The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Country Boy

By J. E. Hatcher © 1988

Issue: January-February, 1988

As the youngest son of Benjamin and Xonie Goode Hatcher, I am starting this story by the time or from the time my mind started to jell at possibly two or three years old. We were living with my grandfather and grandmother Goode as they were getting to old to care for themselves. My grandfather was a veteran of the Civil War and was released by General Grants Army when they captured him at Appomattox Court House. He walked home to Henry County and later moved his family to Patrick County, Virginia.

As I began to grow older, too young to do any work, I was given a free range of the farm. My aunt, Ruth Goode, lived about a mile down Jacks Creek on the opposite side of the creek. There was a millpond between the two places which I had to cross on a narrow bridge. My aunt Ruth was a kind and gentle woman. She petted me, so I visited her often. Sometimes she asked my parents to let me stay with her. I would sometimes spend the night with her.

My grandmother may have thought I might roam, so she told me stories of how the buzzards, which I saw flying over real often, would peck little children's eyes out. She told me they had been known to peck little lambs eyes out, so she really frightened me, but it didn't keep me from roaming around. If I was where I could run in the house and if I saw any flying around, I would run in. If I was too far out, I would try to run away from them. Once I was out a good ways from the house and saw some flying over between me and the house so I ran in the opposite direction. I guess I ran a half mile through the woods trying to go around where they were circling. We lived with the old people until I was six years old. My grandfather had a stroke and passed away first.

Since there were six of us in our family, my grandmother thought to get a granddaughter to stay with her would be more quiet, so we moved back into our house farther up the creek.

Our farm was mostly flat land on each side of Jacks Creek, only about 30 acres. My father wanted most of the land for grazing and hay so he rented and worked land in the mountain where it was too steep to plow. Some of his old home place was this way and was cultivated with a mattock and hoe. To grow corn one would go along and dig a hole with a hoe, one would follow and drop corn seed, beans or what we wished to grow, then cover it with a hoe.

When the plants started to grow, a hoe was used to dig the weeds and cultivate the land. I am trying to explain how people in the mountains managed to grow their food. I do not wish to stretch the truth; I've read sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.

Yes, I was raised a country boy and like Jimmy Dickens, I thank God for it. I knew what it was to sleep at the foot of the bed or take a cold tater and wait when company came.

The first year I started school, I think I was seven years old in January. It was a long building about twenty by thirty feet square with a stone fireplace in one end about five feet wide. The benches were made from wide boards about two inches thick with peg legs in each end and no back on them. The teacher had a desk in one corner off from the fireplace where she or he could see all over the room. The teacher I started with was Mrs. E. May Brammer, a neighbor housewife, who had three children of her own. A fine Christian lady, a good teacher, strict to a letter, when she talked the pupils had better sit up and listen. She opened class each morning with a prayer.

The water was brought in from a nearby spring in a big bucket where everyone drank from the same dipper dropped back in the bucket. There were no toilets. The nearby woods and thick ivy bushes were the blinds where boys and girls took their turns under strict supervision, rain or snow. I heard a lot of pity for the children who attended Carver and Drewery Mason schools, both in Henry County, both multimillion dollar brick buildings, when they were striving for funds to build Magnivista High School. I never attended a school with any modern conveniences. I do not wish to imply we should not have them; this country has come a long way in the last eighty years.

I wish to turn back to my earliest years. As I was the youngest child I went to the fields and played with the frogs and bugs while my parents worked. Once while my father and mother were hoeing corn they left me sitting playing in the dirt at one end of the field. They had worked across the field some distance from me. I happened to glance around behind and there, not more than one foot away above me, was a large spreading Adder or Viper with its head spread and raised up looking at me right in my face. Well, I never took time to get to my feet. I started across the field on my hands and knees so fast it would have put a puppy to shame, yelling at the top of my lungs. My father came running with his hoe, quickly killing the snake.

