That’s About the Way It Was

Posted January 16, 2013 at 2:30 pm

by: Glynn Mann

(This is part of a book the late Ben Harlan Dyer sent me from Florida before his passing. Time and tide waits for no man. Think about it.)



by: Ben Dyer

Just about any time you can turn on the T.V., read the newspaper or most any magazine, you will find that if you eat certain foods, you are going to wind up in the hospital with cancer or some other dreaded disease. There are warnings every day about eating foods with high saturated fats, high sugar content, high cholesterol, etc. So it all boils down to the fact that anything that’s good is bad–on the other hand, anything bad is good. So that being the case, you can’t win for losing. However, eighty-six years ago when I was about to come into this world, we had never heard of any of these things. After I got older, I thought if you had a nutritious breakfast, you probably had about two or three eggs, a big slab of country ham, topped off with homemade biscuits and gravy, and if you were able to hold it, some home-made jelly or jam (sweetened with pure cane sugar) on biscuits smothered with real butter. For lunch (we called it “dinner” then) cornbread, with “red eye” gravy (pure grease from the ham we had for breakfast), peanut butter and jelly sandwich on home-made “light bread.” For dinner (we called it “supper”), if we were lucky, pork chops, steak or “side-meat” cooked in deep fat (pure hog lard), a couple of veggies, followed by a big piece of German chocolate cake. Boy it was good??? but was it bad???. It sure tasted good. We didn’t know the first thing about any low-fat cooking oils. Pam, margarine, because it hadn’t been discovered in the 1920’s. We just got by the best we could. I guess I was lucky to make it as long as I have.

Pollution: I probably had never heard the word but looking back, Boy! Did we have pollution! To start with, do you know what a privy is? Well, a privy is an out-door toilet, commonly referred to as an “out-house.” It was a small wood building, with a single door. Inside was a box shaped rectangular structure about two feet high and two feet deep, the length was determined by how many people it would accommodate at one time. (Similar to the present day commercial restroom.) Usually they were made for either one or two persons. To go further in describing the construction, there was a hole dug in the ground about three feet deep and the same length as the above described box…holes were cut in the top of the box about the same size as a toilet bowl you have in your bathroom. A larger hole for the adults in the family and a small hole for the children! If the head of the family was so inclined to attempt more sanitary measures, he would sand down the wood to prevent getting a splinter and install a hinged lid on the outside of each hole which I suspect would reduce the fly population, somewhat–maybe? Also, have a bag of household lime handy. This was a time when there were no bathrooms, running water, no toilet paper?? NO TOILET PAPER?? WHY?? If there was such a thing as toilet paper, I had never seen any and would not have known what it was if I had seen some. Every home in town, every church, school, hotel, restaurant, the courthouse and any other building had a facility similar to the one described. Since there was no toilet paper, what in the world did we do? Well, we did the best we could. Every home or business had an old Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog, Clinton County Newspaper (local paper). Some people had to use magazines. To tell the truth about it, I never cared much about them because the pages were too slick and did not work so well. It was reported that some people had to use corn cobs in an emergency. I am glad we never reached that point because I think that would be a rough way to go.

Flies were a major problem at this period in time. Since most did not have an “ice-box,” food that was left over from one meal to the next was left on the table. I know now why mother always covered the food with a table cloth. As I described in another part of these tales, electric refrigeration was not available, ice boxes were used, which had very limited space. It’s no wonder that people died younger in those days. I don’t know what the statistics are, but I figure that at least 75 percent of the preventive medicines, insecticides, vaccines, nutrition know-how, television, computers, radios, VCRs, camcorders, jet planes, space programs and on and on have come to pass within the last 50 to 75 years. The country had the first electric power after the turn of the century, however, in the small town I lived in, electric was not available until around 1915-1920. Since there were no electric motors or appliances, the electric power was used for only one purpose and that was for lighting. I remember when we used oil lamps for lighting and it was a God-send when the first electric lights were installed in our home. The very first electric light I can remember was a single electric cord (covered wire) hanging down from the ceiling, with one clear light bulb (frosted bulbs had not been invented). The switch to turn it off and on was attached to the light socket.

