Editor's Note: This is the third installment of Verenice's memoir about growing up on a farm near Valley Head during the Great Depression. It was edited, and the old photographs used here compiled by, her daughter, retired English teacher and local history writer Linda Hawkins Wilson. To see earlier segments, scroll down The Planet's home page.
Some Things We Grew
In early spring you made a bed to grow sweet potato plants. You put manure in first and then a layer of sawdust or rich soil. Lay your potatoes on this and cover with sawdust or rich soil. Daddy made the rows with a turning plow. The rows were filled with manure and then covered to make a ridge. This was leveled with a hoe and made ready to set out the plants.
When the plants were big enough, if it came a good rain, you could drop the plants on this ridge and put the end of a stick on the root and push it into the ground. You then take the stick and push dirt into the hole. If it did not rain, you had to water the plants. In the fall the potatoes were plowed up and stored in the cellar. We grew several bushels to last all winter. Mama often had a pan full of baked sweet potatoes coming out of the oven when we got home from school. Sometimes Daddy would take his knife and scrape a raw potato and we liked to eat that. We often ate some of them raw.
We always had a big watermelon patch and usually planted some for later. The rows were laid off with a turning plow, filled with manure and covered using the turner. The seeds were planted about six feet apart in hills. This was to give room for the vines to run. We always saved seeds from the best melons and had several kinds. We often hauled them in with the wagon and put them in the spring branch. This kept them cold and we could eat them any time we wanted. Usually we grew them just for our own use, but one year we planted about three acres to sell. One of the neighbors had a truck and hauled them to Chattanooga to the curb market for us. Sometimes he and Daddy drove down the street selling them. Daddy really enjoyed this and made quite a bit of money that way. We always gave the Phillipses and many neighbors some of our watermelons. If we had company Daddy would always suggest, “Let’s cut a melon.” He loved watermelons and loved to grow them. He thought kids could not be healthy if they did not eat watermelons.
"The Green Place," the farm where both Verenice and her mother were born, and where Verenice grew up.
Peanuts were always planted in the spring. When they were ready in the fall, we pulled them up. The nuts grew underground. You shook all the dirt off of them and turned them upside down to dry. Later they were shocked on racks to let them dry more. The peanuts were picked off or hauled to a building to be picked off later. We ate peanuts all winter both raw and parched. We usually kept a few in our pockets to snack on. We made peanut brittle using sorghum. Daddy always gave peanuts to any kids that visited us. We always saved seeds to plant the next year. One year we grew 12 bushels of peanuts.
Popcorn was grown for our own use. This was gathered and let dry. When we used the fireplace, we had a popcorn popper made of screen wire. It had a long handle with a wood handle on the end. This was held over the fire and the corn would pop. We liked to watch this. We never used salt or butter with our popcorn. We ate lots of popcorn and made popcorn balls with sorghum. We even poured milk on it and ate it like cereal. Of course, you saved some to plant the next year.
Not all farmers had bees, but we did. My folks believed in having as many things as you could. Our bee gums were not fancy and there was no fancy equipment. They were made of 12-inch boards about three feet long, put together like a box with a cross piece in the middle for the bees to attach the honeycomb. In the summer, when it came time for the bees to have filled the gum, we would rob them. We put on long sleeves and our hoods made from screen wire and cloth. The screen went all around your head and the cloth at the bottom covered your neck. A round piece of cloth was at the top. This kept the bees from getting to you. You also wore gloves.
We had a smoker to smoke the bees off the honey and off of you. My job was to use the smoker while Daddy cut the honey out with a butcher knife. The smoker was a round can with a bellows attached. You used wool rags in it to make the smoke. When you pumped the bellows, the smoke would puff out and make the bees leave. The honey was put in a dish pan and taken to the house to be put in containers. We liked to chew the honey comb. At that time, we had very little chewing gum so we chewed the comb instead.
The bees would divide, by swarming, when a gum got too many bees. Farm kids knew how to settle a bee swarm. If you had a cowbell it was great but if you did not you beat on a tin pan. The bees would be in the air and the noise would cause them to settle on a limb or other object. You would set the bee gum near there and begin pecking on the gum to get them to come into it. It was important to save the new swarm. Our bee gums were near the spring and we learned that if we got stung to put the area of the sting in the cold running water. We would then put baking soda on it. This is still my treatment for bee stings. Once a bumble bee stung me on the top of my head and Mama poured water over it. It washed most of the poison off and everywhere the water touched me swelled like I had been stung, even my foot.
