Tennessee Mountain Stories

Clyde Remembers the Family

Important events when I was a child and young boy was a visit with Grandma and Grandpa Key. 

 Grandma Ida Key

Grandma Ida Key

One of my earliest memories is Dad renting a horse and wagon to take us to Grandma Key’s.  I must have slept most of the way.  All I remember is starting and ending.  They lived at the “old place’ then, but soon moved to near Martha Washington School. 

A later trip Dad hired Uncle Erby Teeple to take us.  There was a creek maybe a half-mile from Grandma’s that had no bride.  Most of the time cars could cross the shallow place, but it had rained and the creek was up so he let us out at the creek.  There was a foot log to walk.  I remember being afraid I would fall in the creek.

Our family on both sides didn’t go for much hugging and kissing.  They followed the old English tradition of treating kids after about eleven years old, particularly males, as adults - a brisk handshake and wide smile.  Grandpa didn’t say much but grandma had a soft loving voice that made you feel like you were being hugged.

The inside of their house had newspaper pasted on the walls inside to seal the cracks.  When I had nothing to do I read the papers.  I guess I was in the fourth grade and reading everything I could get.  Grandma saw me reading the words in a paper back hymnal which is what small churches used in those days.  Grandma told me I could have the hymnal.  I still have it after about 80 years.  No one was more kind and considerate than Grandma Key.

Donald and I would gather a few cows and herd them around.  I guess we were playing cowboy.  One day a cow at full gallop came around the corner of Martha Washington School where I was standing.  Donald was holding onto the cow’s tail and his feet were off the ground.

In the morning when we went to the “old place” to work corn Grandma wend along with [the children] Golda, Violet, Donald and me.  Grandpa went ahead with the mule.  Grandpa plowed the middles while the rest of us chopped weeds and loosened [dirt] around the corn stalks.  An hour or so before lunch time Grandma left to prepare food and at that time the midday meal was called dinner, no lunch, and the late meal was supper.  We always had a good meal and we all had a good appetite.

My mom told me things she remembered from her time at home.  When she told her parents she was to marry Frank Whittaker, Grandpa said, “He is a Democrat you know.”

 Donald Key

Donald Key

My Uncle Donald was a few months older than me and we had lots of fun.  There was a small hole in Slate Creek where we went to play and swim after we learned how.  One time Gerald, my brother, was with us.  I guess he saw Donald and I having a good time.  He jumped in even though he couldn’t swim.  Donald and I didn’t notice but Uncle Coy was there so he jumped in and got him out.

Grandpa worked in the mines, I think it was during World War I when demand was high.  He carried his lunch win a bucket with a snap lid.  One time he grabbed his bucket and went to work.  When he opened his bucket he had only sorghum for lunch – it was the same kind of bucket they put sorghum in.  Grandpa worked in Oak Ridge during the war (World War II).  I don’t know how long.

If I was there when the corn was laid by, Grandpa would hew cross ties.  Donlad and I would go with him and saw several long lengths for him then go home.

One day Grandma said Billie was taking Donald and me fishing on the East Fork.  Donald and I started digging for worms.  It was hot and dry and we didn’t have much luck.  He didn’t say anything but broke off a leafy bush about two feet long.  He vigorously waved the bush around and reached into a bush and grabbed a wasp nest without a sting.  [It was] about four inches across.  We had plenty of wasp larva for bait.  We caught a few very small fish.  Grandpa said when a hole got several good sized fish someone threw dynamite in it.

On our last day of our visit Grandma fixed a wonderful breakfast.  She called Ted, the dog, and pointed to a chicken she wanted.  Ted would catch the chicken and hold it down without hurting it until Grandma came to get it.  We had fried chicken, fried apples, home churned butter, sorghum, gravy and biscuits.  Grandma and my mom made biscuits alike and the best I have tasted.

In the 30’s someone stole some corn from Grandpa.  They hauled it home on a sled with some snow on the ground.  Grandpa followed the sled tracks but never said anything to the person.  That reminds of my dad.  We kept six or either hens during the winter.  Someone stole on of our hens.  I was mad about it but Dad didn’t seem to be.  I asked him why.  “They may have needed [them] more than us,” [he said.}

I think it was during the 30’s Grandpa came upon a whisky still in the woods.  He used his ax to chop it to scrap.  In his sixties Grandpa like to amuse young grandchildren at his house.  HE would stand on his head, walk on his hands and hang from a limb.

