The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Bank Lot

By Inez Hughes © 1986

Issue: November, 1986

I must tell you more about the "bank lot." The "bank" was a coal mine. People there referred to a coal mine as a "coal bank" because when they mined the coal, they had little cars and little mules to pull them and the men went in with a pick and a shovel and loaded the cars and the mules pulled the coal out.

Well, Grandpa Syers (Aunt Belle's children’s' grandpa) had a coal mine down in the bank lot that had long since been worked out. The old works was there, the entrance, old rotting props, cob webs, spiders, and anything else that lived in the woods and we loved to play there. The trees were tall, some of them. Some were saplings, we could climb them. Some had good grapevines hanging down so that we could get one and make a swing. Then there was always the entrance to the mine to dare one to go into. We didn't go very far back there for we had heard stories about the lynx and other wild animals.

We picked "gum wax" off of the trees there. It didn't matter to us that the mules scratched their backsides on the same bark that we picked the gum wax from. The rocks were there to play on too, and in the spring, the most beautiful wild flowers and ferns. We would play and run and jump and climb. Then, late in the afternoon, we could hear Aunt Belle calling the cows and we knew it was suppertime and time to go home. Sometimes we could stay all night, that is, when Mama had a baby we got to. We would sleep in their gowns on a pallet with all of us together so we could laugh and talk.

The "thicket" was a favorite place for the boys to play. They took the dogs and hunted rabbits there. It was a place of enchantment for me. The flowers were beautiful there and sometimes you could find a spring just trickling out of a rock making a small stream. You could wade a long way in a little ditch that looked so smooth, and then sit in the shade of a tree. We all loved to play down in the "thicket."

The streams were clear and shallow, the rocks in the bottom of the stream were smooth and wading was so refreshing! Walking around finding interesting things was nice too. Sometime we would find little brown puff balls on the ground. Papa had told us that these were the "Devil's snuff boxes." We'd step on them quickly and brown dust would puff out all around on the ground.

We would find big acorns and make little baskets from them. Sometimes Uncle Fred would whittle them out, and then paint them with gold paint. We found small acorns and made pipes from them and smoked dried leaves or sent John M. in the house for coffee grounds to smoke.

There was always a lot to do when we played at Aunt Belle's. I must not forget the old baby buggy! Aunt Belle had a huge wicker baby buggy which was no longer needed for a baby, but we found a use for it. Buck put some ropes on the two front wheels for guiding it and we took turns riding down the hill in it. The road that we used was on top of some large rocks underground, and just at the side of the road were small bluffs, not too high, but dangerous if one of the ropes had broken and the buggy had run off the bluff! Many times, the buggy turned over. It was nearly always carrying two and one standing on the back, but we expected bumps and scratches and didn't mind them.

One time, the boys set up a "sawmill" in Aunt Belle's bedroom. They took her sewing machine and used it for a gadget to saw up corn cobs and played all afternoon. She didn't mind, she just sat and smoked her pipe. Sometimes we played the gramophone too. She would dance and sing and how we loved that.

We had a good time at home too. Papa and Mama loved music and could sing very well and taught all of us to sing at a very early age. Mama had bought Papa a fiddle for a present and it was one of his prized possessions. He also had a guitar. He could play very well and taught Alberta to pick the guitar so she could help him make music. We had a family quartet when we were very young. I sang soprano, Alberta sang alto, Dick sang "tenor" (a childish voice but it harmonized), and Papa sang and enjoyed it. One of the songs was "Make Him Known" and I still remember every verse in it and I think they would also.

Mama made taffy candy and a kind of cookie she called "sweet cakes." They were very good but I don't know how she did it. She taught us to read and count before we went to school. Papa bought the "Chicago Ledger" and "Saturday Blade" each week and usually the "Evansville Courier" Saturday "funny paper." We would read and read such comics as "Captain Kiddo," "Uncle Mun," "Mama's Angel Child," "Old Doc Yak," "Foxy Grandpa," "Ratzenjammer Kids," "Maggie and Jiggs," "Happy Hooligan," "Snap Shot Bill," and many others. We'd ask her words and if she pronounced them once, we would tell each other what the words were. I have referred to this same thing at another place where I have written, but I do that often.

We always went to good schools. The teachers were carefully selected and the students showed it after they finished grammar school and their two years of high school at DeKoven and went on to Sturgis where they graduated. They usually went on to Bowling Green, Kentucky, for their college education and were very well prepared. I can name my teachers from the "Primmer" on through to my second year of high school, where I "dropped out" when we moved to Illinois. Later on, I studied along with my husband and two brothers and a sister and received my high school diploma.

The first year of school for a child started when he or she was six years old. They started in a "primmer" class or "chart class." I did not like this class. I was bored. You had to learn the alphabet, sounds, and read such simple nonsense, so I thought, like "Nat is a boy…see Nat run...Nat saw a rat." Of course, words were associated with similar sounds and simple words but we already had known what these words were. It was for a purpose and it was educational. Regardless of how many students read it all at one time, we were taught to wait until Nellie Miller and all the others who were slow readers, to catch up. Then the teachers turned the page.

