Movin' on Up

Movin’ on Up

 

A few years ago I had a pickup truck and a dear friend in need.  That combination took me to Drew, Mississippi and showed me a true story of Americana that I’d like to share with you.

Bounded on the west by the might Mississippi River, the state enjoys some of the finest farm land in our nation.  As you travel eastward, the terrain rises into hilly, wooded country.  The Cooper family originated near Eupora, Mississippi.

The Cooper home near Eupora, MIssissippi

The Cooper home near Eupora, MIssissippi

I imagine life in Eupora in the early twentieth century was much like life in Appalachia and the family was doing whatever was necessary to survive.  Reuben Cooper farmed, he worked as a postmaster, he logged and worked at the local grain mill.  He was an industrious man dedicated to his family and eager to improve their situation.  Along with his wife, Cornelia Etta Cooper, they raised six children and sent all of them to college – no small feat for that generation and certainly an indication of their forward-thinking.

Sometime early in the 1920’s Mr. Cooper had an opportunity to move nearly one hundred miles west where he would at least manage and possibly buy some six hundred acres of delta-farmland.  You don’t have to have too many farm genes to realize what an opportunity that was.  In fact, I think I could find a few plateau farmers who would jump at that chance even today.  With only their two youngest children still at home, the family left their hill-country home, apparently believing they would be back for they left many of their belongings behind.  Mrs. Cooper’s brother lived in the delta area and his daughter had married into a large landholding family.  These family connections no doubt emboldened the Coopers to make the move. 

A lot of the details for the time immediately following the move are a little vague at this point, but the family initially lived in a tenement-type house but were soon able to rent a large, two-story home just outside the small town of Drew yet still close to the land; eventually they built a home in town.  They never did move back to the hills and their daughter Eddie would always regret all of the things they left behind.  Not to fear though, neighboring relations took good advantage of those items when they realized the family was gone for good.

While we don’t know the details of the land deal, nor all of the work that Mr. Cooper did once he moved to the delta, they clearly prospered.  This is obvious by the home they left behind, where Eddie would raise her family.  They furnished the house in Drew with fine 1920’s-era furniture, including a formal dining room and parlor.  Still there were remnants from their former life because Mrs. Cooper kept the kitchen table her husband built for her in the hills which sometimes doubled as a surgical table for at least one amputation had been done on it.

Eddie Cooper had already finished high school when her family moved to Drew.  She prepared herself to be a teacher and set off into the world.  She taught in a small school about fifteen miles from home where she was kept by families in the school district.  As you can well imagine, this was a time of learning and growth for her.  She had never enjoyed cooked greens, but recalled learning to eat them because that was sometimes all the family had to offer her.

While teaching in Linn, she met Milton Powell who came from one of the original delta families.  However, he was estranged from his family at that time and when he married Eddie, they returned to Drew and set-up housekeeping next door to the Coopers.  There, they would live out a long life and raise three children of their own.

Now, back to how I learned this story.  A few years ago, Mrs. Powell was forced to enter a nursing home and with her children all living out of state, the family home was left empty.  The family feared the home would be vandalized or possibly even burned and despaired for the treasures left there.  Enter my pickup truck.  I had the opportunity to drive my dear friend and Mrs. Powell’s granddaughter to Drew to collect a number of family possessions.  I guess I learned some of this story during the six hour drive to Mississippi so when I walked into that empty house, the history seemed to speak to me.  It was obvious that the family had some means but as we sorted and packed, their more humble beginnings were revealed.

America has always been about opportunity – we’re often called the Land of Opportunity – and most of our ancestors came here seeking a better life in one way or another.  So, in many ways, the Cooper’s story feels like the American dream.  Here’s this man working hard and pushing his children to get an education and better themselves.  Then, at a time in his life when many men would think of slowing down, he makes a move that would have been very significant in 1920 and seizes an opportunity to better his own situation, and improve the comfort and convenience of his wife.  It’s also the story of a man like so many early-twentieth-century husbands and fathers who steadily worked at whatever job presented itself and faithfully provided for his family.

Mr. Cooper’s steadfastness paid great dividend and was obvious to me, a stranger, half a century later.

UPDATE:  After some reader feedback, I realized I need to let you know what happened to those treasures my dear friend  and I brought back to Tennessee.

They now reside in a beautiful home in East Tennessee where Mr. Cooper’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter have made their home.  Rather than sitting behind velvet ropes in a museum, these pieces are used and loved every day.  The kitchen table, built by Reuben Cooper in the hills, has served his great-great-grandchildren many meals and witnessed yet another family building a lifetime of memories.  We always say, “If walls could talk,” but I can’t help but wonder what tales these furnishings might be able to share!