  Onetime when it had rained heavily there was a good sized pond about a foot deep in the dirt road in front of the house.  There were several geese in the pond.  I had never seen fowl swimming.  Coy was near me so I asked “won’t they drown?”  Coy said no then ran into the water, caught one of the geese and pushed it under the water and said, “see they won’t drown.”  He was probably about 13 at the time.

When I was about five we visited Grandpa Todd’s mother, Tobitha Ingle Todd, who lived on the main road through Clarkrange.  She lived in a two story house with a upstairs porch over the front porch.  I thought that was nice so I went up there.  Some planks were missing from the railing so they immediately got me down.  Upstairs she had two spinning wheels, a tall flimsy looking one for wool and I suppose cotton and a smaller heavier built wheel called a flax wheel.  I never found out why flax required a different wheel.  A five generation picture was made that day, Tobitha, Daniel, Grandma Key, Mom and me.  I never saw the picture.

 5 Generation Photo similar to Clyde's memory.  This includes his sister, neice, mother, grandmother and great-grandfather. L-R: June Howard, Tommie Jean Howard, Stacie Whittaker, Ida Key, Daniel Todd  

5 Generation Photo similar to Clyde's memory.  This includes his sister, neice, mother, grandmother and great-grandfather.
L-R: June Howard, Tommie Jean Howard, Stacie Whittaker, Ida Key, Daniel Todd

Clyde's College Years

In 1943 Clyde Whittaker graduated from Monterey High school and was promptly drafted into the United States Navy.  Like so many Appalachian sons he served his nation honorably when she needed him most.  In 1946 he was discharged and returned home to Monterey.  In September of that year he entered Tennessee Polytechnic Institute in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Clyde writes:

Two or three days after the college term started a meeting of all freshmen in the gymnasium was called.  A fellow who I think was president of the sophomore class got up and started talking about the initiation freshmen had to go through.  When I saw where his talk was going I stood and told the sophomores that I was too old and too busy to put up with such foolishness.  I told them I was not participating in any of it.  He said if we didn’t participate we could not expect to impose an initiation next year.  I told him I didn’t want to.  Most of the freshmen that year were veterans some with many years of service.  After I made my statement the whole thing was dropped.

The second year in college I got to be a lab assistant.  Since I had been an electronic technician in the Navy I was ahead of most students in the electrical area.  The head of the Physics department liked me.  Near the end of the second year the president of the physics club told me I was going to be the president next year.  I told him I knew nothing about that. 

I finished [college] in three years with one summer school and credits I earned at the schools I attended in the Navy.  Ellen [Bilbrey] and I got married in June 1948 before my last year at Tech.  I was going to school on the G.I. Bill getting I believe $90 per month which went to $115 after marriage.  Looking back I realize now that I shouldn’t have married until I was in better financial condition.

We stayed with Ellen’s sisters and my Mom and Dad until just before the fall quarter started.  In Cookeville we rented a two-room apartment where two couples shared a bathroom.  I think we enjoyed life even though we worked hard and had little money.  For several months Ellen worked in a shirt factory.  That is a terrible way to make a dollar.  As a lab assistant I made about $39 PER MONTH.

When the fall quarter started we had the first physics club meeting of the year.  A fellow I barely knew nominated me.  The nominees left the room and when we returned I was the president.  I think the department head asked someone to nominate me.  When we left the room he suggested I would make a good president.

I was taking an optics course taught by the department head [and] I was helping him grade some test papers for another course.  He handed me an optic test I had taken the previous day.  I had a high grade maybe 98%.  I looked at the paper [and] saw that a wrong answer was marked correct.  I pointed it out to him.  I know you knew the answer he said.  I said, “I know the answer now but I didn’t when I took the test.”  He refused to change it.

The physics club won first prize for its float in the homecoming parade under my direction.

At the start of the second quarter one of the professors quit for a better job.  Even though I didn’t have a degree yet the head of the department asked me to teach a couple of courses.  The course listing gave the department head as the teacher but he never appeared in the class.  It was an electrical course and I was good at that.

After I graduated and had a degree I was hired as an instructor for the summer.

I applied to the graduate school in physics and was accepted at Florida State University.

