This surprisingly poetic account of an all-day singing was submitted sometime in 1941 to the Works Project Administration by a Mississippi writer working on the “America Eats!” project .
There is an old axiom that fighting and feuding are easily plowed under with food and song. Certainly, a man can stand up by his neighbor and sing “Amazing Grace! How Sweet the Sound!” and then turn around and feud with him about a hog, a dog, or a fence line. Not a Mississippi man, anyway. For, although a Mississippian gets tempered up in a hurry, he is also believed to be form with a prayer in his heart, a sing on his lips, and an unwavering appetite for picnic food. All day singing with dinner on the ground has come to serve him as “hatchet-burying” time as well as a singing and easing session.
In one section of the state there is a tri-county singing association that meets twice a year, and when that group of voices bears down the mules hitched below the hill start in to bray. From the first notes that are sung until the last leader calls for “God Be With You Till We Meet Again,” singing sometimes throughout the day.
In the church the women sit on one side of the house, the men on the other. Those who read shaped notes take their seats on the front rows. The first leader calls out a number from his Sacred Harp song books and sets the pitch. He asks for the tune and the church house rings with the “fa, sold, la” of the Mississippian scale. The words come next and each leader tries to extract from the willing class its best. As the morning wears on the women present who say they don’t “sing a stitch” prepare the table for dinner. Near noontime, the smell of food begins to compete with the swell of rhythm. And when a tune as familiar as “On Jordan’s Story Banks” falls off, even the leader knows that it’s time for the Sacred Harp to be laid aside. He solemnly closes the book and announces that dinner will be served outside.
On the improvised tables the women have spread food for the hungry and weary vocalists. Chicken seems to be the songbirds’ meat for it is evident in great quantity and variety. There is chicken pie, crisp fried chicken, country fried chicken with gravy, broiled chicken, baked chicken, chicken giblets, and hard-boiled eggs. There are baked hams and country sausage, and no all-day singing dinner is just right without potato salad. Homemade summer pickle, peach pickle, and pickle relish eat mighty well with all this, and there’s plenty of cold biscuit and homemade light bread.
The best cooks of the community bring their cakes and pies and a man was hard put to choose between apple pie and devil’s food cake with coconut icing. It may be that he will pass them both up for jelly cake, especially if it is a ten-stacker.
Singing is resumed after dinner, but it takes a potent leader to get much spirit into the mind right after such a meal. But song finally takes hold again, and the singing of “Sweet Morning” takes on added meaning. The final number is heard at sundown, and the courting couples wander up from the spring to join their folks for the trek home. It is a quiet leave-taking, without many spoken good-byes. Those had already been said when the last leader asked for the words” “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”
That Faulkner wrote about the Kentucky Derby for Sports Illustrated should come as no surprise, nor that his essay “Kentucky: May: Saturday” is not only about what happened on May 7, 1955, but a masterly examination of the Derby as a quintessential American event and of the sport of kings itself.
The assignment was his second from the fledgling Sports Illustrated (founded by Henry Luce the previous August), his first being an exercise in dissonant apposition. That January Faulkner attended his first hockey game, one between the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers, and in “An Innocent at Rinkside” wrote: “It was filled with motion, speed. … discorded and inconsequent, bizarre and paradoxical, like the frantic darting of the weightless bugs which run on the surface of stagnant pools”. The poetry of hockey eluded the Mississippian.
James Street, the Mississippi minister-turned-journalist-turned novelist, was given the original 1955 Derby assignment, but Street died the September before the race. Sports Illustrated offered Faulkner $2000 plus a week’s expenses, including a $100-a-day chauffeured limousine; the kicker was a $500 bonus if the piece turned out to be as exceptional as they hoped from the Southern Nobelist. No fool he, Faulkner accepted immediately and after a trip to New York in April and the first days of May, he left the city for Louisville, where his publisher Don Klopfer sent him a note to the Brown Hotel informing him that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for A Fable. “It’s an easy 500 bucks for you,” Klopfer write, “and we’re all mighty pleased, although I don’t suppose you give a damn.” On the contrary, Faulkner, who considered A Fable his masterpiece, was quite pleased and those visiting the handsome, nattily-attired writer in his suite found him puffing on a briarwood pipe, smiling.
Far from rinkside in Madison Gardens, at Churchill Downs Faulkner was in his element; his father Murry had been a livery-stable owner in Oxford, he enjoyed riding as well as fox hunting and he had a fine eye for horseflesh. In an interview with The Courier-Journal, Faulkner reflected, “It’s interesting that you have tried to train blood and flesh to the perfection of a machine but that it’s still blood and flesh.” During his stay in Louisville Faulkner was accompanied by SI’s turf writer Whiney Tower, who was instructed “to try to see that our guest did not become so preoccupied with the available whiskey that he neglected his assignment.” To ensure against that seemingly likely possibility, Faulkner was to turn over 300 words each evening of their weeklong stay in Louisville for Tower to wire via Western Union to New York.
