The Ballad of Doc Bishop

This verse, written by Dottie Moore of Pontotoc County, is justly more about Texas lawman William Wise than Doc Bishop, an outlaw who murdered Wise in October, 1884. What a Ft. Worth detective was doing in Calhoun County then is complicated—and ambiguous—even when detailed in Selcer and Foster’s Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth’s Fallen Lawmen, Volume 1, 1861-1909, which I’ll reproduce in a later entry, but his murder initiated a reinstatement of justice in an area scoured by war. Bishop was hanged on July 3, 1886, “the first white man legally hanged in the state of Mississippi since the Civil War”. Selcer says that this ballad is a “variation on the more famous ‘Ballad of Sam Bass’ and ‘Ballad of Jesse James’”. He also notes that the ballad was frequently sung—to what tune we don’t know—at folk gatherings for over fifty years.

When I lie down at night to rest
And slumber deep steals o’er me,
As I close my heavy eyes in sleep,
Dark visions pass before me.

I see a calm still moonlight night,
No breath of air is stirring;
No sound the silence breaks, except
The wings of insects whirring.

I see a forest deep and dark,
A man walks through it quickly,
Now in the shade, now in the light
Where the dark leaves mingle thickly.

A man with soft, brown, shining eyes,
And gold brown hair o’er lying,
And daring courage on his face,
On his own strength relying.

He treads the darksome forest through,
Where outlaws lie in hiding,
No fearful thought in his strong heart,
The thought of fear, deriding.

He is a bold, true officer
Attending to his duty,
No thought he gives to nature bright,
Nor the night’s calm, holy beauty.

He follows scraps of paper thrown
Into the path before him,
By one in whom his trust he placed
Who threw a glamour o’er him.

He’s walking swiftly to his doom,
But alas! He does not know it;
He sees naught of the danger there,
Oh, God! If thou would show it!

A little distance on ahead
Are two oak trees, o’er bending,
Behind which two cold hearted men
Evil faced are standing.

Crouched, with weapons cocked in hand,
Awaiting for his coming,
They make no sound to warn their prey
Of the awful risk he’s running.

He’s nearer, he’s almost in their hands,
Will nothing now delay him
From those who plotted, worked and planned
To murder and betray him?

Ah! No, for now he steps along
In the path marked out before him;
He sees the fiendish daces not,
No sense of fear steals o’er him.

Another step, Great God! A shot!
Of oaths and groan a medley;
Another shot! And the ground around
With his lifeblood, gleams redly.

“Tis done, a noble soul is sent
to the land of Heavenly Glory;
a brave detective low is laid
by hands all red and gory.

O, Heavenly Father, pity her,
Whose heart will now be broken,
Grant her in mercy, from thy throne,
Some sweet, peace-giving token.

Help her to bear the awful blow,
Her heart with thy grace cover;
She, in the far off “Lone Star” state,
Awaits her husband lover.

Be thou a friend to this fair child,
As much as to the mother,
Oh, Father of the fatherless,
Than Thee, they have no other.

The murderers, here, may still go free,
By lawyers shrewd, defended,
Free in this world, but yet the next,
Shall see their triumph – ended.
–Dottie Moore

 

Home to the Flowers

Tilmon Henry Smith, son of Tilmon Holley and Fannie Hawkins Smith, was born in 1883 in Water Valley, Mississippi, and received his M.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1915. He began practicing medicine in Banner, Mississippi in 1915. He moved to New London, Ohio in 1922 where he remained until his death in 1969. His memoir, Home to the Flowers was published privately in 1964.

When Smith was six, the family moved to Pittsboro, where his father was postmaster before becoming pastor of a church in Ellzey, where they built a home he remembers his mother surrounded with flowers, particularly roses. Young Smith attended the school there, which was established by brothers W.T. and B.G. Lowery and T.C. Lowery, who later founded Blue Mountain College. When still a boy, he and his brother started a brick manufacturing business and built the J.D. Richards store in Vardaman, which is still standing. Smith moved to Vardaman in 1901 after his father’s death. He was still in the brick business, but he also worked on Mississippi river barges and as a logger in Yazoo County to help support the family. He attended Meridian Medical College, and graduated from the University of Tennessee Medical School after a short stint in the Chicago School of Medicine. He served as the health inspector for Calhoun County throughout World War I and beyond His book recounts the struggles of the people of Calhoun in the early decades of the 20th century against typhoid and the devastating influenza epidemic of 1918.

