SEPTEMBER 20, 2015
Growing up in Louisa – Family Stories
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Throughout my life I have loved listening to stories. It goes back to my earliest memories and continues even today. Maybe that’s why I enjoy telling stories. It’s a way of reliving the past, but not only mine, but the past of others. While I was always a fan of history, learned at the feet of my teachers all the way from Mrs. Armstrong in the first grade through Frank Webster in my senior year, my favorite stories were those of ‘real people’ somehow associated or related to me. Even today when we have our family gatherings we sit around the long table, kick back and tell stories on each other.
My now grown kids tell family stories from their perspective. Feeling safer, they sometimes confess to crimes against us parents. We become privileged to hear how we punished the wrong kid, or how uneaten food was later found tucked up under the dining room table. Without a dog, the scraps were destined to remain there until finally found during spring cleaning. By then it was too late to determine the culprit. When sweets somehow disappeared, we were finally to hear, they were collected and hidden for the ‘rainy day.’ Sometimes they worked in unison, each planning their deceptions, but at other times the conspirators mistrusted even their brothers and acted alone.
The family that doesn’t have stories has missed something in life, methinks. Oh, I’m not advocating rebellion, thievery, or bullish behaviors, but what kid didn’t misbehave when free from oversight? Secret hiding places, a hoard of something, or tricks to confound others, were often floating in our thoughts, looking for a place or time and weighing the risks of being caught. When several siblings exist, a parent may tell someone ‘he’s the quite one,’ or ‘watch him, he’s tricky.’ Now I’ve gone and used a gender indicator and that’s really most unfair. You see, the trickiest ones were often those sweet, innocent, calico dressed little sisters. They rarely got caught, so surely they never thought of misbehaving. Well, until late in life we just don’t know. When it’s deemed safe to reveal, we sometimes hear the real stories, but rest assured that we will not hear them all.
My wife’s grandmother was a really fun lady to be around. In many ways she was a stereotype of the mountain woman of the 19th century, although her life stretched well into the 20th. She passed at the ripe old age of 101 back in the 80’s. We heard stories about when she had moved to a farm near Princeton, WVA. She and her family were on a covered wagon pulled by a team of horses. The one-room log cabin would grow into a two-story farm house on the top of a hill overlooking a pond, an orchard and the usual cow pastures looking much the same as commonly known to us all. Decades later Suzie and I walked through the abandoned clapboard house to discover that the living room was clearly a cabin. The logs and chinking were exposed. The parlor stove set in the center of the room, but in the ceiling there was a vent cut by Suzie’s father to allow heat to flow into his bedroom, a floor above. It was a reminder of the story her father had told about cutting the hole without his father’s permission. None-the-less, a grate was fitted and the system kept him and his brothers warmer than they might have been.
I remember Suzie’s grandmother sitting in a rocking chair, her corncob pipe sticking out from an old-fashioned bonnet, holding a magnifying glass over the Bible she held in her lap. This was her daily devotional. I remember her as having few words but those she had were to the point, but never unkind. I had not met her husband since he had died years earlier, but some of the tales she told featured that man she loved right up until her death.
One story that may bring many to cringe, featured a dry sense of humor that would not fly in today’s ‘politically correct’ environment, but was seen as hilarious in those early pioneering days. One of granny’s job on the farm was to collect the daily eggs from her chicken house so they could be used in her small kitchen, or sold to the neighbors down near the bottom of the hill. As time went on she realized from the empty eggs shells in the nests that her pet dog had developed a habit of sucking eggs. Since empty egg-shells have little commercial or practical value granny was troubled and mentioned it to her husband. He understood the problem at once and offered up a ‘sure-fire’ solution he’d learned back when he was growing up. He explained that Granny should slice a piece of bread from a fresh loaf and take the tar and nicotine from her pipe filter and rub it all over the bread. She was then to feed it to the dog.
She did as she was directed, but the next day she discovered the dog had died. She hurried to tell her husband who smiled and said, “I told you it would cure the dog. It won’t suck your eggs anymore.”
The practicality of farm life was such that foolishness was seldom tolerated even from a beloved pet. Every penny counted to survive and her husband was a practical man. Granny knew that her husband had looked beyond all attempts that might have been made, to implement early on the only lasting solution. He knew the dog couldn’t be ‘untrained.’ He did go out and get her a new puppy.
I remember in Lawrence County that it was common when buying or trading for a dog to ask how it got along with chickens. Some dogs would kill them, wiping out the livelihood of the farmer. They would have to be shot. Most dogs didn’t have that problem, but those that did wouldn’t respect the neighbor’s chickens or anyone else’s. Feuds have begun with less provocation.
Another tale from that time was about her great-grandfather, who as a younger man, was not much interested in religion, and happened to be a little too full of mischief. I remember the movie Sargent York, when the younger Alvin York led some of his drunken friends to shoot up the church yard during a service. He had the audacity to shoot his initials in the churchyard tree.
He had lived somewhere down near Bland in Western Virginia, and had decided to go on a similar mission. It would be fun to disturb the service at the one-room church up the hollow. He sneaked up while singing was going on and quietly removed the wooden steps that led up to the door of the church. Once they were put aside, he reached up and cracked open the door so a pig could be let in. As predicted, the pig ran down main aisle of the church squealing as it went. Men and women ran for the door. With the steps moved aside, they fell out into the churchyard in a great pile. As the story goes, the uncle was run out of the valley and was warned never to return.
It was the kind of thing that led to the practice of running someone out on a rail in ‘tar and feathers.’ I guess that might have been a real practice, although I never heard of a particular event around our sweet little town. I was older when I realized that a ‘rail’ was a split rail for a fence, and to apply tar usually meant it was hot. Of course that would burn. Even if applied cold, it would be a tough thing to scrub off and if feathers were added you’d be a sight, for sure.
