Memoir Part 2: Verenice Cooper Hawkins

July 15, 2020

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of Verenice Hawkins' memoir about growing up on a farm near Valley Head during the Great Depression. Scroll down The Planet's home page to access part 1.



          Both my grandfathers died before I was born and both my grandmothers died when I was 5 years old. Granny Cooper (left) lived with us the last few years of her life. We kept a close watch on her because there was a story about another ancestor who wandered off and was later found dead. I think this was Granny Brand. Granny would do things we did not think she should do, such as wade the branch with her shoes on. She would tell us not to tell Daddy.


          In addition to being a farmer, my daddy was a good builder and he had built a new house for his brother Uncle Clint and he and the boys had gone in the wagon to help them move into it. It was Christmas day about 1936 or 1937. We wanted to have turkey for Christmas but Mama would not kill a chicken or turkey. Granny and I did the job. I held the turkey’s head on the chop block and Granny chopped it off. Daddy and the boys were surprised when they got home and we had turkey.


           Granny was living with us when she died. She had been sick and was sleeping on a cot by the fireplace. It was winter and Daddy was going to start turning land for the next crop. He had talked to her and left for the field. Mama went to the kitchen and started work there. I sat by the fire near Granny. She groaned and went to sleep and I decided to go where Mama was working. Mama asked if Granny was all right.  I told her she had gone to sleep. Mama ran to check on her and I told her not to wake her up. Mama said, “Honey, your Granny is dead.” 


          Daddy was still close enough to call for him to come back. She died on February 22, 1938. The undertaker came to the house to embalm her and they put the casket in the front room. Relatives and friends all came there. She was buried in the Beene Cemetery which was in the corner of the farm where we lived. Friends and neighbors had helped dig the grave.


          Grandma Gifford lived about one mile south of us on Highway 11, about five miles north of Valley Head. Her house was on the south side of the Long Spring. This was another spring for us to play in and it had a spring house to keep her milk and butter. Uncle Jim Gifford’s house was north of the spring and he had a large flower garden between the house and the spring. He had a row of lilacs about 50 feet long beside the path from the spring. They smelled so good when they were blooming.


          People would stop their cars and get water from the spring. One day when we were there a car stopped and there was a black man. It was the first time I had ever seen a black man and I thought he was dirty and told Mama that she could wash that black off of him. Grandma thought that was funny.


          Mama made me what I thought were pretty dresses and sun suits. Grandma always had something critical to say about them. I told Mama that Grandma didn’t like my clothes and I was not going back to see her anymore. Mama told her and she said “Honey, I am just an old fogey. You come to see me and I won’t say any more about what you wear.”


           Grandma had pneumonia and had been sick for a few days. Shorty Gifford, a cousin, who had been to her house, came by our house and told Mama she was better. In a little while Mama began getting things ready for Daddy and Granny to fix breakfast. She was going to take Willene and me, catch the school bus that had delivered all the kids, and go to Grandma’s. Granny said, “The boy said she was better.” Mama said she just felt like she should go. Mama sometimes had premonitions about things. That night Mama fixed us a pallet on the floor. I woke up during the night and people were crying. Grandma had died. After Uncle Jim died, and then his wife, Aunt Gazzie, died, the farm was sold to Arthur Brown and the spring is now used by the Valley Head Water Company.

 Verenice's parents, Horace and Nancy Gifford Cooper


           Mama told about the Yankee soldiers camping there during the Civil War. She said one died and is buried under the sycamore tree north of the spring. She told my cousin, Annie Koger Young, that the original Head Springs Church was located here at the head of this spring and had burned down. The cemetery was about a mile north of there. When someone died, they had to take the body there by wagon. When the new church was built, they decided to build it near the cemetery. That is why it had a separate deed and no spring at Head Springs Church.


Cotton Farming

        We were more fortunate than some renters. A lot farmed on the halves. That meant the landlord furnished the equipment and got half the crop. We furnished the horses, mules, and equipment and the landowner got one-fourth of the cotton and one-third of the corn. I don’t remember how much hay and sorghum he got. We usually planted about six or eight acres of cotton. During the Depression, you had a cotton allotment and someone came and measured it. If you had too much you had to plow it up. We never had to plow any up. You were doing well if you got a bale from an acre. Sometimes we got two bales from an acre. When it got about one or two inches tall you “chopped” it. That meant thinning it to about six inches apart and one or two plants to each hill. After it grew to about six inches tall you hoed it to get out grass and weeds. You might have to hoe it one more time before you “laid it by.” This was the term used for stopping working the crop.


