it with brown burlap. It would then be ready for sale to a cotton buyer.

             “Extry good cotton this yeer,” Milas remarked to Hawkins, the buyer.

             “Let’s see whut y’u got heer,” he responded. He pulled a knife from his left pocket and cut through the burlap covering to get a sample of the cotton.

             Hawkins worked the sample between his fingers to ascertain the quality and length of the fibers. His discovery and the going market set the price. Milas knew him to be a fair man and accepted his offer.

             “Maw an’ them’s ’n th’ field. Git out thar an’ holp,” Milas ordered when they got home.  He had to weigh cotton picked during his absence. Leamon delayed as long as he dared before joining his siblings.   

             When cotton picking was complete, the family would have a welcome period of relative freedom from work as winter approached.

 Old South  (21st column)

 By Elton Camp

 Tragedy strikes the family

            Standards of responsible childrearing, including sex education, were far different from today in the Old South. Calves and piglets appeared with regularity. The parent’s casual comment went, “Th’ cow fount a calf.”  The remark was usually sufficient to fend off possibly embarrassing questions. Unless they happened to witness a birth, the idea went unquestioned by the children. Somehow, each ultimately learned the truth without parental help.

             When the expectant mother of a family began to experience labor pangs, the children were sent away to stay with relatives until after the birth. No reason was given beyond a family visit. They weren’t told to expect a baby brother or sister upon their return. The older ones eventually figured it out.

             “Maw’s gonna have a baby,” Leamon asserted knowingly to the other children.

             They were in a wagon on the way to an uncle’s house. He knew that it’d been about two years since the birth of Leon. Howard was six years old. Leamon had noted his mother’s expanding waistline. After covert consultation with an older pal, he affirmed his maturing concept of human reproduction. No longer could he be deceived.

             The older girls knew he was correct, but maintained an embarrassed silence. The younger children either ignored his conclusion or looked at him with pity for his ignorance. As with animals, the explanation had always been, “Yore maw fount a baby.”  They’d seen no reason to doubt it.

             Miranda, in the manner of rural women, hadn’t consulted a doctor. She received no prenatal care, special diet or precautions. Her life went on just as when she wasn’t pregnant. A granny midwife would assist with the home delivery.

             “Milas, send fer Miz Parsons,” she urged. “Hit won’t b’ long.” 

             The experienced older woman came promptly. Milas retreated to the front porch to wait for the appearance of his latest child. Five previous births had been uneventful. The disturbing sounds he heard this time, however, were unlike anything in his experience. Something surely must be seriously wrong. Yet, he made no move to comfort his wife. Birthing babies was women’s work. Milas took out his pocketknife and began to whittle on a length of wood. A pile of chips accumulated on the porch in front of the swing. A neighbor drove by in his wagon. The two exchanged raised hands in silent greeting.

             Miranda moaned in agony. The midwife tried in vain to reassure her. After a piercing scream, there was an ominous silence.

             Mrs. Parsons stepped from the house onto the porch. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mile, but Miranda didn’t make hit. Nor did th’ baby.” 

             Milas showed no emotion. “I thank y’u fer yore help, Grace.”

             The newly widowed man drove his mule and wagon to a neighbor who did carpenter work. “Jake, Mirandey died whil’ ’go,” he said. “I need y’u t’ make up a coffin.”

             The deal made, Milas drove the wagon to his brother’s house to pick up his motherless children. He gave no thought as to the best way to break the shocking news. Women sometimes died having babies. It was a part of life.

             When he called them to the wagon, he said bluntly, “Young uns, yore maw died.”  He offered no assurances or comfort beyond, “Hit wuz jest her time t’ go.” 

             The family climbed aboard for the trip home. For a bit there was only silence. The two younger children hadn’t comprehended the fearsome news. They began to laugh as they played with a shuck doll in the floor of the wagon.

             “Stop thet, boys,” Bertha ordered. “ Ere y’u deef?  Didn’t y’u heer whut paw sed?”

             The two older girls sobbed as the wagon jolted along the dirt road toward their home. Nothing would ever be the same again and they knew it. The two older boys said nothing. Boys weren’t allowed to cry.

 Old South  (22nd column)

 By Elton Camp

 A country funeral and burial

              Disaster had struck Milas’ family. Women in the community came to help prepare Miranda and her baby for burial. They dressed them and laid them in a coffin on a table in the front room. A black cloth covered the table. One of the ladies periodically bathed the corpses’ faces and hands. The rural custom of “settin’ up” all night with the body was followed. The family didn’t sleep. Friends dropped by to tell good things they recalled about Miranda. Neighbors considerately delivered food for the bereaved family. Because no embalming was done, burial had to take place the next day.

             The funeral service lasted nearly an hour. Despite being September, the temperature was in the upper eighties. The church was almost unbearably hot due to the blazing sun on its tin roof. The pews were hand-constructed of bare wood. Their seats had no cushions and the backs were angled forward a bit too much. The windows were raised, but no cooling breeze developed.

             The minister praised her as a faithful wife and mother. He quoted at length from Proverbs, chapter thirty-one, describing the characteristics of an ideal wife.

             “She wuz a fine Christian wom’n,” he said. “Even now she’s lookin’ down from heav’n. She’s seein’ us ez we com’ togither t’ honor her. Life eternal air herran.”

             Later, the parson offered an incongruous idea, “In th’ comin’ day of jedgment, our dear depart’d sister will rise from th’ grave ’long wif’ all th’ honored dead ’n Christ. Oh, what a glorious day that’ll be.” Nobody seemed to notice.

             “Yet, thar air here ’mong us sinners who has yet t’ b’ saved. Y’u sit thar smugly thinkin’ we don’t know who y’u air, but God knoweth. Y’u cannot deceive Him. Y’u trod th’ broad road thet leadeth into destruc’un. Damnation ’n hell, whar th’ worm dieth not ’n’ th’ far air not quenched, lays afore ye. Repent whil’ there b’ still time.”

             The minister’s voice became louder and more intense in his zeal to bring sinners to repentance. Veins stood out on his forehead. His face reddened. He mopped sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief. Cries of “Amen” rose from the congregation. That the service was a funeral, and not a revival, seemed to be momentarily forgotten. The preacher closed the service with a long prayer. In a final act of tribute, all present filed directly alongside the open casket at the front of the church. Several women paused to weep.

             Burial took place in a hand-dug grave near the center of the cemetery. To each side of the site were tiny graves that contained Miranda’s two other babies, one stillborn and one who had died at just a few weeks old. The just-born child was buried with her. For many years the site was marked only with a brown fieldstone.

             Bertha, as the oldest daughter, saw her duty and accepted it. She’d forego marriage to manage the household for her widowed father and his children. She didn’t discuss her decision with her father, but quietly moved into the role the next day. Meals must be cooked, clothes must be washed, ironing was required, the house had to be kept clean. Life had to go on.

             Milas made no comment. If he mourned his departed wife, it remained private. As in the past, he was often absent from home for hours. He wasn’t the one dead. He had important work to do.

             “How’s yore tradin’ comin’ ’long, paw?” Bertha asked one evening. She’d functioned as housekeeper, cook and caretaker of her siblings for slightly over a year and felt she had a right to be informed.

             “Bout ez usual.”

             Milas was a man of few words. He’d never discussed his business with Miranda, so it was certain that Bertha would learn nothing of it or of an impending change. 

 Old South  (23rd column)

 By Elton Camp

 Milas’ surprise announcement

           The family had no warning. Thirteen months after his wife’s death, Milas pulled into the yard in his wagon. With him, on the seat, was a poorly dressed young woman. A lean girl of six years sat between them.

            “This here’s Belle. We got hitched down at th’ courthouse today,” he announced to his children. 

            He’d waited the year that Southern rural custom demanded before remarrying. He was 44 years old. She estimated her age at the mid twenties. Belle didn’t know, and never learned, her exact age although she knew the month and day.

            “Yore older then y’u air good,” was the only reply her mother would make when Belle questioned her on the subject.

            She was likely only a few years older than Bertha, though she appeared considerably older. Her dress, sewn from feed sack material, was shabby and faded. She wore no shoes. A white bonnet covered her head. Its strings were tied in a loose bow under her chin. Her hands were tanned from long exposure to the sun.

            “This here’s her young un, Birdie Swearengin,” Milas continued. “Y’all make yore new maw welcome. Show her ’round th’ place.” 

            Bertha and Mamie were rendered speechless. The older boys feigned indifference. The younger ones were unconcerned and ran over to become acquainted with Birdie. It would be fun to have a new playmate about their age, even if she was a girl.

            “Com’on, Birdie. We’ll show y’u th’ hid’ out,” Howard invited. Leon jabbered with excitement as they dashed to the secret spot in the barn loft.

            Belle was a widow of a few months. Her husband had died of tuberculosis, leaving her in dire poverty along with her daughter. The extended illness and death of her mate forced Belle to eke out a living as best she could. An ox was all she had to pull the plow, but she strove mightily to fulfill her husband’s sharecropper agreement. Winter was approaching and the little she’d earned wasn’t sufficient to carry her through until spring. She didn’t know what to do.

            Milas had learned of her circumstances. About two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, he pulled into her yard. Belle sat on the edge of the front porch of her run-down dwelling. She watched his approach with interest, but said nothing until he spoke.

            “Afternoon, Miz Belle,” he said with only a trace of a smile. “Would y’u care t’ visit a spell?” 

            He didn’t identify himself, but Belle knew who he was. They’d never been introduced, but he was well known. She believed that she knew why he had come.

            “Why shore, Mr. Milas. Have a seat heer on th’ porch,” she invited. She gestured toward a cane-bottom chair. Since it was the only chair, she turned to face in his direction as he sat down.

            “No doubt y’u heered o’ th’ passin’ of my wife,” he commenced. “Hit’s left me in a consid’able bind, what wif som’ o’ th’ young’uns bein’ small.”

            “I heered ’bout hit an’ I’m powerful sorry. All sez yore wife wuz a fine woman,” she replied.

            Milas turned the conversation to the weather. The two chatted idly about the approaching winter for several minutes. Not one to continue to waste words, Milas got to the point.

            “I’m in need of a wife an’ hit’s plain thet y’u air ’n want of a husband. If y’u think well of hit, I kin pick up a license this afternoon an’ we kin git hitched tomorrew,” he suggested.

            “I reckon thet will b’ fine, Mr. Milas,” she answered.

            “Then I’ll com’ ’bout this time Friday,” he said as he rose to depart.

            That was all there was to it. Neither knew much about the other. “Love” was no consideration. It was an eminently practical arrangement for them both. But what would be the reaction of his daughters?

Old South  (24th column)

By Elton Camp

A tense situation develops

            Milas had remarried just over a year after Miranda’s death. When Belle arrived at his house, all she brought were the clothes she wore, a child and an old cast iron wash pot from her mother. Its legs were about burned off from decades of use.

            “Pleas’d t’ meet cha,” Belle spoke into the air as she avoided eye contact with any of Milas’ children who had appeared at the approach of their father’s wagon. “We’ll git ’long fine, I’m shore.”  Her words expressed more of a wish than a genuine expectation. She knew that she was certain to be resented.

            Belle climbed down from the wagon and glanced toward her new home. While a hovel by today’s standards, it was far better than where she’d been living. Milas was quite a catch even if he was older and had five children. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It wouldn’t be easy, but she’d take one day at a time. Suppertime was coming up. She’d start with that. Belle strode toward the front steps to exude an aura of confidence and to demonstrate that she was now in charge of the household. Belle eyed Bertha standing in the doorway with a rag in her hand. She quickened her pace and mounted the steps. Bertha stepped back so that she could enter. Belle clasped her hands in front of her to stop their slight tremor.

