Memoir Part 4 : Verenice Cooper Hawkins


Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment of Verenice's memoir about growing up on a local farm 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. 



            When I was growing up, we did not have antibiotics so different treatments were used. We used Epsom salts for soaks and also it was also used for high blood pressure, especially for elevated blood pressure during pregnancy. Saltwater [saline] soaks are still used today.


          Soda was taken for indigestion. Turpentine was used for many things. Axle grease was used on the axles of the wagons and we also put it on our sores. Once the vet left some purple medicine for the horse and we decided it would be good for us, so we used it. When I was in nursing school, I found it was gentian violet and was good medicine.


          A flannel cloth with coal oil was put on the chest for coughing. Fat meat was put on some things. I wonder if the salt in it was what helped. Sweet oil was used for earache. Sulphur and molasses were supposed to be a tonic. Sassafras tea was made in the spring. I think it was supposed to be a tonic. Some people used castor oil but we did not.


          Watkins salve was often used. Mr. Fred Morgan was our Watkins man and he lived in Dade County. Daddy believed in red oak bark boiled in water, with alum added, used as soaks. Scraped Irish potato was used for some things. Soda was put on bee stings after they were washed with running water. Oil of cloves was the treatment for toothache. If Mama was having trouble with her nerves Dr. Gardner came and gave her red liquid medicine. I think it might have been phenobarbital.


            I was checked by a doctor at the school before I started to school in first grade. When I was six years old and broke my arm Dr. Gardner came to our house and set my arm. I saw Dr. Ritchey once for a sore throat. Dr. Quimby did my physical before nursing school. Those were my only contacts with doctors before I went to nursing school.


World War II

              I was 9 years old and in the fourth grade when the war started. On Monday after Pearl Harbor, our teacher let Harlan Cooper who lived next door to the school go home and bring a radio to school so we could listen to President Roosevelt’s speech. Yes, I heard that famous speech.


          We kept up with the war with the weekly papers each student got. Fridays were current event days. We learned about the different airplanes and to identify them. We learned to identify enemy planes because we didn’t know if they might attack our country. We were taught about cabinet members and officers. Our former principal, Mr. Peterson, was an officer. One of our Valley Head boys saw him with MacArthur in Japan after they surrendered and he knew where all our boys were during the war.


              Many things were rationed and we had to have ration books with stamps to buy those things. We grew most of our food but sugar was rationed. Since we had lots of sorghum Mama used it to make lots of things. Coffee was rationed so Mama and Daddy decided they would just stop drinking it if it would help the war effort. Shoes were another thing that was rationed and we could get only two pairs each year. We went barefoot in summer and Daddy could repair shoes. We did not have a car, truck or tractor so the gasoline rationing did not bother us.


               My brother Foyl got old enough for the draft, but he failed the physical. He had some type of nervous condition that made his head jerk. Bill Cason who had lived with us and worked for us for three years had to go.


(Photo: Foyl and Horace)


          We did not have electricity but got a battery radio while the war was going on. The news was referred to as the “War News.”  If you were near Tip Hawkins’s house when the news came on, he wanted you to come in and listen with him. He would tell you what “Jay-pan” was doing and about “them Eye-talians.”


                Because of the gasoline shortage we had to walk to Highway 11 to catch the school bus and walk home from there in the afternoons. For us, it was just about half a mile but for some of the kids it was one and a half miles. If it was raining, the bus would take us home.


              We saved grease, rubber and scrap iron for the “war effort.”   At school all paper was written on both sides and that was another thing we saved. There was a saying, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” Most people tried to do their share. We made lots of sorghum and it brought a good price during the war. This helped pull us out of the Depression.



            After the war was over, we got electricity. People on US 11 already had power and to bring it from there to us one pole had to be put on John Tatum’s land. He was not going to let them put it there, but we heard that they told him they would cut his power off if he didn’t let them set the pole. He was so stingy that once when there was a car wreck near his house, he would not call the ambulance until someone paid him for the call.


