Mama Mills’ Chili Sauce

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!

Sansing’s History of Calhoun County, Mississippi

David Sansing was—and remains—a towering figure among Mississippi historians. A native of Greenville, Sansing received his Bachelor and Masters degrees from Mississippi College and his PhD from the University of Southern Mississippi. He began teaching at Ole Miss in 1970. Sansing wrote about various aspects of the state’s history in eleven books. He wrote this history of Calhoun County in 1959 for his master’s thesis at MC.

Why Sansing, a Delta native (and of Greenville at that) chose Calhoun County, which is in the hill country of the state, for his thesis study presents something of a mystery to those of us familiar with Delta/hill contention, but he give us a clue: “Calhoun County has changed very little in the last fifty years.” Perhaps for Sansing, the county provided the opportunity to document a place thus far sheltered from the winds of change he saw coming swept through the state. We natives of Calhoun should take great pride in having our past documented by a giant of Mississippi history.

David Sansing: A History of Calhoun County

Photo by Robert Jordan

Home to the Flowers

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 though it’s certainly populated with folk tales—some of them quite “earthy”—Smith’s account of his life in the area during the first two decades of the 20th century is lyrical and poignant, the detailed observations of an educated man living in a quasi-frontier setting.

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.

Here he 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 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 came 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 water 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.”

Fannie Hawkins Smith

Hometown Calhoun

Hometown Mississippi is informative and entertaining book compiled by James F. (Jim) Brieger and published privately in 1980. It’s also an important work, since it includes all of Mississippi’s towns and counties of record, with a short write-up providing significant data. These are the entries for Calhoun County; Pittsboro, as county seat, is first listed, then the others alphabetically.

CALHOUN COUNTY

Organized in 1852, Calhoun County is located in the Sand Clay Hills Soil Area of the state. It was the fifty-ninth county to organize and ranks thirtythird in area. The county was named for John C. Calhoun, Vice-President of the United States, and at the time of formation, Henry s. Foote was Governor of Mississippi, and Millard Fillmore was President of the United States. Calhoun was the home county of Dennis Murphree, twice Governor of Mississippi, 1927-28 and 1943-44.

PITTSBORO

Pittsboro was founded on July 26, 1852 along with Calhoun County. The county seat was temporarily located at Hartfords, four miles east of the present site of Pittsboro, with monthly court being held in a log building which was used as a courthouse, Hartford did not remain for long as the county seat as the geographical center of the county was determined to be within a few hundred yards of Camp Springs,

On July 15, 1852, the Board of Police met at this point to discuss the matter of a permanent county seat, and Ebenezer Gaston, a wealthy local citizen offered 160 acres as a gift to the county for the location of a seat of government. The gift was accepted by the board and the proposed new town was named Orrsville, for J.A. Orr who had been very instrumental in the organization of the county. The name of the town was later changed to Pittsboro, for Pittsboro, North Carolina, which was Mr. Orr’s original home.

The Odom Grocery Store was the first building to be constructed, and in 1853, the Pittsboro Academy was established, being conducted in a two-story log building. In 1886, a frame building was erected to house the Pittsboro Male and Female College, then in 1888, Honorable B.J. Lowery, noted educator and statesman, taught his first school as principal of this college. The red brick courthouse was built the same year as the log jail, in 1856. In this courthouse the Secession Convention was held in 1861, and many other events connected with the war and reconstruction centered around it.

Pittsboro has had its times of prosperity and adversity, but has remained the county seat throughout the years, with many attempts having been made to move it, but all failed. In 1922 the courthouse was destroyed by fire, with the loss of almost all the records.

BANNER

Located eight miles north of Brice, Banner is one of the oldest existing places in the county, being settled by the Finn family from Ireland in 1840. The story is told, that Uncle Mickey Finn gave his reason for coming to America was the fact that land was so high in his native Ireland that he could not afford to buy a burial plot for his family. When he bought his land here and gave it the name, Banner, he immediately built a house, then he marked off a family burying ground,

Several large planters and slave owners were permanently settled here before the Civil War, and the town was known as a social as well as an educational center. A college was established in 1889 which offered commercial and music courses, but with the establishment of public schools the college became extinct. Since the start of the 1900’s, the place has been on the decline because of its remote location,

BENELA

The origin of its name is not known, but Benela was established eight miles southeast of Pittsboro in 1840. There were settlers here in the early 1830’s, but Benela was not founded until 1840 when Hugh Gaston came here with several others to establish business enterprises,

In 1853, Dr. S.T. Buchanan, Captain Enoch, Wiley and Austin Woodward settled here and Benela soon became a thriving trade center. In 1865 the town boasted six stores, two saloons, a large water mill and manufacturing plant. Being located on the Yalobusha River, cotton was transported to Greenwood by keel boat, bringing back supplies on their return trip. Lumber was also shipped down the river in rafts until the railroad was built to Calhoun City in 1905.

