( A Breed That Was )
by Jess Raley
CHAPTER l THE OLD SOD
by Jess Raley
THE OLD SOD
The muse that attends me is, beyond all doubt, the most independent of the whole litter. She performs as long as it pleases her to do so, but takes off for parts unknown at the most inappropriate time imaginable; futhermore, she may not return for days or even weeks.
It is times like this, when the muse is on vacation, that I start rummaging, not looking for anything in particular, just plundering. It was one of those times that I rediscovered the old powder flask. The flask is made of dull brass with small game and water fowl engraved on each side. It was once the property of my great grandfather Slaton and came to me from my grandfather Raley. Looking at the old beat-up flask and trying to visualize the places it had been, the events it could bear witness to, it occurred to me that now would be a good time to go back. Not to unearth records or trace generations - the legends I had heard as a child are surely much better than cold facts - but just to see again where it happened.
There is something just a bit mystic about the old sod. That locale where one's ancestors lived, dreamed, worked, experienced love, hate, fear, anger, happiness, peace, flustration, and finally death. I have felt this call to go back - to see, feel, and taste that which was - innumerable times since leaving Appalachia, but, except for brief trips to bury kith and kin, the time was never right to go. At first there was a place to find, then a job to do, a wife to win, a war to fight, a family to rear, a deadline to make.
Driving northeast on the interstate, many things that had not been called to memory for too long kept chasing each other through my mind. The hills and mountains here near the southwestern terminus of Appalachia are not high enough to be really impressive, but they are much too numerous for large scale farming. What, I wondered, had been the determining factor in my ancestors' decision to settle in this particular area at a time when the land would seem to have been before them.
What had Soloman Kean (Kane, Kain, Cain, Cane) seen in this particular place, when passing through while scouting for Jackson, that would entice him to return after the war. Was the place just right for him or was it the Indian girl he is alleged to have taken for his wife? Since the Indians, as a culture, were removed from the area with considerable force a few years later, no one talked aloud of Indian ancestors for so long, those who knew passed bequeathing to their progeny many provocative questions but very few answers.
In any case and for whatever reason, Soloman Kean, a miller and a miller's son, did return after New Orleans. Did make a deal with Pack and Big Feathers, two minor Cherokee chiefs, to grind their corn toll free for as long as they lived in exchange for a section of land. Did dam Will's Creek not far from its source, build a water wheel and grist mill and did grind Pack and Big Feather's personal turns toll free until they were forced to leave the area some fifteen years later.
Some twenty-five years later George Slaton came riding along enroute from Georgia to Texas. He must have cut quite a figure, mounted on a beautiful horse and a hand-tooled saddle, bags filled with such things as a fiddle - which he played well -a rifle, pistol, and an imported powder flask. This information - along with the fact that the old gent had a taste for sour mash whiskey - was passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, but there's not a person living today that knows if Slaton was long or short, thick or thin. In any case his journey ended at the Kean homestead. He married Susan Kean, built a home on the Kean estate and fathered a sizeable family.
In the late eighteen-fifties Matthias Raley decided to leave Union County, Tennessee to find a place where land was flat and cheap, and where there was less friction among neighbors than existed in east Tennessee at that time. They set out in a covered wagon; Matthias, his wife Polly Ann, their three children, and a brother-in-law named Robinson, the younger child, David Marion, was my grandfather. After following the best road they could find for more than three weeks they settled on a forty acre plot in the ridges, adjoining the Kean estate on the rough side. Then, in the fullness of time, my grandfather took Caldonia, one of the Slaton girls, for his wife.
When I was small I remember visiting the Kean old mill site with my father. There was nothing left of the dam or buildings at that time except a few charred scraps of hand-hewn timber and a huge weeping willow tree. The tree was said to have grown from an ordinary willow sprout cut for a walking stick by some old gentleman on his way to mill. Upon arriving at the mill he is alleged to have stuck the improvised cane into the ground, bud end down, near the mill house door and failed to retrieve it when he departed. The walking stick took root and grew to be a huge weeping willow tree - the first weeping willow ever seen in that area, by the way.