In the small town I lived in, every house or business in town and the surrounding areas burned soft coal that was hauled from the coal mines in the eastern part of Clinton County. Everybody had a coal pile or a coal bin, so everybody burned coal (or wood) to furnish heat. Picture this, you go out the door (probably headed for your morning “constitutional” to the privy), you look up into the sky, instead of the beautiful blue sky that you would have thought, we say instead (if the humidity was a little heavy) you saw black smoke coming out of every chimney in town. To compound the problem, the schools, courthouse and all the businesses in town had smoke boiling out-until the sky would be a gray haze as far as the eye could see. That’s bad! Just wait, you ain’t seen nothing yet. There was, at the time I was talking about, no black-top or paved roads. Everything was red mud, when it rained. There were very few cars in town, but the farmers and many people who lived in town, had a team of mules or a horse. If you rode horseback, you probably road a fine horse into, or around town. There were still “hitching” posts in front of some of the buildings. (You know-like in the western movies) Oh! That’s good; No, it was bad. Horses and mules have to go to the bathroom just the same as people, so, where did they go (they didn’t have a privy). You guessed it–the ground. Let’s leave horses standing there for a few minutes, so I can compound the problem somewhat. The farmers (in the summertime) brought their produce to town in farm wagons, pulled by two fine mules. So the farmer would arrive as early as possible to find a good place to park around the courthouse. He would usually back the wagon up to the curb around the courthouse grounds, un-hitch his mules, throw out a couple of bales of hay on the ground for the mules or horses to eat. The wagon would be loaded with every vegetable (that was in season) imaginable to sell to the general public. Now imagine…if you will, a large crowd of people, mostly men, sitting on park benches, or just meandering around the courthouse yard or maybe examining the produce in the farm wagons. Don’t forget, there just ain’t no bathrooms for them mules, “gasp.” Oh my! It sure was oh my with capital letters. I’m not finished yet. The men had a great taste for watermelon, or mush-melons, so they would go from wagon to wagon “thumping” the melons with their fingers. An expert (they were all experts) could tell if a melon was ripe by thumping it. After negotiating a price, probably from 10 cents to a quarter, he would take it back to his seat, whip out a “Russell Barlow” knife (owning a Russell Barlow was a status symbol among the knife “packing” men). He starts to cut the melon. If, at the first cut, the melon started to “bust” open, that meant that it was “dead ripe” and as sweet as it could be. Usually the man who bought the melon would cut it up in slices and invite his friends or anyone else that happened to be around, to partake in the feast. You better believe I was on hand every chance I got. There just ain’t nothing much better than a vine ripened watermelon with a little salt sprinkled on it (to enhance the taste). Oh yes, there was always a salt shaker in the farmer’s wagon…boy, that’s good, you say, wait, no, that’s bad. What are we going to do with all of those watermelon rinds, put them in a garbage can? I don’t think I ever saw a garbage can until I was grown. We had our own garbage disposal. There was always a bunch of hogs, pigs and chickens around to take care of the matter. The hogs ate the melon rinds, the chickens ate the seeds “bingo.” Now, if we had a way to get rid of the flies we would have had it made. By the way, there were fly-swatters, which helped a lot. It was not unusual to see three or four cows around that were brought into town to sell or trade. Of course, the hogs, the chickens and the cows had to go to the bathroom. Looking back I can see what a “mess” it must have been and how it looked to “city folks” who probably had us beat when it came to culture “niceties.” But at the time I thought it was great and glad to have the opportunity to be a part of it.

The main section of town was built in what we call the “town square,” with the courthouse in the middle. I am sure that you have seen this scenario in many instances, as you have traveled through the country, especially the south. At the time that I am writing about, there was no pavement around the courthouse, but believe it or not, we had wide sidewalks, while part of them were made of wood, most were of concrete, but the main roads and around the public square were red clay. Rain-rain, if you have never seen red clay mud roads, enhanced with numerous piles of animal manure everywhere, you should give thanks that you were spared the ‘site.’ Believe me it could sure be a “sight.” Even though we had the sidewalks we had to cross the road to the “other side” if you could get there without stepping in “you-know-what” you were lucky, but it still would take a long time to get the red mud off your shoes. If it over dried, it was almost impossible to get off. Jockey street was a street that ran on the east side-one block off the public square. Every Saturday, and on “court day,” first day of circuit court, farmers and traders from all over would congregate to do a little trading, swapping and drinking. As I said before, there were no paved roads, so you can imagine on a hot summer day, a large crowd of people, a “zillion” horses, numerous cows, dogs, cats, chickens, horses running ‘to and fro’ (to try them out), cows balling, children crying, drunken men arguing, some joker strumin’ on a guitar and singing at the top of his voice. Children crying, drunken men arguing, while a street preacher, expounding the gospel to the inattentive crowd, about half of them half drunk. Whata’ mess, the dust (red dust) was so thick you could have cut it with a knife. I am sure you are saying to yourself, self, that must have been awful. I guess it was but I couldn’t stay away. I thought it was great fun. The town creek ran around the west to south side of town but it was down over the hill, so when it came a big heavy rain, it washed all the “stuff” down into the creek. I guess it helped to fertilize the farms adjacent to the creek, heard there was some rich soil down there, which means, there is usually some good comes out of most situations.