Tower, a legend in his own right and the nephew of Lexington horse-farm owner C.V. Whitney, found Faulkner to be “thoroughly professional”. “His knowledge of horses and their bloodlines went way back,” Tower wrote, “and I think the best part of his week may have been the day we skipped away from Louisville to visit farms in Lexington. At Claiborne Farm, he was very much taken with Nasrullah, later to become one of the all-time great stallions, and sire of, among others, Bold Ruler, another champion sire. But no horse he saw in Lexington that long day entranced Faulkner nearly so much as a beautiful gray, Mahmoud, an Epsom Derby winner, then 22 years old and galloping effortlessly in his paddock at the C.V. Whitney farm. On the way back to Louisville, Faulkner napped, but near Frankfort, he awoke suddenly, nostrils twitching above his mustache. “He sat straight up, rolled down his window and inhaled deeply,” Tower wrote. “‘I thought so!’ he exclaimed. ‘I don’t mistake that smell. There’s a distillery damn close to here.’”
As race day approached, Faulkner became more fascinated by the activity at Churchill Downs. Before his first trip to the press box, Tower wrote, Faulkner “asked in an excited schoolboyish way” whether he might meet acclaimed sportswriter Red Smith. The two proceeded to handicap the day’s races. Tower noted that Smith “relied mostly on past performance” in determining his bets, while Faulkner favored the conformation of each horse.
“Kentucky: May: Saturday” ran in the May 16, 1955 issue of Sports Illustrated. Written in five parts to accentuate the build-up of tension and excitement that exploded in the two-minute race that had drawn over a hundred thousand people from all over the world, the essay was not so much about the race itself as a—somewhat rambling; it is Faulkner, after all—meditation on what the Derby means, a piece so subjective that Faulkner didn’t even mention how “Swaps”, ridden by Bill Shoemaker, had held the lead from the start and won despite a thrilling challenge from “Nashua”.
“THREE DAYS BEFORE”, framed the event in historical perspective: “This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too — the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival — Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod’s and Harbuck’s Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.” He linked this past history with his own present: “And knew Stephen Foster and the brick mansion of his song; no longer the dark and bloody ground of memory now, but already my old Kentucky: home.”
“TWO DAYS BEFORE”, he turned to the race: “Even from just passing the stables, you carry with you the smell of liniment and ammonia and straw — the strong quiet aroma of horses. And even before we reach the track we can hear horses — the light hard rapid thud of hooves mounting into crescendo and already fading rapidly on. And now in the gray early light we can see them, in couples and groups at canter or hand-gallop under the exercise boys. Then one alone, at once furious and solitary, going full out, breezed, the rider hunched forward, excrescent and precarious, not of the horse but simply (for the instant) with it, in the conventional posture of speed — and who knows, perhaps the two of them, man and horse both: the animal dreaming, hoping that for that moment at least it looked like Whirlaway or Citation, the boy for that moment at least that he was indistinguishable from Arcaro or Earl Sande, perhaps feeling already across his knees the scented sweep of the victorious garland.”
“ONE DAY BEFORE” looked back to former races: “It rained last night; the gray air is still moist and filled with a kind of luminousness, lambence, as if each droplet held in airy suspension still its molecule of light, so that the statue which dominated the scene at all times anyway now seems to hold dominion over the air itself like a dim sun, until, looming and gigantic over us, it looks like gold — the golden effigy of the golden horse, ‘Big Red’ to the Negro groom who loved him and did not outlive him very long, Big Red’s effigy of course, looking out with the calm pride of the old manly warrior kings, over the land where his get still gambol as infants, until the Saturday afternoon moment when they too will wear the mat of roses in the flash and glare of magnesium; not just his own effigy, but symbol too of all the long recorded line from Aristides through the Whirlaways and Count Fleets and Gallant Foxes and Citations: epiphany and apotheosis of the horse.”
“THE DAY” began ruminating about the horse, which once moved man’s body and goods, but now moved only his money. Food-supplying animals would, he prophesied, eventually become obsolete, but not horses, since they provide mankind with “something deep and profound in his emotional nature and need, a sublimation, a transference: man with his admiration for speed and strength, physical power far beyond what he himself is capable of, projects his own desire for physical supremacy, victory, onto the agent—the baseball or football team, the prize fighter. Only the horse race is more universal…”
“4:29 P.M.” is emotionally drained, an analytic response to spent anticipation: “We who watched have seen too much… we must turn away now for a little time, even if only to assimilate, get used to living with, what we have seen and experienced.” He focused on the dispersal of the crowds and the disgruntlement of the losing backers. “And so on. So it is not the Day after all, it is only the eighty-first one.”