            About the first of July, cotton started blooming and putting on squares. Those squares turned into green balls called bolls. In the fall these bolls opened and were filled with fluffy white cotton. That was the time to pick it. We had sacks made of heavy duck with a strap to put over your shoulder that was about six feet long. You picked with both hands and put it in the sack. Usually you picked two rows at a time. You packed it down until you got the sack full. The wagon with high sideboards was parked nearby. You put the sack on your shoulder and carried it to the wagon. It was then weighed and emptied into the wagon. A sack full weighed about 50 pounds and it took 1300 pounds to make a bale.  I could pick 250 to 270 pounds of cotton in a day. When we had a bale picked, Daddy usually took it to Valley Head to the cotton gin. He was a very hard worker but never learned to pick cotton so he was the logical one to take it while we started on another bale.


         When we were little, Daddy would take us on one trip to the gin. The wagons lined up and waited their turn at the gin. The cotton was unloaded with a large tube which was called a suction. The cotton had been packed in the wagon to get enough for a bale. It had to be loosened for the suction. This was something kids could do. When the wagon was emptied, we went inside to watch the gin work. Daddy always let us see how things worked. The gin got the seeds out and made the lint into a bale which weighed about 500 pounds. This was loaded onto our wagon. We were given a sample to take to the merchants who would buy cotton. The price depended on how long the cotton fibers were. We would go to Bell’s store and get new shoes for school from Miss Jessie. Daddy usually bought us cheese and crackers and some hard candy. The seeds were brought home and saved to plant the next year. Some of the seeds were made into cottonseed meal and used as feed for the animals.


            Once when Ray was about 16 years old, he took a bale of cotton to the gin at Valley Head and put his wagon in line. He was helping the man in front of him unload his cotton. The man told him he had the best crop ever and that he was going to make a bale on each acre. Ray told him that he was going to make two bales on each acre. The man said, “You sound just like one of them lying Coopers.”  Ray told him he was a Cooper, but he was not lying. The bale on his wagon was the third bale off a two-acre plot and we were home picking another one. After his cotton was ginned, the man went to our cousin, Chester Cooper, to sell it and told him about the conversation. Chester told him that Ray wasn’t lying and that he had already bought two bales from him.


          When we had to hire someone to help pick, they were paid one to two dollars for 100 pounds. A good picker could pick 2-to 300 pounds in a day. Ray was our best picker and I was next. Before Mama had her stroke, she could pick the most. School would start the first part of August and we would go for six weeks. We would then be out six weeks to pick cotton. After we got older, we would walk through the ridge to Stanley Clark’s store to get our shoes or order things from the Sears Roebuck catalog. We each had our cotton patch, but knew we had to buy our clothes and books for school with the money.


Other Crops

      We could grow all the potatoes, sweet potatoes, popcorn, peanuts, broomcorn, watermelons and vegetables we wanted to grow and were not charged rent for that. We did share these with our landlord, George Phillips, especially the watermelons. When they got ripe, we would put a note in the mailbox. George Phillips, who owned the farm, was our mailman. They usually came the next Sunday to get some. We always shared watermelons with all the neighbors.


(Photo: Verenice shows off a freshly-harvested watermelon, and her legs.)


       We grew lots of corn for us and our animals. We ate lots when it was in the roasting stage. When it was dried, we took it to Stanley Clark’s to be ground into meal to make cornbread. It had to be sifted through a screen before you made the bread. They took some out for their pay for grinding it. This was called toll. We ate cornbread for dinner and supper and made it for our dogs. It was about two miles through the woods, on a logging road, to the store. He sold many different things at the store and often gave kids candy. If you asked if he had something, he would say “I think it’s back there somewhere. Just go look.”


          We put George’s corn in a separate part of the crib. We would weigh and sell it for him. We would put the money in the mailbox or if they had already paid him, he would leave us a note in the mailbox.