Bees often settled in hollow trees and made honey. Daddy liked to hunt bee trees. Bees would get water from a pond or stream. He would follow them and find where they were going in a tree. He would cut the tree, get the honey and put the bees in a gum. When winter came, he would move the gum to where he wanted it because the bees were sleeping then.
Hot biscuits with butter and honey were something we ate for breakfast and chewed the comb for a snack. When Daddy died, he had two hives that Mama gave to my son, Ronnie. When we went to get them, Mama told Glen and Ronnie to put a rag in the hole where the bees came out. They just looked at her so she put the rag in the hole and we moved them. Ronnie liked to work with them and was doing well until he got stung and had an allergic reaction. That was the end of his beekeeping. Dr. Holiday gave him shots for his allergy.
The Dangers of Farm Work
Farm work could be dangerous and Foyl was the one in our family who got hurt. Once when they were hauling in some bales of hay, it got dark before they were finished and the wagon hit something and caused Foyl and some bales to fall. There was a bolt on the wagon bed that ripped his forearm for about five inches. Ray walked the mile in the dark to get the neighbor to call Dr. Gardner. Only the skin was torn and Dr. Gardner let me watch him sew it up. I was about 9 or 10 at that time. Farm work was from daylight until dark, but Daddy declared there would be no more working after dark because it was too dangerous.
Foyl got another injury, not on our farm but on our uncle’s. He and our cousin Pete Gifford were pulling stumps with a tractor. Foyl got his fingers caught between the chain and the stump. He was taken to a clinic in Fort Payne and part of his fingers had to be removed. Another cousin brought the fingers to us for disposal. An old wives’ tale said that if the fingers were buried and the ants got on them, he would have phantom pain. We sealed them in a glass jar and buried them in the orchard.
I remember when our first toilet was built. I was very little but before that we went behind the barn and used a corn cob to wipe with. Not the best, but it did get the job done. The toilet was built with scrap lumber and was a two-seater. We had never heard of toilet paper. We used old Sears catalogs. The index pages were best because they were softer. A sack of lime was kept there to dump a little in occasionally. The outhouse was located some distance from the house and seemed a long way to go on a cold morning. If you were in the woods and had to go you used leaves to wipe. Better be sure to know what kind. You did not want to use poison oak. A chamberpot was kept under the bed to be used during the night.
I was in nursing school before we got a bathroom in our house.
Since we lived several miles from any store, the peddlers were an important part of our lives. Jeff Crane came on Monday, Bell’s with Paul Burnett and “Shine” MacNew on Tuesday and Bill Blackburn and Lester Chadwick on Friday. The peddler was a big truck or old school bus with shelves to hold the merchandise. We bought flour, sugar, salt, soda, baking powder, coffee, coal oil, cloth, thread and a few other things. We usually paid with our eggs or chickens.
Mama would let us pick out the cloth for our dresses. She sometimes bought chicken feed in print sacks that she later used to make us dresses. We traded some with each peddler but not every week. They would blow their horn to let us know they were coming. We always watched for them and if there were enough eggs, we might get some candy. Shine liked to tease my little sister. If she wanted kisses, a popular candy, he would tell her he would give her all the kisses she wanted. She did not appreciate his humor and let him know it. If they did not have an item you needed, they would bring it from their store the next week. I think they let some people buy on credit, but we never did. If we did not have the money, we just did not buy anything.
There was land that joined the small farm we owned that was railroad land. I think it had been given to the railroad company thoget them to build the railroad. Daddy decided we should buy some of that land. We would save for a year and buy 40 acres from the Alabama State Land Company. At first it was $50 for 40 acres. It went up to $75 for 40 acres. Daddy got the boys to each buy 40 acres and he bought several more. It all joined our original 24 acres. One 40 was left and he talked George Phillips into buying it because it joined his land.