            Despite the tension introduced into the home by the unexpected appearance of Belle, things went tolerably well for about two weeks. Bertha reverted to the role of oldest daughter. She and Mamie often discussed their stepmother, but never in her hearing.

            “I don’t know whut paw seed ’n her,” Bertha confided to Mamie as they mended clothes. “She’s ugly ez a mud fence.” 

            The cruel simile was untrue. In fact, Belle was of moderately good looks. With grooming and better clothes, she’d have been acknowledged as pretty.  

            “Me neither,” Mamie agreed. “We shore don’t need her ’round heer.”

            Belle generally ignored the older boys. She left their discipline and work assignments to her husband. Albert and Leamon accepted her presence without apparent concern. Howard didn’t seem to know quite what to make of her.

            “Whut’s thet ole hag doing here?  When ez she goin’ home?” he asked Leamon. His sisters had influenced him in his view of Belle.

            Leamon, imitating his paw, only grunted. He had no intention of trying to explain such delicate matters to his younger brother.

            Because Leon was so young, Belle gave him special attention similar to the care she gave her own daughter. She felt compassion for the motherless child. In time, he’d forget Miranda, she thought. Despite multiple attempts, she couldn’t induce him to call her “maw.”  Bertha made sure of that.

            “She ain’t yore maw ’n’ don’t y’u fergit hit,” Bertha whispered insistently to Leon when their stepmother wasn’t in hearing distance. “Call her Belle.” 

            In the rural way, Belle laced all vegetables with generous dollops of brown bacon grease. She, however, cooked them down to a slimy, tasteless mush. The twang of too much salt only added to the misery.

            A confrontation between Bertha and Belle was inevitable. It didn’t come about cooking, but cleanliness.

            “Belle, I think hit’d b’ lots nicer if y’u warsh yore hands afore y’u make bread,” Bertha advised. Her stepmother had come directly from the barn and began to mix up the sticky dough.

            “Ye jest wait. I’ll tell yore paw ’bout this,” Belle stormed.

            She couldn’t let such an affront to her authority go unchallenged. She knew Bertha didn’t like her, but she’d gone too far.

            That night, Bertha heard Belle’s shrill voice as she made accusations, but Milas only listened. He declined to impose himself into a dispute between two women. They could work it out for themselves.

Old South  (25th column)

By Elton Camp

The only constant in life is change

            Within two weeks after having a serious falling-out with her stepmother, Bertha withdrew herself from what she regarded as an intolerable situation. She had no intention of being submissive to Belle.  Two unrelated adult women living in the same house seldom get along well. 

           “Thar ain’t no way I’m goin’ t’ let Belle mean-mouth me,” she said to Mamie.  “Even wif all I’ve done, Paw didn’t defend me t’ her. 

           “What else ez thar thet y’u can do?” Mamie asked. 

             It was a reasonable question.  At that time, single women in an agriculture-based economy had few career options.  To obtain and operate a farm without a husband had virtually no chance of success.  Yet, farming was all Bertha knew. It might have been possible to move to a city and find employment, but to leave the area of her birth was totally out-of-character. She’d never in her life been more than ten miles from home. 

           “I spect Embry’ll still b’ willing t’ have me,” she replied.

             Bertha had dismissed her suitor at her mother’s death, but they parted on cordial terms.  He respected the sense of duty that she felt toward her younger brothers. He had no serious prospects of marriage. After she sent him word, he quickly came calling. 

           Bertha followed her father into the yard as he prepared to make his daily rounds.  What she had to say was for him only. 

          “Paw, I’ll not b’ hare when y’u git back t’day,” Bertha advised.  “Me ’n’ Embry’s gitting hitched.  “Jest wanted y’u t’ know so’s y’u not larn hit from Belle.”  

          Milas was casually acquainted with Embry and hadn’t gotten along with him from the start.  They disagreed on everything from farming practices to religion.  A small, feisty man, Embry declined to cowtow to Milas in the manner that he’d come to expect. 

             “White’s a wuthless varmit,” her father responded.  “Don’t b’ comin’ t’ me fer help when he can’t make provision.” 

             “Thar ain’t no way I’d never do thet, paw,” she replied quietly.  “Me ’n’ Embry’ll make our own way.”

           Although she and her husband resided only a few miles away, it was over a decade before Bertha again set foot in her father’s home.  Milas had suffered a minor stroke. 

           “Y’all come in,” Belle invited when Bertha and Embry unexpectedly appeared at her door.  “Yore paw’s ’n th’ bedroom.  I allow he’ll be mighty glad to see you.”  Traditional Southern hospitality permitted no other sort of reception whatever differences they had. 

           Milas, too, received his daughter and her husband in a courteous manner, but was more restrained than Belle.  Beyond “Howdy, Embry,” he said nothing directly to him during the rest of the visit.  No emotional reconciliation took place between father and daughter then or ever.  Relations between the two couples remained strained throughout the remaining decades of their lives. 

           The spring after Bertha left, Mamie followed suit.  Although she didn’t like Belle, she’d developed a civil relationship with her after Bertha was no longer around to goad her against her stepmother.  But when tall, handsome Ude Gibson came courting, she too was wed. 

           Years later, she confided to her daughter, Vada, “I married mainly t’ git away from Belle.”

           Little more than nine months after entering the household, Belle presented Milas with the first of what would become, along with multiple miscarriages, four additional children. Bertha and Mamie only distantly came to know their half-siblings. 

            Within about two years, Albert married and began to cultivate a forty-acre farm financed with money lent by his father at six percent interest.

             Miranda’s youngest children weren’t of age to leave home.  A family of “his” “hers” and “theirs” functioned as smoothly as could be expected.  Little time existed for friction to develop.  Their lives were filled with daily activities, school and especially work.

 Old South  (26th column)

 By Elton Camp

Reading, writing and arithmetic

             Milas, like most rural Alabama family heads, saw value in education. He wanted his children to attend school as long as it didn’t unduly take them from their work in the field. They could learn or not as they chose and need not expect help from him. 

             Schools of that time were far different from today. Boys always sat on one side of the room and girls on the other. Punishments were immediate and for various reasons. The teacher used a small, flat stick to hit the palms or knuckles of any student who didn’t listen, answered incorrectly or misbehaved. More severe misconduct brought whacks of a heavy, wooden paddle across the rear. As a punishment for talking during lessons, a boy might be forced to sit on the girls’ side or a girl on the boys’ side. It was a significant embarrassment.

             “Paw, th’ teach’r whopped me t’day ’n’ I warn’t doin’ nothin,’ complained a scholar when he reached home.

             The usual reaction was “No dou’t y’u needed hit. Heer’s ’nother un t’ go wif hit.” 

             The parent took the complainer to the woodshed for more whacks. The punished child was in trouble, not the teacher. Although they were poorly paid, the parents generally respected the teachers and their decisions went unquestioned.

             Lessons included reading, spelling, math and science. Penmanship was emphasized. Slates with chalk were reusable and so substituted for costly paper and pencil. Homework was seldom assigned. Children had chores to do when they got home.

             Friday afternoon usually brought a spelling bee. Competing teams, often boys against girls, stood at opposite sides of the room. Anyone who misspelled a word had to sit down. Finally it got down to one on a side. Back and forth flew the words until one student emerged victorious.

             Only Albert had failed to learn. His schooling ended during Miranda’s lifetime. With little comprehension and increasing frustration, he attended through the third grade. He never managed to read or write. Mathematics also eluded his grasp.

             He came to love western adventure novels, but had to depend upon someone else to read them to him. Howard recalled, “When I read to him from Zane Grey, his face showed the most intense excitement. It was completely real to him. Albert never got enough and would’ve listened for hours if I’d been willing.”

             “Mr. Milas,” the teacher at the one-room school had explained, “Somethin’s not jest right wif’ Albert. I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything I kin do t’ help.”

             “Special education” might have benefited him, but such provision lay decades in the future. He had little prospect beyond a lifetime of manual labor and poverty. So it proved to be.

             As an adult, Albert developed a different explanation that spared him humiliation. He related it with anger anytime he could get a family member to listen.  

             “Paw made me drap outer school so’s he could do fer th’ y’nger uns. I never got a chanct t’ get a education. Hit ain’t my fault. Hit ain’t fare.”

             Bertha and Mamie, both capable learners, went through the sixth grade which adequately equipped them with the necessary skills of “readin’, ’ritin’, an’ ’rithmetic.”  Bertha had inherited her father’s business ability. Mamie was a hard worker at home.

             As long as the family lived in the country and farmed, the day began shortly after dawn. The children “did th’ thangs,” as chores were described, attended school, and returned for more work around home.

             “Git on t’ school every day lest I tell y’u different,” Milas ordered.

             No school bus came for the students. A few years after Belle came into the family, Milas began to buy cars, but not to drive children to school. Youngsters walked, hot or cold, rain, or shine. As we will see, the buildings and learning conditions were in keeping with simpler times. 

 Old South (27th column)

 By Elton Camp

 Dear old Golden Rule days

             On the worst days, rural Alabama children had quite a task reaching school. When they arrived, they faced primitive conditions.

             “Do we half t’ go t’ school t’day, Paw?” Howard whined.

             Heavy clouds made the day dark and gloomy. Rain rocketed to the earth. Trees bent in response to the strong south wind. The roadbed was ankle-deep in soft, slick mud. Ditches overflowed to leave only a narrow path in places. Low spots in the road were knee deep in murky, brown water. A rain of “forty days and forty nights” seemed possible to the younger children.

             “Git on ’n’ don’t b’ late,” he responded.

             Leamon had begun to make a determined effort to avoid use of the country words and expressions of his upbringing. The southern mountain dialect had its roots in the Elizabethan period in England. The Anglo-Saxon background of many people in North Alabama meant that their use of words and pronunciation possibly represented a more “pure” version of English; yet, it wasn’t “standard” English. Leamon meant to rise above his origins. As they matured, all in the family slowly abandoned much of the dialect.

             Heavy snow didn’t fall frequently in Alabama, but when it did, schoolchildren faced a challenge. Rural schools never dismissed because of weather. Slipping and sliding, off went Milas’ brood to school.

             “Hey, Leamon, look here,” Howard called out mischievously. His older brother turned just in time to receive a wet snowball in his face.

             “Wait ‘til I get my hands on you. I’ll make you sorry.”

             “I ain’t afeared o’ you.” 

             The younger boy ran ahead to stay out of range of his stronger brother. He saw no reason to invite retaliation by making himself too easily available.

             Birdie was usually exempt from any roughhousing. She might tell on them and then there’d be the devil to pay. They didn’t want to face Belle’s wrath.

             The schoolhouse had four classrooms. The floors were plank and oiled rather than painted. Each room had a cloakroom at the back with an entrance at each end. In the past, boys had used one door and girls the other. That custom had fallen into disuse. The small room was where the children stored coats not needed on a particular day, as well as their syrup buckets that served as dinner pails. Nails driven into the cloakroom wall substituted for hooks. A shelf above the nails was for storage of the dinner pails. A blackboard, with chalk tray, ran across the front of the room. Two outhouses stood well into the woods behind the school. One was for boys and the other for girls. Both reeked of excrement.

             Water was obtained from a hand-dug well in front of the school. It had a frame with a hinged top covering it. A roof provided additional protection. A windlass with rope was used to lower and raise a bucket. As one of the older boys, Leamon often drew the water.