The Hoka had two signature desserts: the New York-style cheesecake made by the Freer sisters, and a hot fudge pie made by Jani Mae Locke Collier. Jani Mae is a native of Oxford. She and my sister Cindy lived together at a big house at the end of North 14th in the mid-1970s when the Hoka started. Jani brought this family recipe to the Moonlight when Betty Blair got it going. Jani Mae is married to Emmett Collier, who makes beautiful pottery in Brandon, Mississippi. It’s a very simple recipe, easily made, and best served à la mode.
Jani Mae’s Hot Fudge Pie
1 cup sugar
1 stick butter
½ c. plain flour
5 tablespoons cocoa
2 eggs beaten
Cream butter and sugar, mix well with flour, cocoa and eggs. Spoon into a toasted pie crust. Place in middle rack of oven at 350 until firm in the middle, about 20 minutes or so. We usually sliced these into quarters.
If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.” This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.
Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband. A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.
Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no “color line” there. In Moscow, he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story. Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.
In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature. With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”
Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.
But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople. Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.
Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world. Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.
Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance. Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city. He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”
It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee, in Turkey, at least in Ottoman, there was no word for “Negro.” Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.
Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”. Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.
Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”
(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013)
When the legislature made “Go, Mississippi” the state song, Governor Barnett embodied a state defying federal oppression. Barnett became an icon for all the wrong reasons, and making his campaign ditty the state song of home state of Robert Johnson, Jimmy Rodgers and Elvis Presley is just short of criminal. Mississippi is music. Let’s tune up.
Jerry Clower once declared (Jerry never simply said anything) that Rose Budd Stevens was a national treasure, and I agree with every piece of my pea-pickin’ heart.
Rose Budd Stevens was the pen name for Mamie Davis Willoughby. Stevens was born in Amite County, Mississippi and graduated from Liberty Agricultural High School in 1933. She attended Southwest Junior College at Summit, Mississippi, graduating in 1935. After graduation, she worked in the Amite County Extension office. She also worked as a payroll clerk for the Works Progress Administration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a short time, afterwards returning to Amite County.
Stevens started writing in 1947 while she was on bed rest during her pregnancy. She wrote newspaper columns at home based on her experiences on Shady Rest Farm near Liberty, Mississippi. Her columns were homey topics about killing hogs, superstitious people, Christmas customs, and the like. One of her columns, “Along the R.F.D.” appeared regularly in local newspapers including Enterprise-Journal, the Carthaginian, and the Clarion-Ledger. Her columns were honored with awards from the National Federation of Press Women, the Mississippi Press Women’s Association, and Progressive Farmer magazine. She stopped writing in 1994 due to ill health. She died in 1996.
Mamie’s columns were collected in three books, all put out by University Press of Mississippi: Sweetly Be! (1990). From Rose Budd’s Kitchen (1988), and Along the RFD with Rose Budd Stevens (1987). For those of you who love the literature of the table, for anyone who enjoys hearing the voices of the past in concert with our own, Willoughby is an essential addition to your bookshelf, a wonderful works by a remarkable woman. This collection of folk etymology is from Sweetly Be!, the phrase she used to close her newspaper columns.
acid-Sour clabber that has been churned.
bagasse (baggus)-The part of the sugar cane stalk left after it has been put between heavy rollers to extract the juice.
band comb-Used by girls in the 1920s to keep hair from falling in their faces when they played outdoor games or studied by lamplight, when hair would make a shadow on the book or paper.
batt-A thin layer of cotton or wool fibers placed between pieces of material, as in a quilt. The raw fiber was put on one card (see entry for cards) and the other drawn over it until a thin batt was made, usually about five by eight inches. The cotton was picked in the fields and the seeds removed by children or mothers in spare time. The wool was sheared from sheep and worked in the same way,
bed tick-A sack affair made from ticking bought in stores. A bed-sized tick was stuffed with frazzled shucks, hay, or even dried leaves. Feather beds were made with feathers from chickens, ducks, and geese. My mother had two feather beds made with breast feathers from quail killed by my father on hunting trips. Our pillows were also made with quail breast feathers.
blue hole-Deep holes in Waggoner Creek where fishing and swimming places looked blue when early morning and afternoon sun shown on them. Most blue holes had willow trees growing on both sides of the creek.
