Okay, let’s straighten this out once and for all. Those big orange roots you find in the grocery store are not yams. Got that? As a matter of fact, it’s a good bet that most of the people who read this blog have never even seen a yam unless they’ve traveled to an area with a significant West Indian or Asian population or to the tropics where yams are grown.
Yam is the common name for some plant species in the genus Dioscorea (family Dioscoreaceae) that form edible tubers. These are perennial herbaceous vines cultivated for the consumption of their starchy tubers in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Oceania. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a sweet-tasting, tuberous root native to tropical America related to morning glories.
Sweet potatoes are a staple of the American South. The root is long and tapered, with a smooth skin of yellow, orange, red, brown, purple, or beige. Its flesh is rich and succulent. The sweet potato is the state vegetable of North Carolina, and the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World is Vardaman, Mississippi. Sweet potatoes came to be called yams by West Indian and African natives and the name endured. To prevent confusion, the USDA requires sweet potatoes labeled as “yams” to also be labeled as “sweet potatoes”. If you see a can of yams in the store, you’ll find “sweet potatoes” in the ingredients.
So there. This recipe comes from April McGreger, a fellow native of Calhoun County and author of Sweet Potatoes, the tenth volume in University of North Carolina’s wonderful “Savor the South” series. April is a splendid cook, but I find her technique a little fussy. I simply assemble the ingredients in the skillet, put a lid on it, and bake at 350 until the potatoes are tender and the liquid reduced.
The genius of southern food is less in its individual dishes than in the overall composition of the meal. Syrupy sweet potatoes balance earthy field peas and sharp turnip greens shot through with hot pepper vinegar. Crispy cornbread swoops in to sop it all up. Here is a particularly nuanced version of ubiquitous candied sweet potatoes that makes use of that coffee can of bacon grease my grandparents and parents kept above the stove.
MAKES 6 SERVINGS
4 medium sweet potatoes (about 2 pounds), peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
1 cup sugar
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Layer the sweet potatoes in a large cast-iron skillet. Dot with the butter and bacon drippings, and sprinkle with the sugar and salt. Pour the water and lemon juice over the sweet potatoes and cover the skillet with a tight-fitting lid or foil. Simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the cover and simmer until the sweet potatoes are very tender and the sauce is thick, 30-35 minutes more. Baste the sweet potatoes with the syrup from time to time, being careful not to break them up.
While no battles of importance took place in Calhoun County, Mississippi, Leon Burgess, in his M.D.L. Stevens and Calhoun County, Mississippi offers Stevens’ account of a December skirmish in the northwest. The original story appeared in The Calhoun County Monitor on June 4, 1903.
In December, 1862, Gen. Grant’s army pressed back the Confederate army from Holly Springs to Coffeeville where after a sharp engagement Grant fell back to Water Valley, threw out a strong cordon of cavalry and encamped for the winter.
About Christmas a strong company of Kansas Jayhawkers invaded Calhoun County north of Schoona River, spending their fury in and about the village of Banner. They captured the few horses and mules remaining in the county, robbed every chicken roost and hen nest, stole turkeys, geese and ducks, and now and then they took a fat hog. In their rounds they confiscated a barrel of moonshine whiskey near the big rock at the head of Cowpen Creek. They drank freely, filled their canteens and came to Banner, where they took and destroyed everything in sight. In the afternoon they set out for Water Valley. Each marauder had his canteen full of “wild cat” and, tied in front and behind his saddle, a good lot of turkeys, geese, ducks and chickens, and a haversack full of eggs. They left Banner yelling like a mob of Hottentots, all full of wild cat whiskey; more than a hundred strong, the Federals insulted every old man they met and drove women and children from their homes.
A small squad of Willis’ Texas Cavalry was hanging around Grant’s army, watching every movement. They learned of the contemplated raid on Banner, followed in the of the Federal cavalry and kept a close eye on their movements. The Texans received into their ranks a few of the Calhoun boys at home on furloughs, armed with double-barreled shot guns and mounted on mules and horses. The company numbered about 20 of the battalion and 12 or 15 of the local boys. They saw from a distance the devastation of Banner and the surrounding country and saw that the Jayhawkers were tanking up on the “bust skull” whiskey and were preparing to leave for Water Valley. Willis, under the guidance of a friend, hosted his small band of braves in a narrow valley were the horses were tied and the boys were concealed on the crest of a narrow ridge about 60 yards from the road that ran up a narrow hollow west of Gore’s Branch 5 or 6 miles from Banner.
