Memoir: Verenice Cooper Hawkins


Editor's Note: Verenice Hawkins is one of Dade County's great natural resources. As Dade's public health nurse, she vaccinated generation after generation of babies; then, in retirement she began volunteering in the schools to help children with their reading and also agitated successfully to get CPR taught as a requirement in Georgia high schools. Now she has completed a memoir about her childhood on a horse-and-mule-powered farm near Valley Head during the Great Depression.


Her daughter, Linda Hawkins Wilson, everybody's favorite retired English teacher and one of Dade's chief local history writers, helped to edit the memoir and to compile the old photos used here. The Planet will serialize the account in weekly increments on Wednesdays, starting today, July 8, which, since she begins this memoir with giving her date of birth, The Planet does not mind telling you is Verenice's 88th birthday.


Happy birthday, Verenice! 

            On July 8, 1932, I arrived in this world prematurely.  I was so small the doctor didn’t weigh me but guessed that I would weigh 3 ½ or 4 pounds. Daddy said he would not have given two cents for me. 


            My daddy was Horace Cooper who was born and raised at Head River, Georgia, on Lookout Mountain. He and his mother had moved to the valley when he was an older teenager. My mama was Nancy Gifford Cooper. Mama had been married before and had a daughter Eloise who was 18 years old when I was born. She lived with my grandma Gifford and cousin Eva Gifford. Mama and Daddy were 38 years old when I was born. 


           My oldest brother Foyl was 6years old when I was born and had said he did not want any more babies because his younger brother Ray had not been an easy baby to cope with. He changed his mind when I arrived and he was always very good to me. Ray was 4 years old when I was born and was usually good to me, but we did have some fights because he always like to tease me. My sister, Willene, was born two years later and Granny Cooper came to live with us when I was about three. That was our household.


 (Photo: The Cooper siblings Foyle, Verenice, Ray and Willene. Above: Verenice plays dress-up.)


        Carvin Harrison was working for Daddy and had a hard time keeping my brothers at the barn where they were feeding the animals. They told him they knew that was the doctor’s car and the baby was going to be born. Dr. Gardner charged $10 to deliver me. Mama carried me on a pillow and pinned one of Daddy’s handkerchiefs on me for a diaper. If it had not been in the middle of summer I might not have lived because it was so hard to keep the house warm.


        At that time, we were living at the “Green Place” about six miles north of Valley Head. John and Opal Tatum lived about ½ mile south of us and Tip Hawkins’s family about ½ mile north of us. My mother had been born on this same farm but in a different house which had been torn down. She had lived there until she was 17 years old. Her family had then bought a farm about one mile south on Highway 11. This had been the Long property during the Civil War and had a big spring where the Yankee soldiers camped before they went across Lookout Mountain to fight the Battle of Chickamauga. One soldier died and was buried there. This spring is now part of the Valley Head water supply. My grandma died there when I was 5 years old.


            Our house was a little better than some renter houses at that time. It was all wood, but had never been painted on the inside or outside. We later painted the bedrooms, which helped get rid of the bedbugs. Mama had fought them constantly. The house had three bedrooms and was located on a hill near a big spring. I believe the Indians had camped there because we found many arrowheads. I once picked up 54 arrowheads in one day while shocking oats in a seven-acre field near the creek.


         Things were quite different at that time. People in the country did not have electricity or running water. Out cookstove was a wood stove and we thought it cooked really good food. Our heat was fireplaces. Our house had three fireplaces but we only had a fire in one. The rest of the house was very cold in winter. Ice sometimes froze in the water bucket in the kitchen. Our light was a kerosene lamp and a lantern to use at the barn. We also used the coal oil “kerosene” for medicine. If we had a sore throat, that is what we put on it.


         Many things we used were made from fertilizer or flour sacks. Sheets, pillowcases, towels and curtains were made from fertilizer sacks. Dish towels and panties where made from flour sacks. It was hard to get the letters washed out.


         Washing was done on a rubboard with lye soap Mama had made or Octagon soap. We had a clothesline but it did not hold all the clothes and we hung the rest on a fence. The white clothes were washed and then boiled in a big wash pot with lye water. This made them very white. These were rinsed in the spring branch or tubs of water. Mama’s hands would sometimes bleed from the cold and lye water. In winter, clothes froze as they were hung on the line. Starch was made from flour and water. To iron we used heavy flat irons heated on the stove. We did not have an ironing board. We turned the oil cloth back on one end of the table and put a folded quilt on it to iron.