One must realize the primitiveness of our existence to understand. These people had no indoor water supply or toilet facilities. Water was secured from a well in the yard, or a spring or a creed–often a quarter of a mile away. Toilet facilities were at best an outdoor privy in the back yard. Many times during this period, my first duty upon arriving arriving at the patient’s home was to bring buckets of water from the spring and remove the offal from another bucket beside the bed.

This time of trial and ordeal gave me an abiding faith in people. They exhibited gallantry far beyond the call of duty. Some people had a mysterious resistance to the flue germ. A dozen people would be stricken down around them and they would nurse and care for them all. When this group was reasonably comfortable and cared for, they would walk to miles to minister to other friends or relatives who had no well person to look after them. Some people cut and ran. They used all sorts of low excuses, but it cane down to the fact that they were overwhelmed by the solid fear of death. I was continuously amazed by those who really had the sand, as well as those who did not. There were so many heroes and heroines in this terrible tragedy that all cannot possibly be mentioned, but some of my expected friends let me and themselves down, as well as their dependents. I do not remember this with bitterness or condemnation, but with pity.

During the epidemic the community drunk, faced with adversity, found himself and became one of the noblest men of my acquaintance. He sobered up for the first time in years and walked the roads giving help to all in need. It was not unusual to find him carrying wter to the sick in one community, and a day later he would be ten miles away cutting wood to warm another family, both of which had probably ignored him in the past. It was just as astounding to find a logging camp “lady of the evening” bending over the sickbed, tending the sick with all the tenderness of a Florence Nightingale. My dear old mother always referred to her in a disdainful manner as a “scarlet woman”. I thanked God for this scarlet woman, and learned again that nobility of the soul is sometimes lodged in strange places.

The most evocative personal memoir to come out of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Home to the Flowers is described as an “anecdotal history” in Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817-1967, and it is certainly filled with folksy anecdotes, some of them quite earthy, but Smith’s account of his life in Calhoun County during the first two decades of the 20th century is also at times lyrical, by turns poignant and filled with the sorts of details of life in a quasi-frontier setting that a man of acumen and education such as Smith could provide.

Fannie Hawkins Smith

“Carmen Possum”: Josef Nix

Southerners in general and Mississippians in particular carry a certain je ne sais quoi in their cultural and personal baggage, a conflict between their point of embarkation and point of destination. If we are lucky we reach inner peace with it, which is often enough an epiphany. When I was in my 20s, I was on Corsica on the verandah of a villa, the warm Mediterranean breeze blowing across Tizzano Bay, its famous tache bleue spectacular in the moonlight.

I was the guest of honor at a dinner a retired French admiral was hosting to show his gratitude for my work translating and documenting the Holocaust memoirs of a member of Walenberg’s resistance in Hungary. He had himself been a member of the French resistance as a young man and my author was a friend of his and also guest at the dinner. I was fielding questions being asked me in various languages. The left-handed compliments that I was not a typical American let me know I was speaking well for my homeland. Then, one of the guests wanted to know from where in America I hailed.

“Mississippi,” I said, and braced myself; after all, our not entirely undeserved bad reputation precedes us even abroad.
“Ah,” says the admiral. “The home of Faulkner. Are you familiar with Faulkner?”
“Yes, sir. He’s one of my favorite authors. My hometown is a few miles south of Oxford, and my great-grandfather served in the Civil War with Faulkner’s grandfather.”
“Then you speak the language of his characters?” He used the word “idiome,” not “langue” or “langage”.
“Yes, sir.”
“I consider Faulkner to be perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th Century. I’ve read him in French translation and in the English original. But I know there’s something I keep missing that’s bound up in the language (idiome) of his people. You’re the first person I’ve ever met who speaks it. Would you do me the honor of reading me some passages?”