          We were really glad to get the power and the lights were the main thing. One of the first things we got was an iron and churn. This was all we got until after we moved but we were really glad to get those. We did not have an electric stove, refrigerator, water in the house, or bathroom until after I was in nursing school. I have no wish to go back to the “good ole days.”


Farm Chores

               Kids who grew up on a farm in the thirties and forties learned to do many things at an early age. If you had two older brothers as I did, they thought you should learn to do all the things they did. I don’t remember when I learned to hoe. As I mentioned earlier, just after school was out when I was in the first grade, I broke my arm. Daddy said he guessed the watermelons would just grow up and we would not have any because he and the boys had so much work to do that, they could not hoe them. I declared that I could hoe them. My 4-year-old sister decided she would help me and we did get them hoed with me using only my right hand and arm.


             Taking care of the animals was something the kids learned to help with. Corn had to be shucked and shelled for some of them. The hogs had to be fed which was called “slopped.” They also had to have water. Chickens had to have feed and water if they were penned in and some of ours were. Stove wood to cook with had to be carried in both summer and winter. In winter, wood for heating had to be carried in. Water had to be carried from the spring and milk carried to and from the spring. Cows had to be milked night and morning. We learned to milk at an early age and my cow JT was the one we learned on because she was so gentle and easy to milk. This was called “doing the night work.”


             While we were still pretty young, we learned to put the harness on the horses or mules and hook them to the wagon or plow. Kids learned to put fertilizer and seed in the planter for whoever was doing the planting and we soon learned to do the planting. Daddy and the boys would lay off the rows and I could run the planter. The horse would follow the row. I used to say that I was probably the only public health nurse in the state of Georgia who could and had plowed with a mule.


            We learned to drive the wagon and haul hay. The hay was raked into windrows and then shocked with pitchforks, leaving enough room for the wagon to go between the shocks. Willene and I would drive and pack the hay that the boys loaded onto the wagon. When we had a good load, we took it to the hayshed where one of the boys used a huge fork to take it off the wagon and haul it into the hayshed and dump it. This fork was pulled with a rope by one of the horses at the back of the shed. One of us girls worked this horse while the other brother spread the hay in the shed.


          Once I was doing this while a neighbor and Foyl were getting the thrasher ready to thrash oats. The tractor they were using scared our red mule a little. I heard the neighbor, D.M. Humble, ask Foyl if that boy could handle that mule. When he asked the second time Foyl said “What boy are you talking about?”  He indicated that it was me. Foyl laughed and told him I was no boy, I was his sister, and that I could handle the mule. We said if we had nothing to do Daddy would always cut more hay.


(Photo: Nancy, Verenice's mother, with Eloise, the child of her first marriage.)


              Picking cotton was another job learned early. Mama made us sacks out of heavy duck material. At first, we could only pick one row at a time but soon we were able to pick two rows. By the time I was 13 or 14 I had a big sack that would hold 50 pounds. When it was full, I put it on my shoulder and carried it to the wagon. It was weighed and emptied into the wagon with the cotton sideboards that would hold enough for a bale. This was about 12- to 1300 pounds.


              Daddy always found something to do. In the winter when we had the fireplace, I remember him making handles at night. He would cut hickory and take the bark off. It was kept by the fireplace to dry. He did not have sandpaper but used a piece of broken glass to scrape it into the size and shape he wanted. When the boys got older and stronger, they would break the bought handles lifting the heavy loads so the hickory hands were necessary.


             Churning was another chore that kids learned early. You had to work the churn dash up and down until the butter came. Not a hard job but just took time. We would sometimes sing while churning and the song was, “Come butter come. Come butter come. Johnny’s at the garden gate waiting for his butter cake. Come butter come.”  When the butter came to the top, you skimmed it off the top, worked the milk out, added a little salt, and it was ready to be used.