Tennessee Post Offices

wOLF rIVER POST OFFICE, fENTRESS cOUNTY, tn

wOLF rIVER POST OFFICE, fENTRESS cOUNTY, tn

I found the most exciting webpage recently and I am really happy to share it with you here.  The Tennessee State Library and Archives has a lot of information published online and this particular page lists all of the post offices in Tennessee as well as the dates when they were opened and closed. 

There is so much information within the six thousand lines of data that I hardly know where to begin.  I’ll focus on the plateau counties and share a few things I noticed there.

Fentress County currently has six active post offices in Allardt, Clarkrange, Grimsely, Jamestown, Pall Mall and Wilder.  However, there have been fifty-eight post offices in the county since the Jamestown office was opened in 1827; Jamestown was the first post office according to this list.

I am plagued by the “why” question and I can’t help but ask that of these rural post offices.  One reader last week questioned if I was sure that there were post offices located both in Roslin and Banner Springs.  It’s a very good question for I frankly couldn’t tell you the difference between the two.  The same is true on the far north end of the county where both Pall Mall and Wolf River had post offices during the years 1928 – 1957.  There was even an Alvinyork (no space between the names) for one year in 1923.  While the list doesn’t tell me where Alvinyork, TN was located, I’m imagining it was in the Wolf River area since that’s where the property granted to him was located, although the library’s list doesn’t give any finer location than the county.   I keep wondering why post offices were placed in these particular locations.

There were, in fact, five post offices in Fentress County that were opened one year or less:  Alvinyork, Beauty,  Doubletop  (this one is reported by the State Library as “Doubletod” but I feel like that “d” is an error), Gooding and Haggard.  We know that due to mobility issues, post offices were opened where a large concentration of people would be located, even if it was a transient location.  The Henlopen Coal Mines post office is a prime example.  I sure hope one of you wise readers can shed some light on that particular location as I’ve never heard of that particular mine.  Mail delivered from this location for four years from 1831 until 1835.  That was no doubt the life of the coal seam and when the miners moved on they took the post office with them.  Wilder still has a post office which was opened in 1902 which closely corresponds to the beginning of the coal mine boom  there around 1900.  Nearby mining town Crawford’s post office also opened in 1902 while Davidson got their own office in 1910, Twinton in 1919.  With the mines long since closed, only Wilder and Crawford still have post offices.

Wilder Post office, Fentress County, TN

Wilder Post office, Fentress County, TN

The other major industry in Fentress County historically is timber.  As a large tract opened, a little boom town would form around it.  I suspect that some of the post offices on the list were associated with timber operations and one of the reasons I believe that is they appear to be named for people.   Haggard (1833 – 1834), Keese (1889 – 1901), Oporto (1833 – 1838), and Rodes (1889 – 1911) are a that look like surnames and are not communities I’ve ever heard of in the county. 

Communities want to hold onto their post office as long as possible.  The general store was often the site of the post office as well – the original one-stop shopping experience.  In the case of the Roslin post office, the store closed down and was re-purposed as a neighborhood library while the post office remained open in the same location. 

Many of the post offices were closed through the 1940’s to 1960’s when increasing mobility eliminated the need for post offices to be located in very small communities.  Also, the postal service established a permanent policy of rural mail delivery in 1902; as those routes expanded to reach the rural Cumberland Plateau, the post offices could be more centralized.

In today’s digital world, the post office seems somehow nostalgic.  We no longer write letters to family and friends inquiring about their families and sharing all of our news.  We no longer have to wait days or weeks to hear news , whether joyful or tragic.  But don’t we all enjoy getting a little note in our mailbox from a friend we haven’t seen in far too long?  Isn’t that like a little forty-nine-cent gift? 

I can’t help but imagine stopping in at the general store to pick up a few necessities that we couldn’t produce ourselves and hearing the storekeeper say, “I think there’s a letter for you.”  You open the letter right there and share the news with the neighbors who happen to be in the store.  In this way, news is disseminated throughout the community in true grapevine fashion.

You know, I think I’m going to write someone a letter right now!



A Sense of Community

As I began writing today’s article I realized this might be a good time to share an upcoming plan with you.  You may recall about a year ago I published a novella here one chapter each week.  A lot of you told me that you enjoyed it and so I would like to share it with readers beyond the scope of this blog.  Therefore, I’m in the process of editing it for publication as an ebook on Amazon.  I hope to have it ready by summer’s end and will be asking you to both download a free copy and to ask all of your friends to do so as well.   Then, I hope you will write a review of the book and let me and other readers know why you liked it.  There’ll be lots more details on this in coming weeks.