We were taught to read and spell aloud; also to add or subtract at the blackboard. Teaching us to add and subtract at the blackboard the teacher held up a gadget with what I thought was strings of beads on wires and talked about it for awhile, then began moving them around and adding to and taking away. This was teaching us to add and subtract, and the gadget was called an "abacus." I learned this much later.

School days were happy days. The learning was pleasant, the discipline firm, the children were taught to regard their school teachers with respect. Our school house was a red brick building situated on top of a hill at DeKoven. We had to be at school at 9 o'clock in the morning and were out at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. We had a fifteen minute recess at ten thirty in the forenoon, then "dinner hour," then a fifteen minute recess at two thirty, then last class before four o'clock. School began in September just after Labor Day, about the 5th or 6th. Then, it lasted until the first day of May. There was home work, extra activities, social life, and good moral training in our schools.

Our text books were the real McGuffy books and they were "tops." If we were lucky enough to take our lunch, we could go out back of the school yard and just a little way back were some small bluffs we called "the rocks." We spread out our napkins and had a picnic there for our school lunch hour. The place was beautiful. In the fall, the leaves were colored so pretty. Then in the spring, the ferns and wild flowers were everywhere and also the birds and once in awhile, a wild rabbit, or occasionally a snake! Those were happy carefree days and we enjoyed every day.

Many times going to school "Uncle" Gee Spragues would drive along with his team and empty wagon. We'd run along behind the wagon and "catch on" and ride up the hill. He knew we were there but he never objected. We had to pass Mr. Jim Hicks' store on the way also and he was very nice to the children. Once he had received a good sized shipment of cookies and when they came in they were all broken up in pieces. He wouldn't sell them that way but put them out on the sidewalk and told us kids to "help ourselves." They didn't last very long. We loved Mr. Hicks. He was a good friend of Papa's and Mama's and at Christmas time, he and several others of Papa's friends would come to our house and give us a "Christmas greeting" by way of serenading outside (now we call it singing Christmas carols). Then Papa would ask them in and Mama would serve a cup of Papa's eggnog. He made the best I ever tasted! She (Mama) watched him and wouldn't let him "flavor" it too heavy for she knew all the children would have some. We were still thinking about school.

Every Friday afternoon we had what they called the "Literary Society." The downstairs grades would come upstairs to the big became the big room when they opened the partition....and they all took part in a program, from the first grade on up through the ninth and tenth grades; we, who were in the smaller grades, learned very much in these afternoon sessions. Many of the poems, music, debates and other things of interest I still remember; once Alberta was reciting a poem about a sinking ship. Mama had dressed her in a white dress with a "white embroidery" underskirt made on a waist band and pinned with a safety pin. She got a good start with the poem and had captured everyone's interest when she got to this line: "She has parted in the middle, Oh the half of her goes down," it was at this point that the safety pin broke loose and the starched white underskirt dropped down around her feet! She was terribly embarrassed but promptly stepped out of it and kicked it "back stage" where a good friend picked it up and put it aside for her. She took a lot of teasing about it, but all in good fun. She did continue her recitation about the ship before she went back to get the underskirt.

Our childish games were very interesting. At school recess, we played games like "whip cracker." That was a long line of boys and girls joining hands. Then the leaders, usually a big boy, would run a short way then sling the whole line and the one at the end of the line usually got the "wallop." It was a little dangerous, but fun! Then there was "Fox and Geese." A similar line but the foxes were in the middle to "catch a goose" and so on and on.

There was always boys who chased the girls to kiss them. I was in a group once when I was in the first grade to be chased. I fell down and got kissed while all those other silly little girls ran on ahead.

When school was out, there were things to do. Girls made "play house," cut out paper dolls. We cut ours out of old catalogues and discarded magazines. We used these dolls to play funerals, baptizings, and riding on trains, or anything we could hear about. It seems that my paper dolls were always the ones that we used for "burials" and "baptizings." Alberta wouldn't part with hers. If I didn't consent to what she proposed, she wouldn't play, so I always gave in reluctantly.

Summer time was a good time. We were allowed to go barefooted. That was fun until you wanted to step on a "willy worm" or stepped on a thorn or a sticker or piece of glass. We played a lot of hop scotch, Clara Taylor and I. We always had a lot of kids in our yard to play with us. We had to stay at home most of the time, but the neighborhood kids come in our yard.

These were the very early times of our lives. As time went on, Papa heard that "over in Illinois men were making more money" and he got the urge to move. There was a lot of talk about it. Mama didn't want to move to a "strange place" but Uncle Bill Ford (Mama's younger sister Sally's husband) kept telling about the good money they made and finally she consented. She was afraid of the "hunkies" as she called them. Afraid Papa would get drunk and the hunkies would kill him. But plans were made, and in 1915, we moved to Harrisburg, Illinois and that would require a whole new chapter to relate that. It was an epoch of great importance that I may relate later.