The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

A Dancer and the Watkins Man Come To Our House

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: October, 1988

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.

Nothing ever fascinated the young people at Chestnut Mountain as did "The Charleston," a fast solo dance which I first knew about in 1925. Square dancing in first one house and then another was taken for granted as a part of all the other rural customs. When we lived at Papa's Place, Mama taught us the "buck dance," and she tried us out with a dance none of us mastered: Bend over, head and knees a few feet above the floor, animal-fashion, Turn hands in, then out, the knuckles beating a rhythm with the dancing feet.

Nobody tried as hard as I did to learn "The Charleston," which was spreading over the United States like a raging woods fire. I would hold to a post on the front porch at our house on the hill, and force my feet to do the steps. Eventually I could support my feet without the post, but I looked like a bucking yearling, so I confined "my Charleston" to the privacy of our house and yards.

The other young people in the area at the foothills of the Blue Ridge were trying to learn the dance. Older sisters made fun of adolescent sisters for the way they looked, dancing with a post.

Then one summer day a young black man, dressed in white trousers, white shirt and a red silk tie stopped at our house. He was walking down the highway, headed toward Winder and points south. We guessed he was making his way as he went by performing "The Charleston" for any willing audience, pretending it was all free entertainment, but willingly accepting what was offered.

We had four porches at the house on the hill, and we were sitting on the porch that faced the highway. Without introducing himself, the dancer began "The Charleston" on the sandy, hard-surfaced yard, and we watched, some sitting in chairs, others with feet and legs dangling off the porch. Frank stood in the doorway, ready with a few dimes he got from nobody knew where. It was a hot summer day, the time of a long parching drought, so that the hard-baked earth provided the pavilion this city-bred young man needed for his performance.

The intricate steps were so quick and fascinating that it blinded our eyes to the patterns we might try later. "That Charleston is so easy done," he would say, the sweat beading on his face, while his white, sturdy shoed feet stomped out all the musical accompaniment he needed. He saw Frank's dimes, pitched occasionally into the yard, but there was no let-up till his dance was done, having added new versions and repeated old steps till our faces were fused from trying to absorb the performance, and make it our own. I couldn't wait to hug the porch post again, and trying the steps that looked so easy for our self-invited visitor.

Our house on the hill drew stragglers and strangers to itself like a magnet. The Watkins man stopped by frequently, his wagon filled with yard goods, throw rugs, sweaters and jackets, Brown Mule chewing tobacco, Prince Albert canned tobacco for pipe smokers, chewing gum, black pepper and spices, peppermint candy, and Baby Ruth candy bars. He had an outlay of medicine, from liniment and ointment for rheumatism, to a remedy for bile. Papa bought a bottle of Doan's Kidney Pills, and Mama stocked up on castor oil and turpentine, Vick's salve and Vaseline.

One night during the winter of 1925-1926, he reached our house so late he asked to spend the night. Papa had him park his cargo-truck in the backyard, at the little porch adjunct to the garden. They didn't turn anybody down, no matter how barren the cupboard might be, and that year you could see the bottom of the flour barrel. Even so, Mama fried chicken and made milk gravy. She baked hot biscuits, as well as a pone of cornbread, and she made a blackberry cobbler. The galvanized pot boiled with hot black coffee, and there was milk to go around at all the places where she set plates and tableware. It was all safe, fresh food, fit for the most delicate stomach, but the Watkins man got violently ill around midnight, and both Papa and Mama dosed him with home remedies all night.

The next morning he was better, and he ate as heartily at the breakfast table as the rest of us. Mama wouldn't accept money for the night's lodging, but he gave her a bar of octagon soap, some sewing needles and thread, and a few other small household necessities from his well-stored peddling truck. He didn't part with his checked and stripped yard goods, which we examined with greedy eyes, and with full foresight of what Mama and Irma (the eldest sister, fifteen at the time) could have done with the cotton cloth on our pedal sewing machine.

It was a sunny, dewy-eyed morning by the time the Watkins man went on his way. We didn't forget him, nor his delightful store-on-wheels. We didn't see him again, but we remembered his long, shaggy hair and a squarish face, needing a shave, and his black baggy clothing. We talked about how afraid we all were that he would die at our house, and we would be accused of poisoning him with the supper food. The children talking about the peddler smothered their laughter, since they were unused to people in the world who looked different, and had other customs.

If the Watkins man had foreseen the signs pointed to a barren season the next year, he might have shared his cloth with us, since we couldn't go that fall to the stores in town with Papa to buy rabbit collared coats while the squat, rotund merchant watched us, chuckling with merriment at all the picking-and-choosing. Nor could we get down the Sears & Roebuck catalog the next spring, and order what we dearly loved: Linen, percale, dimity, seersucker, dotted Swiss and sometimes a navy crepe dress length for Mama's coat dress.

The women-folks measured "good years" by the number of new dresses hanging on designated nails on the wall. Mama patterned her dresses to fit her strong figure - no nipped-in waistlines, and trying to look smaller than she was. The sewing was done before Good Friday, the day she planted her garden each year. She planted according to the moon and the zodiac signs from Grier's Almanac.

That year Lillian - who was eight in 1926 - remembered Mama's superstition about pepper. She believed if the planter wasn't "mad" when she sowed her pepper seed, no plants would come up. Mama had left her at the house to press our Sunday dresses. Lillian told Ruth to go the garden at the moment Mama opened her packet of pepper seed, and tell her she set a hot, hearth heated, smoothing iron on her navy blue two-piece dress and took a gap out of it.

Mama raised up to her full height, caring nothing now for the pepper. She had great pride in her clothing, and her personal appearance. She threw the seed packet in the furrow and started running to the house. Then Lillian came to the garden gate bursting with laughter. Mama laughed, too, greatly relieved, since she had only that one dress for Sunday-wear. She did get a good stand of pepper, and she enjoyed telling her kinfolks and the neighbors about Lillian's prank.

Papa didn't look to the elements, or to anyone else for advice on cotton planting. Yet he liked to plant cotton in April. Every year someone would say, "Papa was planting cotton the day Grace was born on April the 13th." If my birth portended a good crop year in 1915, free of boll weevils, it was as much luck as Papa wanted. He wouldn't risk the poison dust, obtained at the Farmer's Market, but my uncles on both sides poisoned their cotton plants, killing the weevils, and obtaining higher cotton production at harvest. Papa held belief that poison strong enough to kill a boll weevil might easily damage the throat and lungs, an even greater terror than the ravaging boll weevil.

Boll weevils invading a cotton field was the darkest curse a cotton farmer could imagine; the small, brown-crusted weevils came when the cotton bolls were in embryo, causing the delicate lavender blossoms to fall to the ground. They stayed all summer, eating holes in the developing bolls, causing them to fall to the ground. Some bolls survived in a nubby form, but they opened in the fall, holding tight to their short, dwarfed locks. The boll weevil had no redeeming feature, such as a big, fat stinging worm had, suggesting that its color would be a pretty shade to dye a faded dress.

Yet there is one thing that can be said for the boll weevil - it didn't sting the picker's hands and arms, causing red, angry whelps that worsened in the hot autumn sun. The boll weevil was too crafty to make its presence known, and evidently had an instinct about how much hatred it engendered in the farmer's mind.