Hired Help

             Before we were old enough to do much of the farm work, Daddy often hired people to help him. They all liked Mama’s cooking and that was part of their pay. Bill Cason, a young man who lived near us, worked and lived with us for three years. He would help make the crop and when it was “laid by,” he would go traveling. He did this by catching a freight train and going lots of places. When it was time to gather the crop, he came back and lived with us. He had many stories to tell us about his travels. We got geography lessons from him and others who worked for us. Bill was with us so much that he was almost like part of our family. He was drafted when the war started.


             Robert Blansit was another young man who worked for us. He had a crippled hand and would tell us “This poor ole crippled boy is going to have something someday.”  He became a truck driver and saved and invested and when he died, he left money for the upkeep of the Head Springs Cemetery where my folks are buried. I remember Roscoe Steele working some for us and we liked him.


             During the Depression people would work for just something to eat. We always had plenty to eat, so Daddy let them work and spend the night or a day or two. We had people from different areas. Once two brothers stopped with us. They were from one of the New England states and had had some money to do some traveling, but someone had stolen their money and their suitcase with their clothes. When they got to our house, they were in pretty bad shape, but willing to work. They had lots of stories to tell us and we really enjoyed them. They stayed with us two weeks and wrote their mother and she sent them money to come home on the bus. Their mother wrote us a letter thanking us for letting them stay.


Mama’s Stroke

             When I was 14 years old, Mama had a stroke. We came home from school and she was washing clothes. She went to the spring to get a bucket of water and didn’t come back. When I went to check on her, she was lying on the ground near the spring and was unconscious. Some men were there to buy hay and helped my brothers carry her to the house. When the doctor came from Valley Head, he said she had had a stroke. She regained consciousness but was bedfast for several weeks.


(Photo: Nancy Cooper, Verenice's mama)


             This changed our routines at home. Daddy would get up early and build a fire in the stove. I would cook breakfast while he fed the animals and milked. I then strained the milk and got ready for school. When we got home from school, I would put supper on to cook and let Willene watch it while I went to milk the cow. Every other night she would milk and I would watch the supper. Wood had to be carried in and water carried from the spring. The milk also had to be carried from the spring for supper. Dishes had to be washed and school homework done all by lamplight.


             It took Mama several months to recover. She never worked in the fields again, but did her garden. This happened in the winter and by the next summer I could go in from the field and put dinner on and she could watch it. I did all the canning that year. She finally completely recovered and on her 65th birthday was helping Daddy put a roof on a house he was building. She lived to be almost 88 years old.


High School

           When I was in school at Valley Head, grades seven, eight and nine were junior high and 10, 11 and 12 were senior high. I believe the war was over when I was in the seventh grade. Some of the teachers were not as good as our elementary teachers and we had to adjust to changing classes. We still had chapel programs with lots of singing. Our former sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Taylor, taught us in the eighth grade. Her husband had come home from the Navy and was teaching and coaching. Robert G. “Lefty” Johnson came home from the Air Force to teach.


             Discipline had not been very good and we got a needed change in the ninth grade. Mr. Ronald Wilson became our principal and he got things going in the right direction. His wife came with him and was a good teacher. I was a little afraid of him. I had study hall in the library the first period in the morning. One day he came to the door and motioned for me to come to the hall. I could not imagine what I had done. The school did not have a secretary and he wanted me to stay in the office that period. I took the absentee list to teachers and other things he needed done. I had never talked on a telephone but one day it started ringing and he was not there. I had seen him answer it, so I answered.


(Photos, left and below: Teen pics of Verenice)


             The school was small and did not offer many different subjects, but I had some really good teachers the last three years. When I went to nursing school, I was with girls who were valedictorians of their classes and some had some college. They were not any better prepared than I was. I had graduated third in my high school class and then graduated third in my nursing school class.


             Mrs. Taylor was one of my favorite teachers. She was our home room teacher and taught math when I was in the eighth grade. She became librarian when I was in the ninth grade. She cried when we graduated. She had watched us grow up.