             A pot-bellied wood stove stood in the center of each classroom. Firing them was the duty of each of the teachers. Neither janitor nor principal were provided. Instructors arrived early enough to have a roaring fire going by the time the children appeared. With total lack of insulation and drafty windows, the heat was ineffective beyond about ten feet all around the stove. Children sitting too close to the stove burned up; those too far away froze. On really cold days, the water might freeze in the water bucket. The older boys kept wood brought in throughout the day. Whatever winter garments the children had, they often wore all day. After several hours, the stoves would glow red, but it was too late to do much good.

             Of the four teachers, Miss Gunnels was, by far, the most capable. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, she had a particularly bad experience.

 Old South  (28th column)

 Equal rights for women?

 By Elton Camp

             With two grades to a room, the school Milas’ children attended went through the eighth grade. Three of the teachers were men. The other, Miss Gunnels, was a thirty-something spinster who’d lived in the community all her life.

             “Bless her heart, she’s so stuck on learning thet nobody kin stand her,” one lady in the community commented to another. The most horrible things could be said by one woman about another as long as the slander was preceded by the canceling expression, “Bless her heart.”

             Miss Gunnels was discharged from her position that year. Although paid by the state of Alabama, she served at the pleasure of local trustees. These were drawn from the more prominent men in the community who reflected local values.

             Miss Gunnels unfolded a note handed to her by the son of Gordie Buchman, chairman of the trustees. Despite its child-like printing, the message caused her to pale. She had been summonsed to a meeting with the trustees after school that very day. Never in her ten years at the school had that happened.

             The four men gathered on the school porch shortly before the end of the school day. Gordie’s son spotted them. His grin and knowing look told the teacher that he had inside information. She saw him whisper something to one of his pals. They both laughed.

             As the children rushed out of the classroom, the teacher quickly touched up her hair. Since it was straight and fell loosely near her collar, there was little she need do. Her plain blouse and skirt were clean. Having pride in her appearance, she hadn’t let herself go like so many women in the community, but weighed little more than when she’d finished with honors at the secondary school. Teachers of that period didn’t need a college degree.

             “Won’t you have a seat, gentlemen?” she invited.

             She gestured toward cane-bottom ladder chairs. The men sat down. Gordie shifted his feet toward the sides of the chair, cleared his throat, and glanced at his companions before proceeding.

             “Ruth, guess y’u know why we’s here,” he began.

             “I have an idea,” she replied.

             She made eye contact with him and then with each member of the board of trust. Each dropped his eyes at her gaze.

             “Y’u been seen goin’ out wif’ thet traveling salesman ’gain. Last Sattiday, y’all warnt back t’ yore place ’til atter ten. Thet ain’t settin’ a prop’r ’xampl’ fer our youn’ uns. I had my wife warn y’u  ’bout hit last month. Seems y’u don’t ker whut we think.”

             “Mr. Buchman, what I do outside of school is no concern of yours.”  Carefully enunciating each word, she spoke slowly and deliberately. Her eyes flashed with indignation.

             “We sez ’tis, Miss Ruth,” another of the trustees retorted.

             He looked to his comrades for support. They nodded and grunted in agreement. One bit off a wad of tobacco and began to chew it.

             “Air y’u plannin’ t’ wed him?” Gordie demanded.

             “I may if he asks me.” A flush came to her cheeks.

             “Then you’ll b’ givin’ up yore job,” Gordie said with finality.

             “The men who teach here are all married as are you trustees. Have I not the same right?”

             “Married wimmin oughten t’ b’ workin’ ’way from home,” Gordie declared. “Wif th’ way y’u think, tis best y’u jest depart now. We all think thet. Ain’t thet right, boys?” 

            The men murmured and nodded in agreement. The tobacco chewer spit in the direction of the stove.

            “But the children. What will they do?  There are still two months left in the school term,” she protested.

            Gordie looked up. “My sister has a girl who needs a teachin’ job. She kin take over.”

            “Oh, so that’s it,” Miss Gunnels almost whispered. There was no appeal.  She’d have to leave.  There was no tenure law. 

Old South  (29th column)

 By Elton Camp

Gordie reaps the whirlwind 

            On the way home, Leamon walked along with Gordie’s son. “What’s your paw doing at school today?” 

             “He aims t’ git th’ teacher fired,” the boy reported with a conspiratorial tone. “He sez he knows jest how t’ do hit.” 

             Leamon liked the teacher. She had opened new ideas for him, even lending him some of her books and working with him after school. He discussed the injustice with John, a pal of his who lived on the Brock Place, about a mile from his home.

               “Something needs to be done about Gordie,” he urged. “You like Miss Gunnels too. Want to help me pay him back?”

             “I’d like t’, but I don’t see much we kin do. Th’ word o’ th’ trustees a’ways stands.”

             “We can’t stop him from running her off, but we can throw a scare into him,” Leamon responded. “I have a plan.”

             The two boys searched in John’s barn until they found an empty syrup bucket. Leamon worked the handle loose from the sides and discarded it. He wiped out a thick layer of dust.

             “This’ll do fine. See if you can get a piece of string and some beeswax.”

             While John was hunting the items, Leamon picked up a small nail and drove it through the center of the bottom of the syrup bucket.

             “Heer they ez,” John said. He handed the two items to his fellow schemer. “Whut y’u gwine t’ do wif ‘em?”

             “I’m making a dumb bull.”

             Leamon inserted the string through the hole in the bottom of the syrup bucket, tied it to the nail, coated it with the beeswax and gave a tentative pull. The device emitted a horrible sound like a moan.

             Around midnight, the two boys slipped out of bed and worked their way into position about fifty yards behind Gordie’s house.

             “This ought to be a good place,” Leamon whispered. Gordie was superstitious and poorly informed even in country matters. A man like him was easily frightened.

             Leamon pulled his hand slowly down the length of the string. The dumb bull produced a low moan. He made the next pull harder. The sound was louder. By stopping and starting and varying the speed of the pull, he was able to create a frightening series of sounds.

             “Look. They’s ’wake,” John whispered.

             The dim glow of a kerosene lamp from one of the windows showed that the ruse was working. Gordie opened the back door and stepped out onto the porch.

             “Whut’s thet thar sound? Hit goes like a wild anim’l o’ sum kind.”

             Leamon handed the device to John, who added his own variations to the voice of the dumb bull. Both boys struggled to stifle laughter.

             “Ma’be y’u better go down thar ’n’ check, Gordie,” his wife drawled as she joined him on the back porch.

             “I ain’t goin’ nowhars nigh sich a thang. Hit mought be a panther or even the dev’l hisself.

             At school the next day, they learned that Gordie had closed and nailed the shutters all around his house. That afternoon, Leamon overheard him talking to a group of men at Simps’ Store.

             “Hit wuz horribl’ ez cud b.’ His voice quivered with fear. “I tho’ght shore we uns wuz don’ fer. Hit squall’d and wail’d ’n’ com’ rat up t’ th’ hous’ en scratch’d ’n’ tore agin’ th’ walls. I though’ shore et wuz gonna force ’n’ one o’ th’ winders. We could a been kilt.”

             Leamon smiled with satisfaction. The plot had worked better than he’d dared hope. He’d never tell about it and hoped that John wouldn’t. The situation wasn’t changed for the teacher, but Gordie didn’t go completely unpunished for his treachery.

             Miss Gunnels married a week after leaving the school. She and her husband moved to Birmingham. Few in the community knew or cared what became of her.

Old South 

By Elton Camp

Childhood days of fun

          Country life was by no means grim. When not working or in school, rural children enjoyed toys, games and other childhood adventures. Few toys were bought; instead, they were made or improvised from what was available on the farm. 

             Youngsters played with metal hoops that came from barrels or worn-out buggy wheels. A child started a hoop rolling and ran alongside with a stick to keep it going in as straight a line as possible. Hoops tended to wobble, go to the side or fall over. It was great fun.

             Playing marbles was strictly for boys. The marbles were spectacular and came in various colors: red, blue, green, swirled and clear. For many, the most treasured were the clear, one of which often served as the shooter, called the “toy.” 

             “Here’s a good place t’ play,” Ollie declared to his companions.

             The boy scratched a circle with a diameter of about two feet into an area of level, bare dirt. It was the right kind of place–hard, not too sandy. Marbles wouldn’t roll in soft soil. The boys put in equal numbers of marbles, bunched near the center.

             Ollie made a straight mark on the ground and another a few feet from it. The boys gathered behind the second mark.

             “Whoever lands closest t’ th’ line gits t’ go fust,” Ollie declared. After each had made his toss, the order of play was established.

             Using his favorite toy, each boy thumped it with his thumb toward the marbles. If they were playing “keepers,” any knocked outside the circumference would become his. Playing “keepers” was often considered to be wrong and might even be forbidden by parents. “Funsies” meant each boy recovered his marbles at the end of the game. A boy could continue to shoot as long as he knocked at least one marble outside the ring. If not, it became the turn of the next player.

             If a boy did particularly well with his toy, he came into a position to make a sly deal. “I’ll trade my toy for ten o’ yore marbles,” he offered. Apparently believing the toy had special powers, some gullible boy might snap up the trade.

             “No fudgin’ ’lowed,” warned any boy who saw that his competitor was coming too close to the edge of the circle when it was his time to shoot.  Cheating wasn’t permitted.

             A simple string could serve as a plaything. It cost nothing, but provided hours of challenge and entertainment.

             “Larn me how t’ make a crow’s foot,” Ailene requested. Her half-brother Leon had acquired the skill from Mamie.

             “Y’u do hit like this,” he commenced.

             He tied a knot to join the ends of the about eighteen inch long string. On both sides, Leon placed one end over his thumb, across his palm and over his little finger. Reaching across with his middle finger, he pulled the string from the center of his palm and over the finger. After several more manipulations, he let the string slide off both thumbs at the same time. When he pulled his hands apart to tighten the string, the crow’s foot appeared from what had looked like a tangled mass of twine.

             “Let me try,” Ailene insisted. It didn’t work for her. “Show me ’gain, but don’t go s’ fast this tim’.

             Leon repeated the process, but made sure to do it with enough speed that it was hard to follow. He was unwilling for too many to know the secret. The ability made him feel important.

             A more complicated string game produced a “Jacob’s Ladder.”  It had so many steps that few other than Mamie herself were able to reliably produce the intricate design.

The Old South

By Elton Camp

Swimming and Fishing

            Boys from the neighboring farm came by on Saturday afternoon.  “Let’s go swim at th’ Jolley Mill Pond,” they invited Milas’s sons.  The invitation was for boys only.  Nobody had swimming suits. 

            The Jolly Mill Pond had been the local swimming hole since the mill itself had gone out of operation years ago.  A concrete dam and crumbling building with the ghost of a water wheel were all that remained.  It was well out of sight of the road.  Overgrown bushes and trees provided the requisite privacy for the swimmers. 

             Some of the older boys had attached a heavy rope from a limb near the bank of the pond.  It was an exciting place to swing and drop into the water with a splash. 

             “I seen a cottonmouth jest now,” one of the boys warned his companions.  “Better b’war’.”

             “I ain’t worri’d,” another replied.  “Ev’rybody knows thet snakes can’t bite unner water.” 

             Taking comfort from the myth, the boys continued to swim and dive into the murky water of the pond.  The splashing and shouting were the factors that provided protection by driving away the snakes.  Nevertheless, their failure to be bitten perpetuated the false belief. 

             Country children, and many adults, enjoyed fishing.  Only the most basic equipment was needed.  The pole was cut from river cane if available.  If not, any thin, but relatively strong, limb could be pressed into service. Bait was procured locally. 

            “I’ll dig th’ worms,” Howard volunteered, “while th’ rest of y’u gather up th’ poles. 