On came the drunken Federal mob, more than a hundred strong, singing, cursing and looting, all bent on reaching Water Valley with their booty. They crossed Gore’s Branch, the headwaters of Long Persimmon Creek, and moved up the road running parallel with the long ridge. When the Federal cavalry had filled the road at the foot of the ridge, Willis gave the command to fire. Sheet of flames leapt from 30 guns; volley after volley was poured into the panic-stricken Federal ranks. Horses and riders were piled promiscuously on the road.
The Rebel boys rushed down the hill and captured men, horses, turkeys, ducks, chickens and canteens half full of mountain dew. They mounted and followed in hot pursuit of the fleeing Federals. Down by Trusty’s and Tatum’s they charged the retreating Jayhawkers, killing and capturing men and horses; their charge to Tuckalofa Creek was a race for life. The next day a regiment of Federal cavalry came out and buried the dead and cared for the wounded. No estimate on killed or wounded.
Dennis Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi, and on two of those times he succeeded to the governor’s office upon the death of the incumbent. Although he ran for governor in his own right three times, he was never elected. Few people ever wanted to be elected governor more than did Dennis Murphree, but the political scales in Mississippi during his lifetime did not permit this. The following text is adopted from The Governors of Mississippi (Pelican Publishing: 1980) by Cecil L. Sumners.
Dennis Herron Murphree was three times elected lieutenant governor of Mississippi and was twice elevated to the governor’s office. He was born at Pittsboro, Mississippi, on January 6, 1886, the first child of Thomas Martin Murphree and Callie Cooper Murphree. His father, who was prominent in the local affairs of Calhoun County, served four years in the Confederate army and two terms as justice of the peace. He was a member of the school board, twice served as circuit clerk, and was twice elected state representative from Calhoun County. Dennis Murphree’s father was also a newspaper editor and died during his second term as state representative.
The first American ancestors of this Murphree family were three brothers named Murphy who had taken part in Emmet’s Rebellion and had fled the country, seeking refuge in America. When they came to America, they changed their name to Murphree and settled in Tennessee and Alabama. However, his great-grandfather David Murphree, who was a resident of South Carolina at the time, served as a soldier in the American Revolution. His grandfather Martin Murphree served under General Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812 and was in the Battle of New Orleans. He moved from Tennessee to Chickasaw County after 1830. There he served on the county board of police (board of supervisors) from 1847 to 1849. When the legislature provided for the creation of Calhoun County from parts of Chickasaw, Lafayette, and Yalobusha counties on March 8, 1852, Martin Murphree was one of the seven commissioners charged with bringing the new county into being. He served as the secretary of that commission and helped locate the present county site.
With this distinguished record of public service among his ancestors, it was natural for Dennis Murphree to want to hold public office. Taking over the printing and newspaper office at his father’s death, he was successful in that business and in banking as well. In 1911 he was elected state representative from Calhoun County, Mississippi, the youngest person to be elected to that office from Calhoun County up to that time. His formal education was limited, but he obtained a vast amount of experience in the printing office of his father. He was reelected state representative in 1915 and again in 1919.
Dennis Murphree married Clara Minnie Martin of Pittsboro, Mississippi. They had three daughters and one son. Dennis Murphree was a Methodist and belonged to several fraternal organizations.
Dennis Murphree had oratorical ability, and in 1920 he was unanimously elected as temporary speaker of the house of representatives to serve during the sickness of Mike Conner, the regularly elected speaker. He served thirty days and obtained valuable experience presiding over that body, experience that he used later as presiding officer of the senate.