branch-A small stream fed by underground springs or run-off from high farm land. Some are streams branched off from creeks or rivers; a wet weather branch is one that runs only after a heavy rain. Small ferns and green moss begin to grow within a matter of a few hours after a rain. This is a perfect place for children to play, as there are wide shallows only about ankle deep.
boley-holey biscuit-Biscuits prized by children anxious to get outside to play. Take one large flour biscuit, turn on edge, take the forefinger and bore a hole almost to the other side of the biscuit, put a dab of butter deep in the hole and finish filling with molasses. Squish gently so the syrup eases through the crumb inside the biscuit.
butter prints-Molded butter with pictures of animals, flowers, or writing on the top of the butter as it rests in the dish. Prints were usually made with a wooden mold in one-half pound and pound prints; my mother had five molds and Grandmother Budd had seven. Butter customers had their favorite pictures or letters, and Mama and Grandmother made sure each customer was happy with her weekly butter prints.
cards-A pair of hardwood brushes with wooden handles and fine metal teeth used to prepare cotton or wool fibers. One card was pulled downward while the other was pulled upward. Store-bought, these cards were almost a must for homemakers in the early 1900s. Dale and I have a pair of cards labeled “The Only Genuine Old Whittemore Patent No. 10 Cotton made by L. S. Watson & Co. Leicester, Mass.” We were told they are over 100 years old.
chinquapins-Nuts from the tree of the same name. Squirrels are especially fond of these nuts, which are slightly bitter in taste and crunchy in texture, Children camping out at night will sometimes roast the nuts over a little fire. Fair-skinned children with deep brown eyes are often said to have “chinquapin eyes.”
cooter shell–Shell of a terrapin, called a “cooter” by old time folks. Cooters were often caught, kept in pens near a stream of water, and fed on grass and kitchen scraps. Making cooter stew involved killing one or more terrapins, a stream, and the steam from the cooker would pass through the worm and condense into drops of moonshine better known as white lightning. Often when the law” came to destroy a still, they would take the copper worm as evidence that the still was out of operation.
conjure (conjer)-People thought a demon or an unjust spirit could be placed upon a person by someone who was born with a caul over his or her head or was a magician or sorcerer. These per sons could conjure another person, causing bad luck or happenings.
devil’s snuff box-A type of mushroom that grows on dead fallen trees or limbs. When ripe and dry, these round growths contain dark brown powder prized by many folks in years past for their healing power. A cut, gash, stab, or any wound where blood was flow ing would soon heal when one of these devil’s snuff boxes was squeezed over the wound and the powder allowed to settle. My grandmother would gather these puffballs and store them in glass jars in case of accidents. I too used these unique healers when our sons were small and were stumping toes, cutting fingers, and snagging themselves on fish hooks.
dog tick-Some types of female ticks that will bite their long teeth, which grow backward, into a person or animal and continue to grow, and becoming engorged with eggs. There may be as many as 5,000 eggs when the tick bursts; these eggs hatch and the cycle starts over again. Before the federal government made farmers and cattle ranchers dip their cattle, cows’ ears often drooped down to the sides of their faces from the weight of so many ticks. Rabbits and squirrels were sometimes so filled with ticks that they were not good for table food.
doughty-Soft, pasty looking, fat. This word was used in the old days by some black people to describe white people who were much overweight and sweated a lot.
dummy line-A high ridge through the forest where a rail line had been laid so that cut timber could be hauled from the woods. Flat cars were used to take the timber to the nearest freight depot. The engine was fueled with wood from the forest. When the rails were removed, the ridge became known as the dummy line.
enameled rug-A forerunner of linoleum rugs. Enameled rugs were printed with bright colors in pretty designs and patterns on heavy pasteboard backing. Mama yearned for a green-and-yellow checked design to match the yellow dyed fertilizer sack kitchen curtains. A five-by-eight-foot enameled rug cost around five dollars at the Liberty Mercantile run by our cousin Kate Terrell.
flying jennie-Country children enjoyed having a flying jennie on the school grounds. The trustee board, composed of male parents, would cut down a tall pine tree, leaving a stump about three feet tall. The stump would be whittled to a round stub about twelve inches high. The trunk of the fallen tree would have all limbs trimmed off and a hole would be bored to fit the projection on the stump, with a bit of room to spare. The stub on the stump and the hole in the tree trunk would be greased with hog fat, and pieces of boards would be nailed across the tree trunk for handholds. A child would get on each end of the tree trunk and hold on for dear life, while other children would begin pushing the tree trunk until it was fly. ing around. If a child happened to fall off, he knew not to stand up but to crawl to safety. Only the brave and hardy enjoyed the flying jennie!