        Most of our food came from the farm. We grew corn which we ate fresh and took to mill when it was dry and had it ground into meal. We made cornbread from this which we ate for dinner and supper. I can remember us growing wheat and taking it to mill and Mama made biscuits. It was called graham flour and we now call it whole-wheat flour. We always had a big garden and canned lots of vegetables. We picked berries and canned those. We always had a big patch of Irish and sweet potatoes which we dug and stored in the cellar. We grew lots of popcorn and peanuts. I remember one year we had 12 bushels of peanuts. We never sold any. We ate them or gave them away. We grew cornfield peas and let them dry. We usually milked more than one cow and would drink more than a gallon of milk at a meal. Sometimes we had to share the milk with the baby lambs if their mother did not have enough milk for them.


        Our meat was mostly chicken and pork. The pork could be cured in salt and used all winter. We had no refrigeration so fresh meat could not be kept long. Sometimes we killed a sheep or goat. Part of this was given to neighbors, especially Tip Hawkins. Some was cut in small pieces, put in glass jars and kept in the spring. This was also how we kept our milk. Sometimes Daddy would kill a rabbit or squirrel. We had turkeys and occasionally ate one. We had ducks and geese but did not eat them. We picked feathers off them for pillows and feather beds.


         Mama made most of our clothes. She sold eggs to the peddler to get material. We sold wool from our sheep and bought wool material to make skirts, coats and dresses. Daddy and the boys wore overalls and shirts made from fertilizer sacks. We went barefoot in the summer and Daddy repaired our winter shoes. He put what was called half soles on them when they got holes in the soles. He sewed patches on them that were made from goat skin. He made small holes in the patches and shoe with an instrument called a pegging awl. He then used thin strips made from goat skin. Strips of goat skin were used for shoe strings. This was during the Depression and there was very little money. Mama and Daddy both knew how to make out with what we had.


          I remember Mama scrubbing our floors with sand and a corn shuck brush. This brush was made by boring holes in a board about 10 by 12 inches. Shucks were pulled into these holes and a long handle was put on the brush. Mama also used lye water to scrub the floors. We did not own a mop. We made our own brooms. We grew our broom corn and when it got to a certain stage, we bent the tops over so the straw would be straight. If you didn’t do this the straws were long and would be spread out and bent. Mr. Jesse Wells had a broom-making machine that Daddy used. It made brooms just like you buy in the store. We were the only kids in our neighborhood that had small brooms for our size. Daddy made them for us. He always made extras for the Wells family. Handles were always saved to make more brooms.


The Shop

         Daddy and Jesse Wells owned a blacksmith shop together. Jess owned the building and Daddy the equipment. We liked to work in the shop. We turned the crank that made the bellows make the fire real hot to heat the metal. When the metal was really hot you could beat it with a large hammer and shape it. We would bend the ends of the horseshoes. After they were put in water to cool, they were nailed to the horses' and mules' hoofs. The plow points were heated to red and hammered until they were sharp. They let Harold Nelson, Jesse’s grandson, and us play in the shop and make things out of scrap metal. We worked in the shop and made brooms mostly on days when it rained and you could not work outside. Daddy always looked ahead and found things that needed to be done. That is the reason we fared better than some of our neighbors. Daddy was a person who really liked to work, but sometimes he let us take some time off for playing or going swimming while he kept working.




Steers, Mules and Horses

        We did not have a tractor, truck, or car. When I first remember we had Bell and Emmer, the mules Daddy had owned for several years before I was born. We kept them for about 30 years, which is old for mules. The last years they did not work but were fed and allowed to run free in the pasture. Daddy said they had worked so hard for him that he did not want them to have to work when they were old. We also had two steers named Buck and Jim. Although we had a yoke, we did not use it on the steers. Daddy had made harness for them like we used on the mules and horses. We later bought a mare named Maude. She belonged to Ray and her first colt was Dan. She later had Charlie and he sold Charlie to me when I was 13 or 14. He was a work horse but I could ride him and he was a real pet. I could catch him anywhere. He loved apples and if I went to the apple trees, he would wait for me to get some of my apples. He died the last year I was in high school. One of the other horses had kicked him and injured something inside of him.


 (Photo: Verenice and Charlie.)  


