The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Papa's Obsession With Education

By Grace Cash © 1988

Issue: November, 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.

There is no telling where we might have lived - and in far better houses - if Papa hadn't set his head to educate his children. He stopped going to school in the third grade, but his children wouldn't. His judgment of renter-farmers was based on two things; "How close is it to church? What sort of schools will my children be going to if I move there?" Not many people knew that Papa was self-educated and "wife-educated."

At our house it was an accepted fact that the husband was the head of the household, just as the Bible said, and Papa didn't let us forget that. Yet he allowed Mama to teach him addition, subtraction, division, multiplication and fractions - what she believed was the principle knowledge needed to get along at the marketplace.

Papa knew how to read and write, and he had mastered simple arithmetic before he married Mama in 1909, after a long courtship. Mama kept his letters, and they all began: "My darling little Ella." We would all read them, thinking we had a joke on Papa. She finished the seventh grade, which was the highest grade offered in the school district. The teacher boarded at Grandma Deaton's during part of those years, when Mama and a whole band of brothers and sisters went to school.

After the home-lessons began, Papa sat in a straight chair beside Mama's chair, and he wrote with his penny pencil, and learned to add long rows of figures. Mama had a baby on her lap, and a wide-eyed knee-baby watching everything, but nothing interfered with Papa's education. His home-study ended when he could handle the business-end as head of a growing farm family.

Mama didn't try to change his signature, and he just went on signing credit notes, and school report cards we brought home each month, and business letters with the same signature he had developed on his own, long before he started courting Mama. The huge "R" and "F" in his christened name, and the sprawling "C" and "S" in his surname stayed like it was: "RuFus S. CaSh".

He read the Tri-Weekly, the Grier's Almanac and all the farm and political papers coming in the mailbox addressed to "Box holder Rural Free Delivery." Papa didn't let anybody forget that Tom Watson - a Georgia-born lawmaker - had been the first to introduce rural free mail delivery. And Mama didn't let Papa forget that she could vote if she wanted to, after Susan B. Anthony won her battle for women in 1920. The menfolks thought it was something to joke about, a woman voting like a man, and not many women went to the courthouse. Mama's face showed she was glad that the women's right to vote had become the 19th Amendment of the Constitution - if not for herself, for her girls, who outnumbered her boys two-to-one.

Papa didn't expect education to help him, not in the same way he thought it would be the making of us, now that schooling was lots better than it was around 1890 and 1900, when he was growing up. He kept busy, watching farm prices, and picking out the candidates running for public office, that he thought might help the farmers. The country was so young; it was easy to remember the wars that had been fought since the Revolutionary War for Independence. The talk around the hearth, and the barnyard, or wherever men gathered, might turn to the Spanish American War in 1888, and somebody would mention the little republic of Hawaii that got included under the United States flag after the war in 1898, when William McKinley was president. The menfolks knew a lot about President Andrew Jackson - "Old Hickory" from Tennessee - who helped win the war of 1812 before he was elected to the Presidency in 1828.

Mama could tell any of us more about the War Between the States (1860-65) than anybody around us. Her father - Jim Deaton - had fought in that war, although he was not much more than a boy when he went off to war. She had Uncles and cousins who fought in the war and the talk would turn to slaves, and they hadn't wanted to own any, but Mama's folks had to go to war because Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, called them up, and they had to fight for the South.

None of our kin fought in the First World War (1914-18) but there was a time when it looked like the draft board might be fixing to call Papa up there to the county seat. Lots of other men had already gone across the ocean to fight. Papa had migraine headaches and Mama would make a poultice of peach tree leaves and put on his forehead to ease the pain. I was three years old, and a knee-baby, now that Mama had Lillian. I thought he could tell the draft board about his headaches, the times he had to go to bed, his head raised up on two thick feather pillows, but nobody paid attention when a child got over into grown-folks' business, except Mama smiled in a sort of sad way. The war ended that fall on November 18, 1918 and Papa didn't have to go to France.

It was easy for us to remember how old the Constitution of the United States was when we figured that it was a hundred years old when Mama was born in 1887, and just ninety-five years old when Papa was born. Mama kept before us that George Washington always told the truth, even when he cut down the cherry tree, and he knew his father might thrash him on knee-buckled breeches with a peach tree switch. Thomas Jefferson got once-a-year attention at our house when I reminded everybody that I was born on his birthday - April the 13th. Carl was not only born on George Washington's birthday - February the 22nd - but he was born in 1913 when Woodrow Wilson was the president, and he got "Woodrow" for his middle name.