One of his choices was from Chapter 7 of Intruder in the Dust. I channeled my inner Mick. My mind went back to the hills of North Mississippi. I could feel the heavy August sunlight and the dust of a backroad on my sweaty neck. This was a passage that, from the first time I read it, had been my own thoughts, a passage I had returned to over and over whenever contemplating exactly what it was that made me a Southerner.

…the uttermost rim of the earth itself, the North: not north, but North, outland and circumscribing and not even a geographical place but an emotional idea, a condition of which he had fed from his mother’s milk to be ever and constant on the alert not at all to fear and not actually any more to hate but just—a little wearily sometimes and sometimes even with tongue in cheek—to defy.

The air of international sophistication was soon swept away by the wind of time. I returned to my roots and laughed too loudly, in typically American fashion.
“How did you become a linguist?” he asked.
“It began on a possum hunt …”

And it did. I was nine when Uncle Ralph and my granddaddy decided it was time for the rite of passage of my people, the chase of Didelphis virginiana. First, I was instructed in the proper way of catching it, cleaning it out, and how to cook it, turnip up the derrière. A possum will eat damn near anything, and you have to take the possum alive and keep it caged for a couple of weeks, feeding it nothing but grains, making it kosher if you will. The neighbor man was brought in to keep, slaughter and cook it; Granny wasn’t about to let us into her kitchen with that!

So, off we went into the Mississippi moonshine-laced night, Granddaddy, Uncle Ralph, the neighbor man, the student, and the baying hounds. The quarry treed, I received the honor of knocking him from the limb. Or her; I never checked, but I did learn that the female American marsupial has two vaginae, the male a forked penis; the female initiates copulation, and if she doesn’t like it, she castrates him. This latter was emphasized as an important curriculum objective.

Our possum played possum as we took it back home. Along the way, Granddaddy recited from memory that great folk poem from his day, Carmen Possum, an instructional narrative poem about two boys and their dog hunting raccoon or possum at night in a mélange of Latin and English, part of which I include below. I was in awe. The next day Granny and Mama began my Latin studies which, in turn, set me on my career as a linguist. Looking back, I’ve often wondered how many young people these days are subject to such a random ray of light that brings about an unquenchable thirst for knowledge that will lead them far from home to distant lands under another moon.

The nox was lit by lux of Luna,
And ’twas a nox most opportuna
To catch a possum or a coona;
For nix was scattered o’er this mundus,
A shallow nix, et non profundus.
On sic a nox with canis unus,
Two boys went out to hunt for coonus.

… on this nixy moonlight night
This old canis did just right.
Nunquam chased a starving rattus,
Nunquam treed a starving cattus,
But sucurrit on, intentus
On the track and on the scentus,
Till he trees a possum strongum,
In a hollow trunkum longum.
Loud he barked in horrid bellum,
Seemed on terra vehit pellum.
Quickly ran the duo puer
Mors of possum to secure.

Nunc a domum narrent story,
Plenus sanguine, tragic, gory.
Pater praiseth, likewise mater,
Wonders greatly younger frater.
Possum leave they on the mundus,
Go themselves to sleep profundus,
Somniunt possums slain in battle,
Strong as ursae, large as cattle.
When nox gives way to lux of morning,
Albam terram much adorning,
Up they jump to see the varmin,
Of the which this is the carmen.
Lo! possum est resurrectum!
 
Ecce pueri dejectum,
Ne relinquit track behind him,
Et the pueri never find him.
Cruel possum! Bestia vilest!
How the pueros thou beguilest!
Pueri think non plus of Caesar,
Go ad Orcum, Shalmanezer,
Take your laurels, cum the honor,
Since ista possum est a goner!

A Cook from the Homeland

Calhoun County provides north Mississippi with a bucolic idyll between the burgeoning metro areas of Tupelo and Grenada. The Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers run east to west through Calhoun at equal distance into the Yazoo via the Tallahatchie, so geographically the county is divided into thirds. The land is typical of north central Mississippi; rolling wooded hills creased by bottomlands. Given the proximity to Oxford, the county provides a model (if not original) of Yoknapatawpha, but the county seat Pittsboro is sleepy village, contrary to Faulkner’s bustling Jefferson. Pittsboro–the smallest county seat in the state of Mississippi, both in population (212) and in area (one square mile)–sits atop a ridge of hills that marks the southern edge of the Skuna River Valley. To the south, the land slopes in a more leisurely manner to the Yalobusha River just south of Vardaman, Derma and Calhoun City.

