The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Living At Papa's Place

By Grace Cash © 1987

Issue: May, 1987

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

In the 1920's we lived several years at Papa's Place. He owned the land, forty four acres of red hills and hollows and pine woodland. He built a new three room house with a front porch, and he dug a well on the kitchen side of the house.

I was born at the "new house", and the two younger sisters were also born while we lived there. Papa's Place was the beginning of many fascinating things in our lives. It was there that Mama taught me, at age four, to read the Bible. Actually she ran my index finger under the words while she read a passage from Ezekiel, warning the Jewish people of their sins. That was the beginning of my knowledge of what my elders meant when they talked about "no count" people.

While living at Papa's Place, Mama wore out "Robinson Crusoe" and "The Biography of Benjamin Franklin." She read the books over and over to us, and we asked scared eye questions about Robinson Crusoe out on a raft in the raging ocean. We felt that Benjamin Franklin was our kinfolks, walking the streets of Philadelphia, a young man with a long loaf of bread under each arm, out looking for a place to live. She read from school textbooks stories about Louisa Mae Alcott, and an artist named Rosa Bonheur, a French painter of animals.

And then things not in books began to crop up, showing us that Robinson Crusoe wasn't the only daring man in the world. One Saturday afternoon Mama's nephew drove over to our house in his new Model T Ford, the canvas top rolled back. He drove fast, the wheels swirling red dust on the narrow dirt road East and West. He stood in front of the radiator and taught Papa how to crank the motor by grinding an inserted handle bar till the engine belched croupily and settled down to a bumping noise, ready for driving.

He put Papa behind the steering wheel, and had him drive up the road, trying to teach him the inside workings of a Model T Ford, outfitted with a running board on each side and a spare attached to the rear. Papa drove back to the house, the car unscratched, and the nephew's face red with bottled up laughter. He opened the door, setting one foot on the foot board and the other on the ground, acting as though nobody with sound sense would risk his life driving a car. Papa never drove an automobile again, which meant we rode in wagons and buggies, to trade at Braselton to the South, or the county seat of Gainesville to the North.

Even so, motorized vehicles were roaring all over the United States. The first airplane to fly over Hall County hovered fleetingly over our house, then circled, and flew into the blue clouds, the April day Ruth was born in 1920. For a long time our lives remained untouched by progress. It left a lot of time for Ezekiel and Robinson Crusoe, Louisa Mae Alcott and Rosa Bonheun. People would say to Mama, "Ella, what you ever going to do with your crowd of children?" She was ready with an answer, bolstered by the books she read to us: "I'm going to make writers and teachers and nurses and artists out of them."

Isolation at Papa's Place didn't keep any of us from knowing what was going on in the world. Next to the influenza epidemic, following World War I, the flapper was given considerable attention. The older folks thought the "grown girls" had lost all sense of morality when they bobbed their long hair, formerly worn in a "ball" or a figure eight at the nape of the neck. It shocked the whole country when young women lifted their skirts to their knees. Dark secrets were whispered, and bandied about, when children were not in hearing distance.

Maybe it was because, at five or six years of age, I hadn't seen much variety in women's styles, but I thought the boxy, beaded dresses pictured in the Tri Weekly Newspaper, and on school tablets and billboards were simply beautiful. I like the wool felt cloche hats, available in white, pink, blue, lavender and other colors. The girls wore pastel colored silk stockings, matching the color of their hats and dresses. The typical flapper spit pasted curls on her forehead, and she stood with one hand on her hip, looking grim and challenging. Such pictures fitted in with automobiles and airplanes, and a world that had been changed by the Great War.

There was little time for daydreaming at Papa's Place, but there was the reality of what had to be done to keep the farm going. On one of his fourteen mile trips to the county seat for supplies, darkness fell and he still hadn't returned. There was no moon, and the darkness hovered over the yard, and the front porch steps, where we sat, huddled around Mama. Papa's hunting gun was inside the house, in the rack over the door, but nobody mentioned it. We listened for Papa's one mule wagon coming down the red hill, trace chains clanking. Dark elements glided over the yard and Carl, seven years older, asked, "Mama, are you afraid?" The night hid the fear on her face, so that she could answer, "God is right over this house. Why should I be afraid?"

Papa finally arrived, and Mama didn't say a word about being afraid. And most of the time she wasn't afraid of anything. When the county work gang came to repair the road connecting Belmont and Chestnut Mountain, Papa gave the guard permission to send his trusty to the well, when he needed fresh drinking water for the convicts. Mama would often be at the house by herself, except for the younger children. She would go to the door to answer the trusty's knock, politely announcing his presence and his mission. He wore circular stripes, like the others in the gang, and of course, heavy chains clanked around his ankles. he had a teaspoon buckled to his belt.

Papa talked to the guard, and the trusty, when his farm work brought him in contact with the workers. The teaspoon buckled on the belt of each convict was kept there so they would have it at mealtime, ready at hand. We waved at them when they passed in the trucks, sitting on riding boards filled with convicts.

One day we went with Mama to pick wild strawberries near where they sat around a plank board table, eating dinner. Each convict had a small tin cup and a plate, filled with bread and boiled cowpeas, and whatever else might have been served from the big round containers, and cardboard boxes on the trucks. Apparently cowpeas and cornbread was their principle food, along with onions, sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and other products gathered from the county farm the convicts cultivated when not working on the road.

Sometimes they set up their plank table under a grove of pine trees near our barn, a stone's throw from our house. The workers were quiet and orderly. We knew, from what one after another of the prisoners confided in Papa, some of the reasons they were serving time. If a man had a life sentence, or more than a ten year sentence, he had probably committed murder or some other comparable crime. Less than ten years might mean he was serving for a minor crime. Mama and Papa would talk about it worriedly, their furrowed foreheads looking like a plowed field.

If it hadn't been for the trusty using our well for drinking water, we wouldn't have gotten nearly as well acquainted with the convicts. The well curb was weather beaten, but the windlass was holding up strong, so that the water was drawn up for our household needs and for the big tin tubs and black washpots on washday, beneath the chinaberry trees. The visitors to our house called it "A good well of water," and the water held up, even in droughts, and didn't ever go dry.

We used water from the well on Saturdays when everybody, in the summer time, "washed all over." That meant shedding every stitch of clothing, and getting into the tin tubs to wash, down to the feet and up to the hair line. It was a spasmodic occurrence when our heads were washed, especially in the winter, when the fear of flu was always present, and only a hearth fire heated the whole house. For all its fine service to the family and to passersby and to the county workers when they came that summer, the well was the first suspected culprit when a child was missing, such as I did, one August day.

The cotton bolls were maturing, bursting with full growth, but not opened wide for picking fluffy white locks when I went missing. I wasn't lost, I was merely resting between the cotton rows, dribbling my toes in the clean laid by furrows, getting away from a yard full of brothers and sisters, and visiting cousins. Mama found me, after a long search, and her face, drained of color from the direful things she had imagined, instantly changed into a welcome smile. "I thought you fell in the well," she said, which might easily have happened. The well lid was often open, showing the gaping cavern of damp round walls, and the children made a plaything of the windlass, drawing up a pail of water, and letting it crash back to the bottom.

Papa sold his place in 1922 and we moved from my birthplace to the white house farther up the road, to a bigger farm Papa rented from Grandpa Cash. The day the family moved from the new house, Carl cried all the way to the Macedonia schoolhouse, a three mile walk through fields and woodland, because they wouldn't let him help move. I cried, too, but I cried because we were moving and leaving all that.