A farm on US 11 that joined our land came up for sale. The price for this farm was $2000. Daddy paid $1000 and each of the boys paid $500. They had used all the money they had for the land and used some I had for a fence to go around all of it. We then had 500 acres and it went from our valley through the ridge and across US 11.
Uncle Oat owned the farm on 11 when the highway was built and he had them build a tunnel under the highway so his cattle could go to the creek for water. We built a pond in the middle of the ridge so they would have water there. Daddy tried to buy the 40 acres from George so our fence could go straight. He did not want to sell, but told us to fence it in with ours.
We had to do a lot of work on this farm before we moved to it. The original house was a two-story log house. It was built on a hill and a room with a cellar under it was built about halfway up. It was a split-level house. The log part had not been sealed so we did that. It had to be wired for electricity and Foyl did that. Willene and I sealed and put a floor in our upstairs bedroom. We moved when I was 16 years old. We were a little sad to leave the place where we had grown up and where Mama had grown up, but we were moving to property that we owned. It took us several weeks to move. We moved our things in the wagon and it was about two miles. We had accumulated lots of tools and farm equipment in 17 years. One of the things we missed was the spring for our good cold milk. Daddy built a concrete box by the well and we would fill it with cold well water but it did not stay cold. It was a while before we got a refrigerator.
Death and Illness
When I was growing up most people died at home. Very few people went to the hospital. If they were sick for a long time the neighbors would take turns helping. This sometimes meant “settin’ up” all night. The doctor made house calls and did what he could. This was before antibiotics.
(Photo: Verenice's maternal grandparents, Thomas and Mary Ann Gifford.)
When someone died, the undertaker came to the home and embalmed them and the body was left in the home for the visiting. The neighbors brought food and did the “settin' up” with the body. I remember when our neighbor Tip Hawkins died, Clyde, his son, asked my brothers and me to stay that night. He said everyone else would go home and that is what happened. He insisted that we go to his house the next morning for breakfast. His wife, Thelma, cooked lots of cured ham and had fresh tomatoes.
Most funerals were held at the churches and there might be two preachers. Singing was usually the congregation. Funeral homes did not have much help and teenage girls were asked to carry the flowers. These were called “flower girls.”
Graves were dug by hand and neighbors would stop their farm work to help with this. They also covered the casket with dirt and made a mound about a foot high. Land for our cemeteries had been donated earlier and no one was charged for a grave. People in the community kept them cleaned. If someone was being buried at the Beene Cemetery, which was on the corner of the farm where we lived, we would report to Mama about who was digging the grave so she knew how many to cook dinner for, because Daddy would invite them all to eat with us.
If the family could not afford a casket the men built it out of lumber and the women lined it with cloth. Foyl told that when he was little a neighbor had died and Daddy was helping build the casket. Help was needed with the grave so Uncle Tom Troxtel, who was building his son’s casket, asked Daddy to go help and leave Foyl to help him. Foyl said it was a hard job for a little boy but he did it.
(Photo: Verenice's daddy, Horace Cooper)
I once read that Southern country people handle death better because they are taught from when they are little that this part of life. In some areas, children are not taken to funerals or talked to about death.
Mama’s Premonitions and Daddy’s Lessons
My mother often had premonitions and my Daddy frequently found lessons to teach us that came out of everyday events. Once, when my brother Ray was in the Army, Mama got up one morning and said, “I’ve got a feeling that Ray is coming home.” We had not heard anything from him and we joked and teased her about it, especially when it got dark and there was no sign of Ray. By then we were living in the house on Highway 11, and about 11 that night, the Greyhound bus stopped at our driveway and Ray got off.
Another time when I was about 4 years old, I remember we were awakened in the middle of the night by a car horn that was stuck. U.S. Hwy. 11 was about a half mile from our house and there was a sharp curve there where accidents often occurred. Mama said, “Oh, I just know it’s a wreck and it’s one of Oat’s boys and one of Tip’s boys!” Oat was Oat Cooper, Daddy’s older brother, and Tip was Tip Hawkins, our nearest neighbor. Daddy got his clothes and shoes on and started running to the scene. Mama and I went out on the porch and she would holler for Daddy to hurry. She was very agitated. She said she just knew they were hurt badly. She was very upset, but when she could tell Daddy had gotten there, she was relieved and said he would take care of them.