           It seemed that if we got our work caught up, Daddy would cut more hay. It was cut, let dry and raked with the mules or horses. It was raked into windrows and then shocked with pitchforks. Ted Rumley still has our old hay rake. The shocks were made so that a wagon could go between them to load it. It was then hauled, by a wagon with a hay frame on it, to the barn or hay shed.


          After the crops were gathered, the hay baler, which was worked by mules going in a circle, was set up and the hay pulled out and baled. We had a large hay fork that was used to unload the wagon and later to pull the hay out of the shed. We used the hay to feed our stock and if we had enough, we might sell some. We sold George’s hay for him. I remember when I was about 11 or 12 years old, a man came to buy hay and I weighed it for him. He did not seem to want to pay and I offered to show him my figures but he still hesitated. I told him George had not told us to let him have it without paying. A man who was with him told him that was how we did it. He paid me and I later asked Daddy if I had done the right thing. Daddy told me the man could not read and write and could not imagine that I could figure the amount he owed at my age.


Farm Animals

        We raised cattle and were not charged any rent. We each had our own cattle and got the money when they were sold. We milked one or two cows and we drank about three gallons of milk each day. The cows had to be milked each morning and evening. The milk was strained into glass jars and put in the spring to keep it cold. Some was allowed to clabber and churned to make butter and buttermilk. In summer the butter was kept in the spring. Cows could eat lots of corn and hay.


           We usually had about 50 sheep. We sold wool and lambs. Sometimes people bought lambs and killed and dressed them there on the farm. This was usually for the hotels and camps at Mentone. We were nosy kids and checked everything out, even the butchering of the animals. The sheep ate corn, hay and grass. Sometimes dogs would kill our sheep. We sometimes had to kill our own dogs because if they ever killed a sheep, they would never stopped killing them.


            We always raised two, three, or more hogs for our winter meat and the lard. We did not know about vegetable shortening at that time. We used lard in our cooking. If it got to tasting old, Mama would cook an Irish potato in it and that would improve the taste. The hogs were fed corn and table scraps which were called slop. Feeding them was referred to as “slopping the hogs.” They were kept in a pen so their water had to be taken to them. Another job for kids.


           The hogs were fattened before winter. When the weather got cold it was hog-killing time. Daddy usually hit them in the head with a hammer to kill them. Later when we had a rifle they were shot in the head. Hog killing was an all-day, job. A large amount of water was heated and after they were killed, they were scalded with that water. They were then scraped, with knives, all over to get the hair off. They were then hung by their hind feet, split open and their intestines all removed. The intestines were put in a tub and any fat was removed from them. One neighbor liked the lungs, called “lights,” so they were saved for him. We ate the liver but sometimes shared it. We did not do the intestine for chitterlings.


           The hog was then cut up into pieces called ham [the hind legs], shoulders [the front legs], “middlin's” [the sides], backbones and ribs. This last part is where you get the tenderloin. The hams, shoulders, and “middlin's” were salted down in a wooden box called a meat box. We later bought a special mix called sugar cure to cure them. All the fat part of the belly had the skin removed and was cut into pieces. It was then put in a large black iron pot and cooked slowly. This was called rendering the lard. The lean part near the backbones was ground with a sausage grinder. This was mixed with sage, salt and pepper and some was fried to eat then. Some was fried and canned. The backbones were cooked and eaten fresh. Some were shared with the neighbors, especially Tip Hawkins.


        After the fat was drained off, what was left was called “cracklin's.”  Mama would put these little pieces of fat along with chopped onion in the cornbread. This was called “cracklin'” bread. Sometimes this all took more than one day and took several people. Sometimes the neighbors helped each other with this. We usually ate meat only at breakfast except when the hog meat was fresh. Our other meals were just vegetables.



         We always had chickens. They usually roamed over the farm wherever they wanted to go. We depended on them for eggs which were an important part of our diet. Once Daddy built a nice chicken house with a furnace that could be fed wood from the outside to keep them warm in winter. He also built a large lot for them just outside. We sold eggs by full crates to the peddler and bought many things with the money. We would order our baby chicks and they would be delivered by mail. Sometimes we would get 2-or 300 chicks. At first, we would keep them in large cardboard boxes in our house. When they were a little bigger, we would put them in the chicken house.