             Down by the barn was his favorite spot for digging fishing worms.  He repeatedly pushed the shovel into the soft soil and turned the dirt.  Before the wiggling, slimy red worms could dig out of sight, he collected a bunch of them into a can with a little damp dirt. 

             Cutting through the woods, they worked their way down to Slab Creek.  In places it was easily possible to wade to the opposite side.  The clear water at such shallow places made the bottom readily visible. No fish were to be caught there.  The places sought by the children were the deeper ones, especially upstream from a fallen log.  The water was murky and still.  That’s were they snared the small bream that cooked up so nicely. 

             “Don’t be hollering and stomping,” Leamon directed.  “You’ll scare away the fish.”

             The bait can showed only dirt.  The worms had gone to the bottom.  They must not dry out.  Leamon dumped the can onto the ground.  This revealed the tangled mass of worms.  Each child pulled out a wiggling worm.  He returned the worms and dirt to the can so they’d be ready when it was necessary to rebait the hooks. 

             “Bait mine fer, me?” Iduma asked. 

             “You know how.  Do it yourself,” Leamon replied.

             “They’s so nasty.  Leastwise, do th’ fust one fer me.”

             Beginning near one end, he forced the hook lengthwise through the center of the worm’s body for a short distance.  A thick, yellowish fluid oozed from the point of entry.  The barb emerged from the body wall.  Leamon pushed the hooked part of the worm back from the point and attempted to repeat the process.  The worm stretched its body long and thin in a futile attempt to avoid the hook.  A feast that could tempt only a fish soon concealed the hook. 

             Leamon handed to pole to his sister.  As inconspicuously as possible, he rinsed his soiled fingers in the creek.  A rank stench remained despite his efforts.  He wasn’t fond of baiting hooks either. 

             Iduma raised her pole at a sharp angle so the line wouldn’t become entangled in the bushes that lined the creek.  She slowly lowered the baited hook into a promising spot near the log.  For a while nothing happened. 

             “I feel a nibbl’,” she whispered. 

             After a couple of tentative bites by the fish, it swallowed the bait along with the hook.  Her line went tight.  Iduma lifted her pole and lifted the small bream from the water.  It shifted its muscular body from side to side, but escape was impossible.  The young girl reached out to unhook the fish and transfer it to the stringer. 

            “B’ware th’ fins,” Howard cautioned. 

             The warning was well made.  The fish extended its dorsal fin upward to expose its sharp spines.  A careless fisherman could get a painful jab. 

             “Start from th’ haid ’n’ slide yore hand t’ push th’ fin down,” he recommended. 

             The fish was soon on an improvised stringer, a piece of strong cord inserted into the mouth and underneath the gill cover.  It allowed the fish to continue to take in oxygen while being unable to dart away.  As the children caught more fish, they added them to the stringer until the youngsters judged that they had “a mess.”  The term meant enough to feed the entire family one time.  It was useless to catch more fish than could be used immediately.  No way was available to preserve them.  It was time to go home.  Fish was a welcome supplement to their usual diet of pork and chicken. 

             Everyone had caught some fish, although Leamon snared the most.  He also caught an edible terrapin–a soft-shelled turtle. 

             “Stay ‘way from hit.  Ef hit bites ye, hit won’t let go ‘till hit thunders,” Albert declared. 

             “Enny luck fishin’?” Belle asked Ailene as she entered the house. 

             “We caught a big string o’ ‘em ’n’ a terrapin, maw,” she said with excitement.  “Com’ ’n’ see.”

             It became the job of the boys to clean the fish.  They scaled them with a knife, slit them open, removed the internal organs, and cut off the heads.  They also sliced off the head of theterrapin, allowed it to bleed, and removed as much edible meat as they could.  It was a messy job, but they’d be well rewarded at suppertime. 

             Belle also cooked up a mess of hush puppies.  She combined cornmeal, flour, and onion.  To that she added milk. eggs, and melted lard.  She made balls of the mixture and dropped them into hot grease where they sizzled as they sank.  When they turned brown and rose to the surface, they were done.  The aroma, combined with the frying fish, was intoxicating to the hungry children.  Even Milas came into the kitchen for a look. 

           Next time, we’ll accompany the family to a cemetery decoration, one of the most important days of the year. 

Old South 


By Elton Camp

 Decoration day at a rural cemetery

             Most cemeteries were on the grounds of a church. Each had an annual “decoration day.” It was a time to bring flowers for family graves and to visit with relatives that might be seen only on that occasion.

           Milas and his family went to decoration at Rock Springs where his father, mother, first wife and an assortment of other relatives were buried.

             About two weeks ahead, the community gathered to clean the graveyard. Hoes and brush brooms in hand, they chopped away every trace of vegetation and then swept it thoroughly.

             Visitors arrived early and stood in small groups amidst a sea of freshly cut flowers. It was a social occasion as well as a time to mourn the departed.

             “I ain’t seen y’u since dec’ration last yeer. How’re y’u doin’? Whar’s yore wife?  How ’bout yore kids?”

             “How’s Cousin Bessie farin’? I heerd she wuz feelin’ poorly. I shore hope she’s mended.” 

             “Did y’u see how Mary Lou ez dressed? I can’t believe she wore somethin’ like thet t’ decoration, can y’u?”

             “Y’all com’ t’ see us next time y’u pass our way. We’s most always at home.”

             “Did y’u see them flowers they put on Hirman’s grave? Seems they’d have more care fer him than thet.” 

             “Gained a sight of weight since last year, ain’t y’u?” 

             “Thet dress shore ez pretty. Did y’u make hit yoreself? I wish I kud sew like thet.”

             “Maw, I’m ’bout to give out from this heat,” a small boy complained. “Can’t I set down sommers?” His shirt was tightly stuck to his skin with sweat.

             “Thar ain’t no whar to set. Jest stand heer wif me. We’ll be goin’ bye and bye, soon as we see ever’body.”     

             “Can’t I set thar?” he persisted as he pointed to the flat top of a newer granite monument.

             “Ain’t y’u got no respect fer th’ dead? Never set on nobody’s tomb, nor walk on thar grave neither. Behave yoreself  ’r’ yore gonna b’ sorry when we git home.” 

             Most of the markers were erect, brown stones from the fields. The better ones cut to a sharp point. Shallow lettering, scratched into the surface, provided basic information as to name, birth and death. A few added sentiments such as “With Jesus,” “There Is No Death,” or the simple “RIP.” 

             Milas strolled among the graves while Belle chatted with her sister, Rachel. Near the center of the graveyard, he paused at the foot of his father’s grave, Wilton George Washington Columbus Camp. The date of birth showed 1838 and the death 1910. He was a soldier in the Civil War. His multiple names paid homage to United States history. Milas remembered him well, but not with fondness. Buried alongside was his mother who had lived until 1917.

             A few feet away lay the grave of his first wife Miranda and their unnamed infant. Milas stood beside it, his head slightly bowed and his eyes closed. His thoughts were his own.

            “Milas, I wish y’u’d co’sider puttin’ a mo’ fittin’ marker on her grave,” Belle suggested. “Thet field rock looks terrible bad.”

             Her visit with Rachel concluded, she had eased beside her husband and attempted to slide her hand inside his. He abruptly turned and strode away briskly without making a reply. Two years later, however, he erected a quality white stone marker.

             “I guess none o’ this uns family ez comin’. Hit’s jest too sad t’ see a grave bare like thet,” an older woman said. She removed a single red rose from her brother’s grave and placed it on the ground in front of the headstone.

             The fragile decorations would last but a single day in the scorching sun. Artificial flowers weren’t available. Still, they’d done their duty to honor the dead. It made them feel better. 

 Old South 

 By Elton Camp

Brother Roberts’ Traveling Salvation Show

            An exciting event in rural Alabama life was the arrival of a traveling preacher for a tent meeting. Many of those men sincerely wanted to help people. A few had other motives.

            Brother Roberts represented no particular denomination. An open pasture was his preferred location. The preacher and his crew arrived the day before he intended to commence services. The men staked their large white tent and pulled it up into position. Underneath, they placed as many rows of folding chairs as they could squeeze into the limited space. A wooden platform, about a foot high, served as a pulpit. The preacher brought his own small band. Music was an important part of the service.

             “Free. No admission charged,” read the banner erected near the road. Wagons, buggies and horses began to arrive about an hour before the scheduled beginning. Most were dressed casually, not in their “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes. They talked excitedly among themselves. Children ran and played in the pasture beyond the tent.

             Brother Roberts observed to one of his assistants, “Peopl’ seem t’ b’ freerer to except whut they need from th’ Lawd ef they don’t half to worry how they dress ’r act.” 

             The band struck up a lively tune, “Turkey in the Straw.”  Then it switched to gospel music to set the right tone for what was to follow. A hush fell. All eyes were on Brother Roberts as he walked briskly to the stage.

             “Brethren and Sistern, we’s heer t’ have a joyful time ez we praise the holy name o’ Jesus,” he shouted as he raised his hands toward heaven. A rapturous smile spread across his face. “Ain’t thet right good people?”

             Cries of “Amen” came from the audience. The ladies began swish paper fans with thin wooden handles. They had pictures of angels on one side and an advertisement for L.W. Bryant General Merchandise on the other.

             Roberts delivered a long, impassioned prayer while the audience stood with heads bowed and eyes shut. It ended, “Come, Lord Jesus, Amen.”  All but he sat down.

             The man began his sermon by describing his own conversion and calling to be an evangelist. He boasted that he’d brought salvation and assurance of a place in heaven to hundreds of sinners. True believers could expect tongue talking, healings and other workings of the Holy Ghost. He claimed to have no set sermon, but to be led by the spirit to say the right things. Any who didn’t believe his utterances, he assured his audience, must expect eternal damnation.

             “Their wuz a rich man,” he continued. “He didn’t ker nothin’ fer th’ pore folk ere fer whut wuz right. One day he died ’n’ wuz carri’d off t’ b’ wif th’ de’vil t’ live in hellfar. Then he wish’d he’d bin more gener’us wif his money, but hit war too late.”

             Although the tent revival had been advertised as “free,” he went on to tell how desperately funds were needed to carry on his ministry. It was the first of several such appeals. By the end of the service, he virtually demanded what he called love offerings. 

             “The Lawd says that the tenth part’s hissin. Ef ye don’t give th’ tithe, ye air stealin’ from God. “Bring in the tenth, says He.”  His assistants passed the collection plate several times during the evening.

Old South  


By Elton Camp

Albert’s reluctant visit

          Home to many sincere people, North Alabama had a variety of religions with an abundance of meeting places, often within a few miles of one another. New churches were formed easily. If a group in an existing congregation decided they didn’t like some aspect of its doctrine or practice, they pulled out, obtained a building and went into operation.

            Although the “official” religion of Milas’ family was Baptist, he didn’t forbid his children to attend meetings of other denominations. On one occasion, this led to a memorable experience for Albert, one he never tired of relating, even decades later.

            Joshua, a teenager about Albert’s age, began to insistently urge him to attend the Saturday services of his church.

            “We follow th’ Scriptures ’n a way thet nobody else does. The others ez afeared t’ follow th’ true teaching’ o’ th’ Lord. Y’u should come ’n’ see fer yoreself.”

            For a time, Albert resisted the invitation. “They’s pore as Job’s turkey,” he thought. All his friends went to Mt. Olive, a far nicer looking church.

            Due to the boy’s persistence, his resolve faded. “Reckon I’ll go wif y’u next time.”  

            The shabby, unpainted structure was located well off the road in a scope of pine trees. It had once been a barn, but the group had improved it enough to use for religious services.