In 1923 Dennis Murphree ran for lieutenant governor, hopeful that he would not have any opposition. His opponent, however, was Hernando DeSoto Money, the son of Senator Money. Although Dennis Murphree did little campaigning, he won by a vote of 122,827 to 103,065. Mississippi, at the time of Dennis Murphree’s term as lieutenant governor, was experiencing depressed prices for the agricultural products; therefore, he helped promote legislation to help the farmers. Delta State Teachers College (now Delta State University) was established, and the mental institution in Jackson was moved to Rankin County and later named Whitfield. When Governor Henry Whitfield became ill in the summer of 1926, Murphree acted as governor much of the time. On March 16, 1927, Governor Whitfield died, and Murphree was sworn in as governor on March 18, 1927.
Governor Murphree had already announced that he would be a candidate to succeed himself as lieutenant governor; but after he became governor, the pressure was so great from his friends that he felt that he had to run for governor. He thought he should have retired from politics and awaited his turn to run for governor in 1931, but he listened to his friends and entered the governor’s race. He faced two well-seasoned and tough opponents: former Governor Theodore G. Bilbo and Speaker of the House Mike Conner. As opponents, these men were as strong as could be found anywhere in the state. Backed financially by Hugh L. White and L. O. Crosby, who agreed to underwrite his campaign expenses, he ran for governor. During the last part of his term as governor, there was a disastrous flood in the delta, a flood that almost took his life. It required most of his time and prevented him from campaigning properly. He went into the second primary with former governor Theodore G. Bilbo, but Bilbo defeated him by a vote of 147,669 to 137,130.
In 1931 Murphree ran for lieutenant governor against Bidwell Adams and won by a vote of 173,339 to 108,022. Again in 1935 he ran for governor against Hugh L. White and Paul B. Johnson, Sr. He ran third and failed to get into the second primary. In 1939 he ran his third successful race for lieutenant governor, receiving 172,201 votes and defeating three able opponents in the first primary by more than 40,000 votes.
Lieutenant Governor Murphree helped Paul Johnson carry out most of his proposed legislation. This included free textbooks for the schoolchildren of the state, an increased homestead exemption (from $3,500 to $5,000), and an expanded membership for the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning. This latter move was an attempt to remove the board from political influences. BAWI laws were passed to help “Balance Agriculture With Industry,” as was proposed under Governor Hugh L. White’s administration.
In 1943 he ran for governor the third time against strong opposition consisting of former Governor Mike Conner, Thomas L. Bailey, and Lester C. Franklin. This was a hotly contested race; Bailey barely eased into the second primary with former Governor Conner. Murphree was eliminated. In an upset victory, Tom Bailey won the election for governor.
Then a little more than a month after the November general election, Governor Paul B. Johnson, Sr., died on December 26, 1943. Once again, Lieutenant Governor Dennis Murphree was elevated to the governor’s office to serve the remainder of the Johnson term. He served as governor of Mississippi from December 26, 1943, to January 18, 1944, when Governor-Elect Thomas L. Bailey was inaugurated. He had failed to get into the second primary by less than 400 votes. Governor Murphree believed for the rest of his life that if he had followed his own political judgment, he could have beaten Thomas L. Bailey in the first primary and would have eventually been elected in the second primary as governor.
After making three strenuous countrywide races and six hard-fought statewide campaigns, Murphree died of a stroke on February 9, 1949, at the age of sixty-three. He was buried near his home in Pittsboro, Mississippi.
Among the most distinguished and elegant writers in the Mississippi canon, Howard Bahr writes compelling novels of the American Civil War. Bahr is the winner of the 2007 Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction for his book The Judas Field. His novel The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War received the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction in 1998, and in 2011 Bahr was the winner of the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts. Between 1968 and 1973, Bahr worked in various positions for the Illinois Central Railroad, theAlabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railway, Missouri Pacific Railroad, the Southern Railway, and the CB&Q Railroad. A friend and neighbor, he kindly consented to interpret this old schedule for the Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad.
The Mississippi & Skuna Valley Railroad was constructed between May 1925, and September 1926. The M&SV came off the Illinois Central main line at Bryant, just south of Coffeeville. The road was twenty-one miles long running slightly northeast; at its terminus, the town of Bruce, Mississippi, was built around the E. L. Bruce Co. lumber mill. Original motive power was one Prairie Class (2-6-2) steam engine. Sometime before 1952, the road obtained at least three seventy-ton GE diesel switch engines. The M&SV also operated a motor rail car (named “Bruce”) for express and passenger service. The car was a coach body set on a Reo truck chassis.