Jo Brans is a member of the Reid family, which has lived in Pittsboro for time out of mind. Brans’ writings have explored many subjects, most in a scholarly vein, but Feast Here Awhile is a thoughtful examination of the changes in American cuisine from the 50s to the 90s.

Feast Here Awhile (the title, by the way, is taken from Shakespeare’s Pericles, I,iv,107) is the story of her own culinary coming of age that takes her from the gentle hills of north Mississippi to Belhaven College in Jackson (which was strictly for young ladies until the year after she graduated in 1955), to various locations in Texas, Minnesota and, finally, New York City as well as through two marriages, one to an American journalist, the other to a Dutch academic. Brans moves from her mother’s kitchen through college cafeterias, Texas eateries and European fare on to DeNiro’s TriBeCa Grill in NYC.

She also moves through (predictably, since the book has a pronounced literary bent) Child, Beard and Rosso, managing to mention Proust, Welty and Kerouac on the way. Indeed, Brans is somewhat of a compulsive name-dropper, both of the famous and the near-famous, but I was infinitely proud of her for managing to squeeze in Ernie Mickler and his wonderful White Trash Cooking. In short, Feast Here Awhile is a personal encapsulation of the American culinary experience in the second half of the twentieth century, and a compelling read from any standpoint. It helps, of course, to be up on the literature, culinary and otherwise, but Brans is an excellent writer and rarely boring. I would recommend this book for any Southerner interested in food and cooking, more specifically Mississippians of that bent and particularly the good people of Calhoun County itself.

In preparation for this article on her, I attempted to get in touch with Brans for an interview, but countless attempts to discover her publisher or literary agent failed. Finally my friend Michelle Hudson, who heads up the reference department at the Welty Library asked, “Have you tried the phone book?” Well, no. Sure enough, in minutes Michelle gave me a number to call. When I did, early on a Saturday evening, a polite young man answered the phone and said he’d pass my message on to Jo. Within an hour Ms. Brans called. After making sure I was from Calhoun County (that didn’t take long at all) we chatted. She said she’d think about my request and let me know. Some three days later, I received her reply. I reproduce it here as a testament to her talent as a writer and her graciousness as a lady.

Dear Jesse,
  After serious reflection, I have decided that the project you propose is not for me.  I enjoyed writing Feast Here Awhile. I am pleased to find that it has found favor with readers, including, especially, you. Many folks, over the years since its publication, have looked me up (“on purpose,” as we Southerners say) to offer thanks and to relate their own pleasures at the table. I would have had material for several sequels.
  But no, I thought, and think, not. Essentially I have said in Feast what I have to say about the changes in American eating over the last five or six decades. It’s all there, from  the joys of good home cooking and the family dinner table to the more complicated pleasures of Julia Child and those whom she terrified, taught, and liberated–usually all three–and beyond.
  Feast Here Awhile is also a personal odyssey, if that’s not too highfaluting a term for just growing up. I ate my way from childhood in a small Southern town through various stops along the road to life in New York City, and recorded the trip, hit or miss, in “The Food Book,” which became Feast. Though food was the focus, I was always aware as I typed away that I was recording the arc of my own life. No news for either of us there: that’s what writers do.
  Jesse, I’m flattered that you want to work with me, but don’t be content to retread. I really like your piece about Sambo Mockbee and I suspect, from our brief communication, that you want to be a writer, not an editor. If I’m right, cut loose. My way in was food. Maybe yours is food, too, but your food, not mine. Find your own way in. Tell your story. And send me a copy when the book comes out.
  Good luck and God bless,
  Jo Brans

Thanks, Jo. I will.

Calhoun County in the 1830s: Settling the Wilderness

This is another section (Chapter 3) of Mississippi governor and Calhoun County native David H. Murphree’s History of Calhoun County, which was published circa 1948. What’s riveting about this portion is an eye-witness account of the settlement of the land, descriptions now-vanished plants and animals, the people and provisions. Notes providing additional historical and genealogical information by James M. Young.