During the summer I had a man who had a small garage weld a frame and tongue on an axel and wheels.  I built a bed on the trailer frame.  I had just sold a beat up ’36 Chevrolet and bought a ’39 Studebaker Champion.  It was small and weak but we put our worldly possessions on the trailer and started to Florida.  The car had trouble pulling the loaded trailer.  So if I saw a stop ahead on even a mild grade I geared down and tried to keep moving because it was difficult to get moving if I stopped.

When we got to Tallahassee we found that the apartment we had reserved was on West Campus which had been an Army Air Base.  Barracks had been divided into crude apartments.  The partitions were framing with wall board on one side.  The 2x4’s were exposed on one side.  I think our building had seven two room apartments.  There was a ladies and men’s bathroom for the whole building.  WE got to be very fond of one couple and all the residents were friendly.  Our friends Bob and Ellen Cook didn’t have a car so we took them with us on our weekly trip to A&P.  Even though we had nice neighbors Ellen was disappointed that we ended up in such crude living conditions. 

I graduated without a job offer.  I thought I wanted to be a college teacher.  At the time there wrern’t many physicists available with advance degrees.  The first offer I got after looking for two months was with the Navy Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Florida.

A week or so after I started working with the Navy Lab I got an offer form Virginia Tech as an assistant professor.  At the time I would have liked to get the job but the Navy people had gone to some trouble to hire me so I couldn’t quit after such a short time.  A couple of weeks after that I got the same offer from Louisiana Tech.  Then after two years I got a call from the ex-prinicpal of my high school who had become some sort of manager at the Tennessee Tech University.  He offered me an assistant professor job at Tennessee Tech.

I worked ten and a half years at the Navy Lab.

Clyde’s School Days


[There is just a little overlap from last week’s article here, but I wanted to include all of Clyde’s school memories together.]

Clyde Whittaker attended Monterey School from 1930 - 1943.

He writes:

We moved into town near Grandma Whittaker when I was five.  I started school at six.  All twelve grades were in one building.  No running water the first year.  We had a girl and boys outdoor toilets.  There was a well with a hand pump near the back entrance.  Each class had a water bucket.  In lower grades the teacher would send two boys to fill the bucket and carry it back to the room.  Each kid had a telescoping cup that collapsed until you could put it in your pocket.  Each room had a large pot-bellied stove for heat.  The teacher would send two boys to the basement to get a scuttle of coal.  The teacher had to keep the fire going. 

In second grade the teacher got us samples to pass to the kids.  She got a small tube of Vaseline for each student.  I put a small dab of Vaseline on my hair.  I punched the cute girl in front of me to look at my hair.  She said it looked good.  So I put the rest of the tube in my hair to make it look even better.

Each class had a picnic near the end of the school term.  The usual place was the woods near where I lived.  When we finished eating I told Mary Frances I knew where there was lots of wild flowers.  When we got back to the picnic area no one was there.  When we got back to the hill and could see the school the last of our class was going in.  One of the girls yelled that Mary Frances was in the woods with Clyde.  Mary Frances yelled back, “You just wish it was you.”

In the fourth grade the teacher wanted a demonstration of a debate.  Mary Francis and I were selected.   We sat together in a corner and worked up the debate.  We enjoyed the task.  Shortly after that her father, a Methodist pastor was moved to another church.  I thought that was a terrible thing for the church to do.

In the fourth grade I sat near the front of the room.  The teacher called a boy to the front.  He had been making trouble and she was going to paddle him.  In those days a teacher was judged partially on her willingness to use the paddle when necessary.  As she paddled him I looked up and saw tears running down her face.  She was doing what was expected of her but it was hurting her more than the boy.

In the fifth grade we had an old maid, Flossie, a wonderful teacher.  When she needed to leave the room for a short time she would say, “Clyde tell the class a story.”  I would stand and tell something I had read.  One time I made up a story to tell.  She called on me maybe five times during the year.  She never called on anyone else.  [That year] I entered a speech contest which was part of a regional school competition including athletic events.  I was on the stage well into my speech when three high school boys in the back of the auditorium started laughing loudly.  I thought I did something and started thinking what it was and mixed up my speech terribly.  I didn’t realize until much later, they didn’t’ even know I was making a speech, they were joking among themselves.

