The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

John Hayes Hollow - New Ground

By Hazel P. Hedrick © 1986

Issue: July, 1986

As his family grew, Daddy needed more fields to grow more grain and vegetables to feed his growing chaps and the extra livestock. The larger his family grew, the more hogs he needed for meat, more chickens for eggs and more cows for milk and butter, and he had to grow enough grain and hay to feed all of them as well as his children.

When we chaps were old enough to start school, Daddy had to have money for books and other school supplies, saying nothing of clothes and shoes. And he couldn't just take a fat hen to the store and trade it for a pair of shoes for me like he did for salt and coffee. He needed a money crop.

The John Hayes Hollow was a rather large parcel of land around 60 or 70 acres, as I recall, but it was mostly steep hillsides and covered with growing trees   and rock. There were just a few small fields on top the mountains and along the creek. When more fields were needed, the land had to be cleared.

There were no tractors, bush hogs or bull dozers in those days to pull up, cut down and push off the trees and rocks. It had to be done by man with axe, saw and hard work.

Once every two or three years in summer, five or six neighbors with axe and saw would gather and choose a patch of ground and start chopping, sawing and piling. What they chopped and piled would lay and dry most of the summer. These men would work all day, sometimes two, to clear an acre or so of ground.

I'm not certain if there was a certain time of year to burn off that new ground. I do remember the neighbors would come again, but with hoe, shovel, rake and pitchfork, and most always on a slow rainy day. They would set fire all around that patch of hillside and try to burn just what they had chopped and piled. If that fire got away from them, they could be fighting fire all night or even days. This was a job that had to be done very carefully. We always begged Mama to let us watch. All we could see from the house was the smoke.

Once I recall it was misting rain and Daddy and some neighbors were burning off the new ground on the south side of Tedder Mountain. We begged Mama to let us go watch. She finally told us to put on our coats and go down the creek road and if the wind started to blow, we were to come back to the house.

It was really exciting to watch that big fire burning and scary too. We were afraid our Daddy might get burned up. The first breeze we felt, we ran back to the house. We were glad for an excuse to run home where we felt safe.

What we didn't realize then was we were not safe in the house. If the wind got up, the fire would get out of control and could come right across the mountains toward our house. Even though there was a creek between the house and the mountains, sparks would have blown from tree tops to house top. I know now why Mama walked the floor and prayed when Daddy was helping burn off new ground. It was a dangerous job, but it had to be done.

Cleaning off that new ground and getting it ready for planting was a hot and dirty job. We children didn't have to beg for that job. We would wade through the black charcoals and gray ashes, carrying the black charred chunks that didn't burn, piling them around the edge of the field. The sweat would be running down our face, arms and legs. By sundown, you couldn't tell what color we were supposed to be, and we were too tired to care.

I remember more than one time, dragging my dirty, tired body to the house, doing my chores and falling across my bed without any supper, falling asleep and not hearing anything until Daddy called breakfast next morning. If you wonder why Mama didn't wake me for supper, and make me take my bath, Mama believed it more important to sleep than to eat or bathe. She said if one is hungry, they will wake up and a little dirt never hurt anyone.

Cleaning off new ground is just one of the dirty, hard jobs we all had to do. I look back now and wonder how Mama held out to milk the cow and cook supper after a hard day in the fields. And Daddy always had to make sure there was wood enough for cooking the next day's meals, and food at the barn for the mule and the cow.

I remember more than one time seeing my daddy fall flat on his back on the porch and lay there like he just couldn't move any more, but after a short rest, he was up and at it again.