I wish that I might have had an opportunity to see the virgin country the greeted the eye of the first settlers in what is now Calhoun County, Mississippi. It must have been a beautiful sight. It was my privilege to have had a first-hand description of this land from Miss Elizabeth Enochs, who was the sister of my mother’s mother, and who came with a caravan from Tennessee as a girl of eighteen, not so awfully long after the Indians left. She said that it had been the practice of the Indians for many years to burn the woods each fall, so that there were few thickets; that therefore standing on one hilltop, you could see a man or a deer moving through the trees even to the next one; that the trees were all large in size and tall in the extreme. She described the time of their arrival in May, when the wild flowers were blooming everywhere in profusion and indescribably beautiful. “Switch” cane or short growth cane was to be found in all the valleys, and through these beautiful woods moved herds of deer, sometimes thirty or forty in a drove. Wild turkeys were everywhere and without much fear of man. Wild pigeons (passenger pigeons) according to “Aunt Bet” came at times in such immense droves as to absolutely darken the skies; when they alighted on the trees they did so in such great numbers that the branches often broke.

There was “bear sign” where these huge animals had reached high up on the tree trunks and scratched, sharpening their claws everywhere, and at night the wild scream of a panther sounding like American Black Bear Audubon bloga woman in keen distress was often heard, making the children hug the camp fires and their mothers shudder with uneasy fear. Small game like rabbits, quail, and squirrels were so numerous as to attract no attention whatever when sighted and so easily killed that the hunters refused to shoot at one single target, but waited to get two or more of the animals together so that they might be killed with one shot. The streams were all crystal-clear and huge fish could be easily seen drifting with the current or darting swiftly to seize some luckless worm or insect that had fallen in the water.

It was to such country that there came in the early 1830s a stream of pioneer men and women in covered mule or ox wagons, driving their cattle and other livestock, with a plow or so swung behind. These covered wagons were usually called “tarheel” wagons because the axles were wooden and must have every few miles an application of tar or some other kind of lubricant to keep them rolling. My father said you could hear them squeaking for miles. Bows of splits made from heart white oak were bent over the wagon high enough that a person could stand up inside and over the bows was stretched tightly a piece of tenting or “wagon sheet” treated to repel the rain. There was an opening at the front end and also the back, and inside these immigrants carried everything that they could store which they felt would be necessary in the wild new land. Of course, the “Tennessee Rifle” was a very necessary piece of equipment and most of them had in addition a long single barrel shotgun with which to keep the pot filled with the small game above mentioned.

Naturally here and there one of them brought with him his old time violin or “fiddle” as it was better known, and these instruments were from time to time brought into use at the “log rollings”, “corn shuckings” and “house raisings” which were so popular in the early days. Too, in addition to the well-worn copy of the family Bible, which each and every family brought and on whose pages were inscribed the names, date of birth, etc., of all the children as well as the dates of death of members of the family, a number of these folks brought with them copies of a peculiar book. It was the old “Sacred Harp” song book. These books were different in makeup from all other books, in that they were very wide in page width and narrow in page depth. The notes were differently shaped from other music notes. Singing in the Sacred Harp goes back for hundreds of years and even today many people who learned to love this music as they grew up feel that it is the most beautiful of all music.

An old fashioned black wash pot, made of iron, standing on three short legs, was also part of the necessary equipment and this pot was used for many, many things. In it the clothes were boiled for the weekly wash. Soap was made in this pot; hominy was also made in it;  likewise water for the Saturday night scrub was oftentimes heated in it. When the hogs were killed in the fall, the lard was cooked in this pot. There were few kitchen utensils. An old fashioned oven with a heavy lid was one. In it bread was often baked and potatoes too. It too had many uses. Beds were usually homemade after the immigrants arrived. The “corded” bedstead was most popular. It was a four poster bed, with rope or cords stretched back and forth across from one side to the other and from one end to the other. On this was laid the “corn shuck” mattress, which as its name implies, was made from the husks or shucks from corn. For real luxury a feather bed made from feathers or down plucked from live geese and stuffed into a “tick” was laid on top of the shuck mattress. People slept on feather beds in even hottest summer time. The women brought a few seeds of flowers, sometimes if the season was right, a shrub itself, to reset in their new homes in the wild new country. The old spinning wheel was another piece of standard equipment for without it there would have been no thread for knitting socks and stocking, and likewise no thread to be use on the old hand looms for weaving for the clothes for the entire family.