Mama was right. One of the men in the wreck was Wendy Cooper, Daddy’s brother Oat’s son. Another was Russell Hawkins, our neighbor Tip’s son. The third was a Campbell boy who lived nearby. The driver was Hatchie Hammon who was drunk and trying to set the car on fire with some of them still in it. He was not hurt.
Russell was hurt the worst and was taken to Chattanooga to Newell’s Hospital. Someone took the Campbell boy to his home and Daddy got someone to take him and Wendy to Valley Head for Dr. Ritchey to check him and then to his home there. When Daddy got home, he went to Tip’s to make sure he knew how bad Russell was hurt. His sons had told Tip that Russell was hurt, but not that it was bad. Daddy insisted that Tip needed to go see about him and he did.
The next day, Mama took me with her to check on the Campbell boy. I remember Mama and his mother were busy talking and I was sitting in a chair by the boy’s bed. I reached over and patted him on his shoulder and told him I was going to make him get better. He opened his eyes and said something to me and Mama told me not to bother him. His mother was very pleased and told Mama it was the first time he had reacted to anything. Years later, when I was a student nurse in surgery at Erlanger, we were operating on a man whose tractor had turned over on him. I found out that that man was the “Campbell boy,” the same man that I had told that I would make him better.
Russell had to stay in the hospital several days. After he came home, we went to see him and I insisted we go through the watermelon patch so I could take him a watermelon, which Daddy had to carry. Russell’s jaws were wired together, but he could drink the juice through a straw.
This event brought on another of Daddy’s lessons, as he called them. He said if someone was hurt, it did not matter who they were or what they were doing, or if they were drunk, you took care of them.
(Photo: Harmoney Grove)
The time for revivals or protracted meetings was in the summer after the crops were laid by. This was when the people had time to go. The churches near us were Harmony Grove, Lea’s Chapel and Lookout Chapel. Many people walked to these services and would be joined by others on their way. Sometimes the boys would find a girl to walk home with. Some with kids too little to walk that far went in wagons. The mules or horses were tied to a tree in the churchyard while the service was held. Others went in cars and picked up people along the way.
The lights in the church were coal oil lamps placed on shelves on the wall. Once when I was little, I told Mama the preacher was not practicing what he preached. He had preached about the wise and foolish virgins and the oil in their lamps. He kept saying “Get good oil in your lamps.” Some of the lamps at church were about to go out, and I decided the oil was not good.
We would hang a lantern on the tongue of the wagon and on the coupling pole. There were not many cars on the road. Sometimes little kids went to sleep during the service. These services were usually held every night for a week or two weeks. If some joined the church, there would be a baptizing in a creek near the church. This was usually on a Sunday afternoon and they always sang, “Shall We Gather at the River?”
Some churches had all-day singings with dinner on the grounds. Some had picnic tables and others moved benches outside to put the food on. There was always lots of food and most of the women were good cooks. Sometimes they would have singing school to teach people to sing. Most churches had what was called seven-note singing, but Head Springs had Sacred Harp or four-note singing. Mama could sing both and loved the singings. She ordered new Stamps-Baxter songbooks every year.
We did lots of singing while we worked and Daddy would make up songs about our work. Mama’s mother was a Primitive Baptist, sometimes called "Hard Shell Baptist." They did not have an organ or piano in their church and sang the Sacred Harp songs. Head Springs Church burned several years ago. That cemetery is where Mama’s parents and all 11 children are buried. My parents and my brothers and sisters are also buried there. It is a community cemetery and is kept up by donations and work by the people in the community.
I was born during the Depression and we were so poor, we never had Santa Claus, but we had plenty to eat and did not miss having Santa. We usually had some fruit and hard candy and Mama made cakes.
The year that I was 5 and Ray was 9, he decided that we should play Santa Claus for our sister Willene, who was about 3. Daddy had killed a squirrel and skinned it. Ray dried the hide and stuffed it to make her a toy. I tried to tell him this would not work, but he would not listen. He really thought it would be good to have Santa for her. After she went to bed Christmas Eve he went to work for Santa. He put the stuffed squirrel in her hightop, shoe. We wore long brown stockings and he put an apple, an orange, and hard candy in her stocking. He was really excited about how glad she would be about Santa coming.