foot log-A substitute for bridges over small streams and narrow places in creeks. A farmer would cut a tree on one bank, allowing it to fall across the stream. Once the limbs were trimmed off the trunk, a nice sturdy way to cross the water was in place for many years. Best of all, cows couldn’t walk across the foot log.
garden sass–In spring time when there were leaf and head lettuce, dill, radishes, tender greens, green onions, English peas, and mustard and turnip greens in the garden, Mama would send us out to gather garden sass for her noon meal. No root vegetables were called garden sass.
ground hog saw mill-A small saw mill used to clear all the timber from land that was to be farmed. A mill owner who went in without permission to clear cut would be called a ground hog
ground spewer-Very cold weather. Wet ground would spew up in ice, banks beside roads would have spewed clumps of ice, and barnyards would have horse and cow tracks filled with spewed ribbons of ice.
high water-A game of jump rope in which the thrown rope would be held high so that the jumper had to exert herself not to touch it. If she tired, she would say “calf rope” and not be called out.
lidered knots-Pieces of fat pine found in woods, mostly in the form of knots where limbs had grown from the trunks. Lidered knots are rich in turpentine and blaze quickly when lit. During possum hunting time, hunters often carried a flaming pine knot to light the way; these knots cost nothing at a time when coal oil for lanterns was fifteen cents per gallon.
mendets — Round pieces of metal with a cork pad between, used to mend articles such as cooking pots and pans made of granite, enamel, and aluminum. Hot water bottles can also be mended with these small interesting helpers. During the depression, housewives kept a card of mendets on hand. Here in my fifty-second year of marriage and housekeeping, I know exactly how many chicken dumplings plus meat from two chickens will fill a mended pan. The tiny mendet in one corner doesn’t spoil the pie.
milch cow-A cow giving milk, one kept for milking. The word was used by many farmers when speaking of their favorite cow with calf by her side; they said the word as it is spelled.
mill tail-On the banks of Waggoner Creek one of my fore parents had a cotton gin and grist mill both run by water power. There were tall heavy gates which, when closed, contained the creek water in what was called a “mill tail.” Water pouring over a dam caused the machinery to run; when water wasn’t needed, the gates were opened.
monument yard -A small park next door to the Presbyterian Church in Liberty. There is a marble monument listing the names of soldiers from Amite County killed in the Civil War. Cedar trees and benches made this a nice place to rest when Auntie and I made trips to the county seat.
mud cats-A slick-skinned fish similar to blue cats. Mud cats, which seldom grow over eight inches long, have a wide mouth with whiskers, are a muddy-blue color, and feed on the bottoms of small creeks and branches. These fish are a delight to children who enjoy bringing home a nice string of fish for their mama’s noon meal. Fried fish, hot biscuits, brown gravy, and rice make a feast, and best of all the children can say, “We furnished the fish for dinner.”
mutch-A cap worn by housekeepers to protect their hair from dust; also worn by those who want to hide kid curlers or unkempt hair. The cap is usually made from white material, and most have a ruffle around the edges for decoration. A drawstring keeps it snug over hair. These caps were worn years ago; it is said that the old women and children wore them in Scotland and France. Evidently the Scotch-Irish in our family brought this morning cap with them when they came to America.
oil sausage-These different and delicious sausages came in finger long sections packed in oil, usually in five-gallon cans. The sausages were made from ground beef and were highly seasoned and colored with red dye. They were a special treat for country people who wanted to buy a little snack in the grocery store: sausage, crackers, a slice of cheese, and a tall ice-cold pop. Dessert would be a ”stage plank,” which was a flat ginger cake with vivid pink icing-two came in a paper envelope. This lunch cost twenty cents. Our uncle Welch threw in the stage planks, saying, “You all brought me your trade, now it is my treat.”
opium gum-Around 1840 to 1870 opium gum could be bought in grocery stores or drug stores; it came in flattened, rather sticky, balls. Our great aunt Sallie often told me how the gum was used: a small piece would be sliced from the ball and placed between the gum and upper cheek, where it melted or dissolved. People often became addicted to this gum, especially women who had used it for pain relief during childbirth.
plunder (noun) — Lots of small things such as household necessities and equipment for animal doctoring. A semi-doctor (self-taught) carried a bag of home-grown medicine, bandages, etc., along with sharp knives, number eight sewing thread, a big-eyed needle, and other odds and ends. When K. Green came to doctor on any animal, he would put down his great big bag, saying, “Now let me get out my plunder and get to doctoring.”