When Papa grumbled about the railroad robbers back in 1870 - and lots of years later on - we wished we had another fireplace to go to. We couldn't ever make much sense out of the Agrarian Movement in the 1890's. It was a farmer's movement that Tom Watson, a Georgia man, had a lot to do with out west. They were trying to help the farmers get fair prices for their grain. When they shipped their farm products across the United States in freight trains, they were charged excessive freight and interest rates and lots of times the produce didn't get to market in time, and the farmers lost a crop. Then they got deep in debt, and had to mortgage their farms. Most of the farms had been got from homesteading, back when the west was settled by "squatters" from the Appalachian Mountains (1783-1815). In many cases, the land-mortgage led to the bank's foreclosure, and the farmers had to start renting other people's land.

Anything past or present that troubled farmers was Papa's trouble. He didn't like the way the farmers had got to be a division of the country that politicians talked about - wanting to get elected - then didn't carry out their promises to get better farm prices. He seemed to think it was right for him - as the eldest child of a large family - to stop going to school in the third grade, and start plowing a mule from sunup to sundown, and doing a man's work on the farm. If he ever played childhood games, we never knew about it. It seemed to us that he had always been "a man" but he was twenty-one before he became "a man of his own." On that birthday, his father gave him a mule, as was the custom in farm families.

Our first school was at Macedonia, where they taught primer through the seventh grade. The schoolhouse had a bell-steeple, and the principal rang it to begin the day, and again for dismissal in the late afternoon. We carried lunches to school in tin lard pails. Whatever Mama cooked, she put in our pails - or buckets - which was usually sausage or ham or buttered biscuits, and a baked sweet potato and sweetbread.

The first sentence I learned to read was in the Primer, a thin little book, stingy with words. The sentence was shaded by a waving American flag, and I read out loud: "I - see - the - flag." Then the teacher explained that the flag's forty-eight silver stars in the corner represented the forty-eight states of the Union, and the thirteen red-white-and-blue stripes stood for the thirteen original colonies. There was a story in our school reader showing Betsy Ross sitting in a rocking chair, snipping and sewing the flag of the United States, while George Washington hovered over her, inspecting every stitch. He had met secretly with a committee at her house in Philadelphia, in 1776, and they asked her to make the flag.

We thought it set Georgia apart from the other thirteen colonies to be named after King George II of England. He ruled the colonies until he died, and then his son, George III, took over ruling in his place till the new country won its independence from the mother country. Now George Washington was President of the United States, and Father of our country.

Alaska was one of our easiest home-lessons. Papa had a chance to go to Alaska with a cousin, who worked on the railroad when Papa was a single, unmarried man, but he turned it down. This same cousin would have helped him get a job on the railroad, but his head was set on being a cotton farmer. Lots of times he wished he had gone to Alaska, an ice-slashing territory, so cold that when William H. Seward purchased it for the United States while he was Secretary of the States (1861-69), it was called "Seward's Icebox." Mama had heard it called "Seward's Folly," because he paid Russia $7,200,000 to settle off the purchase in 1867, when Andrew Jackson was the President.

I was in the third grade that cold winter day in 1922 when the State School Superintendent came to visit Macedonia. Mama cut a notch for her children on the door panel every year. I was so-high in 1921 when Warren G. Harding was elected President, and when I finished the Primer and First Grade, and two inches higher than that in 1922. I was as tall as Carl when we started to school in October, after the crops were gathered. He told the teacher I was to go up into the Third Grade with him, and she let me skip a grade.

That day the teacher let us wear our coats and caps in-time-of-books, which was against the rules in warm, sunny weather. The wood heater wasn't throwing out much heat, and the wind lapped at the rattling windows, fit to break the four-paned glass. The Atlanta-man looked cold himself in his blue serge suit, the sleeves showing white cuffs above his bony wrists. He sat down on the stage; his long legs cast way out on the floor. He laughed and joked all the time, and he seemed real pleased with our school.

We were learning a lot at the school, but not as much as Papa and Mama thought we were - not when it was put up against what they talked about. They filled up the long, lonesome days back off down in the country - some days not seeing a soul but the mailman - hashing-over and adding-to and wondering-at what came in the mail, and news heard at the Morgan District courthouse, and at the marketplace and in the neighborhood. At night they had us talking about our books and our teachers and what we learned from our lessons, and what kind of marks we got from handing in our arithmetic problems, and what we wrote in our composition books.

They thought it was a big thing for me - and they thought it spoke well for Public Education - that I was just seven years old and already in the third grade, right at the peak where Papa stopped going to school. But anybody coming around Papa's place could see that he knew lots of things not in school books, and it got so nobody said a word about him just getting through the third grade.