My grandfather, who remembered seeing and talking to most of these people, considered Soloman Kean a foreigner because he said aye for yes and mon for man. In his opinion Mrs. Kean could not have been an Indian because she had blue eyes. Grandfather suspected that George Slaton's wife, Susan, rather than four bloody years of war, was the most likely reason George was unable to cope with life realistically in his later years. One of Granddad's favorite stories was of the day he finally mustered up enough courage to ask for my grandmother's hand in marriage. Susan had long since established absolute control over all family affairs and was feared and avoided by one and all. On this day when he entered the old girl's chamber. Granddad says he left the door slightly ajar just in case a hasty departure became imperative. When he asked that all important question Mrs. Slaton's answer was, "Where in the hell does every shirttail boy that comes along get the notion that I'm raising girls to give away?"
"Well, your father gave you to a man didn't he?" keeping one eye on the open door so as not to lose his sense of direction.
"I've always tried to believe he thought he did," was the old girl's answer.
That's as far as the tale ever went, but I'm living proof that he got the girl.
Gaining rapidly on my destination I recalled my last journey to Appalachia. On that occasion Charley Williams, a favorite kinsman of my father's generation, had passed away and I made a brief trip back to attend the wake. The interstate highway was still on the drawing board at that time, and it was almost dark when I reached the Williams home. The first thing I did, after offering more or less silent condolence to the family, was help some of the others cut firewood; hopefully enough to do the night. After that I settled in to hear the last words and deeds of the departed.
With no more than half an ear for the steady flow of conversation, I thought about the Charley Williams I had known. As a boy I had been to the Williams home many times with my father. On these trips we generally spent the night and went hunting the next day. Now I've been on many hunts in later years - deer, bear, turkey, boar, etc. - and enjoyed them all very much, but I have yet to participate in any hunt that could compare with the rabbit and squirrel hunts Charley and my dad would talk late at night, sitting before the fire drinking black coffee.
Next morning they would be up long before first light in a big hurry to get underway, but after "boosting the boys off to a good start" they just seemed to fade away. When we happened to return before lunch-time we would generally find Charley and Dad in the lee of a big rock not more than two hundred yards from the house talking earnestly about whatever old men, who had spent their boyhood days together, are wont to recall.
Bill, Charley's elder son, always said that they only wandered far enough away so that his mother couldn't see and badger them for wood to cook the noon meal. I don't know for sure that this was a fact, but I do know that Charley hated to cut wood above all else. I remember asking him once - when he had to get up and cut stovewood to cook breakfast - if it wouldn't be better to cut at least enough wood in advance to cook one meal. "No doubt it would be a good deal less difficult," he had replied, "but then too, a man could die suddenly in the night, and I don't want to leave a damn stick when I go." I was not close enough to Charley Williams to know about his dreams and aspirations; what goals he might have set for himself; or how many of them he may have achieved, but in this one thing he had attained absolute success. I had checked the wood box soon after my arrival and the only thing it contained was a thin piece of bark about the size of a quarter.
Even in Appalachia the all-night wake with casket open in the living room is becoming quite rare, and no one who has experienced an ordeal of this nature can doubt that it is much better - especially for the immediate family - for the body to lie in state reasonable hours at a funeral parlor. There is one thing to be said, however, for the in-home wake. Late at night, after most friends and neighbors have paid their respects and departed, there is almost sure to be a kind of who's who family tree round robin where younger members of the family can learn who some of their ancestors were, where they came from, and sometimes gain a brief glimpse beyond the closet door wherein the most scandalous skeleton abides.
It was at a wake, many years before, when I was living in Appalachia, that I first heard the story of Thad Arbery. According to the tale, Thad was the grandfather of Vince Raley's wife's mother. Vince was my grandfather, three generations removed. It seems that Thad was shipped to the colonies from an English jail when he was just a boy and delivered to a certain planter who had agreed to pay his fine and passage in exchange for twelve years of servitude. At this point in time the boy's name was not Thad Arbery. He spoke with a decided Scottish brogue, but no one knows why he was in an English jail or what his real name was. It is not a part of the legend.