Notes: It is positive that almost all of the first inhabitants of what is now Calhoun County came down the famous old Natchez Trace. (1) They came from the Tennessee-Carolina country. Crossing the Tennessee River near Corinth, then on down the Natchez Trace to Old Houlka where the Indian Agency was formerly located, spreading out over the section to the west, along the various creeks which ran into the Schoona and the Yalobusha rivers. In the beginning, these settlers did not open and clear the river bottom lands very much. They cleared the rolling hill sides and the creek bottoms. Their dwellings were built on high hills, often just where a spring bubbled out from under the hill below.

Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia. These came by way of Aberdeen, Columbus etc. However, the great majority of these first settlers came as stated above from Tennessee and the Carolinas. Governor Murphree says “it is positive” Mississippi_Territory_darkthat almost all of the first inhabitants came down the Natchez Trace. However (probably after someone proofread what he had written and provided him comments to the contrary), he retracted that a bit and said “Of course, a number of these first inhabitants came from Alabama and Georgia…” In fact, many of the first settlers of Calhoun County came from Alabama into north Mississippi. The Murphree family itself came over from Alabama. Martin Murphree, DHM’s grandfather and David Murphree, DHM’s great grandfather, came from Alabama. As the Murphree Genealogical Association data states: “David Murphree remained in Tennessee about a decade. By 1818, however, records show that he was a Justice of the Peace in Blount County, Alabama and the same in Walker County in 1820. The David Murphree family is enumerated in the 1830 census of Walker County where the families of his sons Roland J., Ransom, and Samuel M. Murphree are also enumerated along with his son-in-law William Barton.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 opened Choctaw Nation land in north Mississippi and the Treaty of Pontotoc a few years later opened Chickasaw Nation land as well. For the next few years after the treaties, there was a great migration into the Yalobusha-Chickasaw area of north Mississippi. About 1835-1836 David Murphree and his wife Jemima, who were then about ages 72 and 63 gathered up their children, in-laws, and grandchildren, and with their neighbors — the Brashers, Collums, Lantrips, and Browns — made their way into Mississippi in a wagon train pulled by oxen, some 30 wagons all told. They apparently crossed the Tombigbee River at Cotton Gin Port near Amory and made their way into Chickasaw County and to the Indian agency at Old Houlka. From there, they spread out over the area to the west along the various creeks and rivers. Many of the early settlements were located on or near abandoned Indian villages.

According to one of David’s descendants, the late Jackson MS attorney Dale H. McKibben, the family first landed at Airmount, which was in the Choctaw Cession. When Chickasaw Cession lands became available about three years later, tonesome of the families moved eastward from previous Choctaw lands to Chickasaw lands. Two of David’s sons’ families, Martin and Ransom Murphree, split off from the rest and moved eastward into the Rocky Mount/Oldtown area which was in Chickasaw County at first but became Calhoun County when that county was formed. Airmount and Rocky Mount are about 15 miles apart as the crow flies. Airmount is on the north side of the river which has come to be known as the “Skuna”, while Rocky Mount is on the south side. Travel between the two was arduous, especially during the winter time or in flood times, and remained so until relatively recent times. “ JMY

Holidays in Old Calhoun

My mother Monette Morgan Young was born in 1915 on a small farm east of the village of Reid in the northeast part of Calhoun County on the old road to Houlka. She was the daughter of Hosea Morgan and Eula Murphree Morgan, and was an only child. The lack of siblings and nearby neighbor children made her childhood lonelier than most. Her mother was a teacher for many of Monette’s early years, moving around from one one-room community school to another and lodging with someone in that community during the short school term each year. She took Monette with her while Hosea stayed home to take care of the farm. When schools were not in session, all three worked hard to raise enough food and “bring in” a small cotton crop to sell for their cash needs.