I firmly believe the key to good writing is to ‘write what you know’.  Understanding this, you aren’t surprised that my books are largely set in the places I know and love – the little communities of the Cumberland Plateau.  And the fictional characters I write about are invariably inspired by the people around me, or those who have gone before me.  I’ve told you many times how blessed I count myself to hail from a region with such a rich oral history.  Additionally, I have enjoyed a very large, extended family that has shared details about many generations.

Still, this week I found myself searching for a community name.  I want to create a character inspired by one of my great grandparents and would like to name her hometown.  As I questioned family members, all they could give me was “near Monterey”.  Now, today, we often use the name of the nearest notable town for general statements – for years I’ve explained my hometown as “halfway between Nashville and Knoxville” for the many people who have no idea where Clarkrange lies.  That’s a pretty broad statement, but unless you’re placing a mail-order it’s really all most people want to know.

Communities were different a hundred years ago, and my great grandmother was born one hundred twenty-four years ago.  (Keeping those times in perspective is a whole other story!)  In her day, I would probably never have said I’m from Clarkrange.  I would have always drilled down to the actual neighborhood of Martha Washington.  There was a sense of identity in being from Martha Washington that was very different than calling Clarkrange your home. 

We are so much more mobile now that it’s easy to think of a place that’s actually five, ten or even fifteen miles from your actual house as your home.  While I can imagine what it would be like to walk or ride a horse if I needed to go to Peter’s store or to the school in Clarkrange, I’m not at all sure that I can truly appreciate how confined I might have been to a much smaller geographic area.  My grandfather once said that we could run to Nashville more easily than his mother could get to Clarkrange.  Seems impossible, doesn’t it?  But I have to believe he was closer to that day, even if he was born fifteen years after Ford’s Model A went into production. 

I can’t help but wonder how often people ventured out to Clarkrange in 1900.  While Banner Springs  had it’s own post office at that time, neither Campground nor Martha Washington ever enjoyed such a luxury.  Even Lovejoy ten miles to the west had a post office until 1897.  And business always had to be conducted from time to time at the courthouse in Jamestown.  However, the demands of a mule-powered farm and a large family surely kept those trips to a minimum.

Do you think that this sense of citizenship in the community went beyond mere mobility?  While visiting the Cherokee village in North Carolina a few years ago, one of the exhibitioners answered a question about gender-roles and he responded that the people were satisfied with their roles, they didn’t question them as we do today.  Perhaps the same applies to the sense of community the Appalachian people enjoy.  This was home – it’s where you family is, it’s where you worship, it’s where you work.  What else is there?

Excepting the occasional wandering pioneer, families often spent generations without venturing very far from their home communities.  We can see this when we walk through the cemetery and see several generations buried almost side-by-side.  We have numerous farms on the plateau that are now being labelled “century farms” because they’ve been in the same family for over one hundred years.  Those are really deep roots and I think that gives a sense of belonging that we are losing in our world today. 

Those roots still anchor many of us to the plateau, no matter where we get our mail today.  That sense of family and community is very real at family reunions, decorations, even weddings and funerals that bring us all back together.  I don’t know if the sense of community I feel in all of the old stories is specific to the time or the place but I’m sure it’s an appreciation we could all benefit from today.

In the case of my great-grandmother who grew up “somewhere near Monterey”, we’ve discussed here before the thriving town that Monterey was at the turn of the twentieth century.  The surrounding communities would have certainly benefited from that booming economy, but their little villages would have had a very different atmosphere than that railroad and resort town.  So I don’t know why my great grandmother never passed along the name of the community she grew up in.  Maybe I simply haven’t asked the right person – or maybe those that knew are already gone.  Realizing that we lack this little fact makes me realize what a deficiency there is in my understanding of this woman.  And it makes me truly appreciate the family members about whom I know so much.

Why we celebrate Decoration Day

This past Sunday was Decoration Day at Campground Cemetery.  We’ve talked about this holiday here before and we will probably visit it again because it’s been a staple of my family memories over the years. 

If you didn’t grow up with the tradition of Decoration Day, it may be hard to understand why people would get dressed up and spend a hot summer day wandering around a cemetery.  Yet, if you were raised on it, Decoration Day is as normal as Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Someone asked me this week, “Why?”.  You can bet I had an answer.

Remember!  That’s the real reason why we celebrate Decoration Day.  We need to remember our ancestors.  I so much want my children to know where they came from.  I want them to know the struggles those people went through and even the mistakes they made.  I want them to rejoice in the successes and the joys.  It is our heritage. 

Many times I’ve heard the story of my great-grandmother making her decoration flowers – in her day everyone decorated with homemade crepe-paper flowers.  She purposely made a lot of extras.  On Sunday evening after everyone had placed their flowers on their loved ones’ graves, she returned to the cemetery and placed one or two little flowers on each grave that had received none. 