The M&SV timetable is from the August, 1952, edition of The Official Guide of the Railways. Among the common symbols on railroad time tables are found the following:
§ indicates a train that runs only on Sunday
† indicates a train that runs daily except Sunday
∫ when placed beside a station name, indicates a “Flag Stop” (i.e., passenger trains only stop at those stations upon a displayed signal)
■ meaning can vary; on the M&SV timetable, indicates motor rail car service.
Times in the A.M. are printed in light-faced type; times in the P.M. are printed in bold type. The time given for each station is the scheduled time that the train leaves the station. Southbound and westbound trains are given odd numbers. Read down. Northbound and eastbound trains are given even numbers. Read up. On this table, mileage between stations is not given. Mileage from Bruce Junction is indicated in column Mls.
On the M&SV timetable, the motor coaches have regularly scheduled runs. The absence of numbered freight trains indicates that freight trains run “Extra”; i.e., they can be listed at any time. This timetable is for the convenience of passengers and does not show sidings where trains may pass. Most likely, the motor coaches had rights over freight trains. In any event, the M&SV is so short, and traffic so light, that train control was probably informal. By 1952, the Illinois Central ran no passenger trains from Jackson, Tennessee, to Grenada, Mississippi. Thus, one wonders why passengers would want to go from Bruce to Bruce Junction.
It was in the spring of the year in the dear long ago. There had been a long dry spell and the farmers were well up with their work, but, complaining as to the weather quite a number were gathered in town. A dark heavy cloud was seen rising in the west and about noon a nice refreshing shower fell to bless and benefit these sons of toil.
In the afternoon the village of Banner was filled with happy farmers. The postmaster, Esq. Brower, and myself were sitting in the post office looking at the throng around Frank Brantley’s grocery. The dingy old gallon pot was sitting on a stump in front of the grocery, well filled with red liquor and surrounded by a happy crowd, all in a merry mood and still partaking rather freely.
All at once a young man stepped into the post office and asked if there was any mail for John Martin. He was rather small, with light hair and a few strangling red hairs on his upper lip and chin. Brower, after a careful look, told him there was no mail for John Martin. He said then, “I am a stranger here. This is the first time I was ever in Banner. I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie creek; I am a fighter from the east. I have often heard of Banner and I have come over to-day to clean her up and paint Banner red. I understand you have some fighters here and I would like to meet them. I tell you I am a fighter.”
He pulled from his ponderous pocket an old-style, iron-barrel pistol, with tube and hammer on the top and said, “You see this. I am going to have some fun this evening. The first man that bristles up to me, I’m going to down him.”
He walked nimbly across the muddy street to the stump and gallon pot, introduced himself to the crowd and took a drink of the liquor. A dispute between the Van Winkles and the Hardins soon resulted in a general fight. The men were all in their shirt sleeves and most of the young men and boys were barefooted. The men engaged in the fighting were old Carter Van Winkle who had a small lumber stick in his hand and he knocking the Hardins right and left, when he was modestly confronted by John Martin who asked, “Who are you and which side are you fighting? I am Fighting John Martin from Butta Hatchie. Did you ever see me turn loose in Banner? If not, look out!”
He thrust his old pistol into Van Winkle’s face and pulled the trigger, but the pistol snapped and Van Winkle struck him over the head with his stick and brought him to his knees. Martin galloped across the muddy street on his all-fours with Van Winkle striking him with the lumber stick first on the right and then on the left side as he crawled across with his pistol in one hand and his hat in the other.
Just as he crossed the street Van Winkle left him and returned to the general fight. Martin dragged himself into the post office all covered with blood, handed his pistol and hat to Brower and called for a doctor. The little Banner doctor examined him and found that he had received a downward lick on the side of his head that pealed the scalp his forehead back beyond his ear.
“Fix it quick doctor I want to get away from here.” The doctor took two or stitches, brought the edges of the wound up together, tied a few bands across. Brower handed him his hat and pistol; remarking as he did so, “This is hell turned loose in Banner, is it not?”
“No,” said the little doctor, “he is the man that painted Banner red.”