        At one time we had four teams of mules and horses. We always used Buck to break the colts to work. He was a big red steer and he knew exactly what to do and was so big they could not run away. He was so calm and steady the colts soon learned how to work. We later sold Buck and we really hated to see him go.


           We had to shuck corn to feed all these animals. You carried the corn through the hallway of the barn and put the ears through a hole in the wall into a wooden box for them to eat it. The corn to feed the sheep had to be shelled. We had a corn sheller that worked by turning a crank. When the sheep heard the first ear in the sheller they started “baa baa baa” and they did not hush until they were fed. Their feed was poured into a long trough in the barnyard. The lambs played while the sheep ate. It was really fun to watch the lambs play.


Raising Sheep

          When the lambs were born on very cold nights, we sometimes had to bring them into the house to get them thawed out. We usually had a cardboard box to put them in by the heater. When they warmed up, they would sometimes jump out of the box and run around the room. We would bottle-feed them to get them started and then take them back to their mamas. Sometimes the mamas would not own them and we had to raise them on a bottle. We never minded this because we had few toys but loved having lots of pets. Occasionally we would find a whiskey bottle on the side of the road. These were saved to feed lambs. We bought nipples that fit over the top of these.


          When I can first remember, I had a pet lamb named Bogan. He stayed in the yard and followed me like a dog would. His mother was Dimple Doll, the ewe that Daddy had given me. He gave each of us a ewe lamb and heifer calf. We paid him back with a lamb and calf. After that we got the money from our lambs and calves when they were sold. My cow was named J.T. and she was a good milk cow. She was really easy to milk and all of us learned to milk at a very young age. My brother Ray liked to catch us not looking and squirt milk on us.


          Mr. Jumper, who came from the Chattanooga Stockyard to buy stock, was amazed that we all owned sheep and cattle. Other farmers did not let their kids own anything. We knew we had to manage our money. This is how I saved enough money to go to nursing school. When I was at Erlanger, Mr. Jumper was visiting a patient and looked me up. He said he had been down in the country and someone told him I was in nursing school there. I told him the sheep and cattle were paying my way.


Our Dogs

           Our dogs were very important to us. Before I can remember they had Clem and I heard lots of stories about him. When they went to see Grandma, Mama and the boys would walk across the ridge to Kaolin and catch the train to Valley Head. Kaolin was about 6 miles north of Valley Head on the Southern Railroad. Clem would go with them and wait there all day for them to come back. When I was little our dog was Whitie. She went everywhere we went on the farm and took care of us. After she died Uncle Bulie loaned us a dog named Bell. She was an English herder and was a good sheep dog. We were to keep her until she had puppies and keep the puppies. After she had puppies, we took her home three times but she would come back to us. It was a five-mile trip. He told us to just keep her and give him a puppy. Foyl had a black dog named Joe that he gave to Griff Johnson. He took him in a car to his home at Head River but he came back. That was several miles. When we had puppies, we always wanted to keep at least one. Daddy called us Tip Hawkins about our dogs because Tip liked his dogs. We always had plenty of meal so we made them lots of bread.


My Broken Arm

            We learned to do farm work at an early age. My brothers were young when they learned to plow. I remember hoeing the watermelons when I was 6 years old, with one hand because I had broken my left arm just after school was out. I tried to jump off a wheel but fell on my arm. Mama sent my sister, who was 4 years old, to the field to tell Daddy. He sent one of my brothers about a mile to the Wells’ house to call Dr. Gardner and he came to the house to check on me. When Dr. Gardner came, I would not open my eyes while he set my arm because I was afraid that I would cry. My brothers had taught me not to be a cry baby. He did not put it in a cast but put a thin board under my arm and wrapped it with gauze. I had to wear it in a sling for about a month. Mama made the sling out of a flour sack. My sister tried to help me hoe the watermelons but she was only 4 years old. After the melons got almost big enough to eat some boys plugged all the big ones, which ruined them. Daddy was really mad and went to see their parents because we had seen them do it. All my work was for nothing.


Swings, Sliding Board, and Water Fun

       When we got a new rope for the hay fork that pulled the hay into the hay shed, Daddy gave us the old rope and the boys made us swings. One you could sit down or stand up to swing. The other was put in the fork of a tree about 15 or 20 feet high. They fastened it there and let the two ends hang down. We held on with our hands and would swing out and around the tree. Several neighbor kids would come and swing with us.


