The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Our Only Cow

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: February, 1989

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 never had more than one cow in the pasture, and she endeared herself to us as our "only-cow." We could hardly have survived without milk and butter, which Mama extracted to the last drop from the large swelling udder of our cow. A cow might stay with us a long time, and then Papa would trade her off for a "good milker," or for a cow he believed might give more milk than the one we had. A new cow meant getting used to her name, for whatever name she answered to at a former owner's house that was her name at our house. Each cow - while she was us - had somewhat the status of an only-child.

Trading for a new cow was always an eventful day, but one "trading day" stands out above all the others. In 1921 Papa traded for a cow at Belmont, Georgia, a smoky railroad hamlet to the west of Papa's Place. The older children were at Macedonia School, and Papa took Lillian and me with him to drive the cow back home. Lillian was four and I was six, and nobody questioned whether we could handle the job.

It was a never-to-be-forgotten joy to go to the Belmont house, and watch the rusty-looking brown freight and passenger cars clack-clacking on the smoky railroad. The Midland train was limited to a private run from Gainesville to Athens, a distance of approximately sixty miles each way. My Grandfather, who had something of a Gypsy's need for changing locations, rented his big white house, on a large farm, and moved to a small unpainted house, located close by the railroad tracks. That day he found a twisted iron, shaped like a small iron skillet, picked up from the grass growing over the cross ties, and gave it to me. Lillian and I would find some domestic use for it in our playhouse under the chinaberry tree, when we made mud pies, garnished with chinaberries.

On our way home, Lillian and I walked behind the buggy, while Papa sat sideways in the driving seat, watching us every step of the three-mile journey. We guided our cow over the rickety bridge spanning the Walnut Creek. This clear-water creek, dividing itself over boulders and sandbeds, furnished water for the corn-and-wheat mill. A long row of square wooden boxes - or raceway - raised on wooden stilts, slashed water noisily through apertures that were gagged to reach the big, rumbling wheel, that ground the farmers grain. Tanner's Mill was a landmark in that southern half of Hall County.

It was located at the foot of a steep hill rising above it. The narrow dirt road, curving past the mill, was steep and craggy. All travelers, whether in a wagon or a buggy or a Model-T Ford, or riding horseback - even foot travelers - were mortally afraid of its decent, and almost equally afraid of climbing the winding road, flanked by a high wooden bank enclosure on one side and on the other, by the cavernous cliffside slanting steeply down to the creek.

We often went to the corn mill with Papa. Farmers in faded blue overalls and stripped hickory shirts, wearing either an old wool hat or a workman's straw hat, sauntered around the narrow planked porch, cooled by soft breezes wafted from green willow trees surrounding the mill. Sometimes they would go inside the mill to see how the miller was coming along with their turn of grain, and they would be talking and laughing and joking and squirting Brown's Mule tobacco juice - sometimes called "ambeer" - on the flower boxes, or on the floor and the sandy yard.

These farmers were neighbors and friends of the farmers in our family. They were hard-working men, trying to provide for their families, and send their children to school and church. Some had worn out several sets of shoestrings that laced their scuffed brogans, and now their shoes were loosely laced with white guano strings.

When we passed the corn mill that day, the water wheel was grumbling and spitting great splashes of water with each revolution, and the farmers were there, and Papa waved at them, but there was no time to stop. We had to get our new cow home. She was gentle, just as the Belmont trader had told Papa. Grandma and Grandpa had helped Papa tie the cow to the rear of his buggy, fixed securely for us to goad her with long sticks, cut from a poplar tree. We made the uphill, downhill journey without any trouble at all, and the cow was turned into the pasture to graze till milking time that night. Lillian and I felt that she was ours, but in time she would be traded off, if she failed in her milk, or didn't freshen, or calve, or whatever reason that would cause her to be replaced.

Sometimes a cow went dry as a result of drought, and the pasture dried up. There were times when the "only-cow" wasn't a "good-milker." Then she had to be traded off. Occasionally she was succeeded by a big-bellied, sleek-haired cow, calm in her grazing, chewing her cud with a quiet rhythm. Such a cow gave more milk than one pail would hold at both the morning milking, and the night milking, and she would have a steady record of fine calves with long awkward legs.

When a cow was "calving" and fixing to "come in," her importance gained a new attitude. After she delivered her calf, this discreetly handled by the menfolks, we were allowed to gaze through the wooden slats of the barn lot fence, and watch the damp calf frisking about on spindly crippled-looking legs, while the mother-cow tenderly bathed the baby calf with her tongue.

One time - in 1926 - our "only-cow" met with a great tragedy. We were living on a hill at that time, on a rough, hillside halves farm. The mules instinctively knew to keep a distance from the deep gullies and low-hanging limbs, hiding the deep caverns that meant death to animals - or people - who fell into its rocky depth. Brindle fell here, in the winter of 1926. We tried - man, woman and child - to save her. We made a human chain of ourselves, arms locked around the front person, on down the line till it reached Ruth, six years old now, and out there with the rest of us. That effort failed, much to our sorrow.

The men folks tried tying the cow with a rope looped around whatever leg - or legs - could be reached. Papa and the boys - and the neighbor men - tried every device they knew. She would look at us all with damp, moist eyes, believing we could bring her to safety. Finally we decided she should be put out of her misery, and one of the men shot her, but nobody ever talked about the way she died. We did talk with unabating grief about our "only-cow" - absent now from the pasture. We knew even then that she would always have first place over all the cows we ever had on the farm.