“Let me out of here,” said Martin and he slipped out, took through the woods to the south of Banner and that was the last seen of Martin, the Fighter from Butta Hatchie that painted Banner red.
(Signed, The Rambler, The Calhoun Monitor, Pittsboro, MS, Aug. 18, 1904)
These place names were collected from the Mississippi Atlas &Gazetteer (DeLorme: 2004), pages 25 and 31; the text is from Keith Baca’s Native American Place Names in Mississippi (University Press of Mississippi: 2007). Note that the gazetteer was my only source for the place names, and that I only referenced those in Calhoun County, Mississippi. If you want to know the interpretations of other Native American place names in other areas of the state, then you can probably find Baca’s book at your local library. The only place name I did not find is Oloucalofa Creek, which is crossed by County Roads 284 and 283 in the northwestern corner of the county. The references in the text refer to works that provided the translations/interpretations for specific words. Some of you might find this tedious and pedantic in addition to being predictably pretentious, but trust me I do know people who would jump on me like a duck on a June bug if I didn’t mind my scholastic Ps and Qs.
SW Pontotoc/NE Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 32 nine mi. NE of Bruce. Halbert (1899, p. 73), using Choctaw vocabulary, derives this name from kitti, “mortar” (a bowl-sha0ped container for pounding or grinding corn into meal), and hutta, “white”. Halbert offers no explanation for the adjective, but Seale (1939, pp. 109-10) speculates that it refers to a mortar made of white stone (white or bleached wood, more likely). It should benoted that this creek is located at least partially within historically Chickasaw territory, and while Chickasaw kitti’, “mortar” is very similar to the Choctaw word, the only recorded Chickasaw term for “white” is tobbi’. Also, the first two syllables of the name resemble not lonely kitti/kitti’, but Chickasaw/Choctaw kinta, “beaver” as well.
N Calhoun County. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 32 five mi. NE of Bruce, and by Miss. Hwy 9 one mi. NE of Sarepta. Perhaps a corruption of Chickasaw/Choctaw lackna, “yellow”.
SE Lafayette/ NE Calhoun counties, local pronunciation unrecorded. Potlockney is a relatively recent corruption; this stream was formerly known as Pollocona, the derivation of which is uncertain. W.A. Read, using Choctaw vocabulary, suggested several possible sources of this name to Seale (1939, p. 153), but all are conjectural: poli, “flying squirrel” and yakni “country”; or poli, “flying squirrel” and okhina, “river; water course; stream”. (It should be noted that this stream is in historically Chickasaw territory; cf. Chickasaw lakna, “yellow”; yaakni, “country”; and pali, “flying squirrel”.
Sabougla Community and Creek
SW Calhoun/NW Webster counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 9 two mi. N of Bellefontaine, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven miles E of Gore Springs. Cushman (1999, p. 491) claims that this name is a shortened form of (Chickasaw) “Siboglahatcha… [o]riginal, Is-su-ba-ok-la-hu-cha, Horse River People, i.e. [p]eople living on horse river.” (Cf. Choctaw isuba, “horse”, okla, “people” and hocha, “river”.) However, Halbert (1899, p. 75) states that the name is from shohboli’, “smoke” (cf. Choctaw shoblhi, “smoke;smoky; smoking”.
Shuttispear Creek (SHOOT-uh-speer)
N Webster/S Calhoun Counties. Crossed by Miss Hwy. 9 fie mi. S of Calhoun City, and by Miss. Hwy. 8 seven mi. SW of Calhoun City. From Choctaw shuti, “earthen pot” and probably ista pika, “a scoop” i.e. “pot scoop” or “ladle” (Seale, 1939, p. 167). There is an erroneous local tradition regarding this stream resulting from folk etymology; I have been told that long ago, the creek was the scene of warfare between two tribes. According to this tale, the warriors occupied opposite sides of the stream, “shooting spears across the creek at each other”, hence the name.
Skuna Community and River
S Pontotoc (q.v.)/NW Chickasaw (q.v.)/Calhoun/Yalobusha (q.v.)/Grenada counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy 9 on s. side of Bruce. Skuna is apparently from Choctaw iskuna, “entrails; guts” (cf. Halbert 1899, pp. 73-74).