As I grew older, my mother put me to work doing such chores as I could do. We always kept a cow or two and she taught me to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and slop the hogs. She churned the milk to get butter and buttermilk for the table and sold what butter we didn't need. The milk was poured into a five gallon stone churn which had a dasher and stick made of wood. There was a lid on top of the churn with a one inch hole in the center where the stick could work up and down through the lid. My mother would prepare the milk in the churn and put me to beating the dasher up and down until the butter gathered on top of the milk which was quite a chore for a young boy.

This leads up to the story of how I got in trouble one time. My mother prepared the churn and milk and told me to churn the milk while she went over to Snell Hollow to pick blackberries. As it was in the middle of the summer, the day was hot. Jacks Creek went bubbling down the middle of the farm so inviting to take a dip, so I churned awhile until I saw a few lumps of butter on the stick and lid. I was just hoping the butter was gathered, so I left the churn and headed for the creek. The water was cool in a little pool about two feet deep. Time flew. I was splashing in the cool water with the bathing suit I was born in. All of a sudden I looked up, standing on the bank above was my mother with a switch in her hand. I knew there was no escape for a little curly headed, freckle faced, naked boy and before it was over I began to wonder which was going to give out first, me or the switch. She told me to put on clothes and get back to the house and finish the churning. Seems this should have lasted the rest of my life, but it didn't there were more to come.

Back to the way of mountain agriculture; when the corn began to ripen the blades were pulled, kept in bunches hung on the ears until dry, then tied in bundles either stacked in the fields or stored in a barn or shelter for feed. With this done the top of the corn was cut off just above the ears, and bunched and tied in the same manner as the leaves or blades. The ears of corn were left on the stalk until dry. They usually stayed in the field until late fall then were pulled and carried in bags to the foot of the mountain and loaded on a wagon to be hauled to a huge pile. The neighbors were invited in for a big supper and corn shucking or husking. The land was sometimes planted back to wheat or rye. More often to rye as this black mountain soil was not too suitable for growing wheat.

When harvest time would come the next summer, the land being too steep for any type of machine of which there were none at this time in this section of the country anyway, the grain was cut with a reap hook, a curved steel hook with fine razor sharp teeth with a wood handle. The grain was cut by the handful and laid in bunches to later be tied in bundles and carried out as was the corn. Ben, Xonie and I all had a reap hook. I still have mine. These tools were made of hardened steel in Sheffield, England. It would surprise people today to see how much grain we could cut in a day. The advantage of mountain farming; your hands were always level with the work. You never had to stoop much to your work.

We grew some tobacco, wheat, sorghum cane, hay and other things on our smoother land. When we moved to this new land we didn't have enough cleared land for grazing and to tend, so we rented pasture land for the cows for a year or so. It was about a mile and a half from home. My mother would milk in the evening and send me in the morning. I was about eleven at this time and this was done rain or shine. Strange as it may seem with all the different skills my father had, he never learned to milk a cow.

Back to the part of my growing up, my two sisters married and moved out when I was seven. My brother, six years my senior, decided the grass was greener over the hill, so at about fourteen he started out on his own working as a stable boy for Mr. Joe Cockram and later Mr. Will Dehart at Woolwine, both mail carriers. That left me a loner at home.

With my father working away a lot, I was under my mother's supervision most of the time. Mother was an unusually strong woman, if a man worked in the field all day with a hoe and kept up with her, he knew at the end of the day he had done a days work.

I never doubted her love for me or the family. Her discipline was strict; she wanted me to walk the high road. I did not dare answer yes or no, it was yes ma'am or no ma'am. I didn't dare say I can't when told to do something. She knew my capacity and would not tell me to do something I could not do. I was full of energy and did not always do as I was told, hoping I would get by. This leads me to the time she sent me on an errand about a mile or two to a neighbor's house. She allowed me two hours, when I reached the place I was sent, a boy friend insisted that I go to the creek for a splash. As usual time flew. I was late getting back home. When I arrived Mother had a switch ready, only this time I had all my clothes on.

It was the last whipping I ever got. "Well I remembered this one."