            Albert swallowed hard several times as he approached the building with his pal. He recalled mocking comments his brothers had made about the group. A tic began to affect the muscles of his left eye. He took a deep breath and marched on. It was too late to back out.

            A crudely hand-lettered sign read “Church of God With Signs Following.”  It listed the name of the pastor, Brother Milton Fergis, and the time of the weekly meeting. Albert wasn’t able to make out more than a couple of words, but “Church” and “God” made him feel that it was going to be all right to go there.

            The interior of the ramshackle building showed an attempt to make it more suitable as a place of worship. The walls had been lightened with whitewash. The group had constructed a stage, raised about two feet above floor level. Hand-built benches, without backs, substituted for pews. Behind the stage, long and short two-by-fours had been fashioned into a crude representation of a cross. A podium was in place for the preacher. A small table with a wooden box on top was to the right of the stage. Four heavily draped windows on the south end admitted little light.

            Members of the congregation were already present when Albert arrived. The men had short hair, long-sleeved shirts, and their best pants. Some of the older ones had beards halfway down their chests. The women wore neither jewelry nor makeup. Dresses were floor-length, with sleeves to their wrists. The older ones had their hair arranged into simple buns on top of their heads. Younger girls had long hair that flowed down their backs.

            “Who’s thet grinnin’ like a mule eatin’ briars?” Albert asked.

            “Hit’s th’ preacher,” the other boy whispered urgently. “Watch whut y’u say.”

            “Welcome, son,” said Fergis effusively. “We’s so pleased t’ have ye wif us. We believe ’n ever’ word o’ th’ Bible. Do ye believe ’n th’ anointin’ o’ th’ Holy Ghost?  Air ye saved?”

            Albert, unsure how he should reply, simply answered “Yes,” but without conviction.

            The meeting commenced with the singing of a gospel song, “A Mighty Fortress,” unaccompanied by a piano or any other instruments. Then came a fervent prayer by Fergis. The sermon itself initially sounded familiar to Albert. The minister spoke truthfully of the saving grace of God through Jesus Christ and the need for repentance from sin. He emphasized strict obedience to everything in the Bible. Albert relaxed prematurely as we will see next week. 

Old South 


By Elton Camp

They shall take up serpents

             Albert sat in an unfamiliar church at the urging of his teenage friend, Joshua. As the parson spoke, an old sister near the back of the meeting room began to call out in a frenzied manner.

             “Let her testify fer th’ Lawd,” Brother Fergis instructed.

             The woman stood and spoke in words nobody understood. As she grew more excited, she began to swing both arms in wide circles. Abruptly, she stopped, sobbed wildly, blew her nose, and sat down.

             “Praise th’ Lawd fer yore faith ’n’ gifts, sister,” Fergis called out. The congregation responded with “Amens.”

             “Now, I want all ye, ‘specially our youn’ visitor, t’ listen as I read from th’ Gospel o’ Mark,” the preacher said. A hush fell over the group. They knew what was coming.

             “And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents.” 

             The preacher stared up toward Heaven, stepped to a wooden box resting on a table, jerked open the lid, thrust in his hand and pulled out a three-foot timber rattlesnake. The reptile twisted wildly in his hand, curled its tail around his arm and moved its triangular head menacingly. Its forked tongue flicked in and out of its mouth. Its lidless eyes showed vertical slits for pupils.

             Albert was stunned. Oh, how he hated and feared snakes. He wished with all his heart that he hadn’t let Joshua talk him into coming.

             “They shall take up serpents ’n hit shall not hurt ’em,” Fergis paraphrased. He draped the snake around his neck. His display of belief emboldened a man in his early thirties to jump to his feet. He began to dance erratically, bringing first one knee and then the other, upward with a fast motion. He approached the stage.

             “Brother, air ye ’n th’ spirit?” Fergis demanded. “Do ye believe?” 

             “I am, I do,” he affirmed. His eyes were glazed, his mouth partly open and his breath came in hard gasps and sudden spurts.

             He reached into the box and extracted a copperhead and handled it with careless abandon. The snake attempted to writhe from his grasp, but didn’t bite.

             The older lady who had testified earlier rushed forward and joined them on stage. She took a cottonmouth in one hand and a diamondback rattler in the other and began to jump up and down. She fell to the floor, kicked her legs several times and became still and silent. Albert feared that she’d died, but nobody in the congregation seemed to be alarmed.

           The two snakes slithered across the stage, but Fergis quickly scooped them up, returned them to the box and slapped the lid securely in place.

             “I ain’t gonna do thet. Nobody kin make me,” Albert whispered urgently to Joshua. “I purt ner druther die then t’ pick up a snake.”

             “Nobody’ll try t’ force y’u. Only them thet feel anointed ever do hit. I ain’t never tried it, but I may sometime.” 

             The service turned from the snakes to more familiar preaching. Albert began to relax somewhat, although he kept a wary eye on the box of serpents still at the front of the church.

             The congregation sang a final song, “I’ll Fly Away.” The pastor concluded the service with a long prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Albert had enough. Never would he return to that church, he vowed silently.

             Fergis wasn’t aware that the verses in Mark on which he founded his ministry are considered by Bible scholars to be later additions to the Gospel. Some modern translations note them as not having the authority of true Scripture. Yet, they are a part of the 1611 King James Version.

             Snake handling is now illegal in Alabama and all other Southern states except West Virginia. There are few prosecutions.

Old South 


By Elton Camp

That good old mountain dew


            Most counties in Alabama were “dry” in the sense that legal alcohol sale wasn’t permitted. The result was that its production and distribution fell into the hands of moonshiners with their hidden stills.

            Leamon, Howard and Leon liked rabbit hunting. They tramped a good distance into the woods and were about to cross a fast-running stream. Leon spotted something strange.

            “Whut’s thet?”  He pointed toward a collection of containers of various sizes and colors.  One had a twisted copper pipe attached. Fresh ashes showed that a fire had recently burned underneath a larger receptacle.

            “Probably Old Man Purdy’s still,” Leamon answered. “Everybody knows he makes shine.”

            They were a considerable distance from the man’s cabin. Such a location was necessary since the unmistakable smell could carry a good distance if the wind was right. It needed to be far enough from his dwelling that he could deny its ownership if authorities happened to discover it. The stream provided the necessary water for cooling and condensing the vapor into alcohol. The thick trees and bushes provided the needed cover.

            The moonshiner had little to fear from Sheriff Richards with whom he had a working relationship. As long as the sheriff remained reasonable in his demands, payments to him were considered a legitimate cost of doing business.

            The Revenue Bureau of the Treasury Department was another matter entirely. They functioned as a national police force and could cross state lines in search of illegal distilleries. They often went right into the home territory of the small businessmen. Even if they didn’t manage to capture the moonshiner, they destroyed his expensive equipment. It was rarely possible to bribe them. “Revenoo’rs,” as they were called, got little respect or cooperation from the community.

            “We’d best git out fr’m heer afore he shows up,” Howard advised. He looked uneasily around the perimeter of the small clearing.

            It was too late. They’d been spotted. Mr. Purdy stepped from behind a bush, a long rifle in his left hand. Nearly six feet tall, he was powerfully built. Several days’ growth of beard covered his face. He wore bib overalls, a blue, long-sleeve shirt and a stained straw hat. Rough, brown workshoes covered his feet. He scowled at them and shifted the gun to his right hand.

            “Whut y’u boys doin’ messin’ ’round wif my still?”

            “We jest chanced up on it, Mr. Purdy. We don’t mean no harm,” Leamon explained. The scary encounter made him momentarily abandon the more correct English he’d learned at school.

            The intimidating man looked at their smaller rifles, plus the accumulations of Spanish needles and cockle burrs on their pants. “Rabbit huntin’ I see. Y’u boys git out fro’m heer ’n’ don’t b’ tellin’ nobody whut y’u seen.”

            “We won’t,” Leamon assured the man. “Let’s be on our way, fellows.” 

            The boys kept their word. Moonshining was a semi-respectable occupation in much of the South. The home distiller need fear being reported only by one of his competitors or a bitter enemy.

            Sale of the product was from the whiskey-maker’s home. Most of them took intense pride in its quality. It was impossible to advertise, so building a customer base depended entirely on word-of-mouth. Satisfied customers were his most valuable assets. A crudely lettered sign “Worms for Sale” sometimes helped identify the bootlegger’s house. He would, however, sell only to people with whom he felt comfortable. At the least, a referral was required. Complete strangers were too risky.

            When made improperly, moonshine could be a dangerous, even deadly, drink. Wood alcohol, methanol, could be present. If so, it could, within hours, bring blindness or death. Lead poisoning from the solder used in making the still could build up over time to dangerous levels. Despite knowing of the possible dangers, surprising numbers of people drank it.

Old South 


By Elton Camp

For the sake of your stomach


The coming and going of prohibition at the national level meant little locally. Church doctrine dictated law. Yet, whiskey in the form of “moonshine” was readily available. Many men, and a few women, enjoyed at least an occasional drink. Lawbreakers feared the pastor far more than they did the sheriff.

            Sunday sermons occasionally brought a tirade. “Whiskey’s th’ drank o’ th’ dev’l. Mor’ families has been ruin’d by hit than anythin’ on airth. Them whet makes hit air sinners as ere them whut buys ’n’ dranks hit. Th’ lake o’ fare ’waits ’em. When ye air screamin’ ’n’ beggin’ fer mercy, Jesus ez jest gonna laugh ’n’ say sorry but I ne’er knowed ye. Ye air but a goat, fit only fer destruc’ion.” 

            On the occasions of such sermons, calls of “Amen” arose from the flock, but even some of the ones expressing agreement shifted uneasily and glanced about guiltily. The preacher should stand up for what was right, but he’d gone all the way into meddling.

            The young son of a local bootlegger hid a grin. He had inside information, but it had to remain secret. Again last week, Deacon Johnson had come calling at his home. His visit had nothing to do with bringing a wayward man to repentance.

            “Uh, Silas, y’u know thet my wif’ hez been doin’ poorly lately. I think maybe she has th’ grip or somethin’. Do y’u ‘pose y’u could give me a lettle bit o’ that medicine y’u make?  Y’u know th’ kind I mean.” 

            Silas knew well enough. Johnson was one of his regular customers, even if a nonpaying one. The deacon always spoke in terms of medicine. For him to pay for it wouldn’t be fitting. Folks might get the wrong idea.

            “Y’u must ’ave a lot o’ sickness at yore hous.’  This ez th’ secon’ jar this month ’n’ hits a week ’till Nov’mber starts.”  The practical man felt it was best to go along with the pretense. He didn’t want any trouble.

            Some people sincerely opposed any use of alcohol. Such teetotalers desired that any form of alcohol should be prohibited and laws against its consumption strictly enforced.

            “Nary a drap has e’er pass’d my lips,” asserted Mrs. Rachel Thompson.

            She took the lead locally in trying to influence wives to persuade their husbands and sons not to drink. That a woman might indulge was shocking and beyond her wildest imagination.

            “All y’u got t’ do,” she assured a young wife whose husband lay on the front porch in a drunken stupor, “ez lay th’ law down t’ him. “Tell him ef he ’pects t’ consort wif y’u, he can’t touch ole hooch.”

            “Y’u reely think thet’ll work?  He’s powerful fond of hit.”

            “My man ain’t had a sup in o’er twenty years and he wuz jest as hot fer th’ stuff as yores.”

            Mrs. Thompson was nearly at the end of menopause. She found immense relief from bottles of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. She recommended it with enthusiasm to any ladies of her acquaintance as a cure for “female complaints.” 