         Mama told us about a slide her brothers had on the side of the ridge when they lived there. My brothers found the place and fixed it so we could use it. We used wide boards with a small piece nailed across the front to put your heels on. There was a slight indentation that went down the ridge. You got on your board at the top of the ridge and rode it to the bottom. It went fast and stopped at the bottom at the edge of the field. It was lots of fun and neighbor kids like to come and play with us.


           We made balls by wrapping string around a walnut. The string usually came from unraveling the fertilizer sacks. We would also wrap strips of cloth around a walnut. Our bats were whatever board we could find. Playing was for Sunday and after the crops were “laid by,” meaning you had finished working them and left them to grow and mature.


             Kids love to play in the water and we had plenty of that. The spring behind our house had a pool of water about as big as a house and then a stream that ran to the creek. A creek ran through the farm and we had more than one swimming hole. The best one was just over the line on Tip Hawkins’s farm and he let us use it. Daddy would let us quit work a little early to go to the creek. We did not have a bathroom so that was our bath. We always had to watch for snakes. We were often told “Watch for snakes,” or “Don’t get on a snake.”



           Before I started to school when I was 6 years old, the school bus took us to school and there was a doctor to check us at what is now the Home Ec Building. They checked our vision and gave us a shot and a smallpox vaccination. I thought the doctor was pretty silly. Mama had embroidered flowerpots and flowers on my dress. He told me not to turn the pots over and get my dress dirty. That was the first shot I had ever had and I think the first time I had seen a doctor since I was born.


           Your mother did not go with you your first day. I had two older brothers to take me to my room. The first day the teacher asked if we knew which bus we rode and I was sure that I did. I got on the bus but Foyl came and got me off. It was the right bus but we had to wait for it to make another route before we were taken home. The bus had a long board seat down each side and a wide one down the middle. We called it Rattler. We finally got a new one when I was in about the third grade.


          Miss Audrey Dobbs was my first,-grade teacher and was a really good teacher. She was very artistic and let us paint pictures and draw friezes. I was, believe it or not, the quietest kid in the first grade. We had music class and had plays. We did not have bathrooms in the building and had to go across the football field to a large toilet. We got the bathrooms when I was in the second grade. Our first reader was Dick and Jane. Those who started with me and graduated with me were Annie Louise Phillips, Emma Lee Phillips, Richey Philips, Bobby White and Harlan Cooper. I was related to all but Annie Louise and her uncle had married my cousin. We were friends for the rest of our life.


            Our second-grade teacher was Miss Mary Thornberry. She was an old maid, as we called it then, and tall and slender. She was also a good teacher. Besides the three R’ she let us model clay and paint pictures. Our third-grade teacher was Mrs. Frankie Hawkins. Her husband was Chad Hawkins who taught in high school and was a coach. He came back to Valley Head later and was the principal. He was really well liked, but I did not like her. She was the only teacher who made me cry. We were making a model of the town of Valley Head and she told me to make one of the stores. Since I had only been to the cotton gin and Bell’s store to get my shoes for school, I had no idea what she was talking about. She chewed me out and I cried. Then she chewed me out for crying. This was not my best year.


          Fourth grade was Mrs. Doris Patterson, another good teacher. One thing I remember about her class was that the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, she let Harlan Cooper go home, next door to the school, and bring a radio for us to listen to Roosevelt’s speech. Fifth grade was Mrs. King, a good teacher. She was older and large but took us on a picnic in the spring. It was almost a mile and over a ridge. She had a new wash tub and bought ice, lemons and sugar. There was a spring and we filled the tub and made lemonade. That was the most lemonade I had ever seen. She made this shy kid give oral reports. This probably helped me for things later.


(Photo: Linda made this compilation of Verenice's school pictures.)


            My sixth-grade teacher was Fannie Claude Austin Taylor. She was my favorite teacher of all time. She taught sixth grade one more year and then started teaching in high school, so I had her for five more years. At Valley Head the elementary school was first through sixth and it was in the south end of the building. High school was seventh through twelve and in the north end of the building.


            That year Friday was current events day and we got a little paper each week. Most of the news was “War News.”  We learned to identify airplanes and to watch for enemy planes. We did not know if we might be attacked here in America. We learned a lot about government, cabinet members, military officers and more about the war. I remember we studied about South America and lots of long division and fraction. I kept in touch with Mrs. Taylor until she died at the age of 97.


To be continued....

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