Long ago, folks did not have much in the way of bought things in their homes-it was make do or do without. I recall homemade fly swatters, turkey wing fans, battling sticks used to beat washed and boiled clothes, graters made from tin cans nailed to a board and a dainty one made from a zinc screw top jar lid with the porcelain liner removed. Women carried many things in their purses: sugar biscuits for the baby when it cried in church, a chamois rag to wipe sweat from a brow, a hair net, hairpins, a string of spools for the toddler to play with when the sermon went on and on. Ask any woman back in the long ago what she had in her purse, and nine times out of ten you would hear, “Nothing much-lots of plunder.”
Our sons loved their plunder: homemade spinning tops, slingshots made from forked limbs, inner tube rubber for draw-backs, and an old shoe tongue for the rock holder, marbles made from red clay and vinegar, then baked in Mama’s wood stove, popguns made from elderberry stems and green chinaberries to shoot in the popguns.
plunder (verb)-When homes are broken into with robbery in mind and the thieves find nothing to their taste, they often plunder the home, breaking glass from the windows, spilling drawers on the floor, dragging mattresses outside and turning the hose on them, cutting carpets to shreds, tearing curtains from the windows-even quilts hanging on the walls for decoration are ripped down. All in the name of plunder.
pore folks’ tea– This kind of tea has been around for well over 100 years in our family. Natchez, where coffee and tea were bought on yearly trips, was a long way from Shady Rest, and pore folks’ tea was a hot drink easy to make from ingredients that were always on hand. You take one tablespoon of sugar and one tablespoon of sweet cream, place in a cup and stir well, and add boiling water. Grate a bit of nutmeg or a small piece of cinnamon bark for extra flavor. Take outside, sip, and enjoy country living. Our relatives who came from Ireland had small rocks that were full of holes or pores; one of these little rocks would be dropped in the cup with the cream and sugar and stirred well before the water was added. The rock was saved for another making of pore folks’ tea.
potato bank-A place to store sweet potatoes. You dig a hole about two feet across and one foot deep, pour in several buckets of washed rocks, and add layers of hay or oat straw. After potatoes are dug (do not wash), let them air dry under a shade tree for a day or two, then pile them on top of straw, cover with more hay or straw, and pour dry dirt over them (red clay is best) about six inches deep. Cover with boards and black tarpaper. Potatoes should not freeze in cold weather. When ready to have a mess of baked potatoes make a small opening at the top and remove as needed.
pre-salad days-From nine to teen years when the future seems far away.
raise Cain-A great commotion such as someone fussing at a child, servant, wife, or others when they can’t answer back.
rap-jack-A game children played in years past in which long limber switches were used. A line was drawn in the dirt and the child who had a switch in each hand would give a dare: “Don’t cross that line-if you do, I’m going to rap-jack you.” All raps were below the knees. Other children were standing around, hoping the two playing would tire and let the watchers have a chance. Sometimes one child would rap-jack a half dozen or more children and win the game. When a child wanted to give over and quit, he was supposed to yell “calf rope.” As a rule, when the rap-jacked children arrived at their homes, their parents finished their fussing with a whipping for good measure, even though parents considered it common for children to play rap-jack.
red bellies–Creek perch or sunfish; any fish with a reddish cast to the belly.
rusty (cut a rusty)-Older people as well as children can “cut a rusty.” Grown people become loud, cry, moan, and throw things when they are trying to get their way. Children have fits of temper, falling to the floor sobbing, weeping, and kicking, often taking their rusty cutting to the point of holding their breath until their faces turn blue. Our sister Bess was well known for her rusty cutting and on top of the smokehouse.
shivaree-A serenade to newlyweds. Country folks made a big thing out of the shivarees they gave when a just-married couple went to their new home or to the home of one set of parents; as a rule, there were more people at the shivarees than at the wedding. Noisemakers, singing, and rowdy jokes were part of the festivities. Catcalls were made to the newlyweds urging them to come out and greet the guests–at least to offer a cup of hot cider or a sip of moonshine. After a spell, the groom would have enough of this foolishness; often he would shoot a shotgun toward the sky with a promise that the next shot would be direct from the front porch.
shrub-A beverage made from fruit juices. Our shrubs are non-alcoholic.
skeeter hawks-Local name for dragonflies often seen around creeks, branches, and rivers where the water runs shallow.
skim beer-When sugar cane juice was cooked in open pans at syrup mills, a scum would rise to the top of the boiling juice and have to be removed with tin skimmers. The “skim” was put in wooden barrels and allowed to ferment until those who liked this beer said it was ready for drinking. Often homemade yeast cakes were dropped in the fermenting juice to hasten the working time of the beer. Skim beer would be drawn from the bottom of the barrels through an inserted piece of green hollow reed cane (found growing near the Old Lake) in the bung holes. When the beer was drawn off, workers drank their fill and often had to take naps on the baggus pile. It was said this beer had the kick of a wall-eyed mule.