I was either in fourth or fifth grade when our neighbors the Way family was going to kill and butcher a hog.  I had never watched the butchering of a hog so I decided to play hooky from school and watch it.  I thought no one would notice but my Mom saw me playing around the neighbor’s house about a hundred yards away.  When my Dad got home he cut a limb off a peach tree near the back steps and used it to give me a good whipping.  I had other whippings but I remember that one best.  I deserved the whipping and it hurt.  To my parents, school was serious business.  In those days parents who didn’t give their children proper guidance were considered neglectful.  I know now that whipping me caused my Dad more pain than it did to me.  [Someone asked me], “Didn’t you hate your Dad for that?”  I said no that I deserved everyone I got and deserved some I didn’t get.  We didn’t have much in those days, but I knew my parents always did the best they could under the circumstances that existed at the time.  I never had any doubt that my parents loved me and I loved them.

In most ways sixth grade was an uneventful period.  I have told people that from the age of twelve I bought most of my clothes – not all but most.  Mom made my shirts until I joined the Navy.  I was given a shirt, store bought, at least once maybe twice.

In the sixth grade I didn’t own a book.  In those days our students had to buy their own books.  I had a little money but I used it to buy overalls and shoes.  I would go in thirty minutes or more before class started and study using my friend’s book, which was left in their desks overnight.  At lunch I would rush two blocks home and eat a little lunch and rush back to school to study another thirty minutes before class started.  One day we had a test I don’t remember the subject.  The teacher was chewing out the class.  Everyone had done very poorly on the test except Clyde.  He went on to say Clyde don’t own a single book.  I was so embarrassed that I never told anyone until about three years ago I told [my sister] June.  I had come to realize that he didn’t mean to insult me but was complimenting me for doing well on a test under difficult circumstances.


Early Life in Tennessee as recounted by Clyde Whittaker

[Clyde was born in Monterey, Tennessee in 1924.  His mother was 19 years old and he was her first child.  Clyde’s father was native to the Monterey area but his mother’s family lived in Martha Washington.  His sister June would be born 22 months later then a brother the following year. There were a total of 5 children.]

Clyde writes:

I am interested in sharing how different life was for me and my family from life today.  My earliest days I lived about half a mile down the road from Steve Welch’s house.  We rented a small house with two rooms in front, a porch across the front and a narrow room across the back which we didn’t use except in bad weather [when] Mom did the laundry there.  There was two beds and a pot-bellied stove in one.  The other room had a table and chairs and a small cast iron cook stove.  The stove was called a step stove because the two caps over the fire box was about three inches lower than the part over the oven which had a door on both sides.   It was so small that Dad made a platform to raise it about a foot to make it a good height for Mom to work.  It was a wood stove.  We burned coal in the pot-bellied heater. 

In those days if you bought or rented the usual small house there was not cabinets or appliances.  Usually not even a closet.  There was no running water, electricity or phone.  Most people didn’t have enough clothes to need a closet.  For water we had a well in the back yard.  A narrow bucket was lowered on a rope then a crank was turned to raise the bucket.  Wells in the area were usually 30 to 40 feet deep.  The water had a yellow iron oxide in it that would stain laundry so we had a large wood barrel at a back corner of the house to catch rainwater for laundry.  We called it the rain barrel.

I remember June and I looking through the fence near the road to watch people passing.  Cattle ran loose that time so you had to have your yard fenced.  There was only one or two cars passing per day but there would be wagons pulled by horses or mules.  It was a dirt road that was graded by horse drawn scraper two times a year.  Some rode horses to town.  One morning we saw a dead cow by the railroad track.  The railroad paid for cows it killed.  An uncle said, “When a cow is killed it suddenly become a $100 cow.”  A good cow at the time was $25 or $35.

We didn’t have many toys so we played with what we had.  We had two one gallon buckets.  We put a short piece of lumber on the two buckets and that was our car.  I used a bucket lid for steering the wheel.  No women we knew drove.

I had a little dog named Jyp.  My great Uncle Frank shot him because he chased his hogs.  It was a very small dog and couldn’t hurt the hogs.

I usually wore bib overalls and a blue shirt made by Mom and no underwear except in winter when I wore long Johns.  I took off my overalls and slept in my shirt.  I had at least two pairs of knickers in my young years but didn’t like them.

We didn’t have mattresses at that time.  We had a tick filled with wheat straw which sold in bales like hay.  The bed springs was an open array of springs not in a box.  I had no trouble sleeping on it.