We both got up early to watch her when she found Santa had been there. Mama was in the kitchen cooking breakfast and Daddy had gone to the barn to feed and milk the cows. When she got up Ray said, “Look what Santa has brought you.” She got so mad. She dumped the squirrel out of her shoe and said, “Ain’t no damned Santa Claus. That’s the squirrel Daddy killed.” He tried to tell her it was from Santa.
About that time, she found her stocking. She got it by the toe and started slinging fruit and candy all over the room. She repeated, “Ain’t no damned Santa Claus. It’s that dammed Nenny (Rennie) (me) and Nay (Ray). They have stretched the best damn stocking I had all to hell.”
Daddy came in from the barn about that time and did not know what to think. She had learned all the bad words from him, so he couldn’t say too much. I really felt sorry for Ray because he had really thought he was doing a good deed. We did not try to have Santa for her any more. Maybe she did remember his effort to be kind because she always liked him better than Foyl and me. When I try to tell this story, I still laugh until I cry.
I don’t think we were harmed by not believing in Santa. We always had plenty of the things we really needed. I remember telling Daddy that my friend got a doll for Christmas. He explained that her daddy was on the WPA and that we did not have to do that because we could make it on our own. I doubt if Daddy had Santa because times were hard when he was little. I remember one Christmas Mama cooked five cakes. I am sure we ate all of them but not in one day. We really thought that was a big Christmas.
(Photo: The Cooper family a bit later, when everyone was grown.)
When we were older, Willene and I would put up a Christmas tree. We would find one on the farm, cut it ourselves and make a stand. We would make paper chains to decorate it. We did not have glue but used paste made from flour and water. We would pop popcorn and use a needle and thread to make a rope with it. These were our main decorations. We thought our trees were pretty. We made sorghum candy and popcorn balls using sorghum because we had plenty of it.
In summer we would go swimming in the creek. We made dams to try to make a better swimming hole. The best swimming hole was called the water gap. It was on the line between the two farms but the best place for swimming was on Tip Hawkins’s farm. He didn’t care if we went swimming there. We made water wings by placing sealed half gallon syrup buckets in each end of a fertilizer sack. You put this sack under both arms with the buckets to your back. That is how we learned to swim. I learned to float but my brothers couldn’t and that made them mad. After working hard all day, Daddy would let us stop early enough to go to the creek and wash the dirt off. We wore old clothes to swim in until we were older. I think I got my first bathing suit when I was about 14.
During the summers when we were teenagers, we had parties on Saturday nights. Some of the parents would come and visit with the parents where we were having the parties. I think they enjoyed the parties too. Usually there were some girls in the family to fix food. Sometimes we had wiener roasts. Nobody had much money, so food was simple. One favorite food was Ritz Crackers and peanut butter. Kool Aid was used and sometimes bottled drinks. Sim and Addie Hall had two boys, Thomas and Bob, but they had us at their house once.
One of the games we played was spin the bottle. The girls were in a circle with the bottle in the center. The boy would spin the bottle and got to take a walk with the girl it pointed to when it stopped. Double tap was another game. Everyone joined hands in a circle with one couple left out. They went around the circle and tapped the hands of a couple. They had to run the other way and try to beat them back to their place. Transportation to the parties was walking. Sometimes it was a mile or two and dark going home. We were used to walking in the dark. Sometimes a boy would walk a girl home after the party.
In elementary school we played London Bridge, Red Rover, Crack the Whip and dodgeball. In high school it was softball, volleyball, basketball and soccer. On rainy days when we had to stay inside we had square dancing and tumbling. Miss Lowe, our PE teacher really knew how to teach PE.
Little girls built playhouses on the playground. There were several ways to do this. You could use rocks, boards or sticks to make the walls. Spaces were left for doors. Boards were stacked on rocks to make cabinets. Broken dishes, can lids and other items were used in the playhouses. We visited each other in our playhouses and called each other Mrs. Lady. We had many names for the things we made with mud. We always used “dab-a-dina” flavoring in our cakes and they had “mossena” icing made by putting moss on them. The neighbor girls had playhouses and we would visit and play with them. They would sometimes let their little brothers play with us.
To Be Continued...