I was told stories in my youth that left me wondering. One relative of mine is said to get drunk ever time and again. When this happened the family had to watch him real carefully, because more than once he would put on a vest and go running down the streets of the town. The problem was that he only wore the vest. The rest was uncovered until some of the men of the community would corner him and bring him back home in a blanket. Boy did he have to hear about that the next morning. His wife would let into him with a wooden spoon. I hear she was regularly breaking them and would set her husband out to whittle a new one. Whether this happened after he used some liquids he had procured for medicinal purposes, or if he was an exhibitionist, I wasn’t told. The word picture was enough and definitely funny.
There was another grandfather that had worked on the railroad. He worked all around where he was sent and returned to his farm and darling wife on weekends. His heart constantly pulled him back to his little cabin for he was deeply in love with this wonderful lady. It was early one morning when he found himself free to go home for the rest of the week, so he lite out to surprise his loved one. Indeed, it was a surprise for when he stepped upon the porch dragging a chain behind him a shot rang out. His wife had been awakened and thought someone was there to do harm. He discovered that not only did the shotgun he’d bought his wife worked, but she was a decent shot. As the pellets flew he was wounded, losing one of his eyes. Both he and his wife were ever so sorry. As a result, he wore a glass eye as a reminder that surprises aren’t always good.
As the tale continues, he was once riding on his buckboard to pick up some grain and had one of the hired workers riding shotgun with him. As they rounded a mountain curve a bit of wind blew into their faces. This gave him an idea. He complained that he had gotten something in his eye, so to the shock of his companion, he removed his eye to clean it. The other man jumped free of the wagon and ran screaming down the road. Feelings aside, it must have been funny.
Back in Louisa, it was common for my Grannie to send me out to cut a switch. I learned that if it wasn’t just right, I’d get sent out again to pick one more suitable for the job at hand. I think that I had to get a branch off a bush that was at least two feet long. I remember her peeling the bark back. I now suspect that was more to intimidate me than having any particular effect, but back then my mind knew the welts would rise on the back of my legs. I was so sorry for whatever I had done. In the end, I think I fared better than the bush. It struggled to grow, but I sprouted up all too quickly.
I remember that in the principal’s office in grade school there were two paddles. One was a light, fairly thin one. I figured that was for the girls, even if I don’t remember many of them that got themselves into that kind of trouble. The other was a thick board with lots of holes that had been carefully drilled all around. That was apparently for better effect. I figured that the paddle would come harder and faster and would also leave little marks. When I went back to class everyone could see what had happened. That was a clear sign to others, but it was also like being branded. The grownups would know right away when I got home if they didn’t already know. Oh, oh.
The stories I heard growing up were often funny, or meant to incite thought. You’ve heard of ‘slight of hand’ where one sneaks something by you. Well, I found that was the habit of a good many men around town, but they used words instead of their hands. Sitting there while whittling on a stick, they would say things more to catch the effect, than to communicate anything true or important. Testing my wit, I figured, so the challenge was on to prove intellect. Like the strawberry fishing or snipe hunting I wrote about last week, everything wasn’t always the way it seemed. They loved to ‘get over’ on somebody and the gullible were plum prizes just ready to be tricked.
I remember that more than once I would see an old farmer talking to a gullible kid and then look to read his expressions to see if it hit home. I remember the old TV program where Kingfish in Amos and Andy often suggested crazy things and then look to see if it had its effect. Sometimes an elbow would poke out to awake another comrade so they would notice what was happening.
I remember a man that was sitting on a bench in front of the courthouse and singing out, “Whatever happened to Katheryn Brown? Was she boiled in oil and drug through town? Does she yet lie in that dark cold ground? Oh, whatever happened to Katheryn Brown?” I’m sure my eyes were wide and my breath quick, but I never found out, nor maybe wanted to; as long as Katheryn Brown wasn’t me or you. When I was young I would run from such things still feeling the man’s gaze on the back of my neck.
Not that I was, but civilization had nearly happened by the time I came along. Most folks had cars or at least a wagon, and most ate with forks and spoons, but some still read by the light of the moon. Others couldn’t read by the light of day. With modern medicine fevers were few, quarantines were common, and more babies lived to grow up. Before that, I was told, life was rough.
Granny told me several stories about ‘Poor Boy,’ a colored fellow that often worked for my grandparents doing chores like cleaning and caring for the horses. No doubt his parents were likely slaves, although not connected to my heritage. I don’t know his real name, maybe someone will remember him. Granny said the family so loved him that he was at the house nearly all the time, sitting and talking and sharing old tales. He apparently had a weakness for drink and that, in the end, did him in. She said he lived somewhere over in Little Italy in a small wooden-framed house. This particular weekend he had gotten paid for some work he did and went home with a bottle he’d gotten somewhere. He got drunk and fell to sleep, dropping his smoke and starting the fire that killed him. It had been years since it happened, but Granny teared up every time she told me that tale. I know it hurt her like losing a member of the family and I grew up wishing I’d known him, but this was one of several lessons that steered me away from strong drink.
All kinds of tales rang out from the hills and hollows, often falling on my ear. Some were funny, others scary, and a few were instructive. I loved them… ate them up. I loved to gather with others around the knee of older folks who would tell of a different time. I reckon it’s come around to our turn. Story telling is an art and some sure enough have it. They have festivals for storytelling and grand prizes, too. I’m thinking having festivals, whether a ‘fiddle festival,’ a ‘gospel festival,’ or ‘story-telling festival,’ could put Louisa back on the map. Two or three a year, spread out would bring tourism and be fun, too.
Meanwhile, if you think of some stories, send them to me. I’ll stick ‘em in this column from time to time. We’d all love to hear them.