            “I git hit at th’ drug stor’. As long as I take hit ever’ day, I feel a whol’ lot better. Hit’s got a secret ingredient what th’ doctors don’t want y’u t’ know ’bout. Hit’d cut in t’ thar bus’ness too much. Jest try hit ’n’see fer yerself.”  What she didn’t know was that the elixir contained eighteen percent alcohol.

When particularly ill-disposed, she felt the need for Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters. It was nearly half alcohol, more than many whiskeys. Such patent medicines were also readily available from hawkers in traveling medicine shows.

            “I’d nearly ez soon commit adult’ry as t’ take a drank o’ whiskey,” Mrs. Thompson had been heard to say on many occasions. She was a righteous person. 

Old South 


By Elton Camp


An ice storm strikes


A particularly severe winter brought one of the infrequent ice storms to North Alabama. Even the oldest people in the community allowed that it was the worst they’d seen. It began early on a cloudy December day. The temperature hung within a degree of two of the freezing point though it was colder aloft. The storm began innocently enough with a slow drizzle.

            “Hit’s bankin’ up t’ snow ’n’ mought comence most enny time, Milas speculated. “Y’u boys go chop som’ wood t’ add t’ th’ pile.”  His offspring headed for the woods with sharpened axes across their shoulders. The sound of distant chopping soon began.

            Weather forecasting was in its infancy, so there was no official warning of the impending winter storm. The first evidence of an ice storm upon them was an accumulation of silvery shells of ice on the limbs of bushes. The cold rain picked up in intensity as the ground temperature dropped below freezing. Although it fell in liquid form, the rain froze as it struck exposed surfaces.

            “Looks like we’s en fer hit,” Belle said. “Ever’thing is beginnin’ t’ slick over.”  She’d slipped dangerously on the ice-covered stones that served for steps at the back porch.

            As the day wore on, the ice spread to all the trees as well as fences and remnants of crops in the fields. Ice is heavy. Under the growing weight, branches began to droop. With a loud snap, a limb from one of the elms in front of the house broke and crashed to the ground. It narrowly missed the edge of the porch. The sound of falling limbs became more frequent and continued the rest of the day and into the night. Entire tops broke from pine trees and they were stripped of their fragile limbs. Smaller trees leaned at crazy angles before the load became so great that they swaged completely to the ground. The temperature remained just below the freezing point.

            The next morning, the family awoke to a scene of chaos. Ice-covered limbs and trees lay everywhere. The children could reach the barn to tend to the animals only by pursuing a zigzag course around the fallen boughs. The broken top of a pine tree had crushed the roof of the corncrib. Even the road had become impassible from storm debris.

            “Boys, git axes ’n’ clean up th’ road ’long our proppity,” Milas directed.

            To maintain the roads was the country way. When a boy turned eighteen, he chose between paying a road tax and working it out by keeping up the gravel and dirt lanes. Most boys had no realistic option. They worked.

            Clearing up after the ice storm wasn’t part of that arrangement. It was something they did simply because it was needed. All the other families would do the same. A widow without sons at home would find neighbor men coming to her assistance. Nobody expected females to work on the road.

            As they chopped the fallen limbs into manageable pieces and pulled them onto the shoulder of the road, the boys stopped to gaze at the surrounding forests. The rain had stopped. The sun shone brightly. Flashing sparkles of green, red, yellow, and blue came from the still-standing trees. It was a fantastic sight.

            At wide intervals, more limbs, weakened from their icy coating, continued to pop and crash. But, for the most part, the storm was over. Aside from the extra work of cleaning up, it had little affect on the family’s daily routine. Electric lines and phone lines didn’t fall because none existed in the country.

            Among the town dwellers, it was a different story. Poles had toppled and snapped.  Lines lay on the ground. Some of them remained out of what they’d come to regard as essential services for days or weeks. Nature had demonstrated its awesome power.  

Old South


By Elton Camp

Snowbound on the farm


            Two weeks after a destructive ice storm, one of the deep snows that typically occurred only once a winter began to fall. It started with scattered flakes, but increased in intensity as the day went along. The frozen ground was an idea base to allow for significant accumulation. The ground became white, but still-visible leaves and grass marred its beauty. By later afternoon about eight inches had fallen, giving a dream-like appearance to the familiar landscape.

            Ailene and Iduma ran about in the yard, shrieking with delight, as the snow stung their noses and faces and accumulated on their clothes. Each expiration produced mists of white from the moisture in their breath.

            “Watch me,” Iduma called out. “I’m gonna ketch a sno’flake wif my tongue.” 

            By nightfall the family was gathered in front of the fireplace. Instead of experiencing the comfy warmth tradition attributes to fireplaces, they had to deal with harsh reality.

            Howard scooted his chair close so he could face the fireplace. After about twenty minutes, the denim of his overalls felt hot to the touch. The metal rivets that held the cloth together became blazing hot. His face and hands absorbed so much heat that he began to sweat. At the same time, a bitter cold embraced his back. He moved his chair farther from the fire and turned it sideways. As with the others, he burned up on one side and froze on the other.

            Most of the meager heat went up the chimney. The temperature inside remained well below freezing except directly in front of the fireplace and immediately around the wood cook stove in the kitchen.

            The situation was worsened by the way the family gathered firewood. Seasoned wood that was thoroughly dried produced the most heat. Spring, summer and fall were the busy seasons, so cutting firewood was relegated to late fall and winter and often done as needed at the last minute. The green wood was hard to ignite, popped furiously and used much of the heat it produced to drive off its own moisture.

            That night Belle pulled the extra quits from storage and laid them on the beds. The children, as usual, slept three to a bed. The weight of the added cover made it hard even to turn over. Once body heat dispelled the biter chill of the bed, cocoons of warmth let them sleep comfortably until morning.

            The sky was still cloudy at daybreak. Occasional showers of snow fell. The wash pot was a smooth, round lump. Bushes were mounds of snow. The woodpile had disappeared under an unfamiliar cloaking of uniformity. Not a stick could be seen. The accumulation came almost to the level of the porches. Except for the outbuildings, everything was a sea of unbroken white.

            “Go check on th’ anim’ls, boys,” Milas directed. “Make sure they’s got enuf hay. If not, throw sum down from th’ loft. Then see t’ th’ chick’ns. Spread out sum corn fer ‘em in th’ coop. They can’t walk ’n this snow.”

            All the boys rushed out to do their father’s bidding. They were eager to romp in the snow. After a few steps, they found that it wasn’t the fun they’d expected. The younger boys sank well below their knees. Even the lanky Leamon had difficulty walking in snow of that depth.

            Milas stepped onto the porch to observe. “Git sum shovels ’n’ dig paths,” he ordered. “This snow’ll b’ heer fer a while.” 

            The snow was heavy and wet. By concerted effort they cleared trails wide enough to walk single file. The family could more easily tend to necessary tasks. The exposed, brown ground became muddy as it gathered heat from the sunshine.

To venture far beyond the yard was impossible. As we will see, the family had to find its own entertainment until conditions improved.

Old South 


By Elton Camp

Winter family entertainment


            The unusually deep snowfall provided an exemption from work except for seeing to the needs of the animals. After that, the children could play. “Let’s build a sno’man,” Jean suggested.

            Some snows were dry and crumbly, unsuitable for forming the necessary large snowballs. This one was just right. The snowman began as a lump of snow about the size of a softball. The children rolled the lump in the snow so that it picked up layer after layer. They were careful to make it as round as possible.

            “This un’s big enuf fer th’ bottom,” Howard declared. “Let’s start on th’ middle.” 

            They repeated the steps, but stopped when the snowball was slightly smaller than the first one.

            “We musn’t make it so big we can’t lift it,” Leamon cautioned. “Snow’s heavy.”

            Four of the children worked together to heave the ball atop the base. They packed extra snow where the balls met to hold them together and to give their creation a better waistline. A much smaller ball of snow made an admirable head.

            Two rocks served as eyes. A brown stick became a nose.  No hat was worn out enough to be placed on its head.  The snowman was complete.

            “Birdie, fetch me ah bucket o’ thet snow ’n’ I’ll make us some snow cream,” Belle called out. She stood on the side porch holding an enamel bucket. “Be shore t’ git hit from a deep place thet’s clean.” 

            The recipe was a simple one: mix snow with cream from the cow’s milk, then add white, granulated sugar and drops of Watkins vanilla flavoring. She stirred the ingredients, adding snow as necessary, until it reached an icy consistency. All agreed that snow cream was one of the best things about winter.

            Because the deep snow kept them near the house and yard, the adults had to entertain themselves as best they could. Milas and Belle pursued one of their favorite pastimes, playing dominoes. Milas had a set of double nines. Most sets only went to double sixes. He placed the black rectangles on the kitchen table with the spots down and slid them around until they were randomly assorted. Each drew seven dominoes to start. He always went first.

            Multiples of fives scored points. The end dominoes all around were the ones added to make the determination. An intricate pattern of turns developed as the game progressed. Milas kept score on a paper from a brown sack. Playing the game had enabled Belle to learn to count and add quickly. Both were considered to be skilled players.           

            Milas laid down a five-blank. “Thet’s five fer me,” he said.

            On a brown paper sack that substituted for a note pad, he placed an “M” to the left and a “B” to the right. Beneath his initial, he placed a vertical mark to represent five points. Belle placed a double blank at a right angle to the matching end of his domino.

            “Then add five fer me,” she crowed.

            As the game continued, Milas eventually found that none of his dominoes matched available ends. He had to “go to the bone yard.”  That meant drawing from the remaining dominoes until he found one he could play.

            The first player to use all the dominoes gained all the points of the remaining tiles of the opponent.

            By the end of the game, each of them had earned a considerable score. Belle won about as often as Milas. He didn’t seem to mind.

            The snow cover slowly diminished over the following week until only patches remained in shaded spots. The snowman survived several days longer. It gradually shrank, became unbalanced, and fell. Life for the family returned to what was normal for the winter. 

When spring arrived, it was time for the exciting annual visit to the carnival.  We’ll accompany the family next time. 

Old South 


By Elton Camp

A visit to the carnival


When the warm months of summer returned to North Alabama, a traveling carnival set up on an empty lot near the edge of town. It was a small operation with a handful of rides, a few game tents and three live shows.

            “Paw ez gonna tak’ us t’ th’ fair Thursday night,” Belle informed the children. “Jest th’ littl’ uns can ride anythin’ ’n’ then only onst. Y’all kin all buy a bite t’ eat.”

            “Somethin’s cookin’,” Albert called out as they approached the fair. “Smells powerful good t’ me.”  He had a number of coins jingling in his pocket.

            Among the unwholesome carnival foods, the favorites of the children were the spun sugar known as cotton candy and the salty, greasy popcorn. The hot dogs looked and smelled tempting, but the coins their father had given them wouldn’t stretch that far.

            “Hit jest melts on yore tongue,” Leon said after he pulled away a large piece of pink cotton candy and stuffed it into his mouth.

            Coca-Cola was available at the carnival, but sales were slow. Few were willing to consume it with others watching, because it originally contained a tiny amount of cocaine. Coke was, for that reason, often called “dope” and the delivery trucks termed “dope wagons.”  Respectable people didn’t drink it, at least not openly.

            The local area had been scandalized by an incident at a baseball game. One of the players was knocked unconscious by a thrown bat.

            “I gotta have a Coke,” he demanded when he regained consciousness.

            He didn’t wait for an opener to remove the cap, but dashed its neck against a rock and greedily drank from the jagged bottle. He cut his upper lip. Blood ran down his chin and dropped on his shirt. He didn’t seem to notice.