Do you realize the sacrifice she made for complete strangers?  Many of those graves have only plain stones and the names of the occupants are long since forgotten.  Yet, she felt such a need to memorialize them that she gave of her very limited resources – both her time and her money – to show that they were remembered in some way.

As Daddy reminded me of this story last Sunday, I commented that there are many more graves today than there were fifty years ago.  He pointed out that there’s an awful lot more without flowers too.  Now I’m not saying if you didn’t stick some colored plastic on a rock this weekend that you’ve completely forgotten your history and your heritage.  And I do realize I’m ‘preaching to the choir’ since you are taking the time to read a history blog.  Still I have to ask, are we remembering?

On Decoration Day you can see neighbors that you haven’t seen in months and pass a quick hello or share a nearly forgotten memory.  Someone might tell a story and you’ll learn about families that you never had a chance to meet.  We comment on how old or how young people were when they passed away and we wish they could see us now.  And yes, we mourn a bit – even as years pass, there are some graves that always bring a tear for they are still sorely missed.

I know my family from these walks through the cemetery.  Of my eight great-grandparents, three passed away before I was born, and three more died while I was really too young to remember them.  Yet I’ve heard the stories and I feel that I know them.  A couple of weeks ago I shared with you my great-grandmother’s china cabinet; one of my older cousins visited recently and he remembered it being in her house.  I never saw that and yet I feel a connection to her and value the piece because of it.  That connection only comes from remembering – from family continuing to remember.

The good news here is that you don’t have to wait until Decoration Day next year, you don’t even have to drive to the cemetery.  Plan a family reunion or just sit down with your kids, grandkids or nieces and nephews to tell them a story.  Tell a story you told last year or last month; it is the repetition that really cements the stories in our memories. 

Do they sigh and say, “You know you’ve told me this a hundred times?”

Feel free to remind them, “I want to hear it again myself.”

 

Home is Where the Heart Is

In the garden of Eden, God created the ultimate paradise.  Adam and Eve didn't have houses like we do today, but neither did they have snow, rain, thunderstorms or any of the creepy crawlies that we try to bar from our homes.  They could walk out and pet any kind of animal from bison to lion, kangaroos or polar bears.  Yet in everything that God created in those first six days, only into mankind did he breathe life.

 

I say all of that to stress that I value life above any kind of stuff.  Still, I’m surrounded by a pile of junk that to me are priceless treasures.  For the last few weeks we've been talking about historic houses and we've visited six that hold innumerable memories and I certainly wish those houses could whisper to me just a few of their secrets.

 

It seems we have a picture of every member of the family standing on the front porch of my grandparents' house.

It seems we have a picture of every member of the family standing on the front porch of my grandparents' house.

Almost nine years ago, my family suffered a devastating blow when my grandmother's house burned, and she passed away from injuries sustained in that fire.  It was hard to lose this woman who meant so much to so many people.  Somehow, Grandma had been a lighthouse - always steadily lighting the way back home for both her immediate and extended family.  But we knew that her soul was carried home to heaven on that windy October night.  Certainly we will always miss her but we rejoice that we will be reunited with her one day.

 

The house was a totally different kind of loss.  It wasn't one of the centuries-old houses that we've talked about in this blog.  Instead, it was a 1960's brick rancher with faux-wood panelling and aluminum windows that were fogged by leaking seals.  It was spacious but certainly not grand.  And from the day it was built, it was the gathering place for generations of family.  Grandma's house didn't have so many years of memories etched into the walls but it had hosted countless hours of laughter and not a few tears.  Whether it was a day of joy or sadness, there was a comfort to be found inside Grandma's house. 


I know many of you have a home that you will remember with the same fondness.  Maybe some of those houses are still standing and you can look to them as the historic homes we’ve been visiting.  If you read the comments to last week’s story, one lady wrote about her grandparent’s homestead house and the precious memories she has of that house. 


All of those houses are the ones that I wanted to mention this week.  We always say that 'home is where the heart is' and that is certainly true.  Home is kith and kin; it is anywhere God builds a family and gives them refuge.  And the memories that I've been wishing all of these aged walls could relinquish, are ultimately carried in the hearts of those families.


One of the blessings my own family has given me is a very rich oral history.  We have stories!  We have told our stories - again and again.  I'm honored to be able to share some of our stories with you through this blog and through my books.  So that awful fire stole only brick and mortar; the joys that those walls held live on in my heart and in the hearts of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends.  What a blessing that is!


I'm always eager to hear your stories too.  That's why nearly every week I point you to the comments section below.  Anytime one of my blogs speaks to you, I hope you will share it there and share the memories that surfaced as you were reading.