There was an informal family gathering the other night, following my Aunt’s funeral Monday. We wanted to get together because some of us don’t see the others very often. We traded various stories, and my Uncle D was telling some of the things that happened in his youth, and some things that were passed down to him by his own elders. To put this in perspective, I should state that Uncle D is in his late 80’s, so he goes back a ways.
It was fascinating. I had no idea how ignorant I was of the local history in this area. I do wish I had known this was going to happen – I would have been prepared to record it. I have never heard Uncle D tell stories like this before, so this was brand-new.
I can’t remember all the details, but there were some stories about various moonshiners in the area, and he was able to tell us their names, and even where the stills were, here and there around the area – and he told how one of them got caught, and how another outsmarted the sheriff. We talked about hand-dug water wells and where they usually were relative to the house – just outside the house, right next to the kitchen. He told us where houses were, in places where no houses are now, and never have been in my lifetime. And he told us of the people that lived in them.
It seems that my great grandfather (whom I never met) owned a couple of slaves, a man and a woman, and my Uncle knew their names. He knew where they lived, and that when the slaves were freed (in 1865 according to Wikipedia), he made sure they had a place to live. There were a number of ex-slaves in the area in those days, and Uncle D told us how their former owners (and their descendants) took care of them, providing homes in many cases, and making sure they had employment, firewood, gardens, and the things people needed back then to survive. He said that, while there surely was abuse in some areas of the country, in every case he knows about, the former slaves were generously treated. I have the impression that they were mostly regarded more as employees rather than slaves, even before they were freed.
In the interest of historical veracity, I have to say that Uncle D used the language of the time in referring to the blacks (yes, the N word). Understand, this is without even a trace of prejudice. In that day, and in that place, both blacks and whites referred to blacks using that word. Even some of the place-names used it. It was later in history that the word became an epithet, and various other terms became ‘politically correct’.
Uncle D told us that my dad had a black friend growing up, that he spent a lot of time with. They worked together cutting wood, generally with a cross-cut saw. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a cross-cut saw is a long blade of metal with evil looking teeth down one edge, with a handle on each end. One worker on each end pulled it through the wood, then the other guy pulled it back through. I begin to understand why my Dad thought I had it easy. It didn’t seem easy to me, but those guys did some serious work back then. I thought I was tough because I was proficient with a chain saw in my teens; these guys did the same thing without the benefit of a gasoline engine! Uncle D told us how mules were trained so that hauling logs out of the woods went smoothly because the mule knew what was expected of it. These days, we use machines – and machines are stupid. The mules knew how to keep the log from hanging on stumps, and they knew where to drag the log, after the first trip.
It is really fascinating how, back then, it was fundamental things that mattered. These people did not worry about how many TV sets they had, or swimming pools, or even cars; they saved their worry for having enough firewood and food, and a place to stay. Later on, things improved over time; electricity, and indoor plumbing, was an add-on in my grandfather’s house.
People learned to plan for their needs – because if they didn’t, their needs wouldn’t be met, except for charity. If you wanted to be warm in the winter, you cut wood in the summer. This is a lesson many could take note of, these days.
It was an eye-opening conversation – and I hope to have another, soon.
Disclaimer: Almost all of the above is based my memory of a long conversation late in the evening; any inaccuracies are purely my own, and credit for the content belongs to my Uncle D, who tells an interesting story.