The growth of Benela was impeded by the fact that the railroad missed the town, and its rivals, Calhoun City and Derma gained the supremacy in leadership growth, and as trading centers, The Church, mill, and school were finally abandoned and the community became a farming area, using other points as trading centers,

BENTLEY

Bentley, located ten miles southeast of Calhoun City, was established in 1844 by Jesse H. Bently, the first settler, who erected a water mill on nearby Bear Creek. The town was incorporated in 1911.

BIG CREEK

Big Creek was founded eight miles west of Calhoun City in the 1840’s, The first settlers were R. Chruthird and Abram Sellers in the early 1840’s, being joined by other pioneers between 1845 and 1855. At this time Big Creek was located two miles north of its present location and was the distributing point for the sale of whiskey, with a wholesale house having been opened here,

Being so far from the railroad, the growth of the town was slow but with the building of the highway, two miles to the south, Big Creek was moved to its present location near the highway in 1920 with more stores being added and a post office being established.

BOUNDS

About 1824, J.R, Bounds, a cattleman, settled almost midway between the Skuna and Yalobusha Rivers, about eight miles west of present-day Pittsboro. His brother, Henry Bounds, joined him in 1828 and they found an ideal cattle range between the two streams. The two brothers rented this land from an Indian sub-chief named Bob Cole during their first two years of settlement, but later bought the land.

BRUCE

Bruce was founded in 1927 when the E.L. Bruce Lumber Company purchased a vast acreage in this section, four miles north of Pittsboro and established their large mill three miles north of Pittsboro in the Skuna Valley. The company purchased the Thurman Barton farm which became the home of George Rogers, Superintendent of the Bruce interests.

Johnny Main Mountain, six miles east of Brue, is the highest point in the county, covering several acres. Some remarkable rock formations are found on the mountain, and Skuna River flows around the base on the north side. According to legend, this mountain was the home of a prominent Chickasaw Chief named Piomingo at the time the Indians occupied this section. The mountain received its name from Johnny Main, an old Dutchman who hunted and trapped here during the 1860’s.

BUSYTON

Busyton was established about 1865, four miles south of Sarepta, and at one time a post office was located two miles to the southeast, but it was discontinued in 1905. Sometime after 1905, when State Highway 9 was improved, J.T. Ivy built a store on the highway and called it Busyton.

CALHOUN CITY

Federal Land Records show that the site on which Calhoun City stands, ten miles south of Bruce, was conveyed to an Indian named Ish tah hath la, T.P. Gore purchased an entire section of 640 acres from this Indian, supposedly for a handful of bright-colored beads, a few furs, and several quarts of whiskey. Being a large slave owner, Gore cleared a plantation and lived an easy life, in which horse racing and cock fighting figured prominently. Before his death he is thought to have buried a great amount of gold on his plantation, but died without revealing its hiding place. He is buried near Calhoun City in a wooded section of his former plantation,

In 1900 the Gore property passed into the hands of T.L. Beadles and Jeff Boland, being purchased from them in 1904 by Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe. The place was named Burkett for Frank Bukett, but the name was later changed to Calhoun City for John C, Calhoun. These men learned that the Mobile & Ohio Railroad was planning to build a branch line through this section and made plans for the building of a town. One mile east lived two other landowners who were demanding that the terminal be located on their land. A legal battle was fought, and the court decided in favor of both places, so just one mile east of Calhoun City was established the town of Derma, Because of this matter, hard feelings existed between the towns cor several years.

The present town of Calhoun City was surveyed and laid off in lots in 1905. That same year, a hotel was built and a central parkway was laid out, awaiting the time when Pittsboro would relinquish its claim to the county seat and a courthouse could be erected.

The year of 1906 brought the incorporation of Calhoun City as well as many new families. On the first Sunday in January, 1907, the first passenger train ariived in Calhoun City. This was a great event in the history of the town and people, many of whom had never seen a train, came from miles around to witness the arrival.

DENTONTOWN

Located fourteen miles southwest of Pittsboro.