           Of course, some of our hens would “set.” That meant they would sit on the nestful of eggs, for 21 days, until the eggs hatch. Sometimes after they hatched, we would put them in a coop, which was an A-frame structure made with slats with space between them and a section covered to keep out rain. We did this so that the hen would not take them off into the weeds where they could get lost. They were let out when they were a little bigger. The chicks could get out and run and play, but would then go back to the mama hen.


           Mama liked White Leghorns because they were good layers. Once my sister, Willene, got some Rhode Island Reds, which were bigger and better for eating. Some roosters would flog kids and that hurt. They were either eaten or sold to the peddler. We sometimes had fried chicken with biscuits and gravy for breakfast. To cook them you had to wring their neck or chop off their head. When you did that they would flop around for a short time even run. This is where we got the saying “like a chicken with its head cut off.”  You then scalded them in hot water and pulled all the feathers off. Then they were held over a fire to singe off the pin feathers [tiny new feathers]. You cut them open and took out the intestines. Next you cut them into pieces for cooking. If they were young you fried them. If they were old, they were boiled and  cooked into dumplings or dressing. Some of the hobos from the North, who stayed awhile and worked, said they would get rich if they could take Mama up North to fry chicken. They said they did not have fried chicken there at that time.


Ducks, Geese, and Guineas

        We had ducks and geese but did not eat them. We only used them to pick their feathers for pillows and feather beds. It was my job to catch them for Mama to pick them. I was afraid of them. If Mama didn’t hold them just right, they would bite her. They did not require much care. They wandered all over the farm hunting for their food.


           We always had guineas and they also took care of themselves. They were never penned up. We often used their eggs and sold the hen eggs to the peddler. It was sometimes hard to find their nest. They did not make as much noise as the chickens when they laid their eggs. The chicken hens always cackled when they laid their eggs. I reckon they were proud of it. We once found a guinea nest with 75 eggs in it.



         To plant the cane seed you had saved, you rubbed the heads, which contained the seed, on the rub board that you used to wash clothes. We had a planter we used to plant the seed. When the sorghum was about six inches tall you thinned it and hoed it. It grew to about six feet tall and had a head which contained the seeds. In the fall when it had matured and was ready for harvest, the leaves [fodder] were all striped off, it was cut with a brier blade and put in piles. Usually one person cut it and two people caught it and put it in piles. Sometimes the fodder was made into bundles to use for feed. The heads were cut off and that was another job for kids. Next, the cane was hauled to the mill and piled with the large end placed on a log so air could circulate and to keep it out of the dirt.


           We always made our own sorghum syrup and sometimes made some for other people. We did pay some rent on this--I think it was one-sixth. Everybody liked Daddy’s sorghum. The mill had heavy iron rollers that mashed the cane to get the juice out. A horse or mule went around in a circle to make it work. One person had to feed the cane into the mill and keep it full. It went through the rollers and the juice went into a barrel. It was strained before it went into the barrel. In the bottom of the barrel there was a pipe with a screen on it that took it to another barrel. There a pipe with a screen took it to the pan about 50 feet away. There it had a faucet you could open to let juice on the pan as needed. The pan was made of copper and was put away when not in use. It had to be set up over a furnace when the sorghum was to be made. Daddy thought his copper pan was a great treasure.


          A fire was built under the pan and the juice turned on. Green skimmings had to be removed as it cooked. This was done using a skimmer made for this purpose. The fire had to be kept just right to cook the juice. Daddy watched the pan closely. When the sorghum was done, it was run through V roofing about six feet long to where it was caught in a five-gallon lard can with a flour sack to strain it through. This let it cool some. When the can was full it was replaced with another one that was ready.


     The sorghum was poured into buckets, jugs, or other containers. The strainer cloth had to be taken to the spring and washed. My job was helping skim, putting wood in the furnace, keeping the sorghum stirred down into the can, washing the strainers, carrying cane to the mill and carrying off the cane that had gone through the mill. I decided it was time for me to have a turn grinding juice and let someone else do that job for a while. Daddy asked if I could keep enough cane in the mill and I was sure I could. He let me try it and it was easier than what I had been doing and after that we took turns.