slide-A wooden box with green oak runners nailed to the bot tom. Slides were used to haul fertilizer, feed, seeds, children, and firewood in small amounts and to gather corn when harvest time came. One man could pull corn and drive the slide from one end of the row to another, thereby making it possible for other family members to do farm chores as needed. Slides were pulled by horse, mule, oxen, goat and, for short distances, men and women. Children especially loved having a slide made for them, getting a billy goat to pull it, and directing him up and down the country roads. Haying their very own farm equipment on a smaller scale made them feel important
stomp-In olden times when horse, ox, or mule power was used to pull wagons, buggies, carriages, carts, and slides, and when people rode horseback, front yards were used for hitching the animals; most families had large yards where the unhitched animals could move about. When company came the host would say, “Unhitch your stock so they can stomp about and rest.” This is how the word stomp came about. On Shady Rest there was an acre front yard or stomp
stork scissors-A small pair of scissors made in the shape of a long-legged stork, used to do dainty cutwork embroidery. The long bill of the stork made the cutting blades. Sewing kits, baskets, and boxes came with these interesting bright gold-colored scissors, along with threads of all colors, needles, tape measure, a needle threader, and a small Bible
sugar teat-Take half of a small flour biscuit, place on a square of clean white cloth, put a lump of butter on the biscuit, cover both with a generous sprinkle of sugar, gather edges of cloth, twist together, and tie with a strip of cloth, making sure the edges stick up enough for the child to hold on to so he or she will not swallow the teat. Using your fingers, mash the whole thing until it starts oozing through the cloth. Give to one fussy crying child to suck on.
thumps-Extra heartbeats, thought by old folks to be caused by too much coffee. The person with thumps had to rest and fan until it passed. Our aunt Eula, a confirmed coffee drinker who kept the coffee pot filled the whole day, was often seen resting with a cold cloth on her forehead, recovering from thumps. Now people speak of heart palpitations.
toady-The look of a warty toad frog, with bumps and freckles.
toll-When farm folks went to the grist mill to have corn ground into meal, hominy, chicken chops, or cow feed, the mill owner would keep a portion of the corn for his pay. This was called toll. It was usually a pound of unground for twenty pounds of ground corn. Syrup makers would take one gallon toll out of each fifteen gallons of molasses made at their mill
tommy walkers-A pair of poles fitted with foot rests about three feet from the ground. These are also called stilts.) As a rule, there would be a leather strap from the foot rest to the pole, leaving space for the foot. At Shady Rest tommy walkers were made from green sweet gum saplings with the limbs trimmed off. We went stalking about the yard and pastures on these poles and often had races. Taking them to school was a no-no!
velvet beans-Beans that were fed in the pods to cattle. Velvet beans were planted in the fields at the same time corn was, and the vines climbed up the corn stalks, blooming and making clusters of fuzzy pods. The velvet beans had to be pulled before the corn could be gathered; workers went through the fields of corn, picking the beans by hand and putting them in long sacks which dragged on the ground. This was an awful task, as the fuzz from the pods stung like ants. Strong men were known to leave the field, run to Waggoner Creek or Agnes Branch, jump into the water, and stay until their bodies were at ease. Milk cows were especially fond of these beans and would often break into a corn field to feast on the beans before they were dry enough to pick.
water glass eggs-Eggs that were put down for winter storage in water glass-a syrupy liquid made from dissolving sodium silicate in water. A five-gallon stone crock would be filled with infertile eggs (fertile ones would not keep) and the water glass poured over the eggs to seal the pores and preserve them.
water house-An area on the front or back porch where people could wash up. A shelf nailed between two posts about three feet from the porch floor would hold water buckets with dippers, wash bowls, or wash pans, along with soap dishes, which were often small cooter shells, one holding sweet soap and the other pine tar soap. Towels would be hung on wooden pegs on the posts, or if a roller towel was used it would be nailed to a nearby wall. Often water houses were latticed in to shade bathers from the morning sun. Elephant ears were usually planted at the edge of the porch by the water house; the soapy water caused the plants to grow so tall they often reached the porch eaves. One neighbor known for his odd ways would be bathing on his front porch, naked as a jay bird; if he heard a buggy or horseback rider coming, he would run over and squat behind a porch rocker, much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife.