            “Look!  He’s a dope fiend,” people gasped. They’d seen it with their own eyes.

            “Don’t y’u never let me see y’u drankin’ no Coke,” parents sternly warned their children. “There ain’t nothin’ good thet kin com’ from hit.”

            The game barkers promoted showy prizes of little value as if they were rare treasures. When Albert spotted the milk bottle game, he was elated. Three bottles across the bottom supported two bottles above and one at the top.

            “Now, thar’s something’ I kin win at,” he told Howard. “Jest watch me.”

            “Step right up. Simply knock down all the bottles and you win your choice of one of these fine prizes,” coaxed the barker.

            Albert paid the nickel charge for playing. He had extra money he’d earned at the gin. If all he had to do was knock down all the bottles, he was certain of a prize. Farm work had given him a powerful arm.

            He flung the ball as hard as he could at the base of the pyramid. All the bottles toppled except one. Albert groaned in disappointment.

            “That’s all right my friend. You almost did it. Try it again. Only five cents,” the barker said. “Come over and watch, folks,” he added in hope of drawing a crowd.

            Albert dug into his pocket for a V-nickel. He did no better than the first time. Under pressure from the carnival employee, he spent fifty cents before he gave up. He didn’t know that one of the milk bottles was heavier than the others. By the way he stacked them, the operator could determine if the player would win. It greatly increased his profit.

            As Albert turned to go, the operator reached over and patted him on the back. “Sorry, pal. Better luck next time.” 

            From chalk on his hand, he’d identified Albert as a sucker so the other barkers would be able to identify him as a “mark,” one who could be easily exploited.

            As we will see next week, still more wonders of the fair enticed the family.

Old South


By Elton Camp

Shady carnival business


At the balloon and dart game, players got three dulled darts and won by popping a single under-inflated balloon. Occasionally, a dart would hit dead center and earn a small kewpie doll.

            The carney spotted the sheriff and quickly switched the box of darts for one on the shelf below. They looked identical, but the others were sharp. In case the sheriff was checking for honesty, he was ready

            “Hey, Sheriff,” he called loudly. “Come over and play free. Win a prize for your kids.”

            The officer departed with three prizes. It was a small price to pay to gain the confidence of the fair goers. As soon as nobody was watching, the man swapped the new box for the old

            The freak show featured the two-headed pig, the chicken with four legs, Siamese twin calves and the man with three legs. “All Genuine,” the sign proclaimed. The carnival didn’t reveal that all the freaks, except the man, were stuffed. Animals with such serious defects didn’t live long.

            The man with three legs smiled and nodded as people approached. If somebody asked, he cheerfully explained his condition

“I have parts of my twin brother that attached before we were born. This leg at the back is his. We was supposed to be Siamese twins, but he didn’t develop completely.”

The third leg extended almost level from his buttocks. It had an extension of the man’s pants to its knee and dark socks below that. The man demonstrated that he could cause the leg to jump upward. It looked nothing like the painting out front. Nevertheless, onlookers were duly impressed and took a liking to the personable young man

“Son, I feel sorter bad comin’ and lookin’ at y’u like this,” said a middle-aged woman. “I hope hit don’t embarrass y’u.”

            “Not a bit,” he replied. “It’s the way I make a living. I’ve done this for years. You’re helping me a lot by buying a ticket. My only worry is if people quit coming. It’d be hard for me to hold a regular job.”

            His presence and demeanor blunted possible criticism of the collection of dead animals.

            “Well, hit didn’t say the freaks wuz alive, but thet they wuz genuine,” one customer admitted to another as they filed out of the tent. “I got my money’s worth.”

            Birdie and Iduma paid to “See the Fat Lady.”  Little Lulu wore a sleeveless red dress that stopped a few inches above her knees. Her arms were massive, especially above the elbows. Her legs were enormous. Triple chins, composed of rolls of fat, made her face appear small. Frizzy, sparse brown hair covered her head. Lulu sweated profusely and smiled weakly if spoken to. She appeared to be miserable.

            Away from the games and rides so that it could only be glimpsed, was a red tent with the sign, “Dancers.” Smaller print announced “Men Only.” The “cooch” show began after the main crowd had gone. Its slang name came from the earlier term “hootchy-cootchy.”  A deacon and an alderman pulled hats down and turned up their collars

            “I shore hope nobody sees me goin’ in,” the alderman whispered. “I’ve got t’ stand fer reelection next yeer.”

            “Hit ain’t none o’ their business,” the deacon muttered. He pulled his hat even lower and glanced around uneasily to see if they were being observed.

Loud music accompanied the scantily clad young women as they danced on the stage. Few minded their lack of talent. One man diverted his eyes when he saw the girl with long, brown hair. She was the age of his daughter and bore a striking resemblance to her. As inconspicuously as possible, he eased away from the leering men and shamefacedly slipped out of the tent.

            Although it could exploit, the carnival provided something out of the ordinary to discuss for weeks.

Old South


By Elton Camp



Preparing the new ground


Creating a “new ground” converted unproductive, wooded land to use for crops. The first step in the months-long process was to kill the trees.

            “Boys, go ov’er thar whar we’se puttin’ th’ new ground ’n’ git started on girdlin’ th’ trees,” Milas directed.

            Tree girdling kills trees in place. It works best if done before leaves come out in springtime. The boys, carrying axes, trudged to the new ground and cut away deep sections of bark all the way around the trunks. Food from the leaves moves downward through the tissue underneath the bark. Without food, the roots die, and then the entire tree. Sprouts from below the girdled area must be kept cut for quickest results.

            “This shore ez hard work,” Howard complained. He frowned as he rubbed his aching arm and shoulder muscles.

            The job brought another problem: red bugs, also called chiggers. The mites cause a red, inflamed, intensely-itching area each place they attach to the skin.

            “Maw, kin we have sum butter?” the woodsmen asked before bedtime. “Redbugs has kivered us up.”

            The salted butter smothered the mites, thus shortening the duration of the irritating symptoms.

            The task continued off and on over a period of several weeks. The following spring, most trees didn’t put on leaves. The bare branches and trunks slowly dried.

            “As y’u has time, start clearin’ th’ underbresh,” Milas said. “We kin have th’ new ground reddy fer plantin’ by next sprang.” 

            He knew that the uncultivated, rich soil would produce abundantly for a time. It was worth the extra work, especially since he didn’t have to do it himself.

The boys cut the smaller bushes and young trees to the ground and gathered them into high piles to dry. In a few weeks the family had multiple fires burning day and night in the new ground.

“Go stoke up th’ fars,” Milas instructed when the flames began to burn low.

The fires burned out in the center where the heat was most intense. The boys slid or tossed unburned wood from the edges of the piles onto the glowing beds of red coals. The heat quickly ignited them. After several such stokings, the piles were reduced to white ash.        

The first plowing of a new ground brought its own challenges. Roots were the main problem. With about as much of a tree below ground as above, the soil was matted with them. The plow stopped with a jerk whenever it hit a particularly large root. The plowman could be thrown with force against the plow stock.

            “Ow, thet hurt,” Albert complained. He rubbed his bruised chest where it’d hit the bar between the plow handles.

            He didn’t have to order the mule to wait. It’d learned that it was futile to pull against such resistance. Albert kept the animal backing up and making repeated attempts until he could position the plow so that it cut through the root. After the first season, the plowing would be far easier.

    Yellowjacket nests were a constant danger. The stinging insects built extensive underground homes with small, round openings. The nest wasn’t seen or disturbed until the plow cut into it. This brought a swarm of the angry yellowjackets seeking to defend their domain. The wasps directed their stings to the nearest target with skin thin enough to penetrate–the unfortunate plowman.

            “Yaller-jackets!” Albert hollered as the insects covered his face, neck and hands. They stung furiously and repeatedly.

            He abandoned the mule and ran to the creek. The wasps continued to sting. Only when he’d coated himself with mud and water did the attack abate. He hated breaking up a new ground. The only comfort he got from the painful stings was that his paw would have one of the other boys take over the plowing for a day or two.

Old South


By Elton Camp

Planting by the moon


            Fields produced far less well in the Old South than they do today. Farmers strived to do what they could to increase their productivity. Some of the methods used were of questionable value, but gave them a feeling of doing what they could to draw a better living from the soil.

            The phases of the moon were considered in planting of crops. Detailed information and instructions were available from the Farmer’s Almanac. Every rural family regularly consulted its copy.

            “Paw, do you really believe it helps to plant by the moon?” Leamon asked. Based on what he was learning in school, he no longer gave credence to the idea, but felt it unwise to directly attack widespread views that had been held for generations.

            “I ain’t shore that hit matters. But they’s no harm done ‘n goin’ by hit.” Milas’ reservations were shared by some of his neighbors, but they rarely spoke of it. Most of their associates were convinced that it was a necessity for successful farming.

    Potatoes were set only on the dark of the moon. Seed were planted within two days before a full moon. Nobody planted on the day of the full moon or the day of the new moon. Stories circulated about calamities that befell farmers who had carelessly or wantonly violated the planting rules.

    “Roscoe planted his cotton unner th’ wrong sign three years ago ’n’ his crop failed almost total,” a believing neighbor warned. “I tried t’ tell him, but he wouldn’t listen.”

            He’d forgotten that the man had turned off sick that year, and had been unable to give the usual attention to cultivation.

            If one thing was done and a particular result followed, that was all the proof needed that the first event caused the second. No other possibility was considered. The Latin expression, “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” had as little meaning for them as the scientific fallacy it describes has for many in the present. “After this, therefore because of this” made perfect sense to Milas and his contemporaries. Despite his misgivings, he planted by the moon.

    Farmers had a few other sources of information on farming and life in general. One that was well liked was the broadsheet titled Grit. Started in 1882, it was designed with a rural audience in mind. Boys sold it farm-to-farm to make a little extra money.

            “Mr. Milas, want t’ buy a Grit?” Robert asked. “Hit’s got stuff on farmin’, gardenin’, projects y’u kin do, funny stuff, ’n’ religious thangs. I thank y’u might reely like hit.”

            “Boy, I’ve bought hit fer years. Y’u don’t have t’ tell me nothin’ ’bout whut hit has.”  He handed the smiling boy the few pennies.

            Robert would return in a couple of weeks with a new issue. Grit was well designed to serve people isolated from cities. The young salesman provided welcome reading material while he gained valuable lessons in honesty, integrity and the handling of money. Such newsboys continued to sell Grit into the 1950s. At the time, few would’ve imagined it would continue to be published in the 21st Century.

    Another popular magazine was The Progressive Farmer. It started in North Carolina in 1886. Targeted to the southeast, it provided the newest information on cultivating crops and raising livestock. Open to considering new ideas, Milas regularly read it. It helped him in his own farming and in supervising his sharecroppers. It’d started out as a broadsheet, but changed to a tabloid. The periodical came in the mail for those who subscribed. The publication came to have a central office in Birmingham. The organization, decades later, gave birth to Southern Living Magazine.

    Progress in agricultural production, nevertheless, came slowly and was associated with the decline of small family farms and the rise of large-scale operations. Whether this is a desirable change continues to be debated.

Old South 


By Elton Camp


Earthquakes and fires


            Each community was left to its own devices during emergencies.  Some they must endure.  Others could be combated. 

            North Alabama rock faults occasionally caused light earthquakes. “Whut’s thet, Milas?” Belle asked. Her voice trembled as she placed her hand on the eating table to steady herself. The dishes in the kitchen cabinets rattled, the floor vibrated, hens cackled and the hound dog howled. It was over within less than ten seconds.