            Her husband, Bruce, taught math and science and coached. He would have you give an answer and then try to make you change your mind. If you did you got his lecture. He would say “Get the facts, study them carefully, make your decision and don’t let anyone change your mind, unless they prove you wrong. That is how life is. Don’t let others cause you to change without proof that you are wrong.” This was a help to me in nursing school and later in life. The last year he coached, our football team was not even scored on until the last two games. The last game was the Valley Head-Fort Payne Thanksgiving game and we won with a 40-yard pass in the last forty seconds of the game. 


                A year later, the Taylors left Valley Head and taught in Mobile, Alabama. He became principal of Murphy High School, which was the largest high school in Alabama. When he retired, they had a big celebration with a parade and called it R.B. Taylor Day.


            Charlie Nell Johnson taught Home Ec, and her husband, Robert G. Johnson, taught history and social studies. Both were very good teachers. Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Taylor had lived together during the war. Mrs. Johnson told me when she saw my name, which is different, on Mrs. Taylor’s roll she thought it should be pronounced Very-nice. Not sure she thought that after teaching me.


            Mrs. Johnson taught us to cook, sew, can, draw house plans, decorate a house, and many other things. She got Vivian Ellis, a local nurse, to teach us a two-week home nursing class. I had thought I wanted to be a nurse and that convinced me. Several years later when I was the public health nurse in Dade County, Vivian Ellis was the nursing supervisor for our 10 counties. The Johnsons moved to Gadsden and he taught in a junior college there.


           Anna Lee Tucker and Elizabeth Lowe owned Nippersink Lodge at Mentone which they opened in summers. They taught at City High in Chattanooga and both had master’s degrees. They decided to teach at our school and we were fortunate to have them our last two years. One of my friends told me he did not have a college teacher any better than Miss Tucker. She liked those ole boys but did not let them get by with anything.  Once when I was working in the office, she came in and used the phone to call the drugstore. She asked to speak to Kenneth Hammond and told him she would give him five minutes to get in to school and to bring Robert and Richard with him. They got there in less time. They were skipping school and she knew where they would be. One of them later became public service commissioner for Alabama, one taught brick masons, and one became a supervisor at Combustion Engineering.


               Miss Lowe taught PE and science. We did not have a gym and even basketball was played outside. We had never heard of soccer but soon learned to play. If it rained, we used the stage in the auditorium for folk dancing or tumbling. She really knew how to teach PE.


                Mrs. Brownie Clay taught typing and business subjects such as shorthand and bookkeeping. I took typing one year and bookkeeping. Since I planned to do nursing, I took more science. The girls who took her subjects got good jobs and were soon put in charge of the offices where they worked. She was our homeroom teacher the last three years. She helped us with the junior and senior plays which were a big thing at that time. It was a custom for the senior class to leave a gift for the school. I am sure it must have been her idea for us to buy two acres of land that joined the school for our gift. It is where the football field is now located. If I remember correctly, we paid $150 and used the money we had made from the plays to pay.


            Mrs. Clay was also the Beta Club sponsor. Our project one year was improving the bathrooms and promoting a cleaner school. She thought we should write about this project and send a picture to the National Beta Club magazine. We did not appreciate her idea, but did send it. When the magazine came, there we were on the front cover with our mops and brooms and Richey Phillips with a dust rag on this head. We had a small room for our Beta Club store where we sold school supplies and candy after lunch. Our club’s gift to the school was some new furniture for the library.


              My cousin Olene Roberts’s husband, P.W., taught agriculture. She knew I had no way to get to activities after school, so I had a standing invitation to spend the night with them. I really appreciated that. I also had a classmate who lived in Valley Head I sometimes stayed with. She liked to visit with me because we lived on a farm and she did not.


              There were 24 of us who graduated May 12, 1950. For me, the next step was nursing school, but that is another story.


To be continued...

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