Thad served the planter a few years and then he just walked off and settled in the backwoods of Pennsylvania. It seems that he was accepted without question by his few neighbors, but Thad was smart enough to know that sooner or later his Scottish brogue would give him away, so he developed the habit of not talking at all; only two or three close friends knew he could talk. There was one other important thing to know about Thad; he was the best berry picker anyone had seen, so he became known as Berry.
When he had been in Pennsylvania a few years, there was a call for troops and Thad presented himself along with several neighbors. When the officer in charge of raising a company asked Thad his name he said nothing, but a friend spoke up and said, "That are a berry." That's what the friend said but what the officer heard was a name, so the runaway servant was mustered into the militia as Thad Arbery. When he was discharged Thad kept his new name, and when he was married sometime later whoever wrote the certificate made the natural mistake of entering him into holy matrimony as Theottis Arbery.
A few miles west of Valley Head the interstate leaves Big Valley, meanders north through the ridges and enters Dugout Valley. Here I had to stop. At this very spot, as best I could determine, had stood the dilapidated old house where Millie and her children lived. A place known at that long ago time as the house of ill repute. To the left was just a trace of the old ridge road that had followed the valley all the way to Scott's Pond and the cabin where hermit George lived. From this vantage point I could see where the old road from Allen's passed through a notch in the hills and intersected the ridge road.
Looking another direction I could see the outline of Uncle Bob's field. Uncle Bob was not a relative of mine. In Appalachia all elderly people who are well liked are aunt or uncle; those who are just tolerated are Mr. or Mrs., and those who fall below this mean are referred to as old man or old lady whatever. All the buildings were gone now and the field overgrown with large pine timber, framed like a picture by virgin hardwood. Somewhere near the middle of that field on an early autumn afternoon more than forty years before I had experienced the strangest, most exuberant, and absolutely unforgettable few minutes of a long zestful life. A once in a lifetime phenomenon, I had long since decided, that could never quite be coaxed into coming off full measure again. At a greater distance the three old line trees still stood in a row up the side of Chestnut Hill. They had been dead for many years now - all of the bark and most of the limbs had fallen leaving a kind of scarecrow impression - but they still marked that long disputed land line.
Through a gap in the hill the listing rock chimney at Bill Hipp's old house place was dimly visible. At that house four klansmen had been killed one hot summer evening when my grandfather was just a boy. It seems that a few years after the Civil War several men in the community organized a small chapter in the Ku Klux Klan for the expressed purpose of keeping blacks from getting out of hand. Soon after the Klan was organized they realized they had one real problem - there were no blacks in the area to ride herd on. This apparently unsurmountable obstacle was overcome in short order, however, by the simple expediency of turning their attention to whites in the community that were judged to be performing somewhat under par.
Several men were warned to mend their ways and a few were whipped for their sins of commission or omission. The Klan was at its peak when they decided to whip Bill Hipp; it being suspected that he was guilty of laying the hand of authority a bit too firmly on his wife. According to my granddad, Bill was known as a mean old rascal. He was also a veteran who owned three or four smoothbore muskets, having developed a habit while in the army of going on leave armed and reporting back empty. He also learned somehow that the Klan had decided to whip him. On the evening they arrived to perform this little chore, Bill was in the attic of his house looking out an opening with all his muskets at hand loaded with a heavy charge of buck and ball. When their hail failed to bring anyone to the door, three Klansmen dismounted and proceeded toward the house on foot to drag the prospect out. At about twenty paces Hipp opened fire, killing the three dismounted men and horsemen before they could reach cover. All of the Klansmen were armed, of course, and they bounced quite a few rifle balls off the log house; talked of storming the place but decided not to, there being only seven men left and one of them had a buckshot in his thigh. They held a top level conference and vowed to avenge their fellow Klansmen at all costs and went home.
At that particular point in time even the most ambitious life underwriter would, no doubt, have hesitated to seek Bill Hipp as a prospect, but it would have been a good bet. Bill lived to a ripe old age, and his children grew up to be pillars in the community. The episode at Hipp's was the beginning of the end for the first crop of Klansmen in that area. Some of their regular customers began to fight back when they stopped by to administer the annual whipping. Two of the leaders had a difference of opinion. One killed the other and headed for Texas. Some moved to another community, but mostly they just faded away since quite a few had joined primarily to insure their own hide.