Monette was a reader and a writer; she loved poetry and history. In her later years, Monette began to write of her growing-up days and her life on that farm. Like many people as they grow older, she became interested in family history and began a decades-long period of formal research and the gathering of family stories from surviving aunts, cousins and others who had lived in Reid. Her cousin Clarence Morgan was a great source of family and community information; and she and he made many trips, some with grandkids along, to old cemeteries and old communities barely recognizable by then with the changes of time.

 In the early 1980s she began sending me long letters—some she typed but most were handwritten in a hurried scrawl—letters with information she had gathered about not only our family but also about other families who lived in that area and her memories of them and her life there. As I saved her letters, I began to realize that if the material was organized, edited a bit, fleshed out with a map or two, and if I took the various bits of information about, for example, the Clark family or the community social life, and put those together and did likewise with other topics, this might make an interesting memoir as well as a useful genealogical and historical resource. I did that. It took months in those pre-computer days, but it began to come together. I finished typing it and decided I’d have a few copies made for me and my children and would give her a few copies on her 75th birthday. I called it “The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi”. She was delighted, but said several times, “If I had known you were going to do this, I’d have written this or that, or would have not said that, or would have added the story about….” I told her to consider it a draft and to add or subtract whatever she wanted, and I’d revise the book accordingly. She did, and I did. After Mother died in 2000, I created a second edition of the book, adding the additional material and cleaning up some typos and some errors that had been pointed out. Over 100 copies of that second edition were subsequently made and a digital version is available on the internet for free download.

Holidays
(an excerpt from The Cherry Hill – Poplar Springs – Reid Community in Calhoun County, Mississippi, by Monette Morgan Young

We did not do lavish Christmas cooking, not in our circle of acquaintances and kin, nor did we do lavish Thanksgiving cooking. We usually had fresh pork both times and often our meat would be a huge pot of backbones. If the hog killing had been in the last day or two before the holiday, we had the most prized meat of all, the loin strip. Our men did not make pork chops of any cut of hog. That long lean strip was taken out without bone and how I looked forward to it. I hated any boiled meat. Mother and all her acquaintances and kin only boiled or fried meat. One reason for that is that they did not know of roasting procedures and second that it would have required oven cooking and use of much stovewood. They could boil a piece or pieces of meat in the black iron cooking pot on the coals on the hearth by the fire which was already going for warmth. Mother would make good dressing with that water and we always had small Bermuda onions growing in the garden all winter. These grew in clusters and did not decay as the large ones did and were not hot. Mother did not have to buy sage. She grew it, dried it in a slow oven and so we had sage and onions for dressing and since I always contended for fried meat, she fried something for me. We sometimes did have a hen boiled but since I wouldn’t eat boiled meat, she had to do the frying for me and I ate dressing with that.

Usually Thanksgiving Day was just another day. Daddy was sometimes up to his ears in corn gathering and we cooked a little better dinner. Some meat as I have described, maybe a molasses cake with the dried apple filling and frosting, one or two or three of the many vegetables in storage, canned or dried, the usual dish of pickles, preserves, canned berries, or peaches, on the table. Christmas would be the same with the exception of a coconut cake. Mother always cooked a large luscious coconut cake. She used only her simple two-egg recipe for the batter (2 eggs, ¾ cup milk, 1-1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup fat, 2 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon salt), but we always got a fresh coconut and she filled and covered the cake lavishly with frosting and coconut. Then she always had Daddy to buy the cone-shaped frosted jellied candies, assorted colors. She topped the cake with those and it looked like tiny frost-covered shapes of color in a snow bank. That was her specialty. I never saw or read of a fruit cake. With all our folks, just ordinary cakes were made. A little more lavish perhaps, was a Christmas cake, or was called so.

We often saw no one but ourselves on Christmas Day. The weather would have been too bad to venture forth. My parents had bought a little fruit and a few nuts. Oranges still always smell like Christmas. We had them no other time unless someone was really sick. Those little home-grown apples smelling like all the aromas of Araby would still be crisp and we would allow ourselves a few more of those unwrapping them from the Sears Roebuck catalog pages that were used to protect them and out of their cardboard boxes from under the bed in the front room. We got a few raisins, the seeded ones still on stems, I never taste such now.