Topashaw Creek (TOP-uh-shaw)
NE Webster/SW Chickasaw (q.v.)/S Calhoun counties. Crossed by Miss. Hwy. 8/9 two mi. S of Calhoun City,and by Miss. Hwy. 341 six mi. W of Woodland. Possibly a variant of Topisaw (cf.), although Seale (1939, p. 198) speculates that “it is highly probably that there is a connection between Sopashaw and Taposa, the latter being the name of a tribe which formerly lived on the Yazoo River.” The meaning of the tribal name Taposa is unknown (Swanson 1969, p. 192).
Yes, folks, for a mere $9,000 bucks you can buy a blues marker, which will place your patch of ground on the Blues Trail and attract those hypothetical hordes of tourists who come to Mississippi in search of musical roots. The criteria for acquiring a blues marker are delineated by the Mississippi Blues Commission in an online document that mentions the eligibility of people, places and events, specific locations (buildings, streets, highways, crossroads), themes (nightclubs and other venues, cotton agriculture, railroads), and there’s even a bit about out-of-state markers (!), but the bottom line explicitly spelled out in the second paragraph is a contract between the Blues Commission and the LGU (Local Government Unit) requiring the LGU to pay $9,000 for the marker, which guarantees its inclusion on collateral material associated with the Blues Trail such as the Commission’s website and publishing. Where this money goes is anyone’s guess, and a significant return on your investment in terms of tourist dollars is a remote possibility indeed.
Very few people would consider Calhoun County a focal point for blues music, so it might come as a surprise to some that Bruce is about to become a site on Mississippi’s celebrated Blues Trail. The musical heritage of Calhoun County, Mississippi is varied, encompassing bluegrass, country, gospel and rockabilly; the area is also well-known for its sacred harp singing. The blues certainly has its place in any roster of the area’s music, but it’s way down the list. The marker, “Calhoun County Blues”, will be unveiled on Oct. 8 at 1p at the Bruce Company Store. Local music artist Leo “Bud” Welch will be honored. I have it on good authority that the marker will also mention Ace Cannon, who is not, strictly speaking, a blues musician, and while it’s unclear if any other Calhoun music will be mentioned, the omission of our sacred harp tradition would be a grievous error compounding what is already a totally superfluous travesty.
It was in the heat of the summer when the air is thick with dust and the sun beats down so hard it feels like a burden that Jess would come home from the store in the mid- afternoons, sit on the front porch, take his hat off and holler at Ethel in the house to bring him buttermilk and cornbread. She would coarsely crumble the cornbread they always had on hand into a tall glass, pour in enough cold buttermilk to cover not all the way but almost, stick a teaspoon in it, bring it out, then go back to the kitchen where she always found something to do. Jess would sit on the porch overlooking his store, his corn field across the highway and his son’s house on the corner tumbling with children, think about this year, think about last year, think about next year and go back to the store, leaving a tall glass with streaks of buttermilk mixed with bits of cornbread making way to the bottom of the glass. No man has ever enjoyed a cocktail with as much contentment.
The following article, written by Col. M.D.L. Stephens, appeared in Calhoun Monitor in 1900, was reprinted June 18, 1931 in The Monitor-Herald and again in July 6, 1972. It later appeared in the newsletter of the Calhoun County Historical Society MS, First Quarter, 2000.
In 1856, Old Dan Rice, the celebrated clown and circus showman, made a venture through Calhoun County, striking Benela first, next day at Pittsboro and thence over to Coffeeville. Being a man of extraordinary abilities and sagacious comprehension by nature as well as the experience of extensive travel, it took him no time to discover the prominent characteristics of the denizens of that inland county.
Really he did not expect to find so far out in the interior a class of people so intelligent and independent. Calhoun’s citizenship made no pretensions in those days at style rather on the
grotesque order. Such a combination, Old Dan, in all of his travels, had never struck before. Evidently their mark made its impression upon his mind as the independent sovereignty he had ever come across in all of his travels, so much so that at his next performance in Coffeeville the next day, he got off some laughable jokes at their expense, which were heartily enjoyed and applauded by her sister county-men attending the circus that day.