Speaking of the town creek, it was actually a beautiful stream, with the water rippling over the rocks and tree lined banks, the very picture of serenity. The creek started from a large spring behind Plato Hancock’s house…Mr. Hancock put a large stone and concrete dam across the stream, which was always referred to as the “Mill Dam.” It would have been a wonderful place to go swimming, except the water was “ice cold.” Every now and then, some brave soul would take a plunge. He usually came back out pretty quick. While we are on the subject, Mr. Hancock had built a large mill that produced flour and meal. He had a huge “water-wheel” installed. The wheel was used to turn the machinery in the mill. In order for the wheel to operate, he built a “mill-race,” which consisted of a long three sided (two sides and a bottom) funnel made of wood and probably well over a hundred feet in length, held up by cedar posts or huge rocks piled up. The “race” had two gates, one where it came out to the lake above the dam and another one just at the top of the large water wheel. (The wheel must have been at least twenty-five feet in diameter). It had wide “cup like containers” to catch the water as it came onto the wheel, which in turn caused a continuous rotation of the wheel. The water went onto the wheel at the top and the weight helped to make it turn until it poured out at the bottom. I know this explanation is about as clear as mud. If I get a chance, I will try to find somebody that knows what I am talking about. Anyway, once that wheel got to turning, it would really go fast. The speed could be regulated by how much water was turned through the gates. Purpose? The wheel turned the large machinery used inside the mill to turn corn into meal and wheat into flour. I dearly loved to go down to that mill. It was one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen. I just heard recently that it may be torn down in the near future. It is certainly a historic landmark and I would hate to see it happen, even though I have not been down there in years. When I was a child it was a beautiful place to have a picnic below the dam on great white rocks and the water pouring over the dam and swirling around through the rocks. My, my what a peaceful place just to sit or wade in the cool water on a hot summer day. Just thinking about that place makes me hesitate to leave, but I must continue on with the story.

Well the boys, of which I was one, built small dams across the creek to form swimmin’ holes. We would gather up old tree limbs, leaves, grass, stones and large rocks and just about anything that would help hold the water to create a “swimming hole.” I especially remember two such holes, one was just over the hill on the south side of town, down the creek from mill dam, we called it “round rock hole.” Another famous hole was “Carter hole” about two miles on down the creek (it was on Aunt Belle and Oscar Carter’s farm). It was not unusual to find ten or fifteen boys, age eight to fifteen years old, enjoying the cool waters. Bathing suits? Never had heard of such a thing. Everybody went swimming in the buff (naked as a jaybird). You might ask, what about the pollution? Pollution, never heard the word. Anyway, everybody knows when water runs over rocks for a little ways, it purifies itself. By the way, the Mill Dam was well above where the “run-off” from the town square was. The water coming out of that big spring and over the dam was probably the purist water in the country. But wouldn’t the environmentalists have a field day if they could find something like that creek after a big rain storm?

To change the subject–What about child abuse. About half of mothers and fathers in Clinton County in the present day environment would be arrested for child abuse. There was an old “axim” that said, spare the rod-spoil the child, so most parents did not spare the rod, meaning if a young’un got out of line, he was going to get a “whuppin,” either with a switch from a tree, a razor strop, a belt or anything else that was handy. Even my mother, who was a very religious and a find lady, was not above “thrashing” one of us boys when we got out of line, which was quite often (there was four of us boys). I was the youngest boy, Ray Logan had died when he was four years old. I was eighteen, when my sister, Mary Elizabeth, was born. She missed out on all the excitement. Now, papa was a grey horse of a different color. He was hard to arouse, but when he did, brother, watch out for “fire and brimstone.” He would grab you by the hair and shake, or lay the strap or hedges switch across your bottom so you can believe me when I say we were very respectful of our parents, because if we weren’t, we sure paid for it in the end, “end, yep, that’s the right word.” Let me just say that I never, never felt that I was abused in any way, and am thankful for my parents for their concern when I was “growing up.” I believe a little of the same medicine would help cure a lot of what’s wrong today. As a child, I never did own a bicycle, or a dog. My brother Bob had a small dog. He called it “Midge.” On Saturday, I had been a pretty good boy, and if my dad was in a pretty good mood, I “might” get a nickel to spend. My friend, Lyle Smith, got a new bicycle for Christmas. If my dad gave me the nickel, I made a “bee line” down to Lyle’s house. (He lived with his aunt Mae Gamblin, who was a school teacher). I think she was a sister to Hunt Mackey, a well-known citizen, or as the saying goes, “a man about town.” Well, anyway, back to the subject at hand. I, with a few other kids, would get Lyle to let us ride his new bicycle. For a nickel, he would let me ride down to the “Rockcastle” service station and back (Doc Upchurch service station). It was probably less than a quarter mile round trip. Sometimes he would even let me make two trips. Big deal. Lyle, bless his heart, would be what we call an “entrepreneur” now days. He had a pretty good thing going. If he could take in three or four nickels, he thought he was rich. In those days, a bottle of pop, or a cone of ice cream was a nickel, hamburgers (at Snow’s cafe) were ten cents. The older boys (sometimes the younger, not calling any names) could buy a package of Wing cigarettes for a dime. Twenty Grand for fifteen cents. Camels (I’d walk a mile for a Camel) were about a quarter. Anyway, Lyle Smith became my very best friend. We went all the way through grade and high school, and roomed together in college. We had some grand old times, some of which I will probably write about later. That will be another story, probably covering the years of the 1930s through the 40s, high school, college and Army life, and everything I think of in between.