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.
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!