The first one the writer remembers was by Old Dan on his little trick mule in the grand entry, which always captivates the audience into an enchanted trance. I may say as they emerge from the dressing tent, indeed there is a charm about the “Grand Entry” of a circus; irresistible, even with the most stable-minded—the beautiful horses of varied colors, the riders in their dazzling costumes, will surely product the same effect that it did upon St. Peter, when that panorama of four-footed beasts descended to earth from the heavens.
After this parade, leaving the ring-master with his four-in-hand whip in hand, Dan Rice and his mule made possession of the ring to round up this initial act with something ludicrous. He made many circuits around the ring, imitating each round some laughable incident real or imaginary. Finally to close the scene, he humped himself as awkwardly as he could, at the same time remarking, “This is the way the Schoonerites rode into Pittsboro yesterday, coming to see Old Dan.”
Of course this brought forth a yelling applause from the Yalobusians. About the same time, however, the little mule was nearing the exit gap in the ring, apparently tired of the game all at once as if imitating his rider, got a vigorous hump in his own back, and just at the gateway, made a sudden stop, sending the clown forward like a flying squirrel, spreading him out in good shape in the dirt, instantly darting in to the dressing tent.
After a few seconds of suspense, Dan rose, hobbling about as though he was disjointed and a fit subject for the hospital for several weeks at least. At this juncture, the ringmaster in way of reproof said, “Oh, yes, my laddie, see what you get by making invidious comparisons?” To which the clown said pathetically, “Master, do you reckon that dang little mule was taking up for them hossiers in Calhoun County?”
“Why, sir, of course he is; he knew every word you said, besides he has relatives over there,
didn’t you see them?”
“Dad drat it, them was the fellows I saw riding that way?”
“Yes, sir,” said the ringmaster.
Cogitating a moment, Old Dan came back to his master, “Say, Mr. Ringmaster, if you wanted to get out of this world without dying, where would you go to?”
“That, sir, is an impossibility; no man can get out of this world unless he dies.”
“No! I know where to get out of this world without dying,” said Dan.
“And where would you go, sir?”
“Why, just over the Schooner, into the Free State of Calhoun!”
The rebel yell followed this enunciation. Many Schoonerites present and their generous natures added in the eclat of that day. In this tour of Dan Rice of Mississippi, The Memphis Appeal had accompanied the show, and reporter and solicitor, and this joke upon Calhoun County seemed to be enjoyed and relished with such tenacity that this reporter sent it to the office and a few days after I read in the humorous column of that paper a verbatim account of Dan’s act in Coffeeville. Afterwards, I heard Old Dan kept the joke all through North Mississippi, which gave the county that notoriety as “The Free State of Calhoun”, and will no doubt follow her through the decades to come. Thus Calhoun County bears that name and is amply able to take care of herself amid exigencies of any sort.
Every child has a Radley house, a place that makes them walk a little faster, that makes a tingling sensation creep up the back when twigs drop and leaves rattle, a Boo around the corner teaching them that the world doesn’t always work the way they think it should or will.
Old Rain stalked my smaller steps; some said he was a freakish child abandoned by a troupe of carnies, others said he was a baby Bigfoot come south. When he wasn’t brooding in a boarded-up house in Pittsboro, he haunted the woods and hollows feeding the creeks and streams that feed the Skuna River. I don’t know why we called him Old Rain, but what else is the Skuna or any other river for that matter except rain that’s found its way from hills to the bottoms, rain over-wintered in pools of owl-haunted sloughs and steeped in the character of the land itself, that has in the ways of God Almighty distilled and aged, as strong as bourbon, an engine of the earth itself.
Most monsters are lost under the baggage of adulthood, and I tucked away my fears of Old Rain when I found that there are more frightening things than scattered noises on lonely pathways. Now I believe he was a vestige of the deep virgin forests of north Mississippi, a faunus of the little river bottoms and low wooded hills that my Choctaw ancestors knew and loved. They would call him a bopoli, one of the little people who threw sticks, cones and stones to make noise around us in the woods.
Now Old Rain in memory and mind has become my partner in places I cherish: bright spring hills, close summer woods and frosty winter fields. Hold your monsters close, and make of them your magic.