DERMA

In 1905, upon learning of the railroad to be built from Okalona to Calhoun City, Frank Burkett and J.S. Rowe immediately made plans for the establishment of a town in the vicinity of Calhoun City. Just one mile east lived J.M. Smith and Dr. S.H. Lawrence who also proposed to build a depot and town, Heated controversy resulted in a court decision in favor of both places, and soon there sprang up two rival towns. It is said that in time, Captain Burkett and Dr, Lawrence, both Civil War Veterans, were able to ease the friction between the two towns to a large extent. During the early history of the town, Derma enjoyed gradual growth which continued until the depression of 1929, at which time the town began to decline, The town also suffered several disastrous fires from which it never recovered, but at its peak, Derma boasted two churches, fourteen stores, and an Agricultural High School.

About four miles southeast of Derma is the site of the boyhood home of Fox Conner who was promoted to the rank of Major General by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During World War I, Fox Conner was General Perishing’s fight hand man, and Perishing once stated that Fox Conner did more to help win the war than any one man he knew.

ELLARD

Located six miles northwest of Pittsboro,

ELZY

Settlers first came to this site, three miles north of Vardaman, in the 1840!s, and called the settlement Cherryhill. The place was later named Elzy, supposedly for B.M. Elzy an early merchant. A post office was established here in the mid 1850’s and was in operation until 1905. The village began its decline when the railroad was built through three miles to the north, and the railroad accommodations attracted most of the residents to Vardaman,

HARDIN TOWN

Hardin Town was established and named by Johnnie Hardin who came to this site, four miles east of Calhoun City, in 1845. The place also seems to have been known as Hopewell, since the post office, which was in operation from 1880 until 1903, and the school was known as Hopewell. Hardin Town was never much more than a one store settlement, and that became extinct during the depression of 1929.

HARTFORD

The extinct town of Hartford is historic in the fact that it was the first county seat of Calhoun County. Established in 1830, Hartford served as the seat of government from January until July of 1852, at which time Pittsboro, four miles to the southwest, was selected as the permanent county seat. Martin Murphree, Grandfather of Dennis Murphree, was one of the first settlers in this section, coming in 1835. A few years later Hartford had become a thriving trade center, with a furniture and jug factory being operated by 0. K. Bennet in the early 1840’s. Soon after the establishment of the county seat at Pittsboro, the town of Hartford began to decline, and by 1886 was an extinct village.

HOLLIS

Prior to 1860, Alexander Hollis and his brother, Marvin V. Hollis settled in this locality, three miles east of Derma and the place was named for these two brothers. Hollis was no more than a rural community until the building of the railroad in 1905, and it became a flag station. At that time a post office was opened and the town became incorporated in 1910. Hollis prospered for a few years but when the post office was discontinued in 1922 it began to decline. The nearby larger towns drew most of the trade and by 1927 the town was almost extinct.

LOYD

Located eight miles east of Pittsboro, the name origin is uncertain, but it is known that the community was settled before 1860. A post office was established at Loyd following the Civil War and in 1900 there were three stores in operation. The post office was discontinued in 1910 and mail was received from Vardaman.

MABRY

Mabry was a railroad switch located a short distance west of the depot at Derma. The switch served a large planing mill operated by G.C. and I. Mabry of Derma. Mabry became extinct with the abolishment of the switch in 1939.

PARTEE

Located seven and one-half miles west of Pittsboro,

PITTMAN

Pittman was established as a flag station on the Mississippi and Skuna Valley Railroad, twelve miles west of Bruce. The station was named for Sam Pittman who owned the land where the station was located before it was sold to the Bruce Lumber Company.

REID

It is thought that Young Phillips, who arrived here about 1850, was the first settler in this section, nine miles north of Vardaman, Other early settlers included the Hardins, Campbells, Morgans, and the Reid family, for whom the town was named. A post office had been in operation for several years when a store was opened by Tom Phillips in 1880. Three other stores were eventually built, and Reid enjoyed good business activity until the building of a railroad to the south in 1904. At that time the population began to shift to the railroad, business started to decline, and in 1910, the post office was discontinued.

RETREAT

About 1890, Stewart Warner opened a merchantile store near his home, ten miles northwest of Calhoun City, and in time, the settlement gained a post office which was named Retreat. Within a few years the post office was discontinued, and at that time the business of Stewart Warner was closed and Warner moved to Big Creek.

SABOUGLA

 

This settlement, located eleven miles southwest of Calhoun City, was first known as Davis Town, for J.W. Davis, who settled near here in the 1830’s. About 1880 when & post office was granted, the community was given the name, Sabougla for the creek on which it is located.