Bill Robinson, my grandfather's uncle, who had journeyed with them from East Tennessee, was a member of the Klan. There was also a relative from the Kean side who was killed that evening at Hipp's. Robinson owned a farm adjoining his brother-in-law, and I have heard Grandad tell many times of draping corn for his uncle while Robinson carried a gun on his plow handle in case Hipp, who lived just across the ridge, decided to renew hostilities.
Looking west a huge walnut tree still stood at the foot of Rocky Hollow where the queen had encountered her first coon, and about a mile to the north some of the old shagbark hickories that had formed a two acre lawn around Joe Todd's one room log home were visible, but all other familiar landmarks had disappeared. There was an all-weather road up the valley and I could count four houses and five mobile homes on the area that had once been my grandfather's farm. There was, I learned later, even a water main up the valley.
When a family lives in one place for several generations - with the young hearing from the old those things that people are wont to recall in their own life, and also events that were passed on to them by their elders, it can become just a bit fuzzy as to who did what. Actually, except for the two years I lived there in my middle teens, I have very few memories of the old sod. As a matter of fact, I wasn't even born there.
In the fall of 1916 Dad obtained employment with a lumber company in Valley Head. He and Mother had lived with Grandad until that time, but they had been saving what they could to build a house on their own farm which joined the old place on the north, and it was calculated that enough could be saved from a winter's work to put their building program over the top. The distance and long hours involved made daily commuting almost impossible, so they moved into a company house in Valley Head where I was born in January of the next year. The row of lumber company houses were demolished before I can remember to make room for a football stadium, but Dad said the house stood about the thirty yard line.
The next spring Dad built one big room and a cook room and moved into his new house. That winter he built another room and a stack chimney; the next winter a wide porch across the front. I have always suspected that the short time we lived in that house was the best years of my mother and father's life together for to them this was no ordinary house. It had two glass windows in each room, store-bought doors and even tongue and grooved flooring, but more than that they had built it together.
The first thing I remember for sure is the house burning down; it happened in the spring of my fourth year. Mother and a neighbor woman had gone to the back field to pick wild greens, leaving a small fire in the stove where a pot of beans was cooking. The kitchen was a lean- to type room off the first room of the big house as most cook rooms were at that time and place. It, like the rest of the house, was covered with homemade oak boards. They had not built a proper flue for the stove because it was planned to build a more spacious kitchen that winter.
All I really remember is watching the house burn, through cracks in the corn crib, where my sister Caldonia -three years older than me at that time - and I were secured to keep us safe and out of the way while the adults saved what they could. It seems that a gusty wind had sprung up, blowing sparks from the stove pipe - which extended no more than a foot above the housetop - onto the board roof. By the time the fire was discovered, nothing could be done to save the house.
Mother and Dad were very good parents, but in many ways I doubt that they every really recovered from that fire, especially Dad. There were other things, however, that may have had more bearing on later events than loss of the house.
In the three and a half years between my birth and the fire, Dad had decided to become a bigger and better farmer. The price of cotton had more than doubled because of World War I, and small farmers had more money than they had seen before. Dad mortgaged his farm for about three times what it had been worth a few years before and bought a pair of young mules, a new Weber wagon, and a full line of two-horse farming equipment.
After the fire we moved into the old Joe Todd house for the summer. The Todds had built a new clapboard house several years before, and Granddad's house - the one his father had built near the spring - had burned that very winter. No one was living in it at the time since Grandad had tired of batching and settled in with the family in the new house. It was a very poor crop year and when fall came the price of cotton was back to prewar level. Dad and Grandad cut logs, hauled them to the sawmill and had lumber cut to rebuild the house, but I suspect Dad's heart wasn't in the project this time, and Mother had become obsessed with the desire to get away from the old place. Mother was a flatland girl who had never been fully converted to Appalachia in the first place, and she had lost her two first-born sons to pneumonia while living there. Now the house was gone and the farm was mortgaged for considerably more than it was worth.
That fall and winter must have been a very trying time. In the end Dad and Grandad sold their farms to a newcomer in the Valley, on credit of course. Dad sold his stock and tools to another man, also on credit, and we moved to Georgia where we sharecropped for two years. After the first year Dad had to repossess the mules and wagon; the other tools just disappeared. When they had gained back some of the weight lost to overwork and starvation, he sold the team and wagon for a fraction of the amount he had paid them, but he got cash this time.