My father Jess Jr. was very much a man of the moment; charismatic, spontaneous and imbued with a zest for living. Naturally, being married to such a man made my mother Barbara very happy, but it also kept her in a state of continual apprehension as to what mischief might spring into his mind at any given time.
She often told us the story of being invited to a party in Oxford at a grand home on South Lamar. Barbara was understandably nervous, not knowing the hosts, but Jess had taken great pains to assure her that as district attorney he worked with the judge and knew him well. Once they had passed under the ancient trees to the spacious porch and rang the doorbell, Jess turned to Barbara, winked, and said, “Watch this.”
“My heart just sank to my shoes,” she’d say. When the door opened, Jess walked in, raised his arms in the air, and said, “I hope you people know that we are trying to have a prayer meeting in the house down the street, and your drunken carryings-on here are disrupting our communion with the Lord God Almighty!”
This being during the time before Prohibition was lifted in Mississippi, the assembly of well-heeled Oxonians and distinguished Ole Miss academics froze. Mother said the silence was so vast you could hear traffic on the Square four blocks away, and she was about to faint when the host stuck his head out the kitchen door and said, “Jess, quit scaring the hell out of everybody, get a drink and Barbara one, too. God knows she needs it.”
Bruce, Mississippi is some three miles south of a hamlet in Calhoun County named Banner. In 1975, Tom Yancy, a junior in Bruce High School, wrote a paper on a novel by Eudora Welty and sent a letter to the author, who graciously responded.
“South Jackson as a place begins at 2155 Terry Road, the address of the city’s oldest home. It is the last remaining plantation house in the area. Today, an anomaly, a handsome Greek revival structure with Doric columns standing near Interstate 20’s cloverleaf, commercial enterprises and the decay of the Highway 80 Corridor.”
So begins One Direction Home: A History of South Jackson, by Dr. Vincent Venturini and former city commissioner Doug Shanks. Shanks recounts that the work began with a question: Were his fond memories of growing up in south Jackson just nostalgia, or was south Jackson truly a special place? The answer is, of course, yes and yes. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, particularly that of the sort leading to such a wonderful work as this. At once scholarly and informal, poignant and piercing, One Direction Home entertains and informs on many levels.
U.S. Highway 51 splits in Jackson, ending on South State Street to the east, and starting again on Terry Road some two miles to the west. When Terry Road emerges from the cloverleaf south of Highway 81, atop a broad ridge sits the Carmelite monastery housed in the aforementioned Greek revival home formerly owned by the Myrant family. The Myrant/Lester home is a focus for an early history of south Jackson, which is integral to that of the city and of Hinds County. Terry Road (Hwy. 51) provides an axis for the geography of the area, which Venturini describes as, “somewhat porous, but we largely see south Jackson as beginning at Highway 80 and extending south to Lake Catherine and west to Mississippi Highway 18. The eastern boundary is the Pearl River. We are also including Provine High School from its beginning until 1968. Although Wingfield High School opened in 1966 for students in the city’s southern section, those already enrolled in Provine were allowed to finish there. As pointed out in Doug’s Preface, Shoney’s is included as a south Jackson institution given the role it played in the lives of our contemporaries.”
And the time? While an early history is presented, Shanks claims, “What follows in the coming pages is a largely nostalgic visit to south Jackson as it existed between 1945 and 1975.” All Jacksonians will recall landmarks such as the Alamo Plaza, the “Chuc-Wagun”, the Frost Top, the Green Derby, Leavell Woods Park, Cook Center, Mart 51 and the Zodiac. They will also recall, among the many prominent south Jacksonians mentioned, Farmer Jim Neal of WSLI, Woodie Assaf of WLBT, “Skipper” Dick Miller of WJTV, Andrew Mattiache, and Walter Bivins. The neighborhoods, the churches, the schools, the streets, parks, and other elements that compose a city are part of this wonderful weave. The book has scores of wonderful photographs, and has a reassuringly extensive and detailed bibliography with notes.
One thing, though; Shanks and Venturini spend an inordinate time mentioning the proletarian reputation of south Jackson. This apologia is distracting, superfluous, and, most importantly, unnecessary. Let’s bear in mind that this is not Natchez, nor Vicksburg, but Jackson, Mississippi, a city no less a cosmopolitan than Audubon described in 1823 as “a mean place.” Sure, you’ll find people who will tell you one Jackson neighborhood is “better” than another, but many an outsider has found the entire city déclassé if not to say destitute. While no doubt many former and current south Jacksonians will find flaws and omissions (that assuredly only they could detect) all Jacksonians, even those (such as I) who aren’t natives, can celebrate this loving biography of a time, a place, a people, a portal in time to a backyard barbecue, a high school football game, or a corner soda fountain.