SAREPTA

Located eleven miles northeast of Bruce, it is thought that John Hellum was the first settler, coming in 1836 from Tennessee and acquired land a few miles north of the present site of Sarepta. Dr. Andrew Roane, son of Governor Archibald Roane of Tennessee, settled here in 1840 and at that time there was one store which was operated by a man named McLarty.

There is a story told of a happening in Sarepta, when in the 1880’s the backwoodsmen of the area had the habit of coming to town and taking the law in their own hands. It seems that a government man named Wise came to Mississippi in 1884 in search of a criminal. When he reached Oxford, he was reassigned to locate and arrest two brothers named Dock and Jim Bishop. The two brothers were wanted for the killing of two Harmon boys in a drunken brawl near Sarepta. Jim Bishop was finally located by Wise, who made friends with him, thinking that he could be persuaded to betray his brother. He gave Jim Bishop a bottle of drugged whiskey for his brother, setting a time and place for his capture.

Instead of betraying Dock, Jim betrayed Mr. Wise, and hiding behind a tree they ambushed him, filling him full of buckshot. They then buried him in a shallow grave where he was found a few days later. About three years later Dock Bishop was captured, convicted, and hanged for his crimes. A song, “The Ballad of Dock Bishop,” was then composed by one of the local citizens, and is probably still sung occasionally.

SHEPHERD

Located three and one-half miles northwest of Pittsboro,

SKUNA Located six and one-hal miles west of Pittsboro.

SLATE SPRINGS

Located nine miles south of Calhoun City, the place took its name from the springs located west of town on the Slate Springs-Grenada Road. The exact settlement date is uncertain, but it is thought by local people to be older than Pittsboro. If this is true, then Slate Springs could possibly be the oldest settlement in the county. Slate Springs appears to have been a trading center in the early 1800’s. At that time, in addition to the saloons, there were two stores, the first one probably being operated by a man named Woodward. Between 1880 and 1890, a post office, flour mill, and two churches were added. Also, at this time the Fox College was opened, with Fuller Fox as the first teacher.

TRUSTY

This small community, located twelve miles northwest of Sarepta, falls just within the county line. A store, in which was housed the post office, was given the name Trusty, for a local resident. The store as well as the post office have been discontinued, the Trusty family, along with other residents have moved away, and little now remains to mark the site of the settlement.

VANCE

Now listed as being extinct, Vance was located about two miles east of Slate Springs, being named for William Vance, who in 1837 was the first settler. After building a log cabin in 1837, Vance established a water mill on Shulispear Creek for the purpose of grinding grain. In 1844, Vance cleared a plot of ground about 300 yards from his mill on which to erect a larger home. He died before the home was built, and on being buried in the clearing, the spot came to be known as the Vance Graveyard, being used by the community which later sprang up.

For many years wheat as well as corn was ground at the mill, and during the Civil War and Reconstruction, this old mill provided bread for many people. Shulispear Creek was an ideal fishing spot, and people bringing their grain from many miles away would take advantage of the opportunity to camp for several days at a time, fishing and hunting while their grain was being ground. After William Vance’s death his son operated the mill for a few years, then it was sold and operated under the new owners until it was discontinued in 1914.

VARDAMAN

This settlement, four miles east of Derma, was originally known as Ticky Bin, and several stories have been told as to how the name originated. In those days the cattle grazed in the bottom lands where ticks were found, not only on the cattle but on the grass and trees as well. In 1872 a store was opened by Tom Richardson, but the chief industry in this section, especially from 1895 until 1903. was the stave industry. Handhewn staves were made all up and down the Yalobusha and Skuna Rivers, and at the time of the Paris World’s Fair, several staves were sent to the fair and received first prize.

By 1904 the community of Ticky Bin had increased in population and the need of a post office was realized by the citizens. The long hoped for railroad had. been surveyed so a petition was sent to President Theodore Roosevelt for the establishment of a post office to be named Vardaman, in honor of James K. Vardaman. The office was granted but was named Timberville instead of Vardaman as proposed. As the town grew, business firms, schools, and churches were established. The citizens, never satisfied with the name, Timberville, requested and was granted the name change to Vardaman.

Old Courthouse, Pittsboro

Letter to a Young Scholar

Bruce, Mississippi is some three miles south of a hamlet in Calhoun County named Banner. In 1975, Tom Yancy, a junior at Bruce High School, wrote a letter to Eudora Welty, who responded with much grace.

 

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, arguably the smallest county seat in the state, is sleepy village, contrary to Faulkner’s bustling Jefferson. Pittsboro 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 much more 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.

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 evidence of her talent and grace.

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