            “I reckon hit wuz a earthquake. I recollect one when I wuz jest a lettle boy. This un wuz a sight worse.” 

            In living memory, all had been as inconsequential as the one that day. Generations had passed since the great earthquakes of 1811-1812 that was centered in Missouri. The shaking had continued off and on for months. People near the epicenter had been forced to live out of doors to avoid being crushed.

            Due to the nature of its land, North Alabama had been affected by those long-ago seismic waves. A few settlers and scattered villages of Indians lived there at the time. Had it been populated as today, moderate damage would’ve resulted. Not even oral stories of those terrible quakes had endured. The slight shaking created little concern.

            “Thar will b’ earthquakes ’n divers places,” Milas paraphrased, but let it go at that.

            A continual and more significant danger was fire in the woods. Crops, livestock and even houses could be destroyed. The community could expect no outside help.

            Belle woke her husband just before dawn. “Milas, I smell somethin’ burnin’.”

            The stench of burning woods stung their nostrils. As the sun rose, it revealed a haze of smoke throughout the area.

            “Git up, boys, we’uns may half t’ fight far t’day,” Milas called out. “Make haste.”

            The boys hurriedly dressed. A woods fire was a genuine emergency, though it was exciting to combat. Seldom did they have that much adventure.

            Milas stepped into his yard and scanned the horizon. A wall of dense white smoke was visible to the south. The smell and thickness of the smoke intensified around his house. White ash, looking almost like flakes of snow, began to float downward all around.

            “Hit’s down by th’ Taylor place. Hitch up th’ wagon ’n’ let’s git goin’.

            By the time the group arrived, others also streamed in to fight fire. The only equipment was what they could improvise–pine branches heavy with green needles. The limbs made excellent tools. A few swats would extinguish several feet of the fire line as long as it was in low-lying vegetation.

            The dense wooded areas couldn’t be saved. The fire quickly fed on undergrowth and jumped to the crowns of the trees. Cottontails and an occasional fox rushed by the men, oblivious to their presence because of the greater danger of the fire. The firefighters coughed and struggled to see with watery eyes.

            “We can’t put hit out, boys,” called one of the older men. “Th’ wind has got hit plum out o’ control. We got t’ build a back fire.”

            The men deliberately set ablaze one of Taylor’s cornfields. The flames rushed toward the main fire as well as in the other direction. They used pine boughs to extinguish the flames that threatened to devour the entire corn crop. The backfire had the desired effect. The flames extinguished themselves when they reached the already-burned area. The loss was minor.

            When the Indians had controlled the land, the threat of major fire didn’t exist. The Native Americans regularly burned the woods. The cool fires kept down the undergrowth without killing trees or destroying animals. With dense vegetation controlled, it was easy and safe to get through the woods. Hunting was easier and more successful. That early ecology lesson was lost upon arrival of white settlers.

    Anytime an emergency arose, the affected community pulled together and did what was required.

Old South 


By Elton Camp

Heat, lightning, hail and flood


            Folks in North Alabama had to deal with dangers related to summer weather, such as lightning, floods and hail.

  “If hit gits too hot, hit shore kin do harm,” Milas commented during one particularly blazing July day.

            Lucas was a man in his mid-forties, with two minor children at home. He and a grown son worked most of the day on the back forty. Late in the afternoon, the man became agitated.

            “I can’t hardly beathe,” he said with a shaky voice. “I ain’t exactly shore where I am or whut I’m supposed t’ b’ doin’. Kin y’u bring me a drank from thet spring over thar by th’ boulders?”  He pointed toward a slight rise created by a terrace.

            “Thar ain’t no spring out here ’n th’ field, Paw,” his son replied. He realized that his father was hallucinating. “Y’u look powerful sick. Hit’s time fer us t’ go t’ th’ house.” 

            Lucas took a few steps, but reeled and fell to the ground. His son dashed to his assistance to find that he wasn’t sweating although his skin looked red and felt hot. Calling and shaking did no good. The unconscious man breathed erratically.

            The son quickly unhitched the mule from the plow, heaved his father across its back, and rushed him to the house. The heatstroke was a medical emergency, but his family only knew to get him in the shade and wipe him with cool water from the well. He was never again quite the same.

    Summer weather could bring thunderstorms with high winds, lightning and hail. Occasionally, both humans and animals were injured or even killed.

            “One night, th’ yeer afore Leon wuz born,” Milas recalled, “we had th’ worst lightnin’ storm I ever knew. Ever few seconds hit would light up bright as day. Th’ thunder was upon us almost immediate.  Mirandey an’ th’ chillun spent all night ’n th storm pit.”

            The next morning, the family learned that a neighbor had lost his entire herd–six cows– to the lightning. The man lamented the serious loss to Milas.

            “They wuz gathered unner a oak tree fer pertection, but hit work’d ’gain ’em. Lightnin’ hit th’ tree, split th’ trunk clear t’ th’ ground an’ kilt t’ whole bunch. I font ’em layin’ on th’ ground.”

            Hail, usually small pieces, might accompany thunderstorms. It might accumulate enough to whiten the ground, but caused no damage. Large hailstones rarely fell. Property could be damaged and lives endangered.

            Elvira Reed, the oldest person in the area, never tired of relating, to anyone who would listen, an occurrence from her childhood.

            “I wuz ’bout ten yeers old when hit com’. Th’ hail started ’n like common, but soon hunks ez big ez a man’s fist began t’ drap. Mor’ ’n mor’ crashed down. Hit beat th’ tin roof t’ flinders on th’ house an’ outbuildings and tore up th’ crops somethin’ terrible. Thar warn’t hardly no corn made thet yeer an’ th’ cotton was sparse. Even th’ leaves wuz beat off o’ trees, but they didn’t seem t’ b’ hurt so much. Th’ strangest thing wuz thet three miles away there wuz nary a piece fell.”

    Flooding could occur. Robert Gibbs inspected his field the next morning after a day and night of heavy rain. Swirling creek water had washed away about two acres of his corn crop. His house, however, stood on a rise. Nobody was foolish enough to build on a spot subject to flooding.

    Excessive rain could interfere with transportation, especially at fords, places where a shallow stream ran directly across a road. Wagons, horses, and pedestrians easily went through, but couldn’t do so when it flooded.

            Yet, for the most part, environmental dangers were minimal. When problems arose, people helped each other. Nobody expected the federal government to intervene. Country people were self-reliant.

Old South 


By Elton Camp


All were immigrants


    Nobody was truly native to Alabama. Many had English or Irish roots. The ancestors of Americans Indians arrived earlier than others.   A large portion of them had been forced west in the 1840s by the Indian Removal Act. A few who adopted settler ways remained. Intermarriage with Indians wasn’t widespread, yet a number of people in Alabama count them among their ancestors.

            Elias House, an olive-skinned neighbor boasted, “I’m from a Cherokee princess. Y’u could say thet I’m sort of royalty.” 

             The fact that the tribe had no princesses was unknown to Elias. The story sounded good and made him more “respectable.”  Even if a person made no such grandiose claim, Indian heritage caused little trouble. Even noticeably darker skin was casually dismissed with the comment, “He’s part Injun.”  If hard working, he was accepted. Tolerance was enhanced by the fact that little history of Indian raids existed in North Alabama.

  “Paw, do y’u know where our folks are from?” Leamon asked. He had a better sense of time and place than most.

  “I reckon hit wuz mainly from England. Thar mought b’ som’ Irish mixed in there, but I ain’t really shore.”

            Milas was seven generations removed from Thomas Camp who had been born in 1661 in County Essex, England, came to the United States and settled in King and Queen County Virginia.

            Of his four ancestors named Thomas, the most interesting died in 1798. The prolific man sired twenty-four children by two wives. One of them was Milas’ forefather.

    Thomas’ grave lies in an overgrown rural cemetery. A fieldstone with his name and date of death were all that marked his grave until generations later when descendants erected a granite marker at the site.

            Even if most people were vague as to ancestry, one transient group knew its origin very well. About once a year a small band of Gypsies visited. They arrived in three colorful wagons pulled by horses. One of Milas’ neighbors, Bill Self, always permitted them to set up free in his pasture. Their presence caused a wave of excitement to spread throughout the community.

            “Th’ Gypsies ez here ’gain,” a woman called out to a neighbor who was passing by on foot. “Bill’s put them up this year too. I sorta wish he wouldn’t do thet. They scare me.” 

            The wagons were brightly painted with intricate designs. A single door opened from the back of each. Each side had a window with curtains. The inside was divided into two areas.  The kitchen end had a stove with a metal chimney that extended through the roof. The area had a closet, storage chests, pots, pans, and dishes. The other portion of the wagon served for sleeping quarters. Numerous items hung on wooden pegs on the walls.

            Gypsy women did most of the work and were the main generators of income. They made baskets, prepared remedies from herbs and told fortunes. Cooking and cleaning also fell to them.

            Two of the older women actually spoke a dialect of Romany in addition to English. They had no success when they attempted to teach the language to youngsters.

      “Granny, that’s old stuff. Nobody needs to know that anymore,” a child countered when the matriarch attempted to instruct her.

            “They’s heer t’ steal chillen,” Mrs.Barnette avowed. “Y’u best keep yore boys in partic’lar locked up ’till they leave.” 

            That belief was one of the many wrong concepts country people held about the Roma. It was based on stories from unspecified places where children supposedly had mysteriously disappeared following departure of the travelers. It was firmly held to be true, but nobody could supply specifics. The parental threat, “I’ll give y’u t’ th’ Gypsies,” usually was scary enough to bring a naughty child into compliance.

            As we will see, the Gypsies promptly set about the business that brought them to the area.


Published on January 5, 2010 at 1:50 am  Comments (14)  

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Elton,

    You did a really nice job. You certainly have a right to be proud of your accomplishment. It is also very considerate of you to share your columns.


  2. It appears that nobody is reading this blog, so I have stopped adding to it. Go to my Facebook page for a complete list of the many stories I have posted online. It will show where they are located. They cover a wide variety of subjects and are in various styles.

    Elton Camp

  3. I enjoyed your articles very much. Thank you for sharing this time of history with us.

    • I added a bunch to the blog today, July 1, 2010

  4. Dont quit writing on this blog.. You just need to let it be known that you have one.
    I am going to go post it on my site right now and my
    Chris Wheeler

  5. i haven’t read this yet ubt i read some of your stuff on the writing room and in your profile you mentioned scrib.d which i never heard of and have now joined, because i am writing, and have wrote, so many different things it seems like this site to be a very good site. i love anything to do with American in the old west times so I will read these columns and although I mostly centre on writing comedy I am in the midst of writing a western for my second books so i might get some ideas from here

  6. Magnificent site. Lots of useful information here. I’m sending it to several friends ans also sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you in your effort!

  7. I am a older woman, born in the country, with life very much like this. A very good job on the writting..and times.

    • Hey Bonnie, Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Those things I wrote are real about my own family. Elton Camp

    • Thanks, I have abandoned that posting site due to lack of interest. I post a lot on and Elton

  8. I read this article fully regarding the comparison of most recent and earlier technologies, it’s awesome article.

  9. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I’ll be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

    • Hello and thanks for reading. I’ve abandoned this site because of too few readers. But there is LOTS more posted on including a continuation of the Old South series of articles that appeared in a local newspaper. Those stories are essentially true and about my relatives living in rural North Alabama. Elton

    • Justin, I haven’t posted at this site for a long time because I was getting almost no readers. However, I have lots posted on and other places. A Google search will locate them. Thanks for reading. (I don’t know what an rss feed is). I’m an old hillbilly writing as a hobby.

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