If we did not go to Mama Murphree’s on pretty Christmas days we would walk to Grandaddy Morgan’s. My parents occasionally bought a box of lemon stick candy. At Grandfather’s he would bring out his goodies. He may have sent to town for a bushel of shipped in apples, which then I preferred to our small homegrown ones, and he had oranges and several boxes of candy. He always bagged up a large paper bag for us to carry home. Uncle Alsie’s children made their home at Grandaddy’s and Grandmother’s. These were Euras, Theda, Roy and Lois. Lois was near my age, the youngest. So I would get to see the cousins there.

One favorite toy at Christmas time for parents and teachers to give children was a harmonica. At that time, all children were given gifts by teachers. A harmonica, which we called a French Harp, cost all of a nickel or a dime. A good sized professional one might cost a quarter. I invariably wanted one. Of course, I had not a musical bone in my body. I made noise on it, and that was all. Another gift that teachers most often gave was a “bought” toothbrush. Our toothbrushes were off the black gum bush or the black gum tree. They made a large tree, but the woods were full of the small ones and we got a good sized twig about as large as a small cedar pencil, peeled the bark down about an inch and a half and the whole thing was about six inches long. We chewed the peeled end into a mop shaped thing and brushed our teeth with that. We used ashes or baking soda. I recall that Daddy used ashes.

I had bountiful Christmases. I always got one special large gift and one or two small ones. Also there were the oranges and raisins which we did not get at other times, not often. There was candy too, then, but seldom at other times. My victory over my nice pretty things was a little hollow, with no one to show them to or to play with them with me. Some other children of the area did not get anything but the candy, nuts, and fruits. Christmas was a very quiet celebration then. The weather was usually bad and the roads almost impossible to travel on, so family get-togethers were never planned. We almost always got to both my grandparents during the Christmas week. At “Mama” Murphree’s sometimes we got to see other cousins, sometimes not. At the Morgan grandparents, my four cousins who made their home there were always at home and I enjoyed them. Friends and relatives did not exchange gifts. We had no church programs. We didn’t try to plan for such due to not knowing what the weather might do. Mother tried to see that I had a good Christmas. When she was a child, they had had usually nothing except a little candy and one time nothing at all. One Christmas there was a bisque doll with curls for me and one time there was a big sleeping doll and a cloth body–perhaps a paper mache head with painted-on reddish blonde hair. That day it rained all day. We never got outside.

When I was about four, Tellie Murff and Winnie Davis gave me some lovely Christmas gifts. I think Tellie gave me a beautiful ball and some of the best of candy. Winnie gave me a box of blocks, some of which were painted to form the facade of an antebellum house. They were still in the house when all of the things had to be sold and/or given away when Daddy got sick. Some winter Sundays we couldn’t go to church. We’d have Sunday school at home. My Father was well read in the Bible. He was on speaking terms with the old Bible Patriarchs. We three would read and discuss the lesson while pork backbones simmered in the kitchen, they for our Sunday dinner, and while sweet potatoes baked and while perhaps dried peas or butterbeans cooked.

Monette Morgan Young
Monette Morgan Young

Chili Sauce by Mama Mills

This recipe comes from my friend Jerry Bullard. He is among the few people in north Mississippi who not only appreciate the culinary heritage of our area, but are preserving and practicing it as well. This recipe is from his great-grandmother, Tempie Mills.

Chili Sauce by Mama Mills

This is a long cook recipe (8 hours). I cheated and ran the ingredients through a meat grinder, but Mama Mills had to do this by hand with a knife.

24 ripe tomatoes washed and decored
12 large onions peeled and quartered
10 hot peppers
1 cup sugar
1 cup vinegar
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper
4-5 cloves garlic mashed
1 tsp cinnamon or nutmeg

Add all ingredients to a large heavy bottom or cast iron pot and bring to a boil. Now the work begins; simmer until very thick, stirring most of the time. This will take several hours. If you burn this it is junk. When cooked, have sterile canning jars and lids ready, fill jars and process in boiling water canner for 15 minutes. Good stuff!