          One time Willene decided that she wanted to wash the strainer. I told Daddy she couldn’t but he let her. He always let us try things before we were big enough to do them. She washed it and came back with one end dragging in the dirt. I had to take it back and wash it again. Daddy said “Well, the little thing wanted to try.” She was often referred to as “the little thing” or “it’s little.”


             Several people came when we made sorghum and sometimes, they played games and kind of had a party. You could smell it cooking about a half mile away. The Phillipses always came and usually brought friends with them. We fixed our food and ate at the mill because Daddy would not leave the pan and that was a little like a picnic. Sorghum-making was a lot of work but we enjoyed it.


The Wagon

        One of the things that was used a lot on the farm was the wagon. It was made in two sections. The back and front section each had two wheels. These were connected by a long two-by-four called a coupling pole. This stuck out, in the back, about three feet behind the wagon bed. You could use that part to get in the wagon or kids could ride on it. Another long board called the tongue came out at the front and you hooked the mules or horses to it at the front. Just in front of the wagon bed was a double tree with a single tree on each side. The chains that were connected to the horse’s harness were hooked to each side of the single tree. It had wooden wheels with spokes and a metal rim. If the rim was getting a little loose the wagon was driven into the spring branch and allowed to stay for a while. This would cause the wood to swell and tighten the rim. The wheels had to be taken off occasionally and axle grease put on the axle. We sometimes put this on any sores we had.


          A long box-like contraption called a bed was kept on the wagon most of the time. This was removed to haul logs. To haul hay, a hay frame was put on. This was wider with slats to haul the loose hay. One important part was the brake. This was a long pole called the brake stick. When pulled forward it made pads [brakes] fit against the back wheels. This kept the wagon from going too fast down a hill. If the wagon was going uphill and the horses needed to rest, you put the brake on to keep it from rolling back.


          To hook the horses to the wagon, you first put on their bridle and then their collar. Next came the hames. The collar was made of leather and was padded. The hames were made of wood and fit over the collar. The hames had places to hook the trace chains. The chains were on each side and were then hooked to each side of the single tree, which was made of wood and about two feet long. This was fastened to the double tree. There was also a back band and belly band. All this was kept in the gear room along with an assortment of tools. Where we lived this was in a separate small building. The tongue went between the horses and was hooked to them at the front.


            Kids learned to drive the wagon at an early age. You could have a seat in it, but most of the time you just stood up. You had to learn to balance yourself in the moving wagon. The coupling pole stuck out about three feet behind the bed and kids often rode on it. If you went somewhere at night, you hung a lantern on the front of the tongue and on the back of the wagon. We never had a car so wherever we went, it was in the wagon.


The Barn and Crib

          Our barn was a big building with stables on each side of a wide hallway that ran all the way through the building. There were side sheds on each side of the barn and some stables in those. Some had different uses such as one with the corn sheller.


          Each stable had a trough with an opening above it that opened to the hallway. This is where you put the corn in from the hallway and did not have to open the door. The barn had a loft where the hay was kept, both baled and loose hay. There were trapdoors in the floor above the racks in the stables so it could be dropped in. This was done every day in winter and when they were working. Hay was thrown outside or in the hall for the cattle and sheep. The loft was where the cats sometimes had their kittens and the hens made nest and laid their eggs.


          The manure had to be cleaned out of the stables regularly. You were just trash if you didn’t keep them cleaned out. This manure was used to fertilize the garden and put on places in the fields where the soil was poor. This would have been called organic gardening today. The hallway was wide enough to drive the wagon through to load it.  You used a wide fork, with a short handle and prongs close together, called a manure fork.


          Our corn crib was a separate building from the barn and had two sections. The north end was for our corn and the south for George’s corn. Up near the roof it had slats about an inch apart. I think this was to let the corn have air to dry it. There was a trapdoor near the roof, where the corn could be thrown in, near the back of the crib.


          Shucking corn was a daily chore. It took lots of corn because all the animals had to be fed, especially in winter. If they were not working in summer, they could eat grass. When you were shucking corn and found a really good ear you saved it for seed for the next crop. This was another job that kids could do.

To be continued...

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