Meanwhile the man they had sold their farms to had used the lumber to build a four room house, but he had moved it across the line onto Grandad's place. He may have had some hope of paying for that farm, but in the end he didn't pay anything on either place, so Grandad got his place back with a new house on it and the mortgage company ended up with Dad's farm.
Late in the fall before my sixth birthday we moved back to the old place, but we didn't stay long. Dad had a brick stove flue built in the kitchen, then found a job at a steel mill, and we moved to town for four years, then back to Georgia for a year, then back to town and the steel mill where we lived until the depression got so rough I had to drop out of school. It was decided I could move back to the old place and try to make a living for myself until work picked up at the mill.
Mother didn't like the idea, but she liked the crowd I was running with even less, so she gave her consent in a lesser of two evils sort of decision. There were three more children in the family now, all girls, and with Dad getting to work only six to eight days a month, one less mouth to feed could be a factor. The long-range plan was for me to establish a beachhead, as it were, by laying up all the produce I could, and the whole family would come later if the work picture didn't improve. In retrospect it is most difficult to understand how it was expected that I could lay anything in store or feed myself for that matter. I had no money, no seed, no tools, nothing to pull a plow and very, very little knowledge about farming. So I entered into this adventure with the boundless zeal and bubbling enthusiasm born of absolute ignorance.
Dad was a dreamer blessed with the ability to forget all past dreams that had evolved into nightmares and concentrate with exuberance on his latest aspiration, but Mother was a realist with no illusions about my success in this venture. While Dad was an only child, Mother was the youngest child of William Carroll. Her father was deep in his sixties when she was born and died when she was nine years old. Her was partially paralyzed the last four years of his life and served as baby sitter with Mother while the others worked. Mother remembered the stories her father told her in this period with remarkable clarity, but no one else knew much about the old gentleman.
William Carroll was a Civil War veteran and his wife drew a pension as long as she lived. He told Mother that he was born and grew up on a plantation in Carroll County, Georgia where he had a black mammy. Slaves did all the work and the Carroll children pursued whatever pleasures came to mind. He didn't know his mother's maiden name and couldn't remember her being called anything other than Mistress Carroll. Sometime before the war Grandfather Carroll and one brother left home after a disagreement with their father about secession. The brother went north and later fought with the Union; Grandfather went to Alabama and married his first wife. When war came he fought with the south in spite of his convictions - the old sod thing I suspect. A few years after the war his first wife died; they had four children. Sometime later he married my grandmother and they had nine children.
Grandmother Carroll was the daughter of a Dutch miller, name of Yarbrough; her mother was a French girl from Demopolis, Alabama by the name of Fry. Insofar as anyone knows, Grandfather Carroll never returned to his old home or had any communication after he left. He was a sharecropper all of the time he lived with my grandmother and they moved about quite a bit. This life style may well account for the fact that Mother looked on no place in particular as her old sod. To her a place where adequate food, shelter, and clothing could be obtained regularly was the best place to call home. After Grandfather Carroll died, the older boys found employment in town and moved the family there where they must have had a better life than when the old gentleman was directing farming operations in the country.
I must have lost track of time while reminiscing because just as the valley that was began to emerge from the latter-day housing project, a state trooper beat it to the draw. I know, of course, that one doesn't park on the interstate except for an emergency, but when the trooper asked what was doing the trouble, I was still so deep in the past I told him the truth. Instead of coming up with one of the many minor things for which one might have stopped legally, I just said I was looking. The trooper seemed to be as surprised by this answer as I was because he looked me over real good before imparting the information that I would have to move on.
"If you want to see some real mountains," he added "pull off on one of the observation ramps east of here."
"Thanks a lot," I replied "but these old hills around here get quite a bit higher when you look at them long enough." I got by with it, but the state car followed me until I left the four-lane at the next intersection.
copyright 1981, 1996 all rights reserved
By mail from Landmarks of DeKalb County
|Raley's Mindless Screeds||Rising Fawn and Noccalula|