One day a farmer with his mule drawn wagon stopped in front of the house.  The farmer asked Mom if she wanted to buy some mutton.  Then there was no refrigeration so if a farmer killed a cow or sheep except in freezing weather they had to sell the meat they didn’t want.  They put a sheet in the wagon with the meat on it then covered it.  He would go house to house in town until he sold the meat.  Mom told the farmer no.  I didn’t know anything about mutton but I told Mom she should buy some.  She called the farmer back and bought some.  To this day I remember how the cooking mutton smelled.  We probably threw it away.

All of this may sound like we lived in poverty, but we ate well and had good clothes.  Most working men lived in small houses that the poorest today wouldn’t live in.

Dad bought Mom a new sewing machine in 1928 for $75 which was a lot of money then.  Mom made many shirts and dresses over the years.  We moved into town near Grandma Whittaker when I was five.  I started school at six.  All twelve grades were in one building.  [There was] no running water the first year.  We had a girl and boys outdoor toilets.  There was a well with a hand pump near the back entrance.  Each class had a water bucket.  In lower grades the teacher would send two boys to fill the bucket and carry it back to the room.  Each kid had a telescoping cup that collapsed until you could put it in your pocket.  Each room had a large pot-bellied stove for heat.  The teacher would send two boys to the basement to get a scuttle of coal.  The teacher had to keep the fire going.  The following year we had running water, steam heat and indoor toilets.  In first grade a new girl joined the class, Mary Frances, wearing a red polka dot dress with bloomers of the same material that were three inches below the dress.  I thought she was the cutest girl I had seen.


From Dirt Roads to Space

The mountain has so many traditions, cultural nuances and memories to research and record that I rarely focus on a single individual.  However, there are a few that cross my mental pathways that beg to be shared.  Today I want to introduce you to Clyde Whittaker.

Now Clyde is my first cousin once removed on my father’s side.  He is the oldest grandson of Billie and Ida Key; my father is more like grandchild number ten of thirty-three.   The beauty of a close-knit extended family is that you know a whole lot of uncles and aunts and cousins.  The sadness of knowing all that family is the difficulty of keeping up with all of them.  But Clyde has done me the very great honor of not only telling me some of his stories but actually writing them down and permitting me to share his life with you through these stories.

Clyde will turn 93 this month - this may take more than one article. Over the next few weeks I’ll share some of Clyde’s stories in his own words.  Today I’ll give you a bit of a summary of his life.

Clyde was born in 1924 in Monterey, Tennessee.  There he would grow up while his father worked for the Tennessee Central Railroad and his mother raised five children.  They had very little, they were not alone in their poverty in that day but neither did they wallow in it.  They worked.  The whole family worked.  And as I share with you some of Clyde’s achievements the resounding theme is work.  It’s what I hear when I talk to him, “Well I worked hard.”  He never asserts he was the smartest guy around, although he surely is very intelligent.  And no one would claim he had more advantages than others – if you think that please fast forward to the story about him sharing textbooks because his family could not afford them. 

I asked Clyde if his parents – who never enjoyed advanced education – pushed their children in school.  He simply answered that he was expected to finish.  Not finish in first place but just to finish.

And he did finish.  At a time when most young men would do well to finish 8 years of school, Clyde graduated from Monterey High School.  After serving in the Navy during World War II he put the GI bill to good use and completed a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at Tennessee Polytechnical University – that’s what they called Tennessee Tech in the 1940’s. 

Clyde and Ellen Whittaker.jpg

He married a local girl, Ellen Bilbrey, and together they went to Florida where he would get his Master’s Degree in Physics.

Keeping his eye on a bigger goal, Clyde turned down a job that would have paid him more that the Dean of the Physics department earned.  The family continued in Florida where Clyde worked in research.  In 1956 he was named in the “Who’s Who in Scientists in America”.  That’s already a leap from humble Monterey beginnings but he didn’t stop there.

In 1962 he moved his family to Houston, Texas to the Center for Manned Space Flight.  I haven’t asked Clyde how many people were there when he arrived but the announcement that the center would be in Houston had only been made a few months earlier in September 1961.  

Clyde worked with the men who would walk on the moon.  He met with German scientists recruited to America following the fall of Nazi Germany.  He was among those pioneers that opened the space frontier.  Yet his roots run right back to Monterey, Tennessee.